Poppets

Poppets

They were all looking at me, a frozen audience, unseeing eyes, painted, glass and embroidered eyes.

Mrs Lorne smiled at me. She was a tiny woman with white hair and her eyes were bright blue, glowing with the pleasure of showing me her collection.

‘You know that the Japanese believe that dolls have souls, given to them by their maker? When the doll is broken or no longer wanted, you have to take it to a special temple.’

‘What on earth do they do with all the piles of old dolls?’ I asked.

‘I’ve no idea,’ she said. ‘It’s just something I read.’

This house was like a sort of doll temple, with a room upstairs and this one downstairs crammed with dolls of all descriptions. Apparently they were worth a lot of money, and I was here to photograph every single one of them for insurance purposes.

‘How many are there?’

‘Seven hundred and eighty three.’

This was going to be a long job.

Mrs Lorne watched as I set up a shooting platform in the only unoccupied space in the room, with a little doll chair for them to sit on.

‘Each one must go back in its proper place,’ she said, ‘and when you’re finished here, you can move upstairs.’

I expected them to be dusty, but they weren’t, which must mean that Mrs Lorne either dusted them daily, or played with all her dolls, or both. I tried not to think about that. In my time I have photographed a lot of collections for the insurance company, but this was definitely the creepiest.

On the third day, they began to talk to me.

I was arranging a large French doll on the chair, fanning out her elaborate skirts and positioning her head, when she said, ‘Which of us is prettiest?’

She obviously meant for me to say that she was, so I smiled and carried on with posing her.

‘Don’t you think that I am beautiful?’ she said.

You should understand that her mouth did not move, she did not move, but her voice was quite clear, and at first I thought it was only in my head. I went back to the camera and checked the focus.

‘Don’t ignore me!’ she said, a tart edge to her voice.

‘I’m not ignoring you. I’m thinking. It’s not usual to be spoken to by an inanimate object. I think I may be having a psychotic episode.’

‘What’s that?’ she said. ‘And don’t call me an inanimate object. I am animated every time anyone looks at me.’

I took my shot, made my notes and went to put the doll back in her place.

‘Don’t touch me!’ she snapped.

I could not help noticing that she was glaring at me. Had her expression changed? Those wide-open blue eyes, pink cheeks and rosebud mouth certainly seemed less charming and more set in annoyance.

Taking a breath, I picked her up and deposited her back on her own personal stand, half afraid that she would slap me.

I took a moment to get hold of myself, then left the room. Mrs Lorne had set up a coffee machine for me so hot coffee and a supply of biscuits were waiting. I had to drink it in the kitchen — hazardous liquids were not allowed near the precious things — but that was fine by me. Two chocolate digestives and a mugful of bitter black coffee later and I was ready to laugh the whole thing off as the product of low blood sugar and an overactive imagination.

The sooner I got this job done, the better, then. I washed up my mug and went back to it.

The room was in an uproar. The dolls sat perfectly still, but hundreds of tiny voices were bouncing off the walls — something inside them was alive and kicking.

‘Quiet!’ I yelled, and the row subsided.

‘She thinks she’s so important,’ said one little voice.

‘You’re all fools,’ said a rough voice, emerging from an odd carved doll near the window, dressed in beaded rags. ‘Your beauty is fake Jeanne, and your spirit is that of an angry wasp.’

‘Shut up!’ said Jeanne, the French doll who had started all this. ‘You are just a crude bit of old wood. I hope the worms eat you.’

‘Be quiet the lot of you,’ I said. ‘Jeanne, you are pretty, but you need to learn manners.’

Then I realised that I was talking to a roomful of dolls and I stopped. I consulted my notes and picked up the next doll, which happened to be the wooden doll in beaded rags. This doll had a crudely carved face with worn painted eyes, mouth and hair, and its clothes were made of a loosely-woven fabric not quite as coarse as hessian, onto which a large number of small glass beads had been randomly stitched. The cloth was blackened here and there at the edges and there was a faint ashy smell. It was quite ugly, but I liked it.

It was a bit too small for the doll chair, but I balanced it on there in a pleasing attitude and took the photo.

