Little Man—Charlotte Turnbull

It was his mother who wanted to keep the little man. At eleven-years-old Charlie still trusted her decisions, on the whole, but he didn’t think it would make a good pet. The boy didn’t want it in the house – he didn’t like the way it looked at her.

The thing was unconscious when Alice wrapped it in her waterproof jacket. She stroked its tiny arms to the sides of its body and bound it tight in breathable plastic. She barely felt the inflation of its tissue-thin lungs. One hand braced against the other so as not to crush it accidentally, she rushed up the path to the house – trying to keep its passage steady.

‘Find the bucket,’ she shouted to Charlie.

The little fellow had come around, easing his chin this way, then that, releasing his long beard where it had caught between her fingers. Huge black eyes, in a head the size of her thumb, blinked slowly then fixed upon her.

Theirs was a small cottage in the crook of the moor’s arm, garden brittle with granite and gorse. It had been Charlie’s only home, but there was a shy echo between them once his father had removed his belongings. Alice even found herself worrying that their elderly cat might die, leaving only the two of them.

On the last day of the holidays, Charlie started when his mother opened his bedroom door without knocking. She walked in, drew breath to speak, and paused.

‘What’s that?’ She sniffed.

‘What’s what?’ Charlie squawked unexpectedly, his voice breaking for the first time and amplified by the quiet. Charlie’s hands went straight to his own throat, to throttle the falsetto. Alice flinched, then laughed too lightly, unsettling herself with the silly idea that her son was possessed – that she was cohabiting with a new, unwanted housemate.

She threw up a window and suggested the walk.

Even in heavy rain Charlie and Alice preferred to be outside, their tread softened by thick needle mulch. Among the mossy boles that day the only cry was that of the buzzard. They shuffled home across a slippery welt of black stones over the river, and brushed through ferns to walk by the low granite stone rows that just about constituted a site of antiquity on a map. On walks with both parents, Charlie had always followed his mother, passing the shorter, sharp-ended standing stones, his father on the other side, passing along the taller ones. Now, feeling sullen and resentful, Charlie passed along his father’s old route. The cottage flashed at him through the pillars, like it was trying to keep him in sight, when he felt a pain in his foot and stopped. He braced himself on one of the slabs to upend his boot. A stone fell out and hit the creature, who would otherwise be easily mistaken for leaf mould, on the crown of his head.

‘Mummy!’ Alice ran back, alarmed by the sudden height to Charlie’s voice.

The pisky rubbed its head, looked balefully up at them, then collapsed unconscious.

‘Thank goodness you didn’t hurt him.’ Alice said.

It was naked but for the long beard between its legs. Slumped against the side, the pisky did not even glance at Charlie when he and his mother loomed, as giants, at the rim of the bucket on the kitchen table. It was inert, enthralled by his mother, making no effort to scale its smooth plastic walls.

‘Isn’t he sweet?’ Alice cooed. Its mouth curled up at her tone. The gaunt face; grassy dun-coloured hair, thin on top; stained beard and marble of a belly – Charlie wondered what his mother saw. Its lips peeled back to a mouthful of sharp black seeds. Alice clapped her hands delighted, and Charlie felt sick.

Instead of towelling his hair dry, his mother sent Charlie out into the rain again to collect moss and leaves. She prepared a ramekin of water with bread and cheese. They put it all in the bucket, but the little man continued to leer without moving. Alice mimed eating but still it didn’t move. She placed a morsel of bread on her tongue, and the pisky’s tongue rolled out – Alice pressed a crumb to it. ‘Charlie! He’s feeding from me!’

They had planned to bring their duvets to the sofa, to watch a film on their last afternoon at home. Charlie didn’t mention it as his mother squealed, letting the creature suck water from her fingertips. The little man grinned at her, lowering his face, black eyes narrowed under thick, nettle-leaf brows. Charlie shuddered. He took the cat to his bedroom, for time alone.

Wired for starting secondary school, Charlie heard his mother creep downstairs during the night to check on the thing in the bucket. He heard her whispers and wondered if she would come to the crack of his door too. He waited up late, then woke too early, unrested and shaky for his first day.

Charlie tipped the sandwich his mother had made him out of the lunchbox and was looking for a plastic bag to put it in, when she came down to find the thing had soiled itself.

