Happy Halloween, everyone! Here’s a story to entertain you – unfortunately, so as to not miss the party, the prose is rather under-dressed. Call it nihilism and delve in.
London on a rainy October evening in the late 1860s – dirty, dark, diseased and dangerous. Alone, a man carrying a small box turned into a dingy alley, the cobblestones whimpering dully under his heavy boots. A single candle burned in some window above. The man sighed softly and stopped, patting his vest for his key ring. He stepped towards a small door set in a small building with a boarded up shop window and an old sign decaying away that had once merrily announced “Lockby & Son” to those who cared.
Benjamin Lockby shut the door behind him and slowly lit a few lamps. The flames shed an eerie, trembling light on the occupants of the room. It was as though a massacre had taken place – eyes, noses, limbs, dresses everywhere, the strange glow giving them a sort of half-life. It was a puppet-maker’s shop.
The Lockby family had been puppet-makers for many generations, but disease and death had forced them out of business. Benjamin had been forced to take up various odd jobs to maintain a trickle of income, but for many years now he had been in the bookkeeping business at old Mackay’s and had begun to save money. He had always dreamt of surpassing the Lockby name, and he did have a startling talent with voices. He had hit upon an idea for a wholly new type of performance, where he would have a dialogue with his dummy, and his dummy would participate as if an entirely different person. Perhaps he would make it funny, as well.
Benjamin reverently placed the box in the middle of his workstation and removed his coat. He pulled back his shirt sleeves and loosened his muscles like a conductor limbering up for his concert. He carefully removed the lid of the box and sighed softly once more. His gaze was fixated by the two delicate little emerald-green shoes nestled carefully amongst all the protective paper; he moved to touch them but jerked his hand away, as if not wishing to soil them just yet.
Across from him sat Elena, pretty and petite in all her wooden glory. Elena, light of his life, fruit of his labours. His work, his soul. He hadn’t yet dared to give her voice, waiting to complete her first. She would be his masterpiece, the magic that set him apart from those hacks that surrounded themselves with mediocre toys and called their cheap parlour gimmicks ‘skill’…
He worked till the early hours of the morning, sandpapering her little body and making everything just so. He fell into a fevered sleep and ended up late at his workplace. Mr. Mackay was mildly irked but understanding. Benjamin caught up on his assignments and stopped only when Merry Mary informed him that lunch was ready.
Mary Mortimer was the resident everything at Mackay’s. She took care of cleaning the office and preparing lunch and tea for the gentlemen that worked there. She was wonderful in that the organised chaos at Mackay’s would come to an absolute screaming halt without her gentle ministrations. Benjamin was deeply in love with her despite not managing to convey even a single coherent sentence on any day.
That day, Marvellous Mary paused a little longer than usual at his desk.
“Pardon my forwardness, Mr. Lockby, but is anything the matter? You don’t look very well.”
Benjamin was shocked out of his frenzied working. Magical Mary was looking at him with concern and he responded with great difficulty.
“I’m only tired, Ms. Mortimer, it’s nothing to worry about. I shall take my lunch now.”
Mysterious Mary gave him a lovely smile and almost looked like she might say something more, but never did. She left quietly. The remainder of his day passed by in flash. He was usually preoccupied with thoughts of Elena these days.
Benjamin returned home – the little flat above his father’s shop spoke volumes about his existence. He was meticulous about keeping his craft work limited to the old shop. So, although his flat seemed disorganised, it was never dirty; a small 1-bed affair, the only embellishment to an otherwise minimalistic appearance being an armoire belonging to his great-grandmother. There were no mirrors anywhere. Dinner was a simple soup he made that, from the smell of it, would keep another day.
He rushed downstairs to Elena. He tempered his pace at the last minute and attempted a mask of calm. He walked over to Elena, placed those dainty green shoes on her darling feet and helped her sit in a comfortable position. He arranged her hair to fall on her face just so, and placed her hands on her lap.
“Hello, Elena.” He sat back and waited for a response.
“Erm, hullo?” It sounded like a girl had swallowed a bullfrog, but it was a start.
“How d’you do?” Best to work out the pleasantries first.
“Quite well. I like my new shoes.” It wasn’t entirely smooth, but he had to do a female voice and then throw it to Elena, after all. He had been practising so his b’s and m’s weren’t bad at all, but the voice was still quite rough around the edges.
He worked through the night holding an awfully dull conversation with Elena, trying to get her to speak just as he had imagined she would. He was quite tired and fell asleep at his table. When he woke up, he wasn’t quite sure whether it was yesterday or tomorrow; it certainly didn’t feel like today.
At work, Motherly Mary asked after his health and he confidently engaged in a conversation with her for all of five minutes, at the end of which he was incredibly exhausted and begged leave to eat his lunch. He was trying to finish his work early so he could leave to practise with Elena. He had not told anyone of his little hobby for fear of someone stealing his idea, so his colleagues just assumed he had a secret rendezvous planned and nagged him about it all day.
