Liverpool Street station glowed within the early morning darkness that engulfed the City, providing short lived respite for commuters from rain that fell sluggishly from the sky. A Neon portcullis opening the way to the houses of finance and banking that allowed safe passage from country homesteads to the heart of power. Christian arrived at the station every day as part of his commute, admiring his position within the well-oiled machine of finance. His hair immaculate, suit well pressed and tailor made and underneath it a body ripped and chiseled to perfection. Christian had fought hard to become so successful, harder than most he suspected, and so wanted to make sure that his presence would not go unnoticed. Or worse, noticed for all the wrong reasons. Yet today there was a misstep evident in his outlook, errata in his game plan that sought to hinder his positive aura. As he stepped from the station’s safety into the rain he ruminated on the cause of his anxiety, knowing all too well the root of his worry.
Today was not just another Monday; it was the Monday that he would have discovered the outcome of his interview at the firm. It was the Monday that could have seen him move from being a cog in the wheel to being one of the wheel’s masters. To play with the elite who chided him in jest at his working class heritage. Christian remembered how his face flushed when his confident boasts about earning a scholarship at Essex Grammar fell to the guffaws of peers who had sailed in and out of Oxford on the high winds of privilege, shuddering at the bright eyed naiveté that poured from him in those early days. A novice in a circle of masters. No wonder he had been denied a promotion all these years. He had not deserved it. But now, now he knew he was initiated. He had tasted from the cup of success and was thirsty for more and had not hesitated putting himself above other colleagues in the run in for the senior post, caring little for the chagrin of people who would soon be underlings. But it was not the interview results that plagued his mind this morning. It was the weekend and its disastrous events that had made his fate a forgone conclusion.
Christian continued his journey below the City’s skyscrapers, a giant’s hall of mirrors that distorted and stretched bypassers into bizarre grotesques. A sudden release of heavy rain caused Christian to shelter under the cold glass of a nearby financial firm. He sipped at the hot coffee in his hand as he contemplated his reflection, noticing by his side the squat bulk of a Romanian beggar tilting an empty cup toward the sky in divine worship of any coins that fell to her. Christian had noted their abundance around London growing and was ever amused at headlines that warned of the terror of Romanian gangs come to pick-pocket, beg and benefit fraud their way into Britain. To leech from the tax payer like some money- hungry Vlad the Impaler. Christian chuckled aloud, turning his attention to the beggar who jingled her cup at him, pleading.
“Dracula?” Christian pointed at the beggar as he dropped some coppers into her cup, “you Dracula, yeah?” The woman smiled her appreciation at the offering but shook her head.
“No” was the response before she pointed up at the glass castle behind her. “Dracula, Dracula” she repeated before laughing to herself. Christian smiled and looked up, catching sight of a man staring down at them from the fourth floor hallway. His body cast in a black silhouette, the silver reflection of his glasses glinting on the false light from the street lamps. Christian stared at him as the distraction of the beggar slipped from his mind until he was left alone with his memories of the weekend past.
Peter Carter was junior head of Compliance, having been handed the position three months after being recruited by the CEO Who had also studied at Trinity College with his father. Christian had been at the firm two years already and had gone for the post several times without success. The resentment was palpable within him on the day of the announcement and Christian wished for nothing more than to wait for Peter in the parking lot that day and dish out some street justice the likes of which someone of his stature would have never suffered before. Yet Twelve months later Christian considered Peter one of his closest friends. Charming, sophisticated and never without the latest fashion, Christian knew that without Peter’s influence he would have never been able to walk the tightrope of success and confidence while looking the pinnacle of style. Many beneath him whispered at how he mimicked Peter, even dressed almost identical to him. These chides he took as emblems of his achievement. Christian had begun to dress like him. He had started buying the same aftershave and wearing the same haircut. Peter, after all, was everything that Christian hoped to be. He was success personified and Christian planned to absorb all he could of his friend’s poise.
