7.30am. 25th July. Christmas Day. God I hate Christmas.
9.15am. Arrive at the house. One of those big white town houses you get in west London.
The interiors stylist, Polly, is already here. In fact, she tells me from her step ladder as she fixes an oversize star to the top of an oversize tree, she has been here since 5.30 this morning.
OK, she has transformed the house. Fake frost icing the windows. Fairy lights round every doorway, bowls of chestnuts and mandarins, artfully scattered snowflake patterned cushions.
The lounge is a triumph. It’s totally Scandi – grey walls, white fluffy rugs and pale leather sofas. Polly has amassed a forest of white candles in glass holders along the marble mantelpiece while the huge mirror reflects tinsel and garlands everywhere in shades of orange.
“It’s this year’s colour!” she snaps. “Who’s the featured celeb?”
It’s Carly Pinkerton, I say. Have you brought baking stuff? We want her making her famous mint choc-chip Christmas pudding.
“Yeah yeah,” says Polly. “I’ll get the kitchen set up.”
11am. Carly Pinkerton is an hour late.
Leon, the photographer, has set up the X-box in the lounge and is playing Zombie Apocalypse with Gary, the hair and make-up guy.
Polly is drenching packs of economy apple pies in icing sugar to make them look like mince pies.
Carly Pinkerton is our December issue cover. Celebrity homebody, winner of ‘I’m a Master Pastry Chef Get Me Out Of Here’. Glamorous mother of four and designer of the Belle Maman range of adorable tableware.
11.40am. A taxi pulls up. Out steps Carly Pinkerton.
I say steps. Falls would be a better word.
She totters into the kitchen on five inch heels. Glassy eyed, lank haired. “Better get to work Gary,” I say.
Carly is followed by her publicist, a hawklike woman in black leather trousers. It’s 28 degrees today - she must be roasting.
12.05. I ring my features editor. “She’s here but nobody else is”.
“Is there a problem?” says the eavesdropping leather-trousered publicist.
Well actually yes. This is supposed to be Carly Pinkerton at home with her charming family. Where’s the family? Husband, kids, sister, kids. We were promised.
“Of course her sister isn’t here,” says the publicist. “They haven’t spoken for five years, they just troll each other on Twitter.”
Features editor says Jonno, the husband, is on his way with the four kids.
But that’s only six – we’ve got a groaning dinner table laid for 12! We need extended family.
I’ll get you people, features editor promises.
1.30pm. Gary is trowelling another layer of make-up on to Carly. The sun is beating down outside and Polly has lit a blazing fire. The publicist arranges Belle Maman plates on the dining table and sniffs the glasses of red wine.
“Is this real?” she demands. “Are you mad? You want red food colouring in water. Now.”
1.40pm. Carly staggers into the dining room. She is not happy about her dress (white cashmere with reindeers). “I’m too hot. Oh God it’s even hotter in here!”
She picks up a wine glass and downs the red liquid in one. Her face screws up in disgust.
Jonno arrives. “Hello Dumpling!” he yells. “Brought the sprogs. God it’s hot in here!” He picks up a wine glass and downs the red liquid in one. His face screws up in disgust.
2.30pm. I round up the kids. The four year old and six year old are playing Call of Duty Black Ops on the X-box. I find the older ones down the bottom of the garden, smoking dope. I order them inside.
3.40pm. Features editor rings to say supplementary family are on their way.
The publicist says let’s do the interview while we wait. She starts dictating.
4.10pm. Six people turn up, a nice looking man and woman and four children ranging from eight to 13. They look remarkably like Carly, except that they are smiling.
I wonder if they’re a real family.
“No way,” says the man. Ben. (Quite hot).
5.45pm. Leon is finally happy with the Christmas dinner shots. Next we do the lounge, unwrapping presents under the tree.
Carly is completely plastered. The publicist missed the bottle of vodka in her handbag.
The kids are gone. I find them all down the garden, the older ones giving the younger ones a smoke for one pound a puff. I shriek at them.
Children dash into the kitchen and scoff the economy pies.
5.50pm. Everyone in place. Jonno and older kids in comedy Christmas jumpers, Ben and fake family smiling, little kids clutching presents.
Little kids clutching stomachs. Smallest one looks green. Where the hell is Carly?
Carly lurches in, publicist yelling “Do you want to sell your pointless plates or not?” The combination of marijuana and cheap pastry proves too much and the smallest child is horribly sick. Carly slips on the puke in her Manolos, grabs the orange tinsel on the mantlepiece and brings down 20 candles in glass holders. The white fluffy rug goes up in flames.
9.30pm. The last fire engine leaves. I reach for a glass of red wine…no…!!
