Monday, 25 December 2017

Killing Christmas

A few years ago, my friends - among them Chris Newton - started a tradition that each of us would write a ghost story at Christmas, gather round the fireplace (even if, most of the time, that fireplace is televised courtesy of the good people at Netflix), and read them to each other. This year I broke the rules, by writing a Christmas ghost story that doesn't feature Christmas, and doesn't include any ghosts... Or does it?

Killing Christmas, by Mark Charlesworth

“A ghost… A discorporate personality that has survived bodily death” John Hurt

“Christmas… A time in which people daub their faces with soot and exchange toys believed to be possessed by the spirit of Jesus Christ” Oxford English Dictionary, Pg. 389

“It’s important to define both of these terms, because it’s debatable whether this story contains either” Mark Charlesworth, Just Now

Gaz Barnett rubbed his hands together as if to somehow fortify himself against the cold. “Hoo hoo, nothing quite says Christmas Eve like the clang of the shutters coming down! What say you, Nick?” He elbowed his friend, twirling an unnecessarily heavy looking cluster of car keys round one finger.
“I say that’s us done for another year.” Nick grinned. “…Fleetwood match to look forward to, and the whole of Christmas stretching out before us. No work to think about.” He gestured expansively across the almost empty car park.
“Aye,” Gaz nodded, swiftly readopting his store manager-on-duty face, “until the Boxing Day sales. Got to be in at 7.30 sharp to get the POS promotion displays out. So don’t go getting mullered tomorrow.”
“You sayin’ I can’t take my drink?” Nick blustered.
“I’m saying nothing, mate. I’m saying nothing.” He left it hanging just long enough. “All I’m saying is, I’ve heard stories.”
He tapped his nose. “Big Gav.”
Nick crumpled. “Argh, you’re not talkin’ about Danny’s stag do? You can’t count Danny’s stag do. I weren’t the only one that was smashed.”
“Wouldn’t know, mate, wouldn’t know. I was graftin’, coverin’ Katy Sinclaire’s maternity. The only drink I was looking at that weekend was the Carling shelf-end display from that darts promotion. Speakin’ of which…” They’d made it to the car, Gaz’s Audi looking strangely lonely outside the deserted superstore. Ronald, the officious car park attendant, had stashed all the trolleys away at closing time, making sure there were no strays for teenagers to push each other around in the cold when they got bored spending time with their families on Christmas Day. The car looked incongruous among the ocean of floodlit tarmac, but to Gaz - who spent much of his time on the road visiting managers and suppliers - it was like a second home. Tonight, it seemed more enticing than ever; he patted a six-pack nestled next to a bag of tortilla chips on the passenger seat, making way for Nick and tossing him a can as he clambered inside.
“Eh, I bet your missus wouldn’t like this?” Nick laughed moronically.
“You’re right there. She would not. She would not. Amy doesn’t realise I drive better when I’ve had a few. Takes the pressure off, know what I mean?”
“I hear y’, mate. I hear y’. You remember when I was driving us back from Will ‘n’ Sarah’s weddin’? Everyone was sayin’ that was the best drivin’ they’d ever seen.” He sighed wistfully. “I don’t say this for nowt… The moment my ban’s lifted, I’m getting right back behind the wheel. No messin’.” Gaz didn’t know what to say, the part of him that was Nick’s mate wanting to cheer him on, the part of him that was his manager feeling an almost fatherly sense of responsibility. The silence made Nick uneasy and he quickly changed the subject. “Any road, what was with the hold-up tonight? I was freezing my arse off out there waiting for you to lock up.”
Gaz huffed. “Don’t talk to me about tonight’s lock-up. Right ball-ache, it was. Some homeless guy had shut ‘imself in the disabled toilet. Wouldn’t shift for nothing. And you know who didn’t help matters?”
