The doll lay on the dressing table, next to the trinket box, small, smooth and metallic. It had slit, slanting, empty eyes, a microscopic mouth, and no nose at all.
“Where on earth did that come from?” I asked my mother.
“I don’t know, “ she said.
“ I thought we’d got rid of that years ago.”
I picked it up, and its tiny, jointed metallic limbs swung heavily beneath its out-of-proportion oval head. It couldn’t have been more than 2 inches long. For a thing of its size, it was surprisingly ominous.
“So did I,” she said.
I put it down again, quickly. An icy hand clamped itself firmly round my subconscious. And I remembered something I had seen in Rhys and Rosa’s house, a long time ago.
Rhys and Rosa’s house was exactly opposite ours. From our front bedroom on Quilley Road, you could look right down on Rhys and Rosa’s bungalow and see straight through their windows. One of the earliest things I could remember was the sound of Rosa slamming them in a vain effort to prevent the neighbours hearing the kids screaming and drumming their heels on the lino. It always failed, of course, and up and down the road, you could sense the neighbours quietly sniggering to themselves. Newcomers might possibly have wondered if something dire was going on, but it wasn‘t true. The plain truth was that Gina and Gwyneth were spoiled rotten, and the merest whiff of the word “no” was likely to ignite a tantrum of horrendous proportions.
Rosa was the grand-daughter of Italian immigrants, who had settled in Britain years ago and set up a local ice-cream empire. She was dark and dumpy, her wavy hair crimped short and rigid into one of those flat-topped Fifties hairdos which made everyone look ten years older. She was also becoming fat. Despite their names, neither she nor Rhys had any trace of an accent. Rosa rarely mentioned the Ronchetti family. To me, the idea of foreign relations was exciting, but Rosa always soft-pedalled it and the Ronchettis seldom visited. But maybe they were just too busy making ice-cream.
Rhys was match-stick thin, mild-mannered, dark, with Brilliantined hair, horn rimmed specs and slightly protruding teeth. Rhys wasn’t proper Welsh – his English mother departed early on to the Other Life or another husband, depositing Rhys at some minor public school. His father had set up a company that produced prefabricated housing shortly after the Second World War and raked in a load of money, although when we first knew them, not much of it had filtered down as far as Rhys.
Every Saturday night, my parents and Rhys and Rosa would meet up to chat and play cards, while we children were put to bed in whichever house they were in. I never really liked sleeping at Rhys and Rosa’s house, perhaps because their bedroom was on the front so that headlights shone through the windows and people walked past at a stone’s throw from the bed. There was also a clock with a luminous dial that looked like a face and ticked in an ominous and erratic manner. Everything in the bungalow was brown or beige, except for the bathroom, painted a nauseous shade of peach, the thought of which still gives me a migraine.
Gina was tiny and dark, her features marred by an almost permanent scowl. Gwyneth was plumper, fairer and more placid in appearance, but as we all know, appearances can be deceptive. Gwyneth could scream and kick with the best of them. Compared to Gina, however, she was positively cherubic. Without a doubt, the Lampeter sisters were the most ill-behaved children known to man, and whatever the occasion, Gina and Gwyneth could come up with a performance of Oscar-winning awfulness. Both of them by today’s standards might be considered disturbed. Not because they were deprived, but because they had, in fact, too much. Too much affluence, too much freedom. Perhaps the reasons for this dated from the War when both parents had spent six years in the armed forces, so the idea of discipline was just repugnant. Or maybe public schools had something to do with it. But the sad fact was that the Lampeter children were completely unmanageable, and anyone who crossed their path was playing with fire.
Despite the fact Rhys and Rosa were so lenient with their children, they were surprisingly undemonstrative, and all the years I knew them, I never remember seeing them kiss or hug their children. The Ronchetti grandparents, on the other hand, treated them like infant royalty, lathering them with ice cream and stuffing them with sweets, while Rhys’ father, Mr. Pugh Lampeter (Rhys had long since dropped the Pugh) bestowed an endless supply of toys and cash. Mr P.L .Senior, as he liked himself to be known, was a thunder-voiced, beetle-browed Welshman of the hellfire and brimstone variety who doted on his grand-daughters, none the less. All the Lampeters and Ronchettis had appetites like horses, even Rhys, who remained match-stick thin all his life, and was renowned for the enthusiastic sneezing which accompanied his hay fever. The final member of the household was a cross-looking Persian with a dodgy digestion called Felicity, who ate anything that moved.
