- Alan Ward
The Wind-up House
A short story written as part of my project This Library is Yours. Previously displayed at Gillingham Library, Dorset.
Three things are odd about the little house. One: its window ledges shoulder thick shelves of moss that reach the bottom of the glass and threaten to climb it. Two: as if marking some tragedy, a single candle burns in a front window on the upper floor, though it is only early afternoon. Thirdly, and this is the oddest of the three odd things: from the side of the property sticks an enormous key, like an ear. It’s a giant butterfly-style clock winder, like the kinds you might get on a music box or children’s toy.
The cottage suffers the rain without fuss. Water drips off the two oak trees standing either side of it and runs in flashing streaks from its thatched roof. Despite the moss the window panes are not cracked, and the render on the external walls is in good condition and not long painted. Emmeline weighs her options only fleetingly before stepping over the torrent of water washing across the cottage’s gravel path. It will be getting dark soon, and the clouds are ominous enough to indicate that the rain won’t be letting up, and a night alone in the woods is not something she desires. She feels silly doubting for even a second that approaching this house is the right thing to do, given her situation. It’s the key sticking from the render that gives her pause for thought. Whoever lives here must be eccentric, and Emmeline has never thought of herself as particularly good company for eccentrics, being somewhat off the beaten track herself. Living with Mama is quite enough. Nevertheless, she presses the doorbell, hears a pleasant tinkle from inside, and waits with the rain dripping down her neck inside her kagoule.
A young man opens the door. He’s about her age: Emmeline is twenty-nine but feels older. The young man has long eyelashes and a toasty red woollen jumper over a shirt with a narrow blue check. Emmeline is taken aback that he’s not the haggard old woman fairy tales have taught her to expect. The square knuckle of the index finger of his left hand marks a page near the middle of a hardback book.
The man blinks – slowly, mechanically – as if he is expecting someone else, and waits for Emmeline to speak. She is flustered by his smooth pink cheeks and the clear white of his eyes.
“Lost,” she manages to gabble, and knows immediately she’s going to come off rude. “Quite and absolutely timmy-tampered actually. What a day! I don’t suppose you’ve a telephone one could call her sis on do you?” There is no car outside, so Emmeline knows the young man isn’t going to be able to drive her anywhere.
The man looks at her like she’s a drunk and asks: “Are you drunk?”
“You’d be quite surprised how often people ask me that,” Emmeline says in her drawling, sleepy sing-song. Emmeline’s voice is that of her mother, and her mother’s voice is old-days BBC polished. “Teetotal!” Emmeline barks. “Heaven knows what would happen if I were to take a sip of the devil juice.” She pushes back the hood of her kagoule and scrapes her fingernails through a sodden fringe. “Teleph-hone?”
The man nods, not knowing what to make of Emmeline. He leads her into the cottage, moving jerkily. “You’re quite off the beaten path,” he tells her. The kitchen is without the fairy tale’s hearth and instead has an average oven and a midrange electric kettle Emmeline recognises from a recent flick through the Argos catalogue. The man looks at Emmeline for a long time and doesn’t blink. His crystal eyes seem brand new, and the look is unsettling. Emmeline wonders why he lives in the middle of the woods like this, and her mind comes up with all sorts of reasons she doesn’t wish to dwell on. She wipes her damp hand on the front of her jeans. The man flicks the kettle on and reaches for the phone.
Now she’s inside, Emmeline is hot in her kagoule. Its plastic lining is sticking to her wrists and the back of her neck. Somehow there’s no longer enough room inside it for the frumpy jumper she chose for warmth. The layers she’s wearing are a little too effective after today’s exercise.
The telephone the man hands her is a chunky landline from the windowsill. He brings it out from behind a thriving aloe vera in a large terracotta pot. He hands her the whole unit and she picks up the dusty receiver with disdain before she realises she doesn’t know a single telephone number in the world apart from 999. The dead mobile in her pocket does all that for her. Perhaps she knows her friend Clarence’s from primary school, but that was only six digits when you didn’t count the area code and Clarence’s parents moved away long ago. The household that had Clarence’s parents’ number now, if any did, wouldn’t want to hear from Emmeline.
