Read by Louisa Gummer
I can remember Covent Garden when there was still some magic in it. Back when not every available space was filled with shops that seemed to be clones of each other, all trying to out-price, out-kitsch and out-cute their neighbours. I can remember where there were still shadows in Covent Garden and parts of it didn’t feel quite safe, quite rid of a hint of danger.
The last trip we made was in late November – school was closed for one of the reasons you don’t take much notice of when you’re eight, your focus naturally being on a Day Off School. Dad gave himself the day off, and mum – she only told me years later – pulled a sickie from work. The evening before, we prepared for our day out like we always did: dad fishing out the massive saucepan from the back of the kitchen cupboard to make a huge thermosful of chicken soup, mum lightly arguing with him about where else we’d go that day, and me diligently counting up all the ten and twenty pences I’d collected in the jar secreted under my bed.
The following morning, after we emerged from the tube station blinking gratefully at the sunlight, was spent in a vague, unremarkable haze at the London Transport Museum (mum’s choice) and huddling together in the gardens of the Actors’ Church with plastic mugs of steaming-hot soup. As always, I drank mine too quickly and almost choked when it felt like I was swallowing lava; I was too excited for the afternoon ahead to drink any slower. After lunch, my parents left me at the Apple Market and went to find coffee or look in one of the nearby shops, knowing I would be sensible and not go anywhere else. Electric excitement tickled its way up my spine as I made my solitary way into the shadows.
The dog growled, softly. I kept my eyes fixed on its dark brown muzzle, now opening slowly to reveal unnaturally sharp, yellowed teeth. The growl increased in ferocity as the mouth opened wider and I could feel its hot, stinking breath on my face. A glistening, liver-coloured tongue flopped out of the beast’s mouth and saliva began to drip slowly onto my outstretched hand. I was frozen where I stood, unable to move. The growling grew louder, the monstrous dog’s eyes slowly illuminated with a dirty yellow light – and another bar lit up on the meter beside the dog’s head, elevating my status from ‘brave’ to ‘fearless’. The dog gave one final thunderous snarl, eyes glowing, tongue drooling; behind it, a bell pinged, sounding the end of my ordeal. I took my hand out from under the still-dripping tongue, grinning at my success. I’d always snatched my hand away before, only achieving ‘brave’ or ‘above-average courage’, but this time I’d got my full money’s worth. I walked shakily out from under the arch where the dog’s head booth stood, awaiting its next victim, and, having already used up nearly all my coins on the other booths, went into the Theatre itself.
Although I’d been there many times before, my enthusiasm for the exhibits never dampened. My coins dwindled in quantity as I went around the Theatre; it was strictly speaking a museum, but the organisers felt – and I agreed with them – that ‘theatre’ was a far more appropriate word for their collection of works by the various artists who specialised in automata. The feeling of being in the Theatre was almost indescribable – like the feeling you’d have if all your Christmases and birthdays really did come at once, or how I felt when I met Steven. A brightly-coloured flash of happiness, which makes the rest of your life seem dull and monochromatic: that was how I felt when I inserted coins or wound handles to watch the delicate wheels and cogs work to create a small moment of technical and artistic perfection. Also, there’s nothing funnier than watching a wooden puppet eating a bathtub of spaghetti while two taps eternally pour out bolognese and béchamel.
After that November trip, the Theatre closed. Later, I discovered that the removal of the automata from Covent Garden was due to soaring rental prices. As a child, I didn’t care what had caused the Theatre to close down; only that it was catastrophic, unfair; and that as soon as the first kitschy, cute, expensive shop opened where the Theatre had been, Covent Garden lost its last vestiges of magic.
I didn’t bother going to Covent Garden again after that; there was nothing for me there now and I had increasing pressure and demands on my time – homework, secondary school entrance exams, end-of-year exams, GCSEs, feeling more and more like a project to be completed, another teenager on the A-level production line. I was eighteen and starting university before I knew it: I went through the motions of the first year, not really sure if I’d chosen the right degree but doing well.
I found Steven while at university – it was the usual, stereotypical story of meeting after first year and moving in together after we’d graduated; but how I felt about him wasn’t stereotypical. It was unique, exciting, the feeling I'd had when I was eight and surrounded by my favourite pieces of automata, some now in far-flung parts of the world, others being toured and exhibited in galleries for a few weeks at a time. After he proposed, I couldn’t stop smiling at work the next day, even with the prospect of the usual repetitive paperwork to be done.
I can’t quite remember how I found out about the exhibition; one of those lapses of memory when you forget the circumstances leading up to what turns out to be a significant moment in your life. I still can’t remember if I met Steven at the union cafe or at a society Christmas party. But I remember holding the exhibition leaflet in my hand and feeling my heart beating faster with excitement. Not ten minutes’ walk from our flat, in one of the nicer parts of south-east London; all the old favourites, plus some new.
