A PIECE OF POTATO

“Does it not say, Mr. Fennywhig, on your own calling card, ‘Investigator of the Truth’?”

Mr. Fennywhig shifted uneasily from one foot to the other. He could feel himself beginning to buckle under the intense glower of his client.

“Well, sir, the truth is the truth. And that isn’t always what you want to…” Mr. Fennywhig stopped mid-sentence and stared at the bony, near skeletal finger that now hovered mere inches from his nose.

“Enough of this bunkery, Mr. Fennywhig. I retained your services in order that I might find the truth behind the curious occurrences which have been disturbing my nightly slumber. I wanted answers, sir. Answers!”

At this point, Mr. Cloister stepped forward, seeing his colleague floundering under this relentless barrage.

“What then, do you make of the evidence we collected, Mr. Scrooge?”

Mr. Scrooge considered this for a moment. Then slowly reached beside him and pulled into view a small glass jar containing a thick, translucent substance.  

As he gazed at the jar, Mr. Cloister attempted to press home his point. “Rarely, in all our years of investigating The Spirits, employing all the scientific methods and processes in the field of Psychometry, have we encountered such a fine specimen of ectoplasm. There are many who would count themselves fortunate indeed to be the center of such events.”

“Count myself lucky, Mr. Cloister? Lucky?” There was a chill tone to the words.

“Indeed,” Mr. Cloister said, oblivious to the warning tone.

“How so, Mr. Cloister? How is this in any way a sign of good fortune?”

Before Mr. Cloister could reply, Mr. Scrooge slammed the jar down on the table again.

“Perhaps I am fortunate that your associate in this charade had a jar to hand in which he could collect the emanations of his not inconsiderable nasal leakage?  That he did not soil my drapes with such?”

Mr. Fennywhig ran a finger under his nose reflexively; then self-consciously glanced down at said finger before hastily thrusting his hand into a pocket.

“As I told you, gentlemen, for the past several evenings, my sleep has been disturbed by…” and for the first time, Mr. Scrooge looked less imposing, almost human. As if sensing he was losing authority in this situation, Mr. Scrooge took a deep breathe then continued. “I have been disturbed by visions, phantasms and whimsical visions that should hold no place in this world.”

Mr. Scrooge walked over to the fireplace, picked up a poker and jostled the small cluster of coals, struggling against the chill of the room.

“I employed the two of you, because I had been informed by my nephew of your specialized knowledge. That was undoubtedly a mistake, since there has yet to be a day when anything of value emerges from the mind of that wastrel. Nonetheless, I was comforted by the fact that you assured me, gentlemen, assured me, that you were competent to conduct a thorough investigation and come to a reasonable conclusion as to the cause of my troubles.”

“I had expected, sir, that you should inform me of some cunningly hidden and hitherto undiscovered draught which perhaps was causing things to move in mysterious ways, or create sounds which sounded like disembodied voices. But what do you do, Mr. Cloister? Mr. Fennywhig? You bring me notions of the fantastic and a jar of mucus!”

“I assure you, Mr. Scrooge, everything we have done here has been of the highest integrity and in line with the foremost thinkers in the field of Psychometry. Your investment…”

“Ah!” Mr. Scrooge said with a note of triumph. “At last we get to the crux of the matter. The moneys you intend to claim for conducting this supposed ‘investigation.’  I am expected to pay for this nonsense, am I?”

“It was agreed upon, Mr. Scrooge. When you retained our services, we shook hands. A half guinea when you commissioned our investigation, and a guinea when we presented our findings.”

Mr. Scrooge scoffed, leaning against the mantle above the dying coals, that now looked as if they had given up all hope of reinforcements and were on the cusp of surrendering the battle against the cold in the room. With his free hand, he waved dismissively at the two men in his parlor. “Be gone, sirs. Take the half guinea for your troubles, for I would have no man in this city claim that Ebenezer Scrooge would have a man’s time for nothing. Look on it as the charity my nephew insists I should conduct. But I shall pay not one farthing more. And if you contest this, if you challenge me further, I shall be forced to call in the Police, sir. And beyond that, I shall employ every means at my disposal to also regain my original half guinea.”

Mr. Scrooge looked down into the fire.

“And believe you me, Mr. Cloister, if you force me to employ a lawyer, I shall ensure that all costs associated with such legal action are also placed squarely on your shoulders.”

An uneasy silence settled on the room, broken only by the futile hiss of a last floundering coal in the fire grate, and somewhere in the house below, the sound of a door opening. Perhaps a scullery maid or other domestic servant going about their duties.

After a few minutes, Mr. Scrooge looked up.

“You are still here?”

Mr. Fennywhig and Mr. Cloister exchanged embarrassed looks.

“Did I not make my position patently clear, gentlemen?”

Mr. Fennywhig gave his colleague a more pointed glare, then made a slight nod to the side with his head. Mr. Cloister swallowed, then looked at Mr. Scrooge.

“The jar, Mr. Scrooge.”

“The jar?”

“Indeed, sir.” Mr. Fennywhig pointed at the jar on the table, trying to help clarify, but the savage expression on the face of Mr. Scrooge caused him to snatch back his hand and worriedly caress it with his other hands, possibly checking that he had not lost fingers in the encounter.

“The jar we collected the sample of ectoplasm in, Mr. Scrooge.”

“What of it?”

“May we take it with us?”

“GET OUT!”

