Chapter, the Fyrst
Not another of those days
“Can we have some magic now, please?” said Alice. “Can we? Please?”
Soon, Alice. Soon.
* * *
Alice is a good name to write. It fits within its own skin, resonant and strong. The phoenix quill slides the first diagonal of the letter A. It is the pitch of a roof to keep little Alice safe. The other diagonal fixes it home, and the cross beam holds it securely. The capital A is a little house with sloping roofs.
The dot over the letter i is one of Alice’s eyes, always wide with wonder. It would be better as a y for reasons that we will come to later.
The c is a smiling lip, a curl of nutbrown hair.
Alice. I finish the word with a flourish on the letter e. Then a fresh charge of black ink to seal it with a stop. The ink soaks into the parchment, wrapping itself around the calf-skin fibres.
For a second, I hold my breath. Will this word fade on the page like so many others have done? When we write something, we make it real. But sometimes in these Switch days, the paper refuses to take the word. The ink recoils from the parchment and turns to clear water.
Alice. The word holds firm. The ink is drying now from the A and the l, with just a hint of a wet shine from the c and e. This is a word that belongs.
I look across the rest of the page. Empty. Blank. I had written another name there a hundred times, scored it until the quill nib scores deep lines. But it will not stay. The ink dries to air and the parchment heals itself. The name is refused.
I write it again in my neatest copperplate.
Vincent. His name is Vincent. He is the most wonderful and most stupid boyfriend a girl could ever have wished for. And I will keep on writing his name until the page accepts it.
* * *
Sorry, I am forgetting my manners. We haven’t yet been properly introduced. My name is Libby, the daughter of Janet, Granddaughter of Elizabeth and girlfriend to Vincent. I am also the United Kingdom’s official Cuddle Kitten Rampant, not to mention the ex-First Lady, the High Priestess of the Goddess, Member of the Privy Council and an intern and escapee from the Ministry of Normality.
But you can call me Libby. Please.
Vincent has already told you his story, of how the world changed and he turned into one of those things. Naturally, he told you about all the bloke-ish things that happened. The dragons and the fighting and the beer. He would. Boys and their toys.
Of course he left out all the important parts, but then he is only a man. A man who has forgotten his own name and is confused by shoelaces. And a few other things besides.
Draw up a chair and I’ll pour a cup of tea. Milk, sugar, lemon? Don’t mind Bodkin; he is just being friendly. Tickle him behind the ears and he’ll be your friend forever.
I’ll tell you what really happened. The ups and downs, the triumphs and disasters. I will even tell you about My Big Mistake. Without all the blokey bits.
* * *
Do you like to dance? Not the modern hip-grinding booty bumping. I mean the exquisite Bronte sisters, ladies in lace bodices and flowing full skirts, elegant gentlemen in tight breeches and brocaded waistcoats. A string quartet is playing something in the corner of the room. Servants bring cut glass flutes of vintage champagne on silver trays. Everyone is either a Duke or Duchess, a Countess or an Ambassador. That kind of dancing.
No, me neither, but I’ve always wanted to. There is something delightfully decadent and sumptuous about it all. Never mind that the corset is digging into your tummy, the heels are twisting your ankles and your dancing partner is a leering fossil.
The part I always wanted to do in that kind of dancing is when you send your man away, you both twirl around, wafting lace handkerchiefs, and then you come back together again.
Away, twirl, come back together, touch. And away again. You feel it as a wonderful sense of anticipation. When he is at arms’ length you can admire him from head to toe, just as he can look you over. And then when you come to touch, you swap your eyes for your senses of touch and smell.
My story is like that. Vincent and I start together, cheek to cheek, breath on breath. After the Switch, we have our adventures in the Fellowship of the Van. From there I send Vincent away, only to have him come back to me, in triumph and in blood.
You might have heard some of the story from Vincent in his tale of love, multiple deaths and the magical healing properties of midnight tea. Forgive me, I have to tell a portion of that story again, if only to put the record straight. You didn’t expect an accurate telling from someone in Vincent’s condition, do you?
