24 December 2015
A Modern Carol
by Tim Marshall
It was Christmas Eve, it was snowing and George Anderson was in a foul mood. The day had been a nightmare. His wife, Annette, had been busy all day in the kitchen making ready for the family lunch on Christmas Day. She was tired, hot, had developed a headache and was, as a result, snappy and bad-tempered. The children had been difficult and instead of playing upstairs or outside, had of course wanted to “help” in the kitchen. This “help” had consisted of deliberately doing the opposite of what they were told to do, because they thought it was funny to stuff the turkey with brussels sprouts, add salt to the brandy butter and put marmalade on the pudding.
They had been sent to bed with dire warnings that no presents would be delivered that night unless they behaved. Annette had gone up early too, with a bottle of aspirin and a hot water bottle.
George sat down and picked up the Radio Times. What a bore! Nothing but American films: Robocop IV, Rocky V, Mad Max X, Terminator III. Nothing about Christmas at all. Suddenly George was fed up. Fed up with everything about and to do with Christmas – trees, mince pies, turkey, crackers, snow, bells – the lot. What a load of rubbish! And Terminator III as family entertainment! What was the point of it all? Just a meaningless mess of silly objects and violent films. Why not abolish the whole thing and have done with it? He threw the Radio Times down and leaned back, feeling very depressed.
There was a sudden thud outside the window and a muffled curse. Then, before he could move, there came a knock on the window. George got up with regret, shuffled across wearily, pulled back the curtains and looked out. The snow had stopped and it was a beautiful, clear, starry night. The whiteness surrounded the house and covered the hedges and trees. It was a lovely, eerie sight in full moonlight, but George’s eyes took no notice of the wonders of nature. They were glued to a fat figure standing on his lawn – a fat figure in red, trimmed with white, with a white beard and whiskers.
His first thought was one of anger. Practical jokers! He opened the window; he was not in a laughing mood.
“Clear off, fatty!” he shouted. “I’m not impressed – go and try it on someone else!”
The figure looked surprised, even rather hurt. It felt itself round the middle and back, as though it had lost something and was looking for it.
“Well, I am a little stout. I have to be – it’s expected. Anyway, it keeps the cold out. But surely not fat?”
He looked at George with a twinkle. George saw a face that seemed really old, but yet full of fun – wise and childlike. Suddenly he felt ashamed of his rude words.
“Yes, well, I’m sure… I didn’t mean… no offence…”
“That’s all right,” said the figure. “I knocked on your window because I think I’ve sprained my ankle – silly really. After all my experience I should be more careful, but there it is. Could I come in and rest it for a moment? How kind of you.”
George never knew, afterwards, how it happened, but somehow the figure, large as it was, injured as it was, seemed to reach the window with consummate ease, pass through, and was in his best armchair as though it was the most natural thing in the world.
“That’s better. Oo-ah, it’s nice and warm in here. What a welcome change after the sleigh.”
George looked around for his glass; there must be one – surely he had drunk too much whisky? But no, no glass. He must be sober. He tried to pull himself together. Perhaps a drink was needed.
“May I offer you a drink? Whisky? Sherry? Mince pie perhaps?” He spoke without thinking.
“How kind of you. A glass of whisky would warm me up.”
“Coming right up.”
He fiddled around with decanter and glasses and almost dropped the lot. He stood in a trance – at his age, pouring a drink for Santa Claus! He wondered who the joker was, although he seemed too real to be a fraud. But that was ridiculous. How could Santa Claus be real? However, the feeling persisted. He could not believe that the person he had met, and who was sitting in his front room, was a fake. However strange it was, the reality of the man made him believe in the fantasy.
He carried the glass over to the rotund figure and found his guest leafing eagerly through the Radio Times.
“I say, I’ve never seen these films: Terminator III. What’s that like? I’m afraid that I’ve never gone to the cinema, for obvious reasons. I would love to see a film for once – find out what people are enjoying and watching. It’s rather cold in the sleigh, you know. I keep asking for a heater to be installed, but these things take time and the electrical division is kept busy making the computers which are so much in demand these days. In contrast, the wood carving department has been quite severely pruned. Many members of that department have been retrained and relocated, you know. What a relief to be warm and snug, if only for a moment, on Christmas Eve. You’re very lucky to have all this.” He waved a hand. “And to enjoy Christmas so much.”
