Without further ado...
Grapes in the Snow: A Christmastime Play
The Narrator: A voice to guide you through the holiday.
Urchins: Three street children, lucky to be alive.
Misters Bellylaugh, Jinglefoot, and Fumblefeather: Entrepreneurs with jolly names.
A Mysterious Follower: Could it be the ghost of Old Malthus, come to strangle the surplus population?
We open on the streets of old London, packed with Christmas Eve shoppers and merrymakers…
Narrator: Another cold and uncaring Christmas has come to Londontown. The old saying—Christmas does not love you, so hope to God that your parents do—has never been more true. Loved children snuggle at home under piles of furs, fattening themselves on candied figs, while their parents bustle through the city streets, searching for the perfect presents. But London’s unloved children… they are left to the harsh and icy whims of the winter holiday. Street urchins are trampled underfoot or thrown through plate glass windows as shoppers and passersby see sales and promising looting opportunities.
But here and there throughout the city, a few urchins—those big enough to fight off stray dogs, or small enough to hide from them—have found some measure of shelter. I would be lying to you if I said that they were either comfortable or safe, but you may warm your heart next to this fact, at least: they are in marginally less danger. And so, wrapped in rags and smeared with shit—for warmth—the urchins hide in alleys and under piles of tires, huddled around burning animal carcasses or steaming sewer grates.
We find one such group of children, two of them only, squeezed between a dumpster and a rotting fence, attempting to warm themselves over a tin can of burning wood alcohol. The urchins peer at each other through watery eyes, each wondering if the other will strike him down for an unshared sip of the wondrous alcohol, and each waiting for the opportunity to lash out themselves. But neither has any sort of weapon, and they’ve been in the rings of enough outdoor urchin/dogfights to know that the end result of a match between them, whoever the victor, would leave them colder than ever. They are resigned.
Urchin 1: This is the shittiest Christmas ever.
Urchin 2: You say that every year.
Urchin 1: Yes, but last year I never imagined that I would lose another foot.
Urchin 1 leans back and kicks his leg stumps joylessly in the air. He falls backwards into a puddle of gasoline slush. Urchin 2 pulls him upright.
Urchin 2: I suppose so. Dear me, they do make it hard to enjoy the birthday of Christ our Lord. You, with your diabetes, and me, with rickets.
Urchin 1: And not only that, but they say that Old Malthus is back.
Urchin 2: But the Wicked Reverend has been dead and gone for years! They hung his body outside the library! I saw it myself. Birds were eating his face.
Urchin 1: Well, then it’s his ghost that’s back, and I don’t see how that’s any better. Alive or dead, there’s nothing Old Malthus’d like better than to hunt street children such as ourselves.
Urchin 2: Yes, Old Malthus truly hated street children.
Narrator: Our two urchins sit in silence, wondering if they could outrun the ghost of Reverend Malthus, as they have not a good leg between them. But hark! What’s this?
A third urchin joins the first two. He maneuvers unsteadily between the dumpster and the fence. It would not have seemed possible for a child to look worse than our two urchins, but Urchin Number Three somehow manages the task. And yet… there is a look of triumph on his sad face. He has a secret, a wonderful secret, as if he has found treasure!
Narrator: Now look at this child. Cold and sick though he is, there’s a look of hope about him. It’s as if he has found treasure.
Urchin 3: Oy, friends! I believe I have found treasure!
Urchin 1: Good on you. But why don’t you introduce yourself?
Urchin 2: Yeah, who are you?
Narrator: Listen to our little scamps! They do indeed know the third urchin, but, as he is blind (one of his eyes became infected and was eaten by a rat, and he sold the other eye to buy food for himself), they cannot pass up the Christmas cheer they knew would come from upsetting him.
A tear falls from Urchin 3’s sightless orifice.
Urchin 3: Ah, kind friends, I have mistaken you for acquaintances of mine. But... still. Have you an eye between you? You see, I am blind, and I require the help of the sighted.
Urchin 1: Blind, you say? Of course! I thought I smelled baby otters, but I see now that it is only your eye sockets; they are fishy and wild.
Urchin 3, nervously: That they are! That they are! But it would benefit the both of you, I think, to tolerate the reek for an evening. If you could assist me... there... there may be treasure for all of us.
The first two urchins exchange a knowing glance.
Urchin 1, whispering: An old fashioned treasure hunt! Why not? Whatever else happens, the situation is ours to control. After all, we hold all the eyes!