Then when we come back together, we will have a wholly new adventure. I need to tell you about the Underworld and My Big Mistake.
With me so far? Don’t worry your pretty little head if it seems like a muddly way of doing things. Whether you’ve heard Vincent’s story or no, you’ll work it out in two shakes of a rat’s tail.
* * *
It was dark o’clock on the morning of Switch Day. The duvet was pulled up to my chin, body warm and feather soft.
Vincent was lying on his back, throwing snores to the ceiling. I nudged him with an elbow and he turned over automatically, muttering in tongues and absent-mindedly scratching his nethers. Men just can’t leave those alone, even when they are fast asleep.
It was somewhere after party-end and before dawn chorus. If I could open my eyes to read a clock it would have been something that started with a 4 or a 5. Much too early. Go-back-to-sleep early.
I half thought about spooning around Vincent to see if I could surprise him with a nocturnal cuddle. Then he would wake, murmur something about it not being his birthday and perform his duties in that deliciously drowsy and half asleep way. All hot and musky and not quite with it, like making love to a daydream.
Naturally he would fall asleep immediately afterwards while I would be zingy and awake. And when he did wake he wouldn’t be able to remember whether it had actually happened or not.
On any other morning, that might have been fun. But this was not any other morning. This was Switch Day and my insides were churning.
It’s that feeling you get at your time of the month. Or when your best friend falls pregnant. Or that man you don’t know and don’t trust has that look in his eye. You can’t explain it. You can’t write it in a book or point out the signs. You just know.
I knew that something had changed overnight and the world was a different place. Something had crept into all our lives while we were busy worrying about silly little nonsenses. Something momentous.
It felt as if a piece of fabric had been stretched and stretched until the stitching popped and the fabric ripped. I could see myself with ribbons and rags in my hands knowing beyond doubt that it could not be put back together again.
And such dreams! I had spent the night trying to get a sewing machine to work. I needed to make a dress. A black dress. A funeral dress. Widow’s weeds. But the sewing machine had no power and would not work. I tried plugging it in and unplugging it. Nothing happened.
In my dreams I looked around for Vincent to fix it. He likes being asked to fix things. It gives him a glow of caveman pride when he can unscrew a bottle top or fix a plug for his little woman. And it’s my job to give him those little victories from time to time. Bless.
But Vincent wasn’t there in my dream. I tried calling for him, shouting out his name, all the time knowing that it was his funeral I was going to. These black clothes were for me to wear to honour him, although he would never get to see them. That’s why they had to be perfect with not a stitch out of place.
The dreams swirled. Sometimes I was at the funeral, worrying that my hem was not as well sewn as it should be. At other times I was running through miles of corridors looking for a sewing machine, looking for Vincent, looking for a way to get to the funeral on time.
Vincent slept soundly on the morning of Switch Day, no doubt dreaming of uncomfortably fast cars and uncomfortably young girls at the supermarket checkout. I spent the night with a twizzle in my stomach and churning dreams of funerals and sewing machines. And he didn’t get his nocturnal cuddle.
The next morning … the next proper morning as opposed to the not-sleeping and not-quite morning … Vincent was in full fuss mode.
He clicked every switch in the flat. Thumped every remote control, pod, pad, PC and gadget. Lined up every battery on the bedroom floor like a regiment of toy soldiers, from the supermodel-thin AAAs to the chunky sumo wrestler C batteries.
He had arranged his screwdrivers like a surgeon laying out his scalpels before a major operation. He was staring at the television with the look of a tomcat eyeing up a sparrow. Any minute now he would start unscrewing tiny screws which he would then invariably lose underneath the sofa. All because of the unfathomable male logic that if something doesn’t work the best thing to do is to take it to pieces.
Vincent turned to me with that little-boy lost look. “Nothing’s working. I checked and rechecked every possible combination. Electricity has stopped working. It’s impossible.”
“It can’t be impossible. It’s happened.”
