"Morse! Wake up, Morse!" a loud voice shouted in Morse's ears. He felt himself being roughly shaken.
Inspector Morse tentatively opened his eyes and saw a face that he hadn't seen in years.
Charles Benevolent, formerly Detective Chief Superintendent of the Oxfordshire police, gazed down imperiously at Morse. One might have initially thought that the former superintendent had been named ironically; there was nothing remotely benevolent about his appearance. With a form that had remained well-muscled despite his advanced years and a pair of extremely intense grey eyes, Benevolent instantly called to mind a battle-hardened general who was now overseeing a new army of troops. This comparison was hardly surprising—seeing as Benevolent hadat one time served in the military. However, he had only ever achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel, something that Morse had cheekily reminded his boss of whenever Benevolent was being especially domineering. Not that Morse had been able to get away with much cheek under Benevolent's supervision. Morse remembered well the fierce and relentless tenacity of his former boss; the station had run much more efficiently and professionally when Benevolent was in charge.
However, Morse knew that—despite his formidable appearance—Benevolent was far from heartless. After his own son had been tried and convicted of arson, the chief superintendent had spiraled into a deep depression which had culminated in a massive heart attack that had forced him into a premature retirement, allowing the less-intense Strange to step into the position.
Morse sat up and examined the new arrival closer. This Benevolent was a bit greyer at the temples than the man Morse had remembered, and there were now crow's feet beneath the superintendent's eyes.
"Forgive my impertinence, but what the devil are you doing here?" Morse said, rubbing his eyes to ensure that he wasn't dreaming
What's wrong with me? Old bosses don't just pop up out of nowhere! It must have been something I ate or…drank. That bottle of brandy! I didn't think to examine the label! I should do that now.
He rose from the couch, but Benevolent blocked his path.
"Leave me alone!" Morse shouted at the former DCS.
"I'm afraid I can't do that. You see… I've been sent to teach you a lesson. The word around is that you don't understand Christmas. And because you don't understand it, you've been making everyone around you miserable!"
Morse shrugged. "I fail to see why I should fake a joy that I don't feel."
"I have two things to say to that. One, you didn't always feel this way. And two, Christmas itself has not been the cause of your unrest. You've just had some painful experiences occur at Christmastime." Benevolent took a deep breath and his eyes softened. "And you're not the only one."
Morse suddenly remembered hearing that Benevolent's son had taken his life in prison several Decembers ago. He wished that he'd thought to send the former chief superintendent a card, but Morse had been so consumed with work at the time that he hadn't thought of it.
"So…" Benevolent continued," I am here in the hope of convincing you to change your mind about Christmas."
"How are planning to do that?"
"By showing you how Christmas has affected your life and made you the person you are today. Here: take my hand."
"But I don't want to hold your hand!"
"I can't say that I'm too thrilled about the prospect either, but according to the forces that have temporarily made me Detective Chief Superintendent of Christmas Past, it's the only way to take you back. So…"
Benevolent extended his hand, and Morse reluctantly took it. The inspector suddenly became aware of a blinding white light and a strong, cold wind surrounding him. After a moment, Benevolent let go of Morse's hand and the light and wind stopped.
"We're here," the chief superintendent said simply.
It took a second for Morse's eyes to adjust to the absence of blinding light. He blinked and then carefully reopened his eyes.
He was standing in the home of his childhood. He walked around the room, taking in the festive holiday decorations around the familiar room. He smiled as he looked upon the beautifully-decorated Christmas tree right of the blazing fireplace. A million memories flew back to him all at once, each vying for his full attention. Morse disregarded them all as he had become aware of a small boy sitting by the fireplace. It took Morse a moment to recognize his younger self—for so much had changed. Morse ran his fingers through his own grey hair as he studied the mousy brown locks of the boy by the fireplace. He also looked down at his rumpled shirt, noting the stark contrast between his own unkemptness and the general neatness of his younger self. One feature had remained constant; his eyes were the same bright blue colour—though the eyes of the older Morse possessed a weariness that young Morse lacked.
"Dev?" said a voice behind him.