‘I don’t want to be late.’ Charlie called from the kitchen, hearing his father’s car pull up outside. He stood on tiptoe to unbolt the door. When Alice didn’t appear to say goodbye, he went into the living room. She was singing Froggy Went A-Courting softly and running moist cotton wool gently across a tiny naked rump. The pisky, bent over, smirking back at her.

‘Bye,’ Charlie said. His mother smiled up at him. ‘I can’t wait to hear all about it this afternoon. Keep Little Man our secret. We wouldn’t want anyone taking him away,’ she said. She stood up to run her hand over soft hair gelled stiff, but Charlie ducked, so she blew him a kiss with one hand instead – the hand holding dirty cotton wool.

Charlie spent that weekend with his father. Alice spent Saturday at the kitchen table sewing a tiny pair of green felt trousers, tunic, and pointed hat – the bucket on a chair beside her.

She was wearied by the sleepless nights, but the little face looking back at her whenever she glanced at it made up for that. Every couple of hours she woke to rustling leaves downstairs. She would blearily finger-feed it a little milk and wipe it down. She dug out their old baby bottles but it would not accept the rubber teat, like Charlie hadn’t.

That night she fed it titbits from her salmon and vegetables, even giving it a drop of Sauvignon. She talked to it softly. It hung on her every word. It was lovely company, except when she lost sight of its hands beneath the beard, which was why she was making the clothes.

On Sunday morning she came down and found it still fast asleep. For a second, she worried it was ill. She stroked it and it came to snarling at her finger, then, remembering where it was, grinned at her with hooded eyes.

The cat was at the door trying to get outside, when she noticed the fur matted with white discharge under its tail. She hoped it had brushed up against something and wasn’t ill. In the kitchen she was surprised to find the wine bottle out on the table, uncapped and empty on its side. She hadn’t realised she’d finished it. It wasn’t like her not to put an empty straight into the recycling box, but there was no other explanation.

When Charlie was dropped home, his father stood on the doorstep, awkward as always now.

‘Is Charlie alright?’ he said. ‘He was a bit quiet.’

‘He doesn’t like meeting strangers.’ Alice folded her arms, but felt something like relief.

That night, she brought down their duvets to watch a film with popcorn. But halfway through the pisky tore the seams apart on its new tunic and trousers. It kicked the clothes into a pile then urinated over them. Disappointed, Alice sewed them back together in the kitchen, and fed it a bit of biscuit.

She missed the end of the film and found Charlie staring at the black glow of the credits.

‘You’ve missed the end,’ he said.

‘I don’t mind.’ She put her arms out to him, but he pulled away, dragging his duvet up the stairs to bed. He’d barely touched his popcorn, so she boxed it up to use as snacks for the little man.

Two weeks later it was Charlie’s birthday. The box on the kitchen table was huge. At breakfast Charlie slurped smoothie through a bendy straw, unable to keep a smile from his face.

‘You’ll never guess. Open it.’ Alice laughed.

But Charlie wanted to delay the pleasure – enjoying the attention, despite himself. He tapped it. It was hard, firm, hollow, cold.

‘Is it a book?’ He pressed his temples, grinning.

‘Come on,’ Alice was suddenly short. ‘I want to set it up.’

Charlie ripped open a large glass fish tank.

‘What’s it for – ’ he spoke slowly, not wanting to sound ungrateful.

‘Our Little Man!’ His mother squeaked at him.

Alice arranged the tank as she thought the pisky might like it. She had looked into cages too, but for some reason thought the tank was safer. The leaves and moss were in one corner, the ramekin in another. She had even taken Charlie’s old box of clitter collected from the tors and stacked the rocks up into a tiny folly, of sorts. But when the lid went on, the pisky threw the rocksagainst the glass front until the lid came back off.

‘Lid off?’ Alice spoke loudly, pointing at the lid. ‘Lid. Off?’

‘Why didn’t you get it a house?’ Charlie said, suddenly pitying the wild creature, scarlet, panting, with no privacy.

‘Because it might run away,’ she said.

