This is a chapter from It’s All About The Road, a collection of stories and essays which, together, tell a complete history of Stoke, from the Ice Age to thirty years from now, through stories from one road. This story was inspired by the death of a Polish pottery worked, Demetrious Myiciura, which is the only time in the UK vampires are mentioned on a death certificate. the real story happened in 1972, and this one happens around then. Much of the detail is real, what happened after Lidice is true, the house as described here exists and I’ve stayed in it, and the head on the penny was designed by somebody who lived a few doors up from it.
The rubber seals around the windows were cracked, and where the barrier was broken rivers ran down the curved walls each time the dark red bus turned its sides to the wind. The water pooled at the edges of the floor. It wasn’t the only water inside the double decker; the heat from the bodies had steamed the windows. So the world outside was filtered through two layers of water, thick rain outside and thin condensation inside. Like looking through the dirty lenses of old glasses, the world was grey and indistinct, occasionally details lurching into sharp focus. A tiled street name, Park Street, painted out in black. A masonic square and compasses carved in stone. Shakespeare’s face mosaicked in tiles. A tin sign advertising Spratt’s Canary Mixture, ‘Sold Only In Packets’. All fragments, a brief focus on a cinematic story happening, off camera, away from the lens of the bus window.
Better than the days after he first moved here, though. There was the blackout then. But smog too, and a man had to walk in front of the buses with a torch. The only thing that could penetrate the dark then were a pair of searchlights by the gates of the Michelin Factory up the road.
In the seat in front of him, a woman sneezed into a grey handkerchief. The cotton was frayed, and would never wash to clean white again. He realised that what he had thought to be a stain was an embroidered pattern of deep violet pansies which had faded to a different shade of grey. Each outbreak of sneezes was followed by a dry, rasping wheeze. She had sneezed three dozen times since he had got on. Thirty six sneezes, thirty six wheezes. Again – thirty seven. Each time the bus hit a pothole and shook, he reached for the handle on the seat in front of him, and his hand brushed against the thick, rough knitted wool of her coat. It was thick with damp, and under that, grease that had built up over years. Each time he brushed against her, he closed his eyes and flinched.
He got off a stop early, stumbling down the curved metal stairs, off the bus, relieved to be in the open air again. He didn’t mind the rain, or the cold, or the wind. He had grown up somewhere colder, and whenever he felt the chill he remembered, and thought himself lucky to have this new country. The winds at home had been harsher, the things he had seen worse than anything that could happen here. But even so after the forty years he had been here, it was still new, and often surprising, and still not home.
This town welcomed foreigners, and always had. He remembered, not long after he had arrived, meeting the children who had arrived here on the Czech Kindertransport. And the way that the miners here had raised funds to rebuild Lidice, after the Nazis destroyed that village. ‘Lidice Shall Live!’, Stoke had declared, and it had. But while Stoke was warm, and generous, it kept foreigners as foreigners, held them at a distance. The contradiction was at the heart of this place. The potteries were always bringing new people in, always embracing the new ideas, technology, skills they brought. The pottery where he worked was full of Germans at the moment, bringing new lithographic machines and transfer cutters. He avoided them.
Generation after generation of immigrants, but still Stoke stayed distinct, and cherished history and tradition, he thought, guarding its own local food and the rich dialect. He spoke Stoke’s English but still with a Polish accent. To the Englishman he met when in London for meetings, he sounded like a man from Stoke; to the locals, he sounded foreign. To theoccasional Pole he met at work, his Krajna dialect sounded archaic, full of forgotten words and old inflections. He knew he was adrift, a refugee, and had been for the past forty years.
The smell of baked bread was strong on the wind, and brought him back to the here and now. He remembered the last of the bread which he had burnt under the grill that morning. He had never mastered the grill and would lean forward watching the bread below the flickering gas flames. But he never judged it right. It had been a long time since he had tasted toast without a thin layer of burning, and his breakfast every day was like a burnt offering to an old god. He pushed through the heavy half-door of the bakehouse. As always, it pushed back, as if the shop didn’t want him to enter. Getting inside always felt like a small victory. He celebrated by buying a small loaf, and two scones. The bread here tasted faintly of the coal that fired the ovens, and for the second time, he remembered the place where he lived before. Bread baked in the kitchen that was the only warm room in a cold house. The room his wife so rarely left.
Distracted by the remembrance of his Yetta, his little home ruler, he hardly noticed he had stepped outside and then he was at the end of his road. The rain had pushed thick streams down the side of the rough dirt road. The rain remembered there used to be a spring here and was trying to find the fastest way down to the river at the bottom of the valley. Two thick pools stirred at each corner of his road, brought up short where dirt road met tarmac, and thin twigs twirled and twisted as they were caught in the contradiction. The pool on each side spun a different way, he noticed. There was some order behind the chaos of this small flood.
