Never get drunk with a stranger. My life would have been a lot easier if I had remembered those words. I may have missed out on some excitement, but, looking back, I could have lived with that.
Moving to Leeds was supposed to be the start of a better life. Moving from rural Lincolnshire to an insurance job in a city was supposed to be the start of great opportunities that included a steady job, a pension and possibly even a girlfriend. It was supposed to be an opportunity to meet new people and make new friends. “It will do you good to get away from your computer,” my mother had told me as she packed my good shirts into my single suitcase. “You can get a hobby.”
“Computer gaming is a hobby.” I had tried to argue one last time.
“But you don’t find a girlfriend like that. Don’t forget to send us pictures.” My mother had tucked a pair of socks into the corner of the case and zipped it up. “I can’t wait to meet her.”
So here I was, three months into my life in Leeds, still without a girlfriend, and getting drunk with a stranger. His name was Piotr but he said to call him Peter. “It’s what all the English guys do.”
“So you’re not from Leeds either?” I said.
Piotr laughed. “I’m Polish, of course, from near Krakow. And this beer is no good. I’ll show you a pub that does proper drink.”
“Where is everyone?” I asked as we stumbled out into the dusty street. Last time I had been in Headingley the place had been almost too full to move and I had given up and gone home.
“Headingley is the student place and most have gone for the summer.” Piotr put a brotherly arm around me and steered me towards the back streets. “And finally we can get the good drink.”
If a stranger you have just met tells you to come with him for a good drink, don’t go. It’s never a good idea. Usually you get mugged. But we had had a few beers and traded a few stories and all sense had been washed away. The warm night air felt soft and lulled me into a sense of security as I listened to Piotr pouring his heart out to me about his girlfriend. At least he had one.
“She is so beautiful. But she knows how beautiful she is, and she is difficult.” Piotr said as we cut down one of the many back alleys. The cobbles were uneven, and I had had enough to drink to be paying attention to walking safely on the old stones. Piotr seemed used to them, though, and strode confidently ahead through the red painted, brick-built terraces to what looked like a private house. “Here we can get the good drink.”
If a stranger you have just met tells you to come into a private house for a good drink, don’t do it. There are so many bad things that can happen that you should just turn around there and then before you get mugged, or you have your organs harvested, or even just drink bootleg vodka that turns you blind. But Piotr seemed low and I had had a few beers and, besides, what else was I supposed to do on a Friday night? I followed him in.
This was a room for serious drinkers. Battered sofas were pushed against the walls, the carpet was threadbare, and the air was heavy with smoke. Men of different ages sat around, ignoring the wall mounted tv and staring at the drinks in their hands. All of them were holding small glasses filled with colourless liquid and all, like Piotr, were clean, neatly dressed and silent. It was a room with a single purpose and that purpose was drink. A middle-aged woman in heavy make up and an unflattering low-cut top sat behind a table in a corner. Piotr handed over some money and hissed at me to do the same. It seemed a lot, but I handed over the cost of two bottles of good whisky and accepted the small glass and bottle of liquor.
If someone you don’t know hands you a re-used bottle filled with alcohol, don’t take it. To be honest, a re-used bottle even from someone you trust is a risk. My bottle looked like it had once held maple syrup and it didn’t have a label. But here I was, in a room full of drinkers, all drinking. What else could I do? I joined Piotr on a cracked, leatherette sofa in the corner and poured myself a small shot.
“What am I going to do, Jamie?” Piotr asked as he poured himself a cautious amount. “Jenja is my life, but she is so fickle. And she says she loves me.”
A few drinkers glanced up at this. I looked up from the glass and got a sense that this was something unusual, but the rest of the men turned their attention back to their drinks and I followed their lead. Did I down it like tequila or sip it like a fine, single malt whisky? The others were sipping so I followed their example. How bad can bootleg vodka be?
This wasn’t vodka. I didn’t know what it was, but it slipped gently past my lips like sunlight made solid and spread warm over my mouth and down my throat. My fingers glowed, my legs tingled and I could feel a blessing stealing over me. I took a moment and breathed in the wonderful sense of well-being. I bathed in the sense of a golden glow before taking another sip. “This isn’t vodka.”
