Fit the Second
I hadn't drunk a drop when something tapped me on the shoulder. I twisted my head around and confronted an imposing personage more severely dressed even than Marley had been. Everything he wore was black, except for a plain white collar round his neck and a plain steel buckle at his belt. Both the collar and the belt looked uncomfortably tight, as indeed did the expression on his slablike face. In his hands he held a conical black hat, set off not altogether frivolously with a wide black band.
"Good evening," I said. I picked up the remote control to turn off the television, but the screen was already blank.
"I am a Spirit of Christmas Past," said the apparition civilly."A
Spirit? You mean there's more than one?"
"Naturally, since there have been so many Christmases. I am the Spirit of Christmas, sixteen hundred and fifty-five."
"Congratulations," I said.
"I'm not proud
of it, Master Scrooge," he said, with a certain asperity. "The very word - Christ's Mass - possesses a popish resonance which pleases me little indeed, and the frivolity occasioned by the festival does but ill behove a pious nation such as England."
"Oh," I said.
"As this year's representative Spirit of Christmas Past, in accordance with the rota, I have been ordered to this place by a certain Jacob Marley, in order to demonstrate to you the error of your ways," he went on, gazing about the living-room with the sepulchral hauteur of an expensive interior decorator.
"Rota?" I said.
"But of course, Master Scrooge. The business of administering spiritual regeneration to earthly curmudgeons such as yourself cannot be left entirely to a single spirit, year in and year out. The Spirit of Christmas Past who visited your great-great-great-grandfather was, I believe, a somewhat earlier manifestation than myself, not to mention," he sniffed, "considerably more Roman."
"Well, there's certainly nothing Roman about you," I said. "You seem English to the core - you look as if you wouldn't know what la dolce vita
was if it leapt into bed with you."
He didn't exactly look pleased - he seemed physiologically incapable of registering any emotion lighter than dutiful acquiescence - but he gave a small bow and moved round to the front of the armchair, so I didn't have to twist my neck to talk to him.
"That was kindly spoken, Master Scrooge," he said.
"Don't mention it," I told him. "Now, about this spiritual restoration -"
He winced. "Please use a different term than restoration,
sir. That particular choice of words is somewhat tactless, not to say cavalier."
"Forgive me," I said. "This regeneration, then. What, precisely, does it consist in?"
There was rather a long pause.
"The fact is, Master Scrooge," he said at last, inspecting very closely one of the more threadbare patches in my carpet, "the fact is, I was in hopes that you
could tell me."
could tell you?"
"You must remember," he said, "that this is my first tour of duty; the duration of ... of the tradition is such that no one has yet had to perform the task twice."
"Didn't Marley give you any instructions?"
"Jacob Marley and I," he said, his nose gaining something of its original altitude, "frequent somewhat different aspects of the afterlife. Among other things, his section of hell," he paused for respiratory fortification, went on: "has women
in it. In addition, of course, I labour under the handicap of my year."
"Indeed. I am the Spirit of Christmas 1655, one year after Parliament officially abolished the festival.""Abolished
"Indeed." He indicated my treeless window and untinselled walls. "I would have thought that, in your family at least, there would be more awareness of the Commonwealth's achievement in that regard."
"Forgive my ignorance," I said, sincerely. "My education was not what it should have been."
"Well, but clearly you are not altogether without hope, since I notice a praiseworthy lack of trinkets and baubles about the place. In fact," he said, with a sigh that was part relief and part exasperation, "I really cannot see what Jacob Marley expects me to do with you. Of course, you still have much to learn about temperance, soberness, deportment, dress, thriftiness, piety, hard work, humility and - by your own admission - history; but your attitude to the popish festival betokens a not altogether irremediable state."
"Thank you," I said, in case it meant something nice.
He pulled on his hat and straightened it with a kind of disciplinarian jerk, so that the rim bisected his head at an angle of precisely ninety degrees. "Well, I shall not detain you any longer, Master Scrooge," he said. "As Jacob Marley doubtless told you, I am but the first of three."
"A privilege to meet you, Mr Past," I said as, with another bow, he politely faded from view.
Well, that wasn't so bad, I thought. In a way it had even been edifying, though doubtless not quite as Marley had intended. Even in England, it appeared, people had been known to have second thoughts about Christmas. There was much comfort in the idea, although I doubted whether the Parliamentary Act abolishing the festival had been very successfully enforced. And the Spirit of Christmas Past, though a bit of a sourpuss, had turned out much better than I'd anticipated; to the extent that I'd had time to conceive anticipations, I had expected some rubicund fatso with a patronising manner and a laugh loud enough to break windows.
Feeling somewhat cheered, I poured a large whisky and turned the television back on. No doubt, as he'd said, I did have much to learn about hard work and temperance. Oh well, nobody's perfect.
The television flickered and clunked ominously. I was about to get up and whack it with the Yellow Pages, but then the picture cleared and a male voice started bawling at me with festive enthusiasm. Adverts, I thought, and picked up the Yellow Pages anyway, in case I needed something to put through the screen.
"Good evening and a merry Christmas to one and to you aaaaaaaalll!" yelled the voice. The picture cleared to show a huge grin full of perfect white teeth, except for one of the back lower ones which was gold. "Hi there!" it said. "I am your Spirit of Christmas Present, your very own Yuletide Celestial Starburst Guide here to help and direct you personally into a new and better future existence thanks to our sponsors at-"
I grabbed the remote control and prodded buttons furiously, but all the channels showed the same hideous smile and the monologue continued without a pause.