‘Take me away from here,’ its little raspy voice said. ‘I can’t stand these empty-headed fashion dolls. I was made for a real purpose.’

I considered this for a moment, then decided not to pay any more attention to these voices in my head.

‘I’ll be your friend,’ it said.

I shivered, but pretended not to hear. Replacing the doll, I went on to the next.

That day I completed the photos of the dolls in the downstairs display room, and on my way out I told Mrs Lorne that I would move on to the room upstairs in the morning.

‘I heard you talking to them,’ she said, smiling.

I mumbled something in reply, embarrassed.

‘They get to you, don’t they?’ she said. ‘I’ve been talking to them for years.’

‘Do they ever talk back?’

She laughed, but there was a curious look in her eyes.

At home, before I got dinner, I downloaded the day’s photos and went to my bag for the tablet with my notes. A little, worn, carved face was looking up at me.

‘How did you get in there?’ I said, horrified. Mrs Lorne would think I was stealing from her.

‘Don’t worry about that,’ said the rough, splintery voice.

I was going to have to go back straight away, return the doll and make some excuse for myself.

Mrs Lorne’s street was blocked off. There was a fire engine in front of her house and the smell of smoke in the air. I dodged around the barrier and ran up there. A fireman stopped me.

‘Mrs Lorne?’ I cried.

‘You know the old lady? She’s okay, shocked but not hurt. They took her to hospital because she was very upset. The fire was confined to one room. You know, we had to stop her from running in there. That room is completely burned, but the rest of the house is fine, we’re not sure why.’

I knew which room it was.

‘Jeanne is not so pretty now, eh?’ said the voice from my bag. ‘Remember, I’m your friend now.’

Snakes and Ladders

Snakes and Ladders

Dark night, dark clothes, dark wall, small window overhead open just a crack. he found the handholds, footholds, enjoying the climb, taking pleasure in his silent skill.

At the window he braced himself enough to free one hand and nudge the frame. It swung open a bit further without a sound. Perfect.

Grasping the frame, he pulled himself up, looked inside. A store-room of some kind with shelves along the walls. His dark-adapted eyes could make out no threatening shapes, so he nudged the window further open and slipped through into the house.

They would be at home, all asleep now, just the way he liked it. Padding softly about the house, Jase would lift all the small valuables, even right from their bedside tables. They never woke. it was his great talent. No breaking, no vandalism, just a quiet, professional job.

Jars. Rows of them. Shading his pencil torch, he turned it on, and started back in surprise.

Tentacles. Jar upon jar of tentacles, with pink or blue or pale white suckers, suspended in clear fluid, each jar labelled in what he supposed must be Latin, though he did not really know.

Turning off the torch, he stood a while in the dark, trying to shake off the mild shock, listening to the house for any hint of danger.

As he always did, Jase spent some days watching the property. No-one ever came out, and a lot of things were delivered. Old people or invalids lived here, he concluded, and a carer who opened the door to deliveries and the occasional visitor. Rich old people, since the house was so large and very well-kept. Now he could add strange old people. Maybe one of them used to be a biologist or something.

He glanced back at the window, a faint rectangle of less intense darkness, his means of escape should anything go wrong. Turning away to look for a door out of this storeroom, he became aware that in all the jars, the tentacles were emitting a faint glow. Had they been doing that before? Perhaps he just had not noticed.

With a soft, cautious tread, he moved along the shelves towards the far wall where a door ought to be located. The room proved to be much bigger than expected. Unreasonably so.

After five minutes, Jase started to breathe faster. Years of life as a professional intruder — his own definition of his work — gave him the ability to stay calm in very challenging circumstances, but now some ripples appeared on the surface of that calm — an awareness that something was not right.

He stopped. He did not want to throw away so many days’ careful preparation, but what kept him out of jail was a willingness to recognise when a situation was too hazardous.

True, nothing had happened, The house was silent, but all his instincts told him that there was considerable risk in going any further. the darkness was deep around him, in spite of the glow from the jars. He took two more steps forward, his arms stretched out in front of him, and touched something soft and warm, something that moved gently under his fingers, as if it was breathing.

