You see me. I cannot hide from you. Where else would you find me, where else would I be at home, but here, in the corner of a backstreet café in which stories are woven into the very fabric of the establishment. Few stories are more established than mine. I have been an old man now for over one hundred and fifty years, and yet still, every twelvemonth, they seek me out. As the old year draws to its close, they all come to beseech me for my tale, the believers and the heretics, the faithful and the forlorn. And I never refuse. It’s the ghosts, of course. It’s always the ghosts they want to hear about. But for you, who have waited so patiently, who have wondered what happened next, for you there is something more to behold. Everyone knows how the story begins, but few have heard how it ends. For you, I shall tell everything, not only what you know already but what you don’t; the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, God help you.

The mistake people make is in reaching for the unattainable. They dream of it; they wish for it; they think that they can have it. But when something is out of your reach, it is out of your reach, and that is all there is to say about that. It is claimed that with age, there comes wisdom. Yet a foolish man is capable of ignoring wisdom, no matter how old he may be, and I should know. When that happens, he must beware, for youth is the enemy of age, and when the young perceive weakness in the old, they will strike without mercy. I know this better than anyone.


You must understand that I am what I am, and I make no apology for that. I remain the man that Charles Dickens wrote about so many years ago. 1843. What was it that he said about me? A tight-fisted hand at the grindstone. A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, secret and self-contained. Solitary as an oyster. It’s true, all of it; I am a cold man. I carry my own low temperature around with me. It freezes my features and nips my pointed nose. It shrivels my cheek, stiffens my gait, reddens my eyes and turns my lips blue. It speaks out shrewdly in my grating voice. Nobody stops me in the street to ask how I am. No beggars beg from me; no children inquire the time from me. Even the blind men’s dogs tug their owners into doorways when they see me coming. I edge my way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance. I am the only companion to myself. I am the man I have always been, except for one brief period, but we’ll come to all that.

So. The beginning of the story. Dickens put it this way: ‘Marley was dead; to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.’ Of course he was bloody dead: he’d been in the ground seven years. Seven long years he was dead, and stayed dead. Jacob Marley was my business partner. Marley and Scrooge, savings and loans, that was us. A good man of business, he was, but after he died I carried on the business alone, and successfully too. I earned money, and I saved it. Better than wasting it on the frivolous pleasures of London life. They called me a miser, a hoarder, a skinflint; but I had money put by, and I was not going to waste it, not for anyone.


Seven years after he passed, he came back. That was the first of them: Marley’s ghost. He came back to warn me, he said. He told me I was in danger, that after my own death I would be doomed to walk the Earth in chains and suffering. My only hope, he said, was to heed the warnings of three spirits that would come to visit me in the succeeding nights. They were, I discovered, as I’m sure you already know, the ghost of Christmas Past, the ghost of Christmas Present, and the ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. I didn’t believe this, of course. I reacted the way any sane person would if they saw a ghost – I blamed it on indigestion. Well, what was I supposed to do? Say, ‘Oh, Jacob Marley, how are you? Do sit down.’ Bad indigestion can cause hallucinations, it’s a very reasonable response.


I remember that night very well. I came home from the office. It had been a long day, and that Bob Cratchit was driving me up the wall as usual. Can you imagine it? The next day being Christmas, he wanted the whole day off. I suppose you’d agree with him, but it wasn’t a bank holiday back then – no such thing as a bank holiday then. I didn’t have to let him take the day, especially given the kind of person that he was. But I did. See? Not quite such a mean old man, was I? Let the record show that Mr Scrooge gave Mr Cratchit the whole day off, even though he had done absolutely nothing to deserve it. Indeed, quite the contrary – but we’ll come to all that.


I left the office. I ate my usual melancholy dinner in the usual melancholy tavern. I quite enjoyed it actually, but that doesn’t fit the narrative, does it, so melancholy is the order of the day. I came home. There was the business with the doorknocker, but we don’t need to dwell on that. One minute it was a doorknocker, the next it was Marley’s face. A trick of the light, probably. Yes, I did check once I opened the door, in case I saw Marley’s hair hanging down on the other side, but of course there was nothing. I pooh-poohed the whole business and went upstairs for a little gruel. I had a slight cold, but don’t read anything into that. A little bowl of gruel by the fire was all I needed. I didn’t mind the cold; I didn’t mind the dark; but the face, that face again, it appeared to me.


