A short story for Christmas, first published in 2014. Enjoy
At the subtle slip of the key in the lock I whizzed around, clearing the evidence of today’s activities. Henry opened the door from vestibule to living room; I opened the door from the kitchen, the key to the one-time walk-in larder, now my studio, safely hidden in my pocket.
“Ah, Artemis!” It still was a shock to hear him speak. “Good day? Calendar’s going well?”
“Hmm-hmm.” I couldn’t entirely lie, not with the distinctive smells of linseed and turps loud in the air. But truth was I’d been working on a present for him. Henry’s first Christmas present.
I don’t mean ‘first’ as in an infant born this past year; neither as in ‘I hadn’t known him before’—no, far from that. And it wasn’t that he’d never been special till now. From the first he’d always been that. It was just, the events of this year . . .
~ ~ ~
I won’t offer you garbage, as novelists and biographers are apt to do, claiming to remember more of the day that he arrived than is humanly possible. But I can tell you the month and the year. It was my first year at high school. “It’s really high,” my father had said. “It’s up on a hill.” My father was a joker. I’d just turned twelve, and it was in the early weeks of being back at school after the summer break. So, September or October. As to the day, I’ve not the foggiest. It was a school-day, that’s all I can say. And it was an evening.
My mother sat at the dining table marking some other kids’ books while me and my friends sat in the kitchen in what became known as our ‘homework pool’. They were new friends to me. I’d been the only girl from our village in that year at school; these new friends came from the next village along. Kathy, Lucy and Chelle.
We were doing our homework, I swear that we were. But we also were giggling. Twice my mother had called through–she never could forget that she was a teacher. The third time she stood at the door, arms folded as if she meant business. “So what’s so funny, girls? You want to share it? You’re here to do homework.”
We looked at each other, every one of us suddenly weighted with guilt. My mother, ever the teacher, had such a way with her.
I don’t remember why we’d been giggling. Maybe it was about our English teacher, Here’s-my-head-my-arse-is-following, Miss Pierce. Or maybe it was what the loud and common Jilly had said in Biology to the very young, okay-looking science teacher (though I couldn’t swear it was that particular day). Her hand had gone up, persistently held until he took notice. “Please sir, this picture on page 45?” We’d all quickly turned to the page. Mammalian Reproduction. “Why doesn’t it show the clitoris?” How could we tell my mother that? She didn’t need to know what her pupils found funny.
She returned to her books. We continued to giggle. Again she stood at the door.
“What is it? Is it the Giggle Monster?”
Again we looked at each other; this time we shrugged. What was this of a Giggle Monster? It was new to us: it hadn’t featured in any of our childhood books.
“Oh, you don’t know the Giggle Monster?”
We all shook our heads.
“No, well, it’s not surprising. He, um, he’s only attracted to pubescent girls. Those of about your age. He sneaks around them, invisibly tickling them until they giggle.”
I looked at my mother, wishing she’d just go away and stop embarrassing me. Who’d ever heard such garbage. But, as she’d intended, her little joke quietened us, and she went away contented.
“Henry,” ‘Chelle said, and we others looked at her. “His name. The Giggle Monster. Henry.”
“Oh, don’t you start,” I said.
“No, it is Henry,” Kathy backed her. “Haven’t you heard of him?”
“No,” I said. “Shall we get on with this homework?”
But the idea had been planted. By the time my friends went home that evening we had what the police might call a ‘working description’. He was bizarre.
“He’s a skinhead.”
“No, he was a punk but he’s shaved it off.”
“Shy of his receding hairline.”
“Yea, well, he’s not so young.”
“He’s not so old!”
“He wears bovver-boots.”
“And wide red braces.”
“He needs them—to hold up his pyjama trousers.”
“He doesn’t wear pyjamas!”
“He does. All the time.”
“What, even out in the street?”
“Sure. They’re pink and white stripe.”
“Flannelette like my grandpa wears.”
