"Dammit, man, how loud do I have do shake these effin' chains?! Wake the bloody hell up!"
Ebenezer Scrooge pulled his covers up over his head and rolled away from the disturbance on the left side of his bed.
"Wake the fuck up!" shouted the stranger. He grabbed Scrooge's blanket and pulled it off the bed.
"Go away," Scrooge mumbled, not opening his eyes. "I'm so tired."
" 'Course you're bloody tired," replied the voice. "You spend twenty-three hours a day counting your money and only give yourself sixty minutes to sleep! What kind of a life are you leading?"
"Please don't wake me," Scrooge pleaded, reaching for his blankets. "No, don't shake me. Leave me where I am."
A cold splash of water landed in Scrooge's face. He sat up and opened his mouth to curse, then got a good look at the ghoulish apparition staring down at him. He froze in terror.
"Do you recognize me, Ebenezer?" asked the ghost.
Scrooge started to shake. "No, fiendish thingee. Get thee away, Satan!"
The ghost cackled. His laughs echoed off the ceiling of the small bedroom and doubled back down upon the hapless figure of Scrooge.
"I'm your old business partner, Jacob Marley," bellowed the ghost.
Scrooge reached for the wire-rimmed glasses on his nightstand and twisted the knob on the gas lamp by his bedside. "No you're not," he managed to say when he got a better look at his uninvited guest. "You don't look a thing like Jacob. He had a pug nose. Yours is aquiline."
"Right then," the ghost replied, sitting down on the edge of the mattress. "Sorry about that. Jacob was assigned to haunt you tonight, but he fell ill, so he lent me his chains. I'm John, his whist partner."
Scrooge rested his back against his pillow and scrutinized John. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean."
"Jacob and I are in a Whist Club together," John replied. "In the great beyond. And I owe him a gambling debt. But he said he'd let me off if I filled in for him tonight."
"You make no sense," Scrooge admonished the ghost. "I don't believe a word you're saying."
John climbed on top of the mattress and started jumping up and down, twirling his chains and nearly smacking Scrooge with the flailing metal links.
Scrooge covered his face with his arms. "Stop that, you pillock!"
"Fine!" John shouted. He jumped onto the floor and stared menacingly at Scrooge. "I just wanted to get your attention. Now listen, Mr. S, you're in for a little surprise tonight."
"In addition to your unwelcome visit?" Scrooge groused.
John howled. His voiced bounced back and forth across the walls and set the framed pictures rattling. Scrooge flinched. John laughed.
"Ha. I knew you were afraid of me," John berated him. "But things are going to get much worse for you before the dawn. Three more spirits are coming to see you tonight. The ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future. And you'd better mind them."
"Why?" Scrooge challenged, crossing his arms in front of his chest in a defiant pose.
" 'Cause otherwise Jacob himself is gonna come down to earth and pester you, and he's been in a very foul mood lately, so you don't want to cheese him off," John warned.
"But why are you and Jacob bothering me?" Scrooge asked. "I don't understand."
"Ah, but you will," John assured him. "We've a lesson to teach you. So please listen. You don't know what you're missing."
"I'm not missing anything!" Scrooge protested. "I'm the wealthiest man in England!"
"But the world could be at your command," John replied.
Scrooge's eyes lit up with a greedy expression. "Really, how?"
John rattled his chains and released another howling laugh. Then he smiled more sweetly. "All you need is love, man."
"Love? Humbug!" shouted Scrooge.
John started chanting: "Everybody's flying, and no one leaves the ground. Everybody's crying and no one makes a sound."
"You're talking nonsense," Scrooge groused.
"You think that's nonsense? Then get a load of this." John challenged. He started marching around the bed, flapping his chains like wings and singing,
Here come old flat top, he come groovin' up slowly.
He got joo joo eyeball. He one holy roller.
He got hair down to his knee.
Got to be a joker, he just do what he please.
"What in God's name are you going on about?" Scrooge whined, covering his ears with his hands.
"Hey, don't take the big guy's name in vain," John warned him. "Though you needn't worry yourself too much about blasphemy just now. Tonight your Sunday School lesson is on the third deadly sin."
"Which one is that?" Scrooge asked.
"Just think about it, you miser," John said. He stated backing away from the bed, then crashed into the room's door by accident. "Fuck," he cursed under his breath, rubbing his head with one of his shackled hands. He used his other hand to twist the knob, then stepped through the open door, shouting over his shoulder as he left, "Let this be a sermon, I mean everything I said!"