He looked at George shrewdly. George felt uncomfortable. He brushed aside the feeling and began to make what he hoped was polite conversation. “How do you manage to visit so many houses in one night?”
“Well, as a matter of fact, I don’t,” admitted the large figure. “So many housing estates and building programmes. We have to be selective. So we choose the poorest homes or families and they receive the traditional presents. Then there are families or homes which need something else: comfort and love. Sometimes these homes are the homes of the very rich. I’m concerned about the children, and a family may have all the money in the world, but the child may be desperately unhappy because he or she lacks a kiss or a cuddle. We have developed an essence for such homes.”
“An essence? What do you mean, an essence?”
“It has been developed by the Chief Elf, who is a brilliant chemist. It comes in little sacks or bags – specks of special dust which, when released in the house and inhaled, encourage otherwise unfeeling parents to love their children.”
“That sounds ridiculous. How can that possibly work?” George was incredulous, and sounded rude.
“I don’t know: you would have to ask the Chief Elf. However, you know that your senses determine, or can determine, very much how you feel or act. A nasty smell can make you feel ill, a pleasant smell may remind you of Summer or of someone you love. A sound – music perhaps – may remind you of times long gone. Bugles and drums inspire soldiers to be brave in battle.
“So you see, there is nothing really ridiculous in the idea of some essence affecting your senses and producing a feeling of goodwill. Our essence does affect the way people feel or behave. Of course, they do not know why they change and they change only for a short time, but we hope it may re-kindle feelings of tenderness which were there once, but which may have died. Once re-kindled, those feelings may continue to grow and not die out again.”
“Even so,” observed George, “you must cover a vast number of houses in one night. How do you know which ones to go to?”
“Our electrical department has been making computers for some time now, and there has been a spin-off. The sleigh is now guided entirely by computer, rather like the programme of a cruise missile. The precise geographical position of the houses are fed into the computer in the sleigh, and the computer then works out the quickest route to the next house on the list. It decides which to visit first and so on, in order. The computer also identifies which presents, or bags of essence, are to be left.
“The guidance system is just as sophisticated. The computer is linked to the harness of the reindeer, and by the fibre optics which form part of the reins, the computer can transmit pulses to the reindeer – instructing them to go up or down or to left or right, so they can pull the sleigh direct to the right house in the correct sequence.”
“So what do you do?” asked George.
“Not very much these days” sighed the figure. “I’m there to be seen, if necessary, but these days it’s just a matter of sitting there and making sure the sleigh follows the computer programme. And delivering the presents themselves of course. Anyone could do it, I suppose.” He looked across at George innocently. “You could do it, for instance.”
“Me!” George jumped out of his chair. “What do you mean, me? I couldn’t do something like that – I wouldn’t know how.”
“I’ve told you – it’s not difficult. And it would help me enormously. My ankle is very sore, you know. Still, I suppose you want to watch these films. They do seem very good – very exciting.”
George was silent. He went to the window and looked out. It was a still night, the moon was clear and the snow was frosty. Did he really want yet another evening before the television, watching a series of American films which were as Christmassy as a suntan in the Sahara? Hadn’t he just been thinking that Christmas was rubbish and a waste of time? Well, you couldn’t get more Christmassy than riding around at night in a sleigh on Christmas Eve, delivering presents. “All right,” he found himself saying, “I’ll do it.”
“Oh, that’s marvellous. I’ll just show you where everything is.”
“Wait a moment,” said George. “I had better show you where everything is.”
He showed his visitor where the drinks cabinet was and how the remote control for the television set worked.
They went outside, through the front door this time, George putting on warm clothes (they were old and were now looking a bit the worse for wear), and he was soon ensconced in the sleigh, being instructed into the mysteries of the dashboard.
“You press this button here, and the program will automatically direct the reindeer to the next house. When you have finished at one house press the “Ready” button, and the sleigh will take you to the next one, and so on. This panel tells you what to deliver at each house. You must leave the driving seat and go round to the back of the sleigh. The parcel to be delivered will be ejected automatically, and all you have to do is leave it at the house. How you do that is up to you, but this set of skeleton keys and special automatic lock opener may be useful. Well, I think that’s all. When you’ve finished, just press in the number 22 into the keyboard and the sleigh will return here and pick me up. I’ll go back inside now. I think Terminator III is just starting. Good luck, and have fun. If you have any problems, just press the button marked “Help” in the middle of the dashboard.”
