MRS WIBBSEY'S FESTIVE DIARY
I’ve been putting together a few festive treats, just in case YOU KNOW WHO comes back.
The past couple of Christmases I haven’t heard from him, but he’s bound to return soon, isn’t he? Hexford Village was where he loved coming home to at Christmas, he always used to say.
I’ve been across the green to the village store and I bought some nuts. Just a plain bag of mixed nuts. And some satsumas. I’m toying with the idea of doing my special stewed prunes again. He did admire them.
That Deidre Whatsit stopped me on my way back. Full of the joys, as per usual. Her face all aglow. She says she hopes I’ll join them for some eggnog on Christmas Eve. Just like last year. She and Tish Madoc, her snooty so-called cousin (who lives in with her) haven’t seen much of me lately, says she. Yes, I thought, and there’s a reason for that.
I’ve kept out of their way since Tish published her silly novel about us all. ‘Romance in the Milky Way’ indeed. I’m only relieved no sensible publisher would touch it and I’m not forced to see the ghastly thing when I go to the library or peruse the paperback carousel at the post office. Tish Madoc had absolutely no right to novelise our strange adventures in space and she knows it. It caused a proper rift between Mike and her. Put the kybosh on their blooming romance, or whatever kind of ménage was going on next door. Well, naturally it did. He’s military, isn’t he? Signed the official secrets act back in 1971 when they found lizard men living under Wenley Moor, did Mike, or so he told me. Everything’s on a need-to-know basis with him and he doesn’t want it all written about and published as an e-book, does he? We’ve seen neither hide nor hair of him in Hexford since Tish’s launch at the village hall.
What’s that funny buzzing? I’ve been hearing it all day. Something electrical. Not insects. Definitely not hornets. No, it’s like a hairdryer’s been left on in a distant room. Or the speakers on a faulty gramophone. A deep humming note.
Oh, but the cottage is quiet.
Funny, I’ve felt all day like someone’s watching me. I’ve been scrubbing out my smalls and it’s like someone’s looking right over my shoulder. My hackles have gone up.
Snow on the green today, and all over the hedgerows. I put on a festive record to cheer the place up and wondered about trimming a tree. I never bothered last year. All the decorations are gathering dust in the attic and if that’s not symbolic I don’t know what is.
Saw the vicar on my way to the butcher’s. I’ve put my name down for a big bird. In a fit of optimism I plumped for a whole turkey. Surely there’ll be surprise company this year. Surely there will?
You know, I think there will be. I can feel it in my water.
The vicar asked if I’d be coming to the pantomime on Boxing Day. He’s wearing that woebegone look, like I let them all down by not taking part this year. Well, they can lump it. Fenella Wibbsey can’t be at everyone’s beck and call. I had to stay here, didn’t I? I couldn’t be out gallivanting and rehearsing every night and running up costumes for Sleeping Beauty. My duty is to be here, at the cottage. Waiting for the call to arms. Sooner or later the Doctor’s going to turn up, out of the blue, and need me. I just know it.
I gave the vicar short shrift and came home to get on with my rough puff pastry. That got rid of a few of my frustrations, walloping that lot about. I made two dozen mince pies. Far too many. I imagine they’ll all go stale like last year’s did.
Strange. I can hear that electronical noise again. And a smell… there’s a smell like burning wires. I went round checking all the sockets and fuses, but I can’t see anything amiss. Then I went to sit back by the fire and poured myself a little sherry. I’ve been knitting the longest scarf you ever saw. Just in case.
There was a thump at the door very early on. I was up and mopping the floors. I heard the letterbox rattle and thought: that’s curiously early. I never went running. Let them wait.
I forgot about it and later, passing through the hallway I saw there was a little card shoved under the door. Another takeaway opened up, I thought. Or hate mail.
But it wasn’t. It was like computer print-out lettering. It read:
‘Mistress. I knocked but you were out. This unit will call again.’
This unit, I thought? What the devil’s that about? And why are they calling me mistress?
I felt a bit cross and – I must say – rather nervous. I’ve reached a point in life where I don’t want or like new and unexpected things.
I surprise them all at The Hollyhocks next door. And I actually turn up. I even put a nice dress on for them, and a bit of lipstick.
Tish Madoc opens the door and her eyebrows go up. ‘We didn’t think you would, my dear!’
‘Well, here I am,’ say I stiffly, and push a half-empty bottle of Tio Pepe into her arms.
It’s everso festive in there. Deirdre Whatsit is wearing a summer frock and everyone’s got party hats on. It’s very noisy and jolly and they’re full of talk about the pantomime and other goings-on around Hexford. I start to regret being so distant of late. I’ve been cutting myself off.
There’s a lot of talk about that curious occasion, two Christmases ago, when the whole of our village was transported to a far distant planet. And then it got brought home again at the start of the new year. People talk about it in hushed tones and eye me through the press of bodies in Deirdre’s living room. I can see them doing it. They think they’re space travelers. They know I know more about the whole business than they ever will.
See? I stand apart from everyone else. My adventures in the universe make me different to them all.
