As well as writing fascinating blogs about my thoughts, feelings and farts, I will be sharing interviews with local characters. While my philosophical blogs are likely to become the foundation of a future world-uniting religion, my journalistic blogs will give you an insight into the world that you would never have because you’re socially inept and not as full of empathy as I am.
British society is stratified by a class system that would baffle most outsiders. Anthropologists and sociologists could argue for days about the precise positions with the hierarchy, but there is broad agreement that the Queen and Archbishop of Canterbury are at the top (though many would suggest that Stephen Fry is now above them). In future blogs, I may interview the people in such lofty positions, but at the moment I’m more interested in those at the bottom of the social structure. It’s easy to sneer at those at the bottom, but I see them as the very foundations of our society. Where are we without our bin men and women, our toilet cleaners, our sin eaters? One of the least respected, least understood and least considered workers is the council Vampire Hunter.
In my parish, we are served by an over-worked, under-paid and unappreciated man who has asked me only to identify him as Ted. I first met Ted through sheer coincidence: I was taking a stroll through a cemetery at sunrise during June of this year when I met Ted finishing up after his night’s exhausting work. In his flat cap and tweeds (soiled with grave mould), Ted was far from a romantic figure. The vampire hunter, like the game keeper or rat catcher, works unsociable hours in difficult environments. This is not a job that lends itself to glamour. Likewise, it does not lend itself to sociability. I greeted Ted cheerily and received little more than a taciturn grunt in response. I had been about to go my way, when Ted stumbled and dropped his canvas roll of stakes. I helped him to gather his tools and offered him tea from my flask. It was through this British tradition, the cup of tea, that I managed to reach out to Ted.
It had been a difficult night. Staking vampires is not only physically demanding, it is emotionally draining. Ted is only in his fifties, but his white hair and lined face give him an impression of much greater age. Most people require therapy or Prozac after encountering a vampire, but Ted sees things at work every week that would have most of us taking a sabbatical through stress.
I kept in touch with Ted through phone calls and letters. He does not use the internet. Ted, like his profession, seems to belong to a different age. After many weeks of increasingly friendly communication, Ted finally agreed to let me accompany him on a ‘job’ and interview him for this blog. He has no interest in personal fame, but he is passionate about his work and the work of others in ‘the trade’. Ted fears, as do I, that increasing cut-backs will see the end of the council vampire hunter. The trend these days is to contract out ‘complex pest control’ to private companies, something that Ted distrusts and despises.
“Back in the day, the trade was well respected,” Ted tells me, one chilly October night. “Medieval times, we had proper Guilds. Parishes collected funds to pay the hunters. It was admired, people knew it was a tough job. These days, people don’t want to think about it. If you work the sewers, the bins or the undead, most folk don’t want to know. Dirty jobs are done by dirty people, that’s the idea.”
We are driving in Ted’s ancient, rattling van to a graveyard in rural Nottinghamshire. Ted has visited during the day and established that the sightings and suspicions of local people are well-founded. I am puzzled as to why we are arriving at night, to my mind, the most dangerous time.
“It’s always a dangerous time in this job,” Ted says bluntly. “We go in at night, prepare the place, then wait around. This job is mostly patience and preparation. Just before dawn, that’s when there’ll be a bit of fuss.”
I don’t allow myself to smile, but I’m amused at Ted’s down-playing of his job. Like soldiers or doctors, those who see real horrors, Ted does not emphasize the very genuine danger of his work.
I ask Ted how he got into this line of work in the first place and he scoffs.
“You’ll laugh. It’s the old story. Grandad did it, dad did it… now I do it. It used to be like with miners, too, and I’ll be going the same way as them,” he says. He sounds resigned to the idea that he is part of a dying trade.
From our previous conversations, I know that Ted has no family. His wife died many years ago. Ted does not volunteer any details and I don’t ask for them. I wonder if her death was related to his work. I hope not.
Unsurprisingly, the graveyard seems deserted. Ted parks the van and we begin to unload. Instinctively, I try to remain quiet, but Ted thumps and clangs around unself-consciously. We unpack a canvas roll of stakes and a large, heavy toolbox. The gravestones, the half-naked trees and the bright moon all add to my feelings of trepidation. This is text-book spooky, almost laughable in its Hammer Horror predictability. Ted seems unconcerned: this is his work place.
We trudge to the tomb. It is not an imposing monument, it’s no bigger than a garden shed. I would like to read the inscription, but Ted carries the torch and he has no interest in names or dates. He tells me that knowing details won’t make any difference. We’re here to do a job.
We could smash our way in, we have enough tools, but Ted is a craftsman and spends a tense ten minutes picking the lock. “This was a decent tomb and it will be again when we’re done,” he explains. “I don’t make a mess. I take pride in my work, not like private contractors.”
Inside the tomb, I feel a chill that is nothing to do with the cold night, nor is it a reaction to the Halloween cliche of the open, empty coffin. Something ancient and instinctive tells me that I am in the lair of a predator. Something more spiritual, tells me that I am in a ‘bad’ place. I do not speak, but Ted notices my expression.
“You get used to it,” he says. “We call it The Stink. It’s not just the smell. You know what I mean.”
