His latest acquisition stood before him, supported by a wire scaffold on an ebony plinth: the skeleton of John Merrick. The Elephant Man. Just looking at the swollen bones and enormous skull exhausted him. The object had magnitude, history and narrative. It was the final and the finest piece of his collection. The entire west wing of Hellerton House was a gallery of grotesque art. Max Hellerton was proud of his choices. Works by Bacon, Schiele, Goya and Geiger all jostled for attention amongst installations, sculptures and video works by lesser-known artists. Hundreds of bizarre pieces lined the opposing walls, stretching from the door to the entrance hall to the point where they eventually met at Merrick's stand. Max scrutinised the lighting. Perfect.
'Maxwell?' his wife said, her voice raised so he could hear her from the main entrance hall, some fifty yards behind him. 'It's Mayor Rubenstein on the phone.'
'It's a bit late Cybil,' he said without turning. She didn't answer. 'I'll pick it up in here.' He moved to the wall-mounted phone between the Damien Hirst pickled calf and an installation by some nobody which he liked for the rubber duck rendered in a paisley finish floating in a bathtub on a foam resin designed to look like chicken-tikka-masala. He picked up the receiver and waved to his wife. She hung up the other receiver and he heard the other line click off. He was free to talk.
'Hi Jim - it's good to hear from you.'
'Looking forward to tomorrow night?'
'As always. Cybil told me you had a new piece.'
'Yeah,' Max said, glancing back at the lunar landscape of Merrick's skull. 'It's a beauty.'
'Looking forward to seeing it.'
'What can I do for you?'
'I just wanted to say thank you for the gift. It's effectively going to nail the coffin lid down on Anderson's campaign.'
'Good. I like to help in any way I can,' Max said. He looked deep into Merrick's cavernous sockets. 'Look, I've got to go. I'll see you at the party Rube.'
He hung up and paced back and forth for a while in front of the skeleton. On occasion he glanced at it, but for the most part he kept his arms folded and gazed at the ground. He stopped finally and looked back up to face the bones once again.
'What's the matter?'
The skeleton just stood, sad and lumpy, before him.
'Have I done something to offend you John?' he laughed. 'Listen John… I am not an animal...' he laughed even louder. 'I am a human being!' His voice echoed around the cavern. He grabbed the flimsy tarpaulin that lay on the floor and threw it over the Skeleton, covering it, ready for the unveiling. He backed off and looked at the looming shape of the ugly bastard beneath the sheet. A ghost with swollen glands, he thought. Then he turned and headed out; his brogues clacked against the hard floor. As he strode between the walls of subversive imagery, he began to feel conspicuous, dwarfed by the enormity of the room. He looked over his shoulder and saw the figure beneath the sheet receding further and further away. When he reached the door to the main entrance hall of his home, he outstretched an open hand to the handle, but as he did so, a guttural slurping noise froze him in his tracks.
Jesus I'm tired, he thought.
He turned back and stared in shock to see the sheet on the floor at the feet of Merrick's skeleton. Even from so far away, those milky stalks of bone and marrow gleamed and the hulking head looked to be forever frozen in suffocating despair. For a second the skin on his neck turned to chilled gooseflesh. Max held his breath. His hand missed the handle a couple of times as he fumbled for it. On the third attempt, he grabbed it and pulled the door open. He felt a sliver of bravery now he had a route out of the room. 'I don't believe in ghosts John. You don't like being covered? Let's see how you handle the party.' He left the room and shut the door on the skeleton and his collection.
'How do you expect me to fight an effective rival campaign with only half the funding he's got?' said an animated Milo Anderson, framed in the centre of the monitor. 'Rubenstein only cares about keeping the rich in pocket. He doesn't care about the people on the street, about whether their trash is collected or not, or whether the inner-city schools have gun problems. The guy's a jerk.'
'People will see through him,' said his aide.
'People voted Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor of California. People buy the presentation, not the content.'
'I guess they'll pay for it later.'
'That's not the point for Chrissake!'
Max flicked the security monitor's channel to show a wide angle of the exhibition hall. He'd heard enough. He drained his Whisky Sour and smiled. It was time to join the party.
