An Undead Pioneer

22 Oct 2013, 1:26 p.m.
This is another old piece, written in June 2004. In preparation for my NaNoWriMo project this year, I thought I would dig up my previous writing about vampires. You can download a PDF of this story here.

The Vampire-Human Understanding League (now known as the Undead-Human Council), the first body in this country to set itself the task of improving relationships between the undead and mortal human communities, was set up forty years ago this month, in May 2043. To celebrate the anniversary, this magazine has commissioned a groundbreaking series of articles examining the achievements of the VHUL and the UHC, and the activists they have inspired and helped over the decades.

This week: Lara Chaffinch meets Embeth Addley, founder member of the VHUL.

An Undead Pioneer

Embeth Addley opens the door of her suburban 1930s “suntrap” house to me with a wide smile of welcome and ushers me quickly inside, where the lights are dimmed to candle-brightness. Although it’s eight o’clock at night, the days are getting longer now and the sun lingers in its setting. For most of us this is good news, but not for Embeth or her partner Sara Wodzinsky, who are members of a minority group growing in status in late-21st century Britain. Both Embeth and Sara are vampires.

In the past forty years, the undead of the Western world, especially in the US and UK, have moved from a heavily closeted collection of individuals, hardly a community and nearly all in hiding, to a vibrant part of modern society. The contributions that the undead – a loose term covering vampires and werewolves, as well as less common species such as zombies – have to make are undeniable. Unfortunately, they have historically been regarded by humans with ignorance, terror and superstition, and despite recent moves towards reconciliation, the undead face massive prejudice and discrimination on a daily basis.

The undead community started, tentatively, to become more visible at the start of the century, but the current movement traces its beginnings from 2043 and the inception of the Vampire-Human Understanding League (since changed to the Undead-Human Council), and, in 2048, the now-defunct, more radical Vampire Liberation Action Front. Embeth Addley was instrumental in setting up the VHUL and was its President between 2043 and 2051. Now less involved in politics, she works as a senior nurse (on night shifts) at Stratford Hospital. She and Sara invited me to visit them at their home in Stratford to dispel some of the myths that still surround their species.

Though I consider myself open-minded about species, I have no undead friends and little idea of what to expect from my visit to Embeth and Sara’s house. Once inside, I can feel Embeth consciously trying to put me at ease. For my part, I’m doing my best to conceal how ill at ease I am. Part of me tells me I’m a fool to find anything threatening in such a sweet woman: Embeth is short and pretty, apparently in her early thirties, with bobbed black hair and the trace of a foreign accent as she tells me of the lengths she and Sara went to in the restoration of their house, almost in ruins when they bought it five years ago. It’s not even a Transylvanian accent but an Australian one, a souvenir of Embeth’s original birthplace of Sidney. Otherwise, her speech is curiously formal.

From a quick calculation, though, I work out that although this house is over a hundred and fifty years old, when Embeth first stepped off the boat in Southampton it had not yet been built. I also can’t keep my eyes away from the overlong eye-teeth that she shows off every time she smiles – and Embeth smiles a lot, because she’s someone who enjoys conversation and is justly proud of her beautiful house. At present, though, her teeth are a constant reminder of the fact that she is a descendant (by blood) of the shapes in the night that terrified my ancestors.

Suddenly, she breaks off. “I’m sorry,” she tells me. “I’m being a very bad host. May I offer you a drink?” At my expression of involuntary horror, she clarifies that and gives me a choice of tea, coffee or lemonade. The little kitchen, in one of the few structural changes the couple made to the house, has been considerably reduced in size to make more living space, but they decided not to remove it completely in case of human visitors – such as myself.

“You could say I’ve always been a forward-thinking vampire,” laughs Embeth as she sets a kettle to boil. It’s the first time either of us has mentioned the difference of species between us, and I’m secretly glad that it was her who did. “A certain proportion of the undead community insist, even today, on keeping up strict interspecies boundaries and maintaining a predator/prey relationship with mortal humans. That’s a dated attitude that really can’t continue much longer, for the sake of everyone: in the last few decades we’ve made huge advances in terms of acceptance, but the actions of a stupid few could bring us back almost to the starting point, in no time at all.”