He turned towards home. The thick stone slabs on the narrow pavement were slick and the smooth leather soles of his boots slid. He felt uncertain, unbalanced, the world shifting slightly. Stepping across the kerbstone, over the temporary stream, he walked on the dirt road instead. As he looked down, the road sparkled. White bones, broken bones, children’s bones underfoot. No. Crushed unfired pottery had been used to grog the road. He shivered at the understanding of what he had thought he had seen.He forced himself to move, through the heavy wooden gate, up the stone path, and under the porch. The rain was a thick sheet pouring off the tiled roof and down the dark red stained glass in the windows at the porch’s side. The light here always disorientated him. When the sun was bright it felt like being in a church, but on days like today the stained glass turned the light into something slow, thick and shadowed. He always thought this porch was an ambiguous space, and felt he was at the tipping point in a religious ritual. What was inside the front door might change, depending on this balanced, pivotal moment. He was in a liminal place, the connections fragile. But then bones and blood and ritual were forgotten as he felt the bread slip from under his arm. He caught it, reached for the key in his coat pocket, turned the lock and opened the door. His gothic mood was broken by the mundanity of a loaf of bread.
He understood that he hadn’t chosen this house. It had chosen him. It wasn’t an English house, and he wanted to be English. The road was lined with near-identical buildings, all built in what the agent who rented the house to him had described grandly as ‘the European style’. He had thought to rent a house in one of the terraced houses nearby, not in this walled enclave where the well-to-do foreign factory workers had often lived in the past.
He had found old papers belonging to Mr Léon Arnoux in a cupboard in the kitchen. And had traced this man’s story, an engineer who became an artist and moved from the Sèvres factory, to the Minton works down the road. Every house had a similar story, a Louis, a Léon, an Alphonse, an Adolf. Why had he thought of that last name? Not a good name, not a name to remember
But when he’d asked for a house in a terrace, the agent had shown him this one. He had been promoted again, just before moving here, and although the rent was cheap this house matched his new status. He was, after all, an important man now, in charge of a department in an important British company. An Englishman’s home, a Pole’s castle. But it was too big; he knew it was too big; just for him. His Yetta and his children would have loved it but he felt adrift in the spaces his new home gave him. He couldn’t allow himself to think of them here.
He wasn’t even sure how many rooms there were, but there would have been enough for all of his family. There were five doors off the hallway downstairs and he climbed the stairs ahead of him. The hallway at the top was an L shape, and he was standing at the corner. He turned slowly, looking back at the front of the house. A tall window above the front porch let in more light than seemed possible for such a slender opening. It reminded him of the embrasure in a concrete pill box he had once stood inside, abandoned in the English countryside. A defence against something that never came.
He turned slowly and counted under his breath. There were seven doors there. He pushed a hand into his pocket, looking for a scrap of paper he had put there at the start of the day. His fingers found it and he pulled it out, dropping a copper penny as he did. It landed on the bare floorboards. ‘Tails’, he thought, but as he bent to pick it up the light caught the queen’s coronet. He always called tails, not heads, and he usually won. This was not a good sign. He dropped the penny back in his pocket and unfurled the scrap of paper. ‘Seven’, it said in his black spidery writing. There were still seven doors. Reassured that the upstairs was as he’dleft it he went back downstairs, and shrugged off his wet coat. He hung it on a hook below the staircase and stepped through to the kitchen at the rear of the house.
The kitchen was where he spent the most time. There was a dining room next door, a grand room with a bold arch and a bay window where curved windows caught the light and flooded the room. He had a dining table which was an antique, bought from a junk shop on London Road and carried here by him and the shop’s dusty old owner. It had six matching chairs, the velvet on the seats worn, the gold thread faded to a dull green but still good. But he never ate in that room. The kitchen had an old, square pine table and two battered Victorian chairs. One was for his newspaper, and one for him. This was enough, so it was where he ate. He knew an Englishman should have a dining room, so he had one, but he couldn’t see a use for it.
So he opened a tin of soup, and tipped it into a saucepan. The pilot light never worked, and he wondered if they ever did. So he struck a match, matches from the Bali Hai Nightclub – Margate, held the match until the sputtering gas steadied into a constant flame, and warmed the soup slowly while he sliced and buttered his bread.
From the cupboard in front of him he took out a bowl, which had travelled the shortest possible distance from the factory to his house. The Biltons pottery was just across the road, and although that wasn’t where he worked, he liked their designs. His work was traditional, with crinkled edges and gold trim. But this Biltons pattern was modern. This set of crockery had a series of concentric circles, each ring made up of small squares. A central circle of black squares overprinted in green, and an outer circle left white. As he looked it induced a slight sense of vertigo, the pattern turning as he looked at it. He poured the orange-red tomato soup over it to hide his confusion and sat down to eat.
