Chupacabras in the Rhododendrons
Rhododendron ponticum, an evergreen shrub with shiny elliptical leaves, was introduced to Britain from Spain in 1763. It is native to the Caucasus, Turkey, Bulgaria, Lebanon and the southern Iberian Peninsula. Ponticum took enthusiastically to the United Kingdom and has now colonised many hectares of woodland, heath and moor, and is regarded as an ecological thug. It prefers light acidic soils and is most vigorous in areas of high rainfall. In southeast England, the driest part of Britain, it is much less invasive: no longer Genghis Khan, more a sort of exotic auntie who has outstayed her welcome and ignores all your hints about packing her bags and slinging her hook.
Its light purple flowers, which open in late spring and early summer, are insect pollinated and have no discernable scent. They are not known for provoking allergic reactions. So exactly why Deborah Cartwright began sneezing as she cleared a tangle of rhododendrons from a wooded area in the grounds of Gilgloss Place was initially the cause of some speculation.
Gilgloss Place, in the county of Essex, is the site of a once famous eight-hectare garden developed by the horticulturalist Miss Elizabeth Mallard, who lived at the house until her death in 1936. Sadly, her financial acumen did not match her immense skill as a plantswoman, and after she had gone there was no money to maintain the garden, which was abandoned to succession. The house was badly damaged by a stray bomb during World War Two, and all that remains of it are a few crumbling walls and a wrecked colonnade. The garden became a quiet, melancholy island of dark, dense green in a relatively urban landscape.
Then five years ago Gilgloss Place was leased to a local wildlife trust who have cleared much of the undergrowth and are managing the site as a nature reserve. Despite the recent changes, it remains a haunted place. On a warm afternoon in late May you would find it easy to imagine the ghost of Miss Mallard – a small woman who bore a slight resemblance to Queen Victoria – drifting with insubstantial ease through thickets of bramble and holly; floating a few centimetres above deep green carpets of ivy; sliding gracefully past luminous clouds of rhododendrons.
It was on just such an afternoon that Deborah Cartwright hacked away with long-handled pruners at a particularly rampant rhododendron bush. Severed stems surrounded her like the broken legs of dead spiders. She was a strong, slightly stocky young woman, with broad shoulders and widely spaced, well shaped breasts. Her straight, fine, mousy hair fell to the nape of her neck. She had clear grey eyes. And when she smiled, her face acquired a pleasant simian quality. She was a post-graduate ecology student, and a member of the wildlife group. The four other people in her working party were clearing weed from an ornamental lake in a distant part of the garden, and they were out of sight and earshot. Just visible through a clump of sycamore trees was Gilgloss Place’s meadow. Sheep cropped the grass: an efficient means of controlling its growth.
Deborah wore jeans, walking boots and a yellow T-shirt. The work was making her sweat, and she was sniffing intermittently. She wiped her nose on her forearm. From somewhere in the distance, the harsh call of a magpie could be heard. She bent to cut through a low branch and was enveloped by the fine dust that rose from the plant’s leathery foliage. Her mouth fell open. Her eyelids fluttered and began to close.
She took a pace backward and sneezed with whipcrack energy.
Deborah stood in the sunlight, blinking and bewildered, and ran the back of her hand under her nose. This was the first time she had sneezed that day, but her nose had been irritated from the moment she’d started cutting the rhododendrons.
She sneezed again, her whole body contracting, recoiling. “Yashaa!” She felt a little dizzy. “Wow! Bless me.”
Looking down, she saw a scatter of damp spots on her T-shirt, and brushed at them with one hand. As she did so, her features blurred for a third time, her consciousness momentarily ebbing into a pre-sneeze whirlpool – sucking in to ensure a mighty expulsion, preparing a reservoir of easily ignited breath.
Deborah staggered. She searched her jeans’ pockets for a tissue. There wasn’t one, of course.
“Yishooo!… Oh shit!…Yishaishaa!”
The sneezing was vaguely exciting. A vigorous, liberating form of exercise, making efficient use of her sturdy physique. A good test of her solid pelvic floor muscles.
“Huhyishoo!… Oh boy!”
Each sneeze had taken her a pace from the rhododendrons.
The bushes were quite distant now.
Her hands were flapping uselessly and she had dropped the pruners. Confused, she looked round for them.
“Debs? Are you okay?”
