A Goth By Chance, a short story by Richard A. Ridley. Date added: 2010-05-20. Times viewed: 17638.
- Please SEND FEEDBACK - Writers love hearing from you. You can view the Authors profile here
- Intro: The almost true story of Jimmy Whitby and the Vampyre Catering Company. Set in North London in the late eighties, the text is chock full of Gothic, literary, cinematic and musical references. This is an excerpt from chapter one of Wait Until You Die, which has evolved during the writing process. The complete novel is now available as a Kindle ebook under the title Wait Until You Die.
A Goth By Chance by Richard A Ridley (Excerpt from chapter one).
The woman behind the counter gave me a stern look, setting the tone in case I gave her any trouble. She adjusted the collar of her black cotton business suit and put on a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, then she leafed through a thin file with my details in it, studying intensely as she turned the pages. She was looking for a mug. She was looking for a likely candidate. I knew all the signs because I'd seen it loads of times; now I was about to experience it personally. When she'd finished reading the file she relaxed visibly and contorted her harsh features into a passable imitation of sympathy. 'I'm sorry Mr. Whitby, but I can't let you sign on until you've attended an interview with Mr. Pallister. I'll have to call him.'
I watched her lift the receiver from the telephone on her desk and press a few buttons, 'Gordon, your ten o' clock is here.' She looked at the clock on the jobcentre wall; it was five minutes past ten. 'He's a bit late, can you still see him?' She replaced the receiver and put my file into a wire office-tray marked 'interviews', 'Take a seat Mr. Whitby. Mr. Pallister will see you shortly'.
I sat on one of the blue plastic seats in the communal hallway and browsed through a wad of roughly-printed job vacancies, the usual stuff, gravedigger, toilet attendant, that sort of thing. A line of faceless bodies shuffled past me as I tried not to think about the mess I was in. I was getting desperate. I was almost ready to apply for a gravedigger's job, and I've got a vigorous aversion to graves.
When Mr. Pallister turned up he ushered me into a poky little cubicle with a desk and two chairs and with its walls covered in brightly-coloured posters. The Saatchi and Saatchi approach to unemployment. Maybe you're lucky enough not to have seen the sort of crap I'm talking about; the smiling, happy faces of blokes in boiler suits and hard-hats; the bright-eyed young women in white coats or nurses uniforms; all of them screaming what amounts to 'Get a job! Now!' The Eighties were a boom time. The miracle of Monetarism was taking hold of the nation, the Yuppies were making fortunes overnight and house prices were going through the roof. But somehow it was all passing me by.
'There's nothing to worry about Mr. Whitby; we're just going to have a helpful chat. Hopefully we can give you some extra help with your jobsearch. You see, here, we have access to positions that aren't advertised in newspapers.' He gave me a smile that was probably intended to put me at my ease but was actually rather frightening. 'Honestly' he said lying through his teeth 'I wouldn't want you to miss an excellent opportunity!'
Mr. Pallister was a sort of psuedo 'life and soul of the party' bloke with bags under his snake-like Donald Pleasance eyes. In a miserably ineffective attempt to appear light-hearted and friendly he was wearing a bright yellow Ben Sherman with a maximum-volume Fred Flintstone necktie. I half expected him to ask me to smell the red rose in his jacket lapel and then get squirted with water. The 'helpful chat' mainly involved him talking at me about why I should be 'using my skills to a greater degree' and how I should be 'building a career in the modern world'. I don't know if he believed it but I certainly didn't, and although I found myself nodding amiably when he used phrases like 'exploring new horizons' and 'using the principle of transferable skills', I knew I was being set up for some crappy vacancy he wanted to fill.
'Now, I've got a fresh opening here and it looks like a fine opportunity. It's for a catering company who specialise in Gothic themed evenings and they're looking for another waiter. The wages are good and you'd get to meet some very interesting people. Do you have any catering experience Mr Whitby?'
'A little. I was once a sandwich maker at Astley's, but that's about it.'
