By Chef JRHEvilInc/Joel R Hunt
//This is the first of a series. Click here for part two.
“Mum, don’t worry about it. It’s just a splash, she won’t care.”
Mum doesn’t listen, already whipping the cloth off of the table and folding it over her arm.
“No, no, I want everything to be perfect,” she says, running a finger over the table to make sure the stain hasn’t gone down to the wood, “She deserves a real family meal, something nice. She doesn’t want to come home to a… a… warzone!”
“Good choice of words,” mutters my brother with a smirk. Mum shoots him a look, then turns to me.
“Fetch the fresh tablecloth, would you? It’s in the linen closet.”
She throws her hands up in mock despair, with perhaps a tinge of the real thing.
“Honestly, how do you men survive on your own?” she asks the ceiling, “The linen closet is in our bedroom upstairs. It’s the door in the far corner. And get the nice silver one, not the tatty red one; that was just for kids’ parties.”
“To be honest, with us and Dad, the red one might be more appropriate,” I say, managing to get a chuckle from Grant and a reluctant smirk from Mum. With that, I head out of the room and go upstairs.
It feels odd, stepping into my parents’ room alone. It takes me back to being a kid, when I’d get told off for sneaking in while they weren’t around. This is a different house to back then, of course, but the feeling is just the same, and Mum’s sense of style hasn’t changed a bit; everything is silver, white or light blue, and anything that can have a frill on it has exactly one – one along the duvet cover, one across the curtains, one on each sleeve of her dressing gown hanging at the far end. Barely a sign of Dad using the room at all, except for an old pair of slippers and an electric razor on his side of the bed. But that was always the way.
I smile to myself as I close the door, but, when I do, something catches my eye and I turn. I see two figures sharing a chair in the corner of the room, staring at me with glassy eyes.
“Oh shit!” I cry out.
“Language!” comes Mum’s voice from downstairs.
“Sorry,” I call back down, not taking my eyes off the two figures.
I certainly wasn’t expecting to see them here.
They’re exactly how I remember them. Two wooden marionette puppets. The real classic kind, with posable arms and legs, moving fingers, flapping jaws; everything except the strings, really, which have never been attached for as long as I can recall. Perhaps their paint is peeling a little more than the last time I saw them, and their wooden faces have been sunbleached the colour of bone, but it’s them alright; old Mister and Madam.
Mister is the taller of the puppets, his head extending upwards with a solid black top hat, and his body painted black to look like he’s wearing a suit. The effect is completed with a real fabric tie fastened around his thin neck, which I’ve always thought was made of the same material they make ropes from. He reminds me of those villains in black and white films who fasten women to train tracks – although when I was growing up, I thought it was the other way around; I thought the evil film villains were all based on Mister!
As a child I definitely preferred Madam, but seeing her again as an adult, somehow she’s become the worse of the two. Perhaps it’s the wooden curls of her hair, which from certain angles look a little like horns. More likely it’s down to the way her colours have aged; now, the rosy blush of her cheeks seems more like a sunken pallor, and the stains on her fabric apron, which never seemed to my child’s eye like anything other than the results of baking a cake, now seem filthy and used, like an old surgical gown.
Both of the puppets are about three feet tall, with wide eyes and rows of teeth that were probably intended to be a grin, but have always seemed to me more like a sneer. Between them, they take up the entire chair.
And they’re looking right at me.
“Grant,” I shout, “You’ve got to come and see this…”
“I’m busy!” my brother replies.
“I’m serious! Get up here!”
He’s too far away for me to hear the beleaguered sigh that I know he lets out, but a few seconds later I do hear him thumping up the stairs. He’s never been one for moving around quietly.
“What?” Grant demands, poking his head around the door. I just point, and he follows with his eyes. The moment he sees Mister and Madam, his mouth falls open, and his eyebrows disappear beneath his drooping fringe.
“No way…” he breathes.
“Your first parents,” I say with a nod. Grant chuckles, walks properly into the room and leans in close to inspect the old dolls. For some reason I feel slightly uncomfortable seeing his face that close to theirs. I want to pull him back. I don’t know why.
