The afternoon sunlight came in through the window of the classroom, catching on Mr. Henry’s glasses as he pushed them back on the bridge of his nose with great care. He looked up and gazed slowly around the room.
“Of course, that graveyard scene, with the noble prince with his skull has become the great classic of the tragic nature of this play… which we all know by now don’t we?”
As he looked around the room once again turning his head very slowly so that his greasy black hair shone like new leather his magnified eyes swam behind the thick lenses, obviously a source of great pride to him.
I stuffed my hand into my mouth quickly – I couldn’t help it, how could I possibly take him seriously? Beside me Cassandra nudged me in the ribs.
“I see he’s got his glasses mended. Thank God”. She remarked lazily.
I could only answer her mutely as I bit down on the side of my hand… so hard that it reminded me of Thomas’s fangs.
Mr. Henry droned on and on, his words fast losing shape in the tedium of that Friday afternoon feeling.
Mr. Henry cleared his throat sharply, raising his voice suddenly.
“Alison, please do share the joke with us. Obviously something I’ve said amuses you.”“It … it … it’s just so funny,” I spluttered.
Mr. Henry glared at me icily and nodded slowly. Beside me, infected by my mirth, Cassandra had begun to giggle.
“Obviously.” Mr.. Henry folded his arm slowly. “Obviously it’s just… so… funny. But what is ‘it’?” He leant on his desk, attempting to look cool and witty. “Let me see now… what sort of incident would our good friend Alison find so entertaining. Hamlet’s love for his father? His hatred for his step-father? His death? Ophelia’s death?”
“That’s it!” I jumped to my feet, still grinning. “Ophelia’s death. Your suggestion that it may have been brought on by herself, that’s funny. It’s outrageous! It’s so obvious that men drove her to her death, can’t you see that?”
I dissolved into laughter again. Mr. Henry stared at me, drumming his fingers on the edge of the desk nervously. His eyes darted around, swimming like frightened minnows behind the new lenses. He knew that he was being made to look a fool but he could do nothing about it.
* * * *
Later, in the canteen, Cassandra and I sat eating our lunch. We went over the events in our English Literature lesson that morning and laughed again. When a silence fell, Cassandra put her elbows carefully onto the table and cleared her throat. She wore at least twenty multicoloured bangles that slipped noisily down her arm.
“Al,” she said, gazing intently at her empty paper cup, “I wondered if – you know – if you’d been to … you know, you said you were going to go … I wondered?”
“The psychiatrist?” I supplemented helpfully.
Cassandra nodded gratefully, her rainbow shaped earrings bouncing in relief. I looked away, all my previous hostility concerning this subject had gone, or at least faded but I still had to tread very carefully around the subject of Thomas – who was, as I had promised him, a figment of my imagination after all.
“I saw the psychiatrist yesterday,” I told my friend, as casually as I could. “Dr. Lloyd-Jones, he was alright, a bit odd but I feel much better.”
Cassandra nodded, smiling warmly.
“You seem much better.” There was a pause as Cassandra studied her mulberry painted fingernails. “What did you talk about?” she asked.
I shrugged vaguely.
“Oh … things … you know.”
“Did you mention… your friendly vampire?” She smiled secretly and I smiled uncomfortably back.
“Oh him… I mean that,” I muttered, thinking desperately. “It’s… it’s a bit embarrassing really. It was…” I shrugged again “… all in my head, I suppose.”
Cassandra nodded slowly, she broke the plastic teaspoon carefully before she spoke.
“You were very insistent that this bloke was a real vampire,” she said. “He was living with you, wasn’t he? Thomas, was that his name?”
“Yes, Thomas that’s right.”
There was another pause and I realized that I would have to explain more fully.
“Well, you see, there is a bloke called Thomas and he is living with me, only he’s… he’s not … a… vampire.” I felt sure that she would see through my lie. It all sounded so terribly weak to me. “I don’t know why I said he was, how could he be? There’s no such thing as vampires. They’re just a myth.”
Cassandra was silent. Her many rings sparkled under the electric lights, rather like Thomas’s fangs had done the previous night. Then she looked up at me, her smile returning.
“It’s just a myth, as we all know.” She gazed at me, curious now. “So what’s this Thomas like? Describe him.”
“I can’t.” I felt temporarily floored. “You’d have to meet him.”
I sighed. Cassandra rose from the table and I knew that the decision had already been made. Yet again it was all out of my hands. My destiny was already drawn up. What had I let Thomas and myself in for now?
“Alright, tonight,” I agreed miserably.