“But, Mr. Scrooge…”

With surprising speed, Mr. Scrooge lunged for the jar, snatched it up from the table and hurled it across the room. Mr. Cloister and Mr. Fennywhig both ducked as the jar hurtled across the room, smashing against the door jamb.

“Get. Out.”

Mr. Cloister and Mr. Fennywhig quickly snatched up their hats and overcoats and scrambled for the door.

“Good day, sir,” said Mr. Cloister, doing his best to retain a level of civility and manners that would allow him to at least take something from this encounter.

Once the men had left, Mr. Scrooge flopped down in his threadbare armchair and considered what had just occurred.

Could it be?

Was it possible?

Had these nightly visions been real? Had his old partner…? No. No, such fanciful thoughts held no place in this world of commerce, sense and substance.

The hour was getting late, and he was hungry. There would likely be a bowl of stew or perhaps gruel in the kitchen, left for him by the woman he employed to maintain his house.

Heading towards the door, he made a mental note to leave his woman a reminder to clean up the mess in here when she conducted her duties in the morning.

#     #     #

The woman slipped in through the scullery door. Two things she knew for certain were that she shouldn’t be here; and that no one would notice she was.

She knew Mr. Scrooge of course, and in theory, he knew her, though she would be willing to bet against all the secreted wealth of the old miser, that he didn’t know her name. But no matter.

She made her way across the kitchen towards the large stove. Each visit this week, she had marveled at this stove and thought about what she could do with such a thing in her kitchen. Well, assuming she could also afford the food and ingredients to prepare on it. But, as the saying went, ‘if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.’

Sitting on the stove, in much the same way it had each night this week, a small pot sat. It was still warm, but there was no heat under it now. That would be a foolish waste of money for Mr. Scrooge. No, his Housekeeper would prepare dinner for Mr. Scrooge before she left and there it would sit, usually cold by the time he came to dine.

The woman shuddered at the thought. Some evenings, the thing must be almost entirely cold, especially at this time of year. The fat that added so much flavor would no doubt have congealed and formed a thin white skin on top of the stew inside, and the thought made her shudder.

And the taste would surely be past it’s best. Of course, this made what she had come for a little easier. Had the stew tasted the way she would have preferred, it might have thwarted her plans. But the old miser had at least done one thing right.

She lifted the lid off the pot and looked at the stew inside. A grey, viscous liquid for the most part. As she stirred the stew with a spoon which had sat beside the pot, she saw the occasional hint of meat and vegetables — mostly peas, carrot and potato, and even those were added sparingly.

The woman reached into the bag she had brought with her and pulled out a large glass vial and held it up to the light of a small candle which was the sole source of light in the room.  Inside the jar sat a small piece of potato. It was uncooked, but she knew this would likely not be noticed by someone who only saw eating as a necessary daily expense. 

The sound of smashing glass from upstairs made her freeze. She knew Mr. Scrooge was home, but she also knew he had visitors. She listened intently and could hear the muffled sound of a raised voice, probably the old miser ranting about the cost of something, but there was no hint that anyone was approaching. Nonetheless, she should conclude her visit and leave as soon as possible.

The vial had a cork stopper, which she pried out and set beside the spoon. She sniffed the now open jar, but no longer feared the hint of bitterness would foil her plan. With a quick twist of her wrist, she dropped the piece of potato into the stew. Picking up the spoon again, she gave the stew a quick stir then set everything back the way it had been when she arrived. Stoppering the vial again, she placed it back in her bag. At the door she glanced around the kitchen and was reassured that no one would know she had been there. With a final nod to herself she silently left through the scullery door and headed out into the cold winter night.

#     #     #

The woman had taken a less than direct route home, but it was needed. She paused as she crossed the Canal Bridge and once again pulled the glass vial from her bag. She had saved for a year to buy it and now it was empty, she dearly hoped it had been worth the expense.

The label on the jar read, “Mother Nickelwhite’s Peaceful Dreamers’ Cordial.”

The woman had heard stories, both horrifying and entrancing, about the visions opium eaters had when they indulged in such decadence. Dreams and visions of those long dead, or rambling glimpse of the future. Many claimed to be profoundly changed by experience, viewing the world in a completely different light.

And so, witnessing the slow strangled death of her family under the heel of Mr. Scrooge, and knowing that her warm and generous husband, who could find the goodness in even the most deplorable human, would never stand up to the old miser, the woman had taken matters into her own hands.

Mr. Scrooge was right in one regard. The world was a cold and hard place and it owed you nothing. What you wanted and needed, you must go out and acquire for yourself, often fighting against those who would stand in your way.

This was why she had scrimped and saved for a year to purchase a small amount of laudanum and had then dosed Mr. Scrooge with the substance, mixing it with his nightly supper. Now the jar was empty. The woman was vaguely aware she might well have committed a crime in this endeavors, so it was time to cover her tracks. She opened her hand and dropped the jar into the black water of the canal below.

She was surprised at her lack of guilty feelings. She had done what was needed to protect her family. Hopefully it would work, only time would tell.

But it was time to return home now. Bob would be home soon, no doubt filling the children’s heads with ideas and dreams they could never hope to make real. But in part, that was why she loved him.

Bob Cratchit, the dreamer. Bob Cratchit, the loving father. Bob Cratchit, the good man. And she, his wife, the woman who could afford no dreams; the loving mother; the realist; the one who would make his dreams come true.

It began to snow, and Mrs. Cratchit pulled her thin coat tighter around her shoulders and hurried home. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day.