Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Wuthering Nights (Two)
I read Greta’s words as I rested on the hotel bed. They were written in a firm, definite hand:
February 1978 (second entry) - we were not sure what country the child originated from. When Mr Spencer brought him back from his trip, I thought he’d finally gone mad, like his ancestors. I said, ‘You were searching for fossils, not people!’ But he just shrugged and said, ‘Well, I saw him on the street and no one claimed him so I filled in the paperwork, paid a requisite sum and now here he is. All this had happened many months before the actual collection. Perhaps the child was originally from Europe or maybe as close as Liverpool? The foundling had papers to say he was ours, signed by a solicitor, no less. He didn’t speak a word that first night. His bell bottom jeans and shoes were filthy and caked with mud from the walk along the driveway. Dirt splattered on my kitchen floor. I thought it was very inconsiderate of Mr Spencer not to have put clean clothes on him but grown men rarely think of small comforts. The dark haired, six-year-old person stared at me blankly and flinched when I tried to go anywhere near him. He kicked and scratched me so hard when I went to take his jacket (where I read the “instructions”) that I honestly wondered how I’d cope looking after a child in such a…state. Harrison, almost eight years the child’s senior, shoved the boy when he thought no one was looking and whispered to him before leaving the house, ‘Who do you think you are? Invading my home like this… I’ll make you pay, charity case!’
Kate, who had always been naughty (a fact belied by her pretty and innocent face), and never close to her much older brother or absent socialite mother, became attached to the new boy who we named Heath and resolved to raise as part of our family…
It was all rather formal yet strangely personal.
I’d learnt, as a child, Heath Spencer had no language and apparently very little memory of his origins. He’d certainly made up for it judging by the detailed and sophisticated legal correspondence he’d addressed to me personally and which I had spread out on the desk in my room. Heath’s letters addressed the various ownership and personal scandals involving both himself and his adopted relatives in almost forensic detail. Events happened a long time ago, but the origins and complex story of the properties in question, both Hareton Hall and The Grange, involved both the Spencer and Hunt families whose paperwork I now studied. Their generational feuds had been the talk of the firm, behind closed doors, of course.
According to family tradition, the Spencer children were sent away to school the year they turned twelve. However, the friendship between the two youngest children began much earlier, with a whisper. It was as if Kate was the first to know, although his adopted father must have suspected. There was something different about Heath.
The first night the child arrived, Kate wandered up to him when he was left alone in the kitchen and the little boy hissed at her, baring his tiny, white incisor fangs. Kate scowled then smiled and moved towards the small boy, rather than rejecting him. As if he were some exotic pet, she tried to pat his head. The boy, suddenly ashamed of his behaviour, covered his mouth. Heath had only recently learned how to recede his little fangs but sometimes they came out when he was frightened or stressed. Kate took his hand and led him upstairs.
When they were in the play room, she asked him to explain more. It was their secret, she told him. Kate loved to have secrets. The little boy didn’t know what to tell her.
‘I was born this way,’ he whispered.
His biological father had kept notes but Mr Spencer wanted proof. After many secretive tests with a Vampire specialist on Harley Street it was explained to Mr Spencer that the child had a rare condition. There was a line of Spanish vampires from thousands of years ago that he possibly descended from through his mother. His blood type was unknown. What they did ascertain was that the child might grow out of his ways and never fully mature into a “blood sucker” as the specialist called his “breed”. He also warned Mr Spencer, “Tell no one.” Fearing society would reject his new son, Mr Spencer agreed.
Heath was told his cravings for blood would not reach full maturity until he did (at around eighteen) and in the meantime, he could be easily sustained with a diet high in protein and iron. He would keep ageing until then. As the venom in his blood was diluted, he would be given protection from sun. His image would appear in photographs and mirrors until it began to fade in adulthood. Kate’s father had been assured by the vampire specialist it was completely safe for Heath to go to church and be around other children.
Mr Spencer was given a list of instructions similar to the ones the boy arrived with; that he had to be careful of the child’s fair skin in the sun, (although a small amount wouldn’t hurt as long as he took his daily supplements and wore a pendant protecting him from daylight). According to the notes, the child’s mother was horrified the baby had crackled and almost burnt in the light. Heath had also tried to bite her when nursing. Finally, unable to cope, his mother had left him with Spanish nuns when he was just three months old. She had placed the protective amulet around the baby’s neck along with a kiss as she broke down and put him in a basket outside the gates of the orphanage. As he grew, incorrigible, the child daily escaped and ran himself ragged along the Spanish streets. That was how Mr Spencer found him, pale and hungry for protein, like a wild kitten.
After the child arrived at Hareton Hall his incisors were painlessly filed down during regular check-ups at the family dentist and life resumed as normal. Life for Heath was a regular routine of vitamin taking, avoiding the sun, wearing his amulet (even in the bath) and craving roast dinners (his favourite). The child was deemed eccentric and wild but no one except Mr Spencer, Kate and Heath knew he was actually different. He had cravings for cooked, red meat, a desire to sleep half the day and stay up all night, but those were habits and slowly, Heath conformed to the ways of the household.