"I don't even know what you're talking about, you…you ghostly imposter!" Scrooge called after him. "I can't imagine why my late partner Jacob Marley would even want to associate with such a fool as you!" He waited until the sound of clanking chains' receded into the distance, then reached for his gas lamp to shut off the light.
A bright glissando of music filled the air, as if someone had just plucked an invisible harp. Then with a flourish of sparkles, a tiny man, standing only twelve inches tall and wearing a blue tailored train conductor's uniform, appeared on Scrooge's nightstand.
"What in the blazes are you?" Scrooge shouted at the apparition.
"I'm the Ghost of Christmas Pat, of course!" replied the little man. "Didn't John tell you I was coming?"
Scrooge rolled his eyes. "He mentioned something about three spirits."
"Well, I'm Ghost Number One," the tiny man replied. "My friends call my Ritchie. My fans call me Ringo. But you can call me Mr. Conductor."
"I'd rather just go back to sleep," Scrooge groused.
"Don't be such a dosser," Ringo said. "Why my friend Thomas once learned a very important lesson about the perils of being lazy. Would you like me to tell you that story?"
"No," Scrooge replied.
"That's okay," Ringo said. "I think I'd rather tell you a story about a little boy named Ebenezer. But first, let me call Thomas so he can help me."
Ringo grabbed a wooden whistle out of his coat pocket and blew into it. In the blink of an eye, a bright blue and silver train engine with a human face came barreling through the open bedroom door.
"Christ! What is that monster?" shouted Scrooge.
"Now, now, Mr. S, you shouldn't take the name of the Lord in vain," Ringo admonished him. "But we can deal with that matter a little later. C'mon, let's climb aboard!"
"I don't want to ride on that hideous, anthropomorphized machine!" Scrooge protested.
Ringo blew his whistle again. The train engine bellowed a puff of smoke from its tall stack, and the room was enveloped in a sparkling, grey cloud. Scrooge closed his eyes to shut out the smoke. He felt his body being tossed back and forth as if he were riding on a rickety train. Then he opened them when Ringo shouted, "First stop – The Bucolic Boarding School!"
Scrooge gasped in wonder at the sight of his younger self, sitting at a school desk and working on a mathematics problem. "Why that's me!" he exclaimed.
"You're right!" Ringo agreed. "And look there, do you recognize that little girl?"
"That's my sister, Nan!" Scrooge said. "Can I, could I…might I be allowed to embrace her?"
"I'm sorry, no," Ringo replied. "You can just watch through the train window. My, but don't those two children look happy?"
"Yes," Scrooge said, his eyes welling up with tears. "I was happy then. And…innocent."
"Right you are," Ringo said. He blew into his whistle again, and the tank engine released another cloud of smoke. Scrooge closed his eyes again as his body hurled back and forth inside a room which he now realized was a train car.
"Next stop – Mr. Fezziwig's Highly Ethical Accounting Office!" shouted Ringo in a merry voice.
Scrooge ran to the window. "Why, look, it's my old boss. Good old Mr. F! He always treated me like a long-lost son."
"And who's that lovely lass walking into the office?" Ringo asked in a knowing voice.
"That's Belle," Scrooge sighed. "She was my…she was my fiancé."
"Really?" Ringo said. "Oh, I do love watching a good love story. Here, let me open the train window a crack so we can hear what they're saying."
"Please, Ebenezer, leave your books behind," pleaded Belle. "Tonight is the Christmas ball! You promised to take me dancing."
"But I need to finish reconciling this ledger so we can send out the bills before the bank holiday," replied a youthful incarnation of Scrooge.
"Certainly that can wait," Belle protested.
Ringo tapped his fingers against the train's window pane in a steady rhythm and started singing, drowning out the voices across the way:
At the Christmas Dance – That magic time of year when dreams come true!
Yeah, the Christmas Dance – The only dance I want to dance is you!
The music playing, hearts are swaying to the rhythm of ro-maaannce,
At the Christmas Dance!
The elderly Scrooge watched in dismay as Belle started arguing with his younger self, then fled the office in tears. "Oh please, Mr. Conductor, take me away from this horrible memory!" he begged.
"As you wish!" Ringo replied. He blew on his whistle and set the train jolting off in another flurry of blinding smoke. Scrooge squeezed his eyes shut in a futile attempt to hold back his tears.
"Next stop, the Jolly Holiday Fête!" Ringo called out. "Why look at those two lovely grown-up ladies, Mr. S. Are they Nan and Belle?"