I ask if she’s referring to recent cases such as that of werewolf Richard Greaves, arrested last year for the murders in New York’s Central Park of several joggers and members of two young families. “Yes,” she agrees, sombre for the first time. “There was a time when it was – maybe not appropriate, but necessary – for us to hide in forests and hunt our meals, but that time has long passed. The part about Greaves’ case that makes me angry is that he wasn’t even defending an ancient way of life. He was brought up in the New York suburbs and given every opportunity: he’s never had to live in the woods, never had to starve. One young man’s playacting could cost the rest of us the reputation that we’ve been working hard to achieve. And there will always be some who are taken in by that kind of stupidity …”

We take the coffee back into the cool, green sitting room. Embeth doesn’t have a cup, of course, and I’m still surreptitiously trying to guess from her colour whether she’s already fed tonight. Embarrassingly, though, she seems to guess this.

“I won’t have anything until Sara comes down,” she says casually. “She usually wakes up a little later than me, but that’s fine because she starts work later, too.” Just as she says this, the door is pushed open and Sara Wodzinsky walks into the room.

Sara is a tall, sturdy looking woman with cropped blonde hair who at first seems no older than about twenty-five. Giving me the merest acknowledgment, she goes straight to Embeth and the two share a kiss that, technically, is perfectly decorous but still makes me blush to witness it. Twenty-seven years of living together don’t seem to have altered the feelings of these two women for one another in the slightest.

“I’m starving,” Sara complains with a yawn, revealing teeth at least as fearsome as her partner’s. I try hard to keep in mind the conversation Embeth and I had, and that I had just begun to relax, but when Sara stands up I can’t help flinching.

“Would you like to see what we eat?” Embeth asks me courteously. “Please refuse if you’d rather not, but I truly am anxious to show any of your readers who don’t already know just how little of a threat we are.” There isn’t really any way to decline the offer. Sara goes to an appliance on one of the kitchen worktops, a white cabinet I had mistaken for a fridge. Inside hang two bags of red fluid, which have been slowly adjusting to a temperature of 370C since the machine switched itself on two hours ago. Discreetly, I concentrate for a few minutes on a label from one of the bags, which explains the collection system that at least 4,000 vampires in the UK depend on for their daily sustenance.

Paid donation of blood for consumption by vampires was set up on a nationwide scale some thirty years ago, the first result of a collaboration between the VHUL and the Government’s Select Committee for Undead Affairs. Volunteers must register with the National Blood Service, the same body that organises blood donation for hospital use, and undergo regular health checks. They are paid a fairly generous sum for each appointment, on the condition that each second donation is an unpaid one to the NHS; vampires then buy the blood directly from the Blood Service. Early criticisms of the scheme, that the NHS would suffer a blood shortage, have been proved wrong: in 2083, record numbers of adults are registered blood donors, and attacks by so-called feral vampires are far rarer than deaths from cancer.

In fact, other benefits have come from the scheme as well. This co-operation from the NHS has persuaded many vampires to assist medical researchers and led to breakthroughs unimaginable half a century ago. To give two examples: the superior anti-clotting agent used in all medical blood products today was isolated from vampire saliva in 2070, and the current 97% cancer survival rate would have been impossible without research on vampire tissue samples.

After her breakfast, Sara is much friendlier towards me. She and Embeth sit together on an overstuffed sofa to let me start my interview proper; in a way that’s unobtrusive but eloquent, they are in physical contact as much of the time as possible – hands brushing against hands, heads sometimes resting on one another’s shoulders, their legs comfortably close. Embeth is reluctant to discuss her early life with me. She explains that, with so long a span behind her and, presumably, ahead of her too, “I feel as if I’ve led several lives already, and those past are quite disconnected from each other and from my present one. I don’t celebrate my old birthday, or my undeathday either, for that matter, and I’d rather keep my old memories separately from my more recent ones.” I do glean, however, that she was born Emily Elizabeth Addley to a well-to-do Sidney family around the start of the 20th century, and emigrated to England, then the seat of the British Empire, in 1928.