“No, no, no, you don’t understand,” he said and then launched into a long explanation involving physics, Boolean logic and loud films with Austrian robots in them. Forgive me, gentle reader. I have no recollection of what he said. I politely zoned out at that point.
“So you see,” he said after a demonstration involving a battery, two lengths of wire, a light bulb and much hand-waving. “It can’t possibly be anything other than impossible. Electricity doesn’t work anymore.”
“Let’s have breakfast,” I said.
There is something magical in orange juice. It restores and gives life, like a tea brewed from pure sunlight. Maybe it tastes so good because the orange tree wants you to eat its fruit. That’s how it grows and spreads. It is a part of its natural cycle. It’s the way of things.
That’s what men don’t understand. They only see the end-product. Their shiny toys with lots of buttons and flashing lights. They don’t see that electricity is ripped from the earth. It is stolen from trees and coal and wind and waves. The mother Goddess doesn’t want to give us electricity, but we are hand-cunning and ingenious with our inventions.
Prometheus knew that when he stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. If he had given it to a woman instead, we would have told him to put it back. There are some things we are not meant to have.
I met Prometheus once. Nice man, with sexy eyes and very good hair. Very good hair indeed. And the first thing he said, the thing he says over and over again to anyone who listens, was “I am so so sorry.”
We didn’t know any of that in our flat in London on the morning of Switch Day. All we knew was that electricity had stopped working overnight. Vincent didn’t know when, but I had a pretty good idea. It had happened somewhere between 4 and 5 o’clock – after party-end and before the dawn chorus.
And I was going to need to start sewing.
* * *
After breakfast of orange juice and croissants, I sent Vincent out to work. He always needs to be doing something he thinks is useful, otherwise he will end up doing something silly.
I didn’t expect for one second that there would be any work for him to do at the office. That world had come to an end, like the college course that I would never go back to. But I needed to get him out of my hair so I could think. From the upstairs window I watched his cute bottom in his tight Lycra shorts as he pedalled away, whistling a carefree and mostly tunefree tune.
The flat was feeling smaller than usual. I had to get out too, even though the thought of it gave me a tingle of nervousness. The outside world had changed overnight, and I didn’t quite understand how or why. None of us did.
The street couldn’t decide whether it was having a carnival or an apocalypse. It seemed that everyone was standing in the road. People were talking, arguing and laughing. Not a single car was moving. The general consensus seemed to be that we might as well have a holiday, since no-one was getting to work.
“Bloody Government cuts,” said one old gent, with his hands on his hips.
Alice was sitting on a low wall by the street corner. She was about eight years old with straggly rat’s tail hair which might be brunette or blonde or ginger if it wasn’t somewhere between moderately dirty and absolutely filthy. She had an open round face which couldn’t do anything other than show exactly what she was thinking.
I guess she could be a pretty kid, if she had parents who would insist on regular showers, dress her in pink and take her to ballet lessons. I have no idea who her parents were or even if she had any parents. She always seemed to be hanging around the street, kicking a can, wheeling a battered scooter and playing with sticks.
On the morning of Switch Day, Alice was twirling a string with a black kitten, a tiny bundle of spiky fur and outsize eyes. The kitten skittered after the shadows cast by Alice’s feet as they dangled over the edge of the wall.
“Morning, Libby,” she said. “Anywhere exciting?”
“I’m going for a walk.”
She jumped off the wall, landing neatly on dirty puddle-stomping shoes that might once have been blue. The kitten looked up at me with a whisker-twitch of disapproval that the shadow-chasing game had finished.
“Can I be coming with you? Please, Libby? Please.”
The kitten stalked away, tail held crooked high, trying to pretend that this was what it wanted to do all along.
Alice put her grubby hand in mine. Her fingers and palms were so caked with grimed-on dirt that I almost flinched away. Then she was talking and chatting like there was no tomorrow, and it felt the most natural thing in the world to be holding that grimy little paw. She was talking so quickly that I couldn’t catch what she was saying, but neither of us seemed to mind.
