The year was 1987 and a biting winter wind blew down Main Street, although Marmaduke Dodsworth did not feel a thing.
Rather than tightening up his overcoat or shivering as others around him were doing, Marmaduke remained unaffected, marveling at the activity on the corner of Main and Washington Streets. There, chopped evergreens stood, propped by wooden supports as people, bundled in coats and scarves, surveyed the trees mindfully, intent to choose one perfectly suited for their home. Holiday tunes blared from speakers overhead while strings of electric lights swayed at the wind’s command. The bright electric light bulbs never ceased to amaze Marmaduke. He was continuously impressed with the modern wonders that had found their way to civilization since his untimely death while visiting America seventy-one years earlier.
Marmaduke observed an elderly man scrutinize a feeble looking blue spruce while his wife shook her head and waved her hands with a great deal of vehemence. Marmaduke, were he a betting man, would have wagered the wife to win that battle. Not that he believed the man to be wrong, but his life (and afterlife) experiences had taught him that women were not only smarter, but also stronger of will.
A young voice jolted Marmaduke from his people watching.
“Are you magic?”
Marmaduke looked down to see a small lad of maybe four or five years staring back up at him. The little bloke had a broad smile with a gap where two front teeth should have been.
“Are you addressing me, young fellow?”
The boy frowned. “What?”
Marmaduke sighed, both happy to share a conversation and annoyed by the apparent language barrier. “Are you speaking to me?” he clarified.
“Yeah.” The boy’s smile reappeared. “I been here a long time and you wasn’t there and then you was.”
“And then you was?” snorted Marmaduke. “What form of school do you attend that teaches this manner of speech?”
The lad shook his head. “I doesn’t go to school.”
“Yes, well, that explains quite a lot then, doesn’t it?” Marmaduke had grown tolerant of Americans in general, but their ill attention to proper speech still got his knickers in a twist.
“You talk funny. What’s your name?”
“Marmaduke. Marmaduke Dodsworth.”
The little urchin doubled over with laughter. “Marmaduke? What kind of name is that?”
“I’ll have you know I come from a long line of very distinguished Marmadukes going all the way back to the bloodlines of King Edward the Sixth.” He looked the boy up and down. The chap was brazen, he’d give him that. Generally, people paled to the color of bleached white bed linens if they saw Marmaduke. He narrowed his eyes at the boy. “What is your name, young sir?”
“And you claim that Marmaduke is an amusing moniker? Most assuredly, I have never heard the name Thamuel.”
“Not Thamuel,” the boy said, shaking his head. “Thamuel.” He worked harder at the pronunciation this time and spat in a little in the process.
Marmaduke raised his chin in understanding. “Ah, you mean to say that your name is Samuel.”
The boy nodded. “It’s hard to thay with my teeth gone.”
“But earlier you pronounced your s’s beautifully while exhibiting the grammatical finesse of a hooligan on a pub crawl.”
Samuel frowned again at Marmaduke, who found himself more and more frustrated.
“I say young man, you can do this. Repeat after me: was.”
“Was,” said the boy.
“Bravo. Now, say ‘doesn’t’.”
“See,” said Marmaduke, “that wasn’t difficult, was it? Now, say your name.”
“Thamuel.” Samuel shrugged. “Z’s are easy, ethes aren’t.”
“Hmm. I suppose you are correct. My condolences.”
The boy grew silent, but didn’t move from his spot while shoppers scooted around him and through Marmaduke.
“Where is your family, Samuel?” Marmaduke asked.
“Left? What do you mean exactly?”
“They got in the car without me and drove away. I think they’ll come back. Ever sinth the baby, they forget about me thomtimes.”
“You mean they just abandoned you amidst this sea of strangers?”
“You talk funny.”
“Yes,” sighed Marmaduke, “you’ve said that before. You are nothing if not repetitive.” Marmaduke was putting on airs of being inconvenienced, but truthfully, the abandoned little Samuel was beginning to grow on him. “Well, have you perhaps spoken to an adult in charge? The owner of this Christmas tree enterprise, perhaps?”
“Can I just thtay with you until they come back?”
“I’m hardly a nanny, and I really do think it is best if we find you a more appropriate guardian. One who could, well, communicate with your parents better than I am able.”
