‘When was she bitten, Janine?’ Donovan said.
Janine stared down at her shoes, avoiding his eyes. ‘Last night. I found her in the street outside the club and managed to get her into a taxi. When we got back here I put her to bed and she’s been like this ever since.’
‘You should have called me last night, as soon as it happened, not left it until this morning.’
‘I didn’t want to. I was frightened. I thought you’d be angry.’
‘Damned right I’m angry! When she told me you two were planning a girl’s night out I told her to stay away from the club. There have been four attacks that I know of in the last month. You should have kept her away from the damned place.’
Janine glared angrily at him across the darkened bedroom. ‘I’m Gail’s flat-mate, not her mother. As her boyfriend you know how stubborn she can be when she has an idea in her head, and I wasn’t going to fall out with her over it.’
‘I thought you were the sensible one,’ Donovan said and crossed to the bed, gently lifting the sheet. He produced a small torch from his pocket and shone the bright LED light down at Gail’s neck.
The twin puncture wounds above her carotid artery were red and angry-looking, seeping a clear fluid. Donovan let the sheet drop.
On the bed Gail stirred, her long fair hair plastered across her face with sweat. A swollen tongue flicked across her lips and her eyelids fluttered but the eyes remained shut. ‘Thirsty,’ she mumbled. ‘So thirsty.’
Janine was at his side, her fingers gripping the sleeve of his leather jacket. ‘What are we going to do, Don?
'She’ll be awake soon.’
‘I’ll deal with it,’ he said.
‘The same way you dealt with the others?’
‘Unless you have a better suggestion. Wait here and watch her while I get my bag from the car.’ He peeled away from her and left the flat.
Janine sat on the edge of the bed and stroked the hair away from Gail’s face. ‘You’ll be all right, babe,’ she said soothingly. ‘Jan will make it all right.’ She glanced around as the door opened and Donovan re-entered the room carrying a leather holdall. He dropped the bag to the floor and crouched down to unzip it.
Janine watched as he took out a heavy rubber mallet and a two-foot length of wood, one end of which had been sharpened to a wickedly sharp point.
‘And that’s how you dealt with the others?’ Janine said.
Donovan nodded and crossed to the bed.
‘There must be a better way.’
‘As I said, I’m open to suggestions.’
He positioned the pointed end of the stake above Gail’s chest.
As if sensing what was about to happen Gail’s eyelids fluttered again but she didn’t rouse.
Donovan raised the mallet high above his head and was about to bring it crashing down when he felt a sharp pain at his throat. He managed to move his face a fraction but Janine’s head was in his way as she leant over his shoulder, her sharp canine teeth buried in his neck, her mouth greedily sucking his blood, draining him of his strength and his life force.
The mallet fell from his fingers, landing on the pillow with a soft thump, an inch away from Gail’s head, and the stake clattered to the floor.
Janine finally released him and let him fall. ‘How’s that for a better suggestion?’ she said. ‘I thought it was you ruining my fun, but until this morning I wasn’t sure.’
On the bed, Gail finally opened her eyes.
‘Are you thirsty, Hon?’ Janine said, and gestured down at Donovan’s still twitching body. ‘Help yourself while he’s still warm. There’s plenty left for you.’
Jeff Goldman buried his hands in his pockets, hunched his shoulders resignedly, and followed his wife into the dingy interior of the antique shop.
A bell tinkled as they entered. Behind the counter, a large woman in a floral-print dress and lilac rinse was busy with a duster and an ozone-friendly spray of furniture polish.
Jeff wandered out to the back of the shop, through a doorway half-hidden by a moth-eaten silk curtain. Behind the curtain was another room with even more junk. He sighed and was about to turn back when something buried under a pile of yellowing fishing magazines caught his eye; a guitar case, well worn and dusty, the black leatherette cracked and peeling to reveal the plywood beneath.
He shifted the magazines, drew the case out from its hiding place and laid it on the floor. Common-sense told him it would probably be a piece of junk, some ancient Oriental replica of a famous-name guitar – a Fender copy or a Gibson lawsuit job, with cheese cutter action and dodgy electrics, but his fingers still fumbled nervously with the catches. The case opened on stiff hinges and Jeff drew in his breath sharply. When he let it out again his wife’s name was carried out with it. ‘Marie! Out here.’
