Stave One: Sr Urania’s Ghost

Sr Urania was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of her burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Old Sr Urania was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Sr Urania was as dead as a door-nail.

Leslie knew she was dead? Of course she did. How could it be otherwise? Leslie and she had worked together for I don’t know how many years. Leslie was her sole executor, her sole administrator, her sole assign, her sole residuary legatee, her sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Leslie was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event.

The mention of Sr Urania’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Sr Urania was dead. There must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot—say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance—literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.

Leslie never discarded Old Sr Urania’s rosary. There it sat, years afterwards, across the dashboard, so that the women still thought of the van as “the nuns”. Sometimes women new to the streets called Leslie Leslie, and sometimes Sr Urania, but she answered to both names. It was all the same to her.

Oh! But she was a dried up bitter refugee from a bad divorce too long ago for anyone to clearly recall the husband or the marriage, Leslie! a resentful, sanctimonious, hypocritical, covetous, old control freak! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within her froze her old features, nipped her pointed nose, shrivelled her cheek, stiffened her gait; made her eyes red, her thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in her grating voice. A frosty rime was on her head, and on her eyebrows. She carried her own low temperature always about with her; she iced the air around her in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

External heat and cold had little influence on Leslie. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill her. No wind that blew was bitterer than she, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have her. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over her in only one respect. They often “came down” handsomely, and Leslie never did.

Nobody ever stopped her in the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Leslie, how are you? When will you come to see me?” No beggars implored her to bestow a trifle, no children asked her what it was o’clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Leslie. Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know her; and when they saw her coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark mistress!”

But what did Leslie care! It was the very thing she liked. To edge her way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, which she terrorised and cultivated the highest  for power and funding, not least for the handsome salary that might almost hove met her needs even without the generous expenses, was what the knowing ones call “nuts” to Leslie.

Once upon a time—of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve—old Leslie sat out on the street in the van. It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal: and she could see the people in the street outside, go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them. The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without that the houses opposite were mere phantoms. To see the dingy cloud come drooping down, obscuring everything, one might have thought that Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale.

She kept a close eye on the women who plied their trade on the street, huddling into their coats to keep warm, trying to keep their spirits up and their demeanour suited to the season as most of the cars whizzed past about quite different business. This was pleasing to Leslie, the longer the women stood out in the cold and the less money they made the sooner they would submit to her and let her redirect their lives away from the disgusting business of betraying the equality of all women by being raped for money and down healthier paths, into hostels, on to welfare, and if they behaved, maybe, one day into social housing of their very own.

“A merry Christmas, Leslie! God save you!” cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Leslie’s brother, tapping at the half open window, who came upon her so quickly that this was the first intimation she had of his approach. Leslie’s brother disgusted her, calling himself Heather and prancing around on higher heels and in shorter skirts than the prostituted women on the street.

“Bah!” said Leslie, “Humbug!”

She had so heated herself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this sibling of Leslie’s, that she was all in a glow; her face was soft and quite lovely; her eyes sparkled, and her breath smoked again.

“Christmas a humbug, sister!” said Leslie’s sibling. “You don’t mean that, I am sure?”

“I do,” said Leslie. “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re just a silly mincing travesty neither man nor woman, with hardly a penny to bless himself.”

“Come, then,” returned the sibling gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re righteous, politically correct and rich enough.”

Leslie having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, “Bah!” again; and followed it up with “Humbug.”

“Don’t be cross, sister!” said the sibling.

“What else can I be,” returned the sister, “when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer? If I could work my will,” said Leslie indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”

“Sister!” pleaded the sibling.

“Andrew!” returned the sister sternly, “keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.”

“Keep it!” repeated Leslie’s sibling. “But you don’t keep it.”

“Let me leave it alone, then,” said Leslie. “Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you!”

“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the sibling. “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, sister, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

Three women standing, close by on the street involuntarily applauded. Becoming immediately sensible of the impropriety, they turned away to talk among themselves.

“You’re quite a powerful speaker” she added, turning to her sibling. “I wonder you don’t go into Parliament.”

“Don’t be angry, sister. Come! Dine with us to-morrow.”

Leslie said that she would see them—yes, indeed she did. She went the whole length of the expression, and said that she would see them in that extremity first.

“But why?” cried Leslie’s sibling. “Why?”

“Why are you masquerading as a woman?” said Leslie.

“Because that is who I am.”

“Because that is who you are!” growled Leslie, as if that were the only one thing in the world more ridiculous than a merry Christmas. “Good night!”

“Nay, sister, but you never came to see me before I transitioned. Why give it as a reason for not coming now?”

“Good night,” said Leslie.

“I want nothing from you; I ask nothing of you; why cannot we be friends?”

“Good night,” said Leslie.

“I am sorry, with all my heart, to find you so resolute. We have never had any quarrel, to which I have been a party. But I have made the trial in homage to Christmas, and I’ll keep my Christmas humour to the last. So A Merry Christmas, sister!”

“Good night!” said Leslie.

“And A Happy New Year!”

“Good night!” said Leslie.