Mr. Pallister consulted the file. I'd actually been sacked from Astley's for 'constant and consistent' lateness, although I could never understand how either of those terms could be applied to a two-week period. Mr. Pallister's smile dropped for a few seconds but he recovered almost immediately. 'Oh well, it says here "experience preferable but not essential" so I suppose that doesn't really matter. Hmm, well, I think we might give this one a try. What do you think?' What I thought was that I was being railroaded and I didn't like it. I needed a job though, because my bills were piling up and I couldn't see how I was going to pay them. Any day now I was expecting my phone to be disconnected because the bill was overdue and British Telecom don't muck about when you owe them fifty-six quid. So I decided to go with the flow. I decided to allow Mr. Pallister to set me up with his crappy vacancy. I mean, how bad could it be? 'Well I'll give it a try if you think I'm suitable. I haven't had much experience but I'm a quick learner and I really think....'
'Oh excellent. I'll phone them right away'
In double-quick time Mr. Pallister arranged an interview appointment for three o' clock the next day at the company's premises in Golders Green. He gave me a small map, blurred and hazy and looking as if it had been photocopied about a million times. In the centre of the map there was a small red 'X' marked boldly in what looked like Biro, although I suppose it could have been blood. 'Well, good luck Mr Whitby. You'll be interviewed by Mr. Van Houten,' he gave me that unnerving smile again, 'I'm sure he'll let me know how it all went.' He shook my hand enthusiastically; another result, another positive tick for the statistics boys up at Gray's Inn Road. As soon as I got home I wrote out my interview spiel and started to learn it. I worked on it until late into the night and started again the following morning. By the afternoon I had my pitch fully memorised.
I felt well-prepared and reasonably confident as I walked down Watling Avenue towards Burnt Oak tube station, despite the dark grey rain-clouds which were gathering overhead I was in a jovial mood when I got to the ticket office and bought my ticket, but by the time I'd got onto the open-air platform the overhead clouds had darkened and the sky had turned ominously leaden. I knew a storm was coming and along with the barometer and my spirits, the temperature had dropped sharply. I began to feel uncomfortably cold. My train was late and I suddenly began to feel terribly downhearted and miserable. I had a vile feeling in my stomach, a combination of hungry emptiness and nervous apprehension. When the train finally arrived one of the alighting passengers bumped into me, spilt his can of coke all down my leg, and then hurried away without apologising. The only spare seat on the train was next to a girl wearing a Sony Walkman which was so loud that I could hear the bland, sickly-sweet music spilling out past her headphones. It was playing a Carpenters album. I felt too dejected to complain.
I got out of the tube station at Golders Green and the rain was like an electric power-shower set on 'cold'. By the time I'd walked up Golders Green Road and reached the railway bridge at the junction of Hoop Lane I was soaked to the skin and the photocopied map was falling to pieces. I walked down Hoop Lane for a few yards and then turned left and left again, into a gravel service road which runs parallel with Hoop Lane and which allows access to the rear of the shops which run along the Golders Green Road itself. At the end of the service road there was a pair of large wooden gates, no longer supported by their hinges but stuck permanently open, with their rounded corners of rotting wood and peeling, green paint falling in flakes, like the leaves some macabre living-dead tree. Above the rotten gates was a stout, newly-painted wooden signboard with a black background; its German Gothic letters picked out in silver paint said simply 'Vampyre Catering Limited'. I rolled the rain-soaked map into a ball and stuffed it into the pocket of my denim jacket because I didn't need it any more.
I walked through the rotten gates into a small, asphalted courtyard. In the far corner there was an old, black Transit minibus, and next to that was a jet-black Austin Princess hearse. Both of these were emblazoned, in silver paint and Gothic script, with the legend 'Vampyre Catering Ltd'; this time with the company's phone number. Now I've never been the most observant of people. I often walk about with my head in the clouds, fantasising; even the starkest details of a scene sometimes pass me by. But there was something about that hearse that even I couldn't miss, something odd, something awful. In the back of the hearse was a man lying in deep sleep, motionless and still like a statue. And in the dusky half-light the sleeping man, dressed as he was in the costume of Count Dracula, looked to me like the spitting image of Christopher Lee.