The sky was the most amazing shade of blue with not a single airplane vapour trail to spoil it. The birds seemed to be confused by it all. They were chirruping a frenzied argument as if to say “do you know what’s happening?” and “no, I don’t. Do you?”
I didn’t know where we were going. We walked the streets, soaking in every reaction from bemusement to anger.
“Don’t be looking now,” said Alice, squeezing my hand. “It be that Mr Appleton.”
She started to steer me across the road, but we were a fraction too late.
“Ah, it’s Libby, isn’t?” said Mr Appleton, emerging from his enormous silver car. He was the only person in the street to wear a suit and tie. A rather loud pinstriped suit and old school tie.
“Having a problem with your car?” I asked.
His eyes did that hungry unbuttoning thing across the front of my blouse. “Damned thing won’t fire. I tried phoning the garage, but … say, isn’t your boyfriend a mechanic?”
“An estate agent. And he’s at work.”
He licked his lips with the slightest hint of sharp white teeth. “Leaving you all alone, eh?”
That was when Alice’s hands didn’t feel like the dirtiest things in the neighbourhood, and I wished I had worn something showing a little less skin. Like a suit of armour.
“She ain’t all alone,” said Alice. “She be with me.”
Mr Appleton turned his sharp predator eyes to Alice. “You’re a feisty little lamb cutlet! Don’t suppose that a woodland sprite like you knows how to fix a BMW?”
“You’ll be walking,” said Alice, and she pulled me away. I could feel Mr Appleton’s vulpine stare on my back.
“You shouldn’t be getting in that man’s car,” said Alice. “No mattering how many sweets he be giving you.”
No, Alice. I don’t suppose you should.
* * *
We found ourselves in a small park. Gaggles of youths shook their mobile phones as if they were maracas. Peculiarly mute and useless maracas.
There was an empty park bench, so we sat awhile. Alice rooted through a nearby rubbish bin looking for something interesting. She evidently found nothing and snuggled up against me. There was a faint whiff of earthiness from her hair.
“It’s finally started, ain’t it?” said Alice.
“You mean the electricity?”
As she giggled her bony ribs pushing against my side. “Not that, silly! Electrickery was only ever borrowed. No, I means the other fing.”
I could feel it. Don’t ask me to explain it because I can’t. All I could tell was that a new day had begun, and I didn’t just mean the sun-rising, bird-singing sort of new day. It felt as if someone upstairs had turned over a massive page, dipped a pen in ink and written “Chapter Two” across the heavens.
“What do we do?” I asked.
“What we always does. We look and listen. And then we knows.”
“We know what?”
“Yes, we know what. We just knows.” She said this with the wisdom of age and the innocence of childhood. She knew everything and nothing at the same time.
I looked at the park. It looked almost exactly like a park. Grass and trees. Bushes for the pervs to lurk in. Trees for dogs to pee against. Park benches. A group of elderly women dancing stark naked and generously floppy around a burning rubbish bin. A sign saying “do not throw stones at this sign”.
What could I say? It was a park. I hoped for some almighty flash of inspiration, but all I saw was the cliché of park, grass, sky, trees.
In the far distance, London’s skyline was a jury of tall skyscrapers looking down on this spot of green. One of them was on fire, although no-one seemed to notice or mind.
This “just knowing” business was a lot harder than it looked.
Alice looked up at me, expectant and curious at the same time. She gave a theatrical OMG sigh that seemed much too big for her tiny body. “Growdups! Do I have to do everyfink for you?”
“A clue would be nice.”
She wiggled her feet. “I s’pose it would.”
It was a test. That was what it was. I stared at the park and the park stared back at me. I was supposed to see something, but all I could feel was the hard park bench underneath me, a hair-lift of breeze in my face and a hole in my stomach where lunch ought to be.
“I’m hungry,” I said. It seemed as good as anything.
Alice gave an impish grin. “That’s a good starting. Then what?”
“I should make some soup.” I don’t know why I said this. I don’t even like soup. It reminded me too much of being ill and my Mum insisting that the cure for all ailments started with chicken soup. And ever since, chicken soup has reminded me of being ill.
