When Lady Hock does not take her medication things can go on the blinkby Patrick McGrath / August 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in August 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
The point about the vampire,” Harry was saying ? propos of nothing in particular, “is that the earth will not digest him. This is what puts him outside nature. Because everything inside nature, you see, decomposes. Rots in the ground. Not your vampire. He can’t die because the soil won’t receive him. Interesting, eh?” “Fascinating,” I murmured, attending with only half a mind. How had Harry got on to this revolting topic? I think he must have seen a film. But my thoughts were elsewhere, with Hilary, our daughter; I had not taken my medication for days, I was so worried about the girl. She was only 19, but already she had shown an alarming propensity for falling in love with utterly unsuitable men. If only, I said to her before breakfast, she would settle down with someone solid, someone like Tony Piker-Smith, for example. “But Mummy,” said Hilary-sitting at her dressing table, brushing her hair-“you can’t want me to marry such a drip. You didn’t marry a drip.” I sighed. “Your father,” I said, “is a man of”-I groped for the word-“predictable passions. This is why I married him. One knows what to expect from him; one has elbow room, so to speak.” Hilary snorted. “But I don’t want elbow room, Mummy! Not with the man I marry!” She turned to face me. I was sitting on the edge of the bed. Suddenly an expression of alarm crossed her face. “Mummy,” she asked, “have you stopped taking your pills again?” i am lady hock, of Wallop Hall; Hilary is my daughter. When we reached the dining room a few minutes later, Harry was already deep in The Times crossword. It was a bright sunny morning in August and I asked Stoker, our butler, to serve me kidneys. My son Charles was standing at the french windows gazing out over the croquet lawn. “Perfect day for cricket,” he said. I was in no mood to talk to Charles about the weather; Charles, you see, was the cause of my present anxiety about Hilary. Always an impulsive boy, he had now, without consulting anyone, invited an entire cricket team down for the weekend. Stoker was not very happy about it, but I was less concerned about him than I was about Hilary. An entire cricket team! I would not be able to let the girl out of my sight until they had all been safely packed off back to London on Sunday night. I was beginning to feel one of my headaches coming on. It was then that Harry started talking about rotting vampires; just what I needed. The problem with young men, you see, is that they tend to prey upon one. Not that their attentions are not delightful, but Hilary is a girl of 19, after all, and I felt it my duty, as a mother, to protect her. I don’t think that’s abnormal, do you? Wallop Hall is situated deep in the rolling farmland of the Berkshire Downs, about five miles from the village of Wallop, a sleepy cluster of ancient, crumbling cottages with honeysuckle and dogrose twining about the doorways, and dampness and mildew within. There is a shop or two, a church, an inn-and the village green, a fine stretch of greensward with a cricket pavilion and a wood on the far side. The pavilion is a Victorian structure with spires and gargoyles, and according to Harry it is a fine example of Rustic Gothic. I think it a monstrosity myself, but two hours after breakfast I was sitting beside it in a deck chair alongside my old friend Olive Babblehump, waiting for the cricket to begin. The sun was warm and a few white clouds, fleecy at the edges, drifted across a deep blue sky. The smell of freshly mown grass was rank in our nostrils and I was telling Olive that although Tony Piker-Smith had a limited imagination, he was just the type, if only Hilary would listen to me, to give a wife elbow room. Now Olive is a dear woman, but not to be trusted. “I think,” she said, “that if you try to clip that girl’s wings she’ll run off with someone impossible just to spite you. I nearly made that mistake with Diana.” Well! I did not say anything to that, and you will understand why when I tell you that Diana, Olive’s eldest, had been in a lunatic asylum for the past three years after murdering the parish priest with a blunt axe in a moment of delusional psychosis. But Olive was unaware of just how jarringly inappropriate her comment was; she hauled out her knitting and began to hum. Quite a large crowd had turned out for the cricket; some, like ourselves, in deck chairs, others sprawled on blankets on the grass. Insects murmured, and over on the far side of the green, by Gibbet’s Wood, a fat cow stood in a patch of sunlight and flicked at the flies with its tail. All very tranquil, all very pastoral, hearts at peace under an English heaven and so on; why then did I have such an awful feeling of dread? A few of the village cricketers, young sheep farmers mostly, were knocking a ball about, but the opposition had not yet arrived. “Whatever do you suppose has happened to them?” I