They ate birthday pizza from their knees in the living room with the tank. The pisky pressed itself against the glass. Its face crushed flat, monstrous in miniature. Alice offered it a nibble of pizza, but the melted cheese caught in its throat. She held it by the feet, and flicked its back. It spat a little, recovered. She balled it tight against her chest.

‘Don’t worry, Charlie,’ she said, calming down. ‘He’s OK, see?’

Charlie watched it smile, sliding filthy toes into the shadow of his mother’s labouring chest. He lost his appetite. The cake didn’t even make it out of the cellophane before it was time for him to go.

Charlie opened the door to his father, who wore a party hat and feather boa, singing Happy Birthday To You at the top of his voice. Charlie wrapped his arms around him and was half carried down the path.

Alice closed the door before they’d passed out of the front gate. She had found patterns for dolls clothes on the internet and bought some expensive woollen tweed.

Charlie tried to finish his homework at the kitchen table. He could hear his mother in the living room. She’d bought a doll’s wardrobe, a miniature bed frame for the leaves and moss, and a dining table with six chairs for visitors it would never receive. She liked to spend time with it in the evenings and tonight it wore its new formal clothes happily – stroking the waistcoat; posing, one hand on a hip, the other running through its long beard. She was working on a second set, in midnight blue silk.

‘Don’t do that.’ She reprimanded it quietly. ‘I’m not laughing.’

Charlie knew what it was doing. He knew where its hands were. It had lived with them for a month now, and Charlie still wanted to put it back where they found it. ‘But it wouldn’t survive now,’ his mother had said firmly. ‘It needs us.’ Yet when she came down in the mornings Alice sometimes found threads of moss on the kitchen table, leaf skeleta on the sofa – it would never settle with the lid on its tank.

‘I’ve had enough,’ Alice snapped. ‘You never listen to me.’

Charlie couldn’t concentrate, his heart beating fast, wanting to know what would happen next. His mother staggered through the kitchen, buckling beneath the heavy glass tank. Charlie stood quickly, reaching to share the weight.

‘Stay out of this, Charlie,’ she said, so he sat back down. He heard the trap door to the old grain cellar whine open in the utility room.

‘Would you like to stay down here, or would you like to behave properly?’ Alice trudged, carefully, step by step. Charlie smelt the drifting peaty darkness. ‘Stop that! You horrible little thing.’

The lid was slammed back on, something heavy thudded on top of it. Alice dashed up the cellar stairs to run her finger under the tap at the kitchen sink. Water rushed into a tiny wound, thinning out bright, shining blood. Charlie, still smarting himself, did not look up.

‘He bit me,’ she said, amazed. She bled for a long time.

The following morning, his mother was tense. She grimaced when she accidentally caught her finger on something – the wound deeper than it had looked.

‘I don’t feel well,’ Charlie pushed away his bowl of cereal. He suffered from pain in his belly most mornings now.

‘You’re a big boy, Charlie.’ Alice sighed. ‘Eat up.’

Charlie thought the milk seemed oiled with pale yellow. It clung where it met the sides of his bowl. He swallowed down a ball of disgust.

They left the house, both avoiding the utility room, where the open trap door still yawned boggy breath.

Charlie got home before Alice and made his own snack, filling a glass with milk, pushing bread into the toaster. It was never as nice as when she delivered it in four neat triangles, he thought, and took the lid carefully off the kettle to fill it for her. A few minutes later Alice burst through the back door, forehead still sliced up with bad mood, and rushed down into the cellar.

‘Oh!’ She emerged slowly, the pisky swooned across the cup of her hands. She winced as it lolled against the finger it had mauled. ‘Charlie, it’s sick.’ The creature’s eyelids flickered, and Charlie knew it wasn’t. ‘Shit.’ His mother had never knowingly sworn in front of him. Charlie cringed to hear the crude word of the older boys upon her lips.

‘It might be thirsty. And give me that toast.’ She fed it from his plate and his cup. The little man began to revive. ‘Bring the tank up? I can’t – ’ She nodded down at the thing cradled in her arms.

In the cellar Charlie grasped the tank with wide arms. Its corners were sharp, the glass slippery. Concentrating hard to place his feet home on each of the narrow cellar steps, he was glad to get it back to the living room. He balled his hands to hide red palms. It had been heavier than he expected.

