Nathanial Rael was preparing to have his early-evening nap when the phone rang. Shuffling out from the endless brown of his armchair, Nathaniel rose and, coughing, struggled toward the mahogany desk that provided refuge for all manner of dust-speckled miscellany. Still coughing, Nathanial dragged the receiver from the cradle to his ear and, with measured theatricality, sighed wearily before announcing himself to the person who had forced him from his fireplace and into this darkened corner of the room.
‘Rael speaking’, and, as he did, he cleared a lodgment of mucus from the bottom of his smoke-ravaged and chimney-black throat.
The caller, a gentleman with a pronounced European accent who spoke briefly of expensive holiday resorts and luxury train rides, was forced eventually to hang up as Nathanial assaulted the poor man with a bombardment of phlegm, profanity and spasmodic yawns.
Deciding that he was now far too incensed to return to his armchair, Nathaniel launched his brittle, ailing and robe-covered body at the desk and continued to do so until he reached his drawer. It was, surprisingly, open. Nathanial fished around in the dust and cobwebs for a moment and returned triumphant, a sheet of high-quality writing paper and a respectable ball point pen held firmly in either hand.
Wheezing slightly and, at this point, sweating as well, Nathanial lowered himself into the formal, wood-backed chair that sat behind the desk. Something cracked as his buttocks touched the frayed red cushion, but Nathanial did not hazard to guess whether it was he or the furniture that had made such an ominous sound.
Gripping the pen as tightly as his twig-like fingers would allow, Nathanial produced a spine-rattling cough that caused his very carriage to heave and buckle.
And with that, the ghost of Nathanial Rael began to write.
Wednesdays were becoming almost unbearable for the manager of the Golden Pond Vacation Agency. Vanguard Hoist, the manager in question, would arrive to work on this particular day of the week with his heart withering and his head held low. The skies seemed heavier on Wednesdays, the roads dangerously laden with cars. Each power line threatened to fall and send untold volts through his rain-soaked body. Each storm drain promised floods, or alligators, or both. Yet the ambience in his building was always one of jovial disregard. He would hear people thanking God that it wasn’t Monday as he made the trek through the grid of crescent-shaped desks that ran in columns from the elevator to his office door.
Once safely inside, he would peek out through the blinds, painted beige and grey to match the carpeting, and cast an anxious glance over his workplace. Who were these people, he would whisper, who toiled under him, and who were so happy and careless in their way? So free from the punishing burden that he, alone, had to carry? Vanguard would stare for some time until, at last, he would spot a member of the technical staff and, after rapping loudly on his window to draw their attention, would wave them into his office with a desperation approaching hysteria.
The member of the technical staff who came to his aide on this particular day was one Carlos Wharfton, a senior employee at Golden Ponds who had, on several Wednesdays previous, seen Vanguard in such a state of disarray and knew, therefore, exactly what to expect.
‘Another letter, sir?’ asked Carlos as Vanguard ushered him into the office, the blinds flapping against the glass as the door slapped shut behind them.
Vanguard, visibly trembling and flinching as he wobbled towards his desk, responded to Carlos between sharp inhalations of air.
Carlos, gazing brokenly at the shards of envelope and the unread letter that rested atop them, sighed and shrugged and scratched the back of his head.
‘Sir, I am really not at all comfortable reading these letters to you.’
After stepping forward and scooping the letter from the desk, Carlos opened it and frowned and slowly began to read.
‘Dear Vanguard Hoist of Golden Ponds.
How dare you, sir? Once again I have been harangued by that repulsive and effeminate “representative” whom you have no doubt employed due to the recently imposed legislative measures that render you incapable of refusing the assistance of those who partake in questionable and revolting clandestine activities. For this I am sorry, and can only hope that your custodial staff disinfects your workstations and lavatories on a half-hourly basis. However, this in no way excuses the recurrent endeavors made by your company, and therefore by you, by means of telephone (preferred if necessary), printed media (which I pay the postman to shred and burn) or, quite frankly, the cesspool of indecency that is The Television, to solicit my attention, money and, more importantly, my time (of which, I am sure you are by now aware, I have an unlimited supply of).
Do not make any further attempts to coerce me into purchasing whatever it is your sickening company is trying desperately to sell. If your product is in any way associated with the name of your business then it must be something quite repellent indeed.
A reply to this letter is unnecessary as it will constitute as “Printed Media” and will be dealt with accordingly. I have advised you on more than one occasion to remove me from whatever fascist database to which I have somehow become affixed. Failure to do so from this point on will result in some crippling form of monetary compensation that will render you, and your vile excuse for a corporation, bankrupt beyond all belief.
Carlos, no longer knowing what it was that Vanguard expected of him, folded the letter into quarters and returned it to its bed on the desk.
‘Will that be all, sir?'
Vanguard, his hands shaking and his eyes wide with terror and fear, reached into the breast pocket of his shirt and pulled from it another, smaller, letter. Licking his lips and scratching himself in a region obscured, thankfully, by the desk, Vanguard waved the letter at Carlos in a manner that both frightened and amused him.
‘Carlos, do you have any idea what this is?’
Vanguard wiggled the letter in the air to draw attention both to it and to his own reckless flamboyance.
‘It’s a letter, sir.’
‘It is indeed. And do you have any idea what the subject of this letter might be?’
Vanguard wiggled the letter a third and final time with such exaggerated abandon that Carlos had to chuckle in order to demonstrate his acceptance and appreciation for Vanguard’s situation and acute sense of theatrics.
