“Tragedy. Now then.”
A hushed air of boredom descended upon the classroom. Lazy afternoon sun filtered in through open windows, dodging white, marshmallow clouds on their unhurried journey across the sky. Spinning motes of dust hung suspended in the air. In the silence the gentle clicks of Scrabble tiles against the board were audible from the back of the classroom. I felt my eyelids begin to close and my mind to wander pleasantly.
Mr. Henry studied a snag in his puke-coloured woolly jumper, irritation creasing his brow and causing his rambling monologue to take a slight break. He was unrivalled in his position of the most boring teacher in the entire college. An incredibly ugly man with a thick, untamed tangle of hair smothering the lower half of his face. Heavy black glasses magnified his eyes, causing them to swim unnervingly behind the lenses like goldfish in a bowl and thick, rubbery lips which protruded from his face in a disgusting manner… everything about this man was thick and ugly, right down to his hideous collection of hand-knitted jumpers.
“Yes, tragedy. Tragedy.”
Mr. Henry finished his examination of the defect in his jumper and looked up sharply, squinting through his spectacles. He didn’t seem aware of the fact that he was obviously incapable of holding our attention for any length of time, or perhaps he just didn’t care. He pursed his rubbery lips horribly.
“Who can give us an example of tragedy from literature?”
Beside me Cassandra yawned loudly, but I had woken with a start, I saw my chance. I leapt to my feet.
“Sir, sir I can, sir.”
Mr. Henry gazed at me dully.
“Let’s drop the ‘Sir’ Alison. You’re not in the army now.” He looked around quickly for signs of approval, or even laughter. There was a gentle murmur of concealed snickers from around the room. I shuffled awkwardly, feeling my face taking on a rosy hue, as I dropped my outstretched hand to my side. I was annoyed with myself for letting that Mr Henry make me feel so stupid. Taking a deep breath, I pushed on.
“A classic case of tragedy can be seen in the life of Thomas Chatterton, the marvellous boy whose poetry wasn’t recognised. When he was only seventeen he took his own life in a garret in London… now there’s tragedy for you.”
I stared into Mr Henry’s face, challenging him to say anything. Raising my hand carefully to my face, I stroked back my short, dark hair with an incredible air of arrogance that seemed almost palpable in the air around me. I held my head high, defying anyone at all to shatter this illusion; I could see Cassandra gazing up at me with a slight expression of boredom mixed with irritation. Somehow this just urged me on – I couldn’t stop now.
“Think of that great Romantic hero dying alone for his literature… that’s tragedy for you, a perfect example. It’s been captured with wonderful feeling by Henry Wallace in his painting, Chatterton. Such a tragic story should never be forgotten.”
There was silence. I was aware of several yawns and shuffling amongst my not so rapt audience. Beside me Cassandra kept her kohl-rimmed eyes fixed upon me, her irritation evidently increasing.
“My god, why don’t you just put a sock in it Alison?” she snapped, shaking back her wild mane of black hair, with a superb theatrical edge with which I was quite familiar by now, as was the rest of the class. Still they’d loved to watch such confrontation.
Drawing myself up to my full height I continued.
“The forgotten genius dying alone in his attic should never be pushed aside, as you’re trying to… such a tragedy clearly makes you feel uncomfortable, but you can’t ignore it, even though it happened so long ago.” I jabbed my forefinger aggressively towards Cassandra’s beautifully fragile face. “So don’t you dare tell me not to keep on reminding you of his tragic life – Chatterton should never be forgotten.”
Cassandra placed her finely manicured fingernails, painted black to match her hair, deliberately in front of her on the desk, and glanced dismissively up at me.
“It’s just that he’s so bloody boring Alison, that’s all. We’ve heard all about Chatterton and I wish you’d change the record.” I caught several murmurs of agreement amongst the rest of the class.
Clenching my fist, which only just protruded from the sleeves of my shapeless grey jumper. I spoke through gritted teeth, turning fully to face Cassandra – hopefully intimidating her.
Like a true Taurus, I stood my ground.
“So, what if you’ve heard it before! It’s important that you remember the story, don’t just dismiss it.”
Mr Henry stood up, removing his glasses. His eyes were on me, although he probably couldn’t even make out my outline with those hideous bottle-ends. I watched him carefully. I could spot that smirk a mile off, the one that meant Mr. Henry thought he was being extremely clever.
“Alright, we won’t dismiss the sad case of Mr. Chatterton, Alison,” he said in his most patronizing tone.
It set my teeth on edge, it really did.
