It was the most unsettling feeling he had ever come across. Marley was still in the street before the inn, of that he was sure, everything was in all respects exactly as it once was but that it had all taken on a queer one dimensional quality. No, that wasn’t quite right, it was not flat so much as… theatrical. You know how it is when you watch a play and the action demands that the scene be set in say a quaint old village in rural Japan? No matter the skill of the set makers, no matter how accurate the Tromp l’oeil of the backcloth you are still aware of the essential artifice of the scene. The bridge, just rough wood and paint, the river, just a cloth and mechanics, the distant pagoda, just a few flicks of paint on a cloth but all of which conspire with the eye into seeing a Japanese village in the willow pattern style.
The view of the street beyond now resembled such a painting, although without the pagoda of course. As Marley approached it he saw that it was indeed nothing more than a roughly painted backcloth. He looked up and, impossibly high, saw the bar that the sky was hung on and the blackness beyond with just the most subtle hint of ropes, machinery and other impossibilities beyond.
“Aye, that’s it lad” said the girl, “we need to get to a move on… we’re on a tight schedule… turn right.”
Marley turned to his right and rather than seeing the rest of the street as he had expected there was a dusty space filled with murky light.
He walked forward and the painted pavement gave away to just boards, the backcloth became plain and then stopped, He could see the chains that weighted it to the floor just poking out of one end of it. He looked back at what had been up until just a moment ago the wall of the inn, the back of it showed the raw canvas, the stage brace and the weight holding it down. Further on, into what should have been the interior of the hostelry was just another painted canvas showing Scrooge frozen in the act of peering at a questionable bit of food on the end of a fork. Past that was just a brick wall lined with hempen ropes and an opening into a corridor.
“It’s not real” he said to himself, “None of it is real!”
“O’ course it is,” said the young woman as she bustled past him, “it’s just that it in’t quite as real as you might have thought it was… this way.”
She led him down the claustrophobic corridor with doors and other corridors running down either side, sometimes a set of stairs. Sometimes they passed an opening that opened out onto other spaces that could very well have been ‘stages’ like the one he had come from. They turned up corridors, seemingly at random, and at a dizzying pace, as they did he caught glimpses of school houses, shabby offices, hovels and low places (all rendered in canvas and paint of course). This place is a veritable rabbit warren thought Marley.
“I don’t know your name,” he said as they passed some half painted pieces of wood that, from the front, made themselves out to be gravestones.
“No, ‘appen you don’t,” she said without breaking her stride or turning her head to look at him “If you must have a name to call me by then you can use Linton, I suppose that would be most ‘fitting’”
“Mrs. Linton? Miss?” said Marley.
“Linton, just Linton” came the terse reply. Suddenly she stopped walking, so suddenly in fact that Marley nearly barrelled into her.
Marley wondered why they had stopped, but could not see anything in the all encompassing gloom of the corridor in front of them. He could not see anything, but he fancied that he might be able to hear something, just on the edge of hearing a rustling was coming towards them. Like dry leaves and twigs swirling on an autumn day, closer and closer it came.
“Ah Madam Crowl,” Linton said into the darkness, “I have another customer for you,” then all at once a figure started to coalesce out of the darkness.
A female form, but as different from Linton as chalk is to cheese. An ancient beldam she was, tiny and crooked in stature, bedecked in satins and velvets. She walked with a queerly simpering gait and her eyes (as big as saucers) fixed on Marley with quite the malevolent gaze. Her gnarled face was powdered and rouged to distraction in a parody of fashion and her hands, like contorted and knotted stumps of wood, were clutched out in front of her in the manner of claws. Too easily could Marley imagine those terrible hands reaching up, up into his eye sockets and scrabbling about for the eyeballs therein. So much so that he could not entirely stifle the cry that leapt up to his throat as this horror approached.
Linton shot Marley a look at this exclamation and then went on to address the woman as if nothing had occurred.
“Madam Crowl,” Linton said to the older woman, “this is our Marley”
The visage of Madam Crowl underwent a spectacular change, incredulity swept across it like an emotional tidal wave. It began at her jaw (as it were, the coastline of her disbelief) which dropped away as the shock swept across it. This rent a great fissure, a gaping maw of an ‘O’ in the centre of the landscape of her face. This in its turn caused a landslide in the foothills of her cheeks, the great and primeval glacial carved valleys of her wrinkles almost smoothed by the emotional tectonic activity beneath them. Finally her eyes, those icy twin cities, rolled in their sockets with the aftershocks of the earthquakes of disbelief as the painted city walls of her eyebrows crumbled like the walls of Jericho and rolled up and away into her trembling hairline.
