“Tragedy. Now then.”
A hushed air of boredom descended upon the classroom. Lazy afternoon sun filtered in through open windows, dodging white, marshmallow clouds on their unhurried journey across the sky. Spinning motes of dust hung suspended in the air. In the silence the gentle clicks of Scrabble tiles against the board were audible from the back of the classroom. I felt my eyelids begin to close and my mind to wander pleasantly.
Mr. Henry studied a snag in his puke-coloured woolly jumper, irritation creasing his brow and causing his rambling monologue to take a slight break. He was unrivalled in his position of the most boring teacher in the entire college. An incredibly ugly man with a thick, untamed tangle of hair smothering the lower half of his face. Heavy black glasses magnified his eyes, causing them to swim unnervingly behind the lenses like goldfish in a bowl and thick, rubbery lips which protruded from his face in a disgusting manner… everything about this man was thick and ugly, right down to his hideous collection of hand-knitted jumpers.
“Yes, tragedy. Tragedy.”
Mr. Henry finished his examination of the defect in his jumper and looked up sharply, squinting through his spectacles. He didn’t seem aware of the fact that he was obviously incapable of holding our attention for any length of time, or perhaps he just didn’t care. He pursed his rubbery lips horribly.
“Who can give us an example of tragedy from literature?”
Beside me Cassandra yawned loudly, but I had woken with a start, I saw my chance. I leapt to my feet.
“Sir, sir I can, sir.”
Mr. Henry gazed at me dully.
“Let’s drop the ‘Sir’ Alison. You’re not in the army now.” He looked around quickly for signs of approval, or even laughter. There was a gentle murmur of concealed snickers from around the room. I shuffled awkwardly, feeling my face taking on a rosy hue, as I dropped my outstretched hand to my side. I was annoyed with myself for letting that Mr Henry make me feel so stupid. Taking a deep breath, I pushed on.
“A classic case of tragedy can be seen in the life of Thomas Chatterton, the marvellous boy whose poetry wasn’t recognised. When he was only seventeen he took his own life in a garret in London… now there’s tragedy for you.”
I stared into Mr Henry’s face, challenging him to say anything. Raising my hand carefully to my face, I stroked back my short, dark hair with an incredible air of arrogance that seemed almost palpable in the air around me. I held my head high, defying anyone at all to shatter this illusion; I could see Cassandra gazing up at me with a slight expression of boredom mixed with irritation. Somehow this just urged me on – I couldn’t stop now.
“Think of that great Romantic hero dying alone for his literature… that’s tragedy for you, a perfect example. It’s been captured with wonderful feeling by Henry Wallace in his painting, Chatterton. Such a tragic story should never be forgotten.”
There was silence. I was aware of several yawns and shuffling amongst my not so rapt audience. Beside me Cassandra kept her kohl-rimmed eyes fixed upon me, her irritation evidently increasing.
“My god, why don’t you just put a sock in it Alison?” she snapped, shaking back her wild mane of black hair, with a superb theatrical edge with which I was quite familiar by now, as was the rest of the class. Still they’d loved to watch such confrontation.
Drawing myself up to my full height I continued.
“The forgotten genius dying alone in his attic should never be pushed aside, as you’re trying to… such a tragedy clearly makes you feel uncomfortable, but you can’t ignore it, even though it happened so long ago.” I jabbed my forefinger aggressively towards Cassandra’s beautifully fragile face. “So don’t you dare tell me not to keep on reminding you of his tragic life – Chatterton should never be forgotten.”
Cassandra placed her finely manicured fingernails, painted black to match her hair, deliberately in front of her on the desk, and glanced dismissively up at me.
“It’s just that he’s so bloody boring Alison, that’s all. We’ve heard all about Chatterton and I wish you’d change the record.” I caught several murmurs of agreement amongst the rest of the class.
Clenching my fist, which only just protruded from the sleeves of my shapeless grey jumper. I spoke through gritted teeth, turning fully to face Cassandra – hopefully intimidating her.
Like a true Taurus, I stood my ground.
“So, what if you’ve heard it before! It’s important that you remember the story, don’t just dismiss it.”
Mr Henry stood up, removing his glasses. His eyes were on me, although he probably couldn’t even make out my outline with those hideous bottle-ends. I watched him carefully. I could spot that smirk a mile off, the one that meant Mr. Henry thought he was being extremely clever.
“Alright, we won’t dismiss the sad case of Mr. Chatterton, Alison,” he said in his most patronizing tone.
It set my teeth on edge, it really did.
“But I think that you ought to consider a different viewpoint of his death. You will surely not deny that it is conceivable that he killed himself because he was driven to it, by shame and regret. He may, after all have copied those poems, as many accuse him of, and then tried to sell them as his own. You cannot dismiss that, Alison. As it is, you are obsessed with this totally romantic view of Thomas Chatterton which may just be fantasy.”
A vague cheer arose from my classmates; I glared round at them furiously. They all seemed to have assumed Cassandra’s policy against me ‘en masse’. Mr. Henry stood just in front of my desk, tapping his glasses on the knuckle of his other hand. He was beaming. He had gained support, approval even, at my expense and that, for him, was an entirely new experience. Unwisely, he decided to do his best to prolong this pleasurable situation.
“In your eyes the poet was a brilliant poet, alone and penniless in an unfair world. Circumstances drove him to his grave! But maybe not, maybe he did it himself, have you ever considered that? That he could have been a cheat, a swindler? Don’t let his youth fool you, there have been younger murderers!”
The cheers were gradually dying down now that the novelty of Mr. Henry’s attack had worn off. But there was no way to stop him: almost overcome with pride and excitement he pushed his ugly face towards my own.
“Your views are really very narrow-minded, Alison. You are lost in this fantasy, it’s romantic and it’s unreal. You are obsessed with this … vision …of Romance.”
Silence fell. I stared coldly at the leering face. My height gave me an added advantage in confrontations generally. I was taller than most people and this meant that I could look down on them. I also possessed a quite remarkable scowl that Byron himself would have been proud of. I looked at Mr. Henry and scowled fiercely. Then, reaching out my hand, I removed those disgusting spectacles from his nose. His mouth opened and shut quickly, but he made no sound. Keeping my eyes fixed on him and holding the glasses between my forefinger and thumb, I dropped them onto the floor beside my desk. They clattered noisily on the tiles but did not break. Around me thirty pairs of eyes were fixed upon me, waiting breathlessly. The temptation to smile was very great, but I restrained myself, not wishing to spoil the effect. Then, with great deliberation, I stretched out my right leg and stood heavily upon the glasses, crushing them beneath the heel of my Doc Marten’s. There was a delightful crunching sound and Mr. Henry began to gibber. Silently adopting my Satanic scowl one again, I collected up my books and strode past the miserable man and out of the room. Not a sound followed me.
Chatterton, oh Chatterton, what would they do to you? They would rather have you dead and buried in a pauper’s grave, forgotten and denied what little we owe you. Such a tragic figure … yet so ironic that beauty adorns the figure in death, a lifeless beauty that does not fade.
I turned away from the painting of the dead Chatterton that dominated the whole of the front room and gazed out of the window. That early evening softness smothered the sharp shouts of children playing. I noticed that the roses in the front garden were beginning to bud amongst the tangle of honeysuckle, long grass and weeds and I was glad. Outside the window Bosworth sat on the sill and stared at me with glassy green eyes. I made a face at him but he just blinked and, shifting his immense orange bulk so that he could see better, continued to gaze into the room. I wondered why he didn’t come in if he was so interested in the room: but to tell the truth he didn’t look interested, just contented and vacant as cats do. I stretched and yawned, running a hand over my fuzzy, closely cropped head, wondering what to do. Throwing myself into the armchair, I gazed at the phone for some minutes, I could phone Cassandra. No, not after today’s performance with the English Lit class: I was determined to maintain my silence towards her until she apologised. I thought that this may take up to a week but I didn’t mind waiting. She owes me an apology at least; fancy siding with, of all people, Mr. Henry, against me, I hit the side of the sofa in frustration. Cassandra could act in such an infuriatingly contradictory manner sometimes. Well, this time she had gone too far. She could just go down on her bended knees before me and beg for forgiveness.
A gentle knocking at the front door, so quiet that I could hardly hear it, brought me down to earth and I stood up wearily. Knowing whom it would be, I went out into the hall and quickly picked up my jacket and hat, which I had thrown onto the floor when I had come home and hung them up tidily. I cast a final, hasty glance around me, and then I opened the door.
“ Hello Mam,” I said.
“Hello dear,” came the reply, in breathless, abstracted tones.
My mother pushed past me into the hall, her tiny black eyes flickering over every object, every surface, scrutinizing, examining, missing nothing. A tiny, compact woman, she stood nearly two feet below me, certainly no taller than four feet in her black slippers, which she wore constantly, even now. But, what she lacked in inches, my mother more than made up for in pure energy; she attacked every task, however mundane it may be regarded, with a vigour and enthusiasm that I could only stand back and marvel at. She was always alert and watchful, expecting unknown intruders to creep up, taking her by surprise, but there was no chance of that. My mother was always on her guard; a spring tightly wound which would explode alarmingly if touched.
I stood back as her roving, sharp eyes fixed on me, scanning me quickly up and down. I stroked my hair and hitched up my belt self-consciously. My mother pursed her lips and frowned.
“What are you wearing? Pyjamas?”
“Yes, they’re Granddad’s, I found them in the wardrobe.”
My mother’s face was expressionless, but it was clear that she did not appreciate my dress sense.
“I’ve brought your washing,” she told me abruptly, gesturing with a nervous jerk of her head, “in this bag. And here’s some milk and cheese and stuff and cat food. Have you vacuumed this week?” Her face twitched involuntarily and she wrung her hands nervously.
“Yes Mam,” I sighed.
“Hmm, well you missed this biscuit that’s been trodden on.”
“I did that after.”
“And what’s this? She bent to peer at a large stain on the wallpaper. I thought quickly of Joseph’s accident with the bottle of Greek wine (which he had just brought and was opening on the way into the house) and swallowed.
“Um – it’s – er – water.”
“Water,” my mother repeated dully, examining the stain.
I would probably never find out if she believed me or not. However, she moved on, soon enough, her anxious eyes roaming this way and that. She paused only to remove her square black hat carefully from her head and, after caressing the bobbing ebony plume lovingly, she had to stand on tiptoe to hang it on even the lowest of the hooks. Satisfied, she turned away and scurried into the front room. I followed silently.
“Just remember that this is not your house dear, and we have to sell it soon and so it’s not to get damaged. Your father will do his nut if the place is not shipshape. Which reminds me, he says he’s coming over next week with a chap to value the house.”
I was speechless for several moments, such was my shock, and I grabbed her arm.
“When next week? When? When?”
“I can’t remember, Tuesday I think. I’ll ring you.”
But her eyes had grown alarmingly misty and vague as they did whenever threatened in this manner. Despite the tremendous amount of nervous energy at her disposal, she seemed to lack the necessary coordination, which would channel this energy into her frontal lobes; consequently, her memory was atrocious. She wouldn’t ring me. I would just have to sit still all week so I didn’t knock anything out of place after I had cleaned it. I couldn’t have anyone round, I couldn’t cook – I might mess up the kitchen. I couldn’t smoke – my father would smell the nicotine a mile off. I prayed that the damp patch would at least fade, if not disappear completely, by next week.
It wasn’t so much that I feared my father – it’s just that the idea of him entering what I considered to be my home was so appalling and outrageous. We usually avoided each other whenever possible, so managing to maintain a quiet distance between us. It was just when we got together that the trouble started. And it was unfortunate that one of our main points of friction was my house. I say my house, but it was legally my parents since my granddad, who used to live there, died and left the house, along with everything in it, to them. The house was just down the road from my college so I thought that it would be quite reasonable to assume that I should stay in it until it was sold. Unfortunately, my father did not share my point of view. He had scowled (I had, supposedly, inherited my famous Satanic scowl from him) at me from beneath his bushy eyebrows, his thin, geometric face slicing the air with cold, hard lines and buried his hands in his pockets, avoiding my arrogant stare as he always did when we confronted each other. Perhaps this was due simply to the fact he could not return my glare fully without craning his neck upwards (he, like my mother, was short).
“I know what you’d be like left alone in the house,” he had muttered grumpily. “Alcohol every night, so called friends wrecking the place, all night parties, loud music, God knows what else – oh, no Alison. You’ve got to learn to be a bit responsible before you can live alone.”
Of course I argued and Mam did too, in her nagging, wheedling way but he wouldn’t budge. Then I had the clever idea of bribing someone I knew at college whose mother worked with my dad, to come into my parents off-licence and do a little stirring. She gave a brilliant performance and it worked because she was also in charge of promotions at the factory and, of course, my dad was fishing.
“After all Mr Smith, she is nineteen and it’s so much more convenient for her. She can always keep an eye on things for you. You know what empty houses are like, an open invitation to vandals.”
I could see that it was on the tip of my fathers’ tongue to say, yes my daughter is one of them, but he agreed to let me live there. I paid my colleague off and moved in.
Pretty soon I had the place looking more like home. A varied array of pictures on almost every wall, the more offensive china ornaments placed strategically behind wardrobes and curtains, my immense Gramophone wired up to full volume and my clothes filling the wardrobe and spilling out onto the bed and floor. I adopted my usual anarchistic routine in all I did that Michael Bakunin himself would have truly smiled upon.
