30 December 2006

A Gay Christmas Carol (Part 6 - Stranger than fiction)

…a solemn Phantom coming.

“A first time for everything, I suppose,” Scrooge quipped.

It was difficult to detach the Phantom’s figure from the night or separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded. In the very air through which this vision moved there was gloom and mystery. Draped and hooded, moving along the ground like a mist, slowly, gravely, silently, it approached. It was shrouded in a deep black garment which concealed its head, face and form, leaving nothing visible save one outstretched hand, and when it came beside him, Scrooge was filled with a solemn dread. Tall and stately, in its mysterious presence he bent down upon his knee.

Bearing in mind that Scrooge had a lifetime of experience in dark rooms and dark saunas, he had no inconsiderable experience with figures that were not to be seen, and several thoughts entered his mind at the offer of that outstretched hand… yet there was something about this Phantom that quite quenched his desires, altogether extinguishing any friskiness of mood.

"I am in the presence of the Spirit of a Christmas yet to come?" said Scrooge.

The Spirit answered not, but pointed downward with its hand.

Drawing upon his experience with those who preferred to get right down to business, Scrooge didn’t press the stranger for any light-hearted small talk. In truth, he felt unsettled in the Phantom’s presence, and even though he was well used to strange and even spirited company by this time, Scrooge feared the silent shape so much that his legs trembled beneath him and he found that he could hardly stand. The Phantom paused, observing his condition and giving him time to recover, and in time Scrooge dealt with his own discomfort in a characteristic way…

“Talk to the hand, is that it?” Scrooge pursued. "You’re about to show me shadows of things that have not happened, but will happen; isn’t that how the story goes?"

The upper portion of the dark garment contracted for an instant in its folds, as if the Phantom inclined its head: that was the only answer Scrooge received. It gave him no other reply, simply pointed straight before them. Scrooge thrilled with a vague uncertain horror to know that behind the dusky shroud, eyes intently fixed upon him, while he could see nothing but a spectral hand and one great heap of black.

"Spirit of the Future, I fear you more than the prospect of a Spice Girls reunion!" he croaked. "But I am prepared to go with you. Lead on, for the night is waning fast, and there is a handsome man sleeping in the next room: this is precious time to me!"

It was only as he spoke that Scrooge realised they stood in his apartment once more. Looking around, he found many things had changed: his bedroom had been lavishly redecorated, with a spiral staircase in one corner leading to the apartment above. Unable to contain his curiosity, he hurried over to ascend, noticing that the Phantom followed in his footsteps.

For years, Scrooge hadn’t spoken with his upstairs neighbours, a quiet family who constantly complained about his lewd behaviour in the stairwell and the mess left afterward, in addition to his habit of playing his music loud… and of course his taste in music, not to mention all of the unpleasant noise occasioned by his nocturnal activities. For several years, their apartment had been on the market, yet the family had been unable to sell; prospective buyers who were unfamiliar with the reputation of the neighbourhood always seemed to visit at a time when Scrooge engaged in activities that put them right off its location. On occasion, Scrooge had dreamed of buying that apartment himself to get rid of his annoying neighbours and extend his own residential comfort, but could never afford it… and imagined that he never would.

Imagine how he felt - inarticulate with delight- upon discovering this was precisely what would happen in the future, for he recognised his own taste in the furnishings of the rooms above, with charcoal sketches of naked men to adorn the wall of a large dining room, with two additional guest bedrooms (not that he ever had friends or family come to visit) not to mention his own little private sex dungeon.

“But how will all of this happen?” he exclaimed.

He learned no more from the Phantom, who neither spoke nor moved.

Slowly, it dawned upon Scrooge, even though the possibilities were limited. No one in his family possessed anything worth leaving him in a will; he never gambled, so there was no way he would win money; he never advanced in his own career because he never committed to doing anything, so his earnings weren’t going to increase; either he would steal money to do all of this, or…

“I will stop buying drinks for those wankers!” he said.

The Phantom moved in the direction of what, in line with the distribution of his own flat, would prove to be a walk-in closet. Scrooge e followed in the shadow of the Phantom’s dress, which seemed to bear him up and carry him along. To his surprise, upon the closet door opening, he saw…

“What’s it doing here?” Scrooge gasped.

On the inner wall of the closet, there was a painting: it was an unutterably hideous depiction of a man whose features might be described as melting off his own distorted face, with curved and twisted lines that expanded to the edges of the canvas, reflecting how this horrible phenomenon blighted the world around him, repulsing upon all those in the figure’s vicinity.

