Read by Jennifer Aries
If I had realised that Dr. Hemstitch had been dead for several years by the time I met him I would have been less enthusiastic about allowing him to kiss my hand. In fact he seemed remarkably active for a man of what I took to be his age, and it never crossed my mind that I might be saying hello to a corpse. He seemed so cheerful, which of course, in hindsight, was no surprise.
My dear, he said, in that deep resonant voice, how delighted I am to meet you. I was flattered, I admit, having entirely misinterpreted the reason for that delight.
The touch of his hand was firm and reassuring, reminding me of my dear, departed father’s. His skin, though somewhat cool and dry, was not what one could call deteriorated in any sense of the word. His eyes sparkled with what seemed, and of course was, an unnatural light. Had I paused a moment or two longer on the doorstep, I have wondered since, might I have seen through that veneer of vitality, to the seething cauldron of corruption within that fuelled it? Perhaps. But as it was, the storm, had driven me, like Brad and Janet I suppose, to seek shelter at the house, although unlike Janet, I had no Brad upon my arm. Now the storm played its hand again, driving me across the threshold with such a flash of lightning that the forked image was burned into my brain, and with a crash of thunder so close upon its heels that I thought the sky itself must be disintegrating above us. A distinct smell of sulphur lingered in the air as the echoes reverberated about the house.
Of course, you, from the comfort of your chair, may wish to tell me that had I paid more attention, to the good doctor, and before that to the house itself, I would not have found myself in the position in which I eventually did! Let me tell you though, that the rain, which had entirely overcome the efforts of the car’s windscreen wipers to disperse it, had doubled and redoubled its efforts to drive me towards my fate as soon as I had left the vehicle. Besides, there was a feverish anticipation in the good doctor that I could not resist the kindling of.
And who would judge a house by its elevations, and ornamentations, any more than a book by its covers? It was not some modern carbuncle upon the landscape, but a confection of late Victorian Gothic, with spires and turrets, and mullioned windows, shuttered against the weather with stout oak panels through which the yellow light of candles, and perhaps log fires, flickered intermittently, rugs of black fur rolling like lovers before them.
As I stumbled forward Doctor Hemstitch gathered me into his arms with an affection that seemed almost wholly fatherly, and guided me into the hall. I must confess, I found the sweet scent of leather and tobacco attractive. The door swung to behind me with a dull thud, and I realised for the first time that we were not alone. A dry stick of a man, upon whom a threadbare suit of dark cloth hung like flesh upon the bone, was standing beside the door. He advanced toward me now with an odious smile, and as the whiff of sulphur died upon the air, another, darker, ranker, almost acrid smell, replaced it. I was sure that it emanated from this skeletal individual.
Raising an imperious palm, my host stopped this apparition in its tracks. Not now, Cameron, he said, without explanation, and I felt his other palm pressing against the damp silk at my spine, as he guided me towards the open door of what I assumed must be some sort of reception room.
Not merely for reception. This room awaited an intimate tête-à-tête, a rendezvous-a-deux, an assignation amoreuse. A small round table draped with a heavy cloth scalloped and embroidered at the edge, and set for an elaborate meal, with crystal glasses, fine china, and bright, polished silver cutlery, stood a little way off from a shallow tiled fireplace in which an almost perfect flame burned, seemingly without consuming the wood upon which it fed. Beside this table, two elderly but comfortable looking chairs of plum-red plush upholstery invited our recline.
Are you expecting company? I asked, thinking perhaps that my arrival might inconvenience him.
Only one whose name I am yet to hear, he said, with old-fashioned gallantry.
Chloe, I replied, feeling myself slip into that comfortable, commanding submission against which intellect, and my mother, had warned me.
Chloe, the good doctor repeated, and he gazed with rapt compassion upon me and drew me into the room where he invited me to sit.