Urchin 2: True enough… (To Urchin 3) Right, we will hear you out.
Urchin 3 smiles, and launches into a silent, lip-flapping, pantomimed explanation.
Narrator: In his excitement, the blind urchin’s story contains many words and patterns of speech used exclusively by children and poor people, and it would mean nothing—less than nothing!—to those of the audience who are even remotely civilized. That is, if you have eaten at least one meal today that did not come out of a dog, you will not understand. But the essence of it is this: He believes he has found treasure, and he is willing to share the treasure in exchange for help. What's more, he too is convinced that he is being stalked through the streets of London—not by Old Malthus, but by the rat that ate his eyeball. This theory, of course, is based on guilt born of Catholicism and paranoia born of huffing turpentine. Nonetheless, he has no wish to try his luck searching for treasure while a rat with a taste for blood—his blood—trails him tirelessly. They return to God’s English, and so we return to them…
Urchin 2: And the treasure? What is it?
Urchin 3: Oh, it is the greatest Christmas treasure of all! Grapes! Plump, juicy grapes, a trail of them, lying in the snow!
Narrator: Their mouths watering, the urchins contemplate what they might find at the end of the trail of grapes. A wounded grape merchant? A lost foreign prince? Either could… “disappear” so easily into the London night, their cargo of grapes free to whoever might have the strength of will to take it!
Urchin 3: But, alas, the trail runs through the street, and I am sure I would be struck down by a hoof or a cane were I to try to follow it unassisted. So… What say you, fellows?
Narrator: Of course, their minds are already made. It may be a merry Christmas after all!
The urchins creep through an alleyway, moving like the wounded animals they are. The alley is tight and dim, and industrial waste peeks through a covering of what snow would look like if it were made from feces and coal oil. And it is snow, made of feces and coal oil. Here and there lies a shard of what may be broken china. They are, in fact, bones, shattered to expose their rancid, yet nourishing, marrow.
Narrator: Urchin the third spoke truly, and our Christmas adventurers found his trail of sweet, purple grapes. Every few feet the snow yields a purple delight, to be stuffed into the urchins’ already sticky faces. Crossing the road was as harrowing as the urchin had suspected—while only a narrow thoroughfare, the sighted urchins nonetheless could barely save their companion from the high-spirited kicks and stabs of Christmas shoppers.
They follow the trail of grapes into a maze of alleys, warehouses, and factories, and here they are… but where is here?
Urchin 1: Oh, shit, this is the Urchin Grinder.
Narrator: Ah, “the Urchin Grinder.” While there is little physical evidence of urchins literally being ground up, many urchins report that a trip through the neighborhood of the Grinder is truly emotionally destructive.
Urchin 1: I’m not happy to say it, friends, but I think we best fuck this shit.
Urchin 2: I don’t know…
Urchin 3: No! Let us continue on! The trail is as strong as ever!
Urchin 3 has plugged his eyeholes with two of his grapes. He says it makes him feel whole again. The dark, fleshy globes and sticky juice tears disconcert the other urchins, but they cannot deny that Urchin 3’s new prosthetics have at least temporarily stemmed his odor.
Urchin 3: And, friends, you must admit that your bellies have not been so full in months!
Narrator: It is true—while the children have eaten their fill of street-grapes, they are like a small pack of malformed, sickly wolves, prepared to utterly gorge themselves on any available sustenance.
Urchin 2: The ayes have it!
Urchin 3, in horror: Eyes!
Urchin 1: Fine. But any scent of Old Malthus, and I will take my leave.
On cue, a peculiar sound comes from behind them. It is the sound of breathing, raspy and hoarse.
Urchins, together: The Reverend! Cheese it!
The urchins run down the alley in terror, yet still stoop to pick up each grape in the trail. They gobble them down as they limp along, gagging and coughing all the while.
Narrator: Pulled by the trail of grapes and driven by the rasping breath and scraping footsteps behind them, our urchins are driven ever deeper into the Grinder. They skid, stump, and stumble around one final blind turn, only to see the trail of grapes end and a closed door.
Urchins 1 and 2 stop in front of the door, but remain silent as urchin 3 continues to run. He collides with the wood, making a sound like a child’s head being thrown at a door.
Urchin 2: Oh, shit, a door!
Urchin 1: Christmas!
Urchin 3: Bwaaaaaa.
