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A Cwistmas Cawol, or Scwooge

By

Sabrina S and Sean O'Hare

 

Authors' Note: This story is inspired by Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Charlie's probably making knots in his winding sheet by now, but we've had a lot of fun writing it. Mewwy Cwistmas evewyone fwom Sabwina and Sean!

 

Chapter 1 - The Ghost of Scrooge's Partner

Scrooge admitted, in private moments, he missed his dead business partner. The man's cheerful demeanour, his cleverness with a pair of clippers, and his chairside manner with the ladies that brought them back time after time were all assets that - almost - outweighed having to split the profits with him. But his partner was as dead as a door-nail for seven years now. As dead as the roundhead look, the bouffant Victorian updo and those ringlets favoured by characters in Jane Austen novels.

Scrooge never painted out his partner's name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the salon door. Scrooge was a hard taskmaster. A barber by trade, who recruited a partner to join his ailing business when the trend for longer hair on men and increased profits from styling, perming and colouring women's hair became apparent to the tight-fisted old sod. He still cut hair - men and women alike - often alike in their hairstyles too to the horror of both sexes, but he was more interested in ensuring all his staff served as many clients as possible, and for the minimum amount of pay.

He was a tightfisted old git, and not well liked by his staff. His staff complained because the hairclippers they had to use in the salon always got jammed. He refused to buy oil to lubricate them - an unnecessary expense, he proclaimed. But the clients get an uneven haircut they said. Then they will come back more often to get it attended to, he replied. "More likely go somewhere decent," muttered his staff, who longed for a job somewhere decent themselves, where they would at least be allowed keep their tips.

Scrooge was an untrusting old sod, and not at all liked by the tradespeople of the town. He never had the scissors sharpened as he suspected the bloke that did the sharpening always ripped him off. He did!

He was a conniving old sourpuss, and disliked by all the other salon owners in town. Not only did he undercut their prices, but they knew he picked through their rubbish bins at night to get the empty bottles of expensive shampoo and conditioner which he then filled from five litre bottles bought at the local market and sold to clients at the inflated prices

He was a miserable old bastard, and hated by most of his clients. They came to his salon mainly because he was cheap and many of the stylists were perfectly capable of giving a good haircut ... provided they could escape the eagle eye of their boss. Don't give them a good haircut that will last! Don't cut it as short as they ask! Don't give them any easy-care style! Why? Well, then they will return more often for a trim.

He was a solitary figure and self-contained. This did not displease him. Neither did it please him. The fact is, he didn't care what others thought. If the Guinness Book of World Records people ever found him, they'd report him as the most self-centred bastard on earth.

External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn't know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often came down handsomely, and Scrooge never did. He liked rainy weather, anyway, clients always came into the salon in the hope his staff could dry and unfrizz their rain-soaked hair.

Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with a pleasant smile, "My dear Scrooge, how are you? D'you want to go to The Shaved Head for a pint?" They'd be met with a grunt, and possibly a sideways look at their coiffure, as if the cranky old bugger were assessing how many days would pass before they needed a haircut.

But what did Scrooge care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance. Do you wonder how an untactile old sourpuss like Scrooge became a hairdresser, spending his days actually touching human beings? Because he'd heard there was money in it; and besides he wasn't bright enough to be a doctor and earn real wealth.

Once upon a time - well, in fact, on Christmas Eve - old Scrooge sat busy in the backroom of the salon., reviewing the accounts. It was cold, bleak, biting weather and he could hear the people in the street outside, beating their hands together, and stamping their feet upon the pavement to warm them. The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already; it had not really been light all day. Which was a bloody nuisance as he'd had to have the lights on in the salon since opening time.

The door from the office was open so that he might keep his eye upon his top stylist who continued to work.

"Who wants their hair cut on Christmas Eve?" asked Roberta earlier in the day.

"If they don't come in then we reduce our prices by 10% and splash it across the window." He shivered slightly at the thought. "It's all about turnover Roberta. And attracting new clients. You're here and someone has to pay your wages."

"But where's the profit in it? Couldn't you just let me go home? It is Christmas Eve after all," she implored. Her friends from the salon up the road would all be meeting at The Clipped Nape for a round of Bacardi Breezers, dusting tiny clippings from their clothes and wishing they didn't smell quite so strongly of perming lotion. Merry, nay, pissed mindless, they'd take giggling turns under the mistletoe. Roberta thought wistfully of all she was missing, and rubbed her chillblains in Scrooge's cold salon.

But her pleas were ignored and a small but steady stream of clients had indeed come in and awaited their turn for a trim at the reduced price. Perhaps thinking they were getting one over on old Scrooge and not really wanting a haircut at all.

"A merry Christmas, uncle!" cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Scrooge's niece, who entered the salon and breezed upto the doorway of the backroom so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of her approach.

"Bah!" said Scrooge, "Humbug!"

She had so warmed herself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this niece of Scrooge's, that she was all in a glow; her face was ruddy and healthy; her eyes sparkled, and her wild curly, red hair played around her shoulders and half way down her back.

"Christmas a humbug, uncle?"' said Scrooge's niece. "You don't mean that, I am sure."

"I do," said Scrooge. "Merry Christmas! What right or reason have you to be merry? You barely have two pennies to rub together. And by the way, when are you going to get all that hair cut off. I'll do you a deal, you can have 5% off because it's Christmas."

"Well," returned the niece, happy at least to have a conversation with her uncle. "What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You have millions of pennies to rub together. And I had my hair trimmed by a friend last week anyway."

Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, "Bah!" again; and followed it up with "Humbug."

"Don't be cross, uncle," said the niece, looking longingly at the glass of single malt Scrooge was sipping and wondering what her uncle would say if she lit up a fag in the hallowed salon.

"What else can I be," returned the uncle, "when I live in such a world of fools that stop coming to me to get their hair attended too for nearly a month. Even in the time beforehand it will slip their mind in all their preparations for Christmas. Or if they remember, will delay for weeks their next appointment so it will be fresh for Christmas. You should see how it hits the cashflow of my salon."

"But uncle ..."

"And profits too, if I didn't lay off so many off my staff over this wretched period. Bonuses they ask for, would you believe. Well, couldn't we just keep our tips for once? Don't they know that their tips are liable to personal income tax. I invest them wisely and can plough it back into the business to keep them in jobs ... well except over Christmas of course.

"But uncle ..."

"But do they appreciate that? Do they even understand that? No! They still complain that they need even more money this time of year. If I could work my will," said Scrooge indignantly, "every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!"

"Miserable old bastard," muttered the niece under her breath. All it took was sixty seconds in her uncle's company to remind her why he stayed away. Sod it, she thought, here's me feeling all that goodwill to all men stuff, and that cranky old sod has to go and bugger it all. I'm heading off to The Cropped Locks for a drink. "Yeah, well, Merry Christmas anyway, uncle, and a Happy New Year," she said, turning on her heel, golden red hair flying, and lighting up a Silk Cut.

"Niece!" roared Scrooge, "Put that fag out!"

His niece ignored him, she blew a smoke ring behind him as she left the shop, trying very hard to feel some kind of goodwill and kindness towards her cranky old uncle.

Roberta stood with her mouth open at this display that none of the staff could have got away with. Realising her boss would think her slacking for taking a ten second break, she continued to blow dry the hair of her client.

"And there's another one,"' muttered Scrooge, who overheard them. "My chief stylist, on two hundred pounds a week, with an unemployed husband and children, talking about a merry Christmas. The whole world's mad!"

As Scrooge's niece walked out, two other people walked in. A bearded man with long straggly hair, and a woman in a long dress with even longer and stragglier hair. They both looked in need of a good haircut. But if it was a good haircut they were after then they were clearly in the wrong place.

The woman had a bundle of papers in her hand which she peered at through thick, round spectacles. "Ah, yes, Mr Scrooge. You run a hair salon do you?" The woman ran a finger across the page as if this gave more credibility to her statement than her surroundings.

Scrooge passed his gaze around the salon and returned his eyes fixedly to the woman, as if daring her to refute it in the face of this overwhelming evidence.

"Hmmm, yes, OK. Well we're from the unmarried mothers refuge down the road and we've come to you at this time of year to request a little generosity on your part."

Roberta's eyes nearly popped out in amazement at this statement from these people who were clearly oblivious of her boss's reputation. Scrooge frowned.

The man took over. "At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the young mothers and their children, who suffer greatly at the present time. So many are in need of basic necessities, let alone luxuries."

"Many of your fellow tradespeople have offered both goods and services to help our young ladies, and so we would wondered if you would be able to attend to the hair of some - or indeed all - of them. To pamper them a little, and help them feel a little better about the predicament in which they find themselves."