But, still … I watched my mother’s hurried, precise movements as she moved around the front room, picking things up, straightening pictures, and checking for dust. She seemed oblivious to everything but the most mundane. I sighed, frustrated and turned away. All that precious energy wasted. Perching on the edge of the windowsill, I tapped on the glass to attract Bosworth’s attention. He gave me only a single glance of disdain, and then returned his great emerald eyes to their original spot, an intriguing area of the skirting board just to the right of the sofa.
The ‘Sitting Duck’ was fairly empty that night. At first I was surprised, then I remembered that it was a Monday. It’s a funny thing about Mondays; they seem to be universally unpopular. No one likes to venture out on a Monday, even though there’s never anything on telly. There was no TV in the pub; Father O’Rourke disliked the television intensely and it seemed that Ms O’Rourke had compromised upon that point. After all, it must have been quite a blow to the Father when his sister had decided to convert his old church into a pub. Of course, the Father had been allocated a new church on the other side of the town, an immense ugly building of iron and steel, but that was not the point. Every evening Father O’Rourke lurked behind the bar, a glass of whisky in his hand, glowering scornfully at the locals. Ms. O’Rourke totally ignored him, serving people busily and cheerfully, her loud Irish voice always audible above the general buzz of conversation. She greeted me now with her usual vigour.
“Well hello there, Alison my love. And how are things with you then?”
“Alright Ms. O’Rourke?” I called in reply.
Although it was a question, I thought it would do for an answer as well. Looking around, I spotted Joseph, Cassandra and Jane, trying not to catch my eye. Cassandra especially, was staring intently at the ceiling, making it obvious to all and sundry that she was ignoring me. I was a little put out, why should she ignore me, I didn’t laugh at her in front of everyone, after all. I turned away and went over to the bar. Ms. O’Rourke joined me immediately, a beer glass in her hand.
“A pint, love?” she asked and I nodded. As she filled the glass she said, “Nothing wrong, is there?”
I shook my head, shrugged and sighed. I couldn’t be bothered explaining it all, even to Ms. O’Rourke. She was like a mother to me and probably to everyone else too. I admire the way she managed the pub, the way she held everything under control with such good humour. A crimson smile was always painted on her thickly made-up face. Not that she was ugly; oh no, she was one of the most beautiful women I knew. Tall and slim, she lacked the customary red hair of the Irish and instead sprouted ebony locks which fell down her back like horse’s tails. She wore huge, gold hoops in her ears, which made her look even more like a gypsy. She was always immaculately dressed in one of many different dresses, all the same style, backless and strapless, held up by sheer willpower, in a variety of volcanic shades and splendid patterns. Tonight was the turn of the plain crimson. I gazed jealously as I paid, then I noticed movement behind Ms. O’Rourke.
“Evening Father,” I called.
Father O’Rourke turned away at my greeting and grunted. His sister glared at him darkly.
“Ignore him, love. Silly sod.”
She leaned towards me confidentially.
“I’ll tell you why he’s in such a foul mood. Look.”
She gestured to the left of the bar, where work was obviously in progress. Planks leaned restfully against the wall, while the floor was littered with nails, sawdust and other debris. I raised my eyebrows questioningly. Ms. O’Rourke leant further over the bar, her earrings jangling and whispered in my ear.
“The confession boxes.”
“Ah.” I nodded and winked knowingly.
“They’re useless you see? But of course he accuses me of being irreligious.”
She shook her head sadly and shrugged. I patted her shoulder reassuringly and glared at Father O’Rourke who was lurking by the salted peanuts. He reminded me too much of the obnoxious Mr. Henry for my liking. He even sported the same thick bottle-ends for glasses. Must be trendy.
Picking up my pint, I began to manoeuvre my way around stools and wooden pews to where my friends were huddled secretively around one of the oak tables. All the tables and pews in the pub were made of oak and they lent the pub an air of grandeur and opulence which its’ name did not imply. The building itself was wasted on the Catholic Church; immense arches of oak beams curved with a certain Gothic grace across the high ornate ceiling. Ms. O’Rourke had fixed up lights outside the massive stained glass windows that shone through into the interior of the building, lighting up the pictures of various holy people and their sheep, which rivalled Ms. O’Rourke’s dresses in their vividness of colour. God knows why they didn’t call the pub ‘The Church’, probably Father O’Rourke had objected.
As I sat down, I noticed a figure sitting alone a few tables away. The figure’s back was towards me but I took a good look at his thin, scrawny body shrouded in black, before I sat down. It was unusual to see anyone new around these parts; the town of Timperley was not the most exotic place on earth.
“Alright?” I grunted amiably to my friends and took a gulp of beer. No one answered, as I expected but Joseph caught my eye, winked and smiled in greeting. Jane stared dismally at the floor and Cassandra’s glazed gaze remained fixed rigidly on the ceiling; I stifled a sigh and told myself that patience was, after all, a virtue.
“Hear you had a bit of trouble with Mr. Henry today, Al,” said Joseph smoothly, running his hand over his bald head.
He told me that he had to shave his head once every three days to keep it smooth and stubble-free. The skin that covered it and everything else was the colour of golden syrup. I didn’t know where he came from but it certainly wasn’t Clapham.
“Cassandra told me you trod on his specs,” he continued and grinned, his white teeth flashing. “Good move.”
“Mm,” I nodded, glancing at Cassandra. I wished that she would at least look at me and acknowledge her guilt. I was quite willing to forgive her, if she asked me to, but her black eyes remained obstinately elsewhere, her face set. I tried to needle her into submission.
“Mr. Henry’s no trouble, I can handle him.” I said, half to Joseph, half to Cassandra. “It’s when people start ganging up on you – people who claim to be friends – that’s what gets to me.”
It did the trick; Cassandra switched her piercing stare to me with an almost audible ‘click’. Jane groaned and draped her silk shawl over her head. Through my elation I felt a twinge of fear, as I always did when I provoked Cassandra. She was a figure of power and eccentricity throughout the college; her links with the occult and witchcraft were known and generally feared. Her image was further established by her wearing of long, black skirts, shawls and dresses, millions of gold and silver bangles, rings and necklaces and her mass of black hair which stuck out in all directions in long, threatening spikes. She possessed an incredible collection of immense, heavy earrings which Bet Lynch from Coronation Street would have been envious of; crystal globes and teardrops the size of ping-pong balls, geometric shapes in psychedelic shades of red, black and electric blue and strings of pearls and coloured beads which grazed her shoulders. But Cassandra had an immaculate sense of style. Anything she sported would look incredible, you could guarantee it. It was this remarkable self-possession and style that made people slightly nervous in her presence.
Cassandra glowered at me now across the table and I gazed steadily back, a silly half-smirk on my face. After a moment of silence, Joseph rose.
“I’m having another,” he said indicating his glass, “Anyone else?”
No one replied, so he walked off. Cassandra leaned towards me.
“You’ve got a bloody nerve, ‘Ganging up on you?’ Don’t tell me you’re bloody paranoid as well.”
I looked up sharply.
“As well as being obsessed with some bloody poet who’s been dead and buried for two hundred years!”
“I’m not obsessed.”
“Yes you bloody are! Very much obsessed, I’d say.”
Cassandra leant in a pool of beer, jabbing a silver tipped finger at me to punctuate her words, her bangles swaying and clanking like a drawer of crockery as she did so.
“For weeks we’ve heard nothing from you but the life and times of Thomas Chatterton and I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m bloody sick of it! It’s about time you changed the record; but you won’t have it, will you?”
She stood up and I quickly followed her, so that she would have no advantage over me.
“Oh no, you’re just being got at when anyone tries to tell you how bloody boring you are.”
At this point, I felt I should say something but I couldn’t think of any suitably cutting reply. I expected Cassandra to sweep out and leave me gawping while she was still winning, but she didn’t. As Joseph returned with another pint and sat down, she sat down too and gazed at me vacantly as if nothing had happened. I leaned forward with my palms on the table and took a few deep breaths. It had gone very quiet. I looked around and counted one... two… three… four people staring at our table curiously. One of them was that black hunched up figure a few tables away. I could see now, that it was a man, though it was not at all obvious. His face was pale, so pale that it stood out vividly against the black of his clothes. At first, I thought that he had no shirt on; but as I looked closer, I saw that it was a crisp one which was almost as pale as his skin. I caught his eye and glared at him, he returned my look briefly, and then turned back to his glass of clear liquid. I wondered what it was, some life giving potion, I hoped.
I decided to sit down and as I did so, Joseph nodded at the black figure.
“I see you’ve noticed Dr. Death over there.”
I resigned myself to the fact that the argument was over. Maybe it was just as well anyway, even though I appeared to have lost miserably. I was glad to change the subject.
“I wonder what’s wrong with him? He looks like Death on a good day.”
“Perhaps he’s fatally ill,” suggested Cassandra.
“Or stoned,” said Jane quietly.
Carefully she removed her clogs and put them on the table in front of her. In the heel of each one she kept her store of cannabis.
“Fancy a joint anyone|?”
We all nodded and watched Jane expertly roll the joint, discussing Mr Henry and how long it would take for his spectacles to be mended. The conversation was quite abstract and amiable for a change. Even Jane joined in from time to time, which was rare; she usually looked on, her cow-eyes huge, concern lining her face, her shawl over her head as a protection, never saying anything. Any form of anger or violence sent her burying her head deep in the sand, which annoyed me for I thrived on conflict. However, Jane was never without a stock of various drugs and with her generous hand, she was a good friend to have. I very much doubt whether she would have said the same of me though.
At closing time, we all said good night and went our various ways home. I noticed the pale man scurry out into the night without so much as a ‘cheerio’ to Ms. O’Rourke, who waved good-naturedly all the same. I walked slowly home, enjoying the warm spring air all around me like a feather filled duvet, thinking of Thomas Chatterton lying dead across his bed.
I couldn’t settle when I got home, I don’t know why. I spent an hour or so wandering from room to room, picking things up and then putting them down again. Bosworth followed me round, his green eyes gazing at me vacantly whenever I turned to see if he’d gone. From time to time he slipped through my legs and rolled onto his back on the carpet in front of me, but after a while I grew bored of tickling him and so simply stepped over him and continued on my way. It was possible that this feeling of dissatisfaction did have some reason or cause behind it; for it was far more probable that this restless state of mind was fast becoming a permanent fixture in my life. I paced the floor of the front room, feeling like the prisoner in the ‘Pit and the Pendulum’. Poe-like, my fear came upon me and I wrung my hands, trying my best to think calming thoughts. Perhaps I should take up meditation or yoga or something. Probably Jane could give me a few lessons. My head buzzed with restless energy, there was something, always something which I craved for but could never quite reach. I couldn’t be sure it was real – Christ, I didn’t even know what it was - like Tantalus with his bloody grapes. I kicked the sofa in frustration. I know only that I want something that I do not, and perhaps cannot, have. My eye fell on Chatterton’s portrait and I flung myself on the sofa, sighing; I know how you feel, mate. I wondered at my use of the present tense … perhaps Cassandra was right when she had said that I was obsessed. I longed to go back … the death cries of the French Revolution sounded so sweet to my ears. I am an anachronism I thought with satisfaction and felt better. My bed now beckoned invitingly, the pillow seeming a pleasant place on which to lay my weary head. I climbed the stairs with deliberate, four dimensional steps.
Half way across the landing I stopped by the open door of one of the spare bedrooms, I stood still, listening. I could have sworn that I heard a noise … yes … a slight cough … there it was again. Stooping, I picked up a coat hanger, which was lying on the floor by my feet (and which I had seen used as a fairly lethal weapon in ‘Halloween’). I reached out my hand towards the light switch. I was afraid and yet, I was desperate to know who – or what – was in my house. The room remained in darkness; I was unable to make the connection between the light switch and my hand, which hovered a few inches away from it.
I could only make out a figure standing or sitting by the window. As the gibbous moon shone bright behind it, it seemed blacker than the shadows, less corporeal than them even. It shifted its position but made no move towards me, threatening or otherwise. A sudden clatter caused me to leap out of my skin; I cried out, thinking that the figure had thrown something at me and grabbed at the light switch. A white glare flooded from under the red artificial silk lampshade and the figure turned away, shielding its eyes. I turned away as well but only for a moment. Then I squinted round at the bare double bed and the figure by the window. Although he had his back to me, and his arms flung across his face, I recognised him as the pale man in the pub. I felt an urge to laugh, followed rapidly by a wave of anger. How in God’s name did he get in?
“How did you get in?” I shouted suddenly, frightening myself. The man still didn’t move from the window or even turn round. I felt a little more confident; I didn’t think he would attack me now.
“Tell me how you got in,” I demanded again.
“Turn the bloody light off,” he said. His cloak, which he held over his face, muffled his voice, which was irritable and bitter.
“No chance,” I told him. I didn’t want to be left in the dark again. I took a step forward and stood on something sharp. Of course, my coat hanger, I picked it up.
“It hurts my eyes. Please.”
“Tell me how you got in.”
The pale man tutted and sighed. He continued to hold his cloak in front of his face.
“Through a window.”
I was surprised; I never left any downstairs windows open when I went out.
“Which window?” I asked abruptly.
“I don’t know. Upstairs.”
“How did you get up here?” I crossed quickly to the window and looked out but there was no ladder in sight.
