"Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that." Margaret looked up. She was sure she had seen a face at the window, but there was nothing there. She kissed James on the head and read on. "The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail."
"Mummy?" said James. "Why is the door-nail dead?"
"It's a metaphor, love. Or else a simile. I've never been able to remember the difference."
There it was again, just in the corner of her eye, and as she looked up it darted away.
"Is it true that you'll be dead one day? And I will, and everyone?"
Margaret shut the book, and made sure James was tucked up warmly. She pretended to yawn. "I'm ever so tired," she said. "Could you be very kind, and excuse your mother from storytime just for this once?"
"All right," said James, who was on his best behaviour, lest Father Christmas were watching.
Margaret checked the window was locked and firmly shut the curtain. "Good night, my love."
As soon as she had gone, James leapt out of bed and opened the window. He had been right! There was someone there. Someone barely taller than he was, and dressed in green.
"Hullo," said James. "Are you one of his elves?"
The someone leapt down from the windowsill into the nursery. "One of whose elves?" he said.
"Father Christmas, of course!" said James.
"Who's that?" said the someone.
James's eyes widened in horror. "What do you mean 'who's that?'" he said. "He's ... Father Christmas! He comes every Christmas night and brings presents to good children."
The someone shrugged. "He sounds OK," he said. "But I'm Peter Pan. What's Christmas?"
"How can you not know what Christmas is?" said James. He glared suspiciously at the newcomer. "Are you having me on?"
"I know everything," said Peter defensively. "Everything except Christmas, that is. I tell you what, why don't you come with me to Neverland and teach us all about Christmas?"
And so that was how it began. You know what came next: the wishes, the fairydust, soaring above London in the snow, second to the right and straight on 'til morning.
This was long before Tootles and Slightly, Nibs and Curly, of course. Long before Tinkerbell. The Lost Boys were Jinks and Smallcat; Teaser, Snail and Jorj. Jorj was the first to greet them.
"Hullo, Peter! We–" He blinked and stared at James. "What am I doing over there?" he said.
James stared back at Jorj. "Peter," he said, "why does this boy look like me?"
"I expect you hatched out of the same egg," said Peter absently. He looked up at the sky and it began to snow.
"Are you called Jorj too?" said Jorj.
"Certainly not," said James indignantly. "I'm James."
The other boys came running up. "Peter, Peter!" they cried. "There's white stuff coming out of the sky!"
"Mary Christmas!" said Peter. "The white stuff is snow and it's here because it's Christmas which is when a lady called Merry has a baby and he rides a reindeer and will give us all presents, but only if we can shoot him out of the sky so he falls down a chimney."
"I don't think that's quite right," said James, though Peter had such an air of authority about him that he was no longer entirely sure.
"Get your bows and arrows boys," said Peter, and all of them except Jorj and James ran off.
"I think perhaps we had better build a chimney," said Jorj.
"I was thinking the same thing," said James.
Warily, looking at one another but not talking, the two boys gathered materials and set to work.
James was almost certain it was the best Christmas ever, although he thought he remembered that the mince pies he'd had in previous years didn't contain any mints, and also weren't imaginary. Father Christmas didn't seem to mind being shot from the sky, and all the Lost Boys got a present. James got a sword, and Jorj got an abacus, which to James's surprise he seemed to think was the best thing ever. Peter got a knitted jumper. "It's probably from my mother," he explained loftily. "Mothers do that sort of thing all the time."
The Lost Boys looked at him admiringly: none of them could remember having seen a mother before. Jorj looked wistful as well as admiring. "Please tell us about your mother," he said. "I should so love to meet one, one day."
Peter waved his hand dismissively. "Oh," he said. "She's very ... mothersome. She makes jumpers and says I'll catch my death of a cold. It's all very boring really."
Jorj sighed. "Did she tell you stories, Peter?"
Peter glanced at James, who nodded. "Oh yes," said Peter. "Mothers do that all the time."
"I've got a mother," said James. It had never occurred to him before that this might be something to boast about, but he was annoyed at the way they treated Peter like some kind of god, and needed a way to turn the attention to himself.
"Is she beautiful?" said Jorj.
James thought about it. "Quite beautiful," he said casually, "as these things go. Of course, where I come from, you can't go into the street without tripping over mothers all over the place. They're a nuisance really."
Jorj turned to Peter. "Could you bring us one?" he said.
"If I wanted to," said Peter. But he was bored of all this mother talk, and also of the way they looked at this new boy. "Come on," he said to the company at large, then something in his face changed. "Hark, I hear the drums of the snowmen!" He leapt onto the table. "Be brave, my warriors, and sally forth to meet the foe undaunted!"
