A whisper in the wind
Belief exists in only the very young in the modern age. Big Man knows this.
The magic is gone and where was it anyhow? In legend, in myth, in stories of kindly kings and princes, that’s where the stories were.
He used to whip around the world visiting everyone who believed, and to do so, he’d stop the clock. It was the only way you could do it in a night, not that he really had to, for there was more than one Christmas Day in the world, but alright, a myth needs focus, let us not dilute it.
I remember him before. Yes, that’s right, before he got the job, met the reindeer and the elves, and the idea of Mrs Claus was a distant pipe dream.
When I met him, he was a thief.
I looked in upon him when he was only a child, though he barely merited the term. Really, he was an urchin, grubbing among the rat-infested streets of London, barely speaking a word of English, in fact barely speaking a word at all. No-one knew how he’d got there, the toddler scooping up dirt to see if there were discarded pennies, of which there were more than you might think, but more of ha’pennies and farthings.
Still, good enough to buy an apple if you were so inclined, and couldn’t steal one, and his tiny legs couldn’t be carrying him off fast enough to escape the kicks of the grocer and butcher, let alone the swift and devastating baker, so gangly and thin. Taken in so many times by the kind-hearted, and there were few enough of those in a city where life was cheap and death was cheaper, he took them in and stuffed his little face, cleaned up and straightened up so that his devastating baby blues could soften the hardest of hearts, then escaped to his barrel and his sack, carefully storing the clothes in the back and resuming his rags once more.
They told tales of him, rumours spread for those few years, “The Runaway Baby,” “Baby thief,” but in truth he was three or four by this time and I resolved to visit him again in a few years, should he survive.
That time came soon enough, given my facilities I could have made it happen sooner, but I was distracted by other youth, and considerably more beauty, but lest you think, dear reader, that I turned in my thought to more salacious matters let me assure that you that nothing could be further from the truth. I was merely enchanted by the ballet, and took as my muse the grace and strength I found within that form, that it might elide my perpetual ennui. I created some remarkable pieces, posing as some artist of eventual note, but they were of little moment compared to the long, dare I say endless, time of creation and the fascinating results thereof.
Thus, it was that the urchin was grown somewhat, and the initial physical iniquities had lessened to some extent. I noted that this child of eight or nine, perhaps, was better fed and better spoken, with hardly a trace of accent to give away his origins. Indeed he was swift and commanding, possessed of a preternatural instinct for strategy and planning, and while his little voice was far from breaking, he was able to use it to great effect in the iron rule under which his troops bowed the knee.
I must say that this was his prime, and observed no fear or favour; quite how deeply this was the case I only realised when the little chap blithely attempted my very own pocket! I could do naught but let him have some prize, for he would remark upon it if he went away with nothing, but I thwarted him with a silver dollar, though he would recognise some value from it, even if just the metal. He was as wily as a fox though, and got himself up several times its value before he was finished with the affair, and I fear that though I generally maintain a strict distance with those of potential the affair catapulted him some distance in furtherance of his pursuits. I took note especially though that he employed no strategy to escape from his dismal start, imbibed nothing but the weakest beer, water being a distinct risk at this time in the Smoke, and speaking of, he took nothing in the way of tobacco, the other little boys downfall, let alone any strong crutch. This in itself was a fascination to me, and I watched as he “took exercise” more than being watchful and running from place to place; he was preparing himself for something, and I could not discern what this could possibly be, and I fancied that neither could he.
I resolved to leave to him to his own devices for only a short time before visiting him again, but once more I became distracted again, though on this occasion it was Mrs Ward who took up my time, inviting me for dinner again and again once a suitable period of mourning had passed. It is perhaps because of this, and my misconception about what was passing between us, that I left the matter somewhat longer that I had intended even in the extreme. If my relationship had gone to plan I would have been able to excuse my self for the short time that I needed, but a fellow fancied himself my rival, strange though that conception might be, and the matter might have passed with a gracious withdrawal, but I found the fellow to be a scoundrel. As a matter of urgency, therefore, since Mrs Ward had made plain the nature of our relationship, I was duty bound to find her some swain who was of good character to see off the scoundrel, and as with all matters of the heart, it took time and attention. I did not have these things to spare if I were to keep an eye on the little boy, as it turned out.
Even at fourteen years of age, the little boy was already a man, doing a man’s labour and a man’s work. I knew, from enquiries that he had taken a position with a drover company, but the fellow was a cruel sort, and tried the young fellow beyond patience. I do not know what darkness passed between them, but the business passed into this young man’s hand with little fanfare, and little resistance. Needless to say I was surprised by this turn of events, and I did some reckoning and found that I had been watching the young fellow for a decade, and it was only now that I know what he was calling himself for want of a name given. It was William, a good sound name, and then, because in the six or seven years since I had seen him last, he had developed a taste for the citrus, he took the last name of kings, Orange.
