Miranda´s last piano recital of the old year hadn´t gone well. There had been the constant interruptions, the smashed mobile phone, the tears and threats, and then finally, the hissing and catcalls. The stage manager had told her to leave around the back.
So here she was strolling by the Thames on a cold December evening watching the light silver the waves. The inevitable call from her agent still hadn´t come, nor had she had rehearsed what she would say.
Life was in freefall; there were so many bills to pay, her career was in ruins, and no-one cared. Well, at least, she had got rid of that loser of a boyfriend. A couple on a bench huddled closer as she brayed out a big laugh just thinking of how his mother, the old prune, had stammered and declaimed. Well, she had insisted on making the bloody call right in the middle of the auditorium even after she had been reminded that she had been given the tickets for free. Miranda had shown her. Yeah, she had really shown her. Witch. Looking up, she saw the horror on the couple´s face. It made her uneasy. Had she spoken aloud? It made her angry. Why should she have to care? Why should Mr. and Miss. Littleprimness tell her what she should do? They had no right to judge her.
“What you think you´re looking at?”
Her voice came out more garbled than she had hoped for.
The boy put his arms around his partner and they got up and began to walk away.
“I know people like you. You think you´re clever but you´re not. You´re not.”
They didn´t turn back. They didn´t respond. God, it was all so useless!
The effect of the alcohol was wearing. Feeling self-concious, she took a side street, off the river, preferring her own company. She didn´t care to get her bearings. If she had looked for the street sign she wouldn´t have found it. She was always getting herself lost – right now, that was a blessing. Thoughts of the concert hall were fading but in their place was belly-turning, hand-wringing dread. With no call coming from her agent Miranda did the one thing that she knew she had to do; she switched off her mobile. She felt self-concious travelling the city in her pink jacket and pencil skirt but the neutralised phone gave her back a degree of confidence. Sick of her handbag bashing against her waist she took it off and carried it in her hands. She hadn´t planned on walking any distance. Retribution was costlier than she had imagined now her lift had thrown a strop. Paul, or Mr. Loser, as she was going to be calling him, would tell her to move out. And she didn´t care. Damn that woman. Her friends had told her not to get into a fight with the family.
She was cold and more than a little tired when she saw it, or rather them. The ´it´ was just the kind of place his mother, Constance, would pick – a pin-money maker. No, the box-sized boutique with it´s unreadable italic name, hadn´t caught her attention but rather the two nude male dummies in the window. Further inside, all Miranda could see were dresses, blouses, and scarves: the expected tat with patterns that could only be honestly marketed as floral nightmare, primal migraine, or menopausal meltdown. Not worth thinking on. Not like the dummies. They were so lifelike right down to the greying bristles in their hair – no static-happy polyester wigs on these guys. One had a bottle of wine in its hand. It was carrying the bottle; there was no trickery. The other was inspecting his watch, or was he winding it up. Of course, there was the customary bump signifying male genitalia but other than this concession they looked real, like reach-out-and-touch-real. The pair had been set up as though they were waiting for guests. The door that the spectator was to believe was the entrance to the bizarrre naturist batchelor´s house was a stencil that had been laid upon the display glass. It was like they were daring you to join them. On approaching, she noticed the handle that was attached to the window on the outside.
Very cute, she thought. Playing with the fourth wall. And because she had precious else and because she was in a desperate state, she stood on the shop ledge and tried it. And it was with more than a little surprise that this same impossible door swung open with a squeal making her jump off the ledge awkwardly near twisting her ankle. She put her hands over her ears and braced herself on the floor, her arms around her legs; but, the burglar alarm didn´t go off. And when she got up no-one was waiting to apprehend her. She considered the options; freezing her tits off, going back to Mr. Loser, or actually enjoying herself. It was all so delicious – something to tell her friends. She could take photos. There seemed no reason not to investigate. It wasn´t going to get any better, and if Connie pressed charges it would get decidedly worse. Dusting herself down, she entered bending under the canopy of plastic arms. She didn´t notice the door closed behind her until it was too late.
