by William Couper

I keep the doll. It’s meaningless, there’s nothing important about the doll. I wish it was something else, like a ceramic cat. It’s not, so here we are, staring at this vacant, inanimate creature that sits on the shelf, imbued with a shock of terrible fascination, like your eyes are the thing making it sit bolt upright, the unease it exudes flows through you and back into it.

Or you’re just staring at a silly old-fashioned doll. All that’s there is a painted porcelain head attached to a wooden body. I have been curious my entire life about it and about an hour after it came into my possession I looked under the yellowed dress and the greying petticoats.

I was never told I couldn’t look at it, but the implication was strong, and there would have been consequences for following blind speculation and grabbing the thing from its place in my parent’s room. It sits again, blind and still.

‘There are a lot of other things you could do with it, you know,’ George said, about a week after I got it.

He had been simmering on it for that whole time. I’m not the most demonstrative person, so he hadn’t realised I was aware of his growing disquiet. It was like a water balloon being filled from a tap that wouldn’t switch off. I could see the thinning of his membrane of patience, the sloshing of his discomfort clear to me. Of course I didn’t say anything. I simply let him carry on, not looking at the doll, and when he did he allowed a small flinch to rock him back.

‘It’s the only thing I’ve kept from the house, from them,’ I said.

I knew it would shock him, I could have lied or waffled, but I was compelled to tell him the truth. Not that I’m some kind of robot or have an aversion to lying. I lie regularly. Nothing that will change anyone’s life, just those small statements that smooth over roughness and stop sharper experiences becoming large enough to tear at the flesh. I had lied to George a couple of hours before, something about how I was feeling after lunch. The thought occurred to me at the time about how different the magnitude of the lies was, otherwise, I would not have remembered the older one. Too many memories are dangerous.

His surprise was subtle. His brow furrowed further, his greying eyebrows tried to touch like cursed lovers, destined never to meet, always within sight. I’m not sure what he was searching my face for, his eyes bounced from point to point, stopping to lock gazes with me and going on to rove over my features.

‘There were other things you could have taken. What about that painting of the woman and the dog? That could have gone in the hall,’ he said.

‘I didn’t want the painting,’ I said.

‘Are you sure you wanted the doll?’

I paused then, a stupid thing to do. His eyes narrowed, as though he had caught me in something illicit or taboo.

‘I had to have something,’ I said, too quickly, too reflexive, too defensive.

‘It’s not an obligation to take something from your dead parents’ house. Keepsakes are nice, but there isn’t a law that says you have to have them,’ George said.

He sat down in his chair and leaned over the arm so that his face was a few inches away from mine. His eyes were intent and earnest. I tried not to avoid his gaze in case he thought there was something wrong. My discomfort rolled and twisted in my abdomen with all the frenzied enthusiasm of a shoal of piranha stripping a cow down to the skeleton. The time for me to shrug and make a non-committal sound was past.

‘We were there and it’s not like I’m going to be back in the house. Most of the stuff will be sold,’ I said.

‘Yeah, that’s great. You didn’t need to deal with it. You didn’t need to go to the house at all.’

‘I did. I had to be sure.’

He looked pained, and not for himself. This mild pain became a sad smile, and his eyes went soft with sympathy. My smile was almost involuntary. I could not leave him staring at me like that, and I hoped my response would make him give up. The conversation was already a torture, and I was tired.

‘There’s that, isn’t there?’ he said and patted my arm. ‘I could still smell that perfume your mother wore.’

‘Amazing that you could smell anything over the stench of my dad’s pipe.’

‘I was surprised, too. The smoke smell hadn’t faded at all. Still like that first day we went to their house as a couple. I think your dad stuck that stupid thing in my face just to make me cough.’

‘He did. He always did. You made the mistake of telling him you don’t smoke.’

‘Wouldn’t he have done it if I said I did smoke?’

‘He would still have done it, but he wouldn’t have shoved it in your face while you were eating.’

‘Not that I ever ate that much. I can’t believe you grew up on that stuff.’

