It was common knowledge that Stanley Walsh lived in a zoo. Through the yellowing lace curtains of 17 Church Street, passers-by regularly caught sight of a ferret’s tail or a pheasant’s wing, though few would linger long enough to see the whole picture. Old Stan had long kept to himself, rarely spotted out of doors, and his neighbours, seeking to explain away anything that might otherwise make them uneasy, put it down to the man never having quite got over the death of his poor wife thirty years before. Why else would he spend his days indoors by himself, with nothing but feathers and fur to keep him company?
No one had ever said anything particularly unpleasant about Stanley Walsh or his strange house, but over time the sediment of the grown-ups’ quiet aversion to his solitude built up in the minds of the local children, for whom the idea of Stan Walsh and his house of creatures was one of sinister mystery.
‘He’s a witch,’ said Sally. It was the last Friday of the summer holidays, and she and her friends were sitting in the corner of the rec, a scrub of grass with no particular purpose or use that stretched from the church to the high street. Together, they had amused themselves: Sally, Ben, Rose and William. They had wandered down by the river and played football in the backstreet. They had spent all the money they could beg from their mams on penny mix-ups from the shop, and had sucked on every last sweet until their teeth were sticky and their tongues were dry. Now, they were faced with the unique unease that came towards the end of six weeks off school: the boredom of trying to come up with yet more ways they could occupy themselves, coupled with the growing dread that they had wasted their precious holidays doing nothing particularly remarkable.
‘Nah, he can’t be. Only girls can be witches,’ said Ben.
‘Maybe he’s a wizard,’ said Rose, plucking a daisy from the grass. She was on a mission to make the world’s longest daisy chain, and had already laced together twenty-seven of them, although the ones at the top of the chain were starting to shrivel. ‘Like Merlin.’
‘You need a big staff to be a wizard,’ said William, who was picking at a scab on his shin from a dodgy tackle during their last match. ‘I’ve seen pictures. A staff’s a wooden stick, only massive. You need one of them, and a big beard.’
Ben shook his head. ‘Stan Walsh doesn’t have a beard, though. I’ve seen him.’
‘Yeah. He was in the corner shop buying tinned pineapples. His face is all sort of stubbly, but I don’t reckon that counts as a beard.’
‘Honestly, I’m telling you, he’s a witch,’ said Sally, the oldest of the four. ‘I swear on my life. It’s not about whether he’s a girl or not. Think about it. All those animals he has – it’s like how witches are meant to have pet cats and stuff, right?’
‘William, don’t you have a cat?’ asked Rose. ‘Does that make you a witch, too?’
Ben laughed as Sally rolled her eyes. ‘No, listen to me, right. Those animals of his, all of them are dead. Dead,’ she repeated for emphasis, her eyes wide. ‘None of you think that’s weird?’
‘Well, yeah,’ said Ben, who had not, until that moment, given the matter very much thought at all. ‘It’s weird, I guess.’ The others shrugged and mumbled in agreement.
Sally sighed. This was not the level of enthusiasm she had hoped for. ‘You know what I think?’ she asked, before dropping her voice to a theatrical whisper. ‘That’s not just weird. It’s black magic weird.’
She leant back and watched as her friends processed her words. William left his knee alone. Rose set down her daisy chain. Ben sneezed. A breeze blew in across the rec, sending an empty beer can skittering against the nearby railings and a shiver up each child’s spine.
The house was silent again, the sort of silence that tautened muscle and frayed nerves, as Stan took up his needle once more. Next door were getting a new kitchen in. All week, workmen had been coming and going, throwing fragments of cabinets and the innards of old pipework into the van that each day was parked closer and closer to his own doorstep than that of number 15. It would have been incorrect to say that the thumping and clattering had been incessant; had it been constant, he might have at least acclimatised to the din, the way one can acclimatise to most forms of monotony. No, the noise had been irregular and intrusive, rattling through the walls whenever Stan let his guard down and causing him on more than one occasion to prick his finger while fixing a delicate seam. Now, faced with silence, he felt his body stiffen as he prepared to make his next stitch, his mind already conjuring the next thud of the unseen hammer.
