Thomas didn’t realize he was doing anything irritating, until a shrill voice barked at him from across the room. “Tom! Pack that in, can’t you? You’ve already ruined one arm of the chair! Look at the size of that hole, anyone will would think we have mice. Now pass the remote.”
Her voice was like a sergeant major with particularly bad PMT. Haughty, with a trace of well hidden insecurity, somewhere deep down under all the projected superiority. It was a tone most of them tried to avoid at all costs, and he pulled his twitching fingertips away from that fiddly rim of raised braid around the trim of the armchair, and sucked them back up his sleeve like a retreating tortoise. But unconsciously, his busy fingers probed the huge hole he had picked in the other arm, too, nosing thoughtlessly through the foam rubber stuffing, until she shouted at him again
“Tom! Bloody well cut that out, or you can sling your hook! I’m not kidding, you’re out if you don’t leave that chair alone. That’s the third one you’ve ruined in six years. Now collect all the mugs up, and make us all a drink. It’s your turn. And pretty please with sugar on, pass the damn remote!”
Guilty fingers fumbled over the device, almost a foot long and surprisingly heavy, as he passed it to Mary without meeting her eyes. She was the custodian and keeper of the holy hoofer doofer, and he passed it like a religious relic.
There was a brief flash of light and the channel changed, and she gave a shrill whooping laugh again. “Fantastic! Big Brother, and only an hour till the vote! Now come on you lot, pull your socks up and let’s have a bit of co-operation here! You’ve all got six mobiles, if we can synchronise them properly we might just get that bitch evicted…..”
“If Only…” Thomas muttered to himself, echoing her plea with an aim slightly closer to home, but it was only wishful thinking…. Thomas Beucephalis meekly collected the mugs, of every shape and size, depth, and varying degree of insanitary decay from around the room, avoiding the eyes of his peers, and ignoring their sniggers. Then he stumped off to the kitchen miserably, jingling like a Morris Dancer as the dangling mugs clanked together.
“And don’t you drop any and smash them, neither!” she shouted after him, “That Mr. Blobby mug was downright irreplaceable. Poor Gwilliam was heartbroken when he lost that.”
“Yeah right, “ muttered Thomas, “Maybe if he got out of his chair once in half a century he might be able to make someone else a drink…”
Thomas would rather stick pins in his eyes than watch Big Brother, and he took his time. At least it wasn’t seven hours of The Shopping Channel like the other night, or unlimited Cage Wrestling. Thomas had been dead now for over 50 years, but some of the crap they watched in there made him feel like pulling the coffin lid down once and for all.
The collective occupants of the lounge had reached up to fifteen now, and there weren’t enough pizza deliver boys left to go around in the whole county. All the local firms had gotten suspicious, and when the bleached bodies of their former employees, with their tell-tale twin holes in the neck were finally still and vacuum dry, Mary disposed of them. No-one had the nerve to ask her how or what she did with them. There was only one source of blood left now, and everyone had grudgingly decided to make do with tea, in so far as they could.
This last remaining source of fresh blood was a stout man called Wilberforce in a string vest, who smelled strongly of cabbage and baked beans, (for a reason no-one wanted to investigate.) He was seated woozily at the kitchen table when Thomas walked in, vaguely clutching a butterfly tin opener. Wilberforce was kept comfortably alive by their hosts, and he waved a sickly arm covered with fresh bite-marks at Thomas when headed for the kettle. “Fancy a drop?” has muttered cheerily, in a way that made Thomas feel sick to his stomach, and he declined without difficulty. Then Wilberforce spotted the mugs, and quick as a flash jumped at the opportunity, “Oh, you’re making one are you? My mugs over by the sink, if you wouldn’t mind, dear boy….”
Thomas stopped and just glared at him, but Wilberforce gave him a completely blissful smile, quite unabashed, and Tom grabbed the offending mug with enormously bad grace.
Wilberforce either slipped into a coma induced by blood loss, or pretended to be asleep so he wouldn’t have to make tea for 18 people, and Thomas was left to his own devices.
He stared at the ratty kitchen cupboards, ancient chipped fire blue Formica, as if they filled the universe. Guinea pigs, quite a collection of them (a beloved affectation of their host) wandered muttering all over the place and he tried not to tread on them, or their little contributions to the foul state of the floor, as he boiled the kettle and navigated the Withnalian heaps of dirty plates, bowls and cutlery. And for the 5,000th time he asked himself what he was doing here, how the blazes he had got dragged into this inside-pocket of hell, and he not for the first time, he realised it was because of M’dear.
Gwilliam Stoat, known universally as “M’dear” due to Mary’s repeated stress of the endearment, had waved at him affectionately when he was just on the final furlong of escaping….
Thomas had never been to Pylegrey before, and was sure he was in for some form of horrific punishment, once he disappeared into that vast subterranean city of the great Gosmanger family. No sane Bitten vampire goes there willingly, especially runaways like Thomas, and old Magentheos had virtually had to hypnotise him to get him within spitting distance of the place.