There is a smell: wet stone, rotting wood and decay. There is something else, too, something that I cannot name and don’t want to remember. My intellect can’t understand or explain it, but there is a smell of death and something worse than death.
Ted is busy with his vials of water and his crumbs of bread. I ask him about his relgious leanings. He shrugs and says, “I don’t know what’s true, I just know what works. I’ve got a Jewish mate down in London, he does it his way. My dad said that there are Muslims and Buddhists and all the others in the trade. I do it this way because that’s how dad and grandad did it. It works, that’s what matters to me.”
I ask if atheists can work in the trade and Ted replies, “They have to find what works for them, like everybody else.” I suppose he’s right. Even outside the trade, we’re all finding what works for us.
Now begins the waiting. Ted and I discuss the weather, climate change (Ted is sceptical) and the state of politics. The first time I see Ted get truly emotional is when he discusses the government. “Cut backs are killing this country,” he says, his voice showing real anger. “We’re losing libraries, we’re going to lose hospitals. The mines and industry went in the eighties, now social services will go. Tory bastards want to privatize everything. They want to make money out of it, make a profit. You know what you need to make a profit out of my work? More vampires. The private boys let them spread. Then they charge top-whack to get rid of them. The worst vampires you’ll ever meet are the aristocratic ones. I can’t say too much, but there are vampires that I’m not allowed to touch because they’re Lord So-and-so’s great grandad. Makes me sick.”
Ted used to be a staunch supporter of Labour, but he is becoming less political, less hopeful as he gets older. He tells me, “They’re all bloody toffs these days, even Labour. Half of them went to Eton. It’s all money, money, money. They forget that down at the bottom, there’s people like me that stop the country from falling into the dark. Where will we be when the vampire hunters are gone? The nurses? The libraries?”
I have no answer for him. We sit in the dark, waiting for something worse than the dark.
There are no footsteps to announce the arrival. I had been straining my ears, but I was a fool to expect to hear something. The first sign of the tomb’s returning occupant is a terrible sense of dread and despair. I had expected the fear, but the misery takes me by surprise. I feel like I am grieving the loss of something that I can’t remember. I feel like my depression has returned, in its fullness, in a single second.
“I know,” says Ted. “You get used to it. Hold that cross up.”
It comes through the door like mist, but it moves so quickly that I cannot appreciate the spectacle. Before I understand what is happening, we are not alone in the confined space. I feel nauseous. The sickness is not solely physical, I feel ill on an emotional level. Everything here is wrong. I am convinced that I will not survive. I have never felt so afraid. It is not just the fear of death, it is the fear of some vague violation that is hard to articulate. The modern world has almost lost the idea of damnation, but I believe that it is damnation that scares me. I do not want to die, but I would rather be dead than be like the creature that is glowering at us.
Ted got to work so swiftly that I had little time to see what was happening. The light of the torch seemed inadequate. I thought at the time, rather fancifully, that the thing had brought more darkness with it. A reader will, naturally, want to know what I saw. I apologize for my inadequate descriptions, but events moved very quickly. I also think that the trauma may have led to me being unwilling to remember more clearly. My hands are shaking as I type this.
I remember a very pale face (I cannot remember clearly whether it was a pale face or a bare skull). I do not remember seeing eyes, but there were dark places where eyes should have been. Part of my mind remembers a beautiful young man in clothing that I thought of as Victorian, but I believe that my memory is filling in the blanks however it can. I am not a reliable witness. Ted’s shouting was extremely loud in the claustrophobic, echoing tomb. When I heard the words “Valley of the Shadow of Death”, I fell back against the wall and I would have fallen over if there had been more room. I pressed against the stones and wanted them to swallow me. I remember very vividly that I wanted the stones to become blankets and I wanted to wrap myself in them.
Strangely, when Ted forced it back into its coffin, I felt a rush of sympathy. I was convinced that I was watching a scene of heart-breaking tragedy. I have memories of watching a young man, a young man with delicate features, being brutally attacked by a thug that looked like Ted. I also have memories of Ted, caught for a moment in the torch light, looking almost angelic as his hammer came down. There were tears on his face.
I will never forget the screams, but I don’t know whether they came from the thing being staked or from my own mouth.
Less than an hour later, we were back in the van. I was trying to control fits of shaking. Ted was gruffly sympathetic. “It got me like that the first time,” he said. “I’ve got a mate in the fire service, he said his first real traffic accident stayed with him. I suppose it’s like that for ambulance drivers and doctors and everyone who works at the shitty end.”
As I write this, in daylight, I am still disturbed, but the events have been insulated from me by passing time. Ted will be going out again next week and the week after. One night of his work nearly crippled me. I do not know how he can go on. I am glad that he does.
There may come a day when we have no more vampire hunters working for the council. The private companies will deal with our undead, but the private companies are driven by profit. People like Ted see their work as something to take pride in. They work to keep our world safe. Will private companies take the same pride in what they do or will they seek the best ways to monetize damnation?
While Ted is out there in the dark, I feel safe. When he is gone, and the others like him, the darkness will have crept a little closer.
Have you been affected by the issues in this piece? Are terrifying, blasphemous abominations a problem in your parish? Get in touch through the comments and let me know.