“It’s nearly vodka, made with plums.” Piotr said. “It’s hard to translate. Jamie.” He put a persuasive hand on my arm. “You are a good man. I can tell you are a good man and you come here, and you drink the good drink, and listen to a stranger who is facing a bad death. Do one thing for me. Please?”
“What do you mean?” The golden haze lifted a little. “Are you sick? There are new cures every day, you know. You look great.”
Piotr sadly shook his head. “I have fought against it for many days, but I must accept my fate.” He poured himself another measure of the gift from the gods and raised his glass, saying something in Polish before draining his glass.
I topped my own glass up and saluted him. “Cheers. But what do you mean? Surely there’s something that you can do?” I downed the glass, just like Piotr. This time it felt like a ball of liquid sunset smoothed its way down my throat to warm my stomach. This stuff was probably illegal.
“Jenja has said that she loves me. She is sorry for it, but it is what it is. She is crying at home.” Piotr looked sadly at his glass. “Or, at least, she is staying at home.”
“I don’t understand.” I said. I poured a little more of the magical water into my glass and took a sip. I felt like warm sun caressed my shoulders, but it didn’t help me think any clearer.
“You are English.” Piotr said. “And you are kind. Please, take care of Jenja when I go.”
I looked at my glass. It was half full. I didn’t think another drink would help, but I took it anyway. “Can’t Jenja be taken care of by her family or friends? Is she sick?”
Piotr sadly shook his head. “No-one Polish will help.”
I looked around the room. The silent men were all nodding. A few raised their glasses for the Polish toast, their eyes sad and sympathetic. “Why do you think you’re going to die?”
“Because Jenja said she loved me.” Piotr waved a drunken finger. “I forget. You are English. When a Vila loves someone, they die in dreadful ways. I write down the address for Jenja. You must help her get home.” He patted his pockets and found a cheap pen. He kept searching until the woman from behind the makeshift bar came out with a page ripped from her puzzle magazine and handed it to him. He nodded a thanks and carefully wrote the address. “We live near Bridgewater Place, where the winds are.”
I took the ragged piece of paper, folded it and put it into my wallet. “But you may not die.” I said.
“I will die and Jenja will be left alone and she will need help to go home. Jamie, you are a good man. Please, please promise me that you will take care of her, even if she is difficult.”
Never promise anyone anything when you are drunk. That’s how I got kicked out of the Student Union’s French Society. “I’ll look after Jenja.”
Piotr put an earnest hand on my arm and made sure he looked me in the eye. “Promise me, Jamie. Promise me on something that will mean it.”
What could I say. “I promise, Piotr. I promise I will look after Jenja.”
“By what do you swear?” His grip was tight and I was in danger of spilling the vital contents of my glass.
“I swear by Manchester United.” Never swear on anything while drunk. You will swear on something that means life or death to you and sound like an idiot at the same time. “But you may not die.”
Piotr poured himself another glass. “It will be bad.” He raised his glass and drank. I matched him and felt a golden filter settle over my vision. I could see, but there was a warm, fuzzy glow around the room, like a filter on a camera lens. Even the woman behind the bar looked good. Piotr stood shakily. “I use the bathroom.” No-one looked up as he weaved his way across the room to a door in the back wall.
I sat back and looked at the glass in front of me. I had never tasted anything like it. Reassured by the wonderful clarity in my glass, I knew that Piotr was just feeling his mortality. You worry about strange things under the influence of drink. Tomorrow we would forget all about this. Piotr and I would sleep off the heavenly fumes of whatever it was we were drinking and laugh at the promise. There was an awful crash from the bathroom.
Every head turned towards the battered door at the back of the room. I tried to rationalise it. Perhaps Piotr had knocked something over or had fallen. The woman got up from behind the door and, taking a deep breath, walked towards the crash. She paused before she opened the door, took a deep breath and closed it gently behind her. There was a long pause, as if the room held its breath. Eventually the woman came out looking pale and shaken.
