Alby Stone: Gaudete

Copyright © 2019 Alby Stone

My heart sank as soon as he shambled into view. I don’t know who he thought he was fooling in that get-up. A school blazer and cap, grey flannel shorts with a catapult protruding from one pocket, a skewed Old Etonian tie, a prosthetic scab on his right knee and an artful smear of mud on the left – he looked utterly ridiculous and still instantly recognisable. You know, that deliberately unruly thatch of hair, the furtive expression, the round-shouldered stoop… Did he really think he could get away it? Well, probably. After all, he’s made a career out of appearing to be what he’s not. But he didn’t recognise me. My disguise was a far superior affair.

Allow me to explain. My usual occupation is rather different. But at this time of year there is far less demand for my normal services. Peace on earth and goodwill to all men, women too in these otherwise unenlightened times. Yes, people might not mean it, but by convention they say it and generally do it. Happy this and merry that, presents for colleagues and relatives they can’t stand, wishes of health and prosperity to people they’d rather see dead in a ditch. It’s mild stuff. Hypocrisy of the most mundane kind, barely registering on the old Sin-O-Meter. Not worth the candle. So for a couple of weeks in midwinter I tend to be at a bit of a loose end. Besides, I have to keep my employees busy. It doesn’t take much effort to repurpose a demon and make a Krampus or a Turoń or whatever. Only a change of name, really. Quite a few of us extra-human types work more than one job. You know what they say, a change is as good as a rest. For me, the change is effected by bleaching my hair and beard, temporarily deactivating my brimstone glands, and stuffing my face for a few weeks in the run-up to Christmas so that my usual svelte six-pack loses definition and is enlarged appropriately. Hadn’t you realised? Those appalling office parties, awkward team lunches, the vile socks and inappropriate ‘fun’ gifts, the anodyne carols, Seventies Christmas hits on an endless loop in the supermarket, indigestion and hangovers, the debt and regret – yep, that’s all down to me. Sideswipe punishments for poor self-control, petty envy, and not treating your elderly aunt well. Only a thin line separates Saint Nick from Old Nick. A costume, the belly and beard colour, when you get right down to it. Mind you, getting the weight off after the Yuletide blow-out is a bugger.

So there I was, parked in a tacky Christmas display in an equally tacky shopping mall, bouncing small kids on my knee and listening to their Christmas wish-lists. I was rather enjoying myself. Kids are alright, in the main. They haven’t grown into the worst adult vices and the vast majority haven’t yet done anything bad enough to warrant my alter-ego’s attention. None of them tell the whole truth, but their little white lies are charming rather than alarming. Sure, I’ll see quite a few of them later in their lives, or after, but in childhood they get the benefit of the doubt. Besides, this is a holiday for me too, you know. I like to get into the festive spirit. A plate of mince pies, a box of chocolates, the odd nip from a hip flask of Glenmorangie with a splash of Highland Spring, the company of innocents, the joy of bringing joy for the sheer hell of it – my idea of heaven. Better than the real thing, in fact. I have a long memory.

And I certainly remembered the oafish creature swaying in my direction, spearheading a small army of shades-and-shoulder-holster minders who were clearing the punters out, sealing entrances and even casting suspicious glances in my direction. But what was he doing there, and why was he dressed as a schoolboy? No – he couldn’t be. Surely not, not even a shameless chancer like him. Could he? Really? Oh yes, of course he bloody well could. He barged into my grotto like a dyspraxic bull in a cluttered china shop and plonked his overfed arse squarely on my knee, which nearly buckled under the strain, then grabbed hold of my beard to steady himself. I have no idea how I managed to stay in character. Nor, indeed, how I refrained from summoning a brace of strapping Krampusse to stuff him in a sack and drag him down to that place where he’ll end up one day anyway. Or what possessed me to play along with his pathetic ruse.

‘Ho, ho, ho,’ I said. ‘Hello, little boy. What’s your name?’

‘Oh – um – ah,’ he replied. ‘It’s – er – Bo… er, Bob. Bob, um, Smith. Yes, that’s right. Bob. Bob Smith.’

 ‘Well, is it Bob or Bob-Bob?’

His eyes shifted rapidly from side to side. ‘Bob-Bob.’ He can never resist over-egging anything. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d called himself Rex Mundi.

‘Yes,’ I said, with a sage nod. ‘You strike me as a two-bob kind of boy. Tell me, have you been good this year?’

The eyes oscillated wildly. ‘Gosh, I, I, I, I, I, er, um, well, you know. I may have slipped once or twice, in a microscopic way. Nemo mortalium omnibus horis sapit, and all that.’