They ran out shouting, and of course the snow was the perfect kind for a snowball fight, and it was just the right amount of cold, and James lost himself in the blissful oblivion of battle.
If only I had the time to recount all of their adventures! The day they hunted a dinosaur, and ate his meat for dinner. The week they spent with the cowboys. The night they rode the dragons right away from Neverland, over Sometimesland and Alwaysland, and James thought he could see, right in the distance, the lights of London. Jorj strained his eyes to look where James had pointed, imagining all those mothers, and wondering if one – even just a very small one – would consent to be his.
But there is not time. Or rather, there is Time, and even in Neverland all – save one – are subject to its thrall. James heard it first one night when he and Jorj had stolen away from the others. They lay on their bellies on a high rock, watching the mermaids sporting in the lagoon.
"What's that?" said James.
"Hmm?" Jorj was distracted by the way the mermaids' breasts moved up and down when they splashed about. It was a curious thing: he had seen them many times before, but never before had they been so fascinating. He understood now why James had been so keen to show him.
"That noise," said James. "It sounds like a clock."
Jorj turned pale. "James," he said, "I've heard tell that–"
But then Peter was there. "What are you doing?" said Peter, lying down between them.
"Just watching the mermaids," said James. He knew by instinct that neither the sound he heard, nor the reason why they were watching the mermaids, was a fit topic for conversation before their chief. Peter reached out to throw a stone into the water. As the mermaids scattered, frighted by the sudden splash, Peter withdrew his arm, and it brushed against James's. James felt a thrill of ... something. He didn't know what, and that frightened him and in turn the fear made him angry. "Get off me!" he said, sitting up and pushing Peter.
Peter did not respond in kind, as James had expected, leading to the kind of reassuring scuffle they had had so many times before, but stood up and backed away.
James walked towards him. "Coward!" he said, putting up his fists. "Scared to fight me, are you? Looks like it's time Neverland had a new chief." He tried to punch Peter, but the boy was too quick, and dodged away.
"Stop it," said Jorj, tears in his eyes. "Stop it, James! Be friends."
But how could they be friends? Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere, and nor could Neverland brook a double reign.
Peter smiled a dangerous smile and folded his arms. "Looks like it's time for you to fly away," he said, looking between James and Jorj. "While you still can," he added.
There was that noise again, louder than before, and when Jorj looked down into the lagoon where the mermaids had been, there he saw it – a crocodile, as long as six boys, twisting around and snapping its jaws in hunger. "James!" he said, clutching his friend's arm.
Peter was walking towards them, and both backed away, closer to the cliff edge.
James saw the crocodile, and heard its tick-tocking louder and louder, but he pretended not to care. "What do you mean 'while we still can'?" he said.
"James," said Jorj, in a frightened whisper. "They say it comes for you when you start growing up, and if you don't fly onwards, or fly home in time, then you're as dead as a doornail."
Something about that phrase struck a chord with James. "It's a metaphor," he said. "Or else a simile."
"I don't think so," said Jorj timidly. "I think it's a crocodile, or else an alligator."
"Well you're wrong," said James, turning furiously on his friend, but at that moment, one of the rocks gave way, and both of them had to fly, or else fall.
"Goodbye," said Jorj, as both of them trod air. "You go this way, I that."
James looked, and in the distance – yet closer than it had been before – he saw the lights of London.
"Why?" said James. "Why can't we go together?"
"It's different," said Jorj miserably. "Peter brought you here, and you have a mother to go back to. I came another way, and there's no way back for me."
Back on the cliff, Peter was laughing. The wind whipped up, and it was harder to stay together, harder to hear, harder even to stay afloat. It was the laughter that did it. Never in his life had James been so angry. "You take my place," he shouted. "I'm not going anywhere. It's Pan or me this time."
Jorj shouted something back, but his words were lost in the air. James paid him no more attention, but gritted his teeth, drew the sword Father Christmas had given him on that first day, and advanced towards his enemy, alighting on the cliff.
The boy's eyes glittered. "Oh," he said. "So you're one of those." He drew his own sword, and the two circled one another, Peter laughing, James deadly serious.
James struck the first blow, and it was like none of the fights they'd had before, where the winner was the one who made the most extravagant flourishes. James went right for the boy's heart, like a hawk swooping to kill. And kill he thought he had, except somehow the sword ended up by Peter's side rather than going through his middle. He tried again, and this time Peter parried, twirling his sword round in the most ridiculous fashion as the two exchanged blow for blow.
