A Slight Christmas Carol

Scrooge buttoned his overcoat and picked up his Chronicle, said goodnight to the office and left. This was not the Ebenezer Scrooge who said “ Humbug ” and disliked Christmas but later had a change of heart and died in the workhouse through giving all his money away: this was Stan Scrooge, who travelled on the Northern Line.

He walked home briskly from the station, pleasurably noting seasonable signs everywhere; the inviting tins of pudding and turkey in the grocers’ and the sprigs of mistletoe round the price-tickets, dear old Santa Claus in the Coop doorway, Frankie Laine singing “Silent Night ” in the radio shop in the next street. There was a fresh, crisp layer of snow, and at the corner by the loan-office it was patterned with innumerable converging footprints, as though a pageant of sainted Wenceslases had passed, full of optimism and inspiration. For it was Christmas Eve, the time when men the whole world over feel the warmth of peace and goodwill towards one another. Scrooge passed a paper-boy. The lad, with his glowing cheeks and bright eyes, was the incarnation of the Christmas spirit; his voice fairly rang with it as he shouted, “Thirty more terrorists killed! Read all about it!”

Yes, it was a season of enchantment, Scrooge thought as he let himself into his lodgings. Three Christmas cards, and toad-in-the-hole for dinner; then he put on his slippers and sat by the fire to read his paper. The fire made him drowsy. He leaned back in his chair and folded his hands. In a few moments he was asleep.

When he awoke, the fire had burned down. Scrooge looked at his watch; it had stopped. At that very moment, the clock in the hall began to strike. He counted the chimes—twelve o’clock! Fancy sleeping all that time! Scrooge would have leaped from his chair in dismay, but another sound caught his attention. It was the sound of clanking chains.

Scrooge did not immediately think of ghosts. He had read books published by the Rationalist Press, and therefore despised superstition. In fact, he wondered why his landlady was up so late, and what she was doing. His emotions asserted themselves, however, when the noise ascended the stairs and entered his room. The chains were attached to a shrouded figure which pointed at Scrooge. He suddenly remembered something.

“This happened to someone in my family,” he said. “ Heard my grandfather talk about it. You’re the Ghost of Christmas Past.”

The ghost inclined ils head.

Scrooge sniffed. “Well, I’m nothing like him, you know. Not much to unearth from my past. A girl or two and that’s all.”

As far he could judge, the ghost shrugged its shoulders before it beckoned him to the window. To Scrooge’s surprise, the window was open; to his greater surprise, the two of them floated out. Astonishment over, it seemed a quite natural way of travelling—certainly a satisfactory one, because in seconds they descended several miles away, at a place Scrooge recognized immediately. The biggest football ground in London; broad daylight, 60,000 people, and one team breaking away down the centre. The ghost pointed to a spot in the crowd and drew Scrooge towards it. Half a dozen young men, enjoying one anothers’ company as well as the game.

“Why,” said Scrooge, “ that’s me! And old Johnny Dunn! And—why it’s that match against the Germans: those are the German chaps we got talking to! My word, that’s a few Christmases ago! Before the war, that was.”

The ghost put a finger to its lips. The game was nearly over. They watched the lively conversation, listened to the warm farewells at the end and the two young Englishmen talking as they went off together. They heard Johnny Dunn praise the Germans as decent fellows, and Scrooge saying well, they were human beings just the same, weren’t they? Johnny said that if you thought about it you could see the ordinary people of the world wanted to live in peace. And Scrooge said that was it; the politicians began wars and the common people had to fight them.

It was pretty to hear them. The older Scrooge, slightly puzzled, was led away by the ghost, over rooftops again until they came to a red brick building in a main road. A lot of young men were walking in and out of the building, or talking on the pavement. Among them, Scrooge saw himself.

“I know that,” he said. “ It’s the first Christmas of the war. Just before Christmas, really—when I went to register for the army. And look—that’s just what happened! That fellow talking to me outside the Labour Exchange—I remember him well. Wouldn’t go in the army—just said he wouldn’t kill other working men. Bit queer, he was.”

