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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 mid-document.

" 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 she bother?"

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:

" 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 eyes.

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 a yes."

" 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 hastily.

" 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 before.

" 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 in."

" 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 don't mind."

" What other remedies do you keep in your bag?" asked Holly, peering in. "What's this painkiller for?

" Migraine."

" That means you're resisting the flow of life. Senokot?"
" Constipation."

" What that really shows is that you're blocked. Stuck. I can help. Strepsils? "

" Sore throat."

" Do you get them often?"

" Yes."

" 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..."

" Yes?"

" 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 Holly.

" 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 the rest."

" 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 all."

" 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. The past."

" 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 Pamela.

" I have noticed that people's thoughts about the past are nearly always gloomy," said Holly. "Remorse, resentment, disappointment, these are not helpful emotions."

" Helpful?"

" 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 be?"

" 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 up."

" She's on a hiding to nowhere, then, isn't she," said Pamela. "How idiotic."

" Idiotic," agreed Holly. "Just wanting them to be effing well happy."

" 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 in amazement.

" This is your Green Room for the festive season," smiled the life coach.

" 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 looking."

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 crowing delightedly.

" 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


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