But Peter had also opened the door for him to the inner circle. If it were not for Peter Carter then Christian would never have met the twins Nicholas and Phillip McNamara; joint assistant CEO’s to their elusive father, Henry. Never would he have sparred with Phillip in the boxing ring after work or organized Nick’s surprise birthday party at ‘Secrets’. Never would he have been witness to them both wrestling half naked for the affections of the call girls they had paid for that same night. He would never, in all reality, have been able to call them friends. Peter Carter; the man Christian looked up to. The man who had hugged him that time he was caught crying in the bathroom the day his mother passed away. The man who not only accompanied him to the funeral but told his gathered family that he worked for Christian and not the other way round. A man that Christian almost confided in about the fate of his father when the two sat up all night drinking in Christian’s family home, now merely a hollow casing for biting memories. Peter Carter, Christian’s best friend, was on the interviewing panel for the promotion which is why Christian had entered that interview overflowing with confidence. And why it hurt so much that Peter had been unusually cruel in his tactics.
“We’re ideally looking for an Oxford grad” were the first words spoken, leaving Christian at an impasse as to how to turn the interview to his favor. Though try he did, and expertly so, yet when he looked to Peter he saw a tired, bored man doodling into a note pad. The longer the interview went on the more life Christian felt drip from his body, hubris leaving every orifice at speed until finally Peter thanked him for his time with a smile that seemed to suck the light from the room. A spider’s smile; predatory and mordant. The smile expected from some creature that had learned the mannerisms of humanity from a text book on the rush hour commute. Christian had left the room with his head spinning, returning to his desk in silence. He had hoped to scurry away that night unnoticed. He still had a lot of work to do to his Mother’s house now it was on the rental market. But as the steel doors of the lift closed a thin palm slid between them causing them part once more. It was Peter and he moved next to Christian as if nothing had happened.
“House party tonight. Mark’s place in Richmond. You coming?”
“I don’t know I’ve got a lot of stuff needs doing to the house.”
“Fuck. That,” Peter said. “Mark has a house party once every blue moon. It’s the only time we have to trash his shitty little three bedroom gaff.”
“What was with the attitude back there?” Christian tried to ask but Peter merely shrugged his shoulders.
“It’s business, Chris, You know that. I’ve got to make sure whoever is under me can take on the crème de la crème of City Boy pricks.”
“City boy pricks like you, you mean?” Christian said though not as loud as he had hoped to. Regardless Peter laughed out loud. “Exactly like me, Chris, exactly.”
“And?” Christian added.
“Have I got the job or not?” Peter looked away from Christian and sighed before providing the same rictus he had seen in the interview.
“Jane will be there.” He said, and seeing Christian try and hide his interest decided to push the matter. “You know Mark’s got a thing for her. Been trying to get into her knickers for a few weeks. I’m happy to cock block, Chris, but why not come along and do your own dirty work?”
As usual Christian nodded in submission to Peter’s request. Painfully aware that he was always marching to his drum and never the other way round. Still it was a drum beat that had led to great success. The doors opened on the third floor and Peter walked out, calling to Christian that he would text him the address later. “Did I get the job?” Christian shouted as the doors of the lift closed him off to the answer of his fate. Not that it mattered. He could tell from the expression on Peter’s face that he would not tell him.
Christian stared at his monitor, still deep in thought. He looked over briefly to Jane’s desk but she was nowhere to be seen. He had noticed Jane from her very first day. A humble, polite creature in his opinion that stood out from the sharks around her. Many of the other men in the office found her frumpish and old fashioned but their disdain for her only made him more enamored, their jokes about her curly ginger hair more determined to be with her. And yet in the months she had sat there, alone both at work and at lunch, he had barely said two words to her. So driven he was to reach the dizzy heights of senior management. The idea of Mark attempting to sleep with her angered him some it was true, both in imagining his brutish palms sloppily kneading her body as well as knowing that in the eyes of most he was now scraping the barrel, having tried and failed to charm every other woman who worked in his sector. It was this alone that pulled Christian away from his Mother’s home that night and that saw him get a taxi across the whole of London to make up for lost time while waiting for Peter’s text that arrived, finally, at ten to midnight. If only he had declined the invitation, he thought. But hindsight only made the situation crueler and Christian squirmed in his chair from the pain of remembering. Remembering the twins greeting him at the door, already high from Marks’s endless supply of cocaine, twittering in each other’s ear about how angry Christian would be when he found out. Preparing himself for the worst when he caught eyes with Amy from H.R who looked pitifully at him before turning away.
