A Pre-Christmas Carol: Stave One

Marley’s Ghost

Marley was gone to begin with. There was no doubt whatsoever about that. Though the sign above the shop read “Splurge and Marley,” it was Splurge who counted up the money, Splurge who took the calls, Splurge who signed for the deliveries: Ebenezer Splurge.

You may think you have read this story before (or more likely seen it on TV, possibly in a form involving Muppets). You may be picturing Ebenezer Splurge as a grizzled old miser hunched beside a pitiful coal fire wearing a dressing gown and an old-fashioned nightcap, possibly eating gruel and muttering “Bah! Humbug!” in the general direction of a starving orphan on Christmas Eve. You may be picturing this, but if so, you’re completely and utterly wrong.

Ebenezer Splurge was the Christmassiest person to have ever stuck grimy vinyl snowflakes to the inside of a shop window. He was the Christmassiest person to have ever filled four extension cords with fairy lights, all plugged into the same (fifth) extension cord. He was the Christmassiest person to have ever placed a dead-eyed, slightly out-of-tune singing animatronic penguin upon his shop counter. Also, he was a fairly portly gentleman and he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt. In combination with the fairy lights, the animatronic penguin, the tacky window snowflakes, this might seem odd. It might, if it weren’t for the fact that it was October 30th, and that it was hot as blazes in Splurge’s music shop. He wanted all his many customers to have a warm welcome, after all. In fact, he had a mulled wine waiting for each and every one of them.

Yes, Splurge and Marley’s music shop was a music shop like no other, and for most of Middle Whittering’s inhabitants, it was their first stop for Christmas shopping: largely because at Splurge and Marley’s, the Christmas season started several weeks earlier than everywhere else. It was beloved…though not by all.

Ten more strings of ultra-bright LED fairy lights tucked in boxes under his arm, Ebenezer tried not to make eye contact with Tinny Tom, the silver-sprayed living statue outside Crockett’s Costumes and Capers. It was sad, really, what lengths the Crocketts went to just to draw attention to their cheap, disposable wares. Splurge adjusted the stack of 99p lights, making sure none of them were about to slip from out his grasp. Brad Crockett was the head of the family. “Tinny” Tom Crockett was his eldest son, and reasonably good at the robot statue act. But though Splurge was a generous sort—unusually generous, in fact—he couldn’t afford to toss money into the bucket every time he walked past. He was sure the Crocketts understood.

“Mister Splurge!”

Ebenezer stopped and turned. It was Brad Crockett who had spoken: Splurge and Marley’s had the grave misfortune of being situated right next door to Crockett’s Costumes and Capers. “Yes?” asked Splurge.

“Em…” Crockett twisted a latex mask nervously in front of him. It looked pretty gruesome. “I was just wondering…about those lights, and the snowflakes, and the singing penguin…and the wacky waving inflatable arm flailing snowman you have outside sometimes…”

“Yes?” Splurge could see where this was going. It was not the first time Mister Crockett had broached the subject.

“Well, I was just wondering…it’s Halloween tomorrow, and as you know, it’s quite an occasion for costumes and decorations and…things of that nature.”

“Go on…” Splurge had absolutely no interest in hearing this again.

“Well…” Crockett looked like he might just twist that mask in half. “We haven’t sold quite so many of those things these past few years. It mostly seems to be on the day, like, with people seeing the display in our window and just popping in off the street. Only, you set up your Christmas things so early, and they’re all so bright…” He looked down at the mask, suddenly remembering it, and flapped it out, not too much the worse for wear. It was a zombie, so could probably benefit from being a little misshapen. “I sometimes wonder if Halloween might be forgotten altogether before too long, and with it Costumes and Capers. If you could just see your way to toning down your lights, Mister Splurge, just for a little…”

Splurge needed hear no more. “My dear man,” he said, placing a hand on Crockett’s shoulder, “if Halloween is to be forgotten, it had better get on with it, and decrease the surplus celebration!”