"But, of course," he replied, wringing his hands together. "Delighted. Please bring them straight round."

If Roberta's eyes hadn't already nearly popped out, then this statement would have been their final undoing.

"Really? Now? Well I expected perhaps next week when you might be quieter. OK then, that's marvellous! Thank you Mr Scrooge."

"Of course, I won't be able to offer the discount any more. Roberta, you better take down the sign. And it is Christmas now isn't it." He got out a calculator from his pocket and pressed buttons fiercely. "Yes, only a 50% premium will prove sufficient. I am, after all, renowned for my generosity."

Roberta, removing the sign from the window, almost fell into the window on hearing this.

"Ah, perhaps a slight cock-up on the communication front. We actually want you to do their hair for free."

"Free?"

"Yes, as a gift. Given the time of year and everything ... well, Mr Scrooge, it is Christmas!"

"Christmas! Bah!" said Scrooge, "Humbug!"

"Humbug?"

"Precisely."

"Sorry, I don't understand. You do wish to help us?"

"I wish to be left alone," said Scrooge. "Since you ask me what I wish, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I pay taxes and help to support these people - grudgingly I'll admit. But support them already, I do!"

"But the government don't provide nearly enough to ..."

"They take enough! It's not my business," Scrooge replied. "It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's. Mine occupies me constantly. Would you believe I've spent the last half an hour trying to track down a missing 50p from last week's takings? Now THAT's important! Far more so than blunting my good scissors and clippers on the unwashed, scurfy heads of unmarried mothers and their whining offspring. Good afternoon!"

Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the social workers left. Scrooge resumed his labours with an improved opinion of himself.

Meanwhile the fog and darkness thickened outside. The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slyly down at Scrooge out of a gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there

The brightness of the shops where holly sprigs and berries crackled in the lamp-heat of the windows, made pale faces ruddy as they passed. The trade in the department stores and supermarkets remained brisk and the pubs filled up as husbands had one last drink before heading home to overexcited children awaiting Santa Claus, and secretaries sank Bacardi Breezers and tried to find a fella in the hope they wouldn't spend Christmas Eve alone.

Foggier, and colder! Voices sang out at the salon door "God bless you, merry gentleman! May nothing you dismay!" But at the sight of Scrooge wielding a large blowdrier as he approached the door, the voices and their owners dispersed. They didn't even bother holding out the traditional hat for money. They knew it was pointless in this case.

Roberta's last waiting client left. Unhappily - it was a Thursday and usually the salon stayed open late - Scrooge left his desk and mooched towards Roberta who was sweeping up the hair from her afternoon's toils.

"I suppose you'll be wanting to take all day off tomorrow?" said Scrooge.

"If quite convenient, Mr Scrooge."

"It's not convenient," said Scrooge, "and it's not fair. If I was to stop thirty pounds for it, you'd be upset I'm sure?"

The stylist smiled faintly.

"And yet," said Scrooge, "you don't think I should be upset for paying a day's wages for no work."

The stylist observed that it was only once a year.

"A poor excuse for robbing your boss every twenty-fifth of December!" said Scrooge. "But I suppose you must have the whole day. Be here early the next morning then! We have the product bottles to fill."

The stylist promised that she would, grabbed her coat and left quickly in case he should change his mind, to take the bus to her flat in Peckham and be with her family. She was so late finishing her mates would have left The Shaved Head by now, happy and pissed and Christmassy, probably supporting each other as they staggered down the street.

Scrooge retired to his flat above the salon where he popped a couple of slices of bread under the grill and opened a tin of baked beans, and settled in front of the TV to see if he could find anyone on Newsnight who was more miserable then he. It was a tough challenge, although he often suspected Jeremy Paxman came close.

As the credits rolled, Scrooge sighed. It was all famine, war, rape ... no really miserable news this evening. And then for no apparent reason that he could reason the face of his dead partner suddenly appeared on the screen.

Unlike Paxman's it appeared normal, as if in life. The gentle expression under that awful hairstyle. The eyes were wide and staring, but motionless. Scrooge stared and, after a short while, the face suddenly disappeared to be replaced by his favourite weathergirl stating that a white Christmas was unlikely to be on the cards.

Although he was pleased by this announcement - as it would be disappointing to the rest of the country - he couldn't help but feel startled by what had just happened. He flicked through the other channels to confirm that this was just a trick of his mind, a mind exhausted from his labours that day. And then returned to BBC2 to say goodnight to the weathergirl.

But he WAS unsettled. As he went to get a cup of Horlicks he actually glanced behind the TV ... just to reassure himself that nothing was untoward ... that no video was playing, no one had tapped into his aerial cable ... and,oh, to check that no one was there. "Pooh, pooh!" he said, and flicked the TV off with a flourish.

He took his warm drink into his bedroom and, as he was about to take his first sip, he thought he heard a noise below him. A sort of metallic, clanking sound of something being dropped.

"Humbug!" said Scrooge.

Then he was startled as the phone rang beside him. The same number as the salon - why pay for more than one line when he could only use one at a time. So late. It rang and rang. He picked it up but it continued to ring. He placed the receiver to his ear and heard nothing ... but felt a cold chill seep into his bones. He nervously replaced the receiver. It rang a few more times and then suddenly stopped.

He heard a clanking sound down below once more. It sounded closer. On the stairs.

"It's humbug still!" said Scrooge. "There's nothing to worry about."

His colour changed though, when, without a pause, something came through the heavy door, and passed into the room before his eyes.

The same face. The same clothes. The same hair. The only thing that appeared different was that he could see right through him. Scrooge had often wondered if his partner had balls ... and now he had the answer to that question.

The chill in the air seemed heightened as the eyes of his dead partner bore into him.

Scrooge pulled up the bedclothes and peered over the top. Caustic and cold as ever he asked, "What do you want with me?'"

"Oooh, hello Scwooge. Now just what are you doing with those bedclothes. They'll get all scwewed up you know. Be a devil to iron."

"Er, OK, but what do you want with me," he said with slightly less tension in his voice. Knowing that his partner Fwitz appeared in death much as he did in life then there seemed a lot less to fear.

"Oooh lots Scwooge. Lots!" said Fwitz in voice that was clearly attempting to boom, but sounded more like a squeak.

"Who are you?'"

"Don't you think you should ask me who I was.?"

"OK, who were you then." said Scrooge, raising his voice.

"Well, in life I was your partner, Fwitz."

"Can you ... er, can you sit down?" asked Scrooge, looking doubtfully at him.

"I can."

"Do it, then."

Scrooge asked the question, because he didn't know whether a ghost so transparent might find himself in a condition to take a chair; and felt that in the event of its being impossible, it might involve the necessity of an embarrassing explanation. But Fwitz sat down on the opposite side of the fireplace, as if he were quite used to it.

"Oh, by the way, sowwy about the clanking. When I found myself back in the salon I just HAD to twy out the old scissors again. But I twied to pick them up and they just clanked to the floor. It weally is too much you know. It's pwobably blunted them I'm afwaid ... but then you never sharpened them anyway did you, you old skinflint. Hmm, I'm not sure you altogether believe in me do you?"

"I don't," said Scrooge.

"What evidence would you have of the twuth of my weality other than your own senses?"

"I don't know," said Scrooge.

To sit, staring at those fixed, glazed eyes under that awful red-cropped hair was bad enough, but there was something very awful, too, in the spectre being provided with an infernal atmosphere of its own. Scrooge could not feel it himself, but this was clearly the case; for though the Ghost sat perfectly motionless, its clothes and hair appeared ruffled by some unseen spiritual wind. "Oh bother, I weally should have got my hair cwopped much shorter. This divine wind weally is just too much." He patted his hair, but too little effect.

Scrooge ran over to the washstand and held up his razor. "Do you see this razor?" said Scrooge returning quickly to the verbal attack, and to divert this vision's attention, just for the moment, from himself.

"I do,'" replied Fwitz.

"But you are not looking at it," said Scrooge.

"But I see it," said the Ghost, "just the same."

"Well!" returned Scrooge, "I have but to slice it across my wrist,, and for the rest of my days persecuted by a legion of ghosts, all of my own creation. Humbug, I tell you; humbug!"

At this the spirit raised a frightful cry that Scrooge held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon. And then he remembered. That fearful noise was simply Fwitz's laugh. "Oh Scwooge, you are so funny. That's a safety wazor. Besides I'm not a ghost anyway. Look!" Fwitz's cloak fell away to reveal a beautiful set of wings that a flock of a hundred Swans would have been proud of.

"My god, you're a fairy?"

"You shouldn't take my bosses name in vain weally you know. That's naughty. Besides I'm not a fairwy. I'm an angel. I am VEWY important actually."