The room was a swollen sea of the rich and powerful, drowning in Malbec, Crystal, Bollinger, elaborate cocktails and smoked salmon. The sixteen piece string orchestra he'd hired were plucking their way gamefully through the song list he'd given them to practise last week: an eclectic mix of songs by alternative bands to juxtapose the format of the music performance: Sonic Youth, The Wire, Television, The Sex Pistols, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. He scanned the room until he spotted Cybil at the far end of the hall, stood beneath Merrick's cloth draped bones. She talked with the Mayor and his wife. For a moment or two he contemplated the decedent political pigs and scrawny actresses; pondered how they juxtaposed his collection of grotesques in a visual sense. He headed over, nodding acknowledgements as he went.
'Great party Hellerton,' said the head of a law firm, in a way that displayed no detectable personality. Max grinned and squeezed by, struggled to avoid treading on a Tracy Emin installation against the wall. Thank goodness Cybil had name badges printed, he thought. Everyone looked the same.
'Glad you could come Joshua. How are the kids?' he said, slapping a hand onto the guy's shoulder as he finally got past. He pressed on, making a point of meeting Milo Anderson on the way, whose intellectual chaperones fought to whisper in the overwhelmed little man's ear. As he approached, the liberal scowled.
'Enjoying the party?'
'Oh yes.' Anderson forced a smile. It looked like a shaved ass-cleft on its side.
'And how's the campaign going?'
'Oh fine, we're mounting a serious challenge this time. There'll be no repeat of the landslide defeat that happened last time around,' he said. His aides nodded along.
'So you still think Rubenstein will win?'
'No, I didn't say quite exactly that.'
'Don't worry Milo, I'm sure some people will vote for you. Catch you later,' Max said, neatly grabbing a glass of champagne from a passing caterer's tray. 'And I hope you enjoy my new piece.' Milo Anderson gritted his teeth and nodded but Max moved on. He air kissed a television actress, and managed to execute a couple of stiff handshakes with the big hitters before he finally reached the Mayor. Cybil was doing her job, keeping him well oiled with drink. They talked about politics for a while in the shadow of Merrick, until he felt it was time. He sent Cybil to get more drinks and they watched her thread through the crowds until she was out of earshot.
'So how about my tenement block? Do you think we can get them out this time?'
'If you're planning on tearing it down anyways, I don't see why we have to go through all that red tape. They're mostly just niggers in there anyway.'
'If I have it torched you'll keep the heat off then? The insurance companies will be bad enough.'
The Mayor winked.
'The city's going to get a new art museum isn't it?'
'And this new piece is going to be a tourist magnet Rube.'
They both looked up at the looming figure above them.
'Speaking of which… what is it? A statue?'
'I'll unveil it now, shall I?' Max smiled. He had been looking forward to seeing the faces of his guests upon witnessing Merrick's bones all night. He was the first person to own it privately as a piece of objet-d'art. It had passed through the hands of several medical research institutions, and had seen failed bids by crazy pop stars with Peter Pan complexes. Now it was his and the excitement welled up inside him like magma. He stood up on the plinth next to Merrick.
'Ladies and gentleman!' he said. He had to say it again, louder, before the babble in the room quietened to a murmur. He waited until he had everyone's attention. 'First of all I'd like to thank you all for coming tonight. Secondly, I'd like to wish both Mayor Rubenstein and Milo Anderson the best of luck in the forthcoming campaign.' The crowd erupted into applause, mainly for Rubenstein, due to some strategically weighted invitations. 'Now finally… I'd like to show off my new piece.'
The room fell into hushed tones and a few men in the audience, probably from the press he assumed, raised cameras ready to capture the unveiling. The lighting dimmed on cue, apart from a single spotlight that bathed the plinth. It blinded him, preventing him from seeing the audience. For a moment he felt a cold shiver run down his spine, despite the heat from the lights. The crowd's muttering distorted in his ears as if he was underwater. He loosened his tie and grasped the tarpaulin ready for the big pull, only to freeze when something squeezed his hand from beneath it. He closed his eyes and shuddered at what was unmistakably, cold and calloused bones clenching his fingers. He made a timid effort to pull free but Merrick's skeleton grabbed him tight. The audience whispered, unknowing as to what was happening, as he stood there, gagged, dumbstruck.
'Is he okay?'
Max could hear them, but only just. They were disappearing into the void, as if the bones that held him were leading him somewhere. With only a blink he was somewhere else, staggering through foggy city streets, stumbling over hay and horseshit. He looked at his guide. Merrick was swathed in a dark cloak with an enormous hood that concealed his swollen cranium. Cockneys and gentlemen pointed at them as they fled. Yes that's it, Max thought, they were fleeing. They rounded a corner into an alleyway and slowed to a canter; stopped when they were finally out of sight from the main cobbled street. Merrick let go of him, placed a hand against the wall and let his rasping lungs grab for the air that they craved. Max slumped against the opposite side, his back clammy against the wet bricks, which soaked through his suit.