“I climbed.” I couldn’t see his face but I knew he was lying. “Now, please … the light.”
“Was the window open?”
“Oh, I don’t know – yes of course it was. Does it matter?”
“Of course it matters.” I waved the coat hanger at him impatiently. “If you got in … anyone could get in.”
He chuckled dryly.
“Not quite anyone.” With his cloak still over his eyes, he began to stumble clumsily towards the bed, his other hand outstretched like that of a blind man. I could see his long pale fingers, bony like a skeletons.
“Where do you think you’re going?” I demanded, grabbing his cloak with my coat hanger to arrest his movement.
“I’m going to switch the bl0oody light off,” he explained patiently, as if to a child.
I strode over to the wall lamp and switched it on, then turned the main light off. The pale man seemed relieved. Carefully he took his arm away from his face and sank down on the edge of the bed.
“Thank you.” He said quietly.
I crossed back to the window and leaned against it so that I could see him better. He was a scrawny figure, not at all threatening really. His face was whiter and thinner than I remembered and his expression even more melancholy. His features fell without effort it seemed, into a truly dismal and sorrowful mask that reminded me of a trailing weeping willow. This stranger cut an obscure and romantic figure, he would not have been out of place within the Age of Romance. He had that wild, eccentric, unhealthy look about him. His eyes were sunk deep into his skull and they were red and watering.
“What’s wrong with your eyes?” I asked gently. Poor man, I thought, he must be in a great deal of pain.
He looked at me and smiled weakly. Even his smile was pale and unhealthy.
“Just … sensitive. They don’t like the bright light.”
“What do you do in the sun, then?”
“Wear sunglasses.” He looked away and his smile disappeared, lost in the folds of his cloak. “I avoid the sun.”
I realised that this must be why he was so pale. What a miserable existence I thought, to have to go round avoiding the sun, it’s rare enough anyway. I realised that I was staring at the stranger and I looked away quickly, feeling sure that he could see the blatant pity in my eyes. An embarrassed silence followed.
“I saw you at the pub,” I told him finally.
“Yes, I saw you.”
“Did you follow me home?”
“Yes, sort of.”
A sudden thought struck me. I turned to him.
“Well …” He didn’t seem to have an answer. For the first time I noticed how much he resembled either a bouncer at the Apollo, or the butler in ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’, with his long, dark cloak, white shirt and small black dickey bow. The effect was somewhat diminished by his mass of shoulder blade length locks, even though they were suitably black. If he was trying to look intimidating, he should at least tie his hair back, if not have a crew-cut and be done with it. With that hair he strongly resembled the elf from ‘Lord of the Rings’ … and, without his bow and arrow Legolas was of course, completely harmless. I wondered if this odd stranger was as harmless as he now appeared to be. I still gripped the coat hanger and was quite prepared to use it if provoked.
“Why did you follow me home?” I asked again. It seemed quite a reasonable question to ask, in the circumstances. I felt that I had a perfect right to persist until I received a satisfactory answer. He owed it to me. I banged the coat hanger impatiently against the palm of my left hand as I waited. The pale man stared at the floor; he seemed to be avoiding my eye. Perhaps he was embarrassed by the whole situation, it was slightly bizarre. I wondered whether to tell anyone about this … strange visitor, or just to forget it, as one does a slightly distasteful nightmare. I suddenly shivered, the night touching my bones with cold, damp skeletal fingers. To my alarm the stranger moved towards me quickly and gripped my arm. I raised my coat hanger threateningly.
“Let me go,” I hissed.
He did, at once. Rather taken aback by the sight of that dangerous looking piece of metal hovering near his face, he retreated a few paces, looking worried.
I said nothing, remembering my reputation for impulsive violence. I just hoped that I wouldn’t do anything that I would regret afterwards, this time. There was silence for a few moments, and then he quickly pulled off his cloak and held it out to me, at arms’ length.
“I was only going to offer you my cloak,” he explained.
I took it suspiciously and draped it over my shoulders. Immediately, I felt light-headed and giddy, the cloak changed me, I felt regal and authoritative.
I was filled with a sense of the night, a sense of a great expanse of darkness, with the wind blowing eerily over it … glimpsed through a glass, a mirror, a reflective surface speckled with myriad dimensions and hues … I was elated and thrilled for a moment, I almost possessed this … this, this magic, this void, this labyrinth … this, my hand reached and grasped and the grapes were like indigo glass … luscious and heavy, ripe and satisfying … this, this, I almost possessed …
Shaking my head, I noticed that I was still in the room. There sat my strange intruder, watching me languidly. I luxuriated in the sensation of that cloak draped over me, like silk. I noticed the delicate white lining and fingered it lovingly.
“Is it silk?” I asked, barely recognising my own voice.
The pale man nodded and sat carefully on the edge of the bed watching me. He looked half naked without his cloak, like the Queen without a hat. I sat down beside him, I wasn’t afraid now I had his cloak on.
“Thanks,” I muttered, a little confused both by his kindness and the almost suffocating effect of the cloak. For one distracted moment, I could think of nothing but Keats’ famous quote, ‘Oh for a life of sensations rather than thought’ Then I remembered; I had still not received a reply to my question. I decided it worth one more try.
“Why are you here? Why did you follow me?”
“Ahh…” Carefully he rested his ivory hands on his knees and studied them. Each finger tapered to a fine point, perfectly sculpted from – it looked like - soap. “I followed you because … because I wanted to talk to you.”
I waited, but he did not continue. I was even more confused now.
“But … why didn’t you talk to me in the pub?”
“There were people around.”
“So, it was impossible.” He looked at me and smiled. I noticed how shiny and pointed his teeth were, replicas of his fingers. I wondered who his dentist was.
“Well, what do you want to talk about then?” I yawned; it was becoming more and more clear to me that this stranger was either insane or perverted, or possibly, both. It did not surprise me that he wanted simply to talk to me; I had always maintained that men never grew past the ‘little boy’ stage of wanting attention, especially from women. I glanced at him vaguely, thinking longingly of sleep, sweet sleep.
“No, you don’t understand …” he said irritably and sighed.
“I want to talk … about something you said.” He looked up and stared out of the window at the moon as it reappeared briefly from behind the clouds.
“Someone you mentioned.”
“Oh yes?” I frowned darkly. “You were eavesdropping, then?”
He nodded, saying nothing. I thought back quickly over every word I had uttered in the pub. I couldn’t remember mentioning anyone at all.
“Yes, you mentioned someone I… think about a lot,” my visitor continued, tapping his finger absently on his knee. “He is, I suppose, an old hero of mine. Thomas Chatterton.”
I stared open mouthed, unable to speak. The man seemed not to notice; he had obviously touched upon his favourite subject and he was well away. I listened, in an extreme state of rapture; could it really be that I had found someone who shared my enthusiasm for this forgotten poet? Even if it was some eccentric, malnourished housebreaker who fancied himself as a second Count Dracula.
“When I heard you mention him, I decided I must speak to you alone,” he explained. “It’s been years since I talked with anyone about Mr. Chatterton. Many years. He is a great figure; a great romantic figure and people don’t seem to know that. Most people don’t even know who he is and yet, he became great through his death.”
“Oh yes,” I said, excited and standing up. “You must see my painting called ‘Chatterton’. It’s by Henry Wallis, a Pre-Raphaelite painter.” I began to lead my guest down the stairs. “I don’t know if you know the name. By the way, what’s yours?” I turned to him on the bottom stair. He looked away quickly.
“My name? Oh – er – Thomas.”
“Alison.” I grasped his pale hand warmly. It felt like a candle, which had been in the deep freeze for a week.
“It’s lovely to meet you. This way.”
* * * *
It will probably come as no surprise to you to learn that Thomas and I talked until dawn on the fascinating subject of Mr. T. Chatterton. Our conversation covered his life, death, friends, relations, success (or lack of it), genius and poetry. I was interested to discover that Thomas knew a good deal more than I did about those Rowley manuscripts that Chatterton was supposed to have copied. I told him about my run-in with Mr.Henry earlier that day and what he had said. I was overjoyed to find that Thomas shared my anger and distress. He asked me where Mr. Henry lived so that he could go round and approach my antagonistic teacher on the subject of the dead Chatterton’s innocence. Regretfully, I had to admit that I didn’t know it.
The sky was just beginning to lighten, when Thomas stood up and said that he had to go. I asked him why and he told me that he worked in a fast-food restaurant in Altrincham and he had to be there in time to serve breakfast at seven.
“Ah well then, in that case,” I said, giving him his cloak. He took it and draped it majestically over his bony shoulders. I suddenly realised why he wore such strange clothes. It must be a uniform for the restaurant in which he worked.
“What’s the place called?” I asked, guessing at ‘Count Dracula’s Café’ in my head.
“’A Quick Bite’,” he said, he seemed in a hurry. “I’ll miss my bus,” he explained, “I mustn’t be late.”
“I’ll see you again then,” I called as he disappeared through the garden gate. He turned and waved in answer and jogged hastily away into the peach coloured distance.
It was when I returned into the front room and sunk down into an armchair with a cup of tea, that I realised how tired I was. My eyes were like a corpse’s; glazed, unseeing, they stared straight ahead. I guessed at the time, five thirty … quarter to six … six o’clock? I thought absently that I must look out for ‘A Quick Bite’ next time I went into Altrincham. I didn’t recall ever having seen such a place. I wondered what time Thomas finished and when he managed to sleep. That could be another reason for his paleness … lack of sleep. As if responding unconsciously to the word, my eyes snapped shut and I drifted gently into the Land of Nod.
I awoke two hours later with back and neck ache. I rose stiffly,
cursing and feeling exceedingly irritable. I paced around the room a few times attempting to clear my head, then I looked at the timetable that was hung on the wall and discovered that I had an English lecture at nine. Going back to bed was out of the question now, and I had to put up with Mr. Henry and his snide remarks for two more hours! My bad humour raged through me like a team of locusts on their path of destruction. I tripped over Bosworth on the way out to the kitchen and lay on the floor for quite a while, trying to abate my temper. However, Bosworth soon became curious and started walking over my back. With a loud scream I leapt up, causing the cat to fly across the room as if thrown. He landed with a crash against the far wall. Bosworth ran off, unhurt but an exceptionally ugly pink and blue vase, which was balanced on the picture-rail, tottered and smashed onto the floor. I stared at the fragments dully; it was probably one of the few ornaments that were worth any money in this house.
I went on to spill cornflakes all over the kitchen floor as I grumpily made breakfast. I couldn’t face clearing either them or the broken vase up; maybe tonight my mood would improve. I left the house, kicking the fragments of pottery out of the way.
Riding my bike along Park Road with the wind blowing through my angry brain, I felt better. I thought of Thomas, the whole incident seemed like a dream now. I had no proof that it had actually happened really, except for the throbbing in my head that told me that I had not slept last night. I wished that I had kept Thomas’s cloak and that I was wearing it now; I would have no trouble dealing with Mr. Henry then. I could not lose, wearing that cloak. What would Thomas be doing now? Probably serving bacon butties and mugs of tea to long-distance lorry drivers I thought, wheeling my bike into the shed and tying a lock round it securely.
When I arrived at my English Literature class, my bad humour returned in a rush. Mr. Henry sat behind his desk, squinting at some papers in front of him. As I passed, he looked up and glowered darkly at me, though how he knew it was me I couldn’t tell. He couldn’t possibly recognise me without his glasses, which were obviously at the menders.
I sat down next to Cassandra, sighing. She was scribbling something on a piece of paper in a great hurry and seemed not to notice me. I dropped my books on the desk with a crash; I wanted Cassandra to look up and acknowledge my presence but she didn’t and continued to write at great speed. Finally, my curiosity got the better of me and I asked her what she was doing. She didn’t answer; in fact she didn’t even pause or show any sign of hearing my question, my temper rose.
“Now look,” I said irritably, “I’m getting a bit sick of your childish games. I’m warning you, you’d better not be playing the old ‘ignore Alison’ ploy, just tell me what you are doing.”
This time Cassandra looked up, icily. We stared at each other wordlessly for a while. Then she said,
“I’m trying to get this essay finished for,” she consulted her black and green ornate wristwatch, “precisely nine o’clock.”
She paused dramatically, her voice quiet and controlled. You could tell she took drama lessons.
“And as it is now eight fifty eight, I have just two minutes in which to complete it. So Alison, if you’ll just shut up and stop these childish interruptions, I might be able to get on.”
She turned back to her essay. I stared furiously.
“Forgive me for interrupting again then,” I said, having trouble keeping myself from shouting, “but haven’t you noticed Mr. Henry has no glasses? You may recall that I crushed them yesterday, which means that he can’t do any marking. Which means, what are you getting so worried about? He can’t even see your bloody essay, never mind mark it.”
If I had hoped that Cassandra would be relieved, or grateful to me for pointing this out, I was wrong. Her mouth set into a thin line and she slammed her pen down in anger. Luckily I was saved from more verbal abuse by Mr. Henry, who stood up and stumbled to the front of the class blindly calling weakly for silence.
“I’ve an announcement to make concerning work this week,” he called. There was silence instantly; it seemed I was not the only one who expected Mr. Henry to postpone all classes while his glasses were at the menders. The entire class waited with bated breath.
“My spectacles are now at the opticians being repaired following that unfortunate incident yesterday concerning myself and … a certain member of the class.”
