by Rob Marchant
It was Christmas eve, 2012, and Ebenezer Miliband lay in his bed, thinking of how his little hardware shop was faring in the middle of this perniciously cold winter. Business had been difficult, and here was a man generous to a fault. Perhaps too generous, some said. Debt was high everywhere in London that year, and no-one wanted to make promises to anyone, about anything. But Miliband, a decent and honourable man, was always good to his creditors.
He lay and fretted about his little business, and the harsh economic climate, unable to sleep. And, as he lay there, suddenly something very strange happened: it seemed like the bells on all the clocks in the house were sounding, madly, at the same time. Miliband looked around him, startled. What on earth was happening?
And then suddenly, after a few long seconds, they stopped ringing, as abruptly as they had begun, and silence reigned again. As he turned back towards his bed, who should have quietly appeared meanwhile, but the ghost of his mentor and former business partner: Jacob Brown, esq.
Brown had been a faithful friend and backer, but had had mixed success in charge as the shop’s senior partner, before his untimely demise. In his early days, he’d been affectionately known as “Prudence”, a name which people had later stopped using, for reasons which no-one could now quite remember.
Never a man for idle chit-chat, he had obviously come with a purpose and got straight to the point.
“Ebenezer,” he said, glowering a little, “d’you think it’s been a good year?”
The shock of seeing the ghost had not quite hit Miliband yet, and his words came out easily at first. He was also not quite sure what Brown was getting at. “Well, actually, not bad at all, Jacob. Sales are up, and the competition’s had a terrible year. No-one’s buying from them.”
Brown snorted derisively. “I had a honeymoon, too, you know. Much good did it do me. But I mean, do you really think you know where you’re going?”
“Well, I think so,” replied Miliband slowly, with commendable honesty. “We’ve made solid progress. But when everything looks ok, it’s difficult to know…” he continued hesitantly, now a little thrown off his stride by the sudden appearance of this somewhat truculent ghost, and with a confidence he didn’t really feel inside, “…what’s to be worried about?”
There was a pause. “As one of my predecessors might have said” – and here Brown smiled at the irony in that way he always had, that made the smile look more like a wince – “events, dear boy, events. You need more than a good feeling to make it through the lean times.”
“You’ve still a lot to learn, young Miliband” – and here he wagged a bony, ghostly finger – “you need to know where we’ve come from, where you are and where you’re going.”
And with that, the bells started ringing again, and when Miliband turned, startled at the sound, Brown was already gone. And another scene had appeared.
Christmas past: The year is 1992. Old man Kinnock, one of the shop’s previous owners, is talking morosely to himself as he does the washing-up, after a rather depressing Christmas dinner. “Sheffield”, he mutters to his wife. “Never should have done Sheffield, Glenys”. Yes, it had seemed that the moment when it had all gone wrong was that fateful day when they had made that trip to buy all those knives for the shop.
But it hadn’t been Sheffield. It was the hubris that his own people had filled him with, when he told him they would sell out in a few days, that they would all be rich. That same hubris that had carried him right through, from that day back in 1990 when the shop next door, his main competitor, had had a management buy-out.
They had thrown out the shop’s manager, a woman who had given him formidable competition. He had thought it a disaster, and that they were finished. But they weren’t, and when they recovered, Old Man Kinnock duly went bust. It had been a terrible tragedy.
As he continues his soliloquy about the reasons why things went wrong, his voice becomes fainter, and the scene goes hazy. It is replaced by another.
Christmas present: Christmas dinner in the Miliband household is a joyous occasion; there is carol singing and food aplenty. All the friends and relations are gathered, and a robust debate is going on over the dinner table about the politics of welfare. “I don’t care if people don’t think it’s right, that people in work get a pay cut and people out of work get a rise”, he says. “It’s the right thing to do.” Old man Kinnock, rescued from the poor house by the philanthropic Miliband to help out in the back room (and whom, a couple of years earlier, had been seen punching the air and shouting “we’ve got our shop back”), is nodding vigorously.
Outside, in the cold London air, though, many of his customers are worrying about how they will get through Christmas themselves, and some of them are not sure yet whether Miliband is a true Christian who would be kind to them in their own hour of need, or a benighted fool who will be bankrupt in a few months.
His trusty aides are there around the table, debating the point, and…who’s that in the corner? Ah, it is the frail figure of “Tiny” Election Hopes. This year he has been getting much stronger, and they are thinking of changing his nickname, he looks in such good shape. But his health has always been delicate, and there was always the risk that he might suddenly fade away completely, without warning. As the earnest debate continues across the jolly table, the picture fades.
Christmas future: It is 2015. A very sad Christmas for the Milibands. No-one had expected it when the shop went bust in the spring; it had been a terrible shock. There is a sadness at the table, and no-one is really in a festive mood this year. And, heartbreakingly, there is an empty chair where Tiny once sat.
An older-looking Miliband, his brown hair now streaked with grey, has clearly taken to sounding a little like Old Man Kinnock. “If I had only known then what I know now. We should never have made those promises we couldn’t keep, Justine”, he mutters, “we lost credibility. And we cared too much about what our own people thought, we lost sight of the customers.”
“But most of all…most of all, we followed. We let other people make the rain, we never looked like the leaders…” and his voice tails off.
As he leaves behind this final, sad little picture and returns to his bedroom, his old mentor, Brown, reappears. Miliband is devastated: he is looking at the floor in disbelief, a man who has seen his own, bleak future. But, seeing this, the rough Scots burr of his mentor softens, and he gently puts his hand on Miliband’s arm.
“Look, Ebenezer”, he is saying, “this is only a possible future. You can still change. I did things wrong, I see that now, but you don’t need to do the same. We can all change if we know in time.”
“But you have to start now, Ebenezer”, and here he suddenly squeezes Miliband’s arm with a renewed sense of urgency, and Miliband is transfixed by the two ghostly eyes staring into his at close range. The voice hardens with determination and not a little frustration, as if he were about to throw something, “the change must start tonight.”
He holds Miliband’s gaze silently for a few more seconds, just as his old friend is about to say “ow, you’re hurting me,” and, without another word, he vanishes, as quickly as he appeared.
Miliband drifted back into a tormented sleep, deeply shocked at all he had seen. He was sure of one thing: that he had reached a point of inflection for his life and his work. He would have to strike out into new territory. Take risks. Do things some that his people might not like, but his customers would. But, if he could pull it off, his little shop, and the livelihoods of all his colleagues and associates, could be saved.
Could he make the change? Could he? He wanted to believe his old mentor, but he truly didn’t know if he could take everyone with him…tomorrow would be Christmas day and he had the strongest of instincts that, as the matins bells rang out in churches all over old London town, he would need to decide his future.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left