Gina and Gwyneth had two dolls called Nola and Lola. Nola (or it may have been Lola) was an old-fashioned doll with a pot head. This was replaced regularly due to having been chucked into the fireplace or against the nearest wall, so she seemed to suffer from a permanent identity crisis. Lola (or possibly Nola) was a modern, more pliant kind of doll, made of whatever they made dolls of in the 1950s, and seemed slightly more stable. But neither of them played with dolls a lot, which was probably just as well. Gina had a tricycle on which she used to hurtle down the road like a very tiny bat out of hell, while I tried to keep up on a scooter made of wood. However, the Lampeter girls were three and four years younger than I was, so our actual playing together days were few. It was really the parents who were friends, and we children who just tagged along while they played tennis, or kicked a football about in the back garden. Every other Saturday, Rhys and my dad would go to the match together and spend the evening discussing it ad infinitum, while Mum and Rosa chatted. Then they’d play cards. My parents usually won, which huffed Rhys no end, so the stakes were kept to the minimum.
One Saturday night, the younger two had been put to bed, and I was sleeping in the front bedroom at Rhys and Rosa’s house. Suddenly, I awoke, or thought I did, to see a strange figure standing at the foot of the bed. Whatever it was resembled an animated drawing more than a person, luminous, with a whitish, silvery glow. It was a child’s idea of a skeleton, minus bones or detail, rather like the drawing of The Saint in books I was yet too young to have read. A pin man, in fact. Its head was a featureless oval, and with its non-existent eyes, it was looking at me. As I lay there, frozen with terror, it began to jump up and down, as if on springs. As it gained momentum, like something on a trampoline, I started to scream.
After the ensuing melee had died down (which soon involved all three of us, as my screaming had woken the other two) it was simply assumed I’d had
a nightmare, and my parents took me home. To this day, I’ve never known exactly what I saw in that room, and I was always afraid to sleep there again. Although I was still put to bed there, I’d stay awake, going round the room with my eyes, making sure it wasn’t lurking. The clock was the only rational suspect, but stood nowhere near where the creature appeared, and in any case, the numbers on its dial were clearly visible. Eventually, I’d fall asleep out of sheer exhaustion, terrified of waking up in case it was there. Then one Sunday after Gina and Gwyneth had slept in my parents’ room, by the bedroom door was a scrap of paper. I picked it up. It was a child’s drawing of a pin man. Suddenly sick, I screwed it into a ball and threw it into the boiler.
I said nothing about the Pin Man. Gina & Gwyneth weren’t the sort of children you could talk to about anything delicate. They’d only snitch on you. And I was honour bound not to describe what I’d seen in Rhys & Rosa’s bedroom. Gina & Gwyneth were so protected they weren’t even allowed to watch The Cisco Kid. Since they owned the only television in the street, this was a sore point with me, but Rosa said no, and that was that. It was a word she could say to me, but not to Gina or Gwyneth. So I stewed and brooded over pin men and skeletal apparitions until a few weeks later, when I was allowed into the house to watch Heidi, or something more wholesome. By the dining room door, scribbled in pencil on the wall about three feet from the floor, was a pin man. I probably went pale, but said nothing. And under the little table where the telephone sat, there was another. Gina and Gwyneth, obviously, were the sort of children who were allowed to draw on walls, and frequently did, their art-work eventually painted over, or hidden by items of furniture. But why pin men?
One Sunday morning a few weeks later, I went into my parents’ bedroom, and there on the dressing table was the doll. Not a friendly doll for playing with like Nola and Lola. This was the oddest thing I’d ever seen. A tiny, jointed figure made of metal, with a too-large head, slanting, empty eyes, tiny mouth, and no nose at all. Apart from being solid, its resemblance to the figure in the bedroom was chilling.
