‘Blood’ by Jacki McCarrick
Fred Plunkett's quiet day of study in his aunt's Victorian mansion overlooking the Cooley Mountains is rudely interrupted by Lara. With her tight lampblack dress, seamed chocolate-brown tights and high plastic heels, she arouses his interest and thoughts of a subversive past he never had. But her thesis that Count Dracula may have hidden away in the Cooley Mountains in the fifteenth century, followed by generations of vampiric descendants, is ridiculous - isn't it?
Fred Plunkett walked around her in his mind like an invisible wolf. She was thin and gazelle-like, had a creamy retrousse nose, and wore a brash perfume that tingled the back of his throat. There was also an arrogance to her, as if she were accustomed to other people’s submission and was rattled now by having to explain herself.
‘Didn’t Louise say? I’m Lara. I’ve come to use the library. I’m researching a book. I’ve come especially.’ As she went towards a bulging black satchel resting by the pillar, Fred thought, Damn, she’s got some sort of letter. Proof. From Louise herself. Now I shall have to say:
‘Ah yes. The friend from London.’
‘Yes!’ the girl replied.
‘Come in, come in,’ Fred said.
The girl entered the hallway, removed her sunglasses, hooked them over the lapels of her military-fit coat. She refused Fred’s offer of Nescafe, but allowed him to take her coat (whereupon she placed her glasses on her head). On her way towards the stairwell, Tomas welcomed her with a leg rub from his moulting ginger torso. Fred watched her look down at the cat and smiled.
‘Louise has such a wonderful home,’ she said, stopping to view the artwork on the stairwell wall.
‘How do you know her, exactly?’ Fred said.
‘Oh. From University. She was my Professor,’ the girl replied.
Fred’s aunt had taught at University College, London for almost twenty years. An authority on the Archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, Louise Foster had turned thousands of students on to the poetic and imaginative brilliance of the Koran (mostly via NJ Dawood’s 1956 translation). Despite her retirement, due to recent world events (and her expertise) she was regularly asked to advise political organisations, think-tanks and journalists the world over. Hence, she was often away, and this is how Fred, who hoped to complete his thesis in his aunt’s spacious Victorian house (with its substantial collection of rare books, local newspapers, archaeological journals, and tranquil setting between the Cooley Mountains and Irish Sea), found himself caretaker of it, and of his aunt’s cat, a role that had not come without its complications.
‘Here we are,’ he said, once inside the library, ‘a good view of the hills,’ and placed the girl’s bag down on the desk opposite his. The small cemetery at Faughart could be seen from the window. Here, the remains of Edward the Bruce had lain interred in a sunken vault marked by an iron Celtic cross since 1318. When she got to the chair, the girl angled it away from the window towards the large echoing heart of the room. She then turned, reached over and closed the shutters.
‘The light,’ she said, ‘it bothers me. I’m somewhat photo-sensitive.’
He noticed that indeed the girl’s eyes were watering in the sun’s glare. Not until both shutters were closed did he get the full impact of them: sensitive and transparent like a calm June day in Greenore.
‘I’ll be taking a break soon,’ Fred said, quietly, his head bowed over his book-burdened table. ‘I’ve a bit of a job to do downstairs.’
‘Oh, yes,’ the girl responded, sniffily. Fred immediately felt a strange pang in his chest, and wondered if, perhaps, Lara knew the full extent of his arrangement with Louise. He blushed and pretended to work. Furtively, he watched her lay out two large leather-bound books on the reading table.
‘What are you researching, Lara?’ he asked.
‘Oh. Settlers to this area in the fifteenth century.’
‘No,’ Lara replied, scanning the huge ivory pages. As she did not elaborate, and as he was afraid to enquire further, Fred turned to his wastepaper basket and began to sharpen his pencils. The room seemed to fill with small, intrusive noises: the trembling chalky sound of the ivory pages being turned, the pencil shavings hitting the screwed-up balls of paper like rain, the swish of Lara’s dress each time she moved, her assured slow breathing. Fred longed to speak, if only to divest all of these increasingly troubling and arousing sounds of their unwarranted power.