“But I think that you ought to consider a different viewpoint of his death. You will surely not deny that it is conceivable that he killed himself because he was driven to it, by shame and regret. He may, after all have copied those poems, as many accuse him of, and then tried to sell them as his own. You cannot dismiss that, Alison. As it is, you are obsessed with this totally romantic view of Thomas Chatterton which may just be fantasy.”
A vague cheer arose from my classmates; I glared round at them furiously. They all seemed to have assumed Cassandra’s policy against me ‘en masse’. Mr. Henry stood just in front of my desk, tapping his glasses on the knuckle of his other hand. He was beaming. He had gained support, approval even, at my expense and that, for him, was an entirely new experience. Unwisely, he decided to do his best to prolong this pleasurable situation.
“In your eyes the poet was a brilliant poet, alone and penniless in an unfair world. Circumstances drove him to his grave! But maybe not, maybe he did it himself, have you ever considered that? That he could have been a cheat, a swindler? Don’t let his youth fool you, there have been younger murderers!”
The cheers were gradually dying down now that the novelty of Mr. Henry’s attack had worn off. But there was no way to stop him: almost overcome with pride and excitement he pushed his ugly face towards my own.
“Your views are really very narrow-minded, Alison. You are lost in this fantasy, it’s romantic and it’s unreal. You are obsessed with this … vision …of Romance.”
Silence fell. I stared coldly at the leering face. My height gave me an added advantage in confrontations generally. I was taller than most people and this meant that I could look down on them. I also possessed a quite remarkable scowl that Byron himself would have been proud of. I looked at Mr. Henry and scowled fiercely. Then, reaching out my hand, I removed those disgusting spectacles from his nose. His mouth opened and shut quickly, but he made no sound. Keeping my eyes fixed on him and holding the glasses between my forefinger and thumb, I dropped them onto the floor beside my desk. They clattered noisily on the tiles but did not break. Around me thirty pairs of eyes were fixed upon me, waiting breathlessly. The temptation to smile was very great, but I restrained myself, not wishing to spoil the effect. Then, with great deliberation, I stretched out my right leg and stood heavily upon the glasses, crushing them beneath the heel of my Doc Marten’s. There was a delightful crunching sound and Mr. Henry began to gibber. Silently adopting my Satanic scowl one again, I collected up my books and strode past the miserable man and out of the room. Not a sound followed me.
Chatterton, oh Chatterton, what would they do to you? They would rather have you dead and buried in a pauper’s grave, forgotten and denied what little we owe you. Such a tragic figure … yet so ironic that beauty adorns the figure in death, a lifeless beauty that does not fade.
I turned away from the painting of the dead Chatterton that dominated the whole of the front room and gazed out of the window. That early evening softness smothered the sharp shouts of children playing. I noticed that the roses in the front garden were beginning to bud amongst the tangle of honeysuckle, long grass and weeds and I was glad. Outside the window Bosworth sat on the sill and stared at me with glassy green eyes. I made a face at him but he just blinked and, shifting his immense orange bulk so that he could see better, continued to gaze into the room. I wondered why he didn’t come in if he was so interested in the room: but to tell the truth he didn’t look interested, just contented and vacant as cats do. I stretched and yawned, running a hand over my fuzzy, closely cropped head, wondering what to do. Throwing myself into the armchair, I gazed at the phone for some minutes, I could phone Cassandra. No, not after today’s performance with the English Lit class: I was determined to maintain my silence towards her until she apologised. I thought that this may take up to a week but I didn’t mind waiting. She owes me an apology at least; fancy siding with, of all people, Mr. Henry, against me, I hit the side of the sofa in frustration. Cassandra could act in such an infuriatingly contradictory manner sometimes. Well, this time she had gone too far. She could just go down on her bended knees before me and beg for forgiveness.
A gentle knocking at the front door, so quiet that I could hardly hear it, brought me down to earth and I stood up wearily. Knowing whom it would be, I went out into the hall and quickly picked up my jacket and hat, which I had thrown onto the floor when I had come home and hung them up tidily. I cast a final, hasty glance around me, and then I opened the door.
“ Hello Mam,” I said.
“Hello dear,” came the reply, in breathless, abstracted tones.
My mother pushed past me into the hall, her tiny black eyes flickering over every object, every surface, scrutinizing, examining, missing nothing. A tiny, compact woman, she stood nearly two feet below me, certainly no taller than four feet in her black slippers, which she wore constantly, even now. But, what she lacked in inches, my mother more than made up for in pure energy; she attacked every task, however mundane it may be regarded, with a vigour and enthusiasm that I could only stand back and marvel at. She was always alert and watchful, expecting unknown intruders to creep up, taking her by surprise, but there was no chance of that. My mother was always on her guard; a spring tightly wound which would explode alarmingly if touched.