Scrooge was convinced that he looked upon a famous work of art that had been stolen from a museum in Scandinavia; perhaps, after all, he would embark upon a new career as a stolen art dealer?

He glanced back at the Phantom, looming over him with a book in his outstretched hand; the Phantom tapped impatiently at the cover, before pointing at Scrooge.

“Oscar Wilde?” said Scrooge, upon reading the title; it was a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray. “I know what you’re trying to say, Spirit; I should read more in future. But is that what this painting is here for? Am I supposed to try and be more cultured?”

In exasperation, the Phantom pointed at the painting, then at Scrooge himself, then at the title of the book.

Despite Scrooge’s every assurance that he understood, the Phantom insisted on repeating his futile gestures, until at last Scrooge decided it was better to ignore him. He left the Phantom punching at the wall, continuing the tour of his fabulous extension.

Before he had quite finished his second look around, the city seemed to spring up and encompass Scrooge of its own accord. Glancing back, he found the Phantom standing amongst the crowd of a gay venue, while men hurried up and down to the bar, trifling thoughtfully with their hair, adjusting packets in their pockets or conversing in groups about the latest Madonna releases; and so forth. Scrooge had seen this often and recognised most of the clientele; he was a little surprised that the Phantom looking quite comfortable at the heart of it, stopping beside one little knot of gay gentlemen to point to them.

“Yes, they are badly dressed, aren’t they?” said Scrooge, advancing to listen to their talk.

"No, I don't know him: I only know he's dead," said one of the men, a fellow with a monstrous chin, or so Scrooge thought.

"When did it happen?" inquired another.

"Last night, I believe."

"What was the matter with him, apart from the obvious?" asked a third, sipping at a Bacardi Breezer.

"God knows," said the first with a yawn. "I thought he'd never die."

"Anyone know what he’s done with his money?" asked a red-faced gentleman, who had a pendulous excrescence on the end of his nose that shook like the gills of a turkey-cock.

"I haven't heard," said the man with the monstrous chin, yawning again. "He hasn't left it to friends, that's all I know."

This pleasantry was received with a general laugh.

"Likely to be a cheap funeral," said the same speaker. " I don't know anybody likely to go, unless we make up a party and volunteer."

"Only if there’s dancing on the grave," observed the gentleman with the excrescence on his nose.

Another laugh.

"Well, I am the most disinterested among you; I’d much rather know if Cliff Richard was Christmas Number One again this year," said the first speaker. “I certainly wasn't his friend, unless having someone try to pick you up counts as a friend. But of course I'll go to the funeral, if everybody else is going to be there?"

In due course, speakers and listeners strolled away, mixing with other groups.

Scrooge look for an explanation as to why this conversation was significant, but the Phantom had glided on to two persons meeting at the bar. There Scrooge listened again, thinking that an explanation might lie here; he knew these men were both wealthy and very well-connected, and they were always out in the bars: of course, he had made a point always of trying to get in with them.

"How are you?" said one.

"How are you?" returned the other.

Not a lot of greater interest was said until at last one remarked.

"Well, that old geezer had his last shag at last, eh?"

"Died with a smirk on his face, I’m told," returned the second. "Cold, isn't it."

"What do you expect, at this time of year?”

“Is it true Madonna’s planning a Christmas album?"

"That’s what I heard.”

“She’s getting a bit desperate, isn’t she?”

“Still, we’ll have to buy it, I suppose."

Not another word.

That was their meeting, their conversation, and their parting.

Scrooge was surprised that the Spirit attached importance to conversations apparently so trivial; but feeling assured that they must have some hidden purpose, he set himself to consider what it was likely to be. They could scarcely be supposed to have any bearing on the death of someone in the past, since this Spirit's province was the future, nor could he think of any one immediately connected with himself to whom he could apply all that he’d heard.

In time, he grew bored trying to figure this out, and so he looked around the bar, resolving to treasure up everything he saw about the future, for he expected this was a chance not to be missed, to know what was going to be in fashion in years to come.

What music were they listening to? Madonna, Kylie… nothing new there.

What were the people wearing? Expensive labels… no changes there.

What was different? What had changed?

Not a lot, from what Scrooge saw.

He looked about for himself, but although it was his usual time of night for being there, he saw no likeness of himself among the multitudes that poured in through the open doors. It gave him little surprise, because he had been considering varying the places where he went out, and thought he saw his new-born resolutions carried out. Another man stood in his accustomed corner, and it was crushing to note that this man was in fact better looking than Scrooge himself.

