Having finished “A Friday Fairytale” and being really unwilling to go and rewrite it from the point the characters start misbehaving (it was already a rewrite, from stopping them from destroying the actual plot), I was rifling through some old “starts” looking for some inspiration. I stumbled upon this weird little piece (written in 2005). It’s a first chapter. It’s been written so long ago that I remember nothing about it and was quite surprised by it. It predates the “Solar Wind” by about a year.
I’m posting it here for your entertainment. (I sincerely hope my style has evolved since then!)
Chapter 1 – Angie’s Wedding Rehearsal
“Well, yes, I suppose you could call him sort-of handsome in a Dracula sort of way,” commented Jeanne with a wrinkled nose, glancing at the person in question, “definitely sharp teeth. And brows like the wings of a vulture about to land. Well, at least it’s not a unibrow. I wonder if he plucks them. No, actually I don’t want to know! My goodness, Angie! You’d have to really stretch the meaning of the word handsome. His nose is rather hawkish too, if you like the Shamanic look about people. Looks like it may have been broken during a school rugby session when he was a kid. Well, maybe not. Perhaps it’s a birth defect.”
Angie giggled. Jeanne wrinkled her nose some more, scrunching up several freckles that had, to her annoyance, put in their appearance only this summer. She felt too old for freckles. But the South African sun was a natural force not to be ignored.
“There’s another look about him though,” she continued, scanning the victim of her observations across the room. Smoking had been outlawed in public places for a while, but that did not stop Angie’s lounge from being so blue that one could start a gambling house. “He looks like a penny-pincher. You know, uptight. Anal-retentive, I think, is the Freudian term. Actually, now that I look closely, he looks quite grim. Can’t see what you find to drool over.”
Angie giggled some more. She looked like a sugar-plum princess today, at her wedding rehearsal which had accidentally turned into quite a party, with somewhat more free-flowing booze brought by her anxious father-in-law-to-be than everyone had bargained for. Said near-future father-in-law was smoking one cigar after another with the groom and Angie’s own father, and the three men had withdrawn to sit around a coffee table more or less central in the room, from where they were politicising and generating the gambling atmosphere.
“I must introduce you,” said Angie. “I knew you’d like him. I think Ronnie brought him especially for you.”
“Like him!” Jeanne gasped. “I haven’t even met the man! Who is he anyway?”
“I thought you’d never ask! He’s the Best Man. Ronnie’s best friend.”
“Looks more like Ronnie’s Beast Friend,” mumbled Jeanne. “Say, Angie, just because you’re getting married, that places you under no obligation to get me a ball-and-chain!”
She glanced back to the stranger they had been discussing. Angie had indeed caught her out studying him: He seemed wrapped in a cloak of midnight blue, so intense was his aura. And just then he looked up and caught her eye, and stared right back at her. Jeanne quickly turned back to Angie.
“He seems anxious to meet you,” teased Angie. Jeanne could understand her friend’s giggly mood – barely; too much champagne, a touch of nerves for tomorrow… Ronnie’s best friend! Men did not have best friends! What they had were buddies. And this – necromancer from another dimension – did not look as though he knew what the term “buddy” meant. The Best Man? Or the Worst?
“Poor Angie,” Jeanne teased right back. “If Ronnie gets nerves and runs away before tomorrow, tradition demands that you marry that thing there. The Best Man.”
When she glanced back, the “thing there” was still staring at her. As their eyes met she felt that pull, as though she was being dragged towards him, into another dimension. She pulled away as though electrified.
The “necromancer” came ambling over, bringing his midnight-blue aura with him. He was tall, but he did not, as Jeanne had briefly feared, lurch. He ambled, in a way that suggested that the world belonged to him. He lifted one of the vulture-wing eyebrows at Jeanne, and addressed Angie.
“How’s the beautiful bride today?”
“Excellent,” gasped Angie, apparently suddenly short of breath. “I must go look after Ronnie. This is Jeanne, by the way. She does photography. Excuse me.”
With that, the breathless bride hurried off to hover around her hapless groom for a while, with many a nervous, giggly glance backwards to see if her two elected victims were yet romantically involved.
The necromancer allowed his eyes to insolently travel down Jeanne’s entire person, and back up. To his credit he did manage to tear his gaze from her plunging neckline and fix it firmly in her face. He lifted the other eyebrow at Jeanne. “Pornography, did she say?” he asked coolly.
Jeanne burst out laughing.
It served her right. She had insulted him behind his back in conversation to Angie, and now she got it right back.
“Did Angie say that?” she asked back, wrinkling, once again, her freckled nose. “Or is it the dark and dangerous places of your mind that twist the meaning of things?”
“What is it that you do then?” asked the man.
“Use your imagination,” Jeanne shot back before she could stop herself. “But I don’t think we’ve been introduced?”
“I understand you are Jeanne.”
