Chapter 26: Christ The Saviour Is Born
Owen awoke to the coarse sound of unruly voices and a thick, choking, haze of cigarette smoke. He lifted his head from the slant of a wooden table sodden with the ringed dregs of spilled beer and the acidic bite of local wine. A candle mocked him from its centre, its insignificant flame dancing in the rustic fumes of the run down hostelry lighting only a speck of darkness. He watched the melted wax drip idly down its narrow shank, sculpting another layer on its spread across the uneven timber. The sound of a glass slapping the table brought him upright and fully awake.
“Thought you could do with a sup.” A soldier pulled another chair out and sat down beside Owen.
Owen looked from the weak ale to the man. “Fuck.” He jumped up, shaken and startled, staggering back and knocking his chair over in the process. The man was burnt skinless.
The room went quiet.
He looked around the tavern at the silent eyes observing him, it was packed with jigsaws of men held together by stretched flesh and congealed blood; all their wounds fatal.
“Where the fuck am I?” he demanded looking into the soldier’s dried and empty eyes.
The charred man sat back and sipped his own drink observing Owen from its rim. He placed it back on the table leaving sooty deposits floating on the head. There was a change about him as his stare encompassed the doctor. “Do you not know?”
The place was familiar, its drab and almost windowless interior coloured only by the soft light of the candles and the mist of cheap cigarettes, the simple stage and the dilapidated piano, the shuttered door and the crowded, high, wooden rafters straddled by those who could not find a seat. He looked at the solider. “The final scene,” he whispered in realisation, his forehead vexed.
“Sit down,” someone heckled from the back and the room stirred with noise once more.
Owen ignored him. “Am I dreaming?” he asked.
The singed muscles on the man’s face drew his shrivelled lips into a smile. “When are we not?” he answered wrapping his hands around his tall glass.
The man stood, his hollow eye sockets searching Owen’s face and for a moment the room stilled and withdrew; the doctor’s attention dropped to the greasy tumbler. Light seemed to radiate from within the glass showing the span of half a dozen fingerprints left on its surface. “We all leave our mark upon time, Owen, good or bad…” A plump drop of beer rolled lazily over the spread of the man’s skinless fingers. “…We all have to live with it.”
The man’s stare changed to amethyst. “You are a good man, Owen Harper; you must trust your heart and not let simple words persuade you otherwise.”
“I said sit down!” A cap hit the doctor on the side of his head causing him to turn away and in that moment the man vanished leaving his beer to stain the wood.
The noise level in the room rose and scores of whistles grated off the rough walls and the husks of the exposed beams. Owen turned to the stage where two figures stood framed against the grey wash of its backdrop; a man and woman, only the man had been replaced in Owen’s memory my the animated corpse of Aeddan Bach. The doctor recognised his own post mortem stitching running in a, large, deep Y from the Welshman’s shoulders down the front of his chest. Bach spoke above the cat calling of the other soldiers, his deep tenor voice holding the stage. “Gentlemen, a little pearl, washed ashore by the tide of war.” The words were scripted from Owen’s recall.
The room began to echo with laughter as Aeddan pulled the woman close to him; again she bore no resemblance to the girl in the film this dream was trying emulate. “Sag den Herrschaften guten Tag.” Aeddan gestured with his hand.
“Guten Tag.” The woman spoke only her tone did not follow that of a frightened girl taken from her homeland, it dominated the small tavern and directed itself in the doctor’s direction. Lilac eyes met Owen’s and her stare ran cold through his body.
The room broke into cheering. A soldier stood, a man with a stump for his left leg that had turned a pus covered and putrid green. “Hey, talk a civilised language!” His breath smelt of too much alcohol; again there was more laughing.
“No,” Owen cried out against the rallying mirth. “This is wrong, this is all wrong.” He turned to the crowd, his protest drowning in their revelry.
“It’s true, the lady has her limitations; as a matter of fact, she has no talent at all.” The bearded Welshman linked hands with the woman as he gestured to the shape of her body. “Except that is… Well maybe a little natural talent.”
The dead agreed with a round of wolf whistles in the direction of the stage; the girl’s focus still remained on Owen.
Aeddan raised his voice above the applause. “The little lady can’t dance, she can’t tell any jokes and she can’t balance rubber balls on her little nose…” He brushed its tip as collectively the room sighed in mock disappoint.
“Ah!” The Welshman continued, signalling for silence as he held up his hand. “But she can sing like a bird. She has a throat of gold.” He squeezed his throat with his fingers.
A chorus of whistles began again. “Come on, honey! Sing us a song! Come on!” The bar full of restless dead man released a crescendo of noise.
Aeddan turned to the woman and encouraged her by gently conducting her with a sway of his hand; the woman smiled, her eyes burning a rich violet. She stepped forward, her silver hair spinning like a spider casting its web and she began to sing above the clamour of the room. “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht. Alles schläft; einsam wacht…”
It was not the song Owen expected. It wasn’t even Christmas in the trenches. Around him the tavern stilled, around him everything stopped.
