Jane Eyre heard the noise from the attic, jolting her head upright suddenly. “What is that?” she asked Rochester, who was seemingly not disturbed by the loud clatter from above.
“I expect it’s just some old piece of furniture, blown over from the draft near the window. One of the maids will retrieve it.”
Jane eyed him suspiciously. “Are you sure? There’s no chance that, say, it’s your wife, secretly hidden in the recesses of this house after her descent into madness?”
Rochester laughed, surprised and amused. “Heavens, no. She began to exhibit some early signs of mental illness, so we bundled her up and took her to seek treatment as soon as possible. It’s a long journey to recovery, of course, but she’s doing about as well as can be expected and I’m just grateful that she got the care she needs.”
“Oh,” said Jane Eyre, feeling suddenly foolish. “Can I make you some tea?”
“Spirit,” cried Scrooge, “Where have you brought me?”
“Why sir,” laughed the Spirit, “Do you not recognize the home of your very own Bob Cratchit?”
Scrooge blinked several times, surveying the cramped surroundings, the meager sprigs of holly and mistletoe suspended by poor ribbons from the rafters. A goose roasting in the oven, a pan of potatoes on the fire, and the children making merry in all corners of the drafty cottage. With a jolly rap-rap-rap, the door swung open to reveal Mr. Scrooge’s chief clerk Bob, a misshapen child perched upon his shoulder. Bob set the wee lad down carefully, taking caution not to knock the iron brace on his leg, or jostle his wooden crutch.
Mrs. Cratchit shooed the children to their places at the table, carefully setting down plates and cups. The children sighed and remarked, in wondrous praise, at the cleverness of their mother, the cook.
At the sight of his family gathered together, Tiny Tim mustered his tiny strength and from the depths of his tiny voice, offered a tiny toast: “God bless us, every one!”
“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”
“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”
“Hmm,” said Scrooge.
“I’m not quite sure if you heard me,” said the Spirit, raising his voice slightly to give it a more ghostly, ominous quality. “The child will die.”
“Yes,” said Scrooge. “I expect he likely will. It must be expensive, to buy him things like iron braces, and Bob works so frequently that I can’t imagine he has time to whittle new crutches every six months. Kids, they grow so fast!”
“He really just needs to visit the doctor,” said the Spirit. “And he’s malnourished. They all are. None of these people are eating remotely nutritious things with any sort of regularity.”
“I just saw them eat a goose and potatoes AND applesauce AND pudding,” remarked Scrooge. “They seem fine. That one” — he gestured now at one of the Cratchit girls, helpfully tidying up the dinner plates for her mother despite her long day at work at the age of twelve — “that one even seems a little fat.”
The Ghost of Christmas Present thought about the various ways to respond to that comment, but decided against it, instead asking, “Is there no one that could spare Tiny Tim from this fate?”
Scrooge thought about it, really really thought about it. What was it, that the lad had just said?
“God!” he replied, triumphantly. “God bless us, every one. He’ll bless Tiny Tim with new legs that work if He feels like it.”
“Suppose,” urged the Spirit, a bit of a hard edge creeping in under his tone, “suppose that God had other means of working His will. Say, for instance, sending an enormous overnight ghost to convince, oh, I don’t know, someone else with a lot of extra money, made on the back of underpaid employees, to pay for appropriate medical care for that same employee’s child.”
Scrooge shook his head in frustration. “Are we going anywhere else tonight, Spirit? I’m bored. This place is gross.”
“I’m just going to say it one more time,” muttered the Spirit, “that this will be Tiny Tim’s last Christmas, unless the dark shadow of the present transforms into a brighter future that only a small bit of money and generosity could solve.”
“You guys are hilarious,” said Scrooge. “But weird. I don’t know what the hell you’re saying most of the time. Still, I can’t wait to tell everyone that I met a freaking GHOST.”
Scrooge asked the Spirit to pose for a photo to prove that this event had taken place, but it seemed as though the Ghost of Christmas Present was irritated and he didn’t want to push his luck any further. Bob Cratchit had the nerve to ask for an entire day off to bury Tiny Tim, a few months later. It was really annoying, because it was the day that Scrooge was supposed to double-count his hoarded wealth, and he really could have used the extra set of hands.
Charlie Bucket stared at the Golden Ticket in his hand. It had been a long day, a wonderful day, but a long day regardless. He’d seen four other families disappear through their own greed and stupidity, but he had stayed the course, and here he was: in the seemingly benign office of a crazed candymaker, wondering what would happen next.
“Did you enjoy yourself today, Charlie?” asked Mr. Wonka, seemingly disinterested in the outcome.
“Yes, sir,” said the boy.
Mr. Wonka frowned. It was a somewhat lackluster response, in his opinion. It’s not every day that a young boy gets to tour the mysterious candy factory inhabited by fantastical, miniature orange servants.
“Is something bothering you, Charlie?” the candymaker asked.
“No! No, no, I had a wonderful time. Truly, I couldn’t be more grateful. It’s just… well, it’s just that now I have to go home to my mother, who spends all day scrubbing other people’s laundry, and my father, who just lost his job screwing the caps onto toothpaste tubes in a big toothpaste factory, and my grandparents, all of whom are bedridden and all four of whom occupy our house’s only bed, and it just makes me sort of sad that I have to go back there when I don’t have any practical solutions for how to help, considering that I’m only a small child. I guess I was just hoping that somehow, this golden ticket would help fix some of those problems. Maybe that sounds crazy to you, sir. I’m sorry.”
