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Even at a distance, we hated her, though from as few as half a dozen feet away, in a certain light, you might have taken Meredith for one of us.
A plump cheeked, unusually pretty child, with rosy lips, and wide, blue eyes as bright as the tube of ‘Cornflower’ in my paint-set. And while her head, in its pink, wool beret, was slightly oversized for her slender neck, the kid-proportions of her hard, little body were perfect.
Up close, of course, you’d never mistake Meredith for real. You didn’t need to unbutton her plain, green dress to see that her flesh wasn’t flesh; her skin wasn’t skin, though she wasn’t made from plastic like the shop dummies we were used to. While she determinedly, eternally, pretended to be about ten, we knew she’d been around for far longer than us. She was probably even older than our mothers.
Meredith was moulded from some bygone material, similar to pottery, except that she was tougher than that, despite the cracks that netted her arms and face. There were places where she’d peeled away altogether, her ‘skin’ as puckered as the damp-riddled walls in Aunt Jill’s bathroom, with brown patches like fading bruises underneath.
And her left hand was chipped; she was missing half an index finger. If you dared to look closely, you could see a dark, narrow dent there, tunnelling thinly into nothingness. There was no small, wet heart beating inside Meredith. She was hollow through and through.
Not that you needed to peer into that dry, little stump to view her emptiness. Whenever my oldest cousin, Denise, whipped off the beret that Aunt Jill had put on Meredith and possibly knitted for her – everyone loved Jill, but we all knew she had her quirks – it wasn’t so much her baldness that startled you, but the gaping hole in the back of her head.
The hole was about four inches long and crescent shaped, like a moon or a half-open smile, its jagged edges softened by fleecy strands of dust.
“Touch it,” Denise had dared us, once. “Feel what she’s like inside.”
And though her little brother, Jeffrey, cringed and backed away, I was determined to prove my worth. Ignoring that cornflower gaze, I reached out with shaking fingers – until Denise leaned close and whispered.
“Watch out,” she said, “for spiders.”
Apart from Meredith, I liked Aunt Jill’s house, where everything stayed the same. There was always sunlight pooling the lino, and a ceramic chicken on the table, filled with eggs. There were chocolate digestives for my cousins and I to squabble over, and the familiar blue putter of the fire in the front room. And though the air there sometimes reeked of gas, the kitchen smelt permanently of bacon.
Up until that final week, Jill was also always the same, with her ruddy hands and fraying slippers, her frequent, reassuring smiles. Even then, I think I understood how much she loved me – maybe more than Mum.
She was definitely kinder than Aunt Leslie, who often came as well, dragging along my cousins: quiet, blondish Jeffrey, who was younger than me, and dreaded Denise, who was two years older.
But that last week at Jill’s – before what happened, happened – things started feeling different. Although the house was as it had always been, everyone seemed changed.
There was suddenly crying among the adults – my mother’s mostly – but there was also something new about the way they laughed. Night after giddy night, those three grown women gathered at Jill’s kitchen table to swop secrets and drink wine. And as the bottles emptied, the atmosphere shifted, their high-pitched cackles sharpening the air.
In the morning, they joked about these gatherings – “We three witches” – but my cousins and I were fascinated, taking it in turns to hover, spy-like, at the kitchen door.
I remember watching Mum’s face transforming, glittering with beads of sweat or tears. I hardly recognised her, let alone her sisters; there was even a night when I saw Aunt Leslie shake loose her helmet-hair and dance.
But the world of grown-ups was a general mystery, back then; our visits to Jill’s house weren’t always pre-arranged. Sometimes, we arrived spontaneously, after an ‘incident’ at home. Dad not coming back from the pub or else coming in staggering, a credit card declined or a whole morning of shouting on the stairs...
This was one of those occasions. “You’re crazy,” Dad had screamed after Mum as she dragged me to the car. “Piss off back to your loopy family; it’s the only place you belong.”
And you might think I’d have forgotten about Meredith amid the drama, but that first evening, long before our bedtime, I felt my bones filling with dread.
As usual, Denise and I were sleeping in the junk room, a room so strangely cluttered it might have felt unsettling even without Meredith there.
Aside from the mannequin, there were pillars of second-hand rugs Jill had never unrolled and a snare drum with its skin torn open, a manual typewriter with missing teeth. There were towering piles of books that Jill had never read, and the double-bed Denise and I were forced to share had been reclaimed from a neighbour’s garden. But though some people called Jill eccentric, I knew she just liked to rescue things.
