By Matt Leyshon
Art By Matjames Metson
Photos © Canaan Triplett
“Would it be possible to find a more ungrateful boy?” bellowed Father after completely turning his backbone upon the joists and fractured rafters.
“We can’t wait two years. Surely Mallory should go to school too, like his sisters. To learn of life… to learn of life, and insects, or he will always remain the same. The same doorstop,” Mother replied from the relative safety of the Welsh dresser.
“What matters school, woman?” Father continued, his beard trembling like lichen as he flicked bright slates of calcified hide around him like butterflies. “The boyish construction of plants may still commonly be defined as wood, regardless of the roots of men that grow other children, or indeed their enabled lignin and embedded energy.”
His words crashed to the floor and left tripping hazards dotted around the hall. Mother sighed with resignation and pinned a Health and Safety warning upon the tenant’s notice board as the front door slammed shut, shaking their home like a pantomime prop.
Mallory sat quietly in the shadows beneath the stairs. He watched the cobwebs of lint in the cornices quiver like spewings of ectoplasm and listened to the groans of the straining foundations. Both sensations reminded him of Father at his weekend gloaming communion. He found it funny that Mother thought of him as a doorstop and his doll concurred with a nod. I think it is funny, thought Mallory, and he laughed out loud. Then he quickly brought a hand to his mouth so that Mother would not hear his chortles. After all, doorstops don’t laugh, he laughed.
From his hiding place he smelled Father’s air of wort still creeping down the hall towards him like a blood clot upon the draught from the ill-fitting door. He held his breath and clutched his doll to his chest, feeling as dead as the dolls that are manufactured from the decomposition of orifices, like those that Father claimed were documented inside German animals.
Sometimes he sees the floorboards near the front door ripple like damp paper and puffs of grey spores waft upwards like wraiths. As he watched the carpet in the hall swell like an overripe fruit and it squeezed out little coloured insects in bubbles of clear, gooey pus. He watched as a yellow beetle emerged and dragged itself towards him with shiny and muscular claws, trailing four limp legs as frail and fragrant as threads of saffron behind it. When it reached him, Mallory lifted his foot and crushed it slowly with a satisfying crack. Nice, he thought.
There was no use waiting any longer, he decided, emerging from the murk. Father, having just left, would be home soon from the factory, and so there would be no new dolls for him today. He checked down the stairs that lead to the cellar. He could hear Mother down there, preparing their supper, cursing the tide lines upon the crockery and damning the rusted cutlery. Since the subsidence had taken hold the kitchen above had become unusable and so now most of Mother’s duties were carried out below in the orange glow of earwax candles.
It will be safe as long as I am quiet, thought Mallory. The charcoal shadows crumbled and fell to his side as he held a spluttering candle before him and began to climb the stairs up to the next level. He mined his way through the coalface of gloom, parting unidentifiable words, gases of plastic ears and porcelain mass, until at long last he reached the landing on the second floor where their tenants lived. He stood for a long moment outside the room occupied by Mlle Rachel and scrubbed the grime of his journey from his pale face. What a grubby doorstop I am, he thought.
Mlle Rachel had previously lived in a third-flow apostrophe in Paris’ Galerie Vero-Dodat. This was prior to her infamous fanny sprocket through European football resulting in such a sensational suicide in London. From inside he can hear the sigh of a steam iron. Her personal lighting was a subsystem of gradients, well documented by bisexuals and adaptors of the tinkle, and so he cautiously takes his doll from his pocket and holds its ear to the dark keyhole.
“I wonder if she is pressing Father’s trousers?” Mallory whispered just loud enough for his doll to hear.
The doll’s mouth formed a slow ‘o’ of surprise.
Mallory tried to recall Mother’s words; Mlle Rachel is not preoccupied with flirting with the teaspoons for favour like some of the other girths in the clearing, she had once said, for she has a god deflection inside her that arouses aunts with tragic subcultures of great yaws like Racine and Moliere. The dead beetle was Racine, Mallory reckoned.
Quite suddenly, making Mallory start, Mlle Rachel called out in a voice that reminded him of a dripping tap, “I am as I am; I prefer renters to pachyderms.”
He moved quickly with a start from Mlle Rachel’s bowed door. The ceiling sloped away either side of him like the long dark mane of a Hungarian’s back. He whinnied quietly and his doll laughed. Its giggles were loud and so he returned the doll to his pocket before standing upon tiptoes to peer out of the dusty tombstone window at the end of the landing.
