He walks the streets to find a tree; it’s no use, no, nothing without a tree. The right kind of tree. The word on his mind is fulsome. The word on his mind is plump. The word on his mind is proportioned. A spruce or grand fir, potted with damp earth, decked with paperchains and popcorn, the fresh blast of pine, the sharp of its needles. Once he had stood atop a kind of crow’s nest, over the square, looking down on the crowds and started the countdown. At its end, he hit a red button to light up the Norwegian Spruce, the coos and ahs reaching him in waves of childlike delight. What a site, that tree. What a site. No use, no; nothing without a tree.
He crosses the river, the trench where once it flowed, and looks in every car he passes, though he knows them well and not one has a tree in the passenger side or one lain across its backseats. Once, inside the Jaguar, he found a cigar and lit it just for the smell, the memory of leather-backed chairs and cognac, of men talking, gently drunk and half-eyed at the end of dinner. He would like to find a cigar today, but there isn’t even a cigarette or a book of matches in the fourteen abandoned vehicles. He knows, but he looks anyway.
Mother used to bring him, the first week of December, into the city on the train. They would disembark and walk the teeming streets: the hats and umbrellas, the smell of chestnuts and damp cloth. She held his hand tightly and took him to department stores and boutiques, allowed him to carry the bags, the cardboard ones with tissue paper inside his favourite, the strong smell of sprayed perfume lingering on his skin as, at the end of the day, they rode the rails out east, the two of them strap-hanging, the bags clenched between his legs.
He walks up the Charing Cross Road, its slight incline and remembers strip joints and peepshows, cars which took him from one bar to another, then out to Surrey. He has long since found the last surviving sex shops and looted all the magazines that interest him. By Any Amount of Books, he remembers once a woman, one had once— Stop now. He says this. Stop now. No past, no remembrance. A tree. He shouts this. A tree, that’s all. I have come for a tree and I will not leave without a tree. I will not be denied.
Inside one of the bookstores, somewhere, there could be a tree. But these shops are a last resort; their trees, if they have any at all, will be puny little things. Small and dusty and without the trimmings. Threaded tinsel, at best. To his left, Chinatown. No trees to be seen there. Lanterns, perhaps. One day he might need lanterns. Once there was a lantern bobbing from a string, inside a restaurant; a wife, his wife, telling of an affair. How these things come to one, just from the saying of a word.
Tree, tree, come out, come out, wherever you are!
He jumps over the bonnet of a black cab. A tic now. A superstition. If he sees one on his side of the road, he feels he must vault it. It slows his progress, but at least he does not think of lanterns or strip joints. Charing Cross Road meets Oxford Street and Noel now realises where he’s heading. He has decided on the place that surely will have a tree. Even after everything that has happened, perhaps because of it, Noel believes he has agency. Even after everything, Noel believes he can manipulate the world, can bend it to his will. He has said many times there is no such thing as death. And in this, at least in his case, he has proved himself correct. He is therefore certain that John Lewis will have, somewhere in its rooms and halls, a tree. There is no need to look elsewhere, duck into what was once HMV, or Tower Records. Energy in the body, unlike the mind, is limited. One must focus instead. Energy burns but lightly when focused.
He vaults a rank of black cabs. He takes some jerky from his pocket and chews as he walks. He passes a McDonald’s outside of which he was once mobbed. That’s what they said in the papers, but it was only five people, and at least one of them had called him a bearded bastard. He cannot recall the year it happened. A million lifetimes before, at least.
He has seen this street more often from a helicopter than at pavement-level. To his knowledge he has never taken a bus along the road. He can not recall the last time he rode a bus. He jumps aboard an open-doored 73. There were clippies when was young, uniformed and ready with a clip round the ear for cheek. The buses smelled of metal and ash, grime in the upholstered seats. This 73 smells of plastic and rot, the floor sticky with what once was drink. He gets off the bus. He vaults a lone taxi and slows his pace until he stops outside the grand façade of John Lewis. Its doors are open, wedged. It welcomes him. You have come for the trees, Noel, it says. The trees are here and waiting for you.