Quiet and dark beside him stood the Phantom, all the while. When Scrooge roused himself from his thoughts, he fancied that unseen eyes looked at him keenly, making him shudder and feel very cold.

“They should switch off that air conditioning,” he muttered.

Without another word spoken, together Scrooge and the Phantom left the busy scene and went into an obscure part of the town, one that Scrooge had never before penetrated, although he recognised its bad repute. Alleys and archways disgorged their offences of smell and dirt upon the straggling streets, like so many cesspools, and the whole quarter reeked with crime, filth and misery. The ways were foul and narrow; the shops cheap and the houses wretched; the people were badly and scantily dressed- one might go so far as to say half-naked- not to mention drunken, slipshod, and worst of all, ugly.

In this den of ill repute, there was a low-browed pawn shop, where old rags, empty vodka bottles and greasy offal lay outside. Upon the floor within, heaps of rusty keys, nails, chains, hinges, files, scales, weights, and refuse iron of all kinds were piled up. Secrets that few would like to scrutinise were bred and hidden in mountains of unseemly rags, masses of corrupted fat, and sepulchres of bones. Scrooge wrinkled his nose, for this was the kind of place one expected to find the Beckham’s scavenging in the years to come.

Sitting in among the wares he dealt in, by a charcoal stove made of old bricks, was a grey-haired rascal. He was nearly seventy years of age and looked every one of those years, for he had never used moisturiser or screened himself from the cold air with anything more than a frowsy curtaining of miscellaneous tatters hung upon a line. He smoked a pipe in all the luxury of calm retirement. As Scrooge and the Phantom approached, a woman with a heavy bundle slunk into the shop in question.

“Why, I recognise her!” Scrooge exclaimed. “That’s my cleaning lady!”

"Please help me!" cried the poor woman, kneeling in front of the old man who responded by removing his pipe from his mouth. “I am a desperate woman… I have fled my war-torn country with my family, hoping to find sanctuary in this country. My nursing qualification has not yet been recognised, and in the meantime I am left with no alternative but to eek out a meagre pittance by doing humiliating work for which I am over-qualified, like house cleaning… prostitution is the alternative, and I am on the brink of considering it!”

"Come into the parlour,” he said in a hoarse voice.

The parlour was the space behind the screen of rags. The old man raked the fire together with an old stair-rod, and having trimmed his smoky lamp with the stem of his pipe, put it in his mouth again. While he did this, the woman who had already spoken threw her bundle on the floor, and sat down in a flaunting manner on a stool, crossing her elbows on her knees and looking at the man with desperation in her eyes.

"I can’t believe I’m doing this," said the woman. “I am a good and respectable woman… but my children are dying of hunger; it’s simply impossible to live on the benefits we’ve been given, even supplemented by illegal earnings. With my former employer gone… I’ve done a terrible, terrible thing!”

"Every person has a right to take care of themselves,” said the old man. “Your former employer always did. No man more so. Open that bundle, and I’ll let you know the value of it. I'm not afraid to be helping myself, and you shouldn’t be either. It's no sin, I believe. Open the bundle!"

The woman did as she was told.

"I hope he didn't die of any thing catching?" said the old man, stopping before sorting through the contents.

"Don't be afraid of that," returned the cleaning woman. "I wasn’t so fond of his company that I'd have loitered around him, if he did."

“Who's the worse for the loss of a few things like these? Not a dead man!” continued the old fellow. “Why, if he wanted to keep them after he was dead, a wicked old screw, why wasn't he natural in his lifetime? If he had been, he'd have had somebody to look after him when he was struck down, instead of gasping out his last breaths, alone. It's a judgment on him, and many wish it was a little heavier judgment.”

Throughout this, Scrooge gasped indignantly at the plunder produced.

“But… but they’re all my things!” cried Scrooge, trying to stop the old man, but finding that it was impossible to snatch back what had been taken from his home; a little wearing apparel, an old-fashioned silver dinner-service, a pair of Armani boots, several items of bed linen, and a valuable ring of no great emotional value, although it caused him greater distress to find an autographed Madonna poster that he was embarrassed to admit owning and his complete collection of Pet Shop Boys albums among the items spread out on the floor.

All were severally examined and appraised by the old man, who sat grouped about the spoil, in the scanty light afforded by the old lamp and chalked sums he was disposed to give for each upon the wall, adding them up into a total when he found there was nothing more to come.

