THE STORY SO FAR . . .
Ruthless businessman Eben Scrooge, great-great-great-great-great-grandson of miser Ebenezer Scrooge, has hatched a plan to trick his kindly nephew, Fred, into selling him his only inheritance, the local football club where young boys have the chance to build a better future. Scrooge pretends that he will honour the club’s charitable trust status, but has secretly agreed instead to sell it for supermarket and car park development, a deal that would make him millions. But just before Christmas Eve, he sees the spectre of his dead business partner, Jake Marley, and later the same night he is woken by a mobile phone call from a voice claiming to be the Ghost of Christmas Past . . .
The Mail invited the master storyteller Jeffrey Archer to reinvent the classic A Christmas Carol in a modern setting
I am the Ghost of Christmas Past, and I have come to remind you of your humble beginnings, and of how lucky you have been.’
‘It wasn’t luck,’ said Eben defiantly, staring at the image of a young man dressed from head to toe in a spotless white shroud. ‘It was damned hard work that got me where I am.’
‘With a little help from others more generous than yourself,’ replied the ghost. Without another word he spirited himself out of the phone, took Eben firmly by the arm and whisked him high into the air, before he was even aware of what was happening.
The ghost transported the terrified Eben out of his house and above the streets of the town, and on, on, over the familiar scenes of his youth, before depositing him on the pavement outside the gates of his old primary school. It was the first time he’d returned to St Bede’s since he left it many years ago.
Encouraged by the ghost, Eben walked through the gates and into a playground full of boisterous, chattering children. A bell rang, and they all made their way slowly back to their classrooms. He saw himself sitting at a desk in the back row between Dick Wilkins and Bob Cratchit, his two best boyhood friends.
Dick, as usual, was head down, studying, in his relentless effort to be top in every subject, as he invariably was, except in maths, where Eben always beat him.
‘Do you remember them?’ asked the ghost.
‘Of course I do. Dumbo and Swotty. I lost touch with Dick when he won a scholarship to the grammar school. Bob and I both failed the 11-plus.’
‘Despite the fact you cheated by trying to copy Dick Wilkins’s answers.’ Eben began to shudder. ‘And when you were caught, Dick wouldn’t sneak on you, so you got away with it. That’s what I call a friend, because it meant you were able to join Marley and Company as an apprentice. Do you remember who else applied for that position?’
‘Bob. But I made sure he didn’t get it when I told him the wrong time for the interview.’
‘And what happened to Bob?’
‘He did all right,’ said Eben, without feeling.
‘Mr Marley offered him a job at the football club as a junior groundsman on £8 a week, while I got £11.’
‘But he was your best friend,’ said the ghost.
‘Not for much longer,’ Eben said with a dismissive wave of a hand. ‘I was on the fast track, while he remained in the starting blocks.’
‘Time to move on a few years,’ said the ghost. Without another word, he whisked Scrooge back into the air and transported him up a hill to what the young Eben and his friends used to call the posh end of town, where every house had a garage.
Once again, the younger Eben was seated between his old friends Bob Cratchit and Dick Wilkins
This time Scrooge was deposited outside a magnificent townhouse, from which he could hear the joyful sounds of a large family enjoying Christmas lunch together. He approached the open front door tentatively, but didn’t enter until the ghost gave him a firm shove.
Mr Marley stood at the head of the table in his brightly lit dining room, dominated by a large Christmas tree that was draped in twinkling fairy lights and jewel-coloured baubles. He sharpened his knife before setting about carving a large goose. He filled each plate with portions that would not require a second helping. Bowls of Brussels sprouts, roast potatoes, buttered carrots, and pigs in blankets circulated, and never seemed to run out.
Once again, the younger Eben was seated between his old friends Bob Cratchit and Dick Wilkins.
Bob hadn’t changed, and neither had his job. He was still a groundsman at the sports club, while Eben was no longer an apprentice, but articled to the firm of Marley and Company. Dick had just graduated from University College London with an honours degree, and had been offered a position with the town’s leading architectural practice, whom Marley regularly employed on his projects.
The three of them were attempting to bring each other up to date between mouthfuls, until Eben became distracted by a young woman seated on the other side of the table.