Nick let out a long breath of exasperation. “Not Ronald?”
“Spot on, lad, spot on. Ronald bloody Slater, spoutin’ ‘is usual claptrap.” He snapped off one of the tortilla chips, positioning it between his nose and top lip so that it resembled a moustache, and put on a ratty, self-important voice. “Having unlicensed personnel present outside of core shopping hours directly contravenes Health & Safety Protocol 9-8-6-3-11. As such, you are a ‘customer’ - and I use that word in its loosest possible sense. That means Security - muggins here - must remain on the premises indefinitely. Given the circumstances, I shall allow you 10 seconds before making a forced entry if you do not immediately evacuate.”
Nick fell about laughing. “What ‘appened?”
“Well, our hobo friend, he evacuated himself alright, just as Ronald burst in! Talk about a dirty protest!”
“No way!”
“Yes way. It wasn’t pretty, I can tell you.”
Nick had thought of a joke, barely able to contain himself. “Eh, Gaz, Gaz… I bet Ronald made a note of it in his log book.”
Gaz roared ecstatically, spitting foam from his beer can. “’Ere, chuck us another one of them, will y’?”
“With pleasure. So, ‘ow’d you get rid of the gruesome twosome?”
“D’yer mean Ronald and his hobo mate, or the…”
“Number two?!” Nick slappped his thighs. “Solid gold, mate, solid gold! We should be doing stand up.”
“Ronald was a bloody nightmare. I told ‘im to sling ‘is ‘ook, get ‘ome to his missus. But would ‘e listen? Would ‘e bollocks. Soon as ‘e cottoned on that the ‘omeless guy wasn’t of limited mobility…” He mimed air quotes, taking his hands off the wheel and seeming not to notice when the car swerved. “…’E ‘ad to do ‘is bloody spiel. What gives you the right to use facilities intended for the disabled? And you know what this guy says to our Ron? ‘E says ‘I’d ‘ave ended up disabled if I ‘and’t got that one out.’” He doubled over, clutching his chest, eyes screwed tight, sobbing with laughter. Nick was in a similar state and didn’t seem to care that the car had just lurched onto the pavement. Neither of them noticed the flash of red flailing in front of the windscreen until it was too late, until whatever it was had hit the window, tumbling over the bonnet and onto the ground with a sickening thud.
“Fuck!” Gaz slammed the breaks on, undoing his belt with a sense of urgency he did not feel and then remaining rooted to the spot. “Shit! Shit! Shit!” His face was livid, and it was all he could do to keep himself from vomiting.
It was Nick who leapt out first, somehow managing to to keep his composure as he stared ashen-faced at the body lying in a tangled heap by the front wheels, arms outstretched desperately into a pool of spreading blood, one leg bent to a sickening angle, snapped like a cheap matchstick. He dashed back round to the glove compartment and fished out a torch, the wide arc of its beam reminding him of something from a TV detective show as it scanned the body, taking in the red suit, the white fur-lined collar.
“Gaz…” His voice trembled. “I think… I think you’ve killed Santa.” A chill ran over Gaz, hairs prickling, each one a knife edge as it stood on end. As he watched his limbs manoeuvre themselves from the seat, it felt like the body he saw reflected ghostly in the windscreen no longer belonged to him, that he was merely watching a lookalike, a puppet miming the sort of movements a man like Gaz Bartlett should be making. He bent down, sweeping back the hood of the Santa outfit to reveal a tangle of tightly curled grey hair, a beaky nose and a mouth still stretched into a taut grin. Or maybe it was a rictus of pain, etching a final smile onto his face.
“Nick,” Gaz nearly fell backwards, “this isn’t just any old Santa. It’s…” The words sounded so ridiculous, he would’ve laughed if he didn’t have blood on his hands. “It’s Noddy Holder”.


