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A Cornelius Christmas: Five Variations

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Miss Brunner, most prone to that sort of thing, reflected that the conflicting time streams of the second half of the twentieth century were apparently mirrored in [Jerry Cornelius], and it seemed that the mind behind cried forward while the mind in front cried back.
--The Final Programme, Michael Moorcock, 1969

Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.
--"Good King Wenceslas", traditional


Cornwall, the late 1960s

Cornelius Brunner, magnificent as ever, walked along the Cornish coast. Its red hair shone like liquid garnet, and its smooth naked skin was unblemished ivory. Its breasts were round and magnificent, its genitals classical in proportion. The sun shone down on a beachhead entirely devoid of people, and shoals of fish twinkled like stars. Gulls called out to each other overhead and dipped their wings as they passed the world's first all-purpose human being, as if in salute.

"This is the life, isn't it, Cornelius?"

"It sure is."

"Seems kind of cold today, doesn't it?"

"It does. I wonder if it's winter?"

"I think so. Look at how low the sun is in the sky. It's probably December."

"Solstice time!"

"Christmas time!"

Seemingly on cue, the waves washed something bright up onto the shore just ahead. Cornelius Brunner bent down to pick it up. It was a long streamer of Christmas tinsel, tangled through with seaweed and bladderwrack. A green sphere, its metallic shine dulled somewhat by the sea and pitted with corrosion, was attached to the end.

"How about that."

"It really must be Christmas."

"We should get ourselves a gift."

"But what? We've already got everything we need."

"Huh. Guess you're right, Cornelius. That's a problem."

Cornelius Brunner wound the tinsel, seaweed and all, around its head like a crown. It bounced the Christmas ball absentmindedly from one hand to the other.

"England's getting boring again," it said.

"Getting boring?" it scoffed. "It's been boring for ages. So has the rest of Europe."

"India, then?"

"India. Christmas in Calcutta." It laughed and repeated, louder, "CHRISTMAS IN CALCUTTA!"

The gulls called back sharply.

The world's first all-purpose human being turned around and began to head east. As it departed the British Isles, life began to stir there again. Time turned. History moved.


London, near 2000

The boy pulled the collar of his black car coat up to his ears as he ran down the street. Behind him was the sound of breaking glass and sirens, and ahead lay possible escape. A few dozen other near-panicking boys and girls ran with him.

Was it 2010? 1968? 1832? It all blurred together. Children and guns. Sometimes the guns had lead in them, sometimes rubber. Sometimes gas. Sometimes trucks were set on fire, sometimes barricades were built. Girls linked hands, boys raised fists; girls threw stones, boys threw curses. This time there were Christmas lights in the windows. Someone said the Prince had gotten shot; others said it was only a stone thrown at his car. The boy felt the convergence of timelines in his belly. It reminded him of arousal. He grinned as he ran.

The riot police closed in on all sides like a purse-seine, cutting off escape. The boy tried to escape, but was brought up short by a police truncheon aimed at his solar plexus. He dodged and slipped back into the crowd, where he caught his arm around the waist of one of the girls in the group, a pretty blonde in tears.

"My dad's a bishop!" she wept. "I'm a good citizen! He sent me to a private school and everything! They can't do this to me, they can't!"

"It'll be all right," he said, pulling her close. "They can't keep us here forever. They won't. What's your name, love?"

"Mitzi." She pressed herself tightly against him, and he let his hand slide down to her tight little bum. She didn't object.

"I'm Jerry. Hang on, love. It'll be all right." He let her lean her fair head on his shoulder and hugged her tightly. It was all right, this bit.

A boy nearby fainted, collapsing against a riot shield. The police thought he was attacking them and pushed him back. He slumped to the ground, blood on his forehead. Another boy gathered him up in his arms, weeping and shouting curses at the police.

From somewhere outside the cluster there was a bellowing. "Where is she? Where's my daughter?" Jerry had the impression of a massive figure pushing through the crowd and for a moment thought it was his mother. But no, it was a man, and he was in full clerical garb, minus only crook and mitre. "Mitzi! Mitzi!"