They drew near. Scrooge saw that he was talking excitedly. “Ordinary people like us? Don’t talk rubbish!” he was saying. “Nothing like us, the Germans aren’t. Arrogant and domineering, that’s their national character. Didn’t you hear on the wireless last night . . .” The other man looked sad rather than angry, and Scrooge felt rather uncomfortable. He felt the ghost was looking at him oddly too, and was glad when they passed on.

A recent Christmas, and Scrooge again condemning a nation—quoting books as well, sitting in his penultimate fiancee’s parlour. This time the Russians, and Joan was full of admiration as he explained about Pan-Slavism, the Russian character, and the menace of Marxism. The spectator Scrooge felt rather proud of himself.

“There,” he said to the ghost, “nothing unreasonable about that, anyway. And you can’t see me fraternizing with any ruddy Russians!”

The ghost took his arm. A few moments, and they were in a theatre. Christmas 1943: Scrooge, on leave, was in the stalls. A fat comedian in lounge suit and panama was speaking solemnly from the footlights. Our gallant allies; their courage, the bond between our two nations; in their honour, and by special request, he would sing “My Lovely Russian Rose.” Scrooge watched himself applauding enthusiastically. As the scene faded, he turned to the ghost.

“You’re too clever,” he said indignantly. “ I’ve a good mind . . . ”

The ghost held up its hand, and again took him by the sleeve. He did not know the time of the scene he was now shown. It was a street of houses, almost totally enclosed from the light, the sky like a strip of faded bunting. The people were ill-clothed and wretched, their children underfed and joyless; dankness and grime so pervaded the whole surrounding as to form a grey texture on the hopeless faces. Scrooge had never known hunger, and he was horrified. He turned to speak to the ghost. It had gone. He turned again, and the narrow street, too, had gone. He was in his own room, standing near his chair. Bewildered, he sat down and, without intending, fell asleep almost at once.

He was awakened again by the clock. As he opened his eyes, he saw that someone was standing there, huge and jolly, holding a flaming torch.

“ Ah! Awake at last!” said the ghost paternally.

“ Christmas present?” asked Scrooge.
“The very same.”
“ More levitation?” said Scrooge.

It shook its head. “A view from the window, that’s all: a mere glimpse of the world around us.”

The window was open again. With the ghost at his elbow, Scrooge looked out. He saw a church hall, drab and bare as those places are. It was snowing slightly, powdering the people who stood in a shuffling, shabby line at the door. Most—not all—of them were elderly. Inside the hall, they advanced one by one to a desk where a man was giving money away. A card said: “ Welfare Officer.”

“What’s this?” said Scrooge.

“ Ah,” murmured the ghost, “you don’t recognize the name. The Welfare Officer—otherwise known as public assistance, the R.O., and even—disrespectfully, of course —the bunhouse.”

“I thought you were showing me Christmas Presents?” said Scrooge.

“Indeed I am.”

“Get away” said Scrooge. “This is what your silent partner was showing me last night. Years ago, this. You don’t hear of people being on the R.O. nowadays.”

“My word,” said the ghost heartily, “ you don’t know much, do you? Thousands of ’em—thousands.” ’“Really?” asked Scrooge. “ But I thought things had improved.”

“You’d be surprised” said the ghost “ A good hundred thousand still call at the R.O. You’d better see this, too.”

It flashed its torch. For a moment Scrooge was dazzled. When he recovered, he saw a bleak, sombre group outside a bleak, sombre building. He asked the ghost if it were a workhouse.

“Dear me, no,’ said the ghost. “ These are free men with money—a little, at any rate—in their pockets.

“ I don’t know it,” said Scrooge.

“ Of course you do,” said the ghost. “ Ever hear of good beds for working men? This place is full of ’em.”

Scrooge stared. “ Do you mean . . . ” he began to ask.

