Dark Diana

Jill left the meeting in a rage. She’d expected them to cut her funding. But not by twelve percent! Now the gallery’s opening hours would be cut to four days a week, or even fewer.

She knew who it was going to. They could deny it all they liked. They even had one of Her posters on the wall. There was something creepy about those posters. Had  they all been photoshopped? It was uncomfortable sitting in the room with that face smiling down. The eyes were so contrived as to follow you around the room. It was as if everyone in the meeting was hypnotised — except Jill, of course. Although even she could feel the power of that image. Could it be a mere, matter of time? Chilling thought!

As she drove home Her posters were everywhere. Was it imagination or were there more than yesterday? They smiled down with ― insincerity? Yes, there was that. Nothing behind that smile. No experience. No living or loving. No recognition of anyone but herself. The smile: supercilious with a practised effeteness about the eyes. As if the photographer had directed her. “OK, now give me world-weariness… Great!”

As she drove, a maddening itch started in her left ankle. She resisted scratching it, not wanting to get it any more inflamed than it was. Ought to see Doctor Orwell about that. Get it fixed. Pity she’d not kept up with her health insurance. These days, the NHS was a waste of space.

The figure in the poster was huge, smiling down like a giantess on her admiring hoards. She was even holding a baby in her arms. Clever. The originals had never had that degree of power. Below the icon a vacuous, insincere message in two foot high capitals reinforced the image.

“DIANA LOVES YOU!”

The world’s gone mad. Or maybe it’s been mad all along. Maybe madness makes art necessary. Could base a lecture on that. Have to think of other examples, though. Not to risk being ‘disinvited’. Or fired. The lectures supplemented Jill’s dwindling income and she didn’t want to compromise it further by criticising Her. Just as she thought this, as if to rub it in, a small, black car pulled up in front of her and She got out.

There was no mistaking Her. The mop of blond hair. The bland face with the slight crookedness about the nose. The studied casualness of the Armani jeans, the striped rugby shirt from Eden Park, and the whole ensemble set off by a string of pearls. It was the Diana alright. Jill was so close she could have mounted the pavement and hit her with enough force to kill. Instead she just stared. As hypnotised as the crowds already gathering around Her. Some Japanese tourists were taking photographs. The car in front braked, and Jill was forced to stop too.

Princess Diana struck a theatrical pose, her hand to her head. Jill heard her say: “Oh, leave me alone!”  before flouncing into a nearby sports club.

Oh well. If Jill had run her down they would just get another one. At even more cost to the city treasury. And the gallery’s budget would have to be further cut to pay for it. Even so: sooner or later, She’d get too old and have to be replaced. Maybe next time they’d get a better actor.

A whole generation had grown up since the real Princess Diana had died. But they’d been nurtured with the myth all their lives. Told tales of Diana and shown pictures of her. Until they had come to want her ― demand her. As they demanded mobile phones, computers, and DVDs.

So now, every city that could afford to — and a few that could not — had their own, official Princess Diana look alike. A real-life Barbie Doll. Often altered by surgery. Allowed to live like a princess. At public expense.

Of course, just one kind of woman would take a job like that, snarled Jill to herself. She would not just have to be materialistic in every fibre of her soul She would have to be neurotic, too. Maybe even psychotic, as well. A monster to satisfy the other all consuming monsters of an over-acquisitive culture. Small wonder then, that the Frankensteins in the city councils found themselves victims. Cutting back on everything else to keep their creations in the style to which they’d grown accustomed.

Jill was just old enough to remember the real Diana (or was she synthetic too?). She could remember the princess who was the role model for women and girls the world over. Even now there were Hindu shrines in India and quasi-Christian cults in America. The princess had travelled well. But these Dianas were localised and inward looking ― by design. There was one restriction on each Diana’s opulence and freedom. All were forbidden to leave their sponsor city.  Never mind the country. This alone was enough to make a nonsense of the whole thing.

After all: a Diana who did not travel, did not visit the victims of plagues and earthquakes, did not go skiing with her children, did not marry ― or have affairs ― was no Diana at all.

Jill has noticed that the Dianas’ publicity managers were always careful to avoid showing any of the original Diana’s more human side. But Diana’s admiring throngs cared nothing for such subtleties. Theirs was a world where ― to be blunt ― charity began at home and “wogs” began at Dover ― or maybe the next town. In the years since England pulled out of Europe and the Royal Family withdrew to Scotland there had been a shrinking class of privileged employed for whom consumption was all. They did not see the difference between consumable myth and historical reality. “The Death of History” was a phrase on the lips of all intellectuals. Just as “God is dead” had been on the lips of their predecessors. Even for the unemployed, Diana was a kind of symbol. A woman of straw to clutch at but not to hold.

