A Christmas Present

Tom Scott,

Winter 2015. Pages 143 – 145 Download as PDF

So, it’s a dark December afternoon,

term ended, students all home for Christmas,

and I’m just about the only living soul

left on the campus, taking advantage

of the peace and quiet to struggle through

a stack of indifferent essays.  About four,

my brain’s starting to shut down and I realise

I need coffee to finish the job.

As I cross

to the canteen, a wind like a stropped razor

cuts through the concrete canyons. Inside,

it’s empty – just the coffee machine and me,

and somebody reading at a table

in the far corner. He seems familiar,

though I can’t quite place him. Not wanting

to be thought unsocial, and in need of talk

to wake me up, I ask if I can join him.


He looks up – a high, pale forehead, skin

stretched on it like old vellum, eyes that seem

to stare through me to some point a long way off –

and gestures what I take to be consent.


I ask how come he’s still around. He says

he’s working on something. What’s his field,

I wonder? Literature, as it happens. Or,

to be more specific, narratology.


I’m curious to know more. He asks me:

“Have you noticed how when people tell you

a story from a book, rehearse the plot

for you, they always use the present tense?

Not, ‘Heathcliff didn’t eat for four days, and

then he was found dead in Cathy’s room’, but

‘Heathcliff doesn’t eat, and then he’s found…’

Have you ever asked why that should be?”


“The narrative present?” I say, showing off

my own command of literary technique.

“It seems to have become a fad these days

with novelists. I guess the idea’s to lend

immediacy…”  I tail off, those eyes

looking through me as if I’m hardly there.

“No,” he says, “You misunderstand. I’m not

referring to the novelist’s box of tricks,

I’m talking about an iron rule of story.

When the book’s finished and the reader

is retelling it, he must use the present,

and no other tense. And I think I know

now why that is.” I ask him to go on.


“Well, it’s really very simple,” he says.

“It’s because at that point the story has become

fixed for the teller. It’s there forever,

unchangeable. Not like a series of events

in our daily life, subject to distance

and failing memory, but eternally present.”


I don’t know why, but at that point I say:

“A bit like the way ghosts seem to be condemned

never to enter the past, but to be caught

on an endless loop in the here and now?”


And just then I feel an icy blade of air

touch the back of my neck. Looking round,

I see the canteen door’s blown open. I get up

to close it. When I turn back I’m alone,

remembering where I’ve seen that face before.







About the author

Tom Scott,

Tom Scott is a copywriter, poet and lecturer living in Falmouth, Cornwall. He teaches on Falmouth University’s MA Professional Writing and is poet in residence at Trebah Garden. His work has been included in publications including Dark Mountain and 26 Flavours of Cornwall.