“First Mum,” Grant says, picking up Madam’s wooden hand and giving it a gentlemanly shake. Her hinges squeak from lack of use. He places her arm back by her side, then takes up Mister’s hand in the same manner, shaking it and nodding at the puppet, “First Dad.”
Seeing him do that now seems ludicrous, and we both let out a laugh, but for years of our childhood, this was something we took seriously. For as far back as I can remember, the two of us had shared this idea that Mister and Madam weren’t just puppets. They were Grant’s real parents. They had simply handed him over for my Mum and Dad to look after. It was an idea we bonded over, something between a joke, a secret, and a pair of shared imaginary friends. It had felt special – a bond of knowledge that was exclusive to ourselves, and which our parents (I mean our human parents) weren’t aware of. It was the bizarre logic of children, I suppose, where we made ourselves feel more like brothers by pretending that we weren’t actually related. We gave Mister and Madam full personalities, told stories about what they got up to, whispered at night about when they’d finally change their mind and take Grant back. It was a strange joke, thinking back to it now.
And I’m not sure whether, as a child, I really thought it was a joke at all.
“We were weird kids…” I say.
“Can you blame us?” Grant asks, gesturing to the puppets, “Our parents thought these were good toys to have in a four-year-old’s room. I mean, look at them! No wonder we got a little messed up.”
“Oi!” I snap, “Don’t speak to your first parents that way!”
Grant laughs, and bows to the puppets.
“I’m terribly sorry, First Mum and Dad, I didn’t mean it. You know I love you really.”
The puppets’ glass eyes seem to glint in the light. Probably just the reflection of Grant moving so close, but I decide now is a good time to grab the sheets and go back downstairs. I head to the closet that Mum directed me to, grab the silver sheet (which, to no one’s surprise, has a white frill along the edges) and close the door again.
“I’m amazed they kept these,” Grant says, and as I turn I see that he’s still inspecting the two puppets, peering at them from different angles. He has a point. While I don’t remember them ever explicitly saying they didn’t like Mister and Madam, I’d always had the impression that Mum and Dad didn’t approve of the two puppets. In fact, they’d once attempted to give them to a charity shop, and Grant cried so hard that Dad had been forced to drive up to the shop and buy them back. I had honestly thought that the two puppets were destined for the tip the moment Grant outgrew them.
“Yeah,” I nod, passing them quickly and heading to the stairs, “I wonder if Dad found out they’re worth a fortune or something? They must be antiques by now.”
“Maybe,” Grant says, following behind me, “I thought he’d thrown them ages ago.”
We round the bottom of the stairs and make our way into the kitchen, where Mum’s waiting with plates. I start to put out the tablecloth, but she hands the plates to Grant and takes it from me, draping it over the table like she’s dressing a princess.
“Thank you, boys,” she says, before taking the plates from Grant and laying them out on top.
The two of us share a look.
“Mum, why do you have th-”
At that moment, the front door opens, and we hear Dad shouting down the hallway.
Mum lets out a little squeak and rushes out of the room, and Grant and I follow. Stepping out from the cold, flanked by the large frame of our Dad, is Sasha, who is currently being smothered by a dozen hugs, kisses and concerned questions from Mum. Sasha takes them with good grace. She’s used to it, after all; this happens every time she gets home on leave.
“Did you have a nice flight? Was the airport busy? Oh, when’s the last time you ate, you look like a stick! Are they even feeding you over there? Do you get proper food? I’ve heard they eat bugs. Are you-”
Sasha kisses Mum on the cheek and then lovingly disengages herself from the embrace.
“Mum, I’m fine, I promise. The flight was good and I’ve not had to eat any insects.”
Mum smiles at her, clearly relieved to have the whole family in one place.
“I’m just pleased you’re safe,” she says.
“Come off it Mum,” I snort, “She’s not in actual danger, she just operates a radio. I’ve got closer to the frontline playing Call of Duty.”
“You’re right,” Sasha says with a solemn nod, “And if you ever need somewhere to hide from those pre-schoolers, you can come join us on the ship where it’s safe, off the coast of Syria.”