Acta deos numquam mortalia fallunt,’ I replied. That’s not actually Latin for ‘don’t bullshit a bullshitter’, but in the context it amounted to the same thing, though with a much sharper edge. Bob-Bob blanched, which was the response required of a man who’d built a glittering career out of not entirely fake gaucheness, lies, cheap publicity stunts and Latin quotations to signal the quality of his education and membership of the ruling class, but he retained his composure. Credit where it’s due. The man had been born with more brass neck than a steampunk robot giraffe. ‘Have you told any lies?’ I asked.

He puffed out his chest. ‘I have never lied,’ he lied.

I raised my impressively back-combed white eyebrows. ‘Never? What about the stuff on the side of the bus? And that letter to your boss? And, unless I’ve dreamed the last couple of decades, just about every public utterance you’ve ever made?’

‘Fake news. Humbug, balderdash, tommyrot and fiddlesticks. Nonsense propagated by envious gnashgabs and malicious snollygosters.’

‘You mean honest journalists and the people you’ve shafted over the years. Who, one assumes, have some awareness of the law with regard to libel and slander.’

‘Disagreeable fustilarians to a man. And woman.’ He frowned. ‘I say, have we met before? You seem awfully familiar.’

‘We have indeed met prior to today,’ I told him. ‘Just before that rather entertainingly destructive referendum. You wanted to be Prime Minister and I made it happen, even if it was against my better judgement. We made a deal, remember? You signed a contract and paid top dollar for my services. Sixty-five million, if memory serves. Plus one. I wonder who that particular one could be?’

Naturally, he’d failed to fully grasp the implications of our contract, and I daresay the inevitable consequences will come as a complete surprise. I’d bet good money that he believed he was destined for the Other Place, and I don’t mean the House of Lords. It takes more than an obsolete vocabulary and a smattering of Latin to make a man clever, even if it does impress the plebs. Bob-Bob was the worst kind of fool, the sort who thinks he’s a genius because he’s somehow managed to con people even thicker than himself to vote him into office. And he was the epitome of an even worse type of scoundrel, those who think the circumstances of their birth and membership of particular clubs entitle them to power, irrespective of their stupidity, incompetence and moral bankruptcy.

‘But you were less – and now you say you’re more – and why are you dressed up like that?’

‘I could ask you the same question. But as I already know the answer, I won’t. As for me, I have two jobs, this one being strictly seasonal. A bit like you with your political career and the newspaper columns. Anyway, let’s get down to business. What would you like for Christmas?’

He shuffled about on my knee, clearly in some discomfort. I hoped it was haemorrhoids. They always go well with a nice hot poker, I think. Or those eye-watering barbed butt-plugs invented by one of my more creative lieutenants, which come with a matching spiked ball-gag and optional gimp suit lined with razor wire. Not that it would a one-time choice between the fire-iron or the BDSM gear, obviously. Eternity is a long time, and that’s an awful lot of hours to fill, so flexibility and innovation are essential. Really, the most vexatious problem was deciding where Bob-Bob would be quartered. He was equally qualified for the Second, Fourth, Eighth and Ninth Circles of my realm. Maybe I could literally quarter him? That might be amusing. I may be an old hellhound but I’m open-minded and always up for a new trick.

‘I, ah, would like to be Prime Minister.’

‘You’re already Prime Minister,’ I pointed out. ‘That one’s done and dusted. A one-shot deal, no repeats, in accordance with the rules. You have it, now it’s up to you to hold on to it. Wouldn’t you rather have a train set or a set of carved wooden soldiers? An orange? A compendium of games? An X-Box or something similar?’

‘But there’s a General Election coming up. I might lose to that terrorist-hugging Marxist vegetarian surrender-monkey crank with the beard. The country would be ruined. Taking back control might be delayed. Or worse. So I want to be re-elected.’

Nothing to do with him losing the limelight or getting pushed off the gravy train, of course. ‘Let me get this straight. You turned to Satan – now you’re turning to Santa?’ Same difference, you might say, now that you know the facts; but there is a distinction, to me at any rate. And it involves another kind of contract. One deal depends on bad intent – the other requires basic goodness. ‘Let me repeat the question,’ I went on, stifling a sigh. ‘Have you been a good boy?’

He took off his generic school cap and tousled his hair just a fraction more. ‘Of course I have.’