“Where’s Mark?” he asked those gathered “Where’s Jane?” but the responses were slow and nonsensical as a lather of bodies writhed, drank, snorted and chattered around him. Eventually he found another lost soul who when asked pointed upstairs, confirming that he had seen both going up there and that both were very drunk. Christian’s mouth became dry like sand, his teeth clenched vicelike upon one another. Each reveler he pushed aside seemingly mocking him with a Hyena’s laugh. Finally he was upon the door of Mark’s bedroom, the deep, rhythmic breathing bringing his blood to boil. He knew it was none of his business, that all was fair in love and war. But regardless he slammed his fist on the bedroom door with such ferocity that the wood splintered, a smear of his blood staining the varnish finish.
“Mark?” Christian shouted “Mark open this fucking door!”
There was silence from the room suddenly, as from the surrounding guests who sensed the static in the air of an upcoming altercation and were excited into muteness at its dawning. Slowly a latch was turned and Mark slid from a door though it was not the door Christian was stood in front of. Mark hung to the door frame of the bathroom, vomit crusted on his lower lip while white flakes crumbled from each nostril. Half-closed eyes peered at Christian.
“What the fuck do you want?” he said but was pushed aside by Christian only to find that he was in the bathroom alone. He returned to Mark’s bedroom door and slammed his fist again, ignoring Mark’s abusive demands to cease. But as he did so the door swung gently open leaving Christian in the presence of an ever familiar, ever taunting smile. “Where’s Jane?” Christian said.
“In the bedroom” Peter replied. Christian tried to push his way past but Peter held him firm by the shoulders “No, no let her sleep. She’s really drunk. I mean way out there, mate.” Christian looked for words to spew forth at a man he had considered a friend but nothing came, instead the resonance of Peter’s own words caught his imagination and weighed it down into the abyss until there at the bottom, past his own sense of bruised pride he realized what Peter was admitting to.
“You piece of shit!” he said and pushed all his weight at Peter, slamming him against the door hard.
“Come on, Chris. You’re embarrassing yourself now.” Peter’s voice was calm and distant and reminded Christian of the voices of the police officers who restrained him when he was a child. Who had refused to let him enter his parents’ bedroom despite his tearful pleadings and who formally comforted his weeping mother who sat arched over in the kitchen.
“Let fucking go of me” Christian said, finally submitting to Peter’s decorum. Peter did as instructed and instantly Christian walked away. “It just sort of happened,” Peter shouted but there was no response until, as Christian reached the top of the stairs, he added “Can someone go with him please? Make sure he doesn’t do anything silly. Like his father did.”
Christian was eight again. He was pulling against the strength of the police officer who only released his grasp when Christian sunk his teeth into his hand. As the police officer snarled in pain Christian ran up the stairs, ignoring the protests from below. He ran blindly as tears fell to the floor about him, only stopping to wipe them when he’d reached his parents’ bedroom. “Dad?” he had said but his father did not respond. Christian remembered how despite being dead his father seemed to turn to look at him while dangling from the rope above. His face was blue and puffy. It was a split second before he was dragged from the room by the police officer but it was enough to etch itself forever into his mind so that each day that went by it was but a blink away from resurfacing. A morbid aide memoir of what was at stake for Christian, and how he had to make sure he would not turn out the same way as his Father did. How his friend had found out he was not sure, but by the time he had returned to the here and now Peter was already on the floor, nursing his face from where Christian had punched him, his had still covered in strips of blood.
Christian walked casually out of the building that night and didn’t get a taxi home until he had reached Hammersmith, a rage pure and bright still burning in him hours after the incident. But as dawn approached Christian was lost to a deep sleep almost as if he was hung-over though he had not touched a drop that night. Sunday on the other hand Christian was up early and thus proceeded to write his resignation letter.
