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HELEN McCLORY

 

 

 

 

Helen McClory

Helen McClory is a writer from Scotland. Her first flash fiction collection, On the Edges of Vision, was published by Queen’s Ferry Press in August 2015 and won the Saltire First Book of the Year. Her debut novel, Flesh of the Peach, will be published by Freight in 2017. There is a moor and a cold sea in her heart. 

 

 

 

 

Automaton Town

 

 

 

They had bought the automaton town from a strange man in small offices in the city. They had bought the automaton town, and had it wrapped in soft cloth and transported by barge so as not to risk damage. When the barge came to the closest point to their home, they sent men with a specially constructed pallet to lift the automaton town and walk it across the lawns and into the ballroom, where it filled nearly a quarter of the floor space. There may never be dancing again, thought the daughter of the house. But her father and her mother smiled, and directed that the key should be wound, and the automaton town shown.

They sat on plush chairs. Two servants were permitted to remain in the room, the key-winder (the butler’s son, with his strong arms), and a maid, in case one of the ladies should need attending to. At first, nothing happened but a faint noise of cranking gears. Then, bit by bit, the town came to life. A pink-faced washerwoman appeared at a window, shaking a wooden sheet. A man in a white wig walked out of a doorway, gesturing with his pipe. A baker in his bakery sawed at a loaf of bread, in time to the swaying geraniums in the flowerpot outside. A woman in green shuffled down the street with a poodle, which began to bark. A small, tinny, but unmistakably poodle-like bark. The man in the office had said there were over four hundred ‘players’ in the town, and while it seemed preposterous at the time, it now made itself violently evident. Wooden figures streamed out of doors, or moved behind windows. It was impossible to make them all out, there were so many. Down a side street, a cart was upset, spilling apples as a horse reared in fright. High up in a tenement, a man with blocky fists punched a woman in a red apron in the jaw, and she stumbled backwards against a wall. The noises grew, a mesh of sounds that filled the ballroom. The daughter covered her ears, while her parents sat enraptured. Night came to the town. Revellers appeared. The pub lights came on, and frothy ales were poured. In the alley beside the church, a woman lifted her skirts and a man thrust an oversized coin into her hand. A brawl broke out in the market square. A man stabbed another man and removed his fob watch. A dog with a great mouth barked, until it too was stabbed and left on the wooden cobbles.

The daughter nudged her mother, only to be shrugged off. She tried to catch the eye of the maid, but the maid was looking down at the floor—was she, was she crying? The daughter felt her own face. It felt hard, numb. Plague came to the town, the doors to the city gates were barred. A man dragged the cart into the square, a cart loaded with white-painted corpses. They fell with a clatter into a hole in the stage floor. A group of women entered the church, which then split open, revealing them inside, pulling out the pews and smashing in the glass windows. The priest came out from the confessional, holding out his arms: the man from the other side of the confessional raised his fists and struck him to the flagstones.

The maid muffled her face to keep in her screaming. The father tutted, but did not look her way. The daughter attempted to rise, and was restrained by her mother. The buildings of the town folded and reformed into new dimensions. Briefly a city like the cities of the day, modern, with a railway station and omnibuses. These sank under the stage flooring—next arose a solitary building, a great mansion surrounded with trees. Such detail—polished wooden apples swung from their branches, a tiny blackbird chirruped in the rose garden. There was the canal made of moving strips of glass. There the lush green lawn. And there, across the lawn, wooden men, carrying a pallet on which there was—a shape wrapped in soft cloth. The mansion split open slowly. Rooms rotated to reveal intricate furniture—the plates, the painting of family likenesses, the grandfather clock (with working pendulum).

Panels from the bottom of the automaton town’s stage flipped outwards and clicked down on the fine ballroom flooring. It has reached the second window now, the daughter thought. In the wooden mansion, the cooks were pressing dressed meat into oven mouths, were chopping onions by the window. A man in shirtsleeves was taking off his hat to speak to a finely-dressed girl at the foot of the stairs. He was walking up the stairs with the girl ahead of him, guiding her with his hand. They were entering a bedroom. In the bedroom without removing their clothes they jerked their wooden bodies together on the bed. They danced like pegs. A maid at the door bent to peer into the keyhole.

The father sat very still, and so did the mother.

The maid by the wall had stopped crying, and was now looking at the daughter, trying to signal something with her eyes. The daughter looked down at her stiff dress, and her small white hands.

Five figures entered a ballroom, and arranged themselves, three in the plush chairs, one by a wooden construction at the far end, the last by the wall. But, if one looked closely, they could see faces at the window looking in. Their mouths open, no, opening. Ratcheting open to the fullest extent. The daughter turned to the windows of the ballroom, but all she could see was the stillness outside.

Something had happened. A figure chirped, wind the mechanism! The automaton town had stopped. Wind the mechanism! The father ordered, there will be more—look at those faces there! But the butler’s boy did not move.

The automaton town, of its own volition, began to roll again.

 

©2016 Helen McClory

 

 

Author Links

 

Helen McClory home page

Follow Helen McClory on Twitter @HelenMcClory

Purchase Helen McClory's short story collection On the Edges of Vision

 

 

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