‘I didn’t know any different. I didn’t understand the smells from the school canteen were food until I was seven. The idea that food could smell and taste good was a bizarre concept to me.’

‘I remember. The first time you saw a steak that wasn’t a couple of minutes away from being a cinder, I thought you were going to faint.’

‘It was overwhelming. When I tasted it, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was this close to moaning.’

He chuckled. ‘That answers a question.’


‘I never understood your expression that night. It was so weird, I couldn’t get a handle on it, couldn’t really describe it.’

‘Now you know.’

He nodded, stood, and patted his jacket pockets. He had been preparing to go out for something, I can’t remember what. Something small or several things, nothing consequential. It didn’t matter.

As ever, I hoped my relief didn’t show. After his intense inquisition it seemed as though the subject was forgotten. It was not, it was a postponement, he would bring it up again later. At least now I could prepare myself, formulate some replies that made sense. It would be on my mind obsessively for days, going through everything I needed to smother this line of questioning.

He leaned down and kissed my forehead. He looked into my eyes and smiled, before standing up. Another pat of the pockets and he left. A lingering smell of aftershave and body odour faded to join the neutral smells of our house.

I kept my eyes away from the doll because it was just a meaningless piece of inherited bric-a-brac.

It was after midnight and I sat in the pool of light from the lamp on the side table, reading. The rest of the room was dark, George had gone to bed a few hours before. He had to get up early in the morning.

I had a fleece cover draped over my shoulders to keep off the chill. For a long time, George had tried to persuade me to leave the heating on while I sat up reading, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. Running the boiler all night filled me with so much anxiety that even considering it brings me to tears. He gave up trying to assure me it was okay and had bought me the cover, along with a blanket, and numerous cardigans.

The quiet suits me. I love George, I do, but there’s only so long he can go without saying something or doing something that breaks the peace. Even when the television is on, he will get up and make a cup of tea, fidget with one of his models, or pick up a pen and play with it, drumming or clicking or idly scribbling on a pad. None of it annoys me as such, but when none of it is there, I feel more at peace, a little calmer.

I was lost in the book when I felt something brush against my foot. We used to have a cat called Layton, a rescue animal who was an adult when we got him. It had been two years since we took Layton to the vet and didn’t return with him. There was nothing else in the house to touch my foot.

I looked up from my book and cast an annoyed glance around the room. Nothing had changed since George had gone to bed.

The curtain swayed a bit, pushed by the evening breeze. I like having the window open, the night air soothes me. Despite everything that had happened to me on so many nights, the feel of a nocturnal breeze is relaxing. I can feel my heart rate lower as I sit and read, the lazy air that often seeps into the living room wraps me up, a warm embrace in summer and a cooling influence in winter. The only times I considered closing the window was on nights when there was a storm. The window faces into the prevailing winds and it was easy for rain to be pushed through to soak the floor beneath, something we had discovered to our cost. I prefer to watch lightning and listen to the angry gales anyway; those are thrilling and there have been nights I’ve seen through to the dawn as I wonder at the violent weather.

I rubbed my bare foot, certain an energetic gasp of wind had swirled into the room and touched my toes enough to make me believe something solid, something flesh, had pushed past me. It certainly wasn’t the ghost of my years-dead cat.

Tiredness hit me harder than any errant breeze could, and I yawned. It was before one, so it was early for me, since I didn’t normally go to bed before two. Still, an unusual early night would be welcome, it is rare that I feel compelled to go to bed at all, even when it’s late. I thought it was a good idea to follow the urging of my body.

My hip cricked as I stood and I stretched, forcing out the stiffness that had settled into my legs and shoulders. I froze.

The doll was lying on its side. It had managed to fall over silently. The weight of its body at least should have knocked against the shelf and made even a slight sound. The quiet in the living room is easy to disturb, even cars driving past too quickly can shatter the peace.

The doll’s painted eyes stared across the room, mirthful and lifeless, and the small mouth frozen in a meaningless pink grin. There was no danger of it falling, somehow it had tipped over into an even more stable position than when it was sitting.

