My friend Alyth, who reads my blog but still hasn’t even glanced at my novels (hint! hint!), was looking rather pale today, under the weather, a thick blue woollen scarf wrapped around her neck as she sat with me in the café this afternoon, both hands cradling the mug of hot chocolate she sipped cautiously.
She has been leading a rather quiet life recently, studious, concerned with the upcoming exams. For the Winter Solstice (Alyth’s 20th birthday), she and Tina went up to Inverness, planning to watch the sun setting from the north-east cairn at Balnuaran of Clava. However, what with the constant rain and all the flooding, they spent the weekend in their hotel room, celebrating the Earth’s continuing existence some other way.
On the way back south to spend Christmas together at Alyth’s parents’ place in North Berwick, they detoured through the village that gave Alyth her name. According to her parents, Alyth was conceived beneath the famous arches there early one morning during the spring equinox. (It takes a certain courage to have sex in a cemetery.)
Alyth is a town in Scotland, just north of Perth, with a long history. According to the Undiscovered Scotland website:
Whether this history dates back far enough to justify claims that it was the site of the imprisonment by the Pictish King Mordred of Queen Guinevere is debatable. However, it is known that Alyth dates back to at least the 11th century, and that the first church was built here in the 1200s. Remains of this can still be seen as a series of arches within the churchyard on the hillside overlooking the town.
Anyway, it was the first time I’d seen her in over a month, and I was shocked at her appearance, and dismayed that her spirit, usually so fiery, had dampened so severely.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.
She didn’t answer immediately, just sat with eyes shut, breathing in chocolate-scented steam. Then she opened her eyes and gave me a wry smile.
‘Tina thinks it’s funny. Says I’m a trouble magnet. Maybe she’s right.’
‘What happened?’ I insisted.
She sighed, and scratched her neck through the woolen scarf. ‘You know that girl I was telling you about? The blonde librarian?’
‘The one no one else can see?’
‘She’s not invisible or anything. It’s just that no one else seems to notice her.’
‘It’s amazing how unaware we are of the people around us. The only reason you see her and others don’t is that you actually look for her.’ It wasn’t the first time I’d argued thus.
‘Maybe,’ she sighed, not looking convinced.
‘Is she attractive?’ This is something I hadn’t asked before – Alyth’s interest in girls is a recent development.
‘Yes and no. She is pretty, and I love her hair. I think that’s why she keeps catching my eye. It’s like a waterfall cascading about her shoulders.’
‘Hmm. But she’s tall, and really thin also, unnaturally thin, so that she looks even taller. She’s like one of those supermodels who agonises over eating a slice of cucumber for breakfast.’
‘So, what happened?’ I repeat. ‘Are you cheating on Tina with the cute librarian?’
Alyth just stared uncomfortably at her empty mug for a minute, then passed it to me. ‘If you really want me to talk about it, get me another hot chocolate.’
Alyth singing for her supper…
‘She’s also weirdly still,’ she continued when I returned with fresh drinks. ‘I don’t mean stiff. She looks completely relaxed, but she doesn’t make any unnecessary movements. Everything she does is deliberate, and precise.
‘I don’t know how long she was there, watching me. I was in the library on Monday, all day, studying. I’d found myself a quiet corner on the top floor, and stayed late, long after most people had gone home. I was completely engrossed in my book –’
‘What were you reading?’ I interrupted, ever curious about books.
‘Some feminist analysis of nineteenth century literature. I can find it for you, if you’re interested. Anyway, I was so wrapped up in it, I hadn’t even noticed the music I was listening to had finished. I was just sitting there all alone in the absolute quiet. Except for her, sitting opposite me, just as you are now. I got quite a fright! I think I even screamed a little.’ Alyth related this moment of girlish terror with a blush of embarrassment.
‘She laughed, and gave me a smile so warm and friendly, that I had to laugh as well. She has these beautiful blue eyes that you just want to sink into.’ Alyth paused her tale to attack the cooling drink, her own thoughtful grey-blue eyes focussed on some other place and time.
‘“I’m sorry I startled you,” she said when I took my headphones off. She has a gentle, pleasant voice, and speaks in a very lyrical way, but strange, almost like an Irish girl with a faint German accent. I can’t place it.’ Alyth’s imitation of the accent sounds more South African than Germanic (but, then, so does her imitation of Welsh or Australian accents). ‘“I was eavesdropping,” she said. I love that word. Eavesdropping… “I was eavesdropping earlier when you were at the Enquiries desk. Did I hear right that you’re looking for Carmilla?”’