“Piotr has died. I will call ambulance and fire brigade.” She thought for a moment. “Also plumber. You all leave.” She walked over to me as I struggled to get to my feet. “You go to Jenja now.” Her hand closed over my arm and it was icy. I looked into her eyes and even through the effects of the plum vodka I knew that I didn’t want to know the details. “You are a good boy. Get Jenja home. Be blessed.”
I had never knocked on a stranger’s door in the middle of the night while drunk. It’s exhilarating. While the nectar from heaven was still working its magic, I didn’t worry about getting a police record, or whether I was going to get mugged before someone could answer the door, or even if I had found the right place. The cramped terraces that sprawl south of Leeds City Centre are not safe for strangers who can barely walk. I made it, however, and a woman answered the door.
“Jenja, I have bad news!” I said dramatically, falling into the tiny entrance hall. “It has happened.”
“Who the hell are you?” She didn’t look like I expected. Her dark hair was tousled and she had a faded dressing gown over well washed pyjamas. She was pretty, in an understated way, but nothing like the vision Piotr described. She also had a look in her eye that could make any man sober.
“I’m Jamie Reid. Piotr made me promise to take care of you, Jenja. I’m really sorry…”
She held up a stern hand. “I’m not Jenja. I’m Lindsey.”
I looked again at the paper. “Piotr said you were Jenja.” I peered at the address.
Lindsey sighed. “Jenja is in her room. She’s been crying.” She leant against the newel post at the foot of the stairs and shouted up. “Jenja, there’s someone at the door. He says it’s about Piotr.”
A soul shattering wail came from upstairs, followed by a crash and a thump. Lindsey shook her head. “She keeps throwing glasses at the wall. What was your name again?”
“I’m Jamie.” I was sobering up fast and I didn’t like it. I held out my hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
Lindsey shook my hand but before she could say anything a door slammed and a vision of loveliness appeared at the top of the stairs. Jenja was dainty with an inviting figure under a white satin wrap. Her golden blonde hair was swept into an adorable ponytail and her large, deep blue eyes were red-rimmed from crying. “It has happened.”
“I’m sorry to break the bad news.” How did you tell a barely dressed vision of beauty that her boyfriend was dead. “I’m afraid Piotr had an accident. He… he didn’t survive. He made me promise to come and tell you.”
“Did you promise to send me home?” Jenja asked.
“Yes, I promised.” Now that I was sobering up I realised I had no idea about how to send a beautiful woman to Poland. “I don’t know when the funeral will be…”
Jenja waved an imperious hand as she came down the stairs. “I can go home now.” She pushed past Lindsey and I and wandered into the living room. I exchanged a worried glance with Lindsey. Perhaps she was in shock.
“I can look into flights tomorrow.” I said. “Have you got a lot of stuff to take back?”
Jenja looked at me in bewilderment. “I am Vila. You burn the lock of hair and I can go home. Where is Piotr’s green shirt?”
“Would you like a cup of tea.” I said.
Lindsey shook her head. “She really is a supernatural air spirit. Piotr told me his family sent her over as they were worried he didn’t have a girlfriend.”
My first thought was that why did all these families worry about girlfriends. Then my mind caught up. “What?”
Jenja sighed. “They never believe me here.” She waved her dainty hand. For a moment I was caught in the sweet elegance of the pink painted fingernails before I grabbed hold of the door frame. That casual gesture had sent a stiff breeze around the room that knocked the cheap prints off the walls and whirled the letters from their pile on the mantelpiece to all corners of the room.
“The Greeks called them sylphs, I think.” Lindsey said, picking up the envelopes.
“Sylphs are pathetic.” Jenja said. “They don’t know how to treat a man.”
I inched nearer to Lindsey for protection. “This lock of hair?”
“Yes! A lock of my hair. I am bound to it. Once it is burned, I am free and can go home.” Jenja smiled. For a heartbeat I was dazzled by the beauty. I wanted to lay the world at her feet. I wanted to sweep her into my arms and never let her go. I wanted to kneel before her. Lindsey elbowed me sharply in the ribs and I gathered what was left of my wits.
“Where is the lock of hair?” I looked around. “Did Piotr keep it in his room?”