Scrooge, seeing the wings were very firmly attached and beginning to accept the reality of the situation (such as it was) fell upon his knees, and clasped his hands before his face.

"Mercy!" he said. "Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?"

"Dweadful? Is my hair weally that bad? I will get it attended to. So, Scwooge, do you believe in me or not?'"

"I do," said Scrooge. "I must. But why do angels walk the earth, and why do they come to me?"

"It is wequired of everwy man," Fwitz pronounced, "that the spiwit within him should walk abwoad among his fellow-men, and twavel far and wide; and if that spiwit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander thwough the world and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!"

And the spectre cried out once more. "Hee-hee-hee, good speech isn't it, but that doesn't apply to me because I did twavel. Fwankfurt, Zurich, London, Pawis ... well Pawis wasn't so good for me. But, what with all the other good things I did, I became an angel. But old sods like you will be condemned to woam thwough the world. And, because they think you are weally weally bad and, because I know you, my mate Pers - well work colleague actually - thought it would be appwopwiate for me to initiate your weview."

"Fwitz" Scrooge said, imploringly. "Old friend Fwitz, tell me more. Speak comfort to me, Fwitz."

"I have none to give," Fwitz replied. "It all gets quite scarwy from now on actually."

"But if all this - whatever it is - is so important to you why have you taken so long to come here? You must have been very slow about it, Fwitz," Scrooge observed, in a business-like manner, though with some humility and deference.

"Slow!" the Ghost repeated.

"Seven years dead," mused Scrooge. "And travelling all the time?"

"No, not me. I told you, I'm an angel. There's no west for the wighteous. I went stwaight into my first shift when Sorbert buggered off on his hols, and it all get a bit hairwy for a while. But I've been keeping an eye on this place. Well, along with Nicky that is. We got so many pwayers from clients here - but stwangely mostly after they had had their haircuts. No, thinking back, perhaps not so stwange when you are left in charge."

"But you were always a good stylist Fwitz," faltered Scrooge.

"Yes, but you made us all cut corners as well as hair. Even me, your partner. I am an artiste but you twied to turn me into a pwoduction line cwimper from Supercuts."

Scrooge was very much dismayed to hear the spectre going on at this rate, and began to quake exceedingly. "

"Hear me!" cried Fwitz. "My time here is nearly at end."

"I will," said Scrooge. "But don't be hard upon me Fwitz! Please!"

"I am here tonight to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping the fate that awaits you. "

"You were always a good friend to me," said Scrooge. "Thanks!"

"You will be haunted," resumed the Fwitz, "by Thwee Spiwits."

Scrooge's countenance fell. Is that the chance and hope you mentioned, "Fwitz?" he demanded, in a faltering voice. He supposed it was too much to hope that the Three Spirits were Johnny Walker Black Label, Gordon's Gin and some French cognac.

"It is." Fwitz, for once, looked very serious.

"Er, I ... I think I'd rather not if it's all the same to you," said Scrooge. "I mean, where will I put them? This is a bedsit you know."

"Without their visits," said Fwitz, "you cannot hope to alter your destiny. Expect the first tomowow, when the bell tolls One."

"Couldn't I take 'em all at once, and have it over with, Fwitz?" hinted Scrooge.

"Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night at the last stwoke of Twelve has ceased to vibwate. Look to see me no more; and look that, for your own sake, you wemember what has passed between us."

When he had said these words, Fwitz stood up and a fierce wind seemed to begin gusting through the room although Scrooge couldn't feel a thing. He noticed the window slowly begin to rise. He watched as Fwitz's wings fluttered a little and saw him float an inch or two above the ground. He then glided towards the now open window.

Fwitz beckoned Scrooge towards the window. They stood close together. A wailing mixed with the wind. It got louder and louder. The fog-laden air was filled with visions of true phantoms. Many Scrooge recognised from life, all laden with the burden of their time on earth. Most of those dragged symbols of greed, but all the seven deadly sins were represented. It was like watching a celestial firework display as the sad ghosts flung themselves through the mists ... and were then suddenly gone, with their wailing fading into the distance.

Fwitz smiled encouragingly at his old business partner then looked upwards, to the not so infinite. "OK. Beam me up Nicky." He then flapped his wings. And stopped. With his nose he preened a couple of loose feathers. "Hmmm, I knew these wings could have done with a twim. It weally is too much. Byeeeeeeeee!" And in an instant Fwitz was gone, leaving just a trail of fairy dust in his wake.

Scrooge closed the window, and examined the door by which Fwitz had entered. It was double-locked, as he had locked it with his own hands, and the bolts were undisturbed. He tried to say "Humbug!" but stopped at the first syllable. And being, from the emotion he had undergone, or the fatigues of the day, or his glimpse of the Invisible World, or the dull conversation of Fwitz, or the lateness of the hour, or the half a bottle of Scotch he'd consumed to assist in his accountancy, much in need of sleep; went straight to bed, without undressing, and fell asleep instantly.

 

Chapter 2 - The First of the Three Spirits

Scrooge usually slept the undisturbed sleep of the satisfied, self-centred prat. He never lay awake worrying about the poor, the homeless, the sick, the dying. Ever since he'd read the Douglas Adams Hitchhiker's trilogy in five parts and discovered the term SEP (Somebody Else's Problem) he'd adopted the acronym as his own.

So he was surprised to find himself waking up to a pounding disco beat from his clock radio. The time said midnight and the radio appeared to be tuned to Capitol. Since he'd fallen asleep at 2am and only ever listened to BBC Radio 2 this was bemusing. Had he slept through the night and this way midday? No, impossible, he hadn't drunk THAT much Scotch!

To be sure, he stumbled to the icy window, wiped some of the frost away with the sleeve of his dressing gown, and reassured himself that it was, indeed, still dark and foggy outside. The hordes of people that crammed London's streets during the day were absent. He counted thirteen drunks wavering along the footpath, three taxis and six prostitutes. Midnight seemed to be a safe bet.

He went back to bed. Try as he might, he could not sleep. Fwitz's Ghost tormented him. Had he been real, or just a dream, or possibly the results of drinking half a bottle of Scotch? Scrooge tried counting gold coins in his head to lull him to sleep, but it was so exciting, especially when he'd passed the million mark, he gave up. By then the clock radio (now tuned safely back to Radio 2) showed 12.59.

Scrooge remembered Fwitz telling him the first spirit would appear at 1am. "Okay then, Spirit, show yourself!" jeered Scrooge. "Load of bollocks if you ask me."

The clock radio clicked to 1:00, and in front of Scrooge's astonished eyes loomed a pale shape. It resolved itself into an elegant woman holding a cigarette in a long holder. She was a strange figure, like a child but somehow like an old woman as well. Her face was unwrinkled and appeared to be ravishingly made up with a red cupid's bow mouth and heavily kohled eyes. The woman wore a chemise frock, so white Scrooge had to blink at it, louis heel shoes and the sharpest, neatest bob with a shingled nape Scrooge had ever seen. Around the woman's neatly trimmed head shone a halo of light, illuminating Scrooge's bedroom far better than his usual 25 watt bulb did, and showing, to his embarrassment, all the dirt that usually wasn't visible in the dim lighting.

As Scrooge looked at the vision in front of him, she seemed to shimmer and sparkle. Rhinestones sewn expansively and expensively into her costume caught the light and blinded Scrooge as she did a little Charleston at the end of his bed.

"Boop boop be doo!" she exclaimed.

Scrooge scowled at her. "Are you the spirit Fwitz said would visit me, or are you some piss artist on her way home from a costume party?"

The vision in white shook her head sadly. "Mr Scrooge, I am indeed a spirit. The Spirit of Haircuts Past. My name is Robyn, but please call me Bob. All my friends do."

"I don't have any friends," Scrooge pointed out with a satisfied note in his voice, "Robyn."

"Suit yourself." Bob shrugged and tossed her head. Scrooge couldn't help but admire the stylish haircut and the way it fell so neatly back into position. "Now get up, Mr Scrooge, we're going for a walk."

"It's 1am," Scrooge grumbled. "I need to sleep so I can be wide awake for tomorrow. I'll be the only one in the salon."

The spirit muttered something that sounded like "miserable bloody old sod," but Scrooge doubted it. Surely spirits didn't swear?

Bob grabbed his hand in her own cool white gloved one, and dragged him to his feet. "Let's go."

Before Scrooge could utter another complaint she pulled him over to the window and pushed him through it. Scrooge screamed, expecting to fall in a shattered mess onto the footpath below, but he found himself floating, with Bob by his side.

London below him looked different. The tarts had gone from the street corner for a start. All the cars looked like close relatives of the Model T Ford, and horse drawn carts careered all over the road.

"Remember when you cut your first bob?" Roberta said conversationally, flying airily by his side. A long scarf floated from her neck.