I stood back as her roving, sharp eyes fixed on me, scanning me quickly up and down. I stroked my hair and hitched up my belt self-consciously. My mother pursed her lips and frowned.
“What are you wearing? Pyjamas?”
“Yes, they’re Granddad’s, I found them in the wardrobe.”
My mother’s face was expressionless, but it was clear that she did not appreciate my dress sense.
“I’ve brought your washing,” she told me abruptly, gesturing with a nervous jerk of her head, “in this bag. And here’s some milk and cheese and stuff and cat food. Have you vacuumed this week?” Her face twitched involuntarily and she wrung her hands nervously.
“Yes Mam,” I sighed.
“Hmm, well you missed this biscuit that’s been trodden on.”
“I did that after.”
“And what’s this? She bent to peer at a large stain on the wallpaper. I thought quickly of Joseph’s accident with the bottle of Greek wine (which he had just brought and was opening on the way into the house) and swallowed.
“Um – it’s – er – water.”
“Water,” my mother repeated dully, examining the stain.
I would probably never find out if she believed me or not. However, she moved on, soon enough, her anxious eyes roaming this way and that. She paused only to remove her square black hat carefully from her head and, after caressing the bobbing ebony plume lovingly, she had to stand on tiptoe to hang it on even the lowest of the hooks. Satisfied, she turned away and scurried into the front room. I followed silently.
“Just remember that this is not your house dear, and we have to sell it soon and so it’s not to get damaged. Your father will do his nut if the place is not shipshape. Which reminds me, he says he’s coming over next week with a chap to value the house.”
I was speechless for several moments, such was my shock, and I grabbed her arm.
“When next week? When? When?”
“I can’t remember, Tuesday I think. I’ll ring you.”
But her eyes had grown alarmingly misty and vague as they did whenever threatened in this manner. Despite the tremendous amount of nervous energy at her disposal, she seemed to lack the necessary coordination, which would channel this energy into her frontal lobes; consequently, her memory was atrocious. She wouldn’t ring me. I would just have to sit still all week so I didn’t knock anything out of place after I had cleaned it. I couldn’t have anyone round, I couldn’t cook – I might mess up the kitchen. I couldn’t smoke – my father would smell the nicotine a mile off. I prayed that the damp patch would at least fade, if not disappear completely, by next week.
It wasn’t so much that I feared my father – it’s just that the idea of him entering what I considered to be my home was so appalling and outrageous. We usually avoided each other whenever possible, so managing to maintain a quiet distance between us. It was just when we got together that the trouble started. And it was unfortunate that one of our main points of friction was my house. I say my house, but it was legally my parents since my granddad, who used to live there, died and left the house, along with everything in it, to them. The house was just down the road from my college so I thought that it would be quite reasonable to assume that I should stay in it until it was sold. Unfortunately, my father did not share my point of view. He had scowled (I had, supposedly, inherited my famous Satanic scowl from him) at me from beneath his bushy eyebrows, his thin, geometric face slicing the air with cold, hard lines and buried his hands in his pockets, avoiding my arrogant stare as he always did when we confronted each other. Perhaps this was due simply to the fact he could not return my glare fully without craning his neck upwards (he, like my mother, was short).
“I know what you’d be like left alone in the house,” he had muttered grumpily. “Alcohol every night, so called friends wrecking the place, all night parties, loud music, God knows what else – oh, no Alison. You’ve got to learn to be a bit responsible before you can live alone.”
Of course I argued and Mam did too, in her nagging, wheedling way but he wouldn’t budge. Then I had the clever idea of bribing someone I knew at college whose mother worked with my dad, to come into my parents off-licence and do a little stirring. She gave a brilliant performance and it worked because she was also in charge of promotions at the factory and, of course, my dad was fishing.
“After all Mr Smith, she is nineteen and it’s so much more convenient for her. She can always keep an eye on things for you. You know what empty houses are like, an open invitation to vandals.”
I could see that it was on the tip of my fathers’ tongue to say, yes my daughter is one of them, but he agreed to let me live there. I paid my colleague off and moved in.
Pretty soon I had the place looking more like home. A varied array of pictures on almost every wall, the more offensive china ornaments placed strategically behind wardrobes and curtains, my immense Gramophone wired up to full volume and my clothes filling the wardrobe and spilling out onto the bed and floor. I adopted my usual anarchistic routine in all I did that Michael Bakunin himself would have truly smiled upon.