“Yummy! My favourite!” said Alice.
“But I’ve nothing to cook it on.” I felt like I was about to break into a chorus of ‘there’s a hole in my bucket.’
“I need to make a fire. Wood. I need to collect branches and twigs.”
Alice squealed with pleasure, a high-five moment as I finally worked it out. “Why d’you finks we’re in a park?”
“Is that it?” I asked. “I was expecting something …. bigger. There’s no electricity, so we need to …”
Alice interrupted me by bouncing off the park bench. “Poo! You growdups always finks that bigger is better. Like Mr Appleton and his silly car. I’d be taking soup over his car any day of the week. See ya.”
She skipped away down the path, her little feet kicking up a pattering of gravel.
Where she had been sitting there was an old-fashioned wicker basket with an arched handle. A basket just big enough to collect enough firewood for a pot of soup.
The world always looks better after a bowl of hot soup. As long as it wasn’t my Mum’s chicken soup. I loved her dearly, but she couldn’t cook much beyond 90 seconds at 850 watts in the microwave.
I have a confession to make. The apocalypse is supposed to be about tins. Tins of peaches. Tins of cat food. Baked beans. Canned soup.
That’s what all of Vincent’s books and movies say. The people who survive the apocalypse are the ones with tin openers or those infuriatingly smug pen-knives with fiddly blades to break a nail on.
The myth of apocalyptic tins is written by men who don’t know how to cook. They would not be very impressed with what I did next. It’s heresy, I know. I spent Switch Day throwing away all of the tins in the cupboard.
Vincent would have been appalled. Open mouthed, you-can’t-be-serious “what have you done?” astonished.
If I had told him. I was taking one of his core beliefs about the end of the world and doing the exact opposite. And secretly enjoying it. A girl needs her secrets. You do promise not to tell him, don’t you?
I had tried to cook canned soup, but it tasted like ash. There was a gritty metallic taste from all the chemicals. The added sugar was a fizzing on my tongue. My lips tingled from the burning salt. There was no way that I could eat that. It seemed an aeon after its best before date. The Switch had thumbed its nose at everything that was false and artificial.
I peeled an onion and it felt good. Even the tears felt good, because this was the price that had to be paid. It was right and in balance, with not the slightest scratch of metal.
Carrots and potatoes, dirty from their soil nursery. A zing of parsley, curling at the edges like little smiles. Freshly ground peppercorn surrendering its store of heat. That was real soup, made with love to sustain and nourish.
As Alice might say, that be a good starting. I was beginning to understand.
* * *
There was no point in asking Vincent if he had had a good day at the office, dear. I could tell that it had been quite a day for him. I sat back with a glass of red and let him unload it all in one breathless gush of “and this happened” and “this” and “you never guess”.
Sometimes you just have to let them talk. It’s for the best.
“This soup is really tasty,” he said. “Is it new?”
“You could say that.”
This most confusing of days was drawing to a close. We lit candles and snuggled down on the sofa. The television was a black mirror, reflecting fiery flashes. Vincent idly stroked my knee. I liked that.
There were uncomfortable noises outside the flat. I don’t think Vincent noticed, or he would have wanted to do his he-man thing of “going to have a look”. Which usually meant peeking through the curtains, ever so carefully so that no-one in the street would notice him looking.
“What are we going to do?” he asked. “The power should have come back by now.”
“What if it doesn’t ever come back on?”
He looked at me with that ‘don’t be a silly girl” look. “Of course, the power will come back on. The Government will fix it.”
“Maybe.” I didn’t want to argue. He wasn’t ready for the truth yet.
He stroked my knee again. “Well, if we can’t watch television….” He was wearing that gormless hopeful face. I knew exactly what he was thinking.
So I took him next door, and he was hot and urgent and just the right side of masterful mixed with his trademark little-boy-lost. All of his frustrations and confusion from the day exploded and released. I added some heat of my own.