“His mother sewed it into the pocket of his green shirt. She knew he would never look there. That way he couldn’t send me back and get an English girl.” Jenja said, looking around. “Where is Piotr’s shirt?”
“The green one that had the frayed collar and the airplane design on the back?” Lindsey said, feeling her way into a chair and sitting down.
“Yes, that’s the one.” Jenja said. “If I do not burn it then I am trapped in England.” She turned to me and looked deep into my eyes. “I want to go home.”
Before I could promise to dedicate my life to finding the green shirt, Lindsey grabbed my arm and squeezed it hard, digging her nails in. She turned to Jenja. “There’s a problem. You see, I was sorting out some of my old clothes to donate to the church sale and Piotr gave me some old clothes he didn’t want to add to my bag.” Lindsey swallowed. “He said that the green shirt was falling apart but someone may have a use for it.”
“I have a use for it!” Jenja snapped, her eyes sparkling. “I want to use it to go home. Where is this bag of valuable clothing?”
“It’s just old clothes for the sale tomorrow at the church.” Lindsey huddled back into her chair. “I took it down this afternoon.”
Jenja stamped her foot and another sharp breeze rattled around the room. “That is not good.”
“That’s okay, we can just call in tomorrow and buy the shirt, can’t we?” I looked between the two women. “It’s only a church sale. It will be less than a pound.”
Jenja shook her head. “I know these women. They will be in early in the morning to sort out the clothes and to take the best stuff for themselves. They are known for it.”
“Mrs Rafferty can get quite fierce.” Lindsey said. “But the shirt was worn out. I can’t see anyone buying it.”
Jenja started pacing, her wrap working loose and showing more of her than I expected. “What if they decide it is no good but they can put it in with the rags? I know that they have a deal with Mr Rafiq. He takes the stuff that doesn’t sell for his own reasons.” Jenja dropped into a chair across the room.
“He’s got a deal with a warehouse in Dewsbury.” Lindsey said. “Why don’t we just go in early before the sale starts and explain that we need the shirt?”
“Mrs Rafferty will not help with anything to do with me.” Jenja said. “Not after the incident with the marmalade. And I must be there to see if it is the right shirt.”
At this point I started to wonder exactly what had been in the bottle and how long it took to leave the system. “So what can we do?”
Never ask an air spirit a rhetorical question. It’s not something that comes up often, but I think it’s worth sharing. From what I read afterwards, air spirits are tricky, duplicitous and malevolent. They are also impressively slick at persuading people to do stupid things. That is why Lindsey and I found ourselves standing outside a church hall at two in the morning, wondering how to break in.
“There are bound to be alarms.” I said.
“Who steals from churches?” Lindsey asked.
I looked at her. “You would be surprised.”
“But it’s just a church sale of old clothes and second-hand ornaments.” Lindsey said. “There’s nothing of value.”
I shook my head and pointed to the alarm box at the side of the building. “We are not in the best part of Leeds. People will steal the copper from the wiring.”
Jenja looked thoughtfully at the church hall. Back home in Lincolnshire, the church hall had been solid stone and about a hundred years old. This was a slapdash wooden building, about twenty years old, with wire mesh over the large, square windows which were interspersed with panels of cheap turquoise plastic. She looked down at the rubbish strewn and overgrown flower beds that surrounded it. She paced around the structure, nodding and turned to us. “You will wait across the street. Then you will help me find the shirt.”
Lindsey and I crossed the street and leaned against the stone wall. There weren’t any houses on the street, thank goodness. The church next to the hall and the school we leaned against were empty, as was the ramshackle garages and the deserted fast food shop. I watched Jenja pacing up and down outside the hall. “Why are we here?”
“Because you made a promise to someone who died almost immediately afterwards, and I can’t wait to get Jenja out of my house.” Lindsey said.
“She’s not really going to break into a church hall, is she?” I asked. “And what if we’re caught? I work in insurance.”
“And I work in a solicitor’s office.” Lindsey said. “Piotr was a lovely lad, but I wish I had never met him.”
