Hurrah, the wet miserable weather has actually made me be productive today, and I’ve written a short story. Here’s the first bit of the first draft: comments (constructive please) welcome! It’s inspired by a short holiday in Hay-on-Wye.
When she was very little, Fay had a recurring dream that her house would change when she wasn’t looking. She would turn away for a second, only to find that a door had appeared where there wasn’t one before, sometimes tiny in the skirting board like in Alice in Wonderland, or a staircase that wound up, round and round merry go round, to an otherwise unknown attic. She would clamber up the tight corkscrew steps, eager to explore, to find out if there were fairies or goblins playing, if magic was happening, if an adventure were to be had.
But sometimes in her dream, doors disappeared, leaving her trapped, flailing against solid cold walls. She would wake up sweating and gasping for breath, crying out for her Mam.
It occurred to her now, being all of nine-years-old and much more grown-up than her silly younger self, that her new home much resembled the higgledy piggledy, fairytale house of her dreams.
It was only her home for the summer though, she reminded herself, and gripped her fingers just that little bit tighter.
She was watching Baz the Brush put the finishing touches on the new sign; he wobbled a bit on the ladder as he finished the “S” on the end, but his lines, unlike hers, were straight and sure. She hoped when she was older she’d be able to write so neatly; Miss Jessop was always criticising her handwriting, “like a spider’s had a rave on the page”. Baz climbed down to cross the road and stand with her.
“That’ll do,” he said, “neat and tidy, like.”
Fay grinned. The sign now proudly proclaimed “Tasker’s Books and Antiques” in brilliant white, and not a flake of the old crumbling yellow could be seen. It did make the shop front look much better. When she and Ivan had first arrived, they’d stared in dismay at the rickety old building with its peeling paint and grimy windows. How could Mam send them here? It was dirty! But now, not a ghost of the previous letters could be seen. Rather like her cousin, but she wasn’t supposed to know about that. She knew she had big ears for a girl of nine.
“It looks nice,” Fay said, and was pleased when the man gave her a big smile. He patted her on the head (leaving, she worried for a second, blobs of white in her brown hair). Since she’d arrived a week ago, affection from grown-ups had been a rare thing. Ivan didn’t mind so much as he was twelve and shrugged off hugs and kisses; he just played in the yard with his football and picked fights with the local boys, but Fay was a born worrier, and she worried that her Auntie Jean and Uncle Gwynne didn’t really want them around.
And last night she had the dream again, the bad one, for the first time in ages.
There’s no point moping about it, Fey Fay, she told herself; Mam would say roll up your sleeves and get stuck in, best cure for a worry pain. It’s just that – oh! – there isn’t much to do in Hay if you’re nine-years-old.
She and Ivan had explored the castle but so much of it was cordoned off – unsafe. They’d heard there was a King in the Castle but they hadn’t seen him, despite peering in windows until they were shooed away by a big loud woman. They’d gone down to the river to look for fish but Auntie Jean had shouted at them about that – they might fall in, and then what would their dear Mam do? They’d explored the nooks and crannies of the streets and camped in the Butter Market, until chased off by bigger boys, starting Ivan’s feud. And the shops… well, they were all the same. And Auntie and Uncle’s shop was out of bounds since Ivan pretended to be a ghost and scared the customers. So it was their cramped room or the yard.
Fay was bored. So much so watching Baz re-paint the shop sign was exciting.
Inside the shop however, Baz’s magic had little effect. It was full of piles of clutter in every dingy corner. Ramshackle bookshelves crammed with mildewed old books, chipped crockery and some of the ugliest ornaments Fay had ever seen. But it was busy; always full of tourists, who browsed in silence and ignored any children pulling gargoyle faces at them from around the shelves. The attic was the best room – up in the eaves it had sloping ceilings and tiny doors, and that’s where Aunt and Uncle had put the childrens’ books and toys. But Fay and Ivan had been banned from there.“These ain’t for playing with,” Aunt Jean had told them sternly. “They’s collectable – you know – for adults. Not for kids.”
Her Uncle had been a children’s author. That’s what her Mam had said. Back when he was younger, when cousin Artie was little. He’d written a children’s book which was nominated for some award but now it was out-of-print and no one read it, and he hadn’t written any others since Artie went. Fay had met children’s authors at school and so thought they were all jolly and fun, so was disappointed that Uncle Gwynne was not. Fay had looked for a copy of his book in the shop but there wasn’t one. She had, however, found a copy in Uncle’s room, when she and Ivan had been messing about. The spine was faded away as if it had sat on a shelf, untouched, for a hundred years. She opened it to the title page.
“A Child’s Book of Nightmares” it read, by A.G. Tasker.
Not the kind of book she wanted to read. She shut it quick.