Scrooge opened his eyes and sighed. "Yes. They are indeed."
"And who's that gentleman offering Belle a cup of nog?"
"Her husband," Scrooge said with a scowl. "Take me out of here! I hate this memory!"
Ringo checked his pocket watch. "I will indeed, sir, for it's time for your next appointment. Hold onto your wigs and keys. We're off to Shining Time Station!" He blew into his whistle again, hurling the train forward towards a cavernous depot. The brakes screeched loudly as the train jolted to a stop.
"Here we are," Ringo exclaimed. "Let me introduce you to my dear friend, the Ghost of Christmas Present."
A handsome young man with floppy brown hair, large eyes and a bright smile jogged onto the train car. "Hello, Mr. Scrooge. Glad you could make it. Ringo, I can take it from here."
"Thanks, Paul. That's me off then," Ringo said. Another harp glissando sound rang out of thin air, and the tiny conductor disappeared in a second shimmer of sparkles.
The good-looking ghost shook his head. "Such a crap special effects budget. But I guess that's what poor Ritchie has to make do with, since he's stuck in the past." He extended his hand towards Scrooge in greeting. "Come on, Mr. S, there are some things I want to show you."
Scrooge inspected his new acquaintance's clothes. The ghost wore a beautifully-fitted, maroon-colored, merino wool sweater with perfectly stitched cables running down the front. A crisply-starched white oxford shirt and forest green necktie peeked out from the sweater's collar. Neatly-pressed, flawlessly-tailored, black woolen trousers completed the ensemble.
"It looks to me like you spent a pretty penny on your 'casual' outfit," Scrooge admonished him.
The ghost laughed. "Good one, Mr. S. Good one." He led Scrooge out of the rail car and onto the train platform. "But actually, I didn't have to pay for these clothes. My business manager Brian contracts with the most dapper designers in London for me and my mates to model their wares, at no cost to us. So it's a win-win situation, for all parties concerned. My girlfriend Jane bought me this cravat though. My name's Paul, by the way."
Scrooge nodded. "And where are you going to take me?"
"Roll up, roll up for the Mystery Bus! Step right this way!" Paul exclaimed. He grabbed Scrooge by the elbow and pulled him onto a colorfully painted, horse-drawn omnibus. "Don't mind the other passengers. They're just here to fill up the seats for appearances sake. We're the stars of this show."
Paul signaled to the driver, and the bus took off at breakneck speed on a whirlwind trip through Southern England. They drove by a market full of holiday shoppers, a miner's cottage teaming with reveling party-goers, and a lighthouse. When they finally came to a stop, Scrooge noticed that Paul had changed his clothes. His tasteful sweater had been replaced by a cherry-red, shiny satin shirt with an enormous collar. Bright green holly leaves and sparkling, beaded snowflakes had been embroidered all over the yoke of his shirt. A pair of green-and-red plaid bellbottomed pants replaced his woolen trousers.
"Your…clothes…" Scrooge stammered.
"Oh, these old things?" Paul replied. "I wore them at a Christmas concert I gave a couple of years ago, but I think maybe I ought to chuck them now. I have to keep up with the latest fashions, you know, since I'm the Ghost of Christmas Present."
"Your hair…" Scrooge continued.
Paul rubbed the top of his head and laughed. "Yeah, this is called a mullet. It's all the rage right now. But my wife Linda and I cut each other's hair, so we don't have to keep running to the barber for trims. Saves a bit on our grooming budget too."
"Hhmm," Scrooge said, nodding. "Very practical of you. But I thought you said your girlfriend's name was Jane."
"That was in the past, but I live in the present," Paul explained. "Oh, I have got another girl! C'mon. Your nephew's throwing a party. Let's see if we can sneak in undetected and grab a drink."
Paul led Scrooge off the bus and into a grand home festooned with pine garlands and ribbons. "Don't worry, no one can see us. Here – you try to find your nephew while I check out the buffet table. With a little luck, we can help ourselves. We can make this whole damn thing work out."
Scrooge inched his way through the crowd and found his nephew playing charades with a group of friends. One of the players was miming a crotchety old man bending over a table, counting pennies into stacks. The other players broke into hoots of laughter.
One of those players smiled at Fred, "That's your Uncle Ebenezer!"
"Now, now, we mustn't be too hard on the old man," Scrooge's nephew Fred admonished his guest. "He's just set in his ways."