And Meredith was special, Jill’s most treasured prize. If she hadn’t smelt so powerfully of mildew, she’d probably have lived in the front room.
More than once, Jill told us the story of how they ‘met’, the morning when she saved Meredith, who’d been left to rot inside a skip.
“I couldn’t believe it when I spotted her!” Jill said. “That little hand poking out from the rubble. You don’t know the fright she gave me; I thought I’d found a real, live child!”
And again, we’d go through it, how Jill had climbed in among the rubbish, negotiating concrete slabs and rusting pipes before she’d understood Meredith for what she was.
“The relief,” Jill told us, “I felt my heart quite breaking!” and yet her blood had gone on quickening –
“Oh, the shame to be dumped like that, with that ragged skin and broken scalp, those blue, beseeching eyes...”
I’d hardly have described Meredith’s eyes that way, though all too well, I knew their pull: the way they found you and then followed you, even in the dark.
On previous visits, after lights-out, I tried to hide. Pulling the covers up to my forehead, I’d concentrate on the traffic outside, until I heard the sound of the sea in the passing engines, a gentle, incoming tide....
But the moment my eyes flickered open, Meredith was always still there.
And, often, so was Denise.
Denise liked to tease; it was her favourite thing. She pinched and whispered, in the dark. But though she would never admit it, she was just as terrified of Meredith as me.
“Oh, if only my little Merry could speak!” Jill said once, and I’d watched the shiver I was feeling ripple through my cousin, at my side.
Not that Denise’s fear stopped her eager glee, the compulsion she always felt to make things worse. Whenever we’d stayed at Jill’s before, she’d done something with the dummy. If I was lucky, it might be balancing my toothbrush on her wounded fingers or noosing my scarf around her neck, but more often, Denise moved her. She’d lift a pockmarked arm to point in my direction, or shift the mannequin a few subtle inches nearer to my side of the bed.
And at night, with Meredith hovering close, Denise reached across the sheets to grab my hand.
“Listen,” she whispered, and my calm sea vanished.
“That’s not my breathing. Can’t you hear that? Meredith’s awake.”
But during that final visit, Denise’s tactics changed. There had been some trouble at school, something to do with dissecting a frog, but maybe it wasn’t anything to do with that – Denise was obviously growing up. She couldn’t hide the new bumps straining her cardigan buttons, or her forehead’s angry spots. She was wearing a lot of lilac lip-gloss, and she’d grown taller, towering over Jeffrey and me, leaving Meredith eclipsed.
Now, even from a distance, Denise and Meredith were clearly different creatures, whereas in the past, at least in my nightmares, I’d occasionally got them muddled up.
But while Denise remained as cruel as ever to her brother – Jeffrey still flinched when she came near – with me, she started pulling back.
“Are you crying?” she stopped to ask in the middle of some tirade. “What are you crying for? I was only joking. Can’t you take a joke?”
And there was a whole afternoon when she plaited my hair and shared her magazines – but I didn’t trust her sudden interest.
“Have you noticed,” she asked, “how your Mum drinks more than the others? And what’s with all her pills?”
And: “Those bruises on your Mum’s arm? Is it true that your Dad hits her? Or does she do it to herself?”
Questions that made me gasp more sharply than her Chinese-burns, words so forbidden, so blasphemous, I could hardly comprehend that they’d been said.
Taking advantage of his sister’s distraction, Jeffrey took off alone during that last week. He spent hours rummaging through Jill’s mouldering books, and then more hours reading, though the classics he unearthed – ‘Jekyll and Hyde’, The Picture of Dorian Grey, Frankenstein – were surely beyond the comprehension of a nine-year-old. But straining over those stained pages, Jeffrey hardly looked like a child at all.
And though Meredith loomed over his junk room scavenges, he no longer gave her a second glance. There was even a morning when I found him reading, curled up beside her crumbling feet.
Since Denise also appeared to have given up on Meredith, it was left up to me to monitor her, every night. Even the grown-ups couldn’t divert me, though listening from the junk room it was hard to tell if the shrieking from the kitchen meant happiness or fear.
“They have secrets,” Denise told me, through the darkness. “Family things I’ve heard that they won’t tell you; you’re too young to know.”
Then she reached through the tangled fug to poke me.
“If your mum has to go away,” she murmured, “do you think she’ll be allowed to take you too?”