A dense thud of letters hitting his desk brought Christian round from his day dreaming. He looked up to see Amy, still with the same pitiful expression as she’d worn at the party. When Christian sheepishly enquired about Jane, Amy gave a heartfelt but hopeless answer. No one had seen her since the party. No one had her number to see if she was OK. Christian thumbed his resignation letter tucked in his pocket and stared at Peter’s private office. He hadn’t been in when he arrived yet somehow through his time sat remembering the details of the weekend’s events Peter had managed to walk past without his notice. Perhaps it was a good thing. There had been enough public displays of animosity between them already, best keep the next one a more formal and hopefully private affair. Did he still want to hurt Peter for what he did? Most certainly but somehow despite himself he found that through the weekend he’d been dumping more and more culpability on Jane. Surely she knew what he was up to. Surely she knew that she had had too much to drink. All the warning signs around the Square mile to go easy on the booze and avoid dodgy cabs and Jane, a woman he had pegged as smarter, more intelligent than most, proceeded to get so drunk that his best friend could fuck her. Christian’s head throbbed with pain when he thought this way, like a part of his soul was trying to distance itself from a mind that would calculate in such a fashion. But it was that or accept that Peter was a vile man, one who had systematically ruined two lives in one night and who still came to work unscathed by law and with his reputation unblemished. Despite what Peter had done to Jane, despite the sadism inherent in Peter’s toying with his emotions that weekend and despite knowing it would mean a great personal compromise, Christian still wanted in. He wanted what they had. Wanted to be who they were and was willing to give up everything to have it. Christian took the resignation letter from his pocket before walking to the shredder, watching it cut into thin strips below.
Christian stood in Peter’s office as the last of the sun disappeared behind a skyscraper, leaving what little real light he had seen today a thing of the past. He had planned to come to Peter’s office of his own accord but after six, when most others had left he found himself summoned. That same proud and defiant man he had been that morning died when he saw Peter sporting a tender looking black eye. Christian began groveling at once, straining to hold back his natural anger and desire to continue what he had started on Saturday. Though it felt like forever Christian’s apology seemed succinct in comparison to the silence that followed it. So much so that Christian, clear that his apology had failed, turned to walk away. Only then did Peter speak. “Must have been hard, Chris.” he said “Growing up where you did. How you did. Dealing with all that misery.” Christian turned back to face Peter, expecting another barbed attack on his person but was surprised to find Peter’s face full of sincerity. “God knows how I’d have turned out if I’d have gone through it. Or anyone else for that matter.” Peter stood from his chair and walked to face Christian who prepared himself for a sucker punch. None came.
“I had to test you, Christian, see what you were really made of. See if there was anything other than a chip on your shoulder from being the odd one out. That you weren’t just out to prove something. And I must say I was impressed. You’ve got a passion and a drive that this company needs, sorely lacking in the other candidates.” Christian felt his shoulders relax and a deep breath escaped him instinctively, though Peter suddenly became sterner and more focused in his appraisal. “But that passion needs to be nurtured as does your trust. We can’t have secrets from each other, Chris. We can’t keep skeletons in closets ready to pounce out and harm the business.”
“I understand.” Christian began but was interrupted.
“You should have told me about your dad. You should have told me everything.”
Christian looked to the floor. “I nearly did after my mum’s funeral. But it was hard to admit without feeling like a failure.”
A well-manicured palm slid into Christian’s peripheral vision, looking up he saw that Peter was smiling and nodding, his hand held out for an embrace. “You’ve wanted to better yourself your whole life it would seem. To avoid being a failure. How about I give you that chance?”
For a moment Christian couldn’t speak; the image of Peter’s outreached hand so perfect and familiar that he was sure he had dreamed it a thousand times. Slowly he took Peter’s hand and shook it. Gently at first but as the excitement sank in he became more vigorous, laughing out loud and shaking his head in dismay. The job was his, the salary, the company car, the prestige. It was finally his. He thought of his mother in heaven looking down on him and smiling, dismissing any thought that she might consider him anything less than succesful.
“I won’t disappoint, Peter.” Christian said beaming.
“I’m sure you won’t.” Peter said moving towards a large stylish office wardrobe at the back of the room. “Now the others are waiting downstairs for the celebration to begin. I think it’s time for you to meet the Beldame.”
“The who?” Christian asked, still reeling from the announcement.