Samuel gave Marmaduke a long, silent stare, then blinked. “What did you axe Thanta Claus to bring you for Chrithtmath?”
“My, your attention is lacking entirely. It’s like trying to have a conversation with a puppy who has just awoken from a nap and has lapped up a bowlful of café au lait.”
“I axed him for a friend.”
Immediately, Marmaduke felt beastly for the café au lait comment. His tone softened. “You are without friends?”
“We moved. Now all I have is my thtupid baby thithter Thophie and she don’t know how to throw a ball.”
“I’m dreadfully sorry, chap,” said Marmaduke.
Samuel smiled. “It’s okay. Thanta’ll bring me a friend.”
Marmaduke suppressed a groan. Ghosts, of course, were real. He knew—he was one, after all. But Father Christmas, aka Santa Claus, was not real at all. Marmaduke himself had been a victim of the trickery, as were so many children in the world. Growing up believing in the benevolent fellow in the red suit only to learn, often by some horrible slip of the tongue, that the entire story was a hoax, a sham, a charade. Santa was nothing more than a devilishly clever scheme to control youngsters. He was completely certain that this poor chap would not be finding a friend under his Christmas tree this year or any other. That was, of course, assuming his parents arrived to retrieve him at all. Marmaduke’s sympathy for the lisping boy grew a hundredfold. Yet, there was little he could do since the two of them dwelled on different spiritual planes of existence. And now, Samuel was beginning to attract attention from the people around him who thought the lonely little boy was talking to a tree.
Thankfully, Marmaduke heard a distressed woman’s cry. “Samuel! Samuel Rhodes!”
Samuel’s shoulders slumped.
“I say,” Marmaduke said to him, “that is your mum calling your name, is it not? Quick, boy, call back. Alert her to your presence.”
“Yeah, that’s my mom.” Samuel frowned. “But I don’t wanna go. I was just thinking that maybe Thanta got me my present early, and you is it.”
“Well, I’m not sure if you need a friend, but you certainly are in dire need of a tutor in the grammatical arts.”
The woman’s voice cried out again. “Samuel!”
The people who had previously been eyeing young Samuel with curious and worried speculation were now murmuring amongst themselves and pointing at him.
“Besides,” Marmaduke said, attempting to soothe Samuel’s sinking spirits, “I can promise you that I am less able to throw a ball than your baby sister.”
An employee of the tree lot pointed at Samuel and shouted to someone out of view. “Mrs. Rhodes, is that him? Is that your son?”
A moment later, a frazzled woman with a dark-haired baby attached to one hip appeared from behind a tall fir tree. The fear on her face washed away the second her gaze fell on Samuel. She rushed to Samuel’s side, the poor baby girl bouncing about helplessly. The mother placed the dazed toddler on her feet while bending to hug Samuel. Marmaduke wondered at her parenting skills, leaving a small child alone as she did, but had to admit the reunion was most touching.
“I was so scared! We thought you were in the car!” the mother said to her son. She spun him around and looked him over carefully. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine, Mom. Marmaluke was here. He’s my new friend.”
The woman blinked in confusion. Her head turned as she scanned the area. “Who, sweetie?”
“Duke,” Marmaduke corrected, “Marma-duke. If you insist upon befuddling the woman, at least do it with accuracy.”
At his words, the baby girl’s face brightened with a generous smile, and Marmaduke knew that she had seen and heard him. Many a fine woman had bestowed upon him a similar lovely smile when he walked the streets of Dartford many, many, many years ago. Of course, he was alive at that time, and the women were not nippers in nappies.
The baby held out her arms and shouted, “Marmi!”
Instinctively, Marmaduke drew back and cringed. “I would say she is adorable, although she appears to be somewhat…sticky.”
“That’s Thophie, my thithter,” Samuel explained. “Snot comes out of her nose all day long. It’s groth.”
“Marmi!” Sophie squawked again.
Samuel’s mother eyed Samuel curiously as she hoisted baby Sophie back onto her hip. “Who are you talking to, sweetie?”
“I told you. My new friend, Marmanuke.”
“Good lord, it’s duke, duke. Marma—”
Samuel held his belly while he chuckled. “I know, thilly. I know it’s Marmaduke. I thaid it wrong ‘cuz I knew you’d act all funny. I was just teasin’ ya.”