He pulled away and backed off a few steps, stopping to listen. Nothing. No sound at all. Even the quietest, most empty house still makes small noises — the creak of cooling masonry, the wind whistling through windows or across chimneys. Here, it was as silent as a soundproofed room.

Jase backed away further, then turned and retraced his path towards the window as fast as he could while still being cautious. He wanted to run, but that would have been stupid.

Ten minutes later, he still had not reached the window, and his customary calm was nearly gone. he clung to the shreds of it, reasoning that he must have got lost — but how could he be lost when the path he took from the window was straight and the path he took back was also straight? He must, he thought, have somehow turned a corner in the dark without realising, and at that moment he saw an opening between the shelves and their glowing jars.

After only a moment’s pause he turned between the shelves. A few paces later, he knew that it was a mistake. The glow was gone and he was in complete darkness. He turned to go back, but the way he came in was no longer there.

The torch — he got out his torch and turned it on, not bothering to shade it. He was in a corridor, narrow enough that he could touch both walls at once with this outstretched hands. In both directions, he could see no end to it. On either side there were doors at regular intervals, all closed. The floor was of bare wooden boards, shiny in the torchlight as if they were very old and well-used.

Doors were hopeful. There might be good pickings behind them or, more importantly, a way out.

He listened at the nearest door. There was a faint rumbling sound. He turned the handle and opened it. Moist stone steps led down and down. The rumbling was louder. Wisely, he thought, he chose not to go there, and closed the door.

Behind the next door was silence, but it opened onto a corridor just like the one he was in. No.

Behind the third door there was nothing. It was a blank black space which swallowed up the small light of his torch and reflected no light back. He closed the door slowly and looked up and down the corridor. So many, many doors. Perhaps he should have gone down the stairs behind the first one. At least stairs were normal. He walked back to that door and tried to open it again, but it was locked.

The house was playing with him, and he started to understand that here, you could never go back to where you’d already been. Everything changed behind you.

Choose a door at random and go through, he decided. One, two, three, this one. A set of stairs going up this time, wooden stairs. Afraid of the noise, he climbed shifting his weight gradually step by step, only making the quietest of creaks. The stairs turned and twelve steps further up he came to a door. He opened it a crack, not daring to shine his torch through, and listened. Nothing. He stepped through and the door closed behind him.

Now he used the torch, turning it on and then off again when he saw where he was. He didn’t want to see that.

A room full of shelves, and on the shelves, jars, and in the jars, eyes.

He stood with his back against the closed door, pulling on the handle, willing it to open, but it was locked.

The jars began to glow, and all the eyes were looking at him. He screamed and ran, and ran and screamed, not caring if anyone heard him, wanting to be heard. No-one was listening, and the room went on forever.

The Follower

The Follower

Gabriel knew that someone was watching him. He was well past the prickling on the back of his neck phase. Now it was a constant awareness.

Since Lori found him — tunnels she said, but he did not remember any tunnels — something had been wrong. What happened to him that he was hospitalised, and then off work for a week because he could hardly stand up? What happened to him that was so bad he could not remember three days of his life, and some things before, too. There were blank spaces in his memories stretching back for months.

At first he tried to recall, but then wondered whether he was withholding something from himself for good reason. That was even more disturbing than mere loss of memory. Gabriel considered the problem and reasoned that, if it was so bad, suppression might be the best option. He surrendered to it.

A month later his body was almost recovered, though sometimes he felt a deep upwelling of fatigue. His mind, though, was far from normal. Never before was he afraid of the dark, but now he was compelled to buy one of those plug-in night-lights for kids because he could not sleep in complete darkness. There were happy little bunnies on it which he found comforting (and that was disturbing too).

The knowledge that he was being watched crept up on him. At first a faint paranoia, rising to a certain knowledge. On a lonely street he might hear something slithering behind him, or catch a glimpse of an odd shadow. In his own flat he had a sense of being overlooked, even when he closed the curtains and locked the door. He avoided other people, looked over his shoulder constantly, but the fact that there was no-one there did not make the feeling go away.