The party guest who had been miming Scrooge approached Fred, picked his pocket, and ran away with his wallet, giggling maniacally. The other revelers laughed as the Scrooge impersonator helped himself to a pound note before returning the wallet.
Scrooge frowned. He felt a tap on his shoulder.
"Seen enough?" asked Paul. He swallowed a piece of fruitcake, washed it down with a drink of wassail, then rested his plate and cup on the closest tabletop. His shiny satin ensemble had been replaced by a new outfit – a white collarless shirt and a pair of loose-fitting, grey trousers held up by a pair of red-and-green striped braces. Obvious shadows had appeared under his eyes. His chin had grown jowly.
Scrooge looked him over carefully. "Your hair…" he noted. "It's changed color."
"Right, yeah," Paul laughed. "I dye it now, to wash out the grey. I don't want to look too old when I'm standing next to my wife Heather. She's not even forty yet! But she keeps me young, don't you know. Now, what do you say we stop by your employee Bob's house? I've heard he's throwing a party too."
Before Scrooge could protest, Paul had swept him back onto the omnibus and they went charging across London to a decidedly less posh neighborhood.
"C'mon, Bob lives in this upstairs flat," Paul said as he grabbed Scrooge's elbow and yanked him off the bus. "Mind your step. The railings along the stairwell need replacing."
Scrooge followed Paul up three flights of stairs and into a crowded apartment, teeming with children. Bob was giving piggyback rides to the smaller kids while the older boys and girls helped their mother set the dinner table. Then when Bob's wife called the family to supper, Bob walked over to a chair with worn upholstery in the corner of the room and lifted a child out of the seat. He carried the small boy to the table, then joined his family in clasping hands and saying a prayer of thanksgiving.
"What's wrong with that child?" Scrooge asked.
"Dunno," answered Paul. "Some ghastly Victorian malady. Doesn't matter, though, does it? There's nothing much the doctors can do for him. The NHS hasn't even been established yet."
"This family…they seem…" Scrooge stuttered. "They seem…happy."
"Yeah, they do," Paul agreed. "Go figure, huh?"
"But they live in such…" Scrooge swallowed hard before finishing his sentence. "Squalor."
"Well, you know, sentimental jamboree," Paul replied.
Scrooge furrowed his eyebrows and looked quizzically at Paul.
"Oh, maybe I meant to say 'broken-hearted jubilee'. I'm not sure. I haven't sung that song in a long while." Paul glanced at the clock hanging over the empty fireplace. "Would you look at the time?! I've got to get you to church!"
"Why? What's at the church?" Scrooge asked.
"Not what, who," Paul replied. "The Ghost of Christmas Future. C'mon, the magical mystery bus is waiting to take us away." He grabbed Scrooge's hand and led him down the stairs, into the street and back to the bus. Paul gave the driver directions while Scrooge climbed back on board.
As soon as Paul sat down beside him, Scrooge realized his companion had changed his appearance yet again. His hair was now long and silver. He was wearing his cabled maroon sweater once more, though it was worn at the seams and threadbare at the elbows. His face looked very old. Even the skin on his hands was marked with age spots. But his smile remained as bright as ever. "My wife Nancy talked me into accepting my grey hair," he said with a chuckle. "She's a wonder, she is."
He pulled back both sleeves of his sweater, revealing an elegant time piece attached to a leather strap on one wrist, and several colorful rubber bracelets draped around on the other. He noticed Scrooge was staring at his garment. "Yeah, it's the same jersey I used to wear back in the day. Why throw things away when they still have a little life left in them? Now, a quick word of warning about the next ghost. He's known in the Spiritual Sky as 'The Quiet One'. He doesn't often venture into the Material World. But don't you worry. He knows his way around here well enough."
The horses leading the omnibus trotted down the street, then stopped at a church that stood beside a large graveyard.
"Out you go, then," said Paul, pointing to the door of the bus.
"Aren't you coming with me?" asked Scrooge as he stood up from his seat.
"Nah, I live in the present," he replied. "I'm here today. I'm here, there and everywhere, to tell you the truth. But I can't go forward."
"But you, your hair, your skin…" Scrooge stammered.
"Yeah, I know, I'm old now," Paul agreed. "But it's just another day. I'll start everything fresh all over again tomorrow. That's the glorious thing about my gig. As George himself said, 'Be here now'."
"Who's George?" Scrooge asked.
"The next ghost," Paul said. "Go on then, he hasn't got all day."
The horses raced away as soon as Scrooge stepped off the omnibus. Scrooged examined the dark and foreboding edifice standing in front of him. A chill ran up his spine. He summoned his courage and entered the church.
