It’s my habit to forget that life goes on while I’m busy planning; like during the Friday before Christmas, 2017.
I was living in London, a city of multiple personalities. Usually showing a business side — teeming, yet detached and reserved — during the Christmas season it assumes a cloak of holiday displays, lights, decorations, and good cheer. That’s the time I love the most. People scurry as always, on their normal missions. But the vibe is different during the holiday — more smiles, lighter hearts, responsibilities taken less seriously. The City revels in this change of tempo. Not having been born there, nor in the UK for that matter, from my first visit during the Yuletide season I decided London would become my home.
The past four years found me working in accounting for a large import trading firm, located in the City’s Center. The job was impersonal, repetitive, and boring. It required a modest commute. Despite all that, I was content, for it paid my expenses.
My employer, as an annual Christmas gift for us workers, suspended operations at noon on the Friday before the holiday and remained closed through the end of the year. While we received few other benefits, this one was cherished for it allowed me a short sabbatical to enjoy my adopted City during my favorite season.
Upon arrival at work on the Friday morning our break was to begin, there awaited a company envelope on my desk. My employer’s tradition was to provide a Christmas card containing a year-end gratuity. I opened it and found the bonus. There would be no problem finding a use for that. But in lieu of the seasonal card received in years past, there were two folded sheets of paper. Ahhhh, a personal note this time. A nice touch. But anticipation turned to calamity as I read that my employment had been terminated. Brief in content, the note cited a reversal in the company prospects which required a reduction in staff. There was no mention of fault with my job performance, but what difference did that make? The decision had been made and there was no appeal. Cold, impersonal and final. At least the envelope also included a letter of recommendation.
A second envelope lay on my desk, this one from Emily, who worked in our Orders Department. Dating since the previous New Year’s Eve, ours was a convenient arrangement, but no plot for a romance novel. Neither had brought up the possibility of taking the relationship to a higher level, nor was it likely that we would, but being a couple provided benefits. London can be experienced alone, but with all its attractions I found greater enjoyment in sharing its bounty with another. Her letter was clear and concise — our relationship was over.
Stunned, I stared at my computer screen, as if seeking to extract from its darkened face an explanation of what had just happened. I knew life didn’t travel a straight path; it contained surprises. But there had been no hint when the day began that either of these two blows were in my immediate future. Why fear setbacks now, for wasn’t this the season of peace on earth, good will to all, caring for others?
Crossing my arms, as if seeking protection from the morning’s news, it was then I felt them in my shirt pocket. As a special surprise for Emily, I had purchased tickets for that evening’s performance of A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic Theater. Our custom was to spend Friday nights together. My plan for us was to visit the Victoria and Albert, our favorite museum, followed by dinner and the play. Now that wasn’t to happen.
Quietly packing my things, cleaning out my cubicle, I began the long walk to the exit. What difference if I fled early? They couldn’t discharge me twice, could they? Holding my box filled with personal possessions, I passed officemates who averted their glances to computer screens or partition walls. Avoiding the condemned being led to the gallows, I thought. There were no goodbyes, no feigned words about this only being a momentary set-back, or a bit of bad luck — just a silent departure. I could hear them think “Glad it wasn’t me.”
The only remaining evidence of my presence was a framed picture of Emily and myself, staring down from an otherwise barren shelf in my now vacated workspace. We both looked professional, beginning to grow soft around the edges like most people in their late thirties — she with blonde shoulder length hair, heavy brows and thin lips set in an otherwise pleasant face; me, more serious, well groomed, with receding dark hair, intense eyes, a thin nose and a stolid look. Each of us were without our glasses, done to soften our working images, but we seemed lifeless, which brought to mind the Grant Wood American Gothic painting. All that was missing was the pitchfork. The cubicle’s next occupant could decide what to do with the picture.
I returned to my flat to brood, convinced that everyone I passed thought “There goes that fellow with no position and no relationship.” My intentions for the day, as well as my immediate future, so carefully organized, had been ripped asunder. But even under such duress there was a need to formulate a new plan. I could not be a ship without a destination. Thus, I decided to spend the rest of my day at home lamenting my plight, then pick up takeaway for dinner, and make it an early evening. Self-pity won’t solve problems, but sometimes a short wallow is good for the psyche. Yet, on this day, things were not to proceed as outlined, for I then recalled my flat mate was hosting a dinner party for that very eve, requiring me to be elsewhere until after midnight. That had prompted me to buy the theater tickets. Could things get any worse? What to do? Where to go?
