The Puppeteer

Fiction
Judy Darley


London Storyfest 2012: Sock Puppet #3
Photo Credit: Isabelle

How long had it been now? Peter wasn’t certain. More than one year, less than two. God, how had so much time crept by? He’d thought he’d get them back before this many months. Once the numbness and confusion passed, he was certain he’d be able to win Nancy over, persuade her to bring Pippa home, but it had already been, what was it, eighteen months, twenty? Or more…

He’d only seen young Pippa the once since they left him, and that had been in the most humiliating of circumstances.

Things slid downhill after Nancy and six-year-old Pippa moved out. In an effort to reject all Nancy had accused him of, of caring more about his work and the puppets than about his wife and daughter, he’d turned his back on his creations. Then, in an act of rage, as though they were sentient enough to be culpable for the ruin of his marriage, he piled the whole lot up in the centre of the lawn, set them alight.

He tried not to feel their bewilderment, not to hear their shrieks of fear, as the flames sent acrid, choking smoke into the night sky and made a dark scorched circle on the grass. Tears streamed down his sooty face, and he told himself he was committing some kind of sacred act; a magician’s trick to bring his wife and Pippa home to him, prove how little hold the puppets had over him, compared to his love for the two of them

But of course, that was the business gone—his former clients found new talents, better puppet-masters, youngbloods with the power to give life to lurid scraps of fabric that Peter figured ought to lack the power of his own handstitched creations. He took a job in a phone shop, wearing a suit he was ill at ease in, trying to talk teenagers into signing contracts that would lock them in for years to come. He felt like Satan’s accomplice.

Each night for what felt like a decade or longer he went home to the dingy apartment and felt more alone than before he’d even met Pippa’s mother, because then, of course, he at least had the puppets.

It was laundry day that sucked him back in to it all. A stray, freshly-washed-and-dried sock falling from the basket to the floor. Peter picked it up and, telling himself it was just to keep it safe while he searched for its mate, stuck it onto one hand. Of course, his fingers in the worn grey cotton toe formed the nose. Naturally, his thumb in the heel formed the mouth. He shoulda seen it coming.

He found its mate, drew it on over his other hand, let the pair chat to one another and to him. Righty and Lefty, the first friends he’d made since his wife left. Peter felt the closest he’d come to happiness in a long time.

Then, one day while he was performing with these two at the buskers’ spot near the abbey, he saw her. Older than he’d thought possible—far more than almost two years must have slipped by without him noticing. She was with a gaggle of mates—it was one of them who noticed him with a ring of tourists around him, laughing and cheering the puppets’ antics on.

“Oi, Pippa, int that yer dad?”

She’d glanced up, met his gaze, then recoiled with a force that seemed to catch at something deep inside his chest and tear it a little.

She shook her head. “Nah, don’t be daft! My dad don’t even live round here.”

He watched her slope into the crowd, head down low like she was trying to hide herself from him. Yet she’d looked him in the eye, must have known he’d stared right back at her.

Weeks skidded by before he had the nerve to act, let the puppets badger him into picking up the phone, leave a message with Nancy. “Tell her that tomorrow I’ll be at the bar on the corner near where we used to live,” he said. “Just tell her that. I’ll wait all day if needs be. If she don’t turn up, that’s her choice. But I’ll be there, waiting.”

It took all his courage to leave the apartment, head across town, pass the house where the burnt circle still blackened the lawn. Only the two balled-up socks in his pockets gave him the guts to do it. He found a table in a far corner that he could watch the door from, nursed his drink, nursed another, watched the shadows track across the floor.

“I’m going to go home,” he muttered at last. “This is stupid.”

“Hang on a bit longer,” Righty urged.

“Yeah, you said you’d wait all day,” Lefty nodded. “Give her a chance.”

“Yeah,” said Rightly, then added sagely, “Give her a chance to give you a chance.”

So he sat, he waited, as the afternoon sun sneaked in and painted the wall behind him golden, and he half-closed his eyes against it, so that when he blinked them back open he wasn’t sure what he was seeing was true. Standing before him, biting her lip, half the six-year-old who’d left with her mum and half the sixteen-year-old she’d become.

“Pippa.” He dragged the puppets off his hands, shoving them into his jacket pockets. “Pippa, you’re here.”

pencilJudy Darley is a British fiction writer and journalist. She’s had short stories published by lit mags and anthologies including Germ Magazine, Litro, Riptide Journal, and The View From Here. Judy’s debut short story collection Remember Me To The Bees is out now. She blogs at SkyLightRain and tweets at @EssentialWriter. Email: judydarley[at]yahoo.co.uk