A collection of short stories and journalistic commentaries depicting my simple life
and how I fit in with the modern day universe of our times


           
            Every December, usually around the evening of the 24th, as I find myself buffeted along all the brightly lit corridors of the Trafford Centre by numerous happy, laughing, greedy, materialistic shopping crowds, and as the frosty nights draw in and the pavement artists draw on, I often ponder the true meaning of the Christmas festival and despair of ever understanding its real significance. I have in the past, searched everywhere for the answer to this perennial spiritual enigma. I once rather stupidly, (considering they were unwise enough to employ my daughter Charlotte), asked the lady in the information booth at Selfridge’s. She seemed to know the answer to every other question of life, the universe and everything that is, so I enquired of her what the real significance of the Christmas celebration was. She said in a rather disdainful, humdrum and monotone way, “Try ‘leather goods’ dear.” At the time, I was too young to understand what she meant and in actual fact, I still am. Not a good sign at all.
            I then asked my mother the same question, but she misheard me and gave me the standard lecture that she had learned from the Family Doctor booklet on How Babies are Made. As a matter of fact, she also gave me the very same lecture when I asked her about VAT, and now that I have fully experienced both, I can honestly say that I do see the similarity. Anyway, unabated in my quest, I later asked my father and he said, “My dear girl,” (his sight was failing somewhat, or possibly his memory, maybe even both or was it my ever increasing man-boobs?) “Christmas is nothing but an evil commercial invention of the capitalist consortiums to increase profits, and it would be a whole lot better if it came in February when business is slack.”
            So, armed with this fascinating lack of understanding, last year I again set out to learn the real essence of Christmas for myself. As I ventured forth on this voyage of discovery, delving deep into the innermost crinkles of my psyche, I tried to be totally honest. After all, it was Christmas. I knew that deep down inside, I loved Christmas. But was it, I asked myself, merely because of the gaudy shops jammed with glossy novelties and bright cheap baubles? Was it merely the commercial spirit and the profit motive that so lifted my heart? Was it merely the exchange of monies and the tinkling of cash registers that made me look forward to Christmas from Boxing Day onwards? And being as shallow as I am, I answered: Yes, yes it was. Christmas is the time when the Spirit of Giving is everywhere in evidence, and if there is one thing I enjoy more than all others, it is to allow other people to enjoy themselves by giving me lots of presents. Who am I to refuse them this privilege of giving? I know that in so doing I deny myself the pleasure of giving on my own account, but no true joy ever comes without sacrifice does it?
            But then I carried my self-exploration a step further. Granted that Christmas signifies the widespread joy of others in giving me gifts, what is the most enjoyable aspect of the Christmas shops? What then is the single most feature, so unique to the Christmas shops, that brings such rare happiness to the aching heart?
            My quest took me to my most favourite of all shops, the book shop. And while musing upon a pile of new and glossy Christmas releases in a brightly lit, tinselly clad modern book shop, I stumbled across a rather strange book. It told a simple tale of a child born in an animal’s manger in a stable, because there was no room at the inn for the mother and putative father. The book came in a plain but stout and shiny cardboard slip case, which also held another book telling of the creation of the world and the first man and woman in it thereof. They were marked the Old & New Testaments.
            And then all at once, the answer came to me in a flash. I suddenly realised that I was holding in my hands the two books and the slip case which held the key to the real essence of Christmas. The real essence of Christmas, it came to me in a burst of (no pun intended) revelation, is: THE BOXED SET. All over the world, to worshippers of every creed, colour, language and credit card, Christmas means that special time of the year when their favourite volumes are miraculously transmogrified and wrapped, bound in identical spines and glittering with uniform lettering, in a skin of glistening cellophane inside an all singing all dancing festive and shiny case. Can there be anything else more satisfying to the human spirit I ask you?
            Now that we know the full mystery of Christmas and the boxed set, let us now ask ourselves what it is about the boxed set that exerts such miraculous and seasonal a pull? Well first of all, and above all else, a boxed set of books is something truly substantial. If someone gives you a boxed set, it tells you something, a great deal in fact about the donor straight away. It tells you that they were prepared to spend three (or even four) times as much money on you as they would have normally done if they had bought you only a single book. Secondly, the boxed set appeals to two basic human emotions simultaneously – the first being a desire to read, learn and inwardly digest, and secondly, the desire to collect things in sets. And in the event of a clash, the latter usually always wins over the former. Such is the level of our fickle mindset.
            Of course the book industry hasn’t been alone in appreciating the above mentioned deeper meaning of Christmas for many years. Thus not only are special boxed sets of the testaments widely available, but for many years now, there have been special Christmas sets of other books, CDs, DVDs, cosmetics, cleaning fluids and even biscuits too. And to give these sets a special appeal and purpose, these boxed sets are imbibed with familiar feel good titles such as: “Family Selection”, “Greatest Hits” and “Complete Works.” One such example being “The Complete Works of Charles Dickens”, and in keeping with the Christmassy Theme of this dialogue, I now give you my very own tribute to that master of writers with my very own rendition of “A Christmas Carol” in:


WHAT THE DICKENS?

            Bob Cratchit groaned loudly, loudly enough to be heard over the buzz of the counting house computers. “But Mr Scrooge, it’s just not fair! You do this to us every Christmas. We just want to go home and be with our families!
            Ebenezer Scrooge swayed on the ladder in surprise and let the highly coloured tinfoil streamers drift downwards like snowflakes. His light up Santa Claus hat slid perilously over one eye.
            “But we always have a Christmas party,” he told his senior clerk. “It’s a company tradition. You know – egg-nog, mince pies and a good old sing song? The big binge. Furtive flings behind the filing cabinet. Secretaries faxing photocopies of their nether regions to our Birmingham office. Punch ups in the car park. It’s a great night.”
            Bob Cratchit sighed. “For you maybe, but not for the rest of us. We appreciate the thought, and don’t think we’re not grateful. But none of us likes Christmas any more. We think it’s a terrific waste of time and money.” Ebenezer’s mouth fell open.
            “But everyone loves the Chrissy party blow-out. It’s the highlight of the year!”
            Bob silently waved a hand around the high-tech trading floor of Scrooge and Marley International PLC. There wasn’t a Christmas card, a clump of mistletoe or an advent calendar in sight. Even the usual dog-eared artificial tree had gone – manhandled earlier through the office shredder.
            “Sorry Mr Scrooge,” he said, “but we’re sick of it. You’re the only person left in Canary Wharf who looks upon Christmas as anything more than a pain in the wallet. This year we’re all giving it a miss.”
            Blinking in surprise, Scrooge held up his sprig of mistletoe.            “But what do I do with this?”
            Bob Cratchit bit his lip and shrugged, resisting the overwhelming temptation to reply with the obvious, painful answer.

**********

            That night, as he enjoyed a televised carol service, Ebenezer couldn’t help feeling sorry for his trusty staff. Getting them into the festive spirit was going to be a real problem and no mistake, he told himself, but he was determined not to be beaten. He was about to ring Bob and invite him over for a Yuletide drink, when the TV picture unexpectedly vanished – replaced by a snowstorm of interference.
            Tutting, Ebenezer fiddled with the controls, but couldn’t get the picture back. Instead, as he watched, a face formed in the swirling dots … a face he knew well – it was his old partner Jacob Marley.
            Ebenezer thought he was going to faint. “I-I-I don’t believe it,” he gasped, “You’re dead. Buried. Gone. It can’t be!”
            Jacob Grinned. “No-one dies on television, you know that. There are always repeats.” The phantom winked. “Think of it this way. I’ve been sent to give you a message.”
            “A message? What message?”
            “A message from our sponsor. Mend your ways, Ebenezer Scrooge. You must abandon all this Christmas nonsense before it’s too late!”
            Ebenezer was baffled. Christmas nonsense? When Jacob was alive, he’d enjoyed the annual knees-up more than anyone.
            “Ah, but I was a fool, an empty headed fool,” the spirit told him, reading his thoughts. “Like you, I savoured the delights of plum pudding and crackers. I, too, watched the Queen’s Speech and bought over-priced wrapping paper. But I was wrong – Oh so wrong. Christmas was my undoing and it shall be the end of you, Ebenezer!”
            Shaking his head, Ebenezer told himself that he was having an hallucination. Snatching the TV remote, he flicked to another station, but Jacob’s features continued to stare at him. Anxiously, he flicked through the channels but the ghost image remained chillingly the same.
            “Learn by my mistake,” his dead partner pleaded, “remember my festive fate. I died at the office party, choking on a mince pie while groping at Mavis from the typing pool. That little nibble did for me. Don’t let it happen to you …”
            Ebenezer was terrified but he stood his ground. “You’ve got metaphysical sour grapes,” he said. “Just because your Christmas didn’t work out, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t enjoy mine.”
            At that Jacob wailed, almost knocking Ebenezer off his feet.
            “You’re a fool, Ebenezer, completely Christmas Crackers. I see there is no alternative but to show you the error of your ways.” His voice dipped low and menacing. “Tonight you shall be visited by three spirits….”
            “Spirits? Oh goody, I love a nice spirit – especially that one with whiskey and cream. What’s it called again?”
            “DO NOT MOCK!!” the screen boomed. “These spirits will show you things that will chill your blood. Things that will touch your very soul. Fear their coming, Ebenezer Scrooge, fear them.”
            With that the television switched back to the carol service.