On one occasion, he had been caught off-guard when Kate’s mother had walked in on the child playing with his train set and Heath, suddenly frightened, sensed an intruder. He turned round and hissed, before realizing the full impact of what he had done. His new mother fled from the room screaming, “He’s not normal! He’s just not normal!” Heath tried to apologize. The woman wouldn’t listen. She packed her bags and wanted to take Kate with her; the little girl refused to go.
After Kate’s mother left Hareton Hall, her father withdrew from the world. Mr Spencer retired from normal life and began to live in relative seclusion. He went for long walks during the day and took trips abroad, collecting plants to study and write about in his home office.
Growing up, Kate and Heath ran wild. As the years wore on, Mr Spencer became a hermit and slept often, worked in the garden and read the Bible fireside in the afternoons. One by one, the staff began to give notice, except the housekeeper Greta, who’d been with the family since she was sixteen. Greta had more to do than keep track of the wayward children who were soon expelled from the local primary school for “non-attendance, unruly behaviour” and (worst), “attempted biting,” something Kate hotly denied as Heath looked on sheepishly.
Although Greta knew Heath was unusual, he’d managed not to reveal his secret to her. There had to be something wrong with him, Greta thought, but nothing that boarding school wouldn’t fix. Besides, no one was perfect.
Although Mr Spencer felt especially partial to his youngest children, he began counting the days until they were old enough to be sent to Yardley Mansion School in Scotland, a Spencer family tradition. Perhaps they would learn something useful about discipline in such a prestigious establishment. After all, it would be nearly impossible to escape lessons there and Heath’s condition seemed almost entirely under control, his penchant for roast dinners aside. But after all, who except vegetarians did not like a good roast?
When Heath grew stronger (useful against Harrison) and his inclinations grew rougher, he hid them and learned to control his desire to sometimes nip Kate on her leg or arm. In fact, he’d be horrified if she knew he once imagined tasting the pretty little vein in her wrist.
He’d educated himself and knew biting was wrong and never in a billion years would he wish to hurt the person he loved most in the world. Heath religiously took his supplements, wore his amulet and kept himself sustained with his favourite juice and meat. As he grew older, his cravings were not subsiding quite as easily.
Heath was closer to Kate than anyone. Apart from Kate’s father, whom Heath regarded warmly, she was the only friend he’d ever had. Well, except for Greta, who, after a faltering start, grew to look upon Heath with great fondness. At first Heath didn’t like Greta. She was always huffing and puffing in the kitchen about the extra work and ignored him when he asked lots of questions until he stopped talking altogether and then she said things like, “Has the cat got your tongue, young man?”
Harrison was at home for half-term holidays when the children started playing a particularly savage game of sardines. Heath had been caught running through the attic by Harrison and was beaten with a stick. Heath then (unsuccessfully) tried to drive his homemade stake into the older boy’s leg. After witnessing Harrison’s cruelty, Greta had become Heath’s ally. She told Mr Spencer who reprimanded Harrison for picking on the smaller child and withdrew the older boy’s financial privileges for a month. Harrison was angry; the boy was half his height but twice as strong.
‘I’ll get you back for this, charity case,’ the older boy said as he again hit Heath when nobody else was about. There was enough force in that clip to make Heath’s ear bleed. Heath bared his teeth, as he waited for the strength in his venom to take over. Kate swiped her elder brother and before long the three of them were wrestling, pushing, kicking and shoving each other until the little girl was almost squashed in the pile beneath. This just led the two boys to start fighting all over again. Heath bit Harrison on the wrist and spat out the taste just as quickly. Harrison called him a “little animal”. Kate screamed so hard Greta had to race up the stairs to break them up.
Harrison would have been sent back to school to suffer the long weekend alone before term started but Greta noticed spots on all three children as she was sending them out of the room separately. They had developed chicken pox, which Harrison blamed on the local “state school scum” - Heath and his bratty little sister’s school friends.
‘Oh be quiet, Harrison!’ Greta warned. ‘I think it is far more likely that you carried the chicken pox back with you from that posh boys’ school your father pays the earth for…’
Chastened, Harrison went back to bed moaning and demanding more sympathy. Both Harrison and Kate, spoiled before their mother left, demanded to be waited on hand and foot but not Heath. He had lain there, expecting very little sympathy (eyeing the specially delivered basket of blood oranges), sleeping most of the day and happy to gnaw on a chicken leg when it was given. Because he was a stoic little boy, Heath had won Greta over. She kept the best treats for him - fruit and sandwiches for his lunch (the boy always left the bread and ate the meat) - fussing over him like a young mother. This too, bred Harrison’s resentment. Heath, for the first time in his young life, basked in the adoration the females of Hareton Hall gave him, and he grew into a tall, robust child whom Greta predicted would be, “a real lady killer one day”.
At eight years old, that day hadn’t quite arrived.