My name is Doris Huccaby and this is what happened to me.
‘Cooee,’ I called, ‘Cooee, Jill, I’m here, it’s only me. Here to help with the blackberry jelly.’
Sometimes Jill forgets things, ‘going a bit scatty, that’s me,’ says Jill.
Jill says things like that but the main thing is to ignore her completely. Jill isn’t at all scatty, she’s the most organised person I know. It’s just that her head is too full of all the various things she’s doing. That’s why she sometimes forgets.
We always make blackberry jelly together, Jill and me. Every year. Middle of September, regular as clockwork. I’d pick the blackberries, Jill’d get the windfalls in from her old apple tree.
I like picking blackberries.
Mind you, you’ve got to get them all picked by the last day of September, because that night the Devil goes round spitting on them. Then you can’t use them any more.
‘Jill,’ I called again.
But Jill wasn’t there.
I knew there was something was wrong, the moment I let myself in. I could sense it. Heavens knows how, but I could.
Like when you ring someone up and you know at once they’re not going to answer.
Everything else was, or looked, absolutely fine. Like it always is. Neat, tidy, immaculate, typical Jill.
Sometimes, under my breath, of course, I get just a little tiny bit annoyed with Jill. You can be too perfect. All this Goody Two Shoes thing. That’s what I say. Under my breath, of course.
Not everything was fine, though. Not quite. Something queer was about. But I couldn’t put my finger on it, anyway just then.
There was no Jill. Jill was missing.
But there was the Chinaman, of course, but he came a few minutes later in the story. When I started screaming.
The cups were on the table. The smell of freshly ground coffee filled the neat little kitchen where we always sat. Delicious, as it always was when Jill made coffee.
Wish I could do coffee like Jill. Sugar in a dear little bowl. Which I’d help myself to, and then Jill. Two lumps for me, one for Jill. Slice of cake, on a little side plate. Matching set. Like we always had in her house.
Outside, there was the view. Like it always had been. For centuries. More than that, I dare say.
Up there, in the bright morning sunshine, silhouetted, with the sun behind them were the tors, Dartmoor tors, rank upon rank of them, striding out, as they always had done, into the far distance.
Jill could name them all, she’d been to the top of everyone, they were her friends, her special friends, granite topped, clittered, tumbled, chaotic, massive. Some folk found them chilling and spooky. Weird, even. Not Jill, though, she loved them.
But Jill wasn’t in her house. And nothing else felt exactly right, either. Couldn’t say what, but something. Something odd and it wasn’t only that Jill wasn’t in. Something was hovering at the back of my mind. Something was nagging at me and I couldn’t tell what it was.
I sat down in my usual chair, beside the door. The door was behind me or I’d have seen him earlier. I sat there for a while, he must have been just inches, maybe a couple of feet away from me, then I got up and called upstairs. Then I went to the bottom of the stairs and called up again. No answer. ‘Cooee, Jill, are you there, are you O.K?’
I went up the stairs. Slowly, calling out as I went. Jill didn’t like people going up her stairs. That was her private bit, like the downstairs, mainly the kitchen was the public bit. So, I went very carefully, up the stairs, two steps at a time, calling out, as I went. ‘Jill, Jill, are you there? are you alright?’
But I knew she wasn’t there.
Jill’s bedroom is tiny. And very neat. New sheets, Jill had linen sheets and you could smell that she’d only just ironed them. The bedroom smelt clean and fresh. She always made her bed first thing in the morning. Teddy Bear on the pillow, to add a finishing touch.
The teddy was called Archie. Jill used to speak to Archie sometimes, call up to him. But, this was the first time I’d ever actually met him. I felt funny, wrong, really, what with Archie’s little button eyes staring across the neat little room, where I’d never been before. So, I said ‘sorry’ to Archie and left the room quietly, shutting the door behind me. Ever so gently.
I looked in the other rooms, too. No sign there, either. But, again I wasn’t quite expecting to find Jill. Not really. Because I knew, in my heart, she’d gone.
I went back down the twisty narrow stairs. Not like modern stairs, they weren’t, these were like you get in an old cottage, narrow and curling round.
It was when I was just on the bottom step, or it may have been the one higher up that I saw it. The china doll. The Chinaman.
That was when I started screaming.
How long I stood there screaming, I don’t really know. Ages, probably. Luckily there was no-one around to hear me. Otherwise things might have turned out different. But the cottages were too far away from other houses for anyone to hear.
Semis we were, Jill and me. Been like that for years now, two old spinsters in two old cottages.
Jill had been married, once, but she’d soon come back to live on the moor. ‘Didn’t suit me, having all that dirt around the house,’ said Jill. And that was all she did say, like she put it all out of her mind.
