Christmas hits blared out of Carol’s car on the last leg of the journey home. She opened the windows and sang along at the top of her lungs. She hoped the other drivers could hear her over the roar of demisters as they crawled along in the jam. Some of them must have done, because they opened their windows and shouted approval back at her. Well, she couldn’t hear but what else would they be saying?
The lights of her house welcomed her back, in fact she could see them lighting the underside of the clouds as she got near the estate. People were out enjoying the snow, she couldn’t help splashing a few with slush as she drove the last few streets but it was all good fun. There was so much still to do!
Santa’s sleigh flashed high on the roof. She had pulled the first two bags of goodies from her car when she had her first wobble. As she reached for the door, the knocker seemed to shimmer and change shape. From the elf with the ring in its mouth she had Geoff install on the first of November, it seemed to become the face of her dear departed friend Janet from the Mum’s Christmas circle. Poor dear, she had crashed her car last year on her way to a Boxing day sale. She seemed to be shaking her head and mouthing things at her.
Carol stopped and shook her head. She was just over-tired; so much to do, so little time! Well, she could rest when the last board game was done and before the sales began.
‘Children!’ she called out. ‘Only half an hour before you go out carol singing! I want another snowman made before then!’
She sorted out the bags, and sat in the chair for a moment. Just a moment, it wouldn’t matter if she allowed her eyes to close…
She woke with a start. The house was still and dim, as if she was wearing dark glasses. The lights outside were no longer blinking on and off. She couldn’t hear the Christmas music. Was she having some kind of fit?
‘Nooo…. Nooo….’ Janet was stumbling into the living room from the hall. She was bent forward trying to haul the load behind her. A huge bauble was tied to each ankle with a paper chain. She was wrapped up and tangled in tinsel that trailed behind her in a great train loaded up with Christmas puddings, parcels, turkeys, mince pies and other paraphernalia. Her arms and legs were swathed in crumpled wrapping and sellotape, and at least three cracker-crowns were around her brow and her neck.
‘Go away… go away… I’m hallucinating… there’s so much to do…’ called out Carol.
‘Stop and beware!’ groaned Janet. ‘Take heed! You must repent before it is too late!’
‘Don’t be silly Janet, I’m sorry you’re dead but I knew you would never want it to spoil Christmas!’ snapped Carol.
‘Christmas…. You don’t know the meaning of the word…’ Janet made waving motions at her with her hands.
‘Of course I do, I have never forgotten a present for anyone! Ever! I’m always jolly!’ screeched Carol.
‘I am the ghost of Christmas past… come with me…’ Janet made more waving motions and the whole house wobbled, then flowed away like paint. Carol now found herself standing in the middle of a huge, cold barn. And she was up to her ankles in bird-poo. She wanted to scream and jump from foot to foot but she couldn’t because she was surrounded by turkeys, standing room only, from wall to wall of the massive space.
‘It smells in here! Get me out!’ yelled Carol.
Janet had a turkey somehow perched on her back. She managed to shuffle forward, towing a dozen of the grotesquely fat birds a couple of paces on her train. ‘Are these looking forward to Christmas?’ she intoned hollowly.
‘You can’t have Christmas without cooking a turkey, you taught me that one, you used to say it all the time at work!’ Carol tried to stuff a hanky up each nostril.
‘Now I am paying the price…’ moaned Janet.
‘Alright, alright, next year it’ll be a free range bird! Now can I go back, I need to get some potatoes scrubbed!’
‘This is just part one.’ Janet did the wavey thing with her hands again. ‘Come into your past…’
Carol found herself in a small flat. A gas fire glowed on the wall and an old woman huddled in a chair with a tartan rug over her knees. A small child was running around the room pulling tinsel out of a bag and stringing it everywhere.
‘Oh, this is my nan! How lovely!’ Carol clapped her hands. ‘I decorated her flat! Thank you Janet for showing me how I’ve always been Christmassy!’
‘Do you think she wanted her flat decorating, or do you think she wanted to talk and cuddle with her grand-daughter?’ asked Janet.
‘Is this a trick question?’
‘It was the first time she had seen someone for longer than five minutes all week. Did you stop to talk to her? Did she manage to speak more than half a dozen words to you on the visit?’
