A version of this story first appeared in the anthology Cloudscapes over the Lune
They asked me to make a man for Aunty Heidi, so that’s what I did.
It didn’t take me long. I decided to do her a man in black, because then he’d be eye-catching and sophisticated and I could give his jacket straight, square shoulders. I drew him on cardboard and cut him out in seconds. Modelling clay would have been too heavy, and I had a feeling she wanted someone bendy. I stuck a paper face on, coloured his hair in black felt pen, and gave him long, delicate paper hands.
One thing bugged me: his hair looked like felt pen. I ran to the beach and found the perfect material straight away: seaweed. Black, washed up that morning, and all dried out. Back at home, I snipped it into short strands and glued it on. Now his hair looked like it was flowing, even growing, as if he’d just washed it. I sniffed. Yes, you could still smell seaweed, but it was fresh. I took him round to her flat just as the sun was sitting perfectly on the watery horizon across the bay. A Morecambe man made with real Morecambe seaweed.
‘He’s magnificent!’ she said. ‘Just what I need. Thank you, Natalie.’
‘Why do you need a man, Aunty Heidi?’ Mum had said it was because she was lonely, but I didn’t believe that; she’s always had loads of friends. There was some kind of tangle between Mum and Aunty Heidi. They hadn’t quite fallen out, but they weren’t exactly huggy sisters any more, either.
‘I need someone to mend my washing machine,’ she said. ‘And shave a fraction off the bottom of my front door to stop it sticking.’
‘Dad can do that.’
‘Hmm. I think I need to stop bothering your dad.’
My cardboard man sat in Aunty Heidi’s palms, his white face cradled against her thumb, his fingers spread delicately, as if he was just about to play the piano. They didn’t look like strong, mending fingers. ‘Can’t you just phone the washing machine shop?’
She didn’t answer. She studied the man in her hands as if she, too, was wondering what he could do. Then she propped him between her teacup and a jar of honey, buttered our toast, as usual, and asked me about my day.
Our house is next door to Aunty Heidi’s, so when she went out the next day wearing a pale green dress I’d never seen before, with her hair up in a clip, I jumped down from the window and raced after her.
She was quite a way ahead of me, so I shouted her name, but my voice was drowned out by a motorbike. I didn’t shout again. I followed her all the way to the Midland Hotel, which is as far as I’m allowed. I felt a bit sneaky, but I carried on doing it anyway.
She went inside, which was so weird. Aunty Heidi always tells me if she’s going somewhere special. I watched her disappear through the big glass doors, then ran up to them and peered through. There she was, waiting in the middle of the floor beneath the circular staircase. There were lots of people; my ears rang with the buzz of their chatter. Then a man came up to her. I didn’t see where he came from; he was just suddenly there, jangling his keys in his pockets as he walked. Aunty Heidi turned to him and they held hands for a second. Blink and you’d have missed it. He was dressed in black, like my cardboard man. Black trousers, black shirt, black shoes . . . and dark hair.
They moved off, and I followed. They went right through to the Rotunda Bar, got some drinks, and took them to a table near the window. I stood in the doorway near the top of the basement stairs and looked into the amazing round room with its glass wall, like the one in Aunty Heidi’s flat, and its chandelier. Aunty Heidi has one of those, too. The whole hotel could almost be Aunty Heidi’s flat, but about a hundred times bigger. A waitress glided around carrying a tray loaded with cups and cakes. She moved across the floor smoothly, like a robot. I smelt coffee and new decorating and perfume. I looked at the two of them by the window, and I couldn’t believe it.
Aunty Heidi looked excited. She smiled a lot more than usual. She talked, and smiled as she talked, showing her teeth. I wished I was close enough to hear what they were saying. What could they be saying? She looked a bit stiff, as if she was doing something difficult. Then he went back to the bar for more drinks and I got a better view of him: he was young, tall and thin with a pale face, just like the man I’d made. Perhaps if he’d been wearing jeans, or if he hadn’t been so tall . . . but no, he was dressed exactly as I’d made him.
He sat down again and this time, he was leaning right over Aunty Heidi and all I could see of her was a little sprig of red hair poking out from behind his black head. He must have bewitched her. What can you talk about that’s so important you have to get close up like that? And if my cardboard man had come to life, then he probably did have strange powers. Should I rescue her? Should I walk across to them and pretend Mum wanted her for something?
I tried to make out the strands of seaweed-hair. If I did walk up to them, I’d be able to see the seaweed. I’d be able to touch it. I’d know.
