A Christmas Carol Less Travelled
It must have been the cheese. At least, that’s what I said to my wife the following morning as she grilled me, together with the sausages, in the kitchen.
The previous evening had indeed been a feast, rounded off by a fine stilton and port, the latter being passed around the table at such a speed that I hardly had time to eat the former. This took its toll and as the last friends said their goodbyes, I retired for the evening and soon drifted off into a deep slumber.
As deep slumbers go it was most enjoyable, but all too soon the alarm on my iPhone was ringing and I reached out, half awake, to hit ‘snooze’. To my great surprise it was only midnight and while I accept that I might have mis-set the alarm, given that I was ever so slightly worse for wear by the end of our celebrations, it was gone 2.00am when we closed the door behind the last to leave.
It was dark. One would imagine that it was also silent but downstairs I could hear the front doorbell going ‘ding dong’. At first, I thought it might have been some prankster but on the fourth ‘ding dong’ I climbed out of bed to investigate.
The cat met me on the stairs, her curiosity being as great as mine, and watched as I made my way into the hallway to open the door, a challenge in itself as my wife is top-notch on security. I was presented with an elderly chap, dressed in a suit, which seemed to glow in the dim of the energy saver bulb of the porch light.
“Can I help you?”, I said, as I admired his shiny shoes.
“More to the point, can I help you?”, said the figure, who held a pen in one outstretched hand, and a printed form in the other. “Please can you sign here, here and here”.
“Sorry, but what’s this all about?” I said, most conscious of the lateness of the hour.
The figure sighed. “I am the Ghost of All Things Past. Tonight, I am the first of three Spirits that will visit you,” he said, clearly bored with having to explain the whole ‘three ghosts routine’ to yet another lost soul in the universe.
“Oh excellent!” I said, “But why the form?”
“Legislation! You wouldn’t believe how complicated my job has become. It really is quite wearisome,” the figure was looking downcast and shook his head slightly, “I need you to sign this so I can access your records, GDPR all that; then there’s our terms and conditions, insurance, and a whole load of stuff from the marketing department.” He momentarily raised his eyes skywards.
“Understood,” I said, and gleefully signed away my rights.
“Great, follow me,” said the Spirit, folding the form and placing it in one breast pocket, and his pen in the other.
“Where are we going,” I asked?
“You’ll see” he said, and with that we marched off into the night, he in his shimmering suit, and I in my ‘World’s Best Dad’ pyjamas.
Before long we found ourselves in a clearing in a yellow wood where the path diverged. A young man was stood there, clearly uncertain as to which route to take, and who peered down one path and the other as far as he could, to where they bent in the undergrowth. I looked quizzically at the Spirit.
“That’s you,” said the Spirit, “Thirty years ago, deciding what to do with your life.”
“I was a handsome chap,” I said, beaming with a certain amount of pride in my younger self.
“Seriously?” said the Spirit, “who told you that, your mum?”
I ignored him and continued to stare at the young man, trying to remember what I was doing all those years ago. Then suddenly it dawned on me.
“Oh, I know where we are. We’re at the beginning of Robert Frost’s, The Road Not Taken.”
“That’s right,” said the Spirit, nodding his head, “And which path did you take?”
“I took the one less travelled by,”
“Correct again,” said the Spirit, “and how did that work out for you?”
Remembering the last line of the poem I said, with some confidence, “It has made all the difference”.
“Yeah, about that, what does that actually mean?” asked the Spirit, tilting his head to one side.
“To be honest I’m not sure, it’s one of those enigmatic lines in English literature supposed to make you think.”
“Hmmm…,” mused the Spirit, “it’s amazing what you can find on Wikipedia. Come on,” he gestured for me to follow him as we made our way down the grassy lane.
Progress was slow, much to the annoyance of the Spirit, who kept on looking at his watch. A pointless exercise if you ask me as it seemed to have stopped working, and always said midnight. But, for me there was so much to see. Thirty years of my life, all the people I had met, the countries I had visited, the things I had achieved, all the memories, both good and bad, were laid along its route.
But, by and by, we came to another clearing.
“Where are we now?” I asked.
“Do you not recognise it?” said the Spirit.
“No, I don’t remember……….” I paused as the penny dropped, “wait a minute, is this where ‘the road less travelled by’ ends?”
“Exactly,” said the Spirit.
“What, just in another clearing”
The Spirit nodded.
I voiced my disappointment, “I thought it would be more glamorous, like have a Starbucks or something”
“Not enough footfall; you know, the whole ‘road less travelled’ thing.” The Spirit pointed a finger at me, “Aren’t you studying marketing?”