The loss of my position would seem the more tragic of these two events, made worse by no prior warning. But like it or not, it’s part of business. There was nothing to be done other than to begin a diligent search for a replacement situation. That would have to wait until the New Year, for who would hire so close to the holiday? The termination of my relationship with Emily, and the way it was done, was taken more personally. It was a callous rejection of my carefully constructed surprise, also without warning, even though of the day’s aborted events, she had no knowledge. How could she do this to me, especially at this time of year, after all I had arranged?
Motivated by revenge, in the foul mood previously described, I decided not to take this meekly. There was a principle here which needed to be defended — a response required. Not a confrontation, for that would be too direct. Instead, I decided to proceed with my prior scheduled activities, albeit alone. I would prove I didn’t need her to enjoy myself, but if I had a terrible time it would be her fault. Either way that would teach her a lesson, as if somehow she would know.
At three that afternoon, I took the Tube to the South Kensington stop, which connected to the Victoria and Albert by a lengthy underground walkway. The tunnel was crowded with holiday merrymakers, their frivolity mocking my dark mood. The clamorous sounds of commuting Londoners to which I was normally indifferent now seemed to taunt me. Everyone appeared in the throes of the Yuletide spirit, on errands of good will for family and friends, anticipating the freedom of the weekend and the upcoming holidays. Everyone but me, whose mind roosted in that dark place where it withdraws when things turn bad — and at every turn I was reminded that things were bad.
Lost in my misery, I walked on amidst the commotion of the passageway. No position, no girlfriend, no future. While able to navigate the bustle that went on around me, my attentions were elsewhere as I struggled through the crowds to carry out my self-indulgent designs. Part of me hoped my plan would work, thus proving to Emily that I didn’t need her; the other part hoped it would not, thus imposing on her the shame that her ruining my holiday surprise would bring. Or, so I wished.
So entrenched in my woe, I wouldn’t have noticed a train whistle going off nearby. Yet, at the edge of my consciousness, despite all that was happening both inside and around me, I detected a distinct sound — a special refrain.
Passageways in London’s Underground contain buskers providing entertainment for the passing horde. In pursuit of coins and larger fare, musicians play guitars, violins, keyboards and horns; singers vocalize everything from opera to rock; ensembles blast out renditions of both the known and the unfamiliar, the performances carrying down the corridors. But this sound was different. It seemed like, yes, I became certain, the strum of a harp. A harp! What was a harp doing in the Underground? A look ahead found a stout, elderly man with an elfin face, white hair, ruddy complexion, dressed in a black suit, white shirt, and dark tie. He sat upon a small stool, lovingly stroking the strings of the instrument that rested against his shoulder. The sound that ushered forth was clear, distinct, lilting; rising above the clamor of the passing crowd. I stopped to watch him play, enjoying those glorious strains. Beautiful. Calming. Then I recognized the song — the theme from “The Titanic.” How appropriate for this worst day of days. Yet, the tune was engaging as it temporarily muted the harsh voices that had taken up residence in my head.
The passageway travelers seemed unaffected by his playing. It was as if his performance was for me alone. When it ended, I walked forward and placed a few pounds in his instrument case, not considering that if I didn’t replace my position quickly I might have another need for that offering. He looked up with a peaceful smile and politely said, “Thank you sir, have a Merry Christmas.” To that I reflexively responded, “The same to you.”
Thinking about his playing and our short exchange while walking further down the walkway, I came abreast of a tunnel that intersected from my right, shouts and laughter carrying from that direction. I stopped and listened, for while the gaiety was obvious, the source was not. Should I go forth with my previous intentions and continue to the museum I so loved, or alter the plan and explore those sounds? As a creature of habit — a follower of rules, not an adventurer — changes for me are not easily made. My normal choice would be to stay the course. Yet, for some reason, despite time and again selecting the programmed over the unknown, that alternate path beckoned. Impulsively, a phenomenal shift for me, I made the turn and proceeded in the new direction.
