Ho, ho, ho


There are times when it can be difficult to keep your spirits up. A short story by PETER GILET.

Alphonse Starkadder (Starky to his friends) had always taken an interest in economic affairs and he had to admit, that June, that it had not been a good financial year. Take last Christmas, for instance.

It had certainly not been the merriest Christmas that he could remember, he reflected, as he picked his teeth and lay in his hammock on the back verandah, surveying the wilderness he called a garden. Not very merry at all, he mused, examining with a touch of awe the lump of gristle he had extracted.

First there had been that distant war that had dragged on for over a year. Everyone had thought that the savage little man with the name that suggested the villain in a Donald Duck comic (Idle Omen? Pinocle? Huffadaddy? ), would back down before the massed pipes and drums of the Western world, but he had not. A short, sharp battle had finally occurred in the sands or the jungles of whatever it was, and the entire English and American force had been decimated. The antiwar lobby had pressed its advantage for all it was worth, and within a month the troops, what was left of them, were home. This, and the massive economic depression that brooded over the world economy, meant that governments fell and heads rolled but that, as usual, was secondary to the real crisis. A mere epiphenomenon, as they say.

The real worry was that people weren't buying. For weeks before Xmas the sleigh bells had jingled, used car salesmen, artfully made up as Santa, had ho-ho-ho-ed from the television sets, glossy brochures depicting holly had cluttered the letter boxes with their promises of a capitalist cornucopia and amazingly good times to be had for the derisory sum of only $...! But people, if they listened to the ad, or read the brochure, which they generally did not, wistfully shook their heads and stuffed the glossy material in the big, chest-high, wheeled garbage bins we all affected, ironic symbols of our past affluence.

No-one was buying and business after business which had struggled to make ends meet through the year, hanging in there in expectation of the Exmas catch, now found themselves talking to grim-faced bank officials and signing papers.

And the heat of the season had wilted the flowers in the public gardens, had turned lawn into savanna, had left the country panting and breathless under endless, brazen skies. Towards the last days of the pre-Crassmas sell even the used car salesmen and the televised actors in red outfits seemed to slacken their pace, their spirit as wilted as the vegetation.

Yet the printed word remained optimistic, perhaps because it involved no direct confrontation with the disbelieving public. Editorials remained brisk. The daily press continued to speak of other things, to advocate stern reprisals against Omar Ibliss, and to speak as if the might that had held the British Empire together and had won the Second World War were still ours.

In fact, the military establishment had had to sack most of its men, and the handful of elderly generals and upper echelon bureaucrats funds.

The press also spoke of the Homeless, of the Drug Problem, of this or that powerful magnate going into receivership: all nice, homely crises. Anything to avoid that terrible reality that lurked, like sex at a vicar's tea party, at the edge of every conversation and at the back of every mind.

No-one was buying, and the reason was simply that large numbers of the wage-earning population had lost their jobs. Officially, unemployment was running at 20%. Unofficially it was more like 50% And in one of those curious actions, very much like a juggler's sleight of hand, this meant that businesses continued to go broke and that even more of us lost our jobs and could therefore not support the remaining enterprises with our dollars. Economics, pondered Starky, was full of these paradoxes.

Local councils stopped mowing the parks, and the wild oats tossed their heads proudly and symbolically all through that first half of the summer over patches of land that now came more and more to resemble vacant building allotments.

"Not enough staff", said some councils, caught short by the irate questions in Letters to the Editor, and in their own mail.

"Not enough petrol", said others, more cunning, hoping to blame yesterday's swart villain, Kublai Hussein, and often succeeding. One or two, careless of saving face, perhaps even resigned to their own demise and glad to be able to thrust the unpalatable truth down the public's gullet without fear of political reprisal, told the truth.

"Not enough money", they said.

And so things stayed, muted, rumbling quietly here and there, till after Boxing Day, no-one in authority or capable of making public statements wanting to rock the boat. In the dull, intercalary week that follows Krissmas, however, the wails of the shopkeepers sounded loud and long as they contemplated empty tills, crammed warehouses and imminent impoverishment.

Editorials spoke angrily, full of venom and righteous indignation, blaming, obliquely to be sure, the unemployed for their poverty, the public for their lack of public spirit, the Christmas shoppers for their lack of Christmas shopping, the average citizen for his/her meanness, the Green movement for sabotaging industry and farming, and the indolent spirit of the common people for just about everything. Sunday supplements and weekly columns swung in behind this attack and, as if by magic, or telepathy at the very least, the government announced stern and fatherly corrections. Public transport would be cut to save money. Welfare and hospital services would be cut. The postal service was reduced to operating one day a week.

Grass, people noticed, had begun to grow in the cracks in the footpaths, and some, such was their feckless nature, even rejoiced.

The tax base of the government collapsed a few days later. All public servants were "temporarily" retired for a six-month period, it was said, though everyone knew what that meant. The huge army of unemployed that this created would be fed on our stocks of unsold les, the dole itself being discontinued and the unemployed being declared exempt from rent. Water and electricity kept going, of course, but only during certain hours of the day, to conserve resources.

Market gardeners, however, prospered, and trucks carrying produce from the hills rumbled into town every morning and set up shop in the now vacant city parking lots. Many people, too, bought yachts and sailed off on extended ocean cruises. Others packed the family car and headed east, to the big cities of the Pacific coast and a racier kind of destitution.

Traffic became a lot thinner, and bicycles were now a frequent sight, even on the freeways. The police did not seem to mind this flagrant breach of the rules of the road, but then most of them had already gone into premature retirement, so it was difficult to tell.

Early in the new year the last editions of the city papers, already terribly thin for lack of advertising pages, hit the streets; television stopped transmitting about the same time. There were video shops, to be sure, but, apart from a few dedicated collectors of pornography, no-one watched much video. It was too difficult, with the electricity gone, to rig up all those car batteries.

Most people had begun to collect rainwater to supplement the discoloured and foul-tasting trickle from the taps. The big old plastic garbage bins with the wheels were ideal for this, especially since they were no longer used for garbage, which was not collected any more and didn't accumulate anyway. One put kitchen scraps directly into the garden these days.

Some diehards bewailed the fact that we were now totally incapable of competing on the world market, but others cynically pointed out that the world market no longer existed and that all the other countries had gone broke too. Others quailed at the prospect of an Indonesian invasion, but from what we heard on the short wave radios (whose operators had now acquired unexpected status), that republic had fallen apart and was busy devouring itself.

No, thought Starky, as he picked another piece of gristle from his teeth, Christmas had not been particularly merry this financial year, though people seemed to have cheered up a little lately. Perhaps it was the cooler weather. At any rate, wine and spirits, because they kept better than beer, were still in good supply, and Starky winced as he remembered all that he had consumed during the barbecue last night. The others, this fine morning in the middle of the year, lay sprawled about in various attitudes of abandon on the floor inside, but Starky had felt like a bit of fresh air.

He sipped his homemade lemon drink, his own private cure for hangovers, and hummed a few bars of "Silent Night", which, for some reason, had just popped into his head. The nearby highway was deathly quiet, even though this was a Tuesday morning, and he reflected how much things had changed since the festive season. In this case, for the good, since he had never liked the constant roar of traffic at his back door.

Still and all, they must think of getting hold of some sheep and cattle. The dog they had shot for the barbecue last night had been ay the least. He frowned and picked his teeth some more, then sighed contentedly as he thought of all those big fat sheep wandering round untended on farms these days. Next Christmas would be a lot merrier, he was sure, than the last one.