The Stranger - A festive tale

Posted by Peter Thorne

Shaun Botterill/Getty ImagesA ghost from the past is alluded to in this holiday fable

From the top of the hill Samuel could see the distant lights of the Christmas tree in the village, shimmering and winking in the cold night air. Wisps of mist stretched out tentative fingers and curled themselves like snakes around the bracken and rocky outcrops. Somewhere in the distance a dog barked, and the sound travelled like an echo from another time across the winter landscape. It was five degrees below in the far-off city streets, yet the temperature in his heart was even colder.

Samuel ran his hand through his thick black hair that was greying just slightly at the temples. His heavy jowls face revealed the toils of many years, but he stood strong, upright, not bent by the bitter wind and the stinging frost. He was waiting and he was prepared to wait however long he had to. His demeanour was determined but resigned; He had no idea what the night might bring.

He became aware of an imperceptible change in his surroundings before he heard the unmistakable sound of crunching footsteps in the snow. The still atmosphere became charged as if someone had crackled electricity through the void. Slowly Samuel turned to see the stranger walking slowly toward him; battered hat pulled down low on his brow, scarf pulled up to his eyes, shoulders hunched and great coat buttoned only once so the rest trailed behind him like a wraith.

Julian Finney/Getty ImagesThis Samuel's resemblance to one in this tale is entirely intentional

"That’s far enough," Samuel said. The stranger stopped just feet away, dipped his head slightly and demurred. "As you wish," he growled. “I only desired to speak of the season and to wish you well." "You’ll wish me well only by keeping your distance."

The stranger, although little could be seen of him except the steely flint of his eyes, looked momentarily angry but composed himself in an instant and continued his gaze at a point just below Samuel’s feet on the snow-covered ground. Samuel spoke: "You have it?"

The stranger again moved his head just slightly. “I should hope so - nothing else would bring me out on such a cold night as this.” Samuel laughed softly, but viciously. “You’ve a heart like granite and blood like ice, your very bones are made of glacial iron and when you walk abroad every night is as frozen and bitter as your very soul."

"If you have no kind words then I think it best we complete our transaction and move on,” said the stranger with no obvious reflection of these latter harsh words: “Both of us have much mischief to create this night and time is of the essence."

"Indeed." Samuel held out his hand as the stranger reached deep into the huge folds of his coat, pulling out a Gold folder and passing it over. He pulled the folder closer to his eyes and then adjusted his stance, holding the item at arm's length so the bright moon reflected on the white lettering.

Opening the folder, Samuel brought forth a length of faded parchment, tinged in blue and claret with an embossed braid around it. Written upon it in copper-plate lettering were the words he was seeking. He gazed on the information:

Twelve points from the Christmas season games

Eleven Fit first-team members

Ten Season home wins

Money for a new number nine

Eight Pukka Pies from the Martin Peters Tea Bar

Seven Season away wins

Half-a-dozen retired No. 6 shirts for the grandkids

Five Olympic Rings taken from the signage at Queen Elizabeth Park, to be replaced by a shield containing a castle and two crossed hammers

Four free tickets for Barry Hearn for a West Ham home game

Three wise Chairman – including one vice-Chairwoman

Two new fullbacks

One preferred bidder status

Samuel paused for a moment, smiled for a brief second and then nodded. "You’ve done well, you may go." The stranger again glanced up for a brief second as if to defend himself against the previous accusations or, perhaps, level some harsh words of his own, but then, slowly, sensibly, he seemed to think better of it. "Aye, by your leave then."

He turned and walked slowly back the way he had come, pausing just as he was about to pass behind the large mound that led to the path down. He didn’t turn, the words could have been meant for another had there been anyone there, but the intention and recipient was clear “Oh yes – and Merry Christmas!”

Samuel smiled in spite of himself. Alone again on the hill, he turned once again toward the village lights. Glancing down at the folder and marvelling at the words picked out in the icy glow of a hard winter moon. Another year and other seasons stretched out before him but Gold was in his eyes and in his heart. Things were getting better and perhaps - just perhaps - he thought he might just make it.

ESPN Conversations