My life hadn’t always been this dramatic. In fact, if you’d told me that vampires existed six months before this, I’d have thought you were crazy. I’d have been concerned for your welfare, of course, but I definitely would have thought you would have needed help. You see if I’ve always been quite a practical person, grounded in hard evidence and reason. Alternatively, I’ve just come down on the side of what seems like the most sensible thing to do, or to believe in, until I have any evidence to the contrary. In fact that’s been how most of the major life decisions have been made and up to that point it hadn’t proved a bad strategy.
If had to identify when all this had begun, when my willingness to believe there is more to “heaven and earth”, it would be easy. It would was the previous August, the last summer I spent in the West Midlands before I moved back to my small hometown on the edge of the South Wales valleys.
I’d gone to university in that small, industrial city, and ended up staying once I graduated. There was no particular life plan responsible for me staying in the area, it had been rather happenstance. I’d registered with a couple of job agencies to try and get a part time job during my studies and one of the agencies offered me a few hours a week in their office, mainly doing administrative work, then helping out over the holidays when one of their Temp desks tended to get busy. When I eventually graduated they asked if I‘d be interested in joining them as a recruitment consultant which, given that I didn’t have any other job offers, seemed like a sensible option. It turned out I was quite good at it and just over two years on I was still at it. Although my salary was low, I made good commission and I had a lot of opportunity to use some of the knowledge I’d gained from my business degree. Admittedly, I could have just gone straight back to Wales and helped out with the family businesses, but my grandfather had always encouraged me to spread my wings before settling down. He had died just before I went to university, as my grandmother did the following, and I wanted to make them proud which I did. Besides, it was close enough to home to visit regularly, and although much of the city was a bit on the dingy side, it was close to some lovely countryside and the regency town of Leamington Spa.
Life wasn’t completely idyllic but it wasn’t far off. For the first year after graduating, many of my college friends remained in the area and we continued to share a house in rented house near the university. Sharing household expenses meant that I could make the most out of my increasing financial freedom and I spent the weekends eating out with friends, going to gigs and heading back to Wales every few weeks to visit my mum. I even had enough money left over at the end of the month to put aside for holidays or deposit in my savings account. Any share I had in the family letting business was tied up in property or the business account and, I as didn’t have any practical involvement with its running, it felt wrong to withdraw any funds for personal use.
But one by one, as better job offers appeared or financial hardship or liberation struck my university friends started to move away, or moved in to smaller places with their boyfriends and girlfriends. The thought of renting out rooms to complete strangers filled me with dread so it seemed a natural progression to find a cheap flat on my own. I found a nice two bedroom flat on the outskirts of the city centre, which was reasonably well priced and on the edge of a popular area for young professionals and couples. It was a new build flat in a block of six, overlooking a courtyard and small park. There were five other blocks of flats on the small development, plus a handful of two bed houses which were occupied by young families. It was a mere five minute walk to the nearest shops, bars and restaurants, with the city centre taking less than twenty minutes on foot, depending on your pace. Even better, the landlord allowed pets so it worked out well for Charlie, the stray cat which I had adopted in my final year of studies.
Despite drifting away from many of my housemates, due to work and relocation on their part, I thrived in my new found freedom. Although the flat was furnished, I enjoyed decorating with a few small pieces of furniture, pictures and rugs. I also invested in some good kitchenware and started to invite more people around for me to cook for them. On a Saturday morning, I’d often head to one of the nearby cafes and enjoy bagels or eggs benedict for breakfast, while I reviewed the newspaper and attempted the crossword. I definitely wasn’t a city girl, but it was certainly a good compromise.
But it all changed very suddenly and very dramatically the August before. What started as a very normal, although slightly exciting, bank holiday weekend was to turn into a catastrophic chain of events which I will never forget. I’ve still got the physical scars if you looked hard enough.
I’d woken up early to find two big amber eyes staring at me, millimeters from my face. The mouth below it stretched open to reveal two small fangs and a rough pink tongue that darted forward and made sticky contact with my cheek. This was the way I started many mornings – with an impatient cat marching around my sleeping body, insisting that I get up and feed him. Once he had established I was awake, he leapt off the bed and plodded along the short hallway in the direction of the kitchen
“Charlie!” I yelled, trying to sound cross but failing to hide the grin on my face.