With these final remarks, the plump figure stumped back inside and closed the door. George looked through the window and saw him settle in an armchair, pour himself a large whisky, sigh heavily and gaze earnestly at the television screen. Nervously, George clambered into the sleigh, pushed the “Ready” button, and found himself towed into the sky behind a team of reindeer which seemed to speed along as fast as a jet plane. It was cold, but tremendously exhilarating. The sleigh soon started heading down to the ground and landed outside a house. The dashboard flashed “Presents” and George climbed out and went round to the back. A flap opened and a sack appeared. He picked it up and approached the house. He wasn’t going to try climbing down the chimney, or anything spectacularly dangerous like that. He went to the door and placed the automatic door opener in position. He pressed the “Open” button and stood back. Immediately a laser started from the machine and shone into the lock. The light went out, there was a pause while the machine assimilated the information about the type of lock, and then a key wound its way out of the machine, into the keyhole and was turned. There was a click and the door opened.
George slipped the small sack into the house and closed the door. He pressed the “Close” button and the machine re-locked the door and withdrew the key. George detached the machine and returned to the sleigh. Just as he was getting in, he heard a window open.
“Look, what’s that?” whispered a voice.
“It must be Santa Claus” came the reply.
“Can’t be. Santa Claus has a kind of red suit with white fur. He’s got an old overcoat and a mothy old hat.”
George winced at this accurate, but unflattering, description of his oldest, warmest and favourite clothes.
“Well then, it must be the bin men. I suppose they come round on Christmas Eve to get their Christmas tips.”
“You’re right.” The voice sounded rather sad and wistful. “Anyway, Santa isn’t coming this year. Daddy said so. Mummy said that he probably wouldn’t be coming. I think it’s because Daddy hasn’t a job anymore, but I don’t see what that has to do with Santa Claus.”
The window was closed.
George pressed the “Ready” button and the sleigh took off. He had mixed feelings. On the one hand, he rather resented being thought of as a bin man; on the other hand, he smiled as he thought of what the two boys would find in the morning. Santa had come to them after all.
The next house was large and grand, so George was not surprised when the computer flashed up “Essence”. He took the little bag and walked towards the house. A sash window was unfastened downstairs, which he lifted and simply climbed through. The room he entered was as large and as grand as the house itself. He hid behind a curtain and peered out.
A man and a woman dressed in evening clothes were standing before a roaring fire. They both looked angry.
“Aren’t those little brats in bed yet?” asked the man. “We’re going to be late.”
“I suppose we have to make allowances for Christmas Eve.” The woman spoke grudgingly.
“That Nanny – why she insists we have to go up and kiss them goodnight when we want to be on time for dinner, I do not know. At the very least, she should ensure that they are in bed on time.”
“Perhaps they are excited because it’s Christmas Eve” suggested the woman.
“They should have got over that nonsense by now” remarked the man.
George was not sure what to do with his little bag of essence. Still, the window was open and a draught was coming in. He opened the bag and, from behind the curtain, shook it in front of the window. He waited a few minutes, but nothing happened.
Then the woman sat down and looked at the fire. “Darling” she said, “I don’t know if I want to go out after all. The children will wake up early, if they ever fall asleep, and I would like to see them opening their presents. We haven’t watched them doing that for years.”
The man picked up a log or two and threw them on the fire. “It’s funny, but I was thinking we haven’t really enjoyed a proper Christmas, just the four of us, for years. We always seem to be entertaining or being entertained. Perhaps I’m getting old, but, you know, I think I’d rather like a simple ‘old-fashioned’ family Christmas this year, if it’s not too late. I’ll ring the FitzSimmons up and tell them we can’t come – you’re not feeling too well or something.”
He left the room. After a few minutes, he returned.
“That’s fixed that. They didn’t seem to mind; actually they sounded drunk already. Come on, let’s pop upstairs and see what those two horrors are up to.”
They went out and a few minutes later George heard the sound of shrieks and laughter coming from upstairs. A voice was raised in remonstrance. “Oh, you shouldn’t do that – they were excited as it was and now they’ll never quieten down and go to sleep.”
“Stuff and nonsense. Anyway, why not? It’s Christmas Eve.”
George looked at surprise at the empty bag. Perhaps it did work after all. Could he have it analysed and start marketing it himself? He pushed such an unworthy thought out of his mind, returned to the sleigh, and pushed the “Ready” button.
