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Thursday, 2017-08-24, 1:05 AM
Every year Jake got his timing wrong. When the annual Christmas Eve blackout came, he was always Mister Wrong-Place-Wrong-Time. He’d just started to take a leak against Agnes Jones’s fence, and now the blackout ensured he couldn’t see a frigging thing. The piss was alternately running down his leg and splashing off his shoes into the thick snow.
He was in big trouble. Home was still a whole street away. Why did he agree to that last pint?Madness. Every year, the same dumb bravado: ‘Oh, they’ll never catch me.’
He zipped himself up and stood perfectly still, praying he wouldn’t hear the high-pitched sound of doom. Last year, the ten-strong choir had sung Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody. Two broken ribs were the outcome. He was particularly dreading Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day. He’d probably be hospitalised for weeks. He felt so fragile. Who wants to be in Emergency on Christmas Day? Could he melt into the shadows, cover that final couple of hundred metres like the stealthiest cat?
Then – Christ Almighty – a loud cough. Jake spun round and there they were – the multi-ethnic choir of orphans, each resembling a perfect angel. Monsters. They were holding their torches at chest level, pointing the beams straight upwards so that their faces looked otherworldly. What torture did they have in mind this year? Of course, like all angels, they were messengers, but no one wanted to receive the message they were here to deliver. Of course, it wasn’t these choristers in their white, winged costumes and cute halos who would land the crippling blows. Where were They?
Jake glanced around desperately. Flickering candles casting the softest of festive light illuminated the windows of the surrounding homes. He longed to be safely inside. His Mum would be standing at the bay window, wondering where he was, praying he was safe. Why did he have to get involved? From eleven o’clock until midnight everyone knew there was only one place to be – indoors. Because, of course, the streets were Their territory for one hour on Christmas Eve. The Dark Hour.
The angelic choir broke into their first song. God spare us – Greg Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas.
They said there'll be snow at Christmas
A violent shudder racked Jake’s body. Only one song could have spelt bigger trouble – Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s deadly duet: Peace on Earth/The Little Drummer Boy. You had to be thinking body bags if you were unlucky enough to hear that one.
Jake fell to his knees. ‘Please, no, I’m begging.’
But the choir simply sang more loudly. He was a goner. They would be alerted to where he was. They’d emerge from the shadows, full of their Christmas Eve mulled wine followed by the inevitable peach schnapps shooters to sharpen their aggression.
He wanted to push the angels to the ground. Grind their faces into the snow then rain snowballs packed with ice down on their haloed heads. They were the heralds of…
And there They were, finally, wearing those new bright-glo, orange zoot suits with luminous-green night cravats. There were five of them; real bloated like they’d been in a hi-flab, anti-health farm in Surrey for the last week. The word Millionaire was stamped in electric-blue shine writing on every inch of their suits.
Gold Sacks boys.
Every year their Merchant Bank gave them a leather sack full to the brim with Krugerrand and told them to go out and make sure the world knew exactly who they were. ‘Light up the Dark Hour, boys and girls. Show the poor what they’re missing. Restore the natural order of masters and slaves.’
‘Guess what, dosser?’ the leader of the Gold Sackers said over the strains of Greg Lake’s lyrics, aggro-max style, taking no prisoners and all that. ‘This is a reverse mugging.’
Jake, standing up straight, took a slurp from his can of Stomach Pump™ extra strong lager and laughed nervously. He decided he had no option but to give it the big bluff. ‘I thought for a moment you ponces said you were going to mug me.’
‘Not a mugging, numb balls,’ the fattest of the millionaires came back ten four, cool and creepy, ‘areverse mugging.’
Jake was seeing stacks of puzzle cubes in his mind. ‘What do you, um, mean?’ His mouth was going into stutter action. ‘I’ve never heard of a, er, you know, em, a reverse mugging.’
‘That’s because we’ve only just invented it, prick.’ The Gold Sackers all sniggered and pointed at the shine-writing on their suits to emphasise their fat-catness.