Seconds later the curtain drew back and Marie came through from the shop. ‘What is it?’ Her eyes travelled from the guitar lying in its case, to the idiotic, infatuated grin spreading over her husband’s face. ‘No,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘Don’t even consider it. You’ve got two guitars and an amplifier sitting in the loft, and you haven’t had them down, even to blow the dust off, for the last five years.’
‘Yeah, I know all that, but this one’s different. Just look at it.’
Marie hung back but the childlike, almost pleading look in Jeff’s eyes finally weakened her resolve and she took a step forward and stared down into the case. ‘Is that aluminium?’ she said. ‘And all that engraving. Are they snakes?’
Jeff lowered his voice. ‘Snakes and vine leaves, and no it’s not aluminium...’ He cast a furtive glance back at the doorway. ‘It’s silver.’
‘Silver?’ Marie’s voice climbed an octave. Jeff shushed her.
‘Yes, silver, laid over a body of Honduras mahogany. The fingerboard’s ebony, strengthened with carbon fibre, the position markers are inlaid mother-of-pearl, the machine-heads are Schallers and the pick-ups DiMarzios, custom wound. It’s based on a basic Gibson Les Paul shape, with a single Florentine cutaway, but its sustain knocks the Gibson into the proverbial cocked-one.’
‘It sounds as if you’re reading that.’
Jeff grinned. ‘I am.’ He tapped the side of his head. ‘Up here. It’s all up here. I know this guitar. It belonged to
‘That name rings a bell.’
‘He was an American session guitarist in the late Seventies, early Eighties. Played with Springsteen, Clapton, and sat in with Toto and Steely Dan once or twice. In fact he played with just about anybody who was anybody. Died, in ’84.’
‘And this was his guitar?’ Marie said sceptically.
‘He put his own band together, 1983 I think it was, and came to London. The guitar was stolen at Heathrow. I remember the sensation it caused at the time, because Eddie just turned tail and flew back to the States, claiming he couldn’t play without that guitar. The promoters were furious. They lost a bundle on refunds because he was such a big draw. I think one of them even tried to sue him. But events overtook him and the rumours started to fly. When he was playing he did some black magic schtick in his act and when he died people started claiming that he was cursed and it was all for real… you know what the publicity machine is like when it gets into gear.’
‘I see you’ve found something you like.’
Jeff and Marie turned, startled, to see the lilac rinse standing in the doorway. Jeff wondered how long she’d been standing there and how much had she’d heard.
‘I like this,’ he said. ‘Though I can’t see a price anywhere.’
‘It’s rather expensive,’ the woman said. ‘I couldn’t take less than two hundred for it.’
Jeff’s heart skipped a beat or two, but his face remained impassive, giving nothing away. The guitar was worth ten times that, probably more. ‘Do you know its history?’ he said.
The woman shook her lilac hair. ‘I’m afraid not. My husband bought that one in, and he’s been dead these last two years. I run this place as best I can, but I haven’t a tenth of the knowledge he had. Lovely man, and so clever.’
‘And you wouldn’t let it go for less than two hundred.’
‘Jeff,’ Marie said warningly.
‘I could perhaps go to a hundred and seventy five,’ the woman said, seeing the set of Marie’s face and fearing the loss of a sale.
‘Done,’ Jeff said, and avoided Marie’s glare, until they got home.
The burning dust on the valves of the amplifier gave off a reassuringly acrid smell as Jeff switched it on and waited for it to warm up. The Vox AC30, probably of the finest valve amplifiers ever made. Small – about the size of a large suitcase – but powerful. The Beatles used them at Shea Stadium, and you didn’t need a finer recommendation than that. And now he, Jeff Goldman, was about to play Eddie Bond’s infamous silver guitar through it. The whole thing had an element of fantasy, like a dream come true, only he could have never dreamt up anything so wild.
He strapped up the guitar, slung it over his shoulder, and reached for the red coiled lead snaking out from the amplifier.
‘Are you going to play that thing now?’ Marie asked, as she came into the room.
‘That was the plan.’
