The Ghost Of Christmas Vengeance
It’s been eight years now since Xopher became the Ghost of Christmas Vengeance, and that’s a hell of a lot of Christmas. You know that song, ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day’? That song was Xopher’s life now, minus the sax and the snowman and the great big smile on somebody’s face, because rarely in Xopher’s line of work did he ever encounter anyone with a great big smile. And if he did, it was usually Xopher’s job to make that smile go the hell away. Three hundred and sixty-five Christmas Days a year.
They say Christmas is a time of loving and giving and good will to all men. And sometimes it is. For some people, in some lucky places. But for others, it’s no different than any other day, or even: it’s worse. For those people, it’s a day of cruelty and hatred, anger and bitterness, selfishness, even sadism. And for those people, there is the Ghost of Christmas Vengeance. Because even the universe has a Christmas spirit.
Hannah Templeton is seventy-eight years of age, but that isn’t old these days. No, her hearing isn’t as good as it had once been, but that new hip means she’s more sprightly now than she was five years ago, and she no longer has to rely on family to do her shopping, especially since they built that big new Tesco right at the bottom of her road. She’s in there today, picking up a gift for her granddaughter, Shelly, who’s sixteen, every inch of her.
“I hear that that Take That are back together,” Hannah says to a boy stacking shelves in the music section. He’s a friendly enough lad, cheeky but not rude, and he jokes with Hannah about how personally he wishes the recently reformed former-boyband had stayed apart, but he shows her to the right purchases – a new CD and a DVD out just in time for the Christmas suckers.
“My granddaughter used to be such a fan,” Hannah tells the young man, remembering a time when Shelly’s bedroom wall was a mosaic of poster worship, when she’d talk of nothing but Robbie and Gary and Ronan and Mike. And though it wasn’t from Shelly that Hannah had heard about the group’s comeback (Shelly didn’t talk about such things to her gran as she once had), Hannah was certain these would be presents greatly appreciated… though she’d make sure to keep the receipts, just in case. She wasn’t so old as to have forgotten how fickle she herself had been at that age, and that was in the day before teenagers had even been invented.
“Well, there’s no accounting for taste,” says the smiling stock boy, giving Hannah a wink that wipes all those years away in an instance, and sends her floating to the tills behind her trolley, then all the way back up the festively lit street to home, warmed against the unseasonably mild winter wind. Back home, Hannah makes a pot of camomile with limeflower, puts on the TV for Richard and Judy, and wraps her granddaughter’s gifts, thinking what a lovely Christmas this is going to be.
And while Hannah packs her stockings, where is the Ghost of Christmas Vengeance? It’s hard to tell. For Xopher, maybe that’s the Christmas Day he watches a desperate man fighting with his girlfriend, then leaving, and driving halfway across a continent, taking their son with him. Their unborn son, that is. Maybe that’s the Christmas Day when, less than half an hour from this man’s intended destination, he falls asleep at the wheel and drives himself, his unborn child, and an unfortunate hitchhiker off the edge of a bridge, on a dam, over a great, dark mass of water.
Or maybe that’s the Christmas Day Xopher watches a lonely old man who lives in a churchyard cottage, an old man who has, over the years, done absolutely nothing to dispel that loneliness, and everything in his power to foster it. Maybe that’s the Christmas Day Xopher invites a few gone but not entirely forgotten acquaintances back to pay a call on the old man, to pay a call and keep him company forever more. Whether he likes it or not.
So, then: Xopher. That’s how he would write his name now, if ever he was called upon to do so. Someone once told Xopher that the reason behind the abbreviation ‘Xmas’ was that Christ was illiterate. For all those years before he ended up on one, our erstwhile saviour signed his name with a cross. If Xopher had any religion about him, he’d probably find that some kind of blasphemy – but the only scripture Xopher follows is the Old Testament, eye for an eye stuff, so he doesn’t care one way or another whether Jesus H. was a dunce or a didact. However, changing his name when he took on this job, that just seemed the way to go. He was a different person now, after all. And while certain people considered it bad luck to write or say ‘Xmas’, bad luck was pretty much Xopher’s stock in trade these days… so that just made it seem more appropriate still.
As to how Xopher became the Ghost of Christmas Vengeance, that’s a story Dickens, or Bill Murray, or even the Muppets would have given a endless cache of figgy pudding to have told, but it’s not the story we’re here to tell today, except for the advice given Xopher by his predecessor:
“There will come a day, as today has come for me, when you will be called upon – not by the object of your vengeance, but by one of those affected by them – to show mercy, even where no mercy is deserved.” She was a long-winded old bore, the previous incumbent. “Be aware that should you choose to grant that request, that will be the day you relinquish your duty as the Ghost of Christmas Vengeance forever and pass on – to a place where Christmas will never be heard of again. But choose wisely – for your replacement shall be the one for whom mercy has been begged.”
“Wait a minute,” said Christopher, thinking only of himself as was the nature that brought him to this point, “you’re telling me…? Who was it? Was it Julie? Was it Becka? Was it–?”
The former Ghost of Christmas Vengeance only shook her head, smiled, and tried unsuccessfully to look enigmatic. Then at last, she departed. And never again would she hear Phil Spector or see the blinking lights of fairies or be asked in November if maybe, just maybe, do you think, this year maybe there might just be the smallest possibility of snow on the weather centre roof?