* * * *
Cassandra and I arrived at my house in the middle of the afternoon. The sunny weather had remained and I had left all of the upstairs windows open to air the rooms. A fresh breeze was blowing, stronger than yesterday and the curtains billowed out gently through the open windows like different coloured flags, marking each separate territory. We entered the house and made ourselves each a chocolate milk shake, intending then to go out and sit in the garden. But upon thinking that I heard footsteps on the stairs and voices, I went out into the hall to investigate and almost collided with my father as he came down the stairs. He glared at me, his blue eyes cold and hard like pebbles on the beach and then turned to a small, smartly dressed man behind him.
“Mr. Whittaker, this is my daughter Alison, who is living here at the moment. Alison, this is Mr. Whittaker, the valuer from the Estate Agents.”
The tiny, dapper chap smiled politely and nodded his balding head. I towered a full foot above him and I could tell that this fact unnerved him. He fidgeted with his thin black tie, I noticed that there were patches of sweat that were spreading, like cancer, beneath the arms of his pale blue shirt and his fingertips were stained with nicotine. I took a gulp of my milk shake as I studied him.
“Good day,” I said casually, “I hope you find everything… presentable.”
I caught my dad’s eye at last and we stared arrogantly at each other for a while. He was the first to look away. Even so, he was bound to have found something to criticize. Surreptitiously I glanced at the damp patch of wine on the wall of the front room. It was faded – you could hardly see it now. I was glad that I had been out while those two business-like idiots had tramped round the house, scrutinizing everything, missing nothing and valuing it all. The idea of selling the house seemed suddenly abhorrent to me; it was my castle after all.
“Mr. Whittaker was just leaving,” my dad told me grimly, avoiding my eye very carefully. He opened the front door and stepped back politely.
I raised my glass as the tiny shrew-like man stepped through it, still smiling nervously and sweating.
“Good day,” I said again.
Cassandra had made a quick exit out of the back door when she had heard my father’s voice. I followed her out into the garden and we sat beneath the apple tree, sipping our milk shakes. Bosworth came over and flopped down on the grass next to us, leaping up to snap at flies every so often. Cassandra laughed at him, teasing him by throwing bits of earth into the air and watching him grab and swallow them without even appearing to notice that they were not, after all, flies.
“When’s Thomas coming round then?” she asked after a while.
“Later,” I answered, glancing automatically at the shed. It was bizarre to think that Thomas was already here, lying in a deep sleep in his coffin, not twenty feet from us. I wondered how Cassandra would react if I showed her my vampire in his sleeping state but Thomas would never forgive me, I abandoned the idea. Then my father came out of the house, that beautiful Byronic scowl on his face. His thick eyebrows were pulled low over his shifty, mean eyes; his face was one of extraordinary contradictions and angles, smattered with features that did not belong there, nothing matched. The face itself, was quite lethally geometric and bony; grey like a pebble washed by the sea, yet the cheeks were rosy, the eyes bright; thin almost emaciated, as far as the neck. Then something happened to my fathers’ body; it expanded alarmingly and grew squat, rotund. The buttons of his shirt clung to their respective buttonholes for dear life, stretched taut across his expansive middle. But in contradiction to this roundness, his arms and legs were long and bony. Taken as a whole, he strongly resembled a beetle. Every piece of his torso seemed independent and out of proportion to the rest; it was as if he had been sewn together from all sorts of different bits and pieces, a second Frankenstein’s monster. I remember he used to terrify me as a child, now he just irritated me.
My dad saw Cassandra and nodded at her, dismissively but it was me that he was making a beeline for. I stifled a sigh and thought of what potential state of neglect I could have overlooked in the house, a pot out of place? An ashtray not emptied? A coffin in the shed? Almost dropping milk shake in panic, I tried to force myself to be calm. I could bluff my way out of this. I fixed my face into a casual, insolent smile.
“You,” my father began, shaking a finger at me, “are not fit to live alone in this house.”
I kept smiling, yawning deliberately as he elaborated on this accusation.
“How many times must I remind you that this house is not yours, it’s mine. I’ve got to sell it and you’re supposed to be responsible about it. I told your Mum you’re obviously not responsible but, oh no, she says you’re nineteen, you’re quite responsible enough.”
“Well, she’s right,” I said, throwing a daisy in the air and watching Bosworth eat it.
“Is that what you think? Well, I don’t, I certainly don’t.” My father folded his arms across his barrel-like chest and glanced around the garden, presumably to help him concentrate, while avoiding my eye. “Don ‘t you think that it’s completely irresponsible, not to mention bloody dangerous, to go out and leave all the windows open? What are you trying to do, invite a burglar in? You’re certainly making sure that he’d feel welcome!”
I couldn’t help it, I thought of the night Thomas broke in. The house certainly wasn’t secure against visitors from beyond the grave. I glanced at Cassandra, who had spluttered on a mouthful of milk shake and was trying to disguise her titters in a sudden coughing fit.
“Dad, no one would break into any of these houses in the daytime, someone would see them. These houses… they’re so close together and they’re so nosy round here,” I added maliciously.