‘Well it needed decorating!’
‘How long do you think it took her to take it all down afterwards? How long to hoover up every last stray strand? She was very house-proud.’
‘Oh my God, is that why she died? She had bad luck because she didn’t take them down in time?’ Carol clapped her hands to her mouth.
‘Not really.’ Janet gave her a withering look. ‘Nobody’s going to blame you for what you did as a child. The point is, you haven’t learned any better since then.’
‘Of course I have! All the decorations are now up in good time, two months in fact!’
Carol started awake. Everything was back to normal. It was Christmas! No time for silly little nightmares. She pulled herself out of the chair. Those potatoes weren’t going to peel themselves. She double-checked the coloured time chart she had fixed to the wall. T-minus twenty hours, get the veg under water. But then the colours on the chart dimmed into shadows, and the music faded to silence. Carol gave a “tsk” under her breath and approached the window to see if other houses still had power, but then she screamed because a bearded middle-eastern looking man in a robe was standing in the doorway.
‘Geoff! There’s an Arab has broken into the house, call the police!’ she shrieked.
‘More Graeco-Turkish,’ said the man. ‘I am Saint Nicholas.’
Despite her fear, Carol shrieked in laughter. ‘You’re not Santa! You’ve even had a broken nose!’ She pointed at his face. ‘Where are the reindeer?’
‘You’re lucky I have the proverbial patience,’ said the man. ‘I am here as the Ghost of Christmas Present.’
‘They’re all wrapped, I’ve been good!’ said Carol. ‘You’re still not Santa.’
‘Never said I was,’ said the Saint. ‘Come with me.’
‘Are you going to show me a homeless shelter or something? Because I buy packs of cards from charities, I did an extra load this year, there are plenty of people to send them to! And we went and helped decorate the local soup kitchen last week, make it nice and cheerful!’
‘Just upstairs.’ Nicholas beckoned Carol and she found herself floating after him. She screamed and clutched at a tinsel rope but her hands went straight through it.
‘Never mind about the potatoes, no time is passing, you can get back to them later. If you want to.’ Nicholas opened the door to her son Ryan’s room.
‘He’d better have written that note to Santa…’ began Carol, but then frowned. Ryan seemed to have shoved his head under his pillow and be holding it tightly to him with both hands.
‘He has to take it out and breathe every minute or so,’ said Nicholas.
‘He hasn’t even got his lights on!’ wailed Carol, flicking intangible fingers at the switch.
‘You haven’t noticed?’ The Saint looked sad. ‘Your son is shy and quiet, more so than normal. All the sounds, the lights, the people, the demands on him… he is suffering. In the few minutes you let him have to himself, he tries to find a tiny bit of comfort. But he can still can’t block out all of your horrible music.’
‘Oh good grief you’re right!’ said Carol. ‘I had no idea. Let me get back and I’ll take him straight out singing. Some good cheer and seeing all the lights will perk him right up!’
The Saint closed his eyes and took several slow, deep breaths. ‘I rather think you need some quiet reflection yourself.’
‘You need to find some cheer!’ snapped Carol. ‘All this being sour and Scroogelike, it’s not going to work, you hear? It’s not going to spoil Christmas!’
Saint Nicholas pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘Next!’ he yelled.
Carol found herself abruptly back in the kitchen. The music blared and the lights flashed. She wrote “get Ryan out of his room” on the planner and then frowned. There must be something wrong with the power box, that was why things were going weird from time to time. She bustled into the garage, got out the stepladder, and started climbing. Why did Geoff stay at work so long every Christmas Eve? This ought to be his job…
She reached for the box… there was a gigantic flash and then complete darkness. She lay there for a while, then started humming some Christmas hits to keep cheerful.
There was a screech of metal and she found herself looking up at strip-lights. She’d been in some kind of metal drawer. Two faces in surgical masks bent over her. ‘What have we here?’ asked one.
Carol tried to reply but found she couldn’t move.
‘Another death from the Incurably Manic unit,’ said the other mask. ‘They have a whole ward full of Christmas Obsessives, apparently. Only allowed a few baubles for one week a year, but there are always several deaths from over-excitement.’