Peter smiled at Christian, revealing from the wardrobe two robes of contrasting colours. One of jet black, the other virginal white. On the center of each was the gold silk embroidery of a crown pierced by a sword. Peter threw the white gown at Christian’s feet and he couldn’t help but step back, unsure of what was proceeding.
“The Beldame.” Peter said, pulling the robe over his head, its hood hanging over his face so that only his distinctive smile could be seen.
The white robe fit badly and Christian fidgeted under its shapeless mass. Its smell, like that of stale sweat, also made him wonder if it had ever been cleaned in its life. Peter’s by contrast was sleek and fitted and had a charming smell of incense that permeated the air of the lift as they descended. Once at the ground floor Christian attempted to leave but Peter, via a hand gesture alone, stopped him in his tracks. From within the black robe he produced an ornate key that fitted a security casing below the set of buttons. There, hidden from view was another button to a floor up until now Christian had no knowledge of. Peter pushed the button and the lift doors closed once again. And though it was only one stop between ground and this clandestine sub level the length of time to reach their destination seemed as long as the building was tall. The silence began to irk Christian and he snickered to break the atmosphere. “Masonic shit right?” He said but his confidence waned when Peter turned to look at him but gave no response, turning his attention to the lift doors as they opened on a great cloud of incense similar in smell to that of the black robe. Christian spluttered taking an accidental deep breath of the fumes as Peter disappeared gracefully into them and the room.
Christian peered into the grey void in front of him and saw nothing but smoke that swirled and danced to the sound of primitive sounding percussion instruments. He considered for a moment calling out but assumed that even if he did so no one would respond. If he was to be hazed before joining this clique then so be it. Cherish it, he thought. Cherish the ceremony as your first step to a new, better you. Christian smiled and stepped into the darkness and as he did so the lift doors chimed and closed, trapping what little light there was behind them. Now Christian was in complete darkness and his confident strides became baby steps while he fumbled in the pitch black about him, stifling a growing primitive dread. Despite his best efforts he began to feel the effect of the darkness upon him, seeing shapes and faces that weren’t there.
“Come on now.” he said, his voice broken slightly as he remembered his mother lying in her coffin the day of her cremation. “Come on!” he insisted losing himself in an image of Jane, mounted by a robed Peter despite her drunken whimpers. He called out again, angrier this time and more fearful as he swore he could see in the far distance the coiling corpse of his father, still dangling on his rope, obscured by the incense smoke. Even when Christian closed his eyes the images stayed with him, in fact they became clearer to the point that he feared if no focus for his mind arrived soon he would be confronted by his demons all at once. “Enough!” he shouted “Enough, enough!” The message was heeded and suddenly all around him torches were lit, engulfing Christian in an orange light. Peter was one of the congregation he was sure but to locate him was impossible as all had the same black robes as each other. All but one, who stood in front of Christian in silence wearing a robe of dark ruby, Its tall hood emblazoned with the same ace of swords symbol that decorated the chest of the others gathered. Suddenly something was said in a language Christian had never heard before and the congregation responded dutifully. This was repeated several times until the high priest raised his hand for silence, turning his attention back to Christian.
“Novice,” he began his voice old and hoarse yet still all powerful “this is your time. The fates look to you. But you must answer truthfully. Do you swear fealty to your brothers here in this room?” Christian did not respond initially, in awe of the proceedings about him until he became aware of his part in the play and slowly nodded. “Do you cast away your past and the old ties that bound you?” Again Christian paused but this time to let the words sink in. He had hated his past, he knew this now. Yet it had also defined him. To cast it away completely? How could one do such a thing, even if they wanted to? Then his mind fell to the empty house and the memories trapped within it. “I do.” he said.
“Do you align yourself then with your future? With Our Future? And a new way of thinking?”
“I do.” Christian said once more, without hesitation. A smile became apparent on the lips of one of the congregation and Christian returned the gesture having spotted his friend but his attention turned quickly back to the high priest. “Then you must drink. Drink of the Beldame and join us in unity.”
