‘I’m here to chop off your head’ the bloody butcher said.
Elaine Edgeworthy did not know who the middle-aged man she allowed into her office, but she was mildly intrigued. A few minutes ago he had arrived at he entrance to the museum, which was the gift shop, of course, and said he had a donation for the museum. It was a very irregular way to donate, but his surname got him through to her office.
‘Mr Bird,’ she said, ‘do come in.’
He did so with difficulty, as he was carrying a large cardboard box, which he deposited on her desk, scattering paperwork.
‘Ms Edgeworthy,’ he said, ‘good of you to see me.’
‘Forgive me for asking,’ she said, ‘but are you related to Anthony Bird?’
The smile that came with his answer was not filled with pride, but was ambiguous and with a hint of pain as it faded, probably due to the family history, thought Elaine, but she regarded the box with hungry curiosity. Whatever was in there, if it was in any way connected with Anthony Bird, Shuckleigh’s only respectable famous person, a painter of international repute, then it would be of real importance.
‘You won’t survive the night,’ said the dame by candlelight.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘These are some…toys my grandfather made for my father. I want the museum to have them, but only on the condition that they stay here, and aren’t lent out anywhere.’
Though she was quivering with excitement, Elaine tried to retain an appearance of calm and grace.
‘May I?’ she said, indicating the box.
Elaine pulled away the tape holding the top flaps of the box together. Mr Bird, she noticed, took a step backwards, as if he was afraid that something might jump out at him.
‘Oh,’ she said, surprised at the jumble of things in the box. They were glove puppets with papier mache heads and fabric bodies. She reached in and took out the topmost one.
‘Be careful,’ said Mr Bird. ‘That blade is quite sharp.’
The puppet had a lumpy red face. He wore a striped apron spattered with red paint and, stitched to one hand, a cleaver cut from a piece of metal and liberally painted red along its blade.
‘Um,’ said Elaine.
‘That’s the butcher,’ said Mr Bird. ‘My grandfather didn’t believe in childish children’s toys — but you know, when you’re a boy, you do like horrors.’
Elaine laid the butcher on her desk, not sure she liked the look on his face, and finding it hard to reconcile this somewhat barbaric object with the cool, tightly controlled elegance of Anthony Bird’s abstract paintings. Something else was at work here.
The next puppet was an evil-faced woman. In her hand was a candlestick, complete with a wax candle that had a flame made from a bit of yellow foil.
Bird had taken another step back.
‘Are you sure you want to part with these?’ asked Elaine. They were a real win for the museum, but she felt uneasy. ‘They must have been an important part of your childhood, and your father’s.’
‘No, no. They’ve been in the attic for years, but then they started talking to me, and I just don’t want them around any more.’
He shook his head and laughed, a jagged sound.
‘You must think — no — memories and all that, I suppose. There was a rhyme went with them. I could hear it in my head. Memories and all that.’
He had taken another step backwards as he spoke, and avoided looking at the puppets laid on Elaine’s desk. She peered into the box and reached for the next.
‘Well, I’ll be going,’ he said. ‘Must rush, and all that.’
Elaine parted her lips to offer him coffee so that they could talk about the donation and any ideas he might have for display, but he was out of the door before she could form a single syllable.
‘Your nightmare’s come to play,’ said the devil of the day.
Bird could still hear them, even as he walked away.
Elaine reached into the box for the next puppet, and almost dropped it in surprise. The face of an angry red devil grinned at her, his face twisted and misshapen. A red heart was stitched to one of his hands — not a sweet symbol of love, but a small anatomically correct bodily organ, painted blood still dripping from its arteries.
Bird said that boys like horrors, but Elaine wondered what sort of father would supply horrors like these to his son.
There was a sheet of paper in the box, yellow with age. Elaine picked it out between finger and thumb and turned it over. On it was written the rhyme that Mr Bird had mentioned. Whose handwriting, Elaine wondered. If it was Anthony Bird’s then this was quite a valuable piece of paper. Research would have to be done. In fact, there might be a book in this — a reappraisal of the artist in the light of these disturbing pieces. Both Anthony Bird and his son had committed suicide at the age of fifty-one. A disturbing light shone on these ‘toys’.
She thought she heard a noise from within the box, a thin whimper. Imagination, surely. Inside was one remaining puppet, lying face down.
Bird drove to the east, away from the town and his obligations, with nothing in his car that was not his and his alone. He could still hear them but the further away he drove, the fainter their voices became. The family house and all its contents were sold to some crazy people who wanted to make a museum of it, the home of the great artist. The money, he wouldn’t keep it, going to a suitable charity. He wanted nothing to link him back to that place.
Elaine noticed a tremour in her hand as she reached for the last puppet. It had the face of a boy, not misshapen like the others, but almost a portrait. He was wide-eyed, his mouth open in a silent scream, and in the middle of his chest there was a painted gaping wound as if his heart had been torn out.
The demon puppet seemed to laugh and wave its bloody trophy, and then the boy really did scream and Elaine heard the final piece of the rhyme.
‘The boy will not grow old, his heart is dead and cold
And once it stops a-beating, will make for finest eating.’
The puppet twisted in her hand. She felt a black tunnel closing in on her and for the first time in her life she almost fainted. The piece of paper crumbled into a hundred pieces.
‘No, no, no,’ she murmured, dropping the puppet and scrabbling to gather the bits of paper together, to salvage a valuable document.
Crossing the border into the next county, Bird felt peace fall upon him, and knew he was free to enjoy life beyond his next birthday.