Scrooge certainly did. He was working as a floor sweeper in a ladies' hairdressing salon in Barking. The stylists had all gone to lunch, and Scrooge had been left to sweep the floor of the morning's clippings. Considering every woman who'd come in that day wanted her long locks bobbed to short perfection, the floor wore a carpet of hair. Scrooge was busily collecting it and stuffing it into his overcoat pockets. He'd sell it to a wigmaker and keep the profit. The salon door opened.

"Ex-excuse me," said a timid voice. "Are you able to give me a haircut?"

The owner of the timid voice wore a drab brown dress with a beige lace collar. Her hair, long and dated, was shoved up under a fashionable hat, making the hat bulge in an odd direction. She wore heavy round spectacles on her face and not a scrap of makeup. She was about Scrooge's age, still in her teens, probably close to twenty.

"Course I can," Scrooge replied, dropping the broom where he stood and escorting her to a seat the way he'd seen the salon owner, Miss Thripps, do. "What would you like? The bob's very popular at the moment."

Even Scrooge, with his lack of knowledge about what haircuts would possibly suit the client (something he'd never managed to embrace actually), could see she'd look awful with a bob. She was overweight and had a face that resembled either a cow or a full moon.

"Ooo," said his client eagerly, "In fashion. That sounds nice. I'll have that." She sat with her handbag perched on her knee, grinning idiotically in the mirror as Scrooge carefully put a cape around her neck and removed her hat. Over two feet of hair tumbled down her back when he took out a good two dozen hairpins, pricking himself several times in the process.

Scrooge picked up Miss Thripps' favourite scissors with a flourish, hoping he looked professional. He'd spent the last few weeks watching the stylists cut bobs, and thought it had to be pretty easy. Three quick whacks with the scissors and that was about it.

Confidently he moved in to the side of his client's head, placed the blades below her earlobes and - thwick! - snipped off a long hank of hair without a single word. He noticed the blades sloped upwards towards the back a bit and groaned mentally. Damn! Maybe it wasn't as easy as he thought.

The client's eyes widened as she saw her hacked off hair, but, in the name of fashion, she merely gulped and didn't say a word.

The scissors Miss Thripps counted as her favourites were big shears designed for bulk hair removal. Hairdressers these days would shudder at the thought of using dressmaking scissors, but Miss Thripps had cheerfully whacked many long heads of hair into boblike submission with them.

One big crunch of the blades along the back of his client's head and her neck was laid bare. Scrooge,though, still didn't quite have the hang of it. The back of the bob was much shorter than the hair at the side. What should he do? Continue and act like nothing's wrong, a little voice inside his head told him.

Smiling (yes, in those days he actually did smile), he confidently moved to his client's left side and placed the blades under her ears. The client closed her eyes and bit her lip, expecting to lose half an ear as the blades closed savagely on her long hair. But all that happened was that her lap was suddenly filled with shiny brown hair, and her neck looked fat and thick with no hair to cover it.

Scrooge realised the bob he'd cut wasn't dead straight, it was now longer on both sides than at the back. In fact the back was cut up shorter than the client's hairline. Long strands and strings of hair still hung down her neck under the bob. What to do, what to do?

Humming professionally, Scrooge picked up the little pair of hand clippers he'd seen Miss Thripps use on ladies with very hairy necks.

"W-what are you doing?" wondered his client, her eyes huge behind her glasses.

"Just fixing the back," Scrooge said soothingly. He pushed her head forward so he could get a better view of her nape, and placed the blades on her neck. His thumb working rapidly, he inched them up into her hair, shaving away the underneath layers to a quarter inch.

The client sat in a state of shock, feeling the blades clip off her hair half way up the back of her head, or so it seemed. Barely ten minutes ago she still had nice, boring, unfashionable long hair. Now she looked fat-faced with lopped off hair hanging squarely onto her cheeks and was apparently bald at the back.

Carefully Scrooge nibbled away all the hair at her nape and hairline to a uniform length. It took much longer to do than the simple three swipes with the big scissors. Finally he was satisfied, and brushed away the clippings.

"There," he said, "You can bring your head up now. I've finished." He held up a hand mirror and showed the girl the shorn back of her head. Her neck was white and her hair was cut in a straight line across the back of her head. Underneath the straight line tiny hairs had been shorn to almost nothing. Hesitantly the girl touched the back of her neck. To her surprise, it felt rather nice, all prickly.

"It's the latest style," Scrooge assured her with his fingers crossed behind his back, "I call it the Ebenezer Bob."

"Er, how much will that be?" the girl asked, opening her purse.

Scrooge named a price that was approximately twice what Miss Thripps usually charged. To his surprise the girl paid without a qualm. She left the salon still touching her nape with wondering fingers.

Scrooge now knew where his future lay. Not in sweeping floors. In cutting hair and charging a lot for it.

The Ebenezer Scrooge of now hovered outside the window of the salon in Barking, watching his young self blithely hack off the girl's long hair. Ah, what a tender moment! It brought a tear of - could it be!? - happiness to his eyes.

Bob, hovering beside him, noticed the tear. "Are you remembering the joy of first creating a new look for someone?" she said gently, somehow blowing cigarette smoke from her unlit cigarette.

"No," Scrooge said, " I'm remembering how much I charged her. Even back then I was a cheeky beggar!"

Bob shook her head, bewildered at the man. Was there no saving him? Would he never be a generous, happy person? She privately wondered what on earth - or Heaven! - she'd done wrong as a spirit to be given this onerous task by Fwitz, who was renowned for his kindness. Trying to rehabilitate Ebenezer Scrooge had been on the cards for years; nobody had wanted the job. But The Boss had demanded that a bit of spring cleaning take place, and that all those tasks that had been put in the too hard basket be attended to. Bob had, unluckily, drawn a short straw.

She smiled thoughtfully, and waved her hand, saying as she did so, "Let us go and see another haircut!"

The room darkened a little and he found himself standing outside the barbershop where he served as an apprentice for five long years. Miss Thripps would not take him which led to his to take this position with Mr Fuzziwig. Dear old Mr Fuzziwig, a wonderful boss. He watched himself cleaning the floor and the shelves as everyone else had left for the day. Then the door opened.

"Hello bruv, ready for the party then?" shrilled his sister Nancy.

"No, not tonight, I have work to do. I have the business plan for my salon to prepare."

"Hey come on, we don't get many chances to party these days with the war on. I've heard that George has got a mate in the Navy and he has managed to bring over some rum from the West Indies."

It was true. The war had taken the fun out of life a little. Parties, be buggered - he meant it was difficult to make money. He had stockpiled mountains of hair cut from the ladies who desired to be in fashion which he had sold to a wigmaking contact in America when the price was right. He now had a tidy little nestegg with which to start to his own salon. But he still wanted more. And he had a cunning plan.

He looked at Nancy, and saw her in a new light. She had let down her long blonde hair from its customary headscarf, so practical when assembling the various parts of Spitfires in the factory. She had always had long, glistening hair and Ebenezer often marvelled at how pretty it made her. Her hair was long - longer perhaps than Veronica Lake's had been. The new light in which he saw his sister was simple ... Profit!

"Sis, have you heard that Veronica Lake has cut her hair short in aid of the war effort. You know, to save on water, shampoo and just so it doesn't get in the way when you're 'doing your bit'. How about you do the same. Come on, sit over here, we can do it now before the party."

"But ... but I wear a headscarf to keep it out of the way at work. Besides I think it looks nice like this once in a while. You know, glamorous ..."

"Sis, there is a war on you know. It isn't really the time for glamour is it. Think of Veronica Lake ... come on sit down here and we'll make you be the forerunner in this country. You'll be proud to be British!"

He placed an arm about her shoulders and guided her to his chair which he quickly pumped up, and then threw a cape over her which he fastened securely under the mountain of blonde waves.

"I don't know ... I see your point ... perhaps tomorrow, after one more night of glamour ... I think George might propose to me this evening and ..."

"Nonsense, you're here now. " He quickly brushed her abundant hair into an amazingly thick ponytail at the back of her head, which he then tied firmly in place. He picked up the large pair of scissors, a legacy of his time at Miss Thripps.

"Look, you won't cut it too short will you? I ..."

CRUNCH! The scissors ground into the base of the ponytail and severed ends began to fall away.

"Land of hope and glory sis," he attempted to sing as he enthusiastically sawed through the remainder of her hair. "There that's got rid of that!" Well, not strictly true as he placed it carefully in a drawer at the back of the shop along with several others. "Now let's give you an easy to care for style. Think of all that time you will save not pushing it up under that scarf every day.