Her sister walked without an angry word, notwithstanding. She stopped along the way to bestow the greetings of the season on the three women, who, cold as they were, were warmer than Leslie; for they returned them cordially, with hugs and real kisses on the cheek.

“More fools,” muttered Leslie; who overheard him: “prostituted women with pimps, on drugs, raped many times every night by callous men, talking about a merry Christmas. I’ll retire to Bedlam.”

Meanwhile the fog and darkness thickened.

Foggier yet, and colder. Piercing, searching, biting cold. If the good Saint Dunstan had but nipped the Evil Spirit’s nose with a touch of such weather as that, instead of using his familiar weapons, then indeed he would have roared to lusty purpose.

With an ill-will Leslie started the van and moved right up to the three women.

“Surely you are cold enough?” said Leslie.

“We are that”

“Surely you would rather stop prostituting yourselves,” said Leslie, “ have a nice cuppa soup, and a listening ear then be off home, you can call the office after the holiday and we will give you any non-judgemental support you need?”

The women looked at her incredulously..

“Can you not see,” said Leslie, “how hard it is for me to keep coming out here, night after night to try and help you?”

One of the women observed that it would suit them just as well if Leslie were to go off home and stop discouraging the clients, on such a bad night, so that they could make some money and go home themselves to begin the Christmas.

“What kind of gratitude it that!” said Leslie, turning on the heater. “But I suppose you do not really understand what we do, so I will stay here until you let me reach out to you and explain.”

The women muttered something among themselves and walked purposefully away.

No matter, their demeanour would soon be different when the Nordic Model punished their nasty rapacious clients until they could make no money and had no choice but gratefully accept the direction, guidance help and support she offered, and if they were stubborn it would be a simple matter to warn their landlords that they were prostituted women and that unless he threw them out on to the street, where they could be helped and supported to exit, he would be charged with a serious, criminal offence.

It was all going very well, she had intimation that her application for additional funding to meet this need would be approved.

Leslie opened her sandwiches; and having eaten one, and poured fresh ground coffee from her flask, settled down with the newspaper.

Now, it is a fact, that there was nothing at all particular about the clock on the dashboard. It is also a fact, that Leslie had seen it, night after night, ever since they first bough the van, many, many years ago; also that Leslie had as little of what is called fancy about her as any woman. Let it also be borne in mind that Leslie had not bestowed one thought on Sr Urania, since his last mention of his seven years’ dead partner in the office that afternoon. And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Leslie, saw in the clock, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change—not a clock, but Sr Urania’s face.

Sr Urania’s face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects around her were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Leslie as Sr Urania used to look: with ghostly spectacles turned up on its ghostly forehead. The hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath or hot air; and, though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless. That, and its livid colour, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be in spite of the face and beyond its control, rather than a part of its own expression.

As Leslie looked fixedly at this phenomenon, it was a clock again.

To say that she was not startled, or that her blood was not conscious of a terrible sensation to which it had been a stranger from infancy, would be untrue. But she shook her head to clear it and determined to allow no further fancy to cross her mind.

She settled herself in her seat. As she threw her head back in the chair, she saw something in the passenger seat that terrified her.

The same face: the very same. Sr Urania with her usual neat grey bob and bangs, usual blue twinset, black tights and sturdy shoes; all bound over and over with multi coloured cords, and many complex knots. It was like, and yet quite unlike a display of fetish shibari someone had rather unfortunately chosen to present at a “Women Control Women” conference two years before. Her body was transparent; so that Leslie, observing her, and looking through her waist, could see the zip and button on her skirt behind.

Leslie had often heard it said that Sr Urania had no bowels, but she had never believed it until now.

No, nor did she believe it even now. Though she looked the phantom through and through, and saw it standing before her; though she felt the chilling influence of its death-cold eyes; and marked the very texture of the folded kerchief that gagged it’s mouth, which wrapper she had not observed before; she was still incredulous, and fought against his senses.

Slowly the spirit wrestled it’s neck and worked the gag down to its chin

“How now!” said Leslie, caustic and cold as ever. “What do you want with me?”

“Much!”—Sr Urania’s voice, no doubt about it.

“Who are you?”

“Ask me who I was.”

“Who were you then?” said Leslie, raising his voice. “You’re particular, for a shade.”

“In life I was your workmate, Sr Urania.”

Leslie stared.

“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.

“I don’t,” said Leslie.

“What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your senses?”

“I don’t know,” said Leslie.

“Why do you doubt your senses?”

“Because,” said Leslie, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

Leslie was not much in the habit of cracking jokes, nor did she feel, in her heart, by any means waggish then. The truth is, that she tried to be smart, as a means of distracting her own attention, and keeping down her terror; for the spectre’s voice disturbed the very marrow in his bones.

To sit, staring at those fixed glazed eyes, in silence for a moment, would play, Leslie felt, the very deuce with her. There was something very awful, too, in the spectre’s being provided with an infernal atmosphere of its own. Leslie could not feel it herself, but this was clearly the case; for though the Ghost sat perfectly motionless, its hair, and skirts, were still agitated as by the hot vapour from an oven.