You forget what people look like when they are gone. You have a picture in your mind, but it’s not true to life. It’s a mixture of memory and fancy, what you recall of their likeness and what you wish they had been like. Marley, when he stood before me that night – if ‘stood’ is the word I’m after – was exactly as he had been in life, the bandage round his head notwithstanding. It was the same stern look upon his face as I had seen him turn upon many a customer; the same pigtail, waistcoat, tights and boots, the tassels on the latter bristling like his pigtail. But around his middle, clasped at his waist, and spreading out behind him like a long tail all of its own was a chain made of cashboxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel. He challenged me as to my belief in him. I recall that I suggested, bearing in mind my indigestion theory, that he might be a bit of undigested beef, or a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese or even a fragment of an underdone potato. You see? I can do jokes; I just choose not to.


Anyway, he forced me to believe in him. A cheap trick I should have never fallen for: after a great deal of supernatural moaning and rattling of his chains, none of which impressed me even slightly, for I know that London is home to a thousand strange sounds at night, especially in an old and creaking house; after that I say, he raised his hands to his head and slowly unwound the bandage that was tied about the lower part of it. As soon as his jaw was thus exposed, it seemed to give way, and the bottom part of it fell from the rest, landing upon his chest, leaving the upper part of his jaw and the rest of his face intact and un-subsided. Well, that did come as a shock, I will admit. No mere mortal, I thought, could manage such an effect through trickery alone. Of course, since then I have seen many an illusionist who could do precisely that and a good deal more if he had a mind to do so, but back in 1843 I was none the wiser. I remember I had sat back in my chair already and was clutching the arms of it as if to reassure myself I was still in the real world and had not ascended to some spiritual realm, but once I saw the jaw-dropping stunt, I fell to my knees and clasped my hands before my face to beg for mercy. Don’t judge me; you’d have done the same.


Then, of course, he had me where he wanted me, and was able to give ‘the lecture,’ mostly a lot of stuff about how spirits are doomed to walk the Earth and so on, dragging behind them the chain they have forged during their life. ‘I made it link by link, and yard by yard,’ he said. ‘I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Do you know the length of the chain you wear yourself?’ he asked. ‘It was as heavy and as long as this seven years ago, and you have worked upon it since. It is a ponderous chain.’ Well, maybe. One thing was obvious: Jacob had not come to bring me any comfort. ‘No rest, no peace, and travelling all the time,’ he moaned. ‘Incessant torture of remorse.’ That sort of thing.


What I found most difficult to understand was what Jacob had to feel bad about in the way he had lived his life. I remember saying to him quite distinctly, ‘You were always a good man of business, Jacob!’ I thought it would reassure him, you know. Maybe the wandering of the earth was a punishment he imposed upon himself, an overcompensation for some trivial misdeed. You know how it is with the very driven, successful kind of person – they can be too hard upon themselves. But no, he wasn’t having any of that. ‘Business!’ he yelled at me. ‘Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business! Charity, mercy,’ and so on and so forth, they were all his business. Well, I was pretty sure money-lending had actually been his business, but I wasn’t going to interrupt him when he was in this sort of mood, so I let him finish, and then he got on to the whole point of his appearing there in the first place: the fact I was going to be haunted by these three spirits, and how this was my only chance at redemption. ‘I think I’d rather not,’ I remember saying, but he wasn’t about to make any kind of compromise, and it’s difficult to argue with a man who can take his own head apart, so that was that.


Was I frightened? Oh yes, I was frightened alright. The ghosts frightened me, all of them, that was their job, to scare me out of my bad ways. But I was, on reflection, too quick to change in response to them. Not all my ways were actually that bad, and what happened when I did change … well, maybe I misunderstood their message. Maybe I changed too much. Or they were wrong. Or the whole thing was my imagination after all. Well, we’ll come to all that.


Only one thing I will say for the ghosts, or whatever they were. I was an old man, even in those days, and that was 1843. By all rights, I should have been put under the ground many years ago, but here I am, still lurking in the shadows, still edging my way along the crowded paths of life. Ever since that night, I have survived. I mean, really survived. Not aged, not one day; but not died either. Here I am, Ebenezer Scrooge, large as life. And do you know what I think? Something must have rubbed off. I was painted, as it were, by that brush with immortality. I am a man immortal. Many is the time I have wished it could be otherwise, but no. I cannot die; I shall always be here. Ironically enough, the only benefit this long life has given me is the realisation I was right in the first place: it’s all a lot of humbug, the whole darn thing.


Humbug. Very old-fashioned word that, isn’t it? I bet you never hear it in any other context than mine these days, do you? It’s my word now. Bah! Humbug! I suppose the modern equivalent would be BS. Now, I am not a foul-mouthed man, and I do not indulge in profanities, but when it comes to the nonsense that I am about to recall for you, I call it what it is: humbug.


So, Marley’s ghost departed, having discharged its office, and I tried to sleep. Not an easy task, as you can imagine.


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