With the skill of an experienced barber he set to work quickly with comb and scissors and soon had the hair of the back of the head as short and as neat as any set of handclippers ever could. He combed the top flat with a precise parting to one side and proceeded to sheer it down until it obediently blended with the cropped hair at the back and around the ears.

"Oh, Ebenezer you've given me a boy's haircut. I look like a boy ..."

"Nonsense, you have a fashionable Eton Crop. You look charming," he said, although he was not really listening as he was totting up in his mind how much he might get for thick, three feet long blonde ponytail from his contact in America.

"But they went out of fashion years ago ..." She turned her head one way and then the other, looking in the mirror and ran her hand up the back on her head. A smile curled at the corner of her ruby red lips. "Mind you, it does feel pretty good and looks much better than having a headscarf on my head all day. I wonder what George will think though. I think I should have waited. But, you're right it was a patriotic thing to do and perhaps the other girls from the factory at the party will think the same." Ebenezer's ears pricked up "So are you coming?"

"Yes very well Nancy, I think I might." He threw a few of his haircutting implements - including the large scissors into his case ... well, if not tonight, he mused then there was always tomorrow.

"Oh good. I'm so pleased," she said, and gave her little cough which seemed to have become much worse recently. They walked off together, both happy but for different reasons.

"Ah, she was such a delicate creature," said the Scrooge to Bob.

"That's true, but it didn't stop you lopping of all her lovely hair did it - your own sister - just so you could make even more money. Did you ever think that her bare head might have contributed to chills she experienced during that winter that ultimately led to her death?"

"But she lived for several years beyond that. She even had a kid," Scrooge exclaimed in his defence.

"Your niece."

Scrooge seemed uneasy in his mind; and answered briefly, "Yes."

Once more the scene darkened and Scrooge was suddenly confronted by scenes from the past of great joy. The party which he attended with his sister, hosted by his boss Mr Fuzzywig and his wife. Everyone was having a wonderful time including himself - all thoughts of cutting hair forgotten for once. His heart and soul were in the scene, and with his former self. He corroborated everything, remembered everything, and enjoyed everything. He overheard the conversation of his former self with one of the other barber's from the shop praising their boss to the heavens. Even with profitable thoughts in mind for the future, he could still find time to enjoy himself in those days.

"My time grows short," observed the Spirit. "Quick!"

Again Scrooge saw himself. He was older now; a man in the prime of life. His face had not the harsh and rigid lines of later years, but it had begun to wear the signs of an eager greed. He was not alone, but sat by the side of a fair woman with tears in her eyes.

"It doesn't matter at all to you does it" she said, softly. "Your greed has displaced me in your affections."

"But we need cash in the bank. There is nothing worse than being poor!"

"Hmmm, but all your other hopes have merged into being rich and, one by one, you have dropped everyone and everything else that was important to you."

"But my feelings towards you have not changed."

She shook her head. "When I was you're your best shampoo girl by your side, making our way through life together you were very different. Now you are changed. You even try to get me to cut my hair - the hair once you treasured so much."

"But, it would suit you so well ... and you have cared for it so well, it could be worth a small fortune ..."

She shook her head again. "I'm leaving you Ebenezer and I hope that if you do suffer any pain from my going, you will be able to dismiss it as an unprofitable dream from which you have had a lucky escape. May you be happy in the life you have chosen!"

And with that she departed.

"Spirit!" said Scrooge in a broken voice, "remove me from this place."

"I told you these were shadows of the things that have been," said Bob. "That they are what they are, do not blame me!"

"Remove me!" Scrooge exclaimed, "I cannot bear it!"

"Let's go back to your place," Bob said heavily. "I've done my duty for the night. And if I hurry back I'll be in time for supper; it's Angel Delight tonight."

She deposited him back in his grimy flat, blowing a last defiant lungful of cigarette smoke at him before vanishing, with "Boop boop be doo!" hanging in the air behind her.

Scrooge scratched his head as he found himself back in his bed. Had it really happened, or had it been a dream? He turned on the radio to be assaulted by the latest in house music. No, it must have really happened. Even in his dreams the radio was never tuned to Capitol.

 

Chapter 3 - The Second of the Three Spirits

Awaking in the middle of a prodigiously tough snore, and sitting up in bed to get his thoughts together, Scrooge as his ears were once again assaulted by the sounds of so-called music. This time he wanted to be ready when Fwitz's second messenger arrived with the intention of challenging the spirit rather than being taken by surprise and feeling nervous. Scrooge was a tough old bastard he was ready for anything - even a mulletted biker chick wouldn't have fazed him!

But as the 1am news started and ended he was struck by the sheer enormity of nothing unusual having happened., other than a dull red light appearing under the door as if a disco had started up in his living room. The thudding beat of house music playing quietly in the background.certainly reinforced this view. He decided to put on his slippers and investigate. As he unlocked the door and touched the handle a voice called to him and he entered

It was his own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. It was decorated as for Christmas and in all his time the room had never even seen a sprig of holly before. All the trappings of Christmas were there - holly, a partly carved turkey, open bottles of exquisite smelling wine, good French cheese, the juiciest olives. And paper chains hung from corner and tinsel surrounded a large tree. Well not exactly chains and tinsel as such. He saw that in fact they were long skeins of thick European hair of every hue which, due to their length, would be worth a fortune to the 'hair extensions' market which he was now highly active in.

Lounged across his sofa sipping a glass of finest claret was a tall, gangly figure and, if first impressions were correct, Scrooge was wondering if he might be more appropriately situated on the top of the Christmas tree with a wand in his hand

"Hey, hey, hey come on in, man!" exclaimed the Ghost. "Come in, and get to know me a little better!"

Scrooge entered timidly, and hung his head before this Spirit.

"I am the Ghost of Chwistmas Pwesent," said the Spirit, "but you can call me Wedge. Hey, stop hanging your head and look at me, man!"

"Wedge?" asked Scrooge quizically as he looked up.

"No, no, no. Not Wedge ... WEDGE!" he repeated emphatically. "R - E - G! Weggie! Weginald! But I prefer Wedge. It makes me sound a bit more butch."

Not by much thought Scrooge. "Reg, do you know my old partner Fwitz by any chance?"

"Know him? We twained together, and even worked together for a while before he joined you. When he heard about my accident with the hairclippers and the sheep and knew I was waiting in his department's weception area - I had been waiting ages you know, it weally was too much - well, he came stwaight down and invited me to be his number two, his wight hand man. Well how I could I wesist, I just had to agwee."

Scrooge found it hard to imagine this character being suitable for anyone's right hand ... wrist, perhaps. And then remembered they were talking about Fwitz.

"OK Wedge ..."

"NO! It's Wedge ... can't you pwonounce your Rs pwoperly? You make me sound like my favourite haircut!"

"Very well Reg, so what do you want from me?" he asked, as he looked at this vision in black, tight fitting leather trousers and a loose red velvet jacket trimmed with white fur. Cascading around his face were an abundance of waves down to his shoulders. The colour? A somewhat predictable bright red.

"You have never seen the like of me before!" exclaimed the Spirit.

"Well there was Fwitz. You look very similar" Scrooge said.

"No, no, no. I don't mean that. Besides Fwitz's hair was cwopped short. No I mean in spiwit and, before you say anything, Fwitz is not a spiwit but an Angel. He's always been an angel in my eyes ..."

"OK, so I have never seen the like of you before," and never want to again he mumbled under his breath.

The Ghost of Christmas Present rose. "Touch my wobe!"

Scrooge did as he was told, and held it fast. The room vanished and he found himself once more surveying the city from above. The sun was rising on a cold, snowy cityscape with people bustling along the streets to the homes their families or friends. The kids chucking snowballs, the husbands anticipating a few cans of Fosters before lunch, and the wives fretting over the effect the cold and the odd wayward snowball was having on their carefully styled hair.

Reg was cheered by the scenes below and sprinkled drops of the serum from his glass onto the heads of the women below, and their hair miraculously took on a glossy shine and arranged itself back into immaculate style.

"Such a shame to have a bad hair day, today of all days," Reg expounded generously.

"What product do you sprinkle from your glass," asked Scrooge with a worried expression, thinking that if this became generally available he could soon be out of business. "If my staff would come in on Christmas Day I could easily attend to all these women," and make a small fortune, he added in his mind.

"I give the same gift to wich and poor alike. It's called genewosity Scwooge, a lesson you could learn well."

"Hmmmm ..." said Scrooge without commitment.

They continued travelling and ended up outside the door of his senior stylist, Roberta Cratchitt, and Reg paused briefly to sprinkle a few drops of his worrying serum on the door to bless the house.

Roberta was clearly hungover from her surfeit of Bacardi Breezers which she downed quickly with her friends the night before in the short time available before the pubs shut. But she was surprisingly cheerful as she continued the task of preparing the dinner, while her husband, Wayne, called cheerfully from the sofa - already on his third can of lager as he watched Noel Edmonds - "anything I can do to help luv?"