There were several cheers and Nigel the punk, clapped me on the back crying, “Nice one, Al.”
But Mr. Henry had not finished. Raising his hand, he continued
“I’m afraid this means bad news for you lot. As I can’t read ‘Hamlet’, which we were in the middle of discussing, or prepare notes on it, you’ll have to do it yourself. This means finishing reading the play, writing notes on all the characters and major incidents in it in preparation for some essays which I will set later this week.”
Mr. Henry’s voice was drowned by boos and shouts of protest from around the room. I felt a cold shiver go through me, so this was his way of retaliating. He raised his voice higher, until it became a squeak, above the noise.
“I’m sorry it has to be like this, if my glasses were still intact we wouldn’t have to do all this written work. You only have a certain person to blame.”
There was no mistaking the satisfaction in his voice. I stood up angrily but what could I do? Everyone was against me now; I seethed silently and sat down, putting my head in my hands. What underhand and cowardly tactics; I could not bear to look up, for I knew that Mr. Henry would be gloating at his desk, smirking quietly and congratulating himself on his successful retaliation.
“And don’t think that you needn’t do the essays, as I won’t be able to mark them,” he added smoothly, not bothering to keep the blatant triumph out of his voice, “because Mrs. Johnson has kindly said that she’ll do the marking. That includes last week’s essay … will you pass them to the front please.”
I sneaked a look at Cassandra, fury and horror dripped from her like sweat. Her appearance as a model pupil was very important to her. I remembered her saying, ‘if you keep the small rules then you can break the big ones’. I had often wondered about this; and, to her, handing in essays on time was one of the ‘small rules’ you ought never to break. However, this time it was going to be broken; and I was the one to blame. I could feel everyone’s anger and resentment turned towards me. I wondered sadly about the consequences of my impulsive act of fury yesterday, as usual, I was going to regret it. It all seemed so unfair; I had only been defending Chatterton, after all. I longed to pour out the story of my unjust punishment to Thomas, I was sure that he would sympathise.
Meanwhile, a bitter silence enveloped the room. Cassandra turned carefully, away from me. Mr. Henry sat behind his desk, rubbing his hands together in glee. I sank my head into my arms, which lay across the desk, and I wished that, like Chatterton, I could fall into a slumber that I would never awaken from.
“You’d better watch yourself, Alison. “I’m going to get you for this,”
growled Nigel the punk, advancing upon me threateningly. I looked round, panic stricken. We stood in a blood red field of poppies, the flowers smothering the ground in a thick, dense carpet. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw Cassandra sitting near the fence painting, an easel before her. She wore a straw hat and flimsy cotton frock like in the ‘Flake’ adverts on telly. Her eyes were thickly misted with romance and she would not focus upon me.
“Cassandra!” I screamed, “Help.”
I saw her stand up, absently putting her things away. Her eyes roamed her painting dreamily as she picked it up. Then, tucking it under arm she strode past me without a word. I was beside myself, Nigel’s hands closed around my throat and squeezed.
“Cassandra!” I choked desperately.
She turned casually, her mercurial eyes drifting among the clouds and called over her shoulder.
“It serves you right. You deserve all you get.”
And, swishing her gauze dress lazily as she walked, she was gone. Nigel continued to kneel on my stomach and choke me, his face contorted with rage, his voice crazed with anger.
“Three essays! Three bloody essays!”
A movement caught my eye behind Nigel and there stood Mr. Henry, laughing evilly. His glasses were perched precariously on his nose, held together with bits of Sellotape, completely without lenses. I watched him stride forwards through the poppies, crushing them mercilessly beneath his feet. He stood before me, holding a box of matches out between his forefinger and thumb; with deliberation he struck a match, and bending down, set fire to my beloved Dr. Martens, which were on my feet at the time. I tried to kick the flames out but it was no good, I was struggling for breath. The smell of burning leather and wool (my socks) grew stronger as I heard a strange rattling sound coming from my throat, I was almost dead now. Tiny orange flames leapt around my ankles like Dante’s Hell, Mr Henry danced around, laughing.
“Set her alight! Kill her, Nigel!”
I screamed so loudly that I woke myself up, I gazed round the room, bewildered and down at my feet. My Doc Marten’s were still on them, intact and without burns or blisters. The television still chattered away to itself in the corner; the window was open, although the night was cold and dark now and I got up and shut it. Leaning against the sill, I thought back over my dream. It certainly showed how guilty I was feeling; anyway, I hoped that Mr. Henry felt satisfied now. Freud would certainly have had quite a few things to say on the subject of my repressed psychosis.
The clock on the shelf showed half past eleven; yawning, I decided to go to bed. I rubbed my neck, vowing to stop all this sleeping in chairs; it was probably that which made me so bad tempered. As I turned to go, I heard a gentle tapping at the front door, I hesitated, wondering whether to answer it. It could be Nigel the punk, or Cassandra coming to beat me up and leave me for dead in the hallway. On the other hand … it could be Joseph, come to offer me some comfort … or even Mr. Henry wanting to apologise for his cowardly behaviour. I strode to the door and opened it a little way.
“Alison? Can I come in?”
I stepped back to let the dark figure enter, he seemed to bring a piece of the night with him. He looked taller than last night, menacing.
“I forgot all about you coming,” I admitted.
Thomas smiled as if he had expected me to forget. I still can’t believe how I let someone like Thomas slip so easily through my memory. I put it all down to fatigue, though my tiredness had disappeared completely now, falling away from me like a shroud I had constructed around me. I led Thomas into the back room and went to make some tea. I could hear him walking around the room, looking at things, examining pictures. I hoped that he wouldn’t notice those horrendous pseudo-French statuettes on the picture-rail.
“I hope I didn’t wake you up,” he said when I returned.
His accent seemed more pronounced tonight; almost German I thought to myself as I handed him his tea.
“I was just going to bed,” I explained. “I’ve had a bit of a … rough day.”
He seated himself on the edge of a chair, carefully spreading his cloak behind him so that it would not get creased. He looked at me seriously, expectantly.
“Well, it was just this teacher, Mr. Henry. He thinks that Chatterton killed himself because of guilt and insists that I should believe it too.”
I found myself telling Thomas the entire story; how he had turned the rest of the class against me, how guilty I felt … even about my dream. As I had expected, he was full of sympathy and indignation.
“It’s a terrible story that’s been spread around, that Chatterton was a cheat and a fraud,” he said, shaking his head sadly, “and people believe it as a ‘fact’. Poor boy, no wonder he took his life.”
“No wonder,” I echoed. I drained my mug of tea and walking over to the window, looked out. It was too cloudy to see the moon but quite dry and still. “Are you working again tomorrow?” I asked, without turning.
“It must be tiring. When do you finish?”
“About … about … in the afternoon. Different times.”
“Why don’t you come round after, then?”
“I … can’t.”
I turned, hearing the hesitation in his voice. He looked away, getting up quickly.
“I can’t I have to go home.”
For the first time, suspicions and unanswered questions began to rise like monsters out of the gloom in my mind. Who exactly was the strange foreign gentleman who came to see me each night and only at night? I determined to find out.
“Where do you live, anyway?” I asked.
Thomas stood with his back to me, his shoulders hunched, like a vulture. He made no answer. I approached him and gently touched him on the shoulder.
“Thomas?” I said softly. He shook his head, resting it against the wall. It was as if the weight of that skull was just too heavy for him to bear.
“I don’t,” he whispered.
I was confused. “You don’t live in a house?”
He turned to face me, then that air of melancholy seemed to overwhelm and almost smother him.
“No,” he told me gently, “I don’t live.”
I stared; his face was lovely in its sadness, whiter than I had ever seen it before, thinner and emptier. The sadness fell out from his eyes and vanished into the carpet as if it had never really existed. He blinked slowly and smiled at my expression. Again, the unnatural gleam of his teeth struck me. Gently, he reached out a cold, white hand and stroked my cheek. His touch was web-like, it was so light; cold enough to cause me to want to shudder and withdraw, but I remained still, staring.
“What do you mean, you don’t live?” I asked finally. “You’re not dead, are you?”
“Not exactly.” He smiled again and took my hand. Within minutes it was like a block of ice. “Come on, come for a walk.”
As I have mentioned before, it was a pleasant night, cloudy but fairly warm for April. I soon discovered that I was forced to half-run to keep up with Thomas’s long legged, graceful strides that carried him smoothly along the pavement at incredible speed. He led the way, needless to say, across Park Road, down the little snicket behind the rows of huts where the battery hens were kept and into the playground nearby. In the darkness, the swings and roundabouts loomed silently, ghostly shapes that did not welcome nocturnal intrusions, especially not from adults.
I sat on a swing that creaked, hostile; I wondered how old Thomas was and began guessing… in his twenties, thirties, or forties, older? In his ‘teens? I suddenly realised how ageless he was. I wanted to approach him on the subject but at the same time, I didn’t, it was so insignificant and petty anyway. I heard a dull thud behind me and swung round; Thomas had leapt from the top of the climbing frame onto the grass below. I wished I had seen him jump, with his cloak billowing out behind him, he would have resembled … a black phantom … a crow … a bat …
“Alison,” he said, walking towards me. His voice sounded strange and thin, emanating from the night’s silence like that and the word was unfamiliar on his lips … he didn’t suit speaking English. I waited until he sat down on the swing next to me, scuffling his shoes along the ground. His eyes were on the ground, the distance, the sky, anything but mine.
“I have something to tell you,” he said at last. “Something that you may find hard to believe.”
He was silent for several minutes, I couldn’t think of anything to say either, so I kept quiet as well.
“You see,” he finally told me, “I don’t work at ‘A Quick Bite’.”
I felt his eyes on me. I bit my lip, frowning.
“No.” I shook my head.
“What?” he asked, sharply.
“No, I don’t find that hard to believe. I’ve never heard of the place, anyway. ‘A Quick Bite’!” I chuckled, “I thought you were winding me up, people do you know. What’s so hard to believe about that?”
I glanced at him; the look of seriousness and distress on his face confused me.
“It doesn’t matter, don’t worry about it. It doesn’t bother me.”
“No,” he interrupted, shaking his head slowly. “You misunderstand, this is hard to believe, not ‘A Quick Bite’, I … you see … I … I am … a …a…, er …a vampire.”
I think I sat in silence for quite a while, and then I laughed.
“Oh, I get it! That’s your job, is it? You dress up and go round frightening young maidens with your cries of ‘I want to bite your neck’ …
“No, no, look, I don’t dress up, I don’t pretend, I don’t have to. I really am a vampire, I really am.”
I sat there and stared at him, his serious, concerned expression, his black clothes … the sweeping, nocturnal cloak … the white skin … the fingers like candles … icy to touch … a vampire … I found myself laughing hysterically, ignoring my powers of logic and reasoning, which told me that it all made sense … it had to be true … but still, I laughed without discretion, without control.
I went on laughing uncontrollably. Thomas looked at me, sighed and turned away. His frustration was obvious. Somewhere in the depths of my brain, the cells of reason went on connecting, working things out. That would explain the sneaking away before sunrise … the fangs when he smiled … the aversion to sunlight ... and the accent must be Rumanian. My brain was delighted with itself; it had worked everything out. But I found it rather hard to accept the conclusion that it reached, a vampire? My laughter died in my throat as Thomas turned to me.
“Finished?” He didn’t even smile.
I nodded, sheepishly, still smirking.
“It’s not a joke, you know,” he told me sternly, “you shouldn’t laugh.”
I shrugged. “You were right, it is hard to believe, you might just be deluded.”
Again, Thomas sighed. Crossing his legs, he looked up at the sky and recited:
“I am a vampire, I was born a vampire, six hundred and forty-seven years ago in Transylvania, Rumania. I drink blood, amongst other things; I sleep in the daytime and venture out at night. I can turn into a bat, climb walls and you can’t see me in a mirror. I will always be a vampire. I am immortal, lifeless … one of the Living Dead … destined forever to wander the earth until some Angel of Mercy plunges a stake through my heart and releases me from this … from this …”
He broke off, dropping his eyes to the ground. I shifted uncomfortably and thought. After six hundred and forty seven years I could understand getting somewhat … tired of life. And knowing that it may stretch on for years yet, maybe forever, with everyone dying around you … I could see the reason for Thomas’s melancholic disposition now. One who was truly tired of life.
“Where do you keep your coffin?” I asked, hoping that a change of subject would cheer him up a bit.
“The mortuary at Wythenshawe Hospital,” he answered, standing up and clasping his hands behind his back so that he resembled Sherlock Holmes, but without the pipe. I watched him, thinking ‘I am looking at a vampire’.
Do you kill many people?” I asked suddenly.
He walked a few paces away and turned to me, smiling faintly, his fangs gleaming, deadly weapons of incision and death.
“I haven’t killed anyone for nigh on … oooh … it must be forty years,” he told me reflectively, “and that was only because I was crossing the ocean and was thirsty. ‘Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink.’ Oh I love Coleridge, don’t you?” Seeing my puzzled expression, he walked towards me and knelt at my feet. “You see, it’s true that I would drink blood all the time if I didn’t have to kill for it, but I think I have become a little … soft in my old age and I make do with water.” He smiled slowly at me, his eyes on my neck; I pulled my collar up nervously. “Occasionally I steal the odd bag of blood from the hospital, though that is a treat … a rare treat.”
