Saturday, 25 January 2014

Short Story: The Doll

        One day, feeling hungrier than usual Francesco tried begging on the street, imploring those that passed for a coin or a few hours’ work in exchange for payment or food. When a well attired lady came along, accompanied by a young girl and a maid, Francesco asked the same question. But instead of dismissing him out of hand the lady examined him, asking if he knew his bible, and could he read or write. As Francesco answered in the affirmative the lady instructed him to come to her house the following morning where he would be put to work alongside the gardener, who was growing old and found it difficult to complete the tasks he was given. To Francesco’s pleasant surprise the grand house he arrived at was built on several levels with many windows looking out over a huge garden in which there was a large orchard, flower beds, and cultivated lawns with many pathways leading to quiet arbours and hidden features. Francesco thought it resembled the Garden of Eden, but Matthew the old gardener laughed bitterly. “An Eden maybe, but only for them as can take pleasure in it.”

      Francesco had little idea what Matthew meant but nodded pleasantly, as he’d been instructed by his mother to do. Matthew regarded the response with quiet reflection. “There’s no need to please me boy, the work is hard, backbreaking at times and may appear never ending. The Mistress demands high standards, but thinks kindly of them as does no wrong.”

       Francesco nodded his head again, repeating that he was not afraid of hard work. So he was put to work, and though young little distinction was made between the work he was given and what Matthew took on. At the end of a day Francesco’s muscles ached, his back could barely straighten out and his whole body shuddered from the excesses it had suffered. “Is it like this every day?” Francesco asked.
This time it was Matthew who nodded. “If you don’t like the work, don’t come back. The Mistress will find someone else easily enough.”

       Francesco knew it to be true, promising faithfully to return next morning.And next morning, true to his word, Francesco appeared as Matthew loaded his pipe. He regarded the boy pleasantly, giving out instructions for what was to be done that day. Francesco did all he was asked, taking a keen interest in the plants and bushes Matthew pointed out. He learned also to distinguish between a flower and a weed, although to him the difference meant little. But it seemed the Mistress and her daughter delighted in walking the garden, taking in the scents and sights of fresh blooms, although as Matthew warned Francesco was to afford the ladies their privacy.

     When Francesco asked why there was no Master, Matthew simply looked him in the eye and said. “You’ll learn, but not from me.” And learn the story he did, from Lizzie the kitchen help. She was a plain girl with a red face, caused by standing too close to the range, who brought them a simple lunch each day. “The Master, he come from a good family; they had money, but he was greedy and went in search across the ocean. Somewhere I never knowed, called Polynasia or summat – sounds like a strange place. He joined up with some others and brought back all kinds of unusual stuff, sold in the market. He did well that first time and thought to double his money, but he had his troubles. A ship sank with many lives lost, and though he was saved he lost a leg. Then he caught summat awful – out there in Polynasia. When he come home he was wasted good and proper. He lasted a few months and died most badly, crying out against God and the Church.”

      Lizzie crossed herself fiercely as the story concluded and then grabbed Francesco’s arm, twisting it painfully. “You’re not to say nothing in front of the Mistress or dear little Yvette. You hear, or you’ll get a slap from me.”

      Francesco promised he wouldn’t speak a word of anything he’d heard, though he wondered why it should remain secret.

     “Miss Yvette went a bit touched – in the head.” Lizzie confided. “When her Daddy died. You ain’t allowed to tease or cause her harm.”

      ‘Dear little Yvette’, when she appeared always brought along a large doll named Natasha, after the nurse who had first raised her and who in a fit of spite Yvette had caused to be dismissed. Why she continued to love the doll so passionately was beyond Francesco, who had been raised on a bare minimum. To Francesco the girl remained an over privileged creature who was subject to fits and outbursts of anger. Most people who worked at the house had grown used to ignoring the tantrums, but Francesco being new found himself the focus of attention for the deceitful child.

      “Hello.” She began, catching him unawares as he employed a scythe to clear a patch of ground.
Francesco ran a finger along the blade as he glanced sideways at the girl, who was probably his own age, but remarkably untainted by the realities of life. He made no answer, and continued working as the girl contemplated him blankly as she did most things she could not comprehend.