"Nah, sweetheart, I'm fine. Well you can get me a drink and light me a fag." And he did.

The kids were helping their mum, the long saved for Pokemon, Sega and Barbie put aside for a while. Belinda was laying the table wearing her best designer wear - well, copies bought down the local market. Young Peter was doing something or other with the array of saucepans. Containing vegetables ... probably best not to ask what. A couple of other younger Cratchitts danced around, managing to get under everyone's feet but no one minding. A knock on the door preceded the entrance of Martha, the oldest daughter and her boyfriend. She had moved out and had managed to get a job in one of the Franchise chains, run by that Toni guy, and was doing very well for herself.

"Martha!" they all shouted, followed by a much smaller voice from the stairs. "Martha."

"Hey, kid, how's my Tiny Timotei? Still scratching?"

"Yeah, sis, they won't let me in bleedin' school at the moment. Say they don't want everyone catching it, whatever it is," she said a little morosely, her strength clearly sapped by this disease, but still with a smile on her face ... and with rapidly moving fingernails scratching away at the baseball cap firmly pulled down over her head. "Even me mates call me 'Scratchit' Cratchitt ..."

"Well, I think you better see what Father Christmas has bought for you." She selected a brightly wrapped package from her sports holdall and handed it to her sister.

She ripped off the packaging as the rest of the family looked on with smiles on their faces. Her eyes widened as she saw the contents. "Oh Martha! Wow! With the 00000 blade too?"

Martha nodded, trying not to sound too pleased with herself at being able to afford the expensive Oster clippers bought from all her savings from her new job.

"Oh do you really think it will work Martha. Oh come on, can you do it now please!" she cried excitedly.

Without a word Roberta placed newspaper on the living room floor and a chair squarely in the middle. Tiny Timotei ran over and plonked herself down, as her mother securely fastened an old sheet around her neck. She then pulled off her baseball cap and a cloud of auburn waves tumbled down her back closely followed by enormous white flakes which matched, in their size and density, the snow that fell the previous night. It gathered on the sheet like a snowdrift. As usual the family hid their disgust at this sight.

Without a word Martha plugged in the mighty Osters and a loud, whirring sound filled the room and everyone fell silent. Tiny Timotei gathered all her hair into a thick ponytail at the crown with a mix of fear and hoped for relief from the constant itching from her dreadful dandruff.

Martha carefully placed the blades at her sister's nape and all the women in the room involuntarily and nervously touched their own hair. as they watched the clippers bite into Tiny Timotei's hairline leaving a totally shaved path in their wake. "Phew sis, you're going to be as bald as a cue-ball!"

As this thought sunk in Tiny Timotei's hands holding up her hair began to caress, for the last time, her beautiful hair. A small tear formed at the corner of her eye.

Unbelievably a tear formed in Scrooge's eye as he watched. He knew he would have no trouble in finding a market for this lovely hair, but realised it would be unsaleable due to the disease that afflicted it.

Once started, Martha warmed to her task and white scalp replaced the auburn waves until the only hair left attached was that which was being held. "Right sis, this is it. Pull it tight."

As she did so, Martha lunged the clippered into the base of the ponytail and it all came away in Tiny Timotei's hands. She fingered it in her lap as her sister proceeded to go over her head several more times to take away the last trace of any hair.

When finished Mum took away the sheet and the newspaper and chucked the whole lot in a black bin bag. "OK sis, now we need to rub in this medicated cream to keep the dandruff away - er, you can do it of you like - and Mum will need to keep you clippered twice a day until all sign off the dandruff has gone. You'll feel so much better soon."

As she looked in the mirror and began applying the cream, all she could say was "Cool!"

"Well you lot dinner's about ready. Won't it be good not to have any white flakes floating in the gravy this year!"

"Hurrah!" they all shouted, and everyone laughed merrily.

They all sat down and ate the meal. Scrooge marvelled at how much could be provided on the small wage that he paid Roberta and the unemployment benefit received by Wayne. There was much joyful banter as the crackers were pulled and perhaps a slight disappointment that few went bang and none had anything useful inside save the cheap paper hats in a few of them. That Del, down the market, is going to get it thought Roberta, with somewhat uncharacteristic lack of Christmas cheer. But she was only thinking of her family. And she was trying to do this through the mist of her fourth Bacardi Breezer.

After the meal they all sat down and Wayne even turned off the telly - well he had seen that James Bond film at least five times before. He then proposed:

"A Merry Christmas to us all, my dears. God bless us!"

Which all the family re-echoed.

"God bless us every one!" said Tiny Timotei, the last of all.

She sat next to her Dad, who rubbed her bald head partly in remorse at not having been able to help his daughter before, and partly in the hope that she would now be cured. He had not dared tell his children that unless the flow of the dandruff was stemmed then this would lead to an incurable infection of the scalp from which she could very well die.

"Spirit," said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, "tell me if Tiny Timotei will survive this dreadful affliction."

"I see a vacant seat," replied the Ghost, "in the corner next to the television, and a baseball cap without an owner, carefully pweserved. If these shadows wemain unaltered by the Future, the child will not survive."

"No, no," said Scrooge. "Oh, no, kind Spirit! Say she will be spared."

"If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my wace," returned the Ghost, "will find her here. But aren't you the one who says that finding a missing 50p from a week's takings is more important than blunting good scissors and clippers on unwashed and scurfy heads of childwen? You could have pwovided those clippers a long time ago."

Scrooge hung his head in grief at the Ghost's forceful and accurate rebuke, but was then surprised to hear his own name mentioned.

"Mr Scrooge!" said Roberta; "I'll give you Mr Scrooge, the Founder of the Feast!"

"The Founder of the Feast indeed!" cried Wayne, reddening. "I wish I had that bugger here. I'd give him a piece of my mind to feast upon, and I hope he'd have a good appetite for it. The hours he expects you to work for so little pay. And not even any tips ..."

"Sweetheart," said Roberta, "the children; Christmas Day."

"It should be Christmas Day, I am sure," said Wayne, "on which one drinks the health of such an odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling old git as Mr Scrooge. You know he is, Roberta! Nobody knows it better than you do!"

"Hey hun," was Roberta's mild answer, "Christmas Day."

"I'll drink his health for your sake and the Day's,'" said Wayne, "not for his. Long life to him. A merry Christmas and a happy new year! He'll be very merry and very happy, I have no doubt!"

The children drank the toast after him. It was the first of their proceedings which had no heartiness. Tiny Timotei drank it last of all, but she didn't care twopence for it. Scrooge was the Ogre of the family. The mention of his name cast a dark shadow on the party, which was not dispelled for at least five minutes.

After it had passed away, they were ten times merrier than before. They were a scruffy lot but they were happy, grateful and content in each other's company.

The scene faded and once more Scrooge found himself out on the street with Reg. The sound of family parties now came from many houses they passed. They stopped at one large house and peered in.

"That's right Tracey, 'a fifty percent premium will prove sufficient' the old git said," said a very tipsy woman in a long flowery dress. "Well don't worry I can do a better job than him anyway."

"Are you sure you should Christabelle. You HAVE started on the second bottle of vino," said the bearded prig, somewhat pompously.

"Ah shut up you bearded prig, Christabelle's alright. She's just going to trim the ends. She knows what she's doing," rebuked Tracey.

Swaying slightly as she approached Tracey sitting on one of the dining room chairs, with a bawling young baby on her knee, she experimentally opened and closed a very large and very sharp pair of scissors a few times.

"Very well, on your own head be it ... no, no, OFF your own head," he said as his pompous air collapsed and he filled the room with laughter. His witticism was totally lost on the unmarried mothers as they watched Christabelle comb through Tracey's mid-back curls and suddenly lunge the scissors into the hair at the neck with a loud crunch. As if possessed she feverishly continued all the way around to the front and huge mounds of curls fell on Tracey's toddler, at least muffling the kid's bawling for a while.

"Bloody 'ell Trace she's cutting it all off," exclaimed one of the other mothers.

"Bugger! Oh well, save 'aving to pay out for another bleedin' perm won't it. Cut it all off 'Belle." And all the mothers burst out laughing, followed by a few cries of "I'm next" as they continued to knock back the unaccustomed array of different flavour Bacardi Breezers generously supplied by the local wine merchant

Peering through her thick glasses Christabelle didn't need any second bidding. She used the comb to lift the hair from her crown and started slicing it all down to a uniform half an inch. Well - on average, a half an inch.

Scrooge cried. "I could have cut it that badly if she had come to my salon AND charged the premium AND kept the hair AND she would have had to come back in a couple of weeks to keep it looking half decent. All that profit just lost!" he wailed.

