Sometimes life changes without letting anyone know. It’s said that a child becomes an adult when he or she recognises the fact of their inevitable death. And perhaps the process of death begins when the realisation that a partner is never, ever coming back first strikes home.
Jake had been dying for months. Amy had gone, but it was only now—in cold, dark nights haunted by ’mares and nail-torn sheets—that he had begun to accept that she was gone for good.
He avoided sleep, just as a drug addict on the mend will try to steer clear of all their old haunts. But Jake’s drug was contained within: Amy, injected through recollection, snorted with each fleeting image of her face. However far he walked—through streets pocked with violent rain and parks teeming with invisible night life—his addiction held on to him. It wasn’t that he did not want to remember his darling wife; it was just that he could not bear the awful, final truth of her death.
In a village like this, traces of Amy were everywhere, not only in memory, but in reality too. With each breath he might inhale a part of her final sigh; any speck of dust on a café window could be a part of her skin. In pubs where they had drunk together, her fingerprints may still mark a glass, or an ashtray, or the underside of a table where she had always checked for rogue chewing-gum.
If he saw a friend across the street, and they came over to see how he was doing, their first thoughts were always of Amy. He knew this because he could see her reflected in their eyes, as though she were standing just behind him.
He chose nighttime to walk the streets; there were fewer people to hide his grief from. There was also less to see, so his mind turned inward, which he liked.
Until he saw the ragged little mess in the gutter.
At first, he thought it was a child. He stopped, looked around with a sudden, irrational guilt, certain that accusing eyes would fall on him and mark him forever as the killer. Then concern took over, and Amy’s voice came from memory. You’re a good man, Jake. He hurried along the wet pavement, trying to see further than he could, attempting to make out the truth before he was close enough to do so.
It was a rag doll. He picked it up. It did not belong in the gutter and although he would never want it, he felt the need to put it somewhere dry. It was heavy with water and he recalled reading somewhere that dead bodies appeared to put on weight. Its original eyes had been lost and replacements painted on. In the rain the paint had run, and now it cried blue and black tears.
It had Amy’s nose. Small, slight, upturned, a dainty baby’s nose, he had always told her.
He sits next to her in their back garden, running a blade of grass up and down her top lip, trying not to laugh and wake her. Her hand comes up and waves him away, but her eyes remain closed. The sun has dipped noticeably before she stirs and swats him across the head, and he eats the blade of grass, straddles her on the seat and tickles until her cheeks turn red with backed-up laughter.
Night and rain closed in, and this time his look of guilt was different. What if the doll’s owner was sitting at a window, looking out to see if anyone would be cruel enough to steal their favourite toy?
He shoved it inside his coat and walked home. The dampness felt comfortable against his skin, like the tears of someone familiar.
• • • •
“How’re you doing?” Jamie said.
Jake knew what he meant. “Learning to live without her.” The bar was noisy and smoky, just how he liked it. That way, nobody could hear him breathing. He may as well have not been there.
He had met up with Jamie after work and now they were halfway through a bottle of good Irish whiskey. I’ve kissed the Blarney Stone, Jamie said before every swig of the potent brew. Amy had always said he was good value; undemanding, intelligent, entertaining company. He had also been a very good friend to both of them, and a rock since Amy’s death. Tonight, Jake could hardly wait for him to go home.
“Move on, Jake,” Jamie said.
The wrong thing, always the wrong thing. People told him to move on, place Amy in the fond shadow of memory, don’t worry about things, everything would be all right. But none of them had lost her. None of them had held her one night, then held only cold air the next, not even able to find warmth because their shuddering loss drove away everything but misery.
“I’m moving on all the time,” Jake said, not angry. “There’s a difference between moving on and forgetting. Time moves me on, but it also makes me remember. Every minute of the day is another minute I spend on my own. Without Amy.” He took a slug of whiskey and grinned. He laughed at the foolishness of those who drank to forget. How could he ever forget Amy, ever, for even a second? It would be like missing a breath.
One day that would happen. No more breaths. All he had to do was to find a way to fill the days between then, and now.
“More Scotch!” he quipped, his playful tone fooling Jamie.
“It’s Irish, you fool!” Jamie shouted, clapping Jake on the back, slamming his palm down on the bar. “Barman! Bring a further bottle of Ireland’s finest, if you would be so kind.”
Jake smiled and sipped and Jamie talked and poured. Jake had placed the rag doll on the landing; it had seemed the right location, there was no other reason. A wet patch had appeared around it after the first hour as collected rain fled the body, but the heating soon dried it into a vague stain. Every time he walked by, he bent down and tweaked its nose. Last night, when the past shouldered him from sleep and the unbearable present slapped him around the face, he went out onto the landing and tickled the doll’s nose, careful not to wake it, smiling as he recalled the smell of Amy’s breath.