I picked it up, and it felt cold. The metal was a curious curdled colour, as though it had been burned or oxidised. But its very strangeness made it memorable. It was heavy, too, for a thing of its size, and something about it was quite disconcerting.
I showed it to my mother.
“I don’t know where that came from,” she said. “But I don’t like the look of it. Where did you find it?”
I told her.
“Must be something Gina and Gwyneth left,” she said. “Better take it back.”
I picked it up and put it in my pocket.
When I got to the back door, I could hear Rosa rattling her wooden spoon against the side of a basin. Felicity was on the lawn, masticating something in greedy, enthusiastic gulps. Rosa opened the door, wiping her hands on her apron.
“Oh, it’s you, Andrea,” she said. “What is it? I’m busy just now.”
“I think Gina and Gwyneth left something at our house,” I said.
“Gina, Gwyneth!” she bawled. No-one appeared. “Oh, Felicity, you are disgusting! – Well, what is it?”
“This,” I said, displaying the object I’d put in my pocket.
“That’s a nasty looking thing,” she said, squinting at it. “I’m sure it doesn’t belong to the girls.” Just then, Gina appeared, followed by Gwyneth. “- Girls, Andrea found this. Is it yours?”
Both looked at it and back at me with egg-like blankness.
“No,” they said, in chorus.
“I told you it wasn’t theirs,” said Rosa. “Well, I don’t like the look of it. Give it here.”
She took it off me and dumped it unceremoniously in the bin.
“That’s the end of that,” she said. “Must get on. Bye.” And she shut the door.
As I went back, stepping over Felicity’s regurgitated offerings, I saw the girls watching from the dining room window. The next day, the doll was back on the dressing table.
“I thought you got rid of that,” said my mother.
Next time I looked, the doll had gone. After a day or two, it re-appeared. It lay on the dressing table gathering dust until one day my mother put it in the PDSA collection bag. Several days later, it was back. It seemed to be making a point, somehow. Slightly sorry for it, my mother dropped the doll into a box with other bits and bobs. Unclaimed and unidentified, it disappeared into a dusty corner somewhere and was, for the time being, anyway, forgotten..
One day, I went round to the house and heard raised voices through the dining room window. I paused.
“Daddy, Mummy keeps saying I’ve been drawing on the walls!” This was Gwyneth. “Well, I haven’t!”
“Yes you have!” This was Gina.
Then Rhys’ voice. “Have you, Gwyneth?”
“No, I haven’t! It’s Gina!”
“No it’s not!”
Rhys: “Well, you’re both too big for that sort of thing now. Whoever it is, stop it.”
There was a moment’s silence, then somebody started screaming.
It would be Gina. Then Gwyneth joined in. And for once, I heard Rhys add,
“And you can stop that, as well!”
I decided it might be an inappropriate moment to knock on the Lampeters’ door and went home. Felicity, with a set of legs hanging out of her mouth, paused for a moment, then carried on chewing. As I went out onto the pavement, I heard the sound of a bucket being emptied into the drain and a scrubbing brush being thrown after it.
Time moved on. I passed my eleven plus and went to the local grammar. Gina and Gwyneth had been sent to a private school, so we saw each other less and less.
Gina and Gwyneth still threw tantrums on a regular basis. And I still had qualms about sleeping in the Lampeters’ bedroom so I was relieved when my parents decided I was old enough to stay on my own and listen to the radio instead. However, Gina and Gwyneth still came to our house every other Saturday, and grumpy and complaining were deposited in my parents’ bed.
Sometimes though, when we children were older, we would stay up for a while and play cards or board games with our parents. One of these was a word game using cards, called Lexicon. Everyone had a hand of cards with letters on, from which they had to make a word. Naturally, with Gina and Gwyneth, this led to violent arguments as to what was a proper word and what wasn’t, usually ending up with Rhys or Rosa saying, “Oh go on, let them have it,” to some verbal chimera, which rather went against the point, but it was either that or compulsory deafness. However, it was me who really put the cat among the pigeons. One night I noticed I had a P, an I, and an N, then to my sudden malicious delight, another N, an M and an A. It was simply too good to ignore. Slowly I spelled out P.I.N.M.A.N. There was an ominous pause. Then, Gina shrieked,
“I don’t want to play any more! I hate this stupid game! Everybody’s always getting at me!” and she stormed out of the room. Predictably, Gwyneth also began to wail. “It’s not my fault, it was Andrea!” she howled.