Before he knew what was happening, James found the ground was gone, and they were in the air again, and he had fallen a little way before he remembered how to fly. But once he did fly, he had Peter on the retreat, lunging forward again and again, until Peter was disarmed, his sword tumbling down into the water. "Ha!" he shouted, the delight rising in his heart, and raised his own weapon for the kill.
But James saw the boy's eyes flick downwards, and although he knew he shouldn't, he couldn't help looking down too. How had they fallen so far? Barely six feet beneath his feet, the crocodile grinned up at him, teeth glinting in the moonlight. At the same moment, he saw blood on his own leg, just a few drops, just a scratch, but that was when he knew, and the knowledge was enough to send him hurtling downwards, never to fly again.
The crocodile rotated its massive bulk towards him, but Peter got between the two of them, his sword somehow back in his hand. "No!" he cried to the beast. "This man is mine!" And with that he raised his sword above his head and brought it smashing down onto the youth's wrist. He was surprised to see the hand fall clean off into the water. It always surprised Peter when one of his toys broke. Things shouldn't be so fragile. Everything else in Neverland worked the way he wanted it to, so why shouldn't that? Oh well, it's not as though it really mattered. He flung the hand far out to sea, and watched the crocodile chase after it like a dog, then flew off to find another adventure.
To his surprise, Jorj discovered he knew exactly where to go, and the window was open, just as he ... remembered it?
She was there, in the rocking chair, pale, and thinner than he thought she had been. "Is that you?" she said, leaning forward to get a better look.
It was only then that Jorj remembered that it was James whom she awaited. "No," he said sadly. "It's not him, it's just me."
Then she gave a cry, and held out her arms, and Jorj couldn't help himself, but rushed into them, saying "mother, mother, mother!"
"James!" said Margaret. "I thought ... oh, never mind what I thought. You're back!"
Jorj forced himself to pull away. Trembling, he stared at the floor and shook his head. Oh, he wished he could have been a bit more wicked, but it was just not in him to lie. "I'm not James," he murmured. "I'm Jorj."
Margaret drew back then. "James?" she said.
"I'm not James," repeated Jorj, weeping bitterly. It was too, too cruel of her to make him say it again and again. "I'm only Jorj, but if you'll have me anyway, I promise I'll be the lovingest son that ever there was." He looked up at her, pleading.
"James," said Margaret, and there were tears in her eyes too. "Please, James, I need you to be grown up for a moment. If you would like to make believe, then ... oh James, please not George. You had a brother once, a twin, but ... oh." She put her head in her hands and wept properly. Tentatively, George touched her shoulder. She looked up then, and turned him round so the moonlight shone on his face. "George?" she said.
They crowded round him in a circle, looking down.
"It is my opinion," said Cecco, tugging thoughtfully at one of the pieces of eight hanging from his ears "that it is one of the Lost Boys, and he is here to trick us."
"Too old," said Bill Jukes. "See, the hair is starting to sprout on his upper lip."
Cookson peered down. "Aye," he said. "Peter gets rid of them when they grow to that age."
"The bait for a trap then," said Cecco, beginning to back away. The others started to follow. After all, Cecco had cut his name on the back of the governor of the prison at Gao, so if even he advised caution, then it must be a case for caution indeed.
Only one of them lingered. "But he bleeds!" said Smee, kneeling down beside the youth. The others stopped then, ashamed of themselves. Smee looked up at them, appealing: "we can't leave him here to bleed to death."
"Um ... we are pirates," said Noodler. "Ruthless and cruel and ..." he faded off. "Does anyone happen to have a bandage in their pockets?"
But Smee had already taken off his shirt, and was tearing it into strips.
It was then that James opened his eyes, and gazed up to see seven villainous faces leering down at him: most scarred, some tattooed, with greasy hair, broken teeth, biceps as thick as tree branches. And despite the pain, and despite their terrible countenances, he felt no fear, but smiled, for here if anywhere (he thought) is a crew who could help him take his revenge.
He tried to sit up, but it was more difficult than he remembered it being. His head felt all light and strange, and when he tried to lean on his right hand, it somehow didn't work and he toppled back down again. The owner of the eighth countenance, which was considerably less terrible than the others, touched his shoulder, firm and comforting. "It's all right," he said, although to take an objective view of things, it really wasn't.
James realised that he wanted his mother, and that he would never see her again, but at the instant he had that thought, he banished it forever, squeezing it deep into the middle of himself where it turned all to darkness and hatred.