Samuel’s mother rolled her eyes. “Five minutes alone, and he invents an imaginary friend.” She patted Samuel on the back. “Come on, let’s go. Daddy has the car running.”
“Are you coming?” Samuel asked Marmaduke.
“I do not think it would be wise. I am not generally one to cavort with youngsters. And your parents are likely to think you barmy if you continuously converse with thin air. Bats in the belfry, you know.” He gestured at Samuel to move along. “Go now. Have a happy Christmas and all of that.”
The baby reached for Marmaduke again. “Marmi, Marmi, Marmi!”
“Samuel,” his mother said, irritation creeping into her voice, “I said let’s go.” She pushed him forward.
Samuel dropped his head and turned, walking away. “I thought I had a friend.”
Nearly as sad as Samuel, Marmaduke followed. He watched as they climbed into the idling autocar parked on the roadside. He called out to Samuel, “Trust me, sir! It is for the best! Cheerio!”
The rear door closed, and Marmaduke’s heart sank as he watched the little boy’s sad face stare back at him through the window of the autocar.
And that was how Marmaduke Dodsworth found himself following the Rhodes family like an abandoned pet hoping for a new home. But Marmaduke, or Marmi as the young little Sophie called him, wasn’t following them blindly—he had planned a course of action. He was going to find Samuel a real friend before Christmas.
He trailed them to a market called a “grocery store,” where Samuel’s mother purchased very little real food, but instead filled a metal cart with cans and boxes and bottles; he followed them to a large building called a “mall” where Samuel whined and Sophie screamed, and their mother subdued them with cups of hot cocoa and snowman shaped cookies from a bakery called Mrs. Fields. He followed them to postal services where they stood in a long, long, long line of customers posting holiday packages, and Samuel whined some more and Sophie screamed some more and their mother promised them a trip to another bakery for more goodies if they would please stop.
At none of these locations did Marmaduke ever find a little boy fitting to befriend Samuel and quite frankly, he was growing both weary and worried.
By Christmas Eve, the only friend Samuel had was Marmaduke himself, and that was entirely unsuitable. Not only because a British ghost was not the ideal friend for a young lad, but also for the fact that baby Sophie, as sweet and beautiful as she was, chattered, “Marmi, Marmi, Marmi!” endlessly like a parrot desiring a cracker. The constant racket she made was enough to drive Marmi and the children’s mother to despair.
That very morning, however, Samuel’s mother decided she needed to allow the children to work off some nervous energy and so ordered them into the car for an excursion to the playground.
“Bundle up!” she called out to Samuel. “It’s really cold, and they’re talking about snow!”
Marmaduke couldn’t believe his luck. The day before Christmas, and they were traveling to a play park. Surely there would be scores of boys there to select as friends. Why, it would be as easy as picking wild gooseberries in July! No doubt, he’d have a fine young boy paired up with Samuel just in time for Christmas, a fine present indeed.
As the mother maneuvered her car into the small lot of their destination, Marmaduke was surprised to realize that he recognized the playground. The little park was right across the street from the Christmas tree lot where he had met Samuel. A true sign, he thought, that Christmas Eve would be the day.
Unfortunately, Marmaduke’s hopes were dashed not long after they set foot onto the grounds of the park. Only one other child ran about, and she was a girl.
Samuel’s mother sat on a bench next to another woman, Samuel ran to the slide, and Sophie toddled behind Marmaduke as he made his way to the far corner of the playground. There, he proceeded to pace back and forth.
“What am I to do?” he asked of no one in particular.
“Marmi!” cried Sophie, holding up her arms and nearly toppling herself.
“Shoo, little girl!” he said. “Shoo! I have some thinking to do.”
“Marmi!” she cried again.
“I said, shoo! Be gone!”
A small voice, not unlike Samuel’s, startled Marmaduke. He spun around to discover the young girl who had been on the swing set when they first arrived. She had large, round brown eyes and a mess of brown curly hair. “Hey,” she said to Marmaduke. “Why dontcha wanna talk to her?”
“Do you see me?” Marmaduke asked the girl.