As I walked by myself (Steven wasn’t interested) through the open door of the tiny gallery, tucked down one of the side-streets so that you might not even see it if you weren’t looking, I felt like I was eight again. I must have stayed there for hours, watching the automata perform again and again and using up all the coins I’d liberated from the pot of change we kept for the launderette. I smiled at the yellow-toothed woman behind the till between viewing the new additions to the collection, which were even more detailed; impressive in their construction as well as the longer stories they told. I was so engrossed in one jungle scene, viewed through a magnifying peephole, that I almost didn’t see that there was another piece, tucked away in a corner and obscured from view by a dustsheet. According to the sign sellotaped to the sheet, it was ‘awaiting final component’.
It must have been my eight-year-old self taking control of my hand and lifting up a corner of the sheet; as an adult, I respected signs that suggested forbidden territory. Something powdery fell into my face as I raised the dust-sheet, and I smelt freshly-cut wood before exploding into a sneeze. Bending down, I saw a small, khaki-coloured tent with ‘Dolls’ Hospital’ printed above two flaps of canvas, safety-pinned to the tent’s sides. I could see humanoid figures inside, standing around an empty operating table with their garishly-painted faces turned down towards it. Although they were dressed in nurses’ uniforms, the dolls looked more like they were about to act out a torture scene – two held a cross-cut saw between them, another had a large drill and a fourth held a huge knife in her wooden hands.
Just as I touched the button, bony fingers latched onto my wrist and yanked me away. Through streaming, dust-irritated eyes, I recognised the till-woman; she delivered a snarling reprimand and ejected me from the gallery. Outside, I blinked at the sunlight, my vision still blurry from the dust, and, embarrassed by the curious stares of people still in the gallery, started back home.
Despite the abrupt ending to my visit, I still talked excitedly to Steven about the automata over a bottle of wine – leaving out my sneak peek at the hidden exhibit. I hadn’t thought I was that tired, but I remember staggering woodenly up to bed, feeling dizzy and thick-headed. I’m not sure I managed to get undressed before falling asleep.
I awoke to a sharp pain in my stomach and a throbbing headache. It was still dark, but I couldn’t feel Steven next to me. I tried calling for him, but my throat felt dry and I couldn’t speak. I was about to call again when the curtains began to open, apparently of their own accord, and a piercingly bright light filled the room. The pain in my head and stomach increased, as if I were being stabbed repeatedly; I vowed never again to drink wine that Steven bought from the corner shop.
There was a high-pitched giggle. Steven didn’t laugh like that.
I rolled my eyes upwards, my neck too stiff and sore to move my head, and saw a wooden, painted face looking down at me; in the background were more faces, all identical. I looked down at my body, and saw my stomach – now wooden and painted, glistening in the open air – heave as I retched. I tasted sawdust. Four doll-figures surrounded me, all holding medieval-looking surgical tools. I was lying on a mortuary slab, my abdominal cavity open and exposed. I stared in mute horror as the dolls began to move, feeling the saw start to rip through my liver, a drill boring into my heart. In an agony of pain and fear, I heard the giggle again and a little girl’s voice say, “Look at this one, mum! It says the dolls want to find out how a human works!”
A huge face loomed towards me, smiling inquisitively. She doesn’t know, I thought, nobody knows. I wanted to scream, but my wooden lungs only twitched with the movement of the dolls’ instruments and there was nothing but a small, scratchy creak. I tried to see reason, to wake up, to work out what happened, but the pain was excruciating and I couldn’t think straight. At last the dolls ceased their movement and the curtains closed, allowing me to rest in darkness. If I could just work out –
“Mum, can I have another go?”
The curtains opened again.
I’m trying to think –
© Vanessa Thompsett, 2012
Vanessa Thompsett is currently studying English Literature at UCL and intends to continue until she’s qualified enough to lecture there. Her influences include Roald Dahl, Angela Carter, HG Wells and Alan Moore. In her spare time, she writes when she can, bakes when required and builds forts with books and bedsheets.
Louisa Gummer trained at Mountview. TV includes EastEnders (BBC1); The Sitcom Trials (ITV), various commercials and independent films including The Ultimate Truth (Best Foreign Film - Long Island) and The Orange Tree (Shooting People's Mobile Cinema). Theatre includes Girls’ Night (UK No1 Tour); Listen to My Heart (Brockley Jack); The Sitcom Trials (Edinburgh 2004 & Tour). Louisa is also an experienced voice-over artist.