It’s not looking like the Christmas break is going to be quite the respite from the strange times we are living in that everyone was hoping for, but hopefully it will still give us all a bit of a boost.
As I mentioned in a previous post, my local writing group had a seasonally themed challenge for December, and perhaps the end result reflects my state of mind at the time… Nonetheless, if you fancy a quick alternate view of a Christmas classic then read on for my take on a ‘Christmas Carol’.
Happy Holidays… and also Bah Humbug to 2020.
A Christmas Carol (Redux)
For the first time this week the snow outside was managing to settle on the pavements and windowsills of the city, rather than beating a hasty retreat into murky slush as it had done for the previous two days. Frost had traced out a fine latticework across the thin glazing of the window, splitting and refracting the light of the nearest streetlamp as it passed through the glass, creating tiny, wavering rainbows that danced across Ebenezer’s old desk, picking out the fresh scratches on its surface.
“Humbug,” Ebenezer grumbled to himself, running his hand across the worn wood, his index finger catching in a new shallow groove just to the side of his heavy ledger.
There was a meow of response, as a small, round tabby cat coiled its way around his leg, before lifting its chin for a stroke.
“How many times must I tell you,” Ebenezer scolded, albeit half-heartedly, “you can’t keep scratching the furniture. I have little enough as it is, without you doing your best to destroy everything.”
Humbug meowed again, gave what Ebenezer assumed to be the cat equivalent of a nonchalant shrug, and wobbled off into the distance, straight past the brand new and completely untouched scratching post Ebenezer had bought a few weeks before.
Ebenezer returned his attention to the ledger. He had been staring at it for hours, trying to get the columns of numbers to behave themselves and giving himself a huge headache in the process. Still, it looked like all the time and effort was going to be worthwhile. Unless he had got his sums wrong it appeared that he was on course to turn a profit this year, despite all the problems he’d inherited. Sitting back in his old chair, although not too heavily in case the backrest gave way again, he allowed himself a quiet sigh of contentment. There would enough for a small bonus for everyone who worked for the company, himself included.
His gaze flicked across to the small portrait that took pride of place in the corner of his desk. It was a cheap little thing bought on a whim, back when he had still been trying to impress Bella, making himself out to be some sort of captain of industry. Someone who her father would approve of. He could still remember the first time he had met Mr. Fizziwig, a self-made retailer, who loved only two things in the world, turning a profit and his eldest daughter. To this day Ebenezer wasn’t sure which of the two held the upper hand in Fizziwig’s affections, but for him it was an easy choice, Bella was quite the most wonderful thing in the world, even if the rather amateurish painting on his desk didn’t really do her justice.
He had promised himself this would be the year. He would finally turn things around, sort out the company’s dire finances, and put himself in a sufficiently sound position to ask for Bella’s hand in marriage. It had been a struggle, not least when he had discovered that his former busines partner, Jacob ‘trust-me’ Marley, had borrowed a considerable sum of money from some very shady people. Always one to sail too close to the wind, Marley had eventually gone one step further and completely capsized, nearly taking Ebenezer and the rest of the company with him.
Just over six months ago he had left the office after a particularly heated row, never to return. He had been found a few days later in the silt lined banks down by docks, wrapped in chains and extremely dead, but unfortunately for Ebenezer, Marley’s debts had outlived him. The loans he had taken out had offered up the company as surety, and Ebenezer had worked himself half to death since then to clear the debt.
It had been difficult, with an eyewatering amount of interest added every single day, but somehow, he’d managed it, and for the first time in a very long while, the balance sheet was showing a positive number.
Still, Ebenezer thought to himself, this was no time to go dwelling on ghosts from the past, no matter how fresh and difficult those memories were. All that mattered now was the present, and that meant…
Knock… Knock… Knock.
His train of thought was derailed by a sudden pounding at the office door, hard enough to shake the heavy wood in its frame, dislodging a couple of resident spiders from their webs.
It was late in the evening, far too late for it to be a normal visitor, and Ebenezer was certain that the rest of the staff had left hours earlier, leaving him as the only one working, as was so often the case.
The door rumbled again, as another barrage of heavy knocks threatened to bring the whole thing crashing down.
“Steady friend,” Ebenezer called out, pushing his chair back and walking quickly to the door, “I’m coming.”
When he pulled the door open, he was greeted with the sight of a man’s broad chest and shoulders filling the corridor outside, wall to wall. He was thankful that he’d opened the door when he had, as the man’s arm, which was nearly as big and thick as Ebenezer’s torso, was poised to knock again with a fist the size and complexion of a large, boiled ham. It struck Ebenezer that his office door wouldn’t have survived another assault.
Without uttering a word, the giant figure advanced through the doorway, turning sideways and ducking to fit both massive shoulders and a surprisingly small head through the opening, before straightening back up and returning to its main function, which seemed to be looming menacingly.