He laid an icy hand on my leg and I could feel his breath on my cheek as his fangs hovered near my throat. Panicking, I performed a backward roll off the swing and scurried off into the undergrowth, I hardly dared breathe as I hid amongst the nettles. Any doubts about Thomas’s identity were now forgotten, a vampire was out to kill me and make me one of The Undead. I watched, trembling, as Thomas stood up, brushing mud off his knees, I held my breath as he began to walk towards me.
“Alison! Alison!” he called softly.
I didn’t answer, I feared for my life. Thomas stopped in front of me.
“Come out, Alison. Come on, I didn’t mean it.”
His head moved slowly from side to side, then he turned away.
“Bloody hell, I was only joking.”
He was beginning to walk away when I decided to reveal myself; I took a few hesitant steps out of the dense shrubbery. At that moment, I saw something that I am quite unable to describe adequately. Thomas changed into a bat, in mid-step, his back still towards me, he swept his arms outwards to form a graceful black arc with his cloak and seemed to dissolve … shrink … his form buckled and melted into a tiny black bat, which flapped quickly away into the cloudy distance.
I stood there, frozen in mid-step, my mouth hanging open like a bat cave. After some time, my knees gave way and I collapsed onto my backside on the grass. Now I couldn’t possibly doubt that my friend was a vampire … or could I? Could my eyes have deceived me? I had always considered them my friends, but were they really to be trusted? Still, my logic stamped its foot in frustration and said; yes it was obvious, are you blind? He’s a vampire, it’s obvious. Fear gripped me suddenly and shook me until my teeth rattled; he was telling me the truth all along and now he’s gone. I wouldn’t believe him, so he has gone poor thing, to wander, a lost soul over all the planes of the earth … if only I had listened, believed, trusted … but now it was too late. The words echoed hollowly around the inside of my ribcage, too late. The bird – or rather, the bat – had flown, I felt suddenly, empty and cold. I had lost a friend; I found that knowledge completely unacceptable. One so strange and rare could not just stumble into my life and the next minute, be gone like that. I sat on the damp grass and waited.
Half an hour later I began to numbly accept the fact that perhaps Thomas would not come back. Feeling stiff, cold and completely drained, like La Belle Dame sans Merci’s victim in Keats’ poem, I struggled to my feet and began to trudge slowly towards the hen houses. I hoped that the movement would ease my agony a bit but I was not surprised when it didn’t. What would I do now? What would Thomas do now? Turning the corner, past the chicken houses, the journey seemed interminable, even the chickens seemed restless.
Strange … that rustling, that flurrying of wings was getting louder, I stopped and scanned the huts for any sign of an intruder. The rustling grew still louder; nearer … I looked up, shielding my face with my arms as the bat descended. I was Leda and this creature, the swan, a punishment from the Gods. Thomas stood there, lowering his arms.
I leapt towards him and grabbed at his cloak, I was ecstatic, nervous, and apologetic to say the least.
“What a graceful landing,” I said.
He looked at me and smiled, a slow and delicious vampire’s smile.
“After six hundred and forty years of practise, you do tend to get rather … skilled in these things.”
We walked home, the vampire and his friend.
* * *
Again, we sat in the back room and talked until five. Chatterton was amongst the subjects covered once again, but Thomas spent a lot of time telling me of his native Transylvania, in which he had spent the first few hundred years of his life. He was indeed a well-travelled vampire, over the years he had lived in Leningrad, Florence, San Francisco, Berlin, Austria, Venezuela and England.
“I like England the best,” he told me. “particularly, London. I was going to go back there next, I used to live in London, near Waterloo, that was in the eighteenth century.”
I gripped the arms of my chair.
“You … knew him, then?”
Thomas shook his head sadly.
“I’m sorry to say that I didn’t. I didn’t really know anyone, I … prefer … solitude, and it’s easier.”
“But still … you were so near! You could have known him! You could have saved him, even.”
We both thought of the young Chatterton lying dead on his bed. Waterloo, so near … and Holborn, so far.
As dawn approached, Thomas stood up and prepared to leave.
“It’s such a long way … Wythenshawe hospital,” I said sympathetically. To tell the truth, I was thinking only of diving into my own bed and grabbing a bit of shut-eye at that moment.
“Mmm.” He paused, his hand on the front door. “Actually … Alison … I wonder … if you don’t mind … I could live here?” He looked up, enthusiastic for the first time.
“Yes… have you a cellar? A garden shed? I could store my coffin there … if you don’t mind, that is…” He trailed off as he saw my shocked expression.
“No, no I don’t mind,” I told him hastily, thinking: what if my Mam finds a coffin in my garden shed? How can a vampire possibly carry a stolen coffin through the streets of Timperley without being noticed, even at night? What if my Mam – or worse – my Dad sees him? What if…? Out loud I smiled and said that’s fine. Keep it in the shed.”
Thomas grinned; swiftly he bent towards me and kissed me lightly. I felt the sharp prick of his fangs even then, like needles, the fear had gone though. I knew he wouldn’t hurt me now. As I watched the thin, sinister black figure hurry off down the road, I smiled and thought: my friend is a vampire.
“Look, what’s the matter with you, Alison? Insomnia or what? It’s like talking to a bloody corpse!”
I blinked and looked up. Cassandra’s beautiful black eyes stared back at me, awaiting an answer. Heavy emerald coloured beads hung from her ears, tugging the delicate lobes downwards. Her eyes were lined with the same luscious green and there were green ribbons nestling in her mass of hair, green slippers on her feet and a rich green and scarlet scarf tied around her waist. My own eyes felt weak at this vision of intense colour and they gently shut again. The noise of the canteen faded around me to a gentle murmur of voices, saying ‘go to sleep Alison, go to sleep’. I decided, for once, to obey without argument.
Suddenly a fist fell with fury just in front of me, shaking the table and slopping my coffee over the rim of the cup. I looked at the alien hand in surprise.
“For God’s sake!” Cassandra screamed.
Remembering her question, I quickly gulped down the remainder of my coffee whist I formed an answer in my mind. Satisfying Cassandra was no easy task. She was a well-known expert interrogator.
“I’m tired,” I said feebly. Cassandra stared back, her crimson lips set in a firm, demanding line. She made no movement, it was no good, and I would have to elaborate. “I only got a few hours kip last night.”
Still Cassandra made no movement, her face remaining expressionless. We sat in silence for several moments, and then she said, pouting intriguingly, “Why?”.
“We-ell…” I shifted in my seat and glanced around. The canteen was filling up rapidly as eleven o’clock approached and elevenses beckoned from the biscuit trolley. How could I explain here … now? For I had no doubt that I would tell Cassandra about Thomas, given the right time and the right place. She was my best friend after all. I wanted her to know but meanwhile she waited. I shifted again and smirked. “I … I had a visitor you see. Last night.”
Cassandra’s right eyebrow shot up, interested but her pout remained.
“Oh yes, who?”
“And the night before,” I added.
“Who?” Cassandra grabbed my arm with the hand that lay across the table, curled up like a sleeping lion. “Alison, who?”
I shrugged and sighed. How could I explain this? I tried to sound casual. “We saw him in the pub the other night. Doctor Death.” I grinned uneasily and Cassandra nodded.
“His real name is Thomas. He’s going to live with me.”
I couldn’t think of any more arbitrary information to give her. I had to tell her the most important thing. I know you read and hear that people wake up and the night before all seems like a dream … they doubt the truth of what they were told last night … but I didn’t feel like that. I accepted Thomas at his word; he was definitely a vampire all right.
“Is he really so passionate that he keeps you awake all night?” Cassandra asked scathingly.
I was shocked. I glanced around afraid that the Powers that Be in the vampire world had heard and would intervene unpleasantly in some way. Surely a comment like that would be seen as … sacrilegious to say the least. “Cassandra, I don’t sleep with him,” I told her, worriedly and keeping my voice low and hoping that she would do the same. God knows, I didn’t want to offend any one of that select breed, the Living Dead.
Cassandra shrieked with laughter, throwing her head back so that the sound issued from her mouth in a graceful arc, like Thomas’s black cloak, spread like wings. I shut my eyes tightly; I could see him standing there, now a man, now a bat.
“Well, what the Hell do you do, then?” Cassandra giggled, mopping her eyes. I leant towards her, glancing quickly around.
“Cassandra, listen… he’s a vampire.”
My friend fell suddenly silent.
“I know it’s hard to believe, but I saw him change into a bat and back again with my very own eyes. That’s why he’s only awake at night, he sleeps in the day, in a coffin.”
Cassandra began to giggle again. She listened to me drone on, silent, staring at me blankly. Then I caught it, the glint of concern in her eyes, mixed with disbelieve. I sighed. I knew how Thomas must have felt now.
“You don’t believe me, do you? But you must! You must meet him! He’ll tell you it’s true.”
Cassandra began to giggle again.
“He sounds a right nutter to me.”
“No! He’s a vampire! He really is!”
“And you’re a head case to believe him.”
“But, it’s true.”
“It’s not true.” Her giggles had stopped now and she assumed her manner of a mother admonishing a naughty child. “A vampire, Alison, really!” She shook her head impatiently. “Look you’re tired, no wonder you’re imagining things.” She stood up, rubbing creases out of her skirt. Holding out her hand to me, she said “Come on, let’s go back to the lesson. Jane and Joseph went ages ago.”
I took the hand offered to me wordlessly, it was no use arguing, I knew Cassandra. Like the Pope, she was infallible. Like me, she would not accept Thomas’s claim without proof.
One-thirty found me wandering along the corridor outside the canteen. I had already had my dinner and was rather at a loss for what to do. Cassandra was in the library finishing that English Literature essay which we were meant to hand in yesterday. I thought it best not to interrupt her work again, so I was staying well away. Joseph was on a Geography hike across the Pennines and Jane had gone home early. I paced back and forth. I wished that Thomas were there to talk to, he would understand how bored and frustrated I was. He would prove his identity to Cassandra by… by… drawing her to him and gently sinking his fangs into her beautiful white throat… and she would gasp; “Alright Alison, it was true… I believe you…” and I would stand there, my arms folded, holding my power like an incandescent laser-beam over his head.
Just then, I noticed Mr. Henry approaching in the distance. As I watched, he walked into the wall, stood back and apologised. I tittered. He was obviously missing his glasses profoundly. As he drew nearer, I dived through the door nearest me, not wishing to be seen by him.
The door swung shut as I cannoned into a screen standing stupidly just inside the door, which fell over with a hollow crash. I sprawled on top of it, praying that there wasn’t a beauty show or photographic exhibition going on. I lay still, listening. Silence. There was nobody there. Thankfully, I clambered off the screen and read the words scrawled hurriedly on it.
‘Blood Donor Session. Gone for Lunch.”
I stared at the words blankly, and then slowly a grin spread across my face like a malignant cancer. ‘A rare treat’… I righted the screen and rubbed my hands in glee. ‘A rare treat indeed!’
There was a row of chairs in the centre of the hall. I tried to imagine approaching one with the intention of having a needle driven into my arm and blood sucked out. I shuddered. I would feel like someone going on Mastermind or trudging towards the electric chair like Jimmy Cagney… I decided I would rather let Thomas bite me, if I had the choice. At least it would be a little more… erotic. I smiled to myself as I picked up several test tubes from the table and studied them, absently. I tried to imagine Thomas’ face when he saw what I had brought home. ‘A rare treat’… indeed! Then my eye fell on what appeared to be an icebox under the table. I knelt down and opened it. The temperature overwhelmed me… it brought Thomas into the room, into the hall, beside me… touching me… like ice, like ice… I grinned as I saw the bags of blood stacked neatly inside the icebox. I began to pick them up quickly and stuff them inside my jacket. I could always pretend that I was pregnant if anyone asked. Pausing, I wondered if it mattered to Thomas what type of blood he drank; well I decided, I’ll let him choose. I left several bags in the box to make the theft appear less obvious. I stood up, just in time to hear the hall door swing open.
For a moment I stood there frozen, panic draining my limbs and clutching my brain in a vice-like grip. That moment of hesitation proved fatal. The two nurses caught up with me as I began to hurry out of sight, behind the screens; I knew then, that my guilt would be recognised within minutes. The nurses were like Laurel and Hardy. The large one possessed a fierce expression and loud voice, with which she now stopped me in my tracks.
“You! What do you think you’re doing?”
I turned and grinned sheepishly, my mind a blank. All I was aware of were the bags of blood forming a lumpy mass inside my jacket. The thin nurse smiled quickly back. She was obviously beneath the bigger nurse both in status and stature.
“Well? I’m waiting,” the big nurse informed me, folding her arms and stepping towards me.
“Did you want to give blood?” asked her partner kindly.
I shook my head numbly.
“No… I just… wondered…”
“What’s that in your jacket?” demanded the large nurse, stepping forward and ripping open my jacket in a quick movement. I watched the crimson bags fall to the floor in a shower around my feet. The thin nurse stared, horrified. Her friend gripped my arm and pulled it.
“You’d better come with me, Miss.”
I stared at her, uncomprehending. Then I did what anyone would do in that situation. I fainted. At least, I pretended to faint. But as I lay there, my cheek touching the cool brown tiles, I remembered that the two people with me were nurses; they would probably realise the fact that my faint was manufactured. Quickly I blinked, opened my eyes and sat up groggily.