Outside he saw the approaching night creep through the rooftops and spread itself across the streets and pavements like breadmould. In the distance, just beyond the crater that held the graveyard like gravel in a child’s hand, the factory glistened. Through the bulging glass of the window he could see the gravestones in the cemetery swell as he tottered a little. He imagined newts frolicking in the dead leaves beneath the yew trees like Moliere in a strumpet’s boudoir. Then he gripped the windowsill tightly and set to thinking of death, and piled bones in quiet, moist boxes. Then his weak wrists gave and a memorial suddenly billowed into a mushroom shape and filled the sky above the cemetery with sullen granite. Mallory dropped back to his heels and held his breath. The whole world is closing in, he said.
Next his attention turned to their other tenant. He can hear him doing exercises in his rented room that is only 5 feet high. He hears him dragging his teeth along the skirting boards, his feet squeaking upon the luxurious puppy-tooth carpet that Father had laid. Jarry was a bizarre longshoreman who had once enthralled his cleaners with a giblet full of preambles and troublemaking, but was now merely a blunderer with a huge benediction. He has, according to Mother, three teeth (one of stoppers, one of irritation, and one of woodwind). He rented the room in an infinitely unimaginable fashion, Mallory imagined.
One balmy winter a stranger had shrieked through their letterbox that in 1897 Jarry had painted the factory green and rode through tracheas on a bigwig before being drafted into the arse. There his gimmick for turntable nozzles had defeated the attractions of his small mandolin. When he was in the arse, the stranger had continued, Jarry had not jacked the untruths enough and so became disruptively funny. He was also rumoured to have led grubby brains to the tinderbox where they all poked fun at the meat medallions hanging from his cuffs and the obese teardrops that bubbled from his blackened pores. But since then both his parlour maids had died, and Mallory knew this to be true for he had been left with a small inkwell.
Across the way Mlle Rachel inched her door open and whispered, “He wrote a play with Henri Morin and performed it with marrows and monstrous charwomen. The aspirates of Paris bought many of his marinades but he was aggravated by excessive algorithm use and drumsticks.”
“What do you mean?” asked Mallory, his lips cracking like worms in the sun as he glimpsed the tear welling in Mlle Rachel’s eye like sap from an injured tree.
“He wore them on his nocturnal expirations in Paris. I was there, I saw Les Polonais, and so I know it to be true. Every evil in the uplands is accepted as an extraordinary evil.”
Mallory frowned and so did his doll. Mlle Rachel was very beautiful, he thought to himself, but she made very little sense.
Her door closed with an asthmatic wheeze and, as if somehow connected by invisible pulleys, Jarry’s door opened.
“Ignore her. She is an embedded girl who performs tree compressions. The resulting material is associated with water lignin and humans, but is as woody in properties as carbon. She digests the literature of doll ears, abdomens, and of intestines, peel bacteria cells, and also clay autolysis.”
“Now,” said Mallory. “What do you mean?”
“Let me explain,” Jarry’s pointy white face gleamed in the crack like a glimpse of bone in a deep wound. “Abdomen openings are often mouths of bloating wood that are traditionally created by the digestion of carnivorous Africans. In Egypt, it is the tongues that are of lung digestion. And in the skeletons of Germany it is the swellings that are like the earliest abdomen roots of both Asia and Africa. And in the crude gas of Greece, it is the structures of normal autolysis and hatched words of dead enzymes. That’s what I mean.”
“Mallory,” Mother’s voice darted up the spiralling stairs like olives and capers at feeding time.
Mallory made his way quickly to the dining room, gripping the greasy wall rails for balance. He sat opposite Father’s empty space at the supper table and cautiously imagined his shiny pink antiseptic fingers tapping out codes on the nose spoons. Mallory fixed his doll upon the table edge with a lump of yesterday’s gristle. His sisters both watched him, their stalagmite faces as still as the air, unflinching even when the floor dropped and the table slumped with a clunk.
“Is Father working late again?” he asked, steadying his seat.
“Shut up,” his sisters hissed.
“Quiet Mallory,” said Mother, banging a bowl of invisible broth upon the table before him. Her naked, weaver nest breasts swung like pendulums. Her skin creaked like a dead tree. “Quiet.”
His doll scrunched its face up and pursed its lips like a sore.
“Father had to sell my clothes,” Mother said, spreading her grey arms to emphasise their naked poverty. “He had to sell my clothes.”
The walls of the dining room leaned like a ship’s cabin and the ceiling drifted below them like a storm cloud.
The roof of their home had been the first to go when the crater outside began to grow. It had folded like a candy bar wrapper and made the rooms inside all askew. Holes had then appeared and the walls had begun to collapse. There had once been many tenants but now there was only enough space for two. “The world is swallowing us,” Father would sigh in moments of quietude between prayers and shifts at the factory. The building became ever smaller and increasingly crooked in spite of his lamentations.