Gaz had woken up restless and achy from many a hangover, but the morning found him in worse condition than ever before. Night had come and gone with little chance of sleep, and he lay with wide, bloodshot eyes, recalling a grim end to the previous evening… Loading the body into the boot of the car by the roadside, swapping nervous glances every time a light came on in one of the Grange Park houses that overlooked them… Carting Noddy’s corpse through the living room, past the Christmas tree, stockings hanging over the fireplace, feeling somehow inappropriate now… Gaz’s wife Amy coming downstairs to see what the commotion was, but mercifully leaving the light off so they could pretend that the lumpy bundle in their arms was a sack of presents… Which had seemed like a good idea at the time, only now he realised he’d burdened himself with two onerous tasks: dealing with the Noddy Holder / Hit & Run situation, and looking like he’d bought Amy as many presents as he claimed he had.
Inexplicably, he found it was the latter task occupying the most brain space, wondering, as he made his way downstairs, if he could wrap up a few unloved wedding gifts from one of the dickhead friends they’d felt obliged to invite, or maybe pass off a bottle from the wine rack as one he’d bought. But when he walked into the living room, there was only one thing on his mind. It was… Empty. At least… Empty of any Christmas stuff. Surely, after the headfuck of last night, they hadn’t been burgled too? The stockings had gone from the fireplace, there was no trace of tinsel, and where the Christmas tree had stood was what looked like a dead twig propped up despondently in the corner. Gaz ran his hand along one of the spindly branches, a snowstorm of pine needles detaching with a shudder.
“Nick!” He whispered urgently to the sleeping mound on the sofa. Any other day, he would have played a joke on him. Maybe give him a rude awakening by whacking him with the tennis-racket-shaped electric bug zapper, or piss in his water glass then pretend he’d brought him a glass of orange juice for breakfast. But now was not the time. He made do with an elbow in the ribs, and Nick came to with a loud snort.
“Whoa, whoa…” He rubbed his eyes. “What’s your beef?”
“How can you be getting forty bloody winks at a time like this?”
“A time like what?” He scratched his balding head, then suddenly brightened. “’Ang about… Is it kick off time?” Reaching into his sleeping bag, he produced the remote control from god knows where, and brought up the TV guide for Sky Sports 6. The confusion hit him instantly. Nick was the sort of man you’d call ‘an open book’, wearing his thoughts and feelings very clearly on his face, and right then he looked like he’d been hit by a cricket ball in the scrotum. “There’s…” His jaw hung slack so that he could barely get the words out. “There’s no Fleetwood match… They can’t ‘ave cancelled it! It’s a Christmas tradition.”
Gaz put on his ‘serious’ voice, usually saved for staff briefings or tabling a new motion at the ‘Small Business Owners Brexit Survival Guild’, a direct action group formed from the ashes of the ‘Credit Crunch Coalition’. “Nick, I think there’s something seriously weird going on. Check out BBC2. If I know my Christmas, ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ should be showing right now. I need to take stock of the kitchen situation.” He marched off with a grave expression, peering into the oven with the grim sense of certainty that Amy’s pre-basted turkey would not be there. Just as he thought, the oven was empty, cold. Nick appeared in the kitchen, still clutching the remote control but eyeing it now with a sense of betrayal.
“So I switch to BBC2, and they’re showing some shit called… Fletcher Tries It On?” He shrugged. “What the fuck is Fletcher Tries It On?”
“I don’t know mate, but it sure as hell ain’t ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’. This is going to sound crazy, but…” He braced himself. “I think Noddy Holder was some kind of… Festive talisman. When we mowed him down last night, it’s like we erased Christmas from history.” Nick farted in shock. “Get your boots on, lad.”
Quick as a flash, Amy’s voice called out from upstairs. Although technically telling them off, hearing her brought a comforting reminder of reality. “Errrr…” Gaz knew he was in for a bollocking when she started a sentence with a drawn out ‘Errrr’. He smiled warmly. “Did I just hear the ‘b’ word down there? You’d better not be wearing shoes in the house.”
“Too late love, already got ‘em on.”
“Well, get ‘em off. I thought you were bringing me brekkie in bed?”
Never before had the words ‘get ‘em off’ and an invite to join his wife in bed elicited such a cool response from Gaz, but for once he had more pressing matters on his mind. He had to save Christmas. “Sorry love, no time. My hands are tied. And so are my laces.”
“Where’re we going?” Nick tucked his builders’ bum into his PJ bottoms. “Mek myself look presentable, like.” He muttered to no one in particular.
“We need to get to the nearest hardware store, pronto! Set the satnav for D&Q.”