Phillip, the bearded prig, found himself rather fascinated by this haircutting process. Pomposity returned and he proclaimed an announcement. "From now on all women at the refuge will have short haircuts as a condition of entry". He looked about the room and noted Sharon had tied her thick, waist length hair in a high and bouncy ponytail. "Right Sharon you're next".

"Me?" she questioned imploringly. He took the scissors from his wife and marched over to where Sharon was sitting, held up the ponytail and snipped it off at the crown leaving a very short patch of tufty hair on top, and messy layers around the face. He threw the cut hair onto the fire with barely a glance.

"Hmmm, a bit short on top dear. I'll go get the beard-trimmer I bought you - you never use it anyway - and I'll even it up for her." Which she did, and even on its highest setting, her hair was taken down to a very uniform quarter of an inch.

"Hey Shaz, that's really cool," shouted a giggly Tracey and everyone drank a little more, and laughed merrily.

"You see Scrooge, even without your lack of generosity people can still have fun at Christmas."

But all Scrooge could see was the diminishing number of 'premium' haircuts and the valuable ponytails going up in smoke on the roaring fire.

As he watched the smoke disappear up the chimney, he heard a louder high-pitched laugh above the merriment. He was astonished to realise that it was that of his niece.

"Ha, ha!" laughed Scrooge's niece. "Ha, ha, ha!"

There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour. When Scrooge's niece laughed in this way, her boyfriend did the same as did their assembly of friends.

"He said that Christmas was a humbug, as I live!" cried Scrooge's niece. "He believed it too! He's a comical old git and that's the truth, and not as nice as he might be. However, the way he acts carries its own punishment, and I have nothing to say against him."

"I'm sure he is very rich," hinted her boyfriend. "At least you always tell me so."

"So what!" said Scrooge's niece. "His money's no use to him. He doesn't do any good with it. He doesn't make himself comfortable with it. I'm sorry for him; I couldn't be angry with him if I tried. It's only he who suffers. By not joining us all he misses is a great meal and a bit of fun."

They were a musical family, so after the meal they turned on the Karaoke machine and the laughing increased as each took it in turn to sing along to their favourite songs. After they tired of that out came the Trivial Pursuit but their minds were so pickled by the wine that they indulged in traditional party games. Throughout all this the laughing never stopped.

And Scrooge joined in like a schoolboy. He couldn't be seen or heard but he ran around and jumped on chairs as the music stopped. Reg looked on kindly, pleased to see his charge in such a great mood.

"Please can we stay until all the guests have gone Reg. I'm having such fun."

"Sowwy Scwooge but there is not time."

As a game of charades came to and end, Scrooge's niece shouted out "I know, I know, it's my uncle, it's 'Scrooge'!" And they all rolled about laughing, thinking of the mimes that had been used to describe him.

"As he has given us such fun, let us a drink a toast to the old bugger, wherever he is," shouted his niece. "Merry Christmas!" and the sentiments of her boyfriend and friends followed.

On hearing these words, Scrooge and Reg were again upon their travels and they saw poverty and illness, but standing above this was hope and often cheerfulness.

"My time is at an end," said Reg cocking his head to one side and looking skywards. "OK Fwitz. I'm coming and I hope you've left me some of that Angel delight. I'm weally wavenous."

The bell struck twelve. Scrooge looked about him for Reg, and saw him not. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of old Fwitz and, lifting up his eyes, saw a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him.

 

Chapter 4 - The Last of the Three Spirits

Even Scrooge could see the Phantom's hood and cape were expensive. At a guess he'd say Christian Dior or someone equally exclusive had something to do with it - the silky silver grey rustling fabric, and the casual, expert way it draped over the Phantom's figure. If this vision walked into his Salon, he'd automatically put the price up 300% because he could be sure the wearer of such posh clothes could afford it.

The creature extended to him one slim, pale hand upon which Tiffany's finest sparkled cheerfully on several fingers. It pointed at him ominously in the way that rich people do to tradespersons. Scrooge knew it well. It was a tactic he often used himself.

Below the posh cloak the Phantom wore thigh high shiny black boots with heels so high it was a miracle the figure could stand. It sashayed over to Scrooge's side and flipped back the hood to reveal a beautiful female face with the barest hint of makeup - just lip gloss - topped off by blonde hair cropped to tousled perfection.

Scrooge's professional knowledge assessed the haircut. The disconnected look, yes. But was it Toni &Guy or Trevor Sorbie? It had a look about it he hadn't seen before, a nuance of style that had to be the creation of a hairdressing legend. Scrooge wondered if he could copy it and how much he could charge for it.

"Who are you?" he asked rudely. Well, for him he was being polite.

The spirit pointed to a badge on her cape. It said, "My name is Annabel, official Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come." She beckoned to him and pointed to the open window. Flysies time again.

Scrooge wasn't surprised to see that. He sighed and took a gulp of Scotch. He let Annabel, her golden crop shining in the moonlight, guide him over the rooftops of the city. When they landed outside The Shaved Head Scrooge wondered whether or not he could get a free drink out of the deal. But Annabel, with a silent warning look, made him think again.

Three people were standing around the bar downing Barcardi Breezers. Scrooge recognised Ros, one of his stylists, the bloke who peddled cheap shampoo whatever his name was, and an ex-employee, Nikki, who had started up a salon of her own, infuriatingly near to Scrooge's.

"Ooo, do tell," Nikki said excitedly. "I never fort the old bugger'd kark it!"

"There goes another client," grumbled the shampoo bloke. "It's hard to find people who'll buy really crap shampoo in bulk."

"Oh, don't be miserable Andy," Ros said, clinking her pink Breezer against his green one. "Just think, you won't have to put up with the old sod trying to talk you down on prices."

"That's true. How did he die, anyway? Nasty old buggers like him seem to live forever."

"That's the funny bit!" Ros dissolved in peals of laughter. "You know how he rinses out old shampoo bottles and such and refills them? Well, he was rinsin' out dye bottles and refilling 'em, wasn' he? Only he refilled 'em with some different chemicals and there was a chemical reaction. He breathed in poison gas. Permed to death, you could say!"

The three of them roared with laughter, slapping their thighs and almost spilling their drinks.

"Tell you what,Ros," said Nikki when she caught her breath, "I'm doin' really well at the moment. I'm finking of expanding and openin' up anovver salon. What about I buy 'is place and you can work for me there? For proper wages, too!"

"Speakin' of wages, I wonder what the old coot did wiv all his money?" mused Ros. "Gawd only knows he ripped off his clients and ripped off his staff."

Scrooge listened intently to this and wondered about whom they were speaking. Surely Ros couldn't be moonlighting for another salon? Where would she find the time? He kept her working a good twelve hours a day!

Before he could sink a double of single malt, Annabel touched his arm with her cold fingers, and they were flying again. Scrooge was starting to feel dizzy...or maybe just drunk!

To his surprise they floated through the door of his own salon. He expected to see himself in his usual place, counting the till, but to his surprise he wasn't there. His staff were, though, and to his fury they were picking through the goods and chattels of the shop.

"Nothing worth souveniring really," snorted Roberta. "All the scissors are blunt beyond sharpening, that pair of Osters dates back to 1954 and the capes have got holes in them."

"Even the magazines are ancient," snorted Ros. "Look at this, January 1977. It's a wonder it hasn't fallen apart. God, look at that pageboy bob. Hope it never comes back into fashion."

Roberta prised open the locked drawer that held Scrooge's own private possessions.

"Hoy!" shouted Scrooge, "Get away from there, you hussy!"

Roberta couldn't hear him, of course. She gasped. "Oh, Ros! Look! What beautiful scissors! They must be worth hundreds of pounds! And a new pair of Wahl Supertapers. What a bastard, he's locked them up so the rest of us can't use them. And good hairbrushes, too. Well, we can split these between us. Let's call it our bonus for putting up with the old sod."

"Ungrateful bitch!" yelled Scrooge. "Who gave you a job, eh? Eh? Who let you keep your tips on your birthday, up to 50p of them anyway?" He wondered where he was in this scenario. Upstairs asleep in bed obviously, while his own staff broke into the shop and stole from him. He said as much to Annabel.

She looked at him pointedly and made him very nervous indeed. Surely...surely she couldn't mean THIS was the Christmas Yet To Come? Him dead somewhere and his staff slagging off at him? Scrooge gulped. "Can we get out of here?" he pleaded.

Wordlessly Annabel took him to the skies again and this time they floated through the window of the Cratchitt family.

Roberta was sitting at the kitchen table, her head in her hands. Scrooge looked at the clock above the stove. "Hey, it's only 7pm. Why is SHE home? She should be at work!"