“Sorry,” I mumbled and the thin nurse put her arm round me sympathetically. Her ogre of a partner however, stood there frowning at me suspiciously.
“Better take her to the nurse’s room,” she barked and the thin nurse jumped up, urging me to do the same. She led me out of the hall. I managed to stagger once or twice but I don’t think her friend was convinced. She watched me go with beady, suspicious eyes, wondering why anyone would want to steal a lot of blood that would obviously be of no use to anyone.
The nurses’ room reminded me of the inside of a fridge. Not that it was cold; no, indeed it was so hot and stuffy that my head began to feel like it was stuffed with hamster bedding after a while. But racks lined the walls, filled with first aid equipment, bottles, cotton wool, tubes of cream, bandages, plasters, test tubes … there were even three racks of magazines beside me. I thought this rather strange, as I had only ever known the nurse to dish out aspirins or occasionally to stick a plaster on somebody’s finger or toe. Perhaps this room was all show, just to make the patient feel secure. I glanced nervously at the door; I didn’t feel secure at all. I shifted on the hard, white bed and squeezed my hands together, trying to formulate an explanation for the eccentric behaviour in my mind.
The door opened and the college nurse entered. She was an old, plump, friendly soul, given to matchmaking something terrible. She smiled cheerily as she squeezed past some racks positioned awkwardly just inside the door. I smiled feebly back. I was glad that the blood nurses weren’t there to stand and glare disbelievingly at me. The nurse settled her bulk into a chair beside the bed and took a thermometer from a rack behind her.
“It’s Alison, isn’t it?”
Without waiting for an answer, she stuck the thermometer into my mouth.
“You’re a friend of Cassandra’s, aren’t you?” I nodded as she grasped my wrist and took my pulse. “Lovely girl, so pretty. Don’t you think?”
I nodded again, wondering what Cassandra would say if she were here. “I’ll tell you what, lots of men are after her, I know it. But there is someone she’s got her eye on. Anyone can see it.”
I pricked my ears up. I couldn’t see it… or else I just hadn’t seen it.
“You know who it is? Pulse normal,” the nurse told me, dropping my wrist. “It’s that Barry Maguire who does drama with her.”
I choked and the nurse removed the thermometer quickly. Cassandra had always claimed that she hated Barry Maguire. A prudish lump of overcooked bacon, she called him.
“Temperature normal,” said the nurse, returning the thermometer to its allocated rack behind her. She frowned, “Well now, what’ve you been up to Alison? What caused you to faint?”
I thought quickly, I could probably manage to bluff my way through this.
“I’m tired,” I said, smiling bravely. “I can’t think straight.”
The nurse nodded, pleased.
“Can’t sleep, eh? Got something on your mind, have you? Boyfriend trouble?”
I shook my head, stifling a smirk. If only she knew!
“Have you been to see your doctor?” she asked, crossing her legs. “Given you some pills, has he?”
I shook my head again. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen my doctor. I wasn’t even sure if I had one.
“No, not yet,” I sighed miserably, “but I will if this goes on.”
“Good girl.” The nurse stood up. “You’d better go home now. Try and get some sleep, that’s what you need. Want some aspirin?”
I climbed off the bed, shaking my head for the third time. What would I want an aspirin for?
“Thanks anyway,” I said, my hand on the doorknob. I was beginning to feel desperate for a blast of fresh air. “Tarah then.”
“Come back if you need anything and you mark my words, it won’t be long ‘til Cassandra and that Barry Maguire get together. You’ll see.”
I left her tidying the already spotless racks, humming I only have eyes for you under her breath. I grinned to myself as I stepped out of the room, closing my eyes as the cold air whistled around my ears. Oh, for a life of sensations rather than thoughts.
“Just a half please, Mrs. O’Rourke,” I said as an afterthought. Mrs. O’Rourke raised one immaculately lined eyebrow and said nothing. I gazed admiringly at her blue and yellow satin backless dress but soon began to feel dizzy with fatigue. This feeling of exhaustion seemed quite a normal state to be in now; I had grown accustomed to it. It only really affected me when I tried to concentrate on something. And, of course, those forty winks I had stolen this afternoon when I had been sent home from college had refreshed me – for a few hours, anyway. I was beginning to feel tired again now. Just time for a quick chat with Joseph and Cassandra and then home to bed I decided. I took my half pint and headed towards my friend’s customary corner table.
“How was the Pennines?” I asked Joseph, sitting next to him.
Cassandra, I noticed, was watching me rather suspiciously. However, my mind was too weary to try and work out reasons and motives. I ignored her.
“Wet,” replied Joseph mildly. He smiled gently and drained his Guinness. A silver swordfish gleamed in his ear and I tried, without success, to imagine him stomping through teeming rain and force eight gales, across muddy fields with a heavy rucksack on his back and huge boots with nails in the bottom on his feet. Joseph was far too gentle and sensitive a creature to survive geography field trips such as that one. Yet he faced each challenge without complaint or surprise and came out unscathed. I admired his composure.
“And how was your day?” he asked me. I saw Cassandra’s eyes light up.
“Oh, okay” I said quickly before she could interrupt. I prayed that she wouldn’t have heard any of the rumours about me trying to steal blood, that I knew would be flying around like spaghetti. I doubted if I could bluff my way out of any confrontation with her.
“The usual,” I continued desperately, my hands beginning to tremble. I knew that Cassandra was going to say something… that gleam in her eyes… the way she drummed her fingers on the tabletop…
“That’s not what I heard,” she began. I sighed and stared miserably at my boots. “I heard something quite different, some story about you trying to rob blood from the donor nurses and then fainting. And spilling all the blood on the floor.”
“What bullshit,” I retorted, “I never spilt any.”
I glanced at Joseph. He was staring at his hands which he had laid palms upward on the table. Cassandra was watching him carefully as well, perhaps expecting some sort of a reaction from him. I hoped he would pretend not to have heard her and it would all be over but slowly he raised his eyes to her.
“Blood?” he repeated.
Cassandra nodded and grinned. I don’t think she realised what agony she was putting me through, or maybe she did. Perhaps she was getting me back for her unfinished English Literature essay.
“Who told you that?” I asked hoping that I sounded scathing.
Cassandra shrugged. “No one in particular, it’s all over the place, people saw you.”
“Like Hell,” I was getting hassled and angry. “They’re all lying.”
In desperation, feeling on the very brink of an abyss, I tried to change the subject. “Anyway, I’ve been hearing some things about you as well.”
Cassandra paused, haughty but curious.
“Yes, you and Barry Maguire.”
“Barry Maguire?” Cassandra laughed loud and long while I fidgeted nervously and looked around. This wasn’t going to work. “Who told you that?”
I swallowed as I realised that I had put myself well and truly into a corner. All gossip like that was known to emanate from only one person.
“No one.” Said Cassandra.
She stared at me and narrowed her eyes. Even Joseph was watching me carefully now. I felt myself blush slowly redder and redder.
“It was the nurse, wasn’t it?” she said. “The College nurse, so the story is true, you really did faint.”
“I didn’t,” I argued weakly. I felt attacked from all sides now.
“Why, what’s wrong?” asked Joseph gently.
I could feel tears of self-pity pricking my eyes as three sleepless nights washed over me. Quickly I stood up and drained my glass. Mumbling incoherently that I was going, I dashed out without giving even Mrs. O’Rourke a goodbye wave. Joseph and Cassandra stared blankly after me.
* * *
I feel a twinge of embarrassment as I remember how I raced home from the pub that night and threw myself onto the couch in the back room, sobbing uncontrollably. I felt so isolated, the only person who knew, surrounded by a sea of laughing and jeering faces, uncomprehending, not wanting to listen or believe or just be kind. That old feeling of timelessness, of rootlessness, cascaded over me as I lay there, and I imagined myself as a fated Byronic exile, the archetypal outcast from society, the Shelleyan misunderstood genius. My life was obviously in the hands of Fate; I didn’t belong, and therefore I would not be treated kindly. I felt powerless… it was all so unfair. Where was justice now?
I continued to lay on the couch, motionless, until my sobs had abated completely. Simply lying there and listening to the silence of the night surround me, seemed to cure my many ills – temporarily.
When I finally broke my trance and sat up, I was somewhat startled to see Thomas sitting just across the room from me. He was staring out of the window, his hands folded neatly upon his lap, no expression on his face. As I moved, those sorrowful, tragic eyes wandered over to my red and blotchy face and rested there, saying nothing. We shared the silence for a while. The ticking of the clock became ominously loud. Finally, Thomas spoke softly.
“You left the front door open.”
Another pause. Then, “I’ve shut it now,” he told me, smiling. He stood up, stretching his limbs slowly and deliberately as he did so. Then, with a swirl of nocturnal cloak, he left the room.
Fear gripped me at first. Then I heard him making a cup of tea in the kitchen, humming a tune that I could not quite recognise, to himself. I lay very still, not thinking, closing my eyes and letting the gentle sounds drift over me, a peaceful feathery eiderdown of nothingness. I wondered if this was what being Undead was like; I wouldn’t mind an eternity of this. I drifted through the Universe, my mind catching on nothing but sensations…when Thomas returned with my Rich Tea mug. I couldn’t even begin to tell him what was wrong. But he was a very sensitive and patient vampire; six hundred odd years of forced living had made him so. He waited as I got up and paced around the room a few times, opening the window and blowing my nose loudly on some tissues I had found on the windowsill. Finally I sat down and told my friend my troubles. Cassandra’s reaction to my telling her about Thomas… the blood… the scene with my friends in the pub. I didn’t mention my exhaustion. I thought that Thomas may take that as a hint and leave forever, or at least get very offended. Thomas listened to my tales of woe. He said nothing, not even touching me. There was a long silence afterwards. Then there was an insistent knocking at the door.
I hesitated; I thought that Thomas may want to say something to me of a comforting or consoling nature. But he just sat there, his hands clasped together, his shoulders hunched like a giant crow, his eyes fixed on the twirly patterns in the carpet. I walked wearily to the door and opened it.
It was Cassandra and Joseph. The vivid green of Cassandra’s ribbons and ear rings in the gloom faded to a dirty black colour. The silver swordfish gleamed in Joseph’s ear as he turned to face me.
“Hope we didn’t disturb you,” he said, “it is late.”
I felt dazed and confused, as if there was something of vital import that I had to try to remember to tell my friends, and I had forgotten it. I shook my head and tried to link words in my mind to form a coherent sentence.
“What… time is it?” I stammered.
“Ten past twelve.” Cassandra stepped into the hallway and enveloped me in a warm, motherly hug. Now that the electric light shone on her, she was a mass of bright, luscious reds and greens, rich and vibrant. When she stood back I saw that even her gloves were deep, blood-red. Grimacing, I thought of those bags of blood….”We were worried about you,” Cassandra told me, again, a mother rebuking a small child. “Running off like that. We didn’t mean to upset you.”
“I’m alright.” I hoped that they didn’t notice my red eyes or runny nose. I watched Joseph follow Cassandra into the hallway and gently shut the front door behind him. Suddenly I remembered Thomas. I was seized with a wild excitement. Now was my chance to prove to Cassandra that I had been telling the truth that morning. My friend really was a vampire. I tried to imagine her face when Thomas turned into a bat before her eyes. I grabbed her arm.
“Oh, Cassandra, you can meet Thomas! He’s here now. Come and meet him. And then maybe you’ll believe me… he is, really, a vampire.”
I couldn’t miss the worried look that passed between Joseph and Cassandra. Obviously, she had told him all about my wild claims that Thomas was one of the Living Dead. Clearly Joseph didn’t believe any of it, either. But it didn’t matter, now. I would show them! Tugging at Cassandra’s arm, I dragged her into the back room. Joseph followed.
The room was empty. I ran to the open window and scanned the sky. There was no sign of a bat flapping slowly into the distance, but I knew that that was how Thomas would have made his getaway. I restrained an urge to scream, “Thomas! Come back, you bastard!” into the night air with immense effort. Why had he done this? I gripped the windowsill and sighed furiously. It was as if he had read my mind!
“Well, where is he?” asked Cassandra gently, behind me. From the way that she touched my shoulder I knew that she thought that I was ill. Perhaps I was. But I knew what I had seen and what I hadn’t.
“He was here… he was,” I muttered fiercely “he’s gone… he’s flown away, through the window.”
It was too painful to look up, to confront the two pairs of concerned and sympathetic eyes, to see the disbelief that faced me from my two closest friends. Until they saw him, Thomas existed as a vampire only in my own mind. To them, I was suffering from nervous exhaustion, hallucinations, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, my imagination taking over my mind. I could not bear to even find out what they thought I could be suffering from. It was just too painful.
“If you wouldn’t mind going now… I’m a bit tired.”
Silently, Joseph and Cassandra left, leaving me standing alone by the window. My misery was bountiful that night, why had Thomas treated me in this way? It appeared to me, to be a deliberate trick… to ruin my credibility. Now even my own friends believed me insane. Shelley seemed a very real figure to me now. After a while I left the window and sat down on the couch. I didn’t want to admit it, even to myself, but I was waiting for Thomas. I hoped that he would return quickly now the damage was done. My anger died inside me like a balloon going down.
Something fluttered and banged against the window. I sat up quickly, wide-awake now. Sure enough, a black shape hurtled through the window and before it hit the carpet, Thomas was standing there, his cloak spread like wings, his arms outstretched. In that moment, he reminded me of Jesus pinned to the crucifix. I was suddenly aware of a different power in the room… a greater power… a power of the night, the nocturnal. I stood up.
