< back to Inspiration
by Helen Simpson
printed on Dec 20, 2003 in The Guardian
A fat woman with a frozen shoulder sat sighing by
the steady flames of a fake-coal fire. At her feet sat a congregation
of coffee-dregged mugs, dead wine bottles, and ashtrays crammed
with crushed stubs. Across the room a television chattered gravely,
on screen a long face in contre-jour against a scene of bloody
devastation; over in the corner crouched a computer caught short
" I must get on," said this woman, Pamela, not moving. Piles of paper
fanned out across the floor, lists and reports and unwritten Christmas cards,
bills and charity fliers and unopened correspondence including a parcel about
the size of a shoebox wrapped in brown paper. This last item now catching her
eye, she leant over and picked it up.
" Munich," she said, reading the post mark. "That'll be cousin
Gerda again with another bit of tat from the Christmas market. Why on earth does
Sure enough, it was a decoration for her tree, the tree which was
still on her To Do list, unbought as yet, and this time it was
some sort of angel or fairy with a schmaltzy smile on its face.
As she turned it over in her hands she noticed something printed
on the hem of its stiff gold robe. The letters blurred beneath
her bleary eyes and she had to hunt for her glasses before she
was able to read what was printed there: www.festivelifecoach.com.
" Some sort of gimmick", she scoffed, but in the end could not resist
going over to her computer to log on, this gimmick having stirred her listlessness
into action where lists alone had failed. As soon as she had entered the address
there flashed up in red and green the following words:
Change your life!
Suspend your disbelief!
Press ctrl + esc at the same time while holding down the shift
key. Close your eyes and when you hear the sound of bells tap in
3D and wait. Keep your eyes closed until you hear the instruction
to open them or your computer will crash irretrievably and forever.
Pamela frowned, gave a scornful laugh, and paused a long moment;
then she breathed in, pressed the specified keys, and closed her
As she waited, she thought of the time she was wasting and ground
her teeth. This was the story of her life, a mountain of stuff
waiting to be done and her somehow not doing it and not even enjoying
not doing it, in fact finding it even more exhausting and depressing
not doing it than doing it. She had to send that report off by
this evening, what did she think she was playing at now, standing
in the middle of the room with her eyes shut like a fool?
At this point her unhappy reverie was broken by a peal of bells,
and the stale air of her sitting room thinned to frosty silver
in her nostrils. She breathed slowly and deeply, followed the instructions
as they were given, and opened her eyes.
In front of her stood a small, spry, smiling figure in scarlet
tracksuit and emerald-green trainers. Radiating aerobic bonhomie
it held a branch of fresh green holly in its hand.
" I must have dozed off in front of the fire after all," she said,
pinching herself dispassionately.
" No you didn't," said the creature. "You called me up on the
internet, and now I am here to help you slip your mind-forged manacles. My name
is - can you guess?" and here it waved the green branch playfully. "Holly!"
" What?" she said.
" Let's not waste time," beamed Holly, glancing at her watch. "I
am your dedicated life coach but I'm here for a limited period only. And the
first thing I need do is to establish your general mindset with the help of this
checklist. So, if you'll just answer a few simple questions we'll get started."
" Sorry?" she said.
" Say whatever comes into your mind, blurt it out without thinking," Holly
instructed, ignoring her bafflement. "First question, what do you do when
you hear carol singers?"
" Hide," said Pamela, falling in with the apparition's obvious command
of the situation.
" And how do you feel when you see festive greenery?"
" Well, ivy is death and graveyards," she continued in the same vein, "And
holly is only worth it when it's got berries and that means a hard winter so
I'm unlikely to celebrate that."
" Is this glass half full or half empty?" asked the life coach, holding
up a flute of red wine.
" Half empty, of course," said Pamela. "Can I have it please?"
" Lastly," said the life coach, handing her the glass, "What does
the month of December mean to you?"
" Bleak weather. Leafless trees. The death of the year," said Pamela
between sips. "Nervousness. Waiting to see where the shadow of the leather-winged
reaper will fall. Then the chore of Christmas and downhill all the way to filthy
February. So corny, so regular."
" Thank you," said the life coach, snapping her notebook shut. "Now,
would you agree with me that you have low self-esteem?"