“This… is… NOT… OUR… MARLEY!” she spat out in staccato rage.
“There’s been a change of plan,” said Linton evenly. Marley was impressed, he was not sure that many could keep their heads in the face of the onslaught that this tiny harpy was obviously capable of giving yet Linton hardly seemed to notice it.
“I see that!” said Crowl, “What happened to Sir Simon? Nerves again? I’ll give him ner…”
“No, for once, no it wunt our precious delicate flower, it were t’boss this time; decided he wanted t’go fer authenticity for some reason,” said Linton, “Look Crowl, don’t get at me I’m just bloody messenger, it’s buggered me up as much as you… ‘is first entrance is probably only bloody minutes away and I ‘int briefed ‘im or owt… thank god it’s just an ‘owl.”
“Thank heavens for small mercies!” said the old woman suddenly conspiratorial in their shared woes, “Come on then let me have a look at him.”
Madam Crowl scuttled up to Marley and appraised him with a sceptical air. He could feel her two great glassy eyes assessing him as they travelled up and down him. Her hands pinched and pecked at his clothes like enraged sparrows. He knew from the sucking sound that emanated from her mouth that what she saw did not please her in the slightest.
“He looks nothing like Marley at all, terrible casting!” she said.
Marley boggled at this, no one had ever said that he didn’t look like himself.
“You see it’s all wrong,” she said, “I had Marley in something much more ‘winding sheet’ than this… I suppose it’s too much to hope that you have a winding sheet?” she put her head on a slant like an impatient toucan.
Marley realised that he had been addressed,
“No I don’t think I d…” he began to say but was cut off.
“Of course not! Why would you have your own winding sheet? I mean you’re only a ghost! They expect me to provide everything for them nowadays. I remember a time when every self respecting ghost would have his own winding sheet. Winding sheet, death mask and character shoes.”
Her hands flew up, fluttering in the air with exasperation.
“Well he won’t fit in Sir Simon’s schmutter that is for certain, it’ll look like a sail on him, it’ll all have to be taken in,” she said. Her long nails, all cut into points (like little needles themselves thought Marley), clicked together impatiently as she talked.
“Oh, That’s the other thing,” said Linton, ”He’s moved Old Ben off Present and put Simon in his place”
If the first assault on Madam Crowl’s face had been a tidal wave then this one was a veritable Tsunami.
“More Costumes… MORE!” she screeched, “impossible Linton, just impossible!”
“We have t’make it possible. What about what he’s wearing now?” said Linton.
“Go out in civvies! Under no circumstances! I’ve never heard of such a thing!”
“Madam Crowl!” said Linton.
“Don’t say anymore Linton! If you want him all dollied up then I suggest you do it yourself. I’m off to take this up with his bloody lordship himself… I can’t work miracles all in one night!”
Madam Crowl stalked back off into the gloom.
“I think she likes you,” said Linton to Marley with a smile.
A scratchy voice came from out of nowhere.
“Overture and beginners, please get ready saints and sinners, Mr Marley to his premier entrance at the door…”
Linton let drop an expression that would have brought the colour to Marley’s cheeks if that was at all possible.
There was a gust of wind and a feeling of wings fluttering
“Mr Marley, first position…” said the voice.
“Yes, thank you, we’re on our way” said Linton up into the empty air.
“Mr Marley your rendition…” something large and black swooped low over Marley’s head but he couldn’t truly make out what bird it was.
“With me, quickly!” she said and grabbed Marley by the hand urging him onward into the depths of this place.
“May it make you worthy to be called a troubadour! Only this and nothing more.” The voice receded into a mocking echo that could have just been the cry of a bird.
Through more of the dusty corridors they hurried. Around impossible corners that Marley thought must have double backed on to themselves but did not seem to. The architecture of this place constructed around a different set of natural laws than that he was used to.
