The Curmudgeon


Friday, December 24, 2004

A Christmas Carol II: Judgement Day

Fit the First

Marley was dead, to begin with. He died the year before my great-great-great-grandfather, Ebenezer Scrooge, had his nervous breakdown. Old Ebenezer died two years later in the workhouse, having given away most of his fortune to the poor of the parish.

I myself am his descendant via one of a few - a very few - wild oats he sowed prior to the making of said fortune. During the last year of his life, Ebenezer sought out and recognized his long-lost son, who was very glad of the privilege until the will was read and it turned out that the entire Scrooge estate now consisted of three shillings and sixpence which had been left, moreover, to the Cratchits.

Disgusted, the younger Scrooge left London for America and there worked his way up through the sweatshops of New York, taking advantage of his family's vinegary temperament to become the Pickled Onion King of the eastern states. Subsequent generations also prospered, until my grandfather lost everything in the crash of 1929 and returned to England, where he rapidly acquired an eccentric reputation (and a police record) by ceremonially burning every single volume of the works of Charles Dickens that he could lay his hands on.

My father, Tiglathpileser Scrooge, was born and grew up in utter penury. Swallowing his pride, he wrote to Norbert Cratchit, a descendant of the original Bob and the senior partner in Cratchit's Christmas Novelties and Animal By-Products, Inc., the phenomenally successful corporation which his ancestor had founded with Ebenezer's money. Moved to pity by my father's plight, Cratchit gave him a lifetime contract as a clerk, on subsistence wages, of which ninety-four and a half per cent reverted back to the employer as part of the Cratchit Provisional Pension Plan.

When I was seventeen Mr Cratchit promoted my father to senior clerk, and as an expression of his personal esteem entrusted to him the care of the corporation's crippled centenarian patriarch, Big Tim. This was a heavy responsibility, since the old man was prone to fly into the most dreadful rages if the smallest thing were denied him, and he would scream all day from his bed for toy trains and lollipops, so that my father was kept constantly busy. When not fetching and carrying he was usually ducking and dodging, since the old man's favourite amusement was to hurl his toys at their deliverer, particularly when the deliverer happened to be a Scrooge.

Eventually, when I was eighteen, Big Tim broke a die-cast model of the Golden Gate Bridge over my father's head. "Don't make 'em like they used to," he is reported to have murmured, settling back with a satisfied smile; but it is unclear whether he was referring to toys or to Scrooges.

In the limitless kindness of his heart, Norbert Cratchit offered me my father's original position with the firm, as a junior clerk in the plastic walnut department. This was shortly before my father died of a fractured skull aggravated by despair at learning that the Cratchit Provisional Pension Plan was in receivership in Paraguay. His last three words were: "Bugger!"

During all this time, naturally, Marley remained dead. The first time I met him was two years after I first started work at Cratchit's.

At closing time on December the twenty-fourth of that year, old Mr Cratchit himself came up and spoke to me. "It's Christmas Eve today," he said, with the perspicacity for which he was renowned.

"Yes, sir," I said. "I would be greatly obliged if you would allow me to come in and work tomorrow, as the season depresses me no end and I'd be glad of the distraction." The money was also not unimportant, but Mr Cratchit found such materialistic motivations distasteful in the extreme.

"Working over Christmas! Can't have that," he told me. "It's a time for the family. Working over Christmas would undermine Family Values. Why do you think I take back half your wages and put them in the Cratchit Employees' Offspring Trust Fund account in Switzerland, if not for the sake of Family Values?"
"But I don't have a family, sir."
"Well, in that case I'll allow you to come in three hours early on Boxing Day. But don't dare show your face here tomorrow. Just have a merry Christmas, and remember - don't buy a walnut, buy a Cratchit's Animal By-product!"
"Yes sir," I murmured, unable to join in as he pronounced the corporation's most successful advertising jingle, one of many hundreds which had been originated by Big Tim himself.

I walked home through the snowy streets. The snow was fake, being another Cratchit's animal by-product which had undergone a certain amount of inexpensive processing. It was fairly realistic, lacking only the colour, consistency and temperature of real snow; and it helped to make the rain look nicer.

As I walked through the streets I could see strings of fairy lights spelling out in red, white and blue - the corporation colours - such slogans as: "Buy Cratchit's!" and "A Corporate Christmas is a Corpulent Christmas!" The main road was lit by little flashing angels blowing trumpets from which came other improving mottoes: "Eat Yourself Sick with Glossop's Turkey Vindaloo" and "Shop at Bratfinks or your Child will Howl the House Down". It was all very seasonal; but for some reason I still felt depressed. I never had cared for Christmas very much. No doubt it was all to do with the traumas of my family history; I knew my loathing was irrational, inexcusable, undemocratic and contrary to natural law, but there wasn't very much I could do about it.