We stare at each other for a moment, and then smirk. Joking aside, it’s nice to see her again, and she makes the rounds giving each of us a hug before we all head into the kitchen. For a few minutes, Sasha is filling us all in on her most recent tour; the life-changing camaraderie aboard her ship, the comical stupidity of high command, the long hours of nothingness broken by bursts of intensity. She tells us a story of when her ship came across several rafts full of refugees, which Dad somehow turns very casually to his recent fishing voyage. After that, the next half hour is spent listening to him talk about the new bait he’s been using, and the three of us very lightly questioning the actual sizes of his purported catches.
Before we know it, Mum is dishing up dinner, and Dad finally has to pause in his retelling of when Frank fell off the pier, at least long enough to shovel some chicken into his mouth. I gesture to Grant’s plate as he, too, starts cutting into the meat.
“Don’t forget your greens,” I say, “You’re a growing toy.”
He laughs, and Dad frowns at us with a mouthful of food.
“It’s a joke we had,” Grant explains, “about Mister and Madam.”
“Wha’?” Dad manages, flecking bits of chicken back onto his plate and getting a disapproving look from Mum.
“The puppets,” I say, gesturing upstairs.
“Oh, those old things,” says Mum, “I thought you’d forgotten about them.”
“I had, until today,” I say, and Grant nods, “but we always had this idea, sort of like a game, where Grant was the puppets’ kid, and you two had adopted him before you had me. Then, at some point, he was going to turn back into a proper puppet and they’d all go off together. I guess like a reverse Pinocchio.”
Mum focusses on cutting her carrots very neatly.
“It doesn’t sound like a particularly entertaining game to me,” she says, evidently unimpressed.
“No, no, it was creative,” Grant says, “We made up all sorts of things about them. We did voices for them -”
“Really creaky ones,” I add, “kind of grating, like scraping two bits of wood together.”
“We decided where we were going to live when I finally turned back into a puppet and they took me away -”
“A little schoolhouse in the forest.”
“What they liked, and what they didn’t like -”
“They loved Grant. Well, obviously, he was their kid. But they were obsessed with him growing. Always asking how tall he was now, and they wanted to see his old baby teeth when they fell out and things.”
“And they didn’t like animals,” Sasha joins in, “I think that was why none of us ever asked to have pets. We thought Mister and Madam might, I don’t know, do something bad to them.”
“Huh. I’d forgotten about that,” says Grant.
“Probably because it was so engrained in you,” I smirk, then nudge Grant several times, “Get it? Engrained? Wood?”
“I don’t know what you’re getting in on it for, Sasha,” Mum butts in, “We moved house before we had you. You wouldn’t have even seen those dolls.”
The three of us share a look.
“No, I definitely remember them,” says Sasha, “Mister had a wooden top hat, little tie, a big toothy snarl-”
“Smile,” corrects Grant.
“Fine, whatever, big teeth is what I mean,” Sasha continues, “And Madam had her apron and the pointy hair. They must have been around, I can picture them now.”
“They were probably just described to you,” Mum says, in a manner that suggests the conversation is over. Unfortunately for her, that tone hasn’t worked on us since we all moved out, and Grant shakes his head as I lean in.
“Sorry, Mum, but you’re wrong,” I say, “They were definitely with us in the second house. I remember them telling me ‘You’ve got that one now (They called Sasha ‘That one’), you don’t need Grant anymore’. They were angry because you’d kept him too long, and it was Sasha’s birth that started them thinking that way.”
“We have plenty of photos of the second house,” Mum explains patiently, “Albums full of them, I like to get them out to look at sometimes. And I can promise you, not one of them has those awful dolls in them. If we still had the dolls in that house, how is it that they aren’t in a single photo?”
“No pictures!” I shout out in unison with Grant, and then we both burst out laughing. Sasha chuckles, but Dad furrows his brow in confusion, and Mum looks at us like we belong in a padded cell. Grant waves his hand as we catch our breath.
“They hated people taking pictures of them,” he explains, “Got real angry about it. I had to hide them whenever we had a party, because Dad would be going around with his camcorder.”
“God, I remember when I drew a picture of them once,” I say, the memories flooding back, “I had such a horrible nightmare afterwards – they were both stood looming over my bed, clawing at me. Like, really clawing, as if they wanted to kill me. Horrible.”