"Dad! Dad! It's me!" She started to jump up and down, waving her hands in the air; in doing so, she managed to hit Jerry in the head. He winced, but didn't cry out. She kept shouting. "That's my dad! That's Bishop Beesley! Let him through! Let him through!"

"Mitzi!" The huge figure parted the wall of riot police and reached a hand in to take the girl by the arm. Jerry smelled mint Aero bars and was almost certain there was chocolate under the nails of the massive fat hand. "Come on, girl, we're going home."

Mitzi kissed Jerry on the cheek, and he thought he heard her whisper, "Merry Christmas." And then she took her father's hand and was whisked away. Another girl tried to follow, but a riot shield caught her in the chin and she fell back into the scrum.

Jerry rubbed his cheek absentmindedly and looked up at the snow that was starting to fall.


Another London, probably during the nineties

Jerry pulled off his skullcap and crumpled it in his hand. He leaned his elbows on the balcony and stared down at the party below. It had been going on for the better part of the decade at least.

He was Pierrot; he was certain of himself. He was the king, and as such had no responsibilities other than to be present. He was enjoying this, or so he told himself.

He could see his mother parting the crowd like a boat at full sail. Resplendent as Mother Ginger, she was wearing a Father Christmas beard as a wig, and brandished an open bottle of muscat like a club. "Merry Chrissmas! Merry fucking Chrissmas and a happy fucking New Year!" She seized Miss Brunner by the waist and planted a sloppy kiss on her cheek. Miss Brunner, who was dressed as a pantomime Robin Hood, recoiled. Mrs Cornelius chortled at the reaction. "Don't go thinkin' yer too good for us again, Lady Muck. Yer the same stuff as everyone else and don't you fuckin' forget it."

"Glad she's having fun at least," Frank croaked. He was wearing his Harlequin costume again. There was a hole in the midriff where Una Persson had shot him, days or months or centuries ago, and he had never bothered to fix it. The scar visible through the hole was livid and red, almost like a tight-lipped, chapped mouth. Jerry often wondered if the hole in the costume was some kind of badge of pride, but he doubted if Frank ever thought that deeply about it. More likely than not, it was simply that he couldn't be arsed to fix or replace the bloody thing. "What you moping about, old son? It's fucking Christmas time. Need something to perk you up, is that it?" He reached into a pocket--it was never entirely clear where the pockets were on the suit--and took out a small handful of pills.

"Leave him alone, Frank." Catherine, radiant in her white Columbine dress, approached. She linked her arm through Jerry's. "What's the matter, Jerry darling? You're looking a bit grim."

Jerry patted Catherine's hand and watched as Miss Brunner looked up to the balcony. She caught Frank's eye, none too subtly either. Frank waved back cheerfully; Miss Brunner rolled her eyes and stormed off. Mrs Cornelius continued to wade through the crowd, Chaos in her wake.

"Got to go," Frank said with a death's head grin. "Be seeing you two, yeah?" He sloped off, tugging at the collar of his Harlequin suit.

"They're up to something. Again." Jerry put his arm around Catherine's shoulders. "It's inevitable, really. Things have been too good for too long. So of course Frank's got to go stirring up the shit again." He shivered a little, a chill of foreboding. "I won't let 'em hurt you again, Cath."

"I know, Jerry." She leaned her head against his shoulder. "I trust you, you know. I always have."

He kissed her and hoped--in vain, again, he knew it--that her trust would not be misplaced. In a deep twinge the base of his spine, he could feel the timelines of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries coalescing, and he knew the old dramas were about to repeat themselves. Rebellion and repression and death, the towers of London/Imrryr/the fake Le Corbusier chateau in flames, and Catherine dead.

"Merry Chrissmas! Merry fucking Chrissmas! Jerry, where's the fucking gin?"

He kissed Catherine again. "Just a minute, mum," he called down. He put his skullcap back on, and Catherine reached up to smooth the ruffles of his Pierrot costume.

"It'll all be for the best," she said, and kissed him on the mouth.


