FREE EXCERPT – RELATIVE STRANGERS – CHAPTER 2

My life hadn’t always been this dramatic. In fact, if you’d told me that vampires existed a year ago, I’d have thought you crazy. You see, I’ve always been a practical person, my decisions being grounded in hard evidence.

It’s easy for me to identify when my willingness to believe in the supernatural began. It wasn’t a spiritual experience, an awakening over time; nor was it from gullibility. When I was attacked a little over four months before all this, I knew that the only reasonable explanation for what had happened to me was a vampire, whether that is the supernatural stuff of legend or an ordinary human who was just deluded and believed themselves to be one. Of course, my experiences after the attacker quickly taught me to dismiss the latter notion. Vampires are definitely real.

It was August and I was still living in Coventry, a small industrial city in the heart of England. It isn’t an especially beautiful place, having been heavily bombed during the Second World War, but it is embraced by the beautiful Warwickshire countryside, Shakespeare’s country. I’d studied business at the University of Warwick, which was peculiarly based in Coventry, which had a university of its own.

My decision to remain in Coventry following my graduation had been a rather arbitrary one. I’d undertaken some casual work for the local branch of a national employment agency, initially helping out with some basic admin and then moving onto interviewing prospective candidates. When I completed my studies, they asked if I would like to join them full time as a recruitment consultant on one of their specialist desks and I happily agreed.

Of course, I could have just returned home and worked in one of the family businesses. My grandmother had inherited three small shops from a distant and childless relative, shortly after she married my grandfather. He gave up his job as a steelworker at the plant in the neighbouring town of Bethel and between them, they ran all three. Eventually, they made a little money to buy a house, then more houses, and then more. They worked hard to renovate them and rent them out. The portfolio now spread across our village, Bethesda, and industrial Bethel.

When both my grandparents died, my grandfather in my first year of university, my grandmother in the second, the shops and the family home were bequeathed to my mother. We inherited the houses jointly and they provided us with a reasonable income. My share of the income had paid for my university fees and helped towards my living expenses, but didn’t cover everything. Neither Mum nor I withdrew all the profits; they were for reinvesting and for emergencies. We were not rich, but we were comfortable.

However, returning home to spend the rest of my life running our small business empire felt premature. I know my mother would have liked it, but my grandfather had also told me I should go out and experience the world first. I think he wanted me to have the life my mother never had, having been forced to abandon her plan for university and a career when she fell pregnant with me at eighteen.

As it turned out, I was quite good at recruiting and just over two years on I was still at it. Although my salary was small, I made good commission and had plenty of opportunities to use some of the knowledge I’d gained from my business degree.

After my first year, I even moved out of the house I let with my other student friends and rented a two-bedroom apartment in the suburb of Earlsdon, overlooking the Hearsall Common. Most of my friends had moved away or back home due to work or finances and I didn’t relish the thought of sharing with strangers. Besides, I considered myself quite the young professional.

Although the apartment was partially furnished, I bought myself a small dining set from the IKEA in nearby Wednesbury as well as lamps, a small bookcase, plates, bowls and lots of cutlery. I also used a zero finance offer at an electrical homeware shop to buy a flat screen TV, which I considered the height of indulgence. I even had satellite TV installed.

Of course, I did miss home and on occasion felt quite lonely, but Bethesda was only a couple of hours away in the car. I usually visited every few weeks, driving back to my Mum’s house on a Friday evening and returning after lunch on a Sunday.

On the weekends that I stayed in Coventry, I’d take the short walk to the shops, pick up a newspaper and have breakfast at Maxim’s. I’d often try my hand at the crossword if I had time. It felt very cosmopolitan. Sometimes I’d go there for a few drinks in the evening with a friend. I preferred it to most of the larger and noisier bars in the city centre.

It was the Friday of the August bank holiday, and I awoke to find two amber eyes studying me and a rough pink tongue about to dart out and lick my eyeball. A charming way to wake up! But this was the way many mornings commenced – with an impatient cat marching around my sleeping body, insisting that I get up and feed him.

“Charlie!” I yelled, trying to sound cross, but failing to hide the grin on my face. The bundle of ginger and white fur continued to sit on my chest. He was cute but heavy. 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.

Once he had established I was awake, he leapt from the bed and plodded along the short hallway in the direction of the kitchen.