So without another word, Splurge turned and took the few steps necessary to reach the door of his shop. That little exchange had been most disagreeable—most disagreeable indeed!—and in his mild annoyance Splurge dropped his keys. Fortunately, all the pretty lights on the front of the shop meant he had no trouble finding them. He stooped, picked them up, stood, and immediately dropped them again. Just inside the shop, staring through the plate glass door, was Marley’s face. His old partner, not angry or upset, simply staring blankly, though for him to stare through that particular door in any manner whatsoever was to cock a snook at the nature of his absence. Marley should not—could not—have been here, and yet here he was, staring through the glass.

But Splurge had been deceived. Rubbing his eyes in disbelief (since he’d seen enough versions of A Christmas Carol  to know that this was what one did when one saw one’s former partner in their doorway), he saw that it was not Jack Marley staring at him through the glass, but Bob Marley. Some peculiar trick of the indoor fairy lights had, just for a moment, given that most popular cardboard cut-out the very likeness of his former partner. Also, Splurge considered, on some subconscious level he may have associated this Marley with the other Marley. Picking up his keys again, he slotted them into the shop door, breathing a sigh in relief. He had been waiting for some rational explanation, and—he chuckled to himself as he thought it—clearly he had not been waiting in vain.

Still, Splurge could not help feeling just a little ill at ease as he locked the door behind him.  He glanced warily about the shop as he made his way through to the stairs at the back, and found himself tiptoeing, rather than stomping, up to his little apartment on the upper floor. He let himself in—the apartment, of course, had its own lock, to prevent unscrupulous customers from helping themselves to the things inside—and put the kettle on, slumping down in the chair in front of the TV. He had a distinctly Christmassy plastic tub of biscuits on a nearby table, and he took out a custard cream, munching it thoughtfully as he pondered the significance of the vision on the floor below.

The kettle boiled, Splurge got up and made himself a nice cup of tea. It was hard to worry much about ghosts and ghostly things and ghostly goings-on when one had a nice cup of tea, but somehow Splurge still managed. The TV would distract him, though. He fancied something light-hearted, maybe something with Harry Hill and funny videos of cats falling into wedding cakes. He reached for the remote. But instead, his hand fell upon something else.

It was Ebenezer’s old phone. He had quite a generous contract that offered a handset upgrade every month. As a result, his cluttered apartment was now rife with phones.

Splurge was about to put the phone down (because actually putting it away would just be silly) when something curious happened. The phone began to ring. It rang not with the lively Reggae ringtone he had set, nor the irritating Nokia ringtone that it had by default, but with the familiar strains of Jingle Bell Rock. Almost immediately, there was a chorus of phones from all around the apartment—phones tucked in boxes, phones under papers, phones kicked beneath chairs—and Splurge knew none of them had SIM cards. Some of them didn’t even have batteries. They were…zombie phones!

This only went on for as long as the phones would have rung before passing the call onto the money-gobbling answer service where nobody ever bothered to leave a message, but to Splurge it seemed an eternity. Then, all of a sudden, the ringing stopped. It was replaced by the clanking of chains. The clanking of chains, and the clomp…clomp…clomp of footsteps up the stairs to his apartment.

Splurge twisted round in his big armchair, staring in horror at the door. The clomping got louder, closer, until it was at the door itself! And then…it continued. Pushing through the still-closed door like a swimmer emerging from a curiously vertical pool made of sloppily painted wood, the spirit of his former partner, Jack Marley, drifted into the room.

“Ebeneeeeeeeeezeeeeeeeer!” he wailed, clanking his chains furiously.

Marley glowed with an unpleasant pale light. Looking closer—because he couldn’t possibly bring himself to look away—Splurge saw that he was wound about with heavy chains, and that behind the chains trailed heavy money boxes, rattling with cash. Man, this situation seemed familiar. Familiar and pants-wettingly scary, now that he was seeing it in real life, instead of on a grainy TV screen at Christmas.

“Ebeneeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeezeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeer!” wailed Marley again.

Splurge had assumed that that name would stop giving him bother after he finished school. Right now, however, he would have happily endured another ten years of playground taunting if it would shave just ten minutes off this dreadful situation. He tried to say “Yes?” but could only manage a high-pitched, strangled “Meep!”

Marley waited for a better answer, but Splurge knew he wasn’t in any state to give it to him. He would have told him so, but obviously if he could have done that it wouldn’t have been an issue in the first place, so he just sat there, mouth hanging dumbly open.

