Sunday, 5 October 2008

Vampire Story: Neck on the Line

I wrote this short story a few years ago after I had been told that the Open University's distance learning creative writing course was not going to allow certain types of fiction to be submitted by students. The three genres they ruled out were science fiction, vampire stories and romantic fiction. Instead they had a big emphasis on 'life writing' which is basically writing about yourself and your experiences. I found that ironic as I had seen terrible examples of life writing over the years, but also know that there was good writing under the headings of the other three genres. Fortunately they apparently backed away from ruling out certain genres, something I think was very sensible as there is good and bad writing in every genre.

I took my life writing and brought it here. However, reflecting on 'Ultraviolet' recently I remembered this story, which on reflection was quite heavily influenced by it. Some of the background to this vampire story comes from my time in the East End of London and seeing how manipulated and exploited so many people are there. I have also come to realise that this story was influenced by the very bleak movie 'Raining Stones' (1993) directed by Ken Loach which has a plot regarding loan sharks.

This story as it turned out made me feel uneasy for two reasons. The first is, I seem to be making light of the bitter experiences of people in debt in East London. The second is that all the vampires are Romanian which fits with the classic view of vampires, but I felt it was wrong to suggest that immigrants from Eastern Europe are in anyway evil. In fact, as you can see, the local Britons are equally as bad as the vampires. Ironically, at the time I wrote this story immigration from that region to East London was rare, but has stepped up in the intervening years. Acknowledging those flaws, I present this story. Please forgive the naff title.

Neck on the Line

Steve drained the last cold, bitter remnants of his coffee from his West Ham mug. He twisted around to glance out the kitchen window, but the sun had disappeared from sight even in the gap between the two tower blocks. Steve stood up and walked to the sink to wash up the mug. However much he tried to forget it, he knew the time was passing and there was nothing he could do to delay or avoid the coming confrontation. He was so glad Jill and the boys had got away, Alison too. He had handed them over to Ian in the pub. Steve knew Ian would have passed them on to someone else and they to someone else in turn. He had had to trust people he did not know, that he could not know, for the safety of his family. Not for the first time he worried that he had simply given them to people just as bad as those he was about to face. Ian was a tough man though, he had to be to run a pub round here, but Steve felt a pang of guilt as he knew that they could get on to Ian through him.

Steve wished he could run himself, but knew he had to stay here to turn up for work. That was the only thing that could bring in money enough for the essentials. If he could put in enough double shifts then maybe he could clear at least some of the debts, stop the electricity being cut off before Christmas. He kept that faith, if he stayed out of trouble, worked hard, then things would eventually be alright. Steve knew that decent folk did not go under, they struggled and they won. Working for your family, for the kids, for their future, that was what made it worthwhile, that was what gave him his purpose. Without Jill and the boys, where would he be, who would he be?

Steve windmilled his arms in an attempt to relieve the pressure he felt in his neck and shoulders. He returned to his chair in the small living room. All the furniture was still lined up to face the space where the television had been. No-one dare put anything on Its stand, as if doing so would prevent it coming back. Steve glanced at the local free paper for the thousandth time, then slung it back on the threadbare couch. Finally he gave in and pulled out one of his last two cigarettes. He lit it slowly then inhaled deeply, filling his lungs as much as he could, squeezing out every last drop from the tobacco. He held the smoke in as long as he could before savouring every moment of it. He inhaled again, cursing himself, certain that Ozera and the others would come before he had finished it. His ears strained in vain to hear their footsteps coming along the gantry. Darkness had ended the noise of the kids playing down below had gone and the junkies, their dealers and the muggers who took over were all a quiet bunch. It was too early for the car alarms and the only sounds were muted television voices through the walls.

Finally Steve reached the filter and stubbed it into the ashtray. He was as ready as he could be. He closed his eyes, the light showing red through his lids. Then the knock came. He stood slowly and walked to the front door. He could see Ozera’s familiar outline through the door’s frosted glass. Slowly he turned the knob. For an instant he was tempted to lock it, but, he knew what Ozera’s heavy, Aurel, was capable of. He could not only stove the door in, but wrench the frame away in moments.