" If you mean, do I think I'm rubbish," she barked mirthlessly, "that's
" People with low self-esteem exert a detrimental effect on the world around
them," said Holly.
" Particularly at Christmas. Put simply, you're a downer, a drainer, a drag.
Not that many party invitations, I imagine?"
" One or two," she lied, tears of hurt springing to her eyes. "Now
you're going to list the virtues of positive thinking, I bet. Well let me tell
you, positive thinking is just papering over the cracks."
" Hmm," twinkled the life coach. "I want you now to remember your
promise to suspend your disbelief and follow me. Underneath, we both know the
real you is not a mumbling vessel of self-pity with unwashed hair and biscuit
crumbs down her front."
" Well thank you very much," said Pamela, brushing her clothes down
" Time to marshal your resources!" she cried. "First, we'll choose
you a slogan - 'Tis the season to be jolly.' Jolly, right? I think you would
agree that this is not what you are now. Jolly is what we are going to work towards."
" I hate that word," said Pamela. "Jolly! Hockey sticks and snobbish
enthusiasm and Dickens."
" Interesting, your aversion," said Holly. "It comes from the
Old Norse, jol or Yule, meaning the 12-day heathen midwinter festival. Maybe
you'll like it better as a word if you remember some of its other meanings over
the centuries - brave-hearted, showy, splendid, amorous, self-confident and slightly
intoxicated. Let jolly inspire you! Use it to help you remember key points in
your strategy. J - Just do it. O - Organise yourself. L - Lighten up. L - Laugh
at trouble. Y -"
" Oh for goodness' sake," Pamela snapped. "Spare me the acronyms!"
" Yoga, I was going to say," continued Holly imperturbably. "That
shoulder of yours looks very stiff."
" It's frozen, actually," said Pamela haughtily. "Extremely painful
at night and not getting any better. I haven't got round to going to the doctor's
yet but I looked it up myself and it'll probably need a corticosteroid injection
directly into the shoulder joint sometime soon. Agony. Even then it probably
won't get better for a good two years."
" Hmm," said Holly. "That little speech encapsulates your current
way of thinking perfectly. Stinking thinking, I call it It's time for the three
Ps. Just breathe on this mirror here, would you, and see what you can make out
through the mist."
Pamela did as she was told and found herself staring at a strange
tableau. A large glum creature with down-turned mouth and tear-glazed
eyes sat slumped, sighing and venting the occasional groan. At
first it plucked disconsolately at the bloated leeches which clustered
over its limbs then, giving that up as a bad job, turned to the
toaster on the table beside it. Every time a couple of slices popped
up, this creature buttered them and threw them into the air. Scores
of slices of toast lay over the carpet encircling its feet. They
had all landed butter side down.
" Tell me, Holly, who is this nasty creature and what has it to do with
me?" asked Pamela, struck by a worrying feeling that she had met it somewhere
" This is Pessimism," said Holly, "And here, look, here comes
its cousin Procrastination."
A shambolic figure shuffled into view, hawking and spitting, heaving
a swag bag marked Hours, Days, Weeks, etc. Its nails were bitten
to the quick, its watch was running slow and a cigarette hung from
its slack, damp lower lip. When Pamela strained her ears she could
hear it muttering, "I'll give up in the New Year. When I get
round to buying some nicotine patches. That's when I'll do it." Somewhere
about its person a mobile phone erupted and, after patting various
pockets bulging with unopened brown envelopes, it answered the
call. "Later," it said. "Later. Yes, yes, I know
I said today. But now it's tomorrow. No. It must have got lost
in the post." And it limped off in a fug of lame excuses.
" Look, look," said Holly as a third character, even more repellent,
appeared on the scene. This one was a female invertebrate wearing a woolly robe
embroidered with the words "Kick me" and "Pushover" and "I
don't mind". She moved in a peculiar corkscrew way, trailing behind her
a bandaged suppurating leg.
" This is Passivity," said Holly. "See how hideously twisted by
adaptive behaviour she has become."
" But what is the matter with her leg?" asked Pamela, struck by a physical
affliction some degrees worse than her own.
" A couple of months ago she stubbed her toe and slowly it turned septic," said
Holly. "She waited and waited for someone to tell her to go to the doctor
but nobody did - why should they care about her more than she cares about herself?
