IT was the best of times, it was the worst of times, thought Ebenezer Scrooge. Why on EARTH had they scheduled Who Wants To Be A Millionaire against his favourite movie this Christmas?
"Thank heaven for video recorders," Scrooge muttered, as he sat up in bed furiously working the remote control.
It was nearly midnight and Marley was dead. There was no doubt about that.
Before turning off the light, Scrooge spared a thought for his partner, Jacob Marley. There was no doubt that Scrooge missed him, but it was nice to be able to switch off the lights when he wanted.
Marley always sat up in bed reading. Marley also insisted on watching TV programmes live, which meant that at Christmas the two of them used to spend all evening channel-hopping madly. Scrooge didn't like that at all - and Marley hadn't liked the way Scrooge insisted on eating boiled sweets in bed.
With a furtive smile, Ebenezer Scrooge slipped his hand under the pillow to find where an old tin had long been secreted. "Ah, humbug!" he muttered, sucking happily to himself. There were some consolations to be found in the single life.
The clock downstairs was just beginning to strike when Scrooge noticed an unearthly light emanating from underneath the door of his walk-in wardrobe. Assuming he'd left the fluorescent light on, Scrooge cursed. He was reluctant to lose the comfort of his duvet. But in the end the thought of all that wasted electricity made him hop out of bed.
Scrooge had just reached his wardrobe door when suddenly it burst open and out poured a torrent of unwrapped presents, sticky tape, wrapping paper and crossed-off shopping lists.
Beneath the tide of consumerism Scrooge could discern a rather harassed female figure whom he helped to her feet.
"Oh it's you," said the woman ungraciously. "Is that the time? I was hoping to get this lot done before I manifested myself."
"What are you doing in my wardrobe?" asked Scrooge. But the harridan simply handed him a clipboard with a piece of paper that he was expected to sign.
"This is just to say that you waive your rights while the haunting takes place. If you suffer any permanent injury, trauma or disability as a result of this life-enhancing experience you can't sue me, OK?" She stood up.
"Who ARE you?" Scrooge asked.
"I'm a spirit," said the woman, adjusting her Toys 'R' Us overall. "I thought it would be obvious."
"The Spirit of Christmas Present?" asked Scrooge (who had read of such things).
"Actually, it's The Spirit of Christmas Presents Cost So Much These Days," snapped the ungracious creature. "But you can just call me Spirit. Come on, come on! We haven't got all night!"
As they flew over the streets of London, Scrooge felt sure that the Spirit of Christmas was supposed to be a bit more jovial than this.
"OK," said the woman. "First stop. Cratchit House. Five minutes. We've got a tight schedule."
"Can they see me?" asked Scrooge as the spirit bundled him in through the window of his finance clerk's modest semi.
"Just imagine that you're watching Through The Key Hole with Loyd Grossman," she replied.
Inside the Cratchit household Scrooge could see a circle of several ruddy faced children who were arguing over which programme to watch. The old man was moved.
"Do these poor children have no video?" he asked.
"Bob took it when he left, along with his CD collection and the Hi-fi."
"Monstrous!" exclaimed Scrooge.
"Not as monstrous as what SHE walked off with," said the spirit, indicating Mrs Renate Cratchit, who sat with a gin and tonic and some marking at the kitchen table.
"He left her the house, the joint account, the car and the kids."
"And yet the poor woman is driven to drink," said Scrooge. "Tell me, does she pine for the love of Bob Cratchit?"
"No, she's four weeks behind with the marking and has had a warning from her head of department," said the spirit.
Scrooge watched the family scene as a pale-faced child walking with crutches hobbled over to his mother.
"When's Dad coming to pick us up?" asked TV Tim.
"Tomorrow," grumbled his mother. "And before then I've got to get all this done, finish the sodding decorations and prepare Christmas lunch."
"I'll help you Mum," said TV Tim cheerfully.
"Not until that leg's mended," snapped Mrs Crachit. "Bloody school ski-trip! I can't afford to have you off next term, not for one day. So sit down, watch the telly and, for God's sake, get better!"
Scrooge turned to his guardian. "Oh Spirit, this is a sad place. Take me somewhere else. Somewhere with a video."