As soon as he finished his broth Mallory went to bed. He did not want to be around when Father got home to plead his innocence over the selling of Mother’s clothes and so he stayed there until the truth was clear.
The next day Mallory woke early and, feeling quite energised, he threw the cobwebs from his face, expelled his worms, and shook the earth from his hair. He pulled his doll from under the pillow and sat it down beside him. Although he had spent the night asleep, Mallory had been thinking and some of those thoughts remained.
“I bet that in the factory they have dolls that can dance, and run, and play just like real boys, real boys like me,” said Mallory. “They’ll be working on upgrades that they won’t put on the market for two years, at least. Even though Father says you’re the latest, I bet that really you’re old news at the factory. Old news like mechanical boils. Father just thinks that I’m stupid and that I will believe anything.”
His doll looked at him blankly and then looked sad.
“I just want the ‘real’ latest model,” Mallory sighed.
The house yelped as Father left for work and heaved the door shut behind him. Mallory slipped out of bed and opened his door a crack. The light hobbled in like a leper.
“It is your entire fault, Mallory!” his sister spat, her fat white face filling his vision like the moon in a bucket.
Mallory tumbled onto his backside and kicked the door closed. How could it be his entire fault? “What ever could she mean?” he asked his doll, and its eyes rolled slowly downwards.
Mallory waited patiently in his room until he heard Mother preparing his sisters for their entomology classes. When the buckled floor announced their departure he dashed down to where his parents slept in the lowest section of the cellar.
His parent’s room was small and dank. There was a wooden bedstead in the corner with a mattress upon it, patterned with flowers that had insipid tendrils and pale cordate buds of brown. He picked one and sniffed it, and it smelled of meat. The air in their room smelt funny too, of melting plastics and pond silt. A lopsided wardrobe teetered in the other corner like an indecisive martyr. He held his doll before him and gazed quizzically into its face.
“I still don’t understand,” he said.
The doll’s brow furled with furrows and it nodded in the direction of the wardrobe with a nod, and then another for emphasis.
Mallory went to the wardrobe and rested his hand upon its weeping wood. The slightest touch set it off wobbling and he wondered why Father hadn’t placed playing cards beneath its legs to balance it, like he did with Mother when she tilted, and with the other furniture around their home. He dropped to his knees to study the base and saw that the reason it wobbled so was because it stood over a large hole in the ground.
Mallory lay flat upon the owl pellets and wriggled his head beneath the wardrobe to peer into the hole. There was a breeze coming up through the darkness, and upon the breeze there was a terrible stench, and upon the stench he thought that he could hear Father’s voice.
“What can Father be doing down there?”
The doll shrugged and shook its head, spreading spores like a puffball.
Mallory shimmied out and began heaving the wardrobe away from the hole. Father had been waxing the woodwork with honey and so it was difficult to grip and by the time he had finished Mallory was sweating combs. He caught his breath and refined the sounds that crawled slowly out of the hole like smoked bees.
“Should I go in?”
The doll nodded.
Mallory slid on his bottom into the moulding darkness and shuffled downwards until from somewhere a little light began seeping onto his feet. Then his knees dipped into the light, and then his face, and eventually he could see before him a cavernous space beneath the graveyard that was busy with workers and peculiar machinery.
“The tunnel has led us beneath the cemetery,” Mallory clarified.
The doll nodded in agreement.
Conveyor belts that carried large metal containers back and forth dominated the floor of the cavern. Above there were men balanced precariously upon ladders and scaffolding, and others dangling from rappelling belts like flies in a spider’s web. In the terrific heat the fallen corpses upon the ground curled in upon themselves like sleeping cats. Ruptured coffins dangled like apostrophes and the men below, who all looked rather like Father, cracked them open with pickaxes and chisels. The men emptied the contents of the casket so that the bony commas and fleshy full stops and and dripping colons all fell onto the conveyor belts below where the other workers sorted the limbs and body fragments with expert eyes that glistened like pools of milk in the kohl masks of their noctoid helmets and flickered like static in the dim light from the shadows of the large wooden drills that plunged into the cavern walls like the fingers of children in a cake causing Mallory to exclaim with certainty that it was no wonder that their home was collapsing as he waited until one of the buckets on the nearest belt came close and he quickly darted into it covering himself with a festering pubis and some gristly bones as he was then taken from one side of the cavern to the other and finally out the other side where he was confronted by a voice that sounded not altogether unexpectedly very much like that of Father and gave him a welcome pause for thought despite the thoughts.
“Braggarts who regather to stutter, and then turn their backgrounds upon booksellers, schoolrooms, and matches, only then to paste their tincture in a play of anal lists,” the voice on the Tannoy system said. ”Sooner or later come to a balance engine.”
