Stories: All-New Tales by Neil Gaiman

BLOOD

Roddy Doyle

HE GREW UP IN DRACULA’S CITY. He’d walked past Bram Stoker’s house every day on his way to school. But it had meant nothing to him. He’d never felt a thing, not the hand of a ghost or a shiver, not a lick on his neck as he passed. In fact, he was nearly eighteen, in his last year at school, before he’d even noticed the plaque beside the door. He’d never read the book, and probably never would. He’d fallen asleep during Coppola’s Dracula. One minute his wife was screaming, grabbing his knee; the next, she was grabbing the same knee, trying to wake him up. The cinema lights were on and she was furious.

-How can you do that?

-What?

-Sleep during a film like that.

-I always fall asleep when the film’s shite.

-We’re supposed to be out on a date.

-That’s a different point, he said.–For that, I apologise. How did it end, anyway?

-Oh, f**k off, she said, affectionately—that was possible in Dublin.

So the whole thing, the whole Dracula business, meant absolutely nothing to him.

Nevertheless, he wanted to drink blood.

Badly.

The badly was recent, and dreadful. The itch, the urge, the leaking tongue—it was absolutely dreadful.

He wasn’t sure when it had started. He was, though—he knew when he’d become aware.

-How d’you want your steak?

-Raw.

His wife had laughed. But he’d been telling her the truth. He wanted the slab of meat she was holding over the pan, raw and now—fuck the pan, it wasn’t needed. He could feel muscles holding him back, and other muscles fighting for him—neck muscles, jaw muscles.

Then he woke.

But he was awake already, still standing in the kitchen, looking at the steak, and looking forward to it.

-Rare, so, he said.

She smiled at him.

-You’re such a messer, she said.

He hid behind that, the fact that he acted the eejit, that it was him, as he bent down to the charred meat on the plate a few minutes later, and licked it. The kids copied him and they all ended up with brown gravy on their noses. He made himself forget about his aching jaws and the need to bite and growl. They all watched a DVD after dinner, and everything was grand.

And it was; it was fine. Life was normal. For a while. For quite a while. Weeks—he thought. He opened the fridge one day. There were two fillet steaks on a plate, waiting. It must have been weeks later because she—her name was Vera—she wouldn’t have bought steak all that frequently. And it wasn’t the case that Vera did all the shopping, or even most of it; she just went past the butcher’s more often than he did. She bought the food; he bought the wine. She bought the soap and toilet paper—and he bought the wine. You’re such a messer.

He grabbed one of the steaks and took it over to the sink. He looked behind him, to make sure he was alone, and then devoured it as he leaned over the sink. But he didn’t devour it. He licked it first, like an ice-pop; it was cold. He heard the drops of blood hit the aluminum beneath him, and he felt the blood running down his chin, as if it—the blood—was coming from him. And he started to suck it, quickly, to drink it. It should have been warm. He knew that, and it disgusted him, the fact that he was already planting his disappointment, setting himself up to do it again—this—feeding a need, an addiction he suddenly had and accepted. He growled—he f**kin’ growled. He looked behind him—but he didn’t care. You’re such a messer. He chewed till it stopped being meat and spat the pulp into the bin. He rubbed his chin; he washed his hands. He looked at his shirt. It was clean. He ran the hot tap and watched the black drops turn red, pink, then nothing. He took the remaining fillet from the fridge and slid it off the plate, into the bin. He tied the plastic liner and brought it out to the wheelie bin.

-Where’s the dinner? Vera wanted to know, later.

-What?

-I bought fillet steaks for us. There.

She stood in front of the fridge’s open door.

-They were off, he said.

-They were not.

-They were, he said.–They were minging. I threw them out.

-They were perfect, she said.–Are they in here?

She was at the bin.

-The wheelie, he said.

He hadn’t expected this; he hadn’t thought ahead.

-I’m bringing them back, she said, as she moved to the back door.–The f**ker.

She was talking about the butcher.

-Don’t, he said.

He didn’t stand up, he didn’t charge to block her. He stayed sitting at the table. He could feel his heart—his own meat—hopping, thumping.

-He’s always been grand, he said.–If we complain, it’ll—I don’t know—change the relationship. The customer-client thing.

He enjoyed listening to himself. He was winning.

-We can have the mince, he said.

-It was for the kids, she said.–Burgers.

-I like burgers, he said.–You like burgers.

The back door was open. It was a hot day, after a week of hot days. He knew: she didn’t want to open the wheelie and shove her face into a gang of flies.

They had small burgers. The kids didn’t complain.

That was that.

Out of his system. He remembered—he saw himself—attacking the meat, hanging over the sink. He closed his eyes, snapped them shut—the idea, the thought, of being caught like that. By a child, by his wife. The end of his life.

He’d killed it—the urge. But it came back, days later. And he killed it again. The fridge again—lamb chops this time. He sent his hand in over the chops, and grabbed a packet of chicken br**sts, one of those polystyrene trays, wrapped in cling-—lm. He put a finger through the film, pulled it away. He slid the br**sts onto a plate—and drank the pink, the near-white blood. He downed it, off the tray. And vomited.

Cured. Sickened—revolted. Never again. He stayed home from work the next day. Vera felt his forehead.

-Maybe it’s the swine flu.

-Chicken pox, he said. You’re such a messer.

-You must have had the chicken pox when you were a boy, she said.–Did you?

-I think so, he said.

She looked worried.

-It can make adult males sterile, she said.

-I had a vasectomy, he told her.–Three years ago.

-I forgot, she said.

-I didn’t.

