Tuesday, August 7, 2007

A Christmas Carol

‘Twas Christmas Eve in Dublin 15, and a light shower of snow was softly falling like, well, like snow. Bob de Builder, an engaging, garrulous and entirely fictional Dutch property developer, who bore absolutely no resemblance to any person past or present, was at home in the bosom of his family. His absent-minded wife, who, unfortunately for Bob, was also entirely fictional, was busy attaching the turkey to the top of the Christmas tree when the phone rang, as phones are wont to do.
“Hello? Hello?” barked Bob impatiently. “Tsk! There’s nobody there!”
“You have to lift the receiver first, dear,” chided his wife gently.
Bob did as he was advised. “Hello?” he barked a third time. “The Castaheany who? You want a what? Don’t be so ridiculous! There are plenty of schools in the area. What? Prefabricated is good enough. Why, in my day, schools were made out of twigs and papier-mâché, children today…. What? Why in tarnation do children need to stay on in school after ten years of age? I’d made my second million by the time I was seven…No! Goodbye! No! And a merry Christmas to you too!” And he slammed down the phone so hard that the Christmas tree, with his wife clinging on for dear life, toppled elegantly into the fireplace.
“Who was that dear?” enquired his wife, crawling smoke-blackened out of the hearth.
“Castaheany Community Council,” replied Bob. “The nerve of them looking for a school.” He picked up a black and white sweet that had become dislodged from the Christmas tree. “Ahh, humbug,” he said hungrily.
That night, Bob pulled the covers under his chin and settled down to go to sleep. The last thing he heard before dropping off into complete unconsciousness was the lash of whip on reindeer fur, and from somewhere downstairs, the sound of his wife and Christmas tree toppling over again.
But his usual dream of building rows and rows of houses was interrupted by a large, terrifying figure in a cowl. It was as if Jeremy Clarkson had joined the Capuchins. The figure held up a crooked finger and beckoned Seamus to him.
“B-b-but I’m in my pyjamas!” protested the property developer lamely.
“You are a fictional character having a dream,” intoned the figure solemnly. “Yes, I see your concern for your attire.”
Faced with such heavy sarcasm, Bob sighed, flung back the covers, and fumbled with his feet for his slippers. However, when he rubbed his eyes, he was sitting in the passenger seat of a grey Morris Minor, travelling down a road that seemed somehow familiar.
“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past,” announced the figure, cursing wildly at an unobservant squirrel that was crossing the road. “Does this place seem familiar to you?”
“There is something stirring in my memory,” said Bob. “What are these snow-laden objects that line the road?”
“I believe they are called “trees”” replied the Ghost. “They were quite common upon this road once upon a time.”
“I remember, I remember,” said Bob excitedly. “Trees, and then there were little trees called hedges, and tiny flying things…”
“Birds,” murmured the Ghost.
“…Yes! Birds! And the countryside was this funny colour called gr…gr..”
“.. Green, yeah. I know this place, Ghost. ‘Tis on the other side of Blanchardstown. I believe it is called the Hansfield Road. It is beautiful. We used to come up here for walks, when I was small. Is it still here then?”
“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past,” repeated the spectre. “With this question, I cannot help you. But I know someone who can.”
There was a sudden flash of lightning and the Morris Minor disappeared. Bob was now standing on the same road in the dark of night. It took his eyes several seconds to adjust to the blackness, although other parts of his body took even longer. As his vision improved, he noticed an almost identical figure beside him, except he was a lot smaller and wore a Linkin Park t-shirt and jeans instead of a cowl.
“Ghost of Christmas Present?” he enquired, and the youth nodded glumly and said “Yup.”
As they stood side by side, an old woman, heavily laden down with shopping bags hobbled up the road behind them. As she passed, Bob could hear her wheezing breathlessly, or maybe she was breathing wheezelessly. The point was, it was dark and he found it difficult to tell.
“Why is that old crone walking this dark deserted street at night, heavily laden down with shopping bags?” he asked the not-quite-so-terrifying being beside him.
But the answer was not immediately forthcoming. Two bright lights approached quickly through the gloom, and with a terrified yell, all three jumped wildly into the ditch to avoid the onrushing object.
“What.. What was that?” asked Bob, emerging from their prickly sanctuary.