“That’s great, you’re a bright lad. And you are -?”
“The name’s Coombes,” he said in a resonant bass voice. “Raymes Coombes.”
Jeanne’s mind did a double take back to when she was seven. “Bond, did you say?”
“All right,” laughed Raymes. “Now we’re even. Did Angie say you’re a photographer?”
“That’s more like it.” Jeanne studied him. The intense blue aura seemed to have lifted a bit, as though a sunbeam had found its way in. He looked a lot more likeable when he smiled.
“Will you be taking the wedding photos?” he enquired.
“Not officially – I’m here as her friend. Look for the worst dressed person tomorrow and you’ll have found the photographer. I don’t know why male photographers dress so sloppily for weddings; perhaps they know that they’ll always be behind the camera, or maybe they feel it will enhance the other guests’ appearance.”
“Why, pray tell, is Angie so anxious for me to meet you?” Raymes pierced an extremely sharp-edged glance at Jeanne.
“She wants me to marry you,” Jeanne shot back with a careless little smile. “Misery loves company.”
“And do you?”
“Do I love company? Sure I do! Best of all my own – I have not yet found anyone with whom I can have wittier conversations than myself.”
Raymes shot her another finely honed look. “Are you inclined to want to marry me, is what I am asking.”
Jeanne smiled sweetly. “Are you proposing?”
“Don’t twist my words. I’m merely asking about your disposition.”
“As in, am I anxious to throw myself at mysterious strangers I have just met. Why? Do I look desperate?” She paused in order to scrutinize him with her glance. Another possibility occurred to her. “Or is there something specific going on here? I know of a friend who married an American immigrant so he could get a work permit. Of course they have agreed to a temporary marriage, with divorce after citizenship is granted. They don’t even live together. Are you in a similar fix?”
“Are you offering?” asked Raymes with a mysterious smirk.
“What, to help you out?” She paused to think, and when she continue, she spoke slowly, carefully, so that he could not misinterpret her meaning. “That’s a tough question, Mr Coombes. I’m an altruistic person, I do sometimes help others. But of course marriage is quite a big step to take just to help someone out. I’d have to know you quite a bit better and of course we’d have to agree that the marriage would be strictly on paper, meaning that we don’t start staking claims on each other when someone better qualified comes along.” Jeanne laughed and shook her fiery red locks. (They were out of a bottle. Several bottles in fact. She had finally gotten sick and tired of her own limp mousy-brown hair that morning; she had marched into the hairdresser’s and plonked herself into a chair, announcing: “Do your worst!” And they had. Layers upon layers of highlights and lowlights bounced around in her newly-permed hair. The account had been budgeted over six months.) “What are we talking about? Either this is the weirdest banter I’ve ever engaged in, or it’s not banter at all.”
“What if I am serious?” There was no telling from his feral smile how she was to read this last question. She decided to take it, for now, at face value.
“If you are in fact serious, then I should say we need to discuss the entire thing quite a bit more,” she suggested. “But not here. This is Angie’s party.”
“You are absolutely right,” said Dracula. “Your place or mine?”
Jeanne laughed again, a bit nervous this time.
“Oh no, my friend, not so fast! Neutral ground. I would suggest a House of Coffees or something of the sort.”
The Count glanced at his watch. “I bet they haven’t counted on this party carrying on so late. It’s nearly suppertime! Go get your – whatever it is you need to get – and let’s go.”
“What, right now?”
“How late did you wish to leave?” he asked politely, showing a single glittering vampire tooth in a taunting half-smile. “Anyway, see how your friend has time for you.”
Jeanne’s friend was indeed deeply involved in snogging with her husband-to-be. Jeanne strolled over.
“It’s getting late,” she said. “I should get on.”
“Thanks for coming,” said Angie brightly. “See you tomorrow. Don’t mind if I don’t show you to the door – I would, you know, but…” at which point Ronnie took it upon himself to kiss her silent.
“You’re welcome,” muttered Jeanne, collected her handbag and followed Count Dracula out of the door.
A short time later she was sitting in a comfortable Greenfields chair, sipping a moccachino and studying the Necromancer’s face. He was in turn gazing at her; she had the impression that both of them were a bit at a loss for something to say. The previous conversation had been so absurd, so bizarre, that now she didn’t know where to pick up the threads again.
“It’s nice here,” she said eventually, adding, “thanks for the coffee.”
“You’re welcome,” replied Raymes. “Have you thought about it?”
“You can’t mean –“
“Yes, I’m referring to what we were talking about. Would you marry someone you’d just met.”
“This is a trick question.”
“Just pretend it’s not.”
She took a calculating sip from her coffee, buying time while scrutinizing his face for clues. Eventually she answered.