The urchins have never in their short lives found the far side of any door to be better than the rest of the world. Indeed, given Londoners’ propensity for luring street children into their homes to use them as chimney and drain pipe scourers, passing through a doorway often leads to a much worse situation. Yet Urchin 3’s collision with the door has apparently already attracted the attention of its owner. The door opens just a crack. Blue eyes peek through the crack. They see the children, and the door is opened wide, revealing a jolly looking man in a green suit. He has blue eyes, curly ginger hair, and a large, round belly straining at his velvet waistcoat.
Man: Good evening to you, children! How can I help you?
Urchin 1: Nothing.
Man: I’m sorry?
Urchin 2: We don’t want nothing. We’ll be on our way.
Urchin 3: Grapes! Where are the grapes?!
The man chuckles, his belly shaking merrily.
Man: The grapes! You found them, eh? I was returning from the market with a sack of grapes for my Christmas dinner, only to find the bag nearly empty with a great hole in its bottom when I reached home!
Urchin 3: No! No! No!
Man: Ah, you’re a sweet child to worry for me, but I have a great many grapes still. Too many for one lonely man to eat this Christmas.
Urchin 1: That’s a god-damned shame. But I think we ought to be leaving…
Man: But… wouldn’t you perhaps share my dinner with me tonight? All I ask in return is your company.
Urchin 2: We don’t eat with strangers. Sorry.
Man: Of course. My name is Primrose Bellylaugh, Esq. And now we are no longer strangers! Please, won’t you keep me company for dinner?
Urchin 1: Eat a dick, guv’na.
But just then they hear again the shuffling footsteps and labored breathing of their pursuer. It must be nearly at the mouth of their dead-end alley! The urchins share a look.
Urchins: We’d love to share your dinner, sir.
Mr. Bellylaugh: Wonderful! Much obliged! Come in, come in!
The urchins are ushered quickly through the door. Mr. Primrose Bellylaugh looks out into the alleyway, suspicious of the strange sounds. When nothing reveals itself, Bellylaugh places a hand on his stomach and chuckles quietly at his own foolishness. He walks through the door and closes it behind him.
The children and Mr. Bellylaugh are in an antechamber beyond the front door. Two doors lead further into the building. A bell hangs between them. Mr. Bellylaugh rings the bell.
Mr. Bellylaugh: Ha ha ha!
Urchin 3: So… what about dinner?
Mr. Bellylaugh: Soon enough! It’s not yet suppertime!
Urchin 1: Don’t treat me like a retard, Bellylaugh. I’m out.
A faint scratching comes from the closed door.
Urchin 1: In a little bit. When’s dinner?
Mr. Bellylaugh: Not long! But first I have to make it! In the meantime, we’ll have to find something for you to do!
Bellylaugh rings the bell again, and the inner doors open. A man walks out of each. One of them, Mr. Fumblefeather, is scarred and toothless. His clothes are covered in grease. The other man, Mr. Jinglefoot, wears a rubber apron and gloves. His face, arms, and apron are streaked and spattered with red.
Mr. Bellylaugh: These are my dear friends, Mr. Eustace Funblefeather, and Mr. Theodore Jinglefoot. (Bellylaugh indicates the greasy Fumblefeather and grisly Jinglefoot, respectively, and then turns to Urchin 1) And you, my dear boy, can I ask you a rather personal question?
Urchin 1: A what?
Mr. Bellylaugh: Be you an orphan, lad?
Urchin 1: An orphan? I wish that were my situation, cap. Alas, I am the victim of regular domestic abuse, and I cannot deny the badges that proclaim me to be, to some extent, a domestic child. (The urchin lifts his shirt, to display a curiously shaped bruise across his skinny back.)
Mr. Bellylaugh: Your badge! It bears striking resemblance to a cat.
Urchin 1: Yes, sir. It is with the cat that I am beaten.
Mr. Bellylaugh: Hmm. Your father, he...
Urchin 1: My mother.
Mr. Bellylaugh: Of course. Your mother, she sounds like a dangerous woman. Please, I think Mr. Fumblefeather can help you prepare for dinner. (He indicates toward Fumblefeather’s doorway. Urchin 1 approaches cautiously, and slips through to the dim room on the other side.)
Mr. Bellylaugh, to Urchin 3: And you, be you an orphan?
Urchin 3: Truly sir, I am. Abandoned by mother and God, I live by my wits alone.