“On second thoughts,” she says to the man, who has set about methodically making a pot of tea without asking her if she’s staying for it, “do you have a charger?” She waves her mobile at him. He shakes his head.
“Just the phone,” he nods to the landline. Despite his handsome appearance the man’s eyes are a little too wide, his eyelids too perfectly smooth, like a doll’s, and Emmeline wonders again about his reasons for living alone in the woods.
Not wanting the man to dwell on her isolation, Emmeline makes an elaborate show of dialling. She uses her best guess of Clarence’s parents’ number and listens to it ring and ring. Eventually it clicks through to an impersonal voicemail that still uses the default recording to solicit a message. Emmeline obliges.
"Yes,” she squawks. “It’s me … darling … darling? Can you hear? … Yes.” Despite her relative youth, Emmeline’s never been able to stop herself when it comes to words like ‘darling’. On the playground at school she was six going on sixty. She blames Mama. “Got myself turned around a few times on my walk, but I’m alright. I’m in the presence of a Mr–” She gestures to the young man to give her his name, pulling it from him presumptively by drawing in her hand.
“Andrews, in a very distinctive house with a wind-up key sticking out of it. He’s taken me in and is even making me a tea, or so it looks. I’ll get directions from here back to the car park. … Meet you back there? Yes. … Gosh, I don’t know. Depends how much I’ve turned myself around. … Yes. … Yes. … Yes, darling. … See you soon, dear.”
Emmeline rings off. Although the phone call was entirely falsified to prevent the stranger Mr Andrews perceiving any vulnerability, Emmeline feels calmer for having spoken to the unknown household’s voicemail. As if she has put a halt to the search that will by now be tumbling after her – she’d told her sister exactly when to expect her back. Now, as far as Mr Andrews is concerned, she’s provided a description of him and his house to her sister. Whatever his reasons for living so remotely, he won’t be able to prey on her.
Mr Andrews has made Emmeline a tea in jerky movements. He asks if she’d like milk, which she accepts, and sugar, which she declines.
“I feel much better now I’ve spoken to my sister,” she says to add to the illusion. “I’ll just need some directions from you.”
Mr Andrews looks at Emmeline vacantly. “I don’t often leave here,” he says, unhelpfully. “Directions are not my speciality, but there is someone coming soon who I can ask.”
“A carer?” Emmeline asks, wary of what she’s gotten herself into. Perhaps Mr Andrews is quite unhinged. More so than her.
Mr Andrews evades the question by walking into the hall. “We’ll be more comfortable in the living room,” he says, and Emmeline thinks this is it: the lounge is where he is going to chop her into tiny pieces, and then he’ll flush her down the toilet.
The living room is full of legs, hanging from the ceiling and in a row on the coffee table. “I’m a specialist in prosthetic limbs,” Mr Andrews explains. “They’re a unique mechanical type, quite sought after.” One in particular is in a box and ready to go. “Being picked up this evening,” Mr Andrews explains. As Emmeline makes herself comfortable in an armchair, Mr Andrews tells her his patients come from all over, into the woods to be measured and fitted. Emmeline tells him that he must be very good at what he does to attract all the way out here.
“However do they find you, though? You’re quite out of the way. And there’s no road.” Emmeline, snug in her sweaty kagoule, yawns into her tea, which came in a chipped enamel mug with a blue rim, and says: “I could just go to sleep, it’s so warm.”