“That’s the kind of attitude that house-breakers must adore,” my father told me smugly. After a slight pause, he went on to the next item he had found to criticise. “Now, there’s something missing. A vase, pale pink I think it was, or orange, from the hall.”
“Ah,” I said guiltily. I must have been mad to think that my dad wouldn’t notice its absence. “That, well it was an accident, Bosworth did it. I didn’t realise that it was worth anything.”
My father nodded, pleased that he had me at his mercy. He even met my eye; he must have felt at quite an advantage, both morally and physically, as I remained seated in the grass at his feet.
“Everything in this house is worth something, my girl, remember that. Your mother was very fond of that ornament; I don’t care whose fault it was.” There was another silence; perhaps the lecture was over now. But my father remained where he was, stroking his gaunt chin thoughtfully. The lines on his face caused the skin to look like a piece of origami sculpture. His withering, grey hair was ruffled in the wind and he looked like a character from a children’s picture book, Grandpa on the ranch.
“Another thing,” he said slowly, “the shed.”
I grabbed hold of the rickety wooden fence behind me, feeling the earth move beneath me. My empty glass hit the grass with a thump and rolled into Bosworth, who leapt up, startled. I felt sure that I had gone as pale as Thomas, the blood draining away like water going down a plughole. What now? What now? How could I explain a coffin in my shed? Or what if my dad opened it? How did I explain a sleeping vampire in my shed?
“Tell me,” said my dad, his perpetual scowl deepening, folding his face with neat creases like a newspaper, “what on earth is that huge crate? It looks like… some sort of… cupboard… very heavy…”
I caught my breath.
“You didn’t try to lift it?”
“Well… not lift it… just shift it but it weighs a ton. Alison, what is it?”
The killer question. Luckily I was good at thinking under pressure. My mind raced ahead of time.
“Well, it’s a sort of big chest. Someone I know gave it to me. It used to be their grannies.”
“Very nice, I’m sure.” My dad gave me one of his condescending glances. “But why is it in my shed?”
“It’s… just temporary. I don’t want to leave it out in the garden, do I now? It’ll get warped in the rain. I want to put things in it eventually.”
“You mean it’s empty? I tried to open it but it seems to be locked. Why’s it so heavy then?”
Relief overwhelmed me. I hadn’t considered that vampires would lock their coffins, by whatever means, once inside but it was logical really. I was beginning to feel quite secure with this story of the ancient treasure chest. I picked up my glass and stood up, I felt better. I could look down on my father now and he quickly looked away. I began to stroll inside.
“It’s heavy because… the wood it’s made from, I suppose. It’s very old, very well made. I’ll get it moved sometime. Come on Cassandra.”
“That wasn’t true, was it? About the old, terribly well made chest?” Cassandra tasted the stew and grimaced. She sprinkled black pepper and garlic salt into the mixture. “What’s in it really? Opium?”
I sat on top of one of the worktops nearby, buttering bread. I felt truly relaxed now that my father was gone. I hadn’t realised what a vast amount of stress parents, particularly my parents, put on their children. I would probably have suffered a coronary at nineteen if I had stayed at home, or been driven to an early suicide; arsenic and water of course, like Chatterton.
“It was true, actually. The chest is empty.”
“Alison.” I nearly fell off my precarious perch. I hadn’t heard Thomas creep in and, besides that, I hardly recognised him. He had tied his hair back into a ponytail and borrowed my maroon jumper from my wardrobe, discarding his cloak. I wondered if he had flown upstairs in the form of a bat, when he had glimpsed Cassandra through the window. If this was so, I would have thought that he would have taken a long walk elsewhere, preferring to avoid my curious friends. But clearly, the ways of the vampire were diverse and secretive.
“Oh, Cassandra,” I explained hastily, gesturing with my knife, “this is Thomas.”
Cassandra was already gazing at Thomas, transfixed. She continued to stir the stew mechanically.
“Hello there,” she said slowly, stammering a little; or was that my imagination? Was I not the only one who found Thomas an imposing, disturbing figure then? It appeared not. For the first time I saw Thomas, not as a vampire belonging exclusively to me in my own world, but as a person, a friend, spreading his bat like wings into other people’s sphere of consciousness. I saw him, as I think Cassandra must have seen him, a towering, gaunt figure, with terribly pale skin, hollow dark eyes set in a fragile face; a morose figure, probably a phlegmatic, melancholy character with tendencies towards the macabre and general bouts of moodiness. All this, we would have seen, a man without his shroud, his epidermis, his mysterious nocturnal cloak which would have given him away as what he really was, a vampire.
“Ah, you must be Cassandra, then.” Thomas smiled slightly so as not to reveal his fangs and gave a little theatrical bow. Of course, Cassandra was delighted. A fellow follower of drama at last! I noticed that Thomas was also trying to disguise his accent but he wasn’t very successful.