Steve opened the door without bothering to speak. Since the first time he had let Ozera in, he knew he had no other chance to refuse him. Steve returned to the living room, with the three of them following. Violeta came last and closing the front door behind her. Back in his chair Steve tried to focus on the here and now, so that Ozera could only pick up concerns about the worn carpet, or the damp wall, rather than anything which could compromise the plan.

“Mr. Ozera, good to see you.”

“Steve, yes, always a pleasure.” Ozera said as he sat on the couch, Violeta beside him.

Ozera knew a suit would stand out on this estate, so favoured a black shirt and expensive jeans over smart slip-ons. Maybe the leather coat was a bit much, but in the poor lighting on the stairwells it looked no better than one from the market. He was a tall, thin man with sharp features and eyes that seemed unnatural.

“So, Violeta, remind us how much Mr. Ashton owes us.”

Violeta handled Ozera’s accounts. She looked like she was in her mid-twenties. Originally she had favoured long skirts and riding jackets, but she too had soon adapted and her maroon leather three-quarter length coat over the jeans and spike boots would not have looked out of place up the Hackney Empire on a Saturday. Violeta swept her unruly black hair back from her face before consulting the small screen which filled her hand. It was all a ritual, Steve knew she knew every account by heart, but many of his neighbours would argue if it was not written down.

“Mr. Ashton borrowed £200 last June and another £120 in November. That equates to sixteen visits from us, this being the eleventh.”

“Ah, right.” Ozera nodded. “And today, who will feed us?”

“Erm.” Steve hesitated, though he had rehearsed it, now his fears were tripping him up.

“Jill and the boys, they’re not here. Are they coming back this evening?” Ozera asked, leaning forward. “Or has Alison come home? I’ve always liked your daughter Mr. Ashton, it was a pity she ran off.”

“Erm, no.”

“You’re not going to fob us off with that junkie, the one you pretended was your cousin. You’re better than that Steve. Nor your nephew, Paul, we don’t have the taste for anyone with HIV even if he’s ignorant of the fact.”

That last remark caught Steve off guard. He had worried about Paul, but now realised how much trouble he was in. He guessed he had got it off that slapper, Janie. This was not going to plan. He stood up and walked into the kitchen. He switched on the light as planned and fumbled with the coffee making things.

“So, who supplies us? We’re hungry.” Ozera’s voice was firm, insistent but without a trace of concern.

“It’s me, Ozera, this time it’s me.” Self consciously he fingered the scars on his neck, not opened since before the new year.

“Can you feed all three of us? I don’t want you sick for work, that would do you no good.”

“I can take it.” The kettle boiled and Steve poured the water on the coffee powder, mixing in a couple of sachets of sugar he had pocketed in the cafĂ© in the shopping centre earlier in the day.

Steve switched off the light then walked back into the living room. He put the coffee down.

“Forgot the spoon.” Steve muttered and popped back into the kitchen, switching on the light again and picked up the spoon from the side where he had left it.

Steve returned to the living room where the three others were waiting, Ozera and Violeta on the couch, Aurel in his usual place by the door. Steve glanced over at the big man with his arms folded. Not for the first time, Steve remembered a description his mother had used to describe someone similar: ‘looks like a stevedore on a half-holiday’, that mix of strength, restraint but also a consciousness of a set amount of time passing. Steve watched his hand as if entranced as it rotated his spoon in his cup even though the sugar had long dissolved.

Ozera seemed to be aware that something was happening, that Steve was marking time. “Are you ready?” He asked, with a hint of urgency in his voice. “You know the agreement. Surely our way is better than turning to a shark like Alec Walker. Would you prefer that, the way it is over on the Seacourt?”