‘This letter, which arrived shortly after the one that you so kindly orated for me, is a request, sent by Nathanial Rael, to meet with him, in Punishment Park, for a formal discussion regarding his continuing subjection to our automated telemarketing service.’
Carlos found it difficult to mask his disappointment that this information was not delivered with more flourish and style.
‘Sir, what is preventing you from removing Mr. Rael from our databases?’
Vanguard sighed. His eye twitched. His nostrils flared and his shoes creaked as his toes curled up inside them.
‘Carlos. We have a very strict policy in place here at Golden Ponds Vacation Agency. Once a customer is added to our catalog, their only chance of removal is to, well, die, quite frankly.’
‘But Mr. Rael is dead.’
Vanguard, thrillingly, threw his arms up into the air before shaking them down to their initial positions.
‘Do dead men write letters, Fernando?’
‘And, if I may be so bold, do dead men receive telephone calls from elegant European interns?’
‘No, sir. They do not.’
‘It isn’t enough that Mr. Rael was pronounced dead and that I have a copy of his death certificate to prove it. It isn’t enough that we both attended his funeral.’
‘Did you try the sushi balls at that thing? Out of this word.’
‘For Mr. Rael to be utterly and completely eradicated from our records he needs to stop behaving like he is still alive. He needs to stop sending flowers to my secretary, he needs to desist in his attempts to secure me by telephone when I am relaxing at the day spa, and he certainly needs to put an end to his continual demands that I exhume his corpse and prop it up against the wall of my office as a continual reminder of his punishing, relentless existence.’
Upon finishing this tirade, Vanguard found that he had, at some point, leapt from his seat and was now standing atop his desk, his legs spread wide. Carlos was applauding and, not knowing precisely how to respond, Vanguard bowed and climbed wearily back down into his chair.
‘When is this meeting scheduled to take place, sir?’
‘In exactly twenty minutes. And yes, Sanchez, I will be in attendance, as the concluding portion of the letter reads thusly: Failure to satisfy my demands in regards to this matter will result in a legal battle so biblical in scope that I fear your only chance of survival will be to accept my corpse into your office as a gesture of goodwill and to ensure that no further harm or misfortune befalls it. I have taken the liberty of having the corpse exhumed following your continued failure to do so yourself. I hope that this development agrees with you.
Nathaniel Rael was already perched on a long, wooden bench when Vanguard Hoist appeared as an ink blot on the horizon.
As his figure took form, Nathaniel noted that Vanguard had not dressed at all appropriately for an occasion of this magnitude and decided to hurl abuse at the foul man once he was within screaming distance.
And as Vanguard approached the robe-clad specter of his oldest, dearest friend, he heard the words ‘How dare you come attired in such common fashion? You vulgar tramp! You despicable urchin!’ spew forth with such venom and loathing that Vanguard felt, for a fleeting moment, that he would vomit from the shock.
Nothing more was said until Vanguard reached the bench that had the unfortunate task of holding his friend upright. And even then, the two men sat in silence for no small measure of time.
Then, quite unexpectedly, Nathanial Rael asked ‘You arranged to meet with me?’
After sobbing uncontrollably for a few minutes, Vanguard was able to compose himself, barely, and string together a series of words that were found acceptable as a response.
‘Nathaniel, you look wonderful. I particularly like the…trim…of your robe. Brass is a good colour for you.’
‘Shut up philistine!’
Nathanial spat a wad of mucus at Vanguard who, in a show of astonishing agility, almost ducked in time to avoid it.
‘Vanguard Hoist. Good day to you, sir. We sit, you and I, in weather clement and, in my case, garments of dizzying manufacture. My shoes, I am sure you will agree, are particularly au fait. Notice, if you will, the zips that run lengthwise from ankle to toe.’
Vanguard had already noticed.
‘And yet, my heart is an anchor, thrown carelessly from the bow of my soul and into the perilous reefs that sulk, menacingly, just below the aquamarine calm of this ocean called life. My requests to enjoy the pleasure of your company go unheeded. My gifts of chocolate, I am sure, remain abandoned and unopened in some catacomb of a storeroom in the very bowls
of your sickening excuse for a workplace. I can scarcely begin to fathom the depraved and unsanitary regions into which my flowers have found themselves inserted. Explain yourself and your actions, Vanguard, before I remove this robe and, with it, all notions of yourself as a man of any genital consequence.’
Vanguard knew that the time was certainly upon him to set Nathanial straight, but the ghost sitting beside him looked so alike his long dead friend that he found it difficult to articulate exactly what it was he needed to say.
And then, without even meaning to, Vanguard began to speak.
‘Nathanial Rael was a gentle, loving, kind man. I miss him terribly. But you are not Nathanial Rael. And you are not his ghost. Your name is Alan Jeffries and, when Nathanial died, I paid you to take his place. There was a hole in the world where Nathanial used to be. I needed it filled. So I bought his house, moved you in, and set about saturating you with everything that Nathanial left behind. But it didn’t work. Instead of loving the books that Nathanial loved, you merely assimilated them. Instead of dressing the way that Nathanial dressed, you simply picked through his clothes at random and wore whatever it was that you thought would please me. You’re a composite, nothing more. I should have ended this long ago, but I can’t. The world needs Nathanial Rael almost as much as I do.’
Vanguard stood wearily from the bench and tucked his hands into the pockets of his beautiful, grey coat.
‘You do look just like him though. It really is quite extraordinary.’
And with that, Vanguard Hoist turned and walked slowly back toward the horizon, and the ghost of Nathanial Rael followed just inches behind.