FICTION – FIRST PUBLICATION IN ENGLISH (April 2018)

It Didn’t End At Dinner by Jon Gower

This night.  Anna had been preparing for it with all guile, the night she would tempt Henry to stay, move their relationship up to the next level.  It was long overdue, the carnality, the ridiculous butting of haunches as someone once put it.  She had no idea how he’d react of course, but as she sheathed her legs in sheer stockings, wrapped parts of her in silk, then put on the slinkiest, sexiest dress – powder blue, discount rack, from Victoria’s Secret – she felt than anything was possible.

On one level Anna only wanted one long, delirious kiss, the sort that would make her shake from the occipital bone of her head all the way down to her heels, or maybe that knowledge that she would be setting places for two for breakfast – how did that feel?  Or to know that a man would be walking into her room draped in her big, white towel, the best one, the one she kept for visitors. But Henry is odd, too.  Henry Dawkins is a peculiar man and Anna has to ignore the peculiarities, work hard at it sometimes in order to keep the flame of love, intent, call it what you will alive.  He always wants steak for dinner, always and wants it so raw it might as well be carpaccio.  Or the greasy hair which looks as if he treats it with lard or margarine, not the mention the schoolboy parting that has a line of skull-skin running as a line through it, making him look like a badger.

But she wants it, that elusive it and she blushes when she thinks of it, when she unleashes the very thoughts of her desire.  How she wants the weight of a man settling between her knees, then going deeper and how he claims every inch of her, adores her body, claims it, frictions against it.  And she wants the salty aroma of him, of her, commingling and the sweat, oh the sweat of aftersex.  With the tang of sea air on an August day in the Welsh coastal resort of Porthcawl.  After fervid lovemaking, losing herself to the experience so that in the passion of it she can barely remember her name, no she cannot remember her name.  It is that absolute transport: she will abandon herself in the act.  With Henry.  God.  But when he teases her lips across her nipples she will be without name and she will be lost to the flesh.  Her body aflame, the skin of her all incandescent with lust.

In the restaurant Henry can’t seem to stop talking, nervously, as if the badger can sense that something is afoot.  The men with lurchers coming with their dazzling lamps and their rough talk.  Anna loves the confident way he order wine, though, always red and this time Bull’s Blood from Hungary.  In fact it’s always that wine and he always invokes the same words to describe the taste.  Leather.  Tobacco.  Bramble.  Bitter berry.  And blood, of course.  They wouldn’t call it that if it didn’t have that metallic tang.  The tang of life.  Henry once averred he had tasted the very first bottle from this particular vineyard – but that was simply impossible: the label stated that this was a family business, established in 1893.  Oh yes, there were odd things about Henry.

She has never seen where he lives and, truth be told she can’t remember if he ever said where he lived.  She doesn’t know what he does for a living either but she has a faint memory of his saying that he worked the night shift and that he loved working that shift more than days because he hated days.  He said this most forcibly, as if he was describing an enemy that had torched his home. Sometimes as she questions him a sinister look settles, or emerges behind the meniscus of his eyes: something hidden becoming apparent, as if a murderer within him wants to come out to play.  He licks his fork lasciviously.

Were she to visit Henry’s home she would have to travel a fair distance, or at least for a good while, even though, in a sense, he lives locally.  Or… relatively. She would have to travel to Clydach and then take the B road that snakes along the slopes of Mynydd Gelliwastad, which is a bleak stretch of moor grass and burned out vehicles and then go past farms such as Pant Iasau, Dorglwyd, Fagwyr a Chefn-betingau, before reaching Rhyd-y-Gwin, the ford over the river Gwin, which curiously translates as ‘wine.’  Then the hairpin bend which is so acute you end up looing back on where you’ve come from, before pressing on to Llety Morfil, the curiously named Hostel of the Whale.  And then the house, Henry’s house with its name proclaimed above the gates.  Ty Maes Carlwm, The House in the Field of The Stoat, or maybe ermine.  The House in the Ermine Field.  That would have a ring to it.  The place itself is a collection of Gothic turrets and towers, quite out of keeping with the farmed land around, and with the native architecture – squat, lime-covered walls, buildings quite unadorned.   Henry’s house is all decoration, fiddly bits with arcane names and it looks for all the world as it if has been airlifted from somewhere on the banks of the Rhine or Danube, an Austrian castle maybe.

The heavy velvet curtains are closed throughout each burning day while the heavy oak doors suggest they are there to keep people out and they are studded heavily with iron just to underline their complete and utter lack of welcome, their forbiddingness.  Each as a substantial keyhole, for a substantial key, not the sort of thing you’d have on a fob, but rather on a big circular holder, like a hoop of metal wider than a child’s head.  

