I discovered Camden Town through my sister, Tasha, who moved there when she was twenty. She was studying art at some red brick university and the room she rented above a kebab shop doubled as a studio. To me, her work was just senseless globs of paint. I could never understand how a tutor could grade anything so abstract.
“Timothy,” she would say, always using my full name when talking down to me, “There is a rich history of art for art’s sake. Unlike you, my tutors understand that.”
“Great” I’d reply, with a non-committal shrug.
Her heavily made-up face would contort with the effort of hiding her frustration. I rarely saw Tasha without makeup. She would emerge from the bathroom fully adorned, haven risen from her futon bed while I was still sleeping on the moth-ridden chaise lounge. The make-up was an essential part of her look, along with the vibrant shades she would dye her hair. All art students, it seemed, were compelled to have unnaturally coloured hair. Tasha’s was normally orange, but occasionally a shocking green.
I envied her really. I was three years younger and still attending college and lived with my parents in the suburbs, where green hair on a boy would have been met with derision and a possible head butt from one of the less than broad-minded local yobs. Plus, I was more concerned with remaining invisible than being noticed. For Tasha being noticed was imperative, although she claimed to have no interest in what anyone else thought of her.
While we often bickered, I loved staying in her pokey studio, mainly because of its close proximity to Camden Market – or more accurately markets. Camden was formed of disparate, sprawling bazaars, offering everything from magic mushrooms to genuine antiques. This was the mid-80s, before the developers moved in and sanitised the area. Back then The Stables Market was just that, a ramshackle row of old stables, crammed with second-hand curios; Punks still hung around the bridge over the lock, stinking of sweat and dope, scavenging for change or cigarettes; and the Goths sloped around, wrapped in their dismal dark clothes and moods.
Sage had been standing close to a group of pasty-faced Goths the first time I saw him. I could tell he wasn’t one of them. His bony face was alert, bright eyes flitting from one scene to another, drinking everything in with a wry smile. He looked about nineteen, although even on that first meeting I could tell he was older – I had no idea just how much older.
Tasha had gone to buy some art supplies in the West End, so I was wandering alone. Otherwise, I would have been nudging her and surreptitiously nodding in his direction. He was beautiful. His skin was white like the Goths, but it glowed as if he was standing under a spotlight, and his shoulder-length hair was a glossy black, not the dirty charcoal colour created by a home-dye kit.
He wore tight black jeans, a white dress shirt and a long black coat – pretty standard attire for Camden Market in the 80s — but he wore them well, majestically, like a wealthy lord who’d decided to rough it for a day.
I actually gasped when I realised his gaze had stopped flitting and was firmly resting on me. This was the point when I would normally panic, blush and hurry away, only to fantasise later about the sexual encounter that could have been if I hadn’t been such a coward. But I couldn’t look away. I don’t mean this in a romantic sense, although romance was definitely in the mix, I mean I literally couldn’t look away. And when he smiled and gestured for me to come over, I did.
The first thing that struck me about him as I drew close was his musty, or was it musky, smell – like damp mixed with something potently hormonal. Then there was his lopsided smile that creased just one cheek and revealed surprisingly discoloured teeth, smaller than his full, sneering/smiling mouth promised. His soft, throaty voice lived up to expectations, however, and I felt lust churn in my stomach as he said “hello”.
We must have swapped names because by the time he was steering me through the Camden crowds, his hand resting firmly on the small of my back, I was calling him Sage and he was using my name in pretty much every sentence as if he knew hearing it uttered in his lived-in voice made my heart, and something else swell. I still can’t remember how I went from a shy “Hello” to heading to his home – I hadn’t done more than kiss anyone up until that point and that had been a boy at school with cheese and onion flavoured breath. But here I was being led to a stranger’s home, I assumed for sex, although I don’t think this had been mentioned.
Sage’s home was a basement flat on a road off the main high street. It was squat-like but with a hint of decadence. The musty smell that clung to Sage swamped the space. He led me to a dark room, cluttered with old furniture, including a table and chairs that could have been bought from the Stables antique market, and a large four-poster bed with curtains so ragged they looked like cobwebs.
“Would you like some wine?” Sage was already offering me a full glass. “It’s a Merlot I picked up in France.”
When had he had the time to even pour it?
I accepted the proffered drink, took a large gulp and placed the glass on the nearby table. My hand was shaking so much I was afraid I’d spill some if I continued to hold it.
“You can put your clothes over there.” Sage gestured towards a faded green armchair and removed his coat with several small shrugs.
“You’re assuming a lot,” I said with a nervous laugh, glad I was no longer holding the wine.
“So, you don’t want sex?” he asked, staring at me with his dark, inquisitive eyes.
I laughed again and looked at the floor. Sage grabbed my hand and pulled me closer to him. “That is why you’re here, isn’t it?” he said, lips brushing my forehead as he spoke.
I was torn between melting into his arms and having a full-blown panic attack. I’d never come close to having sex before. I was the boy at college that all the girls wanted to be just good friends with, and most of the boys barely knew I existed.
Sage lifted my chin and kissed me on the lips; it wasn’t a gentle peck it was forceful, his teeth biting down on my lower lip and tugging. I opened my mouth and his tongue invaded. Mine reacted, but it felt clumsy and fat compared to his. He pulled me towards the bed.
Sage's naked body was warm, which made me smile. I’d half expected to feel the cold skin of a vampire. He had that quality, and the flat was like something from a Gothic novel. Beside me, lying with one arm behind his head, the other stroking my stomach, Sage let out a short burst of laughter.