Then he had gone back to sleep. Dawn had come without another nightmare.
“Jamie, I’m going,” he said, slipping from his stool and twisting his ankle as he hit the deck. There was a muffled rustle of interest from around the bar—the squeal of moved chairs, sniggers, a high laugh—then Jamie was pulling him to his feet and guiding him from the smoky room.
“Moved on,” Jake said, laughing through tears he did not even know he was crying. “I’ve moved on, eh, Jamie? Moved on. Amy? Amy who?” But it was a sad display, not humourous, and somehow the other patrons knew this. Eyes were averted as Jamie dragged his crying, slurring friend out into the night.
• • • •
There was something in his jacket pocket. It had hard angles and uncomfortable edges, but when it hit daylight it took form. A doll, all pink plastic, cherubic cheeks, knotted hair and grotesque lipstick smile. How the fuck it had got there he had no idea, but the nuclear hangover which was just kicking in hinted that anything, truly anything, was possible. He sat up slowly and the doll let out a long, painful groan.
Jake shouted, hurting his head and shocking himself even more. The doll bounced from his knees and hit the floor, groaning again. Things went fuzzy for a while as his blood found its own level. Time seemed to dilute his foolish fears, for when he picked up the doll once more he could see that it was one of those fancy ones—sold via mail order, no doubt—with its own tilt-action voice. Conversations would be sparse, Jake knew.
“Who are you, then?” he asked softly.
“And what were you doing in my pocket?”
“And look at your . . .” The doll’s eyes were big and green. Just like Amy’s. Clover eyes, his mother-in-law had called them, gained from her supposed Irish ancestry which Amy had maintained was a complete myth, made up by her mother to give their family some glamour. It’s not that her mother found Ireland in particular glamorous, but the fact that it was somewhere she’d never been was enough.
Jake had never realised just how deep a doll’s eyes could be.
Amy glances at him as they drive through country lanes, raising one eyebrow and smiling sexily. Jake feels so content sitting with his arm resting out of the open passenger window, smelling the air blasting through the car: cut grass; the tang of a summer shower; fields of rapeseed casting yellow shadows across the landscape. Amy slows the car and pulls into a lane leading to an open gate, the field beyond standing fallow. What? He says, but she smiles and does not reply. Instead she shrugs her blouse off her shoulders and unhooks her bra, freeing her breasts to the warm air. She says nothing, but her eyes tell him everything. I love you, they say. Let’s have fun, let’s be daring, like when we were courting, they say. Jake loves Amy. He is never one to argue with her. They make hay.
Jake stumbled from his bed and walked slowly across the landing to the toilet. The rag doll was still there, still sniffing the air with Amy’s nose. He put the new plastic doll down next to the bath while he pissed and it ended up staying there. It watched him strip and shower, and even though his head felt fit to burst his cock twitched and stood to attention under the doll’s gaze.
Later, he went out for a walk to clear the cobwebs, tickling the rag doll under its nose as he passed by. The scratching of his fingernail sounded like a dry giggle. Jamie rang just as he was opening the door. “Jake, let’s get away for a while,” he said. “Let’s up and leave. You could do with a break, and I’d like to go with you. Let’s go to the New Forest, or something. Do some tree climbing.”
Jake said no thanks and went on his way. He put his head down and smoked so that nobody would want to talk to him.
• • • •
Amy had loved the woods. Jake had always hated them—they made him itch and the birds spooked him because they were always out of sight—but today he needed to be there. They were quiet. No one would tap him on the back and ask how he was doing.
Amy had always been one for larking around when they came for a walk, as if to pass the threshold between field and wood was to shrug off adulthood and rediscover the careless, aimless abandon of youth. Jake had never been able to do this—Amy always mocked that he’d never even been a kid—and so he’d used to watch as she ran and rolled and climbed, exploring shadowy holes in the ground, peering between old trees to find something older, running away and hiding from him until he passed from angry to unsettled. And she climbed. She loved to climb. She’d been a tomboy when she was young, she said, and Jake could well believe it. She was thin and wiry, and when she swung herself up into the trees he just stood and gazed in marvel at her athleticism. He had never really liked these trips. But he put up with them because he knew Amy would always come home invigorated, and the first thing she’d want to do is make love hard and fast in the shower. So, the woods weren’t all that bad.
Today they seemed even quieter than usual. There was the occasional twitter of a bird hidden somewhere high in the canopy, a rustle and scratch as some small mammal scampered through the undergrowth, but other than that, all was silent. Jake followed the well-worn path which came out on the other side of the woods by the village shops. He’d buy a paper and some orange juice, try to dilute his hangover with vitamin C while reading about all the woes of the world.