Rhys said, “Gwynnie, bed. That’s enough.” This was about as adamant as Rhys ever got. From the bedroom, the sound of wailing and mutual recrimination could be heard for some time.
“They’re over-tired,” Rosa said.
For once in my life, I felt quite guilty.
Later that night, some inner mischief made me creep to an upstairs window and look down at the Lampeters’ house. For a second, in the space between the glass of the window and the drawn bedroom curtains, I thought I saw a silvery skeletal figure, and then it was gone.
When I was fourteen, Mr. P. L. Senior died, and Rhys and Rosa moved to a larger house a mile or more away. Without the screaming and sneezing and the more homely sound of Rosa’s spoon rat-tatting against the side of a basin, the road became a quieter if less entertaining place. A new family with children moved in, but they seemed pallid compared to the Lampeters and I never heard any yelling or mention of strange apparitions. Rosa’s family retired to Italy, and the Lampeters began spending holidays there. Our parents still met up on Saturday evenings, but as Rhys took over the family business, Rhys and Rosa were acquiring richer and more influential friends. However, we still did some things together, and I was pleased when Rhys suggested that I might go with Gina to tennis lessons on a Saturday morning. Gina and I didn’t have a lot to say to each other these days, but it meant a trip into town then an hour or so of tennis before a free ride home, which usually involved Rhys stopping somewhere and buying us an ice cream or bag of sweets. For all his alleged tight-fistedness, Rhys was never stingy where children were concerned.
Tennis lessons were given by an eccentric lady with long teeth called Mrs. Laporte, on a small private court on the edge of town. Nearby was a stretch of no-man’s land, heaps of thistly earth and lumps of concrete and a disused clay-pit with KEEP OUT signs flapping in the dusty wind. The tennis court was a green oasis hemmed in by high hedges, but there was an odd feeling to it, like somewhere fixed between one world and the next. I always found unsettling, and I think Gina did, too. Perhaps it was this very quality that made me say out of the blue one day,
“Gina, did you ever see the Pin Man?”
Gina went white. “I don’t know what you mean!” she said. “You’re just being stupid!” But I knew she did. By her very insistence, she’d given herself away.
As I got out of the car outside our house, I heard her hiss almost inaudibly, “And don’t you ever, ever mention that to me again!”
The next lesson, Gina was very moody. Rackets were thrown and tennis balls kicked. “I hate Mrs. Laporte,” she said, when Rhys came to collect us. “I don’t want to come here any more.”
“You will, “ said Rhys, “because I’ve paid for the lessons. You are going to give it a go.”
“Don’t talk to me like that!” said Gina, as though she was the adult and he the child. I looked down at Gina’s smooth brown legs and the splintered top of her racket, feeling embarrassed.
However, next week, Gina was moodier than ever. She yelled at me, Mrs. Laporte, and Rhys in the car on the way home, and the following Saturday, rackets were thrown again. When Friday night arrived, Rhys appeared to say a trifle sheepishly that Mrs Laporte had written to say she was unable to offer Gina any further lessons. So that was the end of my private tuition. I went back to bashing a ball about at school and Gina went on to become personal coach to John McEnroe. Well no, I made that up. But for years, the reaction in our household to any display of awful behaviour was, “Doesn’t that remind you of Gina Lampeter?”
