by R J Cambridge
I look through the old musty curtains, unchanged in all the years I have been coming to Chez Sanguis. The decor is the same, dark oak panelling, high, wing-backed chairs, crimson tablecloth and strictly tables for two or four only. It is the ultimate place for a secret tryst, illicit rendezvous, or clandestine meeting. Many is the time I have begun the consummation of a relationship here. The ambience is intoxicating, the red wine, thick and unctuous, coating the mouth with dark flavours of mocha and morello cherries. The menu, typical French bistro fare, the steak tartare being the speciality de la Maison, and the steak frites are the best in the city, the meat, marbled with a rich, gamey flavour that reminds you of something else, familiar yet unknown. There are no reviews online, no website, no TripAdvisor stars in the window. This is because very few people know about it and even fewer will ever be granted entry, and nobody can make a reservation. It is admittance by referral only. Owned by an exclusive network of individuals who jealously guard this holy grail of restaurants and, up until last Friday, I had been one of those elite patrons, always guaranteed a table, even at short notice.
It is six o’clock, dusk is falling on the city and Gerald, the Maître’d shuffles into view and peers at whoever is knocking at this ungodly hour. When he sees it’s me, he scowls and waves his hands indicating I am to go away. I persist in my knocking until he finally realises, I’m not going to go anywhere. Grudgingly, he opens the door a couple of inches and pokes his long nose out, sniffing distastefully at the air, or perhaps me.
“You’ve got a bloody nerve, Jacob, coming here after the other day.”
“Yes, I know, but you must give me a chance to explain.”
“There is nothing to explain, you violated the rules of this establishment. Again. Rules you yourself once helped to draw up.”
“But I thought it was still happy hour.”
“Stop being flippant! The gentleman whose throat you were enthusiastically biting into didn’t look very happy.”
“A misunderstanding in Ku Bar, I thought he wanted to be turned.”
“I think that means he was bi-curious. Anyway, you know very well we can’t turn base humans by biting them.” Gerald sniffs, and continues with the events of last week. “And the agonised screams for help and him saying ‘get the fuck off me you bastard’ didn’t alert you to a potential misunderstanding then?”
“Umm, well I admit I did get a little carried away in the moment. Forgot the Glamor had worn off. Call it performance art or cosplay.”
“I call it being fucking stupid.” Gerald’s voice drips sarcasm and condescension. To lose self-control was the height of bad manners for him. “Did you also forget that he ran out of the restaurant yelling he was going to get the police on us?”
“Did he? I don’t remember that bit.”
“Probably because you were out of your head again. What was it this time?”
“Umm, can’t remember.” I can. Probably the usual of LSD, Ketamine, and speed. “But, in my defence, he was frightfully good looking.”
“Is that supposed to be an excuse? We had to go after him and take matters into our own hands when he didn’t see reason. I’m sorry, the committee has decided to meet later this evening and discuss the matter. Their verdict will be the final say on the issue.”
So, after nearly a hundred years of clandestine delight, it is back to skulking in the shadows and praying on vagrants. A final hope occurs to me.
“Umm, I don’t suppose you do Deliveroo, do you?”
“Don’t pretend to be more of a cretin than you already are, Jacob.”
“Look I’m sorry. It’s not like this sort of thing hasn’t happened before.”
“The last time someone got so carried away was over seventy years ago. Then, we could just dump the body in the Thames and get away with it.”
“Oh, was it that long ago? My how times fly when you’re having fun. So, what have you done with it?”
“I’d rather not say. But the steak tartare will be superb in a couple of weeks, and the chicken liver pate will have markedly less chicken liver in it. Shame you won’t get to try it.” At this, Gerald’s face cracks in what for him passes as a smile.
“I do hope you’re joking Gerald.”
“Me to know, you to wonder.”
“You’re enjoying this aren’t you, you senile old bastard.”
A hacking wheeze indicates Gerald is laughing. “Oh, Jacob, you are such fun. Always snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Excess over judgement. Always squandering long term advantage for short term gain. It’s a wonder you have survived this long.” He continues to enjoy his death rattle of a laugh. Eventually, he stops, wipes the tears from his eyes and fixes me with a rheumy gaze. “This is serious, you have given them an excuse, and things have changed, so they may well throw the book at you. I can’t honestly say I see a way back for you at the moment.” He sighs and prepares to retreat into the comforting dark of the restaurant.
“What if I promise to be good on pain of permanent banishment?”
“Hah, you are already virtually banished. And you can never be good for long enough. Everybody knows that.”
“I could do the dishes.”
Gerald stops in the act of shutting the door in my face. “You would do that?” he asks, incredulous. “You would stoop that low, be classed as a base human and be subject to ridicule. You do know you would be officially beneath contempt?” He looks at me, eyes narrowing. “I’ll have to consult. I will ask because, despite everything, you have a certain style, Jacob. Something sadly lacking today in my opinion. So, I will suggest it as an alternative. The committee might get even more pleasure having you around to insult and abuse. No guarantees mind you.” And with that, he shuts me out of my world and leaves me standing in the world of ordinary humans.