About halfway along the courtyard there was a light on in one of the outbuildings, but the door was closed and all I could see was the outline of the doorway, stark and bright against the sodden gloom. At the farthest end I could see a softly-lit doorway and the silhouette of a man smoking a cigarette. As I walked towards the doorway the guy greeted me in a cheery voice. 'Is this another lamb to the slaughter?' I hadn't a clue what he meant; 'I'm sorry?' was all I could manage to say.
He laughed, deep and rough-sounding, then took another pull on his cigarette and as he spoke he breathed staccato clouds of tobacco smoke out into the rainy courtyard.
'Only joking mate. You're here for an interview no doubt.'
'That's right. My Name's Jimmy Whitby and I come about the vacancy for a waiter, Now I haven't had much experience, but I'm a quick learner and I really...'
'Whoa there! You don't have to impress me mate.'
He was wearing a pair of black corduroy trousers and the sleeves of his white cotton shirt were rolled up to the elbows as if he'd recently been busy with some or other manual task. He was sweating slightly and with his soft blue eyes and jet-black hair he looked like one of those 'loveable rogue' type characters you used to see in western movies, a sort of young James Garner. He took a final pull on his cigarette and tossed it out into the courtyard, then he stretched out his hand and I shook it.
'I'm Gerald. Gerald Mulcahy, waiter and philosopher, at your service.' He bowed long and low in a theatrical, exaggerated manner he gave me a cheesecake grin. 'Follow me and I'll take you through to Henri' he pointed to his temple with his index finger and twisted his wrist back and forth a few times as if to say "Henri the nut-case" and then he winked at me conspiratorially, 'He's the boss.'
Gerald took me through into the kitchen area, which was bright, hot and steamy. A chef stood in the corner cutting up whole chickens with a stainless steel meat cleaver, a mean-looking dishevelled guy was slaving away, mopping dinner-plates at the double sink; various individuals were tearing around for reasons I couldn't fathom, rushing about the place as if they expected an earthquake to occur at any second and they had to finish this or that task before it hit them. A battered old radio was blaring out Billy Ocean's 'When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going' and the staff seemed to be working in rhythm to the song, the chef's meat cleaver rising and falling on each beat, the dish-washer taking another plate at each new line. Gerald pointed to a doorway adjacent to the kitchen, 'Henri's office is in there. Good luck mate.' I smiled and said 'Thanks'. I was wet and cold and I was hungry. I was trying desperately to buck myself up and concentrate on the job interview but all I could think about was the rotten gates, the grim courtyard, the hearse and the sleeping man.
Henri Van Houten seems far less strange now that I know him better, but the first time I met him he very nearly freaked me out. I mean this was the strangest interview I'd ever had. Not least, because Henri tape-recorded all his interviews. He was neurotic about it. The first glimpse I ever got of Henri's tape-recording obsession was about twenty seconds after I had walked into his office. The tiny room was so badly lit I could hardly see him, the only hint of illumination coming from a tiny desk-lamp. I squinted in the half-light and took a deep breath. I was going to make an impression. I was all hyped-up for a pitch and I was going to sock it to him. I girded up my loins and started my spiel; with false enthusiasm and the pretence of confidence, I gave him the biggest opening I could muster.
'Hi! My name is Jimmy Whitby and I've come about your vacancy for a waiter, now I haven't had any previous experience, but I'm a quick learner and I...'
'Wait! Wait. Just a few seconds, if you please.'
He fiddled with a small tape recorder, making a check of the cassette and the batteries. The bulb in the desk lamp was about fifteen watts, maybe ten.
'We will begin the interview....' He held up his short, chubby arm as a sign to me,
'Nnnow!' He pressed the 'record' button on the tape-recorder. He had a broad accent that I found hard to place. It could have been Austrian, or Dutch even; I'd never been good at guessing accents. He studied me for a few seconds in the semi-darkness. Sizing me up.
'Very well; what is it that you wish to speak to me about?'
I looked at him. Sizing him up. Henri was a short, heavily-set man with a barrel chest and large eyebrows which knitted together when he was thinking hard or stressed out. There was something beguiling about him, maybe it was that unplaceable accent, perhaps it was his haphazard manner; by now though, I was feeling a bit deflated; I'd been put off my stroke and I hadn't planned for that.
