Read by Susan Moisan
With hindsight, I can’t believe I agreed to cook Steve a romantic dinner – his first encounter with my cooking, and my flat – on Hallowe’en night: it really was begging for trouble. I suppose I didn’t want to spoil it. We’d only been seeing each other a few weeks, and after a chain of disastrous relationships with sticky ends, I was starting to feel optimistic about Steve.
Advantage #1: Steve was a fireman – which, sizzling calendars aside, meant he worked funny hours too, and didn’t mind meeting on midweek daytimes or at midnight after a late shift. Plus, the way I cooked, I might need his firefighting skills in the kitchen.
Advantage #2: he was into me, but not too much. He didn’t surreptitiously sniff my hair or hoard my nail-clippings, and so far I hadn’t discovered a shrine in his toilet.
Advantage #3: he wasn’t a poet, musician, artist, actor, singer-songwriter, novelist, blogger, playwright, rapper, DJ, film-maker or any other kind of “creative”, not even on weekends. Doctor-on-doctor romance was always a bad idea, so instead I’d dated artistic types, and found them unreliable, self-centred and impossible. They all had too much soul, that was the trouble. Too much soul and not enough balls. That was definitely not Steve’s problem.
I’d tried to avoid Hallowe’en for obvious reasons, but when we compared shift-patterns it was the only night (and, crucially, next morning) when we were both free, so for harmony’s sake I said I’d love to make dinner. I assumed we were meeting at his, but then he mentioned the landlord was decorating so could we eat at mine? He’d never seen my place (ha-ha) what was I hiding? (ha-ha). I nearly called it off, but then he promised to bring his uniform. “Helmet, axe … everything,” he winked. Well played, Steve.
“I’ll just have to style it out,” I told the organic beef as I fanned the slices on the chopping-board. As an orthopaedic surgeon I should probably also be a killer chef, but my expertise stops the minute living flesh becomes dead meat. The few experiments I’ve tried had … mixed results. On the principle that nobody can really say what it’s meant to look or taste like, I’d decided to make stew, but I was suddenly suffering from cook’s block. I reread the recipe and poured two glasses of red wine. One for me, one for the stew.
“Right,” I said, “moving on. Aubergines!” I found them, sliced them, stared at them, feeling my brain short out. Give me a compound fracture any day.
“Fry the slices in salted butter,” said Charles over my shoulder. “Adds flavour.”
I took a swig of wine and rolled my eyes. “Charles,” I said, “when I need your advice I’ll ask.”
He pffffed cynically. “Like when we were going out? And your heating broke down? And you were too proud to ask me to fix it and just wore jumpers indoors all winter?”
I glared at the vegetables. “Yep.”
“That was probably a contributory factor in my death, you know,” he added snidely, riffling the pages of the propped-up cookbook.
This again. “Oh really? Not thirty years of artery-choking fry-ups? Not your twenty-a-day rollie habit?”
Poor Charles. He’d been my first, and last, older boyfriend. At 29, I’d found it oddly thrilling to date a fiftysomething – and a poet who’d been on my GCSE syllabus as well. Thrilling, that was, until he’d collapsed, clutching his chest, just after one of our Viagra-fuelled sex sessions. I performed CPR immediately, of course, but I couldn’t save him. And I soon discovered that even after death, I couldn’t get rid of him.
“Darling,” Charles soothed, “I’m only trying to help.”
I planted the tip of the paring-knife in the board. “Don’t call me darling! And make yourself scarce tonight, too.”
“OooOOOhh! Special guest?” As ghosts went, Charles was more camp than creepy. “Hot date? Is it the fireman?”
“None of your business.”
“Young love, how adorable! Don’t worry, I won’t interfere. You don’t mind if I spectate, though, do you? You know how … inspiring I find it.”
The old perv. This was why I tried never to take men back to mine. Well, one of the reasons. “Can I stop you?”
He laughed; half Sid James, half ghost-train. “Why don’t I handle the stew while you have another glass of wine, darling?”
That evening, an hour into a so-far very successful dinner, I was glad I’d let Charles cook. His kitchen skills had been one of his more seductive qualities when he was alive, and he’d really pulled the stops out tonight, presumably hoping for a show later. Steve certainly appreciated the effort, anyway. He’d brought flowers, and more wine, and the flirting was proceeding nicely when:
“So,” he said, “where are your skeletons?”
I glanced behind me, afraid Charles had decided to manifest at a very awkward moment, but there was nothing.
“What?” I asked warily.
Steve grinned. He had a great grin: schoolboy-cheeky and sexy at the same time. Great abs, too, though I couldn’t see those. Yet.
“You know. Your skeletons in the closet. Your dark secrets. Your baggage. You must have a few exes, a few issues. Everybody does.”
“Not me!” I said brightly, sweating like a shoplifter in a sauna.
“Come on …” Steve wrinkled his nose and winked. “No baggage? No exes?”
“Neither. I mean both.” I downed my wine, grinned too widely. “Hey, no baggage, fly me!”
Steve nodded understanding. “Yeah, I thought so. Took me a while to get over my ex-girlfriend, too. Even after she’d gone, you know, it was like she was still there … in spirit, y’know? Hanging around, watching … judging me.”
Did I imagine the ethereal, supercilious snicker, the sudden drop in temperature?
“Cuh, exes eh?” I said, grabbing the wine bottle and both glasses. “Hey, it’s a lovely night, let’s take these into the garden!”
Steve frowned out of the window. “Looks like it’s raining …”
“Yes, right, lovely and fresh!” I nearly ran outside to the terrace, where housebound Charles couldn’t follow.
Of course, in my haste, I’d completely forgotten about Sean.