Several hours later, stood in Gaz’s garage, counting out a box of comically oversized bolts and occasionally shooting furtive glances to the line of car batteries running into Noddy Holder’s body, Nick could only bring himself to ask one question. “Why do they call it D&Q anyway?”
“What?” Gaz’s brow furrowed in frustration as he hooked an enormous crocodile clip onto a metal diode.
“The shop. You’d think if you were gonna start a tool shop, you’d pick a name that made sense so people knew what they were getting. BHS - British Home Stores, C&A - clothes and accessories, Woolworths… Sold woolly jumpers.” He jabbed the air with each flimsy example, like a latter-years, harried-looking Tony Blair trying to ram home another morally dubious point. “What the fook does D&Q stand for? I can’t think of a single thing to do with DIY that begins with a ‘D’. And Q? What’s ‘Q’ when it’s at ‘ome? Quick clamps? Bollocks. You’re not telling me people roll into that place looking specifically - specifically - for quick clamps. They need to sort their branding out.”
Gaz’s mouth - and the crocodile clip - hung agape. He was familiar with Nick’s ability to home in on trivial matters when things got tough - reprimanding him for gassing about Gary Linekar’s allegiance to FIFA when he should have been dealing with a smash in ‘Wines & Spirits’ sprung to mind - but this was off the scale, especially considering they were trying to raise an entirely different kind of spirit. He tried his best to think up something to say but all he could come up with was “You’re an idiot. We’ve been in some scrapes, you and me, but, even by our standards, this is bad. Way, way bad. It’s not just another nicking-Fat-Boz’s-specs-cause-he-ruined-the-test-match-then-losing-them incident. This is serious. We killed someone, and not just any someone. We need to… Unkill him. Fast. And by the way, all those stores you mentioned have gone out of business; fine branding consultant you’d make. Now give me a hand threading these wires under the paste table and keep it buttoned, alright?”
Nick tried so hard to keep quiet, he really did. He clicked his tongue, whistled tunelessly, drummed on his legs without any discernible rhythm, hissed air through his - No, it was too much. “Eh, we’ve had some times with this paste table. Remember when we ran out of room for the buffet at Denny’s barbecue, so - ouch!” Gaz hurled a spanner at him. “What was that for?”
“If I end up dying before you do - and, believe me, that doesn’t seem likely right now - there’s no way you’re looking after my funeral.” Gaz fumed. “It’s like you’ve got… Attention Defecation Disorder, or whatever it’s called. You’d draw out the life insurance money, then get distracted on the way the crem; blow it at Ladbrokes or something.”
“Alright, alright! What’s your point?”
“Fo. Cus! For fuck’s sake, focus!” He clicked his fingers at the body stretched out in front of them. Nick tried to concentrate. It made his brain hurt, like when he had to do the ambient code checks down the crisp aisle at work but, looking closely, he noticed something.
“Errrr, wasn’t he wearing a Santa suit last night?”
“And finally, he’s back in the room. I was beginning to think Mr. ‘Older wasn’t the doziest one ‘ere.” He nudged Noddy’s body, which remained unsettlingly still, hardened by rigor mortis. “Yes, he was wearing a Santa suit. I reckon it’s gone the same way as Christmas telly, our turkey, and,” he pointed angrily through the living room window, “my bloody tree. I found ‘im in ‘ere completely starkers, whole kit missing, the full Ashley Cole.”
“Where’d that towel come from then?”
“What, this? I wipe me ‘ands on it when I’m tinkering with the motor; changing oil, stuff like that. I felt a bit weird working with…” He pointed at Noddy’s crotch, subconsciously taking a step back. “… That thing staring at me.”
“What’s it like?”
He spread his hands wide and mouthed the word almost silently. “Huge.”
“Thought so. And, erm, what’s with those massive rusty bolts on ‘is neck?”
Gaz was dumbfounded. “Nick Cullen, I despair at you sometimes. ’An’t you ever seen Frankenstein?”
“It’s a film! From them days. Used to watch it with me Mum when I were a kid.” His eyes widened. “’Ang about! You know Frankenstein… ‘Ad ‘im in the Chamber of Horrors when we went to the waxworks.”
Nick chuckled. “I ‘earn you’d ‘ad a bloke down the waxworks.”
“Fuck off. You know what I mean. We went for my 12th birthday.” He stopped, breaking out into a big smile and, suddenly, all the tension was gone. They exchanged a look infused with genuine warmth, the sort of moment they hadn’t shared since the coach back from Wembley after Blackpool won the play-offs. “Y’know, we went to Maccy D’s after and Nathan Povey spewed up from drinkin’ too much Pepsi?”
“Oh yeah! The green guy?”
“Yeah, Nathan did look pretty gr-”
“-I meant Frankenstein.”
Gaz nodded almost paternally. “I know y’ did.”
“So what you gonna do then? Zap ‘im full of electricity and hope he comes back to life?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“Seems a bit far fetched, doesn’t it? What if it doesn’t work?”
