Back in the early-90s I had a go at my first novel after achieving some modest success with a few short stories. What came out of me was Flying Saucer Rock ’n’ Roll, a gothic romance about a disillusioned New Age Traveller in the wake of the ‘Battle of the Beanfield’ at Stone Henge in 1985, which was pretty much me at that point:
I didn’t really know what I was doing and I never managed to sell it. I blew the dust off the manuscript a few years later when I was supposed to be writing my doctoral thesis, changing the point-of-view character to a mixed-race girl, and keeping the hippy elements of the original but losing the magic realism. I let it slide when my academic career took off, subsequently publishing a couple of reworked scenes as short stories. This is one of them, which was originally published in Birdsuit 11 edited by Christopher Reid and Andrea Holland in 2002, shortly before I moved to Japan. It’s a far cry from the stuff I write now, but I still have a bit of a soft spot for this one…
© Stephen Carver 2002
Terry Woodbine was waiting.
‘What are you waiting for Terry?’ people would ask, confused.
‘You’ll see,’ said Terry Woodbine.
Terry Woodbine was also listening.
‘What are you listening for Terry?’ they would inquire, genuinely interested.
‘Shhhh…’ said he.
‘But there’s nothing there,’ they would say, increasingly exasperated.
‘Exactly,’ he would reply, by way of an explanation.
Terry Woodbine likewise loved to watch. He watched and he waited, and he listened, and then he watched some more. Such was his occupation of choice, his raison d’être, his very paradise.
‘What are you looking for Terry?’ people would demand, not without a certain amount of irritation, and Terry Woodbine would just smile.
‘Them,’ he would always patiently answer, ‘from There.’
And that was that.
Terry had dragged an elderly yet surprisingly weather resistant vinyl armchair to the summit of the corporation flats in which we lived, using a system of pulleys and levers too complicated to adequately describe. Every clear night, and most of the cloudy ones, he would solemnly ascend with his flask of tea and his sandwiches, wipe the water from the slippery seat and he would sit and he would watch. The stars, mind, the estate lost its depth when Terry watched.
We’d met at little school and been mates ever since, a bond between us that you only get by sharing truly terrible experiences. Now I was at the City Collage taking ‘A’ levels and Terrance was signing-on.
Anyway, on this bright particular night I had decided to pay my friend a visit. I clambered uneasily up the drainpipe, docs scraping on post-war brickwork while I tried, unsuccessfully, not to look down.
‘Terry, for f—k’s sake!’ I complained, managing to get my leg up onto the mercifully flat roof.
I positioned myself opposite my weird friend and his stupid chair, squatting on the cold concrete. He nodded his greeting and gazed right through me. ‘Someone here needs professional help Tel, and it isn’t me.’ This was a standing joke.
‘But tonight’s special,’ he replied, although not obviously addressing me. ‘There are crop circles in Watton. Lot of activity reported in this area as well.’
‘Are you serious?’
‘Shhhh…’ Then he said, ‘Would you like a smoke?’
Now he was talking my language. Terry was still growing his own, filthy stuff, like his home-made wine, but it got you there. Well, it got you somewhere. He did this with the help of his mum who, ever impressed by her only child’s continued interest in horticulture, believed the crop to be tomatoes. I gathered he fraudulently presented her with shop-bought produce periodically, much as the adulterous husband conceals his afternoon infidelities with a large fish. That’s what my dad used to do, anyway.
He leaned forward and began to fumble with papers and the fine, flyaway contents of a crinkly brown paper bag. A sullen breeze intervened and after two or three attempts, about a sixteenth of the evil grass and some quite creative swearing, Terry, newly positioned like some predatory insect performing surgery, bent further forward and began again, using the inside of his lunch box as a windbreak. I stared vacantly out across the roof tops of the provincial council estate that was my world, moonlit and radiant in the otherwise strangely silent dark.
Terry spoke quietly as he rolled.
‘On the eve of a great battle on the night of September 24, in the year 1235,’ he began, ‘the Japanese Warlord General Yoritsume and his soldiers saw strange lights in the sky. These remained visible for several hours whilst performing the most unprecedented and unimaginable aerobatics. Yoritsume was not a superstitious man, and at first believing that this might be some new weapon in the rival clan’s possession he ordered his men to take up defensive positions around the camp. Yet nothing happened, and with the coming of the dawn the lights simply vanished. That day Yoritsume won his battle, and a captured officer who had been taken before he could commit sabuku told him, under torture naturally, that his enemies, too, had assumed the strange lights to be some secret weapon.’
