Kage Baker didn’t attend Dickens Fair consistently the last few years of her life. She was beginning to be at constant demand for her work, and sometimes found it easier to write when her noisy roommates (me and Harry), were off carousing in faux London. I brought stories back to her, for her amusement.
I didn’t bring this story back to her; she was already dead when it happened. And the incident shocked me so much I never told anyone except Kimberly. But right now, it has achieved sudden relevance, with the loathsome Donald Trump about to finally leave the White House … this was my own first taste of what the next 4 years would be like.
So! We set our scene in London, as that great city exists in transient glory in the Cow Palace …
Mr. Charles Dickens reads daily in the Parlour of the Green Man Inn, from his “new” classic, A Christmas Carol. It’s a madly popular show – people crowded all around the long Parlour table where The Great Man sits; taking every chair and sofa, leaning in windows, even sitting on the rug at his feet. My staff and I go happily bonkers: waiting at the Parlour door to take his hat and coat, setting up a nice little fancy tea where Dickens sits, with one of the ladies standing ready to pour him out a fresh cuppa when he appears. The Keeper of the Book – a facsimile edition of Dickens’ own performance copy – would hover anxiously by his place, dedicated to putting the volume into no hand but his.
On this day, a friend of mine was visiting Dickens, and asked me to save a space at the table for his lady – she had never heard it before. I was happy to do them the favour, and resumed my Dickens-watch holding the back of a chair for her.
And then an elderly lady suddenly walked up and sat down in the chair I was holding, PLOP. She didn’t even look at me; I apparently did not exist. I deduced this by the way she then tried to hitch the chair forward, and was surprised to find me holding on to it.
“Pardon me, Madame”, I said in my friendly innkeeper voice. “I am holding this seat for a friend of mine. May I seat you – ” and I gestured at an empty chair across the table ” – closer to the head of the table?”
See how sneaky I was? But, really, it was a better seat. However, she just gave me a long blank stare over one shoulder, and then turned away; I really did not exist.
So I repeated myself. I caught the attention of one of the Parlour maids, and asked her to hold the other seat for my apparently stone-deaf visitor. I leaned beside the chair as obsequiously as really good corsetry would allow, offered a cup of tea, pointed out the plates of biscuits at the other chair … nothing. However, a younger woman came up as I was repeating that the seat was saved; she was apparently the elderly lady’s daughter, and joined me in urging that her mother change chairs so I could seat my guest.
At this point, I need to mention that I am white. The old lady and her daughter were white. But my dear friend and his lady are black.
And so: the elderly lady looked up at her daughter (still treating me as a part of the chair) and said, in a shockingly normal tone of voice: “But, honey – Trump won in November. We don’t have to be nice to them any more.”
The daughter looked horrified, and stared around to see if anyone had heard. Only me, of course – and I had the back of the chair in stranglehold as a wave of rage poured over me. It felt like ice cold water rising up into my throat. I was thinking: Here, of all places? Is this my moment to to live up to my ideals? Because if I answer this old bat as she deserves, I am going to get fired. My face must have been rather weird: I suspect it was frightening, since the daughter grabbed her mother’s arm, yanked her out of the chair, and walked her rapidly out of the Parlour.
My friend and his lady came back as I stood there, shaking. Staying in character is a great way to hide your feelings, Dear Readers; I was able to slide back behind Mrs. Bombay and welcome my guests warmly to the Reading. Just then, Mr. Dickens made his entrance, and I excused myself to wait by his chair at the head of the table. I poured his tea, laid The Book by his saucer, exchanged some cheery seasonal badinage, and left the Table in the excellent hands of Mr. Dickens.
Then I went and stood behind the Bar, fixed a vacuous smile on my face, and shook for a half hour.
Dear Readers, I cannot really actually describe the horror of that encounter. There in my own Parlour, at Extreme Christmas, in the liberal haven of San Francisco, out of the mouth of a decent-looking, amiable little old lady – the festering and yet so normal-sounding hatred that would come to be one of the hallmarks of Trump’s regime. I didn’t know, yet, that ordinary people would go instantly mad under Trump’s control, and crawl out of every rat-hole like the living dead; that they would turn out to be legion.
But I definitely felt I had been missed by a bullet – I hadn’t had to put my ass on the line, my friends did not meet this horrible old lady face to face. I could see them seated there, listening raptly, happy as anybody should be to be listening to Charles Dickens read A Christmas Carol. They thanked me afterwards, and I never told them what had happened. They never gave me any hint that they had heard it, either; perhaps we were all desperately trying to spare one another’s feelings. If so, I was and am grateful – because that day I was ashamed of my skin colour, my nation, my own craven thankfulness that I didn’t have to take more action myself.
But that scene has never left my mind for long, not through the last four long, ghastly years. I’ve never been completely off-guard, never stopped watching and listening for another Trump-zombie to wander up and slime all over my day. As my health got worse and worse, I couldn’t make it out to march or protest – though I did proudly knit a pussy hat for a friend who wore it to that first women’s march. I sent letter and emails, I signed petitions. And every time I did, I heard that old woman saying in a calm, reasonable voice: But, honey, we don’t have to be nice to them anymore!
Even spending most of last year hospitalized, there were other patients, members of staff, whose casually ugly remarks reminded me. I spoke up whenever I heard them, the way you do to let some beer-bellied jackass know that his x-rated “joke” is not funny. Some nurses refused to tend me; at least one roommate objected to sharing a room with me. I spent my last 3 months there essentially in solitary, as my roommate was comatose. Video calls with Kimberly and Michael were almost my only human contact.
I watched much worse things happen, as people were shot, spat on, run over, harangued. Their attackers looked normal, but acted like lunatics. Trump was even worse, offending and alienating all America’s friends and allies with behaviour so awful even SNL had trouble parodying it. Could anyone actually be as horrible as he was? And with every action, he showed us that he could get even worse.
But that old lady stuck in my mind. She’s haunted me for 4 years. Now maybe the bitch will lie down and die in my memory.
So, Dear Readers, this old lady walked into a bar and learned that the world had changed. And it was her own bar! Like everyone else, she began to learn that the light was fading. Atlantis was well and truly sunk, there were no faeries, the Dark Lord had not only won, but he was much uglier and more inelegant than the stories had led us to believe.
But soon he’ll be gone, gone to live (in defiance of his lease) in Mira Largo. He’ll be Florida’s problem then. Mind you, I don’t know how the hell we’re going to get Air Force One back from him. And he’s walking off with the nuclear football, too, but at least we can turn that off long range …
Damn, but it’s been a long,dark walk into that bar.