I shook my head. ‘No you haven’t. You’ve been bad so often I’ve lost count. Lied to everybody about pretty much everything. Not just little fibs but whopping great porkies. You’ve betrayed your friends and supposedly loved ones. You’ve shown a distinct lack of compassion. You’ve shifted blame onto the innocent. And that’s just in the last few months. Going further back, you have a frankly jaw-dropping record of elitism, arrogance, hypocrisy, cronyism, self-promotion, venality, bullying, treachery, borderline bigotry, dishonesty, evasiveness, insensitivity, laziness, poor judgement and incompetence. The only surprise – except for the fact that a lot of people have been stupid enough to vote for you – is that you haven’t ended up behind bars. And I don’t mean pulling pints and short-changing drunks. Do you really think you deserve such an expensive Christmas present? Because I bloody well don’t, and you wouldn’t have it even if it was within my remit.’

‘But my country needs me. Only I can make Britain great again,’ he proclaimed, adopting a facial expression that he presumably thought noble and heroic, though it actually made him look like he’d been caught with his hand down his trousers outside a girls’ school.

‘You’re the last person your country needs. You’ve never grasped the fundamental point of democracy – that government exists to serve all the people, not just to bolster the interests of bankers and big business and your posh chums. You don’t understand the responsibility of leadership. Salus populi suprema lex, as Cicero said to me shortly before his execution. You see ordinary people as serfs and cannon-fodder at best, and those who don’t or won’t or can’t serve your purposes are just vermin.’

‘Well, yes,’ he said. ‘But is that really an obstacle? That’s the natural order, isn’t it? Some are born to rule, and others to do all the tiresome menial stuff. Hierarchy is a historical constant. The people need to be ruled. Semper idem. Everyone accepts that we can’t all wear the top hat.’

Thinking about it, history was liberally peppered with leaders who were indubitably much worse specimens of humanity than Bob-Bob. And if not him, there were certainly those in his party I would hesitate, on humanitarian grounds, to employ as tormentors of the damned, let alone lead a nation. Let’s be honest, even the most vile dictators were either elected to office or had, initially at least, popular support. It’s how they got there. In my experience, turkeys tend to vote for Christmas with great enthusiasm.

‘Fair point. But look here, in my other professional capacity I made sure you became nicely positioned to take over the reins when your predecessor cocked up. Remember the referendum? I sent one of my top operatives to ensure that went your way.’

‘You did? I don’t remember anyone with, er, you know.’ He raised his hands to his head and made index-finger horns.

‘You wouldn’t have noticed him, but he was there. Gone freelance now. I suggest you give him a try. But I can’t give you what you want.’

‘Why on earth not?’

‘What I did for you before was a contractual obligation. A one-off, as I said. This is a different kettle of fish. Everyone knows that Santa doesn’t actually provide Christmas presents. They come from family and friends, not the North Pole.’

He was dismayed. For a moment I thought he was going to burst into tears. ‘You mean Santa isn’t real?’

‘Don’t be obtuse. Of course I’m bloody real. You’re here talking to me now, aren’t you? No, my midwinter role is more ceremonial, a kind of semi-formal test of a child’s good behaviour, even if nobody takes it seriously nowadays. In my main job I’m a stick, in this one I’m the carrot. Or do you really think I zoom around the world in a sleigh hauled by flying reindeer and somehow manage to deliver presents to children everywhere in one night? Get real. Reindeer can’t fly and even if they could there’s only so much stuff you can pack into a bloody sleigh.’

‘So you can’t grant me the keys to Number Ten for another five years.’

‘That’s right. But cheer up, Bob-Bob. As a favour to you, I’ll make the call to that fellow I mentioned. He’ll see you right.’ And he would. Mingscum, my former henchman, is utterly ruthless, no scruples whatsoever. Great technique, simply find a like-minded human and sit on his shoulder, day and night, invisible, whispering and whispering and whispering until they get the message. He’s insanely creative and works like a hyperactive Trojan. Spin, smears, fake news, hoaxes, contract killers – it’s all in a day’s work. Okay, he’s as mad as a box of psychotic frogs on acid, and in his human form – which he only uses when he fancies a beer – looks only marginally like an example of Homo sapiens. But if he can’t get someone elected, no one can. Our client lists overlap considerably.

‘What kind of money are we talking about?’

‘Not a penny in mundane dosh. He deals in the same currency as me. Special dispensation because he’s a mate. I expect he’ll want all those souls that have arrived in the UK since you became PM back in July, when I fulfilled my side of our bargain. The rest are mine, don’t forget.’

He was, surprisingly, shocked. ‘But… but… Babies. You’re talking about babies.’ The glimmer of conscience was unexpected, but even the worst of people have one or two lines they are reluctant to cross. This was going to be a stern test of his moral limits.

