This Christmas short story was more experimental than usual. The physical version (available as a PDF file) was printed out on a set of seven cards, each headed with a different symbol, and with the card marked ‘0’ on top. The ‘0’ card had 120 words of fiction on it; each of the others had 100 words. The reader was invited to start with ‘0’ then to pick the other six cards in a random order, thus creating one of 720 possible 720-word stories.
The idea was that each of the possible combinations would generate a coherent narrative. (As yet I haven’t found one that doesn’t work, but it’s always possible there are some.) The header symbols each relate in some way to the content of their story fragment, but were primarily chosen for a) being roughly circular, and b) except for the initial zero, carrying no implication of ordering.
On this page, the randomising process has been automated, using the magic of PHP. Many thanks to Dale Smith for his generous assistance with the coding.
The details change – that's essential.
Some children rifle their stockings the instant they get up, others face the agonising wait until after breakfast. Some households open presents in strict turns; for some it's a free-for-all. Some families attend church, others plan their day around EastEnders.
The rituals vary, but it's the same festival for everyone, year to year, generation to generation. Whatever order events follow, the day's essence remains.
Here's one Christmas tableau: a small boy snatches at his sister's presents; a mother enjoys a break from the kitchen, wine-glass in hand; a father pokes at some new gadget, supervising the chaos; in the armchair in the corner, his mother smiles indulgently at her grandchildren.
What follows is incidental, really.
Seven years later, there’s another small child, this one with a big brother and a big sister.
For his sake, the parents maintain the traditional gospel of Santa Claus, with their teenage daughter as their willing, though unbelieving, acolyte. The little boy accepts their declarations with wide-eyed wonder.
The middle child’s the family apostate: full of his own cleverness in exploding his parents’ dogma, he sees it as his duty to enlighten the credulous.
‘If Santa’s real,’ he asks, ‘why did houses stop having chimneys? Didn't people want him visiting them?’
His little brother plays on, happily untroubled by logic.
Seven centuries later, the individuals we’ve met are long gone, but the family persists. As chance would have it the current iteration comprises one girl, one boy, one male and one female parent.
Their home’s part of a biome built into an asteroid, tethered at one of Earth’s orbital Lagrange points. The Christmas sapling's grown from habitat biomass, reconfigured for the festivities using a mountain-pine genome.
The discreet processing medium in the corner manifests the persona of a much-beloved ancestor, who uploaded before anyone here was born.
‘Well, this is nice,’ the Christmas ghost says, beaming at the assembled company.
Seven minutes later, the tree creaks and begins to list alarmingly. The children disagree about who tried to climb it, but settle on blaming the cat, who’s somewhere else entirely.
Their father tries to right it, but only succeeds in adjusting the direction of lean. He rescues some low-hanging chocolates, which he thoughtfully puts out of harm's way in his mouth.
‘Are you eating those now?’ his other half demands from the kitchen. He starts guiltily, knocking down a Christmas tableau. Stepping back sharply, he slips on some discarded wrapping-paper and tumbles, colliding with the tree and effectively demolishing Christmas.
Seven decades later, the young girl’s become an older citizen, sitting in an oddly shaped chair in the corner of a futuristic apartment, enjoying watching her own grandson and granddaughter playing, cheerfully ignoring the President’s Christmas Speech.
She’s led a full life, its traumas and tragedies balanced by an appropriate share of joys, involving a pleasing variety of jobs, homes and lovers, and forever punctuated by these family Christmases. The festive traditions may slowly evolve, the dramatis personae leave and enter, but the fundamentals never change.
The old woman smiles. Her son and his partner start arguing about the washing-up.
Seven hours later everyone’s watching Doctor Who, just like every year since the dawn of time. The children sit enthralled; the adults, remembering the programme's role in their own childhoods, marvel at its implausible longevity.
‘Were you alive then, grandma?’ the girl asks (meaning the mid-1970s, where the latest Doctor's battling a malevolent glitter-monster with David Bowie). There’s a snort from the corner.
‘When will it be Christmas again?’ asks the youngest child.
‘This time next year,’ their mother replies, gazing ruefully at the Christmas tree. ‘And then the next year, and again the year after.’ She drains her wine.
Seven seconds later, the traditional family row’s in full swing.
‘Santa is real! He is!’
‘I'm saying, if you'd just relax and enjoy yourself at Christmas...’
‘Oi, that's mine! Dad, he's got my new –’
‘Oh, because the food cooks itself? I see. Have you even –’
‘Children, play nicely please! Christmas is a time for sharing!’
‘Excuse me, that's my wine.’
You could rearrange the dialogue any way you like, and it would make about as much sense.
‘It's not too late to take away your presents!’
‘That's not fair! I hate you!’
‘I feel sick!’
‘Happy bloody Christmas.’
© Philip Purser-Hallard 2013.
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All material © Philip Purser-Hallard 2013 except where otherwise noted, and not to be used without permission.