By Paul Goodman
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The witching hour was gone; the iron tongue of Big Ben had tolled twelve, and only the mice were stirring in Room 101, Portcullis House. Apart, that is, from its occupant – J.Alfred Prufrock, MP for Grummidge West, who was finishing off his pre-Christmas constituency correspondence. Through thick lids and gummy eyes, Prufrock peered at the draft before him with the scrupulous care of a Mayan High Priest examining a calendar:
Dear Canon Heffer (it ran),
Thank you for your e-mail about same-sex marriage. While I wish to deny to no-one the happiness that marriage has brought to me, I am extremely mindful of the points that you make about religious freedom and, indeed, our Judeo-Christian heritage. I will therefore reflect carefully on the points you make before deciding how to vote. As you request, I will also alert Maria Miller, who as say is responsible for forthcoming legislation on the matter, to the point you highlight from the briefing supplied to you by Anglican Mainstream – namely, that "the rectal lining is unable to withstand penetrative activity".
J.Alfred Prufrock MP
Prufrock's gaze strayed briefly to the left of his computer, where a wedding photograph of Mrs Prufrock, inexpertedly snapped outside Wolverhampton Council's registry office, and now decorated with a mournful sprig of mistletoe, occupied pride of place. Grimly, he wrenched his attention back to his next draft reply.
Dear Ms Outrage (it ran),
Thank you for your
e-mail about same-sex marriage. While I wish to deny religious freedom to no-one, I am extremely mindful of the points you make about equality, and I wish deny to no-one the happiness that marriage has brought to me. I will therefore reflect on the points you make before deciding how to vote. As you request, I
will also pass on to my colleague, Mr David T.C Davies, who as you say once contested a boxing match against "The Pink Pounder", your view that alternative physical activity with that gentleman would enable him to "get with the programme".
J.Alfred Prufrock MP
Mazy with sleep, Prufrock's eyes wandered to the right of his computer, where the remaining space was occupied by a Christmas card from David Cameron. A waving Prime Minister…a smiling Samantha Cameron…the Olympic Torch. Prufrock's eyes strayed back to the photgraph of his wife…and then back again to that of the Prime Minister, as his head gently drooped…
When he raised it again, he blinked, and looked around him. Something was wrong, surely? The lights had dimmed. The room was darker. And who was that person on the other side of the desk, wearing green velvet trousers, a canary-coloured waistcoat, low shoes and silver buckles, with lace at his wrists and his hair in ringlets? Was this strange visitor wearing scent?
"Ugh", Prufrock half-said, before prudently converting the noise into a cough. "Do I know you?"
"You most certainly do," answered Benjamin Disraeli.
Prufrock was not an MP for nothing. Let no-one accuse him of being slow to get to the heart of the matter. "What are you doing here?" he asked.
"I am the Ghost of Christmas Future," his interlocutor replied.
"Christmas Past, surely," said Prufrock. "Not that I'm displeased to see you, mind," he said, recovering his manners. "Very colourful costume. No objection to it myself. But you may have to tone it down a bit. Things have changed, you know. Even our modern, diverse Conservative Party has its limits. Do you dress like that everyday?"
"No," said Disraeli. "I'm going to a wedding."
"Really?" asked Prufrock. "Whose?"
His visitor gave the ghost of a smile: "Yours."
At once the room vanished. Prufrock gasped. His vision was suddenly swimming with light. He found himself standing at the North Door of Westminster Abbey.
Outside was a heaving, howling mob of protesters. The thin blue line of armed police could scarcely wrestle it back. Amidst the sea of spitting hasidic rabbis, grieving Catholic priests, placard-wielding Imams, and bellowing Pentecostalist pastors, Prufrock recognised Peter Hitchens, William Joynson-Hicks, Nigel Farage, King Edward I, his mother (what was she doing there?) and, horror of horrors, officers of his own Conservative Association.
Was that really Peter Bone kicking a policeman? Why was Owen Paterson setting fire to himself? And what was Gary Streeter doing brandishing an AK47?
Inside was a benign and beaming congregation, dressed in society wedding finest. Photographers swooped and choirboys warbled. Prufrock's eye could pick out Pitt the Younger, his Uncle Percy (what was he doing here?), Patrick McLoughlin, Hillary Clinton, Gandalf the Grey and a four-man team of ushers: George Osborne, Michael Gove, Eric Pickles and Boris Johnson, the latter sporting a pink carnation and missing several waiscoat buttons.
With a terror that is scarcely describable, the realisation came to Prufrock that these shrieks and yells, these smiles and winks, were all alike directed at him.
"No time to lose," said Disraeli, who was now clad all in black. "Your bridegroom awaits."
"Bridegroom," gasped Prufrock. "But…but…This is ridiculous. This is impossible. Why -" he said, swooping on that last point, like a Queen's Council seizing on some unrebuttable point of law. "This isn't a Quaker Meeting House! It isn't a liberal synagogue!" Disraeli raised his right eyebrow slightly. "It's Westminster Abbey! There's a Quadruple lock! And I'm NOT GAY!"
At this last pronouncement, the yells from outside and hubbub from within fell magically silent. "Not that I've anything against gay people," he said, and his voice echoed back at him in that vast space. "I mean, some of my best friends are gay. Well, they aren't, actually. But that's only because I haven't got any friends. I mean, that's to say -"
At this point, Prufrock did what I think you or I might well have done in the same circumstances: he made a run for it. Too late! The ushers were upon him! Osborne seized his left arm. Gove grabbed his right. Pickles upended his right foot. Boris, snorting heavily, pulled at his left. Amidst catcalls, wolf-whistles and cheers from the entire congregation, a yammering Prufrock was dragged slowly up the aisle of the ancient Abbey towards its candle-illuminated high altar. The choir rocked into "I am what I am". Ed Llewellyn was applauding. Robbie Gibb and Giles Dilnot were laughing. Matthew Parris was doing a handstand on a seat while banging his feet together.
Suddenly, as the ushers and their burden reached the high altar, the noise was cut off, as though a switch had been turned on a radio. Prufrock was up-ended into a great silence. And there before him was the other bridegroom. The Prime Minister! And next to him, the best man. A grinning Nick Clegg!
"You see, Albert," said Cameron, "these fears and fantasies that trouble you have a deeper symbolic meaning. You are the Conservative Party. I am your leader. We are joined together, you and I, in a bond that no lack of victory can break. Farage may posture. And Miliband may pose. But we will triumph together, you and I – with, of course, my best man…our best man…the Deputy Prime Minister. The Coalition will endure. It will go on and on. On and on and on…past lost by-elections…defecting activists…past defeat in the Euro-elections…on and on and on. Once again, the Conservative Party may not make it across the finishing line in 2015. But that won't matter. Because the Coalition will always be there…You will always be there…and I will always be there…in Downing Street…as Prime Minister: you, I and the Coalition, on and on and on and on." His voice rose to a shout of triumph. "Those whom Clegg hath joined together, let no man put asunder! Merry Christmas! And a Happy New Year!"
Prufrock opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came from it. He stirred his limbs as if to move them, but a great weight seemed to pin him down. He felt himself thrash as if through deep water, upwards towards the light. As he woke in his office, with Ben Ben striking three, he found himself screaming, screaming, screaming, and unable to stop…