As this year grinds to an end, you’re not alone in thinking “thank fuck for that.” It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that 2016 has been one of the crappest in recent history. Now, when the media traditionally do their rundowns of the year, all they can show is the world’s run down. It’s been a car crash year, whether it’s the whitelash rise of Farage and Trump, the deaths of icons from Bowie and Cohen to Wood and Wogan, almost an entire Brazilian football team and, most personally, my friend Adrian (AA) Gill, or just because Inferno, one of the most ludicrous films in history, was released. It seems the unpalatable prospered and the good died.
Now is the time to think of them. The dead have a history of being summoned up as the year draws to its end. The Christmas ghost story is a meme that stretches back much further than Dickens’ Christmas Carol. A quarter of a century before Shakespeare wrote his Winter’s Tale, it was already a tradition for Barnabus in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1589) who says, “Now I remember those old women’s words, Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales, And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night.” It’s no coincidence that James Joyce’s The Dead is set at a Christmas time gathering.
In my own family it is Uncle Edgar who lives with the dead and loves to tell stories of our ghosts. He’s a fanatic for family trees and history, but then there’s not much to do out in the steppes of Norfolk where he lives, where the earth is steel hard in winter, the air is so cold just breathing in hurts and breathing out creates a fog thicker than Katie Hopkins. From his front window you can see for miles over the frozen levels, each tree a craze of lines in the flat December daylight.
Every other Christmas we schlep up to his house, a pretty converted vicarage with timber beams and a roaring fireplace beneath a mantelpiece hung with paperchains and festooned with Christmas cards mostly addressed to “Dear Valued Customer”. And every year there’s some relative he has discovered in the annals whom he reckons could just be a Royal bastard but more usually, with a bloodline chockful of cads and bounders, was a right royal bastard.
Edgar lives alone but he always invites his mate Steve to Christmas. Steve’s a single dad with a tiny daughter called Emily who is the proud product of parental overcompensation. ‘Spoilt’, is too slight a term, like slightly off milk; Emily is the full Petri dish of bubonic fungal growth. Last year she was dragging around one of the most expensive dolls known to humanity, an “American Girl” almost as big as her. The sort that have such realistic eyes you will them to blink. But Emily had absolutely no sense of value. The doll was clearly pretty new when I saw it but she had already smashed the right side of its face, the head was cracked and deformed. She didn’t care.
I had come up ahead of the rest of the family to help Edgar with the dinner and avoid having to go with the rest of my family “last minute” gift shopping.
Emily answered the door and sneered at my Tesco shopping bags. “Where are the presents?”
“Nice to see you too.” Inside, I pulled my frost bitten muddy shoes off and traipsed the shopping bags to the kitchen. Emily stayed in the front hall, heaving her doll on to a chair. I put the food away while she gave her American Girl a gruesomely detailed lecture on road safety.
Edgar came in. “I thought I heard someone.” He gave me a hug. “You’re the first then?”
“Came to help with the food.”
“Plenty of time for that.” We went through to his living room where the fire was already roaring.
We drank and chatted as the light faded outside and Edgar told the story of a distant cousin of my great grandfather who had been a very successful medium when Spiritualism was all the rage. Recently he’d found an old newspaper clipping about a spirit visitation she had conjured up but I never got to hear his ghost story because it was then the rest of my family turned up, setting off a maelstrom of voices and activity. It was just before dinner when my youngest asked about Steve, who still hadn’t come down.
“Oh,” Edgar sighed, “he’s, he’s not coming.”
I wondered for a moment if something bad had happened; that was why he was looking after Emily.
“Emily, you know Emily,” Edgar said. We all nodded. “Last week she had an accident. Just outside here. He pointed at the dark window and we all looked up for a moment to see our reflections in the black glass. “Playing with a doll. Run over. By a van. Crushed her skull. Steve’s just not up to anything. She was his life.”
“But…” I started looking around for Emily.
I ran to the front hall. The doll was still there on the chair by the door. The head crushed, the plastic skull cracked, the glass eyes staring.
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