Slyly, he watched her remove a small cardigan and wrap it around the chair at the reading table. He took in her tight lampblack dress, the tiny buttons down the front, the sheer chocolate-brown tights with a seam, and shoes that had high plastic heels. Christ. How had he not noticed those before? At first he thought she looked like a Forties film star. And then decided that, no, that wasn’t quite right: she looked like a Goth, but a much more glamorous Goth than the Goths he was used to seeing in Belfast. Her lips were a matt dark-red, her skin white as jasmine, her hands adorned with silver skull-decked rings. And there was something else about her that he liked, though he could not decide what it was. Was it this dark style of hers? (Though what did he know about women and their styles? He hadn’t so much as touched a woman in six years. It was far too complicated: women, sex, relationships. It was rocket science. Fred had immersed himself in the much more certain world of academia, and had for the past six years, been utterly, inescapably celibate.) Or was it some more hidden quality she had that impressed him?
At Queens, Fred liked the Goths. They intrigued him with their Marylyn Manson T-shirts, dyed black hair and black lipstick. They formed an underwelt: the girls with their white faces and sleek hair, the men in their high-heeled rubber shoes. In a feeble attempt to ally himself with what he thought of as a kind of tribal subversiveness, Fred had had his mother sew PVC patches onto his tweed jackets and cardigans, and though he fantasiszed about wearing substantially larger amounts of PVC than that (like a gimp suit), he never did. Between seminars and symposia he would sometimes visit Gresham Street with its seedy hotels and flyblown glamour, or linger in the Arcade on North Queens Street delighting in the wares of Gemini, MissTique and Private Lines. He loved to stroke the PVC tops with their chains and cut-away breasts, smell the rubber T-shirts, cast his eyes around at the exotic, shiny blackness of it all and lose himself in this slightly seditious but alluring world. A world that far from belonging to the realm of ‘fantasy’, was a hard reality in Belfast. For Fred had found the city to be full of S&M clubs, fetish clubs, groups such as Transsexuals United Against Sectarianism, not to mention the bondage parties he had heard so much about but to which he had never been invited.
‘I do hope you won’t mind, but I’m intrigued. What is your book about, Lara?’ he asked. ‘I mean, what is it that interests you about these “‘settlers”’?’
‘Well, it’s sort of about vampires,’ she replied, pronouncing the ‘v’ softly, and the second half of the word as one syllable, so that in her cut-glass accent it rhymed with ‘far’. Seconds later the ridiculousness of what she had said hit him with particular force.
‘But there’s no such thing, surely. I mean there’s no such thing as vampires!’ he said. ‘Vampires! Children of the night!’ he added, in mock-Transylvanian.
‘Have you read Dracula?’ she asked. Fred glared.
‘Then you know that while Mina is saved the Count is destroyed. But this is Stoker’s fiction. In reality, Count Dracula’s body was never found. I have reason to believe he escaped Romania and came here to the Irish borderlands in the fifteenth century.’
Here? Dracula? To the Cooley Mountains?
It immediately occurred to Fred, then, that a flake, albeit an extremely good-looking one, had interrupted a crucial day of study. ‘So how did Dracula get here, then?’ he asked, sarcastically.
‘Probably through the Black Sea, through the Bosphorus and Sea of Marmara, then into Istanbul and around the Mediterranean. It would have been a terrifically tough journey and must have taken months. Oh, and I’ve just found here a number of references to a family with exotic origins that arrived in these parts at exactly the right time. Just think – there could actually be people living here in this area directly descended from the Count.’
Fred Plunkett sat back in his chair and laughed. It was rude he knew, but he couldn’t help it. In fact, rather like his feline charge, he could hardly contain himself. As he guffawed (and guffawed) he could see the girl sitting composed on the edge of her chair, seemingly oblivious to the racket he was making; she had opened slightly one of the shutters and was gazing toward a darkened Faughart cemetery and the grave of Edward the Bruce. Fred stopped laughing and cleared his throat.