My window was easily recognizable; it was the only one that didn't have a glitz-festooned fir tree sitting in it like Zsa Zsa Gabor in a hedgehog suit. I opened the front door to find an elderly man in a very elderly frock coat standing irritably in my porch. "How did you get in here?" I said.

"Scrooooooge," he replied.

It was a frightful wail, accompanied by much clanging and clanking of a huge chain which he wore coiled around him.
"How do you know my name?" I said. "Is this someone's idea of a joke? Are you from Big Tim Cratchit's escort agency?"

The man said, "Scroooooooooooooooooooge!"
"I'm Scrooge," I said. "Now who the hell are you?"
"In life I was your great-great-great-grandfather's partner, Jacob Marley."
"His partner, eh?" I said. "So you're the one who advised him to throw away all his money?"
"I was permitted to intercede for the sake of his soul."
"I don't believe in ghosts," I said. "I think you're a product of indigestion. You're just a bit of inefficiently processed crispbread, that's all you are." I took off my coat.

Marley's pallid features gained a martyred look, but he ploughed on regardless. "I am permitted to speak also to my partner's descendants, once they reach the age of majority," he said, "given that my original intercession, while entirely successful, exercised such a - ahem - such a powerful influence over the mind of poor Ebenezer. He always was prone to overreaction."

And, apparently to demonstrate his own cool perspective on the situation, he rattled his chain a bit more and wailed: "Scroooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo-"
"Yes, yes, all right," I said. "If you're going to preach me a sermon, though, let's at least get away from this draughty porch."
"Earthly chills no longer have the power to chill me, nor earthly fires to warm my weary bones," said Marley. He was blocking my way to the living-room door. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and walked forward. There was a brief, intense chill, lasting perhaps a tenth of a second, and a noise that sounded somewhat like, "Ow!" When I felt the doorknob under my hand, I opened my eyes and looked back. Marley was still facing me, though I hadn't heard him turn, and his expression was more martyred than ever.

"That was very impolite," he said.
"It's not exactly courteous to break and enter a person's home."
"I broke nothing."
"You didn't knock, either," I said. "Anyway, who are you to lecture me on etiquette or anything else? I've yet to see any proof that you're not a hallucination - indigestion coupled with a draught under the carpet."

I walked into the living-room and shut the door. After a couple of seconds I opened it again and peeped out. Marley was gone. I closed the door again and sat down in the armchair, opposite the television. Marley was sitting between me and the screen, apparently perched on thin air.

"You are not taking a very constructive attitude," he intoned. "It was the same with poor Ebenezer. Truly you are your great-great-great-grandfather's great-great-great-grandson."
"And you," I said, "are beginning to get on my nerves. Just say your piece and get out, will you - or do you have to be exorcised?"
"You will be visited," Marley said, "by three Spirits. I shall not bother to tell you that they will appear on successive nights. You will see them all tonight, and face tomorrow's dawn a new man. That is," he added, glaring, "if you know what is good for you."
"Like old Ebenezer knew, I suppose?"
"As I said, he was prone to overreaction."
"You ruined him - you and your meddling. What did his son have to say when you came to wish him the platitudes of the season?"

Marley's cheeks went from white to a sort of graphite grey, and he didn't meet my eyes; I had the impression he was blushing. "Young Ebenezer," he managed at last, "was a person of direct and forceful speech; doubtless a consequence of his unfortunate early life. As his later success and riches indicate, he was also rather immature in spirit."

I sighed. "Have you finished yet, or is there more? If you've said all you wish to, please go away. I'd rather listen to the Queen's broadcast, and that's saying a great deal."
"I shall detain you no longer," he said coldly. "Learn from the Spirits, young Scrooge. Learn, and repent your evil ways - before it's toooooooo - laaaaaaaaaaaaate!"

With this melodramatic wail and a last jangle of his chain he finally faded from view. Not a moment too soon, I thought; with all the noise he'd been making I'd have had the neighbours banging on the walls were it not for the fact that they were making too much noise themselves to notice.

Well, apparently I'd had a real ghost - either that, or the most inventive bit of bad crispbread I had eaten in a very long time. I spent a few minutes looking through the flat for any other supernatural manifestations that might have happened to wander in, but apart from a large and very natural spider in the airing cupboard nothing thrust itself on my attention. I went back to my armchair with three spirits of my own: whisky, gin and vodka. I'd bought the bottles a week ago, having saved all year. I switched on the television and prepared to sozzle myself insensible so as to notice the festivities as little as possible.

To be continued...


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