The stock laid out before her was as ghastly close up as it was seen through the shop window. From the metal stands grew little mushrooms of color, strands of lace and polyester upon which the middle-aged and the elderly grazed. Glossy ruffles pawed at her as she walked the aisle making her skin crawl. The scent of mothballs filled the air making her sneeze.
Miranda pushed aside arms of neglected jackets, torsos of dresses much as she had upon leaving the auditorium. She hadn´t lifted her head to take the poisoned glances of her audience. She suppressed an evil giggle thinking about how she had jumped up and down on the phone – dratted little thing. And all the times, Mr. Loser´s mother had come to dinner. The topic of those annoying little concert interruptions must have come up at least once. Mr. Loser had complained he was sick of hearing about how people answering telephones during Miranda´s recital made focus impossible. When she replayed the events in the auditorium in her mind, it seemed like there was an element of fear in her actions too.
Constance had never approved of her, and when the couple had announced the wedding on the day of the recital she had blanched. She remembered how old, sweetbread-and-tea Constance had invited her into the study for a woman-to-woman talk. It was to no more than a concealed threat – “Leave my boy or you´ll live to regret the day you set eyes upon him”. Those were her words. “You´ll never play again.” There was such a fiery intensity in her eyes when she spoke, a mantra-like power that transfixed Miranda. She believed the woman. A stocky little fighter of a woman who wasn´t quick to make friends. Constance had been as distant with Miranda as she had supportive to her son.
When Miranda started playing, she could feel the blood rising to her face. There were a lot of emotions riding her when the tinny little phone ringtone broke the calm of the concierto. Constance`s haughty, “yes”, was too much. Constance didn´t attempt to allow for the audience or Miranda. She spoke loudly and clearly over the music, and all the delicate finger work that Miranda had spent weeks and months fine-tuning. Ruined. The relationship Miranda thought she had had with Mr. Loser was sacrificed to her own anger. Her former life was gone.
When the phone rang she knew she was being put in her place and this made her mad. When at last her performance was silenced, blood pumping, she had stood up and enraged she had parted the sea of chairs and people until she reached the mother. They had locked eyes for a moment until Miranda grabbed the mobile into which Constance had been chucklingly recounting an anecdote and threw it to the ground. Of course, it had bounced away ineffectively so she had stamped up and down on it. A grimace of distaste had besieged Constance´s face. Miranda remembered snatches of words, ancient words that came from Constance. Words, that at that time, she took no heed of. She remembered them and their puzzling old English flavour when getting worked up with anger again she felt the hand on her shoulder, a clunky touch that slid off her – hollow like the plastic hand of a dummy.
The limbless female dummy fell to the ground with a thump in front of Miranda. It rocked backwards and forwards and then was still. Unlike the dummies in the shop window it was in a bad state of repair. The bust was flecked with speckles of blue paint and one of the lashes was missing, the other bent out of shape. It had no hair; the scalp was scratched. She had to constrain herself from screaming. It would have been so foolish to have to explain her illegal entry into a commercial property to the Police. She whimpered and she shivered. She jumped and she punched the air – all to avoid making a noise, anything to stop the high-pitched siren call. Minutes of thought condensed into milliseconds in her brain – the dummy fell; no, it was pushed; and, then finally and horribly, it had moved itself. Impossible. The shrill cry for help was caught in her throat, trapped in her like the deep frustration she had felt to be accepted into his family. All for nothing. She had been unable to control what was inside then. She thought, this time, she was in control. At least, she was in control until the blackened lips of the wigless head crackled, “You´ll never play again.” When the adrenaline annulled the shock – nothing – not even being caught by the police could have stopped her yelling her lungs out.