Marco Adams waded towards her through a sea of unfurling bracken fronds. He was dark and compact, and reminded her a little of the actor Antonio Banderas. His father was an international banker, his mother was Mexican, and he had been educated in England. He was a solicitor and occasionally worked for his father in Puerto Rico and Mexico. He was one of the wildlife group’s most enthusiastic members.
And Deborah found him absurdly attractive. Every time he was in her presence – in the pub after a field trip, say – she was unable to restrain laughter. It really was funny – almost stupid – just how desirable she found him. He seemed to find her bewildering.
Now, as he approached, Deborah clamped a palm to her nose and mouth. “I’m all right…it’s jus…” She felt as if some internal demon was wrenching up her lungs and stomach only to fling them down and forward with ruthless power. “Yeshoo!…Oh, excuse me.” She gave a short laugh. “I can’t stop sneezing. I think I’m allergic to the rhododendrons.”
Marco raised his eyebrows. “Maybe. Or it could be the powdery mildew. Look at those discoloured patches on the leaves. There must be millions of spores. Far worse than pollen from the flowers.”
“Yeshoo! Oh God!… Sorry, Marco.” She giggled and snuffled, wiping her nose with her fingers, squeezing her nostrils, brushing her watery eyes with the backs of her hands. “I’m disgusting, I know.”
“I came to help you with the cutting back.”
He held up a bowsaw, frowning sternly. She wished he had denied that she was disgusting. But he was looking over her shoulder, as if searching for something in the rhododendrons.
She dried her hands on her jeans. “I know it’s pathetically girly of me, but you haven’t got a tissue, have you?”
He felt in the breast pockets of his khaki shirt, then in his trouser pockets. “No, I haven’t. Sorry Debs.”
“God, I must look horrible.” She laughed jerkily. “I’m plastered in snot!”
Again, he made no effort to deny her assertion. He stepped past her, and, using one end of his saw, lifted a limp swathe of rhododendron foliage. He peered into the depth of the bush, then nodded rapidly, frowning more deeply than ever.
She kept laughing. “I may still be revolting, but at least I’ve stopped sneezing. For the moment, anyway.”
The more he ignored her, the more desperate she became to obtain a compliment.
“Phew! I’m a wreck.”
He ran a hand through his short, wiry black hair. The muscles in his jaw were corded, thick, and hardly moved when he spoke. His dark eyes scanned the area.
“I’ll go back to the others,” he said. “One of them should have a tissue. I won’t be long.”
He jogged off through the bracken, the saw held loosely at his side. He resembled a lithe Native American hunter. Deborah sighed wistfully, watching his tight backside. Christ, he was one beautiful little bastard! Why couldn’t she behave normally in his presence?
She picked up her pruners and, still sniffing, stepped up to the rhododendrons and hacked off a branch. A rustling sound to her right caught her attention. A small, strange head emerged from the dense foliage, about a metre above the ground. It had a very fine, almost transparent, covering of pale fur. Its eyes were huge, black, forward-facing and bulged moistly, recalling the eyes of a lemur. The snout protruded – a sort of stiff trunk with a cluster of little teeth visible at the end. They looked like cocktail sticks. The animal’s cranium appeared disproportionately large, and it possessed a feathery Mohican hairstyle. It turned to stare at her, and blinked – very slowly.
Under her breath, Deborah said: “What on earth are you?”
They watched each other for some moments. Then Deborah felt an insistent, spiralling thread begin a relentless tickling deep, deep inside her nasal passages. She pressed her fist hard against her nose, but it was useless. A controlled explosion detonated behind her eyes.
The head retracted into the rhododendrons.
She thrust her own head into the bush, close to where the creature had been. But all she saw, in the plant’s murky depths, were crusty, contorted branches and piles of rotting leaves. She gasped fiercely, and gasped again. Sneezes burst from her like songbirds escaping from a poacher’s sack.
“Yashoo! Yishoo! Yeshha!”
She fell back from the bush and landed on her bottom on a springy patch of mossy earth. “Shit!” She sniffed miserably.
“What are you doing, Debs?” Marco had returned and was standing behind her. He handed her a wad of tissues.
“I saw an animal I couldn’t identify,” she said.
Marco helped her up. “That would be Rodney. My chupacabras.”
“What are chupacabras when they’re at home?”
“It’s Spanish for goatsucker.”
“Goatsucker!” She looked toward the meadow anxiously.
“It’s all right,” he said, his own eyes still scanning the rhododendrons. “I fed him a stray cat this morning. He shouldn’t be hungry. Still… in his condition… I may be wrong.”