There’s not many houses built on the edge of the moor.
Rare, they are. People envy us, Jill and me and sometimes estate agents’d come round, knocking on our doors and asking if we’d like to sell. Me and Jill’d have a laugh after they’d gone. About how we told them to push off.
Anyway, there I was, screaming all on my own. Which, looking back, may not have been such a bad thing. No-one overhearing me, that is.
You see, no-one would have believed me. Not if the Chinaman was all in my imagination, which, when I had calmed down a bit, was the first sensible thought I had. Then I looked again and there he still was. Not moving, not doing anything, just sitting there. Where someone had plonked him.
Perhaps Jill had put him there.
I don’t rightly know now, what I thought. My mind was all in a tizz, I wasn’t making any sense and can you blame me?
Going back again then, explaining things, I need to do that, if you’ll excuse me. The reason I had started screaming was because it was as I came down the stairs, that I first saw him.
The Chinaman, I mean. This gigantic china doll, this huge creature was sitting there, behind Jill’s kitchen door. Where I would have seen him if I’d looked round the door when I first came in. Or sat down and looked behind me.
I’m calmer now, much calmer, after all these weeks. So, I can tell you what he looked like. First thing was he was enormous. I think I’ve said that. No, I tell a lie, huge, was what I said. Or, did I say, ‘gigantic’?
Not like your normal doll but twelve, maybe more, feet tall. And all bent double in the middle. Sitting down, he was. On the floor. Behind the door.
But, thinking about it, he’d have had to be sitting down. At that height, he’d never have fitted in, if he’d been standing up. Too tall, you see. These old Dartmoor cottages have very low ceilings, so he’d been sort of propped up behind the door.
I could tell he was tall, because even sitting down, he nearly reached the ceiling. And his feet were sticking out in front of him, which I’d have seen if I’d looked down, because they were right under my chair.
And then there was the rest of him. The face, only, in fact. Because I couldn’t see the rest of him. That came later, too.
He had bright, high coloured spots on his cheeks, like someone had dabbed on some rouge. And bright red lips, kissing lips, on a human, they’d have been, and big expressive eyes, that stared and stared, as it he knew something about you, you’d rather he didn’t know. The eyes didn’t move, not then, but you had to watch them, in case they did.
Later, I noticed his ears, they too were huge, with big looping lobes. And, it looked as if someone had been at them too with the rouge. Or perhaps he had. You never can tell with foreigners. And, his skin, Oh, I know it was made of china and not real skin. But, in some lights, if you know what I mean, it looked a bit waxy. Sort of lifelike. In some lights. Like when I put the lights on in the evening.
But, it was what he was wearing that gave the game away, gave all the clues. About him being a Chinaman, that is. He was dressed like a Mandarin, with long loose-hanging sleeves and a little flat hat and he had a kimono, a sort of dress on. And he wore his hair in a pigtail. Very long, it was, the pigtail. And very neat, very tidy, not a hair out of place.
And that was how I found out. That he was alive, that is. You see, at first I never saw the pigtail, because it was behind him, down his back. But, then, one day, I saw it had moved and now it was coming down the left side of him.
And, this I promise, I never touched him. I swear I never did. It was the pigtail that moved, I had nothing to do with it. I swear.
Anyway, after I’d stopped screaming, I went down the last step, took a couple of paces across Jill’s kitchen, moved the chair round so I could see him and sat down.
Then I had my cup of coffee. It was cold, by then and it tasted bitter but I needed it. What with the shock, and all. And I needed thinking time.
Eventually, I said to the Chinaman, ‘would you like some coffee?’ but he didn’t answer. Never said a word. Just went on sitting there on the floor. Staring. Looking as if he knew. Something.
I said, ‘where’s Jill?’ but again he didn’t answer.
So, after a while, I said to him, ‘I’d better be going, now, got things to do, can’t wait all day for you to find your tongue.’ And, with that, I got up, went to the kitchen door, said to the Chinaman a final ‘See you. Tomorrow, perhaps’ and closed the door behind me.
Of course, I did drop in the following day, couldn’t resist it, really. Said to the Chinaman something about looking after Jill’s things while she was away, but he never answered. Of course he didn’t. Couldn’t speak, see?
Never did get around to the blackberry jelly. Can’t get something done with only half a crew. Anyway that was my excuse but, really I was there to see him. If I’m properly honest with myself.
And, the next day I did the same. And the next. And the next. Till it became a habit. Dropping round to Jill’s place. To see if it was all O.K. And to talk to the Chinaman. Not that he ever said anything. Just sat there. On the floor.
Till, one day, I saw the pigtail had moved. Round to the front of him.