I shrugged. ‘Even a demon has to earn a crust. It’s your decision.’

Bob-Bob failed the test miserably. In ordinary circumstances, I would have thought there was a flicker of hope for him yet, but predictably ambition and lust for power got the better of him. It didn’t really matter anyway, not for Bob-Bob. His ticket to the Inferno had been irrevocably punched. But he was unable to see that far ahead. Chancers seize the moment and are blind to consequences. They don’t plan for the future. ‘It’s rather tempting,’ he mused, eyes brightening as the tiny spark of compunction was extinguished by a mudslide of ego and ambition. ‘Are you sure he’ll be able to deliver?’

‘There are no certainties, Bob-Bob. A gift can only be from the giver, and this one is in the hands of the British people. But I’m sure he’ll be able to loosen their grip.’

He removed his rump from my knee and drew himself to his full, unimpressive height. He’s not as tall as he looks on television. ‘Well, thanks for that,’ he said. ‘Must be off, tempus fugit and carpe diem and what have you. Cow to milk for the cameras in Somerset this evening. Or is it a bull?’

‘Oh, I’m sure it’ll be all bull,’ I told him.

*

It was a breathtakingly audacious election campaign. Bob-Bob and his pals told enormous, easily discredited lies and were often caught out. Bob-Bob engaged in numerous risible publicity stunts and resorted to the most appalling behaviour under pressure. He was by turns evasive and shifty, offensive and callous. He and his cronies insulted, smeared and slandered the opposition. He demonstrated at every turn just how out of touch with ordinary people he really was. The television cameras captured each and every dirty, shabby moment of what by rights should have been a complete and utter car-crash of an election campaign.

And the public gobbled it up. They chose to believe things they knew to be untrue. They turned a blind eye to his cock-ups and gaffes, were deaf to the truth. They ignored all the bad things that had happened to them because of his party’s policies in the preceding years, and somehow forgot that his party not only comprised the very same rabid ideologues responsible for the very worst, but had wilfully purged itself of anyone with even the tiniest streak of compassion and empathy. The turkeys not only voted for Christmas – they clamoured for cranberry sauce and begged for the carving knife. His party’s rejoicing was a sight to behold, somewhere between VE Day and a poorly-orchestrated Nuremburg rally.

That New Year’s Eve, my annual month of Saint Nick performances over, I had an afternoon drink with Mingscum in an uncharacteristically subdued corner of the Westminster Arms. It’s one of my favourite pubs, a good place to size up potential future acquisitions. I never have trouble getting served there, or finding a free table. Nothing wrong with my mojo. I was my old dapper self, in a cutting-edge black suit – let out at the waist by my ex-papal tailor to accommodate that stubborn festive paunch. The hair, beard and eyebrows were mercifully trimmed and back to black. Mingscum, as usual when he took on a mortal coil, was dressed like a tramp who’s just purloined a set of ill-fitting clothes from a suburban washing line. He also wore his trademark facial expression, that of a vaguely depressed homicidal maniac.

I congratulated him on another job well done. Hats off to the master craftsman, the undisputable centrifuge of spin. ‘How do you do it?’ I asked.

Mingscum’s grin would have curdled milk and terrified small animals, had any been present. ‘The trick lies in keeping it simple,’ he said. ‘Humans like to be told that nothing bad that happens is their fault – especially when it is. All you need is someone to blame. Jews, Muslims, black people, communists, the EU…’ He necked half a pint of Spitfire, belched contentedly. ‘It doesn’t matter, so long as they’re “not like us” in one way or another. And you can spin that any way you want. Don’t have a job? Okay, it’s not because you’re a lazy sod who can’t be arsed to get out of bed for anything less than a thousand quid a day and a free unicorn, it’s because some lousy foreigner has stolen it. Don’t own your own home? That’s not because you don’t have a job, it’s because the luxury twelve-bedroom mansion with a swimming pool that should have been yours by birthright has been given to some refugee terrorist. Tell people what they want to hear. Emphasise that their prejudices and anxieties are more reliable than the opinions of people who actually know what they’re talking about. Have one great big slogan and repeat it at every opportunity. Humans love a vapid illusion of certainty. You can leave the rest to unenlightened self-interest, confirmation bias and collective narcissism. And, of course, our reliable old friends hate, ignorance and stupidity.’

‘But what about all the dishonesty? Every time I turned on the telly old Bob-Bob was standing there with his metaphorical trousers down because yet another of his lies had been soundly refuted. Surely you can’t spin that kind of blunder.’

