Short Fiction by Andrew Oldham
My sister’s castle has three floors and a dungeon. There’s room for Barbie to move around the pink rooms without ripping her skirt. The downside is the doors to the spiral stairs are just stickers, purple doors pasted really badly onto thin pink walls. You could run your finger over them, trace the bubbles of air caught in a factory in Taiwan. Annexed atmosphere. The lack of real doors, all for the want or a few more pence of plastic, makes the castle look cheap. It sits in the landscape of my sister’s room, a fixed blot among the undulating hills of pink, red and green wigs, fairy costumes, witches hats, posters of boy bands and discarded knickers. There, my sister, talks to herself in falsetto for Barbie, a faltering, fat base for Blaine and whine for Ken, committing the ultimate fantasy sin: she allows Barbie to walk in the air, her tiny feet and high heels teetering above an abyss that must haunt the doll’s dreams. At night I have nightmares that Barbie is tossing in her four poster bed in the pink castle, thrashing her limbs, her head rocking back and forth, screaming through a sealed pink grin, the image of the abyss forever below her feet; forever caught in the air like someone had shoved a jet engine up her. My sister in the doll’s nightmare, forever clasping her thumb and forefinger round Barbie’s waist, the width no greater than the doll’s pink neck.
In the past I have freed Barbie of this fear, driving my sister mad by adding the sound effects as Barbie sashayed from one room to another, from Blaine to Ken through a series of wet, slapping fart noises, my loose cheek grasped between my thumb and forefinger, until my sister fled and my Mum gave me another time out. Dad banned me from playing with the castle, then banned me from my sister’s room and Barbie’s problems were quickly forgotten by them all.
My sister’s first Barbie had been the last of the Happy Holiday series, the ones released in the run up to Christmas and the ones that I was told not to ask for from the age of four. For seven years after the carnage that was the Christmas when my sister found out that they’d stopped making them, I’d been sat in a series of cars outside a series of toy stores entertaining my sister, from a clawing toddler, to a pain in neck little girl whilst my parents had bought her a new one each Christmas, Holiday Barbie was gone but there were plenty of new Barbies: Olympic Skater (as if), Boutique Owner (getaway), Airline Pilot (no way would I get on a plane with her), Formula One Driver (what the hell? Did she crash the plane and think, ‘I know I survived that, so let’s go and drive real fast’), Presidential Candidate (seriously, what the? She’s downed a plane, killed an entire stand at a race and she’s a candidate for the Presidency?), Baby Doctor, Pet Doctor (like I’d want her near me after having her hands near either of them) and Teacher (well, she’d done everything else). There’d I’d be sat in my parents car, cooing, tickling and telling fart jokes to her as they went to the shops, stood in the same queues with the same tired faces of pinched out dads and greying mums clutching cabbage patch dolls to their chests because they’d been too slow to get to some display of Pokemon, Tamagotchi or some other Japanese shit that was hot that year.
There she was now, in my sister’s room, the last ever Holiday Barbie with her pink shawl and sequined black gown. Named Queen Bitch by me, QB for short when my Mum was around and the doll was out of its safe zone. QB had been on many trips over the years since my sister threw a tantrum in our hallway after finding out that next Christmas Barbie was cancelled. Since then, seven of my sisters Barbie dolls have come to sticky ends, lawn mower accident, the great compost mistake of last summer, the unexplained lashing to fireworks that had claimed three of them. QB had climbed mountains when I helped her on top of the bookcases in the local library, my sister wailing, my Mum looking at me as if I done the worst thing ever as the books toppled onto my sister. I topped this by exploring what would happen to QB if she could really float, in space, what would happen if she wasn’t a real astronaut, as if she strolled on by accident in her gown and silly shoes. I put QB in the microwave and pressed start. The one now in my sister’s room is QB mark II, bought on eBay (for a fucking load of money that’s coming out of your pocket money, lad, said my Dad), and she was in the great hall on the throne and my soldier, Norm, after some guy my Dad said was brilliant. Brilliant Norm was leaning forward, my sister moving him along the wall, as I hid in her wardrobe, waiting for her to leave, watching her world through the tiny crack between the doors. A pared down world were the real Brilliant Norm did a lot of storming but no one saw what he really did when he dropped out of the edges of the world, if he went back or forth, up or down, Brilliant Norm could be seen but the real Brilliant Norm knew when to duck out to the left or his favourite, the right. Only sounds of gunshots, screaming and giggling to let you know he’d left the narrow world I looked in on. My Brilliant Norm was more of a thinker, something my Dad laughed at (fucking thinker, Jesus), he would think how to melt QB again without getting caught or using a microwave (how the fuck would he think his way out of a gun being pointed at his head, son?).