The next house was one which was to receive a sack of presents. George took the parcels to the front door and performed his trick with the automatic door opener. He stepped into the house and stopped dead. A blonde with peroxide hair, a shortie nightie and a threadbare dressing gown was sitting slumped in a chair with a large glass in her hand and a bottle of vodka on the floor beside her. She seemed to be very drunk, if not comatose. George walked softly over to the mantelpiece, put the parcels down and turned to go. He found that the blonde was watching him.
“What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing, Mister?”
George was dumbstruck. Caught out in his third house. What could he do? What should he say? He decided to tell the truth. “I’m delivering the presents.”
“What bloody presents?”
“The presents for your children.”
This stumped George for a moment. “Because it’s Christmas Eve”.
“Ha – Ha –Ha” said the blonde. “Or should I say Ho-Ho-Ho? Who do you think you are – Father Christmas?”
“Well, actually, I am. That is to say, not really, but I’m standing in for him this year because he’s sprained his ankle.” George had the distinct impression that he was not doing well in this conversation.
The blonde closed her eyes in disbelief. “Can’t you come up with something better than that? Anyway, why bother with this house? We’ve nothing to steal.”
“I’m not a burglar. Look, I’m leaving these.” George pointed to the parcels on the floor.
The blonde seemed to see them for the first time. She tried hard and, at last, focused on them. “What are they?”
“I’ve told you – presents for your children. I’m delivering them because it’s Christmas Eve”
“Are you serious, Mister?”
“You don’t look like Santa Claus. He doesn’t wear an old coat and scarf and a hat like that. He wears red with white fur. I know. I’ve seen the pictures. Have you come from under the railway bridge?”
“No, I told you. I’m only standing in for the real Santa Claus because he’s twisted his ankle. Look outside.”
The blonde struggled to her feet and looked out of the window. The sleigh and the reindeer were standing there. She blinked and rubbed her hand across her eyes. “OK, Mister, you win. I know when I’ve had enough.” She picked up the vodka bottle, looked at it and put it down again with exaggerated care. “Pink elephants, yes – Santa Claus, no. I must be going daft.” She slumped back in the chair and closed her eyes.
George left quietly.
(The next morning the blonde woke cold and stiff in her chair. She looked up and saw her two children excitedly opening four parcels. The noise had woken her up. “Hey, where did they come from?” she asked.
The youngest looked up reproachfully. “Oh Mum, Santa Claus of course.” She then went on pulling off the paper.
The blonde went to the window and looked out. No more snow had fallen. She could see clearly marks in the snow, which looked suspiciously like hoof prints and sleigh tracks. “Santa Claus, of course,” she whispered to herself. “Or maybe a stand-in. Who cares?” She looked up into the sky. “Thanks Mister,” she murmured.
The next house was, again, one to which a bag of essence was to be delivered. All went as before. George entered through the front door, blessing the fact that bolts on doors seemed to be a thing of the past. He stood in the middle of a fine room and wondered what to do next. Just scatter the stuff around and hope for the best? Suddenly, a hard voice spoke behind him.
“All right you, stay where you are.”
He turned round slowly to find himself facing a tall, old man in pyjamas, holding a cricket bat.
“I’m fed up with you bastards breaking in and stealing anything you can lay your hands on. I’m going to phone the police and if you move, I’ll brain you with the greatest of pleasure. I may be alone here, but that doesn’t mean to say that I can’t take care of myself.”
George was scared stiff. He could see the headlines:
“Claus in Custody – Santa in the Slammer”
He was also surprised. The information he had been given was that a bag of essence was to be delivered to a house where there were children deprived of love and affection, not a crusty old man, living alone with a cricket bat. He spoke involuntarily: “Where are the children then?”
“I thought there were children here.”
The man’s eyes bulged and he stuttered furiously. “You nasty pervert. So you are after children are you? How disgusting. Still, I might have known – with a coat and hat like that. Lucky for the family which was here before. They moved out last month. I’ve only just moved in.”
So that was it; the records were out of date. George spoke desperately. “It’s not like that at all. I came to deliver this.” He put his hand in his pocket and pulled out the small bag. “It’s quite harmless. Why don’t you look and see?”
He was relying on the fact that everyone, even cantankerous old men, have a strong sense of curiosity. Sure enough, the old man took the bag, felt it, opened the neck and sniffed carefully. After a few seconds, he looked up.