“Marco,” she touched his arm gently, “I think you’ve got some explaining to do.” She separated a tissue from the wad.
“I suppose I should have told everyone that I was bringing him along for a bit of exercise.” Marco shook his head in regret. “But since he’s not exactly a German Shepherd I wasn’t sure what sort of reception he’d get. He would bloody well run off, wouldn’t he? Now you’ve seen him, you might as well help me look for him.”
“What exactly will I be looking for?” She put the wad in her jeans and folded the single tissue over her hands. Forcing tissue and index fingers into her nostrils, she scrubbed away at tingling membranes.
Marco sighed. “You know that South America is the site of more UFO activity than just about anywhere else in the world? Well, Dad’s been doing business with the aliens there for years. Some of the Greys have brilliant legal minds. And an awesome grasp of market forces.” He sighed again. “Anyway, the chupacabras – I won’t try to pronounce its real name – is native to some planet about a zillion light years away. They make fantastic pets, really docile and affectionate as far as humans and Greys are concerned. Dad gave me Rodney on my fourteenth birthday.”
Deborah blew her nose. “What’s this ‘goatsucker’ stuff about?”
“It’s what the Latin Americans call them. They exsanguinate their prey. They live on blood.”
“I told you. They’re not dangerous. Unless you’re a goat or a rabbit or something. It’s just that occasionally… when they’re in a certain condition… they have a tendency to run off. There are quite a few loose in South America, and they’re causing a bit of a stir. Actually, I’m really worried about Rodney.” He clenched his fists and grimaced angrily. “Bugger! How could I have been so careless?”
“We’ll find him, Marco.” On an impulse she stroked the back of his hand.
He looked at her properly – at last – and smiled warmly. “Thanks, Debs. You’re great.” His eyebrows lifted suddenly and the smile became a grin. “I’ve just had a thought.”
“You’re not sneezing now.”
“No, but – ”
“Well – ” enthusiasm tautened his wiry frame and he grasped her shoulders “ – perhaps you’re not allergic to rhododendrons or powdery mildew. Rodney is covered in very fine hair, and at this time of year he’s moulting.”
“You think I’m allergic to the chupacabras?”
He rubbed his chin. “You must have been around rhododendrons before. Did they ever make you sneeze?”
“We’ve cracked it then! Rodney’s the culprit. And when we look for him, you’ll act as an early warning system. As soon as you get symptoms, we’ll know Rodney is near!”
She stared at him uncertainly for some moments. Then she grinned bravely. “I suppose we’d better get started.”
They got down on their hands and knees and crawled into the rhododendron bush. Lustrous foliage brushed their faces. Fine dust rose around them. But Deborah did not sneeze. They clambered over horizontal ponticum stems, each as thick and sinuous as an anaconda. And they emerged into a dim cavern, its dome shaped roof composed of tangled branches, its roughly circular floor carpeted with dead brown leaves.
“The centre of the bush must’ve died through lack of light.” Marco was whispering. He seemed to feel he was in a sacred place. “This is just where you’d expect to find Rodney.” He stood. The lowest branches were centimetres from the top of his head. “You getting anything, Debs?”
She stood too, and inhaled. “Nothing. But there’s a little tunnel opposite. I expect loads of animals use this place. Foxes. Badgers.”
They gazed at each other in the dim green, silky light. Their faces were very close, and Deborah felt Marco’s breath on her cheek. His eyes glittered. And, though she was hardly aware of movement or volition, they began to kiss. It was a moment of vigour and ecstasy. Then they sank down on to the leaves, limbs meshing, mouths united in fluid congress.
“I want you, Debs!”
Both pulled down their trousers, mouths still locked.
“I haven’t got any protection,” Marco gasped.
“It’s okay.” She stroked his hot penis. “I’m on the Pill.”
He began a reciprocal stroking of her clitoris. But there was little need for foreplay: she was a warm, wet pond waiting for his powerful salamander… No, wait… She was an ocean – a great thundering ocean ready to engulf, to swallow up, his mighty submarine.
Marco slid on top of her, and then he was inside her, rocking and grunting, nuzzling her neck.
“Go on Marco! Go on!”
She arched her back, forcing him deeper. Her awareness bubbled and folded like melting chocolate, and a volcanic sensation rushed through her: a primitive, irresistible urge; a biological imperative. It had no words. It needed no words. It was beyond words. But some remote, rational part of her was abruptly able to give this visceral, unimaginably ancient defence mechanism a familiar linguistic form.
