I was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt about that. I was as dead as a doornail. How I came to be in my chief mourner’s bedchamber seven years to the day after my demise is a story that has never been told, but if it isn’t now it never will be. It never could be.
It was the end of one life and the beginning of another on Christmas Eve, 1836. I had barely passed the age of 60 but had succumbed to a severe bout of influenza; the rabble that gathered to gossip would say it served me right for being so penurious with my coal allowance, but I was apathetic enough at that stage to maintain that it was simply my time to go.
As I lay on my deathbed Ebenezer Scrooge, my business partner for many years, swore to retain our legacy, to continue to make enough money for a lifetime or two but never to spend it frivolously. It was my last manipulation of suggestible old Ebenezer in life, but, as I was to discover, it wouldn’t be the last in death.
Night closed in, the candle burned out and I shuffled affably off my mortal coil. I knew I wouldn’t be welcomed at the pearly gates of heaven, there was no question about that, but my natural indifference to what fate had in store served me not with trepidation or fear but with mild curiosity. My last breath emerged in a climactic death rattle and my inner perception shifted – gone was the dim, murky light of my home; it had been replaced by a shimmering glow, not unlike the white-gold light of a winter’s morn.
As my eyes adjusted it emerged that the crippling sickness had left me and I had the bearing again of a young man. A momentary thrill was replaced by suspicion; when it became clear that I was in some nether world, a place quite unlike the one I had just departed, though it was strangely familiar. It was as if a thick mist surrounded me; I was unable to see little more than my upper torso and when I held my arm out, my hand and wrist disappeared into the fog. And so it was that a figure emerged with such suddenness that I almost lost my balance with fright; a loss of control that sent me into an affronted, if not unwarranted, fury.
As I bellowed and raged the figure stood by quietly, allowing my tantrum to play out in its entirety. It didn’t take long; my steam ran out quickly as I began to question the identity of this silent being. His features never seemed to settle; with every subtle movement something shifted, giving the impression of a figure in a phenakistoscope. Man, woman or child I could not tell, and as I impatiently puzzled over the apparition it finally spoke. “Jacob Marley” it said in a voice akin to a booming whisper. “Jacob Marley” it repeated in the same monotone rumble.
“Jacob Marley, you have left your life on Earth and have been brought here be judged. Your life was one of needless cruelty, greed and corruption and it has been determined that you must atone for your sins in order to complete your cycle of existence. In due course you will be sent back to the world from whence you came to begin anew, to start afresh as a new born babe, but before that can happen you must put right your greatest wrong.”
Contrary to my usual habit of interruption to have my say and assert my dominance to any new acquaintance, I let the spectre continue. “You intentionally led another astray in the guise of a friendship that only existed for your benefit. Ebenezer Scrooge was marked for a good and inspiring life, but your trickery and wickedness proved to be too much of an influence on this man at a time when he was at his most susceptible to immoral suggestion. In order for you to have another chance at life, to be reborn and to live a good life, you must endeavour to set Scrooge back on the path that was intended for him, before it is too late.
My reaction was of annoyance. Used to getting my way, to engineering my own fortune, it was exasperating that it would take undoing all my work with Ebenezer to move on from this afterlife. I ventured to the spirit, “What if I refuse? What happens then?” more out of a stubborn impertinence than a genuine request for an alternative, but to my horror I was answered, “Then you will be doomed to wander this lonely plain until the end of time, with only your thoughts for company. You will decay and fall to dust just as your body will in the ground, only unlike your spiritless corpse, you will all the while be aware. Once that is done your scattered remains will rejoin one another, although not in their original construction, but in a way utterly unlike your current form. You will become outwardly monstrous, suffer constant pain and will never find peace or comfort.“
“And if I fail in my task?” “The same will be true”.
In all my years of ignoring threats this was the only prospect that ever struck true terror through my bones. An eternity of only myself for company was quite appealing, but of unrest, unspeakable agony and of grotesque despair? If all I had to do were save the soul of Ebenezer, to prevent him from facing another long life on Earth in order to do enough good to enter heaven, I would do it. I nodded my agreement to my ghostly guide. It took me by the hand and began to lead me into the mist.
Time in the nether world moves unlike the pace that you or I are used to. What seemed to me to be merely minutes became years on Earth, a phenomenon I discovered as I prepared to fulfill my deed. Every so often my guide would allow me a glimpse of Ebenezer; quietly I admired how, without me as a mentor, he masked his shyness and insecurity with ever increasing meanness, but the spirit would admonish me for these thoughts and remind me of the high stakes that were at risk if I failed to change Scrooge’s miserly ways.
It was decided that I was to visit him at a time when he was vulnerable. Christmas, the anniversary of my death and already a sore spot on his calendar, seemed ideal. I will admit that it was a slightly exhilarating prospect to exact my influence over him once again, and in a ghostly form of my own choosing. I’ve always had a flair for dramatics, if a laissez faire one; in order to amuse myself I had, from time to time, over-embellished a crisis and exaggerated an illness, a story, a debt or two.
My ethereal guide permitted my suggestion for a little costume change for my appearance. It’s true, as I knew now too well, that fear is the greatest instigator of change, and so a contrivance of my form to that of my deceased self, head swaddled in bandages and body wrapped in chains, was concocted for my visitation.
Never one for over-practicing, and impatient to get my chore over and done with, I descended onto London at the next possible opportunity, once the plan was in place. In hindsight I could have rehearsed my entrance a touch longer – my first attempt had me manifest in a most undignified manner in a doorknob, another had me lose myself in the servants’ bells. To my satisfaction however, these blunders gave cause to rattle Scrooge, thus making my eventual materialization all the more sensational.