Were she to visit she might venture as far as Henry’s room, the place where he slept.  It doesn’t have a bed as he doesn’t need one, choosing rather to hang from a rafter, his scrawny body wrapped in a thick black cloak so that he looks like the chrysalis of some abominable insect.

And were Anna able to get close enough she would see that the cloak is not a cloak in truth but rather a pair of membrany wings pulled in tight, like rubber around his bat-like shoulders.  And he would be breathing ever so lightly, barely enough breath to mist up a mirror, the way animals breathe during hibernation, conserving energy and breath and life zest.  Henry knew it was traditional for creatures like him to sleep in coffins or in graves or in caskets, but he was not a traditionalist in these matters and he liked to hang in the air, suspended from his leather brogues, which he wore on all occasions.  Hanging there strengthened his, well… hanging muscles… and gave him strength in the wings, which he needed after flying about for six centuries and more

Over the years many people had tried breaking into Ty Maes Carlwm: some just because of the curiosity that will kill the cat, others to quell their nerves or feat of what abided within and the occasional visitor bent on nothing short of burning the whole damn place into ash.

Once, sometime in the 1840s, a deputation from the local chapel walked over from Pisgah, on the express command of the Reverend Beriah Evans, to set fire to the place as it was the place of the Devil and he must be cast out with all his demons so that they have no place on this earth to spread their vile contagions.  Evans had a way with words and his old suit had a faint whiff of brimstone about it. 

So, at his request some twenty farm-lads marched along the stony lane, their lanterns held high in their powerful hands.  But not one of them, not even one of those smart enough to come armed with a pitchfork, imagined they would find the great oak doors completely open, or that a startling pack of snarling wolves would fly out to greet them, sending the men running for their very lives. And in the morning, when Septimus Huws, the head deacon, called round to see the minister to tell him the news, the old man was lying dead in a chair, looking whiter even than someone dead should look, his frozen visage the colour of newly-milled flour, and neat little puncture marks on his neck.  Which confirmed Septimus’s suspicions.  That it was a vampire that lived there not Beelzebub.  But he kept this view to himself for he knew what conditions were like in the asylum.  Just as the wolves weren’t mentioned for, as each farm-lad reckoned: who would ever believe them?

But the villagers did try in surreptitious ways to dislodge the creature in their midst, the one who lived in the big house, or maybe slept in the family crypt.  They all grew garlic of course, to the extent that the village became famous for it, and many travellers came there to buy the stuff or trade goods for the fragrant bulbs.  Garlic was grown in every garden, front and back, in every  cottage and farmhouse and some farmers even cultivated whole fields of it.  They took horses into the graveyards because of the belief that the animals couldn’t tread over a vampire’s plot and there were heated conversations about lifting every body, exhuming entire generations of villagers in order to find the one that didn’t belong. 

The chapelgoers were uncertain about this, seeming a step too far, this deconsecration.  In the knowledge that dogs, like horses were sensitive to vampires – oh how they searched for this sort of knowledge, sending emissaries to great libraries – they trained sheepdogs to scent out the unfamiliar, to alert people to strange things at night.  And they talked about how they would slay a vampire once they had found it, with the stake through the heart option winning universal approval and Septimus had sharpened a special one out of oak to a point that could surely pierce metal.  Come the day.  Come the fateful day.

Which never dawned.  Which was why Henry was seated opposite Anna waiting for the first course to arrive, oysters, freshly shucked from the shell.  He was thinking about the villagers – runty, maggoty beings, as they were, and how they had to die.  They had been the bane of his days for far too long.  Yes, die, unlike himself who would stay hungry for centuries to come, and visit other villagers as a curse.

After calamari for Anna and beef carpaccio for him they were served a rich pork stew made with clams in which the meat had been cooked for so long it was melt-on-the tongue delicious.   By now Anna has had enough wine to make her tipsy and by dint of this, brave, or at least confident in a way she isn’t usually. So she takes off a shoe and slides her foot along Henry’s leg.  His face doesn’t change but she does notice the waxy consistency of his skin.  It is the death mask of some famous composer, crazily preserved.  Edward Elgar, that’s the one.  She had seen it once, maybe in the Malverns of Worcestershire, she can’t be sure.  She must be desperate for a man to contemplate going to bed with a man with a face like Elgar’s death mask, she thought.  But she’s drawn to the secrets there, the way he elides truth and fact and seems to belong to another age.

He smiles, even though the eyes don’t ­, and bends to take off one of his shoes and, during the tiramisu, their feet snake and entwine erotically.  And as the wine kicks in – affecting Anna much, much more – the feet explore, experimentally, reaching higher and higher so that even Henry’s mask dissolves.  Her foot is now in his lap and she feels like she’s a contortionist as she tries to do all this while eating dessert.  He plays with his food before suggesting, most abruptly that it is time to pay the bill.

