OUT FOR THE COUNT

Having taken to my bed with a beastly chest infection in December 2012, I determined to conquer my fear of a book I had never finished.

At long last I can close the covers on Dracula. It has taken me fifty years to get beyond page fifty – the point at which I have twice had to abandon my efforts to complete Jonathan Harker’s Journal which takes up only the first four chapters.

Not frightening enough to put you off reading further, you think? Well, let me tell you, in my Irish Catholic family we were big on ghosts and horror stories. Indeed my mother claimed to have brought on the birth of one of my siblings who was reluctant to quit the womb, by reading horror stories in the loo late at night…
Bringing on the heebie-jeebies was one of her specialities.

Early one Sunday evening in the late 1950s I had been left to look after my younger siblings, while mum and dad stole a short break to attend Benedic- tion. The little ones were already in bed, asleep or reading – this was long before the advent of television in our house. I was sitting alone on a tall stool in our modern council house kitchen-diner, reading by the weak, late- summer sunlight, wrapt in clandestine fascination with Bram Stoker’s eponymous anti-hero.

‘When a couple of hours had passed I heard something stirring in the Counts room, something like a sharp wail quickly suppressed; and then came silence, deep, awful silence, which chilled me. With beating heart, I tried the door; but I was locked in my prison, and could do nothing. I sat down and simply cried.

I was not supposed to have taken the fragile 1913 edition from the book- shelves. In those days it was considered an adult read and I cannot have been much over 10 years old. As was the custom I had locked the back door so I knew I would have to time to hide it when my parents returned, which- ever entrance they used.

‘As I sat I heard a sound in the courtyard without – the agonised cry of a woman. I rushed to the window and, throwing it up, peered out between the bars. There indeed, was a woman with dishevelled hair, holding her hands over her heart as one distressed with running. She was leaning against a corner of the gateway. When she saw my face at the window she threw herself forward, and shouted with a voice laden with menace:- “Monster, give me my child!”

‘She threw herself on her knees, and raising up her hands, cried the same words in tones which wrung my heart.

Besides I knew they would probably stop for a ‘swift half’ at the pub on their way home. I would put away my guilty pleasure when it was time to turn on the light.

‘Then she tore her hair and beat her breast, and abandoned herself to all the violences of extravagant emotion. Finally, she threw herself forward, and, though I could not see her, I could hear the beating of her naked hands against the door.

‘Somewhere high overhead, probably on the tower, I heard the voice of the Count calling in his harsh, metallic whisper. His call seemed to be answered from far and wide by the howling of wolves. Before many minutes had passed a pack of them poured, like a pent- up dam when liberated, through the wide entrance into the courtyard.

‘There was no cry from the woman, and the howling of the wolves was but short. Before long they streamed away, licking their lips.’

Slowly I became aware of something obscuring the light from the fading sun. I glanced up, fearfully, from the yellowing pages. And there, pressed against the window panes, were the flattened features of two grotesques. I screeched and toppled from the stool; the book fell to the floor.

It was my beloved parents. Somehow they knew that I was engrossed in this forbidden text and this was their charming way of teaching me a lesson – and getting a laugh into the bargain. The sight would have been worth far more than £250 had it been caught on video, still waiting to be invented a quarter of a century away.

By the time I had unlocked the back door, they were in hysterics and I was ready to kill, but without a leg to stand on. How do you retaliate when your own god-fearing parents have scared the living daylights out of you, and caught you doing something you weren’t supposed to be?

It was another five years before I attempted the feat again. By now my fa- ther was working away from home, and as ‘the oldest man in the house’, I was expected to stay up and make sure all the doors were locked and win- dows closed when mother went to bed. We would enjoy our late evenings together, watching something improving – like the David Daiches TV series on English literature on our 12 inch black and white box TV – or chatting while mum did the ironing with the BBC Light Programme providing a musical background on the radio.

I confided that I had embarked on Stoker’s masterpiece once again, and we laughed at the memory of my Sunday evening shock. We made our way up- stairs where all was quiet. Mother had first use of the bathroom, and I re-
tired to the bedroom I shared with two younger brothers. The youngest slept in a bed at right angles to a set of bunks. I had the top bunk; my middle brother was fast asleep beneath me. I could not risk putting on a light so I had a torch stowed beneath my pillow for my venture back to Transylvania.

After my turn in the bathroom and a final “Goodnight, God bless” as my mother closed her bedroom door, I swung up into my comfy den, retrieved my torch and opened the fateful volume, this time a tattered paperback edition. I was already perilously close to the very segment when last I had abandoned the gothic horror. It was a thrilling moment. There was the di- sheveled woman again, leaning against a corner of the gateway, throwing herself forward to cry:

Monster, give me my child!
She threw herself on her knees, and raising up her hands, criedthe same words in tones which wrung my heart.