Tish Madoc brings over some nibbles from the buffet and corners me. She wants to know all about the other adventures. The ones I never talk about. She’s avid for impossible details. And I think, well I’m hanged if I’m telling you anything. Just so you can write another of one of your silly e-books. I’ve seen her sitting in the conservatory at the back of Deirdre’s. You can see right in from the back of Nest Cottage. Tish Madoc at her electronic typewriter, writing e-books and smoking e-cigarettes.
Is it her electronic typewriter I’ve been hearing, I wonder? Has it become louder, somehow? Or is it… and this seems absurd even as I think it… is it somehow creeping round my door of its own volition and trying to get in? Is her typewriter as keen as she is on getting hold of my stories of outer space?
They all wish it had been them. The villagers all saw a little bit of time and space that Christmas and, even though they were terrified and thought they’d never get home, they still want more.
But that magic has gone. Those chances have fled.
I slip out of the party at the Hollyhocks as it starts getting rowdy. Deirdre cranks up the sound on her stereo and they roll up the rug in the living room and they’re starting to dance. Jitterbugging about.
And I go home.
I go in through the back kitchen. As soon as I’m in there, clicking on the light, I know I’m not alone in Nest Cottage.
If my hair wasn’t in this bun it would all be standing on end, I can tell you.
I know what having intruders is like. I’ve had aliens and ghosts and robots trespassing in here. I keep a cricket bat under the sink, ready to wallop them. As I hug it to my chest I move carefully towards the main sitting and dining room. I can hear that queer electronical noise again.
‘Regrets, mistress,’ pipes a high, tinny voice. ‘You were not in and so I had to melt the front door lock.’
I stare and stare and still the thing doesn’t make any sense.
It’s a metal dog on the flagstones in front of the stove. Looking up at me with a single red, glowing eye.
‘Keep back,’ I brandish the cricket bat at him.
He seems to frown and take a step closer. No, not a step. He glides along the floor.
‘Mistress, violence is not necessary. I mean you no harm.’
‘What are you? Who sent you? And where do you come from?’ But even as I bark out these questions I realise I already know the answers.
It’s Christmas Eve and I am alone. I draw all the curtains and shut out the noise of the warbling, awful carol singers on the Green. I light the fire and microwave myself some scrambled eggs.
He won’t have a dish of water or any kind of food. He says he doesn’t need it.
I sit down in the chair by the hearth and stare at him. ‘Well, then. How is he?’
‘Do you mean in the time period relative to the Mistress or to this unit?’ says the dog-thing, and I don’t know what he means.
‘Is he well? Since he was last here, I mean…’
The dog looks helpless. ‘I don’t know,’ he says.
All night the dog roves about the house, sniffing in cupboards and hunting through drawers. When I lie in my bed up in the attic I can hear wooden doors crashing, and then the unearthly buzz as he floats up the staircases. He’s prying into every room. Before I went to bed he wouldn’t tell me what he was looking for.
He showed some interest in the old books the Doctor keeps in his study. Those lurid books he had delivered from Ebay. ‘Ah, not just ordinary Ebay, Wibbs,’ he beamed at me as the curious-looking postman came up the garden path. ‘Ebay in a different dimension, slightly tangential to this one.’
Those are the books the dog unit set about scanning with his red laser eye. Took him a good couple of hours. I left him to it and went to bed. Happy Christmas Fenella, I thought.
I’m sitting up in bed and at first it’s like the devil himself has come in my room. I let out a shriek before I realise it’s that blessed robot dog.
‘Forgive me, mistress,’ he says in that strange, polite voice, and then, all of a sudden it’s like he’s reading my mind.
No, more than that.
I can see my past floating out in front of me. Like ectoplasm.
Long time since I saw ectoplasm. All that floaty, nasty stuff, like candy floss but with a supernatural aspect.
Not since the days of Mr Wibbsey. Not since him. And his peripatetic spiritualist church.
And I can see him now. High up in the cab of that van, with me at his side, chugging through the winding roads of Norfolk, visiting each small village in turn. I was his unwilling helpmeet. I wanted nothing to do with all that dark stuff. Turning up in villages and calling up the dead. Scaring the locals out of their skins when all they wanted was a bit of peace and reassurance. He was a devil, Mr Wibbsey. I’ve tried for so long to forget him.
Why’s this robot dog reminding me?
He’s perching on the bedclothes. His little castors are resting on the candlewick bedspread. Somehow that impassive face of his looks regretful. He’s sorry for making me relive moments from my dreadful past.
I see the day I left Mr Wibbsey. That terrible day when the old man tried to stop me. When I smashed his crystal ball and he howled like all the demons in hell were after him. He went running into the sea and I never stopped him.
When they dragged him back up the shingle the next morning his eyes were gone. The Cromer police were horrified.
I knew already though, that Mr Wibbsey had never had no eyes.
Not in his head.
The robot dog shows me – pictures coming through that glimmering, pinkish cloud that hovers over my bed – how I found happiness of a sort. Living in that little town. Finding a job in that museum. How it became like a palace to me. I was so proud of being in charge of all the Curiosities.