Grant turns to me, a little surprised.
“I remember that,” he says.
Now it’s my turn for the padded cell stare.
“What are you talking about, you dumb twat? How ca-”
“Sorry Mum. How can you remember a nightmare I had?”
“I dunno,” he says, as if it’s no big deal, “But I do. I can remember the picture you did, because I thought it was really good. I was jealous of it, actually, and I was wanting to try drawing them myself. I don’t know why I never had done before. But Mister and Madam weren’t happy about it at all. They waited until Mum kissed us goodnight and closed the door, and then… they were like snakes, you know? On the documentaries, where they’re still for ages and then they lash out and kill the mouse? It was like that. One moment everything was quiet, and then they were out of their chair and going for you. I can see it now, the arms going back and forth, scratching like they were trying to… to dig through you or something. Like they really hated you.”
He goes quiet for a moment, and I don’t know what to say. No one does. Even Sasha looks uncomfortable, and I find myself looking at my plate and pushing half a sausage around the remains of the gravy. I get this really strange feeling in my stomach as I recall more and more details about these old nightmares, and everything Grant said seems to match up with how I remember it.
“Well,” says Mum, with a forced cheeriness, “who’s up for desert, eh?”
“And I remember you screaming,” Grant says flatly.
Mum’s smile drops, and I turn to my brother while my stomach twists itself into knots.
“What?” I ask.
“I can hear it. How scared you were, how much it hurt. It’s the worst I’d ever heard you cry. I remember… I remember feeling so guilty, because I didn’t do anything to stop them. I didn’t say a word. I just let it happen. I was too scared of them to try…”
“Grant, it wasn’t real,” Sasha says, patting his hand.
“It was just a nightmare,” I add, although I hear the unintended question in my own voice.
Mum suddenly jumps up and starts clearing the plates away. Normally we’d offer to help, but for some reason everyone just lets her get on with it.
“I’ll get desert then,” she says to herself, nodding.
“You did used to scratch yourself something terrible, mind,” says Dad, looking at me with a thoughtful expression under his bushy, grey eyebrows, “These night terrors you had, they went back as long as I can remember. Even when you were still in your cot. You did it in your sleep, scratched yourself, and I think you must have woken yourself up from the pain of it. And it’s no wonder, you made a real mess of yourself at times. We were going to take you to a doctor about it, except you eventually stopped on your own. Grew out of it I’d imagine.”
I shift in my seat. Now that I think back, now that I really try, I can actually remember the puppets attacking me several times. Sometimes a quick scratch on the arm when no one was looking, sometimes going for my face at night. It’s strange to think that I had such a vivid, twisted imagination when I was young.
“I don’t know how I can remember it too, though,” Grant muses. I shrug.
“Maybe I told you about them,” I suggest, “the nightmares? I told you everything at that age, I must have talked to you about my dreams. And then you probably just started incorporating it into your own nightmares. Empathetic nightmares, you know, like you were projecting your worries about me into your own dreams?”
“I’ve read about stuff like that,” Dad adds with a sage nod, “in the paper.”
Grant doesn’t seem convinced.
“But I can remember them attacking you in the cot,” he says, “reaching through the bars and plucking at you, tugging at your skin while you wailed, with your red, scrunched up face. How can I remember that? You couldn’t have told me about it back then, you couldn’t even talk!”
“I’m starting to wish you couldn’t talk…” Sasha says, and Dad laughs. So do I, although I don’t really find it funny. Grant looks like he’s about to respond, but at that moment Mum bustles back in and places heaping portions of cake in front of us.
“God, Mary, are you trying to kill me?” Dad asks, staring at the giant slice drizzled in cream and cherry sauce, “I’ll have a heart attack after all this!”
“I’d be careful, Dad!” Sasha chimes in, “She’s going to bump you off and marry our puppet dad!”
“Oh hush about that now,” Mum says, setting down the last of the plates, “It’s getting silly.”
Duly reprimanded, we drop the subject of the puppets and quietly start eating our cake. We break the silence by telling Mum how great it tastes – like always, it really does – and then Dad goes back to telling us about his fishing trips.