Today he was working with a mallard. He – for he was a he; Stan was rarely commissioned to handle the ladies owing to their duller plumage – was a handsome fellow, as ducks went. The shot had made its way clean through the neck, leaving nothing but two tiny wounds for him to discreetly patch up. He massaged the bird’s skin around its mount, aiming for something like life in the slickness of its feathers and the tilt of its beak.
Stan slipped a delicate stitch into one of the bullet holes, speaking softly to his patient as he worked. ‘What do you reckon, eh? Bet you were a proud one, had all the ladies swanning after you. Ha ha! Swanning. Not a bad one, if I do say so mys—’
Stan sighed. He set the duck and the needle down and waited for the noise to stop.
His workroom might, in another life, have been called a second bedroom. That was what the estate agent had dubbed it, with a wink and a nod to the newly married couple. ‘Perfect spot for a crib, here,’ the man had said to Harriet, pointing to the space where Stan would later set up his mending table. (Harriet had bought him that table a few months after they moved in, as an anniversary present. ‘For your dissections,’ she’d said. ‘So that I can get my dining room back.’ ‘What I’m doing is the opposite of dissection,’ Stan had replied. ‘I put things back together again.’) When the agent turned to show them the view that the so-called ‘bedroom’ window afforded, of the churchyard and an open patch of grass that he optimistically dubbed a park, Harriet rolled her eyes at Stan. Neither of them had any plans for a crib.
The banging continued in an uneven rhythm, on and on. ‘Well, sod this for a game of soldiers.’
As he rose to head downstairs, Stan glanced briefly out of the window. A group of children were climbing over the fence between the grass and the churchyard, despite there being a perfectly usable gate nearby. Above them, a crow – or was it a raven? – made the most of the breeze that was drawing in, rising swiftly skywards in a serene mockery of the racket that echoed through Stan’s house.
It was Sally who told them to climb the fence instead of taking the gate, and it was Sally who told them to look for fallen branches beneath the churchyard trees. ‘If we’re going to be witchfinders, we need to be armed,’ she explained.
‘I thought carrying a staff made someone a wizard?’ asked Rose.
She had a point. Sally gave it a moment’s thought. ‘Only if they’re magical, and ours won’t be magical. These are just for defence, see?’
‘How’s this?’ Ben asked, holding aloft a slender twig.
‘Not big enough. It’d snap in half when he sets his dead ferrets on you.’ Ben’s eyes widened. ‘No, you need something properly serious, one that will, like, defend you.’
That was good, the ferret line. None of them had ever seen a ferret, or not a living one in any case. They had glimpsed the stuffed ones in Stan Walsh’s front room, and in between those glimpses their imagination wandered freely. Sally needed them to imagine, needed them to believe in the story she was telling them, or at least play along as though they did. Otherwise, her friends might say they were bored. Boredom was always so much worse once someone said the word aloud, because then it became real, and real things were hard to defeat. They would say they were bored and then they would decide to go home, one by one, and then the holidays, the summer, all of it would be over.
A twinge of unease had been twisting at Sally’s insides all summer, the sort that made its presence felt in the quiet moments between conversations and fattened itself on her dreams. Despite being only a few months older than her friends, she had suffered the misfortune of being born too early to be in the same year as them at school. It had never been much of an issue in the past: while she did have to spend her lessons in a different classroom to them, come breaktimes and lunchtimes the four were free to hang around together, inventing games and stories to while away the minutes before the playground assistant blew her whistle and called them back inside. That had always been the case, but come next week it would all change. While Ben, Rose and William were moving up to Year Six, Sally was about to start down at the comp three whole towns away.
If anyone asked how Sally felt about going to big school, she would say she was worried about how her friends were going to get on without her. She didn’t say she was worried that they would get along just fine.
Sally wandered among the trees that stood guard around the gravestones, the names of the dead beneath her feet washed away by time or else cataracted with moss. Despite her best hopes, there weren’t many sticks lying around that would do for witchfinders’ staffs. She jumped to reach a low-hanging branch and, with all her weight, pulled it down until it snapped.