This creature must be a spirit to know all of this. And to know about the eyes of Mr Wibbsey. Mechanical or not, he must be a hound from hell. Made of minerals and metals forged by the spirits down below.
‘Get out! Get out!’ I shriek at him and the dog stares at me sadly.
Then he turns and glides out of the attic room.
Dawn’s coming up. It’s Christmas morning out there but I find myself still stuck inside the faraway past.
Even with all the goings-on in the night I’m feeling unusually festive when I go downstairs on Christmas morning. I shall treat myself to hedgerow jam on my toast and cream in my coffee. Let’s push the boat out.
In a way, it would be nice if there was a knock at the door and someone was calling. It would be lovely to have a surprise.
Down in the dining room before the hearth that strange devil dog is waiting to greet me. Cheery tone as he wishes me a Merry Christmas. Taking me aback somewhat.
I make coffee on the stove and when I return he’s looking at those books again. I sit and watch him. He uses a fuzzy kind of torch beam that comes out of his nose to turn the page and memorize everything he sees.
They look like kids’ books to me. Lurid illustrations. Very peculiar stories. They remind me of the only book I had as a child – The Wonder Book. I haven’t thought of that in years. Its cover was black and gold and I used to polish it up, I was so proud of having a book of my own.
‘Shall I read to you?’ asks the metal dog.
‘Why not?’ I smile and sip my cooling coffee. The Doctor used to sit here and tell me outlandish tales, whenever the mood took him. Outrageous things he claimed had happened to him on the journeys he made into the Omniverse in the days before he knew me or the days when he slipped off and left me here to mind the cottage.
The dog tells me about a queer kind of place. A world the Doctor once visited with his friends Sarah and Harry. A world where the men went off to live in the jungle. They actually lived within the fleshy leaves of huge cabbages. They were hiding from the women, who had turned rebellious and noisy, having fallen under the influence of a terrible yellowish-green monster. It was a cloud of vapour that approached from the horizon under a sky the colour of tomato soup.
‘The Sinister Sponge!’ I interrupt excitedly. And then I roll my eyes. ‘Oh, I know all about that awful old thing. The Doctor brought one back in the Tardis and kept it in the downstairs bathroom for more than a month. He was supposed to be returning it to its own dimension, somewhere or other. Then he forgot all about it and the ghastly thing just hung there behind the shower curtain in a horrible mood. I had to clean up after the wretched monster. Even after it had tried to take over my mind…’
The fire crackles and the grandfather clock ticks. It must be telling the wrong time. Surely it’s later than six in the morning. Outside it’s light, but a very muzzy, unclear sort of light that sparkles the frost. There’s no one out and about. The windows around the village green are all dark still.
The dog is telling me a tale about a world of spiders. They were bigger than even the spiders of Metebelis Three. And what’s worse, these spiders of Pergross had large, staring eyes for bodies. They built webs inside intricate, slime-filled jungles and they lured their victims by mesmerizing them with their spiraling irises. Their victims walk straight down a dark, all-seeing tunnel into the mind of the spider itself and there they find a sofa and a television set. And on the television set plays films of their whole lives and everything they ever did wrong…
‘Yes,’ I murmur. ‘I think I’ve heard of them… I think we even went to see the Eye-Spiders of Pergross once, the Doctor and I…’
But the dog has moved on and he’s describing the shrieking Sto-Cat: a robot made of bricks that floated through space boasting on many frequencies. And the Doctor’s friend Swee, who’d gone to the bad. Like so many old friends who’ve gone to the bad. And wasn’t it me – Fenella Wibbsey - standing in that alien desert, looking up to see the face of a Sphinx and realizing the thing was alive? Then it woke and looked down at me with the oldest eyes imaginable and I felt so tiny, having these adventures in space.
Do I remember these things because I was there, or do I just remember the Doctor’s voice telling me all about them? We were sitting in front of this fire when he told me improbable stuff and I always scoffed, though I knew there was a germ of truth in everything he said. But maybe I actually was there in the psychic jungle with his friend who looked like a cheetah? And I was in the Neuronic Nightmare world ruled by the man whose face was on fire. And the blue baboons who flew about the place on ships that looked like spoons and I laughed at first when I saw them and the Doctor said: hush! We’re at the very edge of the universe and those are the Thousand and One Doors to Elsewhere, Mrs Wibbsey.
Or was I just here in Nest Cottage? Peeling spuds, carrying out the rubbish and feeding the rabbits?
All at once the dog jerks into life. He’s off. The books he’s spread out on the floor slam shut of their own accord and he reverses across the stone flags, back into the hall. He bumps into the elephant foot umbrella stand and opens the front door wide.
‘Mistress Wibbsey!’ the dog calls me, and I hurry to catch up as he sets off down the garden path into the crisp morning. I’m on his trail, into the lane, and my slippered feet hardly touch the ground.
‘Dog? Where are we going?’
Now he’s running across the Green and the frost crackles underfoot. He’s gliding and I’m accelerating too… Nothing aches. Nothing breaks. I’m running like I used to when I was a girl.