It was not realistic that Lu could keep the furniture hidden from her little sister. It would be also, Lu had sense enough to see, wrong not to share it with her. She therefore employed that dramatic display of histrionic threats which she always had to use to scare Janet into secrecy. Somebody who observed Lu in this transport might be reminded of a witch doctor who was stamping his feet and flaring his nostrils to intimidate credulous tribesmen. Janet was always horror-struck by Lu’s ranting and she never recognised the predictability of her sister’s tactics. Janet, in fact, always went along with exactly everything that her sister said.
Despite this, Lu had vivid fears about depending upon Janet. Janet would prattle away about the furniture to her dolls within adult hearing. When the barest of pressure was applied, when she was questioned in a cold voice, her face would turn a startled white and she would squeal.
At last, Lu had to show what was hidden in the front of her dress. As the wondrous pieces of furniture were picked out one by one, Janet stood magically still, her heart a-hammer and her eyes agog, as though a fairy had tapped her on the forehead with its wand. She then looked fretful and guilty at being in the presence of such beautiful things.
The furniture fitted perfectly into their dolls’ house and Lu somehow knew the precise place where each item would look its best. Indeed, the clunky house brightened and took on a strange newness once the furniture was in place. Its scruffy boards seemed to retrieve some warmth of honey colour from somewhere; the light slanting in from its porthole windows fell in pools of faint liquid gold.
They lingered helplessly before the dolls’ house, with their spirits suddenly depleted. There was no question of allowing the frightful, oversized dolls anywhere near this furniture, any more than a real-life half-wit would be allowed to knock against antique furniture in a real chateau. This dolls’ house was no longer a setting for regular dolls to act out their wearisome lives in. It had been fixed as a static display and one which was as intensely magnificent as a Christmas tree. All evening the sisters would continue to appear in front of it, never breathing a word to one another, simply spellbound.
On the next occasion that Lu and Mr Hatter were down in the village, two days later, they were caught up in an altercation outside the church.
This church was so handsome that it seemed to twinkle. It was as small as a barn, although such an unfortunate resemblance had probably never struck anybody who had ever looked upon it. To look upon this church was to admire it. When it was built, almost a century ago, the church had been intended to supply the handsomest building in the village. Ever since the church’s completion the village had apparently given up, adding nothing of any further significance to its portfolio of buildings.
If you ride along a rural road in England, from village to village, you will at some level of consciousness come to compare the spires of their churches to human penises. Each is a different size; some look unremarkable, others splendid. This spire, despite the barn size of its base, was splendid.
Gravestones thronged around the church, jostling as thickly as spectators around a gallows.
Lu and Mr Hatter were passing the lane which opened on to the graveyard when they registered the distant sound of raised voices. There were two male voices, which at first sounded as if they were rolling back and forth jokingly, until one recognised the tension stretched underneath. There was also a woman’s voice bawling unheeded in the background.
Mr Hatter looked very bleak. He evidently wanted to hurry Lu along, but this would mean abandoning an interesting mystery. He glanced down at Lu. He was aware of the example that he was setting and that it was obviously an example of prying.
“Come along,” he said to Lu. Yet he remained glued to the spot.
“That’s Mr Man,” Lu said. Mr Hatter nodded and blinked, in such a way as to concede that this was correct.
“And that’s the vicar,” Lu continued. Mr Hatter looked so exasperated that Lu almost thought that she had launched them off again, but he continued to hang back.
All at once, Mr Man came stalking down the path with swinging arms. He was glaring to himself and without that weird smirk on his face, he looked strangely blank. The vicar was trailing behind him in agitated outrage. “It has to go!” the vicar demanded.
Mr Man spun around. “She has to go!”
He spun around again to see Mr Hatter drawn up in surprise. Mr Hatter’s nose was wrinkled in distaste but his eyes were pleading. “For Christ’s sake Gerald, is she not buried yet?”