Ebenezer had been forced to retreat, with the only alternative being getting trampled by his uninvited guest, leaving him backed up against his own desk, feeling increasingly uneasy about how his evening was turning out.
From behind the behemoth now filling most of the cramped office emerged a much smaller figure, like an oily shadow. It was someone that Ebenezer recognised only too well, and he could feel his stomach starting to knot. Middle aged and innocuous looking, Bob Cratchit was immediately and horribly familiar, having been the cause of most of Ebenezer’s recent financial worries and most likely also Marley’s untimely death.
Cratchit held out one fleshy hand, each of the fingers adorned with gaudy rings, which Ebenezer suspected would be worth considerably more than his annual salary, despite their tastelessness.
“Scrooge my boy, good to see you again,” Bob’s voice was cloyingly friendly and overfamiliar. Thick and rich like syrup or lard, and just as bad for your health if you swallowed too many of his words. It was hard not to scowl or show his displeasure in some way, but Ebenezer was aware that the slightest show of disrespect would end very badly for him, so instead he gingerly took the proffered hand in his own and shook it.
Resisting the almost overwhelming temptation to wipe his hand on the leg of his britches afterwards, he swallowed once and then attempted speaking, hoping it would come out as more than a muffled squeak.
“To what do I owe this pleasure Mr. Cratchit?”
Bob smiled, or at least he raised either side of his mouth and showed a couple of teeth, one of which was an unpleasantly tarnished gold.
“Well, me and the boys had been planning on doing something nice this Christmas. You know the kind of thing, celebrating the successes of the year. It’s the opportunity to really reflect and reward the hard work of enterprising individuals like young Timothy here.” He gestured across at the hulking slab of muscle next to him.
Although Ebenezer hadn’t seen Bob’s huge companion before, he recognised the name well enough. There were plenty of colourful tales about ‘Tiny’ Tim Tomkins, none of them nice. He presumed that whoever had named him must have done so after discovering him somewhere on a map, as there was no way that anyone could have given birth to the man mountain filling his office, but the name had stuck.
He had heard rumours that on one infamous occasion members of a rival gang had ambushed Tim in one of the City’s winding back alleys, waiting till he was alone and sending ten of their most unpleasantly violent members after him.
Tim had been found, sat quite calmly, on a pile of the gang members lucky enough to still be in one working piece. Ever since then he had been Bob Cratchit’s strong right hand, and Bob’s collection rates had gone through the roof.
“I was making the rounds, you know how it is,” Cratchit continued, his cold smile broadening. “I’ve been taking voluntary contributions from local businesses, and you sprang to mind as a particularly well-meaning and generous young man.”
The knot in Ebenezer’s stomach was so tight by this point he was surprised he hadn’t split in half. He knew well enough what was coming but couldn’t bear the thought of letting his dreams of a Happy Christmas with Bella slip through his fingers for yet another year.
“I’m really sorry Mr. Cratchit,” he managed, equal parts amazed and horrified at the words coming out his own mouth, “but I believe I had settled our account last month, and I really can’t afford any more.”
Cratchit’s eyes narrowed for a moment, and the façade of greasy familiarity dropped, revealing the snarling weasel behind the bland mask, then it snapped back into place, along with his empty smile.
“I wouldn’t normally ask such as valued customer as yourself,” he said, in an even more syrupy voice than before, “but if truth be told, I need the money for poor Tim here, who has been suffering something awful with all sorts of terrible ailments these last few weeks.”
Ebenezer looked across at the hulking shape in front of him.
“He’s wasting away the poor thing,” Bob continued, giving Tim a less than subtle nudge.
“Cough, Cough, I feel poorly,” Tim rumbled, in a voice so deep and low that Ebenezer could feel his eardrums vibrating.
It would have been easy to cave in, hand over whatever Bob was after and live to fight another day, but deep-down Ebenezer knew that if he gave in now it would never end. Bob would come back year after year, and he would never get to the Happy Christmas he had been planning. He would never get Fizziwig’s respect, Bella would give up on him, and the company would eventually sink, taking all of the people who relied upon Scrooge with it.
“As I said, I’m very sorry, but I can’t help you,” he said. It was hardly more than a whisper, but the sound of his words filled the room more clearly than the loudest shout.
“That’s a shame,” Bob told him, although he didn’t look particularly sorry. “Tim, if you would be so good?”
For a big man, Tim moved surprisingly quickly, and by the time Ebenezer even thought about reacting, a huge fist had caught him cleanly on the chin.
When Ebenezer regained his senses, his first thought was amazement that he was still alive. He could only assume that Tim had been extra careful to only hit him gently. The second thought was more practical and mainly consisted of realising how much he hurt. His mouth felt like he had tried to chew his way through a steel girder… covered in angry wasps.