And that too felt as right as a hot cauldron of homemade soup. What could be more natural to sustain and nourish each other? The good earth feeds the soup. The soup sustains us. We feed and sustain each other, meeting each other’s needs.
I’m learning, Alice. I’m learning.
* * *
They never tell you about the dreams. Everyone knows about the spells and potions, the sex rituals and the bad skin. The cats, bats and broomsticks. But they keep quiet about exactly where the prophecies come from. They don’t mention the dreams in the job description.
Vincent slept the sleep of the peaceful dead, the sleep of the sated. For me, it was like walking into a vision of madness.
In my dreams I saw Vincent walking through a hail of gunfire, the bullets ripping off bits of his flesh. He didn’t feel each bite of metal, but I did. My skin took the pain that he could not feel. I wanted to tell the soldiers to stop firing. For pity’s sake, stop shooting.
Then Vincent was lying in front of me. There was a hole in his forehead, a neat puncture wound. I tried to cover it with my hands but I couldn’t reach him. No matter how hard I tried, how far I stretched, he was always too far out of reach.
The scene shifted and shifted again. Always the pose was the same. I was kneeling down with Vincent across my knees. The place and time kept changing. Sometimes we were in the open air and sometimes in a stone cavern. Alone or with others. In silence or in tumultuous noise. But always the same position. I am kneeling with Vincent in front of me. And he is either dying or dead.
Everything precious has a price. The price I had to pay was to lose him many times over. When Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to man, the gods punished him by chaining him to a rock. Every day an eagle would come and eat his liver. Each night the liver would grow back so it could be eaten again the next day.
The fates had arranged a similar curse for me. I would be many times a widow. Maybe it was a punishment for my Big Mistake – the one I hadn’t made yet.
If you had asked me before the Switch, I’d have said that it would be great to tell the future. Trust me on this. I’ve tried it. It’s not as good as you think it would be.
I woke screaming and Vincent was there to hold me and hug me. He smelt warm and musky, indescribably male and all the more comforting for it.
The world was ripping itself to pieces outside our flat. We lay together in a huggle of reassuring arms and legs. There was no point in saying anything, so we tried to sleep and not pay too much attention to the screams and explosions on the other side of the curtain.
* * *
It was the scratch at the door that woke me. It was an insistent pitter-patter, nothing to be afraid of, but not something I could sleep through either.
Vincent, naturally, could snore through the end of the world. He murmured something in gibberese as I got out of bed, then he turned over with a whoomf of squashed pillow as he curled himself into the duvet.
Wrapping a dressing gown around me, I tiptoed to the flat door on naked feet. If Vincent was awake he would tell me not to open it. But he wasn’t and so I did. Besides, the scratching was coming from the very bottom of the door. To my mind, nothing bad could be so low to the ground. Yes, yes, yes, I know that isn’t necessarily true or very logical. It’s intuitive. Anyway, Vincent could tell me off later in his patented lecture voice. He’d like that.
The door was barely opened before the black kitten was at my feet, stroking his back against my naked shins. I quickly closed and locked the door again. It felt like the right thing to do.
The kitten was feather-light in my hands as I picked him up and held him to my chest. His tiny claws kneaded the dressing gown as I stroked the back of his head. He might have been the same kitten I had seen with Alice. Forgive me. It’s borderline kittenist but they all look the same to me.
“And what should we call you?” I said, tickling him under his chin.
That was his name. It wasn’t a choice and even if it had been it wouldn’t have been my choice to make. His name was Bodkin. I knew it as totally as I would know my own name. This was truth.
“Well, I am pleased to meet you, Bodkin. My name is …”
I stopped. There was no need to tell Bodkin my name. Silly me. He already knew.
* * *
That morning’s breakfast was a special time. The taps were still giving cold water, so we filled buckets and brimmed the bath. Vincent tried not to look too hurt that it was my idea. I don’t suppose girls are supposed to know what to do when an apocalypse happens.
The last of the fridge’s orange juice was on the edge of sour. Barely drinkable. Bodkin lapped at a saucer of milk that had nearly but not quite turned into cheese. Vincent and I chewed solemnly through stale and tough bread that really needed to be toasted.