“Bring out the beldame.” the chorus cried and Christian peered into the darkness, past the high priest who made way for something that creaked slowly towards him from the void. As the thing came closer Christian could make out the shape of two robed figures pushing the wheelchair of a third, the creaking coming from the wheels as they turned. He looked about him with excitement that he wanted to share with his brothers but when he did so he saw that they had turned their backs to him as if they did not want to partake in this intimate moment. As the wheelchair entered the torch light he understood why and he blanched at the sight. Beckoning him with murmured whispers, an ancient woman sat naked except for a thin and transparent white shawl. A full head of hair had long abandoned her and now only strands sprouted from her leathery scalp. Her eyes, stuck behind half-closed eyelids, were black like the void of space. How old the woman was Christian could not tell but her decrepit visage had made her inhuman in appearance, her skin tanned as if it had been preserved, a casing for her meatless bones. She was mumbling and shaking as if trapped in her own world and yet ever aware of her current surroundings as she encouraged Christian to step forward. His gasps for breath where taken as cues from the congregation and before he knew what was going on two sets of strong arms had clasped themselves on his shoulders, forcing him toward the Beldame.
“Drink.” the chorus began again “Drink of the Beldame.” Christian tried to fight it but it was useless, with his arms now outstretched he stared in horror as the Beldame’s face moved closer. Close enough now for him to notice the scars and liver spots imprinted in her flesh. Close enough for her to reach out and caress his cheek with a hand thinly wrapped in paper skin. As the Beldame clasped Christian’s face with one hand she cupped an emaciated breast with the other; bringing the nipple to Christian’s pursed lips. “Drink.” the chorus repeated, ever agitated at the novice’s reluctance, “Drink”. Tears began to flow as Christian tried his best to avoid the Beldame’s breast but from nowhere a finger and thumb belonging to the high priest clasped themselves over his nose so that he had no choice but to open his mouth. Christian tried to hold on for longer, until he would pass out, but it was no use. With an exaggerated gasp his mouth opened wide to swallow a lung full of air at which point the acolytes pressed his mouth against the Beldame. A sour salty taste violated Christian’s mouth and he heard the Beldame moan in delight. A Sticky thick fluid dripped heavily down his throat in slow pulsating bursts until, as quickly as the torture began, it was complete. The Beldame pushed Christian away before he was thrown to the floor by his assailants. The congregation turned to her and bowed and the Beldame was wheeled solemnly back into the darkness, still murmuring and shouting until she could be heard no more.
“Despite your disrespect,” The high priest began “you have drunk of the Beldame. We now share our matriarch. We are now brothers. Rise Brother Christian.” Christian was still quivering on the floor when the house lights came on and the music stopped. Looking up through blood shot eyes he saw that the crowd were cheering him, removing their gowns and throwing them to the ground in casual disregard. He saw Peter clapping and chanting his name and across from him Mark too. Christian noticed the twins also who stood by their father, the high priest, as he nodded his approval. Christian was still dazed when Peter helped him to his feet and still reeling when they entered the lift and returned to the ground floor. He had only realized they were celebrating his initiation after the third hour in the nightclub they’d taken him to and by then he had been plied with so much drink he still couldn’t follow the conversation. He could follow the theme of it however, and that was that they had accepted him and more, that they were proud of him. Just how had they orchestrated such a harrowing display he wondered, and he asked often during the night of his new fraternity about the mechanics of such a performance. Despite the Bacchanalia about him no lips were loosened enough to confess, even partially, to the Beldame’s origin. Instead his questions were answered by coy shrugs of the shoulders and smiles that preluded a change in conversation until finally at four am Christian fell into an alcohol induced black hole at the end of which lay a flashback to earlier horrors which shocked him back into the waking world with a scream.
It was Tuesday morning and a light pleasant dew dripped on him from the tree branches above the bench he had passed out on. Christian sat upright and looked about him, seeing he was South of the river though he had no memory going this way. Nursing a throbbing hangover he began a slow traipse through the empty streets of London back toward his office. The Roma who were awake made sure not to cross his path or plead with him for change while the Foxes that scavenged from bins fled at his approach.
As Christian walked past the countless office blocks he assumed he looked a mess and so did not bother to turn to look at himself. But fear also gripped him, forcing him to stagger that bit faster past the offices in the square mile. Fear that had he turned to face himself he would see that he cast no reflection.