Behind my friend, the dark folded, turned upside down and inside out, and began to glow a colour that has no name. I tried to get his attention, but could neither move nor speak, held, as I was, in a powerful invisible grip. The sensation was slightly stifling, yet not so very unpleasant. Oblivious of all but his spliff, Terry continued to talk.
‘Yoritsume consequently ordered the first recorded UFO investigation,’ he said.
The light was making something. Terry rolled laboriously and I stared on, as rigid and useless as a garden ornament on the flat grey surface. A giant frozen egg was growing in the distance, its diamond flash so bright it hurt. How is he not seeing this? I thought helplessly, though the light did not bounce so there was actually nothing for Terry to see from his angle, no wacky magic moonbeams dancing in the dark. The object strobed, dissolved and was reborn in a kind of bullet shape that suddenly shot straight up, perfectly vertical and totally silent, and was gone.
I felt my carcass relax.
‘After extensive research,’ Terry was saying, ‘the General’s experts eventually reported that the phenomenon was a result of “the wind making the stars sway.”’ Terry triumphantly struck a Swan Vesta and lit-up. ‘You never know,’ he said, ‘perhaps one night the stars might sway for us.’
I didn’t have the heart to tell him. Instead I gratefully accepted the offered joint and took an enormous drag, purely on medicinal grounds.
‘Keep watching the skies,’ I told him.
It was Terry that managed to convince me that there was a cult of vampirism infesting Norwich.
‘They found the corpse of a young woman on Mousehold Heath, man, drained of blood,’ he told me, ‘and on her breast’ – here he paused for effect – ‘two puncture wounds.’
‘I never heard that.’
Stoners have a theory about everything, and it was Terry’s thesis that the heart of the unutterable evil was located somewhere around the Eaton Golf Club. Dismissing the club house itself as too public, although not entirely out of the question, Terry considered the most likely lair to be somewhere within the uncharted network of medieval chalk workings that undermined much of the city. A bus even fell down one once, an image immediately appropriated to advertise chocolate. ‘Nothing fills a hole like a Double Decker’ ran the poster campaign. If you’re as old as me, you probably remember it.
The bus had gone down near us, but the chalk mines were equally hungry on the other side of town. A Chinese takeaway on Kett’s Hill had recently lived up to its name in a metonymic sort of way and been sucked up by one of these subterranean passageways. These could also be found in the wood between the children’s park and the perimeter of the golf course near us, and Terry inductively reasoned that the foul spawn of hell’s pit was using the tunnels to move unseen between caves under Mousehold Heath, which was close to Kett’s Hill, and Eaton Rise, the posh estate over the way from us.
‘But why don’t they just turn into bats and fly over the city?’ I had asked him, ever the pragmatist.
‘Get real,’ said Terry.
We hit the pit the next weekend, equipped with bicycle lamps, balls of string and plenty of grass. Inside an army and navy rucksack with a Hawkwind album cover painted on the flap, I carried what Terry had assured me was the ‘cutting edge of post-mortem technology.’ Even in the spring sunshine the overhanging trees made the clearing seem dank and dismal. Before us the tunnel entrance yawned like a great white vulva. With Terry on point, we cautiously entered the presumed domain of the living dead.
The tunnel was surprisingly spacious once you got a few hundred yards into it. There had been a plan to use these things as air raid shelters in the Second World War, and we passed several khaki camp beds, eerily well preserved in the silver light of our Ever Ready beams and the glow of the rippling white walls.
‘What’s that?’ said Terry, his eyes finding a mark on the wall of apparently intended design about seven feet up, ‘get up on my shoulders and have a Ghandi.’
‘Because you’re the agile one,’ he said, ‘and, anyway, you’re the lightest and,’ ever the gentleman, he concluded, ‘you’re a girl.’
Terry assumed the appropriate position and I scrabbled up onto his shoulders to peer at the runes carved deep into the chalk, palms flat on the cool surface for support.
‘Christ dudette, what have you trodden in?’
‘Probably bat shit.’
‘What’s it say? What’s it say?’ demanded Terry urgently.