Back at the gallery, under the watchful eyes of one of the Diana posters, Jill surveyed the damage. A desk piled high with bills and notices of withdrawn patronage. It had been ‘proven’ by some dodgy statistics that tourists were more prone to visit cities that had their own Dianas. Companies that before had been all too willing to pay for exhibitions of painting and sculpture were now pouring money into the bottomless pit on legs.

Was there no limit to people’s stupidity. Perhaps not. It had always been the case that TV Soap Stars were beaten up because of something their characters said or did. The latest insanity was the fights between rival cities’ Diana fanatics over which was the real one.

Jill had had this argument over before with some element of the lunatic fringe on an arty farty chat show. One she had been tricked into appearing on as a guest authority. The audience had been made up of Diana lookalikes.

Jill sat at her desk and looked up into those watchful blue eyes. “I could be like that,” she said out loud. “I’m still young enough. I even have blue eyes and blonde hair!” She laughed out loud at the grotesque fate that had overtaken everyone. “Diana is a potential in every woman. Not something to be imposed from above!” she continued. Defiant.  She had said that on the chat show. Not that anyone had understood. Or cared.  Away from the chat show, it did not even ring true. It sounded like some stupid essay title.

“Of course Diana died!” a Diana lookalike in the audience had said. She was wearing full ceremonial anti-land-mine body armour. It was the first time that Jill had come face to face with any of the religious element of the Dianaists. “Nobody’s denying that! God! You people never listen!”

Jill’s head had swirled as she surveyed the audience. Were they all insane? Or was it just a herd instinct? Dianaesque mothers sat holding two or three year old Dianas complete with romper suits; designed to resemble the kind of thing Diana wore in the gym. There were fat Dianas as well as the thin. Although the anorexic kind proliferated. Jill remembered that the Diana website gave acolytes instructions on how to vomit up calories on cue.  “Of course no one’s denying that Diana was betrayed and killed by the forces of the establishment!”

Jill gaped. “Well, if you’re going to put it like that…”

But her rebuttal was drowned out by the Priestess of the Holy Temple of the Princess of Hearts. “She said she would come back from the dead. But the rotten establishment have created all the bogus Dianas to confuse her followers. And lead them astray!”

Jill gave in then. There was no answer. Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain. In any event the rising chant of “Diana! Diana!” made any kind of answer impossible.

A few days later the first churches were petrol bombed.

Things moved at the double after that. A civic order act brought a universal curfew, but that served to make matters worse as there was no one around during the night hours to report suspicious behaviour. There were few police around, of course.

When a newspaper was rash enough to publish the unvarnished truth about the real Diana, and even went so far as to criticise the modern cult, the paper’s office was firebombed too. After that nothing was safe. And it became even harder to find out what was going on. Besides, any institution that preserved the past ― be it newspaper, museum, or art gallery ― might just have hidden away some plain and hideous fact that could destroy the Dianaists’ beautiful delusions.

Now Jill, given three months salary in lieu of notice clung on to the gallery on condition that she supervised its closure. She agreed, to buy time. The staff were dismissed without notice and redeployed elsewhere. Good. There would be no witnesses.

The building seemed huge now that it was empty. Within the next few days, a large removal van came to collect the paintings. But by then she was ready for them. She had gone over this moment a dozen times. And prepared for it. She knew that the collection would be mothballed. It was a simple matter; though time consuming and hard work to switch the paintings on the walls. But she did not mind the exhaustion that came of the seeming endless task. She had the time for this labour of love. Every day she loaded up the trolley and moved more of her treasures to the lumber room where no one would think of looking. Her greatest fear was that she would run out of time. And so, she worked well into the night. Driven on by her passion to save for the people, one of the few beautiful collections that had not yet been broken up and sold to private galleries, abroad.