‘Then I’m going into town as I don’t think my eardrums will take the strain.’
Before the front door had closed behind her, he was wired into the amplifier. He checked the volume level and decided that, as they lived in a semi-detached house and the neighbours were out at work, he could afford the luxury of a couple more notches on the dial. ‘All the way to eleven,’ he muttered, and grinned at his own personal Spinal Tap moment.
He felt the surge of adrenaline as it flowed through his veins. Just standing here, holding the guitar was enough to give him a buzz. Playing it would be something else. He gripped the neck, placed his fingers on the fret board, gripped the plectrum between his thumb and forefinger, took a breath, and hit a power chord.
The resulting sound nearly made his ears bleed. He was convinced he saw the amplifier lift an inch from the floor as the power surged through it. ‘Jesus Christ!’ he said to himself, listening to his own voice, just to prove that he could still hear something. He reached across to the amp and turned the volume down. He knew the pickups had been custom wound, but he couldn’t believe such power was possible from a guitar, any guitar.
He started again at a more tolerable volume. Scales at first, just to limber up his fingers, but he was soon surprised to find they didn’t need any limbering, despite being redundant for five years. He found each note accurately and quickly, his fingers moving across the strings with a fluidity he’d never before experienced. He couldn’t remember it ever being this good, or this easy. It was as if he could feel Eddie Bond in the room with him, guiding his fingers, showing him the way around the guitar, the dexterity and delicacy needed to get the sweetest sounds from the instrument.
He lost himself in the music and it was two hours later that he stopped. He un-strapped the guitar and went out to the kitchen to get himself a drink of water. His shirt was soaked with sweat, clinging to his back, and his hair was damp, falling down in a crow’s-wing across his forehead. He took a glass from the drainer, but as he reached out for the tap he stopped and stared down at his hand. The tips of his fingers on his left hand were bleeding.
He turned on the tap and held the digits under the flow to wash the blood away. He swore. There was bound to be blood all over the fret board. He opened the cupboard under the sink and after a short search emerged with a duster. He needed to clean the neck of the guitar before the blood could do any damage.
He wasn’t sure what damage blood could do to ebony but he was taking no chances.
He went back to the lounge and across to where he’d left the guitar, leaning up against the couch. He sat down on the couch, laid the guitar across his knees and inspected the fret board minutely. At first he was puzzled, the ebony was dry, not even any sweat-stains. His stinging fingertips told him they had been bleeding for some time, and yet there wasn’t a smear of blood on the jet-black wood. And then he saw it. A small bead of blood up by the fifth fret, less than the size of a pin head. He picked up the duster to wipe it away but, even as he raised the duster, the bead vanished. Evaporated? He shook his head. No, it was as if the blood had just soaked into the wood, been absorbed. He bent closer to inspect the spot where the blood had been, but the wood was dry. Bone dry. He wiped the neck of the guitar with the duster anyway and laid the instrument back in its case.
The last rays of a dying sun trickled in through the window and played on the silver surface of the guitar as it lay in its case. The instrument glowed like warm honey, more gold now than silver. Jeff sat for a moment, content just to sit and admire the workmanship of the engraving.
The sound of the key in the door startled him and broke his reverie, but for a moment he’d been convinced that the engraving had come to life, that the vine leaves were rippling as though caught in a breeze, whilst the snakes slithered around them. Marie’s voice from the hall calling hello broke the spell entirely and he reached across flipping the lid of the case shut.
You look hot,’ Marie said as she breezed into the room.
Jeff stared at her in disbelief. Her hair, her lovely copper hair that had curled to her shoulders, had been cropped short, like a boy’s. She stroked her near-naked neck self-consciously and said, ‘Do you like it?’
He could feel a dark surge of anger swelling inside him. She’d had her hair shorn to spite him, he was certain. ‘No, I don’t like it,’ he said, his voice tightly controlled. ‘I don’t like it at all. Why didn’t you tell me you were going to get it cut like that? I would have stopped you. I like my chicks’ hair long, long and wild.’
Marie looked crestfallen. Chicks? Long and wild? Whatever was happening to him? ‘It was supposed to be a surprise. I thought you’d like it.’