She must have been a year or two younger than Eben, and her head of fair curly hair, exquisite oval face, and piercing blue eyes meant that he hardly touched the feast in front of him. The first girl he’d ever given a second look. On more than one occasion, she graced him with a shy smile, but he just bowed his head and blushed — another first.
Marley looked around the table at his three proteges, and wondered which of them would win such an alluring prize.
Eben learned from Bob that her name was Belle, and that she was Mr Marley’s niece, and from Dick that she was hoping to go to art school and become a designer. But even armed with this vital piece of information, after the Christmas pudding had been devoured and they all went through to the drawing room, he didn’t have the courage to sit next to her on the sofa. Dick suffered from no such inhibitions, and immediately sat down beside her and began to chat as if they were old friends.
The bedside clock flicked over from 2.19 to 2.20 when the shrill sound of his mobile phone rang out a second time. He woke with a start to find a second ghost hovering above him at the end of the bed
When it came to playing charades, Eben couldn’t come up with a single book, play or film, while Dick excelled. He was rewarded with a kiss under the mistletoe before he and Belle left the party together. ‘What happened next?’ asked the ghost, who already knew the answer.
‘I went home alone. A few months later I heard that Dick and Belle were engaged. I made an excuse not to attend their wedding, even though Mr Marley gave everyone the day off.’
‘Did you see them again?’
‘From time to time, and if it was possible, she grew even more beautiful,’ said Eben, sounding sad for the first time. ‘Every Christmas lunch I had to watch them sitting across the table holding hands.’
‘And you never found anyone to take her place?’
‘I dated a couple of girls, but none of them even came close,’ said Eben wistfully. ‘In the end I decided to devote myself entirely to work. Eventually, Marley made me a junior partner in the firm. From that time on I thought of nothing but making more and more money. Then the day came when Marley called me to his office to tell me in the strictest confidence that he didn’t have much longer to live, and that he’d chosen me to take his place as senior partner.’
‘You must have been flattered, but at the same time sad to learn that your mentor was going to die?’
‘I already knew,’ said Eben matter-of-factly, ‘and had already begun cosying up to my nephew once I realised what a vast profit was within my grasp, if only I could get my hands on the football club. But I couldn’t make a move while Marley was still alive.’
With a look of disgust, the ghost grabbed Scrooge by the collar and transported him from Marley’s home across town to a churchyard where Jake Marley’s family and friends were standing around his graveside. Even as the coffin was being lowered into the ground, Eben was already speculating about how long it would take him to get hold of the piece of land that would make his fortune.
He was confident it wouldn’t be too long before his nephew invited him to take Marley’s place as president of the football club, when he would be certain to broach the subject of the dire state of the club’s finances. Once Fred had fallen into that trap, it could only be a matter of time, before . . .
(From a previous chapter) Eben Scrooge was always delighted when anyone described him as every bit as mean as his ancestor, and among the other traits he was proud to have inherited were being ruthless, cunning and selfish, all of which he considered compliments
As soon as the mourners began to depart, the ghost transported the new chairman of Marleys back to his home, and left him in bed without another word. Scrooge felt pleased with himself, and fell asleep.
The bedside clock flicked over from 2.19 to 2.20 when the shrill sound of his mobile phone rang out a second time. He woke with a start to find a second ghost hovering above him at the end of the bed. His eyes widened in horror at the terrifying figure draped in a grubby grey shroud, who appeared to be about the same age as himself. ‘I am the Ghost of Christmas Present,’ he declared, ‘and I am here to show you how low you have sunk.’
With that, the spirit took Eben firmly by the arm before he could respond, lifted him from his bed and flew him to a council estate he’d never visited before.
Outside a modest row of terrace houses stood his driver washing the Bentley with soap and water, as tenderly as if it were his own child. The front door of the house opened and out stepped a woman carrying a baby.
‘Tell me their names,’ said the ghost.
‘I don’t know,’ admitted Scrooge.
The ghost didn’t comment, other than to say: ‘Then listen to what she has to say.’
‘I don’t know why you bother, Ned,’ the woman said.
‘I’ve got no choice, Sylvia,’ he replied. ‘Mr Scrooge would spot a single speck of dirt on the windscreen.’
‘It’s time you told the old skinflint that you need a raise.’