‘So sad.’ The first one shook his head. ‘Help me get her onto the table.’
‘Do we actually need an autopsy?’ said the woman. ‘It’ll be thickened arteries from Christmas pudding abuse. Always is.’
Carol tried to scream and move, but she couldn’t. Then the two morgue attendants froze, and another figure appeared above her head. It was shaped like a person but was entirely composed of toys, which made it quite bewildering to look at. It had coloured balls for eyes, a toy car and truck for eyebrows, a hairbrush for a nose, and it spoke from the disconnected speaker of some talking widget. ‘I am the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come,’ it told her.
Carol found she could move again, and jumped off her stretcher scowling. ‘Is this meant to put me off?’ she snarled. ‘If this is true, which it isn’t because there’s no way my family would leave me in a looney bin, then I still died for something I love!’
The ghost shrugged shoulders made of a roller skate and a Ken doll. ‘That is your business, I suppose. We probably wouldn’t be doing this if it was just your fate.’
‘Thank you very much, now get me home.’ Carol shivered and wrapped her arms around herself.
‘I’m made of toys that were played with once then thrown away, by the way.’
‘I don’t care. What a rotten trick to play! I’ve had enough!’
‘You’re used to a bit more than enough, by the sound of things. But I’m another one with two things to show you. Come with me.’ The ghost reached out a hand made of meccano and took Carol’s arm. She screeched but then clung on as they fell through rushing darkness.
Their next stop was a platform cobbled together from rubbish; pieces of black plastic, wood and concrete wrapped up in ropes and blobs of glistening glue. Light came from flames at the end of a pipe sticking up from below. When Carol looked around she could just make out what seemed to be marshland, bubbling and foetid pools between hillocks of sick-looking vegetation. The platform was reached by a bridge and beyond that seemed to be some kind of wretched shanty-town built on stilts above the swamp.
‘Where are we, in a sci-fi movie?’ asked Carol.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shook his head, which rattled. ‘This is Lapland, at Christmas time. But a century into the future, the way it will be if you don’t mend your ways.’
‘No it isn’t. There’s no snow and it stinks! Where are the reindeer?’
The Ghost folded its arms (the outer one was made of Scalextric track) and nodded to the causeway, where a procession was approaching. It was made up of grubby and thin people in dirty rags, although the leader had some kind of hooded robe made out of tarpaulin. They were carrying a litter with a small sheeted form on it, bunched oddly at one end.
‘Brethren!’ The lead figure turned around as they reached the platform. There was a grid of rusty iron in the centre, with more pipes sticking up underneath. ‘We are gathered here today for the Midwinter Cursing. Today, we raise our voices to damn the old generations whose sin led us to this. For them, this was a time for their worst excesses. They would gorge on more food than they needed, spew heat and poison into the air without a care, ship goods twice around the world and pile their tips high with rubbish!’
Angry roaring came from the crowd behind him. Fists were shaken in the air. ‘They can’t see us can they?’ whispered Carol.
‘But more than this,’ went on the hooded leader, ‘today we lay to rest the body of the last reindeer. He languished in a zoo, cared for as well as they could by people who could barely feed themselves. But his natural food was gone, and the air too hot. To him, death must have been a blessing. After all, how could a reindeer be happy when he has never seen snow?’
A chorus of moaning and groaning from the crowd. The stretcher was brought forward and laid on the grid; antlers poling out from one end. As the flames were lit underneath, a single tear escaped Carol’s eye. ‘Rudolf…’ she whispered.
Geoff stopped the car and took a few deep breaths before he rounded the corner. At first, he thought the house had vanished, leaving a hole between the glowing lights and windows of the neighbours. Then he realised it was still there, but in darkness save for a single candle burning in the window. Perhaps the electric was off? Damn it…
He parked and let himself in. It was quiet, and the only light came from the living room. When he got to the door, he found a fire burning in the grate, and a few more scattered candles. Sarah was reading a book by the light of an oil lamp. Carol was on the sofa cuddled up with Ryan, who was snoring softly.
Geoff took off his shoes and sat down next to them. ‘This is very nice, but it’s not quite what I was expecting,’ he said. ‘Didn’t you have things planned?’
‘Bah!’ said Carol. ‘Humbug!’