But, still … I watched my mother’s hurried, precise movements as she moved around the front room, picking things up, straightening pictures, and checking for dust. She seemed oblivious to everything but the most mundane. I sighed, frustrated and turned away. All that precious energy wasted. Perching on the edge of the windowsill, I tapped on the glass to attract Bosworth’s attention. He gave me only a single glance of disdain, and then returned his great emerald eyes to their original spot, an intriguing area of the skirting board just to the right of the sofa.
The ‘Sitting Duck’ was fairly empty that night. At first I was surprised, then I remembered that it was a Monday. It’s a funny thing about Mondays; they seem to be universally unpopular. No one likes to venture out on a Monday, even though there’s never anything on telly. There was no TV in the pub; Father O’Rourke disliked the television intensely and it seemed that Ms O’Rourke had compromised upon that point. After all, it must have been quite a blow to the Father when his sister had decided to convert his old church into a pub. Of course, the Father had been allocated a new church on the other side of the town, an immense ugly building of iron and steel, but that was not the point. Every evening Father O’Rourke lurked behind the bar, a glass of whisky in his hand, glowering scornfully at the locals. Ms. O’Rourke totally ignored him, serving people busily and cheerfully, her loud Irish voice always audible above the general buzz of conversation. She greeted me now with her usual vigour.
“Well hello there, Alison my love. And how are things with you then?”
“Alright Ms. O’Rourke?” I called in reply.
Although it was a question, I thought it would do for an answer as well. Looking around, I spotted Joseph, Cassandra and Jane, trying not to catch my eye. Cassandra especially, was staring intently at the ceiling, making it obvious to all and sundry that she was ignoring me. I was a little put out, why should she ignore me, I didn’t laugh at her in front of everyone, after all. I turned away and went over to the bar. Ms. O’Rourke joined me immediately, a beer glass in her hand.
“A pint, love?” she asked and I nodded. As she filled the glass she said, “Nothing wrong, is there?”
I shook my head, shrugged and sighed. I couldn’t be bothered explaining it all, even to Ms. O’Rourke. She was like a mother to me and probably to everyone else too. I admire the way she managed the pub, the way she held everything under control with such good humour. A crimson smile was always painted on her thickly made-up face. Not that she was ugly; oh no, she was one of the most beautiful women I knew. Tall and slim, she lacked the customary red hair of the Irish and instead sprouted ebony locks which fell down her back like horse’s tails. She wore huge, gold hoops in her ears, which made her look even more like a gypsy. She was always immaculately dressed in one of many different dresses, all the same style, backless and strapless, held up by sheer willpower, in a variety of volcanic shades and splendid patterns. Tonight was the turn of the plain crimson. I gazed jealously as I paid, then I noticed movement behind Ms. O’Rourke.
“Evening Father,” I called.
Father O’Rourke turned away at my greeting and grunted. His sister glared at him darkly.
“Ignore him, love. Silly sod.”
She leaned towards me confidentially.
“I’ll tell you why he’s in such a foul mood. Look.”
She gestured to the left of the bar, where work was obviously in progress. Planks leaned restfully against the wall, while the floor was littered with nails, sawdust and other debris. I raised my eyebrows questioningly. Ms. O’Rourke leant further over the bar, her earrings jangling and whispered in my ear.
“The confession boxes.”
“Ah.” I nodded and winked knowingly.
“They’re useless you see? But of course he accuses me of being irreligious.”
She shook her head sadly and shrugged. I patted her shoulder reassuringly and glared at Father O’Rourke who was lurking by the salted peanuts. He reminded me too much of the obnoxious Mr. Henry for my liking. He even sported the same thick bottle-ends for glasses. Must be trendy.
Picking up my pint, I began to manoeuvre my way around stools and wooden pews to where my friends were huddled secretively around one of the oak tables. All the tables and pews in the pub were made of oak and they lent the pub an air of grandeur and opulence which its’ name did not imply. The building itself was wasted on the Catholic Church; immense arches of oak beams curved with a certain Gothic grace across the high ornate ceiling. Ms. O’Rourke had fixed up lights outside the massive stained glass windows that shone through into the interior of the building, lighting up the pictures of various holy people and their sheep, which rivalled Ms. O’Rourke’s dresses in their vividness of colour. God knows why they didn’t call the pub ‘The Church’, probably Father O’Rourke had objected.
As I sat down, I noticed a figure sitting alone a few tables away. The figure’s back was towards me but I took a good look at his thin, scrawny body shrouded in black, before I sat down. It was unusual to see anyone new around these parts; the town of Timperley was not the most exotic place on earth.
“Alright?” I grunted amiably to my friends and took a gulp of beer. No one answered, as I expected but Joseph caught my eye, winked and smiled in greeting. Jane stared dismally at the floor and Cassandra’s glazed gaze remained fixed rigidly on the ceiling; I stifled a sigh and told myself that patience was, after all, a virtue.