Jeff sprang to his feet and gripped her shoulders, bringing his face to within inches of hers. ‘You thought...You thought,’ he said mockingly. ‘That’s the trouble with you, you stupid cow. You don’t think. You never think!’ He pushed her roughly to one side and stormed from the room.
Marie stood shaken in the middle of the floor. In all their years of marriage Jeff had never spoken to her like that. He rarely ever lost his temper. She brushed a tear away from her eyes. She was about to run after him when she heard the front door slam and his car screech off the drive. Instead she collapsed onto the couch, buried her face in her hands and cried.
Jeff had begun to smell.
He’d stopped shaving a week ago and dark stubble hung on his chin like a layer of soot. Marie suspected he’d stopped washing at about the same time. Nor had he been to work, and it wouldn’t be long before the bank grew tired of his excuses about being sick and took some disciplinary action. What if they suspended him without pay? Or worse still, sacked him? She had her own job in town as secretary to a firm of solicitors, but her salary barely covered the mortgage payments. If Jeff lost his job they might keep the house, but they wouldn’t be able to eat.
The only thing Jeff did now was to stand in the lounge, strapped to that bloody electric guitar and play it all day. He had changed, since he’d bought that guitar – changed out of all recognition. But then so had his guitar playing. She had never heard him play so well. It was almost inspired.
Inspired or not, the man she had married was no longer present, and if that was the price for being a brilliant guitarist then it was a price she wasn’t prepared to pay.
That morning she tried to reason with him again, pleading with him stop to playing the guitar and go back to work. She walked out of the house when he raised the guitar like an axe above his head, certain he was going to hit her.
Jeff switched on the amplifier and started to play. There was something niggling at the back of his mind, something about Marie. He vaguely remembered her being in the room with him. Had they rowed? He couldn’t say. His thoughts were fuzzy. Trying to recall what had passed between them was like trying to pin down a dream.
He called her name but the house was silent except for the sound of his playing. He should go and find her. If only to satisfy himself that she was all right. He stopped playing and tried to lift the guitar from his shoulder, but it wouldn’t budge. The strap was caught somewhere behind him, perhaps snagging on his shirt. He yanked at it and yelped in pain.
It felt as if someone had torn a strip of skin from his back. He reached behind him, his fingers tracing the line of the smooth leather. But leather was not all he felt. The polished leather merged with his skin. The material of his shirt had gone completely. Now there was only leather and skin, bonded, as one.
He started to shake, and he was sweating. He couldn’t remove the strap. It was now part of him. He tried uncoupling it at the guitar, but the strap buttons had transformed themselves into razor-sharp discs and all he succeeded in doing was slicing his fingers to ribbons. The blood from the cuts dripped onto the guitar, and even as the drops landed they were absorbed into the silver. And all the engravings were truly alive now. He could hear the vine leaves rustling, hear the hiss of the snakes as they twisted and writhed. He gripped the body of the guitar trying to wrench it free, but his fingers were like putty, and the silver body of the instrument yielded to his touch, soft and malleable.
One by one the strings started to snap, the bottom E string lashing upwards and twisting around his throat, the D and G strings coiling about his wrists, their needle sharp ends burrowing beneath his skin, searching out the veins. With a sound like the wind whistling through the eaves of the house, the other strings flailed and lashed about him, bonding him to the guitar. The ebony neck and silver body of the instrument were growing softer still, moulding themselves against his form as his skin and flesh melted like hot cheese to accommodate them.
He started to scream, but his voice had an electric, metallic ring and the scream became a perfect C minor chord.
Marie slid her key into the front door lock. There was music coming from inside the house – guitar music, a sweet beguiling sound. She closed the door quietly behind her and stood in the hallway listening. She couldn’t ever remember hearing anything so beautiful, and even though she was eager to confront her husband, to get this rift healed, for the moment all she wanted to do was to stand there and listen.
The piece moved on, heavier chords being brought to bear on the melody. A repetitive bass riff thrumming through the house, at once making her head throb and her stomach hollow. The sound deepened further, the earlier sweetness gone, replaced by a deep, hypnotic pulse. She was drawn towards the door of the lounge from where the music issued. As she drew closer she was suddenly frightened. She didn’t want to go into that room.