Once he had finished trying to move his jaw from side to side and realised that things still appeared to be working, he had time for his third thought, which was “where on earth am I?”
He could feel damp grass under his back, and the view above was of a largely clear and starlit sky. Bracing himself for the worst he pushed himself up onto his shoulders and took in his surroundings. It wasn’t quite as bad as he had feared, but it was still unpleasant, and very strange.
He was in the grounds of the local church, in a patch of land that had recently been set aside for burials. There had already been a few souls laid to rest, with a variety of headstones poking out from amongst the long grass, revealing the top half of whatever messages the families of the deceased had thought fit to celebrate the life of their loved ones.
The first that caught Ebenezer’s eye was a plain rectangle of stone, laid in memory of a Madame Defarge, who’s skills with a knitting needle were sorely missed by all that had known her.
The second headstone was more complex, topped with a miniature carved replica of Lady Justice, with a particularly prominent blindfold. The name underneath was one Serjeant Buzfuz, but sadly the rest of the carving was obscured by undergrowth.
The scrub around the third stone had been cleared and looked as if it was being prepared for a burial, with an open grave yawning hungrily in front of it. But it wasn’t the open grave that sucked at Ebenezer’s attention, instead it was the name carved at the top of the stone. “Ebenezer Scrooge 1786 to ….”
There was no escaping the fact that the grave was meant for him, the name and the date of birth were both unmistakably his. The fact that there was no date for his death was no more reassuring.
“Welcome back to the land of the living Mr. Scrooge… for the moment at least.”
Bob Cratchit was standing just to one side, with the unmistakable figure of ‘Tiny’ Tim just behind him, holding a gravedigger’s shovel in one giant fist like a novelty toothpick. It looked like the grave had very recently been dug, although it occurred to Ebenezer that Cratchit must have prepared the gravestone in advance. It wasn’t a pleasant realisation and suggested that reaching this point was more inevitable than he had realised.
“I thought I would give you a chance that not many people have,” Cratchit told him companionably, crouching down over the open grave and making a great show of staring down into the dark abyss.
“And what’s that?” Ebenezer asked, somewhat bitterly.
“To see what your future might be,” Cratchit replied. “On one hand, you could turn out to the generous benefactor I know you to be, supporting hard working boys like Tim here through these difficult times.”
Pausing for a moment, he grabbed a handful of the dark dirt from the edge of the grave, before letting it trickle through his fingers.
“On the other, you could be stubborn and end up in a pauper’s grave, soon forgotten. Not such a hard choice when you think about it.” As he spoke the pretence at convivial familiarity dropped away completely, crumpled up and thrown away along with the handful of earth.
A range of possible futures flashed in front of Ebenezer’s eyes, none of them particularly tempting. In one he paid up, like the good little coward that Bob expected him to be. He would be in Cratchet’s pocket for ever after, but at least he would live to see another Christmas.
In the other future he turned Bob down and enjoyed the warm glow of self-respect for about thirty seconds, before ending his days in a very early grave.
He looked up at Bob, still crouched in front of the grave like a particularly mildewy Gargoyle, and a third option popped into his head. It was a particularly crazy thought, but there was something about the day, the imminence of Christmas, and his dreams for the future, that stopped him from dismissing it.
Sneaking a glance at Tim, who was still looming indifferently in the background, Ebenezer steadied himself, locking the rational part of his brain away and letting instinct lead the way for the very first time in his otherwise orderly and boring life.
Taking a deep inward breath, he launched himself straight at Bob. For one impossible, glorious moment he thought he had been quick enough to reach him before Tim could react, but once again he had underestimated the big man’s speed. Before he could reach Cratchit he was caught by a huge swinging fist, which sent him flying.
Years later, when he looked back on that moment, Ebenezer could never work out how the blow from Tim had knocked him in the direction of Bob’s crouched figure rather than away, or why it hadn’t shattered him like a wishbone. There had been a blur of flying limbs, a muffled curse as he crashed into Bob, a teetering moment of horror as they had both scrabbled at the edge of the open grave, and the awful cracking sound of Bob landing headfirst in what had turned out to be a very deep hole.
He had curled into a ball, having used every last fraction of courage and adrenaline he had left to get this far, but Tim had ignored Ebenezer completely. Instead, he had just stood motionless at the edge of the grave, staring down into the darkness like a child waiting for his parents to return. It had been a good long time before Ebenezer had been able to peel himself from the ground and stagger back home, but eventually he had managed it, leaving Tim still standing there like a statue.
The following morning Ebenezer had opened the office as he always did, welcoming each of his employees with a warm handshake, a celebratory hamper of seasonal goodies, and the cheeriest ‘Merry Christmas one and all’ that had ever passed his lips. No one mentioned the bruises and cuts on his face, or the haunted look in his eyes… after all it was just Mr. Scrooge.