“Sure I see ya,” she snorted. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“Yes, yes. I see your point. Why wouldn’t you, indeed?” He looked the little girl up and down. She was wrapped up from chin to foot in bulky attire apparently intended to keep the cold at bay. “What do people call you, fair maiden of the play park?”
“I say, what is your name?”
“You talk funny.”
“Yes, well, you’re not the first nipper to say that. But you did not answer the question.”
“Mommy says not to talk to strangers or tell them my name.”
“But you are talking to me, aren’t you?”
The little girl crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes at Marmaduke. Something about her defiance caused him to realize that he had been ridiculously shortsighted in his search. “So, young lass-without-a-name, can you throw a ball?”
“Of course I can throw a ball. Why? You wanna catch one?”
“Well, I suppose that’s a nice idea in theory, but not very workable in practice. See that little boy over there?” Marmaduke pointed to Samuel, who was sitting sullenly at the top of the slide. “He likes to play a rousing game of catch. How do you feel about toy cars? Do you like to play with toy autocars?”
“Are you from Australia or somethin’? I heard a guy on TV sounds like you and he’s from Australia.”
Marmaduke all but clapped in glee. “Oh, I dare say you are entirely perfect! You can both switch topics midstream all day long and get along swimmingly.”
“I can’t understand nothin’ you’re sayin’.”
“Kismet, it’s positively kismet. You’re a match made in poor-grammar heaven. Now, young lady, I do bid you, walk over to that slide and introduce yourself to that boy. His name is Samuel. He is kind and sweet and as good of a friend as I know.”
She wrinkled her nose at Marmaduke. “Uh…okay.” She continued to eye him suspiciously, but meandered slowly to the slide anyway.
Marmaduke stayed put, not wanting to interrupt the matchmaking underway. The little girl eventually broke the ice with Samuel, and soon, the two of them were running about playing a noisy game of tag while Sophie toddled about aimlessly like a drunkard, occasionally falling on her bum.
After many minutes of jovial fun, white flakes began to fall from the sky, and all three children shrieked with excitement.
Marmaduke did not even try to suppress a smile. He well remembered his living youthful days and the joyful magic of a Christmas snow. He had intended to observe only a while longer and then he would disappear, allowing for an easy and effortless separation, but alas, in the enjoyment of the moment, he had waited too long. Samuel and the little girl bounded up to Marmaduke, hand in hand.
“Hey, Marmi, meet my new friend, Veronica.”
“Oh, well,” said Marmaduke, smiling, “that is a fine name, now.” He gave a small bow. “Hello, fair Veronica.”
“I met him already,” she told Samuel matter-of-factly. “He talks funny, but he’s nice.”
“Yeah,” Samuel agreed, “he is.”
“Samuel! Sophie! Time to go home and bake cookies for Santa!”
“Hey,” Samuel said to Veronica, “let’s ask my mom if you can come to my houth thometime, okay?”
Veronica nodded, her head of curls bouncing all around her face, and faster than Marmaduke could say Deck the Halls, they were gone. He watched as the children chatted with Samuel’s mother who had lifted baby Sophie up onto her hip.
Of course, Marmaduke knew he should fade back to the corner across the road, but he found himself tugged forward.
Soon, Samuel was climbing into the autocar, and he waved goodbye to Veronica, not Marmaduke. And that was as it should be, even if it hurt just a little. But little Sophie Rhodes called his name out as her mother snapped the restraints of the toddler seat. Her arms reached for him. “Marmi! Marmi!”
Marmaduke waved, but his smile was weak. “Goodbye, sweet Sophie. Do have a happy Christmas.”
“Marmi!” he heard her squawk one more time before the car door closed, silencing her hopeful chant.
“Perhaps,” he said, once again, to no one in particular, “perhaps we shall meet again some day.”
The car drove away, leaving Marmaduke alone on a snowy Christmas Eve.
“And that would be lovely, I should think.”
Karen Cantwell usually writes humorous cozy mysteries. But she does have a habit of indulging in ghost stories now and then. If you enjoyed this story, you will definitely want to check out Keep Me Ghosted, a paranormal mystery. Sure it has a ghost, but it also has humor and romance. For lots of laughs, check out her Barbara Marr series, starting with Take the Monkeys and Run.
All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without prior written permission from the author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any to any person, living or dead is entirely coincidental.