Sara is more forthcoming. Athletic and wearing black, comfortably shabby clothes (whether fashionably or unfashionably so, I can’t quite tell), she tells me she was born in 2015 in Birmingham and first met Embeth in early 2041, during her last year of a PhD course in chemical engineering at Bristol University. It was love at first sight, they both reveal, saying the same words over one another and almost giggling. At moments like this, it becomes hopeless to retain perspective and see them as anything but a pair of young lovers.

Since then, Sara has worked in various areas of the chemical industry, but is currently taking a break from her scientific career and working part-time as a bouncer for several nightclubs closer to London. She’s especially valued at Nix’s, a club popular with undead youth, which term encompasses sixteen-year-old werewolves trying to pass for eighteen, zombies a few months out of the grave, and hundred-year-old vampires, occasionally wearing the fashions of their first youth. “I expect at least another seven hundred years, if not longer,” she explained to me. “That means it’s not just possible, but necessary to change your lifestyle, try different things, get new experiences. I’ve always seen it as a wonderful opportunity.”

I ask Embeth how such a close relationship could possibly fit into the traditional character of the vampire, that of a lone hunter hostile to any possible competition. Thoughtfully, she agrees that the last forty years have seen huge transformations in the way the undead community relates to itself. “In one way, I think these changes have been driven by the way the VHUL, the UHC and other related groups have altered society. In the past, as I said earlier, hiding in the shadows and fiercely defending one’s territory was the only viable way to survive as a vampire, a werewolf, whatever. But as human society has grown more technologically advanced and expanded into the world, that behaviour became impossible. The great forests of Europe have gone, and the future of the rainforests is far from certain; we can’t hide there any longer, and without a mountain of forged paperwork and database fraud, we can’t pass as human in the cities either. Coming out and developing as a community, as we have done, was our only option.

“But I would have expected the process to take far longer. Such long-lived beasts as ourselves are naturally conservative, but in just forty years, networks have sprung up, relationships like Sara’s and mine have become far more common, there’s a werewolf presenting on the Sky News Channel [Hely Garamond, appointed Current Affairs Correspondent to the channel last September]. I think what this means is that I wasn’t alone in not identifying with the inhuman creatures in the novels that have been fashionable with mortals since [19th century penny dreadful] Varney the Vampire. A lot of the undead simply didn’t fit into the old stereotypes, however strongly they were enforced by our elders, and now we can blossom.”

She admits, though, that old customs of solitude have affected their relationship. The couple lived separately, despite spending most of their time in each other’s company, until 2056. “We weren’t sure of ourselves till then – for some reason we doubted that two vampires could live together and not kill each other.”

Sara kisses Embeth, impulsively, below her ear. “Obviously, we were wrong.”

Sara’s “undeathday” – the day she became a vampire – did not come until 2045. Embeth wanted her to be absolutely sure of her decision to join her in undeath. The couple celebrate its anniversary each year, which leads me to wonder if one reason Embeth doesn’t mark hers is because of the inevitable link with the memory of her sire, a topic she evades but can’t entirely avoid.

The VHUL sprang from over a century’s worth of injustice and frustration at the marginal position of the undead community in the world, but the immediate forces that drove Embeth to action came from events in her personal life.

“It was a very hard period for me,” Embeth admits now. “I’d been living an essentially solitary life for over fifty years, after my sire and I drifted out of contact, and then in 2040 I heard, on the TV news, that she’d been killed in an ugly, ugly way – the traditional stake through the heart, for a beginning. She was a very inspiring vampire: in France, where she’d been living, she’d been trying to set up a sort of proto-VHUL organisation. I can’t describe to you the impact of losing such an important figure in my life; though we hadn’t spoken for so long, I always had a sense of her existence, whether she was well, and suddenly that was gone.

“Then, the next year, I met a wonderful girl, and we fell in love – which wasn’t because one of us was a vampire and one of us mortal, but because of that we couldn’t be open about it. I had lived through the twentieth century, which saw female suffrage and the civil rights movement, and the early twenty-first century, which saw homosexual marriage legalised, but there was still great discrimination. There was no punishment for the men who murdered my sire.

