‘The Leaf-Sweeper’ by Muriel Spark

The Arab Strap B-side ‘Johnny Shrapnel Buys Christmas’ tells the story of a man who wants to buy not Christmas cards or decorations, but Christmas itself, to the increasing frustration of a retail worker. The absurdity of the request is paralleled, decades earlier, in Muriel Spark’s ‘The Leaf-Sweeper’, a story that, like many of Spark’s works, is desperately amusing and sad at once. While the genre of the Christmas ghost story is familiar, few examples are as ambivalent as Spark’s: the living Johnnie Geddes, Spark’s protagonist, is banished to an asylum for his obsession with abolishing Christmas, while his ghost loves nothing more. It’s a story I return to every year because it renders cynicism and sentiment equally ridiculous. Johnnie’s diatribes against commercialisation, and his ghost’s fixation on family and tradition, are both presented by the narrator as somewhat puzzling: why should one be so invested in Christmas at all?
Reading it this year, however, I find the story more moving than I remember. The peculiarity of a living man being haunted by his own ghost, which is never explained but merely deemed ‘loathsome’, echoes our own strange out-of-timeness. If positioning ourselves in relation to a holiday is rendered absurd, the sense that we are still haunted by that decision remains. And what else can we do, except watch the falling leaves?
First published in The Observer in 1952, and collected in The Complete Short Stories, Canongate, 2011

Chosen by Timothy Baker. Timothy is Senior Lecturer in Scottish and Contemporary Literature at the University of Aberdeen. His most recent book is Writing Animals: Language, Suffering, and Animality in Twenty-First-Century Fiction (Palgrave, 2019).

‘You Should Have Seen the Mess’ by Muriel Spark

I grew up in Edinburgh and so with Muriel Spark. I still like her short stories best: she seems to be to get bored with plots even in novellas. ‘You Should Have Seen the Mess’ was a favourite of mine at sixteen:  it’s about class, the artistic life, and untidiness – things which concern me still. A girl, her Edinburgh voice clear on every page – “we did not go to the full extent”, she says of sex – and trained like Spark, as a secretary, is taken out by an artist who we recognise as rich and talented, but she rejects him because he is not tidy enough for her. I always worried why the artist liked the tidy stupid girl though: I felt it didn’t bode well for me. (I was right.)

First published 1958. Collected in The Go-Away Bird and Other Stories and the Collected Short Stories (Canongate, 2011)

‘Christmas Fugue’ by Muriel Spark

I suppose I should really be including Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales as my seasonal selection, as that’s the book that comes out with the decorations every December, with its wonderful illustrations by Edward Ardizzone, but I couldn’t resist this weird late intervention by Dame Muriel. ‘Christmas Fugue’ has a British woman called Cynthia flying home from Australia to the UK on Christmas Day, having just split up with her boyfriend. There is a weird atmosphere on the half-empty plane, and Cynthia gets chatted up by Tom, a co-pilot on the flight with seemingly not much to do. Unusually for Spark characters, they have sex (during a stopover in Bangkok): “They made love in a beautifully appointed cabin with real curtains in the windows – unrealistic yellow flowers on a white background. Then they talked about each other, and made love again.” That last line, to me, is utterly characteristic of Spark’s writing. To read her is to find yourself, over and over again, teetering on the brink of an abyss that opens up without warning between the reader and the characters they have been tricked into believing in. She induces vertigo, is the best way I can think of to put it. Tom proposes to Cynthia on the flight, but when she gets back to the UK there is more than one surprise waiting for her. Not Christmassy in the usual sense, but very in tune with the weird out-of-time spirit of the time of year when you’re not in the bosom of your family.

First published in Country Life in 2000. Available in The Complete Short Stories, Viking, 2001. Chosen by Jonathan Gibbs