'What's going on?' It was all he could think of saying. Merrick turned and pulled back the cloak revealing a fully fleshed yet terribly deformed face. His tongue lolled around in his mouth like a slug, slurping and sliding as it tried to position itself in readiness for speech.
'Please,' Merrick croaked.
A few moments passed as they looked at one another. Max stared deep into Merrick's watering eyes.
'What do you want with me?' said Max.
'Please let me rest now,' he whimpered. 'I was stared at when I was alive... and now it continues.' He sighed and let his huge head roll back to rest against the wall. 'Please,' he said with his eyes closed and his head tilted skywards, as if in prayer.
'I don't know about that. I've got plans.' Merrick just looked at him and sighed. 'I'm sorry man, but you're dead. What do you care?'
'Ssshrp - let me show you,' the deformed gentleman said. Merrick stood up and hobbled forwards. Max pressed his back harder into the wall and held his hands up in defence, half in expectation of some kind of attack, half in disgust at the prospect of being touched by the man. Through his fingers, he saw Merrick approach ever closer.
'Wha-what are you doing?'
Merrick bent down to Max's level and parted his hands to expose his face and then he reached forward and gently put a gnarled forefinger to Max's lips. Max stared in horror as the medicine ball of a head approached; was about to scream as their faces were to touch... but then suddenly Merrick was gone.
Max looked about him. He was still in the Victorian alley. He tried to get to his feet, but the aching in his body and the fire in his lungs drained him. Then he noticed his hands and his scream finally came. The contours of lumps on the backs of his hands ran all the way up his forearms. He touched his shirt and felt the lumps and disfigurations on his chest, and then in the reflection of a shallow puddle, he caught a glimpse of his lips, twisted like melted candle wax. His head was nothing but a heavy, lumpen and distorted hunk of meat.
'Where did I go?' he yelled at his reflection. He was interrupted by the footfall of many people who sploshed through the puddles towards him. With some effort, he turned his head and saw the advancing silhouettes. Someone screamed upon seeing his face. 'Pleeeash,' Max mumbled. Not all of the spectators feared him. Half of them drew nearer until their faces were visible.
'Fuck me - look at this ugly bastard,' said a man with cruel coal like eyes.
'What's wrong wiv 'im?' another said.
'I don't know, but we'd better not get too close - what if it's catchin'?'
Please let me rest now.
Max closed his eyes and tilted his head to let the drizzle cool his face as he let Merrick's last words to him sink in, but the drizzle had disappeared. He felt warm again. When he opened his eyes he was back in Hellerton House standing in front of the two hundred guests. The only water on his back was a cold sweat that soaked his shirt to his suit jacket. The bones had released his hand, leaving it free to tremble by his side.
'Are you alright Max?' Rubenstein said, below him. Max glanced behind him to the towering covered skeleton.
You get your rest John. I'll see to this.
'Are you going to show us the piece?' Rubenstein said. Max turned and glared down.
'Don't you dare look at him.'
'Look at who? What've you got under there?'
More camera bulbs flashed.
'Nobody look at him,' Max shouted at the whole crowd.
'Who?' Rubenstein took a step forward and leant towards him. 'Look Max,' he whispered, 'let's do some damage limitation here. I'll unveil it. I'll say you're ill.' The mayor climbed up onto the plinth and before Max could stop him he'd lifted the sheet to reveal a skeletal foot. 'What the hell have you got here?'
In a second, Max pitched forward and pinned The Mayor to the ground. The politician was winded but broke Max's fall.
'I said don't look at him,' he said, grinding his thumbs into Rubenstein's eyes, stuffing them in deep. Blood squirted out of the sockets and over his knuckles, followed by ocular pops beneath his thumbnails, audible despite the Mayor's screams. A second later most of the audience screamed too. Guests fainted onto the buffet tables, causing wine bottles to smash or roll underfoot. People were rushing for the doors. Some rushed forward to apprehend their host, but a second later it was his own security men who grabbed him and pinned him to the floor. His head was pressed to one side, so that his face pointed in the direction of gentle John's veiled bones: the hidden beauty. The men handcuffed him but he ignored the metal digging into his wrists. He thought only of how the rest of his art collection had become, in a single moment, banished from his affections.