A Christmas Tale
General Despair’s Mission to Save Christmas — Part 1
3pm, December 23rd, 2020, in a rusty shipping container just outside Didcot, Oxfordshire.
“Welcome, welcome”, boomed General Despair. Too loud, given the small and damp army barracks they were in.
“Thank you all for coming. You have each been selected because of your unique skills.” He looked around at his new team. As he would soon find out, they were among the most useless people on earth.
“Major General History, you are here for your wisdom. Major Itty, we need your knowledge of politics and community development. Private Parts, you are our pubic health expert. And Corporal Punishment…”
The Corporal had momentarily left the room. The General looked out of the door but could not see her. He shouted to the trailer in the field next door, frustrated, “has anyone seen the Corporal? Would someone please bring back Corporal Punishment?”
The carpet was somewhere between brown, green and grey. The table was that fake-wood-looking-plastic. There was some cold tea and coffee on the side, and a plate of digestives, covered in cellophane. No one wanted to touch them. Perhaps on account of the virus? Perhaps on account of their boring tastelessness?
“We have a task of upmost importance ahead of us” the General continued. “It is up to us to save Christmas.”
“Really?” Said the Corporal, re-entering the room, eating a mango. “Why? You guys aren’t even religious in this country. What do you care about Christmas?”
“Good to have you back Corporal, let me explain. And what have you got there? You didn’t see we provided snacks?”
The Corporal looked sceptical.
“Anyway,” the General continued, “as I was saying, this is a matter of life and death. Christmas must be saved. There is nothing the British people want more than to feel that fabricated sense of commercial joy again, just as we do every year. It is in our blood. It is in the air we breathe. If we do not save Christmas, I am not convinced we will survive. Our minds will melt into a pit of depression and we will never be the same again.”
“What about the virus?” asked the Corporal. “That is definitely in the air we breathe.”
“Focus, Corporal” the General snapped back. “Think big. Health is one thing, but we are talking about wellbeing here. Much, much more important. Plus, I have had orders from high that Christmas spending must equal the annual GDP of a middle-income country. Otherwise our economy will fail, our minds will melt into a pit of depression and we will never be the same again.”
“Anyway”, the General calmed, turning to the others in the room. “Major General History, it’s such an honour. I have heard great things about your work. Tell me, you have studied the spread of organisms from China to Europe, and then throughout the world?”
“Exactly”, the Major General smiled proudly. “It is really very interesting.”
“I can imagine, and exactly what we need right now. Someone who understands how a virus can spread exponentially around the world in a matter of months. How modern forms of transport may facilitate this. And how modern technology may help us defeat this thing and save Christmas!”
“Erm, yes, well, that is not exactly what I bring to the table.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, General, the organism that I have studied is millet.”
“Millet? The grain?”
“The breakfast cereal? Kellogg’s Corn Flakes!?”
“No no General. That’s maize. Millet is very different, with an entirely different history that…”
“This is going to be more difficult than I thought” the General interrupted. “At least you can tell us about how it moves around the world?”
“Well, General, that’s the other thing. I don’t really study how millet moves now. I’m an archaeologist you see. I’m more interested in how things used to be than how they are today. They used to be very different you know? It is most interesting.”
General Despair had gone a little pale. He turned to the next new member of his team.
“Major Itty, I see from your CV that you have experience in politics and community development? This sounds perfect for us. We need someone who understands what people think. How to get things done. How to promote social distancing in the community. The sort of community development that can help the British people protect themselves from the virus and save Christmas!”
“Yes, exactly General”, Major Itty replied. “You will be so interested to hear about our latest work. We are trying to save a local museum.”
“It is such a nice place. Small, with a great interactive collection for people to pick up and play with. You know how it is these days. People love interactive museums.”
“Erm, Major Itty, you don’t think you are missing the bigger picture here? At a time when it is better for people to stay apart, do you really think a small, interactive museum is the best thing?”
“But General, you said it yourself, this is about wellbeing. If we don’t save the museum, people will have nothing to do with their time. Their minds will fall into a pit of depression, and they will never be the same again!”
General Despair was slightly confused, his own words turned against him. He was not sure what to say. He turned and looked at his new Private, Parts.
“Private, it says here that you are a public health analyst. That sounds good. Exactly what we need with a pandemic on the loose. You will be able monitor the virus and tell us what is going to happen next.”
“Erm, not exactly General. You see, I have been monitoring the impact of the pandemic on people’s wellbeing. I know remarkably little about health, per se.”
“You lot are even more obsessed with wellbeing than me!” Screamed the General. “Well then, tell me, what effect is all this having on our wellbeing?”
“I’m glad you asked. We’ve been monitoring it closely for nearly a year now, day in day out. And I can tell you, with some confidence, that people have found it stressful, experiencing a small bump in anxiety. Especially at first. And we don’t like anxiety. Not at all. Things have got a bit better since then. But not back to the bliss we all felt before the pandemic. Not that we really remember how we felt before the pandemic. So, basically, our best guess is that things got a bit worse, then people got used to it and things got a bit better again, and now they may be getting worse again.”
“That’s your best guess after a year of work!? My cat could have told me that! Do they pay you for this sort of analysis?”
“Rather well actually.”
“This is going to be worse than I thought.
“Moving on to our last member of the team. I think we can safely say, given the rest of you, that we are all in desperate need of Corporal Punishment. Corporal, dare I ask what skills you bring to the table?
“Please, General”, the Corporal was panicked. “You’ve got to get me out of here! I am stuck in this crazy country and now I can’t get home. There are no flights, and my country has closed its borders. Please! I shouldn’t be here!”
“What?! Are you illegal? Am I going to have to report you to the Home Office?”
“No! I’m perfectly legal, for all the thousands of pounds it has cost me. But I don’t fit in here. The people think I’m too harsh, and I think they are too soft. And now with this pandemic the walls have come down and I am trapped in this mad house of coughing, shopping, boozing, and general hapless chaos, among a population who seem to be doing their very best to catch this virus however they can!”
“You mean to tell me, Corporal, that you are not British, and you do not consider yourself eternally blessed and grateful for being here? You are even more crazy than the others! This is the Great Britain. ‘Great’ is in the name!”
The Corporal stepped back from the table and admired a 19th century map of the world hanging from the wall.
“Our task is great, ladies and gentlemen. The virus is attacking Christmas, and we are last line of defence. You may not feel as though you are up for it. You may be scared. You may be apprehensive. You may not really understand what is going on. But this country is relying on us. The world is relying on us. And we will beat this! We will save Christmas!”