"Dev," short for Endeavour, the first name that he'd despised. No one had called him "Dev" since…
Inspector Morse spun around and saw his mother, her long, curly hair resting gracefully on her snow-white nightgown.
"Mother," Morse said and walked over to her, placing a hand on her shoulder. She must not have seen for she gave no indication of his presence, continuing to focus her attention on "Dev."
"Dev, it's time to go to bed." Her voice was wonderful: low and gentle—just the way he remembered it.
Dev walked over to his mother, and Morse returned to stand beside Benevolent.
"No. I want to stay up this year. Dad told me that I could."
Dev jerked his chin determinedly. "I'm going to stay up."
Benevolent nudged Morse. "Irrationally obstinate, even then."
Morse smirked back at the superintendent. "You're one to talk."
"I'll have to speak to your father about this," Mrs. Morse said.
"About what?" Morse's father had joined the group. He placed an arm around his wife's waist and she leaned into him.
"Dev seems to think that he's staying up for Father Christmas this year," Mrs. Morse said, tilting her head to look up at her much-taller husband.
"I told him that he could," said Morse's father.
"But…" his wife interjected.
Mr. Morse began whispering into her ear, and she nodded her agreement.
Inspector Morse felt his eyes start to water. Everyone looked so happy: "Dev" grinning impishly at his parents, and Mr. and Mrs. Morse, whispering excitedly into each other's ears. It was almost inconceivable to think that this would be one of their last Christmases as a real family.
"Very well, Dev," Mrs. Morse said finally. "Your father and I have agreed to let you stay up this year, but onlythis year. Even if you fall asleep, we still won't allow it next year."
"Don't worry, I won't fall asleep," Dev said, grinning from ear-to-ear.
The scene changed. Dev lay asleep by the fireplace, his pledge to remain awake forgotten in his exhaustion. As Morse watched his younger self sleep peacefully, "Father Christmas," fully clothed in red and carrying an immense sack on his shoulder, entered the room. It took Morse awhile to recognize his father under the enormous false beard. He also knew that Dev, naïve and excited as he was, would not scrutinize the new arrival carefully enough to properly identify him. "Father Christmas" placed the sack on the floor and began to remove the wrapped presents from the bag, laying them under the Christmas tree. When he was done, he knelt beside Dev and bent down to kiss his son's forehead.
"Happy Christmas, Dev," Mr. Morse whispered and then turned to go.
It was at that moment, that Dev stirred and saw "Father Christmas" standing beside him. He sat up.
"You're real! I knew it all along. Even though the other boys tried to tell me otherwise, I always believed, and I was right! Will you show me your sleigh?"
"Yes, my child; I am real, and no, I won't show you my sleigh. You're supposed to be asleep after all. And though, I won't take back your presents this year, if I should find you lying awake on Christmas Eve next year, I might decide differently then."
Dev didn't say another word; he merely lay back down and fell asleep again.
Benevolent turned to the inspector beside him. "Are you ready to move on?"
"Yes, I guess so," Morse said, rubbing his eyes to rid them of the moisture that had embarrassingly built up.
He held out his hand and Benevolent took it. The blinding light and biting wind returned for a moment before the pair landed in a new location.
The new room was just as familiar as the previous one, but this room was not nearly as warm or as welcoming. Although—like their previous destination—the room was decorated for Christmas, it was a good deal more formal. There were a large number of expensive-looking knickknacks placed in various corners of the room. Morse had been expressly warned as a boy never to touch these ornaments, despite their general unsightliness. Gwen had extravagant tastes and was always trying to make the house look more impressive through the acquisition of luxurious items. It was her way of fending off rumours that she had married "beneath her station."
Morse accidentally-on-purpose knocked over a particularly ghastly-looking statue of a Christmas elf. He picked it up and turned it over in his hand, surprised to find that there wasn't even a knick on it.
Benevolent leaned in and whispered "If it wasn't broken in the past, it can't be broken in your memory of the event. Pity that. The statue was singularly ugly."
"Endeavour, set that down at once!" said a new voice.
Morse jumped and dropped the statue once again. As before, it remained unbroken. He returned the statue to its former position and turned to observe the scene that the DCS of Christmas Past had intended for him to see.
