‘If you met the Devil, and he offered you anything in exchange for your soul, what would you ask for?’
I think this was Richard’s idea of flirting. I was trying my best to be unsexy, despite having dressed rather revealingly – not for Richard, but for his sister – but Richard was bored and seemed determined to talk to me. Also, he broke up with his girlfriend today, which is why I didn’t get Denise to myself tonight.
Their parents are away on holiday for a couple of weeks and Denise invited me round for dinner. I’d got my hopes up that she wanted more than just dinner, thus my none-too-subtly provocative attire.
Denise is a good cook, though we’re only talking pasta bolognese, and her parents have good taste in wine. Over dinner, the usual small talk turned to music, then to Jazz, and Blues, then somehow to Robert Johnson and his deal with the devil, and other musicians in the past too, like Tartini and Paganini.
I tried to suppress my irritation with this question. ‘I would ask for the power to be able to turn any man I didn’t like into a horny, overweight, big-breasted woman, and I would have great fun getting revenge on all those assholes who think they’re so superior.’
I’d shocked him into silence. I hoped. ‘Not,’ I added, ‘that I’ve got anything against horny, overweight, big-breasted women.’ Quite the contrary. The sex is amazing. ‘I just think it would be funny to see men so used to waving their cocks around learning to beg to be fucked by one.’
Denise grinned at this. ‘I’d just ask for a billion pounds and spend my life shopping my way around the world.’
Humans are so short-sighted. ‘Is twenty four years of the good life really worth an eternity of oblivion or worse? For the Devil to be willing to give so much for a soul, there must be something infinitely precious about it. Why would you sell it for so little?’
‘I would wish for immortality,’ Richard said. ‘Then he’d never get my soul.’
‘If I were the Devil, I’d find some way to make sure you didn’t enjoy a second of your immortality. Twenty-four years. It’s a standard contract.’
‘Well, of course. That’s half the fun of it. One story I heard, some guy sold his soul for wealth and fame, and bragged that when the Devil came to collect he would not be found. The Devil laughed and said, “I will find you if I have to search every corner of this world.” Twenty four years later the Devil came for the man’s soul, and indeed he searched every corner of the world, but the man was not to be found. He had built himself a special room, perfectly round, without any corners, and hid there until the day was done.
‘The man emerged, exulting in his victory, and ran to tell his family the good news. But, alas, he found his wife weeping over the body of his son who had died mysteriously during the night. Grieving, he called for the Devil, and offered his soul in exchange for his son’s – and the Devil accepted, taking his soul there and then.’
‘What about his son?’ Denise asked.
‘Who knows. I don’t believe in the Devil and Hell, or Heaven for that matter. But there are plenty of strange and wonderful people and spirits hidden amongst humanity, some appearing as angels, some as demons. Let me tell you a story…’
I took a minute to finish my meal, which was getting quite cold while I chattered away. ‘Go on,’ Denise urged.
‘Back at the dawn of civilization,’ I said, striving for a movie voice-over tone, ‘when the forests and mountains were home to powerful magics and wild spirits crossed easily between the realms –’
‘Ooh! I think I’ve read this.’
I mock-scowled at Denise, then laughed. ‘It was not unknown for humans and spirits to consort.’
‘What does “consort” mean?’ Richard is certainly no virgin, but either his vocabulary is woefully limited or he wanted me to spell it out.
‘They had sex,’ I said, looking straight at him. I let him catch a subliminal glimpse of my real self, just as I said ‘sex’, and was rewarded with a sharp intake of breath. His hand shifted instinctively to his crotch, then jerked away again self-consciously. I winked at him and returned my attention to his sister.
‘The offspring of such unions would often be feared for their strangeness, or sometimes worshipped as divinities. They might have incredible strength, or astonishing beauty, or they might have magical abilities and be more in touch with one or other of the spirit realms, but all were given the gift – or curse – of immortality. They were immune to diseases and they did not age, but they were not completely invulnerable. Almost all are dead now, and few spirits walk between the realms any longer.’
I paused as Denise refilled my wine glass. ‘I love that story,’ she said. ‘It’s like the stories of the Greek gods – the children of Zeus… Perseus, was it?’
‘Yes. And Helen and Heracles, and so many others, born half of the mortal human world and half of the immortal spirit world. But more than that, it’s where the first vampires came from, the first witches and all manner of spirits and demons. I don’t think there’s a human alive today who isn’t descended from these ancients, one way or another.’
Denise grinned. ‘So I could be descended from the fairy queen?’
‘With your face, you could be descended from Helen of Troy herself.’ This time I let Denise catch a glimpse of my real self, and she flushed in confusion. ‘I think people have this idea of Helen of Troy as a naive young virgin rushing into the arms of a foreign lover, but she’d had quite a few adventures by the time Paris showed up. She was a mother by then, with a nine year old daughter. By the end of the war, she must have been pushing forty, and still Menelaus lusted after her. Ten years of royal humiliation, seeing his wife married to Paris, and later Deiphobus, and yet her beauty defeated his vengeful blade.’
I chuckled. ‘Of course, some men like the idea of their wives seeing other men.’
‘That’s just weird,’ Denise said.
‘All men are weird,’ I said. ‘Pope Sylvester the Second, the pure and holy leader of the Catholic Church at the end of the first millennium, was the faithful and ardent lover of Meridiana. She was the first succubus, born of a wood nymph, and renowned for her immortal beauty.
‘Five hundred years ago, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa started the researches that would lead to his great Occult Philosophy. He heard the tales about the great Meridiana, and for years he studied all the accounts he could find that spoke of demons and succubi.
‘One day he announced to the world, “No woman could seduce me, not even Meridiana herself!”’
I sighed. ‘Of course, Meridiana could never ignore such a challenge, and she came to him one night, certain that Heinrich’s will would crumble at the sight of her. But it was a trap, of course. Heinrich had learned the weakness of the succubi and removed all reflective surfaces from the room. Even his eyes he covered with a gauzy blindfold.
‘Unable to enchant him, and with no reflections to escape through, Meridiana was helpless. Heinrich kept her in that room, and visited her daily to talk to her. But he ached to do more. He had the most beautiful woman in the world before him, but he dared not look at her. Each day his desire grew, until at last he could stand it no more. He removed the blindfold.’
‘And she escaped through his eyes?’ Denise asked.
‘At once, and never returned. Heinrich searched for her for years, and it is said that he wept every night.’
‘That’s such a wonderful story,’ she said, smiling. I wished we were alone, that I could kiss her, that I could prove the truth of my words.
But it wasn’t until the end of the night, when we stood in her open doorway and said goodbye, that we were properly alone. I pulled her into me by the waist and leant in to kiss her, tenderly, then turned and walked into the night.
Denise, Denise, Goodnight, Denise!