William Noakes took one step towards the sign and stopped. ‘The Museum of Curiosities’ had thrown his plans into turmoil. He hesitated outside. I only stopped to get some water from the garage, so I didn’t get a headache. He’d had a lot of headaches recently. He lifted one leg, then the other, and he was through the entrance and inside before he had a chance to hesitate again. He brushed past a black curtain and stepped into a corridor. Another black curtain at the other end barred his way forward. William noticed he couldn’t hear the traffic outside anymore. He scanned the curtain ahead and then the curtain behind as he tried to work out which way he had come in and how quickly he could get out.
‘Hello,’ he said quietly. ‘Hello,’ he repeated again, a little louder.
‘Good morning sir, welcome to the Museum…of…Curiosities,’ a nasally voice announced from somewhere. ‘It’s a £5.00 entrance fee and that includes a marvellous gift of curiosity.’
Suddenly, a very small man no more than four foot tall, stepped through one of the curtains. In his hand he held a small basket of what appeared, on first glance, to contain pieces of cloth stuffed with straw. The man stood motionless for what seemed like an eternity. Eventually, a smile creaked across his face as he lifted his arm and gestured towards the basket.
‘I wasn’t even going to come in. Not sure why I did really. I, I think I’d…’ stuttered William.
‘Well, you’re here now, so come in and no ifs or buts,’ the man said as he moved towards William and ushered him forward. ‘Five pounds please and here’s your gift,’ he continued, pushing one of the stuffed cloths hurriedly into William’s pocket. At the same time, the man’s tiny hand snatched a five-pound note that William had started to get out of his wallet.
‘I won’t stay long. I really am supposed to be….’ William started.
‘Yes Sir. This way,’ the man interrupted again as he peeled the curtain to one side. William hesitated and then stepped past him.
The small museum was indeed curious, but the air was stale and musty, just as a museum should be. Everything was haphazardly crammed behind rusting glass cabinets: brown stained pictures of families in years gone by, toys from every era, stuffed animals, bizarre trinkets, jars of eyeballs and paintings of weird and wonderful creatures from a mythical age, all piled high to create a dancing visual circus. William’s gaze jerked off to the left and a two-headed stuffed otter fixed its’ stare at him with bulbous eyes. William turned to see a row of monkey skulls, soulless and lost without their cocked, mischievous faces. Pickled brown pygmies sneered whilst a line of Victorian dolls lurched their heads towards him and opened and closed their tiny mouths. A chaotic chatter rattled in his ears as the ‘Big Top’ engulfed him. He reared back as the smell of perpetual death goaded his nostrils and he stumbled back through the black curtain.
Everything went quiet again. No chatter. No traffic noise. No ringmaster. His breathing was heavy, his brow moist and he now had a headache. Again. It was time to leave. I’ve really got to go; I’m moving house today. William swept past the black curtain and breathed deeply when he reached his car. He eased himself inside and took a swig of water before looking both ways, twice, and then drove off.
William Noakes had finally turned his back on his life in sales. No more targets, motivational meetings or bullshit fist pumping. His belly was brimming with it, swirling and gurgling and he wanted no more part of it, so he regurgitated it all, wiped his mouth and started afresh. He had become fragile without realising it, until he was away from that wretched place: ‘Thorn and Archer’, a high-profile company in the city that had been his open prison for twelve years. He had frequently been the top salesman until a young, aggressively ambitious woman had begun his demise. He had an inkling his days were numbered from the second she laid her finely manicured talons on his desk. She was good, no question. The wave of scented woman swept all before her including William. His sales had been going down for months as she gradually took all the leading accounts from him, and he was asked to leave. His confidence had been relentlessly battered like an enduring cruel winter. He’d received a good pay-out, but bitterness was still shackled to him. His procrastination was a coat he no longer took off and he doubted himself and every decision he made, except this one. He was moving to Devon, life in the slow lane, tractors and clotted cream.