“Hear you had a bit of trouble with Mr. Henry today, Al,” said Joseph smoothly, running his hand over his bald head.
He told me that he had to shave his head once every three days to keep it smooth and stubble-free. The skin that covered it and everything else was the colour of golden syrup. I didn’t know where he came from but it certainly wasn’t Clapham.
“Cassandra told me you trod on his specs,” he continued and grinned, his white teeth flashing. “Good move.”
“Mm,” I nodded, glancing at Cassandra. I wished that she would at least look at me and acknowledge her guilt. I was quite willing to forgive her, if she asked me to, but her black eyes remained obstinately elsewhere, her face set. I tried to needle her into submission.
“Mr. Henry’s no trouble, I can handle him.” I said, half to Joseph, half to Cassandra. “It’s when people start ganging up on you – people who claim to be friends – that’s what gets to me.”
It did the trick; Cassandra switched her piercing stare to me with an almost audible ‘click’. Jane groaned and draped her silk shawl over her head. Through my elation I felt a twinge of fear, as I always did when I provoked Cassandra. She was a figure of power and eccentricity throughout the college; her links with the occult and witchcraft were known and generally feared. Her image was further established by her wearing of long, black skirts, shawls and dresses, millions of gold and silver bangles, rings and necklaces and her mass of black hair which stuck out in all directions in long, threatening spikes. She possessed an incredible collection of immense, heavy earrings which Bet Lynch from Coronation Street would have been envious of; crystal globes and teardrops the size of ping-pong balls, geometric shapes in psychedelic shades of red, black and electric blue and strings of pearls and coloured beads which grazed her shoulders. But Cassandra had an immaculate sense of style. Anything she sported would look incredible, you could guarantee it. It was this remarkable self-possession and style that made people slightly nervous in her presence.
Cassandra glowered at me now across the table and I gazed steadily back, a silly half-smirk on my face. After a moment of silence, Joseph rose.
“I’m having another,” he said indicating his glass, “Anyone else?”
No one replied, so he walked off. Cassandra leaned towards me.
“You’ve got a bloody nerve, ‘Ganging up on you?’ Don’t tell me you’re bloody paranoid as well.”
I looked up sharply.
“As well as being obsessed with some bloody poet who’s been dead and buried for two hundred years!”
“I’m not obsessed.”
“Yes you bloody are! Very much obsessed, I’d say.”
Cassandra leant in a pool of beer, jabbing a silver tipped finger at me to punctuate her words, her bangles swaying and clanking like a drawer of crockery as she did so.
“For weeks we’ve heard nothing from you but the life and times of Thomas Chatterton and I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m bloody sick of it! It’s about time you changed the record; but you won’t have it, will you?”
She stood up and I quickly followed her, so that she would have no advantage over me.
“Oh no, you’re just being got at when anyone tries to tell you how bloody boring you are.”
At this point, I felt I should say something but I couldn’t think of any suitably cutting reply. I expected Cassandra to sweep out and leave me gawping while she was still winning, but she didn’t. As Joseph returned with another pint and sat down, she sat down too and gazed at me vacantly as if nothing had happened. I leaned forward with my palms on the table and took a few deep breaths. It had gone very quiet. I looked around and counted one... two… three… four people staring at our table curiously. One of them was that black hunched up figure a few tables away. I could see now, that it was a man, though it was not at all obvious. His face was pale, so pale that it stood out vividly against the black of his clothes. At first, I thought that he had no shirt on; but as I looked closer, I saw that it was a crisp one which was almost as pale as his skin. I caught his eye and glared at him, he returned my look briefly, and then turned back to his glass of clear liquid. I wondered what it was, some life giving potion, I hoped.
I decided to sit down and as I did so, Joseph nodded at the black figure.
“I see you’ve noticed Dr. Death over there.”
I resigned myself to the fact that the argument was over. Maybe it was just as well anyway, even though I appeared to have lost miserably. I was glad to change the subject.
“I wonder what’s wrong with him? He looks like Death on a good day.”
“Perhaps he’s fatally ill,” suggested Cassandra.
“Or stoned,” said Jane quietly.
Carefully she removed her clogs and put them on the table in front of her. In the heel of each one she kept her store of cannabis.
“Fancy a joint anyone|?”
We all nodded and watched Jane expertly roll the joint, discussing Mr Henry and how long it would take for his spectacles to be mended. The conversation was quite abstract and amiable for a change. Even Jane joined in from time to time, which was rare; she usually looked on, her cow-eyes huge, concern lining her face, her shawl over her head as a protection, never saying anything. Any form of anger or violence sent her burying her head deep in the sand, which annoyed me for I thrived on conflict. However, Jane was never without a stock of various drugs and with her generous hand, she was a good friend to have. I very much doubt whether she would have said the same of me though.