asked Olive. “Search me,” she said, not even looking up from her knitting. But then she did lift her eyes. “My dear,” she said, “you really should be wearing a hat in this sunshine, with the medicine you take.” I said nothing. How could I keep a proper eye on Hilary if I was all doped up like a zombie? Then the most peculiar thing happened: I could suddenly see hundreds of worms crawling in and out of Olive’s head! Her skin had gone an awful yellowy-green colour and little lumps of rotting flesh began to drip from her bones and into her knitting. The smell was foul. It only lasted a moment, I am happy to say, but what a nasty moment it was. And then, thank God, Harry arrived. Harry’s arrival somewhere is almost always an anticlimax. His presence is warmly anticipated, for he is, after all, the squire. But once he actually gets there the performance never varies: a moment of robust hilarity and then he makes for the bar. This morning was no exception, although he did pause to say how d’ye do to Olive and me, and inquire, bless him, what our poison was. “Gin,” we both replied. Harry’s one true passion is hunting foxes on horseback. Harry would hunt every day if he could, and often does. The villagers love him for it. They see him out on the downs with his hounds, riding a big brown mare; red-faced, portly, in loud tweeds, and panting with the sheer animal exhilaration of the chase. It makes them feel secure. This, they know, is England. He comes home at the end of the day splattered with mud and blood, and deeply happy. Stoker will already have drawn his bath. He drinks a great deal of claret at dinner and passes out shortly afterwards in the library. Stoker puts him to bed, locks the doors and turns out the lights. Wallop Hall sleeps. Any disturbance of this routine makes Harry sulky and explosive, so I make sure that no disturbance occurs. All of which suits me nicely. I am, as I hinted earlier, an adherent of the “elbow room” theory of marital relations. I need not, I think, elaborate; suffice it to say that Harry and I are perfectly happy with our arrangement, and have been for many years. Unfortunately I can’t talk to him about Hilary and, as you’ve observed, Olive isn’t very sympathetic either, which leaves me to fret alone; but that, I suppose, is what it means to be a mother. But I must say, I was never so glad to see Harry as I was then, after the awful way Olive turned into that thing right in front of my eyes. i don’t suppose I shall ever forget the first glimpse I had of the creature. The other team had all arrived and Charles, who captained the Wallop eleven, had won the toss and elected to bat. I cast a glance at their opening bowler-and sat up rigid in my deck chair. I immediately realised why I had been feeling so odd all morning! I could feel my blood grow hot and a deep flush suffuse my features. It was going to be bad, very bad indeed, and I sank back into my deck chair gasping for breath and attempting to disguise from Olive my excitement. There was a vampire among us. I was surprised, at first, at how small he was-just an inch over five feet, I’d guess, no taller than Olive herself. He was very thin with a disproportionately long face dominated by a huge, cadaverous jaw, deeply sunken eyes and a fierce shock of jet-black hair, thickly oiled, brushed straight back. He was elegantly turned out, little and horrible though he was, in sharply creased cream-coloured trousers and a spotless white shirt. But this did not deceive me, for although he was supposedly here for the cricket, I recognised him straightaway for a thing that lived outside nature. Having recovered my poise I turned to Olive-and found her staring at him with rapt and shameless fascination! My heart sank. If he had this effect in Olive, what would he do to poor Hilary? A hush fell over the green and he began his run to the wicket. I must say, he did present a graceful figure, in a diabolical sort of way, as he came cantering in at what was, given his size, remarkable speed. His hair was tossing and, even from where I sat, a sort of red glow was discernible deep in each of his eye sockets. Charles, at the other end, gazed at him undaunted and briefly tapped his bat in the crease. And then another peculiar thing happened: in mid-stride the creature seemed suddenly to freeze, and hang there, suspended in the air, as though he were a photograph, with his little legs well off the ground, his head thrown back, hair wild, eyes blazing redly and one arm lifted straight and rigid from the shoulder and clutching in its long, bony fingers the ball. But only for a moment; then down came his arm, and the ball, little more than a red blur, screamed towards Charles, evaded his cautious poke, shaved his offside stump, and finished with a loud smack! in the wicket keeper’s glove. All around the green, people breathed again. “Well,” said Olive, resuming her knitting, “he’s certainly a quick one.” I turned to look for Hilary; she was sitting on the veranda of the pavilion, next to Tony Piker-Smith, and her eyes, like Olive’s, were