“For years I had been frustrated at the necessity of spending my life in hiding, the constant danger I was in – the twentieth century had many wonderful, vibrant times, but I would never relive it. It was mostly due to those specific events, though, that I decided to really try and do something.”

It took Embeth the better part of two years, travelling up and down the country, listening and looking out for others of her kind, before she’d met enough vampires even to start her project. Vampires are few, even today – recent research suggests that the total undead population in the UK numbers less than 10,000 – and secretive, isolated lifestyles have always been the rule for sound survival reasons. Ancient mistrust between vampires and werewolves was another barrier to a united front, and the reason that the Vampire-Human Understanding League was not to become the Undead-Human Council until twenty-five years had passed, in 2068.

In that time the profile of the undead had risen considerably, not just in Britain but in America and some European countries. During Embeth’s presidency of the VHUL the first ever Anti-Discrimination Act prohibiting discrimination on the basis of species had been drafted. (It was eventually passed in 2057, after less than 15 years of campaigning.) Membership swelled after the “outing”, in 2045, of several Hollywood film stars as vampires: a brief celebrity fascination with the undead in the 2020s had been a remarkably well-kept secret until a Californian tabloid newspaper chose to break the story nearly twenty years later. Despite the paper’s open disgust, the actors Lily la Valentine, Jason Rivers and Kirsten Dunst, in particular, were frank about their vampiric status and did much to encourage the human public to accept others of their kind. Dunst, famous at the age of ten for playing Claudia in the film Interview with the Vampire, still works in Hollywood and is even now a role model for many vampires.

I ask Embeth what it was like in the early years of the Vampire-Human Understanding League. “It was astonishing how quickly it took off,” she tells me, smiling again. “After so many years simply existing, keeping to myself, I don’t think I was ready for the amount of work that was thrust upon me. At first, we had as our headquarters an abandoned warehouse; John Tweed and Janos Nagy, the first two vampires I’d found who were interested in the idea of the League, and I were trying to set up and maintain a database of members, organise our political activities, support ourselves and keep safe from the vigilantes who inevitably showed up once we’d put our heads a little above the parapets. I remember some appalling times – once we were barricaded into the warehouse for three days. Luckily, the building was lightproof. I stayed awake the whole time, worrying about Sara and whether any of the mob outside knew of her connection with me. We were certain we were going to die, and we didn’t immediately change our minds when the police arrived, either. By sheer good fortune, the officers who came were sympathetic to our cause – an extremely rare thing in those days.

“The Hollywood scandal was a blessing and a curse together. It gave us a much higher profile but a proportionately bigger job to do. Because we were the oldest, most organised group of our kind, we were the ones most often consulted by the Government, once they realised that they had to take notice of us. We also took most of the blame, unfairly, for the terrorist tactics of the Vampire Liberation Action Front, which, thank gods, folded only a couple of years after it was founded.”

By 2050, the VHUL headquarters were housed in an efficient office in central London, whose owners were happy to rent to the organisation because their low lighting and heating requirements saved money. Three branch offices had opened in Carlisle, Cardiff and Brighton. Embeth’s duties were still heavy but no longer overwhelming, and she had reached a position where she could look back on the achievements to date and feel proud. Such had been the improvement in vampire-human relationships that she had several mortal men and women volunteering as office staff. I rashly comment that these humans were almost as brave as the VHUL’s original undead members when they had first made themselves known for what they were.

“No,” Embeth corrects me sharply, “We were braver, because we knew we were facing real dangers. By 2044, we’d already taken the responsibility of drawing up a code of conduct for vampire members of the VHUL, most of which is still followed as guidelines by 90% of modern vampires. In 2050 we started on the first plans for what became the National Blood Service paid donation system. The humans who came to work for me that year knew they were facing only the dangers of superstition … I lost count of the number of times, in the 50s and early 60s, I was asked to stand in front of a mirror so people could see that I really did cast a reflection.”