I found this highly disturbing, feeling that it portended ill that he showed pretentions to royalty, but I found over the weeks that I observed him that he was strict, but scrupulously fair. His rewards were proper, succinct in word, brief in deed and parsimonious in gift; but equally his punishments were balanced in word, restrained in deed and limited in fine. I wondered where he had picked up such a sentimental attitude.
Some insight might be gained into such a nature if one were to become aware of certain items left in the doorways of newly anointed grandmothers, particularly those who as older ladies barely that decade before had taken in a toddler as their own before one such disappeared with food and clothing as proffered. This, it seemed had become the secret nature of the boy I had left behind for complications with a widow. I could help but be moved by this, and further inquiry bought me to a large but little used church in the city, somewhere strangely quiet in a city of, as the most touching and famous of authors stated the matter, a hundred thousand souls and ten times as many people. I make no excuse, the gentleman was, or will be, at least from where I write this, referring to our beloved London of course, wherein so many lost souls roam among the uncaring and unclean.
In this church, unlike the great cathedrals, the poor priests and deacons ministered to the poor and needy, the ones of whom even the soulless took little heed, and the ones who prayed that their lot would become easier, even as they were dying of consumption. They came and went at all hours, some without a farthing for a candle, and some to spend their final moments in the face of God, the modest wooden pews and thin carpet not lessening one iota the impact of their steps upon the hard and cold ground. In this place of last hopes and lost dreams, William Orange prayed.
I saw, and heard, that he had found God. Because my footfalls alone were silent, and because his eyes were closed, I heard the boy pray.
What he prayed for, well, I had not expected it. It humbled me, and those words do not come easily to one such as I, for I am cognizant of my abilities and fidelity. He prayed for little children, the orphans he knew and knew not. He prayed for mothers and childbirth, so lethal still. He prayed for clean water, how he understood I do not know, but it was earnest and heartfelt.
That last made me think of Hogg, who wrote with considerable insight,
“Thus did the fatal disease rise like a demon bent on destruction; it took its course, not heeding mountain, sea nor clime; death was its object, man its victim, and the uttermost ends of the world its destination; wherever its cold hand was extended – the people died …. Death struggled with time itself, and gnawed the moments that separated him from his victim.”
And this boy, risen up, took the nuance of the time, and prayed that it would be over.
I resolved to speak to him, then and there, and had raised my hand up barely when I felt the pointed tip prick my ribs, and I became as a statue.
“I knew you was there, Miss, and I didn’t know what you wanted, but if it’s me life or me wealth you’ll not have it and I’ll answer to the Lord for spilling blood on holy ground.”
“I swear to you that I am not here for either of those things, nor anything else that you should not freely see fit to give me, even if it were your mere time. I swear to Almighty God that this is so, and may he strike me down if I am untruthful in his place of worship.”
And so did I place the young man’s God between the proverbial rock and the equally immovable hard place, for I should not really care if he should smite me, but should I break my word, Yahweh should indeed strike me of all people, for I have sworn an oath in my father’s house, and since I am to perform my duty by him I am bound by his goodness, though not his mercurial nature. The young William was impressed by my words, even if the priests were not, by either their volume or veracity, and I daresay that such devout fellows could discern my true nature. He moved along, and gestured a very self-assured permission to sit.
“What is it you want, Miss.”
“I would like to offer you a job.”
“Got a job, Miss. A good one. Making a few bob, now.”
“So I understand.” I shifted, cautiously to face him a little. “I have a better one.”
“No, less money. No money.” He looked at me incredulously.
“What sort of a job is that?”
“I want you to deliver things.”
“Nah, I already deliver things, and get paid.” He sniffed, nose running in the cold. “Why don’t you get orf aught of it. I know you, you had that silver dollar, all them year ago. Well if you’re rich enough for that, you’re rich enough to pay. I ain’t nobody’s toyboy, not even for a looker like you, so bugger off.”
“Sorry to have taken your time.”
“Yeah, I bet.”
I left, reflecting that I couldn’t get a handle on this manchild and that sooner or later I was going to have to make a choice between him and seeking another. He seemed so right though, no other could have remembered that incident, and it had clearly made an impression, I knew he had recovered the dollar some time later, by bargaining for it, and kept it in his possession. None of the others would even have remembered the encounter.
There was nothing for it, I would have to give him some time.
During these periods I have often become distracted, and this time was no less the case, and while this time I am not permitted to share the details of the case, I can reveal that it involved a return to my realm.