He finished quickly, and realised he had nothing else to do until going to bed. He dropped the saucepan, bowl, spoon and breadknife into the washing up bowl. Eating little, using little, he often took three days to gather enough dirty crockery to fill the washing up bowl and make it worth turning the immersion heater on. He left it and picked up the Daily Telegraph Magazine from the seat next to the one he’d used. Stepping back into the hall, he checked the number of doors, five, before choosing the one that led into the long, thin front room.
Running from the front to the back of this house, this was the room in the house he liked the most. There was light from each end, and he looked out of the back window, down the overgrown garden to the old coach house. This was a building he didn’t use, full of a tangle of chairs, small tables, bicycles, broken garden tools and chests of drawers which could never be opened again. The accumulated junk was like the inside of a sewing box which had been overturned, threads, needles, pins and buttons twisted, tied together into new, interesting but ultimately useless configurations. Nothing could be removed. It had all grown together. He had an intense dislike of the space inside the coach house, which seemed to grow smaller and tighter around him whenever he entered. He hadn’t ventured further than the few clear feet of cobbled floor inside the door from the garden, and had never risked the bowed and twisting wooden stairs which led to the coach house’s upper floor. He was happy to leave the building padlocked, and suspected it would, eventually, just give in to the future and crumble
Turning back to the front room, he chose an armchair as far from the back window as possible, and sat down by the empty fireplace. He knew he should light a fire to fight the continual dampness in the house, but the effort was too much. He picked up the magazine; ‘The Artist As Entertainer…Philosopher…And Social Conscience’ said the cover, with a photograph of a longhaired portrait artist, painting an old tramp squatting in a makeshift shelter in some woodland. He flicked through the magazine, enjoying an article about the problems of a button-shop owner with 50,000 buttons on which he had to calculate the new Value Added Tax, and an unlikely story about a seaside town in Northern Ireland, a world away from the bombs and bullets causing trouble elsewhere. He paused to read an advert, ‘Drive a Michelin. It makes a good car better’. Although he had no car, and consequently no interest in steel-braced radial tyres, they were made just down the road; his was the interest of a neighbour.
The main article, on page 36, told about an arrogant artist, ‘with a talent for upsetting people’, who was painting tramps and vagabonds. This artist, Lenkiewicz, an ordinary commercial portrait painter and an unconventional muralist, was the child of emigres. A couple who’d escaped from a corner of Poland, from Krajna! He felt a sudden lurch, the unlikeliness of this connection pulling him up physically. Today had been a day of reminders, blood red light and bread, pottery underfoot and painters in magazines. He felt old now, suddenly, and tired.
Perhaps the woman’s germs from the bus were already affecting him, bringing him down with a cold. That English phrase, ‘a cold’, when everything here was already cold and damp.He decided he should prepare for bed early. It was already half dark, the sun behind the heavy wet clouds providing little light and no warmth. He could forget today in sleep, and wake tomorrow.
He stood up, still holding the Telegraph Magazine. As he dropped it on the table beside the chair, a piece of square-cut wartime utility furniture with one leg shorter than the others, the room seemed to lurch. No, it was just the table, resonating on a loose and warped floorboard.He needed to use the kitchen to prepare for bed, but in the hour he had been home it had got darker. The kitchen, at the back of the house, didn’t get enough light late in the day. He pushed the solid Bakelite switch down. There was a slight fizz before the dusty bulb lit. Bare. It brought as much dark with it as it brought light. He turned to the sink, twisted the tap, filled the electric kettle, turned it on at the wall socket. While that boiled, he moved to the larder, opened the three-panelled door and found the cloves of garlic in a basket on a bowed shelf to the right.
Next to the board where he had sliced the bread earlier was a pestle and mortar, and he used it to break the garlic bulb into smaller cloves. He dropped the cloves into a small bowl.
A drum-shaped jar, white ware from the factory where he worked, was full of poppy seeds. They were collected from the garden behind the pottery, the thin flutes of seedpods picked while green and carefully dried out on an old side-plate before being stored. He measured three teaspoons of them into a discoloured sherry glass.
The kettle started to whistle, so he pulled open a drawer and took out a rubber hot water bottle. He filled it, wrapped it in an old towel, and placed it on the side. He poured milk into a small saucepan and fumbled with the matches and gas again. A slow warming, a low heat, stirring constantly. The smell of warm milk meant the end of the day was near. He pulled out a silver tray, put a dimpled glass tumbler on it, and poured in the warm milk. He put the bowl of garlic on the tray, the glass of poppy seeds, added a salt pot, and tucked the hot water bottle under his arm. He turned the kitchen light off as he left.