"I always give too much to pretty ladies, it's a weakness of mine and that's the way I ruin myself," said the dirty old man, leaning over the cleaning woman who remained weeping on the chair. "That's my final offer. If you asked me for another penny, I'd repent of being so liberal. That's it, and I wouldn't give another penny."

Scrooge listened to this dialogue in horror.

“Villain!” he cried. “Those bed sheets are made from Egyptian silk, and all of those Pet Shop Boys releases are limited edition!”

He viewed the old man with a detestation and disgust, which could hardly have been greater though they demons, marketing the corpse itself.

The desperate cleaning woman accepted his offer, and the old man produced a flannel bag with money in it.

"Spirit," said Scrooge, shuddering from head to foot. "I see what’s going on; if I don’t sack my cleaning lady, this is what’s going to happen after my death!”

The Phantom threw up his arms in despair.

In an instant, the scene changed, and now the room was very dark, too dark to be observed with any accuracy, though Scrooge glanced round it in obedience to a secret impulse. He almost touched a bare bed on which there lay something covered which, though it was dumb, announced itself in awful language. A pale light, rising in the outer air, fell straight upon it; plundered and bereft, unwatched, unwept, uncared for, it was the body of a man… his own body.

Scrooge recoiled in terror, glancing towards the Phantom whose steady hand pointed to the head. The cover was so carelessly adjusted that the slightest raising of it- the motion of a finger upon Scrooge's part- would have disclosed the face. He thought of doing it, felt how easy it would be to do, but Scrooge had no more power to withdraw the veil than to dismiss the spectre at his side.

His dead body lay in a dark empty building, with not a man, woman or child to say that he was kind, and for the memory of one kind word. A cat was tearing at the door, and there was a sound of gnawing rats beneath the hearth-stone. What they wanted in the room of death, and why they were so restless and disturbed, Scrooge did not dare to think.

Oh cold, cold, rigid, dreadful Death! Set up thine altar, and dress it with such terrors as thou hast at thy command, for this is thy dominion. Of the loved, revered and honoured head, thou canst not turn one hair to thy dread purposes, or make one feature odious. It is not that the hand is heavy and will fall down when released; it is not that the heart and pulse are still; but that the hand was open, generous, and true; the heart brave, warm, and tender; and that the man’s good deeds spring, sowing the world with life immortal!

No voice pronounced these words in Scrooge's ears, yet he heard them when he looked upon that bed… without understanding what they meant.

Still the Spirit pointed with an unmoved finger to the head; again it seemed to look upon him.

"Spirit, this is terrible! But I have got the message… I understand you," said Scrooge quite agonised. “Let us go. Something informs me that our parting moment is at hand; I know it, although I know not how. Before that happens, if there is any person in the city who feels a genuine emotion caused by my death, let us go see them!”

The Phantom spread its dark robe before him for a moment, like a wing; and withdrawing it, conveyed him as before through a different time to the end desired. It did not stay for anything but went straight on, until besought by Scrooge to tarry for a moment, who was wondering whither they had gone. He joined the Phantom and accompanied it until they reached an iron gate, pausing to look round before entering.

It was a churchyard, walled in by houses and overrun by grass and weeds, the growth of vegetation's death, not life; choked up with too much burying; fat with depleted appetite.

A worthy place!

"Answer me one question, Spirit,” said Scrooge as they walked. “Are all these shadows of things that will be, or shadows of things that may be? Men's courses foreshadow certain ends to which, if persevered in, they must lead, but if the courses are departed from, the ends will change, won’t they? Say it is thus with what you show me."

The Phantom stood among the graves, but said nothing. He remained expressionless, exactly as he had been throughout, pointing to one grave that was being prepared before their eyes.

Two grave diggers sat on a mound of earth having a cigarette, with another two figures down in the grave itself, busy digging.

“What’s your name again, love?” said one of the grave diggers.

“Sue,” answered one of the figures. “Sue Narmi. She’s called Ivana Hardman.”

“Nice name, love,” said one of the men.

“Shit! I’ve broken a nail!” said one of the drag queens.

“Look, why don’t you sit down here and have a ciggie! Already told you, this ain’t work for a nice lady like yourself, and besides we’ve already been paid!”

“I told you, I’m no lady!” Sue Narmi hissed. “Believe me, it’s worth breaking every single nail. I wouldn’t miss this for the world! You’ve no idea what pleasure this is giving me… I don’t expect it will ever be matched, except perhaps tomorrow night when we return to dance on this grave.”

“If you’re needing a bit of pleasure, love…” said one of the gravediggers.