     “Why don’t you speak?” The girl insisted.
     “I’m not supposed to.” Francesco answered. “I’m working.”
     “Well I’m telling you not to work, but to pay attention to me.”

     Francesco scrutinised her closely. “No. I take my orders from either the Mistress or Matthew, not you.”
Yvette let out a shrill scream and slapped his arm; instinctively he placed a hand over her mouth, but she bit painfully and he slapped her hard. She fell to the ground too stunned to say anything at first.

    “I’m sorry…” He began, extending a hand to haul her upright.
    “What’s your name?” She demanded, refusing his assistance.
    “Why?” He retorted.

     She continued to glare until her face turned red and hot tears emerged from pale blue eyes. She cried copiously, but Francesco stood his ground, partially frozen in terror at the retaliation that threatened to be unleashed and also out of a sense of righteousness that she’d started this quarrel. His passiveness appeared to calm her as she hugged the doll closely to her chest.

     “I don’t like you.” She snapped, waltzing back along the path towards the house.
    “That was a mistake.” Matthew remarked, emerging from nearby bushes where he had remained hidden. “A girl like her never forgets, and never lets’ go. She’ll make your life miserable.”

    And that is precisely what Yvette attempted to do, inventing tales involving rudeness and worse she then relayed to her mother. The Mistress warned Francesco about his future conduct, and though he tried to defend himself she refused to listen. The lies continued unabated until the Mistress warned that one more complaint against him and she would be forced to dismiss Francesco out of hand.
Francesco asked Matthew what he should do, and he suggested Francesco might apologise. Francesco saw apology as weakness, and refused to do it; it went against his natural instinct, but what else was he supposed to do? He waited until Yvette was on her own, approaching with head bowed and hands clenched plaintively.
As the apology was delivered, the girl peered at Francesco out of pale blue eyes and then laughed into his face. “Say you’ll be my slave forever.” She insisted.
“No.” He cried. “No, I refuse.”
“Fool.” She said, fairly spitting as she spoke. “Fool of a boy. Do you think I want your apology? This is far more fun.”
And with that she brushed Francesco aside, but he raced after, blocking the path as he implored her to show mercy. “My family is poor and depend on the little money I bring home. Please don’t treat me like this.”
The girl laughed openly again, and this time Francesco lost his temper, pushing her backwards onto her rear end. He wanted to hurt her as she was intent on hurting him, but found a vindictive expression cross her face as he realised she meant to get back at him. Instinctively he picked up the doll she had dropped, flinging it hard into a patch of briars and brambles where it hung momentarily, before slipping down to remain lost forever.
Yvette sprang to her feet, bursting into aggravated tears as she wrenched at his upper body while attempting to claw his face. Francesco held her at arm’s length while her protracted screaming attracted the attention of her mother, the maids and a scared looking Matthew. All remained at a distance while the girl continued to pummel Francesco; eventually her anger subsided into shuddering sobs as her mother led her away, leaving Matthew to inflict the inevitable coup de grace. “Go home boy, and don’t come back.”
Francesco struggled to find alternative work, but was eventually taken on by a merchant keen to train a willing apprentice. Francesco took to the work, managing to succeed at all the tasks he was given. The merchant liked Francesco and helped with his education, allowing him to acquire knowledge and a respectable standing within the business community. The years flowed by and Francesco prospered, earning a fortune as his achievements grew and soon his status brought him into higher social circles where he married a woman whose family wealth matched his own. The marriage itself was little more than a business arrangement, but two sons were born which enabled him to believe he had founded a dynasty.
Francesco bought a large property in the capital city, from where he travelled extensively on business or for pleasure. He conducted love affairs and sought out the company of brilliant men and beautiful women, and might have felt content but for the one thing that still niggled and which he felt aggrieved by almost twenty years later.
On a whim Francesco decided to travel back to the town of his birth to put matters right. He felt he was owed an apology for the treatment he’d received, but on arrival found the house up for sale, having grown partly derelict from years of neglect. Francesco was able to stroll through empty rooms, taking in the fine detail as he examined the interior. It remained a beautiful old house, which could be brought back to life, and he was seriously tempted to buy it.
