“You see it was Paul who was the well-meaninged one. He had good intentions. It was the others who were self-obsessed, concerned about their image.”
As he spoke, my right hand reached across towards the wooden bowl and selected some of the choicest crisps. “Do you mean Paul from The Beatles?”
“The beetles? Who are they?”
“You know, The Beatles!”
“Do you mean the insects.”
“No, I thought you were talking about a band.”
“I’ve never heard of them.”
I suddenly grew quiet and started munching on the crisps trying to remain interested in the conversation. The crunching and chewing, of course, blocked out his monologue here and there. And so it went on…
“The life of an ascetic can sometimes do certain things to the human body. Deprive a man of food & water long enough & he’ll imagine all kinds of things. He’ll see an old man with a beard when he’s not even there, he’ll hear the voices of angels…”
“…when that happens these days they usually refer you to a specialist.” I interrupted now realising what the topic of conversation was about.
He paused and looked at me. I couldn’t tell if he was just genuinely curious or felt pity for me for some undefined reason. The silence became uncomfortable as he continued staring.
“What about the others?” I said suddenly, making some effort to break the silence.
“The others?” He replied unblinking. “What others?”
“Come on,” I said with a faint smile while struggling to remember something, anything, that had a biblical ring to it. “How can you put the figures of the church down like that? I mean, they wrote the gospels didn’t they? Just because they had long hair…”
“No, that came much later…” he continued. “Christ did not have long hair…”.
I breathed a sigh of relief as the old man reconnected with his thoughts and went back to staring deep into the past, rather than at me.
“…he was in fact a short man with dark, curly hair & had a closer resemblance to that of a Palestinian than…”
“…than a hippy from the sixties.” I interrupted.
“Yes. A hippy is somebody who is living an alternative lifestyle.”
“Oh, like a gypsy do you mean?”
“Kind of.” I said.
Growing restless and increasingly hungry, I sat thinking of a delicious dish my mother used to make me while desperately trying to put together a plan of escape. It was a Friday night and the last thing I needed at the end of my week was to waste my entire evening with some boring, old man. I had to think of a reasonable excuse. Something that didn’t look too hasty or rude. I waited for him to stop talking.
“Look, it’s been nice catching up with you. Shall I pick you up again for the toastmasters next week?”
I suddenly stood up realising, with such abruptness, that I’d failed to avoid my discourtesy. Without hesitation, I began to carefully slide the chair underneath the table. He sat quietly, with some amusement on his face, and appeared to be deep in thought when my stomach rumbled.
By the way he spoke, I couldn’t tell whether it was a question or an observation. Either way, it took me by surprise. He was definitely too far away to have heard my rumbling stomach. Knowing what the time was, I put it down purely as a coincidence before nodding.
“You like stroganoff?!”
Again, he uttered his words with a tone of ambiguity that perplexed me.
My eyes widened slightly as he mentioned the very dish I’d only just been thinking about and before I could answer, he stood up and walked over to one side of the room where a cabinet stood. He opened the lid of the cabinet and checked the turntable. I shook my head. No iPod then, I thought to myself, and watched him as he cranked the handle on the side several times and placed the needle onto the disk. Before I could say anything more, he quietly left me and went into the kitchen. I slowly pulled the chair out and sat back down, watching him through the doorway as he began to gather the ingredients for preparing the meal.
The scratchiness on the record suddenly gave way to a soft melody. With a sinking sensation, I began to feel my free Friday night slip away from me as yet another dutiful obligation took its place. I tried to listen & enjoy the music, but couldn’t stop feeling annoyed that it was my mother who volunteered me into this situation: driving this old guy about, accompanying him to the toastmasters. I mean he could be anybody?
Sure enough, old people look vulnerable & fragile but they all have pasts, don’t they? They can’t all have led cosy, gentle lives. I could be chauffeuring a retired thug all over town, somebody whose simply lost his strength to crack skulls or perhaps even a serial killer who never got caught? And with that past, I’ve become his designated driver and unpaid companion. This’ll look good on your school report, my mother said. Remember, you do get a grade for Citizenship, don’t you!
In the kitchen I watched him place the chicken pieces gently into the hot, oiled pan before he began peeling and chopping an onion. “Well, what do you think?”
“Sorry, what did you say?”
“The music? Do you like it?”
I listened to it for a little longer, it had an admixture of yearning, relaxation and nostalgia to it. “Yes, I do” I finally answered. “Who’s it by?”
“Field. This is one of his nocturnes. Do you like it?”
“Yes, I do.” I said once again.
His voice sounded distant & disembodied as it drifted through to me from the kitchen:
“It was Henry Field, an Irish composer, who broke through with this style of music. Field supposedly inspired Chopin to create his own nocturnes and some even say that Chopin perfected it, but I disagree. If you ever listen to Field’s music, you can tell that he’d already reached a level of perfection. How’s the wine?”
“Wine?” I moved my right hand slightly and felt the cold crystal brush against the back of my fingers. The finely-chiselled vessel rocked.
“Are you alright?”
“I think so!” I said with a hiss of exasperation. I gripped the delicate stem to steady it and squeezed it firmly. I knew by now that my experiences this evening were becoming less and less coincidental and more and more irrational, and was becoming increasingly unnerved by them. “I’m not sure if I can drink this, I’ll be driving home later!”
I watched him drop the raw onions into the pan with the browning chicken pieces. “One glass with a meal should be fine, it has the imperial measure! It’s difficult to find glasses like that nowadays. I can only get such things in antique shops now. You can’t go wrong with imperial measures, they guide our modesty and remind us of our responsibilities. Responsibilities towards ourselves and to others.”
He brought the meal out to me.