Without thinking, I reached for it. My fingertips were almost touching it when I stopped. Why did it need to be righted if it was safer like this? The only reason to sit it back in its original position was aesthetic and no one would see it while I was in bed. If it had fallen over so easily in the first place, there was no reason to waste time sitting it up again. My sense of correctness wanted to make sure it could not fall again while in its proper position, but that would be something to deal with during the day, in the light.

Even as I thought it, the concept stuck with me. Why was daylight so important to moving a stupid ornament? I convinced myself it was because I was tired then, eager to be in bed, and messing around with the doll would be an unnecessary delay.

I looked at my hand, rubbed my fingers together, and rushed out of the room.

Penny looked surprised and pleased to see me. I don’t get out much, and I rarely visit anyone spontaneously. If there is someone I’m going to visit without a day’s worth of planning, it will be Penny. We’ve been through a lot together, even more than George and I have. She’s been there to help or offer support when George and I have been facing difficult times. I think she’s saved our marriage on a bunch of occasions.

‘Come on in, Marn,’ Penny said. ‘I’ve been wondering how you’ve been getting on.’

‘Been ups and downs,’ I said as she guided me into the kitchen.

It had only been a couple of weeks since the last time George and I had visited her, yet it felt like decades had passed. Nothing much had changed in Penny’s house since then. There were a few extra glasses sitting on a table, her sink had some dirty dishes in it, and some rubbish was gone, the changeable stasis of every living space. She wore the same dark grey cardigan, and her short white-blonde hair was tousled in the same way it had been since she was seventeen.

‘Park your bum,’ she said and pointed at one of the kitchen table chairs.

Penny lives out of her kitchen, as a result the furniture is more expensive than anything she has in her living room. The room is always warm and pleasant-smelling. She doesn’t neglect the rest of her house, I don’t think she could live with herself if she allowed the whole place to go without her attention, but the kitchen is the centrepiece of her life. It has something to do with her mother, who, on the rare occasions I met her, was a wraith who called from behind the closed door and appeared, small and eager, to offer tea. The kitchen itself seemed to be off-limits for everyone but Penny’s mother, even her father, a burly, overbearing man, acted as though the kitchen was a forbidden zone. I never saw Penny enter either and she hinted that getting in was an honour.

Her interest in the kitchen doesn’t extend to hours baking or cooking, she likes to sit in there and do other work. When she isn’t working, she will read or assemble and paint models she buys from the internet.

‘How’s Zane?’ I said.

‘Same as usual. Off somewhere on business for a week. He left yesterday morning. I have to fend for myself again.’

‘You love fending for yourself. You’re not the lonely neglected housewife, Penny. You told me one of the reasons you married him was because he’s hardly ever around.’

‘I’m allowed to get lonely sometimes. Especially when work’s getting on top of me. Would be nice to have him a bit more available to chat with.’

‘You’re making me feel like I’m clairvoyant.’

‘I’m not going to burden you with my bullshit. Not after what you’ve been through.’

‘I’d like to think about something else for a change. It isn’t the only thing in my life.’

‘Has your work started to hassle you to go back yet?’

‘I haven’t heard from them in a while. Compassionate leave and a doctor’s note are a guaranteed way of keeping your superiors off your back. I still keep flinching whenever the phone goes.’

‘That says a lot. Has Georgie-boy been much use?’

‘He tries. He always has. Sometimes he gets it right, sometimes he completely fucks it up.’

‘What’s the ratio there?’

‘About seventy-thirty.’

She looked at me hard as she put my cup of coffee next to me. A slight smile played around her lips and I had to suppress a smile of my own. There are times when it’s difficult to tell if she is feeling playful or not. If I crack a joke when she is being serious, she will get sullen. Her sullenness never lasts long, but I find it unbearably uncomfortable.

‘Which way do those numbers fall?’ she said, her expression still inscrutable.

‘He gets it right more often than not. You don’t need to be so hard on him. Especially since he’s not here.’