But we were together, the three of us and we were sharing food. It was a circle, an unbroken cycle that connected back to itself. And that meant shopping.
“But the cupboards are full,” said Vincent.
Shhh. It’s our little secret. The cupboards weren’t nearly as full as he thought they were. That will teach him not to go looking for anything more substantial than a biscuit raid.
“Not with the right things. Things I need.” Bodkin looked up at me with wide kitten eyes. He knew what I meant.
“It might be dangerous.”
That was the point. Normally Vincent would love to go shopping because that meant he could sneak a car magazine into the trolley when I wasn’t looking. Or one of those men’s magazines where he claims to be looking at the clothes and the personal grooming products, but he is really staring at the super-thin models with clothes-pegged clothes and unrealistically optimistic curves.
“Don’t tell me you’re scared?” Cruel of me, I know, but this had to happen.
He looked predictably hurt. “Scared? No, of course not, sensible precautions. Something’s not right out there.”
“We don’t know how long this is going to last”, I said, baiting the trap.
“True,” he said, sniffing at the bait.
“So we need to stock up in essentials, maybe buy a survivalist magazine”. The trap closed around him.
“Really? Oh, in that case…”
This was going to hurt. This was pain and it was blood and it was death. I knew it, and I also knew we couldn’t hide from it. Vincent was going to get hurt in that supermarket. I could sense it in my bones. And yet we had to go there. There was no getting past this part.
* * *
You could tell there was something not quite right from the contents of her shopping trolley.
A packet of raw liver which had been ripped open and smeared stickily across everything else. Several steaks. Kidneys. Oxtails.
A bottle of South African chardonnay.
Hot chili sauce.
And that was most definitely odd. All that red meat surely needed a bottle of red, say a Bordeaux or a Beaujolais. Not a buttery chardonnay with traces of lemon and a finish of gooseberry on the palate.
Odder still was that she was pushing her pretty full trolley ahead of us in the queue marked “baskets and six items or less”. I could see that Vincent was winding himself up for one of his rants about “fewer” instead of “less”. Or was it “less” instead of “fewer”? I never could remember.
Odder and odder yet was that she was dragging an enormous pair of granny knickers wrapped around one shuffling foot. That would have been one almighty forgetfulness incident.
Oddest of all, her face and hands were a chalky white colour like too much foundation. Her eyes had panda mascara. There was a dribble of black drool descending from thin lips with lipstick from the dark and moody end of the Max Factor range.
She was one of those things. I can’t bring myself to say the Z word and Vincent can’t quite decide what to call them. You know, when people die and come back to life with an incredible appetite and an appalling dress sense.
Before I could work out what was happening, she had grabbed hold of Vincent’s arm and was worrying away at it with the threshing head of a doggedly determined terrier. A tightly permed and slightly pink-tinged terrier.
Vincent did what all men would do. He cried out “Ow Ow, you f… f….” And promptly f..f… fainted.
The demonic dame followed him down to the ground, making unpleasant schlurping noises as she snacked on his forearm.
My instincts took over. Instincts I did not know I had. I grabbed a nearby stick and started beating her with it. She ignored me. I hit her again.
“Get away from my man, you bitch!” I heard myself shout.
It was the first time that I had ever called Vincent my man. It seemed simultaneously ridiculously old fashioned and more than a little bit sensual. “My man” … Hmmm, I liked that sound of that. I would have to remember to use that in conversation with him. If there was going to be anything of him left.
Several thwacks later and I got her attention. I didn’t seem to be hurting her all that much. These things seemed to have a high tolerance for pain. She dropped Vincent’s arm and started to crawl towards me, moaning spookily.
I put all my strength into one huge hit against the side of her head. The stick connected with a thunk that reverberated through my arm and shoulder. She flumped solidly onto the ground with the solidity and finality that comes with ladies of a certain age.