‘Neil is a c—t,’ I said, quoting.
I felt Terry tense up beneath me. No doubt his eyes narrowed. ‘The undead,’ he whispered. ‘It’s clearly some sort of code. Get off, I’m coming up.’ We switched positions and Terry produced a micrometre and started measuring things, which is apparently what you do if you’re a paranormal investigator. I began to idly stick Rizla Greens together, torch shouldered like an office phone, while my friend wobbled above me. Rolling standing up in the dark was a trick I’d mastered at gigs, although generally speaking not with someone standing on my head. I lit up and passed the loose spliff up to Terry, who, after all that hard work, declined. ‘Not now,’ he said, ‘this is important.’
‘More for me,’ said I, then the rush caught me, my legs turned to noodles and I fell heavily.
Terry went flying, but hit the ground alert. It was a classic vampire hunter landing.
‘Who is that?’ A voice of authority, belonging to neither Terry nor myself, penetrated the echoes of my hysterical laughter. The Eastern European accent was unmistakable. We froze, eyes hard as pebbles scanning the shadows. A dark and cadaverous figure in a long black coat was rising from one of the camp beds, accompanied by a smell of rot not disguised by my private bonfire. Neither young nor old, he had sharp, Slavic features, long grey hair and dark, hypnotic eyes.
Terry brandished a plated crucifix. ‘Nosferatu,’ he hissed.
I wasn’t so sure. I mean, Bela Lugosi’s dead, right? But either way we needed an exit strategy sharpish, so still nervously smoking, I started trying to talk our way out of there.
‘You, girl,’ the shape interrupted, shuffling towards us, a long arm reaching, ‘what’s that you have there?’
My instincts already honed by years of subterfuge and paranoia, I automatically lied: ‘Culpepper’s Herbal Asthma Compound,’ I said, adding, ‘sir,’ as I retrieved my torch from the ground with something like a curtsy, shyly keeping the beam low.
‘You give me some,’ said the strange, quite frankly stinking creature. It wasn’t a request. I meekly surrendered the joint to the skeletal hand. He hoovered in some of Terry’s finest with a rattle and started to cough violently, which was a pretty normal response.
‘He’s vulnerable,’ cried Van Woodbine, ‘give me the holy water.’
Hands shaking, I fumbled in the bloody rucksack for the Fanta bottle we’d filled earlier from his mum’s vast supply of left-footer paraphernalia, stockpiled from visits to various shrines and gift shops all over the south-east. I finally found it and tossed it to my companion. Terry wrenched the cap off and promptly flung the contents of the bottle into the smoking man’s face.
It didn’t work the way it always did when Peter Cushing did it.
‘Hey!’ shouted the poor old dosser indignantly, water dripping from his thick grey stubble. ‘Do I invade your home and throw shit over you while you smoke, you vicious little pigs?’ He wiped his face with his hand and glared at us furiously.
Terry got his stake out.
‘Die, Prince of Darkness!’ he shouted, causing the man to take a couple of steps back in surprise. Seeing a gap, I grabbed the silly sod and started to retreat past the outraged vagrant while apologising profoundly. The poor bastard clearly had enough problems.
‘Run!’ I shouted, and we did. Behind us, a variety of words muddled yet interesting flew through the darkness like angry bats, clearly concluding with ‘…and shove it up your f—king arse!’
‘Probably an ancient Transylvanian curse,’ gasped Terry, still running, although we were by now well out into the woods and relative safety.
‘Must’ve been,’ I said, slowing down at last, until we collapsed, exhausted and giggling, into a pile of dry leaves, ‘he did look a bit Transylvanian.’
We had another smoke to steady our nerves and then called it a day. We scurried past the big detached houses until we reached the boarder of trees on the exclusive side of the Ipswich Road, the line of demarcation between Eaton Rise, the private suburb, and South Tuckswood, the council estate where we lived, finally ambling back to Terry’s cosy little flat on Watkin Road.
‘’Ay up,’ said his mum, putting the kettle on, ‘it’s Sapphire and Steel.’ (This was before The X-Files.) ‘What have you two been up to, then?’
‘We went for a tramp in the woods,’ I said.
And that evening, same as always, Terry climbed up onto the roof to watch and to wait for gods and monsters, and for the stars to start swaying.