“This place stinks,” I mumble to myself, a little irritated by the impatient leer of the intimidating elderly Chinese shopkeeper.
“Any chance you’ve got some expensive looking antiques?” I question with a chuckle, pointing to the sign which reads ‘Valuable Antique Emporium’ and hoping that its obvious connotations will aid my vague attempt at humour. They don’t.
Waving ambiguously to the shelves behind me, she mumbles something under her breath as I register a potential sense of humour bypass. Unenthusiastically examining the contents of an old wooden shelf that creaks under the weight of the merchandise stacked atop of it, I ignore the large pile of books and china set, my eyes wandering to the very end of the shelf. An ancient Russian doll sits facing me, her painted eyes making me even more uneasy than the shopkeeper.
“This looks interesting, I guess. I’ll take it. How much is she?” my voice is light and jocular – her response surprises me with its contrasting suspicious gravity.
“You want to buy – the doll?” she inquires, somewhat incredulous.
“Yes please … if that’s alright?” my statement tails off into a vague question as I watch a cloud pass over her face and her expression darken; she seems lost in thoughts of her own, apparently related to this figurine – and she’s not taking them lightly.
A momentary absence of self-control on my part gives my natural inquisitiveness an irresistible chance, which it snatches eagerly as I blurt out, “What’s wrong?” before I can stop myself.
“The legend,” she mumbles, almost incoherently, “he doesn’t know. Oh goodness…no one ever asks…never for the doll,” the bits of sentences I snatch from her thinking aloud puzzle me and, too deeply submerged to return to shore, I repeat my question, loudly.
“Oh, yes, yes,” she’s a little startled but looks me in the eye now, replying, “it was at the time of the Ming Dynasty – the story went that in a small village, Xiǎo Zhèn, there was a little carpenter’s store. People came from all over the world to buy what they called a Singing Doll, famed for singing traditional nursery rhymes. Everyone who owned one heard and was amazed by their songs. But the legend told that – “
“Look, I’m so sorry,” I tell her, peeking at my watch, conscious of the rapidly dwindling remainder of my lunch break, “I really have to get back to work. I’ll pop back another time,” I’m already backing out of the shop, having left a ten pound note on the counter and scooping up the doll en route. I’m intrigued.
After work, I let myself in and am greeted by Leo, my six-month old kitten who winds in and out of my legs as I prepare dinner. Leaving the casserole-for-one to simmer, I flop onto the sofa and flick on the TV. Startled by the sudden noise Leo darts out of the room and up the stairs. Painfully aware of his fondness for shredding curtains, I follow him into the spare room, where I find him, back arched and hissing softly, staring at the doll, which has taken pride of place on the large windowsill.
“You silly kitty you! Being a scaredy cat, are we, Mister? She’s harmless, buddy,” I scoop him up, taking him back downstairs and cuddling him while I put my feet up.
I awake in a cold sweat – shocked into consciousness by an odd dream, the content of which escapes me the moment my eyes open. My attempts to recall it are in vain. I stretch to check the time on my phone, now wide awake. 2 am.
“Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree…” a faint, distant rasp. Its gentle whisper surprises me, and I shiver a little – suddenly aware of the eerie stillness which surrounds me.
“Leo?” I call, but he’s curled up in the chair beside me, his slight stir alerts me to his presence. His position would suggest peaceful slumber, and I can deduce that his sleep hasn’t been interrupted since he followed me in here softly, around three hours before my distressed arousal. A nagging voice pushes me to investigate – it would seem that my brain isn’t content with the reassurance that it’s only the lateness of the hour which has made Leo’s soft purring sound unusually sinister.
Pulling myself out of bed, I tread quietly downstairs and check the TV, radio and my laptop. All sleeping as soundly as Leo – switched off. With a yawn and a stretch, I plod back upstairs, giving the bathroom a sweeping check and peeping into the spare room.
“Merry merry king of the bush is he …” comes the murmur once more, and I stand stock still – cold all over.
I scan the circular room, my eyes eventually resting on the oversized window ledge. The low, flat, glossy-white window ledge, void of cushions, lacking any comfortable touch – on which the Russian doll stands, and smiles.
“Laugh kookaburra laugh …” chokes the voice, clearer now, and punctuated. The timid rasp was an illusion created by distance on my first hearing. Now, facing the doll, its glistening blue eyes mocking me, there’s no shyness, and my doubt as to the voice’s source softly washes away. This haunting rendition wasn’t the product of my flat-screen television, nor was it anything to do with the laptop or the radio.
“…famed for singing traditional nursery rhymes…” the shopkeeper’s words ring in my ears as I wait, in anxious anticipation of the final line. But, enrobed in a blanket of darkness, visible only by the dull moonlight of the large window, eyes fixed straight ahead, and a nauseating smile, the doll stands – and, in the early hours of this Sunday morning, remains silent.
The following morning a throbbing headache greets me as I stir and open heavy eyes.
9.23am, my alarm clock tells me but my muzzy head screams disagreement, protesting that it’s still deep in the middle of the night. Groaning, I rise and stumble into the shower where the cool water helps to clear some of the mental haze which seems to encircle me. Memories of my early morning ‘adventure’ drift in and out of my foggy thoughts but the cold trickle urges me to dismiss them as weary imaginings.
By the time I’ve been fortified with a sizzling mushroom omelette, my Sunday morning treat, most considerations of the doll are virtually extinct from my refreshed and Paracetamol-ed head. But as I return upstairs and begin to brush my teeth I’m haunted by recollections and fancy that I can almost hear the unnerving murmur of melody once again.
“Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree….”
The sound drifts towards me and my confident certainty seems to seep away.
“Merry, merry king of the bush is he….”
The same lines follow, as before. I know that the spare room door is closed (if last night’s events weren’t in fact simply my own fatigued fancies) and so cannot help treading softly across the landing to investigate, comforted by the certainty of a barrier between me and the source of the whispering ditty.
But the door has blown slightly ajar; I am confronted with a view of the wide sill and its lifeless occupant. Her eyes sparkle as if with cold laughter, illuminated by the flooding sunlight from behind, and the glossy painted smile now looks sweetly, sickeningly spiteful.
I softly push the door so that it swings backwards, revealing the whole room.
Once again I await the completion of this now-macabre lullaby with a sort of eager anxiety. Yet fifteen minutes pass and no further sound emanates from the doll. Head down, eyes focusing on anything but the creepy little figure I stride across the room and rummage through the chest of drawers, wiggle all the plug sockets, peer beneath the bed, open the wardrobe.
Nothing, it seems, which might have produced the sound.
Feeling strangely relieved, as though I’d just been spared from some ghastly experience, I step deliberately down the stairs, mulling it all over. In the kitchen I begin chopping vegetables and laying the otherwise-unused kitchen table in preparation for a small dinner party I’m hosting the following evening.
Around four o’clock the potatoes are par-boiled, the chicken is marinating in the fridge, and the wine rack is full. As I recline into the armchair close by my TV, Leo jumps onto my lap and promptly falls asleep as I adjust my position around him so that I can still see my phone screen. An itching curiosity which had been building all afternoon as my distractions dwindled now finally gets the better of me.
I tap to open Google.
‘The legend of the singing doll’. My fingers blurt out the words.
‘Arising from the time of the Ming Dynasty, the ‘singing doll’ legend is chiefly based upon ancient, local folklore and historians doubt the tale’s literal veracity,’ reveals the introduction of the Wikipedia page.
‘Nevertheless …’ it continues, detailing the strong terror experienced by superstitious villagers who came to abhor the presence of the small carpenter’s shop, and those who today shun any association with his descendants. An image of the Chinese antique-shop owner leaps into my mind and as I absorb the information her confusion and alarm at my buying the doll come flooding back to me. Her face contorts further and further with the painful expression which betrayed these emotions until all I can picture is a warped, disturbing muddle of the doll’s malicious grin and the old shopkeeper’s panicked, woeful eyes.
I scan the article hurriedly, wishing I had left it alone.
‘The mystery lies in the rhyme’s final line … believers hold fatal dread of hearing its conclusion … subsequent abrupt and painful demise … so far doctors have been puzzled but no definite proof has – ‘. I lock my phone screen and toss it onto the sofa beside me. Enough ghost stories for one weekend – I flick on Strictly Come Dancing and attempt to absorb myself in Bruce Forsyth’s cheery commentary. My disturbed thoughts, however, stubbornly continue to wander elsewhere.
With the early start of Monday morning comes the welcome wave of distraction which is full-time employment. Three staff from five on holiday: the day flies by in a rush of manic phone calls and hurried emails until my lone walk home shortly after five o’clock.
I cross the road instead of passing in front of the tiny antique shop but a quick glance back towards it serves to confirm the suspicion which rises in me as I advance down the street. A Venetian blind above the main entrance peeps open; two wrinkled, worried eyes follow me. I continue, more than a little unnerved. The blind is shut again when I turn the next corner.
Arriving home with my weekend headache threatening to return, I hastily make final preparations for the dinner party, thinking as I dash around that I’d much rather snuggle up with Leo on this particular evening.
Yet as the night draws on I relax into conversation and when I serve the dessert am feeling more at ease than I have for a few days, glad of the distraction which the company and chatter of friends offers. Everyone stays until around midnight, when Tom makes a move to leave and the others follow shortly afterwards. On her way out of the front door, Sarah turns back towards me and I prepare to titter modestly at a further, final compliment about the meal.
“Oh Mark, I forgot to tell you – when I went up to the loo before I had a peak into the spare room. It’s lovely what you’ve done with it. Anyway I’m afraid I knocked one of the little ornaments over when I was looking out onto the garden. Sorry love, I will pay you back.”
I jolt a little during her narrative as an uneasy thought crosses my mind but, recovering quickly, I tell her not to worry about it and say goodnight.
As the door closes I turn slowly, convincing myself of my light-hearted and unperturbed mindset, and jog up the stairs.
The spare room door stands wide open and the shining crescent moon overflows into the room through the bare window. Instead of lighting the eerie smile and glistening eyes of the toy, it illuminates an unadorned windowsill. Slowly, steadily at first, then suddenly leaping, my eyes move downwards towards the floor.
Towards the floor, where the doll lies: shattered.
“Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree.”
Gaping incredulously at the fragments of splintered wood and silky paint, I remain rooted to the spot. Gently the pieces dance towards one another, the shards of wood bind together, the grisly figure slowly, slowly reforms.
“Merry, merry king of the bush is he.”
Scraps of paint wind themselves around the recovering wood.
The hideous face is reformed, weaved with even more malevolence and spite in its grin, more hateful mirth in its imperfect eyes.
“… kookaburra laugh.”
I struggle in vain to detach my horrified, despairing eyes from the moonlit scene. My thoughts turn and run, sprint, scuttle from the tomblike room – in my mind I get far, far away and weep in the relief of escape. But my legs carry me nowhere in reality.
“Kookaburra gay your life….