**********

            After several drinks, including that one with the whiskey and cream, Ebenezer convinced himself that he’d been the victim of one of Bob Cratchit’s famous practical jokes – like the exploding toilet seat in the executive loo during last year’s wages dispute.
            “I’ll have to think up some prank of my own to play on him,” he thought happily, as he fell asleep clutching his copy of Delia’s Yuletide Yummies.
            He was dreaming about revenge when a hand fell on his shoulder and a rasping voice whispered: ”Wake up Ebenezer. It’s a spook at bedtime!”
            Blinking, he sat up groggily and gazed in shock. Within an instant he was wide awake, shaking. There, floating above him, towering above him, swirling above him, were three incredible visions from Hell.
            The first nightmarish figure was decked out in flashing Christmas tree lights while the second wore a garish orange sweater several sizes too big, and sported a necklace made up of bottles of cheap aftershave. The third wore only a black hooded shroud. Together they looked like a Stephen King version of the Three Stooges.
            “W-w-who are you?” Ebenezer demanded.
            “I’m the ghost of Christmas Past,” the twinkling apparition said, “and this…” he pointed to his nearest companion, “is the ghost of Christmas Present.”
            The second phantom gave a little wave.
            “And the character on the end is the ghost of Christmas to Come. He doesn’t speak much.”
            The shrouded figure on the end nodded slowly – like a coffin lid being lowered.
            Ebenezer grasped the duvet tightly. “Wha-what do you want with me?” he stammered. “I’ve done nothing wrong! You’ve got the wrong bloke. I love Christmas. I can’t get enough of it.”
            “That,” said the first ghost “is the problem. You’ve got it bad. You’re suffering from acute tinselitis.”