'I just told you, I've come about your vacancy for a waiter and....'
He held up his arm again.
'No.' said Henri abruptly. He turned off the tape-recorder and stood up. 'We can't begin that way. Now sit down. I'm going to turn on the overhead light.'
In the glow from the overhead light I could see the general untidiness of the tiny office. The room itself looked even smaller in the bright light and Henri looked even broader. Piles of dusty papers were stacked haphazardly festooning every available surface; a collection of dirty coffee mugs sat like trophies, monuments to some long-forgotten five-minute break. There was a shelf of dusty books along the back wall and several wads of yellowing invoices bulged together with tightly-stretched elastic bands. A small, framed photograph hung on the right-hand wall, a grainy old portrait of a stern-looking young army officer. It looked a bit like Joseph Stalin might have looked in his youth, but it looked even more like Henri in some former guise, some youthful adventure perhaps.
A huge cut-glass ashtray on the left-hand side of Henri's battered wooden desk overflowed with fat cigar butts. The whole room positively reeked of stale tobacco smoke and if for a few seconds you stopped smelling stale tobacco, it was because you had started smelling onions. Strong ones. Henri must have been the only person in the country who'd remained indifferent to the 'Shake'n'Vac' adverts which had been displayed on TV screens and billboards throughout the country for the past few years. Ironic really, because Henri was one of the few people who actually needed the stuff. But then that's life isn't it? The people who really need a thing never get it. I was reminded of something George Orwell wrote, 'A person can obtain anything in this life, provided they genuinely don't want it'. Apart from his obviously shabby working conditions though, Henri didn't appear to be doing too badly. In his bespoke black mohair suit, with his gleaming white shirt and silver cufflinks, he looked incongruous against the grimy backdrop of these seedy surroundings.
He stared at me with intense seriousness, and in the glow of that damned overhead light I felt that all my faults were showing in Technicolor splendour. There were thin beads of sweat running down my forehead and fat stream of rainwater trickling down the back of my neck. I was beginning to think I'd screwed-up badly by coming to this place. I looked at Henri and felt like telling him that I'd made a mistake, I felt like asking him if I could go now and telling him that I was sorry for wasting his time. I was just about to speak to him when, as abruptly as before, he pressed the 'record' button on the cassette machine again and said simply,
'Start from the beginning, with your name.'
I didn't like having the interview recorded. I also didn't like the shoddy appearance of the working environment. I certainly didn't like the aroma of stale tobacco smoke and onions, which made my eyes well up as if I was on the point of crying. Despite the fact that I was totally skint I was considering walking out, but I had the added consideration that the DHSS might stop my Unemployment Benefit if I didn't attend the interview. Besides, I needed a job, although my enthusiasm for this one was rapidly fading. I decided that since I'd made the effort to get here, I might as well see it through. In the beginning though, all I could manage was a half-hearted, surly imitation of the speech I'd spent so much time rehearsing.
'My name is Jimmy Whitby and I've come about your vacancy for a waiter. I haven't got any previous experience but I'm a quick learner. I'm twenty-six years old, I'm fit and healthy and I've always had an interest in Gothic horror. I think I've got the ideal personality for dealing with the public in a recreational environment'
That was about it, at first, but somehow Henri got a lot more out of me, and before very long I found that I'd told him quite a lot about my personal background. I told him I was a good reliable worker. I told him I was honest and dependable. I told him my star-sign. I told him I once had a pet rabbit called Fluffy. I can't be totally sure, but I might even have told him my shoe-size. And when he'd got a lot more out of me than I ever intended to tell him, Henri smiled.
'Excellent' he said quietly. 'Now I feel I must warn you that this post is a very unusual one, and people have all sorts of misconceptions about it. Many applicants think it will be a really fun occupation. Are you looking for a fun job Jimmy?'
I don't know what came over me, but I thought I'd be honest.
'Not really, no. I'm just looking for a way to earn money. I don't care if it's not fun and I'm not interested in any kind of 'old pals act'. I don't have to like you and you don't have to like me. I'm not looking for any kind of social thing. I'm just looking for a job.'
