Traditionally, I think it fair to say, Christmas has been no more a time of jollity in this house than any other season. This year, however, the atmosphere makes the opening scene of Scrooge seem like the closing scene of It's a Wonderful Life. The cause of disharmony is the operation on my "significantly deviated septum" scheduled for January 28 2000. I cannot stop thinking about the implications for Christmasses yet to come.
"Oh Christ, no," says my wife as she catches me mournfully fingering the fairy lights. "Not the 'I'll never see another Christmas tree' act again, please." I don't say anything. What's the point? If Rebecca will not share my concerns that a freak anaesthetic accident at the Charing Cross hospital's day surgery unit will render me a vegetable, there is nothing I can do.
Marital tension rises another notch, and now stands at what was known in the cold war-era Pentagon as DefCon One. The escalation follows an overheard phone conversation. "Yes, that's right, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. No, no, the insurance will cover everything," Rebecca hears me saying down the line, it later transpires, from the top of the stairs. "The patient? Ah, that's me. Yes, I know I sound all right now, but the operation isn't until..." It is at this point that an unseen finger appears to cut me off. "Don't tell me you're booking nursing care for when you become a post-operative vegetable," says my wife. "I'm not telling you anything, except put down that glass. Put down that..." As she slams the front door and leaves for work, I head dolefully for the broom cupboard to begin the familiar search for dustpan and brush.
I awake with a nasty, phlegmy cough and constricted chest, having passed a desperately troubled night. As the digital clock flashed 3am, I was visited by the ghost of Medical Christmas Past. As this maudlin phantom took me back through time, a pattern quickly emerged. In every year since 1975 - except for 1979 (whooping cough), 1984 (middle ear infection), 1990 (conjunctivitis) and 1996 (flu), I suffer an attack of Yuletide bronchitis. "Amoxycillin, amoxycillin," whispered the spirit. "Call Sarah Jarvis." And with that he was gone. Things cannot get any worse.
Things have got worse. When I call Dr Jarvis at home, an unfamiliar voice answers. "Oh," it says, "I'm afraid she's not here. The family have moved... No, I'm sorry, she asked me not give out their new number." "Yes, but the ghost of Medical Christmas Past told me..." "I'm very sorry. Goodbye." When I raise the matter with Rebecca, she flashes her Blofeld grin. "Did I not mention they were moving?" she says. "How remiss of me." "Where have they gone?" "London, I think." Mechanically, and without any hope, I ask for the number. She smiles again and peels a tangerine.
I awake distraught after another troubled night, this time in the company of the ghost of Medical Christmas Present... a jolly, bearded spirit twice the size of Brian Blessed, four times as loud and eight times as irritating. According to him, I do not have bronchitis, am in good health and should be having fun. When I point out that he should try living here for a while before he talks blithely about fun, the ghost cackles dementedly, says he is off to climb Everest and is gone.
I awake, but I cannot describe the misery and terror with which I do so. Nor do I wish to dwell on the ghost of Medical Christmas Yet To Come, a gaunt, pallid, unspeaking spectre who led me to this day 12 months hence. We are in the kitchen, where a party is taking place. A log fire is crackling (a minor worry, this, since there is no fireplace in the kitchen), and Dr Jarvis and Rebecca are dancing a jig. "This is jolly," I say, suddenly cheered. "This is marvellous." Lifting the hood of his cloak, the ghost (a ringer for Alan Milburn) points a bony finger towards the corner of the room and beckons me over to a wheelchair occupied by a figure thinner even than himself. It is me, of course, the imbecile grin just visible through all the tubing, the life support machine gurgling contentedly at my side. Rebecca comes over. She is glowing with luminescent joy. "Do you know," she says, feeding a liquidised mince pie into one of the tubes, "I think this is the best Christmas we've ever had."