So there I was, dead. Scrooge was understandably shaken, but began to try my patience, as he so often did when I was alive, by protesting my presence, blaming it on this, that and everything else. Dropping my jaw down to my chest and emitting a great howl did the trick in shaking him out of his denial (a parlor trick I took great delight in performing) and eventually the pathetic creature listened to and accepted my directions on how to deal with the rest of his night. Three more spirits were to visit him, to take him on a journey through his Christmas past, present and future, but unbeknownst to him, I’d been instructed to accompany him too.
After I bade my false farewell to my old protégé I observed him again trying to make sense of my visit to him. He removed himself to bed, carrying only a single candle and wearing a threadbear dressing gown. I approved of his thriftiness; it was I who drilled frugality into him after all, but from my unique vantage point began to question the sense in it. I had died a rich man but never used my riches for my own good, let alone any others’. A new overcoat or a bunch of cheerful fresh flowers now and again wouldn’t have gone amiss. I might even have treated my old friend to a good meal or a trip to the theatre once in a while.
Scrooge had barely drifted off to sleep when the clock struck one and the Ghost of Christmas Past made its appearance. Invisible to Ebenezer, I shadowed them both as the spirit took him back to his troubled childhood. I lost interest at once – the company of snot-nosed children has never appealed to me, and I was even less inclined to bother with the waifish child Ebenezer once was. Once the wander down the lane of awkward years was over I regained my focus, for Ebenezer was about to visit Fezziwig’s and meet me for the first time.
I remember it well. On being confronted with the pale face and wiry frame of my future friend the cogs of my mind immediately began to turn. He was inexperienced and eager to succeed. He was, to the trained eye, damaged. He was malleable! I had ambition but little time for hard work. I was an ideas man, but unwilling to put in the grunt work. This young Scrooge was to make an excellent puppet.
I gazed as I saw my own memory unfold. I watched my younger self shake the innocent and grateful Scrooge’s hand and was unsettled to notice the steely, insincere glint in my eye. For all my using of Ebenezer over the years, right from the beginning I had convinced myself that he was getting something out of it too. He would be wealthy, he would have clout. But nonetheless I began to experience an unfamiliar feeling in my ghostly gut. I’d never had the misfortune before, but had the wherewithal to identify it as guilt.
It intensified as the ghost, Ebenezer and I got to our next stop. A short while after he started at Fezziwig’s and my influence began to shape him he met a young woman by the name of Belle. Pretty, kind-natured, understanding and deeply in love with Ebenezer, it wasn’t the most ideal situation for me. I had my share of women but was never inclined to settle down, for one of them to selfishly languish in my riches. But Ebenezer – still trusting, still gentle Ebenezer – was slipping from my grasp into Belle’s arms. A twist of an arm here, a carefully worded whisper there convinced him, over a short year, that there was much more to life than marriage and babies. It was, as I saw with more than a twinge of regret, when Belle ended their engagement that the Scrooge I knew for the next forty years began to emerge.
Given enough food for thought to begin with, the first ghost delivered him, and me, home. It felt like no time before the next spirit arrived, his enthusiastic joviality irking me out of my cheerlessness and back into my default detachment. We were brought, after a fact, to the home of Scrooge’s irritating nephew Fred, who I grudgingly admit displayed a rather admirable compassion towards his bad-humoured uncle, and then to the hovel occupied by Bob Cratchit and his large brood.
At this stage I had had enough of being being slowly guilted to death with kindness, and so exited the familial home of our clerk and his sickly child. Not long afterwards, I rejoined an ill-looking Scrooge and the second ghost, who proceeded to end his sojourn with a cheap parlour trick of his own. The personification of Ignorance and Want as malnourished children would have done little to convince me to change my ways, but I was learning that he who I had held in lazy contempt over the years was, to put it frankly, a better man than I was.
It was time for the appearance of The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Even I, in my own ghostly state, was intimidated by this spirit, who exuded no joy, no compassion, no understanding even for the predicament Scrooge had found himself in. The visitor showed him the death of the Cratchit’s boy Tim, ostensibly at the belligerent hands of Scrooge. Then my old partner was shown his own death. Even I had one mourner; Scrooge was to have none. As it was there was not a soul in the world who cared for him. Fred may have felt sorry for him out of loyalty but there was to be no love lost on Scrooge’s eventual passing.
I looked on as my old friend crumpled with dismay. My wicked hold on him had been tight but in only a few hours it had been broken. If only my own vices hadn’t had such a hold over me. If only my thirst for power hadn’t been so potent. If only Scrooge had wriggled from my grasp when Belle had appeared. I cared not so much for my own wasted life – I knew that I would have always taken a selfish, self-serving path – but suddenly I cared that I had consciously destroyed another’s potential for happiness.
As it was when I slipped away from life seven years previous, so it was again. The dim, murky light of Ebenezer’s room made way for the familiar shimmer of the nether world. My guide emerged. “It is done” it intoned. “Your task is complete”. I was expecting pride, accomplishment, but instead I felt an overwhelming sadness. I knew at once that the task had been my penance all along.
I sat in melancholy, alongside my guide, for a long time. I began to talk, to talk about what I could have done differently, who I could have been, what decisions I may have made that would have altered the courses of many lives. After an age I felt lighter, free from the shackles of my sins, forgiven for my past. There was only one thing left for me, and that was to begin again, right from the start. It was decided that I was ready.
And so here I now am. This is my last testament as Jacob Marley, a man with the morals of a brick wall. My slate has been wiped, but won’t be truly clean until my second journey starts. I am about to enter a new world quite unlike the one I once occupied and my fear is acute. Wish me luck on my journey, as I do you on yours. And take note of any distorting doorknobs or unexplained noises – it may be a non-too subtle sign of things to come.
– Aoife B. Burke
First Published in The Tuam Herald on 24th December 2014