‘I can’t afford to take that risk,’ said Ned, with some feeling. ‘He knows only too well there’s no shortage of drivers out there who’d be only too happy to take my place for even less than he’s paying me.’
‘But you haven’t had a raise for over three years,’ his wife reminded him, ‘and he never pays you a penny overtime, just assumes you’ll always be available night and day.’
(From a previous chapter) Scrooge didn’t say a word during the 15-minute journey to Southbury Football Club. He spent the time mentally preparing himself for the encounter with his nephew Fred, who had been brought up by Jake Marley after Scrooge’s sister Nell had died in childbirth
The baby began to cry.
‘And you can be sure he’ll still expect you to drive him to the club for their Christmas Eve lunch without any suggestion of a bonus!’
Eben couldn’t believe he was feeling a pang of guilt, and said: ‘I’ve heard enough.’
‘We’ve hardly begun,’ said the ghost, lifting him from the pavement and flying back towards the centre of town, where they entered a shop where a couple appeared to be considering an important purchase.
‘This one, sir, is the top of the range,’ said the salesman, as Bob Cratchit lifted Tiny Tim off his shoulder and placed him gently in an electric wheelchair.
The little boy pressed the start button and began to glide around the shop as if it were Le Mans, even if the chair’s top speed was only five miles an hour. He’d mastered the controls within minutes, and couldn’t stop yelping with delight.
‘How much is it?’ asked Bob, as Tiny Tim continued on his circuits around the shop, the smile never leaving his face.
‘Four thousand six hundred, plus VAT,’ said the salesman. ‘But let me assure you, sir, it will change the boy’s life, and dare I say, it will quite literally take a load off your shoulders.’
‘I can’t afford to pay the full amount immediately,’ admitted Bob sadly. ‘But as I’ve just been appointed head groundsman at the local football club, could I pay in instalments?’
‘I’m sure we can come to an arrangement,’ said the salesman, as Tiny Tim manoeuvered his way between his parents. ‘However, we would require a down payment of £1,000, and I must warn you that should you fall behind with your payments, we would have to take the chair back.’
Bob didn’t look at all confident, and turned to Meg, who said, ‘We’ll just have to make some more sacrifices. But it will be worth it,’ she added as Tiny Tim came to a halt by their side.
Bob sat down at the salesman’s desk, took out his chequebook and wrote out the words, ‘one thousand pounds’, knowing it would put him in the red for the first time in his life.
As he handed over the cheque, he remembered the £500 the boss had left him in his will. He looked up to the sky and mouthed the words, ‘Thank you Mr Marley,’ which Eben heard clearly.
‘Let’s hope your old school friend doesn’t become the president of the football club,’ said Meg as they left the shop, with Tiny Tim following close behind in his new wheelchair. ‘Because if he does, I wouldn’t put it past him to . . .’
‘I’ll not hear a word against Eben,’ said Bob.
Scrooge hadn’t realised until that moment just how lucky he was to have Bob as his friend.
‘Where to next?’ he asked quietly, hoping the ghost would say ‘Time to go home.’ But no such luck.
‘Time to visit the love of your life,’ said the ghost. Without another word they flew off to the outskirts of the town, where they passed through the door of a large house as if it were open and he was a welcome guest. Eben found himself in a sitting room, where a conversation between a husband and wife was taking place that was not full of Christmas cheer.
‘You should never have borrowed money from that man in the first place,’ Belle was saying, her hands trembling.
‘I had no choice,’ said Dick. ‘If I hadn’t, we would have fallen behind with the mortgage payments.’
‘But if you don’t pay him back before January 1st, we’ll not only lose the house, but have to sell off the few remaining shares your father left you.’
‘He might relent if you had a quiet word with him,’ said Dick. ‘After all, the three of us go back a long way.’
‘Eben Scrooge feels more passionately about money than about any of his so-called friends,’ said Belle. ‘Don’t forget I wrote to him last year asking him to support his old school where you and he first met, and he didn’t even reply, despite the fact it was you who saved him from being expelled. So what would be the point of asking him to bail you out? In any case, I wouldn’t want to give the old miser the satisfaction of turning me down.’
‘He’s not that bad,’ said Dick.
‘You’ve always given him the benefit of the doubt,’ said Belle. ‘One of the few things we disagree on.’