“I hope he wears briefs or something under them.”
“Nah; you can see the tails of his shirt poking through.”
“Starched white, with a dicky-bow.”
“Yea, but torn-off sleeves. I told you, he’s punk.”
“He has a tattoo across his fingers. L.O.V.E. on one hand, H.A.T.E on the other.”
“That’s so common!”
“Not when it’s written in Chinese.”
“And he usually has a pink carnation pinned to his braces.”
“That’s so gay!”
“Better gay than a paedo.”
“Speedo the Paedo!” And, again, came the giggles. Speedo was our nickname for the boy’s games teacher.
“He’s not gay,” I said. “And he’s not a paedo—just ‘cause he likes tickling girls. He’s fully hetro.”
“He’s sexually dormant.”
And there, that night, Henry was born and given form.
~ ~ ~
Henry remained our companion while we passed through high school. But as yet he hadn’t a voice. Though we spoke to him, often soliciting his opinions, he remained a mute presence in our homework pool. Then came the time for us to disperse.
Kathy, with four ‘A’ levels under her belt, abandoned all plans for academia and took a receptionist’s position with an insurance company. The office was in her boyfriend’s home town. (They married five years later. After two children, and several black-eyes, she requested divorce.)
Lucy went to Leeds University where she remained to gain a PhD in Chemical Engineering. Go, Lucy, go!
Chelle, well, you might have heard her on the radio, or on iTunes. She’s now fronting a ‘revival stadium’ band.
Myself? I took an art course at a college way across the county. With no direct public transport, I’d no choice but to lodge that first year at the Hall of Residence, an elegant house that had once belonged to a viscount.
Though excited at leaving home, I also was sad. I would miss my friends, though we were to remain at least in e-contact (plus an exchange of birthday and Christmas cards). I would miss my mother—and I knew she’d miss me. My father had died the previous year. It had been a rough time for all of us, but Henry’s constant presence had helped me through. But now I was to leave him behind. I hadn’t the foggiest of what would become of him. Without us girls to talk to him, would he seep back into the ether whence he came? My brother, excluded from our homework pool, had never met him.
Those first few weeks at college were much a repeat of those first few at high school, except there was no familiar house and no Mum to return to. Yet I’m a social being, I made new friends—though not before there’d been an ominous knock at the door and a visitor asking for me. At the time I was alone in the Study Room.
I looked up at Dorothy who’d brought the message. “For me? Are you sure?”
She nodded, her pagan pigtails swinging beside her. I couldn’t see a smirk. If this was a wind-up she was playing it poker-faced cool.
“Who? Did they give a name? Male or female?”
“He didn’t say. He didn’t speak. He just held out a card with your name on it. You are Jacks?”
“Yea, sure,” I said. “Care to describe him. Young, or old?”
She screwed up her pale freckled face. “Maybe thirties. I took him for maybe out of a band. Like that punk outfit, The Jones, who played at the Union last week.”
“Well why don’t you go see? Quicker than questioning me. I do have a bath rota’ed you know.”
I stuck a PostIt note into the book I’d been reading—this was my first assignment for History of Art, a free choice of study; I’d chosen the Symbolists—and toddled off to see my visitor. All the way through to the entrance hall I was in denial. It couldn’t be him. It wasn’t possible. Yet he did kinda fit the description. I mean, in that get-up we’d given him, what else could be but out of a band. And he hadn’t spoken, as he never had in all those years of our homework pool.
Dorothy hadn’t invited him in. Not allowed in our Hall of Residence, it being strictly single-sexed. Even fathers required a chit from Macy, the severely angled skinny Hall Manager. I opened the door, hoping by now he was gone.
And there he stood, glaringly out of place between the fluted columns of the Grecian portico. He held out his hands in hopeful plea.
I was flummoxed. What could I do? I glanced behind me. There was no one around. And I did have a room to myself (not all the girls did).
“If I let you in, you’re not to show yourself to anyone. Understand? You agree?”