Despite my rude awakening, very little could have put me in a bad mood that day. It was the first day of more than a week off work and I was starting it by heading off to Belgium for a long weekend with my friend and colleague, Tracy.

Tracy was a relatively new friend for me, one of only a handful that I’d made since my student days. She was five years older than me and I’d met her through work. She had recently joined the company, having been made redundant by a rival firm and, despite being polar opposites we’d got on surprisingly well. She had formerly been a landlady for a local brewery but had given it up for better hours and a home of her own. Tracy loved shoes, handbags, shopping and men. I enjoyed reading, jeans and my Sky Planner.

It was an unlikely pairing, but it actually 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 short time that I’d known Tracy we’d developed quite a bond, albeit in its infancy.

The few weeks on the run up to the trip had been tough on me. Jason, a guy I had been dating, had dumped me most unceremoniously by voicemail. I don’t want you to think he left a message for me on my answer machine. No, no, that would have been kind by comparison. He recorded an outgoing voicemail to say if the caller was me “it’s best we just call it a day, sorry.” The two months we’d had together had been the only real relationship I’d had. I was shocked, humiliated, gutted.

I had thought that everything with Jason was hunky-dory, but apparently not. I had no close male friends to canvass their perspective on the situation, or to give me the inside scoop on the male mind. My grandfather was dead and I’d never even met my father. All I knew was that he knocked my mother up on a school trip to Denmark during her A Levels. She scraped through her exams and got me rather than a degree. Some educational exchange that turned out to be!

Tracy had been the only person I had told about my humiliation. Her tirade of expletives during our working breakfast was, on reflection, hysterically funny. She called him every name under the sun and a few others I hadn’t even heard of; it’s entirely possible that she even made some new words up.

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. Before I knew it, I’d agreed to be at her house in a taxi at 8 o’clock.

 

We were midway through our fifth round of drinks when Tracy declared that a holiday was what we both really needed. “Girls on tour,” she screeched in the ladies’ restroom, swinging the cubicle door open and practically taking it off its hinges in the process.

“Huh?” 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 announced, her eyes lighting up, “It would be so cool, just what you need.”

Tracy slapped me on the back with delight, spilling her alco-pop over me in the process. She sang “here we go, here we go, here we go,” as she fell through the exit and into the crowded bar.

 

The following day, we headed into the travel agent on the high street and initiated plans for a trip to Belgium. We wanted to go on a bank holiday weekend as it meant we only needed to take Friday off work, which our manager didn’t mind so much. I was going to take the following week off work as well as I had plenty of holiday days left. If I didn’t use them, I’d lose them.

I admit that Belgium probably isn’t top of many people’s hit list of vacation destinations. Tracy had recently watched the film ‘In Bruges’. It looked similar – pretty. The travel agent agreed and got a us good deal on package. We’d fly to Brussels then get a train onwards. Tracy said that wasn’t a problem. 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, plodded along to the kitchen, flicked on the kettle and popped two slices of wholemeal bread into the toaster. It was earlier than I usually got up, which was saying something, but as the sun was already shining, I didn’t mind too much. I love that feeling just after dawn on a summer’s day, when everything seems bright and clean, and you’ve forgotten that you’ve got up at a pretty ungodly hour. The sun becomes nature’s own alarm clock.

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. I 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 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 events, courtesy of one the twenty-four hour news channels, I text the cat sitter to confirm my flight details so they could check when I landed and would know when to expect me. If they thought I’d be back late, they’d make sure they scheduled another visit to save me panicking about Charlie. They were very good like that.

One of the downsides of living away from home was a lack of on-tap, cat sitters if you want to go anywhere, but I’d found a great guy who ran a small dog walking service with his girlfriend and mother. One of them was always available and happy to come in and feed Charlie 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 harboured a sneaking suspicion that one of them vacuumed the carpets too.

As the 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 scarcely changed since I was sixteen. Whether it was a work day or preparations for a night on the town, the routine was nearly identical. 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.


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Relative Strangers is available to download from Amazon and in paperback at Amazon, Createspace and Barnes and Noble.

It is also FREE this Saturday on Amazon for Kindle http://www.amazon.com/Relative-Strangers-Modern-Vampire-Sophie-ebook/dp/B00MRAZGK0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1424682559&sr=8-1&keywords=relative+strangers+helen+treharne

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