The pace of the music was increasing, high treble notes keening out, piercing her eardrums, driving into her brain like hot needles. Her feet were moving, one in front of the other, each step bringing her closer to the lounge door. Nausea swept over her in thick dark waves, as the rhythm of the music quickened. Excited now, excited and insistent. She reached out to the door and, as it opened slowly, she screwed her eyes tightly shut, not wanting to see what was in that room. But sharp staccato notes battered against her closed lids, forcing her to open them.
She opened her eyes and saw the thing in the middle of the room.
An abomination of ebony and skin, of silver and bone.
From its centre, snaking out like a red umbilical cord was the lead to the amplifier, and the amplifier itself was juddering, bucking as wave after wave of obscene sound coursed through it.
The thing that was once her husband turned and looked at her with glowing silver eyes. A clawed metal hand was poised above strings made from strips of skin.
‘A song for you, Marie,’ the thing sung out in a harsh, discordant voice. ‘Just for you.’
And then the hand swept down for one last power chord and Marie’s world exploded in a chorus of scarlet and black.
He’s standing, marooned in a space of swaying mists and strange noises. The air around him is heavy as though he’s in the middle of an ocean. A far-off creature is trying to communicate with weak mewing sounds. He thinks of dolphins twirling in slow motion. The light has a translucent quality; a creamy silk that murmurs softly as it ebbs and flows. He is considering whether to immerse himself deeper into this hypnotic and welcoming environment when a sharp sound pierces the milky air. He recognises it as a human voice; harsh and guttural. It’s distant and he can’t make out the words. Is someone calling him? There’s a vibration somewhere inside his body; his chest; his throat. The sounds are closing; getting near. A shout startles him.
It’s him; he’s screaming; pleading. Suddenly alert and… afraid, his bottom lip trembles. He resents this unexpected wrench from comfort and softness. More noises. He’s grunting; gasping; panting.
‘Not me, Jack,’ he shrieks.
His words seem to break the air and the fog begins to clear. He puffs experimentally and his breath dissolves more of the haze. Bright colours and jagged shapes begin to form. He blinks. He considers slapping his face to wake from this nightmare, but he can’t move his arms. He can shake his head and sense the far reaches of his body, but they are detached from his thinking and will not be commanded. Dark, rectangular forms with bright yellow lights and flashes of red, flow in and out of focus in time with his heartbeat. Stop. He holds his breath and clamps his lips to halt his pulsing body and allow the scene to emerge. He can see now. He’s in a street; a city street. It’s dark and neon lights shimmer on the wet pavement. He’s standing in front of a building. It looks like a restaurant. The letters above the doorway glow, big and bold, “La Bella Vita”.
He looks down at his feet. They’re moving; slowly; edging towards the doorway, scuffing the tarmac on the road. Highly-polished, black shoes surprise him. He lifts his head and gazes at the scene. No traffic; no people; and the only lights in the street come from the restaurant. It must be late; the small hours of the morning. He has assumed it’s a restaurant, but the garish display of neon and the sly, almost apologetic doorway suggests that it may be a sort of night club; one that teeters on the edge of what’s legal and decent. There’s something about the door that disturbs him. He’s not sure he wants to go there, but his legs appear to be controlled by some external force and take him closer.
He arrives there, stops and considers whether he should knock before entering. He lifts his hand, then stiffens with indecision. The door opens, his legs move and he’s inside with his hand fixed in a gesture that may be taken as a greeting – or a farewell. He waves his hand weakly, then drops it quickly to his side. The place is packed – and enormous. As far as he can see there are large circular dining tables ringed with finely-dressed men and women. The jewels at ladies’ throats glitter and white dress shirts gleam under men’s dark moustaches and slick, black hair. There don’t appear to be any empty seats. The space is silent and he realises that a hum of conversation has ceased and thousands of faces are staring at him. A few hands wave greetings, mocking his involuntary hand movements. A sense of unease deepens. He flinches and steps back in alarm as a man appears at his side with a clipboard tucked under one arm.
‘You’re late, you inconsiderate bastard,’ the clipboard man exclaims in disdainful voice.