Henri rested his elbows on the desk and knitted his chubby fingers together. Then he began the interview in earnest and for a while it seemed to me as if old Henri was trying to put me off. Maybe he didn't like the look of me. I couldn't have blamed him for that. 'I respect honesty in an employee and in return I will be honest with you. This is a terrible job. You will be required to dress in vampire costume, including make-up, for most of your shift. Many people find this aspect very difficult. Do you think you will find it difficult?' He fiddled again with the cassette recorder, waiting for an answer,
'Well, I think I can cope with that sort of thing. I've never been one to allow difficulties to defeat me. In fact I'm looking forward to the challenge.' I gave him my best smile and he seemed pleased, but Henri was far from finished, 'You will be required to have or obtain, at least a basic knowledge of vampire literature, this is essential in order to relate to our...clientele. Would that be a problem Jimmy?' Henri gave a sort of wince when he said the word 'clientele' and there was a kind of negative inflection in his pronunciation of the word, as if he wasn't exactly enamoured with them, as if there was some sort of grievance there. I knew the type; they attended specialist clubs like Alice in Wonderland and The Batcave. They'd come home from boring, unfulfilling jobs and then get all dressed up in some costume or outfit. Pirates. Highwaymen. Gothic figures. I'd never seen the attraction myself but I knew a few people who'd heard the call and answered it, meeting in pubs and clubs, dressed up to the nines, at sixes and sevens with their workaday lives.
'Not at all Henri, I'm accustomed to dealing with all types of customers from various social groups. I'm also familiar with vampire literature and culture'. I was giving him bullshit in my best accent, I hoped he didn't want to go into detail because actually I knew very little about vampires beyond seeing a few Hammer horror films, but luckily he didn't test me. As the interview progressed I countered all Henri's obstacles, and the more he tried to discourage me the more determined I became to get the job. It was a bit like a verbal tennis match. Serve and volley. Some of the rallies were harrowing but I never let him ace me, and Henri's smile got broader the longer the game went on. Then he let me have it with a real cannonball.
'The hours are the most unsocial that could be imagined. You will forget what the sun looks like. You will forget the order of the days.' He looked straight into my eyes, unblinking and serious. 'Do you think you can cope with that Jimmy?'
I met his gaze for a few seconds and had a rare moment of inspiration,
'I have a saying Henri, 'When the going gets tough, the tough get going' and that's how I am, tough.'
He gave me his broadest smile yet and I thought 'Thank you Billy Ocean'.
Henri lit a large cigar and pulled at it vigorously, he breathed out a cloud of dark grey smoke and when he spoke it was with a soft and friendly tone, relaxed and slow like when a salesman is delivering the bottom line on a double-glazing deal. 'The truth is that our staff turnover is very high. In fact I can think of only one reason for a sane person to undertake such an enterprise as this, and that reason is that although the stated salary is only one hundred and fifty pounds per week,' He lowered his voice to a whisper, the volume indicator on the tape-recorder showed that it wasn't registering. 'You could expect to double that sum with bonuses and tips, all of which are paid in cash. If money is your motivation then this position could be exactly what you want.' Then he smiled sympathetically and watched me gurning as I did some mental arithmetic.
I left Henri's office half an hour later with a £20 float to buy some stage make-up and black hair-dye. I was expected to start at six o'clock sharp the following evening, later than the regular staff because I was the new boy. The float money came in dead handy because I was just about flat broke. I bought a hot sausage roll and a cup of coffee from the delicatessen on the corner of Golders Green Road and Finchley Lane. I sat in the bus depot outside the tube station, the only shelter I could find, wolfing down the sausage roll and sipping the coffee, watching the traffic and the rain.
When I'd finished eating and went into the nearest chemist's shop to buy some black hair dye and some of the make-up Henri had recommended. I bought some white face-powder, mascara, eye-liner and some black lipstick. On the way back to the tube station I went into a bookshop and bought a copy of Dracula.