The rest of that week, Alice spoiled the pisky; feeding it from her good finger; leaving the room when she saw things she didn’t want to see. Charlie barely left his bedroom, but because of her sore finger he was forced to help his mother make nutritionally-sophisticated meals, much more involved than the food they heated up for themselves. She unthinkingly passed him knives he had never been permitted to touch as her finger got worse not better.

‘I’ll be scarred.’ She laughed, rolling her eyes. ‘With the shape of his little mouth.’

Her bandages yellowed with pus, smelling rich and nutty; Charlie had to remind her to change them.

‘Are you OK?’ Charlie asked one morning when he brushed past her and she yelped.

She smiled, stroked his cheek, but said nothing. Charlie stopped mentioning his tummy aches. He worried for her wet eyes and mallow pink cheeks. Her hair had become knotted as she stopped washing it. She kept the finger raised, except when driving, binding her forearm up and across her heart, so it could not get in the way.

That Friday night, Charlie found his mother slumped over the kitchen table with a baby-weaning book.

‘I think I’ve caught something,’ she said, wiping sweat from her forehead, passing him the book. ‘Can you feed Little Man?’

Charlie watched her limp the stairs to bed before shoving the book into the kitchen bin. In the living room, the creature was adjusting its cuffs, smoothing its lapels. It glanced at him and looked away. Charlie turned off the lights and went upstairs.

All evening he heard his mother’s bed creak and moan across the hallway as she struggled to rest. At midnight Charlie took her his own glass of water.

‘My lovely boy,’ she said, gulping it down, her eyes full of stars.

‘What shall I do?’ he asked, weakly.

‘I’m OK, pudding. You go to bed,’ she said.

A crash came from the kitchen, but his mother had fallen back into her hot fever.

Charlie looked at the string dispenser rolling to and fro on the floor in the moonlight. The creature took a length of string and lassoed it around the fridge handle. It turned, string across its shoulder, and heaved with a black-toothed grimace, eyes squeezed shut, to break the seal of the door. It had the incongruous strength of an insect.

It pulled up onto a shelf in the fridge door, using both arms to twist the top off a bottle. Then, balanced on the rim, it dropped its trousers and relieved itself into Charlie’s milk. It tugged up an armful of cold, hard melted cheese from the leftovers of Charlie’s pasta and vaulted onto the kitchen surface. It hurdled a teaspoon and slid across a plate tipped up to dry. The plate lost its purchase and smashed to the floor. The pisky didn’t look back. It was staring at the cat asleep in its basket.

The cat roused when the pisky touched the cheese to its nose. The cat nudged it, then took the morsel from the tiny hands, purring with satisfaction, ignoring the little man rubbing against it.

Charlie was revolted. He snatched the pisky up, trousers still around its ankles, and slammed back the bolt of the door to run out into the night.

Afterwards, Charlie curled up on the empty side of his mother’s bed, wiping a flannel across her face, offering her the paracetamol she kept in a prohibited cupboard in the bathroom. He read the instructions and took note of each time he gave her a dose, keeping an eye on the yellow curd creeping from under the bandage across her tight grey skin.

When it got light, he went downstairs and called the doctor.

‘You were very lucky. Any later and the infection might have spread to the whole hand,’ the surgeon said, on her discharge round.

‘I feel like I’ve lost a limb,’ Alice said, sore and low now the anaesthetic had worn off.

‘It’s only a finger. You’ll get used to it. This young man’ll help.’ She wondered who the doctor was talking about, then noticed Charlie on her other side.

When the doctor left the room, Alice placed her good hand into Charlie’s.

‘What about my little man?’ she asked, slurring.

‘Dunno,’ Charlie shrugged. ‘Think it ran away.’

‘Oh,’ she said, with a small, sad smile. She lifted her good hand to stroke his face, wondering when it had become so gaunt. ‘Could you open the window a crack, pudding?’ she said.

Charlotte Turnbull graduated from Oxford University and spent many years in in production and development for UK film and television. She now writes for television from Dartmoor, where she lives with her family. She had her first short story published this summer in Mslexia magazine and has another forthcoming this autumn in Crow & Cross Keys. She is @CharlieRatpig on Twitter.

photo by Annie Spratt (via unsplash)