And then all at once they were at the threshold of one of those dark spaces that Marley had come to think of as stages. In the middle of this the ‘set’ was very Spartan indeed, just a platform with three rough steps running up to it. On top of the platform there was a door standing in a frame which lead to nowhere at all as the space beyond the door just faced a large red curtain which formed a wall that stretched up higher than Marley could see.
Linton indicated that he was to be very quiet and they stepped into the stage area.
Marley could not help himself but wonder what kind of audience might be out there beyond the curtain; whoever they were they were blessed quiet. There were no customary sounds of sweet papers or muffled ‘excuse me’s as patrons attempted to take their seats. But audience there was, he could feel the anticipation pulling at him.
Linton indicated that he was to go up on the platform but as he placed his foot upon the first step he stopped.
“I don’t know what I’m to do!” he said.
Linton scowled and whispered back,
“Don’t worry, this is ‘easy bit. I’ll ‘elp you through it.”
“But have I got any lines?” he said.
Linton half smiled at him,
“Not as such” she said and gently pushed him in the small of the back to encourage him up the steps.
Finally they took their place behind the door. Marley worried about the staging of the scene, surely if he was to give some kind of performance he would not be able to be seen back here with the door between him and the audience but before he could give voice to these concerns Linton muttered one word,
“Showtime!” and the curtain began to rise.
The sound of a piece of silk being turned on a wooden drum to represent the sound of wind struck up, then after a moment steps on a gravel drive were approaching the door.
Marley found that his stomach was in knots when Linton, who was stood beside him on the platform took his hand in hers and whispered to him,
There was a sound of a key working in the lock of the door but who it was that could have been operating it Marley could not fathom for he had seen no one approach the door.
“Well…” he said.
“Good.” Said Linton and suddenly she pushed the hand she held up, round and into the small of his back and then grabbed the back of his head and with remarkable strength she pushed his head towards the door.
It was a move that the prize-fighters in Cheapside would have been proud of; Marley was sure that she meant to dash his head against the door, to do him some terrible injury but in his surprise he had no time to resist the motion. The rough wood of the doors back rushed to meet him and he prepared for the impact… which did not come. His head passed clean through the wood of the door and out the other side.
And who was he nose to nose with once again but his old partner? Scrooge! Scrooge, bog eyed, in muffler and top hat. This time though, Scrooge could evidently see him, could see him all too well. Marley had some little satisfaction as the expression somewhere between shock and horror passed over Scrooge’s face as he looked upon Marley’s disembodied head sticking out of the door.
There was a dull ache in the front of Marley’s face like the ghost of the worst of toothaches and with something of the taste of brass polish about it. He could not free himself however as he could still feel Linton’s hands upon him, holding him in place.
Scrooge, who had initially recoiled at the sudden sight of Marley, moved back towards him to examine the sudden appearance of his partners face in the place of the accustomed door knocker as if it were an uncommonly rare flower. It was at this point that Marley felt something slam down viciously upon his foot and pain shoot up his leg in response.
Marley howled in pain and Scrooge stumbled backwards on the no doubt traitorously icy steps in panic.
The next he knew of it, Marley’s head was being pulled slowly back through the door. As he passed through the matter he could see its strata as it went by; the metal of the doorknocker giving way to the wood of the door each ring of the wood passing by like a candy stripe on a piece of peppermint. Then he was back in the stage area and the red curtain was descending once again.
He was struck by an unnatural pain in his face, the part that had been pushed through the door. He had been a great drinker by the end of his life but never had he experienced in all his living days a hangover that as keen and sharp as this.
Linton’s face swam back into focus through the pain.
“Not bad,” she said, “I’m guessing the ould goat got a fair fright there and no mistake”
Marley could do no more than gawp at this, his torturer. He tried to speak but all that came out was a desperate moan.
“Come on,” she said, “I dunno ‘bout you but I could murder a tea” and she strode off towards the labyrinthine corridors forcing Marley to follow.
As they passed through the corridors once more they were forced to make way for a large representation of a steam hearse that was evidently on its way to some pressing appointment. It was piloted by a man whose head had been replaced with a large member of the squash family. Marley wondered how he could see where he was going with a head carved from a pumpkin and yet he could observe no evident impediment to his navigation.
At least, Marley thought clutching at his face despairingly and hoping that the pain would subside, things can’t get much worse. How wrong he was, how very, very wrong poor Marley was…