He realized right away that Gwen had not been shouting at him earlier—or at least, not at the him that he now was. Morse observed his teenaged self, standing beside Gwen and holding a plate of Christmas biscuits. Although only a few years had passed between this memory and the one preceding it, the younger Morse was "Dev" no more. When he had moved in with his father and new stepmother, the nickname had become obsolete. Gwen had wished to call Morse by his hated proper name, and his father had always stuck by whatever Gwen had said. It was about this time that Morse had begun to go by his surname among school friends.
"Why?" the young Morse defiantly asked his stepmother.
"I beg your pardon?" Gwen asked, raising her eyebrows in shock that her stepson had dared to challenge her authority.
"Why should I set the biscuits down?" the teenage Morse said, his lips pursed tightly together in a haughty pout.
"You know perfectly well that I need them for tonight's party."
"A party that you didn't even think to invite your own stepson to?"
"I needed you to watch Joyce."
The teenaged boy said nothing. Inspector Morse suspected that his younger self had no qualms about looking after his young stepsister but would not give Gwen any satisfaction by admitting this fact.
"Will you set the biscuits down?" Gwen asked again after a moment's silence.
"I… I need to set some aside for Father Christmas. I don't want your precious party guests to eat all of them."
Gwen threw back her head then and laughed a harsh, cruel, laugh that contained no real mirth. "You can't honestly tell me that you still believe in Father Christmas?"
Young Morse didn't answer. He was aware that most of his school friends had outgrown Father Christmas years ago, but Morse had yet to falter in his belief. He knew what he'd seen and heard those years ago, and what was more: he'd neededsomething to believe in—something that would not let him down. He'd once believed that his parents would love each other forever. He'd been wrong. He'd once (foolishly) believed that his new stepmother would extend her hand in friendship to him and maybe even fill the void in his heart that had been created upon his mother's death. He'd been wrong. He'd once believed that the God his mother had been so devoted to might help him find some joy in his new situation. He'd been wrong once again. In spite of all, Father Christmas had remained the one constant in his life, always bringing exactly what Morse had hoped for. Now, it seemed that Father Christmas was just as much of a delusion as everything that he'd naively believed.
Gwen continued to laugh.
"Don't laugh," young Morse shouted finally. He drew strength in his conviction. "He does exist; I saw him.
She stared down her nose condescendingly at him. "You fool! You didn't see Father Christmas. You saw your own father dressed up like Father Christmas. Why your sentimental sad sap of a mother encouraged this sort of mindless fantasy is beyond me, but I won't have you corrupting Joyce with this nonsense. It's time for you to grow up, boy, and start behaving a man, rather than a soft-hearted, sensitive girl!"
Gwen seized young Morse by the wrist and dragged him up the staircase. "There's something you need to see."
The grown Morse and DCS Benevolent followed Gwen as she pulled young Endeavour into his father's room. Once they'd arrived, Gwen began rummaging through Mr. Morse's bureau. She withdrew a red shirt, hat, and trousers, a black belt, and a false white beard.
"See, Endeavour?" Gwen said a note of insincere pity in her voice. "It's not real after all."
The teenaged Morse ran out of the room and did not stop running until he reached his own room. Inspector Morse followed him as did the Detective Chief Superintendent of Christmas Past. The young Morse sat beside his bed. Meanwhile, the teenager's face had gone red and blotchy thanks to the profusion of tears that had begun to leak from his blue eyes.
"Let's go now," Inspector Morse said, tapping Benevolent on the shoulder. He couldn't explain why, but he suddenly felt quite uncomfortable that his former boss was witnessing one of the teenage meltdowns that had unfortunately been all too common in Morse's youth.
"Really? You don't want to see what you received for Christmas this year?" the chief superintendent asked.
"If I recall, Gwen gave me socks every year, except for the one year when she gave me a broken pocket knife."
Benevolent laughed. "You do have a good memory, Inspector. But anyway, we're not going to leave yet. There's something else I want you to see."