“Sure,” said the ghost. “ And the firm which owns this lot pays very handsome dividends, especially .nowadays. . . . We’ve hardly started yet, though. ’ I’ll show you something else.”

He did. He showed Scrooge poverty he never knew to exist, housing he never knew to stand. Sordidness, wretchedness, degradation—Christmas Present could show them all. Scrooge felt in turn horror, incredulity and anger. Finally he forgot the ghost’s presence, and was scarcely aware when the window closed and he was led back to his chair. Before he fell asleep, he saw the ghost beaming at him and heard it saying: “If it gets you like that, you ought to find the cause, you know . . .” But Scrooge was too tired to hear. He fell asleep.

He dreamed that he talked with the Ghost of Christmas Present What was the point of this harrowing panorama? Scrooge demanded. Because you’re going to change it, said the ghost. By myself? said Scrooge. You and millions more, replied the ghost. But what causes all this? Scrooge asked. You tell me, said the ghost. A lot of it’s’ human nature, said Scrooge. Human nature changes, the ghost replied. I suppose part of it’s the system, Scrooge said. What do you know about the system? asked the ghost. Not much, said Scrooge; was me and the Germans a part of the system? Your nationalism, yes, said the ghost And the bunhouse, the squalor and the wars; you don’t know it yet, and things won’t change much till you do know it. All right, said Scrooge, maybe you’re right: what can I do about it? You must first understand, said the ghost. Scrooge repeated himself: What can I do? Understand, said the ghost Understand, understand, understand . . .

The clock struck twelve, and Scrooge awoke from his dream. Before him stood the Ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Come. It moved aside, and Scrooge was alarmed. His room had gone, and he, his chair and the ghost seemed suspended above a crowd of people. The ghost’s touch reassured him, and he looked down.

The people looked different, strikingly yet in a way that Scrooge could not identify for a time. His final realization came so suddenly that he burst out: “ Why, don’t they look happy!”

“They do, don’t they?” smiled the ghost.

“ Look as if they’ve all become millionaires,” Scrooge went on.

“ Strangely enough, they have no money,” said the ghost.
“No money?” Scrooge was disbelieving. “Get away—they’re not poor.”

“Indeed they are not. But they have no money.”

“Go on with you,” said Scrooge impatiently.

The ghost pointed, singling out a man. Scrooge watched him. “Why,” he said indignantly, “he’s pinching a pair of shoes. He walked into that shop-place and took them—bold as brass, too!”

“They are his,” said the ghost calmly.

Scrooge sat open-mouthed with bewilderment. The ghost pointed to a place where a few men and women were working. “ Ah,’” said Scrooge, “ that’s good stuff they’re making. Taking their time, though. Which one’s the foreman?”

“Everyone makes good stuff,” said the ghost firmly. “ And there’s no foremen.”

“No foremen? But they’d do what they liked!” cried Scrooge.

“They are doing what they like. They are making good things.”

Incredible, Scrooge thought. He wondered if everyone had sufficient, but the evidence was before him. Nobody was opulent, but everyone was prosperous; nobody superior, but everyone satisfied. He asked question after question of the ghost; the answers were shown, not told him. The language itself had changed through the disuse of innumerable words. Worship, sell, steal, envy, profit—hundreds of words that Scrooge heard every day were archaisms to the people he watched now. Others, like war and business, were preserved only for the convenience of historians and word-spinners, as are chariot-racing and alchemy in Scrooge’s day.

He realized suddenly that the scene began to fade. Clutching the ghost’s sleeve, he begged an answer to only one more question. They began to descend through space, and the uprush of air made speech difficult. Shouting, leaning on the ghost, Scrooge demanded: “What Christmas Present said—something I can do to bring it nearer?”

The ghost’s voice was becoming distant, but still was clear. “Understand—first you must understand,” it said. Scrooge pressed closer. “What can I do—do?” he bawled. The voice floated back, as the floor of Scrooge’s room rushed towards him.

“Understand . . . understand . . . understand!”

Robert Barltrop