“All right, let’s assume you are the one who asked me to. Honestly, that depends on the circumstances. Like, am I being pursued by the police and need a very fast change of identity. Or, does the person in question have a really pressing problem that might quite easily be solved by a paper marriage. Would I consider it – probably. Would I actually do it – I really don’t know. I would have to learn a lot about the person very quickly.”
“What would you need to know?”
“Just about everything. Does he have a criminal record. Or a history of psychiatric disorder. Is the family kosher. What’s his occupation, and does he have any really unsavoury hobbies. Most of all I would need to know why. Why so suddenly, why so indiscriminately. Have you no girlfriend?”
“I did,” replied Raymes, to her surprise. “She would not have been – quite suitable.”
“Suitable for what, Mr Coombes? You can’t mean to say you are indeed proposing to me?”
“If I am?”
“Well then – then – “ She petered out, hands raised in confusion.
“I have no criminal record. There is no history of psychiatric disorder in my family. They are very nice by the way, regular people, but they are in Cape Town. I am by profession an accountant, and I love making money. Lots of money,” he emphasized, lowering his voice meaningfully. “My wife shall not lack for luxuries. Irritating character traits – I don’t know; I’m not obsessive about anything so I may be a bit messy, but the butler takes care of things, so don’t be worried. Unsavoury habits – I don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t do drugs and don’t philander. And I don’t ever leave the cap off the toothpaste – that one seems to bother you ladies a lot, so I trained myself to always replace it. But I do have one rather strange diversion – the supernatural. I’m a practicing mage. If this clashes with your belief system, better not consider this deal at all.”
Jeanne closed her eyes for a moment as a wave of sheer pleasure rolled over her. She had felt like an island so long with her second sight, her clairvoyant dreams and her influencing the weather, that she had begun to believe she was the only heretic on the planet! To finally have found a friend who dabbled too -!
“I see a response to that information,” said Raymes. “But I don’t know how to read it.”
Jeanne opened her eyes. She was beaming from ear to ear.
“Great,” she said. “I won’t be the only weirdo!”
A cloud of tension seemed to flow away from Raymes. He relaxed visibly.
“As for your last question,” he continued, “why? Why so suddenly, why yourself? Well, I’ll have to be straight with you, it’s a sudden decision because the thought arose while we were chatting there at Angie’s party. I suddenly realized that being married might present the answer to a challenge I’m facing.”
“A challenge,” echoed Jeanne with disbelief.
“And – the details of that challenge?”
“Not up for discussion,” said Raymes. His look warned her not to push.
Jeanne mulled about it in bed that night. He had given her three days to consider, which she considered generous of him, taking into account his domineering manner.
Three days to consider something that had been on and off her mind for the last seven or eight years. She was twenty-nine going on fifty, and never once had she been serious enough about any boyfriend to consider marrying them. On the contrary, mostly she had opted out of each relationship (and there weren’t that many to start with) right at the point when the male part opened his mouth to ask any Big Question. She had fobbed them off; she could not imagine being committed to any of them.
In her mind she ran through all those had-beens. There had been Pete. She smiled a half-smile. Dear sweet Pete, who had been quick to take her to fancy places but slow to share in paying the bill. In fact, more often than not she had put the fuel into his car to get them there. Pete, of course, had been an unemployed wonder.
Then there had been Perseus. She had at some point extracted his real name from him, but his monumental ego had not allowed his own name, which he disliked, to be used on him. The same ego was the reason for Jeanne running a mile before Perseus got any bright ideas.
There had been Larry. Sorry Larry. Oh boy! Even thinking about this one was embarrassing. Larry, despite his ponytail, actually had a job. Well, sort-of. What he earned wasn’t half bad, to be exact; however he had been so full of moans and complaints about everything, and so full of excuses why he would not change anything, that sending him packing had been a real relief to her. He had threatened her with suicide when she left him. She had answered, rather flippantly, that he was far too selfish to ever go through with it, so she wasn’t worried. He’d live. People like him always did, she had added cruelly, more’s the pity!
One or two short flings did not count at all in her books; they had been committed for fun, and had been aware of this. And then there had been John.
She shivered. If John came back tonight and swept her up in his arms and begged her to forgive him, she knew that she would in an instant. Not that she wanted to; but she wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. The chemistry between them had been complete. He had felt like the one and only. But he was a philanderer of format. He must have cheated her dozens of times, and eventually she left him because she couldn’t put herself through the devastation of yet another heartbreak. She had been reduced to feeling worthless.
Yes, John. If it weren’t for John, these three days might have been a lot easier to decide on. That night she dreamt of him. The next morning she picked up the phone and dialled Raymes’s number. She had her answer.
(Today I’d sit that younger me down and ask: Really?? You just take his word for it? What are your backstops? He sounds as though you will end up in the cooking pot first thing! Never trust a man who calls himself a “practicing mage” – it’s a cover-up. He’s a psychopath. Or something. Don’t go with him, Jeannie!!… aaaarrrggh…)