Jake’s brain was booking serious overtime. ‘Let me get this, um, straight. I’m the poor guy without any money and you’re the rich guys and you want, er, me to give you my money?’
‘Good try, muppet, but one hundred and eighty degrees in the negative,’ the head honcho hard-talked and signalled to his colleagues as the choristers sang even more lustily.
And I believed in Father Christmas
The five millionaires surrounded Jake. Act One – knuckleduster punch to the solar plexus. Doubling up, agony drill. Act Two – karate chop to the neck. Swinging brogues, parabolic trajectory, multiple direct hits in the groin. Tears and fears. Going down, all the way. Blackout curtains closing round his eyes.
The millionaires lifted Jake off his feet and launched him headfirst into a puddle, where three glow-in-the-dark used-condoms were floating on the surface. The Gold Sackers formed a circle around their victim, their orange bodies inflating and deflating like bad wheezes, and put the boot in. Afterwards, they unzipped themselves and urinated over him. Then came the final touch. They took out their bags of gold, counted out five coins each and threw them at Jake’s prostrate body.
‘So, now you know, dumb arse,’ the fattest man hissed. ‘A reverse mugging is when the rich guys kick the blue bells out of the poor guy, then give him their money. Now go find a job, cunt. Oh, and Merry Christmas.’
The attack was over. The reverse muggers left, laughing all the way to their parked flash cars.
The snow was falling more heavily, swirling in the wind. The angelic choir reached its crescendo.
They said there'll be snow at Christmas
With that, they turned and walked away, searching for fresh prey for their Dark Paymasters. Bastards.
Jake lay still in the water, too bruised to move, strapped to an aches and pains matrix, all scratchy and Heath Robinson. His mouth had been burst open and he spat out some blood.
‘Merry Christmas,’ he repeated as snow peppered the water. He imagined he could see ice crystals forming in the little pool. Would he be encased in a block of glittering ice, shining from the inside with its gorgeous gold treasure? At least he could afford to buy his Mum a nice present in the Boxing Day sales now.
The truth hit him like a slap in the face. He was in a shit-forsaken world and he’d just reached rock bottom, or rather the particularly nasty crap under the rock at the very bottom. That was when it happened, the beginning of the strangest thing.
Screw the feel-good factor, a voice whispered. The time has come for something different. The world is crying out for our medicine.
Jake raised his head, fearing the millionaires and their evil choir of familiars had returned, but no one was there.
Don’t you see? the strange voice continued. It’s time to spread the feel-bad factor. Feeling shit is going to be the ultimate fashion statement for next year.
Jake groaned and pushed his face closer to the surface of the puddle. He saw a little chunk of red shimmer-light falling from a candle in the window of a hooker’s apartment. The image wavered and was replaced by that of two well-scrubbed faces. He looked up and found himself in the unmistakable presence of two do-gooders, Jehovah’s Witnesses by the look of them, carrying neon Bibles.
‘Hello, have you had a personal crisis recently?’ The taller of the clean-cut young men stretched out a hand towards Jake.
Jake declined the offer and continued to lie in the puddle, watching flicker-trick red water entering the opening of the can of lager he’d drunk from earlier.
‘We can help.’ The second well-dressed young man crouched down, shining his torch straight into Jake’s face. ‘We’re part of the world’s largest family. You can be part of that family too. A problem shared…’
‘Is a problem multiplied.’ Jake wondered what had happened to the strange voice he’d heard earlier. ‘I’ve heard the tune before. It’s the words I don’t get.’ Fresh, and much more intense, pains began, as if someone had switched on an electric circuit linking every nerve-ending in his body. He was a lit-up Christmas tree short of the Christmas.
‘You shouldn’t look at it that way.’ The Witnesses introduced themselves as Oliver and Theodore.
‘Do you believe in the End of the World?’ Jake said. He rolled onto his back and stared at the black sky.
