As a child, my favourite television programme was A Haunting We Will Go. A Haunting We Will Go was written and screened during the 1970s and ‘80s. The main character was a vampire called Count Homogenised. Normal vampires drink blood; Count Homogenised drank milk. Whenever he got thirsty, the Count would break into the fridge, steal all the milk and cackle to himself as he drank. The Count was invisible to adults, only children could see him. The Count always got away with his crimes and was never punished for his transgressions.
My older sister Margie and I used to play our own version of A Haunting We Will Go. Neither of us wanted to be the-kid-who-can-see-the-Count-but-isn’t-believed; we always wanted to be the Count.
“I bags being the Count.”
“No, I bags.”
“I’m older than you,” my sister would say. “I’m the one that gets to choose.”
“You were the Count last time, it’s my turn now.”
And on it went. Truth be told, my sister was a better Count Homogenised than I was. The fake fangs we used sat in her mouth more comfortably, the cape fitted more neatly about her shoulders. My mouth was too small for the fangs, my shoulders too slender for the cape. She would steal milk from the fridge and tip it down her T-shirt. I was a petite blonde; Marge was brunette and more solidly built. Marge’s Homogenised had a sinister edge; you got the feeling that any day soon he would tire of drinking milk and take to draining the blood of little girls. My Homogenised drank the milk and then apologized to the children who could see him for having done so. He felt guilty for his sins. My sister’s Homogenised felt no remorse; the deed done, he was off to the next fridge.
I was a better victim though. I did bewildered well.
“Hey, who are you? What are you doing here?” I would ask, spinning on the spot like a cat that’s having its tail pulled by teasing children.
(Here my sister’s Count would give an evil cackle.) On I would drone. There was a pitiful element to my wailing.
“Quit stealing all the milk!”
“You are powerless to stop me,” the Count would jeer.
More than once my mother, not realizing that we were merely playing a game, overheard my plaintive cries and came out into the backyard, where we would typically play.
“What’s the matter love?”
“Nothing, Mum. Just a dumb game.”
“O, that’s alright then. For a minute there I thought you were genuinely upset.”
I was a better kid-who-can-see-the-Count-but-isn’t-believed though. Marge’s kid was too demanding, overly concerned with facts and details, he wasn’t melodramatic enough. He wanted to know precisely how many bottles of milk had been drunken, the exact time (down to the minute) when the Count had acted out his crime, the exact time (down to the minute) of the Count’s departure. He wanted to interview all the other children who had seen the Count.
What did he look like when you saw him? What was he wearing? What ethnicity was he –Maori? Caucasian? Samoan? How tall? Over six foot? Fat, thin or in-between? Did he look nervous or was he calm and collected?
My sister’s kid-who-isn’t-believed wanted to build a psychological profile of the Count, so as to determine when he would be likely to strike again. No weeping or wailing for her – she was no nonsense. She just wanted to catch the villain, to get on with the job. She used a magnifying glass, like Sherlock Holmes and inspected the ‘bar’ (our swing set) for fingerprints and other clues.
“Ah-ha!” she would cry victoriously. “A hair.”
My Count Homogenised knew that her kid would track me down, sniff me out, drag me out from whatever rock I crouched sniveling under. Typically, my Homogenised would curl up in a ball and hide in the far corner of the garden, behind the foxgloves and her kid would come marching over.
“Hullo, hullo, what have we here then? A nasty milk-drinking thief. He deserves a sound smack.”
She’d whack me on the bum with a piece of wood. Sometimes at this stage, I would run crying to Mum.
“Mu-um, Marge hit me.”
“Marge,” Mum would reprimand. “Play nicely with Leah.”
Sometimes I would hit her back and things would descend into a slapping match, till Mum came out to break up the fight.
“Break it up, somebody’s gonna get hurt.”
“Yea, and it ain’t gonna be me,” would sister would sneer, giving me the finger behind Mum’s back.
Today Marge and I are going out for lunch. My second marriage has ‘hit the skids’ as Margie would say. Typical of me; I was always useless at picking decent men. I’m a sucker, a fool, easily duped. I pick guys who are all surface charm, but underneath it look out, danger lurks. They are men with screws loose; they cheat on me, they snort coke, they find it hard to keep down a job. Marge’s been married to the same man, Trevor, an electrical engineer, for eleven years now. No kids, but they’re planning to have one soon.