‘Here, Ben,’ she called out, holding the branch aloft. ‘Use this!’
Grinning, Ben ran over to Sally, his shoes sinking slightly into the soft give of the churchyard grass. He gratefully received his staff, which bore a few young, green leaves that did not yet know they were dead.
Sitting in his front room, where next door’s banging was, for the moment, somewhat muffled, Stan clutched a cuppa in his hands and watched the world through the semi-privacy of his net curtains. He had a fair sense of what his neighbours thought of him, those spectres that passed by his window. Harmless, if a little strange. Lonely. They pitied him. He could feel it radiating from everyone he encountered on the rare occasions he stepped out to visit the corner shop for the essentials. They didn’t see him; they saw Harriet’s widower. His wife had died almost half a lifetime ago, the cancer coming quick and taking her easily as though she had never quite belonged to life but was only lent to it, and yet in their eyes she walked with him still, a shadow clinging to each footstep.
In the early days after she passed, folks would make such a fuss of him. Armed with their Tupperware dishes the women would come, acquaintances of Harriet who posthumously called themselves friends.
‘Only us!’ they would cry, letting themselves in whenever Stan forgot to lock the door. They brought stew and dumplings, congealing soups, raised eyebrows. They would take in the full view of the front room, of Stan’s growing menagerie, and rummage around in their mental handbags for something polite to say.
‘Oh! Well, aren’t they something?’
‘Ever so lifelike.’
‘Not my sort of thing, but they are – what’s the word I’m thinking of? Remarkable, yes.’
He waited. He waited for one of them to tell him that he should stop with the taxidermy, that he should get himself outside and spend time with the living. A man keeping company with the dead: it had to be grief. Each glass eye, each polished beak, they were all clearly a cry for help, his mourning for Harriet manifested on his mantlepiece. They weren’t likely to recall that he had always been interested in taxidermy, that it was his passion and his life’s work, and that Harriett had loved him, if not exactly for it, then not in spite of it, either.
He waited for them to tell him that he needed to stop with the animals and move on, so that he might enjoy the thrill of telling them to sod off in response, but they stopped coming before he could have the satisfaction. They took their fill of his home, saw what they wanted to see, then left him to his animals.
Armed with their best weapons, Sally, Ben, Rose and William set off for Stan Walsh’s house. They raised the eyebrows of more than a few grown-ups on the way, but that was nothing new. Over the last six weeks nosy neighbours had asked on more than one occasion where they were going or what they planned to do with their day, as though hoping to catch them getting up to no good together. It was as though adults forgot that they had once been children themselves, that they too had known what it was like to feel crescents of muck form beneath their fingernails from whole days spent outdoors, to tongue-probe spongy absences in their gums where baby teeth had been shed.
Outside the house next door to Stan’s, two builders in paint-splattered overalls watched the children through a curl of cigarette smoke. Fixed beneath their gaze, Sally grew shy. Ben, Rose and William all stood around, waiting for her to speak.
‘Well, what do we do now?’ asked Rose. ‘How do we find out if Stan’s a witch?’
Sally mimed a zip across her mouth. ‘Shush, would you? They’ll hear us.’
They wandered to the other end of the street and back again, by which time the only sign left of the builders was a pair of stubbed-out cigarette ends on the stoop of number 15.
‘How will we know if he’s home?’ asked Ben.
‘Well, come on,’ said Sally, ‘let’s take a look and see.’
Cautiously, they approached the window of Stan Walsh’s house, and squinted through the net curtains to see what shapes they could make out.
‘I’ve got something!’ cried Rose. She beckoned the others towards her vantage point where, if the children found just the right angle, a waterfall of green feathers cascaded down from a high shelf, each one fixed with an unblinking blue eye.
William scratched his nose. ‘That’s a peacock, I think. My nan has some feathers like that in a frame in her bedroom. Says they look classy, like she’s sophisticated.’