He put the tray and the bottle down on a side table in the hallway, and pushed the heavy bolt to make sure the front door could not be opened from outside. A formality; he knew that, for the visitors he might expect, that would be the last place they would choose to enter. He turned to the stairs, counting the five doors as he did, before picking up the things he had put down. At the top of the stairs he paused, turned, and counted from one to seven. Each door was still there, but he couldn’t remember what was behind the fifth and sixth ones.
The last door, the seventh, was the one he wanted. He pushed it open with a foot and looked up at a second flight of stairs. While the stairs from ground to first floor were wide, solid, proud, this second staircase wasn’t one to be seen by anyone other than servants. It was narrow, and twisted to the left at the top, into his bedroom. He climbed, the long and thin staircase lit by the last daylight falling through a slit of a window at the top. The last step was loose, but he knew that and braced himself for the wobble. In his room, he put the tray down on a plain chest of drawers, and tucked the water bottle, without its towel, into the single bed. He turned on the lamp on the bedside table. Even though it was just a plain metal frame, bolted together, he thought it must have been incredibly hard to carry this up here, through the twisted stairwell.
There were two wedges in the sash window, and he pulled them out to open it. Across the road, flattened in the gloaming, was his house reflected. Each house in the street started as the same, a kit of pieces, the same porch and roof and window styles and at the top, this tower. The architect, he imagined, had started with a set of children’s toy bricks. Square, arch, triangle, cylinder, rectangle. But each house was slightly different in its arrangement. The one opposite was his house reversed. He had never been inside, but could imagine the spaces there. He wondered, briefly, if they noticed, as he did, that sometimes the internal arrangement of the rooms shifted. He wondered if they knew what was in the front two rooms on the first floor. He knew the lady who lived there, an upper class Spanish lady with her thick black hair always piled high, and that she took lodgers. She used them, he supposed, to fill the emptiness he felt in his house.
He picked up the glass of poppy seeds, and scattered them across the window ledge before closing the window and putting the wedges back in. On the inside, he scattered some salt. He poured some more in a straight line parallel to the end of his bed, reinforcing a line which he had made many times, but which was blown and scuffed away.
He undressed, folding his clothes and dropping them onto a chair by the drawers. From the top drawer, he took flannel pyjamas. He drunk the still-warm milk. He placed a clove of garlic on the floor by the head of the bed. There were a few from previous nights there already, some old and thick with dust. This was a regular arrangement, part of the routine of bed time.
It was a simple protection, against an enemy that had never come for him, but which, he knew with certainty would, one day would. It had come for his lovely Yetta, and for the children.
He had worked in a pottery factory in Poland before the war. He was the factory’s technical director, introducing new machinery to an old works. The machines often went wrong, the workers were unhappy at having to change, the world was uncertain (but he had little time for reading the newspaper anyway),and he often came home from the factory, late, and dirty, and tired. He knew though that, however late, Yetta would have managed. Food would be warm on the stove, the bread fresh from the afternoon. The children would be clean, and in bed.
Not on that day, though. There had been rumours of war all day, but with his head under machinery he had not had the time. It was unlikely that the German army would invade, after all, because Britain had sworn to protect Poland’s land.
So he was unprepared for what he found when he got home. He found his family, drained of blood. He knew where it had gone, most of it. It was smeared across the He knew where it had gone, most of it. It was smeared across thewalls and pooled on the stone floor. Something had ripped through the wooden window frames, breaking glass into a fine dust, and had torn them apart. He knew that the things happening in the world that year had woken the darkest things in Krajna. Things that wanted blood and warmth. Vampires from his home weren’t the gentlemen of the English stories he had read since arriving here in Stoke, but were brutal and animal. He had seen what they had done to Yetta, to his two children. He had fled, ahead of the vampires, tumbling across Europe until he found himself here.
He had not protected Yetta, the children, but he would protect himself. Many nights he knew, with certainty, that he was a foolish old man and he did nothing. But after days like the one he had just had, he was more careful.
He climbed into bed, brought the dark outside in by switching the lamp off, pushed the hot water bottle further down and shifted himself into the warm spot where it had been. He had a last clove of garlic in his hand, and he dropped it into his mouth, without biting. As he pulled the blankets tighter he realised he couldn’t move, and the garlic shifted to the back of his mouth. He couldn’t breath, his body restricted and the clove of garlic blocking the air to his lungs, and the bad signs he had seen all day rose again; children’s bones, blood, and the darkness rising in his eyes as the last light faded.