“Just a car,” replied the youth. “Unfortunately the property developer did not see fit to install street lights along this road.”
A few yards away, the old woman was brushing the dust from her worn coat, and fumbling for her shopping.
“Is she mad?” asked Bob. “What is she doing here?”
“No, she is not mad,” answered the Ghost. “She does not want to be here, but she has no alternative.”
“What do you mean?” asked Bob, with a sharp intake of breath. “Does she not have bus fare?”
“Oh, she has the fare,” replied the other. “Problem is, no bus comes up this way. Dublin Bus has said they won’t provide a service until building is complete. And they just keep building and building.”
“But all those houses?” protested Bob. “Surely she can shop somewhere nearer home?”
“Aha! There’s the rub. All the brochures for these estates have promised schools and a church and shops and facilities and amenities, but none have been forthcoming.”
By this time, Bob was starting to experience a rather uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach, and another one in the crook of his left elbow. He put his hands on the shoulders of the Ghost and sought to reassure himself that all would be well. “It won’t always be like this, will it?” he demanded. “When they’ve finished building the houses…”
But once again, there was another flash of lightning, which rather puzzled him, as a mild, dry evening had been forecast. When his eyes focussed again, the Linkin Park youth had disappeared to be replaced by the most hideously deformed ogre imaginable. It had deep, sunken eyes and a deformed nose and a large jagged scar above its ear.
“Ghost of Christmas Future, I presume?” muttered Bob, with a sigh.
“Err, actually he’s stuck in traffic on the M50 roundabout,” replied the other, in a strong Drawda accent. “He asked me if I’d mind filling you in until he gets here. The name’s Rasher, so it is. Mind yourself now, horse, here comes a car!”
Bob prepared to jump back into the briars, but the car slowed up in front of them, and, as it braked, four youths hopped out.
“Money. Phone.” said the largest of them. It was, Bob guessed, a demand, rather than a Christmas wish list. He fumbled in his pocket and brought out a few notes. The hideously deformed creature at his side proffered his Nokia 9910. The lad, (he could have been no more than sixteen,) took them dispassionately and got back into the car. His guardian angels followed suit.
“Damn!” cursed Rasher, “I’m only after getting credit.”
“We must contact the Gardai,” said Bob, but his companion fixed him with a withering stare.
“They don’t come down here,” he said. “Discretion is the better part of valour. These are the badlands.”
“But how on earth did it get like this?” demanded Seamus. “This was a good area. Fine houses. Built to last. Moulded architraves and everything.”
“Oh, the houses are okay, granted. Nothing wrong with the houses.” (Bob didn’t like the way he emphasised the word “houses.”) “Trouble is, that’s all there is. Just miles and miles of houses. No shops, no churches, no facilities, no amenities, no transport infrastructure. Nothing for the kids to do. And you know what they say about idle hands and the Devil!”
Bob didn’t, but he thought it safer not to ask. In the distance, he heard the sound of shots being fired into the air, and a long, drawn-out scream. He knew this place. It was Hell. Or Ronanstown. Trouble was, he could never tell the difference. He turned and started to run. Away. Must get away…
With a start, or maybe a finish, Bob awoke. For a minute, he stared at the familiar cube of raspberry jelly on his bedroom ceiling, and then he slowly slid out of bed, and pulled back the curtains. Outside his window, there was a blanket of snow, next to an eiderdown of fog, and further up the road he could see a luxury patchwork quilt of intermittent showers. Someone had built a snowman that resembled Kevin Kilbane on a bad hair day. With a jolt, it occurred to him that it was Christmas Day.
“I’m going to build them schools,” he said to his wife, without turning around. “Primary schools, and secondary schools, as many as they want. And a community centre, complete with basketball court. And a sixty thousand all-seater stadium. And shops, and a dentist and a doctor’s surgery, and maybe a chiropodists too. And a crèche. And a bus corridor. And a railway station. And possibly even a rail line as well. And maybe a deep sea port that can take ocean-going liners.”
His wife turned over in the bed and propped herself up on her elbow. “You’d really do all that?” she asked, wonderingly.
“Absolutely!” Bob replied, enthusiastically. But then his face fell. Picking it up, he reattached it mournfully to the front of his head.
“There’s one slight snag though. Being an entirely fictional character who bears absolutely no resemblance to any person past or present, anything I build will, of necessity, be totally fictional too…”

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