They own two houses; the one that they live in and a rental. I’m still renting; a small one bedroom flat I share with my second husband Will. Marge became an English teacher; I became a teacher too, but I’m still ‘finding my feet’ trying to get a career off the ground, bouncing round various temporary assignments, ricocheting from man to man like a squash ball bouncing off walls.
The first thing she says when she sees me is, “You’ve dyed your hair.”
“Yea,” I say. “Felt like being darker for a while.”
She nods and we place our orders at the counter. You don’t have to do that here, there’s table service as well, but Marge is in a hurry, she has to get back to school in an hour. I’m ‘between jobs’; I’ve got all day. Marge orders a steak and Guinness pie with a side order of chips. I order a Caesar salad minus the dressing. We’re halfway through our meal when Marge’s arm shoots out.
“Look,” she says, “It’s Count Homogenised.”
I look around.
“There, serving that table.”
And so it is. He’s minus his fangs and cape, of course, but it’s definitely him. Marge kicks me under the table.
“You pointed. Pointing’s worse than staring.”
I turn my gaze back to my half-eaten Caesar salad. Count Homogenised walks past, hand raised in a salute, swinging his legs high in the air as he walks. A black moustache bristles on his upper lip.
“What’s with his funny moustache?” I ask. “And that walk?”
“He’s pretending to be Basil Fawlty,” she says, pointing to the blackboard on the wall which reads: Tuesday, Thursday, Friday - Fawlty Towers Themed Lunch. Come dine with the crew from one of television’s most popular series.
“Gawd, how tacky.”
“Look,” she says, pointing. “That waitress is done up as Cybil.”
She points at my salad.
“You need to eat more,” she says. “You’re too thin.”
“I know. It’s the stress of the marriage break-up.”
“Not eating won’t help,” she preaches. “That’ll just make things worse.”
“It’s not intentional. It’s just loss of appetite.”
“If things get too bad come and stay with me for a month or so. Not long term - a temporary measure.”
“Do you think I should kick Will out? I caught him in bed with his ‘friend’ Johanna. ‘We were just cuddling’ he said. Cuddling my arse. But I controlled my temper – I didn’t go ballistic. I just quietly asked Johanna to leave. I’m still deciding what to do about Will. Do you think I should forgive him?”
“Hell, no. You should’ve gone ballistic. You should’ve given him an earful. How dare he cheat on you? You two have been together for what….three years now?”
“Four years. That must be a record for you.”
“So what the hell did he think he was doing? Honestly, if I caught Trevor with another woman I’d wring his neck. And his balls. He’d be lucky to live to see another day.”
“I could just pretend the whole thing never happened. Pretend I didn’t see. Blind, like Mike from the Milk Bar.”
“That’s just denial, burying your head in the sand. Face up to it.”
“You think I should leave, then?”
“Of course. No hesitation.”
I munch half-heartedly at a lettuce leaf.
“But where will I go?”
“Like I said you can always come and stay with me till you find another flat.”
“I can’t stay with you, Marge. You’ve got your own life. I’ll look around for another flat, then I’ll tell him I’m leaving.”
“Okay. Your decision.”
Count Homogenised swings by our table.
“Everything alright with the meal, ladies?”
“Great,” says Marge.
She whips out a pen and paper from her handbag.
“Could I have your autograph please? My sister here and I used to love A Haunting We Will Go. And you were the best character in it. I used to do a great impersonation of you, didn’t I, Leah?”
She kicks me under the table again, nudging me to respond.
“Oh yeah,” I say. “And I used to do a halfway decent Mike.”
Count Homogenised laughs.
“Not many people recognize me, you know,” he says. “Hardly anybody remembers A Haunting We Will Go.”
“Oh, we definitely do,” says Marge. “We used to play our own version of it for hours, didn’t we Leah?”
She kicks me again.
“Yeah,” I say. “We did.”
She’s remembering how much fun it was to be the sinister cackling Count and the meticulous disciplined Mike. I’m remembering being smacked on the bum with a piece of wood. The Count autographs Marge’s piece of paper.
