We were in the cloakroom, which was just a series of benches with hooks on the wall, where we would spend our time during breaks when not outside. Mark Tobin, he of the asthmatic wheeze and irritating laugh, hung around as usual, trying to ingratiate himself. I don't know why he bothered other than that we – Stephen and I – were among the least popular people in the school and so gaining our friendship was easier than that of others. He shouted at us and when we turned round, threw an exploding cap at our feet. The sound was sharp and it gave me a shock. Mark began his hateful laugh, a gleeful sort of cackle that revealed he had achieved a sort of victory over someone. It didn't help that he was squat and fat and that being laughed at by him was a low no-one wanted to hit.
"Fuck off," I said, but with no effect because he continued to laugh and so, unthinking and with instinct, I followed this up, only with a pause, an unintentional one in which my failure to deflate him took a moment to sink in, but which also had the effect of an expertly-timed barb:
"...you fat fuck."
And this did deflate him, did pierce his thick and pasty skin, and it was obvious that this was so – and I can still remember it now, in horrible slow-motion – because his face crumpled, his laughter fell away and his wide grin slumped, so too his whole body, and to compound it all, immediately after, I turned to Stephen and we erupted into loud and obnoxious hysterics, the kind of laughter that occurs when one person has been cruelly subordinated by another and we literally doubled up, helpless, not recovering for some time, until and after which we saw that Mark had gone, the whole memory of which sustained us throughout the rest of the day and I truly hope he has forgotten all about it and will never remember, because often – I’ve found – the most unpleasant moments in life are those experienced in the formative years and which have the capacity to sour a person indefinitely. I only talk about it at all in order to demonstrate the sad tenacity a person – whether adult or child – can possess in pursuing friendship or escaping loneliness.
Stephen and I usually walked home together and we were often accompanied by Mark, who first had to run to catch up with us, his heavy feet clumping and that wheeze announcing his approach. This made us despise him all the more and we ignored him as much as possible.
The way home took us through a long and quiet street, residential and flanked on both sides by small, well-tended properties. The gardens were unfenced, picture perfect and for that reason, unreal. The street was empty, ours the only voices to be heard. I don't remember what we ever talked about, only that we were there, himself lagging behind like a sad and needy dog. Still, it was Mark who saw the dolls. It took several attempts to get our attention before we stopped ignoring him and turned back.
He was pointing to the window of a bungalow, against which and inside were resting – but also through which peered – several rubber dolls: life-sized, naked and male, with short black hair painted on their heads, thin curlicues on their chests and whose red-lipped mouths were parted wide in large, frozen 'O's.
We were young, but could grasp – if not fully articulate – the nature of the dolls and their function. Stephen and I moved up close and pressed our noses to the glass. Mark stayed where he was. Even without looking I knew he would be hopping from one foot to another; wanting to join us but scared.
There were three dolls, identical and anatomically incomplete, like the Action Men I still played with, or my sister’s Sindys, which I also liked. Stephen knocked hard at the window, dislodging one of the dolls, which fell and slumped against another. There was movement inside the house and we ran off, leaving Mark to lollop behind us. Eventually we shook him off.
I walked home alone the next day. We hadn't seen Mark at all and Stephen stayed back for reasons I don't remember. The bungalow with the dolls had its curtains drawn; pink drapes that made the house look like a overlarge toy. I crept up to the window. The curtains hung part-way down and I could see, in the gap between the material and the window ledge, that the dolls remained; their shiny stomachs lined up alongside each other. I walked around the path along the side of the house, which led to a gate, on the other side of which was a silent garden, as well-kept and manicured as the front. It occurred to me that we'd never seen anyone on the street when we'd walked along it, nor had any cars or other vehicles driven past us, an absence that seemed absurd. I would have gone home then, but the door to the dolls' house was ajar. I peered inside. It led straight in to the front room without break or delineation. My parents’ own personal home had at least a porch and a hallway before anything else. The room was large and had a long window on the back wall as well as the front, and the double-transparency gave it the feel of an aquarium. It opened onto another room, which was obscured around a corner but looked like the kitchen. I couldn't tell where the bedroom might be.
The room was dark because of the curtains, and the pink shroud, and there was a heavy smell of must that I associated with old age. I could also hear music, a indistinct tune that reminded me of a music box. Given years and experience I might have recognized this as the point at which I should have turned and walk away, but I had neither of those things at the time and so went in.
Once inside I could see the backs of the dolls. Their knees were bent back in order for them to peer out and there were holes where their behinds would be; or, rather, in-between their behinds were cavities as large as those formed by their red-lipped mouths. Directly opposite and below the window was a three-seater sofa laden with plump cushions and on the wall opposite the front door a sampler read Home Sweet Home.
I looked closer at the dolls. The one Stephen had dislodged had been re-righted. I leaned over its shoulder and peered down. Where its genitals should have been was a valve pushed into the flesh and the smell reminded me of a new beach ball. There was no other furniture in the room: no coffee table or bookshelf; no fireplace topped with ornaments. The absence of a television and stairs was disconcerting, so I left.
On the front lawn, in gardening gloves and a sun-hat, there was a woman holding a pair of shears. She loomed over her shadow, which loomed over me.
"Do you like my boys?" she asked. My memory distorts her face; makes it ghoulish. "You can come visit us any time."
I backed off.
"Come and visit us any time," she said again. "I’m Judith. We're always ready for guests."