Brilliant Norm was in the castle keep now, my sister moves out of his world in a flurry of a blue wig, stewardess outfit, followed by the erratic punch of her bare feet on naked wooden boards, soft carpet, yelling, my Mum replying and then the slam of the door, the banging of car doors, the thrum of the car engine and then the silence of the street. Back in my narrow world, Brilliant Norm droops against the castle wall, the gun in his hand slips over the parapet and bounces into a pair of knickers, the word Wednesday blazed across the crotch with happy flowers. That was my Brilliant Norm, throwing off the gun and the night goggles, fixing his beady little eyes on the world around him. Brilliant Norm knew why he was there, he knew I was just beginning to slip my tired, pin needled legs out into his world, we both knew my sister had put him there as the first and last line of defence against our dog, Jasper. She had stolen him from my bedroom and allowed him to fall under the deadly licks, farts and chews of that bloody dog. Bloody Dog was Jasper’s other name, along with Sodding Dog and the Dog’s Shat On The Carpet, Again. My sister’s last doll before QB had been a Barbie Stewardess, she’d had a little trolley, moulded drinks cans, glasses and drawers full of food never served, her skirt was too short and somewhere along the line she’d lost her knickers. She’d been found decapitated in the lounge, what remained of her legs and arms strewn across the fire hearth. There was no hat, no head and no trolley, they gave Jasper the shits for a week.
The pink castle had been bought after the screams and tears of another Barbie’s demise (did you do it, lad?) (No) (Bloody liar) (Fuck off) *slap* (Don’t do that, Ben, he’s only a kid) (Any fucking excuse) *mummy’s crying* SILENCE. The big box had been there at breakfast, along with my bruise, my sister had screeched, ripped it open and then phoned all her friends (Janey, guess what?) *giggles* (Claire, Mummy and Daddy got me it. Yes.) *giggles* (Lad, what you looking at, shithead) *giggles* (Amy, Amy, Amy, it’s here…yes, it’s the deluxe one…yes, it has a pull out prince) *giggles* (eat your fucking cereal and stop looking at me, lad, or you’ll get another one to match the first, you understand?) *shiggles* (Hi Sharon, isn’t Amy a witch?) *look away from the shit, look away from the shit and giggles*. The phone hung up and the box was empty on the table beside my full cereal bowl, my Dad’s chair cushion still holding the impression of his buttocks as he left, my Mum waiting to be kissed as he slammed the door behind him (your Dad doesn’t mean to…) *leave the shiggles and run upstairs* *door slam* *peace* *laugh*.
The prince had been useless from the start. He was the new improved Blaine (supposedly asleep, poisoned by Ken) my sister told me that QB and Ken had split up back in 2004 (it was all over the place, how could you not know?) That the prince was some guy called Blaine, surfer turned royalty (he’s so lush). The truth was that some witch had poisoned Blaine. The witch was sold separately and my parents never got round to getting my sister one. Blaine lay in a plastic see through coffin, you pressed a button, there was a kissing noise that sounded more like Jasper farting and Blaine would pop up hands out ready to grope QB. It was the only girlie thing in the castle, though in the first week my sister had it she added curtains to every window to keep out the cold. I tore them down one day arguing with her that pink medieval castles didn’t have curtains, or cushions and throws. My Dad told me to leave off (get away from it, lad) (don’t be so pizzun, Tony) *dad pulls face* :-(o (speak fucking English woman) *mum holds face* *door slams* (what does he know, our Mum?). The castle had an awesome dungeon (I don’t like it, Mummy) (Then stay on the upper floors, awld butty), the iron maiden was also pink but had these tiny little spikes for QB’s enemies, such as, Ken. The spikes looked like little pink cocks; I couldn’t help but stroke them.