He recognised parts of the wood, even though he had not been here since Amy’s death. A place where they had laughed and shouted and been bitten by wood ants as they watched the thousands of little creatures hurry about on their huge nest. Jake had wanted to throw a caterpillar in there to see what happened, but Amy hadn’t let him. She’s said it was cruel, and how would he like it. A small bridge spanned a dry stream. Their initials were carved here somewhere, another youthful antic Amy had been guilty of one summer day several years ago.
Jake shut his eyes. He did not want to see their names. He hated the thought that a scar in old wood still existed, while the person who had whittled it there was little more than dust in his own frequent tears.
He reached the shops and tried to buy some orange juice, but there were several people in there and they assaulted him with their pitying gaze. He turned around and walked out, back strafed by sibilant compassion. He went to the baker’s instead and bought a fresh loaf without looking up from the display case. “Forty pence,” the baker said, but Jake could hear the undertones: My God, his wife died, how can he handle that, poor bastard, what could I say, should I say anything, maybe best to just let him go . . .
Back in the woods again, because the roads were busier now and there was always the chance of someone stopping and offering him a lift, and by the way how are you coping now that you’re on your own . . .
Besides, from this end the woods looked nice. Welcoming. And even though memories of Amy made him sad, still he needed to remember.
As he passed the tree where she’d had her accident he saw something propped against the trunk. A doll, he thought, even before he got close enough to see properly. Why he would think that he did not know, but he was right, it was a doll, though of a sort he had never seen. This one was made of the woods, a construct of twigs and leaves and wet bark and dried plant tendrils. It stared at him with acorn eyes and its fingers pointed with palm-frond dexterity. And its legs . . . its legs . . .
Amy climbs the tree, swinging herself from branch to branch, higher and higher. Jake stays below, smiling up at her and bending and twisting so he can see up her skirt. “Great views from up here,” she says. “Down here, too,” he says. She does a forward roll across a branch to flash her knickers at him, then she slips and falls. “Oh,” is all she says as one branch pushes her into another. She hits the ground with a whoosh of air from her lungs, a fart and a crack as something breaks. Jake is there immediately, terrified at what he will see. Her leg is broken badly. She’s looking up at him with tears in her eyes. “Sorry, hon,” she says. She spends three weeks in hospital.
He never knew exactly what she’d apologised for.
The doll had a twisted left leg. It was knotted at the knee, just as Amy’s had been, and it was actually a thumbnail shorter that the other. Just like Amy.
Jake carried the doll home, buzzed all the way by fresh memories he had thought lost forever, each one vibrant and surprising, like a dream recalled after twenty years. The doll sat in the crook of his arm as if watching the way they were going, ready to object should he take a wrong turn.
• • • •
It went in the dining room, which only seemed right. Small insects and dried bark fell from its innards for the first few hours, but Jake sucked them up with a vacuum cleaner and soon it sat on its own clean, dry table. He looked at it and remembered Amy’s legs kicking in the tree, curled beneath her as she watched television, wrapped around his neck as he nuzzled where she loved to be nuzzled.
He tickled the rag doll’s nose on the landing and smiled at the green eyes in the bathroom.
Later he rang Jamie and suggested a meal. His friend accepted willingly. Locking the front door behind him he whispered: “Be back soon.” He did not know to whom exactly he was talking, but they seemed to hear anyway.
• • • •
Jake and Jamie went to a small bistro in a neighbouring village, intended for tourists but frequented mostly by the bored youths of the area. Some of them were there now, smoking and looking hard and flashing tattoos and earrings.
“I’ve found some things,” Jake said, but suddenly he did not feel like telling. There was something secret about the dolls, a sense of mystery which felt fresh and naïve but, if revealed, would take on a dangerous quality. He glanced at the chair beside him, sure for an instant that Amy was there. But there was only hazy smoke from the kid’s cigarettes.
“I’ll get us a coffee,” Jamie said, “then we can order.”
Not, so what have you found, Jake? Not, what were you going to say, Jake? He watched Jamie walk to the counter, pick up a menu and order a couple of coffees. When his friend sat back down he was taking something from his pocket.
“What did Amy always call me?” Jamie asked suddenly. He barely mentioned her by name since her death, as if to do so would aggravate Jake’s grief. “Do you remember?”
“What do you mean?” Jake asked. He felt the sting of tears threatening, coughed as if to blame it on the smoke. Even the mention of her name . . .