Shaving with a slightly shaky hand, he heard a faint intake of breath behind him and felt the light breeze of and out-breath on the back of his neck. He paused mid-stroke and stared at his own wide-open eyes in the mirror. The breathing came again, He leaned a bit to his right, but the only thing reflected in the mirror was the bathroom door. A swift turn — nothing there. Nothing there. Yet he felt warm breath tickling his wet face. There was a faint foul smell about it. Trembling even more, he turned back and finished his shave, rinsed and dried his face and left the bathroom. the breathing followed him.

He didn’t know what to do. Standing a while in front of the bookcase, he tried to think. Running his gaze across the familiar spines, he noticed an old notebook that he did not remember, maybe belonging to one of the blanked-out memories. As he reached out for it the breather seemed interested, its breath quickening, so Gabriel reached further and picked out an old copy of ‘Frankenstein’ instead.

He made coffee and sat down to pretend to read the book, using the time to think what to do. He decided to go to see Lori, whom he’d been avoiding for weeks because she might ask questions he could not answer.

Before he left he returned Frankenstein to the shelf and palmed the notebook, shoving it into the waistband of his jeans, hoping that whatever was watching him had not seen. It followed him. he could feel it closer than ever before.

Lori was just finishing her early-evening ghost tour when he caught up with her. She was surprised by the warmth of his greeting and alarmed as he leaned too close to her.

‘Can you see anything behind me?’ he whispered. ‘I’m being followed.’

‘Person, or…’

‘Or.’

She gave him a hug, then drew back with a slight shake of the head.

‘Come on,’ she said, ‘there’s someone you should meet.’

He followed past Lori’s flat and down a narrow side alley. She stopped at a nondescript black door and knocked twice.

‘Lori! And friend. Come in,’ said the tiny white-haired old woman who answered.

Gabriel felt a pressure on his shoulder, as if something was trying to hold him back. he wanted to obey the restraint, but managed to pull away and through the door. Inside, he felt lighter, a burden lifted.

‘This is Mildred,’ said Lori. ‘Mildred, meet Gabriel. He’s being followed by something nearly invisible.’

‘Nearly?’ said Gabriel.

‘I got a sort of shimmer in the air behind you.’

‘Come and sit down,’ said Mildred. ‘I’ll make tea. Don’t look so worried, dear. It can’t follow in here. We’re well defended.’

Over tea, Lori told Mildred all about the tunnels and how she’d found Gabriel with the help of the people in the dark house. Gabriel listened in astonishment.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I didn’t realise. I don’t remember any of it.’

‘I think they gave you something to make you forget.’

Gabriel pulled the notebook out and leafed through it. Pages and pages about the tunnels under Shuckleigh, with diagrams. All his tunnel research was there in his own handwriting, but he was reading it for the first time.

‘Well,” said Mildred. ‘I wouldn’t put it past those people to be following you, but I would say you brought something up to the surface with you. Something that wants you back.’

Gabriel fell the stirring of an awful memory. He did not want to look at it. Ever.

‘What can I do?’

‘Leave your notebook with me,’ said Mildred, ‘and stay here. I will clean your mind and put you out of its reach.’

‘Make me forget again?’

She shook her head.

‘You have some sort of attachment. I can feel it pulling on you, even here. It’s getting something from you, feeding, I think.’

Gabriel shuddered.

‘Do whatever you can. Please.’

‘It isn’t an easy process. It will hurt, and might damage you.’

‘Please,’ he said, ‘I don’t want it in my head any more.’

Two days later, Lori came back to take him home. He was hollow-eyed and pale. Stepping out through the door he took a breath, waiting to see what would happen. There was a sense of something touching him, but sliding away, unable to find any holding place.

‘Lori,’ he said, ‘I’m afraid. I never was before, but now I think I’m always going to be afraid.’

‘You get used to it,’ she said.

The Wicker Woman

The Wicker Woman

Beth was afraid of shop window dummies. Their fixed distant gaze, their frozen attitudes their almost-but-not-quite humanness, all these made her shudder. What she hated most was the shock on releasing that what she thought was a person, was not.