Now my sister is out and my narrow world opens out to Brilliant Norm who welcomes me back, he may be a thinker but in his heart there is a parade, gun shots and salutes. Together we make a voodoo doll of Ken from white playdough, it feels soft and lifeless beneath my fingers as I feed it into the iron maiden and close it. All across the world, plastic Kens are bleeding out, in drives, front rooms, in car parks, backyards, gardens and school rooms. I wet my finger, wipe off the excess dough, flick it against the bedroom wall watching it roll down a boy band poster. My sister throws a fit and each tantrum brings a new play thing, I do it once and I all I got was a lousy Arsenal football top, I hate fucking Arsenal and hate my Dad who tells me (love them, lad, because they’re our team) (Pires and Henry, lad, be like them but not foreign and not a bloody Barbie either, that’s what girls are). He takes me to the park every Saturday for a kick around (fucking useless). He makes me wear the No.14 shirt and had a fit when I blacked up with his boot polish (fucking Henry, fucking lad, fucking taking the fucking piss).
For the last fortnight I have been kept away from my sister’s room in a routine of shopping, schoolbooks, shoes, clothes fitted by perverts who grope my inside leg a little too high. Blazers, three jumpers, all blue, unfashionable cable knitted jumpers, polyester shirts and trousers that ride up every step (Doesn’t he look nice in them? He’ll be a popular boy at his new school. Don’t worry you’ll grow into them. He’s always like this. Nesh).
At night I dream of my sister’s castle and of my Mum as a playdough figure forced onto the rack and then into the maiden. Later her squashed head is placed on one of my Dad’s haloed barbeque skewers and mounted on the castle walls beside the prone figure of my soldier, his head, his beady eyes and his night goggles chewed off by Jasper. Just a hollow stump of his neck retching over the castle walls. Beside my Mother’s playdough head is the remains of the Stewardess’s head, rescued from Jasper’s shit, Henry’s head, my Dad’s football and both of his eyeballs skewered and fixed to the castle with bluetac.
Dad is at the match. I am free of my narrow world within the wardrobe. Dad wanted to take me but couldn’t afford another ticket, and after all his best friend, Paul, asked first. I have the castle, I work the top loose, the sealed turrets open up to reveal their cool pink interior. I carefully shit into two of them, push in any overflow and seal up the roofs again, I wipe away the last of the caked shit with my Arsenal shirt. As the final turret clip clicks into place the front door downstairs slams shut. Shit. My Mum has returned early, dumping my sister and coming back to cry in the kitchen. *whistling*. It is my Dad’s pursed lips, crap tunes that no one can sing that echo around the house, he’s goes through the kitchen cupboards *clinking cups* and mutters a conversation (mmmmmm-hhhrr…no-no, ha ha, Paul) (Paul) (What! Getaway—Paul) *kettle whistling* *laughing*, the retelling of the match (Fucking Henry, that French….bloody moves…can’t half kick a ball but they can, can’t they….I’m not racist but….). I cram my sister’s dolls back into the castle, remember that Boutique Owner Barbie was in the dungeon (she wandered into the wrong part of the castle but she’s a moron), Airline Pilot was in the throne room face down in the rug (pissed again), Presidential Candidate Barbie was in the kitchen holding a cake (that candidacy went pear shaped) and Pet Doctor Barbie has one of my old plastic dinosaurs on a dog leash (it has that kind of look on its face, and a tight waddle, that I don’t want to ask about). Brilliant Norm is back in the keep, AK47 restored and night goggles resting on the wall. I know where each of them lived, laughed, got hit by their Dads, I have watched them, studied them for so long. I run out onto the landing in time to meet my Dad on the stairs with Paul, he