‘The End is a lot closer than most people imagine.’ Theodore had a knowing look in his eye. ‘Most people have no idea.’
‘No idea at all,’ Jake stated flatly.
‘It could be today,’ Oliver added.
For you, it certainly will be. It was the voice again.
‘Christ, did you hear that?’ Jake squealed.
‘Hear what?’ The Witnesses looked around, confused.
‘That whiney little voice. It’s threatening me.’
‘We heard nothing. Perhaps it’s an after-effect of your injuries.’
‘Maybe you’re right.’ Jake wondered if one of his ribs was broken. Jesus, maybe it was much worse…brain damage? He hauled himself out of the puddle and struggled to his feet. The streets of Newcastle were wet and dark, dime-detective-novel sleazy. A lot nicer than Jake’s native Glasgow, right enough, but lacking the fond fellow feeling inspired by all of that famous fraternal Glasgow kissing.
‘We must get you out of those wet clothes,’ Oliver said. ‘You’re soaked through.’
Jake brushed off a condom that had become entangled with the belt of his jeans. ‘You’re Jevvies, aren’t you?’
‘If you mean Jehovah’s Witnesses then we certainly are,’ Theodore answered. ‘Would you like to read some of our literature?’ He fished in his satchel then thrust a copy of Watchtower at Jake.
Jake waved it away. He wasn’t sure why he was even talking to God Squadders. Normally he’d have told them to fuck right off, no matter what condition he was in. Maybe he was feeling vulnerable because of that nasty little voice.
As soon as he thought that, the voice spoke again. You might believe you have a degree of control over what’s happening, but you couldn’t be more wrong.
‘What the fuck is happening?’ Jake moaned.
The two Jevvies exchanged curious glances. They’d seen demonic possession before.
‘Who’s talking to me?’ Jake shouted. ‘I demand to know.’
Tonight’s the night, Jakey boy, the voice replied. The stranger within becomes the stranger without.
‘I don’t frigging believe this.’ Jake cradled his wet head.
You’re finished, Jake, the voice continued. You had your chance and you blew it. Look at you. All washed up; a nobody going nowhere. For fuck’s sake, fat millionaires have beaten you up and now you’re talking to Jevvies. You couldn’t sink any lower. So, you see, it’s time for a new outfit to run the show. Get the picture?
‘Why don’t you pick on someone else, you bastard,’ Jake ranted.
You’ve been chosen, Jake, my boy. There’s nothing you can do about it. Just tell yourself it was written in the stars or some astrological bollocks like that.
Why not, you shitty cunt?
‘Get out of my head!’ Jake screamed.
I’ll be doing more that. I’ll be getting you out of your head.
And, with that, Jake knew he was in the biggest trouble of his life.
All of the lights came back on…Midnight.
Instantly, a huge hologram appeared in the night sky, showing breathtaking festive images. Grottoes and elves and cribs; snowy castles and cosy families and dining tables crammed with mouth-watering dishes. Parcels galore wrapped in the most expensive Christmas gift paper. Wine and song and merriment. Everyone laughing. A million bright smiles. A great, shining, dazzling, brilliant, multi-coloured star in the sky.
Three men wearing gaudy Christmas paper crowns emerged from a Speak-Easy. They were guffawing, patting each other on the back and wishing each other a Merry Christmas.
‘Merry Christmas to you too,’ they shouted to the Jevvies, but Theodore and Oliver scowled.
‘We may be Christians,’ the Jevvies said, ‘but we don’t celebrate Christmas.’
‘Eh?’ one of the three drunks said. ‘We’re professors of philosophy from East University. How can you be Christians if you hate Christmas?’
A little girl wandered by, clutching a handbag shaped like a sheep.
