* * *
The bell jangled to let Scratchit know that someone had entered the Counting House. He glanced over the heaped ledgers on his desk and quickly looked down again, anxious to appear busy.
“Scratchit.” The new arrival shouted. “You’ve been putting more coal on this fire, haven’t you?”
“Yes Mr Smooge. But it was so cold, and I only put one lump on.”
“Be that as it may, I’ll be taking the cost of the coal out of your wages.”
Scratchit gave a silent moan. His wages, such as they were, already amounted to so little. At this rate he would have to send Tiny Tim out to work.
“Were there any callers?” Smooge called over his shoulder as he walked towards the inner office, his own private space.
“Damn and blast. At this rate I’ll be down to my last million before long. There’s no profit in banking anymore, you know, Scratchit. Why, the government are even threatening to cap the interest rates on loans at a level that are affordable. What nonsense. How’s a hard working usurer supposed to make a living with that sort of attitude. If someone’s such a wastrel that they need to borrow money it should come as no surprise that they’ll pay highly for the privilege and for the risk I take in lending it to them without security.”
He tapped on the door.
“Go away.” The reply came from within. Scratchit dared to tap again. There was a grinding of chair legs as Smooge stood up, followed by the thump of his boots across the bare floor. Scratchit cowered against the wrath he knew was coming. The door flew open.
“I fucking said go away.” Smooge, barely taller than his employee, seemed to tower over him.
“I’m sorry Mr Smooge, but I have a favour to ask.”
“You can ask as much as you like but I don’t have to grant it.”
“It’s just that its Christmas tomorrow.” Scratchit trembled, and not just with the cold. “I wondered if I might be granted the day off.”
“What?” If Smooge had been asked to lend money at low interest rates he could not have looked more angry. “You not only take my wages but you now want to rob me of a day’s work as well.”
“It is Christmas, Sir.”
“It is Christmas, Sir.” Smooge whined back in imitation. “Bah humbug is what I say to Christmas. A waste of time and a waste of money. You know that if there wasn’t Christmas there would be far less poverty in the world. All that money wasted on presents that no one wants and that they need even less. Bah humbug I say.” Smooge lowered his voice a little, realising that ranting at Scratchit would only raise his own blood pressure to dangerous levels and he was damned if he was going to give himself a stroke so that Scratchit could use it as an excuse to ask for time off work to visit him in hospital.
“I suppose there is some benefit. At least we’ll make a fortune out of all the loans we make in January. When I say we, I do of course mean me.” Smooge allowed himself the rarest of all treats, a short, barking laugh of satisfaction.
“Yes, Sir. Thank you Sir. So was that a yes then Sir?”
“Damn your eyes, Scratchit. I suppose so. But I’ll be docking you a day’s pay and I want you in even earlier the next day. Clear?”
“Of course, Mr Smooge.”
The bell jangled and Scratchit took the opportunity provided by the distraction to scurry back to his desk.
“What Ho, Uncle.” The new arrival called, clearly in a good mood.
“You, you damned wastrel. What do you want? You’ll get no money from me. Not while I breath.”
“And nor do I wish for any, Uncle, either now or in the future. I have simply come to wish you the joy of the season and to invite you to join myself and my darling wife for the enjoyment of Christmas.”
Smooge glared at the neatly dressed young man. He noted with some satisfaction that the collar and cuffs of his shirt were frayed and that he had a patch on the elbow of one sleeve of his coat.
“Why is everyone so obsessed with wishing me joy and inviting me to enjoy myself? A dozen times I had it between the corner of the street and the front door. I shall spend Christmas in any fashion I wish.”
“Quite right too, Uncle, but I do plead with you to consider joining myself and my family to spend it with your loved ones.”
“As you wish, Uncle. However, the invitation remains open. If you change your mind then you will find a welcome at our hearth.”
“Stuff your welcome up your arse. Now be off with you and stop making free with the heat from my fire.”