But in the morning, Denise was all lip-glossed smiles.
“Don’t look at me like that,” she said. “The wind might change, and you’ll get stuck.”
I pretended to giggle, turning back to my cornflakes, but my hands were shaking and the milk splashed everywhere. I’d never hated her so much.
Jeffrey appeared in the doorway, glancing up from his latest book. Frankenstein, I saw, had been replaced with a thick black tome, its pages fluttering with Post-it notes, like miniature, colourful flags.
Denise cocked her head. “Hey, Jeffers,” she hissed, “what’s that you’ve got?”
Then, before either one of us could stop her, she was pouncing, ripping the book from his hands.
“The Lore and Craft of Magick,” she read, her lilac lips curling. “Ugh – you get freakier by the day.”
And as if it was a soiled sock or something worse – her brother’s skid-stained pants – she hurled the book across the room. As it flew, Jeffrey’s placeholders scattered, before it landed with a thump.
But when I picked up Jeffrey’s book, I saw they weren’t his only markers; much of the text was circled red. ‘Calling Forth the Demon’, I skimmed, and ‘Reanimation’, before he grabbed it back.
“Weirdo-weirdo,” Denise was singing.
And “Leave him alone!” I heard myself shouting, before I had the chance to think it through.
Denise’s nostrils flared. “What did you say?”
“Just...” I backed into the doorway. “Just stop being such a cow....”
And then she was chasing me and I was running, out of the kitchen and up the stairs – and, as if discovering some death-wish, I was yelling: “You stupid, spotty cow!”
Maybe I thought Jill would come to my rescue, but the aunts were sleeping. The night before, they’d been up later than ever, cooing and cackling over Mum, and the landing was heavy with quiet. Their bedroom doors were firmly closed.
I had no choice. I zigzagged into the junk room, intending to barricade myself in. But Meredith –
I skidded to a stop.
In the time it had taken me to brush my teeth and pour my cornflakes, she’d been transformed.
Meredith was naked. It wasn’t just her beret; she’d also been stripped of her green dress.
And bared like this, her disintegration was more apparent than ever. Her battered thighs were ringed with scars, and the marks were even larger on her torso; there were jagged, peeled-back patches eating into what would have been her ribs. But between the cracks, I couldn’t help noticing that her small, flat chest was nipple-less and when my gaze dropped lower, past her chipped stomach to her hips, I turned away.
But even with my eyes scrunched closed, I went on seeing her – her flaking flesh, her scored, streaked skin. That narrow, finely scratched V of sickening nothing between her thighs.
“What’s this?” Denise was spluttering.
She’d pulled up short behind me. I felt her breath against my neck.
“Is this meant to be a joke?”
And when I looked again, I saw that Meredith’s nudity wasn’t as complete as I had thought.
There was something strung around her narrow throat, not my scarf, but Denise’s cheap gold chain with its flimsy, winking cross. And the dummy’s lips, I realised, were shining; they’d been smeared with lilac gloss.
I turned from Meredith’s glistening mouth to Denise’s, gaping open, and then to Jeffrey, cowering at her side. She turned then too and grabbed him, her fist engulfing his spindly arm.
“What have you done?” she snarled. “Do you think this is funny?”
“I...” Jeffrey began, and then, “I’m not laughing.”
But suddenly, I was – there was no stopping it – the giggles were gushing out of me, and as Jeffrey caught my streaming eye, his strange, little old man’s face spilt open, and then he was snorting too.
Denise’s gaze whipped between us. “You...” she said.
But I saw how her slimed lips were quivering and, “Who can blame him?” I said, gasping. “She’d make a better sister – a better cousin – than you!”
Of course I didn’t mean it, not in the least; even the briefest glance at Meredith was enough to turn me cold.
“I’ll get you both for this!” Denise cried but her voice was cracking – splintering like Meredith’s brittle flesh – and then she was fully weeping, shaking with hoarse sobs.
And as she pulled away, I reached out to her, meaning to catch her fingers or her cuff, but somehow my nails sunk right into her, digging into the soft veins crossing her wrist.
After Denise stormed off, Jeffrey helped me cover Meredith back up. Her dress lay coiled between the books, but neither one of us wanted to touch it. We threw a blanket over the dummy instead, and as we buried her, I wondered why I hadn’t thought of doing this years ago.