My new route led up a slow rising concourse that exited into the large courtyard of the Natural History Museum, an area surrounded by the tall Victorian structure on one side, and a row of trees on the other that muted the sounds of the adjacent Cromwell Road. There before me lay a large ice rink, a tall decorated Christmas tree in its center, around which were found bundled up skaters of all ages and abilities. Gliding couples moved, entwined together. Singles maneuvered in and out, avoiding others. The less experienced skated with arms outthrust for balance. A few leaned forward, holding onto gliding animal characters for support. The less skilled would pick themselves up off the icy surface and stumble on. Little ones tenaciously clutched a parent’s hand. There were shouts, laughter, smiles — joy and giddiness filled the air.
The skaters wore winter outfits of red, green and other varied holiday hues and designs — a Santa hat here, a long trailing scarf there, a few head gear with reindeer antlers or elf ears. All added cheer and color to the festivities. Beyond the far end of the rink stood a revolving carousel, one of bright lights, young riders on colorful horses, all circling amidst the sound of calliope music. The trees were festooned with ornaments and electric bulbs of varying brightness and colors, gleaming in the dusk of the afternoon. I stood enchanted with the merriment of this celebratory scene, in the cool air, under the darkening sky, all the time thinking to myself, what’s going on here?
For the second time I departed from my plan when, while enjoying this respite from my troubles, I made another decision. Walking down Cromwell Road would connect me with Brompton Road, which would lead to the Knightsbridge Tube stop, an amble through the heart of one of the City’s exclusive shopping areas. From there I could take the Tube to the Jubilee line which would carry me south to Waterloo Station, a short distance away from the Old Vic. I had plenty of time before dinner and the play, so I could journey at a leisurely pace. This venturing forth alone and without prior consideration was another change, but my recent discoveries suggested something was happening that I didn’t understand, a mystery which I sought to decipher.
The traffic lanes were filled with vehicles, while festive crowds strolled the sidewalks. This was not a tranquil country jaunt — more a seasonal city meander — as around me London’s holiday presentation was on display. The sky was dark now, the weather colder, so I pulled my coat more tightly around me, for it was beginning to mist. Not rain. Much lighter. Just enough to tingle the cheeks, adding additional chill to this background of holiday adventure. Again I wondered, “What’s happening?”
During the walk, the vehicle headlights, the changing traffic beacons, the decorations on the trees, the shop windows filled with their seasonal displays, added to the ambiance. Straight ahead, encased in its distinctive seasonal embellishment, was Harrods, the world-famous department store, rising tall, beautifully lit, tastefully appointed — its street windows filled with colorful scenes displaying vibrant Christmas characters. Other merchants along the journey contributed their own special complements. I was so enchanted as I strolled, dodging others, my eyes constantly shifting from one scene to another, that I walked past my intended Tube stop. The result was the reward of observing off to the left, in its own special glow, Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland exhibition, London’s largest Yuletide celebration,
I eventually arrived at Waterloo Station and took the short walk to the Old Vic. Choosing a small, nearby, neighborhood Italian restaurant, I had my solitary dinner, warming and delicious. Though not the harbinger of Christmas, for I sat alone at my table, I recognized I was now in a much better place. It is my general nature not to be completely satisfied with what I have, so a portion of me remained focused on a need to be part of a couple. Yet, I was enjoying the best of what the day had provided. At the beginning, the punishment of Emily for what she had unknowingly done, or to prove to myself she was not needed, were the only options I considered. I hadn’t realized that a third alternative existed — the solo discovery of wonderful unanticipated things. They were not the result of actions motivated by malice towards another, but sprung from places and events unforeseen. While it might have been nice to share them, had I remained brooding in my flat, conjuring up revenge, I would have missed all the surprises the day had brought.
The Old Vic, opened in 1818, provides up to one thousand plush red velvet seats, depending upon the stage configuration. To see A Christmas Carol in this setting is to return to Victorian times. The play used a theater-in-the-round arrangement for this production, the central stage encased by seats, with two long raised gangways allowing the actors access to and fro. My seats were next to one of those passageways, my head level with its floor. Within the theater the lighting was dim, providing a gaslight feel. Suspended from the roof were dozens of lanterns; pinpoints of light against the darkened ceiling. Ladies in Victorian clothing, full skirts, ruffled sleeves, wearing bonnets, handed out Christmas pies. I swear I felt the ghost of Charles Dickens in attendance.
Since I had purchased two tickets, I was able to put my coat onto Emily’s vacant seat. After all, I had paid for it. Then the lights dimmed, the theater quieted, and the actors entered, setting the mood by singing Christmas carols while they strolled to the stage. In the audience, families, couples — the old and young — seemed ready to be transported back to the time of the play.