The vicar was a baggy little man with wild eyes and hair which seemed to have been plonked on his head by an unfussy hand. His grossly fat wife was wading after him, even more dishevelled. “It can’t be legal?” Mr Hatter called after Mr Man.
“It’s worse, it’s far worse than usual,” the vicar’s wife hissed. “Three boys were in the churchyard today. They had built a fire!”
There was a corner of the churchyard where the graves petered out and the ground was perpetually muddy. Here, the village’s gardeners were sometimes allowed to build bonfires to get rid of their grass clippings. Sometimes as well, truanting boys, the sort of boys who Lu was frequently warned away from playing with, would come to build fires and jump through them. This was never allowed, though the vicar’s wife had a policy of not emerging from the vicarage to tell the boys so. She was worried that if she disturbed their concentration, they would end up skidding into the fire.
Today, the fire had been leaping up almost to head height. Three boys, with bare legs as clean as the blades of scissors, had been vying to fling themselves ever more extravagantly through the flames. But a silent figure had been sitting on a bench under the horse-chestnut trees, apparently watching them but perfectly motionless.
“Yes, she was sitting on a bench… The boys thought she was a normal person, asleep.”
“They probably still think that,” the vicar hastened to reassure Mr Hatter.
The village had not known what to think about this business with Mr Man’s mother. Her coffin had not been buried and it had been instead lodged in a nondescript vault at the fringe of the churchyard. And the village had gathered that Mr Man would periodically open the coffin and cart his mother off to take photographs of her.
On the occasions when Mr Man had been politely required to explain himself, he had produced examples of these photographs. His interrogators had at first suspected that they were fakes. The photographs must have been taken prior to her death, for she was typically standing upright unaided, studying a bunch of flowers or a book that she was holding up to the light. Only, there was a certain emptiness in her expression, as if her thoughts were very far away. And she was always in the same, stiffly theatrical pose, which was actually that of Hamlet serenading Yorick’s skull. But no, Mr Man explained, she had never worn that dress whilst she was alive.
Mr Man would go on to explain that he was involved in a pre-burial “project.” It might have been just another DIY task which men do in their sheds. He had many tender memories of his mother, of times when they had been together in the house or around the village, and he wished to physically recreate a selection of them. His interrogators were usually relieved to learn that there was only a finite number. How he manipulated her body and kept it looking so lifelike was a secret from beyond the grave.
The vicar and his wife, however, had been growing ever more impatient. Mrs Man was now out and about in the parish more than she had ever been when alive.
“You have to bury her, Gerald,” Mr Hatter urged.
“She is buried,” the vicar’s wife informed him sharply.
“Well…” The vicar looked discomforted. “We believed that she was buried.”
All of a sudden, that smirk was back on Mr Man’s face. Next he was, Lu realised with a shock, gloating at them.
Mr Hatter stepped back in dismay. Mr Man was now standing in a manner so still that it was as if his whole body was clenched like a fat fist.
“They buried her coffin this morning,” Mr Man laughed. “Without my permission. She’s not in there though – it’s just a line of rocks.”
But I need not lengthen our story by speculating upon the whereabouts of Mrs Man. The vicar put his foot down: officially she was in her coffin and he was not going to be tricked into ransacking the entire county, with Mr Man gloating at him over his shoulder all the time. Nonetheless, he, his wife, Mr Hatter, and Lu most of all, could not help now and then picturing Mrs Man, perhaps sitting amongst the bushes in an unfrequented region of the vicarage garden, still immaculately dressed and holding her posy of flowers. Or possibly in a back room up at the house, on a sofa, still holding that posy and with a huge dust sheet draped over her. Whenever Lu’s mind returned to the subject of Mrs Man in later life, she always envisaged this lady sitting at a rural bus stop, wrapped in a thick coat and with her skeleton face in the shadow of a hat, oblivious to the hundreds of buses which would pause and then continue on their way over the unbroken months and years.
[Next instalment: “The Fairy Carriage.”]