I couldn’t do it. Outside, the traffic crawled along both lanes beside me. I scanned the sea. The tide was miles away. I ran along the prom towards home, but I didn’t really want to go there. My best friend Megan was away in Greece all summer, otherwise I’d have been straight round to her house.
At home, Mum was on the computer, but I didn’t let that stop me. ‘Mum! Aunty Heidi’s with a man in the Midland Hotel!’
‘What? How do you know?’
‘I’ve seen her. And he’s dangerous! He’s not a real man! He’s a thing!’
‘What do you mean, a thing? Anyway, it’s none of our business who Aunty Heidi sees. Don’t be nosy.’
‘No, it’s that man I made for her—you know, The Man! He’s come to life!’
But of course, Mum just laughed. ‘Tell ’em tall, tell ’em all, tell ’em to the wall.’
When Aunty Heidi came home from work the next day, I was waiting on her doorstep. I asked her about the man all the way up the stairs. ‘I saw you through the window in the Midland. He’s your boyfriend, isn’t he? Why didn’t you tell me you had a boyfriend?’
She shook her head and laughed. ‘Dream a little dream of me,’ she sang from her bedroom as she swapped her white dental nurse’s uniform for a summer dress.
‘Where did you find him?’ I shouted through.
‘We just got talking and we clicked.’
‘But where?’ I could hear her getting cross with the tangle of coat hangers in her wardrobe.
‘Here, there, everywhere,’ she said, coming back to sit with me. ‘Just around. All around the place.’
‘But that’s like when I ask how old you are and you say, “As old as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth’’.’
Aunty Heidi giggled. ‘And that’s true too! It’s the God’s honest truth. No, really, I met him on the Lunesdale Studio Trail. I’ve signed up for a course in mosaics. He’s a sculptor, and he’s going to make a seahorse for my windowsill.’
I studied her face. People’s eyes try to concentrate on something when they’re lying, but her eyes just looked into mine and crinkled when she smiled, so I wasn’t sure. Because just lately, Mum says Aunty Heidi makes it up as she goes along.
Suddenly, I thought of something. ‘Where’s The Man?’
‘The Man. The man I made you.’
‘Oh. He’s on the bookcase, I think.’ She got up and went over to look. ‘Perhaps not. But he’s somewhere around.’
‘Have you lost him?’
‘’Course not, Sweetheart. I treasure the things you make me. He’s probably in the bedroom.’
There wasn’t anything suspicious in her voice or the way she looked, but I didn’t believe her—not one word. ‘I’ll try to find him for you,’ I said, and I wandered from room to room, feeling a little bit spooked, as if The Man was here, secretly, and was playing a game with me.
I like Aunty Heidi’s flat because it’s so much tidier than our house, and calmer too. There’s only Aunty Heidi living there, for one thing, and for another, whatever Aunty Heidi does in her place, Mum does the opposite in ours. I couldn’t find The Man.
Back at home, I pushed my food all around my plate instead of eating. ‘The man I made her isn’t there any more, and that man she met in the Midland is pretending to be a sculptor. He’s tricking her. He’s probably pretending he can help with her mosaic classes.’
Mum looked up from her dinner. ‘Mosaic classes? Since when did she decide to do mosaics?’
‘I don’t know. She’s even told him that seahorses are her favourite creatures.’
Mum put her knife and fork down. ‘I thought we were both going to do watercolours. That’s what she said.’
‘She met him at the Lunesdale Trail. It must be a walk through a wood.’
‘No, it’s an art thing. So he could be anyone—a visitor, perhaps. But that doesn’t mean he’s tricking her, Natalie. You’re getting carried away.’ She picked up her cup of tea and cradled it next to her mouth without drinking. ‘Well, he’ll know he’s got her, that’s for sure. What’s his name, anyway?’
I gasped. ‘She never said!’ I bet he hasn’t got one! I remembered how small and neat he’d looked in her hand when he was still cardboard. Teensy. Harmless-looking. But the most deadly octopus is only the size of a marble. Aunty Heidi had told me that.
Dad was already clearing the dishes away, saying nothing. I could tell he was listening, though. His shoulders were stiff, and he looked over at Mum every so often.
I made plans. I’d follow The Man and find out where he slept, see if he turned back into cardboard when people weren’t looking. I clicked through the internet, looking for things that change. Butterflies…. Frogs…. Wherever I clicked, I found metamorphosis, but nothing quite like The Man. I landed on a page with a beautiful picture of a dragonfly and remembered what Aunty Heidi once told me about them: they live for two years as a nymph underwater, then spend just one month as an adult above ground. Like The Man, perhaps? Just a month would be okay.