Mr. Bellylaugh: No one has been abandoned by God, my little friend, only tested. Please, Mr. Jinglefoot can help you. (He firmly guides Urchin 3 in the direction of Jinglefoot. When they walk through Jinglefoot’s doorway, the room is momentarily bathed in red light.)
Mr. Bellylaugh to the last Urchin: Now, be you an orphan, child?
Urchin 2, who is indeed an orphan: I... No, sir. I am no orphan.
Mr. Bellylaugh: You sound uncertain, lad. Be you an orphan?
Urchin 2: No! I hate orphans with all my weak heart! The only thing better than a dead orphan is an orphan that was never born. I was taught this by the parents I have.
Mr. Bellylaugh: Very good! Away you go! Bellylaugh indicates the same door taken by Urchin 1. Urchin 2 walks through, followed by Fumblefeather and Bellylaugh. The antechamber dims.
Narrator: This is becoming a strange Christmas for our urchins, orphans and parented alike. But Mr. Primrose Bellylaugh seems a jolly sort, doesn’t he? And then what could this be? Perhaps our lads haven’t escaped their pursuer after all! And what about the rest of those grapes?
The latch on the front door mysteriously lifts, and the door creaks open. A slender, hunched figure in red creeps into the room. He sniffs at the two other doorways like a dog. The scene fades to black.
We see Fumblefeather and Urchins 1 and 2 in a new room. Bellylaugh leans against the door, and watches them. The large room is bare of furnishings, with high, barred windows. Its two distinguishing features are a factory-style conveyor belt running in one wall and out the other, and a chute slanting down from the ceiling into a large vat. The conveyor is covered in half-constructed toy drums. The chute periodically discharges thick, chunky fluid into the vat.
Urchin 2: Ah, shit!
Urchin 1: Christmas!
Urchin 2: So that’s it? You captured us to work in a factory?
Mr. Bellylaugh: Oh, such clever boys! I hope your little fingers are as quick as your wits, because these toy drums won’t make themselves!
Urchin 1: What about the grapes? Am I correct in assuming that there won’t be any more grapes?
Mr. Bellylaugh: Not for you, urchin. You don’t fill up a factory with kidnapped children by giving away all your grapes to the first bunch!
Urchin 2: And what about the blind kid?
Mr. Bellylaugh: Who?
Urchin 2: The other urchin who came in with us.
Mr. Bellylaugh: The tyke was blind?
Urchin 1: “Was blind”?
Mr. Bellylaugh: Well, of course! He was an orphan, so Mr. Jinglefoot will have processed him into chum by now.
Urchin 2: Chum?
Mr. Bellylaugh: Chum, for baiting sharks! He should be along any moment now! Ah, there you go!
The chute above the vat expels a volume of chum into the room.
Mr. Bellylaugh: And now we all have work to do. I’ve got to spread some more grapes…
Urchin 2: There are more grapes?
Mr. Bellylaugh: And you two have to start making these drums. Mr. Fumblefeather?
Fumblefeather grunts and unhooks a whip from the wall. He cracks it above the urchins’ heads.
Mr. Fumblefeather: Figure out how to make these drums, you urchins!
Mr. Bellylaugh, leaving: Excellent. Merry Christmas, children!
Narrator: Hours later, the already scarred and frostbitten fingers of our urchins have been worked raw. The drums must be constructed to the highest standards, for they will be presents for wealthy children. Even poor Fumblefeather can barely keep up his whipping.
Mr. Fumblefeather, whipping weakly at the urchins: Make those drums… make those drums… make thosss drmms… m’k ths drrr…
Fumblefeather falls asleep on his feet, the whip falling limp. He slumps against the wall behind him, and slides to the floor, snoring. Urchin 1 runs to the door, but finds it locked. There is no key on Fumblefeather’s belt.
Urchin 2: Well, this is fucking horseshit.
Urchin 1: It’s fucking Christmas.
Urchin 2: What now?
Urchin 1: Keep making these drums. Fumblefeather will be feeling mighty whippy when he wakes up from this nap.
The urchins sigh, and return to the conveyor belt of elegant little drums. They are only at work for a few moments, however, when a familiar and horrifying sound is heard.
Urchin 1: That breath! It’s the Wicked Reverend! He’s come for us!
Urchin 2: Where is he? The sound is coming from all over!
Narrator: Look up! Look up!
