The Whittler

written by Antonia Wood
edited by Sianne Fraser

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The wooden curls fell into the bath water, darkening as the damp spread through every splinter. Each flake that hit the surface began to float towards each other, clustering as if trying to fuse into a new piece of wood. Those that escaped the formation clung to the gut of the man occupying the bath, who persevered with his furtive whittling at the chunk of Beech clasped in his palm.

His brow was knitted with concentration as he carved, angling the blade with precision to create the desired curve.

“It’s all about the strokes,” he muttered under his breath. “Smooth strokes, with the grain of the wood.”

The blade in his hand moved obediently.

He wedged his tongue between his thin lips as he carved; his expression almost amounted to fixation, his pale blue eyes quivering with excitement as he performed the final stroke.

“There now Polly. All finished, aside from a lick of paint.” He chuckled to himself, holding the wooden figure before him, arms outstretched so he could admire his work from a new perspective. The model was about five inches in height, and resembled a head resting above an hourglass figure, which was slight, and distinctly recognisable as girlish.

He thought about how he had painted his models in the past. His own method of making them ‘come to life.’ He gave each figure the correct eye and skin colour with acrylic paint, before using his own organic colourant to stain the fabric of the dresses. He took this dye from what he called ‘leftovers’, and each model wore the same colour, though the dye was unique to each doll.  The man’s pulse began to quicken as he thought about staining the dresses, about the pungent stench of iron as he opened the jar of ‘leftovers’, dipping the cloth into the sticky liquid. Still red. Still warm…

Yes! Then he would apply the hair, gluing it on strand by strand from a lock of hair wound tightly around his finger… No, no! The Whittler shook his head violently, as if trying to shake off a wasp that had already stung him once, and was preparing for a second attempt. He pounded a fist against the bathroom tiles.

“NO! No, no, no, no!”

He began to take deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling until his pulse slowed and he felt calm again.

“Come on Joshua,” He told himself, panting. “Not today. They’re going to check on you today. You’re not a monster, you’re a person. You’ve come this far and you don’t deserve to go back there.”

Placing the carving calmly to one side he stood up and got out of the bath. Reaching for a matted towel, the Whittler proceeded to pat down his body. He was tall and slight in build, aside from his protruding stomach, which made him look exceptionally top-heavy. Both his torso and head were hairless, and he wore a smile-less expression, which gave him a permanent look of sincerity. After the ritualistic drying was completed, the man pulled on a towelling robe and reached for his model. He inspected it meticulously, stroking a calloused finger along the smooth wood, praying he hadn’t made it damp with all his splashing. Once satisfied, he made his way across the well-lit landing to his bedroom, where he dressed himself, before making his way downstairs.

He had only just had time to make himself a cup of coffee when there was a sharp knock at the door. He glanced towards the digital clock on the oven: Its green digits read 8:55am. She’s early again. He thought. When people say 9 o’clock, I expect them at 9 o’clock.

He stuffed the model into his pocket and opened the door to a large woman wearing a knee-length floral dress with a button up front. She had a dark complexion, but her cheeks blushed a rose colour. Her smiling face was framed by her hair, which was peppered grey. An identity tag was pinned to her left breast, and a clipboard was wedged tightly under one arm. The Whittler detected a hint of stale cigarette smoke disguised by her floral perfume and he flared his nostrils in repulsion. Why did they always send this repugnant woman? She was all flesh and smiles and smoke. He found it so very distasteful. So very impure…

“Good morning Joshua… Ooh, lovely day isn’t it?”

“Well, I guess it’s warm.” He tried his best to muster a polite smile, masking his dislike for the woman. Other adults made him uncomfortable, particularly women.

Joshua Robertson had little more to say, and stepped into the house. He gestured for the woman to follow, which she did promptly.

“Cup of tea, Violet?” Mr Robertson muttered, again trying to seem hospitable.

“No thanks, I’m far too hot… I’ll take a glass of squash if you have any?”

The woman sat down. Joshua padded over to the sink and began to pour a glass of squash. He was reluctant to begin speaking to her, and ensured that he took his time measuring out the correct amount of orange squash and running the water over his finger until it was as cold as possible. After a few minutes, he handed her the drink, and sat in a chair opposite her.

“Thanks,” she began. “Right, so… how are you finding the rehabilitation programme so far?”

“It’s good. The meeting groups are proving very useful.”

“Mm, yes,” the woman nodded whilst making notes. Joshua tried to peer at them but she kept them well hidden. “I know that they are very different to the programmes whilst you were with us at Lindholme, but do you feel like the programmes are working together, you know, giving you consistent coping mechanisms, control methods and such?”

“Yes, I mean… well… I still sometimes get these thoughts… flashbacks… I spent many years inside dwelling on it… but… the sessions are helping.”

“Well, that’s fantastic Joshua. That’s great to hear, really it is. You do realise that we still need to monitor your progress? We aren’t legally able to leave you be until you are what is considered ‘fully recovered’.”

“Yes, I know.” His voice was pregnant with relief. “I’d rather it be that way. I like knowing that you are here, in case I feel-“

“-That way again, yes, I know.”

Violet noticed the model bulging out his trouser pocket.

“What’s that Joshua?” She smiled, nodding towards what she had seen. The man felt a sudden wave of anxiety. He began to sweat nervously, his stomach churning. She can’t know. He thought. She musn’t know about the dolls. She mustn’t know about my girls. They arrested me for assaulting one girl, the girl that got away. If they knew… If they knew there were others…

Amongst the blind panic and ‘what ifs’ rolling through Joshua’s mind he developed an idea.

“Oh… This?” He pulled the doll from the trouser pocket and handed it to the woman. “Sometimes I just whittle, it’s a hobby really… I use it as an outlet. It helps.” He smiled. It was what the woman wanted to hear.

“Yes, of course. It’s good that you have an outlet. Very good. And might I add that this is marvellous craftsmanship… really marvellous. Although if you feel the distraction isn’t working…  Just make sure if you feel as though you are slipping into old habit-“

“Yes. I know your number. I have every contact I need. Trust me, I don’t want to go back to that place.” Joshua felt relieved that the woman had not attempted to delve any deeper into his fascination with doll making.

The conversation continued for another hour, the woman asking endless questions, offering advice, handing Joshua leaflets to further group sessions. Eventually, she got up to leave.

“Joshua, you really are making fantastic progress, really. You should be proud of yourself. I’m seeing a real progression in control. We’ll get there soon, it’s just a matter of continuing with the counselling for a while longer.” After the door had closed behind her, Joshua smirked to himself. She had believed him, perhaps he’d even believed himself. After all, he’d believed it enough to be placed on the rehabilitation and relocation programme hadn’t he?

Feeling hopeful, he waved the woman goodbye from the kitchen window, watching as she drove away.

A figure in next door’s garden caught his eye. It was Polly, the neighbour’s sister’s daughter. She was a frequent visitor next door, The Whittler had begun to recognise her as the girl that played with her dolls in the back garden. Polly with her expression of childish bewilderment. Polly with her skinny, girlish frame. Polly with her ginger curls. Polly.

He watched the girl. Glancing at the field behind the garden, he pictured her hot blood running into the soil. The Whittler thought about painting the doll in his hand, staining the dress red, her hair coiled round his finger…

     One last time.

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