She takes a sip of tea and, as if her own words are a spell, she does just that. Young Mr Andrews never answers her question and her eyes close. When she hears her host going to the door a short while later she can scarcely lift her head. Peering out from under her droopy eyelids she sees a plump, older man come in to the room, and there’s a mumbling about the candle in the window upstairs. “I didn’t have time to blow it out, to let you know not to bother,” Mr Andrews says, or she thinks she says. Her head is groggy. “Plus I’m running low and couldn’t do without for much longer.” The other man takes Mr Andrews apart by removing the front of his jumper, which it turns out is simply tacked on like a boilerplate. Emmeline is paralysed. Perhaps there was something in the tea? she thinks drowsily, but it’s too late now. She watches through a brush of quivering eyelashes. Under the jumper are gears and cogs, and inside a mug sized depression in the middle of Mr Andrew’s chest a space for a key just like the one on the side of the cottage. The other man produces it and winds and winds Mr Andrews until the key is so tight the man’s hand is red from the exertion. As soon as he lets go of it, the key begins to unwind, but if the cogs and gears inside Mr Andrew tick or whir they do so at a volume that’s too quiet to be heard. The man is careful to pocket the key. He nods at Emmeline with a question to Mr Andrews, and that is the last thing she remembers.
When Emmeline stirs she is embarrassed to have fallen asleep in the young man’s house, but she finds she hasn’t. She has, in her hands, the same tin mug Mr Andrews handed her, but there are dried leaves at the bottom of it and it’s stained with spatters of earth as if a child might have once filled it with mud and turned it out in not-quite-sandcastles. The handle and rim are dented and scuffed to the metal bone beneath the enamel. The light has gone from the sky and Emmeline is chilled, but at least the rain has stopped. The light she sees the cup by is attached to the head of a gentleman in a reflective orange coat. She’s sat on the ground against a tree, the mug in her hands between her thighs.
“It’s alright Emmeline, we’ll soon get you warm.”
Emmeline feels well rested from her sleep. Even so, her squawks about Mr Andrews and the house and her repeated shout of “Where did those legs go?” gives her rescuer cause for concern. The gentleman peering at Emmeline from beneath the headlamp is named Garth and he’s with his colleague Quiet Jim. Emmeline’s disorientation is cause enough for Garth to suspect hypothermia and he calls to Quiet Jim for a space blanket.
Emmeline lets Garth lead her to his truck, which is parked on a track not far away. Garth can’t answer Emmeline’s questions about her tea and he doesn’t know who she’s talking about when she mentions “that nice young chap”.
“No one lives in this part of the woods,” he tells Emmeline, looking at her at with two deep dents between his eyebrows. “You’ve been out here by yourself? There isn’t anyone else we should be looking for?”
Emmeline looks out of the truck’s windscreen at the two oak trees leaning in towards each other. They’re cast silver in the white glare of the headlights. She could have sworn the wind-up house had been just there, but decides not to push it any further with Garth. She shakes her head and gratefully takes a plastic cup of hot chocolate Quiet Jim has poured from a thermos. “Bit of sugar will sort you right out,” Garth says.
Emmeline mumbles something about gingerbread houses and Garth tells her to hold on to her hot chocolate as Jim starts the engine and sets them rushing towards the doctor.
Emmeline’s sister shrieks when she sees her pale sibling step out of the orange rescue truck in a dark carpark. Emmeline is surprised the journey has only taken a few minutes.
“There you are!”
“Darling, darling,” Emmeline says, her kagoule flapping and scratching at her sister as they embrace.
“Wherever have you been all this time?” Emmeline’s sister says. Emmeline knows from her exchange with Garth it’s best not to answer. Emmeline’s sister tuts at the uncharacteristic silence. “Where’s that medic?”
Garth goes off to get the doctor and her sister gets Emmeline to sit back in the van again. Emmeline looks down at the empty plastic cup from the top of the Thermos in her hand. The chipped enamel mug hasn’t made it back here with her. As she sits there waiting for the doctor to come and shine a torch in her eyes, she hears the tinkle of music from the woods.
“Odd. An ice cream van at this time,” she says to her sister. Her sister looks at her blankly, as if she can’t hear a thing. Quiet Jim looks on, shaking out the dregs of the Thermos flask onto the brambles at the edge of the carpark in the garish light of the truck’s headlights. When he turns to walk back, he keeps Emmeline’s eye and she notices a flash of plastic at his ankle.
“There’s no ice cream van,” Emmeline’s sister says, cupping a hand to Emmeline’s chin.
“No, no,” says Emmeline. “I suppose there’s not.” Quiet Jim keeps her eye. “It’s a music box.”