At closing time, we all said good night and went our various ways home. I noticed the pale man scurry out into the night without so much as a ‘cheerio’ to Ms. O’Rourke, who waved good-naturedly all the same. I walked slowly home, enjoying the warm spring air all around me like a feather filled duvet, thinking of Thomas Chatterton lying dead across his bed.
I couldn’t settle when I got home, I don’t know why. I spent an hour or so wandering from room to room, picking things up and then putting them down again. Bosworth followed me round, his green eyes gazing at me vacantly whenever I turned to see if he’d gone. From time to time he slipped through my legs and rolled onto his back on the carpet in front of me, but after a while I grew bored of tickling him and so simply stepped over him and continued on my way. It was possible that this feeling of dissatisfaction did have some reason or cause behind it; for it was far more probable that this restless state of mind was fast becoming a permanent fixture in my life. I paced the floor of the front room, feeling like the prisoner in the ‘Pit and the Pendulum’. Poe-like, my fear came upon me and I wrung my hands, trying my best to think calming thoughts. Perhaps I should take up meditation or yoga or something. Probably Jane could give me a few lessons. My head buzzed with restless energy, there was something, always something which I craved for but could never quite reach. I couldn’t be sure it was real – Christ, I didn’t even know what it was - like Tantalus with his bloody grapes. I kicked the sofa in frustration. I know only that I want something that I do not, and perhaps cannot, have. My eye fell on Chatterton’s portrait and I flung myself on the sofa, sighing; I know how you feel, mate. I wondered at my use of the present tense … perhaps Cassandra was right when she had said that I was obsessed. I longed to go back … the death cries of the French Revolution sounded so sweet to my ears. I am an anachronism I thought with satisfaction and felt better. My bed now beckoned invitingly, the pillow seeming a pleasant place on which to lay my weary head. I climbed the stairs with deliberate, four dimensional steps.
Half way across the landing I stopped by the open door of one of the spare bedrooms, I stood still, listening. I could have sworn that I heard a noise … yes … a slight cough … there it was again. Stooping, I picked up a coat hanger, which was lying on the floor by my feet (and which I had seen used as a fairly lethal weapon in ‘Halloween’). I reached out my hand towards the light switch. I was afraid and yet, I was desperate to know who – or what – was in my house. The room remained in darkness; I was unable to make the connection between the light switch and my hand, which hovered a few inches away from it.
I could only make out a figure standing or sitting by the window. As the gibbous moon shone bright behind it, it seemed blacker than the shadows, less corporeal than them even. It shifted its position but made no move towards me, threatening or otherwise. A sudden clatter caused me to leap out of my skin; I cried out, thinking that the figure had thrown something at me and grabbed at the light switch. A white glare flooded from under the red artificial silk lampshade and the figure turned away, shielding its eyes. I turned away as well but only for a moment. Then I squinted round at the bare double bed and the figure by the window. Although he had his back to me, and his arms flung across his face, I recognised him as the pale man in the pub. I felt an urge to laugh, followed rapidly by a wave of anger. How in God’s name did he get in?
“How did you get in?” I shouted suddenly, frightening myself. The man still didn’t move from the window or even turn round. I felt a little more confident; I didn’t think he would attack me now.
“Tell me how you got in,” I demanded again.
“Turn the bloody light off,” he said. His cloak, which he held over his face, muffled his voice, which was irritable and bitter.
“No chance,” I told him. I didn’t want to be left in the dark again. I took a step forward and stood on something sharp. Of course, my coat hanger, I picked it up.
“It hurts my eyes. Please.”
“Tell me how you got in.”
The pale man tutted and sighed. He continued to hold his cloak in front of his face.
“Through a window.”
I was surprised; I never left any downstairs windows open when I went out.
“Which window?” I asked abruptly.
“I don’t know. Upstairs.”
“How did you get up here?” I crossed quickly to the window and looked out but there was no ladder in sight.
“I climbed.” I couldn’t see his face but I knew he was lying. “Now, please … the light.”
“Was the window open?”
“Oh, I don’t know – yes of course it was. Does it matter?”
“Of course it matters.” I waved the coat hanger at him impatiently. “If you got in … anyone could get in.”
He chuckled dryly.
“Not quite anyone.” With his cloak still over his eyes, he began to stumble clumsily towards the bed, his other hand outstretched like that of a blind man. I could see his long pale fingers, bony like a skeletons.
