The Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present
© Joanne Harris
It’s Christmas Eve on Festive Road. Fifty-five minutes to midnight and it looks as if it’s going to be a white Christmas at last, even though the whiteness only amounts as yet to a few flakes of cloud-dandruff against the sallow sky. But it’s enough. We ghosts have learned to use what magic we can. God knows, there’s little enough left nowadays, but tonight, it’s here on Festive Road.
We have an hour. That’s the rule. An hour of magic once a year – and only ever if it snows. Because everything changes under snow; the greasy underlay of city pavements, the rooftops and chimneys, the parked cars, plant-pots, milk-bottles and parking-meters all capped with foamy festive Guinness-heads of white. And now, as the first small flakes begin to settle like daisies on the lawn you can see them - the Ghosts of Christmas – coming from out of the white-edged shadows, the darkened doorways.
There’s little Miss Gale, who loved all the old films – White Christmas and Wonderful Life, but most of all The Wizard of Oz – looking so young in the falling snow, skipping out from under the yellow street-lights in her red-heeled Dorothy slippers. And there’s old Mr Meadowes, who used to walk to the school playing fields every day with his dog; and Mr Fisher, who was going to be a writer but never found his story; and Sally Anne, who only ever wanted to be pretty and good; and Jim Santana, who loved Elvis with such a passion that he ended up alone. All ghosts now, of course - ghosts like me, like the road itself, springing into wild half-life on Christmas Eve under the snow.
I know what to do. I’ve been doing it since Phyllis left, so many, many years ago. I miss her still, though we never did see eye to eye on the subject of Christmas. Myself, as you know, I’ve always loved the festive season. Queen’s Speech and mince pie. Phil Spector and Wonderful Life. Strings and strings of fairy-lights – not just on the tree, but all over the house, the roof, the garden, like some fabulous creeper that keeps on growing.
But Phyl was different. She felt the cold. Dreamed of the sun; worried about what the neighbours might think. And so now it’s just me. Me and the ghosts, and my Wall of Lights with the neon reindeer and the dancing penguins and the garlands and wreaths of every colour under and over the rainbow from here to Bedford Falls.
Here come the ghosts; and the Wall of Lights begins to sparkle. You can only go so far with matches, you know; nowadays we require something more high-tech. There’s something here for everyone - and not just lights, but sprigs of holly; magic lanterns; dancing snowmen with flashing eyes. There’s a big Santa Claus for little Miss Gale, and as she steps close in her red-heeled shoes he jumps out of his sleigh with a lion’s-roar of laughter and a clash of bells. Sally Ann puts a shy foot forward, and is suddenly clad in a gown of many colours while Jim Santana – dapper again in his sequinned suit, with a quiff as tall and shiny as a black silk topper – holds out his hand for the first dance. There’s mistletoe and mince pies and tiny cups of fruit punch; and all the time the music plays and Mr Fisher tells tales from Dickens, and the Wall of Lights pulses from orange to gold, to emerald, to blue, scattering shards of witchlight across the settling snow.
This is our moment. Under the lights, everyone shines; under the snow, everything is remade. It is falling faster now, and with it comes still more magic as with soft pale fingers it wraps up the past, erasing bad thoughts, bad deeds, bad memories, covering it all with a clean thick blanket of fresh white snow.
That’s why they come here - they, the ghosts. For just an hour, once a year, to be absolved; to begin again; to be, as snow falls and music plays, the people they always meant to be.
Five minutes to midnight. Will she come? Every year I wait for her, and every year I add more and brighter lights to the shining Wall in the hope that this year, she may – my ghost of Christmases past with her sweet face and her laugh like jingle bells. But every year I wait in vain; and it seems to me that the more lights I add, and the more ghosts come to Festive Road, the less chance I have of ever finding my ghost, my Phyllis, whom I lost on Christmas Eve between the Queen’s Speech and Morecambe and Wise; lost stupidly, to an early stroke, and who has spent every Christmas since at the Meadowbank Home, staring wanly - not speaking, not hearing, not quite asleep, but never awake – like a princess resting under snow, like a princess from an evil fairy tale with no magic and no happy ever after.
One minute left. My ghosts sense it; and quietly, begin to drift away. One by one I turn off the illuminations; Mr Fisher goes first, merging softly into the shadows; then Sally Anne, shivering as her ball dress turns back to rags. Then Miss Gale, her red shoes slipping on the icy path; then Jim, Mr Meadowes and all the rest; turning back - to tramps, pimps, whores, unwanted - as the fairy lights go out.
I leave just one as the church clock chimes the hour. I always leave the one, you know; even though the doctors have told me again and again that miracles don’t happen, even when it snows. I think I’ll sit out here for a time; the snow is unexpectedly soft, like feathers, and the single light – sky blue, the colour of hope – makes everything beautiful. Snow settles on my arms and face; swaddles me like a sleepy child; drops goodnight kisses on my eyes. And as I drift into the dark I think I can hear Phyl’s voice, quite close.
Merry Christmas , she says.
And suddenly –
just for that moment –