He smiled at me.
He seemed to know the way to my room, but I was sweating in case we bumped into someone. I left him there while I returned to my assignment. But what was I to do when it came to bedtime. I know he wasn’t like real-real, but I couldn’t sleep with him in my room.
As it happened, it wasn’t necessary. He wasn’t there when I returned. I looked everywhere for him, even under the bed. I sat down in a slump, both relieved and disappointed. Then the giggles started. Quiet at first. I went into the corridor to check. They came from three doors down.
“Oh, Henry, you can’t do that. They don’t know who you are.”
But do it he did. Over the next month he must have tickled every girl in that hostel. And soon people were asking who that guy was beside me. He walked into town with me. He came to class. He never missed an invite to a party. Before the first year was out his name was dropping from unintroduced lips. “Was that Henry I saw outside your door?” “We’re having a party, should we invite Henry?” Yet in all that time he remained a mute presence.
~ ~ ~
The Art Department had a policy to invite local businesses to set various projects for its students. It was sold to we students as ‘work experience’. And so it was. But it was also cheap source of design for those participant businesses. I didn’t mind so much for my first project, it was only a letterhead for a local charity. But one of the boys (Josh) submitted a packaging design for a ‘Real Ale’ about to be launched by a nationwide brewery. Though he was chuffed when they used it he wasn’t paid a brass penny.
My submitted projects increased in scope as the course wore on. By my final year I was designing posters and CD covers for the music and entertainment industry (though to my mind I was designing mostly for has-beens). By then I had seen beyond the money. Here were my contacts for when I graduated. Here, already, was my reputation.
In the first year after college I set up my own business. Artemis. Yea, I know, not exactly original. In case you’d missed it, that’s Arty-Miss. I moved to London. In the early years I had to be there: that’s where the work was. At first I rented a studio apartment. My mother’s comment when she saw it was ‘bijou’. But I couldn’t afford more.
“No, that’s understood,” she said. “It’s just in my days landlords were a sight more honest. A single room with cooking facilities, that’s a bedsit.”
Eventually I bought a house. A terrace, cheap, in need of renovation, in a decidedly unfashionable district. My mother sniffed at the smells wafting in from the neighbours.
“But I like curry,” I said in defence.
Though the house had been cheap, and by then Artemis was moderately successful, still I took a part-time job in a pub to eke out my earnings. The ‘drain’ on my cash was Terrance, alias Tel.
Tel wasn’t exactly my first romance, but he was the first that lasted beyond a few weeks. Though, when I think how it started . . . there’d been no talk of him moving in. At first he just stayed the night. Then he started to stay for the weekends. Then before I knew it he was permanently there. Yet he never moved in any of his gear. Perhaps he had nothing. Maybe without me knowing it I’d offered a roof to the homeless. He didn’t work, though he did disappear for long hours at a time, for which I was grateful. It was him that was costing me. Yea, I know, I was naïve. And it was amazing we lasted so long, for he hated Henry with a vengeance—yeah, Henry had moved in too.
I kept trying to tell Tel, Henry’s not real.
“Yeah? Looks frigging real to me.”
“Looks, looks. But have you heard him talk?” I hadn’t, not in all the years that I’d known him.
Tel shrugged—on that occasion. Other times he’d just rant the more.
Tel ranted a lot. And he’d pick up the plates and start slinging them at me. None hit. I was good at dodging. I guess you could say it was a rocky relationship. He blamed Henry. Yet Henry did nothing to spark it. Henry often disappeared off when we started fighting. No, Henry was just Tel’s excuse. Truth was, Tel was angry at himself. It was that substance he took that he wanted to kick and couldn’t.
Then, one very-late night I came home from work to find the house—my house, the house I had bought and he’d simply moved into—was a smouldering black shell. I was devastated.
The police more or less pounced as soon as they saw me. “You the occupier?”