In the taxi they kiss as if each kiss will be the last.  Their mouths adhere, in fact their faces meld as one and taking so much as a breath is difficult. Henry is emboldened and has started to palp her breasts and she can hear ‘Nimrod’ playing, the slide of violins.  Anna can see the taxi driver’s eyes looking back at them and the frustration builds, a pressure cooker of want and lust and desire to have Henry, fingering her like a pianoforte.  She is filling up with desire and pumping blood and she is ready, oh so ready.  Soon she will explode and wants this journey to end and for them to arrive at her flat.  His house, he suggests is too far, out in the country, ‘a dingy pile’, as he puts it.

It is raining when they arrive, but neither feels so much as a raindrop.  Anna slams the door shut and offers him a drink but he is taking off his coat, taking off his brogues, coming in for another deep, asphyxiating kiss. He kisses her on the throat, a suckerfish on the aquarium glass and she fears she will have bright bruises there come the morning.

She does not want to mar or miss the moment when he sees her underwear.  She has kept the receipt, just in case.  Neither does she want things to happen too fast, as she has been dreaming about this for far too long.  For weeks, months, maybe all her life. 

‘You make yourself comfortable,’ she says, aware of the cliché.  ‘I won’t be long, I promise.’

In the bathroom she sees her eyes are reddened by the Shiraz from the Margaret River, but the lipstick she applies is bolder, redder, claret.  She takes off her thin jacket and opens her blouse so that she shows off her line of cleavage. The bra shows, the blue of bright sky.  She is sexy and it sets off little charges of thrill.

By the time she comes back in Henry has already moved into the bed with the duvet covering him up to the neck.  He looks like someone about to be embalmed, which is a bit of dampener of a thought.  His face is white, his greasy hair a spill on the pillow.

She teases him.  ‘Don’t be shy, Henry.  You can show me what you’ve got or we won’t get very far.  And we want to go far, don’t we?  Transport ourselves to far off shores of wild abandon… don’t we?’

Then she kneels over him on the bed and, to the accompaniment of a CD chosen expressly for this moment, Prince’s ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’, playing quietly in all its majestic sultriness she shakes herself free of her shirt, which swirls to the floor, diaphanous.  Henry seems mesmerised by her boobs and his hands reach out.  Or perhaps he’s fixated on the throbbing vein in her neck, which promises both succour and sexual charge. He hasn’t eaten properly for sixty years: the carpaccio had made his teeth water, especially his lupine incisors. They are sharp as scalpels.  He has not had to eat, he thinks, as the last great feast, back in 1848 involved a whole extended family and their servants, and he had drained their blood like draining a swamp.  He was clever too, made it seem as if the whole bally lot of them had gone missing on the mountain and  by the time the bodies were found there was no evidence of blood slurp or tell tale puncture marks.

‘Not yet, Henry, not yet.’

Anna was delaying things, even as she played with her breasts in front of him, enjoying their heft and feel.  She plays with them as she would with dough for the bread maker and makes the teats stiffen.  Henry is enjoying this, or at least she thinks he is, but he has a far away look, as if his mind he is in Transylvania or somewhere.

Then he pulls her in towards him so that soon they are as one flesh, pulling and withdrawing, building up an insistent rhythm.  Their breathing keeps time to the bass line in the song and speeds up, with passages of arrhythmia in his case as he misses beats. By the time the song is finished so too are the lovers, splayed out, exhausted on the bed, and they have produced their own music, one of crashing tympani and volcanic violins, of sea-surge pulsing on cello and on bass, the great crescendo of sexual congress. Anna and Henry, body on body.

With a languorous kiss Henry signals his need to sleep now and Anna turns away from him to set the alarm for the morning, as she has to work early.  As she drifts off she can feel something pressing on her shoulder and remembers that Henry is there with her, her weird lover, her deeply, deeply weird lover.  She is not to know that he is reminiscing through taste, and remembering the flavour of a young girl from Oldenburg in the time of Martin Luther.

By morning Henry has fed well and returns slyly to the house of ermine.  In a few days, when the police break into the flat (after one of her colleagues sounded some alarm) the pathologist, Austin Smith will notice two small puncture marks and dismiss them as insect bore holes.  He shrugs off any notion of vampires and vampire bites as a carryover from the days when he watched films starring Boris Karloff.  He was a rational man.  So, not in this day and age. No blood-sucking monsters.  And certainly not in the village of Clydach. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jon Gower has over thirty books to his name, including Y Storiwr, which won the Wales Book of the Year award, An Island Called Smith, winner of the John Morgan Travel Writing prize and The Story of Wales which accompanied the landmark TV series. He is a former BBC arts and media correspondent and is currently working on a book about the film director Karl Francis. (Photo: Emyr Jenkins)