“I’m much more ancient than that,” he said.
“What?” I stared into those almost black eyes. Sage grinned.
“I’m not a vampire. I’m much more than a vampire. In some parts of the world, people actually worship me.”
“Yeah right,” I said. “So, you’re like a god, but you live in a squat in Camden.”
“I enjoy a bit of squalor every now and again. I like little crawl spaces like this – holes to hide in, and take my conquests,” he kissed my cheek as he said this. “Let’s go to sleep now and I’ll tell you more in the morning.”
I thought about my sister. Would she worry about me? What if my parents called while I was away and asked to speak to me? I should really have left, but I couldn’t drag myself from the warm pocket of the bed, or Sage. I settled down and he pulled me to him so that my head rested on his chest. I closed my eyes and slept.
As I opened my eyes the first thing I realised was that I was alone. But everything else was wrong too. The bed I lay in had a hard mattress and the covers were tucked around me so that I could hardly move.
The room was wrong too. It was almost empty and smelt clinically clean. It had blue carpet and a large window through which I could see green lawn and trees. In the far distance, I could see a towering city skyline, like something from a futuristic movie set.
I screwed my eyes closed again, trying to wake myself from this unnerving dream, but when I opened them it was still there. I pulled an arm from beneath the covers and choked on the shock. My hand was translucent white with blue veins running just beneath the crepe skin, like threads of cotton, and loose skin hung from my arm, tremoring where I was shaking.
“Sage!” I yelled his name because he was the only one I could think of who might be able to explain. “Sage!”
A door behind me opened and a female voice called: “Mr Webber, are you okay?”
Soft footsteps on the carpet and then the woman stood at the side of the bed looking down at me, concerned. She was short and portly, dressed in shapeless clothes, impossible to age.
“What is this?” I croaked, and my voice sounded as old as my flesh.
“What’s wrong, Mr Webber? We thought you’d be happier today after seeing your grandson.”
“He came yesterday, didn’t he. He’s very handsome.”
While I grappled to make sense of the gibberish she was spouting, I noticed a framed photograph sitting on top of a bedside table, barely inches from my face but still slightly blurred. The woman picked it up, smiling. “You look like your sister,” she said, turning the photo towards me. I squinted at the old woman in the picture.
“That’s not my sister,” I said.
“Yes, it is, Mr Webber, remember, we managed to track down your nephew when you first came to stay with us. He came to see you and brought the photo with him. It was one of the last pictures ever taken of her. He printed it especially for you.” She spoke to me as if I was a child who needed everything explained very slowly.
I was crying now. Why was I dreaming all this? Was it a guilt trip for not having gone home? Had Sage drugged me?
“I’m going to get doctor Letterby to pop by and see you,” the woman said, replacing the photo on the table. “I’ll get you a cup of tea too.”
As she closed the door I began to sob. This was too much. Where was Sage? What the fuck was happening? I screamed his name again. And he was there, standing just inside the now open window, dressed in clothes almost identical the those he’d been wearing when we’d met.
“Why are you still crying? He asked.
I shifted into a seated position, repulsed by the sight of more decrepit flesh, shocked at the rigidity of my joints and the sharp ache in my back.
“We were in bed…” I stared at him, imploring him to offer some explanation. “In Camden. What have you done to me?”
“I had to do something, my love. You were so sad and your constant crying was painful for me.” He tapped his head “It’s not that bad here, is it? Surely you’ve made some friends after five years.”
“I can’t have been here for that long,” I protested.
“You have,” said Sage. He sighed, seeming impatient to be away again. “Look, six years ago your body started to reject my blood and you began to age rapidly. I couldn’t be responsible for you like this.” He swept a hand through the air above my body. “So, I delivered you here. I put up with your constant whining for years. No matter how far away I went, I could still hear you calling for me like a needy child. Last night your misery was unbearable again, so I came and I wiped your mind of every memory of us – or I meant to.”
“What the fuck is this?” I tried to grab him, but he darted backwards, obviously as repulsed by my sagging skin as I was.
“I’ll do it properly this time,” he said, edging towards the bed again. “Wipe away everything, including when we met. I’m sorry, it must have been very confusing for you.”
“No!” I didn’t want him trying anything. What if he wiped my mind of everything, even the memories of my sister, my parents.
“I can’t cope with your misery,” said Sage, and it was then I noticed someone else, standing outside the window, looking in. He was young, about the age I was when I’d met Sage, shoulder-length blond hair and a face daubed with rouge and a fake beauty spot. At least I’d never dressed like some dandy for him.
I was starting to remember more now. Seeing Sage must have triggered something. I was seeing flashes of us together — happy, laughing, fighting, yelling, making love, travelling through different cities on foot, by train, in chauffeur-driven cars. Squalid rooms like the one he’d first taken me to, and ridiculously opulent rooms, opening onto expansive grounds, and beautiful people clinking glasses and toasting us like celebrities.
And there had been impossible experiences too. Something that felt like flying — flitting across cities like shadows. And there was blood — his blood, running down my throat like medicine.
“I kept you with me for sixty years,” said Sage, solemn now.
“And then you dumped me here…”
“Get out!” I snapped. “Get the fuck out!”
He backed towards the window, jumping onto to ledge and then down to the grass beyond. The boy grabbed his hand, tossing me a petulant glare. And then with a noise like rusting bed sheets, they were gone.
I lay staring at the picture of my sister as the jigsaw of my past with Sage slowly fitted together. I had turned my back on her, on all my family, for him. I prayed that she was at peace. And I prayed for death so that I could join her.