positively shining. I felt as though a serpent had wormed its way into our Eden. The rest of the morning was difficult, to say the least. I watched with an increasingly sick and hollow feeling as the creature-his name, I learned, was Cleave-began to demolish our batting. Ted Dung was the first to go: a loud crack and the farmer was gazing stupidly as his wicket was torn clean out of the soil and sent cartwheeling away. One incident particularly horrified me: it was the removal of Tony Piker-Smith. He took a very fast ball full in the groin and went down with a cry of pain. “How was that?!” cried Cleave, whirling about to appeal to the umpire for leg before wicket. The umpire-Len Grace, the undertaker-shook his head. Tony’s groin had not, in his opinion, been directly shielding his wicket. Had the ball continued on its way, it would have missed the leg stump. Len Grace, everyone agreed, had a very nice eye. But Cleave had no respect for Len’s nice eye. He snarled, he positively snarled-and I shuddered, for I saw quite clearly, as they gleamed in the sunshine, that his canines were much too long and sharpened at the ends to a fine point. I turned to Olive, but her eyes were on her knitting. Poor Tony was helped off the field by a couple of our chaps, his plump pink face all scrunched up with pain. Hilary had risen to her feet and was pressing her fist to her mouth, as she often does in moments of stress. This, at least, I took to be a good sign. Meanwhile, Charles continued to play very elegant cricket and was soon clipping loose balls gracefully through the slips. By lunchtime we were 49 for seven, most of those having come from Charles’s bat. We warmly applauded as he led the field back to the pavilion for lunch, which had, as usual, been prepared by a number of the farmers’ wives and was laid out on trestle tables. The high spirits that generally attended these affairs were somewhat dampened by Tony’s absence-still in terrible pain, he had been driven to the doctor’s by Hilary. Harry, however, was genial, and appeared to harbour no suspicions of Cleave. “Have a drink,” he said to him, “gin, scotch?” “I wonder,” said Cleave, in those deep, cultured tones of his, “if I might have a Bloody Mary?” Olive managed to seat herself next to him at lunch and immediately began to chatter. She found out that his mother was Hungarian; her eldest girl, Diana, she said, once knew a deaf nun from Dubrovnik, and this got her on to the lunatic asylum, and what a nice man the medical superintendent was, even if he was Irish-and so it went, and the little creature merely grinned his cold, dead grin at her and said almost nothing. Then Hilary returned from the doctor, and with an expression of concern Cleave rose to his feet and inquired after the injured man. A rather subdued Hilary said that the doctor had taken him to the Royal Berkshire hospital for X-rays, as his testicles were badly bruised. Cleave-the monster!-murmured how desperately sorry he was and sat down. Such was his demeanour that Charles-warm, goodhearted Charles-felt constrained to tell him that he should not blame himself, that it was a freak accident, and Tony, he was sure, wasn’t seriously hurt. “I fear the worst,” said Cleave. “I bowl too fast.” “Nonsense,” said Charles, “you bowl magnificently.” The murmur of support this statement garnered was dutiful rather than warm. But you see how effectively Tony had been taken out of the picture? The cricket resumed. I was unable to concentrate on the play, however, because Cleave had begun to produce some uncanny visual effects, their function doubtless being to unhinge my mind and thus remove the last obstacle to his ravishing of Hilary. The most unsettling of these disturbances was his transformation of that pleasant and tranquil scene from positive to negative. For an instant all that was light-sky, cricketers-became impenetrably black, and all that was dark-trees, grass-was bleached to a ghostly white. But only for an instant. Then it would be normal again, then back to the negative, and it would flash like this for about half a minute. It was some sort of electrical interference, produced telepathically, I presume; and it was, as I say, aimed directly at me. If Olive experienced it, she said nothing; and I began then to suspect that she understood Cleave’s designs-understood and approved them! The players came in for tea. I decided at last that I must act. I drew Charles aside. “Darling”-the tone I adopted was one of extreme gravity-“do you really think we want all these characters for the night?” “But Mother!” he said. “Quietly, darling,” I murmured. “Mother, I’ve invited them. I can’t just-” “I know, darling. But all the same-” I broke off. A shadow had fallen between us. It was Cleave. “Lady Hock,” he began-and oh, he had a voice like old port, rich, smooth, full-bodied-“forgive me for interrupting.” I assumed a mask of chilly politeness. “Not at all, Mr Cleave.” “Lady Hock, I really feel that we cannot impose on you to house and feed eleven total strangers, despite your son’s most cordial