halts, stares at me (I thought you were going out?) *shakes head* Paul looks at me from behind my Dad, smiles. It is an uncomfortable smile. Paul looks to my parents’ bedroom and looks at the front door, shrugs and smiles. At no point does anyone point out that I have no trousers on, no underwear and that my Dad is naked from the waist up as is Paul. I think of their beloved Arsenal shirts on the couch downstairs, arms wrapped around one another, spooning in the seat my Mum calls her own (Do you want a kick around, lad?), (Good idea). Paul dashes down the stairs (good idea good idea good idea good idea) *coat on and going out* and before I or my Dad can reply, Paul has put on his coat and is gone. He doesn’t wait for either one of us. He has gone for a kick around on his own and without a ball. We get dressed. We go out, look for Paul in the park, we take the ball and Paul’s shirt. We have a kick around. Dad kicks. I miss. He doesn’t blame me. He doesn’t swear. We come home via the chippie. A nice surprise for my Mum and my sister. After dinner my sister goes to her room and complains that it stinks. Jasper is blamed and the windows in her room are opened. My sister’s bedding, dolls, rugs and trolls are washed. For two days this is the routine, carpets are pulled back taken into the garden, floorboards come up and then there are flies.
At night, I lie in bed thinking of how hard I packed in my shit. How no one will kill all the flies. How QB walks her great hall retching, how Blaine has nailed down the coffin lid from the inside, and no matter how hard QB presses the kissing button, he merely brains himself on the inside of the coffin until there is blood and he has passed out. I see QB run down the corridors past the Barbies with their guns, grenades and rocket launchers, dash to the ramparts and throw up beside the dismembered head of playdough Mum, Henry and the Stewardess, rotting on their skewers, my Dad eyeballing them all. I wake up to hear my sister being sick on the landing. I hear my Mum run, my Dad plodding behind her, shirtless (what fucking time is it?) *in my bed I grin in the dark* (I have work tomorrow) *door slams open to my sister’s room* (Jesus the smell, Tony) *smile in the dark* (what smell?) *feet slap over boards* (bloody hell) *wretching* (what have you done?) *a grin so wide, so bright that all the shadows have burnt away*. The backing song, the chanting from those dead terraces at Arsenal, clear words turn to muttered insults as hands are clasped over filthy, black holes of mouth, mouths of bile and lies, fuck awld butty, fuck lad, fuck lad, fuck lad, stick it up your fucking pink castle. Hands, filthy fucking beating, slapping hands clasped over snorting noses to keep back the stench *scream* oh, it is long and keen, Mum has found the source of the shit, the hidden river uncorked, the finger in the dyke pulled lose to let it out, the turret wrenched off to spray it across the house (What? Why? Who? Oh God) *vomit* oh what a sound, what a wonderful sound (That’s the fucking Chinese for you, Sarah).
In the morning the castle can be seen poking out from the top of the bin. My Mum is on the phone to the toy shop. My Dad, eyes rimmed dark, dressed for work, waits for Paul to pick him up, mutters about filthy Chinese workers in their filthy Chinese factories. Dad has a filthy secret. My sister is silent, she doesn’t eat her cereal. Breakfast is good. No one moans when I have a second bowl. I even contemplate pouring myself a coffee. I can hear my Mum in the hall (Production fault! There was…) *door closes*. My sister turns green and rushes out into the back garden, my Dad mutters on with his racism. My Mum comes in, sighs, shrugs.
As if my sister would want one.
The following week she gives away all her Barbies and never asks for another one.
At night I pull out the pink iron maiden that I rescued from the castle, I open it up and place my finger in it, imagine that the finger is my Dad.