"I miss Tiny Timotei," said Martha sadly. "Her little scurfy head, even the flakes of skin she used to trail everywhere behind her."

"If only we could have afforded that expensive trichologist and all those real pricey ointments," moaned Roberta, "She'd still be with us today! But bloody old Scrooge, wouldn't give me an advance on my wages, would he?" She sobbed.

Wayne trudged into the room. "Sorry, love, no work for me today either. I can't be bothered going to the dole office tomorrow. Life's not the same without Tiny Timotei. And that's one less child allowance we'll be getting too," he said mournfully.

"I've got an idea," said Martha amongst the despairing faces sat around the table. "We've still got my Osters. Let's cut off all our hair and sell it to wigmakers. European hair is always worth a lot of money."

Roberta brightened up. "Yes, now you're an unemployed single mother that will bring in a bit of money. Maybe we can afford to have the gas put back on." She shivered in the icy room.

The Cratchitt females all had long, wavy hair. Admittedly it wasn't in the best of health as they couldn't afford conditioner, but a few split ends would surely be forgiven. And the Cratchitt males all wore splendid mullets, as long in the back as the girls'.

"No!" wailed Scrooge. "Let me cut it! You're taking business away from me, you ungrateful woman! That's it, you're sacked!"

But despite all his ranting and raving, the Cratchitt family couldn't hear him. He watched helplessly as they lined up with threadbare towels around their shoulders.

Wayne went first, his mullet effectively reduced to a crewcut in three expert minutes by Martha.

"I've had a thought, we can save on water and shampoo bills now," Roberta said brightly, taking her place on the chair and shaking out her wavy brown locks for the last time. She looked a little anxious as she saw the clippers zoom in to her forehead, and bit her lip as the first locks of hair were buzzed from her head, leaving a fine quarter inch pelt.

It was Belinda's job to catch the hair as it fell and gather it into a ponytail. Roberta sat patiently as the Osters revved over the top of her head again and again. It felt funny, all tickly, as the guides lifted her hair and the blades severed it close, leaving a rather fetching little fuzz in its place.

The warm hair that hung at her cheeks was next. The clippers hummed loudly in her ears as they raced up the side of her head, sending masses of waves floorwards. Roberta's eyes widened as she felt her head get much colder.

"Oooh, look, Mummy's got a mullet!" giggled a little Cratchitt, and the smaller children rolled with laughter as their mother's hair hit the deck.

Roberta bent her head forward as Martha placed the blades at her nape and pushed them up into her hair. Her neck started to feel cold without the soft locks there but Martha was merciless, shearing away the hair without a word, just a gentle hand on top of her mother's head. Five big passes up the back saw Roberta shorn of years of hair growth. A fine ponytail sat on the table.

"That should make us some money," said Wayne approvingly, rubbing his wife's buzzed head and rather liking the feel of her soft bristles.

"Me next," Martha said happily, and passed the clippers to her mother. Martha's thick dark red hair hung almost to her waist. She'd never worn it shorter.

Roberta took the clippers. "I'm sorry it's come to this, Martha love," she said softly, "I know how much you love your long hair. If only Scrooge had been more generous!" She could barely see for the tears that sprang to her eyes.

"Generous!" howled Scrooge. "I gave you half a day off a week didn't I?"

Beside him Annabel shook her head. Scrooge, despite Fwitz's pleas to his spirits, was really a bit of a lost cause. Just WHAT would get to him? Make him realise what a stingy old coot he was? Make him realise just how miserable he made other people whose lives he was a part of?

Scrooge was intently watching the first of Martha's luscious locks fall into Belinda's outstretched hands and salivating about firstly the little buzzed stubble left on top of her head and secondly how much money he could have got for the hair when Annabel touched his arm again.

She dragged him, protesting, out of chez Cratchitt as Martha was bowing her head and letting the clippers divest her of the silken locks at her nape, revealing her alabaster neck.

Before Scrooge knew what was happening he was back in the iciness of his own room, Annabel by his side.

"Ere," screeched Scrooge. "Who's that sleeping in my bed? Bloody squatters, you leave the place for five minutes and -"

Annabel pointed again to the bed. Scrooge realised that the figure under the covers was TOTALLY under the covers. As in dead. As a doornail. Face covered up and all that.

"W-who is it?" whispered Scrooge.

Annabel gave him another of those scary looks from under her hood and her magnificently arched eyebrows.

"Oh no," whispered Scrooge, his mean old eyes widening. "Oh no, that can't be right. It can't be a visitor. I don't let ANYONE in my room. They might steal something valuable."

Annabel turned away, her shoulders shaking. Spirits weren't supposed to laugh but Scrooge's bedsit was the most cheaply, awfully furnished room she'd ever seen in her life. She composed herself, and, still twitching with compressed hysteria, dragged Scrooge out the window.

Far over the city they floated, to a graveyard. Scrooge didn't like graveyards. They were full of dead people and dead people didn't need haircuts.

They landed beside an untended grave. Weeds grew thigh high around the gravestone and there wasn't even a vase of cheap, nasty plastic flowers anywhere in sight.

Annabel parted the weeds with her cool white hands and showed Scrooge the name on the gravestone.

"Ebenezer Scrooge," he read shakily. "The world's most miserable bastard."

Scrooge was outraged. Not a single mention of his life's work, his marvellous salon! Nothing along the lines of "He cut over 500 miles of hair in his life". It was a chilling revelation that seeped into his self-centered brain like perm lotion into a hair shaft.

"You're telling me people don't actually like me, aren't you?" he said in a wondering voice to Annabel.

She mimed "At last he understands," rolling her eyes up and drawing a hand across her brow. She pointed to the words "miserable bastard".

Scrooge had never thought himself a miserable bastard. Miserly, yes. But miserly was fine; it meant you had money put away for the future. He'd always regarded himself as a well-respected, canny businessman. In one short moment his lifelong opinion of himself had been shot into flames. Everyone had someone somewhere who liked them. Everyone.

Except me, Scrooge thought, bewildered. He suddenly realised he didn't want to die universally disliked by every person he'd ever come across on his long years on Earth, and said as much to Annabel.

She heaved a sigh of relief, and whisked him back to his bedsit.

 

Chapter 5 - The End of It

Scrooge thought for a moment. How could he make people like him? He looked at the clock. 2am. Oh bugger, better now than later.

He picked up the phone and dialled Roberta's number.

A sleepy voice answered him. "'Lo?"

"Ah, Roberta," Scrooge said in a voice that sounded very strange. For the first time ever it had warmth in it.

"Oh, Scrooge, no! I can't come in right now. Even I'M allowed sleep," moaned Roberta.

"Hear hear," muttered Wayne, Tiny Timotei, Belinda, Kevin, Sally and Eric, who were all sharing the double bed with Roberta.

"Ah, my dear," Scrooge said, and Roberta wondered if he'd gone off his rocker. "I don't want you to come into work right now. I want to offer you a partnership."

"Eh?" Roberta woke up very quickly indeed. "What?"

"Yes, Roberta. I want to bring you in as a full partner in the business. Fifty fifty," said Scrooge, a lump forming in his throat as he thought of the 50% of profit he'd be losing out on.

The delighted shrieks on the other end of the phone hurt his ears. "Let's talk later in the day and make it legal," Scrooge promised, and put the phone down.

Next he rang his niece, who'd just got home from a night's clubbing. Giggly and drunk, she listened to her uncle in disbelief and wondered whether HE'D had too many Barcardi Breezer's at Baldy's too.

"I'm leaving you my savings," Scrooge told her. "Yes, I know I'd initially willed everything to the Hairdressers' Guild but I've changed my mind. I'm also leaving you my share in the salon."

"Your share?" said his niece, puzzled, "I thought you owned it all."

"Not any more, I've given dear faithful Roberta half of it."

"Good for you, uncle Scrooge! What a lovely Christmas present for her!" His niece was delighted; she'd long felt sorry for poor Roberta. "Merry Christmas, Uncle Scrooge!"

Scrooge almost let the familiar "Christmas!? Bah, humbug!" slip from his tongue. Instead, he awkwardly replied, "And a Merry Christmas to you too, my dear!"

There was a rustling sound behind him. Annabel was silently applauding him. Then, as he watched, she slowly disappeared, leaving only the rich hood and cape lying on the floor. Scrooge supposed he'd give it to Roberta. It'd look bloody daft on him.

He suddenly realised that would be the first actual present he'd ever given anyone. Scrooge grinned. His face muscles, unaccustomed to it, twinged. He supposed they'd just have to get used to it.

The End

© Copyright Sabrina S and Sean O'Hare, 2000

Comments welcome to sabrina.s@zdnetonebox.com and psharp55@altavista.net