Steve made no effort to respond. Then there was the sound of the front door banging against the hallway wall and the stamping of feet, one, two, three, four pairs. The noise reverberated through the small flat. Steve looked up to see Aurel pushed up against the window by Ian and some stocky man he did not recognise who seemed to be lashing chains around him. Dan had his arm crooked locking Violeta’s head against his body as if she was a wrestling opponent, and ‘Essex’ John was advancing on Ozera with a stubby but substantial slice of wood he had got them from the Sunday market.

Ozera turned to look at Steve and gave that smile, that seemed to say everything could be sorted out even now. “Steve.” He said softly.

Steve felt that weakness take him, the sense that what ever Ozera said made perfect sense, was the right option, the one he should choose.

“Ste…” Ozera’s voice was cut off as ‘Essex’ John lunged at him. The wood barely punctured his leather coat, and Ozera batted John away with the back of his hand.

Suddenly the flat was filled with a howl of wind and dust. Dan grinned broadly as his own wooden spike penetrated Violeta’s flesh and she disintegrated into a swirling mass of ashes. Unfilled her clothes fell to the floor. Dan stood over them triumphantly. He was the expert in this, apparently had killed many this way when he was growing up in Poland or Romania or wherever he came from.

Aurel howled in frustration. Ian had stripped the thick jacket so it pinned his arms and the man with him was stabbing frantically into Aurel’s chest but leaving only dry, dark puncture wounds. Dan stepped up behind him and putting his own hand over the end of the spike thrust it deeply into Aurel’s flesh. Aurel gasped but no sound came from his throat now and in moments, he was no more than the dusty mess that Violeta had become.

Ozera now tried to scrabble for the door, but he was outnumbered. He did not bother to shout out. Ian lashed his face with his fist and Steve kicked the back of Ozera’s knee, felling him. More practically Dan was pulling at his coat, exposing the thinner cloth of his shirt below, opening up a slot for the attack. This time John was ready and stabbed down with a real glow of satisfaction of his face. The five men watched as Ozera’s features seemed to fade and in moments, there was no sense that he had ever had a physical form.

The room was covered in dust, abandoned clothes lying around on the floor. Steve quickly rifled through what Ozera had been wearing, but most of it was ruined, it looked like it had been burned from the inside. Little remained of Ozera’s once fat wallet and even the coins in his pocket had fused and were hot to touch. The other men were equally frustrated sifting the remains. Disappointment was soon apparent on the men’s faces, the pickings they had expected seemed to have gone with their owners.

Steve slumped back on the couch kicking aside Ozera’s charred coat. He heard a coughing and looked up to see a slim, well-dressed man walked in.

“Alec.” Ian grunted.

“Ian.” Alec acknowledged. “Steve, a bit of a mess here.” His eyes ran around the room, not only at the piles of dust and clothing, but also at the curtains torn in the struggle with Aurel.

“Alec’s been looking after Jill and the kids while you were handling this.” Ian explained.

Steve was too dazed really to take in much and said nothing. He just watched the newcomer as he slowly walked around the room.

“Yes, they’re all doing fine. They’ll be back with you tomorrow, well Jill and the boys. I found a job for Alison, I’m sure she’ll enjoy it, she liked the outfit I kitted her out with. I could put some work Jill’s way if she wants, she’s not bad looking, your missus.”

“Yeah.” Steve said.

Dan had cracked open a couple of cans of beer, he handed one over to Steve who sipped the weak froth.

“Well, if you need some ready cash to get this place cleaned up, new curtains.” He tugged at one which was hanging from the broken rail. “You know where to come, my rates are reasonable.”

“Yeah.” Steve repeated. He drank deep from his can and watched Alec leave the flat.

Ian laughed weakly. “Things’ll soon be looking up, we’ve got that bastard Ozera off this estate. Come on, Steve lock up there’s a drink on the house for all of you.”

“Right, cheers, I’ll catch you down there Ian.” Steve said.

Not needing to be asked twice the other three followed Ian down to his pub, now noisier, boasting about what they had just achieved. Numbly Steve stood in the doorway and wondered if he had achieved anything. The first car alarm of the night started its wail.

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