Among the many aims Embeth, Tweed and Nagy had in mind when they first created the VHUL was to enable vampires to join the workforce in the human world, should they want to. With so many vampires existing, near-permanently, in their physical prime, and in a world in which the human population is still growing progressively older, it makes sense that the undead should be allowed to work, and the paid donation system is based around vampires having access to money. (In a demonstration of the community spirit brought about by the endeavours of the VHUL, the system is subsidised by those vampires earning more than a certain threshold amount so that all British vampires can afford a daily litre of blood, at least.)

“It makes sense, sure,” says Sara, “but you try applying for a job when your birth certificate, if you have one, says you were born in 1850. In the old days, you’d have been laughed away; in the 2020s, you’d have been chased out of the office by a man with a stake.”

By late 2051, legislation had been passed that would allow for the possibility, at least, of a vampire gaining employment. No other undead species were included until 2070. The exact wording still made it technically legal for an employer to refuse to hire a vampire, or fire them without giving reason, on the sole grounds of their species, but it was a step in the right direction. Ever the pioneer, Embeth decided to pass the reins of the VHUL over to Janos Nagy, and to try her luck at finding a job.

It took longer than she’d anticipated: until 2053. Fortunately, decades in the shadows had taught Embeth to live frugally, and Sara was employed as a consultant to an algae-processing plant on the South Coast. She was still passing as human but already, in her late thirties, running into the predictable problems caused by mysteriously youthful looks and a potentially fatal photosensitivity. Not until 2055 did Sara have the courage to declare her species to her employers, and when she did she was summarily dismissed. Her lawsuit for wrongful dismissal was one of the test cases of the 2051 Employment Act, and though it failed it helped bring closer the 2057 Anti-Discrimination Act.

Meanwhile, in 2053 the paid donation system created a demand for more staff in the National Blood Service, and Embeth found a job that, if the salary wasn’t much and the atmosphere initially unfriendly, at least provided a considerable amount of training and the possibility of promotion. She showed such an aptitude, in fact, for the basic medical aspects of the job that over the next ten years she worked her way onto and then up the career-nursing ladder. It seems surprising that such a dynamic personality as Embeth Addley’s could persevere with essentially the same job for the twenty years since her first promotion to the post of senior nurse. “Vampires aren’t exactly like humans,” she reminds me. “We have so much longer to play with than you do. Sometimes we need change, it’s true, but sometimes we can be satisfied with one thing for a long time. At the moment, my work gives me a routine and stability. I’m still active in the undead rights arena, and I have other projects as well, like this house, and I have Sara, of course. I can’t forget that there are still many, many things that we need to achieve, but for me, this is a time of flowering. I am content – probably the most content I’ve been since I was sired.”

It’s almost time for me to leave. With a shock, I realise that four hours have passed in conversation with these two fascinating vampires, and that I’ve all but forgotten that the three of us don’t share a species. Sara tells me she has one more thing to show me, and leads me up a flight of stairs to a room that contains what I at first take for a flotation tank. Needless to say, it’s the modern equivalent of the traditional vampire’s coffin: a sleek white shell, wide enough for two and cosily padded inside, with a lid that can lift in two halves or in one whole piece. It was custom-made, Sara tells me, by a mail-order company in York, while the blood-warming cabinet downstairs was bought at a specialist shop in London. Both were relatively easy to find.

My friends and family were horrified when I told them I was planning to write this article, and they would be even more shocked if they knew I was tempted to try Nix’s on a Wednesday evening (“mortal friendly” night). A couple of streets away from Embeth and Sara’s lovingly decorated house, a garden wall is defaced by a nasty piece of anti-undead graffiti. But Embeth Addley and Sara Wodzinsky have every right to feel contentment, and that they and others like them are well on their way to full acceptance by society, when vampire-orientated furniture and appliances are on sale: in our culture, perhaps the best sign there could be.

Next week: Lesley Garth follows the history of the VHUL from Embeth Addley’s resignation in 2051 to 2068, when it changed to the Undead-Human Council upon its acceptance of other undead species.