I recoiled as I read these words. recalling with a shiver and a smile that dreadful evening when my mind’s eye had first visualised this terrifying scene. But the image of the desperate woman that now came to me was that of my own mother whose agony I had witnessed when my youngest sister had been taken seriously ill as a tiny baby.

‘Then she tore her hair and beat her breast, and abandoned herself to all the violences of extravagant emotion. Finally, she threw herself forward, and, though I could not see her, I could hear the beating of her naked hands against the door.

Off to my right, out of sight beyond my covers, near the bedroom window, I sensed not the shadow but the shade of the Count, waiting to summon his beastly assassins.

‘Somewhere high overhead, probably on the tower, I heard the voice of the Count calling in his harsh, metallic whisper. His call seemed to be answered from far and wide by the howling of wolves. Before many minutes had passed a pack of them poured, like a pent- up dam when liberated, through the wide entrance into the courtyard.

‘There was no cry from the woman, and the howling of the wolves was but short. Before long they streamed away, licking their lips.’

Then, to my left, came a tap on the bedroom door. I had heard no-one ap- proach, but there it was again. Urgent, insistent, but muffled. Swallowing hard I slipped from my cosy nook and crept across the room in the dark- ness. It could only be one of my sisters – we were forbidden to enter each others’ rooms without knocking. I opened the door cautiously, aware that its creak or the light from the landing might disturb the slumbers of either brother.

And there, huddled against the door jamb, was a terrible hunched figure, wrapped in a blanket and with an utterly featureless face straining towards me. I screamed and leapt backwards as the creature reached out to grab me.

A spluttering laugh broke the terror of the moment.

It was my mother up to her old tricks, this time with a stocking over her head. I lacked the words to curse as befitted the occasion or the temerity to strike out at my tormentor. How could she possibly know I had reached the self-same moment in Harker‘s journal as on that distant Sunday evening? How could she know indeed? Her uncanny ability to see through our childish lies suddenly seemed more sinister than ever. Bent double with giggles, she tried to pull off her disguise and reassure her wretched son.

Convinced the very book itself was cursed, I vowed never to touch it again. And I was true to my word, for another ten years.

By then I had all but cured my fascination with the undead and the unex- plained, but I was still hesitant about returning to the book that had started it all. I had recently read a publisher’s proof of a biography of the Irishman Stoker – friend of Oscar Wilde, theatre manager and factotum to Henry Irving, and prolific writer of gothic novels. Rather than rushing straight back to Transylvania I resolved to explore some of his other work, as a way of putting to bed my childish fears.

I was living in the East End of London by now where there was a dearth of bookshops apart from the anarchist Freedom Bookshop in Angel Alley. It stocked no Stoker titles, of course. But I had found a 1975 set of paperback editions of The Lair of the White Worm and The Lady of the Shroud in a dingy bookstall elsewhere in the city. As with Dracula this latter work is in epistolatory form. It begins with the opening of the Last Will of Roget Melton. We learn than one Rupert Sent Leger is to inherit a fortune, but first he must visit the Land of the Blue Mountains and spend time at the magnificent but haunted Vissarion Castle, set on a Balkan headland overlooking the Adriatic.

I was well into it one wet Saturday evening as I made my way home on the Circle Line. As I neared my destination, our hero was settling in to his unsettling new home.

‘How heavy smelled the rain-laden garden! It was as though the night and the damp, and even the moonlight, were drawing out the aromas from all the flowers that blossomed. The whole night seemed to exhale heavy, intoxicating odours! I stood at the head of the marble steps, and all immediately before me was ghostly in the extreme – the white marble terrace and steps, the white walks of quartz-sand glistening under the fitful moonlight; the shrubs of white or pale green or yellow, all looked dim and ghostly in the glamorous light; the white statues and vases. And among them flitted noiselessly, that mysterious elusive figure which I could not say was based on fact or imagination. I held my breath listening intently for every sound; but sound there was none, save those of the night and its denizens. Owls hooted in the forest; bats, taking advantage of the cessation of the rain, flitted about silently, like shadows in the air.’

We were in every sense, literally and literarily, reaching familiar territory as the tube clattered from Liverpool Street to Aldgate.

‘“What was that?”
I almost heard the words of my own thought as I sat up in bed wide awake. To memory rather than to present hearing the disturbing sound had seemed like a faint tapping at the window. For some seconds I listened mechanically but intently, with bated breath and that quick beating of the heart which in a timorous person speaks for fear, and for expectation in another. In the stillness the sound came again – this time a very, very faint but unmistakeable knocking at the window.’

I paused here in my reading while the train rested briefly at Aldgate station, savouring the resonance with my previous encounters with Bram Stoker’s strange mind and his efforts to terrify – the tapping of my mother’s fingers on the bedroom door, and before that my parents’ at the kitchen window. I chuckled to myself as I recalled their distorted faces.

The tube jerked back into motion and I read on.

‘I jumped up, drew back the curtain, and for a moment stood appalled.