Thomas had come to himself in a holding cell near the main gates, and was astonished to find himself completely unguarded. God knows where Magentheos had disappeared to, but there was no sign of a guard of any description, and he didn’t give his options a second thought….
Thomas had fled across the Bridge over the River Alph, and ran across the Plain of Broken Teeth as fast as his feet could carry him, without once looking back. He didn’t dare fly, as they would have spotted him for sure. The vast forest of stalactites stretched away in front of him, across the cavern which opens out in front of the southern gates of Pylegrey. As he ran it yawned out before him, and any second he thought the claws of vengeance would drop on him from above, as the Imperial Guard fell out of the sky on silent leather wings to drag him back inside.
But it didn’t happen. Somehow no-one spotted him, and Thomas ran on, hardly daring to believe his luck. He had almost reached the mouth of the cavern, where it kinks slightly to the left back on itself through the ancient course of the river, and he then had the shock of his afterlife.
Built into the solid rock, just out of sight of the cavern itself, was front face of a little 1960’s semi detached house.
He stopped dead in his tracks with astonishment, and just looked at it. Half hearted net curtains were draped across the bedroom windows, and the lounge was filled with light from a lonely looking, 150 watt bulb in a lopsided paper-ball lampshade.
A room filled with electric light, not 400 yards from the very gates of Pylegrey! Thomas couldn’t believe the staggering blasphemy. The great City state of the Born houses only one light, in Knocks Chamber, and any light shown except this annual gift to the gods bought down ultimate death of the most grisly kind.
The wonder of this drew him like a moth. And as he stood looking, Thomas realised that someone was watching him. A little plump man in a bulgy red velvet armchair was looking at him, with a cup of tea in one hand, and a guinea pig in the other. He worse baggy arsed corduroy trousers and a fairisle sweater, and the two of them just stared at each other in astonishment. And then he grinned. The man had a highly infectious grin, downright mischievous and companionable, and Thomas found he couldn’t help but grin back.
He seemed a thoroughly joyful, quirky individual, with an untidy mop of curly red-blond hair, (almost an afro) and Thomas warmed to him at once. Then the man made a becoming notion, and invited him in. Through the open window Thomas heard his warm and slightly sleepy voice say “Hey, join us….”
Thomas jumped at once, looked wildly over his shoulder, and shook his head, indicating he was going to leg it. But the man made a pained face, held up a restraining hand, and beckoned him in again. They went through this a couple of times, and Thomas’s protests gradually became weaker.
The house looked warm and human, after the towering imperial shadows of Pylegrey, with its ancient looming statues and glowering Royal arms, and Tom suddenly lost the will to run.
He wandered in, and the man in the armchair offered him a seat. Hardly able to believe what he was doing, Thomas slipped into the cosy pillows of a half collapsed sofa, and someone handed him a cup of tea. In disbelief he found himself in a room full of refugees, men who had fled Pylegrey and got this far, vampires from every period of history… and they sat there together watching “Men Behaving Badly”, within spitting distance of the Gosmanger’s front door.
The man who invited him in was Gwilliam, a thoroughly amenable soul, provided you didn’t try to leave. It quickly became clear once his hatchet faced partner appeared, Gentle Mary, that this was almost as bad as an open prison. She marched suddenly into the room and demanded someone vacate her chair, which the occupant did quite meekly. In a very short period of time Thomas saw how she ordered the other occupants around, regally requesting one to pass the biscuits, another to get her slippers, someone else to put the kettle on. But her smiling partner Gwilliam, excluded from all this, was coddled like a prize cat, and smiled smugly all the time.
Tom quickly decided that potential apprehension and death was better than this, and went to excuse himself, edging towards the door. And it was then that Mary was on him like a rattlesnake for the first time. He didn’t know her from Adam, but Mary jeered at him that he didn’t have either the competence or gall to get 20 feet without getting caught. She gave him the dressing down of his life, in front of a room full of people he hardly knew, utterly knocking his confidence out from under him, and Thomas felt just about able to mutter a defence in reply. So withering and sudden was the onslaught that he completely recoiled inside himself…. And then, just as he felt he was going to burst into flame with the embarrassment, she turned completely. In an extraordinarily kind tone of voice, she suddenly offered him a seat again, and a casket for the night. Gwilliam smiled, and winked, and when she left the room he whispered “Don’t mind her, her barks worse than her bite…. You’ll get used to it….”
That was six years ago, and Thomas had not moved further than between the kitchen and his chair, and the cellar, with its row of knackered coffins ever since.
Every time he showed signs of restlessness, there was that same response, and all the others were subjected to the same attitude. Only once did he see someone actually try to make a break for the door, and when he wouldn’t listen to reason or threats, Mary actually threatened to call the guards at Pylegrey. Everyone was a refugee or a runaway of some description, and it terrified them into silence. There was nothing to her, a slim little woman in her mid fifties, with face like a smacked arse and a completely unsuitable blond beehive. Mary glared at them all for ten minutes for this mini revolution, but she made their lives hell for weeks.