“Don’t you want him to sign something for you?” asks Marge. “You always liked being the Count.”
Yea, when you let me play him, I think. I fossick in my handbag for something to sign. All I find is an empty cigarette packet, but I can’t give him that, because then Marge will know I’ve taken up smoking again.
“What about this serviette?” asks Marge, in a slightly exasperated tone,
She picks up her napkin and hands it over to the Count for him to sign. He obliges with a smile, then yells "Waldorf salad’s off, we’re fresh out of Waldorfs," and grins and marches off to check on another table.
“Fancy that,” says Marge. “Fancy bumping in Count Homogenised at random.”
She reaches out and grabs a bit of chicken from my plate.
“So, it’s decided then. You’re leaving that loser and moving on with your life.”
“Yea, but what if I wind up alone. Just me in a studio flat, drinking myself senseless every night.”
“Move in with other people then.”
“What strangers? That’s even more terrifying.”
The Count returns to clear our plates.
“Drinks?” he asks.
“Cappuccino,” says Marge.
“Glass of chardonnay please”, I say and Marge frowns.
“Alright, I’ll dump him,” I conclude. “I’ll move in with you for a bit, then I’ll find my own place.”
Driving past a block of shops on the way home, I suddenly say, “Hey. Pull over.”
“Just pull over.”
For once, she does as she’s told. I hop out of the car and nip into a costume shop; Carrie’s Costumes. I purchase a black cloak, a bottle of fake blood and some fangs.
“Don’t bother with a bag,” I tell the shop attendant.
I swing the cape around my shoulders, spill the blood down my front, push the fangs into my mouth. Checking the mirror on the way out of the store, I leer at myself. I look pretty good.
Marge is applying lipstick in the rear view mirror. I creep round the back of the car and tap on her window. She screams and jerks back in her seat, puts her hand to her heart.
“Jesus Christ! You scared the living daylights out of me.”
“Ha!” I say. “Gotcha. Gotcha a good one.”
Snarling, I reach one hand in through the window and pick up her sunglasses, push them over my eyes.
“I vant to drinka your blood,” I cackle.
“Stop it,” she says. “Cut it out, get in the car. I need to get back to work.”
But I’m having fun now, I can’t stop clowning around.
“Is it a good likeness?” I ask. “Do I look like Count Homogenised?”
“God, no,” she says. “You’re way too short. But with your hair dyed like that, you look a bit like I used to. When I dressed up as the Count, that is.”
I hop into the passenger seat. We drive on in silence.
-Laura Solomon was born in New Zealand and spent nine years in London before returning to New Zealand in 2007. She has an honours degree in English Literature (Victoria University, NZ, 1997) and a Masters degree in Computer Science (University of London, 2003). She has published two novels in New Zealand with Tandem Press: 'Black Light' (1996) and 'Nothing Lasting' (1997). Her first play, 'The Dummy Bride', was produced as part of the Wellington Fringe Festival, and her second, based on her short story, 'Sprout', was part of the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Short stories published in the UK include: 'Sprout' (2004 Bridport International Short Story competition anthology), 'The Most Ordinary Man in the World' (2005 Bridport International Short Story competition anthology), ‘Alternative Medicine’, (Willesden Herald International Short Story competition,2007) and 'The Killing Jar', (The Edinburgh Review, August 2007). Poems published in the UK include ‘The Latest Lighthouse Keeper’ (commended, Ware Poets Competition, 2007), ‘You Will Know When You Leave’ (shortlisted, Bridport 2008 Poetry competition) and ‘Apocryphal’ (runner up, Edwin Morgan International Poetry Competition). Her short story collection ‘Alternative Medicine’ was published in early 2008 by Flame Books, UK. She has twice had work accepted in 'Wasafiri'. Her novel ‘An Imitation of Life’ is to be published by Solidus, UK, in late 2009. Her novel 'Instant Messages' is to be published in 2010 and was shortlisted for the Victoria Prize and the Proverse Prize. Her poem 'Pythia Gets the Blues' was runner up in the Essex Poetry Festival Competition. She has published various other poems and short stories online and in literary magazines.
-Photography by Christopher Barrio
-Models in Photographs: Left: Lisa Damiani, Right: Nicole Pitoscia