I was damp and tired when he finally showed up – August rain in the Dales is anything but fresh.
“Sorry you had to get the bus up from the station,” he said. “If I weren’t so busy I’d ‘ave picked you up earlier.”
I told him it was fine and clambered into the jeep, wet thighs sticking together like syrup on the seat.
I found the job in the ads section of the local paper. After a quick phone call, it was decided I would stay in his converted barn whilst I worked for him as a full-time nanny. He – Paul – hadn’t told me much about his kids, just that they varied in age.
The farm wasn’t that remote. I was expecting a lonely building surrounded by grassy fields, but instead it was tucked down a gravel path on a bend in the road – hidden away, a couple of miles from the village. The rain had subsided on the way to the house and by the time we’d arrived, bags left in the car, the air had turned buttery.
The house was handsome – grey brick and white windows. We went through the back gate and into the kitchen where a woman, “call me Lynn”, was stirring a pot. He hadn’t told me about her and I didn’t pry. She handed me a bowl, spooning what looked like watery chicken soup into it. We sat at the table, the three of us, and ate in uneasy silence. I wanted to ask where the kids were, but he beat me to it.
“They’ve already had their tea – I’ll take you to them when we’ve finished. They’re tidying the barn for you.”
I took a mouthful and watched as he dipped a chunk of thick bread into the bowl, the liquid dripping onto his fingers. We ate another two courses – more chicken and a slice of sponge cake, slightly stale on the outside. There were no pictures of the kids in the house. I’d gone to the bathroom half-way through the meal, but there were a few soft dolls sat up straight on the stairs. Lynn was mute throughout, and we left her to wash up after we’d finished.
I followed him around the front of the house and down the gravel drive, picking up my bags on the way. The barn was on two levels – the stairs on the outside, snaking up the wall like vine leaves.
“The children are inside, waiting for you.”
Dusk had settled into early night and there were no lights on in the barn. He went up and I went in behind him, shuffling over the threshold.
In the dark I could make out the edges of furniture, but little else. Paul closed the door behind me and told me to go in a little further. He squeezed my shoulders, his body pressed at my back.
“They’re in here. Let me get the light.” His breath was wet on my neck.
In a bid to calm my heart I set my hands out by my side, reaching to ground myself. Something slick and waxy gripped my skin. I slapped it away with my palm and it fell to the floor with a heavy crack.
Paul chuckled ahead of me, “don’t worry, it’s Bobby – he’s always doing that.”
A switch clicked over to my left and a low hanging bulb flickered to life.
“Say hi, children.”
Next to him at least a two-dozen wide white eyes were facing me, each with arched hand-drawn brows and wiry, synthetic hair. Some had rouged cheeks, others had freckles, and each had a jaw that slid up and down on a hinge. I could see the split in their faces.
They were arranged in a semi-circle on the floor in front of the sofa – hands in their laps. The one Paul called Bobby was contorted next to me, his back open and skull fissured. A wooden pole had been fitted through him, with miniature levers sticking out at every angle.
Paul came closer and bent down to pick the thing up. It looked delicate – hair askew. He sat the puppet in a miniature chair and stroked his head tenderly – “silly Bobby, you never learn.”
He looked over with soft eyes and said, “don’t worry love, he’ll be fine.”
But when he let go, Bobby’s mouth dropped down sharply, as if to talk. It gaped black and loose, and as Paul touched his cheek to soothe him, the mouth fell away into his open palm.
A young writer from Yorkshire, Emily Harrison has recently discovered that she actually likes creative writing, despite everything she may have previously said. She can be found on Twitter @emily__harrison, and has had work published with Idle Ink, Storgy, Retreat West and Riggwelter Press to name a few.