The building itself bothered Fay too. While Ivan thought its maze of small rooms amusing, she found it confusing. The low beams, small doors and lots of steps leading up and down felt more like the houses in her book of fairy tales than her modern two-bed semi back in Hereford. It was as if the house was built for smaller people, and would adjust itself to their needs. Not modern people. Not people like her.
Baz was clearing up his pots and brushes. She snook inside the front door to see if Samantha was on the till; the young assistant worked some days, and was more tolerant of Fay and Ivan, and might just offer a biscuit.
No luck – it was Uncle Gwynne manning the shop, so she darted past Baz and into the murky interior. Uncle was having a discussion with a customer.
“I can’t believe you don’t have it,” a tall man in a red woolly hat and a Barbour jacket was saying. “It’s a classic, you must have it.”
“Ain’t much call for Christie these days,” her Uncle retorted. “All Mankell and Larsson, see, with a bit of Hayder and Rankin. Gore is what people want now, see.”
“You wanna try Murder and Mayhem, see, up the road. Specialises in crime fiction. We’re general. Try them.”
Uncle sat down and picked up his book, signalling that the conversation was done. The man grunted unhappily, and made a show of rifling through the local authors books showcased on Uncle’s desk – Erskines and Rickmans mainly. Uncle ignored him, and after a few moments the man shouted “George!”, and a young lad appeared from the shelves. They both left, letting the door swing shut behind them, rattling the bookcases.
Fay shrank back into the shelves. Her Uncle was sometimes bad-tempered, and while not nasty to her and Ivan, he had a manner that frightened her. She wondered, somewhat cruelly, if that was why cousin Artie had run away.
Then she remembered that seven-year-olds didn’t run away for real. At least, not very far.
Fay felt rebellious, born of boredom. She crept up the stairs, round and round merry go round, till she reached the forbidden attic room. She wanted to look at the dolls again.
There was an old pram stuffed full of them. All old, not Barbies or Bratz or even Tiny Tears (a baby doll her Mam had had when she was a little girl). There were several that looked like miniature children, all prettified in frilly dresses, with hard faces and red lips. There were soft raggy dolls with the stuffing coming out, grubby and worn. There was a tiny sailor doll, and a policeman doll, but not dressed like a modern policeman. He was her favourite – he had a nice face.
The doll she really didn’t like sat in its own little chair in the corner of the room. Ugly Doll. Naked and bald, it wore a painted smile and had rouged cheeks, but had no hands or feet; it was grotesque, and Fay ignored it.
She didn’t much like the posh dolls either – they reminded her of the Louises at school, the trio of girls that laughed at her wild hair and hand-me-down clothes, and wouldn’t let her play in the playground, but made her stand on one edge and watch all the other children have fun. The soft raggy dolls had funny faces, almost as if they were drawn on; they were loved, she thought, and that’s why they’re scruffy. But it was the policeman she liked best – he made her feel safe. She imagined that he stopped the posh dolls bullying the raggy dolls, when it was quiet and dark after closing time. He kept order, and did the right thing.
Perhaps he’d belonged to Artie.
It was quiet in the attic room; Fay could hear people shuffling about downstairs, and the slight murmur of voices, but because the stairs were steep and tight and the door only four-and-a-half-feet high (Auntie had told them that), not many people ventured into the attic room to explore the toys and childrens’ books. She walked her policeman along the edge of the pram, and whispered in his voice, “Allo allo allo, what’s all this then? I hope you’re all behaving yourselves.” She giggled. “I’ll be having no trouble off you lot, or I’ll be off carting you to the station, and you can spend a night in the cells.” She gave the last word a growl to make it sound menacing. “The cells, don’t you know!” She patrolled him back around the edge.
It was then she thought she heard a whisper. She glanced quickly at the door (noting, with some relief, that it was still there and open) but there were no footsteps on the stairs. She held policeman closer to her head and repeated, in the tiniest voice, “What’s all this then?”
The whisper came again.
She stared at the policeman in her hands. His eyes were smiling. She drew him closer to her face, and held her breath.
“As I was going…”
The faintest, most tremulous voice, like an exhalation. “… up the stair,” she heard, she most definitely heard it, “I met a man who…”
Fay froze, disbelieving but wanting to believe so much that the policeman could really talk to her. “…wasn’t there,” came the whisper, so, so faint, but she could hear it, clear and real.
A clatter on the stairs – heavy boots ascending. A browser.
Fay dropped the policeman doll back into the pram, and as a woman in a purple headscarf bent her head through the door, she pushed past and ran down the staircase, round and round merry go round, all the way out through the shop and out into the street, crashing into Baz’s neatly stacked paint pots on the pavement.
To be continued…