“Owner,” I said. Why had no one fetched me from work? Why had they allowed me to walk home to this? And where was Tel? Where was Henry? Usually Henry would be at work with me, unobtrusively watching from some dark corner, then walking me home, my imaginary protector. I still didn’t think of him as real.
“The chap you live with?” the policeman said.
“Can you tell us who’s his dentist?”
That didn’t immediately hit. Then I looked again at the smouldering house, turned and vomited. The policeman beckoned a policewoman over. “Keep an eye on her; she might need the hospital.”
“I don’t know his dentist,” I said. At least they weren’t going to show me his body and ask me to identify it. “I’ve never known him to . . .”
“What of his parents? You know his family?”
“Southampton.” He’d once mentioned it. And now the reaction, the world whirling around me.
“Name?” That bastard copper was unrelenting.
“Hobbs. Terrence Hobbs.” I’d only once seen it written: a letter from his mother, I think.
“You got anywhere to go?” the policewoman asked, playing it solicitous.
I shook my head. Though I could go to my mother’s there were no trains till the morning. It was about then it hit me: everything relating to Artemis had been in that house. Gone. My work, my income, my reputation.
“We’ll find you a B&B,” the policewoman said.
I think the neighbour across the road had been watching, most likely listening. “I can offer Jacks a bed for the night,” she called from her doorway. “She can have my daughter’s bed. She’s at university.”
The policewoman looked at her.
“I have asked my husband. He agrees it.”
And so I was ushered into my neighbour’s house. She introduced herself as Șaffiya. Her husband, who didn’t speak to me the entire time I was there, was Zayd.
“There’s more than the police know to this,” she said. Her English was good. I thought her probably born here.
I hugged the mug of tea she’d given me. I didn’t like to tell her I don’t drink tea.
“We heard them,” she said. “Fighting. Very loud, that Tel.”
“Two people?” I asked. “It wasn’t just Tel having a rant?”
Șaffiya shook her head. “Though I would not swear to a second voice heard. But the words—there was another man there, I am certain.” She looked at a box beside the table. I noticed then it had my name on it. She nodded. “That other man brought us this.”
I didn’t need her to describe him, but I asked the same. It was Henry. And everything—everything I needed for Artemis—was there in that box.
He hadn’t asked Șaffiya to pass it on to me. He’d merely knocked at the door and when Zayd had answered, he’d walked away.
~ ~ ~
While the insurance was being sorted I stayed with my mother. She suggested I moved back to the village. My reputation was such, I no longer needed to be on hand in London.
“I don’t mean for you to move in with me. That would not do. But the old rectory is being converted to luxury apartments. Why don’t you take a look? The For Sale sign has only been up a week.”
To me it still was the rectory; to the developers it now was St Anne’s House. I took an apartment, one half of the original ground floor. It was ready two months ago—just in time for the insurance pay-out. I moved in at once and enjoyed myself furnishing it. A week later Henry returned—having magically acquired his own key.
He said, “You found the box?” It was eerie, hearing speak for the first time ever.
I asked him, blunt, did he start the fire, Or was it, as the police supposed, started by Tel in his drugged-up state. He didn’t answer, saying only that now I was safe.
Yea, I was safe. And now I was of an age with Henry, when he again moved in with me it was as a regular couple. And he no longer wore his pink striped pyjamas—not required when sharing a bed. And when I told Kathy, Lucy and Chelle of my new fella, I said nothing of him being that Henry. I’m not sure they’d understand.
And so to his first Christmas present, now safely hidden away from his sight. What is it? A painting. And since I’m still very much a Symbolist artist—or rather, Artemis is—it’s titled Athena’s Children. The thought-formed goddess (i.e. born of her father’s head) bears an intended resemblance to my mother when she was younger. Her ‘children’ I cribbed from an old photo of Kathy, Lucy, ‘Chelle and myself when we were teenies. It’ll be a bit like giving him a photo of God; a loving God who wants nothing but the best for him. And so . . .
Happy First Christmas to Henry.