“Where do you think you’re going?” I demanded, grabbing his cloak with my coat hanger to arrest his movement.
“I’m going to switch the bl0oody light off,” he explained patiently, as if to a child.
I strode over to the wall lamp and switched it on, then turned the main light off. The pale man seemed relieved. Carefully he took his arm away from his face and sank down on the edge of the bed.
“Thank you.” He said quietly.
I crossed back to the window and leaned against it so that I could see him better. He was a scrawny figure, not at all threatening really. His face was whiter and thinner than I remembered and his expression even more melancholy. His features fell without effort it seemed, into a truly dismal and sorrowful mask that reminded me of a trailing weeping willow. This stranger cut an obscure and romantic figure, he would not have been out of place within the Age of Romance. He had that wild, eccentric, unhealthy look about him. His eyes were sunk deep into his skull and they were red and watering.
“What’s wrong with your eyes?” I asked gently. Poor man, I thought, he must be in a great deal of pain.
He looked at me and smiled weakly. Even his smile was pale and unhealthy.
“Just … sensitive. They don’t like the bright light.”
“What do you do in the sun, then?”
“Wear sunglasses.” He looked away and his smile disappeared, lost in the folds of his cloak. “I avoid the sun.”
I realised that this must be why he was so pale. What a miserable existence I thought, to have to go round avoiding the sun, it’s rare enough anyway. I realised that I was staring at the stranger and I looked away quickly, feeling sure that he could see the blatant pity in my eyes. An embarrassed silence followed.
“I saw you at the pub,” I told him finally.
“Yes, I saw you.”
“Did you follow me home?”
“Yes, sort of.”
A sudden thought struck me. I turned to him.
“Well …” He didn’t seem to have an answer. For the first time I noticed how much he resembled either a bouncer at the Apollo, or the butler in ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’, with his long, dark cloak, white shirt and small black dickey bow. The effect was somewhat diminished by his mass of shoulder blade length locks, even though they were suitably black. If he was trying to look intimidating, he should at least tie his hair back, if not have a crew-cut and be done with it. With that hair he strongly resembled the elf from ‘Lord of the Rings’ … and, without his bow and arrow Legolas was of course, completely harmless. I wondered if this odd stranger was as harmless as he now appeared to be. I still gripped the coat hanger and was quite prepared to use it if provoked.
“Why did you follow me home?” I asked again. It seemed quite a reasonable question to ask, in the circumstances. I felt that I had a perfect right to persist until I received a satisfactory answer. He owed it to me. I banged the coat hanger impatiently against the palm of my left hand as I waited. The pale man stared at the floor; he seemed to be avoiding my eye. Perhaps he was embarrassed by the whole situation, it was slightly bizarre. I wondered whether to tell anyone about this … strange visitor, or just to forget it, as one does a slightly distasteful nightmare. I suddenly shivered, the night touching my bones with cold, damp skeletal fingers. To my alarm the stranger moved towards me quickly and gripped my arm. I raised my coat hanger threateningly.
“Let me go,” I hissed.
He did, at once. Rather taken aback by the sight of that dangerous looking piece of metal hovering near his face, he retreated a few paces, looking worried.
I said nothing, remembering my reputation for impulsive violence. I just hoped that I wouldn’t do anything that I would regret afterwards, this time. There was silence for a few moments, and then he quickly pulled off his cloak and held it out to me, at arms’ length.
“I was only going to offer you my cloak,” he explained.
I took it suspiciously and draped it over my shoulders. Immediately, I felt light-headed and giddy, the cloak changed me, I felt regal and authoritative.
I was filled with a sense of the night, a sense of a great expanse of darkness, with the wind blowing eerily over it … glimpsed through a glass, a mirror, a reflective surface speckled with myriad dimensions and hues … I was elated and thrilled for a moment, I almost possessed this … this, this magic, this void, this labyrinth … this, my hand reached and grasped and the grapes were like indigo glass … luscious and heavy, ripe and satisfying … this, this, I almost possessed …
Shaking my head, I noticed that I was still in the room. There sat my strange intruder, watching me languidly. I luxuriated in the sensation of that cloak draped over me, like silk. I noticed the delicate white lining and fingered it lovingly.
“Is it silk?” I asked, barely recognising my own voice.
The pale man nodded and sat carefully on the edge of the bed watching me. He looked half naked without his cloak, like the Queen without a hat. I sat down beside him, I wasn’t afraid now I had his cloak on.
“Thanks,” I muttered, a little confused both by his kindness and the almost suffocating effect of the cloak. For one distracted moment, I could think of nothing but Keats’ famous quote, ‘Oh for a life of sensations rather than thought’ Then I remembered; I had still not received a reply to my question. I decided it worth one more try.