“We cover this next module,” I said and strode on into the clearing before he could come back at me. But when I turned around, the path was empty.
I stood there for some moments wondering what to do when another figure came striding towards me. “Put this mask on,” he said, “Regulations!”.
“Oh right,” and pulled the loops behind my ears. “So, who are you?”
“I am the Ghost of Present Day”
“Aha, thought so!” I said triumphantly, “And where are we?”
“We are in the Present Day”
“You don’t say!”
“Come’” said the Spirit, “Let me show you something.”
The Spirit took a few steps and pointed to a bench in the clearing. Upon it was sat a man, who I instantly recognised to be me. I was surrounded by friends and seemed to be enjoying life, free of the strains of travel that the previous path had inflicted upon me.
“I look very jolly.”
“Yes,” said the Spirit, “Content even.” He gave a wry smile.
“Well, that’s good,” I said, puffing out my chest a bit, “You can’t argue with that!”
The Spirit looked at me for some moments.
“Okay Spirit, what’s your point?”
The Spirit took a while to answer and then said in a low voice. “I read your article in last month’s OS magazine.”
“Gosh,” I said, “I didn’t know you were on the circulation list!”
“Oh yes, the chaps at the office email me every month,” said the Spirit, noting my surprise.
“They do a great job. I must remember to send them a card.”
The Spirit ignored me. “In last month’s article you said you were content to live with your faults.”
“That’s right, what’s wrong with that?”
“Take a look around,” said the Spirit.
I did. Paths seemed to go in all directions. There was so much choice.
“Do I take the wrong path? Do I make a real hash of things Spirit? Is this what you’re trying to tell me?”
But he was gone. Once again, I found myself alone in the middle of the Yellow Wood.
It was getting quite dark and chilly by the time the third Spirit arrived. I had taken off the mask and he didn’t seem to mind. “Well, that’s one relief,” I thought to myself.
“So, let me guess, you’re the Spirit of Things to Come?” I said, “I must say of all the Spirits I fear you most.”
He said nothing but pointed to the bench in the clearing. I was still sat there, but time had clearly taken its toll.
“So why am I still here?” I said, “Why didn’t I take a new path?”
The Spirit motioned for me to look yet closer because there was something wrapped about me.
“Spirit, are these Dr Samuel Johnson’s Chains of Habit?”
The Spirit nodded.
“So, I got so used to sitting on the bench that I never took another path?” I said, puzzled, and disappointed.
The Spirit nodded once again.
I thought for a moment. “Oh, I get it! Just because I’m accepting of my own faults, doesn’t mean I can’t try to improve.”
“Alleluia!” said the Spirit, throwing his arms in the air, “come on, let’s go home, this place gives me the creeps.”
“That’s rich coming from you,” I said, and then added, “I thought you couldn’t speak.”
“Nah, that’s just for effect. I actually teach economics during the day.”
I smiled, and then, in a serious tone, asked. “Tell me Spirit, are these visions of the things that will be, or visions of the things that may be?”
But just as I was waiting for an answer, the alarm on my iPhone went off again. It was 7.00am. I jumped out of bed, drew back the curtains, and opened the window. My neighbour was walking to work to catch the 7.15am train to Charing Cross.
“George, what year is it?” I shouted.
“Err, it’s 2021 Jan, are you okay?”
“Never been better mate,” and quickly got dressed, while my wife shouted something in the vernacular about shutting the window and curtains.
“Jan, what are you doing?” she asked, in a tone that suggested she was not best pleased.
“I’m going on a journey!” I said emphatically.
“A journey? Where to?”
“Down a road less travelled,” I said.
“Oh, will you be long?”
“I’m not sure; you know how ways lead on to ways.” And with that I ran downstairs to write my New Year’s resolutions.
It has been the strangest of years. For some it has taken the momentum out of life. But Christmas is a great time to reflect, to make those resolutions which hopefully will change life for the good, to make us the people we want to be, not the people we are.
Thank you to Charles Dickens, Robert Frost, Dr Samuel Johnson, and my many other literary friends who have kept me company these past twelve months. And my thanks to all of you, those I’ve met, those who have contacted me, those who share our appreciation of our wonderful community.
Of course, at the centre of this community lies the School. It has faced much adversity with the pandemic but has prevailed; in fact; more than prevailed, it has been outstanding, and has continued to deliver an excellent academic programme despite all impediments and difficulties. No wonder it is busier than ever before. Well done to those that have made this happen. To them, and to you, I wish a most Merry Christmas and a Prosperous New Year. As always, I shall raise a glass to you on Christmas day as I think of Winder against an evening sky.
Cheers and my very best wishes
Jan van der Velde
Chairman, OS Club