‘Carmilla!’ I interrupt again, startled.
Alyth glowered at me. ‘Yes. This is all your fault for writing that blog post’ – she means this one – ‘and making me curious. Instead of studying in the library I’m wasting time reading about lesbian vampires.’
‘Mea culpa. What were you looking for?’
‘I was hoping there would be original letters from Le Fanu, or his journal, but there wasn’t anything really. Lots of interesting stuff about the novel Carmilla, mostly from a literary and social analysis perspective, but not much really about the inspirations and thematic influences for the story itself. But I wouldn’t have found the really interesting stuff without Lily’s help.’
Alyth blushed. ‘The cute librarian.’
‘I explained what I was looking for, and she said, “In the basement of the library here is a large room stacked with boxes full of books and papers that have never been catalogued. Some of it even dates to the nineteenth century.” This definitely got my attention, but she astonished me by adding, “There is even a collection of letters addressed to a certain Dr Martin Hesselius.” I was stunned.’
‘But Hesselius is a fictional character!’ I protested.
‘That’s exactly what I said. Lily just shrugged. “Authors are always writing fiction about real people,” she said. “Is it not possible that Le Fanu simply elaborated on the researches of this Dr Hesselius?” She reached across the table and took my hands in hers, and asked, “Would you like to see them?”
‘Well, of course I said yes. I was also quite startled that she was suddenly touching me, but didn’t want to offend her just then. I really wanted to see those papers. And, to be honest, after the initial shock, her hands weren’t unwelcome. They were at once gentle and surprisingly firm, and oddly cool to the touch. Not as cold as Tina’s feet at night, mind you.
‘She smiled brightly and stood up, said, “Well, come on, then!” and set off swiftly in a direct line towards the stairwell, along one of the dark aisles between bookshelves. I had to run to catch up with her, and then she stopped so unexpectedly that I ran into her. We ended up pressed almost against each other, little more than shadows in the gloom, sandwiched with books at our backs.
‘“I’m Lily,” she said.
‘“I’m Alyth,” I replied nervously. She was wearing a black polo neck and dark jeggings, so all I could see of her was her hair and the faint glitter of her eyes. Quite sinister, in a way.
‘But her voice was light and enthusiastic. “I love libraries,” she said. “So much ancient knowledge. So many secrets. Nowhere else does fiction blend so easily with fact.” She leaned close, enveloping me with her delicate jasmine fragrance, and for a moment I thought she was going to kiss me, but instead she whispered in my ear, “I should think a library is a dangerous place for a witch.” Her arm brushed lightly against my breasts as she turned and resumed her course to the stairwell.
‘For a moment I just stood there in confusion, heart pounding. That almost kiss, the memory of her hands and the touch of her arm, had awakened a burning hunger in me, even as her knowledge that I am a witch terrified me. My head said run, my soul wanted to discover her, my flesh wanted to feel her fingertips tracing fire across my skin.
‘When Lily passed through the door into the stairwell without once looking back, I raced after her. Without appearing to hurry, she easily maintained her lead. When I finally caught up with her, at the bottom of the stairs, four flights down, I was gasping for breath. Lily looked perfectly calm. She pressed her finger to my lips to tell me to be quiet, then took my hand in hers and led me through a maze of corridors.
‘There was nothing to distinguish the door we stopped at from many other doors we had passed. Lily had a key to unlock it, and she pulled me after her into the blackness, closing the door behind us. Now, you know I love the thrill of exotic danger, but this was insane. I had just followed this impossible girl into the unknown depths of the building, into a room that robbed me of my sight. How stupid is that? I was right on the edge of panic.
‘And then she kissed me, and it was pleasure and relief so sharp it felt electric. It was like sensory deprivation – with nothing to see, every thought was focussed on the soft urgency of her lips. In that moment, Tina was forgotten, the world outside didn’t exist, there was only the unseen jasmine-scented beauty that my hands caressed.
‘The astonishing sharpness of her teeth against my tongue, and the sudden taste of blood, made me recoil abruptly, and I pushed her away. Lily laughed, and a moment later the fluorescent lights lit up, some broken, some flickering madly. We were surrounded by heavy-duty shelves, large boxes filling the higher ones.