I travelled back to Burnt Oak on the tube and at an off-licence in Watling Avenue I bought a half-bottle of vodka and a bottle of tonic water. When I got home to my flat above a furniture shop in Burnt Oak Broadway I made a large vodka and tonic and reflected on what had happened that day, the dreary surroundings, the recorded interview and the sleeper in the hearse. And out of all of that stuff the thing that bothered me second-most was the fact that Henri had seemed so determined to talk me out of working there. But the thing that bothered me foremost was the fact that I'd been just as determined not to let him. I reflected on everything that had happened and I realised that none of it made any sense to me. I didn't want to become some kind of counterfeit vampire. I didn't want to be working my socks off whilst watching Gothic revellers living it up and having the time of their lives. The more vodka I drank the less sense it all made, and I drank a lot of vodka.
The next day was Saturday, and loath as I was to be working weekends, I made a genuine effort to prepare for work. After a paracetomol breakfast I fell to work with a vengeance. I dyed my hair black, studied various passages in Dracula, and tried to get some afternoon sleep before the night's work began. None of these activities were a great success. I knew a little bit more about vampires, my hair was almost black, but I got absolutely no sleep at all. And when the buzzer of my digital alarm clock went off at four pm, I had the feeling that I could sleep happily, soundly, the sleep of the innocent. But it was too late.
In Burnt Oak Broadway the shops were all shutting up for the night. The street was littered with old newspapers, aluminium cans, cigarette packets, and pieces of discarded fruit from the greengrocers' barrows, which had by now trundled off into the autumn evening. You could tell from the residue that it had been a busy day, but now the shopped-out masses had hurried home for another dose of televisual dross. I checked my L.C.D. wristwatch; the time was 17.00. I got to the tube station at Burnt Oak and waited ages for a train. The sun was obscured by grey-and-white clouds and I saw an early robin making its nest in one of the yellowing trees beside the rail-tracks. The evening air was still and cold and I had the sudden realisation that the summer was over and the winter was about to set in. I was thinking 'the summer of '86 is dead, long live the summer of '87'. But first there was the winter to be faced and I knew it, even though I didn't want to know it. I didn't want to think about the long, cold, sunless months ahead. I was wearing my denim jacket so I was freezing. Shivering. I decided that the first thing I'd do when I got paid was buy an overcoat.
When I got to Golders Green tube station I checked my watch and it showed 17.45. I walked along Golders Green Road and by the time I'd reached the railway bridge which runs overhead I was already tired. I already wanted to go home. I walked down Hoop Lane and turned in to the service road which gives access to the rotten gates and the staff entrance, forcing my pace because I was running late and I wanted to make a good first impression by being on time. I managed to get to Vampyre's premises at exactly 17.52. The night people, the New Romantics and Goths, the Vampyre clientele and their ilk, were probably preening themselves, smoking cigarettes, putting on their make-up while they bitched about the latest celebrities, chopping white powder with Stanley-knife blades and drinking neat vodka to get into the swing. They'd be listening to Bauhaus and The Damned, warming up with Souxsie and the Banshees, Spandau Ballet and The Cure. For probably the first time in my life I found myself wishing I was in their shoes and not my own.
At the end of the gravel service road the rotting green gates looked just as sad as the first time I'd seen them and the courtyard was almost as gloomy. A light was on in the outbuilding just the same as before, the Transit was in the courtyard and so was the hearse, and in the back of the hearse was the same figure, sleeping again and looking even more like Christopher Lee. I felt slightly more at ease than I'd felt before the interview but I can't say I didn't feel any apprehension. The whole set-up seemed odd. Henri certainly seemed a bit strange and the hours were going to be a nightmare, I wasn't overly pleased at the thought of wearing make-up either. But for the sort of money Henri was paying I felt I could stand a bit of strangeness, a bit of oddity. I felt I could face the long hours and the theatrical facade. I felt pretty good about the thing, taken as a whole. But of course that was before I'd met any of the customers. Or the rest of the staff.
P.S. I'm hoping to publish this on Kindle quite soon but it will be re-titled 'Wait Until You Die'
- Use for below to send feedback to author - View the Authors profile here
- The following form will send feedback to the author about this short story, please enter your e-mail if you wish a reply (which is obviously at the authors own discretion)