Jake glanced at the dilapidated building directly opposite: a closed-down wine bar called The Stables. The truth dawned. None of this was any accident. Here he was on Christmas Day, with a strange voice inside him trying to get out, with three wise men from the East – or Kings if you preferred – standing in front of him. There was a little shepherdess too. Throw in a couple of doubting Thomas’s, for good measure, and unjust persecution (well, a good beating up) by rich folk. Last and not least, a spectacular star in the sky. What did it all add up to?
Jesus Christ, Jake thought, I’m turning into Jesus Christ!!!
Cunt! the voice snarled.
Correction, Jake reconsidered: I’m turning into the Antichrist.
The hairs on his body stood on end. His hands shook. Colours and sounds ran into each other. Long-forgotten faces reappeared in his mind. Snippets of thousands of dimly remembered conversations strolled in and out of his consciousness as though they were promenading though Leazes Park. He had the feeling his mind was being emptied in preparation for being filled anew, with the memories of someone, or something, else.
Jake was getting desperate. Maybe the Jevvies’ Jehovah was just the guy he needed to help him fight back against the voice. Whatever it was doing to him, the process was well under way, and accelerating. He didn’t have much time left.
‘When the end comes, only Jehovah’s Witnesses will be saved,’ Theodore said.
‘Everyone else?’ Jake winced involuntarily as fresh pains convulsed through him.
‘We need only concern ourselves with the Saved.’
‘Saved from what?’
Jake understood perfectly. He sure as hell needed to be saved from the voice in his head. It was pushing him out of the driving seat. Adrenaline surged through his body and he started to sway.
‘The word of Jehovah can be overpowering,’ Oliver whispered. ‘We understand how you feel. I was the same my first time.’
Jake didn’t answer. He had an army of worker ants toiling away inside him, rearranging his molecular structure. The voice was gaining the upper hand and he was powerless to prevent it.
You’re on your way out, bozo, the voice mocked. Say hello to the dinosaurs ‘cos you’ll soon be every bit as extinct.
Jake futilely tried to comprehend the incomprehensible.
You don’t understand, do you? the voice said. I am a voice that hasn’t been heard for an Eternity. If you said, like those trashy newspapers you enjoy reading, that I was a god and that I had a taste for late-night beach crawling on the golden sands of ancient Greece, you’d be either bang on the mark or off your fucking trolley. Not that I intend to confirm the rumours either way.
What I’m prepared to say is this. I’m all strange things. I’m strangeness itself. Think of me as a kind of sickness; a sickness, I might add – and indeed I shall since I’m that sort of guy – that once it has touched you, can only be purged by an eruption. You may ejaculate, but not over the carpet, for fuck’s sake. Or vomit. Ditto. Maybe you’ll scream until the top detaches itself from your head, and so much the better.
The voice’s takeover was nearing completion. Jake ought to have been appalled, yet somehow he scarcely minded now. Maybe it was the best thing that had ever happened to him. At last – someone in charge who actually knew what he was doing.
Showtime, the voice declared. It had won. It prepared to declare its first audible words to a quaking world. Oh, how the fools would suffer.
‘My God, what’s happening to you?’ Theodore said to the former Jake.
The former Jake smiled, knowing his transformation must have rendered him a sight terrible to behold, striking fear into every heart. He attempted to speak aloud to the world for the very first time, but strange – wrong – words were in his mouth. What the hell was going on? He caught sight of his reflection in a window and vomited, making a nice Jackson Pollock mess on the snow.
He wasn’t the young, slim, godlike creature, in the most stylish of clothes, that he was expecting. Instead, he was tubby, old – with a thick white beard – and a large sack over his shoulder containing what felt like hard-edged, boxy parcels. And why on Earth was he wearing red, his least favourite colour?
‘Ho ho ho,’ he blurted involuntarily.
Then the realisation – the horrific, cold, unadulterated truth – struck home. He knew exactly what he’d become, and the terrible, appalling first words that were sure to spew from his mouth, mocking everything he stood for.
‘Merry Christmas everybody,’ he bellowed in a ridiculously jolly voice.
And Santa Claus set to work to belatedly deliver that year’s presents.