Starting to feel faint, Miranda put her hand out to a clothing rail to steady herself. It was clear; no-one was coming. Her face was flushed, her throat sore and her mouth was frozen open. The face that had issued the warning was staring up at her silent. Dead plastic.
Miranda was determined. On searching the shop she couldn´t find an exit, not a door. Except for the clothing, there was little else. There was a mechanical till but no card swipe machine, telephone, nor business card rack. Oddly anonymous. In her frustration she returned to her entry point, the shop front. Her movements were hurried, impatient. The two dummies waited in front of the high street like before but all trace of the impossible door had gone. The little light outside came from moonlight and the street lamps. The cobblestones glistened. It reminded her of the view outside Mr. Loser´s apartment at night. He never would even have been able to afford it if it hadn´t been for his mother´s money. Constance, probably, liked the image of letting a flat in Kensington to her son. Miranda hated the place because it was creepy especially the copse in the backyard that creaked in the wind. No amount of interior decoration could hide its dark history. Supposedly, no. 23 had been used by one of the cults so common in the sixties. Miranda had discovered newspapers in the local library reporting that builders rennovating the building had discovered foetuses in jars behind the walls, crazed writing. Of course, Mr. Loser wouldn´t countenance talk like that – it was all tabloid nonsense to him. However when the lights went out at night, Miranda closed her eyes and held on close to her man. Nothing took away the fear in her though.
Trapped but not ready to smash the glass, Miranda tried to control her breathing which was accelerating out of control. She clenched her palms. The decision to turn on her mobile phone felt like the sanest decision she had made all day. The weak light flickered on. There was the reassuring sequence of beeps. The struggle to remember the password was painful. All the while the dummies watched over her. There was a message waiting her on the phone. She was sure it Mr. Loser asking for her forgiveness. She clicked on it needing a bit of light relief. The voicemail message began with silence, scratching, and then echoes of voices. Voices, barely audible at first, which began to increase in volume intoning the ancient words Constance had spoken. Two pairs of hands grabbed both of hers. A struggle ensued in which the phone fell to the floor. Miranda didn´t want to see the two plastic dummies trying to constrain her – if they were, in fact, dummies. Her hold on reality was thin. She fought to keep her eyes shut as the pressures on her body increased. The chanting from the phone grew yet louder. Miranda knew she had to destroy it if only she could get near it. Her eyelids fought; she fought back. The bodies against hers were smooth, smooth and cold.
Miraculously, she managed to stand on the device – the second phone she had destroyed that day and though the display cracked the chanting continued. There was such a feeling of despair. She wasn´t concious of opening her eyes. In front of her wavered two identical Constances side by side. Two angry Constances. She was regretting the decision that had brought her and Mr. Loser together when there was a bolt of light that filled the room.
Shoppers, the next day, were surprised to see the shiny body of the plastic dummy in the ruins of the burnt-out shop. The owner, a Mrs. Constance Fisher, was called to inspect the damage. Her son came along but remained in her car refusing to talk to anyone. There were tears as was expected but two mysteries remained Neither the fire fighers nor the police could explain how the fire began and how the strange mannequin had escaped undamaged.
“Of course,” said the officer. “You realise we have to investigate these type of incidents. This must be most embarassing for a woman like you.”
“Well, I appreciate you treating me so civilly,” said Constance.
“I have to ask. Where did you get that shop dummy?” said the officer. “It gave me a right shock when I saw it. I thought we´d have to call out forensics.”
“It´s just a reject,” said Constance. “A friend passed it on, and, well, seeing as the shop is destroyed I have no use for her. In truth, I never had need for her. Why don´t you take her?”
“Why thank you ma´am?” said the officer. “I won´t turn you down. The mannequin in the target range has been in need of replacing for a long while. It´s shot to pieces.”
The firemen left and the last questions were asked.
“It could be my imagination,” said the officer, as he tied down the dummy to the roof as he prepared to leave. “But I could swear it knows its fate.”
“Maybe, she does,” said Constance. Maybe, she does.”