America, the twenty-first century

The Humvee bounced along the pitted road and Jerry Cornelius stood up in the passenger seat, holding his needlegun on high. He was tripping, high on Time, imagining that he felt the rush of the megaflow through his body like the perfect speedball. Shakey Mo hit the accelerator and forced them forward over a smoking pile of debris that had once been part of a PrayerMobile ("like a BloodMobile, but with the Blood of Christ!").

Jerry grinned and looked back over his shoulder. The Great Cross of Washington still burned behind them, and as he watched one of the crossbars fell burning to the ground. If anyone was stupid enough to still be standing underneath it, it would have crushed them. It was the size of at least two shipping containers, after all.

"Where to, Mr C?" Mo shouted up at him.

"West," Jerry called back. "We can make Texas in two days if we hurry. Don't stop for any checkpoints--just keep going on through if we can't get around."

"You got it, chief," Mo replied cheerfully, and gunned the motor again.

Jerry liked America better now that it had splintered into city-states. It felt like it was finally catching up with the rest of history--or maybe the rest of history was catching up with it, depending on how you looked at it. He felt powerful. Civil war suited him. He'd signed up with the Free State of New York Irregulars and helped them march on Washington, displacing President Brunner. She'd fled into the upper reaches of the midwest, her oyster-grey Valentino and auburn updo ruined. Jerry wondered how her supporters out there would react if or when they ever found out that her homespun accent and carefully stage-managed all-American life story were complete fakes.

His work in Washington was done now. A Banning cannon lay across the back seat of the Humvee, sated, and his needlegun was hot in his hand. Shakey Mo took a tablet out of his safari vest and dry-swallowed it, then let out a whoop. "Gone to Texas!" he shouted.

"Eyes on the road, pard," Jerry said.

It was Christmas Day when they finally reached Austin, where they were greeted by Prinz Lobkowitz. They had heard that he was trying to stabilise the state there, and were unsurprised to discover that his efforts were being met largely with indifference by the locals, who simply wanted to be left alone to grow their organic produce and raise their poultry and hogs as best they could in the increasingly dried-out landscape.

"There's no control, really," he admitted to Jerry. "Are you sure you can't be persuaded to stay on? You were always far better at coping with entropy. You and Miss Persson. Where is she, do you know?"

Jerry shook his head. "We haven't occupied the same zone for a while," he said. "Reckon I'll catch up with her before long, though."

"Well, if you do, give her my regards," Lobkowitz said with a sigh. He looked out the window at the sere landscape outside. It was eighty degrees Fahrenheit and it was only ten in the morning. "Hard to believe it's Christmas already," he said. "It certainly doesn't look it, does it?"

"Doesn't look like it anywhere, these days," Jerry replied. His attention was already starting to wander.

"How do you do it, Jerry?" Lobkowitz said wearily. "You may rise or you may fade, but nonetheless you persist, and do so beyond all reasonable expectation. Does it never wear you out?"

"All the time," Jerry replied. "But you get used to it. And you look for the constant things in life." The wind outside picked up, shaking the walls; a small green Christmas ball fell from the windowsill and rolled to Jerry's feet. He picked it up and turned it in his hand absentmindedly. "Like Christmas."


Wiltshire, date unknown

Snow was falling outside Auchinek's old manor house. After his death, the place had been abandoned, and despite the shortages and the weather, only recently had anyone moved in. The current residents were holed up in a bedroom in the upstairs east wing.

Una Persson rose from the bed, naked despite the chill, and went to the window, pushing the curtains open.

"What are you doing up?" came a sleepy voice from under the thick covers. Catherine couldn't be bothered to raise her head.

"It's still snowing," Una said. "It hasn't stopped snowing for five days, haven't you noticed?" She padded over to the fireplace and pushed another log onto the fire. At this rate they were going to be putting the books on the fire by February. Which, Una reflected, was where this sort of thing always ended up--literature on fire.

"We'll be all right." Catherine sat up slowly, pushing her tangled blonde hair out of her face. "You're just getting restless again."

