Christmas Eve - and a ghostly travel PR executive appeared at Mr Artichoke's side ...

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The Independent Travel
This is my chance to tell a good old-fashioned Christmas story, about a grumpy old man called Mr Artichoke who lived in Reading and ran a small fertilizer business.

Mr Artichoke never went anywhere apart from his home and his office. Even at Christmas all Mr Artichoke wanted to do was read books about the second world war, eat toast and get back to work. His employees urged him to give himself a break but he merely scoffed.

"Off skiing again are we?" he'd say to his badly paid personal assistant Ms Badluck, every Christmas Eve, as she prepared to pack her bags for the drive home to stay with her one-legged sister.

"The Seychelles? Or is it the Maldives this year?" he'd say to his under- stimulated accounts clerk Johnny Doesnt, as he padded-up for his cycle ride home.

After everyone had finally gone, he'd lock up and saunter home, looking forward to toast and the Battle of Kursk, chuckling at the thought of Johnny Doesnt ever-delighting the Seychelles with his presence.

So there he was one Christmas Eve, walking home, when he suddenly remembered an urgent e-mail which had arrived that afternoon from Burma of all places. Damn it! The irritation of packing off his employees for their childish Christmas outings had distracted him from important business. Cursing his incompetent staff, he barged back to the office, elbowing angelic carol singers as he went.

It was dark inside. Mr Artichoke was still groping for the light-switch when he heard a strange voice. "Be afraid," it whispered. "I am a travel PR executive, representing the ghost of Christmas Past." And before Mr Artichoke could even shout out that he hadn't flown for years and no longer had a passport, he'd been bundled into a taxi, driven to Heathrow Terminal One and seated on a short-haul flight to Barcelona.

What a night he had in store! First of all he was taken back to the place where, as a student one Christmas, he had courted a beautiful Spanish girl, showering her with books and whimsical presents. Now Mr Artichoke seemed to see her, wrapped in an elegant coat, leading two beautiful children across the Plaza St Jaime. "Maria-Dolores!" he called, but in vain, as she stepped into a simple cafe, full of warm lights, where a dark, doting husband awaited.

"She cannot hear you," muttered a voice beside him, this one belonging to a second PR executive, representing the ghost of Christmas Present. And before he knew it, Mr Artichoke was back on another plane, heading for Heathrow. A couple of hours later, he found himself in a room full of happy people.

The children were singing, the Christmas pudding was steaming. And in a corner, much to Mr Artichoke's embarrassment, Johnny Doesnt and Ms Badluck were kissing under the mistletoe. "Imagine what Mr Artichoke would say!" whispered Johnny Doesnt in his sweetheart's ear. "Don't spoil things!" exclaimed Ms Badluck playfully.

"Am I so bad?" Mr Artichoke wanted to shout out. But too late! Now attended by the PR executive of Christmas Future, he found himself on a much longer flight. It felt like it must already be Boxing Day by the time they landed in a strange world, the like of which Mr Artichoke had never seen. A beautiful couple were on a beach overhung by palm trees, with gorgeous children building sandcastles around them.

"What a great idea to spend Christmas in the Seychelles, darling," said the woman, whom Mr Artichoke now saw to be Ms Badluck, though he did not recognise her in a sexy bikini and Gucci sunglasses.

"For you, anything," replied a most handsome Johnny Doesnt. "I was just thinking what a good thing it was that Mr Artichoke got jailed for those illegal arms shipments. Fancy sending that shipment to Burma on Christmas Day of all days! But it was freedom from Mr Artichoke which enabled us to channel our talents into starting up our own low-cost airline, was it not?"

One of the tanned children looked up. "Thank Goodness that horrid old man is dead!"

"No Benedict!" said Ms Badluck. "You mustn't say that. Not even about Mr Artichoke."

Mr Artichoke - now blubbing and red-faced - implored the grim PR executive to send him home at once. Was this his destiny? Or could he change it?

Hours later, Mr Artichoke found to his delight that it was still Christmas night. He rushed to the office and deleted the e-mail from the Burmese government. In January, he resolved, he would fly his staff and their families to an exotic holiday destination of their choice, to discuss turning over a new leaf.

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