While Ben, Rose and William admired the feathers, Sally found a different spot to peer through. There was something there, too, half in shadow. Something like—
‘Guys, guys!’ she hissed, dropping her voice to an urgent whisper. ‘It’s Stan! He’s right there.’
They jumped back from the window. ‘What’s he doing?’ asked Ben.
Sally squinted. ‘Nothing, really.’ Like the ferrets and the ducks and the pheasants that surrounded him, Stan Walsh remained perfectly still, his fingers laced around a mug that rested on his lap, his gaze fixed somewhere just off to one side of the window. ‘It’s like – it’s like he’s frozen.’
William gasped. ‘Like his animals.’
They took a moment to absorb this, what it might mean. Goosepimples rose across Sally’s arms that had nothing whatsoever to do with the autumnal wind that had followed them from the rec, the same wind that was now making easy work of removing the leaves from Ben’s staff. This was not what she had thought would happen – she had hoped he might be upstairs, that she could convince everyone they had done their best in finding a witch, that they could officially label number 17 Church Street a witch’s house and go on their way – but she could work with this. She turned to her friends and puffed up her chest.
‘Ben’s right,’ she said. ‘Stan Walsh is not a witch. No, he is something altogether worse than a witch – he is the monster that a witch created. She cast a spell on him, to walk the streets and kill animals and bring them back to his house, so that the same spell can be cast on them.’
‘But doesn’t that mean,’ sniffed Rose, ‘doesn’t that mean that Stan Walsh is dead?’
Sally remained silent a moment, savouring the scare that she would deliver. She rolled it around her tongue. She turned to answer Rose’s question, but as Sally opened her mouth, the net curtains opened too. Through the glass, Stan Walsh – the real Stan Walsh – stared down at the children, and behind him the beaded eyes of two dozen taxidermy animals did the same.
Stan had been watching the children outside his window for some time before they noticed him. God knows what the branches were all about, but the bairns didn’t look like they were up to any trouble. One had his eyes fixed on the peacock tail; another had stared at him with the same fascination. That’s the only word he could think to describe it. Not pity; there was none of that. Only curiosity and, perhaps, a little fear.
After pulling back his net curtains, he unlocked and opened his front door.
‘Well, what’s all this about then?’ he asked. Three of the children stepped back, looked almost ready to bolt, but one of the girls – the one who had been watching him – stood her ground.
‘Sorry to bother you, Mister Stanley. Only we were wondering if you were a witch, or maybe dead.’
He laughed. He had to. How old was the lass? Ten, eleven? Old enough to know her mind and young enough to speak it. ‘Well, I can tell you I’m neither of those things. What in God’s name made you think that?’
‘Because you kill all those animals and keep them in your front room,’ said the boy with half a tree clutched in his grasp.
‘I’ll have you know I don’t kill anything,’ said Stan, folding his arms. ‘People send me animals after they die and I put them together, make them look like they’re alive again. Sometimes I give them back when they’re done, and sometimes I keep them. It’s an art, what I do, and I don’t take kindly to rumours and superstition. Alright?’
That would have been the end of it. He would have shut the door and shut out the world again, only next door were starting back up with their banging and nothing was quite how it was supposed to be, and so he lingered a moment longer.
‘Can I have a look?’ asked the girl. ‘At the animals, I mean. Only you can never see them properly through your curtains. I don’t know if you noticed. It’s a shame to put them all on display like that if no one gets to see them but you.’
Stan sighed. ‘And what is it they call you?’
‘Fine, then, Sally. Come in and take a look. But just you – I’m not having a load of bairns running about my front room.’
Sally hesitated, turning back to look at her friends, then back at Stan. ‘I’ll just be a second, guys,’ she said. Resting her branch against the wall, the girl stepped inside.
Ben, Rose and William watched through the window as Sally wandered round Stan Walsh’s front room, carefully peering at owls and pheasants, ferrets and rabbits, and all sorts of other creatures none of them could name if they tried. Cautiously, with a nod from Stan, she held out a hand to stroke the peacock tail. The two of them spoke occasionally, even laughing once or twice, their words caught by the glass and held captive from the children’s ears.