“You remember,” Jamie said. He’d taken a small phial from his pocket, clear as glass but apparently flexible. He placed it gently on the table and it sounded like a feather hitting water. “All those times we went out together. All those intimate moments when there was just the three of us, drinking whiskey, talking about books and holidays and God and sex and food.”
Jake did recall; those times were often all he thought of, because they were the best they’d had. The times before Amy had gone and walked in front of a car.
“What did Amy call me at the end of those long nights, Jake? When I kissed you both goodbye with the innocence of good friends. When you watched me down the garden path and waved from your doorway as I went out into the night.” As Jamie talked he stroked the thing he’d taken from his pocket. It opened slowly, like the accelerated film of a flower turning and facing the sun, and a splash of white light leapt from it and drowned itself in Jake’s coffee. “Do you remember?”
“She called you Jamie,” Jake said, but even as he spoke he could not picture Amy saying that name. No, not Jamie, something else. She’d called him something else.
They sat in silence for a while until the waiter came to take their order, then Jamie reached across the table and grabbed one of Jake’s hands in both of his. There were sniggers from the group of kids; Jamie glanced at them and they were silent.
“Jake,” he said, “drink your coffee. Then go to some places.” He told him which places.
Jake did not question what he was being told, or even why. After the first whiff of coffee everything seemed to fall into place, and what Jamie was telling him made perfect sense even though the sense was yet to be made. The kids smoking cheap cigarettes glanced over and smiled, the smoke drifting in haloes around their shaven heads. At the first sip—hot, acidic, a tantalising touch to his throat—Amy kissed him on the back of the neck, though when he turned around there was only a man opening a door. The man had a bag over his shoulder which twitched with hidden lives, and Jake only realised as the door closed behind him that it was Jamie.
What did Amy call me? He had asked. What name did she use?
Tired, confused and completely rid of his hangover, Jake left the bistro and went to the first of the places Jamie had told him to visit.
• • • •
In the public toilet there were three cubicles, two of which were occupied. Jake went into the third and, without locking the door, stuck his hand into the pan. He curved his fingers and felt further around the bend until something solid brushed his fingertips.
It was a beanie doll, clownish colours faded, one eye missing, leaving only the memory of stitches behind. It had Amy’s hair—long, dark, wild and yet always right, always perfect.
Amy steps from the shower and shakes her head, hair splaying out and water spraying further still. Jake curses as his clean shirt is spotted and stained. They are going out tonight and they should have left already. Amy giggles at his anger, chases him into the bedroom and squeezes him tight, leaving two large breast-shaped patches on the front of his shirt. It is impossible to be angry with her.
The beanie went in the living room.
• • • •
The second-hand shop looked like an explosion in a devout Christian’s parlour. Every tacky, exploitative and offensive item of religious paraphernalia ever thought of was for sale here: plastic Christs with glowing eyes; a hundred crosses, all certified portions of the one true cross; self-exorcism kits with warnings on the labels about having to be an adult to buy one. And a Jesus doll, poseable arms frozen by ignorance into a welcoming embrace, one leg missing, the crown of thorns missing too. Jake had felt uncomfortable in the shop until now, because Jesus had Amy’s ears. Big ears, hidden beneath flowing locks (or, in this case, stringy horse’s hair).
Amy prepares tea in their caravan on the Cornish coast, and the smell tells Jake that the meal will discredit her claim of not being able to cook with the first mouthful. She’s often like that, not so much putting herself down as hiding obvious talents in order to produce surprises every now and then. When he opens the door and sees that she is wearing nothing but an apron, things get out of hand, and they have pudding first.
The Jesus doll went in the kitchen, ears exposed by a hasty and decidedly unholy haircut.
• • • •
By the end of the day there were no more places to go. So Jake went home.
• • • •
Jake sat on their bed and watched the sun rise over the wooded hills to the east. He had not slept all night. He’d wandered the house, tending the dolls and letting them inspire memories long since forgotten. And all the time he’d been thinking of what Jamie had said the previous day, wondering where all these dolls had come from. Wondering also why it felt as though Amy were strolling around the house with him. Not only did the beanie have her hair, but he could smell her breath when he walked by. The doll with Amy’s nose inspired a discorporated giggle as Jake squatted before it, the sort of laugh she’d utter before playing some joke on him. Everywhere in the house reminded him more and more of his dead wife, and yet it was all still memory. Somehow, after the strangeness of yesterday, he had expected a little more.
Then, as the sun rose fully, he remembered what Amy had used to call Jamie.
Angel. Not my angel, or our angel, just plain angel. See you, angel, she’d say after a night on the town, and she’d peck him on the cheek. Hey, angel, she’d greet him as he stood on their doorstep, a bottle of wine in one hand and a recommended book in the other.
“She called him angel,” Jake said. And the house began to breathe.