And by the time the others started complaining of the smell, gangrene had set
" Horrible, horrible," shuddered Pamela. "Remove me from this
sight, life coach, I cannot bear it."
" Wait. I will show you a fourth P which shall vanquish all the rest."
And she breathed on the mirror just as Pamela had done.
" Now look," she said, and when Pamela looked into the glass circle
she saw an arrowy muscular sprite edged with neon, carrying in one hand a megaphone
marked Assertiveness and in the other a time-management chart covered in squares
and dates and notes in colourful felt tip.
" This is the spirit of Proactivity," said Holly with a touch of reverence.
" All right, all right," said Pamela. "I'll join a yoga class.
Today. And I have every faith it will make my shoulder better. Satisfied?" She
reached into her bag for an aspirin. Meanwhile I'll take one of these if you
" What other remedies do you keep in your bag?" asked Holly, peering
in. "What's this painkiller for?
" That means you're resisting the flow of life. Senokot?"
" What that really shows is that you're blocked. Stuck. I can help. Strepsils? "
" Sore throat."
" Do you get them often?"
" Ah. A sore throat means you're so angry you can't speak."
" Is that so."
" Yes. Now, Pamela, I sense you're angry. Tell me about your anger."
" Well, I do object... I mean, all this is very fine and upbeat, but...
I do object, I really object..."
" I do object to death."
" Ah," said Holly. "Death. Not really my area."
" Well there's a lot of it about," said Pamela, wiping her eyes. "Take
my word for it."
" Let us stay away from thoughts that create problems and pain," said
" It's just that it's so wasteful," continued Pamela. "And I miss
my dear friends, my loved ones. I talk to them in my dreams. I tell you Holly,
it's a bone yard out there!"
" We must concentrate on the bits in between," said Holly firmly.
" Don't give me that mead hall stuff," said Pamela, blowing her nose.
" Your thoughts are making you miserable. Change your thoughts."
" It's not just death. It's suffering."
" Come now. Lighten up."
" Even if things could be put right now," said Pamela, "I don't
see how it's possible to be happy, for anyone ever to be happy, when such terrible
things have happened to people in history and they're dead now and nothing can
be done for them."
" Remember J.O.L.L.Y?" said the life coach. "You'll need a lighter
heart if you're going to help others or indeed do anything. Turn off the news.
Put on your favourite CD. All these charity leaflets you've saved - refugees,
Aids, homelessness, cruelty to children - choose one now, write a cheque, bin
" Ah," said Pamela, reaching for her chequebook and studying its stubs
with a pensive air. "Christmas is an expensive time."
" It certainly is," said Holly. "However, you must still write
a cheque for a hundred pounds to the charity of your choice."
" The thing is, I've just told my daughter that I'll pay off her credit
card debt - this really must be the last time - so there'll be nothing left at
" Then you must tell her you've changed your mind," said the life coach. "That
would be very bad for her and unfair of you, encouraging her to continue spending
money without thinking. Instead, book her a course with a financial therapist
who will show her how to budget - I know a good one, here's his card. Then you
can buy your daughter a pair of silk pyjamas for Christmas, and write a nice
large cheque to your chosen charity."
" She won't be very pleased," muttered Pamela.
" Now, what are all these piles of papers and shoeboxes full of old letters
and cards?" asked Holly, ignoring this, turning her attention to the comfortless
chaos surrounding them.
" Leave them alone, please," said Pamela. "These are my memories.
" Clutter," said Holly. "I'm not interested in the past, and neither
should you be."
" The past?" said Pamela. "It's what I am, it's what there is."
" No," said Holly, tightening her lips. "It's what there was.
I tell you, you shouldn't be too interested in the past. You yourself now are
the embodiment of what you have lived. What's done is done."
" But how are you to live if you don't reflect on your life?" cried
" I have noticed that people's thoughts about the past are nearly always
gloomy," said Holly. "Remorse, resentment, disappointment, these are
not helpful emotions."
" Let the past go."
" So would you ban the study of history?"
" Nearly every other academic discipline has more to recommend it," said
Holly. "Come, let's move on. Tell me, what do you want to happen on Christmas
Day? You have asked all your relatives for lunch. How do you want the day to
" I just want them to be effing well happy!" growled Pamela. "Understand?