‘I’m sorry. I’ve been terribly rude. Perhaps I should leave you to it.’ He gathered up his papers, neatly re-piled his books, plugged his chair into the desk, and walked towards the door.
‘I hope you brought an umbrella, Fred,’ Lara said.
Fred looked to the window by his desk. It wasn’t raining, but yes, she had observed it: the dense black cloud coming in off the sea on its way towards the house.
‘I imagine that will have passed by the time I’m done downstairs,’ Fred said.
‘Oh yes,’ the girl replied, ‘Tomas.’
She knew! The deal with Louise! No doubt, she was on to him about his perving too, his afternoon of languorous looking.
All the way along the corridor, and down the stairwell, Fred convinced himself he’d been ousted from his favourite place, from his one place of real privacy, in a most devious manner. Lara had overwhelmed him with strangeness, with some fantastical belief that Dracula, like Edward the Bruce, had come to settle in the Cooley Peninsula. Hold that thought. Dra-cul-a. No. It couldn’t be. The origins of the area were in the Gaelic, in ‘Cualaigne’. It was pointless even to consider the girl’s daft hypothesis. As if a legendary, largely fictitious character, played by both Gary Oldman and the great Klaus Kinski, would come and set up house in this inhospitable hinterland. It was far enough from anywhere now (an hour from both Belfast and Dublin on the train), but surely a lot further five hundred years ago.
Fred went into the living room and immediately saw the green cloud-shaped stain. He placed his knapsack down, removed his tweed jacket with the PVC elbow patches and placed it on the arm of the divan. He tugged at his aunt’s Persian rug and turned to Tomas, newly awake. Sensing his minder’s displeasure at this latest befouling, the cat launched himself over Fred’s right shoulder and scratched the side of Fred’s neck before scuttling off to some dark recess of the hall.
Blood trickled onto Fred’s collar. He wiped it off with his hand and sat down. ‘Little bastard,’ he shouted after Tomas, and returned to the stain. He then rolled up his shirtsleeves, neatly, mechanically, and trudged towards the kitchen for a basin of hot water. Halfway there he stopped. What was he doing? Moreover, what was he doing with his bloody life? Such thoughts came to Fred Plunkett often in moments such as this. Moments when he caught himself doing mean, odious things like cleaning up cat’s piss. And why was he cleaning up cat’s piss in exchange for using his own aunt’s library from which he’d just been so subtly ejected? Who said he could do such things, make such deals? At thirty-one he’d been a student forever. He had no girlfriend; he slept in a room, in which, at night, he could hear his mother breath and sometimes gargle on her own phlegm. It was pitiful. To others, his mother, his lecturers, he was a dedicated student. But what of the real world? (He hated that phrase.) This was the last year of his thesis, and what was he to do when it ended? After Queens, the only road open to him was research, -at any institution kind enough to hire him. Other than that, the thought of ‘employment’ terrified him. Cat-sitting was one of the few jobs he’d ever had, that and a brief stint as a bookie’s clerk. Neither of which he included on his CV.
He checked the gash on his neck in the mirror above the fireplace, then sat down into his aunt’s swampy leather chair and opened a small gilded box on the coffee table. He took out an all-white Egyptian cigarette, and lit up. This was bad. Very bad. He inhaled, deep and slow. Why had he never listened to the voice? The voice that throbbed inside him at times like this. The voice that said: that black shiny gimp suit is for you, and this tweed garb is so over; the voice that said leave with the books and papers you need, and fuck cleaning the rug. No, he had never listened to that voice, and look where it had got him to date: he was lonely; he’d made a humiliating deal to mind an incontinent cat in order to use his own aunt’s library. But for Fred it was always in such low moments that things made most sense. He would be flooded with understanding, as if before he’d been unconscious. He had respect for him, this rebellious creature, and wished as he sucked pensively on the fat cigarette that he could meet him more often, knowing that to do so would be to spend more time in the bass-register moroseness that had revealed him. For this was the real Fred. The Fred without the constructs. Man of his blood-memory. In such moments, Fred Plunkett would encounter the full force of the manqué rubber-clad deviant buried within him.