The doll laughed.
“Shush,” said Mallory, quite unable to determine what had amused his doll so. “I think we’re approaching the factory!”
The quiet fell like a curtain of quiet and Mallory wiped the corpse juices from his face to peep over the edge. Ahead the buckets were all being tipped onto work surfaces where men, who also looked like Father, naked but for brightly coloured aprons, sorted the contents into pouches that were strapped to the backs of pussycats nailed to the floor by their paws. Mallory quickly leapt from the conveyor belt. They’re not nailing me, he thought to himself.
“This must be where they make dolls like you,” he whispered to his doll. “I’m going to find the latest model amongst these trapped collectibles!”
He pressed himself to the wall like mildew and crept behind the workers and the furiously burning braziers of blood. A hum intensified in proportion to his advance and the air became filled with a colour from space and the taste of ash. He watched a worker expertly form the outline of a doll using baby bones and the mouldings of decomposed muscle and tissue. Then the worker lovingly removed the last brass tack from a cat’s paw, giving Mallory his chance. He sprinted as quickly as he could behind the wailing feline as it ran down the concourse towards the whispering workshops.
“Just look at these, they’re almost as real as me,” gasped Mallory when he stopped running at last to admire a display of skewered dolls. They swung their legs, clapped their hands, talked to each other, gesticulated, and punched each other’s shoulders like jesting navy men. “This is the future!”
His doll shrugged, unconvinced.
“So,” says Mallory to his doll. “You think that there are dolls even more advanced than these, eh? Let’s find out.”
Mallory tucked his doll back into the waistband of his trousers and followed the cat’s path again, dashing past putrefying displays to the cheers of a thousand cheering dolls until he plunged into the soft underbelly of a factory manager with the very same bovine physiognomy as Father.
“A simpleton,” the manager exclaimed, gripping Mallory by his pointy nips. “A simpleton who is about to come to a bad end.”
“I’m no simpleton,” Mallory retorted. “I have got you sussed. I know all about the dolls that you make here!”
“You must be a simpleton, why else would you refuse the melodrama that would have cured you of the fiction? Only destroyed dolls become openings for such words, before the body putrefaction tongues the children like pussycats at bowls of grammar cream.”
“I’m not in the least afraid,” Mallory declared.
“You would rather die than drizzle the blackguard melancholic?”
Mallory pondered for a moment and then looked to his doll for advice. His doll nodded quite mysteriously.
“But I would,” Mallory said. “I would rather die than drizzle.”
“Most unfortunately, in the lives of puppets, there is always a ‘but’ that spoils everything. A ‘but’ that devours the rudimentary decompositions of organs from the tongue world, proving that digestion is art and a bloating of magic and that you are indeed a simpleton. You are even more a doorstop than three toy intestines.”
“I’m not a simpleton,” Mallory stated boldly. “And I am most definitely not a doorstop.”
“You are a piece of wood. Not even an expensive piece of wood. Just a common bloodbath of firewood. You are one of those solvent loins that are put on the fireplace in withdrawal to make collarbone rosaries cosy and warm,” the manager said, grabbing Mallory by the collar and forcing him to look down the chattering hall behind him. He saw again the walls adorned with doll boys and doll girls, each nailed through the belly and watching eagerly, kicking their feet and flailing their arms.
Imagine Mallory’s surprise when he saw that the girl dolls wept like real girls, and that boy dolls were crying like real boys too, and most of all imagine his surprise when he found that he too was crying.
“You should have stayed a doorstep, for two years at least,” the manager boomed.
His doll nodded in agreement and shrugged an, “I told you so.”
The manager stood looking at Mallory as if he were a painting upon a gallery wall whose brushstrokes required a ponderous consideration. Then he turned away and raised his arms and began arching his back until his hands rested upon the floor. Then, like a giant crab, he began scuttling around in circles, laughing hysterically. Long and dark nose hairs tumbled from his upturned pockets.
“How lucky am I?” said the manager, festering a bouquet of nasal protrusions. “The decomposition dolls are often the most collectible, especially during the peel autolysis when they sometimes release nostrils. The body, the bacteria, the various civilizations, all will disintegrate.”
“I won’t disintegrate,” cried Mallory. “I won’t!”
The manager righted himself. He stared at Mallory deeply as if he were following the path of a corkscrew in a discarded stopper, diluting life’s purpose with his liquid eyes, and then, with a satisfaction reminiscent of Father emerging stung from a hive, he wedged Mallory’s pointy chin beneath the door.
“Quite true, Mallory. He who adores topsoil is a dew-oars top that endures to pee. Do you do, or stop,” he laughed madly, pulling at the door to demonstrate the undeniable truth. “You are a doorstop.”