Thomas

this story was accepted for publication by Yorkshire Arts’ imprint Route Press for their 2000 collection “The Unexpected Pond.” it turned out the editor was a guy i knew from university; the weekend i spent on the gargle with him in Whitby in July 99 deserves a story all of its own. perhaps i’ll write it one day. anyway, this is a bit of a strange one; the nearest i’ve come to magic realism or modern horror……

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Noise always disturbed Karen. Whether she was sleeping, reading or working, any external volume would distract and disrupt her. She didn’t get scared; she got annoyed .Outside was hostile. It took her ten minutes to lower herself off the sofa bed, crawl across the basement and then climb the step ladders. Her dogs, Rex and Peter, were barking outside. Normally they hunted berries in the wood, which Karen turned into a rich jam, for mail order sale. The dogs howled then gaped, revealing the craters in their gums that had once held teeth, but now were berry stores. At their feet lay a smaller crop than usual; behind them knelt Karen’s daughter, Vicky. She was holding an infant boy in her arms.

Seeing Vicky made Karen angry. The dogs should have been collecting berries until their mouth stores were full. On a normal day they would hunt until two, return, and then spit the fruit into a galvanized zinc funnel that fed the berries down a plastic tube and into an earthenware bowl, half filled with cold water. After soaking them for an hour Karen would pulp the flesh, then begin boiling it with sugar to make the jam. Today there was not enough fruit to make a batch and she felt annoyed by this. However, Vicky’s strange stance shifted Karen’s attention to her daughter. Vicky was not normally a cause of interest to her mother or to anyone really.

Karen grabbed the plastic berry tube out of the bowl and called through it. The zinc funnel acted as a partially successful megaphone, amplifying the volume of Karen’s message, but failing to catch the sense of irritation in her voice. “What the hell are you doing? Down here now! How am I supposed to make a living with only half the usual amount of berries? And where did you get that bloody kid from?”

As Vicky stood up she allowed the small boy to fall and land head first on the lawn. Karen baulked at this. Before she could react, Vicky scooped up the child and came into to the basement that had once been a store for fuel, but now represented the living and working space for 95% of Karen’s life. She always felt irritated in the presence of her daughter. She preferred the dogs, even though they were strictly for work and not pets, no affection could be lavished on them. Hence they remained lying on the grass, cleaning their genitals with calloused tongues.

“Sorry mum,   but it was cold out today and the dogs were getting all whiney, so I started to come back a bit early. We would still have got a three quarter crop, but once we found this I had to come home right quickly.”

This was what Karen had taken for the small child. It was not in fact an infant, but an eerily accurate sculpture of a baby boy, the hollow torso fashioned out of wood with a padded silken face, arms and legs. The hair was human rather than an inflexible nylon weave and the mouth consisted of hard plastic teeth, but not perfect ones; some were missing, others overlapped and crossed, there were chips and yellow discolourations of tartar. The tongue was of pliable rubber and the mouth and tonsils were a light polymer that gave without ripping.  The eyes were sealed. Close inspection revealed a kind of anatomical attention to detail that unnerved as well as fascinated. The doll was dressed in a plain blue tee shirt and shorts set, with Bugs Bunny embossed trainers and socks.

Perhaps the strangest thing was how it pissed. Having undressed the doll, looking for a return address or something, Karen and Vicky noticed the tiny, but accurate, penis and empty scrotum sac. The legs detached, revealing a thin copper pipe that led from a reservoir in the throat through the body to the penis. The tube was intricately kinked and bent and protected by a Perspex sleeve built around it, to stop movement and general wear and tear causing the pipe to snap. Vicky put a bottle to the back of its mouth and the doll swallowed quarter of a pint of liquid, which then remained in the reservoir, until it flowed down to the penis. No sucking was possible as the doll was not mechanised. The point of the bends and kinks in the tube were to stop the doll urinating straight after drinking: instead the diversions and blind alleys made it take ten minutes or so to begin pissing. The choice of copper for the piping was obvious. Aged copper adopts a greenish hue that coloured the pure water Vicky gave the doll. Karen thought about feeding it tomato juice, just to see Vicky’s reaction. It was possible for the doll to piss with or without legs,sitting or standing, although the flow lessened for gravitational reasons when the doll was sitting.