“I think you’ve killed her,” said the young cashier, peering over the side of the till. Her name badge said ‘Esmerelda’ but the peroxide blonde hair said ‘Tracey’ and the tattoo on her arm said ‘Justin’.
“Looks like she was dead already,” said someone behind me.
“I’d better call the manager,” said Esmerelda.
We all turned to look down the long perspective of the shopping aisle. The manager was indeed walking towards us. You could tell he was the manager because he was wearing a shapeless grey suit. Who else wears a suit in a supermarket?
We all looked back at the manager. It was taking him an awfully long time to get to us. That was probably because he was dragging one of his legs behind him. A very bloody and twisted leg, with one of the meat counter’s carving knives sticking in it.
He didn’t seem to mind, though. His face had the same glazed death’s head look as the old lady I had clobbered.
Esmerelda looked at the manager. She looked at me. An instant flash of womanly telepathy passed between us. She ripped off her name badge and helped me to bundle Vincent’s lifeless body into an empty trolley. And we were out of there before you could say ‘buy one, get one free.’
It was only then that I noticed the stick in my hand. It wasn’t any old stick. It was a long handled brush from the housewares aisle. And not just any old brush. This was one if those rustic brushes with larch twigs fir bristles.
Not a brush at all. We call it a broom.
A wych’s broomstick.
That explained a lot. At least I knew what I was.
* * *
“Karen! The cheese, Karen!”
Have you ever had one of those days where you pushed your delirious boyfriend in a supermarket trolley with a wobbling front wheel whilst all around you the people you had formerly thought of as friends and neighbours turned into creatures from horror films?
No I don’t suppose you have. Sorry. Not a fair question.
“Unsalted butter. Unsalted!”
The broom turned out to be quite useful. I could swish it from side to side like a hockey stick, which was ideal for sweeping one of those shuffling things off its feet. Literally. Or I could prod with it as if I was skewering a joint of beef to see if it was cooked. And it seemed I was pretty good at this broomstick kung-fu sort of thing. As if I had been doing it all my life. Or all my lives.
“Melt the butter, Karen! In Swansea!”
Vincent was raving. Unusually for him he wasn’t telling me which was the fastest way to go home or offering his learned opinion on how to disarm one of those things. Instead he was rocking back and forward in the trolley and screaming about someone called Karen. Someone he hadn’t mentioned here before. Someone he had shared dairy products with. In Swansea. He had never taken me to Swansea.
If he lived through this I was going to kill him.
* * *
I don’t want to talk about the next bit. You know the score. If they get bitten by one of those shuffling things they turn into one themselves. It doesn’t matter how much you hold their hand or pray or beg. Bite – death – turn – gone. That’s the deal. That’s how it works.
I don’t want to tell you about trying to force food into a mouth that refused to chew. About the one-sided conversation with the man upstairs. He seemed to have gone missing just when I needed him, and left the entire Universe on answering machine.
It hurts. Yes it hurts. Imagine how much you think it’s going to hurt and multiply that by a million. And then take the answer and multiply that by another million. And then maybe you’re getting close.
The carving knife is the biggest knife in the kitchen. It was my Mum’s and before that her Mum. The blade had been sharpened so many times that it had grown thin and curved like an accusing finger. You might say it’s a family heirloom.
I held that family heirloom against Vincent’s forehead, the point making a nick in his skin. Isn’t that what they said? The only way to kill these things is to hurt them in the head. Destroy the brain.
One strong push, that’s all it would take. First Vincent and then me. Better to go that way than the alternative.
The handle of the knife felt a thousand years old. The wood was dark and smooth, worn to a warm grip by generations. Generations of my blood. Generations of women telling me not to do what I was about to do. This was a time for love and tea, not death.
Stop. Breathe. Put the knife down, find the cookery book and set a pot of water to boil over an open fire. The book turned itself to a much thumbed page 123. ‘Midnight tea – a healthy and refreshing drink for soothing the hungry urges of ghouls, night crawlers, the possessed, demonic and recently reincarnated.’
Preparation time twenty minutes.
Vincent cried out for Karen. I kicked him.