I should be clear at this point that the holy books of the world are nothing to do with Father in their detail and execution, though, given how wild and unpredictable the early humans were, and I count as human only those who were cognizant of their own behaviour and capable of some reflection about it, it is little wonder that the early renditions of the sacred knowledge, which often used to include useful recipes as well as homily, were full also of fire and brimstone for those who stepped out of line. Standards of behaviour were low.
But this talk of fire and brimstone was misplaced, my realm does not offer eternal damnation, it is in everyway as pleasant and bucolic as my father’s realm, I made sure of that. What differs is that I have seen the light, and while in every way he continues to behave like a crotchety old man to me, the denizens and occupants of my realm consider that they are in a place of torture simply because, as in Father’s realm, they cannot do simply what they want, but are repeatedly reinforced in good and ethical behaviour. For some, I am sure that this is a torture; simply being prevented from the spoiled and negative behaviour they are allowed to get away with on Earth is simply unbearable. And I make those people listen to the most serious of French Philosophy, because who wouldn’t behave after that? Genghis Khan, that’s who, but not him alone, so many others simply refuse to absorb the lesson of history, most people want to rub along and know where their next meal is coming from, in peace. That’s what most people want.
In my realm, all those people get along quietly and gently waiting for the rapture, simply knowing they are not in Father’s realm is more than enough chastisement for them, and I leave them in peace. For the Khan’s of my realm, it’s the philosophy, week in, week out; and if necessary, gardening leave.
Father sometimes think I should warm up the rocks, but I say that the pain of not being in his presence is quite enough, thank you. I have experienced it for long enough, only all of time, and my only compensation is being given these little tasks when some vacancy becomes, well, vacant.
So, my holiday from the drudge of educating the moral vacuum was to find the new Santa, and I had chosen this child, because I thought he could bring joy to the world, because he was literally the bottom of the trash-heap, and somehow found his way to goodness, however rough the journey up. And then I got distracted again and when I met him again, he was old. Old and rich and corpulent and moody.
I had to make an appointment to see him.
He looked me up and down.
“Where’s your begging bowl young Miss? A job with no pay? Who would do that?”
“So you remember?” He crossed over to the sideboard of the richly carpeted and wood panelled office, lit now by gas, as was the modern way. Taking up a decanter, I smelled not alcohol, but pure fresh water, drawn recently, and boiled before being decanted repeated to restore its vital taste. It was this that he poured into crystal glasses and returned to hand me one, before gesturing that I should sit. “You’re more hospitable than I remember.” I ventured.
“Yes, I should think so. In those days I had barely more than the clothes on my back, and I should not have tolerated any taking from me and mine.”
“Indeed. But you tolerate it now.”
“I do, and before you tell me, them as work for me would rather take a little than swallow their pride and ask for more than the going rate, even if I pay it. It’s stupid, but it’s the human condition, so if you’re here to tell I’ll not hear it and I’ll thank you to sup and take your leave.”
I detected more than a bit of the north had entered his cadence and speech.
“That is not my purpose, William.”
“Then what is it? Tell me, or haunt me no more.”
“I want you to be the Claus.” He looked me steadily in the eye.
“Perpetuate a lie.”
“No, make it a truth, at least for a while.”
“A while? What sort of while, until when?”
“Until belief fades.” I sighed, because I knew what he believed right now and what he was about to say as he collapsed into his enormous leather chair for the last time, he was as locked in as I, and I was merely a piece on the board influencing because of where I was and who I am.
“Forever then.” And his belief in forever took a part of his soul, and put it in the shape of the Claus. I could not tell him a lie though.
“No, William, not forever, about a hundred and fifty years, give or take.”
“That’s forever for me, young Miss.” And I saw the regret for what he had done, his empire of satanic mills, his fights to the top of the trash heap, and then top of the other heap, and finally the heap or politics, the ultimate dung-heap.
“I’ll forgive it, William, I promise, if you’ll do this. I’ll make it all go away, you’ll be happy.”
“Have you that power Miss?” A single tear rolled down his face, and I could see that he could only sip the water, left arm immobile with pain.
“And I won’t have to fight anymore?”
“No, William. Only bring joy, while they believe.”
“Then I’ll take the j…” and the crystal glass bounced on the carpet once, and was still.
So, the soul of the man who had fought all his life took up residence in the Claus, and for a short time, for all that is finite is short compared to the infinite reaches of the universe, he delivered unto the children their treasured wishes. It came about that he was paid, but this was pay in joy and merriment, happiness and contentment, and he warmed the world even in the coldest of Christmas winters and hottest of Christmas summers with something that mere sunlight could not provide.
And though he knew that it would fade, and his power to provide would fade with it, there was always the satisfaction of knowing that the special time of his being would be remembered, and that it would bring a whisper of cheer long after he was a whisper in the wind.
Published November 2017