On the up side, I did exchange phone numbers with Ben. And Gary exchanged numbers with Jonno.
11.30 am. 30th July.
Editorial meeting to choose the pics.
Carly looks gorgeous in them, radiating Christmas joy in her perfect home, at the head of a table of mouthwatering food, her adoring husband, children, sister, sister’s handsome husband and sister’s children at her side.
The features editor reads Carly’s interview: “I love Christmas. It is absolutely my favourite time of year. I go overboard with the tree and decorations and presents. We always sit round and sing ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ before anyone is allowed to open the first parcel.
“My house is always packed at Christmas. You never know who’s going to turn up! It’s all quite mad but it works! I don’t know how - that’s the magic of Christmas.”
Our best ever says the features editor.
Christmas. Thank God it’s over for another year.
There’s an alien in my fridge. I saw him there in the wee hours of yesterday morning.
I came downstairs for some water, opened the fridge door for a bottle, and there he was. He was sitting on the second shelf, using an ice cream spoon to work his way through my crème caramels. He was small, like a child’s toy, with smooth green skin and huge bat ears. He was so engrossed in his task, he didn’t look up. I closed the fridge door, shocked at what I’d seen. I paused for a moment, and then quickly opened the door again and the alien had disappeared. Only the debris of his feast remained.
I was the first awake as usual and was washing up the alien’s pots and spoon when my husband and Davey came down to breakfast. Simon reached into the fridge for the milk and his face changed. He didn’t say anything, but I caught his expression and could guess what he was thinking.
“OK,” he said, perhaps a little too brightly. “Who’s for cornflakes?”
“It’s Becky,” he said to the voice console. “I’m going to have to take a personal day. Yes, I know. And I’m sorry about that, but I’ll make it up with overtime when she’s better.”
“No,” I said. “Definitely not. You tricked me into going the last time, and that won’t happen again. I’m not going.” Hum-bug.
“Becks,” he stroked my shoulder. That’s what he does when he wants me to be reasonable. I shook him off. I didn’t think it was very reasonable to be told I was going shopping. I didn’t think it was very reasonable to be confronted with a teenager telling me that I needed a new prescription.
“He had spots and was wearing jeans,” I complained.
“He was bearded, in his fifties and wearing the same slacks my dad wears,” said Simon. “What are you seeing?”
“I’m not seeing anything.” Hum-bug.
Simon ran his hand through his hair. “Becks, I know what’s happening. What are you seeing?”
“You keep saying ‘humbug’.”
“Oh, that’s not me, that’s the spacecraft. What you can hear is the motor; it whirrs and pops, like hummm bug.”
He’d tricked me. Simon’s clever like that. “So the aliens are back?” He sighed as if all the cares of the world were on his shoulders.
“It’s not like they’re expecting anything of you,” I pointed out. “They’re only curious about us and after the journey they’ve had, it’s only natural that they’d be hungry.”
“So, where are they?”
“One is standing right behind you,” I said, pointing.
This one was a lot larger than the one in the fridge. He was completely naked apart from a brightly coloured headdress, and he must have eaten the majority of our food, because he was carrying an empty food bowl.
Simon reached out and took the bowl and yanked the headdress away. “That’s not where underwear goes,” he said. “Go and put them on properly, Davey. That’s not nice.”
Simon thinks I’m mad. He thinks that sometimes I’ll raid the fridge at night. He thinks I’ll leave windows open and doors unlocked and set fire to the kitchen, but that only happened once and it wasn’t my fault; Davey’s evil teddy bear did that.
“Where’s the spacecraft?”
I pointed to the top of the fridge.
“That’s the rice cooker I bought you last year. That’s what this is,” he said, lifting it down. “Stress is always the trigger. Now that the run up to Christmas has begun, you’ve stressed yourself again.” He shook the spacecraft. “See, it’s only a rice cooker.”
“You mustn’t do that!” I took the craft from him carefully and put it back. “You’ll hurt the occupants.”
“It’s a rice cooker! Look, there’s the plug.”
“That’s their recharging unit.”
“Ugh! God, I hate this time of year! I hate the expense, I hate the stress, and I hate what it does to people. I hate the pressure. I hate seeing you like this.”
Simon took my hand. “Come with me.” He led me back upstairs and sat me on the side of the bed. He picked up the aliens control box and slid out the motherboard. “One, two, three... God, Becks! You’re five pills up!”
“They don’t like me touching their control box,” I whispered. “It makes them nervous.”
“Why are you whispering?”
The big naked alien had followed us upstairs and was standing in the doorway of our bedroom, this time with his headdress somewhere around his middle.
