Leonard Szymczak, Bob Cratchit's Christmas Carol
Chapter One, Scrooge and Marley's Ghost
On Christmas Eve, 1843, in a rundown part of London, a solitary man, wearing a tattered coat, scribbled on a ledger. Bob Cratchit shivered in his tiny office, which felt more like his prison cell. Lit by a sole candle and furnished with a rickety wooden chair and a scruffy desk, the office had a small fireplace. Bob had to nurse his daily allotment of coal which barely warmed the fireplace throughout the cold winter's day. He dared not use more than one lump of coal at a time, for his miserly employer complained bitterly that he wasted precious fuel.
Cratchit, a small man with unkempt black hair and mutton chop sideburns, glanced through the open doorway into the larger office where his employer sat behind a dark mahogany desk, gleefully counting gold coins. Though his fireplace burned with a few more lumps of coal, Ebenezer Scrooge never indulged in excess. He painfully managed his wealth and possessions, down to a bucket of coal. A cold-hearted man, he seemed to prefer a frosty room.
When it came to other's needs, Scrooge never wasted. Having his clerk stay warm seemed a total waste. Besides, if Cratchit shivered, he would work harder to keep warm. According to Scrooge, too much comfort weakened the will. He peered through the doorway that he kept open to spy on his clerk. No dawdling on his time.
"Cratchit!" growled the gnarled man who was hard as flint. "Finish those papers and complete the ledger before you leave."
Bob stopped warming his fingers over the candle. "Yes, Mr. Scrooge," he whimpered. He blew into his hands, grasped the ink pen, and scribbled on the page.
At this time each year, the accounting had to be complete before Cratchit could leave for the day. Since Scrooge hated Christmas and paying his clerk for a holiday, he piled on extra work to make up for it. As a result, Christmas Eve became Bob Cratchit's longest day. His wife would be lucky to see him before the church bells tolled nine times.
Bob dipped his pen in the ink and sighed. He had toiled and slaved for the miserly man for the past twenty years. The work had become more unbearable when Scrooge's partner, Jacob Marley, died seven years ago. Though Marley was just as greedy as Scrooge, he had assisted Bob with the bookkeeping. Once Scrooge was on his own, he piled Marley's duties onto Cratchit's growing list of chores-without a raise. The clerk was still making fifteen shillings a week.
Bob had once hoped to be rewarded for his diligence and loyalty. Those dreams had vanished years ago. Though he yearned to work elsewhere, he felt shackled to Scrooge. He had to support a wife and six children, and the youngest child Tiny Tim desperately needed medical treatment.
Each year Bob begged for a raise, but nothing could stir the embers in Scrooge's frozen heart. When money entered his vault, it was locked away until he could lend it to an unfortunate soul at an exorbitant rate. As a moneylender, he was despised for extracting severe penalties for non-payment, no matter how unfortunate the situation.
And situations always presented themselves.
Rap. Rap. Rap.
At noon on Christmas Eve, Mrs. Dibble had arrived for her appointment. Responding to the knock on the door, Bob ushered her out of the blistering cold and into his employer's office. They both stood before Scrooge who, not raising an eyebrow, continued to count coins and scribble into a notebook.
"Excuse me, Mr. Scrooge," squeaked Bob.
"Yes, what is it?" growled Scrooge, continuing to write.
Cratchit nudged the frail woman who smelled as if she had not bathed in a month. She clutched her tattered clothes which looked more like rags. "Ye'll beg me pardon, Mr. Scrooge," she quivered. "I didn't want to disturb ye, but I need to have a word about the loan."
The last word acted like a magic incantation that woke Scrooge from a trance. He dropped his pen and gazed intensely at the woman. "Loan, you say? You've come to repay your loan? You're late."
Mrs. Dibble lowered her eyes to the floor. "Ye know me husband's recovering from a heart ailment. Can't yet walk . . . or work. I'm takin' in laundry and doin' odd jobs to pay the bills. It's . . . just . . . we need more time."
Scrooge leaned back in his wooden chair and squinted his eyes menacingly. "Time, you say? The last time you were here, you begged for mercy. I gave you two months' extension-with added interest."
"Me husband can't walk, Mr. Scrooge," whimpered Mrs. Dibble with tears trickling down her cheek.
Bob whispered, "Can we give her a little more time, Mr. Scrooge? 'Tis Christmas."
"Bah, humbug, Cratchit," ranted Scrooge. "I don't run a charity. Having you work for me is charity enough! Write in the ledger that the Dibbles defaulted on their loan. Draw up the papers. I'll take possession of their shabby house."
"No, Mr. Scrooge!" sobbed Mrs. Dibble. "What about me children?" She dabbed her eyes with a dirty hanky. "We have nowhere to go."
"You should have thought about that when your husband asked for a loan. You signed a document. It says that when you don't pay the loan, I take your house." He pointed to the door and glared at Cratchit. "See her out!"
The old woman touched the lender's arm and screeched, "Please, Mr. Scrooge. Have mercy."
Scrooge recoiled at the woman's touch, as if she had a contagious disease. "Out," he yelled. "Cratchit, take her away!"
Bob glanced apologetically at Mrs. Dibble, whose body shook uncontrollably. With thoughts of being thrown out in the cold with an ailing husband and four children, she buried her face into her hands and wept. He gently took her arm and guided her out of the room. He reached into his pocket and handed her a coin, the money he had saved to purchase chocolate as a Christmas treat for his family.
Mrs. Dibble stared at the coin and wiped tears from her eyes. She then placed it in her pocket and said, "Bless ye, kind sir." She kissed Bob's cheek then scurried out of the building into the freezing wind.
"Close the door, Cratchit! We're not here to heat all of London."
With a heavy heart, Bob returned to his desk. How many times had he wanted to shout, "Scoundrel, sinner! I'll work no more for you."
But he always stopped himself. He desperately needed a job to care for his wife and six children. He was heavily in debt, having borrowed money to treat Tiny Tim's failing body. Without proper care, his youngest son, who needed metal braces and crutches to help him walk, had little chance of surviving another year.
Bob returned to his desk and dipped his pen in the ink. He glanced towards Scrooge, who wore a perpetual scowl. Unmarried, his employer hated people and hated losing money. But he especially hated Christmas.
Rap. Rap. Rap.