Read by Clive Greenwood
He counted the stack of coins on his desk, sorting them as he did. The larger piles were a dull brown, some tinged with green: copper farthings, halfpennies, and pennies; all well used. Of silver coins there were few, of half-crowns there was but one. Carefully, he noted the total in his ledger and then, leaning back, rubbed a bony hand across his chin and sighed. It was going to be a thin Christmas.
The chests that had taken so long to fill had taken a far shorter time to empty. True, the contents were technically out on loan and the repayment of even a small part would make him financially assured. But that wasn't the way it worked: what little came back went straight out again, the need far greater than his reserves. As for interest; none of the poor he lent to were in a position to pay even a penny in the pound. There was, it seemed, no profit in being good. Ebenezer Scrooge had a serious cash flow problem.
Though, as Scrooge's belly rumbled at the fading memory of his meagre repast, even that friendship would be sorely tested if his money and food ran out.
Still, he consoled himself, look at what he had accomplished along the way. All in Marley's name, of course, though as Marley had been dead these last ten years, died ten years ago this very night, it was perhaps obvious that the charitable deeds came from Scrooge's own hand, though few knew the reason why; the memory of his former business-partner’s chains, the life debt that Scrooge hoped he could in some way help pay off.
And he had, hadn’t he? Or at least, he’d tried. Why, only that morning, he had saved another poor wretch and his sizeable family, fallen on hard times, or harder than usual. Cold, hungry, but determined to live better lives, desperate to celebrate Christmas as it should be.
He hoped his good intentions wouldn't be tripped up by gambling, drinking, and, alas, whoring. With every loan Scrooge entreated the recipient to avoid any and all Spirits, but he'd already had to write off a disturbing number of such debts and had oft thrown good money after bad, to keep the poor that crossed his path out of prison or away from the work-house.
Perhaps there were sounder investments... But he'd balked at that when it was so obvious his wealth could do so much good elsewhere. How could he stand by, when many thousands were in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands in want of common comforts?
Such as Mr Jones and his indeterminate number of dependants. Why, the man had been so distraught he seemed to forget exactly how many children he had, and their ages, and their names. Scrooge had felt a flood of sympathy for the man, obviously unused to pleading his plight, and, though it had left his purse severely lightened, he had pressed what coins he could into the man’s grimy hand, wishing him a merry Christmas and a more profitable New Year.
And then he’d watched, anxiously, as Mr Jones had crossed the yard to the local tavern and disappeared into the smoky rooms within.
Oh, there had been some successes, he supposed. Companies kept afloat and now positively booming, from Todd’s Barbers to Mrs Lovett’s Pie Shops. Even his one-time clerk, Bob Cratchit, was now an up-and-coming businessman, a beneficiary of Scrooge's generous patronage.
But these were advances to tradesmen and professionals; men and women who knew the value of hard work and sobriety. For the rest, his loans had spectacularly failed to lift them out of their poverty. It was shocking how many of those who came to him, cap in hand, telling their depressingly familiar tales of woe, ended up being knifed in bar brawls a scant day or so after he had given them a generous long term sum on virtually no interest. Money which would never be repaid; not in this life, anyway.
And so, a scant three years after his yuletide epiphany, things were beginning to look rather bleak.
Odd to remember that moment of giddy exultation, the almost drunken feeling of relief in rediscovering his festive cheer. The sensation had quietened down to a benevolent generosity as the year rolled by, only to flare back into life each Christmas since, inspiring ever grander acts of charity.
Not this year though. Desperate times were upon him.
The sound of the oversized door knocker reverberated through the old house like thunder, startling Scrooge out of his reverie, sparking a feeling of ominous dread.
But it wasn’t the ghost of Jacob Marley on the step; it was Bob Cratchit, dressed in a sharp new suit and cravat, an ebony walking cane in one hand and, in the other, a page of cheap print, the rough paper mottled, the letters badly set, the crudest of publications.
“I thought you ought to see this, Ebenezer.”
Scrooge took it for a song sheet at first, the sort that were traded on the street three for a penny, but as he read his brow creased.
“What is this, Bob?”
“Instructions? For what?”
“For getting the best terms on a loan. From you.”
“It's all there. The trigger phrases, the ideal number of kids; not so many that the case appears hopeless, but enough, and young enough, to tweak at your heart strings. A family fallen on hard times, an appeal to one more fortunate, the assurance that, if they can just be helped out this once, they'll be able to turn the corner and live a more honest and profitable life. With special appeals for winter and, of course, for Christmas.”
“I'm... being played?” Scrooge said in disbelief.
“I assumed you knew that,” Cratchit said, eyebrow raised, “I wanted to make sure you knew the industrial scale of it.”
