When Steph and I met we were both trainees straight from university. My student life had been pretty much normal; I’d drunk a lot, dabbled in half hearted student politics, had a few sexual encounters that ranged from frustrating to humiliating and left with an economics degree and attached student loan debt. If you asked me now to describe the man I was, mediocre pretty much covers it. I was no shining star, but neither was I particularly weird or unpopular. I was just there, doing whatever was expected of me by those around me. I did have fairly esoteric musical tastes, particularly favouring Scandinavian chillout bands, ambient techno and dream pop, but I wasn’t a dick about it. Other students might have selected obscure bands to make themselves look cool and interesting, but I actually liked listening to mine. It was where I went to relax.
Steph had silky red hair and a beautiful, genuine smile that touched every atom of my being. Her tastes in music were darker and more rocky – shoegazing emo bands, black metal and underground acts with witchy folk and gothic rock influences. She was as genuinely into her music as I was mine, she said she’d had a Wiccan phase at university which she’d never completely abandoned, though she wasn’t that serious about it as a religion she found the imagery empowering. We began burning mix CDs for each other, exploring where our respective tastes met on a Venn diagram, which turned out to be a lot. Her tracks were creepier, but in an earthy, naturalistic way that felt reassuring, a suggestion that the unknown might not actually be so scary after all. My selections were more ordered, electronic and optimistic, but the overall vibe was surprisingly similar.
We began going to gigs and festivals together as friends, though there was definitely a spark between us for something more. I found Steph captivating – I still do – and I think she was waiting for me to make a move, but at the time I was terrified of losing her forever if I played it wrong and was rejected by her. I’d rather have stayed in her friend zone than risk being without her in my life.
At one of the festivals we went to, we attended a performance art show named Primal Clay, set around a series of pools formed from sheets of plastic draped over bales of hay, each filled with mud and clay of different colours. We watched a troupe of dancers dipping in and out of the mud, splashing members of the audience as they did so. Then at the climax of the performance, the dancers faced the audience, inviting any who wished to come forward. Steph squeezed my hand, kicked off her shoes and stepped forward to join a line of volunteers, who took it in turns to be helped into one of the mud pools where they were submerged as if in a full immersion baptism. She wanted me to go with her, but it wasn’t my kind of thing so I just hung back and watched as the volunteers were helped into the pool and dipped backwards beneath the surface, climbing out the other side coated in liquid clay like living statues. Then when it was Steph’s turn it was like time slowed down. Her long black dress floated around her waist as she stepped down into the pool, as she turned and let the performers support her she smiled at me, her eyes radiating life. She allowed herself to be dunked in the mud, when she stood back up the clay rolled down her hair and shoulders like rivers of dark liquid gold, the white of her eyes and teeth shining through as she smiled. I went to help her out of the pool, as I held her hand she paused for a moment, looked me up and down, then climbed up the ladder and back on to the ground, where I handed her a towel.
I assumed she’d want to clean off and change clothes, but instead she insisted we went off to see some bands with her still caked from head to foot in damp mud. I told her she looked like a clay golem.
“Earth, my body,” she replied with a smile. “Too bad you didn’t come in with me.”
I told her it wasn’t my thing – I’d never been comfortable getting wet and muddy, I think it had to do with cold, miserable PE lessons doing rugby and cross country. She stopped walking, turned and looked me in the eye.
“You liked watching me, though, didn’t you?” she said accusingly. “I saw the way you looked at me. And the bulge in your trousers.”
I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t deny it. I loved Steph anyway, but seeing her coming out of the mud sent me over the edge in ways I couldn’t understand. The way it defined her curves, the texture, the primal quality of it all… she laughed at my awkwardness.
“It’s OK,” she said. “I can get messy for both of us, if that’s what you like.”
I sought for the words to tell her how I felt, but was completely tongue tied, so Steph came to my rescue.
“This is the part where we kiss, by the way,” she said helpfully. Naturally I obliged.
That night we slept together for the first time, making passionate love that went way beyond sex. I was no virgin when I entered her tent, but I left a different man altogether, with my soulmate by my side.
Steph told me she’d always found it liberating to get messy and muddy, to be free of societal demands to present neatly and to connect with the earth at a primal level. I don’t think she got sexual feelings from it like I did seeing her, but once she knew I had that button she pressed it frequently. We would take walks in places we knew had areas of deep mud so she could sink and wallow in front of me, sometimes we acted out little roleplays where she was sinking to her death in quicksand and I’d have to come and save her. At home we filled the bathtub with shaving foam, oatmeal and other substances she could climb into and submerge in. Sometimes she would pull me in with her.
We stopped when we had David and had to focus on being parents, the last time Steph was messy in front of me is when she did the bean bath stunt in front of our bank branch. I felt conflicted watching that with young David by my side and wondered if he’d known what I was thinking.
David might not have, but Triana was another matter, especially in the post-mortal plane. She must have sensed from my aura that I had something on my mind, and got fed up of dancing around it.
“Look, Dad, I know how you felt seeing Mum in the bean bath, and I saw it in you again when that guy was sinking into the mud when we were filming. I may be stuck in the body of a twelve year old, but I’m way past being a kid in relative years. If you two want to go and have some fun together go for it, you deserve it. Is that OK?”
By now Triana had had what would have been her eighteenth birthday. We’d finished homeschooling her – she carried on downloading higher level courses to study and gave us the option to carry on the routine with those, but we all knew it was time for her to be an independent adult, albeit one with the unignorable appearance of a child.