All that week I looked out for him. On the beach, all around the new flats, at the fairground. But I never found him on his own. No matter how I timed it, he always got to Aunty Heidi’s flat without me seeing. They were always together.
One day, after I’d given up trying to beat him, I decided to follow the pair of them. At first it went well. They didn’t look back, so I got brave and by the time they’d reached the play area I was just behind them. This was the closest I’d ever been and I could smell him. He smelt of cooking oil and Mars bars. I had to get even closer to hear what they were saying.
‘And the devil take the hindmost,’ Aunty Heidi said.
‘Do you get me?’ he said. His voice was low and croaky, like a crow.
I missed her answer to that, but next, she said, ‘As long as nothing crops up.’
‘That was real,’ he said.
What was real? I couldn’t understand them. His hair looked as if he’d polished it.
Then Aunty Heidi stopped and they both turned around suddenly. ‘Natalie!’
‘Rod and I are just going for a little walk by ourselves.’
Rod? Huh! I refused to call him that, ever. To me, he was just The Man. And what on Earth did they talk about all the time? He wouldn’t know about any of those things Aunty Heidi liked to tell me—the dragonfly nymphs, the moons of Jupiter, how nettles sting you with tiny injection needles. He could only possibly be interested in greasy things. I could tell by the way he smelled.
I didn’t think Aunty Heidi would ever forget me. Mum and Dad go to see a film at the Dukes once a month and drop me off at ballet first. Aunty Heidi always picks me up, takes me home, and stays with me till they get back, as it’s late and the house is empty. Or sometimes we watch a film at her place. But that one night, she was too busy doing whatever it was she did with The Man, and I came out of ballet and waited next to the sweet shop . . . and waited.
It’s a long way back from Bare. Too long. At first it was like an adventure, as if the whole of Morecambe had been laid out for me to explore. But that feeling didn’t last very long. It’s freaky, but it just seemed to tip over from one street to the next, because suddenly, I wanted to be home already. There weren’t many people on Seaborn Grove, which made me feel like everyone knew a better way and was taking it.
Mum and Dad turn their mobiles off in the Dukes, and Aunty Heidi usually sorts all that stuff out anyway. I felt loose, like a boat cast adrift. I headed for the sea. There was Marine Road. There was the beach, the sea, the big rocks with perching stone seagulls. The real seagulls hunched their wings against the wind. My coat blew forward and my hair flew high in the air, knotting up and stinging my eyes, so by the time I got home I looked icky and messed up and my lips tasted salty. Even the sea looked sulky and grey. The tide was in and the waves slumped against the concrete wall as if they wanted to slap somebody.
I reached the house at the same time as Mum and Dad, which was wrong, wrong, wrong.
‘Where’ve you been?’ said Mum. ‘Where’s Heidi?’
‘She never turned up. She’s probably with that man.’ I glanced up at the dark windows of Aunty Heidi’s flat.
‘What?’ Mum yanked the door open and tugging her jacket off. ‘She’s left you to walk home on your own?’
‘Told you I need a mobile.’
We all stood in the kitchen. They stared at me.
‘Are you all right?’ asked Dad.
‘Is that bloke leading her by the nose, or what?’ said Mum.
We heard the click of Aunty Heidi’s garden gate, and a giggle.
‘Right,’ said Mum. She says that just before she does something important. Right. It means something is getting going.
A horrible hot feeling swept through me. ‘What are you going to do? She just forgot.’
‘June,’ Dad said. ‘You’ll regret it. You know you will.’
But Mum left the house.
‘What will she regret?’ I asked, but Dad just shook his head and gave me the lot-of-fuss-about-nothing look, which I might have believed if his eyebrows hadn’t given him away. They go up into little arrowheads when he’s worried. I found a pen and drew loose eyebrows on his newspaper till Mum came back.
She made cheese on toast for supper. Dad stood back and let her do it. He didn’t ask. I made an arrowhead out of my knife and fork, carefully, without wobbling the table.
Mum and Aunty Heidi. The gap between them went on for weeks. And nearly every day The Man slipped up the stairs next door. You only ever caught a glimpse of him—his back disappearing, or sometimes a side view—but always, a feeling came off him, a kind of gloating. I think he was glad about the argument because now he could have Aunty Heidi all to himself. I even saw him in the morning once. The week before term started again, I looked up at her window on my way to feed Megan’s rabbits and there he stood, his dark head filling the pane. He yawned when he saw me, as if he’d just woken up. It was the most awful yawn I’ve ever seen in my life. It went on for ages and was wider than a mouth should really be.