"If you like." Una paced back over to the window, folding her arms and staring out at the falling snow. "Time is getting all buggered up again, of course. I knew it was a mistake to come here, even if Frank couldn't follow. We're going to have to move on again soon."

"Well, don't let's argue about it now," Catherine said with a yawn. "Come back to bed. We'll sort it in the morning."

Una was about to do just that when the sound of a closing door echoed from somewhere in the house. The two girls stared at each other in alarm. Una put her finger to her lips, signalling Catherine to silence, and took her S&W from the bedside table. She picked up her dressing gown from the foot of the bed and silently slipped it on, venturing closer to the door.

There was a creak of wood outside. Una slipped the safety on her gun.

And then the door flew open and Jerry Cornelius shouted out, "Merry Christmas and a happy New Year, ladies!"

He wore his black car coat over dusty purple velvet threads, and he had a bulging Waitrose bag in either hand. Incongruously, a tattered Santa hat was just barely staying on his head, and it slipped off as he set the bags down. He didn't seem to notice.

"You little sod," Una raged. "I almost fucking shot you! I thought you were Frank!"

"Sorry, sweetheart." Ignoring her fuming, he caught her round the waist and gave her a juicy kiss. "You and me and Catherine. It's just like old times, innit? What a way to spend the holidays."

"Oh, sod you," Una sulked, putting the safety back on the gun as Catherine leaped out of bed and ran to embrace her brother. "Things are coming unravelled here too, if you haven't noticed. You must have seen all the snow. We've got to get out of here soon." Despite her words, she was growing less angry--she was, as ever, all too susceptible to Jerry's charm.

Jerry, meanwhile, kissed Catherine and set the bags down in front of the fire. "Fine, fine, Mrs P, but you're not going to let that stop us having a good time while we're here, are you? After I came all this way and got all these nice things." There was a Christmas pudding, and crackers, and things in tins, and even Una had to admit he'd done all right in his scavenging.

"Come on, Una," Catherine said, her arm slung around her brother's shoulders. "It's Christmas."

"So it is," Una said with a sigh. "All right, settle yourself in, you wanker. I'll put the tea on."

Outside the snow continued to fall and Britain was slowly, softly muffled in a deep bank of white. Here and there orange firelight trickled out from windows onto the snow until the drifts grew so deep that they covered the windows. The snow fell everywhere, silencing everyone, and Christmas came and went and it did not stop. In London the Gherkin was covered to its waist and the Palace became a mere hump. The white chalk horses were long since blended in with the snow and Stonehenge became a soft white fairy ring.

Jerry was aware of all this, even as he ignored Una Persson's entreaties to leave while the going was still good. All he wanted was to stay with his girls, to eat and drink and make love and gossip, and he scarcely noticed his own slowing-down. He cranked up the gramophone and danced with Catherine until the machine wound slowly down, and their steps slowed with it.

He was sleeping more, and so was Catherine.

The snow kept falling and Una grew more agitated, but Jerry insisted on maintaining their idyll. Thanks to Auchinek's anxieties, there was a substantial store of tinned food in the basement, and they melted snow for water. With three of them, it was easier to gather wood even in the snow, and it wasn't until April that Jerry began to break up the furniture and burn it. Then, as Una predicted, he started in on the books. He went straight for the Chesterton first, of course.

The months of summer and autumn came and went and the snow kept falling, and Jerry and Catherine grew sleepier and sleepier. Una grew resigned; she had been through this sort of thing often enough to know that the point for escape had passed, and now there was nothing for it but to wait for the cycle to complete before it began again.

When Una woke on Christmas morning, she found Jerry and his sister curled around each other in the middle of the big bed, sleeping. Twins in the womb, one fair, one dark. Their breathing was soft and light, their hearts beat slowly. The cold would keep them safe, Una knew, until they were needed again.

She put on her furs, strapped on her weapons, covered her friends with thick blankets, and kissed them both on their foreheads. "Be seeing you," she said. "Merry Christmas."

She disappeared. And snow continued to fall, over Britain, over Europe, over the great wide white world.