The young man shook his head in sadness at his Uncle’s bad temper and turned to leave the Counting House. As he passed Scratchit’s desk he dropped a small leather bag onto it. It jingled with the promise of coins.
“A Merry Christmas to you and yours, Mr Scratchit.” The nephew offered. “A little something for your children. How many are there now?”
“Just the dozen, Mr Justin Sir. Still just the dozen.”
“Well done, Sir. And on the wages my Uncle pays you. It’s a marvel how you and Mrs Scratchit manage.”
Scratchit was just about to tell him that they didn’t manage when the cheerful young man was gone, leaving only an icy blast of wind and a flurry of snow to mark his passage.
The church clock began its chiming and Scratchit patiently counted the striking of the hours until it reached seven. At last he could go home. He closed the ledger that he had been working on and placed it in its correct position within the pile on his desk, before taking the whole heap and placing them carefully in the cupboard. He turned the key in the lock and then shuffled across to the door of Smooge’s office once again. He tapped on the door as though he was afraid of it being answered.
Smooge must have heard the clock as well, because the door was flung open at once.
“Where do you think you’re going.” Smooge demanded, as he always did at that time of day.
“Its seven o’clock, Sir. It is the end of the day.”
“Damn your eyes, are you robbing me again?”
“Very well. If you must go home to that brood of yours. What time will Mrs Scratchit arrive?”
“As soon as she has finished cooking my meal and put the children to bed, Sir. I should say about nine o’clock.”
“Good. Tell her not to be late.”
“I will, Sir. Can you tell me why she is visiting, Sir?”
“It’s another fitting for my new curtains.”
“Well, bless me. I had no idea curtains required so many fittings. This must be at least the fourth.”
“Fifth actually. She must get them right. I’ll not brook any bad workmanship.”
“I’ll wish you good night then, Sir, so that my wife may be here all the quicker.”
As soon as Scratchit had left the building Smooge went through the evening routine of securing his premises. He triple locked the front door and threw the dead bolts at the top and bottom. Heavy bars were placed over the windows and padlocked into position. Finally he let himself through the inner door to the foot of the stairs before locking it carefully behind him. At last he was able to climb the bare wooden stairs to his private rooms.
Smooge’s housekeeper had left food warming in the oven of the most modern kitchen that Smooge had been able to purchase. The aroma of meat and gravy caused Smooge to salivate as soon as he walked into the room. First things first, however. Smooge went into the bathroom to run himself a nice hot bath.
The bathroom was his pride and joy. The walls were tiled from floor to ceiling in marble. Mirrors sparkled, reflecting the light from the gas flamed chandelier. Gold taps and fittings adorned the bath, the sink and the toilet. He allowed himself a small sigh of appreciation as he put the plug into the bath and let the steaming water run into it. He splashed a scented liquid into the jet of water and suds began to form, filling the steam with the rich aroma of exotic plants and spices. “Because you’re worth it.” Smooge muttered to himself.
Later he dressed himself carefully in a velvet smoking jacket over rich, red pyjamas. A knock came at the side door to the apartment. He had timed it perfectly.
Peering through the spy hole Smooge smiled as he saw the rosy round face of Elisa Scratchit silhouetted against the night, shivering at the top of the iron staircase that led to the door. He turned the key and let the wife of his clerk into the apartment.
“Ah, Mrs Scratchit. Right on time. Are you ready for my curtain fitting?”
“I am Sir.” Elisa unbuttoned her heavy Winter coat. As she opened it wide Smooge staggered in a mock faint, clutching at his heart. Elisa giggled as she removed the coat, then struck a pose.
She was a striking woman. Her twelve pregnancies had left her with a figure that was best described as ‘statuesque’. Her curves undulated from her shoulders to her knees, shown off to their best advantage by the tight basque that she wore above white silk stockings. No burlesque dancer could match her at that moment.
Smooge reached out to grab at the large parts of her that were thrust towards him but Elisa took a step backwards, wagging her finger at him in mock scolding. “Now, Now, Ebenezer. Food first. You know I can’t fuck on an empty stomach.”