The Christmas Visit

by Nigel Gordon

The guard, today it is the young one who looks as if he should still be in college, checks the security of my window. They do this everyday to check that I am secure, that there is no risk of the window being opened more than allowed amount, even though beyond it is a ten-metre drop to the courtyard where, on fine days, I am allowed to walk in the fresh air for an hour’s exercise.

Around the yard, throwing it into deep shadow except at high sun, is a high, spike topped security wall. A wall none might cross, as automatic guns open fire on anything that attempts to cross it. Even so, I am often informed that my solitary hour of exercise is cancelled as there are insufficient staff available to ensure security. Today there will be no exercise, even though the air is ice-dry and the thin winter sun shines bright. No exercise today, for it is my family’s Christmas visit.

Satisfied that all is secure, the guard turns to leave. For a moment he looks directly at me. I smile; he starts to return the smile. A suppressed cough from the older guard at the door draws his attention. The young man recalls his position; the half formed smile fades away. Any familiarity between the staff, especially the guards, and myself is discouraged. He exits, the moment of brightness lost.

After he has passed through the doorway, the older guard closes the door firmly, a look of satisfaction crossing his face, the sound of the door’s closure confirming my isolation. I move over to the window and look out. It is chilly outside with the first hints of true winter, that black time of frost and darkness that follows Yule. Somewhere, from across an outer wall, arises the sound of children’s voices singing festive hymns. There would be a pleasure in standing here all day and listening to the distant sounds of free celebration.

For me that is not possible. I must get ready for the visit. Soon the guards will come to collect me and I must be dressed in the proper form. There must be no danger that I will be mistaken for somebody else. All must know by my dress who and what I am. On the table at the side of my bed is the notification of the visit. The impersonal listing of name and title, three visitors, my family, far travelled for this brief meeting. Beneath the names a formal notice of what I am required to wear in case I should forget.

There are times when I wish they would not come, especially my mother. She wears her age well and since I came to this place has insisted on visiting me three times each year. I see the tiredness and strain of each visit in her eyes. I could refuse to see them but that would be cruel. They have made the journey to see me, suffered the agonies of our congested travel system, spent nights in hotel beds away from the familiarity of home. By their coming, their acceptance of this meeting under the eyes of strangers, they place me under an obligation.

I dress as prescribed, clothes that whilst not so different from normal wear, mark me out for what I am. As I comb my hair, I hear them approaching, my escort, their boots sounding on the corridors, their keys jangling at their sides. With care I position myself where I am outside their direct line of sight when the door opens. A small point for me, I know, but I do enjoy the hint of worry on their faces before their eyes catch me in the corner. You would think they would catch on but they do not. I do not do it often and the guards rotate their duties, so that there is no chance of them becoming too familiar with me.

From outside the walls, through the still-open barred window comes the sound of a barrel organ playing festive tunes. The ice-cold air carries scents of warmed spices and rich simple foods. The clanging of the security gate announces that my escort has arrived. They will pause outside my door making their final checks. I strain my hearing to pick up distant sounds from across the wall. They suggest a market. No doubt my mother had been out there purchasing Christmas gifts for me. She did not need to but insists on doing so. No doubt security will be checking them to see if they are safe for me to have.

The door opens and one of the guards comes in. For a moment he is perplexed that I am not where he expects me to be, then sights me in the corner by the open window. He is annoyed but the strict protocols for handling any interaction with my person prevent even the mildest show of displeasure. Though it is displeasure he shows, curtly indicating that I should take my place in the centre of the escort.

The corridors are empty; they always are when I am moved through them. It is a question of security. All are cleared before the movement starts. I move alone, isolated, within my escort through vacant spaces sealed off by locked security gates. There are signs that they are not always empty. A distant sound from a closed off space, the smell of food such as I have not tasted in many a year, lingers in the air. At one junction, I look down, through locked gates to distant rooms, decorated for the festivities. Rooms I will never enter.

Somewhere down a barred-off side passage laughter sounds. It is an incongruous sound in this place, echoing round stone-floored corridors like a marble in a drainpipe.

We move on. Down stairs and through spaces where, securely secreted behind barred gates, decorated trees stand. At one somebody had dropped a handful of coins for the poor. I would add to it but am not allowed money. If I need anything I have to put in an application and if it is permitted and there are funds available in my private account, it will be obtained for me.

So we pass by to come at last to the antechamber of the visiting hall. There are more guards here, including the young one who checked my window this morning. I smile at him again; this time he manages to smile back before catching himself in the act.

Mr Gilbert, the Governor, checks me over, to ensure that I am properly dressed and not carrying anything that I should not. Then the doors swing open. Inside the hall the buzz of sound fades. I enter, surrounded by my guards. I see my mother, as I enter she lowers her head.

“Behold,” Mr Gilbert’s voice booms out, “His Imperial Majesty …”

As the pompous little man reads out my titles and names, my subjects bow, all, except the Dowager Empress, my mother. We embrace, I smell smoke and spice in her hair. She has been to the market. As my Christmas visit begins I wonder if the young guard would help me slip out of the palace for a couple of hours? Though those in charge of my security will not approve.

Copyright © 2015 Nigel Gordon

Many thanks to Cole for the edit.