William had sent all his belongings ahead and all that was left to do was meet the agent at the property to collect the keys. His refuge was nestled in the heart of Dartmoor in a beautiful hamlet. He had enough money to tide him over for a few months to give him the chance to find some regular work but in the meantime, he would begin decorating his cottage. He knew he would have lost the property if he had held out to find work first but his desperation for escape drove him on to make such a reckless decision. It had given him the most severe headache.
When he arrived, the agent was waiting for him.
‘How lovely to see you again Mr Noakes,’ beamed the agent. ‘Everything’s in order. The removal men have placed boxes where they were instructed but had to leave as you were a little later in arriving than expected.’
‘I, I was delayed, sorry about that Mr Lamb,’ William said sincerely.
‘No problem at all. Here are your keys,’ declared Mr Lamb. ‘You must be delighted!’
‘Well, yes, I suppose I am. A lot to do though, getting a job, doing the place up. Bit of a headache but hopefully it should be worth it in the end.’ William almost smiled.
‘Well, I must be off now and all the very best to you again Mr Noakes,’ Mr Lamb said as he squeezed William’s sweaty palm. William looked after Mr Lamb as he strode off and then back at the cottage. He hesitated and then went inside.
‘He’s got a lovely bottom. Very nice indeed,’ said Ronald peering over the hedge. ‘Don’t tell Martin I said that whatever you do!’
‘I should tell him precisely that Ronald. Really!’ said Maggie taking in as much information as she could of the comings and goings opposite her cottage. ‘He looks a little sad don’t you think?’
‘I’ll soon change that,’ Ronald said and winked at Maggie.
‘Ronald. Please,’ implored Maggie with a disdainful look. ‘I really hope he doesn’t cut down those trees outside. I think I’d better tell him about that before he gets too settled.’
‘Give him a chance. The poor man has only just moved in,’ said Ronald.
William stood hunched in the living room. It was cold. There’s so much to do. He looked at the peeling paint on the wattle and daub walls and the distressed hearth long since comforted by fire. He slid his hands into his pockets and deliberated about his next move. He felt spiky ends poke his palm and tugged out the curiosity wondering how it had got there. He stared at it. It was indeed a piece of white cloth that was stuffed with straw and moss. It had small sticks for arms and two eyes that stared straight ahead. William recognised it immediately from when he had travelled to Haiti years ago. It was a voodoo doll. He felt momentarily peculiar and found it impossible to look away. He couldn’t even blink or move his hand to cover his eyes and he waited for the anxiety to rise up, the sweat to seep out and the headache to kick in, but nothing happened. He just felt calm. He shrugged his shoulders and placed it on the mantelpiece.
‘I know!’ he proclaimed suddenly, as if he had an audience. I’ll invite the neighbours over for a drink to get to know them. In fact, I’ll head over there now. William went out of the cottage and looked across the road. He immediately caught the gaze of Ronald and Maggie and they both looked away sharply pretending to be chatting. The sun was baring its teeth after a chilly start to what William now thought was going to be a fine April day. Fists of buds on trees began to stretch their fingers and an idle breeze tinged with manure confirmed his distance from the city.
‘Oh God, he’s coming over. Does my hair look ok?’ Ronald enquired as he tried to discreetly smooth down a flamboyant curl.
‘Good. I can speak to him about the trees,’ said Maggie folding her arms.
‘Hi there!’ called William. ‘As you can probably see, I’ve just moved into the cottage and thought I’d introduce myself. I’m William and I also wondered if you fancied coming over for a drink to break the ice so to speak?’ William held out his hand and Ronald grabbed it eagerly.
‘I’m Ronald but you can call me Ron,’ he said as he tilted his head to one side and beamed.
‘My name is Ms Wilkins, Mr…?’ Maggie asked.
‘It’s William Noakes Ms Wilkins, but please call me William.’
