I thought you might enjoy a little parable for Christmas, so here goes…
The boardroom clock said twelve minutes to one. A waft of gravy in the air indicated that Christmas lunch awaited in an adjacent room. One agenda item to go: Colin the company secretary made a throat-cutting gesture to Kevin from health and safety, who had exceeded his allotted time for a presentation on disposal of toxic waste from Indonesian supplier factories. Coming after Maureen the HR director’s Powerpoint on ‘issues around diversity’, this had entirely lost the attention of the board, most of whom, Colin observed, were fiddling with their phones under the table.
Except for the chairman, George, and the chief executive — a Dutchman whose name no one could pronounce. The latter was doodling, in comicbook numerals, a seven-digit sum with a pound sign. After a glance at his laptop, he had crossed out his first number and replaced it with a bigger one.
Colin guessed correctly this was the value of the Dutchman’s share options, and that the share price had risen in response to news of strong pre-Christmas sales through the company’s vast chain of supermarkets. But he failed to guess why the chairman was so distracted: having admitted before the meeting that he had lost his security card (which among other things operated the executive lift), George also kept losing his place in the board papers — and slipping his right hand into his jacket, near his heart.
Colin thought George must be having chest pains, but actually he was touching a letter in his pocket: a letter he had shown only to his wife, who had promised to keep its contents secret even from their teenage children, lest they broadcast it on social media. It was a missive telling him he would become Sir George in the New Year Honours — barring mishaps. He could think of little else; now he had to be reminded by Colin that Kevin was waiting for questions.
‘Ah yes, thank you Keith, er, Kevin. Well done. Any questions? No? We certainly don’t want any toxic leaks this month, do we? Hahaha. I think that concludes our proceedings, doesn’t it, Colin? Unless there’s…’
George trailed off at the sound of ‘Good King Wenceslas’ outside the boardroom door, which opened to reveal six Santas. As they processed in, Colin and Maureen exchanged glances — each wondering whether the other had arranged this surprise. Four singing Santas positioned themselves behind George’s chair; two smaller ones, evidently female, close either side of him: ‘When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel…’ The fifth — a big baritone — remained squarely in front of the door, while the sixth, who wasn’t singing and was wearing a blank white mask as well as a beard, clambered on the table and started taking photographs on an iPad.
‘Bring me flesh and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither…’ Masked Santa indicated that the choir should pause. George, who was about to speak, froze in horror as the female Santas opened their red jackets to reveal shapely naked chests on which the words ‘Free Turkey’ were written in lipstick. The iPad clicked away.
‘Security?’ Colin mouthed to Maureen, who knew that the outsourced uniformed doormen were usually in the pub at lunchtime. ‘Free Turkey?’ muttered the Dutchman, wondering whether this had to do with his order to break a strike in the company’s Istanbul tomato-canning plant, or was some stupid British joke. Then the Santa at the door boomed: ‘Don’t move! Don’t touch your phones or this whole scene goes straight on Twitter, YouTube and Instagram.’
Masked Santa jumped off the table and paced round it holding aloft the iPad, which was playing a robotic recorded message. ‘The poor man is in sight, ladies and gentlemen. This is your chance to atone for your fat-cat greed and morph into King Wenceslas. This evening, from ten till midnight, you will open your stores all over the country and invite the poor… including students… to help themselves to free turkey, free booze, free crackers, whatever they want. No limit. No argument. Do it or your chairman goes viral…’ The girls opened their jackets and jiggled. The iPad clicked. George, hands over face, emitted a strangled groan.
The Dutchman leapt up: ‘Of course we cannot do this crazy thing, we cannot give way to blackmail. Our duty to shareholders…’ But Masked Santa was whispering in George’s ear and slipping something into his hand. Afterwards, George never told the board what Santa had hissed: ‘Here’s your security card, Dad. Mum told me about this knighthood bollocks. It’s toast if you don’t do what we ask. You’ll be front-page in every tabloid and, like, famous for ever on the internet. So just say yes.’
‘Simon? You monstrous brat…’ George hissed back before rising unsteadily, hand on heart. He was not, as Colin feared, having a coronary, but clutching the letter and channelling the ghost of his younger self as a slick crisis-management PR man. He waved at the Dutchman to sit down. ‘Thank you, Joost — er, Jaap — and well said. But in the circumstances, unseemly though they are, I think we might balance the short-term costs of this bold demand against its reputational impact as an indication of our social commitment and compassionate branding and, um… just say yes…’ The rest of his speech was drowned by whoops from the Santas, who marched off to ‘Therefore, Christian men, be sure,/ Wealth or rank possessing…’.
Maureen sobbed. The Dutchman screwed his big-number doodle into a ball and threw it at the back of the last departing Santa. George smoothed his thinning hair and touched the letter. ‘Well, there we are. The next line, if I’m not mistaken, is “Ye who now will bless the poor,/ Shall yourselves find blessing” — so let’s hope that’s reflected in our share price, eh, Jaap, old chap? Now, colleagues, lunch awaits. But before we close, is there any other business?’