As time went on, the families drifted further apart. Rhys, I felt, had grown particularly pretentious, and instead of going to football matches, was now a golf aficionado, though this seemed to involve more elbow-lifting in the clubhouse than club-lifting on the course. Rhys invested in a fancy hi-fi he couldn’t tune and a load of classical records, and lined the living room with leather-bound books. I picked one up once and was amused to find it had uncut pages. Intrigued, I picked up another and found the same thing. My parents smiled a sad but “told you so” smile. I knew my father mourned the Rhys he used to know, the funny footballing Rhys, not the Rotary Club Rhys he was now. I missed them, too. I’d always liked Rhys, though Rosa could be brusque and hurtful. But I missed her, all the same, her spoon-rattling in the kitchen and her funny rumbling laugh, like a road drill at a great distance. But the girls, did I really miss them? No, I don’t think I did. And I’m certain they never missed me.
I left school, got a job in the library service, had boyfriends, wrote stories. Gina and Gwyneth left school too. Gwyneth went off to teacher’s training college. Gina went to work as a hairdresser. I later heard she was sacked from one establishment for whacking a client with a pair of scissors (an accident, obviously.) So Rhys bought her a salon. Around this time, my mother became seriously ill. She recovered, but neither Rhys nor Rosa called or phoned, or even sent a get-well card. Our friendship with the Lampeters was clearly over.
One Saturday morning, as I was leaving work, two girls came out of the wedding boutique, laughing and chatting. Gwyneth and Gina. Gina was getting married, apparently. His name was Jeremy. He was a chartered accountant. That should keep Rhys happy. In fact, for once even Gina looked happy, although when I passed on the news to my parents, sad to say, their sympathies lay with the accountant. None of us got an invite, but the pictures in the county magazine showed Gina looking vivacious and Italianate in frothy white lace.
It was several years before I had news of the Lampeters again. My father died suddenly. I received a little note from Gwyneth saying how sorry she was, and what a good time we’d had together when we were children. After the funeral, as the cars pulled away, among the people leaving the church, I saw Rosa. She didn’t see me, but she looked distinctly upset. From Rhys and Gina, I heard nothing at all.
Then one day as I was passing through town, a news placard caught my eye. “Young Mum Stabs Husband”, it screamed. I bought a paper. The young mother in question was a Mrs Gina Moorhead. Mrs. Moorhead, it stated, was the daughter of well-known local businessman Mr. Rhys Lampeter. “Oh bloody hell!” I said.
According to what emerged later, Mrs Moorhead, had been cutting up raw meat in the kitchen. Mr. Moorhead offered to help. Whereupon Mrs Moorhead, who had recently given birth and was of a nervous disposition, hit him across the hand with the carving knife. When Mr. Moorhead tried to take the knife, she stabbed him several times before panicking and phoning for an ambulance. On the wall, daubed apparently in Mr. Moorhead’s blood, was a childish drawing of a pin man.
Luckily, the unfortunate accountant survived. The story about the drawing on the wall, with its bizarre implications, was quickly quashed. There would still be a case, however, since the charges were serious.
It occurred to me that during my lunch break I might be able to sneak in to the court. After all, it was free to anyone, no questions asked. However, just my luck, the court had also adjourned. It was a pale spring day, and the wind whipped up cold from the river. As I went down into the public gardens, I saw a small figure huddled disconsolately on the steps.
The figure looked up, bemused for a moment, eyes red and puffy with crying.
“Yeah, it’s me. Heck, I’m sorry, I really am.”
We sat and shared my sandwiches on the steps.
“She didn’t mean to do it, you know,” said Gwyneth. “Half the things Gina does, she never really means to do. Grandpa P.L. used to have a terrible temper like that. And the Ronchettis used to shout and yell a lot. But it didn’t actually mean anything.”
“There’s something awfully positive about sticking a knife in your husband, though, isn’t there?”
“I suppose so.” We threw our crusts to the ducks. “Do you think she’ll get off?”
“God knows.” I paused. “Gwyneth,” I said, “was it true about the drawing on the wall?”
“You heard that, then? I don’t know. By the time the police got there, somebody had wiped it off. There was blood all over the place. Some from the meat and some from Jeremy. It was awful.”
“But it was the Pin Man, wasn’t it?”
Gwyneth paused. “Yes, it was,” she said. “It was Gina who used to do it, you know. She always blamed me, but it was really her. Mummy and Daddy sent her to a psychiatrist in the end. It was driving us all bats.”