They dressed the doll again and sat it upright on the window ledge, looking out at ankle level to the lawn and drank coffee. Karen quieter now, Vicky relieved that the intervention of the doll had avoided the certainty of a row. Karen drained her cup then turned to her daughter. 1suppose finding something like that out in the woods would have put the wind up you a bit, looking so much like a dead baby and that, but I can’t understand why it was you had to come tearing back here.”

Vicky blanched visibly, and then sighed with pathetic honesty. “I wasn’t frightened mum: I just loved him at first sight. I’ve decided to call him Thomas.”

Karen wrinkled her nose in disgust both at the sentiment her daughter had just expressed and the odour coming from the doll; a sort of mushroomy, rotting leaves smell. Vicky supposed that Thomas, as she insisted on calling it, had been in the woods for at least a few days and cured the stench by washing and tumble drying the doll’s clothes .Karen was not pleased by her daughter’s maternal instincts. The most sickening thing for her was seeing Vicky wrap the doll in a small blanket whilst the clothes were in the wash, supposedly to stop him from feeling the cold. It was at this point Karen vowed she would destroy the doll. Of course it would have been easy just to grab the thing and fling it in the fire, or smash it to pieces with a hammer, but the indecent display of second rate mother love her daughter was showing this toy needed to be cured properly. Karen reasoned it would be in Vicky’s best interests to realise now that men and children were not worthy of affection; perhaps it would even be time to show Vicky that her mother viewed her as a servant and not a loved one. Karen knew the only creatures she didn’t despise were her dogs .They couldn’t speak, couldn’t look after themselves without her and did everything they were told.

Vicky’s obsession with cleaning the doll took several hours that Karen felt could have been more profitably spent collecting berries. The poor haul of fruit from that day before would rot if Karen didn’t use it soon. By the time Vicky had finished messing with the doll, dressing it and pouring lime cordial down its gullet to make the piss seem realistic, it was late afternoon. Karen had grown steadily more irritated by the bored Alsatians under her feet. Allowing them out into the garden had been only partially successful.

Admittedly she could get on with the jam, but the swollen bladders and distended bowels of the two dogs had been voided on her lawn, already awash with fallen leaves. When Vicky came down into the cellar, proudly brandishing the doll in front of her, Karen was beyond tolerating her daughter’s whims any longer.

“For Christ sake, get that stupid toy away from me. You’re seventeen you know, not seven. I needed more berries today. This lot won’t be enough to make a full load. Get out into the garden and pick me some apples so I can at least make some mixed preserve. And when you’ve done that, clear the lawn .”

It seemed as if Vicky might cry; her eyes shone and she bit her lip. Cuddling Thomas tightly, she went back upstairs. Firstly to get her shoes, secondly to put Thomas down for his afternoon sleep. Five minutes later she was outside, half way up a pair of step ladders, collecting the miniature orange pippins that had not been pecked at by birds and placing them in a white canvas bag, stained by juice and earth. The dogs furiously circled the ladders, barking excitedly. She descended and emptied the bag into a wicker basket, then busied herself dividing the windfalls into the edible, for the preserve and the rotten, which the dogs carried, three at a time, to the compost heap. The good apples would be crushed and blended them the pulped berries and several pounds of sugar, then set the mixture to boil. The cooking would take several hours.

When Vicky had collected all the apples, Karen sent her out into the woods with the dogs, not to collect berries, but for exercise. On hearing the faint clang of the garden gate, Karen opened a window to let out steam. She caught the fragrance of her daughter’s cigarette on the breeze and set her face with a harder aspect than even Vicky was used to. She knew her daughter would be gone for hours.

Laughing, Karen went upstairs. She fancied she’d heard a child crying.

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