‘“This room is the library’s guilty secret,” she explained, “the result of an ancient funding gap that has never truly closed. After the floods last autumn, a lot of this secret collection was water-damaged – you can see how high the water reached – and the decision was taken to salvage what could be restored and quietly throw the rest in the bin. What you see here is the stuff that is salvageable, but rumour has it that even this will be thrown out soon.”
‘Lily reached up to take a large wooden box from one of the top shelves. She’s tall, a little taller even than you, and the shelf was just above her shoulder height, but she lifted the box down effortlessly. It was full of books, and folders full of paper, that fibrous kind that predates pulped wood, and it had that intense aroma of slowly decaying manuscript.
‘As much as I feared Lily, I was also fascinated by her. Every time she moved towards me, or even only looked at me, I flinched slightly, and every time, afterwards, I felt an aching disappointment that she wasn’t trying to touch me. My hands felt empty, bereft of the curves that had excited them.
‘She carefully extracted a thick folder from the middle of the box, and spread it open on top, searching for a particular letter. “My good friend and confidant Dr Hesselius,” she started.
‘I had to see for myself, and she moved aside so that I could see the neat lines of Italic script. “Read it aloud,” she ordered. She was standing right behind me, her breath cool against my neck, her breasts pushing against my shoulders, her hands holding my hips firmly as she pulled me tight against her. I have never felt so trapped, so completely vulnerable, as in that moment. I was like a rabbit caught in the headlights of her desire.
‘“I don’t want to be a vampire,” I told her.
‘She laughed, saying merely, “Do you really think a vampire would care what you want?” In one swift move, she swept my jumper and T-shirt up over my head and arms, exposing my bare skin to the freezing air of that basement room. A heartbeat later I was stripped of my bra as well. “Read!” she whispered in my ear.
‘And so I started reading, and she wouldn’t let me turn, wouldn’t let me touch her, or myself. Whenever I stopped reading she would order me to continue, but it was so hard to concentrate on the words with her hands caressing every inch of my skin, her fingers teasing my nipples, her lips playing with my ears, her teeth grazing the skin of my neck. At some point she had removed her own top also, and her nipples felt like nails against my back. I don’t remember half of what I read.
‘Not until I’d finished reading the letter did she yield to my pleas for release. She turned me to face her and we kissed hungrily. I unbuttoned my jeans, and immediately she slipped a hand inside my knickers, and her cold fingers explored and teased until I was almost screaming with frustration, my hands brutally squeezing my own nipples in a futile effort to hasten the end.’
Reliving this had certainly brought colour back to Alyth’s cheeks. I’m not sure she was even aware of me at this point, she was so immersed in the memory.
Scratching again at her neck, she continued, ‘And then my legs gave way and I collapsed into her, holding on to her for dear life as my orgasm sent waves of pleasure cascading through my flesh, and I was utterly helpless and uncaring as her sharp teeth sliced painfully into my neck, and the world started to spin into darkness.’
Alyth laughed quietly to herself, and finished the last dregs of her cold hot chocolate. ‘I woke up at home in bed. I’ve no idea how I got there. It was Tuesday evening – last night – and Tina was banging on the front door. I had no idea what to say to her, so I said she could come in if she promised not to ask me any questions, and we vegetated in front of the telly, eventually falling asleep.
‘This morning was fun, trying to explain what had happened. She was pretty furious at first, but by the end of it she couldn’t stop laughing. Said the next time I go to the library she’s coming with, and not necessarily for my protection…’
‘Do you think you could find that room again?’ I asked. ‘I’d love to see those papers. If they’re real, they’d be the literary event of the decade.’
Alyth sighed. ‘Yes I can find the room – I was there this morning – but it’s empty now, just shelves and scraps of cardboard. I can’t find anyone who will admit to knowing anything about its former contents.’
I just stared at her in disbelief for a minute. ‘Are you sure this wasn’t just another of your crazy dreams?’
‘This is the only evidence I have,’ she said, unwrapping the scarf to show me her neck and the large purple bruise there. But no twin puncture marks or other scarring, just the bruise. She concealed it again quickly. ‘I’m sorry.’
She reached into her bag and pulled out some sheets of paper and passed them to me. ‘As far as I can remember,’ she said, ‘and my memory isn’t very good at the best of times, which this wasn’t, here is what the letter said.’
I was so disappointed, but accepted the sheets gratefully.