Steve and I were sheltering romantically from the rain under my overgrown oak-tree, starting to get cosy, when I felt a cold bony finger slide into my right ear. I jerked violently, then pulled my phone out, clamping it to the side of my head as I backed away round the treetrunk.
“Sorry Steve, got to take this. Work.” He nodded understandingly. God, he was so cool about everything. And so hot. I couldn’t let my undead exes screw this one up.
Behind the oak, I found myself face to slightly decomposed face with my one-time Irish actor boyfriend, hiding in the shadows of the bushes. “Sean!” I growled, “What do you want?” He flashed his once-charming, now disintegrating grin. This time of night he was usually hunting foxes or rats in order to suck their grey matter out through their ear-canals, but apparently he’d changed his plans.
“Could I not have a little taste of your brains, Meg? I’m starvin’.” His voice was still mellifluous, and gentle as rustling leaves: he’d done a lot of Magner’s voiceovers.
“No.” I said. In life, he’d tried to sleep with every female with a pulse: only after death was he showing an interest in anyone’s brain.
“Ah, go on. Last thing I ate was next door’s cat, and I think it had toxoplasmosis. I don’t feel at all well.”
“Piss off!” I hissed.
“Everything OK?” Steve enquired from the other side of the tree.
“Yeah, fine. Work, you know?”
Sean glanced at Steve, narrowing his once-blue eyes. “There’s a healthy-looking feller. Bet he’s got a cerebellum like a ripe avocado. I could just have a little bite.”
“If ‘twere done, when ‘tis done, then twere well it were done quickly …” he sighed into my ear. He knew Shakespeare made me gooey, though not quite as gooey as he’d become since last year, when he’d returned from a Brazilian beer-commercial shoot, and promptly dropped dead. I’d wept, mourned, attended the funeral and then been very surprised to find his reanimated corpse gnawing on a squirrel at the bottom of my garden a week later. He explained he must’ve caught the zombieism off a Goth makeup girl he’d shagged on-set. “She bit me real hard,” he complained, “I thought that meant she was enjoying it!” I let him stay because he kept the rats down and the foxes away, but he was really pushing it now.
“I’ll go to the butcher’s tomorrow and get some offal,” I promised him. “But you can’t have Steve.”
Oh Steve. Lovely Steve. Perhaps having your brains hoovered out by a lecherous revenant would actually have been preferable to what ended up happening, but at the time all I wanted was to finish the night with both of us uninjured and, hopefully, still in the mood.
Sadly, it wasn’t to be. An hour later, Steve and I were getting down to business in front of the living-room fire (I still hadn’t properly fixed the heating, and the rain outside was now a full-blown storm) and at last I was starting to relax. Trying to ignore the improvised erotic verse Charles was whispering in my ear, I made some sort of lame fireman joke and Steve’s face lit up like he’d remembered something.
“Wait there,” he breathed, “and close your eyes for a surprise.”
“Oh … o-kay,” I said, hoping he hadn’t brought some kind of alarming sex toy.
“Won’t be a sec.” His grey-blue eyes sparkled wickedly as he vanished through the doorway.
“… the unwaked dream of your parted thighs / the smacking kiss of knicker elastic / My breath / catches on the hook of your bra …”
“Oh shut up, Charles,” I said.
“I was rather pleased with that,” he said, miffed. I was about to launch into a trenchant and heartfelt critique of Charles’s poetry I’d been saving since GCSE English, when I heard the basement door slam and a series of wall-shaking thuds interspersed with blood-freezing screams.
Charles and I looked at and through each other, horrified. “Oh Jesus,” I said, “Hankenstein.”
Hank Enstein, my handsome, totally unsuitable singer-songwriter American fling, had been flattened by the red Routemaster his Anglophile heart loved so much the very day he’d landed in England. It was midnight on a Saturday and the nearest hospital was an hour away, so fresh off my A&E residency, I’d dragged him to my basement and patched him up as best I could. Which wasn’t brilliantly, I’ll admit, but at least he was alive. Sort of. He stayed in the basement and acted as my bodyguard.
“He wasn’t a threat, you idiot!” I sobbed, on my knees next to Steve’s mutilated corpse.
Hankenstein shrugged. “He had an axe. Better safe than sorry.”
Steve’s fireman’s axe lay next to his freshly-uniformed body, dripping with fresh gore. This was the surprise he’d wanted to spring on me: this was what I’d been hoping all night to see.
“Bloody hell,” I sighed. “Right Hank, let’s get him downstairs.”
Luckily there was lightning that night. Hank’s wild axe-swings had missed most of Steve’s major organs: his brain-stem was toast, but I managed to hook up his iPhone as a replacement. He wasn’t too pleased when he woke up and discovered battery issues meant he had to be within six feet of a wall-socket at all times, but I explained it was the best I could do. Life as a crap cyborg took a bit of adjusting to, but Hank’s getting him through it. Judging by the frightening noises coming from the basement, I think they’ve started to write songs together.
As for me, I’ve got my eye on Michael, a lovely male nurse who just joined the hospital. I know, I know, I swore I’d never date a medic, but I’m starting to feel optimistic about him.
(c) Sophie Bloom, 2016
Sophie Bloom studied English at Leeds University, and creative writing in various evening classes and a writing group. She lives in York and this is her first published story. She’s glad to report that all her exes are currently alive.
Susan Moisan is a graduate of Drama Studio London. Credits: Lady Agatha Proudcock in Oswald's Return at the OSO Arts Centre; We Are Gods (White Bear Theatre); Hatchepsut in Zipporah (George Wood Theatre, Goldsmiths), Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing; and Central Film School's short film The Factory. She has also played a number of roles in new writing for radio.