I was about to agree with her when Jenja started dancing. She was spinning as she ran up and down the street and around and around the hall. I shivered as the suddenly warm night chilled and a sharp wind whipped along the street. Dust and crisp packets whirled behind her and the moribund roses dipped and rattled as she passed. “I don’t think this is good.” I grabbed Lindsey’s arm and pulled her inside the small school doorway.
“She’s going to do something dreadful, isn’t she?” Lindsey yelled over the noise of the cans clattering in the gutters. I nodded, and with some instinct I didn’t know I had, pulled Lindsey against me and turned us away from the open street.
It was a good call. Behind us I heard a huge crash echoing with glass against metal. I could feel dust and grit spatter against my back as we huddled against the door. As the echoes of the explosion died down, I heard Jenja shouting, “Come on, you must help me.”
The nearest street light had been shattered in the blast, but enough light came from the ones further away to see the damage. Jenja was leaning in through what was left of the window. Something had blasted out all the church hall’s windows and the main door which sagged helplessly on its hinges. Twisted metal and glass shards littered over the road and there were cracks in the windows of the school and church. We ran over, squinting in the dust.
“I do not have a torch,” Jenja said. “And it may alert people if we switch on the lights.”
“People may have been alerted by the noise.” I said, shouting over the sound of the alarm.
“Then you have to be quick.” Jenja said and looked at us.
Never climb in through a broken window, no matter how much you think you have cleared it. There are always tiny shards of glass still embedded in the frame that will claw your skin off. None of us were wearing jackets and so I pulled the curtains hanging askew from the curtain pole and made a rough pad to climb over. Jenja went first, undaunted by the glass and splinters scattered over the floor. “You must help me. It’s here. I can feel it.”
I helped Lindsey in next and followed, my heart in my throat. I wished I was still drunk as I pulled out my phone and switched on the torch. My ears were still ringing from the blast and the noise from the alarm was getting on my nerves. It was obviously affecting Jenja as she hurried over to the pile of bags in one corner. “It’s in here, somewhere. Please help.”
“We had better be quick before the police arrive.” I said, ripping open the nearest bag and dumping the contents on the floor. I looked at Lindsey. She shook her head.
“That stuff isn’t mine.” She held her phone steady for light as Jenja and I tore open the bags scattering tired baby clothes and worn shirts across the glass and splinters. I kept glancing out of the window, waiting for sirens, but nothing came.
Jenja shrieked. “Here it is! I have found it!”
“Are you sure?” Lindsey asked, training the light of the phone on the worn fabric in Jenja’s hands. There was a faint lump in the pocket flap and Jenja used one of her long nails to slit open the fabric. She sighed and pulled out a neatly tied bundle of golden hair.
“This is mine. I can go home now.”
We got back to Lindsey’s house without any trouble. A few people were peering past us through cracks in their curtains as we passed, but they were all looking at the dust hanging over the church hall and ignoring us. Lindsey unlocked the door and we headed for the kitchen where Jenja pulled out a small, metal pan and placed the lock of her hair precisely in its centre. “The lighter, please.” Lindsey handed over the lighter they used for the kitchen candles and Jenja smiled. “Thank you for all your help. Please pray for Piotr.” And then she lit the hair.
Never light a lock of hair in a rental kitchen, especially if you light it directly under the smoke detector. All your neighbours will hate you for setting off the alarm at three in the morning. You should also never light a lock of hair in that rental kitchen if it’s going to release a Vila. Because right after the smoke alarm went off, Jenja sighed and vanished. Every window in the street blew out and all the street lights shattered. As the noise of breaking glass faded, there was the thumping sound as tiles slid from roofs up to a hundred yards away. And just as that settled down, the water main blew.
Good things did come out of that drink with a stranger. As Lindsey’s house was wrecked and the landlord had a breakdown, Lindsey moved in with me. One thing led to another and now we’re getting married in three months’ time. I now look at insurance claims for wind damage in a new light. I have never been able to find that little house with the golden drink again, although I walk around the area every now and then. And when it’s stormy and the winds are howling around the chimneys, I think of Jenja and wonder what she’s doing now. Then I thank my good fortune that I’m not a part of that and say a prayer for Piotr.