“Aren’t you going to ask me to sit down?” asked Marley, after an exceedingly long pause.

“Um…” The unexpected question gave Splurge back the gift of speech. “Can you?”

“No,” said Marley firmly. “There’s no chairs.”

“Oh.” Splurge looked around his dingy apartment. There were chairs, but they were pretty much buried under piles of stuff. Splurge never sat anywhere except the armchair, and since the only company he had was his customers, he had never really had to entertain a guest up here before. Not that Marley looked like he was in any mood to be entertained.

“Ebeneeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeezeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeer!” wailed Marley, for want of anything better to say.

“Aaah!” yelped Splurge. “What do you want?!?”

“To spaaaaaare you, Ebenezer! To spare you from the fate that has befallen me!” Marley rattled his chains some more to chilling effect. “For you still have but one chance!”

“Oh dear…” Splurge fiddled nervously with the buttons of his Hawaiian shirt. “I think I know what’s coming next…”

“You will be haunted by three spirits!”

Yup. There it was.

“Without their visits, you cannot hope to shun the path I tread! Expect the first when the bell tolls one! Metaphorically, I mean. The first spirit will be here at 1am, but I’m guessing you don’t have the sort of clock that tolls.”

“I do, actually,” said Splurge. “Got it on eBay.” He regretted the purchase even more now than he had done when his credit card bill had come through.

“Oh!” said Marley, “that’s handy.” He began to drift towards the apartment window.

“Wait, old friend!” called Splurge. “There’s something I don’t understand!”

Marley paused. “Yes?”

“Would I be right in thinking that this is the same deal as all that stuff that happened in A Christmas Carol?”

“Yes.”

“Right. The thing is…I love Christmas! I’m all about Christmas, and…you know that! Remember? It’s all MP3s nowadays. People only really buy CDs as gifts. That’s why we always have such a big Christmas display. I mean, that was half the reason we became partners all those years ago. And as I remember, it was pretty much all your idea!”

“Oh!” Marley put a ghostly hand to his ghostly forehead in a most dramatic fashion. “Do not pain me with these recollections! Can you not see my own guilty mind is burden enough?”

“That’s just it!” At this point, Splurge was honestly too confused to be afraid. “I don’t get why you’re here! I do so much Christmas stuff. You’ve seen the display downstairs, right? That’s even more impressive than it was when you were here!”

“Oh!” Marley did the hand on forehead thing again. “Follow me, Splurge, and I will show you the error of your waaaaaays!” He beckoned Splurge towards the window.

Afraid once more, Splurge followed, and what he saw down on the pavement outside was…well…it wasn’t what he’d been expecting, that was for sure. Down taking shelter in doorways, in alleys, in ragged-looking cardboard boxes, were a multitude of spirits. But they were not ordinary spirits. They weren’t even spirits like Marley, bound by chains and dragging boxes. These were strange, costumed spirits. Splurge saw an ethereal Easter bunny eating pizza from a bin. He saw a spectral leprechaun huffing from a bag. He saw a ghostly…well, it was basically just a ghost—the kind that looked like a floating sheet with eyes—but based on the variety of fairies and monsters and saints and historical figures, he assumed it was something to do with Halloween. A lot of the spirits were kind of hard to identify, but that Easter Bunny had him convinced that all of them represented some holiday or other.

Marley continued on his floating way out the window. “Expect the first spirit when the bell tolls ooooooone!”

“Wait!” shouted Splurge, again. “There’s still something I don’t understand!”

Marley stopped again.

“You’ve turned up as a ghost, but…you’re not dead. You just moved to Hull. That’s all.”

Marley’s face curled in pain. “Ebeneeeeezeeeer! Shun the path I took! For your soul’s sake, mend your ways, and do not follow me!” He continued out the window. “Shun my path Ebeneeeezeeeeer! Shunnnnnnnn!”

Splurge threw open the window that Marley had just drifted through. The spirit was already fading. He didn’t exactly have time for pleasantries. “And what’s with all the chains?” he demanded.
“Have you forgotten, Ebenezer?” Marley’s non-ghost smiled as it faded into the night. “This is my costume. It’s Halloween.”

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