The Headless Army of Charlie Close

Excerpt

By Die Booth

They come in three sizes—small, medium and large—beheaded bodies, lining up in daily ranks on the waxed-shiny workbench. A headless army. Charlie imagines them like that: ready to stand up in defence at the next wrong word, their small solid ghost forms, like precursors to a truth, blockading the marauders outside.

There’s a quality system too, that you must adhere to. The kid leather hides come ready-cut, a jigsaw of pieces that need to be matched according to the minutest gradations of shade and grain. The smoothest down this end, the coarser down that. Charlie is quick. Can sew up a pattern in minutes, the tiniest stitches binding seams neat as the lines on your palm, but the quality system seems meaningless: every body, they all look the same; all headless, sexless. Featureless ranks of them without variation.

“Miss Close.”

There is a no in there somewhere, but it’s hard to voice, too slippery and stabbing to pin down. Charlie says, “Ma’am?”

“You’re a good worker, Lottie, but you need to pay more attention.” Charlie’s eyes follow as Mrs Smith moves a body, pointedly, from the top end of the row to the bottom. Flaccid limbs flop, off at the elbows. A casualty of war. Mrs Smith says, “There are any number of girls your age would be very thankful of three shillings a week. Do not count yourself irreplaceable.”

“Lottie!” When Mrs Smith’s back is turned, Sarah leans in and whispers, “That’s twice this week!” Her pale curls bob, silky as cobweb.

Charlie hisses, “Charlie.” But if Sarah hears, she doesn’t let on.

Charlie is not irreplaceable: this much is known. The cobbles are slick and tricky beneath boot soles as Charlie tramps home in a fine mist of rain, the type that hangs in the air almost unseen, unnoticed ’til it’s soaked you through already. Charlie is as replaceable as any of the anonymous bodies on the workbench; Mother makes that clear as misty drizzle. Behave and be grateful, she says. Be thankful you’re a part of something, a well-oiled cog in a smoothly-running machine, serving a useful purpose. We all have our part to play.

Parts. That’s the problem. Charlie never gets to see the whole. Sometimes you get to sew composition arms in at the elbows—avoiding the finicky stitching of fingers—to stuff the bodies tight with straw. But they still all look the same: unclothed, identical, unidentifiable. Charlie never gets to see the heads. Never gets to see them fully assembled, never knows what they’ll become. Once, there was an arm with a broken finger and the whole doll was tossed into the rubbish. Faceless and worthless. Charlie worries a thumbnail between grinding teeth and lifts the latch of the back door.

Inside, the fire is dying. Heels clicking across the kitchen flags, Charlie gives the embers a stir with the iron, coaxes them back into quietly crinkling elegy. It does little for the chill in the room, but it makes the light jump a shade more warmly. A check of the teapot, the kettle settled on its hook in the hearth, until Charlie can wrestle the cloth-wrapped handle to pour scalding water on the mulch of leaves that have been brewed it’s-anyone’s-guess-how-many times already today. It’s not fair that the first one up, the last one home, the longest hours worked, gets the last cup, but that’s how it is. And the tea’s still good, however weak.

Charlie wraps cold hands around the teacup and breathes in steam. The rain outside makes no discernible sound, but the fire sounds like rain, pattering. The little ones are already in bed. Mother too, maybe, or perhaps she’s in the sitting room but Charlie doesn’t care to check: better to be as quiet as the whispering flames, and creep up the stairs unseen to sleep. If Ann or Tilly wake at the noise, Mother won’t come to question, not this late. Three to such a tiny bedroom is uncomfortable, but Charlie was moved out of the smallest room when John turned thirteen. It was no longer seemly to share. How it’s any worse than with the girls, Charlie doesn’t quite know, but keeps quiet and fights nightly for a share of quilt. There are more enticing prospects than a cramped cot, despite the weight of sleep pressing on Charlie’s eyelids. Hot tea will cure all. The steam from the cup ghosts in lazy twists, sparks the vision of dancing figures, imagined in the shadowed street outside. All headless.

Charlie turns a hand, stares, as if the future can somehow be divined in the palm-lines that criss-cross like seams. There’s a crosshatch of slices, webbing old scars between first and second pointer-finger joints. Most are shallow, the merest scratch, but one is still weeping and red. Charlie presses the corresponding thumb against it: it stings. The needles you must use for leather are wicked little things, flattened to razors at the tips, designed for piercing flesh. Even so, Charlie can never work out where the cuts come from, exactly how the needle passes that causes it to break skin in that manner. None of the other doll-makers suffer it. It’s encouraged to wear thimbles, or wrap scraps of leather around your fingers, but that slows you down, renders you clumsy. And Charlie suspects that it’s more for fear of blood getting on the merchandise than any concern for the workforce. It’s just easier to be careful, and if you can’t be careful, be canny. Just once did Charlie slip up. The spot of blood, bright on white kid, is as stark a memory as the mistake was startling. Recalled, clear as if it was minutes ago, a vivid pinprick at the edge of one shoulder seam, not quite central enough to mark the point where a heart would beat. Looking down, Charlie had seen, in the uncertain gaslight, that same red recurring slice patterning that same finger. Perhaps there should be a pulse of panic: the memory brings none, and there was none at the time. Just the dull ache of sameness. A blunt throb like a heartbeat in the cut. Charlie remembers licking the tip of another finger, rubbing across the stain: erased well enough in the crease of the seam that the crime slipped past Mrs Smith’s searching eyes. And somewhere out there is a doll with a little life in it, the invisible traces of blood and spit and breath. Charlie wonders, is it still the same as all the others? Or something, magically, different?

Charlie thinks of that doll from time to time. Wonders what it looks like, where it is. If it is beloved, or buried at the bottom of a tip heap, wearing Charlie’s face…



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