This is another excerpt from my novella 'Jig Doller'
'One afternoon he was wedged onto a seat in the municipal park, knees splayed, elbows resting thereon and pushing up forearms as pit props to a very heavy head. His eyes, overhung by straggling brows which sieved the sunlight, brooded unseeing over the lawn before him. A flashing detail to his right, too peripheral to be seen with any clarity, broke into his ugly reverie. Without shifting his precarious house of cards, he skewed his vision in the direction of the interruption and made out a small gathering of children seated like acolytes before a messiah. Their gaze was fixed upon the stooped figure of an old man with skin the colour of weathered teak who was sat astride an old tea chest. In a voice which seemed to be dredging up from beneath the turves themselves he was crooning a song to the beat of which three dolls were dancing, somewhat erratically, before him. The audience was transfixed, breaking their reverential silence only to gasp or whoop with delight whenever one of the trio executed a particularly sudden or outlandish manoeuvre.
Slowly, painfully, Joe unfolded himself and rose, rather hesitantly, from the bench. He shambled over toward the entertainment, coming to rest at the back of the gathering, weaving slightly in the tepid breeze. Several of the children looked round uneasily at his approach but, as his mooring was several paces behind them, chose to ignore him and return their attention to the show. As he watched, Joe felt the stirrings of an emotion that he only vaguely recollected. He could not recognise it. Time had not treated it well. But it felt good, wholesome and steady. And then the show was over. The aged performer stood up, stowed his troupe and its dance floor away in the packing case, and moved off – Joe did not notice where – and the small crowd, suddenly animated, broke up and dispersed, chattering merrily into the onrushing evening. Joe too turned away, somewhat saddened, and ground out the distance back to his inimical household.
Quite by chance – or, at least, that’s what Joe professed to himself – there he was again next day, on the same seat in the municipal park, at exactly the same time of day, observing a small knot of children begin to gather on the grass away to his right. A slight tingle of their excited anticipation seemed to communicate itself to Joe even at that distance and, before he could give the matter any thought at all, he was wandering over to wait with them. The group in front of Joe had probably doubled in size by the time the gaunt, black man appeared before the crowd and set down the old packing case he was carrying. From the recesses of the box he fished out three painted dolls and a plank. Deftly he flipped the tea-chest over and set himself down upon it. The jointed limbs of the dolls jerked in brief, uncoordinated spasms as he positioned them on the plank. The chatter of the children lulled to a low murmur, then ceased altogether as the old man, eyes half closed, began to sing, at which point, as if by magic, and in perfect time to the music, the three dolls began to sport and play merrily upon the plank.. As the voice rose, the steps of the puppets became more pronounced and the enjoyment of the audience more audible. Joe was totally consumed. He was the adult, appreciating the dexterity of the jig doller; his uncanny ability to perform the several tasks of his art to perfection at the same time. He was the child, thrilling to the kicks and waves of the dancers. And he was the embittered old drunk, his heart warming, ever so slightly, at the innocent joy of the youngsters who were being so royally entertained.
Joe would have been unable to explain why, but that evening’s trek back to the house seemed less doom-laden than of late. The several night caps he gulped back before retiring had recovered some of their savour. Though the nightmares which infested his bedtime hours still doused him liberally, their curdling violence was, to some small degree, moderated. He slept a little.
It was only after several visits to the park that Joe plucked up the courage to sit amongst the children to enjoy the dancing dolls. His presence was a distinct novelty to the youngsters but his obvious happiness so chimed with their own that their acceptance of him was soon complete. Joe, for his part, experienced a deep sense of sincere fraternity that had never before troubled his existence. He chortled his amusement along with theirs. He swayed in unison with choruses. He echoed the whoops of delight. And he felt the disappointed satisfaction that descended with the completion of the show.
It must have been a month later when Joe, having gravitated, by degrees, to the front row of the audience, approached the old dance master as he was decamping at the end of his performance. He wanted only to see the dancing dolls close up but, in that, it seemed to him as though he would be asking for the world and all of its riches. He felt the full weight of a crushing refusal before he had even begun to fashion the bare bones of a request. Joe physically faltered. The old man looked up and beckoned him forward. Joe tottered haltingly on, as though being dared to look over the sheer face of a dizzying cliff, then stopped again within touching distance of the dolls which lay sprawled now upon their dance floor. The puppeteer studied Joe momentarily, then a pair of plump-pillow lips first pursed then ballooned a brilliance of ivory and occasional gold. Without a word being spoken Joe’s cracked, shaking fingers were suddenly being masterfully, but gently, moulded into control of the dancers. The packing case seat had been vacated and Joe was installed upon it. Timidly, gnawed with embarrassment, he began, unconvincingly, to beat the plank upon which the three performers limply stood. At first their movements were slight, frustratingly haphazard. As Joe plied the plank with greater confidence, but with no demonstrably increased skill, their steps became ostentatiously arrhythmic. Joe’s initial diffidence had all but melted and he was hammering away at the plank, dolls’ arms and legs flying madly in all directions, when he noticed a solitary straggler from the audience watching intently. The brio and bravura of Joe’s performance crumbled. Now anxious to be rid of the dolls, he looked round in alarmed confusion for the old man whose place he had so rudely usurped. He was nowhere to be seen; had vanished as though never there. His entrails knotting and convulsing with panic, Joe groped blindly for what to do next. His first thought was to upturn the tea-chest, throw in the dolls and their plank and, leaving them to their fate, escape as quickly as his raddled legs would permit. But the eyes of the child were still upon him, now almost expectant, demanding. From some dark corner, Joe felt impelled to salvage a shrivel of dignity. Sweeping together as much of the dry husks of self-control as he could find, Joe stood, dislodging, in the process, the beam on which rested the dolls, fought for his balance, clung onto the dancers, then leant precariously over the tea-chest and wrestled it over. With another lunge for the floor he recovered the plank and put it, along with he dolls into the box. Trying vainly to make the pantomime of minor disasters look as though it was part of a well rehearsed ritual, Joe took up the tea-chest and, studiously avoiding the gaze of the young onlooker, struggled away across the park.
