“Do you think it’s possible to see into the future?” asked Giles, his hand trembling as he downed one of the four glasses of whisky on the bar in front of him.
“How on earth should I know?” I told him as I walked past, wishing I had not chosen to come into the pub at all.
“Surely, the kind of clever bastard who’s reading theology and planning to be a priest should have some views on the subject?” Even as he was asking a favour he couldn’t conceal the jeer in his voice at my choice of vocation. We’d known each other all our lives but we were not friends.
So why was he seeking me out, when he normally avoided me, I wondered?
The bar of the Oxford pub was crowded that Friday night with lots of us undergraduates, and I was on my way to join my friends on the other side of the room, when I’d been waylaid by hearing Giles’s plummy voice as he sat at the bar on his own, yelling to me above the noise of the crowd. His arrogant manner was exacerbated by his drunkenness, but, even though I usually avoided him, there was something so wild and terrible about his plea that I couldn’t resist. There was something distinctly odd about him, something I had never seen before.
The first peculiar thing I noticed was that he was alone, and he’s usually in a crowd of noisy Hooray Henries like himself, or else hand-in-glove with some flirty, giggling girlfriend.
I sat down beside him on the stool, hoping I could soon get away to more congenial company.
Giles and I were both the same age, and came from the same village in Devon, and had known each other as children in the village kindergarten. Giles’s father, our local MP, employed my father in the local factory, and Giles’s mother was a big wheel in the Townswomen’s Guild, an organisation that my mother had never wanted to join.
Now, having gone through his public school education, Giles was a student at Oxford University, just like I was. The difference between us was that I had earnt my place to study theology against the odds, having gone to the local comprehensive and worked my socks off to get the requisite A-levels. I had always wanted to be a vicar, I had what you might describe as ‘a calling’, and I viewed my time at Oxford as a means to preparing myself for a life of helping people, and doing what I could do for those less fortunate than myself.
Giles, on the other hand, was at Oxford to study politics and history, because he thought he might go into the ‘family business’ of representing our town as a Tory MP, just like his father and grandfather before him.
“Well, John, answer me, can’t you?” Giles repeated angrily. “You must know about these things. You’re a Christian, aren’t you?”
“Which means I believe in God. It doesn’t mean that I believe in clairvoyance, ghosts or any other kind of mumbo jumbo,” I told him. “What are you talking about, seeing into the future?”
“Help me, John, please! I’ve got no one else!” he appealed to me, the anger gone from his voice, replaced by a horrid kind of desperation.
For the first time in my life I was concerned for him, because he really was behaving like a man possessed. I could see abject terror in his eyes.
“I’m here getting pissed on my own, because I don’t know what to do, I don’t know who can help. John, believe me please. I am bloody well terrified.”
“Okay. I’ll do anything I can to help you,” I told him as I took my pint from the smiling barmaid and sat down on the stool beside him. “Tell me what’s happened.”
“Well, you know I wanted to join the Rivington Club?” he asked me.
We all knew about the exclusive Rivington Club, that ‘oiks’ like me weren’t invited to join. The only qualification for membership was being rich, socially well-connected and having a desire to act like a bloody idiot. The Rivington Club members met regularly to behave like ill-disciplined maniacs: smashing up restaurants and pubs, creating mayhem in the town and generally living a ‘wild dissolute raffish life of gay abandon’.
“You see, to join the Rivington Club, there are various things you have to do to prove yourself, before you can be a member,” Giles went on.
“Oh yeah, I heard about it. Don’t you have to put your prick into a pig’s mouth?”
“No, of course not, don’t be so ridiculous!” he snapped. “Fact is, one of the rules is that you have to find a tramp, or someone sleeping rough, and ceremonially burn a twenty-pound note in front of them. It’s a bit of a joke – we all gather round and laugh.”
I closed my eyes, resisted the urge to punch him in the face, and stood up, taking my pint with me.
“No, please, I’m sorry, don’t go John, I beg you,” he put his hand on my arm, almost in tears. “Okay, I admit, of course it’s a shit thing to do. But everyone else has to do it to join. The laughing isn’t as cruel as it sounds. In fact I was going to give the guy another £20 afterwards, to show there’s no ill-will.”
I sat down reluctantly, realising that in my future career I would have to try to do my best for everyone who came to me in trouble, that I couldn’t pick and choose who to help. “So did you join the Rivington Club?”
“No. I just made a fool of myself. Fact is, tonight we all went looking around in a gang, going where the down-and-outs gather, and finally we found this homeless guy in a back alley. I stood there in front of the man, with the others all around looking at me. We were all pretty drunk at the time. Honestly, John, I was so close to the homeless bugger that I saw there were lice crawling on the skin of his hand, his coat was threadbare, his long silver hair hung down over his chest, he looked as if he was at the end of the road, poor sod, head bent down, staring at his lap. I was so close I could smell his filth. And I knelt down and I burnt the note in front of him, just as they told me I had to.”
“Then what happened?” I glared at him, my disgust impossible to conceal.
“He didn’t react at all at first, even though we were inches apart. And then he finally lifted up his head and looked at me. He looked me straight in the eye.” He drank the rest of his whisky, as he covered his face with a hand. He began to weep silently to himself.
“He was me! I was looking at myself.”
“I swear to God it was as if I was looking into a mirror! Not me as I am now, but what I’ll probably look like in twenty years’ time – a bit like my dad does now. I just knew that I was looking at myself... And the worst of it was, the others were all staring at me, asking why was I burning the note when there was no one there. They couldn’t see him. They thought I was mad. . . Do you think I’m mad, John?”
(image by Geoff Gill on Pixabay)