Mingscum laughed. ‘Actually, the fact that he’s been caught out so often worked in his favour. All those people who’d become convinced that someone was doing them down – I’d laid that groundwork during the referendum campaign – they saw him as one of them, a fellow victim of the liberal metropolitan elite. They rooted for him, and every fuck-up he made only cemented their sympathy. Good old Bob-Bob, they thought. Laugh at him but don’t get serious because that’ll make us think and we don’t like that.’

I shook my head in wonder and admiration. Mingscum really understood these ridiculous creatures. Alright, I knew the theory, but he totally got them, what made them tick, all the weak spots, every quirk and phobia and folly. If I ever decided to retire, I’d certainly recommend him for my job. ‘So many of them,’ I said. ‘Are they really so uncritical? I mean, his track record is seriously crap and it’s out there for anyone to see. Five minutes on the internet should be enough to put anyone off.’

‘Fooling them has always been easy, and it’s even easier now than it used to be. Most humans get their information from their social media feeds, and hardly any of them can bear to tear themselves away from all those posts and tweets. They simply don’t have time to think or research. Why spend five minutes looking up a politician’s voting record when you could be posting a selfie with puppy ears, whiskers and a cute wet nose? Why bother checking the truth of a news story when it tells you exactly what you already know to be “true” – even when it’s a fucking outrageous and obvious falsehood? Shit, I wish smartphones had been around when I was putting young Goebbels through his paces. Nazism would have gone viral within six months of the Munich Putsch. World domination by emoji and status update.’

‘I take it you were involved in the last US election?’ I’d watched the TV coverage with admiration, and thought it had Mingscum’s sulphurous fingerprints all over it, but this was our first opportunity to catch up.

‘Yeah, that was one of mine. Smartphones again. Brilliant invention. Mind you, that ungrateful bastard fired me as soon as he’d won. Said I’d violated the terms of our deal by not getting him a bigger share of the vote. Refused to pay, impugned my demonic honour. I’m going to do a little pro bono work for his opponent next year. That’ll teach him a lesson. Anyway, I daresay you’ll be seeing him soon enough.’

‘Yes, I have a nice spot on a bookshelf lined up for his head. Mussolini at one end, him on the other.’

‘I can see the resemblance,’ said Mingscum approvingly. ‘A nicely balanced tableau. Maybe you should go into interior design.’

‘Who do you think gave them the idea for the Big Brother house? And don’t forget Crinkly Bottom. That was fun. You got Pestilence drunk and persuaded him to audition for Mr Blobby. I couldn’t believe it when they gave him the job.’

He sighed wistfully. ‘Ah, the good old days. I do miss working with you, Nick. The camaraderie. The screams and groans echoing through the smoky caverns. The delicious aroma of roasting flesh and red-hot iron. The free healthcare package, which is more than these poor buggers will have in a couple of years.’

‘Never mind. Look to the future. I expect Bob-Bob will be in need of your services again when the next General Election comes round.’

‘Oh, I think he will. I mean, can you see all those rabid right-wingers in his cabinet allowing him to actually make life better for ordinary people? I should fucking cocoa. No, I reckon by then things will be so bad in this country that even I won’t be able to swing it. Even humans aren’t that stupid. Mind you, I’m always up for a challenge.’

I finished my pint of Bishop’s Finger – which reminded me, I had another soiled clergyman of that rank to attend to when I got home – wished him a happy new year, and ambled toward Westminster tube station and the Circle Line, spotting a number of clients, both present and future, as I crossed Parliament Square and passed the seat of government. I thought of what Mingscum had just said. He was right, of course. Most humans are incredibly, unbelievably stupid, not to mention greedy and selfish. Intellectual laziness seems to be hard-wired. The majority care about nothing but themselves and instant gratification of base desires, unto oblivion. All those literary novels dealing with the human condition talk about things like angst and happiness and fulfilment, but it’s all rot. The human condition is simply terminal. And they’ll be taking the rest of the planetary life with them, which is a shame. Meanwhile, their leaders do nothing but wring their hands, shed crocodile tears and watch the cash pile up while the oceans rise and forests burn, and species wink out of existence one by one. Global warming? I’ll give those presidents and prime ministers and corporate walking piggy-banks a bloody warming, one they will literally never forget.

And that brought to mind Bob-Bob’s final utterance as he left my grotto and stomped awkwardly toward his minders. He looked at the jars of sweets I keep handy as a treat for my normal child-sized customers and said ‘I say, have you got any gobstoppers?’

Why not? Smiling through the white beard, I opened a jar and gave him the biggest gobstopper I could find. It would do until it was time for the ball-gag, not forgetting the butt plug and gimp suit. In perpetuum.

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