This only became a real problem when she opened her own dress shop.

It was a tiny shop, just off the High Street, and everything in it was her own work, from original designs to reworked vintage pieces. She needed a window display. Starting with a couple of pieces on hangers suspended from the ceiling was okay, but looked amateurish. Then a friend told her about a sculptor working in basketry.

Ella was a magician with wickerwork, and she made a beautiful, tightly-woven, figure of a woman for Beth. The mannequin stood a little taller than Beth, in a graceful pose with its arms by its sides as if they were just about to be raised to the world. The wickerwork was smooth enough not to snag on clothing, and the arms were detachable for easy dressing. Importantly, the face had no features. it was a perfect womanly form without being too human.

Beth was very happy, and quite comfortable with this solution. She dressed the figure in a red dress and black velvet coat. They both sold very quickly, and people kept on coming in. Everything was going better than she had hoped.

There were times when no customers were in the shop, and Beth would go back into the little sewing room to work on new pieces. She would hear the occasional creaking sound from the shop, but when she looked out nothing was amiss.

One day, changing the clothes on the mannequin, she noticed that one arm did not fit back into its place quite as it should. It had raised a little, as if reaching for something. Just the basketwork drying in the sun, Beth supposed. She finished dressing the window and went back towards the sewing room. a loud creak sounded behind her. Turning around, she saw that the mannequin’s arm had raised a bit more. The early morning sun must be warming it, she reasoned, hoping that it would not warp too much, thinking about phoning Ella to ask for advice.

Beth forgot all about it during her busy day of selling and making, pleased by the success of her venture. At the end of the day, she was reaching for the door on her way out when there was another creak from the mannequin, and she thought its head had moved, just a little, to look in her direction.

‘It doesn’t have eyes. It can’t look,’ she told herself. ‘It’s just cooling down now the sun isn’t shining on it any more.’

She got out of the place as fast as possible, though.

In the morning as she came in, she could not help looking over at the mannequin and saw at once that its head had turned far enough to appear to be looking directly at her. She shut the door and moved quickly to the back of the shop, to turn on the lights.

Her heart was pounding, but she calmed down quickly. The wicker was drying, that was all, or the shop was too humid. Some change in the atmosphere had caused the warp and weft of the woven structure to twist.

Beth went back to the shop door, changed the sign to ‘Open’ and looked directly at the mannequin. Nothing to be afraid of.

Later on she phoned Ella to describe what had happened and to ask if there was anything she should do. Ella laughed.

‘It’s no problem,’ she said. ‘I like to weave a little life into my sculptures, that’s all.’

Afterwards, Beth wondered exactly what Ella meant — and that odd laugh — but set it aside and got on with her work.

Clearing up in the sewing room at the end of the day, she thought she heard something in the shop, but paid no attention. Then she heard it again, a noise like something dry being dragged across the floor.

Picking up a large pair of scissors, trembling, she edged into the shop.

The mannequin was no longer in the window, but stood in the middle of the floor, between Beth and the door. She sucked in a quick panic breath and held it, frozen, looking at the thing. It reached out towards her with both arms. She let the breath out in a ragged scream and ran forwards, stabbing at the mannequin over and over. It fell, crumpled and crumbling, at her feet and she took hold of it, dragging it to the tiny back yard space where the bins were kept, pausing only to grab some matches she used for testing fabrics.

Dropping the broken mannequin on the concrete, Beth struck match after match, letting them fall onto the dry basketwork figure. It did not take long to catch fire. She watched it crackle and burn, its head twisting in simulated agony, flames giving the face a mouth and eyes at last, the arms reaching out, trying to touch her.

Beth stood until nothing remained but a drift of smouldering ashes. Amazing how fire could make something seem alive, she thought, but it was only movement caused by combustion, wasn’t it?

A piece of singed fabric fluttered in the hot air, and she briefly regretted the fate of the dress the mannequin wore. Then she turned away, went inside, shut the door and carefully forgot that the thing had ever existed.