I looked at the tiny glass before I watched him place the dish down carefully with a folded napkin beside it. I unfolded the napkin and reached for the knife and fork tucked within as the exquisite aroma caught my nostrils. I resisted the desire to start scoffing down the food straightaway.
“What about you?” I asked him.
“What about me?”
“Aren’t you having something?”
“You go ahead, my friend, I’ll have something later.”
He walked away from the table and sat himself down on a sofa before reaching for a newspaper that was resting on a side table. He began quietly reading.
Wasting no more time, I started shovelling the food into my mouth. My tongue lolled about amongst the delicious flavours of the pan-fried chicken, paprika and sour cream sauce. I managed to get through half the plate when I noticed something odd about my host.
Tiny wisps of smoke hung in the air about him.
I finished my mouthful of food and looked to see if my host had lit a cigarette or something. There appeared to be no ashtray and both his hands were clutching the newspaper. I cast a glance down towards his feet and noticed there that the grey haze was more densely settled.
Concerned that he may have accidentally caught some of his clothing on the gas burner while cooking my meal, I asked him if he was alright and stood up to get a clearer view, only to find that the lower part of his left leg was completely missing…
* * * *
“… so that’s it! Well, some of it anyway!”
“That’s it?” I asked him incredulously.
“But, don’t you understand?”
“Understand what?” he replied.
“You’ve seen and done so much. Why would you want to do that? How long have you been around for?”
“Too long!” he answered while shaking his head sadly. “You cannot possibly change my mind over this matter.”
“How long have you been around?” I asked again.
He paused for a considerable moment before continuing. “A long, long time ago I was born in a place called Napoca. Back then I spoke a totally different language to what I speak now.”
“What language did you speak?”
“Nostrorum linguam tenetur incolis.”
“I didn’t understand what you just said?”
“No, that’s because it’s nearly a dead language. Very few speak it fluently anymore.”
“Look, earlier this evening I thought you were just some eccentric, old man and then I saw your leg just vanish and…” I trailed off, my eyes resting on the glass of wine that he’d served me earlier.
“I served you Chardonnay with your meal and no, in answer to your unasked question, the amount I gave you would not make you imagine seeing a foot disappear into a puff of smoke.”
“But to be able to do that is incredible. To have that physical ability…”
“…meta-physical. Not physical, Kevin!”
“See, you even know my name!” I looked at him with complete surprise.
“You introduced yourself at the toastmasters earlier this evening. That is how I know your name.”
Unfazed, I continued with my point. “But you know and you’ve seen so much, you can still do so much! What about your leg, then? The physics? To have the capability to do that!”
“I didn’t do it intentionally, Kevin, and that is my problem. What you see sitting before you, my friend, is a strigoiul so old that he is losing control of his meta-physical functions.”
“But what about everything you know? Everything you’ve seen? You could correct all the inaccurate histories ever written?”
“Lasting a very long time doesn’t qualify me to do that. I may have been around, but I haven’t participated in every event written about in history.” He sat in silence for a while before continuing. “All I want to do, my friend, is die!”
I shook my head in protest. “But you can’t do that!”
“I know I can’t. That’s why I need your help!”
* * * *
I walked through the cold, rainy night until I arrived at the school. From there I cut around until I reached the playing field behind it. It seemed completely dead. Looking away from the glow of the orange lights nearer the main buildings, I peered into the darker areas of the field where the light barely reached, letting my eyes grow accustomed to the dark. Gradually, I became aware of a thin, motionless pale figure almost completely shrouded in darkness. I walked towards it.
“Here…”, I said out of breath handing him the item. “This is what you need.”
He peered at the label on the side of the plastic bag and read the instructions. I watched the deeply-furrowed wrinkles in his face slowly change from all those endless years of utter doubt and despair into a sense of realisation and, finally relief.
“Where did you get this?” He finally asked.
“Off the internet.”
“The internet? What’s that?”
“That doesn’t matter now. In there is an old Chinese herbal remedy. I think this’ll work!”
“How much do I owe you for this?”
“Nothing! Even if I needed it, I couldn’t expect you to pay for this.”
His hands began to shake briefly. “Let me try it. You can leave me now.”
“Are you sure?”
“But shouldn’t I wait…?”
“No.” he said quietly but firmly. “You must leave now. I want you to walk away from here towards those trees and don’t look back. Keep your back to me. I don’t wish any harm to you, my friend. Promise me that?”
“Good, now go!”
“May I ask just one more thing?”
I paused as I fought to keep down a lump from gripping my throat. “What is your name?”
He paused for a moment before his eyes softened slightly. “I used to be called Vaclav. It’s an ordinary name where I came from. You won’t find me in any history book, Kevin. Not even in my home country. Now goodbye!”
I offered him my hand in farewell but he didn’t shake it. His face looked heavily preoccupied with his final task. I turned and began to walk away from him. Sensing his eyes on my back, I walked slowly as I listened to the sound of the plastic bag as he began to open it quickly. I slowed my pacing down. I heard him pause.
“Don’t stop or look back! Go straight home, Kevin!”
“I will. I promise.” I called out to him without turning around.
Feeling the lump returning in my throat, I quickened my pace towards the line of trees. Just as I got near them, in near-perfect silence, the whole area suddenly lit up in a brilliant white light. I looked at the line of trees with their leaves shimmering with the raindrops and then the light was gone…
Brad Evans was born in Sydney and is a writer who is living in the UK. His poetry and short stories have appeared in publications from various countries and has most recently appeared in Studio La Primitive and The Dawn Treader. A full-length book of his poems, and them and the jackals and the night, has also been published. Brad founded and edited the print and online publication Red Lamp, a journal of international poetry and organises poetry events on occasion.