Joe was desperate not to be noticed but managed to achieve quite the opposite effect. His already laboured gait was accentuated by the awkward load he was bearing and his attempts at haste only made matters worse. The plank, protruding from the mouth of the tea-chest seemed intent on tripping him and the sharp edges and corners of the box bit at his shins and ankles until Joe could feel his broken skin catching then freeing, by niggling turns, on the nap of his trousers. Pedestrians gave him a wide berth as he zigzagged brokenly along the pavement. He breathed a huge sigh of relief – between groans and gasps of pain – as he rounded the corner into the alleyway behind the street on which his house stood. The latent, furtive shame which had drawn him onwards dictated that he hide the package at the back of an outbuilding in the yard, just as he had, in recent times, concealed from his sisters the bottles of whiskey which he would seek out at later, more propitious date, and unseen moment, in order to introduce them to the house. Having covered the dolls, board and packing case with an old tarpaulin and still sweating profusely from his exertions, he hobbled back round to the front door and, attempting a sang-froid which was manifestly beyond him, he rattled his key clumsily into the lock and let himself in. Dreading that he might come face-to-face with a glacial inquisition, Joe tried to creep noiselessly down the passageway to the parlour. In the silence, the dead thudding of his insensate feet seemed, to Joe, to reverberate throughout the house like a series of dinner gongs. He cringed into the walls and so proceeded, in small bounces, along the border of the corridor to the darkened room in which he could, at last, claim asylum.
Still wrapped in his overcoat, Joe deflated into his armchair and sat motionless for a few moments staring upwards toward the ceiling. He felt himself beset by a tortuous conundrum – the more intractable for being one of his own making. He had taken possession of the jig doll show and now, for no valid reason that he could think of, he felt horribly committed to doing something with it. Equally forcibly, he felt himself totally incapable of actually doing anything with the contraption. Indeed, now that he thought about the dolls, ensconced in the darkness in the old storeroom, he felt strangely intimidated. Having wandered around the issue more than several times, and having poked it sharply from numerous angles, he made the momentous decision to do precisely nothing. And slid from his pocket a half bottle of whiskey which, without the assistance of a glass, he duly despatched, thus blurring and soothing the irascible edges of the problem to that fine line of drowsiness over which he gratefully stumbled to his usual restive slumber.
The second hand morning acknowledged Joe with distaste as he wrestled himself free of the old armchair and made for the kitchen where he confidently expected to find, thinly disguised as a jar of pickles laid down for Christmas, a bottle of cheap, blended but perfectly potable whiskey. However, though he rummaged at the back of the cupboard over a phalanx of guardian chutneys; though he emptied the contents of the shelf out onto the table and inspected each jar intimately; though he balanced precariously atop the lame, old ladder-backed chair with the thinning raffia seat and thrust his head into the cupboard; though he did all these things, Joe was unable to find what he had hoped would provide the early lubrication of the day. Surrounded by the rubble of his excavations, Joe was forced to conclude that the sisters had intervened. Shaken, and shaking, he slumped down into the chair and rubbed his abrasive chin with uncertain hands. He had no great desire to encounter the two women gloating icily – as doubtless they would be – over their victory in this latest skirmish but he felt ill-prepared, in his dry state, to attempt a bid for freedom through the back door. As he pondered his predicament with growing anxiety, a vague, vagrant recollection stumbled across him. There had been, in the store-shed in the yard, a collection of old bottles. Quite possibly, amongst them, there might be a little something to ease him onto the streets. This ray of hope glowed but briefly since this particular train of thought brought back to him a vision of three dancing dolls, a packing case and an old plank, all lurking menacingly beneath a tarpaulin in the same outbuilding. Ensnared in a completely disproportionate maelstrom of contrary forces, Joe froze, great gobbets of sweat brimming from every pore. The sudden sound of two sets of feet like lugubrious drumbeats moving evenly down the passageway broke the impasse long enough for Joe to snatch up his coat, spill into the cobbled yard and tack deliriously across to the gate breaching it just as two grim faces loomed across the kitchen window.
Joe’s credit was still good at Macey’s where a double served to restore a measure of equilibrium. From the softer side of a second large one, he could readily agree that his fear of the dolls was totally irrational. His dread of the two sisters, however, was not and was to be heeded at all costs, but that was a different matter. No, the puppets had no hold over him, he concluded, and he would do with them what he wanted, in his own good time – which wasn’t now.'
I hope that you have enjoyed this sample from 'Jig Doller'. If you want to read the whole story get in touch with me at email@example.com. I look forward to hearing from you.