I ran away, down the street, in the direction I’d come from. It took a detour of nearly an hour before I got home, resulting in a punishment from my parents and I didn't care as much as I might have done.
I stopped walking home then, for a while, and took the bus, which we generally avoided because of the quantity and type of passenger; older children from other schools whose attentions we could only put up with for so long, so that after a few weeks we started walking again. Stephen knew why I’d been avoiding the street whereas Mark had simply followed us without question and it was actually his presence – I thought – that attracted so much of the unwelcome attention on the bus in the first place. But, well...
The street was so long and straight we could see the old lady decently from a distance. Stephen and I debated whether or not we should go on but as we remained undecided by the time we reached the house it became a moot point. Mark was trying to get our attention with unbelievable stories and – as ever – we ignored him.
"We're so pleased you came back," Judith cooed. "We've been lonely these last few weeks."
I didn't like the way she spoke in the third person.
"Should I make some lemonade?"
Stephen and I looked at each other. He shrugged and we went inside.
"You too," I heard her say to Mark, and he followed.
We sat on the sofa and she went into the kitchen. Stephen was on one end and I was on the other. Mark sat in the middle and his bulk forced us aside. The curtains were open and the dolls were looking out on their knees. From the kitchen came the sounds of clink and bustle. Mark commented loudly on the absence of a television and I told him to shut up. Stephen broke wind deliberately and we laughed. Judith came in with glasses on a tray.
"It's home-made. Go on, take one each."
The tray was made of silver, or –plated at least and the glasses were matching, tall and slim. At home nothing matched; I didn't know about the others. By the time I’d taken a couple of sips Mark had drained his glass and was asking for more. Stephen held his in both hands, untouched. Judith returned to the kitchen but carried on talking.
"You can say hello to my boys you know…"
None of us got up or said anything. I felt hot and wanted to go home but thought it would be rude to leave. Stephen had no such qualms and put his glass on the carpeted floor – where it slowly tilted over – and ran out of the house, slamming the door.
"Has your friend gone?" Judith said, handing the re-filled glass to Mark. "What a shame. I hope that he– Oh, he's spilled!" and she ran back into the kitchen, clattered about and returned with a brace of towels, dabbing furiously at the floor.
"It shouldn't stain. But you can never tell. Oh boys," she said, looking up at us, on her knees, "You must be careful. Please, you mustn't spill."
She was almost in tears. I mumbled an apology while Mark gulped down his second glass and held it out for more. I hated him then, for that. Judith was patting at the floor less vigorously and had regained some of her composure. A lock of hair, which had been tucked behind her ears, had come loose. She took the empty glass from Mark.
"Why've you got all them things at the window?" he asked, suppressing a belch.
She took one last pass at the carpet, stood up, pushed her hair back behind her ears and huffed a little, out of breath.
"They're my boys," she said, her smile returning. "Do you like them?"
Mark said nothing, but stared ahead, and I nodded without looking. She went over to one of the dolls and stroked its head with affection. It squeaked and the noise went through me. I myself have never owned, nor desired to own, a rubber doll. I wanted to go home more than ever and the musty smell was overpowering. I drank half of my lemonade thinking that the sooner it was gone the sooner we could go, but Mark was asking for even more. I offered him the rest of mine but he stared at me in disgust.
Judith went to make more lemonade and Mark stood up. He took one of the dolls and began playing with it, posing. I was anxious enough. He held the doll, still in a kneeling position, so that its face was up against his crotch and I experienced a flash of understanding that has never gone away. None of us as far as I know told anyone about what went on in the house but I did relate a semi-improvised anecdote to others at school about Mark only being able to obtain friendship and pleasure with rubber dolls. Given that he wasn’t popular to begin with, the lie was readily accepted and not ever forgotten for the rest of our time there.
Judith came back into the room just as Mark had pushed the doll onto its stomach and began straddling it. I was laughing and beginning to develop another type of understanding. She dropped the tray on which she was bearing his third glass of lemonade on – biscuits too – and gasped, hands held up to her face, her mouth open in a sad parody of her dolls. Mark and I froze until she told us to get out and leave, because didn't we have any respect for people, and their homes, and get out, and leave, and get out, and we did.
I returned a few days later, without Stephen because we weren't speaking and without Mark because he wasn't around. Later, we realized he was often not in school, for reasons he never disclosed, or at least which we never asked about. The curtains were open but the front door was shut. I knocked.
No-one answered. I walked round the side and peered through the gate then walked back again and looked through the window. The dolls were gone. Without them there I could see all the way through the other window and into the garden. In the middle of the lawn was a black circle. A door somewhere was shut and Judith entered the room. She saw me and opened the front door.
"You've come back then," she said and folded her arms. I stood with my own at my side.
"What you and your friends did wasn't nice at all. Running away and... Well, you know what you did."
"I'm sorry," I said, and it was as much as I could say, although I meant it.
"What happened to your–," I considered the word, "...boys?"
"That's none of your business," she said. "Right now I wish I'd never invited you in," and she closed the door.
I stood useless for a while, then turned and walked home. Later, I made things up with Stephen and Mark continued to linger our peripheries, for a time at least. We never talked about our visit to Judith’s house and it was only when I was much older that I began to remember it, and also, we found a new way home.
JL Bogenschneider is a writer of short fiction, with work published in a number of print and online journals, including The Island Review, Ellipsis Zine, 404 Ink, minor literature[s], Necessary Fiction, PANK and Ambit.