“You’re foreign, aren’t you?” Asked Cassandra. “Where do you come from?”
Thomas was not in the least bit thrown. That evening I was to become aware of just how good a liar he was.
“I was born in Poland,” he said effortlessly. “I have lived here for… fourteen years but I still retain a little of my accent.”
“You must tell me about Poland.” Cassandra tasted the stew again, her bangles clattering to her elbow as she raised her arm and she turned to me. “Al, this is ready.”
“Right,” I said, leaping off the table.
* * * *
We spent the rest of the evening sitting in the back room and talking. I was greatly impressed at Thomas’s extensive knowledge of all aspects of the Polish community, country and life. Later I realised that he was probably just describing Romania; the chances were that Cassandra would never find out the difference, anyway. I could tell she was completely infatuated by Thomas, not in a lustful or soppy sense; but she hung on every word of his conversation. While at the same time treating him with a mixture of respect, curiosity and friendliness, which was a rare brew to be found in Cassandra’s attitude towards others at any time but I knew exactly how she felt. Thomas carried the magnetic quality, an idiosyncratic charisma like a torch wherever he went; and the magic enchanted every acquaintance he made; a witch’s spell that never failed. I half expected Cassandra to bring up the subject of my visit to the psychiatrist at any time, and consequently vampires but she seemed to be avoiding that topic pretty neatly. I thought that, perhaps she didn’t think that Thomas knew that I had ‘ah … problems’.
Towards one o’clock, I collected up the many empty cups and went out into the kitchen to make one last cup of tea. Cassandra and Thomas were engaged in an intricate conversation concerning equal pay for women. I was glad that Cassandra so obviously liked Thomas. I suddenly wanted to take him into college and show him off to all my friends, like a new dress. Then I realised that this would be impossible, due to college only being open during daylight hours. Bosworth wound himself around my ankles, mewing pitifully. I slopped some Whiskas into his bowl and bent down to put it on the floor for him. That cat had such strange meal times. As I crouched in the kitchen doorway, watching my orange cat munch happily, I realised that I could hear Cassandra and Thomas quite clearly. I tried to figure out the scientific reason for this but I couldn’t so I gave up and listened instead.
I was interested to discover that my two friends had left the subject of monetary feminism behind and had turned instead, to me. Was there a link?
“I wondered if you knew.” That was Cassandra.
“Yes, I’m quite aware.” Thomas’s reply was quick and casual; I knew that they must be discussing my psychiatric treatment. This annoyed me a little, why couldn’t they discuss it in front of me?
“I hope you don’t think that I’m nosey… it’s none of my business really…”
No, Cassandra, it isn’t I thought fiercely.
“It’s just that it… it fascinates me a bit I suppose, in a funny way. She seemed so convinced that you… you were a … a vampire.”
There was a stunned silence and I had a sudden urge to giggle.
“A… what?” Thomas’s shock and disbelief were superb.
Cassandra tittered nervously.
“Well, a vampire. You know, one of those blokes who sleeps all day in a coffin and goes round drinking blood.”
I held my breath, if Cassandra thought… if she just considered a moment… then she would realise. The massive, suspicious chest in the garden shed… the paleness… the foreign accent… beneath that silly maroon jumper was a real, live vampire.
“She denies it now, admits it was all in her mind but at the time she… she really seemed to believe it.”
I heard a sound then, that I didn’t recognise; then I realised that Thomas was laughing; a low hard laugh that I could tell was accompanied by a shaking of the head.
“A vampire? Dear, dear me. Poor Alison, she is quite ill.”
I shoved my fist into my mouth to stop myself from screaming, that appalling, patronising tone! I knew that Thomas was only acting, but – Christ – he was such a bloody accomplished actor!
“I’m sorry,” said Cassandra “I didn’t mean to be telling tales, I thought you knew. I thought it might be… a private joke.”
“I didn’t know, I wouldn’t joke at Alison’s expense. Not about something like this anyway.” Thomas’s voice became contorted with horror and loathing. “Vampires are monsters, you know. I wouldn’t joke about a thing like that.”The kettle whistled and straightening up, I went to turn the gas off. Vampires are monsters I kept thinking. Was that really how Thomas thought of himself? A horrible, horrific monster? Or was that part of the act as well? Still, Thomas had well and truly thrown Cassandra off the trail, now. The one who I was trying to protect supported her belief in my mental illness. The situation was bizarre and ludicrous. All this lying and acting, fake stories and pretend illnesses, deception and intrigue, and what was it all for? To protect a vampire from the world! I smiled to myself, placing the teapot on the tray. Piling cups alongside, I picked up the tray and breezed into the back room, avoiding Bosworth who insisted on running back and forth in zigzags just in front of my feet.
Now go to Chapter Eight