Next to where Emily was to have sat was an attractive lady near my age, apparently unaccompanied, formally dressed in the popular Christmas fashion of a red jacket, black dress, with a holly sprig on her lapel. Her coat was folded on her lap. She attempted to see around the tall, wide gentleman in front of her. First to the left, then to the right, then back to the left, she moved with every shift in his position, reminiscent of some animalistic mating ritual. A small young girl sat in front of Emily’s vacant seat. My normal course — even though I had been the victim of similar sight obstructions in performances past —was to ignore another’s dilemma, letting them solve their own problems. But this had not been a normal day. In the spirit of the season — under the spell of my most recent experiences — I removed my coat from the chair, leaned over, and quietly asked the lady if she would like to take the now unused seat. She softly responded with that typical British politeness, “Would that be all right?” When I told her it would she answered, “Lovely.”
She took my coat, placing it with her own on her now vacated spot, and we settled down to watch the play. During the performance her rapt attention, punctuated by sighs and gasps, communicated her enjoyment of the production. I had seen this work performed many times in other venues, and while the presentations were generally similar, there were always differences. So it was with this one. At times the stage would dim, the suspended lanterns would brighten, and my belief that the atmosphere could not be improved was shown to be in error. It was a magical event
During the scene where Ebenezer Scrooge discovered the true meaning of Christmas, he exulted in his new-found holiday spirit, shouting seasonal messages as he ran joyfully up and down the gangways, searching for those to receive the news. Amidst his celebration, he stopped above me, glanced down, bent over, winked and shook my hand. “Merry Christmas to you, sir, the best of the holidays,” he said emphatically, emphasized by a smile and a tap on my shoulder. I mumbled “Merry Christmas” back to him. It was all I could think of in my startled state. And following that exchange it began to snow — in the theater — flakes drifting down upon us. Light, soft, snow. Whatever those special effects were, no matter how else one would describe them, they were magnificent. I once more repeated to myself the question that kept arising in my thoughts. What’s happening?
The play ended with the actors returning from their exit and leading us in the singing of more carols. They carried with them hand bells and finished their performance by ringing the melody of Silent Night. They then wished us a Merry Christmas. The play was over, I believed my day to be done, and what an experience it had turned out to be.
Getting up to leave, the lady thanked me for the seat. “Did you enjoy the performance?” she asked.
“I did, very much, and you?”
“I thought it brilliant,” she said with a wide smile, then added, “I hope you don’t think me forward, but I would like to thank you for the seat. Would you care to join me for tea?”
“No need to thank me. I was happy to do it,” I responded — and meant it. I then added, “I would love to have some tea.”
“Done,” she answered. She extended her hand. “My name is Carole.”
Following her to the exit, I turned back to the stage, the lanterns alight, the theater cast in that dusky Victorian glow, the ringing of Silent Night still in the air. I thought about the start of my day, what it had brought, and what had happened to my plans. Then reality struck. What I encountered that day had been beyond my ability to conceive, and had required nothing on my part except to move forward. I recalled what I’d learned about planning countless times before, only to move on to other apparently more important things. A warmth of gratitude had returned to my soul. Closing my eyes, my fears and sadness gone, I uttered the thoughts which stirred in my head. “I see more clearly now; I understand. Your plans, not mine. They’re the best gifts of all. Whatever you have in store for me is just fine.”
Carole raised an eyebrow. “I beg your pardon?”
“Nothing, just speaking to an old friend.”
She smiled as we turned to leave. At the exit I stopped again, looked back one last time into the now empty theater, and whispered, “Merry Christmas to you. And, again, thank you.”
I. M. Merckel is a retired real estate attorney. Born in Los Angeles, he has a B.A. from the University of Arizona and a J.D. from Washington University in St. Louis. He practiced law in Missouri beginning in 1971, after leaving military service, and in 2011 from New Mexico, where he and his wife Joan now reside. He has three sons, two of whom are published authors. During his career he wrote legal documents and briefs. He is now writing fiction, although some may suggest his prior legal work provides examples of fictional composition. He has published short stories and memoirs in two anthologies, The Story Whisperers, Stories and Poems, and Stories Through the Ages, 2019, and is completing his first novel. His pen name is in honor of his father whose nickname for him was Merckel.