As the day plodded on, I tried hard not to think about Meredith, made-up and naked, underneath those folds of wool. Again and again, I shut down the pictures in my head, thoughts of her scarred thighs and her peeling chest, of her nauseatingly sex-less sex.
But it was such an odd, subdued day, it was hard to settle. While the grown-ups drifted through their hangovers, Denise’s silence was unnerving – wrapped in layers of quiet, as if she’d been shrouded too.
As she stared, slack-mouthed, at her magazines, I told myself her threats were empty; she didn’t mean it – I’ll get you both –
But of course my cousin was only biding her time. Until bedtime, as it turned out....
The moment the lamps were snapped off, she started.
“My Mum says that your Mum’s weak,” she said, nudging her knee into my back. “She isn’t strong enough to sort things out on her own. She needs to get away from your dad.”
Her leg pressed harder.
“And away from you. They think she should go into hospital for a proper rest.”
And I braced myself against the panic, remembering the terrible night we’d spent in A&E, but then I realised Denise might not mean that sort of hospital, and the idea of that was worse.
While my cousin went on murmuring, telling me about some family history of weakness that might have been passed down to my mum, I tried to draw my seaside back. But between Denise’s rumours and the kitchen’s noises, I could scarcely hear the road. Instead I thought about what Jeffrey had said as he handed me the blanket.
“Don’t worry. Denise can’t hurt us. I won’t let her. I’ve got a plan.”
I hadn’t had the heart to tell him it was hopeless, not while he was reaching so earnestly for his thick, black book. He already seemed to have forgotten how easily his sister could disarm him – his Post-it notes fluttering, her fist crushing his arm.
While Denise’s knee ground into my spine and her voice slithered on, I shut my eyes and I wished hard.
Why can’t you just disappear? I prayed. It would be better if you died.
But she fell asleep, eventually, and a while later, so did I. And in my dreams, the tide was turning; something was rising from the waves. A great, dark shipwreck heaved out of the ocean. Its rotting figurehead leered towards me, blue painted eyes streaming with brine.
But it was only the smallest of dripping sounds that woke me: a quiet tapping like bored, drumming fingers, or the uneven ticking of a broken clock.
And despite myself, I whispered. “Denise,” I said, “what’s that?”
But there was no answer except for that soft pattering and I grew breathless, picturing Jeffrey with his magic book and Meredith’s mouth dressed in Denise’s gloss. In dread, I reached for the lamp.
At first, I didn’t understand what I was seeing. My mind was swimming, my senses scattered – the smell had hit me with the light.
An oily stink of blackened pennies that thickened my tongue, so I couldn’t shout, let alone scream – though it wasn’t what I’d thought.
The blanket must have slipped to the floor while I was sleeping, but Denise wasn’t standing, frozen, in the mannequin’s spot. Meredith was still only Meredith, her eyes bright blue but so lifeless I wondered how I’d ever imagined anything else.
Yet there was something different about the dummy – undeniable new stains.
Meredith’s bare, scratched body looked smeared now, and her lips weren’t lilac anymore. They were spattered scarlet and her arms were sleeved a darker red. And there was something hooked and hanging from her broken fingers. Some kind of meaty, glistening rope.
Drip, Meredith went.
And as my gaze followed that unspooling thread down past her hips and her filth-streaked legs, I realised it wasn’t the fallen blanket that was wadded at her feet.
At first I thought she’d been joined by another dummy, or a giant rag-doll, a doll that had been wrongly folded – no, not folded but torn apart. Slowly, I took in a spindly arm and tufts of blondish hair, half a strangely wizened, little face.
My voice returned in a panicked rush. “My God, Jeffrey.”
This couldn’t be happening; it wasn’t possible. There was no way human flesh could be unstitched like that, so thoroughly ripped open.
And in utter panic now, I turned to Denise, her body sunk into the mattress at my side. She lay flat on her back, her eyelids closed. She looked way too peaceful and still.
I hardly knew what I was saying. “Denise, wake up. Please. I’m sorry.”
My heart beating, and then quite breaking, as a smile twitched across her mouth. She was alive, thank God, but Jeffrey….
“Your brother,” I said, “Something’s happened.” But I couldn’t make myself look back.
Then Denise rolled over to face me, still smiling, and I couldn’t move at all.
While her eyes weren’t the blue of my nightmares, they were just as hollow, and her hands were as slick as Meredith’s.
“I told you I’d get you,” she whispered
as she reached towards me, her fingers dripping red.
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