invitation.” “But I say!” cried Charles. Cleave laid a hand on his shoulder. “I think it would be better for all concerned if you permitted us to fend for ourselves at the Wallop Arms.” Oh, this was difficult. Something in me weakened. The charm of the creature was overpowering, irresistible almost-but I held firm. To Charles’s dismay I made no attempt to dissuade him. “If you’re sure you won’t be too uncomfortable?” I said. “We shall be very comfortable, Lady Hock,” he said. I felt relieved-and quite inexplicably disappointed! His eyes were burning upon me and, like a chicken before a fox, I could not avert my gaze. With a sudden surge of some powerful but involuntary emotion I blurted out: “But you must dine with us, Mr Cleave and,” I added, “be our guest.” No sooner were the words out of my mouth than I regretted them bitterly-but I could not help myself. Oh, you stupid woman, I thought-having just been safely delivered of the creature, here you are inviting him right back in again! He bowed his assent. Charles was somewhat appeased. I turned to go; it was at that moment that Hilary appeared. “Hilary,” I said, “Mr Cleave will be joining us for dinner, and staying in the Rose Room, but the rest of the team will put up at the Wallop Arms.” “Oh good,” said Hilary. “Good, I mean,” she added, flushing slightly, “about Mr Cleave.” Play ended at half past six and all the villagers went home to their cottages. Birds chattered in Gibbet’s Wood and the pavilion grew shadowy, its gargoyles standing out sharp against the twilight. By dinner time Tony was still in hospital but Olive would not be kept away. If my suspicions about her had been merely tentative during the day, they hardened to certainty that evening. Just before dinner, I heard Harry inviting Cleave to have a look at the sporting prints in the library. This invitation was made while Harry was on his way upstairs for his bath and Cleave, already dressed for dinner, was on his way down-doubtless hoping to work on Hilary before anyone else appeared. I myself was dressed by this time; and on hearing Harry’s invitation I slipped down the back stairs and made my way around the side of the house to the library window, the curtains of which had not, fortunately, been completely closed. I was able to watch Cleave from a place of concealment. For some minutes he glanced at Harry’s prints; then he took a book from the shelves and began idly turning the pages. Stoker entered with a scotch and soda on a silver tray; as he retired I heard a car pull up at the front door. That would be Olive, I thought. Sure enough, a few moments later Stoker showed Olive Babblehump into the library. Cleave looked extremely handsome in evening clothes. His dinner jacket was impeccably tailored, and brought out the darkness of his hair and eyes, so striking against the chalky pallor of his skin. He then turned his long white face, his blackly smouldering eyes, upon Olive, and the old trout positively melted. Olive dressed for dinner, I should remark here, is a quite alarming sight-with bare shoulders, bare throat and bare arms, there seem to be simply acres of slackly withered, pinkly powdered, diamond-dripping flesh; she heaves and wobbles about the place like a prize turkey, glittering richly from a hundred stones-but Cleave did not back off in alarm, as I had seen other young men do when Olive took a fancy to them, nor did he merely stand his ground; he advanced, rather, he moved in, and I almost cried out to the silly woman to beware, beware-but that would have ruined everything. Olive has only one breast, but that was enough for Cleave. I could not hear what was said, but whatever it was, it did for poor Olive. To my utter incredulity at the sheer brazenness of the creature, Cleave took her in his arms and nuzzled her throat. Olive threw her head back. She was soon uttering small moans, a clawlike hand clutching each of Cleave’s shoulders. The next thing was, he was after her breast! Then he had it right out of her gown, and was at it with his teeth-while Olive, with an almighty shudder, rolled her head from side to side, and heaved and panted, clutching at him as her withered flesh wobbled and rippled with grotesque lust. But then, quite suddenly, she clicked her head in an upright position and opened her eyes-and what a shock she gave me! For her eyes were red-not merely bloodshot, as I have often seen them, but a furious, incandescent red, just as Cleave’s were when he was bowling at Charles. But what was worse was the fact that those horrible eyes of hers were gazing straight at me-for in my distraction I was standing in full view outside the window, in the gap between the curtains! Olive and I stared at one another as though the window were a mirror-and she and I were one, identical, the same! Thus we stood for a timeless moment, frozen in guilty complicity as the monster went about his foul and carnal work. When at last he lifted his head, I slipped away; he did not see me. I let myself in by the back door, stole up to my room by the back stairs and leaned