He was speculating on this when a sound nearby made him turn his head. A woman dressed entirely in black stood in the doorway, with a dense mantilla veil covering her face and upper body.
“Who are you? What do you want?” The woman’s shrill voice sizzled in the empty room, and Francesco immediately recognised the tone.
“Yvette? Is that you?” He asked.
The woman stared through him, raising a walking stick she had brought with her as a weapon. “Who are you? How do you know my name?”
Francesco smiled. “I know you very well, but it appears you have forgotten me.”
He explained who he was and how he knew the family. All the time Yvette remained impassively at a distance, listening but never once softening her stance. She moved to the window, turning her back on Francesco. “The property belongs to the bank. I have nothing now since mother died, eking out a bare existence on the little money I received after selling off the furniture. When the house is sold I must look for charity elsewhere.”
Francesco pondered, considering the prospect would remain bleak for a woman of her status. It was then she raised the veil to reveal she had remained remarkably impervious to the effects of time. It quite took his breath momentarily. “And you never married?”
“Mother needed me, and after she died I thought I had lost my opportunity.”
“But why…..?”
She glanced in his direction. “I’m no longer a young girl, and the rumours about me have kept the suitors at bay. You must have heard the stories?”
As he nodded, Francesco was suddenly struck dumb as Yvette parted the folds of her garments to bring forth the doll he thought had been lost forever.
“Where did you find her?” He asked, examining the faded face and torn clothing.
“After Mother’s death I searched for her, and I’ve been cutting at the brambles piece by piece until she finally returned to me.”
“I’m sorry.” Francesco apologised, and he did indeed feel sorry, wondering if there was anything he could do to make amends, asking. “Why do you continue to wear black?”
Yvette glanced down at herself as if only now aware of what she had on. “Mother had my clothes made for me, but I’ve outgrown everything. It’s all I have left to wear.”
Francesco realised there was something positive he could do to help the woman, insisting she accompany him into town to visit a dressmaker where she was fitted for several outfits in the colours of the season. In addition he promised to purchase the house so she could continue living there, if that was her intention.
She asked why he did what he was doing, and he smiled. “I have my reasons.”
It might be assumed Francesco meant to punish Yvette for what she had done many years before and maybe that had been his intention at the outset, but seeing her again had put the idea out of his mind. In fact he had grown infatuated the moment the veil was raised; this may be hard to imagine, but Francesco had reached an age when he was seeking something entirely for himself. And once she realised, Yvette saw an opportunity to turn the situation to her advantage.
Infatuation can only go so far without reciprocation, but Francesco appeared ready to give and soon a maid and a cook had been hired, with a man to look after the grounds. Despite her supposed innocence Yvette had a fair idea of Francesco’s intentions, waiting until the bulk of the work on the house had been completed before asking the one remaining question. “Francesco, why are you doing this – I will not become your mistress, and I cannot remain a kept woman. I must be married, or there can be nothing between us.”
Francesco had anticipated this situation, and sought to put her mind at ease. “You know my position.” He replied. “I am a married man with a family, and commitments in the capital. I ask nothing of you, but that you think kindly towards me.”
“As your mistress?” She demanded starkly.
“Call it by any name you please. I cannot deny I find the prospect appealing, but I will never dishonour you.”
She examined him before picking up the doll, hugging it closely against her body. “No.” She responded. “No, I cannot agree to this and you will not force me.”
The disagreement went on repeatedly each time he visited, creating a rift between them, but the more they argued the worse his condition grew as he knew he must have her or die. Eventually his emotions got the better of him as he pleaded with his wife to grant a divorce. She was a woman who had grown used to his frequent love affairs believing he would return when the passion of the moment was over. This time it felt different, and they argued fiercely, but Francesco remained adamant. Finally, a divorce was granted, but not before Francesco handed over a large portion of his wealth to his wife and children.