‘I bet he’s bewitching her,’ said Rose.
‘What if he puts her on display like all those animals?’ asked William.
‘Nah,’ said Ben. ‘He hasn’t got a shelf big enough to fit her on, has he?’
The builders continued to hammer and clatter and the wind continued to pick up. The three children held on to their branches, while a gust caught Sally’s in its grip, sending it skittering down the street.
Sally had done her best to wipe the muck off her trainers, the muck that had accumulated within the tread over the last six weeks. The dirt of the backstreets, the rec, the riverbank, the churchyard, worked off with several stiff kicks against the hard bristles of Stan Walsh’s doormat. She had been taken by a need to see those half-glimpsed animals up close, to understand what they were all about, and did not want to be sent away for dirtying the carpet.
Stan watched her from the doorway of his front room as she crept on tiptoe from display to display, taking in the assortment of still bodies that surrounded her. This close, it was as if they weren’t dead at all. It was like they were on the cusp of life. When she didn’t know the names of the creatures, he told her; when she did know what they were, the briefest flicker of a smile crossed his stubbled face.
The peacock tail was ever so glossy. With a nod from Stan she inched her hand towards it, let her fingers trace the downward flow of the feathers, the way her mam had taught her to brush hair.
‘Now, you’d never get close enough to a live peacock to be able to do that,’ said Stan.
‘Is she your favourite?’ asked Sally.
‘He, actually. When a bird has bonny colours, chances are they’re male. And no,’ Stan added, ‘that’s not my favourite. Here.’ He beckoned Sally towards the hearth where, in the shadow of a pheasant’s outstretched wing, a small mouse was curled as though asleep. He knelt down ever so gently. It was as though he were about to pray; but then again, the man seemed so old, almost fragile, that perhaps gentleness was all his body knew. He scooped up the mouse with slender, calloused fingers and raised it up for Sally to see.
‘Caught by a mousetrap in our own kitchen, not long after we moved in. I hadn’t known the trap was there. Never been one for traps, poisons, that sort of thing; I’d have got rid had I known, but anyway. My Harriet, she screamed – not at the sight of the mouse, mind you. She wasn’t a softie in that sense. No, it was the shape of it, the ribcage all crushed, the life snuffed out so suddenly.’ He stroked the mouse once from head to tail. ‘Someone else might have thrown the unlucky little sod away, but I couldn’t bear it. I took it upstairs, skinned and mounted it as best I could. I’d never handled something so broken.’
‘It’s beautiful,’ said Sally.
Stan turned to her, his eyes barely recognising that someone else was in the room. ‘Yes, yes, it—’
‘You’d best be heading off, young lady,’ he shouted over next door’s din, before carefully setting the mouse back down beneath the pheasant’s wing.
Sally shouted a goodbye from Stan’s hallway before closing the door behind her. She caught the expression on her friends’ faces. ‘What?’
‘So, is he a witch?’ asked Ben. ‘Is he magic, dead, what?’
‘He’s just a man,’ said Sally. ‘A lonely man, but an ordinary man. He’s nice. And his animals are very clever.’
The adventure over, the four of them set off back towards the rec. They still had a few hours left of the afternoon, of the summer holidays. Anything could happen.
‘I still reckon he’s weird,’ said Ben, with a conviction and a certainty only a child can possess. ‘No one else round here has a whole peacock tail in their front room, do they? A few feathers is alright, like with your nan, William, but a whole tail? Nah. Something’s up with him.’
As they approached the church, Sally stopped. ‘Actually,’ she said, ‘I think I might head home. It’s getting cold, you know?’ She smiled at her old friends, then turned back the way they had just come. ‘See you around.’
The three remaining children watched as Sally walked away. They saw her wave through Stan’s window, then turn the corner and slip from view. As Rose and William continued towards the church and the graveyard and the rec beyond, Ben paused and flipped his branch upside down to examine the wounded end, with its splintered bark and greenish flesh marking the spot where Sally had ripped it fresh from the tree.
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