‘That’s the perfect time to be hard on him. I get more honest answers that way. It’s good to hear he’s not completely fucking up. You should tell him I say hello, by the way.’

‘He’ll be thrilled.’

‘How was the funeral?’

I could tell that she had been itching to ask the question the moment I walked into the house. Penny can be harsh and too straightforward for some people, but she isn’t devoid of social skills or empathy. She knows when she is about to needlessly hurt someone’s feelings. She is even capable of saying nothing, a skill I’ve found a lot of other people, myself included, find hard to master or even exercise. 

‘A funeral,’ I said.

‘Were there many people there?’ she said, ignoring my attempt at evasiveness.

‘Not that many. I didn’t expect there to be. A couple of mum’s relatives, one that she really hated. She would have been pissed to see him there, but I was glad to see him. Mostly it was dad’s scummy drinking mates.’

‘No pub landlords?’

‘They were never allowed to drink anywhere long enough to get to know any landlords. There weren’t many places him and his friends were allowed to drink, before he died.’

‘From what you told me about the shit they got up to, anywhere that let them drink deserved what they got.’

‘My theory is that they had money and there are still plenty of pubs who will tolerate a lot while a bunch of pricks is handing it over. And they spent a lot of money at a time. Dad would come home so drunk some nights…’

Penny’s expression reminded me of George’s, pained and sympathetic. I wanted to tell her to pack it in, but I could also sometimes use that under-used skill of not saying something hurtful. I had let my mouth carry on without the full consent of my brain, and now I was the victim of more sympathy than I was comfortable with, certainly more than I felt I deserved.

‘Your dad was an arsehole,’ Penny said, a metallic zing of anger in her voice. ‘I’ve always said it.’

I nodded. She had hated my parents from the moment she had seen them. I remember something in her eyes changing when I introduced them, before either of my parents spoke. I don’t know what she could have seen in them after only a few seconds. Their words, sneaky put-downs and unfair criticisms, and their actions, the nasty little pranks, cemented her hatred and she made sure she was out of their company quickly that day, making an excuse about work. In the years after, she only met them again once or twice.

They didn’t like her either. My mother, in particular, was obsessed with trying to put me off Penny, to drive a wedge between us. Some of the lies she told about Penny were insane and desperate. My father would make threats against me or her whenever he heard her name. I pushed it all out of my mind, annoyed that I had allowed the memories to intrude.

‘Why did you go to their funeral?’ she said.

‘For whatever else they were, they were my parents. It’s something I had to do.’

‘I’m not sure you did. I saw some of the shit they put you through and I don’t think they deserve the acknowledgement. You should have used the excuse to forget about them. When was the last time you spoke to them?’

‘I’ve had this from George already.’

‘So, he’s smarter than I give him credit for. Those people might have given birth to you and whatever, but they didn’t act like parents.’

I couldn’t look at her. Her gaze was too intense, it was hot enough to make my cheek burn. I took a sip of the tea she had given me and stared out of the window next to the back door. She would not stop staring.

There was a clatter outside, something heavy had fallen. She tutted and sighed. I could feel her reluctance to move like a heated brick pressed against my skull. It was getting harder to keep my gaze locked on a nothing outside of the window.

‘I’ll be back in a minute,’ she said.

As she opened the door, she skewered me with a glance, it was not angry or disappointed. The best I can describe it as is determined. A determination to carry on the conversation, perhaps, but it was more than that, deeper. Going to places I was not prepared to go. I should have welcomed it, been pleased that my friend was willing to do that for me, but I was terrified.

She hovered there for a second before her concern for whatever had fallen became too great and she went out. When she saw what had made the noise, she became annoyed, swore, and marched to deal with it. She went out of sight and for a moment I felt relief.

A cold feeling quenched the relief, sluicing it away in a wash of uncertainty and exposure. I became aware of how open the two kitchen doors were. The one in front of me that I could see every bit as much of a threat as the one behind me.

Penny grumbled and complained, rattled the metallic objects that had fallen. Clanking, scraping, falling again. I don’t know what garden tools she wrestled with. I don’t know why she had large metal sheets—it was probably a project Zane was going to occupy himself with after returning. Penny was not interested in the garden enough to start building projects.