But there was time enough, just. Almost to the minute she replaced the last of her treasures with one from the slush pile in the store room. She giggled as the van drove away filled with the abandoned entries for competitions. The unsolicited submissions. The unwanted donations. The cheesy pictures of uncles. Grandfathers. Cats. Dogs. Horses. And the inevitable, adoring, but insipid portraits of Princess Diana. She fought back the laughter as she signed the insurance docket. Did little Stephen Pickles of 22 Jenkin Road ever imagine that his ‘Godzilla Destroying Tanks and Aeroplanes’ would have a value for insurance purposes of £2000? Would Jane Hepplewhite ever realise that her ‘Young Travellers’ was valued at £12,000? Of course, it was not their names on the manifest accompanying the docket. The paintings named on the manifest: the Cezannes, Manets, Vermeers, Lautrecs, Gaugans, and all the rest were locked away in the lumber room. It was fraud, of course. Of a kind. Wasn’t it obtaining goods by deception? How would history judge her? The paintings were still there; in safe keeping. And soon ― ‘when this solemn mockery is o’er’ ― they would be back on the walls where they belonged. So who was she defrauding? Not the public to whom the paintings belonged. And whom the trustees were depriving. Of course, one day the switch would be discovered. But in the current chaos that might take months or even years. And in the meantime, she would live on the last of her small savings. And ― perhaps ― ride out the madness.

It took her all of the next day and the day after to bring up the paintings from the lumber room. They would be safe until the trustees decided what to do with the building, she guessed.

After that, it was a new and beautiful life. Every day she rose from her sleeping bag and walked through the gallery as if seeing it anew. At first, the sound of her heals on the parquet flooring echoing through the vast emptiness made her feel uncomfortable. Then it occurred to her to connect her personal music player to the public address system. And from then on, she amused herself by selecting music to suite her mood. She avoided the clichés ― like Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures From an Exhibition’; which she had always felt was tasteless. She attempted to blend Debusy’s ‘La Mere’ with the Cezannes and Monets. This still seemed contrived. And in fact none of the Romantics seemed to work. Not even Swan Lake with Degas. Or Offenbach’s “Orfe” with the Lautrecs. In the end, it was Johanne Sebastian Bach that seemed the most satisfying. “Sacrilege, of course,” she said, “to reduce the great Baroque master to the role of mere wallpaper.” It was when she heard it in the lift that she decided the experiment was a failure. And that silence was a less intrusive companion.

It was just as well, because on the third day, the electricity was disconnected. She  had expected this. So she telephoned the electricity company to advise them that the notice to disconnect was a mistake, and tell them the new bank details for the direct debit. How long her bank balance would stand it she had no idea. But she would have to introduce some strict economies. The heating and the humidifiers were essential, of course, and could not be cut back. But it was just as well she decided against the Muzak. Lighting could be limited. Daylight would serve for most of the time. And she would use a torch at night. The better to not attract attention.

And yet, she  always hoped that she could admit the public again. That at least for a while she might be able to show off the exhibition.  It was inevitable that the trustees would find out what she had done and try to stop her. But perhaps, by then, she would have the public on her side. For the moment, the details escaped her. But she clung to the hope that, starved of real art, the ‘art going public’ would protest and start a campaign that she could somehow mobilise. Every day she crept out to the local newsagent and skimmed the papers for any mention of an outcry against the closure of the gallery. Nothing. Nothing on the radio either. What was wrong with people?

After a fortnight she decided to risk leaving the door open. In the hope that someone — perhaps an art lover passing that way out of habit — might wander inside. No one did. Jill wandered the galleries alone and despair closed in on her.

Then one day she left her office and walked down the staircase. For economy, she never used the lift, And, as she turned the corner into the gallery, she saw a small figure standing facing away from her.

It was a girl. A teenager by the look of her. She seemed tiny and defenceless. But to Jill she symbolised something great. The rising tide of protest seemed almost to swell behind her diminutive form. She turned around.

“I thought this place had closed.” The girl’s voice seemed clear and full of purpose.

Jill tried to sound reassuring, “No. We are keeping the gallery open. But not many people know yet. In fact you are the first.”

“Is that so?”  The girl clapped her hands three times. Steps could be heard in the adjoining gallery. So there was a protest movement. “Why did you do that?”

For the first time Jill sensed danger. The girl was tiny, but there was no mistaking the menace. Where had she seen before that defiant expression in those clear blue eyes?

“To preserve the best of the past for the public.”  No sooner were the words out than Jill realised where she had seen the girl before. Others like her were entering the gallery, now.  From their blond bobs to their flat heeled court shoes, they were all dressed alike. And all of them had the same air of menace.

“We tried to warn you before,” the young girl Diana was saying. “Things like this gallery have no place in the future. We are the future.” She glanced around her at the treasures on the walls. “Are any of these of Diana?” she demanded.