Scrooge went to bed that night thinking unseasonally dark thoughts. He’d read and reread the page of instructions, comparing them to the recent appeal by ‘Mr Jones’, presumably not his real name, not if the first instruction had been followed. A surprise, then, to find at the bottom of the sheet the brazen signature of its author, one Montague Tigg, a notorious ne’er-do-well, as responsible as any pub landlord for the crushing poverty of his fellow man.
As he contemplated cold revenge, the bell tolled one and a spectral figure thickened out of the gloom at the end of the bed.
“Scrooge!” intoned the ghastly ghost, “We hoped we were done with you. Thought we'd turned you to the light. Are ye having doubts?”
“Yes,” admitted Scrooge.
“Tush! And you, one of our success stories! What ails you, man?”
Scrooge edged to one side, trying to look behind the apparition’s dark cloak. “Are you on your own?” he asked.
“Yes... and we’re all on double shifts. It's a busy night.”
“But... you can speak?”
“Aye, that I can,” said the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. “Though with first visits, it's more dramatic if I don't. And it's all about the drama, the shock to the system, y’ken? Plus, my accent...”
“Well, anyway, I'm glad you’re here.”
“Are ye?” the Ghost said, doubtfully.
“You see, I have a few questions.”
“Mr Scrooge! That isn't the way this goes, and ye know it.”
“Bah. Tell me, Ghost of the Future; look into mine. Six months from now. Do I continue to do good?”
There was a moment’s silence. And then the spirit sucked in its breath. “Ah... I see.”
“Is it... as bad as I feared?”
“Worse. Much worse. Oh dear. That you should come to this...” the spooky figure shook its head, bones rattling as it did.
“But that's just one possible future, isn't it?” Scrooge said, sitting up tall, “They're not fixed? You showed me that.”
“So, show me a better future?”
“It doesn't quite work that way...”
“The horse races perhaps. Who wins the next Derby?”
“Mr Scrooge! What you ask we cannot--will not do. It's hardly ethical, is it now? Why, I might as well tell you to clear out of Railway stocks, or teach you the dark arts of pyramid insurance scams, or Ponzi schemes.”
“Ponzi schemes? What... what are they?”
“You're missing the point, Mr Scrooge. We’re forces for Good, for the light. I'm not gonnae see you go back to being the mean old miser you once were!”
“Nor would I,” Scrooge protested, “Mankind is my business, now. Rest assured I'll continue with the charitable deeds.”
“That’s as may be--”
“Which I can hardly do if I'm in the poor house, can I?”
“Well... 'tis most irregular, but there’s some sense to what you say. It is the rich and greedy who tend to fall foul of these dastardly schemes.”
“There you go then! Think of it as a Robin Hood tax. Money taken from the rich and given--with a judicious hand--to the poor. And, if you’re in any doubt, look again to my future, Spirit, the one where you tell me about these... financial irregularities, and see that I am true to my word, see that I continue to freely share what comes my way. What say you?”
In his fireside bed, Humbug stirred, chasing rats, for he knew nothing of rabbits. Life was good. And getting better. Visited by his own ghosts that evening, he’d seen visions of walks in foreign lands, his master by his side.
He couldn’t understand what Scrooge talked about on those long walks; subprime mortgages and Dot Com bubbles, Long Term Capital Management and Enron, Black Wednesday and Brexit? Nor why Scrooge now traded under a new, seemingly respectable name: Tigg Montague, but that really didn’t bother him. The sun warmed his old bones and the rich men his master met seemed awfully keen to make friends with Humbug, patting his head and offering him titbits under the table, as if by winning him over they might somehow win his master over as well.
Humbug wagged his tail in his sleep. The titbits were rich, but no richer than the marrow-filled bone he now knew Scrooge had bought him for Christmas day.
So, there you have it. As we lurch from financial crisis to financial crisis, it seems Scrooge, or his ghost at least, has rather a lot to answer for. And God bless us, every one!
(c) Liam Hogan, 2016
This is Liam's 21st Liar's Bio, and he's run out of things to say. Except! Buy a book.
Preferably one he's in. London Lies or Liberty Tales or Shortest Day, Longest Night perhaps, all from Arachne Press. Or, you could wait until April and buy his collection of dark fantasy, Happy Ending Not Guaranteed. Hell Yeah. Tweet: @LiamJHogan http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk/
Clive Greenwood recently toured in Up Pompeii, playing Frankie Howerd's role of Lurcio, and appears in two upcoming features, Mob Handed and Alice on Mars. He co-wrote Goodbye: The (after)life of Cook and Moore, which ran at the Gilded Balloon & Leicester Square Theatres and the Museum of Comedy. firstname.lastname@example.org / www.spotlight.com/9094-6721-0711