‘Late – late for what?’
The maître d’, for that is what he presumes the man must be, tosses his head and consults his clipboard.
‘What – my name? Surely you have that if you know I’m late?’ He realises, with a growing sense of alarm, that he doesn’t remember his name. He thinks ‘Fred’ is familiar, but he can’t be sure. Or was it ‘Jack’? No, he was talking to Jack only moments before – wasn’t he?
The maître d’ huffs, replaces the clipboard under his arm, says, ‘That’s all we need; another clever dick,’ and marches off. He watches him open-mouthed as he edges and swivels his way between the tables, head erect and unspeaking as he merges into the confusion of tables and people in the far distance.
Unsettled by this strange confrontation, he shuffles his feet and tries to put a hand in his pocket. There’s nothing there. He examines his clothes and is startled to find that he’s wearing a black dinner suit with velvet insets where the pockets should be. He moves a hand to his neck and discovers a bow tie, soft to the touch. The scene before him has vaulted from mute inactivity to bustling and animated conversation. Waiters have appeared and circulate among the tables. No one pays him any attention; their common interest in his entry quickly forgotten. Emotions of panic, wonderment and embarrassment mingle in his thoughts, vying for supremacy. He can’t stay rooted to the spot to become an object of ridicule. He considers edging backwards and making an exit, but wonderment wins out and he gapes at the tableau that confronts him. He reckons this place is as big as a football pitch; and maybe bigger. It doesn’t fit with the frontage. Raucous laughter breaks out at a nearby table and he hears a man shout ‘chicken’ above the growing thrum and buzz of voices.
A flash of turquoise and yellow interrupts his gaze. A blonde in a shimmering long dress is weaving her way through the tables in his direction. She lifts her head, their eyes meet and he knows that he is her intended target. He prepares for the encounter.
‘Hello, I’m Giselle, your escort. I’m so sorry that I wasn’t here to greet you as you entered.’
She overwhelms his senses; her stunning beauty, floral scent and musical tone of speech prickles the hairs on his neck. Her bright red lips pout and she kisses him lightly on the cheek. He manages this engagement with some style, but there is an awkwardness as he withdraws before the second kiss. He lunges forward with his alternate cheek too heavily and deals her a glancing blow to the jaw. She rubs the side of her face feelingly. He curses inwardly. He should have known from her exotic name that a continental greeting would be required.
‘Thank you, thank you and please excuse my clumsiness. Do we, er… know each other?’
‘Giselle... it’s a charming name.’
‘Thank you, and how shall I refer to you?’
‘You mean my name?’
‘Oh, are you sure?’
He’s not at all certain that it’s Fred, but to admit not knowing would be a poor start to their relationship and he’s determined to make a good impression on this lovely woman. He hesitates, weighing up the pros and cons of his next question. He tosses a metaphorical coin in his mind and it results in a head, but it’s not the head he was expecting. Instead of Queen Elizabeth the Second, he sees an ugly, gargoyle-like creature with an inane grin. He decides on the best of three. The same head again. The decision is made.
‘Do you know me by another name, perhaps?’
‘No, it’s simply that I was expecting something more fitting to your dashing figure and handsome face. Fred is a little… downmarket for my taste.’
He feels the heat rise in his neck from this unexpected and fulsome compliment. He mustn’t disappoint her.
‘Ah, you’ve found me out. My real name is James, James Bend - erling.’
‘That’s better, much better. Shall we take our seats, James?’
‘Why not, please lead the way.’ He has a sense of relief at the way he was quick to overcome a too-obvious response to her flattery. The surname has a Germanic feel which he thinks adds a touch of mystery and ‘James’ is a classy standby. He’s also intrigued by the reference to herself as his ‘escort’ and wonders if this is some elaborate surprise party. Is he drunk or deviously drugged by a group of friends on this, his stag night? He’s heard of a drug called Ritalin used on date rapes. That could explain his memory lapse and the strangeness of the occasion. His panic subsides a little as these thoughts take a firm hold and he begins to fantasise about Giselle as his ‘gift’ for the night. He fixes his eyes on her swaying hips and imagines her doing a striptease. Whoever he is, it appears that he has thoughtful and discerning friends. But who are these hundreds and maybe thousands of faces he doesn’t recognise? Surely, he doesn’t know this many people… unless he’s famous… a celebrity? And why was the maître d’ so rude? Doubt causes him to stop. Giselle turns, clicks her tongue at his wavering, then takes his hand and leads him to a table with two empty seats.