A soft droning filled the air, mingling with the scent of burning incense to create an otherworldly atmosphere. Scrooge walked down the aisle and discovered a man sitting cross-legged on the floor where the altar should be. The man had long dark hair and a beard, and bore more than a passing resemblance to Jesus.
Scrooge bit his lip. "My lord and savior, is that you?" he asked, his voice quavering.
George looked up at him and scowled. He picked up a small rectangular device that had been lying on the floor beside him, touched its surface, and pointed it at Scrooge.
"Do not blaspheme in a church," the device spoke in a mechanical-sounding woman's voice.
"Right," Scrooge agreed. "The other ghosts took me to task for that too."
George stood up, shook out his long, shimmering robes, and gestured for Scrooge to follow him. Scrooge tagged along behind him. They left the church through the back door and stepped into a graveyard.
A trio of mourners was gathered in front of a freshly filled grave. A priest was reading prayers in a disinterested monotone over a small mound of dirt. Scrooge stole a glance at the gravestone. He gasped.
"I know the man in that grave! He's the second richest man in London, after me! Why didn't more people come to the funeral of such a powerful man?"
George put his hands to his lips, then pointed to the nearest mourner, who was whispering into the ear of his neighbor. Scrooge stepped closer to eavesdrop on their conversation.
"Where's the food? I was promised lunch if I showed up at this wanker's send-off," the first mourner whispered.
"Back at the house," the second man replied. "There should be a nice spread, if the hired help hasn't stolen all the plates and silver service yet."
The priest coughed loudly to silence the men, then returned to intoning his prayers.
Scrooge turned to George. "What a ghastly way to leave this world. Such an undignified funeral. Tell me, Ghost of the Future, is death always so empty?"
George pointed his shiny black rectangular device at Scrooge once more and wiped his finger across its surface. A man's voice sang out where the woman's once spoke. It was accompanied by a loud, electrical instrumentation that set Scrooge reeling on his heels:
Nothing in this life that I've been trying
Can equal or surpass the art of dying.
Do you believe me?
George touched the device again and it fell quiet.
Scrooge glanced around the cemetery and noticed another small gathering of mourners around a gravestone. Without realizing he was walking towards them, he found himself approaching the mourners alongside George. He drew in a sharp breath.
"It's Bob Cratchit's family!" he exclaimed in a loud whisper. He noticed the tiny size of the coffin and felt his eyes tearing up. "It's Bob's little boy. The poor lad must be dead."
George nodded, then started walking silently towards the back of the cemetery. Scrooge followed effortlessly behind him, as if he was being pulled by a magnetic force. The two men stopped by an empty lot with a freshly dug grave. Scrooge stepped towards the gravestone and saw his own name etched on the marble slab. He put his hands to his throat and felt the air being sucked out of him. He gasped for breath.
"Oh, tell me, great ghost!" Scrooge managed to squeak out in shallow breaths. "Are these scenes you are showing me the visions of what will be, or of what might be?"
George gazed at Scrooge with an inscrutable expression, then pointed his futuristic communications device at him once more and touched the screen. Another voice rang out from the rectangle, singing:
It's easier to say you won't than it is to feel you can.
It's easier to drag your feet than it is to be a man.
It's easier to look at someone else's wealth
Than to see yourself.
George smiled at Scrooge and said, "Have a nice life!" Then he pushed him into the open grave.
Scrooge sensed himself falling down, down, down – deeper surely than the gravedigger had dug the hole. At first he felt terrified, but as he continued to sink, he sensed a growing strength of resolve burning in his heart. He opened his eyes wide and realized he was heading towards a soft bed. He extended his arms to break his fall, then landed with a loud thump on the mattress in his own bedroom.
The sun was shining in through a gap in his window's curtains. He jumped out of his bed and pulled back the drapes to look outside.
"Everywhere it's Christmas!" he sang aloud with a newfound sense of inner joy. "And I'm off the spread the cheer!"
He ran out of his house and into the street to see if he could find a kosher butcher shop that was open and could sell him a goose to bring to the Cratchits' house for their holiday feast. "Or maybe a duck, if the larger fowl is too dear" he thought after a brief moment's consideration. He smiled to himself and remembered how the Ghost of Christmas Present had worn his old sweater until it was threadbare. "I'll follow that spirit's lead," he decided. "If nothing else, that bloke sure did have a way with the ladies."
Inspired by the story "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens (1843)