Hannah Templeton is surprised meanwhile, two days before this Christmas, by a knock at her front door well after Coronation Street. Perhaps it’s carol singers, she thinks, getting her little pearl clutch purse out of the sideboard before heading down the hall to answer it. But it’s not The Holly and the Ivy she finds on her doorstep tonight, just the Shelly and the Todd: Hannah’s cherished granddaughter and her charmless boyfriend. At first though, Hannah hardly even recognises them – and it’s not just because she hasn’t seen Shelly since the summer. The girl’s lost so much weight, and her eyes look like oil dripped in the snow. For a second, Hannah thinks the girl must be sick, then another thought intrudes – because the boy appears the same. Hannah may be an old woman, but she’s not entirely oblivious to the outside world, despite how her daughter and son-in-law might try to keep it from her.
“Happy Christmas, Nan,” says Shelly, and so what else can Hannah do but invite them in? And so a scene unfolds, worse than any Hannah has seen in her Christmas soaps. Shelly and Todd want money, they’re desperate, but though Hannah would give the girl her last penny (and at this time of year, that’s about all she’s got), she’s got a feeling that isn’t entirely in Shelly’s best interests. So she holds out, tries to talk to the girl about Christmas, about presents for her mum and dad, about how there’s something special for her under the tree in the corner, though she’ll have to wait ‘til Christmas morning… and that’s when things get ugly. Uglier than any pantomime sister or Seussian Grinch, so ugly that there’s shouting, and screaming, and violence, and blood. Then, after Todd and Shelly have taken everything they can carry of any value in the house (how terrible that there’s so little), the girl returns to the lounge, and crouches by the body of her grandmother.
By this time Hannah is drifting, in and out of this world and the shadows, like a light bulb swinging in a draughty attic. It’s better when she’s out, the pain isn’t so bad then. But she’s awake enough now to hear the tear of wrapping paper, and the grunt of ingratitude.
“Ughh. Nan! I fuckin’ hate Take That!”
Where is the Ghost of Christmas Vengeance while all this takes place? Perhaps that’s the Christmas Day he visits a small Norwegian town where the residents make sport of hunting and killing homeless people dressed in the scarlet and snow of Saint Nick, before making festive feast of their quarry. Or perhaps it’s the Christmas Day he sets a beauteous assassin on the trail of a pseudo-spotless businessman in a city where no-one is without sin, especially those whose trade is people. Or maybe it’s the Christmas Day an entire Serious Burns Ward cries vengeance on a bitter man who blames everyone else for the fact that the woman he gave his heart to on a Christmas gone, gave it away to someone else on Boxing Day. There are a million of these stories, and the Ghost must hear each and every one. Because at Christmas, if at no other time of the year, there must be balance.
And so the Christmas Day comes when Xopher stands before Shelly and Todd, in a gloomy squat, surrounded by mouldy pizza boxes and the paraphernalia of teenage desperation. As balances go, this one is easy. After all, Shelly and Todd hold in their hands the wares of their own reparation. They hold it in their hands and put it in their arms. An overdose then: it’s almost too easy. But Xopher has little time for creativity or imagination in cases like this. Even one who’s seen the things he has, on all those dreadful Christmas Days gone by, can still occasionally be dismayed at the depths to which human beings can scrounge, especially children. And so he reaches down and takes the needle from where it has fallen on the furring sofa between the delirious teens, and fills it again with the means of their end. And this, this is when he hears the voice of the old woman behind him.
“Please don’t,” says the ghost of Hannah Templeton. “Today of all days – it won’t make anything right.”
But Xopher has heard this argument before, and questioning the morality of vengeance gets you nowhere with him. Nor does the argument of good will on this day above all others – since every day is Christmas Day for the Ghost of Christmas Vengeance, even one exception based on the rest of the world’s calendar would render him both impotent and absurd.
“She’s only a child,” says the ghost of Hannah Templeton, but again this defence holds little worth to one such as Xopher, who regularly sees cruelty, brutality and greed from all ages.
No, mercy is a curious commodity, and even with all it promises him (an eternity without tinsel, George Bailey, and Walking In The Air), Xopher often wonders just what it would take for him to grant it. He wonders too how Becka, or Julie, or Lily beseeched his predecessor, what extraordinary mitigation they offered for his own reprieve. More than his old woman has to give, of that he is certain.
“I’m sorry,” he says, shaking his head. “If it was you, Hannah – you, would be deserving. But no matter how much you might deserve it, these children do not. Christmas must have its vengeance.” It occurs to him then just what a long-winded old bore he himself has become since taking on this job – bombast must come with the territory. Then he turns from the ghost of Hannah Templeton, brings the needle to the girl’s arm, and prepares to carry out his duty.
“Please,” the old woman says, this time touching Xopher’s arm, and for a moment her unexpected warmth – for a ghost, she still feels desperately alive – gives Xopher pause.
“Let me,” she says, and though it isn’t exactly mercy, it’s as close as Xopher has ever come… He gives her the needle.
So the old woman strokes her granddaughter’s hair, kisses her forehead, puts the needle to her well-marked skin… and Christmas vengeance is served. One way or another, it must always be so.