'We live in a cruel world'

'We live in a cruel world'

Editor's note: This serial, which explores the days leading up to that fateful night in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," continues through Christmas Day. The story thus far: Marley, unbeknownst to Scrooge, follows him into the office they once shared.

Navigate a route of paper thoroughfares and you’ll reach my desk, untouched these seven years and gathering a fine layer of dust and spider webs.

“That desk,” says a gaunt man with a top hat, matted black hair that spills from beneath it and worn garments as he stands in front of Ebenezer’s workspace. “Does a third work here?”

“No,” Ebenezer says as he rifles through stacks of papers and mumbles gibberish.

“What’s it used for then? Seems as though it’s taking up space. Bit inefficient,” the man says.

The comment warrants a glance from the frail man in the corner. The scratch of his quill halts. His eyes form into wide, curious mirrors. Ebenezer does not miss a beat, not even to look up with a momentary glance.

“It is curious, Mr. Baxter, that a man as inconsistent to pay me as you should be doling out advice on how to run a financial institution. Even more curious that it should give you a false sense of entitlement to insult a dead man’s memory while you are at it.”

“A dead man?”

“Seven years ago today. There we go.”

He lifts a parchment from the bottom of a pile nearest him.

“The other name on your marquee …”

“The very same,” Ebenezer says, lacking any trace of sadness. "Murdered, if you must know. Never caught the fellow. A dreadful affair."

Try as I might, I can recall only fragments of the night of my death: Arguing with a debtor outside a pub. Yells. Tears. Threats. Had he sought me out to plead for mercy or had I gone hunting for him? A knife flash. A sudden panic in his eyes. Retreating footfalls, the man running. I wilt in the dark, am offered to it.

“I’m very sorry, Mr. Scrooge. I had no intention of ill-offense," Baxter says.

“I’ve made peace with it, Mr. Baxter. What I haven’t come to terms with is your two missed payments out of the three months you have been a tenant of mine.”

He pushes his glasses up on his hooked nose and blinks at the document.

“September: initial payment accepted. October: past due. November: past due.”

Scrooge’s timid, shivering employee goes back to his work. He looks as though he wishes he were invisible.

“My inconsistent hours at the docks, times being what they are … I have a family to feed, a fire to keep stoked.”

“And you thought not depositing your rent, a term you agreed to …” Ebenezer shoves the found document toward Baxter, corners fluttering from the thrust. “… on a contract, was the proper solution, the right choice?”

“I …”

“How would your family fare out in this, Mr. Baxter? How do you think they would feel about food and fire once they’re out in this miserable weather? What say you to that?”

Baxter’s head lowers. He stares at the floor and keeps still. “You have no response?” Ebenezer says.

He sets the document down on his desk and leans back in his chair, thumbs jammed in his waistcoat pockets at stark angles.

“No, sir.”

“Very well. Mr. Baxter, you have until the new year to pay me three months' worth of rent, a total of three pounds, 18 and 9, or I’ll have you before a magistrate in irons faster than you can say, ‘Bob’s your uncle.’”

“That’s … nine days away, Mr. Scrooge.”

“It is indeed.”

“But sir …”


Ebenezer’s glare at this Baxter fellow somehow makes the room grow colder. Their already piercing blue color that makes me think of sky reflected in ice somehow goes even icier. Baxter opens his mouth to respond, and I feel my head shaking as I circle him in a lazy orbit.

Quiet, you fool.

“That will be all, Mr. Baxter. You’re free to leave.”

Baxter stumbles backward, flabbergasted, out into the street. The door clicks shut. Ebenezer watches him walk away.

“You know, Cratchit,” he says to the frail man in the corner after a moment or two. “I fear I may never understand the assumptions of people like Laurence Baxter.”

“Assumptions, sir?”

“That there are times and circumstances that make it acceptable to break rules, rules like payments on services delivered, for example. It’s utterly numbing to ponder upon.”

Cratchit says nothing, only blinks and keeps his very obvious disdain at bay.

“We live in a cruel world, Bob,” Ebenezer concludes, picking up his quill and dipping it in his small inkpot. “People think only of themselves, I’m afraid.”

“Yes sir.”

I drift back outside and follow Baxter home. It’s a 30-minute walk, passing from scenes of pleasant décor and candles and singing to a duller, muddied world. One new to such a contrast between the two would hardly believe they were of the same country, much less city.

Tidy bungalows with gas lamps and fireplaces digress to ramshackle, cave-like spaces; near-holes where clotheslines hang on rotting planks and fires burn in the same buckets as that morning’s filth, since emptied into the street in revolting splashes. Moth-eaten sheets hang where walls should be. Snow and mud cover the ground instead of planks.

Baxter walks past the small domiciles, past the sounds of crying babies, mangy dogs and individuals with sunken eyes and dazed, far-away expressions.

He ducks into a domicile at the end of this poverty-stricken row and pushes a stained quilt aside, fastens it behind him. I go no further, only stand and listen. Wails eventually erupt out of the space; a woman’s, intermingled with assurances from Baxter, “shush” and “we’ll get through” and “I’m so sorry, Olivia, I’m so sorry.”

Tomorrow: The prodigal dead son returns to Queen's Row.

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