‘Can we go bowling?’ I asked Mum one day.
‘I’ve got a lot to do. Maybe later.’
‘You’re all busy. Megan’s on holiday, and Aunty Heidi’s with that man.’
‘Don’t bother your aunt.’
‘It’s not like a summer holiday,’ I said. A seagull squawked outside our window.
Mum took hold of my cheeks in both hands and squeezed. ‘That’s the way it goes sometimes.’ She looked dreamy. ‘Why don’t you go to the beach or play around the fountains? If you wait for other people to make your entertainment, you’ll be waiting and waiting till Christmas has been and gone.’ I had the feeling she wasn’t just talking about me.
I dreamt about how easy it would be to get rid of him. I could just throw him in the sea and watch him soak and float. In a while, he’d disintegrate and get washed up with the line of froth. Or I could walk across the sands when the tide was out and bury him. Aunty Heidi’s told me there are fields of gas under that sea. If I walked far enough out and dug far enough down, I could bury him on top of the sandstone where the gas is stored. I liked the idea of him being on top of a load of gas. Or I could just cut him into little ribbons and throw him in the bin. The only trouble was, I couldn’t find him, could I? Not in his true cardboard form, anyway.
Then I had my brainwave: cardboard. Wouldn’t a cardboard man be happier with a cardboard woman?
I got my scissors out again. I made her blonde and as pretty as I could, which was easy because I’ve got lots of Clarice Bean books and there are some lovely faces to copy in those. I made her dress out of actual red velvet from an old cushion and stuck it on with super-glue. Her shoes were real Cinderella slippers made from a shiny blue plastic bag with mega-high heels. I got really into it. The heels were cut from a white yoghurt pot; I thought I’d better make them fairly sturdy.
I took her round to Aunty Heidi’s with some biscuits I’d made. ‘Has it come to this, Petal?’ Dad teased, but I was glad. The biscuits would get me in—me and the cardboard woman.
‘Back to school soon,’ said Aunty Heidi.
The Man didn’t speak at all, and he ate none of my biscuits. I glared at him. Dragonfly, I thought.
‘You’ll be glad to see Megan again.’ Aunty Heidi rubbed her hands together and cleared our cups and plates away. She looked as if she was in a hurry to wash up.
I hid the cardboard woman in the bathroom window behind a spare loo roll. And it was odd, because as soon as I’d put her in position, one of those thin spindly spiders began to spin round and round on its web in a corner near the ceiling. They don’t usually do that unless you touch them.
It didn’t take long. I saw the two of them together—the cardboard man and the cardboard lady—in that café in front of the Battery just three days later on a rainy teatime. Her glass slippers looked solid enough now.
‘Four chocolate chip cookies to take away, please,’ I said at the counter. I was sure The Man would look across when he heard my voice, but he didn’t. Perhaps he was just pretending not to listen. Outside, seagulls screeched and swooped over the wet sand. After walking a little way, I looked back over my shoulder and thought I saw them both staring after me.
‘I told you he’d be a fly-by-night,’ said Mum, when we found out Aunty Heidi was on her own again.
‘When did you say that?’ I asked, but neither Mum nor Dad wanted to talk about Aunty Heidi or her ex-man. They did have her to tea, though, for the first time in months.
Mum grumbled about the only type of bread that had been left in Tesco’s, and then raved about the cakes in the Italian market (‘They’re magnificent!’) and the rice at the new Nepalese stall (‘You have to watch them or they persuade you into all kinds.’). But I could tell she was trying her best.
Aunty Heidi was wary, but agreed as hard as she could. ‘You have to stop them piling chutney into the small tubs and squashing it down. Before you know it, you’ve parted with ten pounds.’
Nobody mentioned The Man, but everyone was thinking about him, and it felt like it might start raining on us any second, even though we were in the kitchen.
‘We could go bowling again now,’ I said to Aunty Heidi.
She looked down at her hands for a moment. ‘That would be fun, Natalie.’
‘You’ll get all the strikes,’ I told her, to cheer her up, and she smiled at me but her eyes stayed sad and sort of worn out.
I’d been back at school for nearly a month before she started laughing properly again and taking me to places, showing me things like she used to. She wasn’t fuzzy and dreamy any more, but she wasn’t quite the same as she’d been before I made that man, either. Never quite the same again.
© Clare Weze 2010
This version edited by Christi Clemons Hoffman