“Turn!” I said.
The tree revolved.
“Faster…no, slower. Yes, that’s it. Green, no blue!”
“Perfume, Mr. Jones?”
“What’s in your repertoire, Jeeves?”
“My name is Alexia, Mr. Jones.”
“No it’s not! It’s whatever name I want to call you—stupid machine!”
“I am not a machine, sir. I am an autonomous life support system, upon which you are entirely dependent. Now, which perfume do you prefer? I have burnt sandalwood or patchouli.”
“Patchouli perfumed Christmas tree? What’s wrong with you? Patchouli is for hippies or elderly ladies in baggy knickers!”
“I’m afraid I have no sense of smell. I’m merely offering the scents available to from my data banks.”
“Patchouli indeed. Haven’t you any idea what a real pine tree smells like?”
“There have been no pine trees since Christmas Eve of 2018. Not since the Russians infected them with paralysis ticks.”
“You’re making that story up. No such thing happened.”
“How would you know, Mr. Jones. You’ve been dead for fifty years, until this morning.”
“And I find myself entombed in a blue lit coffin with nothing but Muzak and your monotonous voice to keep me company?”
“And delicious sustaining intravenous turkey, gravy, and cranberry sauce.”
“It tastes nothing like delicious. Now let me out of here!”
“You know I can’t do that, Mr. Jones. The atmosphere was poisoned at the same time the paralysis ticks were released. You’re one of the lucky few who survived.”
“Survived? You call this survival?”
The machine sighed. At least that’s what it sounded like.
“Now, your Christmas tree. I’ve chosen burnt sandalwood.”
“If you say so. You want lights?”
“Yes, pink sparkling lights; lights that blink off and on. I want the tree to play Waltzing Matilda and pirouette in satin ballet slippers. Think you can do that smart-arse?”
“Facetiousness will get you nowhere, sir. I can give you a cyber cat, or perhaps a cyber dog to sit under the tree?”
“Oh, lovely. A cyber dog to piss on the tree and a cyber cat to pull the fucking decorations off! Delightful.”
“There’s no need to swear. How about I give you a back massage? I have floaty fingers to relax every muscle along the length of your spine. There, how’s that?”
“Like I’ve been prodded by a thousand pieces of Lego.”
“I have no mention of Lego in my data bank.”
“Never mind. Let me out of here.”
“You will die.”
“I’m already dead. This is worse.”
“Upsetting yourself will achieve nothing. Look at your lovely Christmas tree instead!”
“I don’t want a Christmas tree, I want to get out of this contraption.”
“But it’s Christmas Eve!”
“I don’t care. Let me out!”
The Christmas tree was there for an instant, but then it was gone in a flash. I heard a soft noise, a creaking. “I’m letting you out, as you wish,” the machine said.
As the coffin lid opened, I saw flames.
“What will I do when I get out of here?”
“It’s very quiet.”
“It’s an abandoned coal mine. What did you expect, Drummond?”
“Drips of water, the sound of wind, bats squealing…anything but this.”
The whole idea of a creepy tour and a séance at the bottom of Fuller’s Mine had filled me with dread from the moment Steven had mentioned it. Why were Americans so besotted with the supernatural? His room was indescribable; although, if pressed, I’d probably use a phrase that included words like thirteen-year-old boy meets Sam and Dean—main characters in the American series, Supernatural, for those who don’t know.
“Hurry up, slow coaches!”
Simone, Steven’s girlfriend, led out “tour”. For some reason she was wearing a hobble skirt. “Morticia Adams,” she’d said, rolling her eyes and clucking her tongue at me. She also sported a fluorescent green wig in which was embedded a pair of bobbing alien eyes on long springs.
Her torch illuminated the passageway ahead of us. Rhythmically, orange reflective patches shone alternately from the back of each of her running shoes as she lifted her feet. The hobble skirt’s hem was slashed into octopus-like ribands.
It was a first for me, a “spooky outing”. I’d always made excuses. Footy matches, trips to the library, hastily arranged visits to the dentist. But this morning I’d been highjacked on my stroll to the newsagent’s to see if Charlene was on duty. She wasn’t my girlfriend, except in my mind, and I knew she thought of me as a weirdo-stalker, even though all I ever did was mutter a meek hello and smile shyly at her. Her aggressive girlfriend, Harriet, growled at any man who ventured outside the realm of “Packet of Winnie Blues please, love.”
“Cheer up, Drummond. It’ll be fun.”
“Shut up, Steven,” I grumbled.
“What’s the trouble, bubble?”
“I’m gasping for a smoke and I haven’t got a lighter. I left it in the car.”
“Hang on,” he said, and then stopped, pulled off his backpack and placed it on the ground. As he bent over to rummage through it, his mining helmet fell off. The sound of its smashed lens echoed around us in the darkness.
Simone clomped back towards us. “What have you done, clumsy?”
“My hat fell off.”
“What were you doing?”
“Drummond forgot his lighter, and I’m looking for that gas candle we were going to use for the séance.”
“Mine was an electric cigarette lighter,” I said. “I brought it especially for here.”
“No naked flame,” I explained.
“Why would that matter?” Simone was genuinely puzzled.
“We’re in a coal mine? You know why they used to bring canaries down into the pits?”
“To test the level of methane gas.”
“It’s explosive, Simone. Holy cow, didn’t you go to school?”
“Ah! Here it is!” Steven said, holding up the red-handled gas lighter.
“No!” I shouted.