An ellipsoid aerosol fled her nose and mouth and dispersed around Marco’s left ear and shoulder.
“Oh fuck! I’m so sorry, Marco!”
“It’s fine, Debs. It’s fine.” Marco’s muffled voice came from somewhere near her left clavicle.
Her mouth snatched air; and snatched again; her vision faded momentarily.
“It’s nice,” he said, “a nice shower.” His muscular little arse still pumped away.
The atmosphere was smoky with suspended moisture. Her lungs – her whole frame – were consumed by a yearning, delicious ache. She allowed the sneeze to take her and lift her and throw her against Marco.
She opened her eyes and, with a passion-killing start, saw a long-snouted, crested head poking from the nearby tunnel.
His face was still buried in her neck. “Go on Debs. Sneeze! Sneeze!”
“No no.” She tapped his shoulder. “Look!” She pushed him and he rolled to one side. He raised himself on an elbow and turned in the direction she indicated. His gluey, detumescing penis gave a despondent throb.
“Rodney!” Marco grinned. “Am I ever glad to see you!”
Rodney watched him with huge unreadable black eyes. Then he wriggled into the cavern and hopped over to Marco, rubbing his head against his owner’s shoulder, making a high-pitched whining noise.
The chupacabras looked like a disturbing cross between a premature baby and a small, emaciated kangaroo. The creature’s head-crest extended down its back.
Deborah’s nose itched wildly, and she rubbed it with the palm of her hand. She tried to find the wad of tissues but her jeans were wrapped around her ankles. A shivering gasp brought both hands up to her face.
“Debs!” Marco stroked Rodney’s Mohican. “Don’t sneeze so loud!”
The chupacabras stared at her, frail body quivering, but made no attempt to flee. It couldn’t be very bothered by her sneezing, she reasoned, because it must have caused the fit that had racked her while she made love to Marco, and it hadn’t bolted then.
“I can’t help it.” She still couldn’t find the wad.
“It’s touch and go until I get him on a lead,” said Marco.
Deborah muffled two sneezes, her face crumpling. “Guhurch! Gur-ngg!”
The stifling frightened Rodney far more than her full-out spasms. He recoiled from Marco and bounced briefly around the cavern, a ricocheting blur, before exiting through the ragged maw that had admitted Deborah and Marco.
“Shit!” growled Marco.
“I’m really sorry.” She pulled up her jeans.
“No,” he said. “It’s not your fault. It’s mine.”
He fastened his belt, and they crawled after Rodney. But they were many seconds behind, and when they stumbled into sunshine, the chupacabras was nowhere to be seen.
Deborah brushed at her clothing, then pressed her fingers to her eyes and the bridge of her nose. A million tiny needles pricked the surfaces of her nasal cavity.
“Yah-hishoo!…He can’t be far.”
A bizarre, bleating scream, like the sound of tearing metal, came from the meadow and startled a flock of starlings. The birds ascended quickly, iridescent flakes against the dull blue sky. Lying at the near edge of the field was a dying sheep, its throat torn open, its wool soaked with blood.
“I’ve been such an arse!” Marco stared down at it, then raised his head, eyes searching desperately.
Rodney bounded across the grass – a skimming stone. He was heading for the B road that ran along the northern boundary of Gilgloss Place. Deborah and Marco ran after him as the other members of their working party, alerted by the scream of the dying sheep, converged on the meadow, pushing aside canes of Japanese knotweed, trampling Himalayan balsam and beating down a flimsy hedge of Lonicera nitida.
The chupacabras leapt the boundary fence, sailing through the air like a windblown rag, and landed on the roof of a passing Range Rover. It clung on with its tiny forepaws, flattening itself against the roof. The vehicle, its driver almost certainly unaware of the strange new passenger, rounded a bend and was out of sight.
Marco and Deborah stood side by side at the centre of the meadow, panting. “Fuck,” he gasped. “Fuck fuck. Bollocks!”
“We’ll find him,” she said. “We’ll get him back.”
“You don’t understand.” He put his head in his hands. “Two months ago I had Rodney mated. His species isn’t like ours. The males carry the unborn children. But it makes them wild. Unpredictable. He’s gone. He’s gone forever.”
He was close to tears. His bottom lip trembled. Deborah reached out and squeezed his hand tightly. “Don’t worry, Marco. You’ve got me now. And I won’t ever give up. We’ll find Rodney…Whatever it takes.”