“You see this toothpick?” said Leslie, returning quickly to the charge, for the reason just assigned; and wishing, though it were only for a second, to divert the vision’s stony gaze from himself.

“I do,” replied the Ghost.

“You are not looking at it,” said Leslie.

“But I see it,” said the Ghost, “notwithstanding.”

“Well!” returned Leslie, “I have but to swallow this, and be for the rest of my days persecuted by a legion of goblins, all of my own creation. Humbug, I tell you! humbug!”

At this the spirit raised a frightful cry,  with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Leslie held on tight to her seat, to save herself from falling in a swoon.

Leslie  clasped he hands before her face.

“Mercy!” she said. “Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?”

“Woman of the worldly mind!” replied the Ghost, “do you believe in me or not?”

“I do,” said Leslie. “I must. But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?”

“It is required of everyone,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within them should walk abroad among their fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”

Again the spectre raised a cry.

“You are bound,” said Leslie, trembling. “Tell me why?”

“I wear the bonds I wove in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it cord by cord, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Each knot represents a human life I trapped in impossible circumstances to satisfy my arrogance, my need to control, and yes, my greed, for worldly things.  Is its pattern strange to you?”

Leslie trembled more and more.

“Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the complexity and length of the knotted cord you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous bond indeed!”

Leslie glanced about her on the floor, in the expectation of finding himself surrounded by some fifty or sixty fathoms of knotted cords: but she could see nothing.

“Sr Urania,” she said, imploringly. “Old friend Sr Urania, tell me more. Speak comfort to me, sister!”

“I have none to give,” the Ghost replied. “It comes from other regions, Leslie, and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of folk. Nor can I tell you what I would. A very little more is all permitted to me. I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere. My spirit never walked beyond our office and our van—mark me!—in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our lucrative, morally bankrupt NGO; and weary journeys lie before me!”

It was a habit with Leslie, whenever she became thoughtful, to put her hands in her anorak pockets. Pondering on what the Ghost had said, she did so now, but without lifting up her eyes.

“You must have been very slow about it, Sister,” Leslie observed, in a business-like manner, though with humility and deference.

“Slow!” the Ghost repeated.

“Seven years dead,” mused Leslie. “And travelling all the time!”

“The whole time,” said the Ghost. “No rest, no peace. Incessant torture of remorse.”

“You travel fast?” said Leslie.

“On the wings of the wind,” replied the Ghost.

“You might have got over a great quantity of ground in seven years,” said Leslie.

The Ghost, on hearing this, set up another cry, so hideously in the dead silence of the night, that the Guards would have been justified in indicting it for a nuisance.

“Oh! captive, bound, and double-knotted,” cried the phantom, “not to know, that ages of incessant labour by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”

“But you were always a good and righteous Nun,” faltered Leslie, who now began to apply similar terms to herself.

“Righteous!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my self righteousness  was but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

“At this time of the rolling year,” the spectre said, “I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!”

Leslie was very much dismayed to hear the spectre going on at this rate, and began to quake exceedingly.

“Hear me!” cried the Ghost. “My time is nearly gone.”

“I will,” said Leslie. “But don’t be hard upon me! Don’t be flowery, Sister! Pray!”

“How it is that I appear before you in a shape that you can see, I may not tell. I have sat invisible beside you many and many a day.”

It was not an agreeable idea. Leslie shivered, and wiped the perspiration from her brow.

“That is no light part of my penance,” pursued the Ghost. “I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Leslie.”

“You were always a good friend to me,” said Leslie. “Thank’ee!”

“You will be haunted,” resumed the Ghost, “by Three Spirits.”

Leslie’s countenance fell almost as low as the Ghost’s had done.

“Is that the chance and hope you mentioned, Sister?” she demanded, in a faltering voice.

“It is.”

“I—I think I’d rather not,” said Leslie.

“Without their visits,” said the Ghost, “you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first to-morrow, when the bell tolls One.”

“Couldn’t I take ’em all at once, and have it over, Sister?” hinted Leslie.

“Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night when the last stroke of Twelve has ceased to vibrate. Look to see me no more; and look that, for your own sake, you remember what has passed between us!”

When it had said these words, the apparition faded backward from her and as it did the van window slowly opened.

She became sensible of confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory. The spectre, after listening for a moment, joined in the mournful dirge; and floated out upon the bleak, dark night.

Leslie leaned out the window: desperate in her curiosity. She looked out.

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore bonds like Sr Urania’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governing boards) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Leslie in their lives. She had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous ATM machine attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

Whether these creatures faded into mist, or mist enshrouded them, she could not tell. But they and their spirit voices faded together; and the night became as it had been when he walked home.

Leslie closed the window, and examined the passenger door by which the Ghost must have entered. It was locked, as she had locked it with her own hands, and the bolts were undisturbed. She tried to say “Humbug!” but stopped at the first syllable. And being, from the emotion she had undergone, or the fatigues of the day, or her glimpse of the Invisible World, or the dull conversation of the Ghost, or the lateness of the hour, much in need of repose; leaned back in her seat, and fell asleep upon the instant.

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