Benjamin entered the shop. He was surprised by Elena.
“Why did you leave me?”
“I had to sleep, and then to work. I came as soon as I could.” The guilt wormed its way out of his stomach and into his mouth.
“What would you like to talk about today?” Elena asked, with only a hint of petulance. She seemed to sense his apology more than hear it.
“Everything, Elena. And nothing.” Benjamin’s heart was racing. He knew it was happening – this was the camaraderie he had envisioned, the first step towards developing a perfect act, towards making him famous beyond his father’s name and this city and–
“Let’s go upstairs, it’s cold down here.”
Benjamin woke up. He was sitting at an awkward angle on his armchair, Elena draped alongside him. He did not know what the time was. He checked his old pocket watch and realised it was half past noon and he had missed half a day of work. He rushed to clean himself up and sprinted to old man Mackay’s, running into him just as he was stepping out.
“Ah, Benjamin, how kind of you to grace us with your presence!” The old man was certainly in good spirits if he didn’t immediately begin barking.
“Forgive me, m’lud, I was very ill and appear to have overslept. I’m terribly sorry, I shall stay late until I finish with everything–”
“Look ‘ere, Lockby, this is the second time this month I’m letting you off, and you better damn well earn my generosity by wearing your fingers down to the bone, you understand? I’ve got to rush to meet a fellow about something now, so I’ll see you tomorrow, and you better be a damn sight more punctual than this!” With that, he dashed off, tipping his hat to Mystery Mary as she walked into the room.
Benjamin could not bring himself to face Mundane Mary, partly out of some incomprehensible sense of being at fault and partly out of a lack of interest in engaging with her, so he strode over to his desk and began scanning the papers for any urgent work he had missed.
It was late evening and Benjamin was hungry as he had missed lunch. He ate a quick supper at the nearby pub and was on his way back, mostly preoccupied with a nagging balance on Mr. Caulder’s books. He suddenly looked up and saw Morbid Mary walking across the road. She noticed him and turned to walk in his direction, and was promptly run over by a horse-and-buggy.
The crowds walked unfazed; the horse went mad and ran wild. A few people ran towards her fallen body, including Benjamin, but it was immediately apparent that Mary Mortimer would never breathe again. Benjamin backed away from her body in shock, his mind unable to comprehend the events that had just occurred, and he looked around disoriented. He caught a glimpse of someone running away in emerald-green shoes, and nearly screamed. He blinked his eyes rapidly and looked again, but saw nothing.
Benjamin somehow got home, as he could no longer stand the thought of going to his office alone with memories of Missing Mary. He was plagued by doubts of what he saw, or did not, near the accident. He wondered about the previous night, about what had happened that he had overslept till past noon the next day. He wondered how Elena had gotten upstairs, since he never took his work to his flat. He suspected a slackening in his grip on sanity, but soon wrote it off to exhaustion.
He got the candles to light the workshop lamps and nearly dropped them when he felt hands on his ankles. Only slightly shaking, he lit a flame and saw it was only Elena. As he set about clearing the mess in the workroom, he idly recalled Elena being on the couch while he had dashed madly to work. Perhaps he had just unconsciously brought her downstairs.
Benjamin shrugged away the nagging feeling that something was wrong and went upstairs to his bed. There, he fell into a fevered sleep, peppered with the strangest visions. In the midst of it all came a clearing, all of a sudden – he was lying down on a very crunchy patch of grass near a stream, and next to him was a wonderfully elegant creature, a young woman, lazily draping herself over the green carpet, as if an ornament. The sky was shimmering and the water was still.
“Isn’t this wonderful, Ben darling?” She turned towards him yet he could not discern her face clearly.
“Who are you?” Benjamin asked in a tremulous voice. “Where am I?”
“I am everything, Benjamin.”
Benjamin slowly made out the clear outlines of Elena’s unnervingly human face. A part of him recoiled in shock and horror, yet a different part was fascinated by her fluid beauty. He was unable and unwilling to tear his eyes away. Would his future be this amazing? Would it really be like this if his dreams came to life? Elena seemed to sense his troubled attraction and touched his face as she slowly dissolved into the air.
The rest of the night appeared to crawl by, as it was still dark when Benjamin awoke. He dressed hastily, uneasy at having to stay at home alone for much longer. He dashed through the streets like a man on fire, hardly conscious of where his panic was taking him.
He reached a bridge where he saw Elena waiting for him. Somewhere in the corner of Benjamin’s mind, his sanity was screaming from inside its ice-cold cage. This is just a doll, it repeated, it can’t hurt you. But all Benjamin could see was that mad glint in Elena’s eyes and his dreams and wishes in an all-consuming whorl he was steadily being sucked into, deeper and deeper, as his feet took him towards the edge.