“Go back downstairs, Davey,” said Simon. “It’s ok. Here, Becks. I want you to take this.” He broke a piece off the motherboard and gave it to me.
“Take it where?”
“You need to swallow it, Becks.”
“But you’ve damaged their control system and if I swallow that, they’ll track me. I don’t want them to track me.”
“They won’t track you. You have to swallow it.” Simon’s voice was becoming impatient.
“But I don’t want to.”
Just then the big alien came into the room and picked up the water bottle that was still sitting on the bedside table. He picked up the component and put it in my mouth, and then handed me the bottle.
I looked at my husband. “He wants me to swallow it,” I said with a component in my mouth.
“Yes, Becks. He wants you to swallow it.”
So I did. When I woke up the aliens had gone and my son and I were curled up on the bed like spoons in a tray.
On Simon’s bedside table was an early Christmas present from his colleagues; a jar of black and white sweets cuddled by a small green toy, with giant ears. Davey saw me looking at it.
“Humbug,” he said.
Ebenezer Scrooge is misunderstood. His name has been traduced. He has been blackened by a political polemicist. History, it has been said, is written by the victors. More than that: it is given very existence by the publicists. If people only know of one version, how are they to understand what else can be said? - perhaps to the contrary? Guard yourselves:
Skulduggery walks the land.
Dickens was a publicist, he had views and he had borrowed money; what struggling artist, novelist, poet or painter has not? In one of his early days, having scratched with his quill, all day, and to great effect; having produced soaring prose that could not fail to move his readers to a wonderful generosity of spirit; he had visited his pantry.
Time for his reward.
He had swung open the door, as one might, swing open the door on to the bounties of state. He had reached into the shelves for his supper. Merely a moment’s scratching, this time of the wooden boards and with a fevered fork, found him: nothing.
The writer’s week had ended and so had his cheese.
Dickens was a clever man: a modicum of thought, and he had an answer: he had a friend: A friend along the road, around the corner, down the hill and off an alley way. A money lender, a small banker, a man with a little shop, that had a dusty counter behind grimy little window panes. A man who had no wife, no friends, a menagerie of mangy cats who thought only of themselves, and who kept a clerk - who made mistakes; an old man, bent, constantly harangued by the impecunious, the promisers, the foolish and sometimes, just sometimes those who made good and repaid the loan with that margin of interest that kept him, the cats and his clerk. This man was Ebenezer, Ebenezer Scrooge, a man of uncertain origin and uncertain permanence. Ebenezer was old, ailing and unhappy. He made trade by providing for his fellow man, as had his father before him. Alas, they resented their need and therefore: him. Perforce, he dealt in a commodity that he could take with him if he had to go, if he had to leave in a hurry, if: life in the soot of London with no one but fair-weather-friends, did in fact break his windows and turn him out. Dickens stroked these thoughts, like fleas in his beard; he could borrow from this man. The man would be glad of his business; he would be his grateful friend.
Money lenders are always your friend.
Consider a hypothesis: supposing this man, this generous, this indulgent lender had, in the warmth of his heart, advanced a substantial sum to Charles Dickens, impecunious writer, What then? Now you know that Charles eventually became famous. Ebenezer could not know that, not at that stage. At that stage the young, as yet unacclaimed, Charles was just another attic scrivener – much like his own helpless, hopeless, clerk. What were the prospects for getting his money back, let alone his interest, - the pence he would need for his own sliver of cheese?
Would there be cheese?
Do writers garner gold from their labours? No, I hear your thoughts. No, writing is work, work that oft goes unappreciated and usually unrewarded. No. A pittance might come to some perhaps, and much later.
You begin to see, think.
Ebenezer explained that risk to the aspiring Charles, and that he must charge a rate of interest that balanced it.
What would you have done?
There are those who say that fixed interest is usurious, that the lender should instead share in the risks of the enterprise. Perhaps Ebenezer should have demanded to stand by Dickens’s desk, prompting and advising him. Charles might have welcomed that, or, then again, he might not.
What would you have done?
Charles, having been made to feel grateful, embarrassingly, grateful, accepted the terms, wrote his name and took the money. Now think on this: something had reversed, something had changed; the moral landscape had had a tectonic shift. Before, Charles had no money, now he had some money. Whereas the lender previously and much money now, well, he still had some money, if not quite so much. To fill the difference he also had a piece of paper that, when one comes down to brass tacks, was intrinsically worth nothing. By contrast, the chinking of silver in Dickens’ hand was a solid substance. Pride swelled the waistcoat once more and prompted a thought:
He could reverse his embarrassment.