To be positive, one needs strategy. Noel has strategy. On his gameshow, he talked a lot about strategy; it can buy you good fortune. His strategy is to start at the top of the building at the back of the store and work his way to the front, floor by floor if need be. The stores are at the top of the building, he believes, and so this is the perfect strategy to deliver a tree. Not just any tree: the perfect tree. Not some wire coated in silver streamers, but a tree that looks like a tree. Branches and roots: something convincing.
The first five rooms are full of clothes. The sixth has kitchen equipment. These are the wrong kind of stores. This is stock. Under his layers he begins to sweat, scentless now, at least to him. He pulls out some more jerky from a pocket and chews as he upends boxes too small to contain a tree of any sort. He kicks a few things, they skid across the linoleum. In one room he throws eighteen red-wine glasses against a wall, only stopping when a shard of cut crystal grazes his cheek. Positive. He says this. Be positive.
Five hours and Noel is on the ground floor. He heads to the back of the store and pushes open double doors. There are mannequins, faceless, but with breast, faceless but with bulges at the crotch. With one he dances, just a quick minuet, then pushes one of them to the floor. He kicks it so hard, so many times, its head comes away. He watches the head roll towards a cluster of child models and stop like a football at the shin of a child wearing winter clothes. And behind the boy, there is the tree. He can see it, just behind some metal cages, just a tip of a branch, just enough to announce itself. Noel pushes everything aside. The tree is the same height as him, and has a fur of fake snow on some of its needles. The frame is dark and wood covered; perfectly believable. It stands, eventually, after some wrangling, fulsome and plump and proportioned. He touches the tree and it even feels real. Beside it is a box. There are paperchains and tinsel, fairy lights, and an assortment of gingerbread men, angels and penguins. The box goes under one arm, the tree under the other. He is hot but will not take off his layers. He pauses by the exit of the shop. He takes in a long breath and lets it longly pass.
I’ve got the tree, he shouts. I have the tree. Look. I have the tree!
Back on Oxford Street he does not vault the taxis and does not turn back down Charing Cross Road. He has a tree and at the junction of New Oxford Street and Holborn, he knows what must do with it.
He walks the streets. He does not know them as well as he thought. Cars and crew always bringing him; one year the helicopter. He circles his destination for some time, but then remembers a street corner and knows he has arrived.
The hospital is a kids’ hospital. For years, he had spent every Christmas Day there. With the kids. With the crew. Delivering presents for the dying, the almost dead, the getting better. The emotion always got to him. Every year the break in his voice, the slight nudging away of a tear as the credits rolled. They cancelled the show via fax, one July afternoon. In a rage he called the Director General of the BBC and demanded to know the reason. They don’t believe your tears, the Director General had said. Noel, they think you’re faking.
Noel walks to the wards where the sickliest of the children had slept: their drawings still taped to the walls, their coloured blocks and dollies on the floor. The kids never thought he was faking. Never them.
He looks out of the window, out over the city. He dresses the tree the same way he always has, with as much on each bough as possible. He does not have the Santa suit, but he can remember how it felt, the scratch of the beard on his beard. He stands in front of the tree and he remembers the moment when he surprised the children. The way their eyes extended, stalked out, then came back in, punctuated by squeals. The way the strength returned for a moment as they ripped away the paper to reveal a present. Something expensive, something to make the world feel a righter place. It made him feel alive. He watched them and felt a tremor that connected him to every person on earth. And they said he was faking it.
He puts the angel on the top of the tree. It is a magnificent tree, the finest he has ever seen. He turns to ask the little boys and girls if they would like to join him in a carol. As always, they all scream yes. He hears their cracked, off-key voices join his in ‘Hark! The Herald Angel Sing’. Noel sings out his lungs and in every line and verse he waits for that tremor, a tremor that will never come.