“When did it start, do you remember?”
“Gina found this thing in the garden. She dug it up behind the rockery. She used to frighten me with it. Then one day she said it was real. She said it moved, like human.”
“The doll? That little cracker doll thing?”
“Yes, that. It was hideous. We were always trying to get rid of it.”
“I know,” I said.
“It went in the end. I’ve often wondered what happened to it.”
“I could tell you exactly what happened to it,” I said. Gwyneth wasn’t listening.
“She used it to frighten me. If you don’t do something, the Pin Man will get you. She said it grew big and came out at night to haunt people. She started seeing it in the day, as well. Eventually she could see it all the time. She said it made her do things. She thought it was taking her over, like The Bodysnatchers, or something. We thought she was going crazy.”
“Maybe,” I said, “but I don’t think so. She could be freaky, but I don’t think she was crazy.”
“They’ve taken the baby off her, you know. I hope to God she doesn‘t ever tell them about the Pin Man or she’ll never get it back. They’ll put her away, or something.”
“Gina isn’t nuts,” I said. “I saw it too.”
And for the first time ever, I told someone what I’d seen in Rhys and Rosa’s bedroom at the bungalow in Quilley Road.
Gina’s case was adjourned until the following week. Two days later, Gwyneth and I met outside my mother’s house. Over the road, a sale board had been put up outside the bungalow .
“It’s weird, coming back after all these years,“ said Gwyneth.
“Mum’s selling up, too,” I said. “We were sorting stuff out when I found the doll. I’m glad, though. It’s becoming a ghetto of old people round here.”
“It’s certainly quieter than when we were here,” Gwyneth remarked, with the hint of a smile. “We were naughty kids, weren’t we?”
We retrieved the doll from its dusty box and wrapped it reverently in a handkerchief. Neither of us dared look it in the face. Expressionless as it was, it was still just as scary. Quietly, we armed ourselves with a trowel and sneaked across the road to the bungalow. It looked as bland and innocuous as ever.
“It was here, somewhere,” Gwyneth said, “where she found it.” She poked at the ground at the back of the rockery. “Oh my God, bones!”
Sure enough there were, but only birds’ and old feathers, and a cache of rodent skulls.
“Felicity!” we both said. Gwyneth dug a hole.
In silence, we laid the Pin Man to rest and covered it over.
“Please don’t come back,” I said.
Gina got off with two years probation, on account of mitigating circumstances, one being that she’d recently given birth and another being that it was, after all, Gina herself who had called the ambulance, and she had showed genuine remorse for what she’d done. She was taken into a private clinic and treated for post natal depression. Later I heard she’d stayed married to Jeremy and been given her baby back. Gwyneth simply disappeared, along with the rest of the Lampeters, at least, until the scandal died down. And as far as I know, the Pin Man was never seen again.
Last week, I read in the paper that Rhys had died. I felt sad. The following night, there was a whole lot of stuff about Mr. Rhys Lampeter, well-known local business man. There was reference to wife Rosa, and Mrs Gwyneth Tulley and Mrs Gina Moorhead, who lived in Italy. (Nice one, Gina, I thought.) They had six children between them. There was a little tribute from one grandson, must have been one of Gwyneth’s, saying what a fantastic grandfather he’d been. They all sounded a decent well-balanced lot. I felt sorry for Rosa, though. Since my mother died, she was the last of the little foursome. But then, Rhys and Rosa always had plenty of friends. I just hoped some of them were as sincere as my parents had been. I knew if I tried to phone Rosa, she’d only be brusque and abrupt, as she always was. Once a friendship dies, it’s gone forever.
Funnily enough, the bungalow in Quilley Road is up for sale again. I hope whoever buys it isn’t keen on rock-gardening. I’m bound to wonder if the Pin Man is lying in wait for another victim. Or did it attach itself to someone else and move on? Hopefully, I’ll never know. But at least Gina and Gwyneth seem to have turned into Lola and Nola, and maybe, just maybe, they really did live happily ever after.
NB This story may be found in my book THE SIREN OF SALAMANCA
(LEAF BOOKS, 2008)