Francesco and Yvette were quickly married, returning to the refurbished house to begin married life. But their first night together proved a disappointment after Yvette rejected Francesco’s advances, declaring she ‘needed time’ to adapt. He became angry; how much time could she need? Already it had cost him a fortune to make her his wife and he felt certain she was delaying simply to gain a greater advantage. In his rage he shook her violently.
She sobbed as he paced the floor. “And is that how you’ll show your love?”
He glared, but then softened. “No, I never intended to hurt you. I’m sorry.” He saw a blank look cross her face as she reached for the doll, and something inside made him snap. Angrily he snatched the doll from her, dashing it to pieces against the wall. “You’re a grown woman – you’ve no need for childish things.”
Yvette screamed, tightly hugging her knees. “After tonight, don’t ever ask for love from me Francesco.” She warned. “I cannot. I’ll never forgive what you’ve done.”
“We’re married Yvette, and you’ll learn what it means to be an obedient wife even if you cannot yet love me. Do you understand?”
Yvette regarded him fiercely. “You may ask many things of me Francesco, but I’ll never be obedient and never love you.” Yvette collected up the shattered remains of Natasha as hot tears fell onto the face of the broken doll. “She was all I had and you destroyed her, as you intend to destroy me.”
Francesco sighed. “That’s madness Yvette, I love you. Tomorrow, you’ll see things differently. You’re upset and angry, but I’m not sorry I smashed the doll. You really don’t need her anymore when you’ve got me.”
Yvette turned away, sheltering the doll against her body, and as she slept a curious thing occurred as the shattered pieces re-assembled; only now the once faded face had been brought back into pristine condition. It was the first thing Yvette’s eye alighted upon as she woke. “You returned to me; I knew you would.” She kissed the doll softly before hiding it out of sight in her wardrobe. And when Francesco woke she kissed him too, consummating the marriage with every sign of the affection he’d been hoping for.
Two months later he was given the happy news. “We’re pregnant.”
Francesco felt ecstatic, providing Yvette with every comfort he could obtain. A nursery was decorated and filled with toys, a crib and bright colourful objects to delight the senses, but as the weeks went by Francesco observed his wife with mounting disquiet as he recalled the stages of pregnancy his first wife had gone through. Yvette displayed no symptoms, indeed her body remained exactly as he recalled on their wedding day and he wondered if she had been mistaken.
One afternoon as Yvette strolled through the garden, Francesco went in search of answers, recalling how she spent a great deal of time in the wardrobe where her clothes were hung, able to discover Natasha hidden there. He was surprised to find the doll in one piece after he had seen her destroyed; his surprise quickly turning to horror as he examined her, noticing the swollen abdomen. Startled by the discovery Francesco laid Natasha on the bed, raising the skirts to reveal she was as fully formed as if she’d been a real woman.
Before he could react, he found Yvette standing in the doorway, beaming as she took his arm. “You discovered our little secret. Now we can truly become a family.”
He regarded her critically. “What is this travesty against nature Yvette – answer me?”
She smiled. “We’re symbiotic Francesco – joined as one, and bound together for life. If you ever expect love from me Francesco, you must learn to love Natasha too.”
He gasped, unable to speak as she stroked Natasha’s abdomen beaming up at him, and as he examined the doll found an identical expression on Natasha’s face. Francesco felt his mind must be dissolving and screamed, running to the kitchen to find a knife to put an end to this madness. Yvette followed, shielding the doll against her body.
“Destroy either one of us and the child dies.”
Francesco stared from face to face, unable to think or to breathe, finally sinking beneath the strain as Yvette regarded him defiantly. “How can this be?” He asked. “It isn’t physically possible.”
Yvette turned Natasha’s head to glance in his direction. “He doesn’t understand. He’s just a man and doesn’t know with whom he’s been sleeping.” The smile on Natasha’s face widened as these words were uttered, and Francesco wept, staring into pale blue eyes as Yvette stroked her head. “We’re a family Francesco; maybe not as others understand, but we’ll learn to love one another. And when the child is born, we’ll love him or her equally. Say it’s what you believe.”
He felt his choices wither, bowing his head as Yvette danced Natasha out of the room. Life was cruel, but no crueller than the turn of fate. Staring at the knife where it had fallen, he wondered if he possessed sufficient strength to put an end to this travesty before it spiralled out of control. And if he did, would it mean his demise too; nothing made sense anymore as he started to sob, but he picked up the knife.