Analise was still mentoring Triana as a deliverer and considered getting her a job with us at Charon Bank, but her appearance was an issue. If anyone wondered why there was a twelve year old girl working there, then knew she was our daughter… it was too many clues, too much drawing attention. We tried ways to make her pass as older, but it was no good, she just looked like a kid playing dress-up in Mum’s wardrobe. So instead she tried the opposite, deliberately overdressing young and flamboyant as if going for irony. She carried on wearing her school uniform, but accessorised it heavily with pin badges and make-up. As she noted, as there were no actual schools on the post-mortal plane it was just a look now. She even dug out her old pinafore dress and accessorised that as well. She became good friends with Kim, who had welcomed her to the Morior Kids on her first day as an actor and also had an over the top, child-like approach to dressing that suited her petite build and complemented Triana’s own image. Alone Triana may have stuck out as the Only Child, but together they looked like a pair of young adults making a fashion statement.
When not filming, Kim worked at Culture Collects, a cult memorabilia store in the middle of Ketherton. She made up cosplay outfits in her spare time, which her boss encouraged her to wear while working in the shop. She would often come by our house dressed as some character or other. Triana went to see her at work whenever she could, they watched movies together and when acting work came up for the Morior Kids they went together in Kim’s car.
There was still the matter of Triana’s actual calling as an agent of death, which I was never fully comfortable with. I knew she wasn’t actually killing anyone, just helping along spirits ready to go, also that she had no choice about what she was, but it never stopped being unnerving. The bench in the park where she had dispatched her first spirit became a focus point, she often felt called to that spot when someone was in need of her services. If we were out with her we would take a walk in the other direction while she did her duty, then come back and collect her afterwards. There was one notable occasion when we returned to find the person she’d met still sat there with her, but that was a special case.
Triana still lived with us at home, but now she had someone else to hang out with Steph and I could confidently go out and leave her to her own devices. With Triana’s words in mind, I told Steph what I had seen at Morior Studios and confessed that I had fantasised about her taking the place of the actor I saw sinking into the ground at Morior.
“That does sound like fun,” said Steph. “It’s been a while, you know. How do we make it happen?”
“Well, I have an idea,” I said. “But it will mean going dark. How do you feel about playing dead?”
“Darling, we are dead. You can bury me all you like.”
With Triana off with Kim one afternoon, Steph and I went to talk with Susan about her invitation to try out the Mortal Masquerade. She introduced us to Carl Evans, Morior Studios’ owner, who it turned out went by the name of Uncle Morbid for Masquerade business. We sat in his office facing him, Susan and a man who was introduced to us as Scott. It was exactly the same arrangement as when we’d first arrived at Charon Bank, to be met by Mr. Phillips, Analise and Sian. Steph and I both dealt with custodians daily in our work at the bank, but meeting a trinity together like this was a different matter entirely.
“First of all I must commend you with the way you have brought up Triana,” said Uncle Morbid. “Not many people could have done what you did. It’s sad that she died at the age she did, but as I think you’re aware, very little happens here for no reason.”
“Including this meeting?” asked Steph.
“Quite,” said Uncle Morbid. “Tell me, what drew you towards the Mortal Masquerade?”
I told him about the quicksand mechanism I’d seen during Triana’s first time filming at Morior and how it reminded me of the roleplays Steph and I used to do. Steph was as eager to try out those kind of effects as I was to see her in them.
“Well,” said Uncle Morbid, “We do have a lot to offer you along those lines. What you saw was just one way we have of sinking people in quicksand, we’ve also buried them in cement, boiled them in oil and much more.” I saw Steph smiling as he went through the list. We were both imagining every single one happening to her.
“But let me tell you how we operate at the Mortal Masquerade,” said Uncle Morbid. “First of all, the spirits there are in it for the thrill of the fatal experience and the stories they build around it. They create masked avatars in order to theatrically kill them off in the most satisfying manner possible. Then when an avatar is dead, it is never seen or heard of again and the spirit begins anew with a fresh avatar. It’s a performative and communal ritual of death and rebirth, but two things strike me about what you have told me. The first is that it is very personal to you – would you really want to be deathplaying as different people in wider games with other spirits? We do have couples at the Masquerade, but they don’t do what you’ve described. The second issue is, I don’t think the mortal aspect is what attracts you.”
He looked me in the eye. “Tell me, when Steph sinks into the mud before your eyes, are you imagining her descending to her doom?”
“No,” I admitted. “Maybe there’s a peril element, but what I love is the thought of her swimming in the ooze. And I absolutely love it when she comes back up to me dripping in mud.”
“And how about you?” he asked Steph. “Is it a deathwish fantasy for you?”
“Only a little,” she said. “Mostly it’s an elemental thing, becoming one with the earth. Besides, aren’t we all actually dead? If I ever had a death wish, it’s already been ticked off of my bucket list.”
“That’s a refreshing point of view,” said Uncle Morbid.
“Sounds like they ought to meet Craig and Rebecca,” said Scott. Uncle Morbid nodded.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” he said. “You are welcome to come and try the Masquerade if you like, but I don’t think it’s what you want. We can still assist you, though. We have a strong working relationship with Charon Bank – I wouldn’t have any of this if it weren’t for them – so consider this a business perk, a thank-you for any work you’ve done on our account and for allowing Triana to work at our studio.”
“Sorry, do our bosses know we’re here?” I asked.
“Of course they do,” said Uncle Morbid. “Stephen Phillips, your manager, is a good friend of mine. I’m willing to bet he was the one who first told you about us.”
I thought back to our induction training. It was true, he was. I wondered just how stage managed our journey here had been.
“Who are Craig and Rebecca?” asked Steph.