Is that too much to ask?"
" I see," said Holly. "I see. Next question: were you good when
you were little?"
" Oh, very," snapped Pamela. "No trouble at all. Good as gold.
Always offering to do the washing up."
" That figures. Now let us take another look in the psychic mirror," said
Holly. Breathe on it once more, and all will be revealed."
Again Pamela did as she was told, and presently the mist on the
glass cleared to reveal a strange figure, its body puny and graceful
as a child's, but with an old person's face wrinkled and withered
by a thousand worries, and hair snow-white as if with age. It was
sitting alone in a cold bedroom listening to an extravaganza of
rage and yelling and slammed doors; it was shivering like a greyhound
while it adjusted a sophisticated assemblage of sonic equipment
on the little table beside it.
" Poor creature," sighed Pamela, "I don't know why but I feel
sorry for it. What does its presence signify, Holly?"
" That poor creature," said Holly. "That is your Inner Child."
" Oh," said Pamela. "Oh dear."
" Her radar is exquisitely attuned to the mood of the adults beyond the
door, and she feels responsible both for their miseries and for cheering them
" She's on a hiding to nowhere, then, isn't she," said Pamela. "How
" Idiotic," agreed Holly. "Just wanting them to be effing well
" Ah," said Pamela. "Yes. I see."
She went over and sat by the fire, staring into it broodingly.
" What can I do, Holly?" she said, looking up. "What can I do
to disencumber that child?"
" My time here is nearly done," said the life coach, glancing at her
watch. "Now for the final part of the programme."
She took hold of Pamela's hand and led her to the door of the room.
" What is beyond this door?" she asked.
" The hall," said Pamela, mystified.
" And are there doors off the hallway?" asked Holly.
" Yes, of course," said Pamela. "Apart from the back door there's
the kitchen and the shower room; come on, I'll show you."
She led her into the hall, which was cold and dimly lit.
" What's this low doorway here?" asked the life coach.
" That's the cupboard under the stairs."
" Show me, if you will."
" Alright, but there's nothing much to see except the Hoover," said
Pamela, opening the door as she was asked. Then she stopped and gasped.
" Come on in," said Holly, drawing her across the threshold and closing
the door behind them.
They stood in a room whose walls were hung with boughs of bay and
laurel, knots of dull-pearled mistletoe and glossy holly branches
looped with curlicues and flourishes of ivy. The polished leaves
of these evergreens winked in the light of the blaze from a yule
log which spat and crackled in the fireplace. Near the fire stood
a stout little pine tree, its resinous fragrance filling the air,
and from the branches of this tree hung garlands of sweets and
tiny blown-glass trumpets and angels.
" Life coach, what is this place?" breathed Pamela, gazing round her
" This is your Green Room for the festive season," smiled the life
" Green Room? What, like the room for actors when they're not on stage?"
" Very like that," said Holly. "It is your own withdrawing room,
your Green Room for 12 days. Look, did you notice that little round table laid
for dinner over there? Your dinner, if I'm not mistaken."
" How delicious it looks," said Pamela, noticing the roast partridge
on a nest of sliced poached pears. "Wine, too."
" I'm very pleased we found our way here, because I'll tell you now there
are some of my clients whose inner children have grown so weighed down by the
habits of anxiety that they don't manage to find the way back to their green
room ever again."
" Poor them," said Pamela. "Destined never to get beyond the Hoover.
Talking of inner children, though, where is mine?"
" Didn't you notice?" said the life coach. "You can't have been
Pamela turned and for the first time saw the child in question,
its face now smooth and wreathed in smiles, sitting on the floor
in front of the fire. It was engaged in a spirited game of Scrabble
with a hoary-headed ancient whose beard reached past his waist.
" Is that my Inner Grandfather?"' she asked.
" No, that's the Old Year," said the life coach. "And look, over
there beside the chimney breast, you can guess who that baby is."
She looked where she was told and saw a naked infant lying in a
fur-lined basket waving its plump arms and legs in the air and
" It's the New Year, isn't it," she exclaimed; but when she turned
round again the life coach had slipped away, back to the world wide web where
she was needed. So Pamela thanked the thin air instead and, smiling, joined the
little family group waiting for her in front of the fire.
© Helen Simpson 2003