Once again, Eben felt ashamed that he had ever doubted his old friend. ‘Away, away, spirit,’ he begged. ‘How much more humiliation am I expected to suffer?’
Master storyteller Jeffrey Archer has reinvented the Dickens original, A Christmas Carol, in a modern setting, creating a joyous tale for our age
For the first time, a flicker of satisfaction passed across the ghost’s features.
‘We’re not quite finished yet,’ he murmured, as they left the house and headed for another part of town, without any hint of where they might be going. It wasn’t long before the football club appeared in front of them.
The spirit dropped Scrooge into the only empty chair at a packed committee meeting.
‘But if we sell our land to Mr Scrooge for £1 million,’ a member of the committee was saying, ‘which I don’t have to remind you is our only asset, what’s to stop him building a tower block on it?’
‘He gave me his word,’ said Fred. ‘Told me his only interest is the future of the club. And he seemed delighted when I suggested that Wayne Ibrahim might play for England one day.’
‘When he visited the club yesterday,’ piped up another committee member, ‘I overheard him saying on the phone, “I don’t give a damn who he plays for.” So what’s his word worth?’
A sentiment that was greeted with a chorus of hear, hears!
‘But how can we hope to raise the money to build a new club house and car park without his help?’ asked Fred unhappily.
‘I’d rather turn his offer down,’ said another member, ‘bide our time, and look for help from sources that don’t have a personal agenda.’
‘Do I have to remind you,’ said Fred, ‘that this clubhouse is almost falling down, and we’re currently overdrawn by . . .’ he looked down and checked the figure in front of him, ‘ . . .£42,606. I don’t think we’ve been left with a lot of choice.’
‘I’d rather go under, than be taken over by that man.’
‘You’re talking about my uncle,’ Fred reminded him. ‘Your uncle is not you, and never will be,’ came back another member.
‘Gentlemen, gentlemen,’ said the club secretary. ‘Perhaps the time has come for us to put a resolution to the vote.’
‘Agreed,’ said Fred. ‘Raise your hand if you are in favour of selling the club’s land to Mr Scrooge for £1 million.’
Six hands were raised, including the chairman’s. The club secretary duly noted the names in his minute book, before saying: ‘Those against?’
Six equally determined hands shot up.
‘The vote is tied, six votes each,’ declared the secretary. He turned to Fred and said: ‘Therefore, Mr Chairman, you will have the casting vote.’
Fred remained silent for some time, before announcing: ‘I’m willing to give Uncle Eben the benefit of the doubt.’
‘On your head be it, Fred,’ murmured a dissenting voice.
‘Is there any other business?’ asked the secretary.
‘Can’t we leave now?’ pleaded Scrooge.
‘Yes. They are only going to decide the date of the next meeting, which actually you will end up deciding.’ Moments later Scrooge was escorted back to his home and tucked up in bed, but this time he was unable to sleep. He couldn’t be sure how much time had passed, when the phone rang for a third time.
He sat bolt upright in bed and stared at a shrunken figure that had aged beyond recognition, and was now wearing a long black shroud. When the ghost spoke, his voice was frail and faltering. ‘I am the Ghost of Christmas Future,’ he announced. ‘Just one final visit,’ he promised, as he bent down and struggled to lift Scrooge from his bed.
‘Once again they floated slowly in the direction of the church steeple that dominated the centre of town, where they came to a halt beside Jake Marley’s grave. Next to it was a freshly dug hole, into which a coffin was slowly being lowered. A priest he didn’t recognise was solemnly reciting a passage from the funeral service, but there were no mourners standing around the grave paying their respects.
‘Give me another chance,’ pleaded Scrooge, as the first sod of earth was cast into the gaping hole.
‘Ashes to ashes,’ intoned the vicar, as Scrooge’s eyes settled on the headstone, which was inscribed with the name ‘Eben Scrooge’ and the dates ‘1971-2022’.
‘No, no!’ Scrooge shouted at the top of his voice, but there was no one there to hear him other than the gravediggers.
He turned in desperation to the ghost, his eyes pleading, but the spirit merely gave a faint smile before melting into the ether, leaving behind only the echoing words: ‘I cannot help you, unless . . .’
© 2021 Jeffrey Archer.