The door opened, and Morse looked up to see who'd arrived. At first, he thought that the door had opened by accident for he could see no one at the door. A youthful giggle from very low to the ground made him realize his mistake; he was merely looking too far up to see the new arrival. Little Joyce crawled into the room. When she saw her stepbrother crying by his bed, she stopped laughing and her large, innocent eyes widened in sorrow. She moved right over to him and placed a small hand on his arm.
"Go away, Joyce," the teenaged Morse said, turning his head away from his stepsister.
As she was still too young to understand most speech, Joyce failed to pick up her cue to leave. She only understood that her beloved "Endy" was sad and that it was her responsibility to cheer him up. Joyce plopped down on her small behind and sat beside her stepbrother, leaning her dainty head against his arm. In that moment, Morse—young and old alike—realized one thing that comforted him above all else: that regardless of how hard life was and regardless of how horribly Gwen treated him, there would always be someone who loved him—loved him, not out of a sense of obligation or pity, but out of a sincerely warm and compassionate heart. Once again, Inspector Endeavour Morse found himself tearing up.
"It's time to go," Benevolent said, grabbing Morse's hand. This time, Morse was barely aware of the light and wind; he was too consumed with his own thoughts.
They arrived at the new destination, but Benevolent did not let go of Morse's hand yet.
"Morse, this is your final stop with me tonight. However, it may be the most difficult for you to cope with. It's alright for you to get upset; this is a painful memory."
Benevolent gave Morse's hand a brief squeeze and then released it; the two then walked into the new scene.
Morse recognized his former flat right away; he also recognized the man seated on a sofa of dark green velvet. It was himself—a grown man, much taller and stronger than he'd been as a teenager though still far from the old man that he was now. He felt a sharp pang in his heart as he beheld the woman seated beside him on the couch. Susan was so beautiful that she took his breath away—even now, years after she'd left him.
Morse watched his younger self place an arm around Susan's shoulder and was mildly surprised when she shook off the arm and turned away from her companion.
"Susan, what's wrong?" young Morse asked.
"It's nothing," she said—though her red-rimmed eyes suggested otherwise.
The younger Morse hugged her into his chest where she began to cry openly, dampening his shirt with her tears. When her sobbing slowed, they broke apart, and the young Morse kissed her lightly on the forehead.
"Whatever it is, you can tell me," he said, grabbing one of her hands and holding it in both of his own.
Susan pulled her hand away. "No, I can't tell you; you'd hate me."
"I could never hate you, Susan. Ilove you."
She rose to her feet and walked away. She kept her back to him—for she could not face him in the full knowledge of what she knew she must do. "I know. That's what makes it all so horrible." She took a deep breath. "I can't marry you."
Young Morse raised his eyebrows in shock. "You what?"
"I can't marry you."
His eyes narrowed in anger. "It's because of that other man—isn't it?"
"It's notonly Henry. We're too different, Morse. I'm just… no longer sure that you can make me happy, and I'm starting to doubt that I can make you happy."
'But you could have, Susan,' Inspector Morse thought to himself. 'You could have made me so very happy.'
Susan walked back over to young Morse. She slid the diamond ring off of her left hand and placed it in her former fiancé's hand.
"I feel terrible about doing this, particularly on Christmas Eve. You probably despise me—right now, I almost despise myself. But this needs to be done; it really is for the best."
"Is it, Susan?" young Morse asked.
She walked over to the door. "Yes, it is." She spared one final glance for the man who was to have been her husband before opening the door and walking through it.
Inspector Morse followed her with his eyes until she was out of sight. Surprisingly, he hadn't cried at this most painful of memories. He supposed that he was simply beyond tears. Without any prompting, DCS Benevolent walked over to Morse and took him back to the present. He then turned to the inspector.
"I'm sorry, Morse," Benevolent said, a sympathetic expression in his grey eyes.
"It's not your fault."
"I know it's not, but I still feel for you."
Morse merely shrugged. Sensing that the inspector did not want any more comfort, Benevolent turned to go.
"Well, I'd best be off now. You do have two other visitors to meet with."
The Detective Chief Superintendent of Christmas Past snapped his fingers and disappeared into thin air, leaving Inspector Endeavour Morse alone once again.