“It’s got to work, Nick lad, it’s Christmas. Or at least it will be. And if there’s one thing I learnt from watching The Muppet Christmas Carol with little Arthur, my sister’s lad, it’s that you can’t have Christmas without a few ghosts popping by.”
“But Gaz,” Nick looked very earnest, “what if the Christmas magic’s gone for good?”
“Only one way to find out. Fire up the batteries.”
The extension cord that had been used to power Amy’s ambitious display of fairy lights had enough socket space to put a serious drain on the National Grid; neighbours within a half-mile radius were unable to use their kettles for the entire month of December, but tonight the residents of Fairfax close were in for power-out the like of which they’d never seen. As current surged through the linked rig of car batteries, the entire garage blazed with a vibrant blue light, almost blinding them both. Gaz heard alt-meter needles twitching, felt the heat of copper wires growing red hot, and knew that the violent spasm of motion was coming from Noddy Holder’s body, but he couldn’t see a thing. Without warning, the dead man’s hand shot out, closing itself in an icy grip around Nick’s wrist.
“Gaaaaz! For fuck’s sake, help me! He’s gonna rip my arm off!”
But Gaz was cackling madly, too caught up in the hysteria of the moment. “It’s alive! It’s alive!” He hadn’t felt this good since winning ‘Regional Tradesman of the Year, Fylde & Wyre Sector, Second Quarter, 2009’. Electricity was crackling like sparks of lightning, dancing around his homemade generators, the growl of static growing louder and angrier by the second, as terrifying and exhilarating as a penalty shoot-out after extra time. The thing could only sustain itself for so long. Before either of them knew what was happening, the workbench had burst into flames, an ear-splitting explosion roaring like a jet engine and blowing the garage wall clean off.
Improbable as it seemed, Nick and Gaz were both completely unscathed, although their clothes were torn to shreds and they each had a ring of black soot around their eyes. If either of them had had any hair to speak of, it would no doubt have been cartoonishly stood on end. Gaz watched shell-shocked as the plaster dust settled, blinking feverishly to clear dust from his eyes. Several full minutes passed before he could really see anything, the mist giving way to a haze of colour as it disappeared.
“Gaz… I think it’s warming up.” Nick nodded to the hand, still clinging on tightly, but no longer white. “The fucker still won’t let go.”
“Just tug yourself off.” Gaz dismissed him, not even meaning to make a joke. He was too preoccupied with the sight of his neighbours’ houses, each one covered from cellar to rooftop with fairy lights, every garden white with crisp, fresh snow. His own living room had its tree back - only it wasn’t the same tree at all. The crappy synthetic one he’d bought in Pilkingtons back in his bachelor days was gone. In its place stood a rich, green pine, a mountain of presents at its base. Next door, the kitchen was bathed in a heartening golden glow as the oven warmed their Christmas dinner, and on the side sat a crate brimming with bottled lager.
They heard a groan behind them, as a battered-looking Noddy Holder heaved himself up, rubbing at the stitches on his newly botched face and feeling the disconcerting weight of two metal bolts protruding from his neck. He’d deal with that later. It was nothing a festive scarf wouldn’t hide. Besides, he’d been here before, ‘sacrificing himself’ every December since 1973 to bring the spirit of Christmas back to those who needed it most. It wasn’t always the obvious cases… He specialised in marketing managers whose only Christmas cheer came from hitting their sales targets; jaded cynics; anyone who looked at snow and saw it as an inconvenience rather than a chance to play with their children. One year, there was a suicidal lorry driver, another time it was a mean-spirited landlady who wouldn’t pay her staff extra for working Boxing Day, now it was Gaz Bartlett’s turn…
He made his charges appreciate the things they had to be grateful for - a wife, a best friend, food in the oven - saving lives one December 25th at a time. Having a Christmas number 1 brings with it certain seasonal responsibilities; not a lot of people knew it, but that was how Santa got started. TV presenters often made a point of saying how good Noddy was looking for his age. They didn’t know the half of it. Cut down at the height of his chart-topping prime. 44 years dead. Who would have suspected that, for most of their career, Slade had been fronted by a ghost? The tabloids would’ve loved to have got their hands on that one!
“Eh lads…” He beckoned them over. “That’s a big stack o’ presents under your tree. Better go ‘n’ wake the missus.” Their mouths hung open. “Well, ‘urry up then! You do know what time it is, don’t you? IT’S CHRISTMAAAAAAAAS!”

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