Thomas had ascertained a little history since then. Mary and Gwilliam had been Bitten vampires since the early 1800’s, and they had turned in on themselves away from the world. They had stayed within the confines of their garret for 70 years, until it was destroyed by a fire. And then Gwilliam had been carried out in his favourite armchair, refusing to move. Then they had found a quiet attic in a large hotel, and preyed off telegraph boys for half a century, until they were driven out by the blitz. The house burned down around them, even scorching the bottom of the chair, and still he refused to move. With infinite danger of exposure to the sun, as dawn began to break, they had been drawn to the attention of an enterprising agent of the Gosmangers, and he had taken it upon himself to have a quiet word with them. People so utterly set in their own little world were tremendously useful to a ruler like the Matriarch of Pylegrey, and she knew how to offer them an attractive proposition.
The couple had been set up as a useful way of controlling half-hearted rebels, and it shamed Thomas to think he fell into the bracket. A cosy house was built on the edges of the approach to Pylegrey, and the Gosmangers confidently allowed any escapees to go in that direction. The prospect of cosy familiarity was a deadly lure to anyone who had once been human, and all the comforts of home were on offer. The house was updated every 60 years or so, and it was said that the Gosmangers graded someone’s threat towards the Born state according to whether they either resisted the delights on offer at Gwilliam’s house, or slumped their shoulders and went on inside to take a seat.
And a world in its own right it certainly was, with Mary every bit as much an absolute monarch as the Matriarch herself, down in the impossible dark of Pylegrey. Her opinionated attitude was the word of law, and woes betide anyone who disagreed with her. Tom knew that they were both frightened of the world, a pitiable state to be in and one much to be sympathised with, but they compensated by turning their home into an absolute monarchy. Any sign of independence on the part of their guests was to be crushed at once. Anyone showing the will to get up and confront whatever it was they were hiding from was mocked unmercifully into a state of indifferent apathy. Naff telly and reality TV programmes ran 24/7, and some of their guests felt like they had heads filled with porridge.
Thomas has finally had enough. A flame of rebellion had banked back up again and was burning brightly, rekindling from ashes which had died right down. And it was caused by the guard.
In the late watches of the night a few weeks ago, one of the Flockers, the actual Imperial Guards of the city had wandered past the window, and he caught Tom’s eye. The window chanced to be open and he was sitting right by it, at a time when everyone else had fallen into an unconscious stupor in front of ancient repeats of “Bullseye”.
Thomas started upright in genuine fear, thinking he was finally caught, and made to run for it again at last. But the guard just leant on his spear and laughed, “Easy, Tiger. There’s no need to panic. We know you’re not going anywhere. You’re as safe as houses in the Flytrap. Just drink you’re tea, we know where you are.”
No-one else had been awake to see this, and the shame filled him with a savage self disgust.
They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and that to climb a mountain or become the greatest brain surgeon you have to have the will to just take that first initial single step, in the direction you want to go in. With Tom, he knew he had get off the sofa.
Thomas burned with discomfort like a volcano with indigestion as he made the tea. It took him three runs to make a mug for everyone, but he did it. And he timed his actions carefully. He knew he was targeting a semi religious rite, which Mary and Gwilliam would not have interrupted for anything little short of an earthquake, and now he timed it to perfection. It was an observational masterstroke.
When they were all engrossed in trying to set off 6 mobile phones each, to evict someone from Big Brother, he quietly, and without ceremony, opened the front door and slipped outside.
He had dreamt of doing this every day for 6 years, eyes wide open in his cheap chipboard coffin. The air was damp and clammy from the River Alph, but it was incomparably sweet after the stifled central heating, the smell of stale pizza, and constant presence of the cinema sized television.
Thomas walked out to the sound of his own footsteps for the first time in an age, and looked left and right.
He looked up towards the surface and the outside world, somewhere at the other inviting end of a labyrinth of tunnels. And then he looked the other way.
Slowly he walked around the corner, and defiantly looked Pylegrey full in the face. Like something from the Valley of the Kings, the massive, stunning southern wall of the city of the oldest Born Vampire Dynasty in Europe loomed above the vast Plain of Broken Teeth, a sea of stalactites and stalagmites. In the darkness his immortal eyes could make out the massive statues of the Undead Gods and Goddesses staring out across eternity, side by side across the whole wall, 300 feet high if they were an inch. He could hear the River Alph running across the other end of the plain below their feet. He could even just about see the curve of the head of the King, the immense stone head of Prince Ra, lying in the waters where it had fallen 2,000 years ago, after the Matriarch had ordered her troops to strike it from her walls after the great schism. A dank breeze ruffled his hair, and he stood frozen for a moment pondering the sight in full and open view. It felt wonderfully liberating.
Six years ago he had fled from an uncertain fate that awaited him in that endless darkness, somewhere behind those forbidding walls. Something he had hidden from miserably and tried to ignore. But not anymore.
Thomas came to a decision, which frightened the living moonlight out of him, but which suddenly made him walk taller, in a way which would have surprised the guys crouched around the telly, and perhaps made them smile. He didn’t say anything out loud or do anything but smile slightly himself, but with a firm step, he started walking deliberately back towards Pylegrey, to confront his darkness.
© Glenn James 2010