The chum chute disgorges a particularly large chunk into the vat. It is a person.
The figure in the chum surfaces and pulls itself out of the vat. Its velvet clothes drip with blood, and its beard is a tangled mass of gore. It tumbles from the lip of the vat, and drags itself across the floor toward the screaming children.
Bloody figure: Ho… ho… ho…
Urchin 2: Hold on… that’s not the Reverend!
The figure pulls itself upright, and places a long, blood-soaked, tasseled cap on its head.
Urchin 1: Fat Nicholas?!
Narrator: The spirit of Christmas! Fat Nicholas himself! Disappeared from London all these years, who would have thought him any more alive than Reverend Malthus himself? Yet here he is, bone-thin and blood-soaked as he may be!
Fat Nicholas: Ho… ho… ho, my children.
Urchin 2: Fat Nick, what are you doing here?
Fat Nicholas: I have come… one last time… so that I might restore some Christmas joy… to the two children who need it the most.
Urchin 1: You’re rescuing us?
Fat Nicholas: No, my child… my reindeer have all gone to meat and glue… and I haven’t the strength… any more.
Urchin 1: Well then what the shit? Thanks for nothing.
Fat Nicholas: No! Please… don’t lose the Christmas spirit just yet! I may… have a present or two in this old bag of mine still. Christmas… is not lost.
Fat Nicholas pulls a deflated sack from over his shoulder. Chunks of chum fall from its folds, but he reaches inside hopefully.
Narrator: What could Fat Nick have in that sack, as empty as it looks? And what would our heroes do with toys in this cursed toy factory anyhow? Is this the end… of Christmas?
The Urchins approach the struggling Nick curiously. Stage fades to darkness.
The exterior door of the factory antechamber opens, and Bellylaugh and Jinglefoot enter, each holding a sack of grapes.
Mr. Bellylaugh: The trap is set, dear Jinglefoot! In a few hours our factory will be full again!
Mr. Jinglefoot: I hope so, Mr. Bellylaugh, I hope so!
Mr. Bellylaugh: I wonder how our chums are doing?
Mr. Jinglefoot: “Chums”! Ha ha! Not yet, but soon enough!
They walk to the factory door, which Bellylaugh unlocks and opens wide.
Bellylaugh is thrown backward, his skull torn into ragged chunks and strips.
Mr. Jinglefoot: What in…
BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!
Three more shots catch Jinglefoot in the neck and chest. He falls, choking on his own blood.
Mr. Fumblefeather tips through the open doorway into the antechamber, blood erupting from his face. The urchins follow him into the room, each holding a large, new handgun. Smoke wafts from the barrels.
Urchins: Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas! Thank you, Fat Nicholas!
Fat Nick, still soaked in chum, crawls through the door behind them.
Fat Nick: Of course… my children. I only wish I had more to give you. But… I think… (he lays a hand on Urchin 2’s foot) You might enjoy those. (Fat Nick waves at the sacks of grapes sitting near the bodies of Bellylaugh, Jinglefoot, and Fumblefeather.)
Urchin 2: Hooray! Grapes for everyone!
Fat Nick: Not… for everyone. I have… a different gift for you… my little friend. (He places a hand on Urchin 1’s ankle, as he has no feet.) I am too old… too weak… to continue my duties… But you! There is so much… room for Christmas in your heart… You shall carry on… where I could not.
Urchin 1: What?!
Fat Nick’s head falls to the floor, and his hand slips off Urchin 1’s ankle. He is dead.
Urchin 1: What?! What?!
Even as he speaks, Urchin 1’s filthy rags are shed, revealing a suit of red velvet and white fur. Shiny black leather caps cover his foot stumps. Fat Nick’s bloody toy sack inflates with cargo, and rolls toward Urchin 1’s hand.
Urchin 1: No! No! Nooooo!
Urchin 2: Grapes! Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas everyone!
Stage dims, narrator’s voice rises.
Narrator: And so we leave our happy Christmas tale. And while the streets of old London are still frozen and dark, and the urchin dens across the city are still cold and filled with seeping carbon monoxide and radon gas, whenever you see a homeless child selling bruised fruit on the street, or a tiny, footless Nicholas stumping slowly across the rooftops, dragging a massive bag of toys, remember this: the spirit of Christmas lives on. And sometimes the simplest of gifts—like two loaded pistols, or a trail of grapes in the snow—can make the greatest difference! Merry Christmas!