In an instant Scrooge found himself in a bedsit where a hunched figure sat with a pile of envelopes and a glass of whisky. "Bob Cratchit!" exclaimed Scrooge. "But what are all those pieces of paper he is reading?"
"School reports," explained the spirit. "Ever since the Cratchits divorced, the school has had to produce duplicate paperwork for each parent. The only problem is that, with so many broken homes these days, the letters are always being sent out late."
"But why do these people live in such poverty?" asked Scrooge. "I pay a decent wage."
"You try shelling out for two of everything," replied the spirit.
"Well at least he has a video," said Scrooge watching the flashing light of a children's programme being recorded.
"It will be nicked tomorrow," the spirit snapped, "while he's visiting his kids. The crime rate always rockets over Christmas. Come on."
In an instant the scene changed again. Suddenly it was Christmas Day and, as he flew over London, Scrooge could see that great city littered with hundreds of pairs of unwanted socks, broken Game Boys and book tokens that had been accidentally thrown out with the wrapping paper.
Back in the humble home of Mrs Renate Cratchit, Scrooge watched as Bob and his ex-wife tried to avoid each other's eyes as they gave out presents to their children.
"Gosh Dad!" cried TV Time. "Another portable CD player. It's almost as expensive as the one Mum got me."
"I thought I was buying the CD player," muttered Bob, glaring at Renate.
"They may be poor," said Scrooge. "But they are generous to their children."
"Oh yes, it's a regular competition," replied the spirit. "Neither wants to be outdone by the other. This afternoon Bob will take them off for another Christmas meal with even more chocolate and ice cream. By the end of the holiday most kids from divorced families will have put on several pounds and be covered in spots."
The scene changed again as Bob loaded his four children into the small, second-hand car he'd recently bought and Mrs Renate Cratchit finished loading the dishwasher and slipped upstairs to change.
"Where are you taking me now?" asked Scrooge, as they dropped down into a small Barratt-style suburban estate. "Please, Spirit, do not let me see the look on TV Tim's face when he discovers Bob's video has gone!"
They were standing outside another small unremarkable house where the curtains upstairs twitched from time to time.
"Spirit, whose house is this?" asked Scrooge as they toured the sad, unfurnished rooms.
"This is the house of Fezziwig Shellsuit," said the spirit, indicating a solitary figure sitting on the double bed. "Mr Shellsuit is games master at Mrs Cratchit's school. The two of them have been working out together since before her divorce but he will not leave his wife. Instead he has rented this house where the two of them can meet. He is waiting for her at the moment."
Scrooge peered closely at Mr Shellsuit, who did not seem like a man eagerly awaiting his paramour.
"Two things ail Fezziwig today," the spirit explained. "Last night he and his estranged wife had two bottles of Australian Chardonnay and ended up rather less estranged than Fezziwig intended. Now he wonders if he did the right thing with Renate. His other problem is that when he took this house, he did not realise that most of his pupils lived on the estate. That is why the curtains are permanently drawn."
"Afternoon, miss!" Scrooge heard the children cry, as a stooped and unhappy figure rushed from her car.
"Oh Spirit!" shouted Scrooge. "Take me a long way away. I have seen enough!"
In an instant Scrooge found himself in a singles bar.
"Where are we?" he asked.
"2010," said the spirit. "I thought you'd rather miss the Millennium."
"But what are we doing here?" asked Scrooge.
"Spirit of Christmas Still To Come," said his guardian. "According to demographers, Britain is going to be one big singles bar by 2010."
"I had no idea I was setting a trend," Scrooge remarked.
"See that kid over there with the Playstation?" the spirit pointed out. "That's TV Tim."
Scrooge walked over to where an 18-year-old was plugged into his Virtual-Relationship CD-Rom.
"Merry Christmas, Tim," he said. Tim did not look up.
"God Bless Us," he typed up on the screen, "Every Single One". 'If you suffer any injury, trauma or disability as a result of this haunting, you can't sue me, OK?' '"Oh spirit, this is a sad place," said Scrooge. "Take me
somewhere else. Somewhere with a video."'