But he was cured; he’d sorted himself out. The thought, the memory—the taste of the chicken blood, the polystyrene tray—it had him retching all day. He wouldn’t let it go. He tortured himself until he knew he was fixed.

It was iron he was after. He decided that after he’d done a bit of Googling when he went back to work. It made sense; it was fresh air across his face. Something about the taste, even the look, of the cow’s deep red blood—it was metal, rusty. That was what he’d craved, the iron, the metal. He’d been looking pale; he’d been falling asleep in front of the telly, like an old man. Anaemia. Iron was all he needed. So he bought himself a carton of grapefruit juice—he knew the kids would never touch it—and he went into a chemist on his way home from work, for iron tablets. He regretted it when the woman behind the counter looked at him over her specs and asked him if they were for his wife.

-We share them, he said.

She wasn’t moving.

-I’d need to see a letter from your GP, she said.

-For iron?

-Yes.

He bought condoms and throat lozenges, and left. By the time he got home he knew his iron theory was shite and he’d pushed the grapefruit juice into a hedge, with the condoms. The kids were right; grapefruit juice was disgusting. There was nothing wrong with him, except he wanted to drink blood.

He had kids. That was the point. A boy and a girl. He had a family, a wife he loved, a job he tolerated. He worked in one of the banks, not high enough up to qualify for one of the mad bonuses they’d been handing out in the boom days, but high enough to have his family held hostage while he went to the bank with one of the bad guys and opened the safe—although that event had never occurred. The point was, he was normal. He was a forty-one-year-old heterosexual man who lived in Dublin and enjoyed the occasional pint with his friends—Guinness, loads of iron—played a game of indoor football once a week in a leaking school hall, had sex with his wife often enough to qualify as regularly, just about, and would like to have had sex with other women, many other women, but it was just a thought, never a real ambition or anything urgent or mad. He was normal.

He took a fillet steak into the gents’ toilet at work, demolished it, and tried to flush the plastic bag down the toilet. But it stayed there like a parachute, on top of the water. He fished it out and put it in his pocket. He checked his shirt and tie in the mirror, even though he’d been careful not to let himself get carried away as he went at the meat in the cubicle. He was clean, spotless, his normal self. He checked his teeth for strings of flesh, put his face right up to the mirror. He was grand. He went back to his desk and ate his lunch with his colleagues, a sandwich he’d made himself that morning, avocado and tomato—no recession in his fridge. He felt good, he felt great.

He was controlling it, feeding it. He was his own doctor, in very good hands. He’d soon be ironed up and back to his even more normal self.

So he was quite surprised when he went over the wall, even as he went over. What the f**k am I doing? He knew exactly what he was doing. He was going after the next-door neighbours’ recession hens. At three in the morning. He was going to bite the head off one of them. He’d seen the hens—he wasn’t sure if you called them hens or chickens—from one of the upstairs windows. He saw them every night when he was closing his daughter’s curtains, after he’d read to her. (See? He’s normal.) There were three of them, scrabbling around in the garden. He hated them, the whole idea of them. The world economy wobbled and the middle classes immediately started growing their own spuds and carrots, buying their own chickens, and denying they had property portfolios in Eastern Europe. And they stopped talking to him because he’d become the enemy, and evil, because he worked in a bank. The shiftless bitch next door could pretend she was busy all day looking after the hens. Well, she’d have one less to look after, because he was over the wall. He’d landed neatly and quietly—he was fit; he played football—and he was homing in on the hens.

He knew what he was up to. He was hoping a light would go on, upstairs—or better, downstairs—or next door, in his own house. Frighten the shite out of him, send him scrambling back over the wall. I was just looking to see if I could see the space shuttle. It’s supposed to be coming over Ireland tonight. He’d bluff his way out of it—Although it won’t be stopping—while his heart thumped away at his ribs. It would sort him out for another few days, a week; it would get him over the weekend.

But no light went on.

And the chickens cluck-clucked: We’re over here.

He grabbed one. It was easy, too easy. It was a lovely night; they were as clear there as they could have been, standing in a row, like a girl band, the Supremes. Shouldn’t they have been cooped up—was that the phrase?—and let out again in the morning? The city’s foxes were famous; everyone had seen one. He’d seen one himself, strolling down the street when he was walking home from the station a few months before.

He grabbed his hen, expected the protest, the pecks. But no, the hen settled into his arms like a f**kin’ kitten. The little head in one hand, the hard, scrawny legs in the other, he stretched it out like a rubber band and brought it up to his mouth. And he bit—kind of. There was no burst of blood or even a clean snap. The neck was still in his mouth. He could feel a pulse on his tongue. The hen was terrified; he could feel that in the legs. But he didn’t want to terrify the bird—he wasn’t a cruel man. He just wanted to bite its head off and hold his mouth under its headless neck. But he knew: he didn’t have it in him. He wasn’t a vampire or a werewolf. And he needed a filling—he could feel that. I was biting the head o£ a chicken, Doctor. He’d put the hen down now and get back over the wall.

But a light went on—and he bit. Downstairs, right in front of him—and the head came clean off. There was no blood, not really, just—well—bone, gristle, something wet. He wouldn’t vomit. They’d be staring out at him, the neighbours, him or her or him and her—Jim and Barbara. But he was quick, he was calm. He knew they couldn’t see him because the light was on in the kitchen and it was dark out here. Although, now that he thought of it—and he was thinking—they might have seen him before they turned on the light.

And now the chicken, the headless, dead chicken, decided to protest. A squawk came out of something that couldn’t have been its beak, because the head, detached or at least semidetached, was in one of his hands. He was holding the body by the neck and it was wriggling. Let me down, let me down.

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