“It really was a nice house,” Sasha says after a while, a wistful look on her face, “The first one, I mean. Or, my first one. I think that’s the kind of house I’d like to live in when I’ve got my own kids.”
“Come along to the pre-school,” I say, “There’s plenty we wouldn’t miss.”
“And it had a lovely garden,” Mum adds, ignoring me, “with that wooden terrace overlooking the pond. Oh, I have to get the photo albums, we can all look through them!”
Before any of us can respond, she’s out of her seat and bustling up the stairs.
“Well,” Grant says, “I guess we’re looking at the photo album then.”
“I’ll get more wine,” Dad grumbles, heading to the kitchen. We hear a cork pop, and then several glasses being filled with very generous helpings. The look we share makes it very clear we’re all familiar with where this is going.
“So which is happening first?” I ask Grant and Sasha, “Is Mum going to well up about how we were all beautiful babies, or is Dad going to complain about how they don’t make good wine in this country?”
“Definitely a fiver on dad,” says Grant.
“Sasha?” I ask. She looks over as if she’s only just seen me.
“Sorry,” she says, “I was miles away there. It’s just… I was definitely there at the same time as those puppets, wasn’t I? I can remember playing with them. But… also being frightened of them? And of that grating voice they had – or I suppose the voice you two had.”
“Thank Grant for that one,” I say, smirking, “Can you still do it now?”
Grant looks nonplussed.
“I don’t remember ever doing the voice,” he says, “I thought you were the one who did it?”
I frown. I distinctly remember the voice that Mister and Madam had, how old and unsettling they sounded. Surely I would have been too young to manage a voice like that? I open my mouth to respond.
“This bloody country,” announces Dad, setting out large glasses brimming with wine, “I tell you, we can’t make wine, we can’t make cars. It’s no wonder we’re a laughing stock abroad.” I see Sasha consider responding, but instead she takes a deep drink from her glass. We nod along as Dad tells us about how things just haven’t been the same since ‘That Woman’ was in charge. The three of us pretend to know enough about Thatcher to have an opinion, and engage in what we have now honed to a skilled art of murmuring in approval or derision at the appropriate points in Dad’s monologues.
“Not that I have anything against women in charge, of course,” he assures us, “There’s plenty that’d be better than the men we’ve got now, no doubt about it. Take your mum,” he said, wagging a knowing finger at Grant.
“Which one?” I ask before I can stop myself.
Dad furrows his brows at me.
“What do you mean which one?” he asks.
“He was talking about the puppets again,” Sasha says, “Just ignore him.”
“Oh, those bloody puppets,” he grumbles, taking a drink and turning his wagging finger on me, “with how you go on about them, I’d not be surprised if they did bring you up. You certainly didn’t get these ideas from me or your mother.”
“Technically I did,” I say, “You were the ones who bought them for Grant, after all.”
“Wasn’t bloody me,” Dad grunts, “I wouldn’t pay a penny for them. In fact, if Grant would have let us I’d have paid people to take them away! Ugly bloody things, half traumatised you all from what I can work out. Your mother had nightmares about them, I don’t mind telling you, and I can’t blame her. Sinister, is what they were, just damn sinister.”
“Seriously, Dad,” Grant says, “if you hate them so much why do you have them in your room?”
“What do you mean?”
“Yeah, that’s a good point,” I join in, “Why have them up in your room? Why did you bring them here in the first place, and then have them staring at your bed? Aren’t you a little old to be playing with dolls?”
There’s a long pause, as Dad evidently tries to work if the two of us are playing some kind of trick, or just being strange.
“Kids…” he says slowly, “We left those blasted things in our first house. We haven’t seen them in twenty years.”
The three of us smirk, Sasha rolling her eyes, but as Dad continues to stare at us with that sincere, confused expression, our smiles begin to falter.
“That’s…” Grant starts, “Dad, I saw…”
As one, we all turn to the stairs, peering up to the dark room above, which has been silent for a very long time.
“Mum?” I call out.
We wait, but there’s no response, except a distant creaking of floorboards. Grant pushes back his chair and approaches the doorway, leaning his head into the hallway beyond. He calls out louder; “Mum?”
And a voice replies from our parents’ bedroom.
A wooden, grating voice.