Mr. Wonka wrinkled his brow in confusion. “What year is it, child?”
“I believe it’s the mid-1960’s, sir.”
“And where are we?”
“I believe we’re in England.”
“Aha!” cried Wonka. “Well, son, I have some good news. The National Health Service has been around for over a decade, but like all massive and complex systems, it’s taking awhile to work out some of the logistics. Still, in some time, we as a nation will recognize that it is righteous and humane to spend our collective tax dollars to better serve the public good, and your parents and grandparents will have a better social safety net when unexpected setbacks arise. Why, dear boy, in no time at all, you will live in a world where when you break a leg, the government will pay for your trip to the hospital, your x-rays and bandages, your medicine and doctor’s visits and nurses’ salaries. And not just for you, brave child, but for every single person who lives in this country!”
Charlie wrinkled his nose in confusion. “Will the waiting lines be long sometimes?”
“Maybe sometimes. No system is perfect,” explained Mr. Wonka. “But they’re not any worse than, say, the United States, where poor people just don’t get the help they need, until they go to the emergency room and then the people’s tax dollars just pay for it anyway, where it’s vastly more expensive to provide emergency services than routine preventative care.”
Charlie sat, trying to unpack this new information. “Sir, I just…. let me get this straight. We’ll pay a certain percentage of our income to the government, and in turn, when we need something like a trip to the hospital or an asthma inhaler or chemotherapy or a pair of crutches, the money that we put into the giant pot will help pay for what we need?”
“That’s it!” cried Wonka. “Now you’re seeing, boy!”
“Why,” said Charlie, his eyes aglow, “that’s more wondrous than anything I’ve seen today, and I’ve seen so many spectacular things! This must be the best healthcare system in the world!”
“Oh, heavens, no,” laughed Wonka. “Not even close. We rank at number eighteen, well behind France, Italy, Singapore, Spain, Japan… so many other people have discovered a more effective way to keep their citizens healthy and safe.”
“But the United States!” cried Charlie Bucket. “Surely they must know how to do this! We all know that the United States is the richest country in the world!”
Wonka looked around, double-checking that the room was private and secure. “Can you promise to keep this quiet?” he said, suddenly worried. “The United States spends more on healthcare than any other country in the world…. but they ranked at number 37 on that list from the World Health Organization. Their citizens keep calling their senators asking them not to kill them, and their senators keep trying to pass legislation giving tax cuts to rich people instead of using it to help kids and disabled people and everybody else who might need it. Why, their favorite television show for several years was about a high school chemistry teacher who started selling methamphetamines to pay for his cancer treatment… and nobody thought that was weird. Oh, young Charlie, you’re beginning to see the truth about the world now, which is why I’m handing you the keys to the kingdom. Charlie Bucket, I want you to help me run this chocolate factory!”
Charlie looked at Mr. Wonka. “Are you sure?” he asked. “I am only a small boy.”
“Of course I’m sure!” cried Wonka. “I need your curious mind and unflagging energy to grow my magical chocolate kingdom!”
“Well, first things first,” said Charlie, “I think you should keep things quiet about those Oompa-Loompas, because if word gets out about them, you’re going to have to relocate to a third-world country for cheap labor, pronto. I know we’re performing well domestically, but what about overseas? I see the U.S. as a great market to tap into. Sir, if we can expand our operations to the States, we could have chocolate bars in the hands of every child there, but only a select few of them will be able to pay for trips to the dentist when their teeth are rotted!”
“Now, hold on,” said Wonka.
Charlie’s eyes gleamed, basking in the newfound idea. “It can’t lose. Thanks to the Oompa-Loompa workforce, our overhead is so small that we can expand operations easily. Once we’re in the United States, we’ll bombard television stations with advertisements, and tell people that, say, they are lousy spouses if they don’t bring home Wonka Candy on Valentine’s day, or give it away as sweet treats on Halloween. We’ll target drugstores and gas stations with our chocolate bars, places where there aren’t any groceries or farm stands to buy vegetables, and then tell the people that it’s their own fault that they’re fat and full of cavities!”
“I’m not so sure…” said Wonka.
“We can’t lose!” cried Charlie, manic with sudden power. “We’ll put lobbyists in Congress and donate to the campaigns of Senators who will make sure that people believe it’s their own fault that they’re poor and unhealthy! We’ll make sure that dental insurance isn’t included in many healthcare plans! We’ll come up with a catchphrase like ‘personal responsibility’ to make people feel bad about not being able to afford to eat healthy, working several jobs so they don’t have time to exercise, and choosing to eat chocolate because there’s just not a lot of pleasure in their miserable lives!”
“Honestly, Charlie….that’s pretty fucked up,” said Wonka.
Charlie looked embarrassed. “Sorry. I guess I thought you’d be on board since you’re the one keeping a bunch of small orange people enslaved in your candy basement.”
“Well, no one is perfect,” said Wonka. “Still. As a businessman, your ideas are…. compelling. Disturbing, but…. compelling. I might have to think those through more carefully.
Want to see the glass elevator?”
“Okay,” said Charlie, placing his tiny hand in the candymaker’s outstretched palm. They left the office, walking together towards the future.