“Where did you go?” I asked. “Cassandra and Joseph really do think I’m mad now.”
“Sorry,” he said quietly, going to the window and closing it.
I noticed that his dark hair fell over his eyes as if it had been blown by the wind, which of course, it had.
“I don’t want to meet them yet.” He turned back to me, his gaze piercing and yet it seemed to drift towards me, rather than cut into me. “I’ve been… moving my coffin, I’m going to put it in that shed.” He pointed to the tiny shed in the garden that was filled with tools and general junk.
“You’ll have to clear it out a bit first.”
“I know,” he seemed preoccupied, shrugging his cloak tighter around his shoulders. “Well, I’m off then.”
Thomas paused before he crossed the room
“It’s… in Wythenshawe Park at the moment.”
I gasped. “Your coffin?”
“Yes, I’ll… go out the front door.”
“But how can you do it?” I began to panic, imagining Thomas stuck in a police cell somewhere, in broad daylight. “It’s much too heavy! Someone will see you!”
Thomas obviously wanted to leave, he smiled warily.
“I’ll be careful.” He glanced at the clock. “It’s gone two, I don’t think many people will be around.”
I took a step towards him and stopped.
“Can I come? I’ll help you carry it.”
Thomas looked at me, reaching out a white hand. I waited for the icy touch on my cheek, but it didn’t come. He dropped his hand limply to his side.
“No, I’ll manage. I’m very strong… Er haven’t you read Nosferatu?”
I watched him pause on the doorstep, raise his arms and flap away, a bat once more. If only Cassandra could see him now. I gazed after him and nodded. Yes, I remembered that bit in Nosferatu, Count Dracula carried all his own coffins. I had a sudden urge to read the book again. As usual, I wasn’t a bit tired now. I climbed the stairs slowly, reminding myself to leave a bedroom window open for Thomas when he returned.
The next morning didn’t dawn at all. The sky remained as blank and dark as when I had climbed into bed. I didn’t feel as if I had slept at all. I hoped that it was still night, or very early morning. But my hopes were devastated when I glanced at the clock and discovered that it was twenty past ten and I was late for college.
I didn’t even have the energy to ride down Park Road on my bike. Instead, I stood in the steady drizzle and waited for a bus to pass. When one did, I clambered on, not even noticing it’s destination. Luckily for me, it passed right by the college, and I managed to stumble off just before it drove away from the stop.
It took me some time to remember what day it was and what lesson I was supposed to be in, and in what classroom. Finally I traced the rest of the class down to the Biology Lab, and drifted in, greeting Joseph with a faint smile. He smiled back, naturally enough, but I knew that he was watching me carefully. I would have to watch my behaviour today. Nothing out of the ordinary would happen to me, I promised myself. I would keep my mouth well and truly shut about vampires and coffins and blood.
Mrs. Blood was one of those rare people who are gifted with an incredibly appropriate name, rather like Jack the Ripper or Larry the Lamb. There was another teacher in the Biology Department who shared this privilege; her name was Mrs. Gill. I thought that she closely resembled a white, greasy haddock as well. Mrs. Blood was tiny, shrivelled and vicious; she wore round glasses perched on the end of her sharp nose, fastened onto a chain which hung around her emaciated neck. Masses of thick, brown hair was meticulously plaited and coiled into a large bun which stuck out curiously from the back of her head. She always wore a spotless lab coat over a tailored skirt suit which hung from her in folds like an elephant’s skin, and high, pointed court shoes on her feet. She walked over to me in her usual brisk, business-like manner.
“Alison.” Her voice was high-pitched and hard, with a strong Scouse accent. “You’re late.” She consulted her digital watch. “Twenty minutes, to be precise.”
I said nothing at first. What could I say? I really couldn’t be bothered to get into an argument today.
“Yes,” I agreed at last. “Sorry. Missed the bus.”
Joseph, dropping blood onto a microscope slide, glanced at me without turning. I realised how unusual the excuse would sound, used by me, well known for my bizarre yet infallible excuses for absence from classes. Evidently Mrs. Blood was surprised too.
“Missed your bus?” She glared at me, horrified. “Well, in that case…” She gestured towards Joseph, a little lost for words. “Work with Joseph. He’ll tell you what to do.”
She hurried away, muttering to herself. I went over to Joseph and leaned on the desk beside the Bunsen burner, watching him as he studied the blood through the microscope. I couldn’t help but smile. So this was what they did with all that blood they took yesterday. It wasn’t going to save people’s lives at all – it was being used for scientific experiments now Government cuts had started to affect lab Supplies. I wondered if anyone else had noticed. If so, they were probably silenced by the corrupt authorities pretty quickly, anyway.
Joseph straightened up slowly and looked at me. He raised an eyebrow inquisitively.
“Missed the bus?”
Smiling faintly, I studied some bloodstains on the desktop. Tracing them with my finger.
“Ah.” Joseph began to scribble in his notebook in tiny, jagged writing. The letters seemed as if they were silently intimidating one another, each from their own tiny territory, which they peered ferociously out from. I noticed the silver cutlass gleam in Joseph’s ear as he raised his head to look at me. “You alright? You look a bit… peaky.”
I nodded quickly and looked away.
“What’re you doing, anyway?” I asked, trying to change the subject.
“Just looking at the blood.”
I squeezed past Joseph so I could look down the microscope. It wasn’t very interesting. Just a red blotchy microscope slide really, so far as I could see.
“Now flame it… in the Bunsen.”
Joseph indicated the Bunsen burner, still writing; I pulled it towards me and turned it on. The narrow blue flame reminded me of that symbol carved into the top of Thomas’s coffin; I would have to ask him what it meant tonight. I had fallen into a nightmare-ridden doze after Thomas had left to get his coffin, and was relieved when he woke me just before dawn by the noise he was making emptying the shed. He was evidently hurling everything into a pile on the grass, I hurried out to tell him to be quieter, but he was frantic and wouldn’t listen – it was nearly dawn. I helped him to drag the coffin into the shed. It just fitted. It was much heavier than I thought – about the same weight as the mahogany sideboard in the front room, I would think. One would certainly need super-human strength to carry that weight around. Once the coffin was in place, Thomas hopped into it and, blowing a goodbye kiss to me, lay down and shut the lid. I smiled when I remembered that.
Watching the blue flame gave me a pleasant, dazed feeling. I folded my arms and leant them on the desk. Tonight I would have to see about hiding all those garden tools and pieces of junk which were piled on the grass. I would have to put them back in the shed when the surveyor came with my Dad next week. I made a mental note to tidy up before then as well…
I slowly became aware of a strange, sharp smell and simultaneously a burning pain in my arm. Looking down, I saw a few spiteful flames round my wrist, and realised that my sleeve was on fire. I cried out. Joseph leapt to my side, his donkey jacket in his hands, and smothered the flames quickly. I noticed Mrs. Blood rushing towards me armed with the fire extinguisher, and thought; there goes my idea of not causing any trouble today. Joseph pulled up a stool and made me sit down. I tried to mutter something about his donkey jacket getting burnt, but I don’t think any sound came out, because no one took any notice, although there was quite a crowd round me by this time. I found that if I closed my eyes I could forget that I was here; the curious faces vanished, as did the burning pain in my arm, along with Mrs. Blood and the extinguisher. Only Joseph was there, removing his jacket from my arm gently, speaking in soft tones to some unseen figure nearby.
I realised suddenly that he was talking to me, and I opened my eyes quickly. Joseph’s brown eyes were full of concern, a frown hovering uncertainly above them.
“We’re going to the nurse. Come on.”
I obeyed without argument. Joseph walked beside me, silent. I was glad. I couldn’t have handled questions or explanations just at that time. I hoped that the nurse would treat me with similar sensitivity – but somehow doubted it. As Joseph tapped on the sickroom door I could hear only the tap-tap-tap of sharp fingernails on the lid of a coffin… and as the nurse opened the door and ushered us in, the sickroom became a bat-cave, a den of thieves, a lair of murderers who would flurry around my head and squeal.
“You again, Alison? You seem to be in a fair bit of trouble this week. Sit on the bed.”
I sat. I felt mechanical; yet my body was fluid and un-restraining. I saw Joseph and the nurse talking, murmuring softly, and I knew that they were talking about me; but I was unable to force myself to concentrate enough and listen to what they were saying. To do so would be to delve into a thick soup of jumbled ingredients and try to strain out all the grains of flour and place them in order along the floor. I watched the two figures lazily. The plump, stocky outline of the nurse with her iron-grey hair and white apron; and Joseph, a foot taller than her, his brown eyes gazing out of the window opposite, stroking his head pensively, the silver cutlass flashing as he turned his head and left the room, shutting the door quietly behind him. The nurse turned to me, smiling kindly.
“Now then, let’s see this arm.” She took my limp forearm and studied it. For the first time, I looked too. Several blisters and red skin now stretched to my elbow. I noticed that my favourite black jumper was now scarred beyond repair. “Ah well, that’s not too bad. Is it very painful? A bit? Well, we’ll put some cream on then.” I was grateful for her constant stream of chatter as she dressed my arm. It gave me something with which to occupy my mind whilst requiring no effort from me, just the occasional nod and smile. When the bandage was tightly wound around my arm, the nurse sat back and studied me. I noticed a small mole by her left eye, which seemed to irritate her; she kept blinking and trying to brush it away as if it were a fly.
“Now then. Let’s find out how this happened. Joseph says that he thought you fell asleep.
I hesitated. Had I? I couldn’t really remember. “I don’t know what happened,” I replied.
The nurse coughed gently, holding a curled up hand in front of her mouth, a funnel with which to swallow the germs.
“Did you see your doctor?” she asked and sighed as I shook my head. “You’re still not sleeping, are you?”
“No,” I muttered, feeling drained and despairing. Was it really so obvious.
“Well, why not? We need to find this out.”
My despair caused me to snap. “I don’t know, do I? How should I know?”
The nurse stood up, clasping her hands together and pursing her little mouth up.
“Well then Alison, you need to see your doctor. He’ll give you some tablets or something. Will you do that? Right away?”
The world seemed as if it were closing in on me, pressing against my brain and eyelids and causing blood to come through the cracks. I nodded, agreeing to see my doctor, to stay where I was and rest for an hour, to come back the next day to have the dressing on my arm changed. To agree was easy; I lay back my mind buzzing with pictures of Thomas asleep in his coffin. I listened to the nurse moving around the room scrabbling her nails in the wire racks, scribbling her fountain pen across sheets of headed notepaper. I enjoyed the sounds, they caressed me lovingly, but I could not sleep.
At one o’clock I left the sick room and went to join Joseph and Cassandra in the canteen, Jane was there too. They all admired my beautifully bandaged arm and asked me to repeat the story behind it. I did so, enjoying the attention I was getting. Afterwards, there was silence only broken by Jane.
“You fell asleep?” she repeated incredulously. “What were you on?”
“Nothing,” I snapped, “I’m just tired, that’s all.”
Cassandra sighed loudly and glanced at Joseph, who was staring at the tabletop. His face was set in a look of grim determination and that frightened me. Joseph was always so easygoing; I noticed that he avoided my eyes very carefully, as if I were cursed. I began to feel slightly Byronic again.
“What’s the matter?” I asked him, leaning across the table.
He shook his head quickly and stood up, still not looking at me. “Nothing.”
I stared, puzzled as he gripped Cassandra’s black lace enveloped arm. “Come on then, Cassandra. Let’s get those aspirins.”
Cassandra nodded wordlessly and I began to follow them out of the canteen. Joseph stopped and turned to me.
“You stay here, Al. Get your dinner, we’ll only be a minute.”
“No point in you coming,” Cassandra agreed, “I just need some aspirins.”
I stared after my friends as they disappeared through the swing doors. There was something strange going on here, Cassandra never got headaches or, very rarely anyway. Those two were definitely plotting something. Without a minute’s further hesitation I darted through the swing doors after them
At the end of the corridor they turned right, through some more doors and I followed, keeping out of sight. Cassandra kept turning and glancing behind her nervously but did not see me. The sickroom was right near the ladies’ toilet so I slipped in there while they knocked and entered; then I hurried out and tiptoed up to the door of the sickroom. It was ajar and inside I could see the black lace of Cassandra’s dress and hear her voice.
“… We’re really very worried,” I heard. Then Joseph’s voice joined in and I only managed to catch a few words with difficulty … ‘hallucinations’ and ‘vampire’. I closed my eyes and leaned against the wall. This, I couldn’t believe! My own friends betraying me in this way! I had trusted them… I thought of Cassandra’s mocking laughter, when I had told her about Thomas and I felt tears welling in my eyes.
“… Could be dangerous,” continued Cassandra, when I listened again. “You saw what happened this morning. She’s convinced that this friend of hers is really a vampire.” There was a pause and Joseph murmured something. “Yes, “ Cassandra added, “that would explain the incident with the blood.”
My mind went blank as I thought of Thomas and how real he was to me, I knew he was a vampire. I knew it and yet… perhaps it was all in my mind… they could be right after all… perhaps I really was ill.
“He’s a good psychiatrist.”
