A tale for Christmas

Season’s greetings. Some aspects of the story that I am about to recount may seem familiar. A similar tale is often told at this time of year.

It is late at night on Christmas Eve. A large office on the top floor of a building in Horseferry Road in London is illuminated only by a single green-shaded, banker’s desk lamp. The lamp barely glows, as the standard bulb has been replaced by one of a much lower power. There is also a noticeable chill in the air. Both of these are manifestations of the severe cuts to its operating budget that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has imposed on the Department for Transport, whose building this is. This pruning amounts to thirty-seven per cent by 2020, the most-swingeing reduction of all government departments.

Just a few miles across London, all lights are blazing in the offices of HS2 Ltd in Canary Wharf. There are no budgetary constraints apparent here, as expenditure is regarded as investment in infrastructure. On the contrary, cost appears to be no object and HS2 Ltd staff members, drawing salaries previously unheard of for government employees, have taken over from the Canary Wharf banking community as the big spenders in the local restaurants and cocktail bars.

Barely discernible in the gloom of the office in Horseferry Road, a figure is sitting at a desk hunched over a minister’s red box. Also in the shadows on the office wall is a framed election poster; it is just possible to make out that the coal-besmirched face beaming from the poster also belongs to the lone figure working at the desk. The man is Ebenezer, occupant of the office and Transport Secretary.

Despite the gloom and chill, Ebenezer liked working alone in his office at night. Were he to remove to his small flat a few streets away his parsimonious nature would not permit him to indulge in any better conditions, and by working in his office he could save himself the meagre costs of using his own electricity. When his work on the red box was completed he could return home and crawl into bed without the need of the extravagance of heating and lighting.

As he worked through the papers in the box, much of it being mundane and not requiring all of his attention, he allowed his thoughts to wander to a strange event that had happened when he had been working in that same office two nights ago. He couldn’t be sure whether he had in reality been visited by a spirit, or whether he had dropped off and just dreamt it, but his recollections were that he had actually seen one of his predecessors as Transport Secretary, Jacob, materialise in front of him, with much rattling of chains.

Strangely, Jacob had identified himself as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and would only intone the sentence, “Where a project that is in the national interest imposes significant financial loss on individuals, it is right and proper that they should be compensated fairly for that loss”, repeated over and over again.

Ebenezer was very familiar with these words. If Jacob was intent upon haunting him, then reciting this sentence was all that was really necessary – he didn’t need to rattle his chains as well. Ebenezer was sick of hearing this sentimental claptrap. It was all right for Jacob to have made what the residents affected by HS2 property blight had taken to be a promise, after all he was well out of it, moved on to much richer pastures, leaving Ebenezer to carry the can. It was not in Ebenezer’s nature to make such rash promises himself, and how on earth did Jacob expect “fair compensation” to be funded; it would have been alright if property compensation was financed from the bottomless pit that was the HS2 Ltd budget, but it was Ebenezer’s own decimated departmental budget that had to support it.

If truth be known, Ebenezer was resentful of Jacob anyway. After all, Jacob only had to suffer being at Transport for a year and a half before moving to the plum job at Defence, and then on to even higher status at the Foreign Office. Ebenezer, in contrast, had been languishing at Transport for more than three years now, and there hadn’t been the merest whiff of a better post.

But this hadn’t been the only strange occurrence in recent days; Ebenezer recalled that another spirit, who had told him he was the Ghost of Christmas Present, had appeared to him only that previous night. Although this apparition was little more than a shimmering and wispy cloud of ectoplasm, Ebenezer felt that its form bore a distinct resemblance to a knighted Member of the HS2 Select Committee. Ebenezer recalled how the Ghost of Christmas Present had raised a ghostly and wizened hand and extended a bony finger to point to an image that appeared on the wall of the office, as if some spirit-world projector was running. The image that he saw was clip after clip showing witnesses in front of the Select Committee, all with their own tales of how HS2 blight was ruining their lives, shattering their financial plans and threatening their mental well-being.

Those readers who are familiar with the novella A Christmas Carol – and I guess that will be every reader – will expect that Ebenezer will be visited by yet another apparition as he works in his office on Christmas Eve night, and that what that spirit has to show him of his future will shock him into a complete change in his nature, so that he awakes on Christmas morning a kind, generous and compassionate embodiment of the spirit of Christmas. Here, I’m afraid, I’m going to have to disappoint you, dear reader. Christmas is such a busy time and it’s easy to become muddled with dates and be in one place when we should be in another – we’ve all done it, and I’m afraid that it happens in the spirit world also. So it was that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come double-booked for Christmas Eve and never got to Horseferry Road that night. So the person who woke up on 25th December was the same old miser who had gone to bed the night before, and the blighted thousands had to endure yet another Christmas without any hope of relief.

As Tiny Tim was heard to say: “God bless us, everyone!”

PS: The characters depicted in this blog, and their characteristics and actions, are totally fictional. The desperate situation of many residents along the proposed route of HS2 is, unfortunately, not an invention and is a very real, and ever-present, feature of their lives.

Those in favour of budget cuts will be pleased to note my gesture of reducing the number of spirit visitations by twenty-five per cent from the extravagant four in the original story.



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