“Hmm…, what a lovely smell. It reminds me of…well, never mind…it was a long time ago now. But what do you mean – you were delivering this? Delivering it to whom and why?”
He took another sniff and put down the cricket bat. George explained briefly and at the end of his story the old man looked at him and started to laugh. George joined in. He couldn’t help it.
“Well, that’s the most ridiculous story I’ve ever heard” roared the old man.
“But it’s true” insisted George between his laughs. “Look outside, if you don’t believe me.”
The old man went to the window, pulled back the curtains and looked out. “Good God” he said slowly. Suddenly he became brisk. “You must have a lot to do. But first, a hot toddy. Come along.”
In a few minutes, George was sitting in a large kitchen, sipping a steaming hot whisky and water and feeling nice and warm. He knew he couldn’t stay long, so he gulped down the brew as quickly as he could, shook the old man warmly by the hand, thanked him, and strode back to the sleigh.
“And thank you!” shouted the old man, and George looked back to see him run into the snow with a bucket and shovel. Faintly he heard, as sped away: “Do marvels for my roses.”
At last, after what seemed like a lifetime, George saw flashing on the dashboard of the sleigh, the word “Empty.” He pressed the button for “22” and felt the sleigh take off again. Sure enough, after a short time, he recognised his own neighbourhood and saw his own house loom larger and larger, until his sleigh landed gently in the garden.
He felt very tired and rather cold. The sooner they fitted a heater in that sleigh the better, he thought. He opened the front door quietly and went into the living room. The round figure sat up with a jerk: “Ah, you’re back I see. How was it? You didn’t have to press the “Help” button did you?”
“No” answered George, “but I came very near to it on several occasions. You know, there are a lot of odd people out there.”
“Of course, but that is why we have Christmas. It is an attempt to instil some kind of fellow feeling and kindness into people for one day a year. Hence the expression or hope: ‘Peace on Earth to all men of goodwill’. You never know, one day it might work. Anyway, I’m sure you must be tired and cold and want to go to bed.”
“Tell me, did you enjoy the film?” asked George.
“Well, to be honest, not really. But it was a relief to rest my ankle and be warm. You have very good taste in whisky, I’m glad to say. I’m really very, very grateful to you for your help.”
“Not at all,” mumbled George, rather embarrassed.
The visitor left, conventionally through the front door, and George went to the window. He saw the round figure climb into the sleigh and then the group – reindeer, sleigh, driver – rose into the sky and sped away. The driver raised a hand and waved a farewell.
George turned back to the room. He poured himself a drink and sat down. Just a few minutes to relax and then he would go to bed.
The next thing he knew, Annette was waking him and the morning sun was trying to burst through the curtains.
“George, you silly idiot. Wake up. It’s Christmas and you’ve fallen asleep in your chair. I wondered why you hadn’t come to bed.”
George rose to his feet stiffly. What a stupid thing to do, fall asleep in the chair. Why had he done it? Oh yes, he was tired after having been up all night delivering presents for Santa Claus. His wife pulled back the curtains and the sun streamed in. It was a lovely, crisp, cold morning.
Suddenly George stopped dead. What was that? Up all night delivering presents for Santa Claus? Was he mad? At his age, thinking such things? Where were Yellow Pages – did they list psychiatrists? How did you spell it? Then a grim thought: what did psychiatrists do on Christmas day?
His wife picked up the two whisky glasses. “I’ll wash these up. Who were you entertaining by the way?”
George, in a daze, watched his wife leave the room with the two glasses in her hand. Automatically, he said: “Santa Claus”.
“Don’t be silly, darling,” replied his wife as she walked into the kitchen.
She came back almost immediately with an expensive warm overcoat, new scarf and hat.
“Look at these! I found them hanging up in the hall and there’s a note attached. It reads: ‘To my partner, George Anderson, with my warmest thanks. S.C.’ It’s time you chucked those old things out which you used to wear, but what a lovely present. Who is S.C.?”
George’s voice was a little unsteady as he looked at the coat, hat and scarf. “Oh, he’s an old friend of mine.”
“Really?” enquired Annette. “I haven’t heard of him before. How long have you known him?”
George turned and looked out of the window. He smiled, and spoke as though to himself. “How long have I known him? I’ve known him since I was a child.”
© Tim Marshall 2015