The shadow at one of the top corners of the kitchen shifted. The light could not quite reach that part of the room, the cupboards got in the way. There was nothing that could move on top of the cupboard, no unboxed gadgets, and Penny made sure there was nothing larger than a stray housefly in the kitchen.

The patch of darkness pulsed, as though something at its centre had been pressed until hard. It lost what shape there was and floated onto the cupboard, slithered down the door like a patch of noxious smoke. As it drifted towards the floor, it extended, became more diffuse. The swirls and motes within it moved with purpose, mind. At my head height, it pulsed again. Instead of diminishing, it became a larger mass. It was barely more than a wisp, but the vortices within it sometimes looked like fingers. They pointed at me.

Without a word, I stood and left the kitchen. Penny worked outside, complaining and shifting heavy items. I had to get out. I clamped my hand to the back of my neck, memory, a learned habit.

I didn’t stop when I was in the street and I slammed the front door shut. I walked to my car and got in. Despite the unchecked fear, I managed to open the car door and insert the key. I even managed to drive away without speeding.

It thought it was a dream that woke me from the nap. I was surprised that my hands were empty. My book had tumbled onto the floor when I could not fight the tiredness anymore. It had been a stealthy takeover, I did notice I was asleep until I was awake again.

I was slumped in my chair, head resting on my shoulder, an ache forming in the bones of my neck. A band of stiffness had already formed along the middle of my back that reached along my ribs, making breathing uncomfortable.

The voice still lingered, clinging in my mind like a tatter from a filthy shirt. I didn’t like it, even though I don’t know what the words were. I could understand the intent, the desire to hurt me, make me feel unsafe.

In the rare times I get to sleep, my dreams are filled with unpleasant things, shades eager to do me harm. The images my mind conjures linger with me for longer than I have even admitted to George. Some days they would still be with me by the time I went back to bed. I was as used to it as I could be, while still hating it.

Somehow this was different. I looked around the room, the daylight was weak. I swallowed, tried to get rid of the sour, dry taste in my mouth. I felt as though the words had not come from my dreams. That was something new. For all the times I felt afraid and discomfited by things in my dreams, I always knew they were just that: dreams. I was well aware that my subconscious had conjured the situations, the phantoms, and the sounds, even through the dread.

I tried to convince myself this was the case again, even though I felt afraid and vulnerable, exposed to something I couldn’t describe.

A shadow moved. The sinuous grace of a diffuse cloud of black smoke brought it to my attention and into the middle of the room. For a moment I was terrified something had caught fire, a lamp, the television or the radio. There was no acrid smell and no alien, flickering source of light.

The dark filaments pulsed, and I saw recognisable shapes. A hand. A nose. Half a face. The realisation of how cold the room had become shocked me.

I wanted to run again, as I had from Penny’s kitchen. I was rooted to the chair, the cloud twisted and whirled, driven by a desperation I can feel as much as the cold.

The words were incomprehensible and almost inaudible at first. As they got louder, they didn’t form any discernible words. The meaning and intent were strong though, hate and anger. Threats without true words. Familiarity drove me to my feet at last and I ran from the room, alternately pressing my hands to my ears and to the back of my neck. The vapour did not follow, but the feelings would not go away.

George was on his way out again when Penny came to the door. He looked surprised to see her. They exchanged a few pleasantries, and he left the moment he let her in. He gave me a worried look over Penny’s shoulder before he went out of sight.

She stood in the living room doorway and stared at me in the same way she had a few days before. This time there was a hint of anger on her face, a shimmer of annoyance.

I had been avoiding my phone entirely since leaving her house. George hadn’t noticed because work had kept him busy. There was no way he wouldn’t have said something if he had noticed.

‘You’re not sleeping,’ she said.

Involuntarily, I touched my cheek, close to the eye. The flesh was soft and spongy.

‘I noticed it when you came to visit. You look like you’ve been put through a cement mixer,’ she said.