“Later!” said Ivana impatiently. “This isn’t level, Sue: dig a little deeper.”

“Hmmn… that crooked old faggot probably wouldn’t have wanted anything to be straight, even his own coffin. Let’s get the spirit level… yes, you’re right; I need to dig a little more.”

“So I take it you didn’t like this fellow with the funny name… what was it again?” said one of the grave diggers.

“Cuentin,” said Ivana Hardman, pausing to light a cigarette.

“Are you sure that you’re not digging the wrong grave, love? I’m sure this fellow’s called Eb… Eb… something.”

“There’s no mistake,” Sue Narmi hissed. “He had several aliases, although when he wrote us, he conveniently neglected to change our names. I swore that I’d have the last laugh… and I will.”

“You’ve got to hand it to him,” said Ivana Hardman. “His last words… they certainly deserved a laugh.”

“Bastard!” said Sue Narmi, who had just broken one of her heels.

“What were his last words, then?” enquired one of the grave diggers.

“Well, one of his many life-long enemies, concerned that he wasn’t suffering enough, sent for a priest,” said Ivana Hardman. “I can’t think who it might have been… La Cicada hasn’t been on speaking terms with the Vatican recently.”

Sue Narmi tried to look innocent.

“Anyway, by all accounts Cuentin – or Ebenezer, if you prefer – was on his last legs at that stage… in bed, lying on his back– his favourite position- and he just kept staring at the priest, who it must be said looked quite fetching in his little black-”

“Even though I specifically asked them to send out an old ugly one… that’s one of the problems with the Church; always telling you what to do, but never listening,” Sue Narmi muttered.

“So apparently everyone standing around the bedside – I mean, that one other person; after all, someone had to be there, otherwise it wouldn’t have been fun!- was waiting for the old bugger to say something lewd to the priest, because that’s what you’d expect, right? The priest kept talking on and on, until eventually he decided it was time to deliver the last rights. Well, I almost expected Cuentin’s head to start spinning at that moment! But instead, when the priest asked him if he renounced the Devil and all of his ways, the old bugger opened his lips for the last time, and breathed ‘This is no time for making new enemies.’”

Both of the grave diggers laughed uproariously, much to Sue Narmi’s displeasure. She broke her other heel as she stomped on the shovel.

Throughout this exchange, Scrooge stood listening, as he had often listened to these two wenches. The Phantom remained at his side, immovable as ever.

Scrooge dreaded that he saw new meaning in its solemn shape as the finger pointed from the grave to him, and back again.

"But Spirit, I am not the man I was," Scrooge cried, clutching tight at the Phantom’s robe. "I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me all of this if I am past all hope of changing it? Your nature pities me and will intercede for me; assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me? If I live in the Past, the Present, and the Future, with all that the Spirits have shared with me in my mind and do not shut out the lessons that they teach…”

In his agony, Scrooge fell upon his knees and caught the spectral hand, although the Phantom sought to free itself. But Scrooge remained strong in his entreaty and detained it. He advanced on his knees, trembling; the Phantom, stronger yet, repulsed him and down upon the ground Scrooge fell before it, crawling.

“Who’s there?” said a voice. “I can hear someone rambling… Cuentin, is that you?”

“Sue Narmi?”

“He said my name!” she shrieked. “That bastard… he’s here!”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” said Ivana Hardman. “I was there when he drew his last breath! Why, I even drove a stake of holly through his heart, like you said.”

“Then you didn’t hear any voices, a moment ago?” Sue Narmi demanded.

“Well… yes, I thought that I did… but we have been drinking…”

“Are you speaking to us from beyond the grave, you old cuent?”

Ebenezer listened, aghast. How was this possible? Throughout his visits to the past, present and future, no one had engaged with him except for the three Spirits. Yet those two demented drag queens remained able to hear him, if not see him.

Was this because they were terrible spectral creatures that, like the three Spirits themselves, had supernatural powers? Or was it because they were fictional characters of his own invention? Or did they… was it possible that they really existed?

Still before the Phantom at the graveside, he stared upward; still he hadn’t moved when Sue Narmi scrambled from the grave.

Imagine Scrooge’s horror when he discovered that the Phantom moving aside to allow Sue Narmi to approach… with an uplifted shovel.

“Cuentin, there you are!” she smirked. “What an unexpected surprise to have this pleasure!”

She struck him backwards with a powerful blow.

With a loud cry of pain, Ebenezer was knocked back into his own grave, falling down, down, down, until…

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