He threw the butt into the fire and lit up another cigarette. Hearing a floorboard creak, he turned to find Lara standing by the door, watching him, Tomas luxuriating in her arms. There was an intense look in her eyes. He had noted it earlier in the library. It was the look of someone who, over the years, had made themselves remote and icy, not so as to repel other people, but so as to be reached only by those as clear and direct and honest as they. He realised then that it was that, more than anything else, which he liked about her.
She moved towards the fire, teetered slightly on her high, glassy heels, at which Tomas jumped from her arms onto the rug, and positioned his rump as if to relieve himself once again whereupon Lara gently shooed him from the room. She laughed loudly. Beautiful teeth, he thought. He watched her walk slowly to the coffee table, coolly open the gilded case and slip her hand inside for a cigarette.
‘What were you thinking, Fred, when I came in?’
‘Oh. About the rug, about my thesis. In fact, my whole life flashed before me.’
‘Such a strange look. I barely recognised you.’
‘I was about to clean that mess, and, suddenly, now, I cannot. I don’t know why but I cannot. Perhaps you will apologise to Louise for me, tell her I will phone tomorrow? Would you do that?’ Fred said. Lara nodded, then stood back and examined the cloud-shaped stain.
‘Louise really should keep Tomas in the yard. She can hardly expect family to do something like that.’ He drew hard on his cigarette[pat1] . Lara was assuring him, and he was enjoying it.
‘I was only supposed to cat-sit. You see, he’s incontinent, poor thing. Some kind of infection. Louise never asked me, you know, to clean the crap up. I just felt it wasn’t right the cat should soil the house on my watch. Now, well, I feel like a fool. I should never have assumed such responsibility.’
‘You’ve been asleep Fred, haven’t you, hmmm? Asleep to yourself.’ Yes, that was how it was. Exactly. He was so bound up in a sense of duty, of what was proper and right, that in recent years he had been asleep to his own needs. He watched her yank together the two blue velvet drapes.
‘Hope I didn’t intrude upon your studies today, Fred.’
‘No, no. Of course not.’
‘By the way, I forgot to ask. What’s your thesis on?’ Lara asked.
‘Oh, it’s a study of various kinds of leukemia,’ Fred replied.
‘You find the library useful for that?’
‘Of course. For the past twenty years we’ve had abnormally high levels of cancer and blood disorders in the Northeast. Sellafield being the main suspect. Louise has kept excellent local archives.’
When Fred left the house it was raining. Clouds raced across the sky and he stopped to see an alternately blue and yellow haze veil the moon, which otherwise shone like a perfectly round silver button. He was cold. He considered turning back for one of Louise’s umbrellas, but the recalcitrant voice within him that had earlier risen up in a rage urged him to carry on into the full force of the silvery light, now turning the bay emerald. He found himself thrilling to the heavy droplets of rain sinking into his skin, and enjoyed this new sensation of defiance, of cutting loose.
Turning right at the bend by the cemetery, Fred walked towards the house he shared with his mother at the edge of a hazel wood. (All around, the land here had long belonged to the Fosters, and though his mother was one of their number, she’d not flourished as her sister had done and had only the small house.) There was an unfamiliar bounce to Fred’s step, and his legs felt sinewy and strong as he strode up the narrow path. Before he entered the gates, he stopped. Something soft and thick was in his mouth, a strange taste, warm and bitter. It wasn’t rain but he recognised it. He put his forefinger across his bottom lip and felt the torn flesh, then placed his finger inside his mouth and made a circle of his teeth. He looked up towards the moon, now high over Greenore, and checked his finger in the moonlight. Fred Plunkett did not know what to do. Should he find a way to reverse the transformation? Retrace his steps, go back to the house, find put-upon, tweed-wearing Fred and continue his life as before? Or, now that he had evidently developed a pair of long, smooth fangs, together with a ravenous desire for blood, should he forget about that Fred (that husk) once and for all, and obey the latest bizarre instruction of his booming inner voice?