**********

            “LET ME get this straight,” Ebenezer said after the apparitions had spent half an hour explaining things to him, “you’re here to make me despise Christmas?”
            “That’s the idea,” the spirit of Christmas Past agreed, “we’ve only got one night to save you from yourself so we’re keen to get cracking. Haunting is not cheap and we charge double time after midnight.”
            Ebenezer shrugged. “Sounds a bit bizarre if you ask me, but go ahead. But you won't find anything in the past to upset me. I remember the Christmases of my childhood, and they were all wonderful. Lovely times, warm, friendly times ... joyous times.”
            The phantom made a face. “Joyous times? I’ve never heard such sentimental clap trap in all my life.”
            It soared over to Scrooge’s side. “Memory plays tricks, my schmaltzy old friend, and it’s done a whole Paul Daniels routine on you.”
            With that it snapped its fingers and Ebenezer felt himself lifting, being sucked towards the grandfather clock. Swirling round and round, he gazed as the clock’s hands whizzed backwards and he was transported back through time – back to December 25th 1946.
            The swirling stopped abruptly. He gasped, watching himself at the age of six, sitting by the Christmas tree, sobbing.
            “You don’t remember this, do you?” The spirit whispered in his ear. “You don’t remember getting a smack because you wouldn’t kiss your Great Auntie Enid. Remember her nasty, horrible moustache and how sick it made you feel?”
            Ebenezer swallowed hard. He had forgotten that. The ghost pressed on. “And what about the nauseatingly cutesy pixie suit your mother made you wear. Remember what a fool you felt in it, and how the other boys used to jeer?”
            Scrooge shivered at the recollection.
            “And what about the Christmas party piece you had to sing for all the adults. Little Boy Blue. YUCK!!”
            Suddenly, Ebenezer felt hot. The ghost’s prompting brought back a tidal wave of bad memories. How could he have forgotten all those awful family parties with his hateful cousins and grandmother complaining all the way through lunch that the sprouts were too hard for her false teeth?
            “Okay,” he conceded, “perhaps it wasn’t all that great back then, but I’ve had some fantastic Christmases as an adult.”
            Sighing, Christmas Past brought them back from Scrooge’s childhood. The apparition patted his colleague on the back. “Over to you, Present old lad. Tell it like it is.”
            “I am the ghost of Christmas Present,” the second spirit announced, “or rather, I am the ghost of Christmas Presents. The spirit of all those naff, totally tasteless, useless gifts people give you at Christmas.” He clapped his hands, and the flat began to fill with a treasure trove of tat.
            “Behold,” he said, “the flotsam and jetsam of Christmas consumerism. The overpriced, tweeley packaged, cringe making stuff no one would ever buy at any other time of the year.”
            Gazing at the huge mountain of packages, Ebenezer gasped. There were space-age silver Christmas trees, tablemats with Dickensian street scenes, a plastic nativity scene with light up baby Jesus, a Mr & Mrs Snowman cruet set, a Santa Claus jewellery box that played Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, ceramic cherubs, artificial candlesticks, a family sized tin of Monarch of the Glen shortbread – enough yuletide yuckiness to fill a dozen mail order catalogues.
            “And that still doesn’t include socks, hankies, individually packaged Olde Worlde English Marmalades or...” The phantom pointed sadly to his jumper and after shave bottles, “the old favourites.”
            Stunned, Ebenezer realised that the ghost was right. Most Christmas gifts were over-priced rubbish – useless items even a junk shop wouldn’t handle. He had cupboards full of stuff he’d never even opened.
            Confused and suddenly depressed, he looked across at the third ghost. “Of all the spirits, you are the one I truly fear the most,” he said, with a gulp “Show me what horrors are to come.”
            Silently, the shrouded figure pointed a bony finger towards the television set and it flared into life. On the screen Ebenezer could see the Cratchit family.
            The scene in their front room was bedlam. Bob and his wife knelt on the floor, hands over their ears. All around them chaos reigned as the kids re-enacted the Battle of the Somme.
            A karaoke machine boomed out Here it is – Merry Christmas, electronic toys beeped and whirled, computer games screamed, and the kids yelled at the top of their lungs, trying to be heard over the ear-splitting din.
            The children berated their parents for not buying enough batteries, while Bob tried to explain that the shops were shut. The kids were in no mood to listen! Even saintly Tiny Tim jumped up and down in a tantrum, snapping his walking stick.
            “Is this the future then?” Ebenezer asked, shuddering. The ghost didn’t answer, but Ebenezer needed no reply. He gazed hollow-eyed at the three spirits. So this was the true face of Christmas. The face he’d never seen. Childhood misery, cheap shoddy gifts and an electronic nightmare to look forward to. Now he knew why most people groaned at the mere mention of the word Christmas.
            “Okay,” he told the rapidly fading phantoms, “you win. I’m convinced.”


**********

            Early next morning, Ebenezer leapt out of bed and phoned his secretary in a panic. Glenda sounded surprised: “A flight? Today? But where?”
            “Anywhere,” Ebenezer replied, “Timbuktu, Outer Mongolia, the South Pole. I just want to escape this Yuletide lunacy. Away from crowded shops, turkey leftovers, family quarrels, department store Santas, piped carols and the 100th re-run of the Sound of Music.”
            Glenda was convinced that her boss had finally flipped, but she promised to do her best. She rang back after an hour.
            “I’ve managed to get you booked one way on an Air China flight to Shanghai,” she announced. “It wasn’t easy at this time of year, but I pulled a few strings.”
            He hung up well before she had a chance to wish him a Merry Christmas, and began his packing. Somehow he managed to block the idiotic festivities from his brain, even getting the taxi driver to stop humming I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day with the promise of a large tip.
            At last Ebenezer was safely on the plane. He settled back in his seat, relaxing, letting every thought of Christmas drain away. As the engines roared into life, he allowed himself a satisfied smile. He had done it! He’d escaped the Boxing Day blues. He was leaving the mistletoe madness behind.
            “Boiled sweet?” the stewardess asked, thrusting a small basket at him.
            Gratefully, he popped one into his mouth. The sweet’s musty flavour took a moment to burst out onto his taste buds, but when it did he started to gag.
            “Bah,” he spluttered in disgust. “Humbug!..”



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