against my bedroom door with my heart pounding fit to burst. There was a slightly uncomfortable moment when I met Olive in the drawing room ten minutes later. Her eyes were back to their usual colour and her breast was back in her gown, but the change in her was obvious to me. She behaved quite normally, but none the less I knew. And she knew I knew. It was, I think you will agree, a delicate situation. cricket, quite naturally, was the topic of conversation at table. We had a very nice side of roast beef which Harry, after removing the skewer, carved and served with his usual joviality. Stoker was kept busy with the claret as we all, for one reason or another, were drinking deeply that night. The new potatoes were very tasty, and so were the peas, which came from the garden. A simple meal, but I like to think-and Harry is with me on this-that it can be favourably compared to anything the French might produce. Was Cleave, I suddenly wondered, a Frenchman? No, I remembered then that he was a Hungarian. God alone knows what they eat. Hilary was looking lovely in a pale blue gown that nicely complemented her slender figure and set off her fair complexion to advantage. I had talked to her before we came down and tried to warn her about Cleave. I’m afraid I wasn’t very successful; I didn’t want to terrify the child; to my veiled warnings she responded with a brisk impatience and told me I must take my pills. As if this were any time for pills! Harry was on good form. He had once been a good talker with a distinctly metaphysical cast of mind, and for Cleave’s benefit he tossed out a few ideas. These got the talk going, and permitted Harry gradually to shift his attention from the conversation to the roast beef and the wine, where it lingered for the remainder of the meal. “Cricket,” he rumbled at one stage, “is much more than a game, of course. I should call it an idyll, myself-a rural scene of peace, simplicity and goodness.” There was a moment’s silence; nobody had heard Harry say such a thing for at least 15 years. “What do you think of that, Olive?” he boomed, his face growing red. Olive and Harry, you see, have this running charade; when they are drinking, which they usually are, unless Harry’s on his horse, he acts the dashing chevalier, she the belle dame. It is pathetic, really, but it gives him pleasure. This evening, however, Olive was not playing. She only had eyes for Cleave, which was not really fair to Harry. “Oh, I quite agree, Sir Harry,” said Cleave. “Cricket symbolises human activity in an ideal society, a society bound by love, where law provides merely a frame. All else is art-harmony-the civilised struggle of man and man in a spirit entirely ludic. It’s how the Greeks made war.” “Fancy,” said Olive, with some vulgarity, her eyes still burning upon the clever little monster. Oh, I know you, Olive Babblehump, I thought, you only want to be feasted upon by this creature. But there was a flaw in his argument and it was this: there is an evil that can play the game too, and you, Cleave, are it. I did not announce this, of course; Olive alone would know what I meant by an evil that plays the game-but she had already succumbed. I crept into his room late that night after everyone had gone to bed. I half expected to find him wide awake and preparing for his nocturnal depredations. What I should have done then I had no idea; something, I trusted, would have occurred to me. I had a few religious artifacts with me but no garlic, as we do not use it in the kitchen; and for the rest, I thought, well, maybe I can talk him out of it. Promise him my silence if he will simply prey on some other family. I was even prepared, I am not ashamed to admit, to offer myself to him, if only he would spare Hilary. To such lengths will a mother go when danger threatens. Fortunately it did not come to that; he was asleep. How beautiful he was in sleep! One could understand why Olive had succumbed so quickly. I myself was tempted, I was sorely tempted, but my resolve held. I hit him extremely hard on the head with a piece of metal piping that the plumbers had left behind, and then with a croquet mallet I hammered the meat skewer right through his heart. What a horrible mess it made. Harry found me there about half an hour later. Poor Harry, he was quite distressed. He thought it a bit “off.” Not quite “the thing,” he said. Not cricket. i am in the asylum now, for killing Cleave the vampire, and that’s not cricket if you ask me. Still, it’s not so bad. They have put me on the same ward as Diana Babblehump and we have started a bridge club. Olive visits regularly and smuggles in gin, bless her. But she is not to be trusted, not since Cleave got at her. I have tried to warn Hilary about her, but she thinks I am mad. Poor girl, she does make me fret. I haven’t taken my medication for days, I am so worried about her. Olive was wrong about the medical superintendent; he is not a nice man, not a nice man at all. He is Irish, he plays golf and I noticed yesterday that his eyes turn red when he thinks nobody is looking.