I put my book down, weary. It was a minor relief, as I had been staring at the same three sentences for the last fifteen minutes, recognising the words, yet unable to absorb them.

She sat across from me, in George’s chair, without breaking eye contact. It struck me how familiar she was with my house and how familiar I was with hers. How I had spent so much more time in her house than my parents’ home and moved in when I was old enough. It was a temporary arrangement, as I had never felt comfortable sharing Penny’s home, though I’m sure she would have let me stay for any length of time.

‘They can’t get to you anymore, Marn,’ she said after a long time.

Tears rolled over my eyes, blurring her face, and my bottom lip fidgeted. I blotted the tears with the tattered cuff of my jumper. Swirling smoky darkness appeared behind her, a large mass of ebbing images, hands, eyes, whole faces, and open mouths. I didn’t want to look at it, had not wanted to look at it, but it demanded my attention, pulled my gaze with all the pain of a fishing hook buried in my eyeball.

I wanted to tell Penny about it. I had tried to tell George about it, but he had stared at it and looked at me with the worst pity I had ever faced. That look had hurt coming from George and it would be devastating from Penny. The constant sympathetic looks were bad enough.

‘Are you listening to me?’ she said.

My gaze snapped back to her face. Her eyes were red and drowned by tears, too. Her jaw held firm. Somehow her gaze remained direct despite the barrier of tears.

The black mass shifted like a terrified flock of birds, imploding and expanding within a few heartbeats. Large, thick-fingered hands surrounded her head. Hands that I knew too well. When my back stiffened the fingers dissipated, merged into the snaking substance.

‘George phoned me, you know,’ she said. ‘From work, so that you wouldn’t know. He’s terrified for you, Marn. He doesn’t understand what’s happening. You won’t talk to him. He thinks you’ll talk to me.’

‘I want to sleep, Penny. I do.’

‘Have you been to see a doctor?’

I laughed. I still don’t know why. It didn’t sound like me. I clamped my hand over my mouth. Penny was disturbed by the sound too. I wondered if she was upset for the same reason I was. The laugh sounded like my mother’s.

The dark cloud had grown so that it covered most of the wall behind Penny. Eyes that had formerly appeared in random places in the misty, shifting vapour were appearing more noticeably close to the top of the column. Four eyes, two sets, twitching with malice and venomous humour.

‘Marn! I’m serious. Have you considered making an appointment?’ Penny said.

‘I’ll see her again in a couple of weeks.’

‘You need to see her sooner than that.’ The tension in Penny’s voice was palpable and I thought that perhaps she could sense the cloud looming behind her.

‘I have pills.’

‘You need stronger ones.’

‘I can cope.’

The cloud pulsed again, and I could see outlines. The random body parts were no longer visible, the wisps now looked like silhouettes. I clenched my fist, resisted the urge to gasp. I couldn’t stop my breathing from getting faster, becoming shallower.

‘No. You can’t. You aren’t,’ Penny said, and her words, like those in the book, barely entered my brain.

She stood, a figure of certainty, of positive action, and walked to me. The cloud grew and moved with her and I couldn’t stand it anymore. I screamed and rushed past her. Words spilled from me, unfamiliar, coarse, unfettered, blasting the air and ringing in the confined space. Penny jumped and held her hand up to defend herself.

I rushed past her into the outstretched arms of the thin black cloud. My body struck it and stopped. Vile, stinking cold sheered into my skull. I could still hear my words, screamed incoherently at something that was not in a position to respond. The blade of tearing hate split my brain, I fought and I struggled, even as I felt Penny’s hands on me, her soothing words lost as I screeched my monologue.

The last thing I saw as my consciousness failed was the grinning black faces of my parents, younger than I ever saw them. Their eyes glittered, knowing what they were capable of doing to me. Feeding on the fact that I knew what they could do too.

I stare at the doll. It doesn’t mean anything. I took it for reasons I will never be able to explain.

George has come into the room and stands close. I can’t hear what he is saying to me. I don’t hear much over their voices anymore.


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