I went numb as the nurse spoke those words. I knew instantly, I’m not mad. Thomas is a vampire and not part of my imagination. Inside the sickroom, Cassandra giggled at something the nurse said and the tears began to dribble down my cheeks. My sanity betrayed by my best friends! I closed my eyes again as I heard Cassandra call, “Bye then,” to the nurse as her black dress emerged from the room. Joseph followed her, his head down so that his shaved head was like a blank face. They saw me. Cassandra stopped and stared, aghast and Joseph looked away and quickly walked off. I watched him go from beneath wet lashes, no expression on my face. Then Cassandra moved towards me, clutching her black lace gloves in her hands. Her face looked white, surrounded by black, rather like Thomas really… I turned my face away quickly as she reached out a hesitant hand and brushed a strand of hair out of my eyes. I didn’t want her reminding me of my only true friend, the vampire. She had betrayed me.
“Oh, Al,” she said gently, biting her lip, “we were only worried about you. Really.”
I swung round and glared at her, pushing her hand away. My friends had conspired against me – they believed me mad… they plotted my downfall in secret. And so, turning my back on her, I walked rapidly away without glancing back. As I reached the gates to the college, I began to run, tears pouring down my cheeks. I ran away, away from the college, away from treacherous friends, towards home, towards solitude, towards Thomas.
* * *
I paced up and down the room, waiting for sunset. Although the day had been so dark and dull, night seemed reluctant to fall and end my agony. Finally, I went out into the garden and stacked all the tools in the shed, surrounding the coffin that was wedged in the middle. Then I sat beside the coffin and waited patiently for the lid to creak open.
I was terrified when it did; it was just like one of those Hammer horror films. I whimpered like a scared dog, longing to scurry away into the undergrowth. But, as soon as I caught sight of Thomas’s tousled, dark head, the fear vanished. I stood and watched the vampire waking from sleep.
He stepped out of his coffin, yawned, stretched and gazed at me uncomprehendingly. I don’t think he realised where he was at first then he grinned and hugged me. I was surrounded by his cloak, lost in the folds of the night, the nocturnal.
“Alison! How nice of you to meet me.” He stepped back and I clutched his cloak manically.
“I’ve been betrayed!” I cried.
Thomas frowned, the smile still wavering on his lips, his fangs glinting dangerously.
“I have!” I continued frantically. “They’ve ganged up on me; they’re going to send me to a shrink!”
Thomas’s smile fell away like crumbling rock as he caught sight of my neatly bandaged arm and he reached out to touch it inquisitively.
“I set fire to my sleeve and now they think I’m mad.”
I began to sob as I remembered how unfairly I had been treated.
“They don’t believe me, that you’re a vampire. They think…”
Thomas glanced at me quickly.
“You’ve not told anyone about me? Who’ve you told?”
“No one, just Cassandra and then she told Joseph, but they don’t believe me anyway. They told the nurse and she thinks I’ve gone mad, with my stealing the blood and everything; she’s going to send me to a shrink! Thomas, what am I going to do?”
“A psychiatrist, a head doctor, they think I’m mad or I’m ill. I keep falling asleep but I know, I know you’re real…”
Thomas put his arm round me, swathing me in his cloak and led me inside and slowly up the stairs. I barely noticed him push me down on my bed, in my own tiny room, remove his beautiful, precious cloak and throw it over me, I was so distraught. Then he sat beside me and gently stroked my face with his cold fingers until I fell asleep. Feeling wrapped in drowsy velvet, an indigo sensation of warmth and softness, I fell asleep smiling, the image of the gentlest vampire in history diffusing itself gently throughout my dreams like a dark and drowsy opium vapour.
* * *
Thomas was gone when I awoke. I stumbled out of bed and over to the window and pulled the curtain aside, expecting the day, however grey and dismal it may be, to have dawned. But blackness glared defiantly back, the streetlight winking like a dirty old man at me, leering, intimate. Turning away, I stood on Bosworths’ tail; he leapt up, screeching, his fur jagged and electrified. I was paralysed with fear and shock for a while and I sat on the floor until my senses returned. Bosworth glared at me from under the bed. My head was heavy and confused with sleep and silent images from my dreams flickered through my mind like spectres but would not stay around long enough to be identified. When I shook my head vigorously, I saw these flimsy characters fall to the ground, translucent like transfers without a background and as soon as they touched the carpet, they disappeared, popped out of existence, fairy bubbles, too fragile to stay. I traced their outlines on the carpet moodily. A movement caught my eye, Bosworth pulling a blanket or some piece of clothing off the bed. He held the material firmly in his mouth and dragged the garment onto the floor. The material slithered across the carpet like silk. Leaping up, I grabbed Thomas’s cloak from between the cat’s jaws and checked it hastily for tooth marks. Bosworth gazed at the cloak as if debating whether or not to attempt dragging it from my hands. I decided to return the precious garment to Thomas immediately. I couldn’t risk taking the responsibility for it being damaged in any way. Its nocturnal powers appeared to attract cats, as well as people.
I discovered Thomas in the front room; he was sitting at the table, reading. The room was in darkness, the moon obstructed by low clouds but I didn’t turn the light on, for I knew that it would hurt the vampire’s eyes. I wondered how even a vampire could manage to read that tiny print in such gloomy light but he glanced up when I came in.
“Oh, hello,” he said smiling faintly, “I hope you don’t mind … this is your book.”
He indicated the paperback edition of Keats which lay open on the table. I shook my head, smiling, finding myself with nothing to say. I wanted to share my broken cartoon characters of dreams, to resurrect them with words; but the realization dawned slowly that those precious words I needed did not exist. I stood behind Thomas and draped his cloak carefully over his shoulders. He didn’t seem to notice but he snuggled into the nocturnal hues as if they made up his epidermis. I sighed and felt again, that maybe it wasn’t so bad being a vampire. There was an obscure aura of beauty that clung to Thomas and shrouded him like a veil. I stroked his hair; it was just like human hair, slightly rough and matted in places but his flesh marked the difference. My hand brushed his neck and withdrew, the iciness shocking to my touch as I turned away.
“I thought you’d sleep all night, “ he said conversationally.
I shook my head. “I can’t, not when you’re here.”
Carefully, Thomas picked up the copy of Keats and closed it decisively with one hand.
“Maybe I ought to go then.” He sat back but I still could not see his face. “It’s not fair to keep you awake all night, every night and then expect you to function properly in the daytime as well. It will lead to…” he glanced at my bandaged arm quickly, “… to more accidents.”
My face burned with embarrassment. It was a silly slip, which anyone could have made anyway, the damage, was done, the arm bandaged, the sanity doubted, the psychiatrist consulted, I bit my lip. I didn’t want to talk – even to think - about this. The thought of me ending up in an asylum was as unbearable to me as was Thomas leaving. I tried to imagine my friendly vampire going away forever, but I couldn’t.
“No, don’t go,” I said finally.
This seemed to convince Thomas. “All right,” he agreed. Perhaps he hadn’t really meant what he had said at all – perhaps he was just testing me. “It would be very hard to leave you anyway. A vampire… you’d be surprised how few friends I have had. It’s a very lonely existence.”
I collapsed into an armchair, rubbing my forehead. No, I was not surprised; I’d always imagined vampires to be very solitary beings.
“The reputation of the vampire has been irreparably damaged by Bram Stoker. He has a lot to answer for,” he told me sternly.
“You mean it’s not true – about Dracula?”
“Oh, the facts are vaguely true – most of them, some are slightly exaggerated and Count Dracula did exist, he was supposed to have been a vampire.” Thomas stood up and strolled across the room, clasping his hands behind his back. “But he neglected to mention the isolation of the vampire. It’s not all power and sadism and fear, lovely fear. What happened to the misery when people die all around you and you… you go on living? The horror when you realise just what you are… and when people scream and bear crosses, warding off evil spirits… Alison, I’m not evil, neither am I a spirit but all my life has been spent avoiding people, keeping in the shadows, running away… and always alone. Always, always, always.”
He leant his back against the sideboard and closed his eyes. The form of his melancholy diffused his outline, decomposing as unseen droplets of something nasty in the air. I wondered what to say, the magnitude of the situation frightened me.
“You’re not alone now,” I faltered, “you’ve got me.”
For a moment he turned and looked at me and I saw his eyes, like everything else about him were dark, but not black; rich shades and tones jostled, a chiaroscuro of hues, glimmering and luxurious, like a kaleidoscope.
“I’ve got you now,” he said gently, “but you will die and I will not, I cannot, I will go on living forever. I am dead and yet I cannot die. How ironic.”
I was silent for a while. Then I thought of Chatterton.
“Couldn’t you commit suicide?”
“Think I wouldn’t like to?”
Miserably Thomas turned to the wall and gazed jealously at Chatterton's lifeless body, draped over the bedspread.
“Think I haven’t thought of every single possibility in all my years on earth? I have. I have and there is nothing, nothing I can do.”
He walked slowly over to me and collapsed gracefully into my lap. I was almost smothered by the mystery of his cloak. I spat out the darkness.
“I would love… I would love to take a potion of arsenic and water, to swallow it down… to feel my stomach burning and writhing like a snake inside me… to clutch at the air as if it could save me but – oh – the pain… my life ebbing away, watching it slip away, out of my grasp… to die, to die like Chatterton. His body is on the bed but no life… the life is gone. Gone forever.” He leaned back and closed his eyes blissfully. “Ahhhh… suicide, choosing to die. Suicide, what a beautiful word.”
“So why can’t you do that?” I shifted. Thomas was really heavy. “What’s stopping you?” I read a story once, ‘Varney the Vampire’, I think it was called – and he killed himself. He jumped into a volcano, so…?”
“Oh, no, not ‘Varney the Vampire’. I’ve read that. Well, you said it yourself, it’s a story, and fiction it’s not true. The vampire cannot kill itself, the only way they can really die once and for all, is by having a stake plunged through their heart, and as you will probably appreciate this is rather a difficult operation to perform oneself.”
I nodded, I could appreciate that.
“What about like in Nosferatu, just staying up till dawn? Don’t you just melt as the sun’s rays touch you?”
Thomas sighed. “That, I’m afraid is not true either. It sounds such a quiet, peaceful death but it hurts like hell and it doesn’t work. The vampire heart is not destroyed, a vampire can be resurrected from his ashes quite by accident if his heart remains intact.”
“Who knows? Perhaps, like in The Scars of Dracula, have you seen it? It only needs a vampire bat to dribble on the remains.”
“What?” I laughed despite myself. “This is beginning to sound incredible.”
“It was only a Hammer Horror low budget movie.”
“Well.” I tried to push Thomas off my knee but he resisted. I gave up, remembering his amazing strength. “Anyway, how do you know? How do you know staying in the sunlight doesn’t work?”
“I had a friend once, in Rumania, a vampire. He tried it as a form of suicide but I saw him again, about two hundred years later. It hadn’t worked, obviously.”
“Obviously.” I stared fiercely at Thomas’s cloak, a myriad of nocturnal shades… this problem seemed insurmountable, to live and never to die. But how sad to let this vampire die! “You ought to have kids,” I told him, “you ought to start a new breed. There can’t be that many vampires as… available as you.”
Thomas looked at me as if he too, doubted my sanity.
“I wouldn’t dream of it. Anyway, I don’t know any woman vampires who’d be… willing.” He draped his arms round me, gazing somewhat hungrily at my neck.
“Well, now’s your chance.”
Thomas leapt off my lap as though stung.
“You are joking?” he whispered, horrified.
But Thomas seemed to be really shaken by my ‘joke’. He paced up and down, wringing his hands frantically behind his back.
“You don’t mean that, you don’t mean that. You don’t want to be a vampire. You’d hate it, I hate it. Don’t say that.”
“It was only a joke. What’s the matter?”
“You don’t realise Alison, when you say that, what it does to me. It would be so easy for me in my living death, as I can’t join you in life.”
I was silent, I hadn’t realised how near I was to becoming a vampire myself, I hadn’t realised, Thomas was right. I hadn’t appreciated how easy it would be for him… to drain my blood and my life away.
“I could… though… if I could…”
“What?” I asked.
“Suicide, the stake through the heart.” Thomas stopped pacing and stared at me. “It might work… if… someone else were to do it…”
I stood up quickly.
“Oh, no. Oh no, you can just forget that Thomas.”
The very thought of murder had seized up my insides and caused my blood to run stony cold, like Thomas’s.
“No, way. You can’t bring yourself to kill me, so I definitely can’t bring myself to kill you, even if you so want it, sorry forget it.”
Thomas turned away and shrugged.
“Just a thought.” Suddenly he looked up. “What time is it?”
I glanced at my watch, noticing for the first time that I was fully clothed.
“Ah.” Thomas glanced out of the window at the gradually lightening sky. “I’ll be off then.” He began to walk slowly towards the door. “Try and get some more sleep before college. “I’ll see you tonight.”I nodded. How could I possibly get some sleep with images of Chatterton and arsenic and hammers and stakes falling out of my mind? Was the vampire mad? Every day the nightmare became more and more real to me… and I was still expected to deny it? Thomas wasn’t a figment in my head, though sometimes I wished he was… and this would all become a dream, receding beneath my control, shrinking until I could wear it like a locket, next to my heart. The nocturnal welled and wavered, it threatened to infiltrate the day and swallow me right up with it, down, deep inside it’s deep dark belly. I was caught up and the nocturnal wings spread like a raven, reigned supreme. And I was expected to deny it?