Their table is about five back from the doorway and to one side. It’s not central and doesn’t appear to be a table singled out for the guest of honour. He takes the seat next to Giselle. On his other side is a fat man in a dinner suit. A napkin tucked into the neck of his shirt is catching the grease and gravy from an outsized plate of meaty stew, which he’s attacking with a small, plastic spoon. Another ten men and five women complete the seating at his table, all of them attired in evening dress. They’re a mixed lot; a couple of young men in their teens or early twenties, half a dozen men of middle years and two older ones. One of the women is young and attractive, but the others are elderly. None of them have acknowledged his arrival with a greeting, although one wizened old woman is staring at him with an open mouth displaying an incomplete array of blackened stumps. Two of the men are engaged in a lively conversation, three women are peering at a notebook or diary, while the others are either eating or sitting mutely by empty plates. None seem ready to engage with James, so he returns to Giselle.
‘What’s the occasion?’
‘Isn’t this all for a particular event?’
‘That’s very perceptive, James. You’re getting the hang of things quite quickly. It’s to mark a passing to another state.’
James thinks that the word ‘passing’ is an odd one, but it more-or-less fits with his idea that it’s a stag party to observe the closing pages of his status as a bachelor. He was late for some unknown reason, but they waited for his arrival before serving, so reckons he must be the focus of this extravagant bash. Giselle places her hand on his and he takes this as a sign of reassurance that he can pursue a more intimate line of questioning.
‘What exactly are the duties of an escort at an event such as this?’
‘I’m here to help you, James. I understand that you will be confused and have many questions about your situation. I’m here to answer those questions, but it’s up to you to pose them. I’m not allowed to simply explain everything, unless your thinking is totally scrambled and you’re too dim to pick up on the hints.’
He doesn’t like her reference to him being dim, but overall James is encouraged further by this explanation and figures that this is some sort of game. His friends will be watching to see how quickly the mist clears and it all clicks into place. Maybe this is all being filmed, so they can all have a good laugh at his expense after the wedding. Emboldened in his thinking, he leans towards Giselle, cups his hand under a breast and aims a kiss at an alluring area of flesh under her ear lobe.
She recoils in alarm and slaps his face. ‘No, that’s not appropriate – not here.’
He rolls his tongue around the inside of his mouth and strokes a hand over the slapped area. He felt the impact, but there’s no heat or sting. ‘Isn’t this my stag do? Aren’t you the stripper?’
‘My, you are confused.’ She shakes her head and puffs her cheeks at his stupidity. ‘Think again, James. Does this strike you as the type of cheerfully vulgar occasion you suggest?’
This is a serious setback. He was so sure he was on the right lines. He’s deflated and not sure what other line of questioning to pursue.
‘Look, this is so weird and I am having trouble remembering why I’m here. Is it… Am I dreaming?’
‘Closer, but no this is no dream.’
He feels a tightness in his chest; drumming in his ears; panic is returning; breathing is shallow and quick. What is he to make of her abrupt rejection of playful intimacy, and how can a dream be nearer the truth than his stag party? Desperation shows in the tentative and stuttering attempt at his next question.
‘Wha… what is this place and… and why have I lost my mem… memory?’
‘Ah, that’s more like it. As to the place, most entrants have difficulty understanding and there’s no easy way to describe it other than a way-station on your travels to another place. The ancients had words for it, but their knowledge was fragmentary and incomplete. If you follow one of the established religions you may have heard of Gehenna, Barzakh, Purgatory or Limbo.’
Mention of Limbo conjures an image of a dark-skinned and bikini-clad beauty bending impossibly low with athletic grace under a pole on a Caribbean beach. He dismisses this association as nonsensical. What was the other word he recognised?
‘Purg… purgatory, but… but that means…’
‘Exactly - you are dead; deceased; unliving; in a condition that is not life as you would understand it.’