"Aaaaaaaand here tonight, this very Christmas Eve, we're going to convert a very special person and a dear close friend of mine, Mr Shalmaneser Scrooge of forty-nine Grobelaar Mansions, North London. At the moment Mr Scrooge is a deeply troubled person with a lack of seasonal spirit, but by the time we're finished with him he's gonna just LUUUURVE the whole thing the way we LURVE it ourselves!"
I ran to the wall and pulled out the plug. The television turned on its castors to keep the grin facing me; the lack of electricity bothered it just as little as the channel changes.
"And how can anyone not lurve Christmas, folks? How can anyone fail to be deeply and spiritually moved by the whole gosh-darn thing? Can you think of a single acquaintance in your whole life, discounting heathen and the frankly worthless, who didn't get something out of it? That spirit of giving? The thought of that divine little whippersnapper gurgling in a mangler?"
"I think you mean manger," I said, pessimistic as always.
"Those songs," it continued without pause, "those stars, those donkeys, those Bethlehems, those cards, those kings riding shepherds while the angel gabbled, the three-day diet of mush on all the TV channels God sends..."
"And how," I said with feeling. The grin abruptly stopped rhapsodising and its voice took on a more sanctimonious twang.
"Now, one of the reasons Mr Scrooge here doesn't care for Christmas is because he's poor, and of course that's understandable, of course it is, it's very very valid if just a little
bit crass and materialistic, but this being the season of goodwill we'll pass that over with barely a smirk."
"That's a load of crap," I said. "I'd hate Christmas even if I was rich. My ancestor did."
"But as we Christmas people know, money isn't everything, and if you need to scrimp and save for Christmas and you want to avoid the crowds when doing your shopping, well for golly and tarnation's sakes, what's the rest of the year for? Why do you think you get reminded when the decorations go up every first of September that Christmas is on its way? Do you think we take all that trouble just for the good of our health,
"All you need to do is work a little harder and scrimp a little more, Mr Scrooge, just like your old relation, that's all it takes. But money isn't everything, you know. It's the spiritual dimension that really really makes it what it really really is, all those angels and the three wise guys following the star on an unstable behemoth, to that mangler or manger or whatever it was-"
"Right," I said. "And don't forget the first spiritual commandment that divine little cow's breakfast gave you: Kill spruce trees for my birthday."
The grin did not fade, but it lost a little of its vigour and vim. "I'm not coming through here very well, am I?" it said.
"If you mean, am I receiving you loud and clear, the answer is yes I am," I said. "Louder than I'd like and clearer than you'd prefer if you had any sense. If you mean, are you connecting with me on a personal and spiritual level, the answer is no. My soul hasn't been less moved since the last time I attended a Church of England service."
The grin thought this over for a bit. "Christmas is non-denominational, you know," it said. "That's just one of its many many beautiful features, the fact that everyone's included whether they're Catholic or Protestant, whether they're Baptist or Episcopalian, whether -"
"Whether they like it or not," I said.
That definitely wilted it. "Shally old pal, I hope you're not suggesting there's anything coercive or hypocritical about this wondrous wonderful wonder of a festival."
"Perish the thought," I said.
"I mean, it's a season of goodwill, a time of family and fraternal gathering, a time to congregate round the fireside and watch The Sound of Music-"
It stopped in its tracks for a moment, seemed to mull over what it had just said, and then went on: "All right, if you want to opt out you can opt out, it's got nothing to do with me, it's all optional, completely optional, take it or leave it, no problem at all. Anyway," it added with pouty defiance, "the kiddies like it."
"I hate children too."
There was a pause.
"Just don't come sulking to me when you don't get any cards."
"Humbug," I said.
The screen went blank. I pulled the television back into place opposite my chair, but I left the plug out; I suspected the available fare on the real channels would be little different from what I'd just got rid of.
I sat and grumbled to myself for a while. Not coercive, indeed. What's non-coercive about something that pervades the whole universe for the last three months of the year? That advertisement in fairy-lights for Glossop's Turkey Vindaloo had been up since the end of September, and they'd been stringing the shops with tinsel before November began.
I had another drink and thought about coercion and how nice it must be to do it. Then I leafed through the newspaper and discovered that The Terminator
was on, but I couldn't face plugging the television in again, and in any case it was pointless starting to enjoy anything that might be interrupted at any moment by the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come.
I didn't care to think what that one would be like, so I sat back and started fantasising about a video game I wanted to design. It was called Target Santa,
and the object was to pursue the old child molester's sleigh (in an advanced jet fighter from the secular republic of the player's choice) while making it as difficult as possible for him to get down any chimneys. Near misses would cause the reindeer to panic, and the resulting losses of alimentary control would be susceptible to manipulation by the player, who'd be able, with skilful shooting, to direct the end product onto the heads of carol singers distributed at random across the ground below. Points would be awarded for (1) direct hits on Santa, which would cause him to swell up temporarily and hinder his access to chimneys; (2) hits on the reindeer, which would eventually cause the sleigh to crash and result in a win for the player; and (3) burial of carol singers under reindeer end products. The rewards for said burials would be calculated on a sliding scale depending on what the singers were warbling at the time of interment: ten points for Away in a Manger;
fifty for Jingle Bells;
two hundred for Santa Claus is Coming to Town;
two thousand for anything by Cliff Richard...To be continued...