I start to walk. The solitude of London is a comfort. Besides, it is the best way to travel if you have time and, like me, you don’t want to be noticed in the city with the largest number of CCTV cameras in the world. Tube, taxi, doesn’t matter. You are watched 24/7. Around me, protecting me, commuters leave work, piling onto buses, jostling for position at tube stations or, in the case of the dorm workers, boarding large coaches that sit at the nursing home or hospital entrances ready to ferry their underpaid cargo back to the converted storage unit dormitories that pass for home. A perfect solution to the decline in immigration, virtual conscription for the young and dumb. Work in care homes wiping the arses of the old and demented or face life as a rough with no support and no sympathy from an increasingly apathetic society. Not that I care. I am not part of this world, except when I want to amuse myself, or when I need to buy drugs.
My walk back to Queen’s Gate Mews takes me past Euston. The roughs congregate there, sheltering under the arches, and abandoned business units, also there are fewer cameras to catch the injections, not that anybody is really interested. Here live the unofficial communities that are neither seen or heard. Lifeless eyes look out from dirt-encrusted hoodies. Nobody makes eye contact, there is a forlorn stillness. Shapeless forms huddle around a makeshift brazier. Roils of smoke composed of stolen pallets and discarded plastic water bottles create an even more toxic atmosphere of desolation right here in the heart of London. I turn up the collar, not because it is cold but because the place wants to make me isolate myself even more from the rest of humanity.
Behind me, there is a sudden commotion. Against my better judgement, I turn around to see a black transit van mount the pavement. It comes to a halt with a screech of brakes engine still running. As soon as the vehicle stops the back doors open and two human forms are shoved out onto the pavement. As soon as they are free of the van, it starts to accelerate away, narrowly missing a startled local who has jumped out of the way of two new residents being dumped on top of him. As the van speeds off, I notice two things. First, the driver has a full-face mask on, only eyes visible, our eyes lock for a brief moment before his attention returns to the road. Secondly, the number plate has been tampered with. Black gaffer tape has altered some of the numbers and letters. How do I notice such things? I operate at a naturally higher level of consciousness to most people. It’s not something that I think about or practice, it is just a function of who, and what, I am.
The man who was nearly run over leans over his new neighbours, extends a hand to the neck of one and waits for a few seconds, seemingly knowing what he is doing. Then he shouts out, to nobody in particular.
“Somebody phone for an ambulance. Quick, looks like another OD.” He stares around him as nobody reacts. His eyes widen in anger, and his voice rises in intensity. “For fuck’s sake, somebody call, there is still a pulse.” He looks my way, and I can’t help but catch his eye. Shit! “You, you don’t belong here. Phone, ambulance, now! The voice has authority as if it was once listened to. No telling what his story is, why he is here and not secure in some gated community in the suburbs. I shake my head, prepare to leave, but he isn’t having it. He stands blocks my exit. “Jesus man, just call will you.” Dear God! What is it with some people? I need to choose the line of least resistance here. Do I ignore the whole thing, barge out the way and potentially be mentioned in whatever report eventually gets lodged or phone? He grabs my collar, shocked at this intrusion I brush him away. Too hard. He falls to the floor, eyes wide with surprise at the force. Damn! Wrong call again. I stop, take out my phone, unregistered, no Android, top-up only. Ancient by today’s standards, but essential if you want any real privacy. I wait, an automated AI voice answers.
“What is the nature of the emergency? What service do you require?”
“Please confirm you require un-insured assistance or state name and policy no.” At this potential intrusion, I hand the phone to the good Samaritan. He takes the phone, giving me a sour look at the same time.
“Un-insured assistance, please. Euston arches, potential overdose, drug unknown. Two subjects, pulse very faint.” He looks down at the nearest one. “Jesus, he’s pale!” The statement is as much to himself as to the AI operator. He listens to the reply. Evidently, the line goes dead, and he hands back the phone, shaking his head. “Two hours, poor bastards will be dead by then.” He looks at me, eyes narrowing. “You not going to stay and help, what sort of man are you? What the fuck you scared about then?” Statements rather than questions. Rather than engaging with the substance of the accusations, I glance down at the two recently dumped bodies. Shit! They are pale, and for a very good reason. I’ve seen that look before, many years ago, when some of my kind still indulged in such rituals. The two roughs bear all the signs of being drained, it’s not a look you forget. I put the phone back into my pocket. Prepare to leave.
Copyright R J Cambridge 2019
"We had to go after him and take matters into our own hands when he didn’t see reason. I’m sorry, the committee has decided to meet later this evening and discuss the matter. Their verdict will be the final say on the issue.” So, after nearly a hundred years of clandestine delight, it is back to skulking in the shadows and praying on vagrants. A final hope occurs to me. “Umm, I don’t suppose you do Deliveroo, do you?”