Despite being reprimanded the bundle of ginger and white fur sat on my chest still managed to look cute. I haven’t been able to say no to Charlie since the day he turned up looking forlorn and grubby in the garden of my student digs I’d coaxed him out from behind the shed with a tin of tuna and we’ve never looked back since. He moved in and never left.
Nothing could have put me in a bad mood that day, it was the first of more than a week off work and I was heading off to Belgium for a long weekend with my friend Tracy. I was intending to spend the remainder of my week’s holiday relaxing about my flat, and possibly spending a few days back home visiting my mum. I usually tried to visit every few weeks, but it had been six weeks since my last visit and I was feeling both guilty and homesick.
Tracy was a relatively new friend for me, one of only a handful that I’d made in since my student days. She was five years older than me and I’d met her through work. She had recently the joined company, having been made redundant from a rival firm and, despite being polar opposites; we’d got on surprisingly well. She’d used to be a landlady for a local brewery but had said she’d given up the licensed trade when she got bored of not having a home of her own. Tracy loved shoes, handbags, shopping and men. I loved reading, sneakers, jeans, cooking and my Sky Planner. It was an unlikely pairing but it really seemed to work; I prevented her from spending all her pay on ridiculous clothing that she’d bore of in a month, she encouraged me to get out a bit more and let my hair down. In the few months that I’d known her we’d developed quite a bond, albeit in its infancy.
The few weeks on the run up to the trip had been tough. Just before the Christmas before, I’d struck up a relationship with a guy called Kip. We’d met purely by chance through a work colleague on a night out, surprisingly as I didn’t like the colleague at all so I didn’t expect to like anyone that he actually liked. It was the longest relationship I’d ever, and we’d just broken up in the weirdest way imaginable.
Kip and I had been happy from day one, or so I thought, not that I had much to benchmark it against. After all it’s not like I had two parents to emulate, and most of my previous relationships, if you can call them that, consisted of nothing more than a few dates. There had never been a formal break up; one person just didn’t bother calling the other person again. But Kip and I had really got on, giving each other plenty of space, but enjoying each other’s company a couple of nights a week, whether it was staying in with a takeaway or heading to the cinema. It seemed perfect to me, so you can imagine my surprise when I suddenly, horribly and very unceremoniously got dumped by him, well by his voicemail specifically. Now I don’t want you to assume that he just left a message on my voicemail, it was much, much worse than that. He rerecorded his own voicemail message so I got it when I called him, as did any other Tom, Dick or Harry who dialed his number. How passive aggressive is that? He couldn’t even be bothered to pick up the phone and call me. Hi, if this is Sophie, then please don’t ring anymore. I’m sorry; it’s time to call it a day. Apologies to all other callers leave a message and I’ll ring you back. I was so shocked, and so upset, I never called again. At the time I wanted to call into a cave and die.
Tracy was the first person I told about my humiliation. After an evening of nursing my wounds over a bottle of Chianti in the solitude of my own flat, I relayed the whole sorry tale to her over our morning brew in a tiny interview room in our office. Her tirade of abuse and name calling made me feel surprisingly better, it even made me chuckle on occasion. She also told me that what I needed was a good night out on the town to take my mind off it. There was also a reference to “the only way to get over a man is to get under a new one”, but I decided to ignore that part and pretend I didn’t hear it. I would have to admit that a night out in the city centre on a Friday night wasn’t entirely my idea of fun, usually preferring a local pub and a good band, but she managed to persuade me and before I knew it I’d agreed to be at her house in a taxi at 8 O’clock.
We were mid-way through our fifth round of drinks when Tracy declared that a holiday was probably what we both needed. She was probably true, neither of us had been away that year and work had been manic. Aside from my romantic dramas, some time off work probably wasn’t a bad idea. I had lots of leave banked and would need to take it or lost it. Tracy had less than me, having only been at the company, a few months, but we agreed that we could definitely find a few days when we’d both be let off work together.
“Girls on tour” She screeched, swinging open the cubicle door.
“Uh? I grunted, trying to focus through the inebriated haze.
Despite being able to put away a hefty bit of alcohol in my student days, I had definitely lost the knack. Now I just felt hot, sticky and generally grim. God, I hate nightclubs, I really do.