‘Very well. My name is Maggie but you can call me Ms Wilkins,’ she said.
‘Oh Maggie, give over,’ Ronald implored and then turned to William again.
‘It’s Maggie to everyone in the village and that includes you Willie. Oh, can I call you Willie?’ Ronald turned a pinkish hue.
‘Of course you can Ron, and if I may, Maggie, it would be a pleasure for both of you to come and have a drink with me. I’m sure I can rustle up some tea or some sparkling wine if you fancy it?’
‘It’s a little early for wine Mr Noakes but tea would be splendid, thank you.’
‘Wine for me thanks Willie,’ Ronald said as he made his way round the hedge and flapped his hand at Maggie to get a move on. Both Maggie and Ronald almost had to canter to keep up with the striding William. He was lean and six foot tall with smart cropped hair. His jeans clung tightly to his ‘lovely bottom’, as Ronald observed again, and his fitted t-shirt revealed an obsessive exercise regime. They trotted into his cottage and slalomed through the boxes to the living room.
‘Feel free to look around,’ he called as he went to fetch the drinks. Maggie immediately went off to the dining room as Ronald rolled his eyes at her. She thought William seemed pleasant enough, but she didn’t trust men. Not anymore. Maggie ran the local florist shop with precision and dedication. Her husband had left her for another woman five years ago and she had become a very untrusting and independent woman. Her clothing was always starched and formal: she wore a grey, knee length pencil skirt and black sheer tights with modest heels and a white blouse, softened with subtle embroidery, that peeped out from a fitted grey jacket. She was slim and a little over five and a half foot with coconut white skin. Her sable hair was always scraped back in penance to her past creating a flawless ponytail. Her face was crisp with emotion. Sea blue glasses, the only hint of life to be found on her, rested precisely on her pointed nose. She was always twitchy. Ronald on the other hand, was not.
‘Here you go guys,’ William said as he came through the doorway with the refreshments. Maggie came back from the dining room as if it were her own home.
‘You’ll have a lot of work to do here you know,’ she poked, ‘and those trees out the front need regular trimming, but you won’t be able to cut them down.’
‘I’m really looking forward to making this place a proper country home and keeping everything traditional Maggie. Maybe you could help me with some of my choices?’ William probed with gentle rural eyes.
‘Er, yes, I suppose I could. Help you,’ said Maggie as a corner of her thin lips twitched surprisingly upwards.
‘I’ll do the honours,’ cried Ronald and popped the cork lustily into the air. ‘There she goes!’
‘What’s that on the fireplace Mr Noakes?’ Maggie asked as she went to the mantelpiece.
‘Oh that’s….’ but she didn’t hear anymore. The doll was in her hand and her twitching stopped. She stood still with her back to the two men.
‘What have you got there?’ Ronald asked. There was no response. He went over and tried to take it from her, but his first attempt failed. ‘Let me see,’ he insisted.
‘Sure. Sure, there you go. It’s a voodoo doll I think isn’t it, William?’ Maggie said as she sat down and took off her glasses. She leant back, undid her ponytail and freely shook her hair. ‘Is that wine for me?’
‘Maggie, you look, well, different,’ said a rather perplexed Ronald clutching the doll. ‘Pretty.’ Ronald’s brow creased and he turned an autumn scarlet as the unfamiliar word stuck in his throat. He looked at the floor. ‘I think I need to go. I don’t feel right. I need to, go,’ and with that and a whispered, ‘What am I going to say to Martin?’ he was gone.
William looked at Maggie and she shrugged her shoulders. She stood up, her eyes fixed on William and very deliberately unbuttoned her jacket. She tossed it onto one of the boxes with a lazy flick of her wrist and reached for her glass of wine as she sunk into the armchair.
‘Are you married Willie?’
About the Author.
Andy Stone studied creative writing and lives in the heart of the Ashdown Forest with his family. After writing several short stories he is about to embark on his first novel.
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