The Chairman was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. Under a volley of beetroot jars he lay and not a limb stirred. One last time had the great man lead the Predictors awry and into a slough of misery. But at last they were free.
Ebenezer White climbed the old oak staircase at Predictorship House carrying a heavy bag of subs wrested from the grasp of the pale manâ€™s frozen hands. Nobody would suspect him â€“ his vituperative reports about the festive vegetable over the past month had made sure the stains would lie at anotherâ€™s door. Mark Youngâ€™s words rung in his ears and he smiled:
“If there’s one thing we’ve learnt this season, it’s that Matt White can’t be bribed with beetroot”
Surely the finger of suspicion would point at Nick Watson and his stock pile in the garden shed.
Oh! But White was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.
He looked down of the window to the commotion in the street and scowled. A band of Predictors had gathered in the snow to celebrate the World Cup draw and the excitement of the year ahead. He drew tight the curtains to shut out the revelling, but the voices couldnâ€™t be silenced.
â€˜Well well well. June 12th it is! â€˜ drawled Gabe Bevilacqua, willing forward the England – US draw.
â€˜Thank goodness for one walk overâ€™ goaded Nigel Birrell, flailing a drunken arm to slap the American squarely between the shoulder blades.
White shrugged off his tattered robe leaving it crumpled on the floor and slumped into bed with a heavy grunt, pulling the covers over his head.
â€˜All the talk at this end is of the World Cup draw and Portugal getting drawn in same group as Brazil which should ensure an awesome atmosphere come the 25th June, particularly with 3 Brazilians on the Portuguese team (Deco, Pepe and Liedson).â€™ Steve Dunlop enlightened his attentive mates, pulling out a small note book. â€˜Odds are extremely attractive for England at 7-1 and Portugal at 23-1 so I did the decent thing and stuck a few bob on both!â€™ He licked his index finger and turned over the page. â€˜Fancy having a little flutter yourselves?â€™
â€˜Bah Humbug!â€™ rasped the muffled voice from behind the window above. â€˜Profligate extravagance! Wait until itâ€™s subs time again. Theyâ€™ll all be listening to me then!â€™ and he turned over in his bed as the chill wind swept through the room and caught the dieing embers to make them dance defiantly in the darkness.
The Chairmanâ€™s ghostly form stood over him in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots; the tassels on the latter bristling, like his pigtail, and his coat-skirts, and the hair upon his head. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for White observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, stats ledgers, almanacs and heavy purses wrought in steel. His body was transparent, so that White, observing him, and looking through his waistcoat, could see the two buttons on his coat behind.
White had often heard it said that Roberts had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now.
â€˜You were once a great predictor Ebenezerâ€™ the Chairmanâ€™s icy voice sliced through the pounding silence. â€˜But you have lost your way.â€™ The pigtail swung solemnly as the grey figure shook his head.
â€˜But Iâ€™m in 13th place â€“ and I still have my jokerâ€™ whined the voice pitifully from beneath the covers.
â€˜Behold the ghost of predictors past Ebenezerâ€™ boomed the ghost. â€˜Look who has surpassed you this week. Can you deny that youâ€™ve been outsmarted by a Millwall fan? Have you no shame?â€™
The miser looked away, from the ghastly vision that appeared at the end of the bed. John Collins cheered as he ticked off the last of his 10 points to leapfrog White into 11th place. The vision was accompanied by another grey form: it was Moonerazzi gorging on a large plate of chocolates and winking in his direction. It was a horrible, horrible sight.
As the visions faded White drew the perspiration from his brow with the back of his bony hand.
â€˜Canâ€™t you just leave me to my misery David?â€™ pleaded the sorry figure.
Again the ghastly apparition shook his pigtail.
â€˜You should have thought about that before throwing so many point away. You couldnâ€™t even make prediction of the week could you? Collins even beat you to that with that dreadful American outside the window. Surely a 2-1 score at Manchester wasnâ€™t beyond you? Thereâ€™s no turning back now, our journey has just begun. Come with me.â€™
The Chairman beckoned to Ebenezer to follow him and he pointed a sinewed digit out of the window.
â€˜Donâ€™t make me look at them! Please donâ€™tâ€™ wailed the sorry old man, turning his face away from the revellers in the street. Their happiness burned into his skin.
â€˜Yes look, and observe. That man with the notebook and wad of money.â€™
â€˜I know. Dunlop. Always smiling. Yes, of course I know him.â€™
â€˜Well, heâ€™s sitting on over 100 points right now. The first of the season â€“ donâ€™t you heed your own table? Shame on you Ebenezer.â€™
â€˜I just fill in the ledgers until my fingers bleed. Donâ€™t expect me to rejoice in their success too. God knows none of them deserve itâ€™.
â€˜And that man in the arsenal scarf, dancing with the ladies?â€™ the apparition turned towards a merry crowd singing outside the bar on the corner of the street, toasting the evening with warm jugs of ale.
â€˜Warland. Bah. Humbug! He wonâ€™t be so merry when he arrives at work tomorrow morning. He can let the ale warm him because thereâ€™s no money for coal.â€™
â€˜But he did predict a Birmingham win at Wigan â€“ and heâ€™s the only one. Even a man of his advancing years could see that one! Take a warning from what happened to me. The years of bad advice has been shaped into this hideous chain you see before you and Iâ€™ll be forced to carry it for all eternity.â€™
â€˜Come.â€™ The mists swirled again and the ghost turned towards the fireplace.
â€˜Iâ€™ve seen enough. Please have some mercy Chairman! Iâ€™ll give you an extra joker â€“ nobody will every know.â€™
â€˜Looking for more ways to feather your own nest again I see? Thatâ€™s the behaviour thatâ€™s turned you into this sorry state. No, thereâ€™s one more spirit yet to see.â€™
The flames danced high in the grate but no heat came from them. Then a flash. The image of a queen sat on a butter churn formed from their golden fronds. Her glass was held high and her crown wobbled a little as she toasted the ghost at Whiteâ€™s side.
â€˜Behold, the ghost of Predictorâ€™s future.â€™ announced the Chairman.
â€˜Not Chris Butters again!â€™ cried the old man.
â€˜Heed my words and this need never happen.â€™ boomed the ghost.
â€˜Don’t worry Dave. We know how it works, you say one thing we do the other…..it’s been many a year since you wore the Predictorship crown.â€™ the golden spirit taunted as she filled her glass.
â€˜Be gone!â€™ The Chairman rattled his heavy burden at the flames and they fell back as if nothing had ever been there.
The room was dark and cold with only a blue haze of ghastly moonlight so pale that Ebenezer could barely make out the spectreâ€™s form.
â€˜Iâ€™ve done everything I can for you now Ebenezer. You still have a joker to play, Chris Butters is still only in 6th place. The rest is up to you.â€™
There was a blinding flash and White opened his eyes. It was morning.
He ran to the window and pulled up the sash to hear the sound of church bells. He still had time. It was still only mid way through December and he had everything to play for. Taking some money from the pouch he tossed it down to Saleel Sathe and Alex Iskandar Liew who were celebrating their seasonal highs (Salleel â€“ 7th, Alex 26th) and laughing together below.
â€˜Congratulations! Best of luck for the season!â€™ chuckled White!
They picked up the money warily, thinking it must be some trick, then realising he meant it, beamed up at him broadly.
â€˜God bless you Ebenezer. We always knew you had it in you!â€™ shouted Saleel.
â€˜And God bless us everyone!â€™