“We should go away Soph” she said, her eyes lighting up, “It would be so cool, just what you need.”
She slapped me around the back with delight, managing to spill much of her Bacardi Breezer over me in the process. She was singing “here we go, here we go, here we go” as she fell through the restroom door into the crowded bar.
The following day, we headed into the travel agent in the high street and started making plans for a trip to Belgium. I admit that Belgium probably isn’t top of many people’s hit list of holiday destinations. However, I’d never been and there was a good deal on a short break package. I wanted to go somewhere different to the norm, somewhere that wasn’t going to remind me of Kip, anywhere we’d been or anywhere we’d discussed planning to go. Tracy suggested Antwerp as she’d recently seen the film ‘In Bruges’ and it looked quite similar from the brochure. It was never anywhere I’d thought of visiting before, and given my rationale for picking a non-Kip-related destination, I thought it was as good a place as any. We decided to go over the summer bank holiday, as that meant Tracy would have to take less of her holiday entitlement, in addition to being easier to persuade our Manager to let us both off at the same time. Although I planned to take a few more days, we would only both be out of the office for one day.
The sales assistant told us that we could fly directly into Brussels from Birmingham airport and that she could arrange a package to include the train on to Antwerp, which she assured us was a straightforward journey. Tracy surprised me by telling her that she’d spent a summer inter-railing with an old boyfriend so she was confident that we’d be able to figure it out. I made a mental note to quiz Tracy more on her colourful past when we were on our holiday. Because we got on so well, it was easy to forget that I hadn’t known her very long and it was becoming increasingly apparent that there was a lot to discover. This getaway could turn out to be quite an eye opener, I thought to myself.
Following Charlie’s unhygienic way of waking me up, I slipped out of bed and plodded along to the kitchen, flicked on the kettle and popped two slices of wholemeal bread into the toaster. It was even earlier that I usually got up, 5am in fact, but as the sun was already up and shining, I didn’t mind too much. While the toaster took the mandatory three minutes to crisp the bread, I popped an Earl Grey tea bag into my favourite “I Love Wales” mug, refilled Charlie’s water dish and gave the kitchen counters a quick wipe down with a damp cloth. I really should have cleaned up properly last night, I thought to myself. It wasn’t like me at all.
My morning routine had practically become an art form. Just as the toast shot out of the machine, the kettle gurgled and then came to a swift halt. In a matter of moments I was chowing down on buttery toast and being hydrated by the infusion of black tea and bergamot. As I crashed onto the sofa and caught up with the world event, courtesy of one the twenty-four hour news channels, I made a mental note to call the cat sitter and confirm that I would definitely be away for a few days.
One of the downsides of living away from home was a lack of on-tap cat sitters if you want to go anywhere. Having said that, I’d found a great guy who ran a small dog walking service with his girlfriend and mother, who has happy to come in and feed the cats once or twice a day whenever I was away. He didn’t cost much and I liked the way that he always watered the plants and left a pint of milk in the fridge for me. I also had a sneaking suspicion that one of them vacuumed the carpets while I was away.
As a selection of three C list celebrities sat on an uncomfortable looking sofa, dissecting the day’s newspapers, I finished off my toast and the dregs of my brew. I remained transfixed for about an hour, occupied by both the news and an unusual new hairstyle that one of the female presenters appeared to be trying out. I broke my concentration twice to make two more mugs of tea and refill the cat food in the now empty dish.
I eventually pulled myself together and set about getting myself washed and groomed for the day to come. My beauty regime had barely changed since I was sixteen. Whether it was a work day or preparations for a night on the town, the routing was barely any different. Despite my attempts to pull off an assortment of makeup “looks” over the years, it never seemed to look quite right, always like I was trying too hard. It had been the same with hairstyles as well, inevitably ending up with leaving my hair shoulder length and pretty boring. A quick application of tinted moisturizer, a swish of mascara and a dab of lip gloss and I was ready to go.
“Looking good Ms Morgan” I told myself in the mirror, as I picked up my bag and headed out the door.
- Relative Strangers – Extract 2 : Vampire guts were the last thing I expected to be wiping off my kitchen lino (helentreharne.wordpress.com)
- Relative Strangers – Extract 1 (helentreharne.wordpress.com)