“Why are you here? Why did you follow me?”
“Ahh…” Carefully he rested his ivory hands on his knees and studied them. Each finger tapered to a fine point, perfectly sculpted from – it looked like - soap. “I followed you because … because I wanted to talk to you.”
I waited, but he did not continue. I was even more confused now.
“But … why didn’t you talk to me in the pub?”
“There were people around.”
“So, it was impossible.” He looked at me and smiled. I noticed how shiny and pointed his teeth were, replicas of his fingers. I wondered who his dentist was.
“Well, what do you want to talk about then?” I yawned; it was becoming more and more clear to me that this stranger was either insane or perverted, or possibly, both. It did not surprise me that he wanted simply to talk to me; I had always maintained that men never grew past the ‘little boy’ stage of wanting attention, especially from women. I glanced at him vaguely, thinking longingly of sleep, sweet sleep.
“No, you don’t understand …” he said irritably and sighed.
“I want to talk … about something you said.” He looked up and stared out of the window at the moon as it reappeared briefly from behind the clouds.
“Someone you mentioned.”
“Oh yes?” I frowned darkly. “You were eavesdropping, then?”
He nodded, saying nothing. I thought back quickly over every word I had uttered in the pub. I couldn’t remember mentioning anyone at all.
“Yes, you mentioned someone I… think about a lot,” my visitor continued, tapping his finger absently on his knee. “He is, I suppose, an old hero of mine. Thomas Chatterton.”
I stared open mouthed, unable to speak. The man seemed not to notice; he had obviously touched upon his favourite subject and he was well away. I listened, in an extreme state of rapture; could it really be that I had found someone who shared my enthusiasm for this forgotten poet? Even if it was some eccentric, malnourished housebreaker who fancied himself as a second Count Dracula.
“When I heard you mention him, I decided I must speak to you alone,” he explained. “It’s been years since I talked with anyone about Mr. Chatterton. Many years. He is a great figure; a great romantic figure and people don’t seem to know that. Most people don’t even know who he is and yet, he became great through his death.”
“Oh yes,” I said, excited and standing up. “You must see my painting called ‘Chatterton’. It’s by Henry Wallis, a Pre-Raphaelite painter.” I began to lead my guest down the stairs. “I don’t know if you know the name. By the way, what’s yours?” I turned to him on the bottom stair. He looked away quickly.
“My name? Oh – er – Thomas.”
“Alison.” I grasped his pale hand warmly. It felt like a candle, which had been in the deep freeze for a week.
“It’s lovely to meet you. This way.”
* * * *
It will probably come as no surprise to you to learn that Thomas and I talked until dawn on the fascinating subject of Mr. T. Chatterton. Our conversation covered his life, death, friends, relations, success (or lack of it), genius and poetry. I was interested to discover that Thomas knew a good deal more than I did about those Rowley manuscripts that Chatterton was supposed to have copied. I told him about my run-in with Mr.Henry earlier that day and what he had said. I was overjoyed to find that Thomas shared my anger and distress. He asked me where Mr. Henry lived so that he could go round and approach my antagonistic teacher on the subject of the dead Chatterton’s innocence. Regretfully, I had to admit that I didn’t know it.
The sky was just beginning to lighten, when Thomas stood up and said that he had to go. I asked him why and he told me that he worked in a fast-food restaurant in Altrincham and he had to be there in time to serve breakfast at seven.
“Ah well then, in that case,” I said, giving him his cloak. He took it and draped it majestically over his bony shoulders. I suddenly realised why he wore such strange clothes. It must be a uniform for the restaurant in which he worked.
“What’s the place called?” I asked, guessing at ‘Count Dracula’s Café’ in my head.
“’A Quick Bite’,” he said, he seemed in a hurry. “I’ll miss my bus,” he explained, “I mustn’t be late.”
“I’ll see you again then,” I called as he disappeared through the garden gate. He turned and waved in answer and jogged hastily away into the peach coloured distance.It was when I returned into the front room and sunk down into an armchair with a cup of tea, that I realised how tired I was. My eyes were like a corpse’s; glazed, unseeing, they stared straight ahead. I guessed at the time, five thirty … quarter to six … six o’clock? I thought absently that I must look out for ‘A Quick Bite’ next time I went into Altrincham. I didn’t recall ever having seen such a place. I wondered what time Thomas finished and when he managed to sleep. That could be another reason for his paleness … lack of sleep. As if responding unconsciously to the word, my eyes snapped shut and I drifted gently into the Land of Nod.
Now go to CHAPTER TWO