So I said, ‘You’re a cheeky one, you are, not telling me and then fiddling with your hair when I’m not looking. And it’s got all untidy. You’re a mess, you are.’
And, do you know, the next thing, the old devil, he winked at me? Least I could swear he did. Very slowly, very deliberately, the bloody Chinaman went and bloody winked at me.
I didn’t scream, this time. After a while, I said, ‘now would you like a cup of coffee?’ and he said ‘Yes, please, that would be very nice, thank you.’
I couldn’t help noticing how well-spoken he was. Proper gentleman, he was, talking proper and saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ like that. You don’t get a lot of that sort of talk round these parts. Not these days.
So, I handed the Chinaman this cup of coffee.
I can tell you now, my hand was rattling the cup something rotten till he said ‘Thank you, very much,’ and in those few simple words, fetched up from the very soul of me, such a well-spring of compassion for the poor china man as I never knew I had in me.
Later, after a long silence, we sat, or I sat at the table and he stayed on the floor, sitting, of course and sipped our cups of coffee. Then I remembered the cake and I said, ‘Oh, pardon me, Mr Chinaman but I’d offer you a slice of cake, to go with the coffee, only I didn’t remember to bring any round, so,…’ and my voice must have tailed off and all I could think of to say was ‘sorry’ and then we fell silent again.
Till he said something like ‘not to worry, it was the thought that counts’ and then we both, he sitting on the floor and me in the chair, started giggling.
And the giggle turned into a laugh and after that we became firm friends, which was odd, if you think about it.
Which I didn’t.
And there was another thing, too. I was falling in love.
With a china doll. With a twelve foot high china doll with rouged cheeks and vast ears, mandarin sleeves and a pigtail, slitty eyes and a waxy skin.
‘Yes, dear me, there was I, a mature woman with ageing skin and wrinkles round my eyes, who should have known miles better, falling head over heels in love with this poor lost soul.
I was falling in love with an alien beached on an alien shore, stranded in an unknown land and without a single friend in the whole of this wide, wide world.
I was falling in love with a wanderer lost and blown adrift by an astral wind and left all alone by the feckless Jill. Abandoned, like so much unwanted jetsam. It didn’t seem right. ’
‘Come with me,’ I said and we went up onto the moors behind the cottage and there, in amongst the clittered rocks of a Dartmoor tor, with the damp October fog lying low and not a soul around, it being out of the tourist season, we made love.
The impossibly tall china doll, and me, the ageing spinster with the wrinkles and the bony old hands, this is true, we made love. Up among the granite of a Dartmoor tor.
And, to me, that was something I’d never done before. Not made love, like. Sort of missed me out, that side of life. So I had to ask him to be gentle with me. And he was. So gentle, so kind and thoughtful.
‘Worth waiting for,’ I thought. ‘Wonderful, miraculous, gorgeous,’ I even tried out that word they use in Sound of Music, ‘expiallysomething.’
He was so tender.
Then, we linked hands, me and the giant Chinaman and came on down through the heather in the fading light of a chilly Autumn day and me with a silly grin on my face and humming like a twelve year old.
Which I’d become, in a sort of a way.
After that we made love all hours of the day and night. We couldn’t stop making love, the Chinaman and me. We were like a couple of love struck kids ‘All the hours God gave us. And then some more.’
Silly, really, if you think about it. the two of us, out there, on the moor, in the cottage, in my cottage, in Jill’s cottage. Crazy, really. Like we were crazy.
Oh, I don’t know.
It just made sense at the time, that’s all.
To me, it made perfect sense.
My name is Jill Radford and this is what happened to me.
My side of things, if you like.
Me and Doris, we lived next door to each other, right on the edge of the moor. And every year, we’d always do exactly the same, we’d make blackberry jelly.
Doris liked to pick the blackberries, so I’d leave that to her, that was her job and I had the easy bit, I’d just collect up some windfalls from the apple tree up the garden. And then we’d have the fun of getting it all ready and doing the cooking and the boiling up and every year, we’d finish up with nearly a dozen jam jars to split between us and last till we did the same thing the following year.
But, this year, when I’d picked up the apples and gone back into the house, imagine my utter horror, when I found Doris sitting stock still and stone dead at the kitchen table.
Of course, I had to call the police and they took ages to arrive. All the way from Tavistock. Not like in the old days when there was a village copper to call for.
So I had an age to fill with just me and Doris, all alone in that kitchen. And that was when I noticed the look on Doris’s face. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Sheer bliss, I’d call it, I’ve never seen anything as happy as the look on Doris’s face. Not in my whole life.
Sort of envied her, I did.
Wish I’d been as happy as that. Ever.