The woman advanced toward him filling the small space with her presence. She finished the first verse, the tune echoing in the silence haunting the dark corners where the shadows fought the candlelight. She circled Owen touching his shoulder with cool fingertips. “Who are you?” the doctor asked already knowing the answer.
Her lips tipped into an unpleasant grin. “Don’t you know?”
“Agroná.” The name resonated around the lifeless forms caught in the slip of a second.
The smile stretched a little further. “See, what a clever boy you are,” her breath whispered in the shell of his ear. Owen felt sick.
Her fingers trailed along his jaw. “I have come to help you, Owen Harper. I like you.” The air quickened with cold.
“Help me? You brought me to this hellhole.” He jerked his head away from her touch.
“Yes and I realise my mistake. I am offering you a way home.”
“Really?” Owen narrowed his eyes. “At what price?”
She laughed, it was a disturbing sound. “See that’s why I like you, you are a realist…” She paused and moved away from the doctor stopping to stare at the beer glass left on the table.
Her fingers cautiously touched its rim, recoiling instantly as if they had been burnt. She turned back to Owen and her eyes clawing through his mind. He drew breath as an intense pain split his head and ripped at his memories. Agroná’s face moulded itself with hatred and then the doctor caught a sudden glint of fear. She turned away from him and hit the glass from the table with an angry sweep of her hand.
She strode back to Owen and grabbed his throat lifting him from the ground. Her gaze shifted from him to the shards glistening on the floor. “What was said here?” she demanded, her grip trembling slightly on his windpipe.
Owen let out a strangled laugh. “Not to listen to your bollocks for a start.”
Agroná flung him to the floor and stood over him, she smiled and turned to a dimly lit corner. Owen followed her stride as her presence illuminated an alcove. Ianto sat, slumped against the wall, his eyes closed in a restless sleep. Agroná’s fingertips brushed his cheek at the trace of her touch the young man’s wounds began to bleed again.
“Leave him alone, bitch!” Owen got quickly to his feet and advanced toward them but the shadows surrounded him in forms of men grabbing his shoulders and forcing him back down on his seat.
Ianto flinched against the attention, his eyes moving rapidly under the fold of their lids. “Now, why would I do that?” Her hand moved over his heart. “Each breath is a step closer to death; surely a medical man such as yourself realises this.”
She bent closer to Ianto inhaling his ragged breathing. Her cold lips rubbed against his mouth, he pulled away with a shudder backing further into the alcove in the torment of his dream. Agroná laughed. “You cannot save him, you are both trapped in the past without hope of rescue. His condition will worsen and eat away at his strength and you will have to watch him slowly and painfully slip away. Invoke any bad memories for you doctor?”
Flashes of Katie’s slow demise ripped through Owen’s mind, her confusion, her anguish and the pain of the alien’s lingering grasp on her brain. He screamed, clutching his head in his hands digging his finger into his skull as if to scrape away those raw memories. “Can you do it again, Owen, can you bear to watch someone’s life slowly tick away?”
She stood, the darkness shrouding her face so only the flare of her eyes were visible “Give him over to me, Owen Harper and save yourself.”
“No, never.” He looked up challenging her.
Agroná held his gaze. “Tell me, doctor, did she think of you as the alien sucked her life and her dreams away? The man she trusted to fulfil all those aspirations, a doctor who could not even heal his own fiancée.”
She placed her hand on Ianto’s shoulder. “I wonder who he will cry for in those last agonising moment, you, his friend, his captain, or maybe like these fools…” She gestured at the room. “…He will cry for the comfort of his deranged mother who found God more appealing than her own son? Either way, Owen Harper, he will become another victim for Torchwood and the rift.”
The doctor struggled against the grip of dark hands. “I won’t let that happen.”
She laughed again and Ianto drew further back. Owen fought once more against the restraining shadows. “Ask yourself if you will be able to bear it, to see such torment and know it is within your grasp to end it?”
He looked at Ianto’s flushed face. “I took an oath…”
“And yet you still kill,” she snarled as Owen again bore witness to flashes of his past, “tell me, open your heart, doctor, what is your ratio between killed and saved?”
He attempted to block out the images. Agroná watched him closely. ”And which do you get the most pleasure in?”
She smiled. “Do not delude yourself, I can read you, see who you are, a small, frightened, pathetic child, unloved and unwanted, the habitual failure, spineless and corruptible, trying so hard yet running away from any real commitment. Even your colleagues dislike you, they only tolerate you because of your medical expertise.”
“That’s not true!”
“Are you so sure? The tea-boy shot you without so much of a second thought; did he do it out of love? I think not!”
Agroná seized Ianto’s hair, her pale skin reddening slightly with rage. She pulled his head back. “Return the favour, doctor dear, kill him or I will let loose my wraith upon you and you will wish for death ten times over!”
Owen’s eyes narrowing. “Why?”
The question threw her. “Why save me and not Ianto?”
She loosened her grip and Ianto fell forward. “Because his blood is mine.”
Ianto screamed under the guise of rest, it ripped through the cloud of Owen’s dream and sent the doctor back to the trench.#
Story Copyright ©RMC April 2018
Some words and ideas for this chapter 'borrowed' from Stanley Kubrick - Paths of Glory, final scene.