What if the honour gradient were to be reversed? What if the lender were be denounced as a fraud and usurer? Who in the world would come to his defence? Who of the skulking friends, who had borrowed money, would support him? Better, they would say, that he should go, leave, depart, or, or, disappear under a carpet of disapprobation.
Who would have the money then?
Come Christmas Eve, and Ebenezer, sitting by the two coals in his grate, whose flame did little more than throw light on his clerk’s empty stool, wanted to eat. His stomach ached but he had only a crust of rye bread, long gone stale. He could not stumble his way to the baker’s shop, the baker did not loan bread. He could not stumble to the vegetable stall, that man would not lend carrots, or potatoes or, anything. Their money had to be paid on the spot, but he had none. The loan he had made to that bumptious writer had not been repaid. It was overdue. What was this Spirit of Christmas?
Bah ! Humbug.
He called it from the door way and he called it from the window. Folk looked askance and veered away from him. What did they know? At last a saddened man reached for his crust, crumbled it and swallowed it with water, cold water.
The stale wheat had festered ergot.
Ergo, when his eyes closed on his bed, as dark descended, he dreamed. His mind was griped by a delirium that was a visitation of horrors. By morning he had woken three times with burning in his limbs. By morning he was convulsed and confused; his mind was like a pot of maggots.
How would you have fared?
Ebenezer leaned far out of the window, escaping, in his hallucination, the dread rattling of prison chains. . . . .
A splat of cold woke him - the butcher’s boy had seen his distress and thoughtfully lobbed a snow ball that had caught his cheek. Realizing the danger he had been in and that he had not been able to give his clerk the usual Christmas hamper, he called to the boy. “Take that big bird to Thomas Cratchit.”
Would you have done that?
Later that day Ebenezer walked the slippery pavements to the tall narrow house occupied by the young Charles Dickens. Ebenezer asked for his money, so he could buy a little Christmas cheer. Charles Dickens was embarrassed, cross, haughty, rude, unkind, and ruthless. He had spent the money – on drink. He was flying; he did not care. He would nullify the debt with his own slicing word skills; history is written by the victor. He would be revered long after the poor, shambling, old man had gone to his quickened end. He told him that a great and glorious story would appear in the newspaper denouncing Ebenezer for literary ever:
Ebenezer returned to his bare office and lay upon the wooden floor, in the cold. His good works would be forgotten; his staff would despise him; his foolish kindness would be slapped back at him. He would be remembered only as a miserable miser.
Poor, poor Scrooge.
Baa Humbug moved closer to the high drystone wall. The rest of the flock by now was three deep against the field walls. The night air was still and dry. It was too cold to snow and the sky was clear.
Baa Peardrop began to bleat.
“It’s been a frightful day. That terrible dog Glen fixed his eye on me and I was turned to stone, Mr Thackeray grabbed me and shoved me in the trailer and took me off to the village church. I had to stand at the nativity play with a red bow around my neck for an hour. The children forgot their lines, the vicar as usual fussed over trivialities and the competitive, anxious parents were all dewy eyed when the carols were sung. I was even made to pose for photos. What a way to celebrate Xmas!”
She began to quake.
Her kind Baa sisters leaned hard against her.
Baa Humbug was comforting: “Calm yourself, just fix your eye on the Northern star and breathe deeply, Christmas eve is a good and special time.”
The night grew quieter and blacker on the hill. The lamps on the country lanes had gone out. The farmhouse was in darkness, the sound of barking dogs and passing vehicles had ceased. There was no more hollering and laughter from the revellers staggering home from the local pub.
Some of the flock were becoming restless, stamping their feet and curling their lips back to smell the night air. Others stood motionless gazing towards the east, anticipating, patient, watchful.
“Is it time yet Baa Humbug?” whispered Baa Sherbert. It was only her second Christmas eve on the hill and she was feeling unsure.
“Not long now, start counting the stars, time will pass quickly, ” replied Bah Humbug
The temperature was falling. Bah Humbug shuddered, it was time to move She started leading the flock out into the centre of the field. When they were all gathered, they faced east and dropped to their knees. The earth was hard, the position uncomfortable, but they had to wait, showing reverence.
They waited. All eyes searching the eastern sky. In their silent hearts and minds they knew it would come.
The thinnest shard of purple and blood orange light split the night sky. Baa Humbug slowly bowed her head and all her Baa sisters followed suit. The light grew. Frost glistened on the grass and the wall tops. Cattle bawled in the barn. White, freezing mist hung low in the valley.
This was Christmas on the hill, an acknowledgement and celebration that Christ’s light came to drive out the darkness, as his flock waited on bended knee and with bowed heads.