‘There, outside on the balcony, in the now brilliant moonlight, stood a woman, wrapped in white grave clothes saturated with water which dripped on the marble floor, making a pool which trickled slowly down the wet steps. Attitude and dress and circumstance all conveyed the idea that, though she moved and spoke, she was not quick, but dead. She was young and very beautiful, but pale, like the pallor of death. Through the still white of her face which made her look as cold as the white marble she stood on, her dark eyes seemed to gleam with a strange and enticing lustre. Even in the unsearching moonlight, which is after all rather deceptive than illuminative, I could not but notice one rare quality of her eyes. Each had a quality of refraction which made it look as if contained a star. At every movement she made, the stars exhibited new beauties, of more rare and radiant force. She looked at me imploringly as the heavy curtain rolled back, and in eloquent gestures implored me to admit her. Instinctively I obeyed; I rolled back the steel grille, and threw open the French window. I noticed that she shivered and trembled as the glass door fell open. indeed she seemed so overcome with cold as to seem almost unable to move.’

Here I turned the page as the train slowed down to enter my final stop, Tower Hill station.

‘In the sense of her helplessness all idea of the strangeness of the situation entirely disappeared. It was not as if my first idea of death taken from her cerements was negatived. It was simply that I did not think of it at all; I was content to accept things as they were – she was a woman, and in some desperate trouble; that was enough.’

As the doors opened, I closed my book and stepped out onto the platform and away from the Balkans. As I walked up the stairs towards the exit I was still immersed in the mood generated by Rupert’s ghastly encounter. Ahead of me was a tall, slim young woman in a pastel ankle-length floral dress.

Suddenly she collapsed, falling backwards into my arms.

It was as if St Leger’s ghastly experience was repeating itself in real life. Stunned, I stared down at the pallid features of the beautiful young woman who now lay in my arms. The exotic fragrance of gardenias blotted out the acrid smell of the tube station. I lifted her across to a wooden seat and lay her down. Around me there were shrill cries as others summoned help. She had revived by the time a London Underground staff member arrived with water. The hapless woman was confused and shaken but refused the offer of an ambulance to hospital.

Soon we were left alone as others went about their Saturday evening busi- ness. She had been travelling with colleagues to the evening shift at the Dickens Inn on the St Katharine Dock. She was clearly in no fit state to be serving food and drinks to tourists, but she wouldn’t go home. Her boyfriend was out for the evening and she was worried about travelling alone to an empty flat in west London.

‘In the sense of her helplessness all idea of the strangeness of the situation entirely disappeared.’

I offered to take her back to my place until she could contact her partner – and helped her above ground where we took a cab the short distance through the rainy night to my flat in Stephen & Matilda Tenants’ Co-operative on St Katharine’s Way in the shadow of the Tower Hotel. Soon she was ensconced on my makeshift couch drying her tousled hair.

It would be hours before her partner was home and we could contact him on a landline – this was long before the mobile phone. She was apologetic about the circumstances and grateful for a port in a storm but offered no explanation for her collapse.

I made her a drink then sat across the room from her and we chatted. There was something about her that seemed not quite right, but I could not decide whether I was merely reacting to the peculiar coincidence of our meeting or whether I was right to be worried about this stranger whom I had invited into my home. She began to tell me about her upside down life.

I let her talk, but can recall little of her strange stories. Over and over I saw her collapsing into my arms and remembered the last line I had read:

I was content to accept things as they were – she was a woman, and in some desperate trouble; that was enough.’

She reached back to the day of her birth, in a Scottish maternity ward. Her father had been a pilot, she explained, and had flown past the window of her mother’s confinement, waggling his wings in salute. Later a fellow aircraftsman had come to the hospital with news that her father had crashed his plane and died. Her mother went on to marry this harbinger, she said, and he had helped to bring her up.

Bewitched, and bewildered by the weirdness of her stories, it was a blessed relief when her partner eventually materialised. He muttered with upturned eyes, that this sort of thing was always happening to her.

To this day I cannot be certain of her name. It had a gothic ring – Imogen or Eleanor? Like Rupert Sent Leger, I wondered if my tall, slim visitor had been a figment of my imagination. Next day I found a bottle of wine on my doorstep, with an unsigned ‘Thank you’ note.

I never returned to The Lady of the Shroud but at 65, in the centenary year of Stoker’s death, I returned to Transylvania. Trapped in bed with a chest infection I managed, wheezing deeply, to get beyond page 50unscathed but snug beneath my duvet. I remained riveted until the last page, with the autumn elements howling outside.

To exorcise the experience once and for all, I decided at once to set down my own shameful tale of past timidity and terror. Snapping open my laptop I set to work. But as I reached the end of this very account I became conscious of a sepulchral voice emanating from my bedside radio.

A BBC announcer was informing me of a new centenary dramatisation of Dracula.

Will it never end?


Bristol, 9 October 2012



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