It is strange, is it not, he said, with barely the trace of an accent, that I should have asked Cameron to set a table for two, on such a night as this, no plans having been made, no invitations offered? Yet, as the storm grew, there grew with it my conviction, that a traveller would be cast upon my hospitality this night; and here you are, arrived almost in the nick of time. Indeed, so sure was I that one would arrive in need of food, that I had already instructed him that the time had come to prepare himself for our meal.
I’m not sure I understand?
The soup. He is ready. He clicked his fingers, and the cadaverous Cameron, who must have followed us from the hall, bowed briefly at the door and stepped back almost, it seemed with the air of one resigned to the performance of some last ritual long prepared for and inescapable.
Feeling at my ease, I unclasped my hair, and shook it free, to settle in folds like a discarded garment about my shoulders.
The room must have been warm, the air dry, for already, and I had been inside only a minute or two by then, my clothes seemed miraculously to have lost their wetness from the storm, and I must confess that at no time in the whole of my previous existence had I felt so entirely at my ease as I did when sitting down to that momentous dinner. The doctor was an unassuming, unpretentious host, yet as we dined I knew that he suppressed, with barely controlled excitement, the desires of a hunger that it was in my power alone to satiate.
The cuisine was superlative. The soup, of a flavour I had not encountered before, but which I have enjoyed many times since, was delicate and creamy, and it had been slightly foamed, as if it had been vigorously whisked the moment before serving. And I recall seeing Cameron’s wrists, stretching from beneath the dark cloth as he served, and thinking that there could not be the strength in them to achieve such vigour. Of course, I told myself, there would be a cook, a jolly, rounded person, somewhere in the far reaches of the house. The entrée was a meat of such delicious tenderness, that it must have simmered slow and unctuous in its juices for a day or more, and the flavour was balanced with the perfection of a German wine, between that sickly sweetness, and acridity.
Cameron, and I have to say that I did not entirely welcome this, seemed to linger by the table, having served this dish, waiting to reassure himself, by our approbation, that it was to our complete satisfaction, as if it were his own. Then with a weakening smile, the air seeming to waft unobstructed through the gaps between the buttons upon his jacket, he withdrew. The wine was dark, and red, and warming, as if mixed with some richer liquid of unknown provenance, and again, as Cameron served, tilting the crystal decanter above our glasses, I thought he trembled a little, and showed even paler in the dying firelight.
Who would have thought so rich a sweet could follow such a meal, in colour, texture, the aroma of burnt sugar and decay. Cameron, or what was left of him, seemed almost invisible within the ragged suit as he left us for the last time.
Death feeds on life. The Turks, it was said, back in the days of turreted castles and unbridled tyrants, would lash their living prisoners to the corpses of the slain, thigh to thigh, chest to chest, mouth to mouth, and see the living, inevitably, consumed by the dead. Good Doctor Hemstitch, as he served a golden honeyed after-dinner wine, which he himself had fetched from some unknown vessel in another room, for Cameron was finished now, he told me, said that we are either eaten from without, or from within.
And here we are again, the storm lashing the windows, the lightning moving on, now that it has driven you to our door. The thunder, lagging behind a little as the distance grows, as if exhausted by the chase. You will find me a little thinner than I was then, but my skin is still smooth and pale where my garment gapes. I shall serve the soup as soon as you are ready, as soon as I have managed this little inconvenience, ah! A mere pinprick, I assure you. And then to whisk, as much as my fading strength allows, and also I must sharpen the carving knife, though, of course, the entrée, will be of such exquisite, such unbelievable tenderness...
Consommé by Brindley Hallam Dennis was read by Jennifer Aries at the Liars' League Blood & Thunder event at The Wheatsheaf on Tuesday 13 October 2009
Brindley Hallam Dennis has lived in Cumbria for over 30 years. He has been writing fiction for about 10. Under a variety of names, he has won prizes for both fiction and poetry, had a (short) play performed, and works at times as a garden labourer, university Creative Writing tutor, and bookseller.