Jill felt a sudden burst of fury. “There is more to life, more to the world than Diana!” she shouted.

The girl drew herself up to her full height, which in other circumstances would have been a comic gesture. “In other words ― ‘No’.” She glanced around once more before barking out an order. “End it!”

All the other Diana lookalikes surged forward in a body. They pulled the paintings off the wall and began to heap them in the centre of the gallery. Jill shouted. She grabbed hold of one of them and shook her. But others ― too many others ― pulled her away.

“If it is before Diana it is irrelevant. And if it is after Her it is heresy!” the girl was chanting. “There can be no place for other images beside the sacred image of Diana!”

“You are mad! MAD!” shouted Jill. But they just held her and made her watch as they set fire to the paintings. She stared with eyes wide as she saw the work of centuries curl and blacken and crackle with bright blue flames. Her personal hell had found her.

When she was sure that nothing could be done to save the paintings, she kicked and bit and scratched and punched her way to freedom. Some demon gave her the strength to pull herself free. And now that she knew her precious paintings were lost, she found a new sense of purpose.

Perhaps they guessed her intention. Or maybe they meant the same fate for her. Either way, she proved herself the stronger in the end. And, kicking off her high heel shoes, she ran for the entrance. The screaming mob of Princess Dianas was feet away from her as she flung herself through the main door and closed it behind her. Then she turned the key in the lock and shouted: “Die you monsters! Die! Die! Die!” She laughed to herself at the unintended pun. And then tears began to stream down her face.

It was odd, but as Jill drove through the streets, she felt calm. But when the pale figure appeared before her did her heart beat faster.

There was one way to make the public see sense. Impress upon them that Diana is mortal. They could not believe she’d resurrected twice. And if she succeeded, perhaps there would be others to take up the challenge. Until every last one of the parasites…

She felt no pain, at first.

She saw the Diana crumple across the windscreen in a streak of blood and part of her was  aware of being hit by shards of glass and buckling metal.

Before the pain overwhelmed her, a tiny bubble of Jill’s thoughts burst through the confusion of sensations and sounds. “How ironic! To be killed as the real Diana was killed… Fitting, for I am avenging the murder of her memory!”

“She’s going to be OK!”

In a vague way, Jill was aware of the voice. For one terrible moment, she thought that they were talking about the Diana. But then she saw them lifting her out. And she could see that her head was set at an impossible angle. The rules were quite clear. Dianas were not allowed to fasten their seat-belts, in honour of the original Diana’s ‘sacrifice’. “Poor thing!” Jill’s eyes filled with tears. “Not your fault. Not your fault!”

Jill slept then. And in between those fitful episodes of sleep, she saw through a drugged consciousness. She knew that she was covered in bandages. After what seemed to be a long time ― weeks, or maybe even months ― she was able to make out a single,  cold, disembodied voice that spoke, without irony. “You are going to repay your debt to society, young lady! You should be proud.”

But I am, she thought. Can’t you see it had to be done?

As her eyes focused, she saw a familiar face looking down on her. It was Diana’s face.

Jill opened her mouth to speak. And the Diana opened her mouth too. It was then Jill saw that she was looking into a mirror. She screamed. But no sound came forth. And her reflection smiled back at her.

“You’re lucky,” said the flat, disembodied voice. “Your assets were impounded by the courts and your medical insurance was voided by your wilful, dangerous driving. But this way you get to live.”

Jill tried to scream again. But her reflection smiled. A coy smile. With fluttering eyelashes.

“Of course, the microchip we put inside your brain means you can live as Diana, and as no one else. But hey! Lots of people out there would switch places with you!” He grinned, with the familiar glint of fanaticism in his eyes. “And with the gene splicing job they did on you, you’ll look that good for decades. ’Course, you won’t quite live forever. But it will seem like it.”

He smiled down at her, but she couldn’t take her eyes off her creepy reflection. She wanted to  vomit, but somehow she couldn’t.

“The implant is overriding your gag reflex. We can’t have you puking in public. Bad for the Princess’s image. Oh, and we’ve removed the varicose ulcer on your ankle. Couldn’t have Diana scratching her leg in public now, could we?”

Jill screamed again, deep inside. She screamed again and again at the realisation that she could not stop screaming. No one could hear it. And that hoarse,  internal scream was to go on ringing in her ears ― forever.

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About Zoe Nightingale

I am a writer of short stories, novels, poetry and non fiction.
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