Anatole and Little Frets.

...as if some dark force against nature had been harnessed to animate the body into a state of evil intent.

The only languages I learnt at school were a little French and Latin, but as I travelled around Europe, for the most part I got by. No doubt it was plain that I was English - people on the continent saw it quickly, and spoke accordingly. But not long after I began my adventures, I saw a vaudeville routine that, for want of familiarity with French, led me to a state of utter terror. Even now, in strange cities at night, I often look over my shoulder for little shadows stalking me.

'Anatole and Little Frets' was the name of the act, as it was garishly proclaimed on a bill poster glued to a fence in a dark thoroughfare near an inn. I was bored, yet not sleepy enough to retire, so I examined the poster a little closer. It was a ventriloquist and his dummy - they were neatly attired, and the dummy, as is commonly the case, had been constructed to look as much like his owner as possible. But there was something sinister in their faces. Well, on reflection, it was really only the face of the dummy, with its parodied eyebrows, sickening eyeballs and hideously fractured mouth. What is more disturbing than a ventriloquist's dummy? They all seem a little insidious, as if some dark force against nature had been harnessed to animate the body into a state of evil intent. I remember as I tiny child that I ran away from the Punch and Judy show at the fair, and my mother spent over an hour looking for me. Even as an old man, I still find such things unsettling.

The act was on a little dais at the rear of the inn - I went in, paid my sous, and sat down. But it soon became apparent that the act was wasted on me, as the exchanges between ventriloquist and dummy were rapid, and beyond my lack of familiarity with French to follow. But the crowd enjoyed the act enormously, laughing and yelling answers to the things said by the pair on stage.

Perhaps it was my imagination, or perhaps because I wasn't following the act, but I began to feel as if the dummy was watching me. I reasoned that it couldn't be doing any such thing, of course, yet its eyes still seemed to follow me. Then, somewhere in the stream of unintelligible banter I heard it say,

"Albert!"

I sat up - had it really said my name? I looked at it. It winked at me. Was I imagining it? I kept watching as the act continued, but if it had really said my name, it didn't do it again, so I nervously chided myself for jumping at shadows. But a few minutes later, I heard it say,

"Slaughter! Now!"

And it was still looking at me - did it really say that? I tried to work out what it might have said in French that sounded like those words, but couldn't... Was it a dialect? Was it Basque? Was it a broad accent from some rough part of the city? Or were the words just too fast, and somehow they were triggering my own unnamed fears?

"Pain, sir!"

It said 'pain'! I'm sure I heard that! I looked at Anatole - was this his game? Or did he too seem afraid of something? Was he taking care not to offend the grotesque creature on his knee?

But the act finished, and a little curtain fell across the performers. My jittery state of mind dissipated into irritation at having wasted my time. I went to the bar to have a quick drink before leaving. A number of others also wanted a drink, so it took me a while before I could give my order.

"He puts on a jolly good show that fellow!" I said loudly over the noise.

"Oh yes," said the barman, as he looked around for other orders.

"I thought the dummy was real!" I said.

"People often say that. It is a good act."

I finished my drink, then left to return to my hotel. Outside the streets were empty - shreds of bill posters hung from the fences or lay in the road, the gas lamps were in bad repair, and shadows hung over the filthy gutters as if waiting for something. It occurred to me that in such a place one might easily meet drunken sailors or starving tramps. Or was I still on edge from the screeching of that ghoulish doll? I walked briskly.

A minute or two after I left the inn, as I was walking along I began to hear a grating, thumping sound behind me. I turned, and emerging from an alley I saw a tiny figure, struggling to haul a barrow along. It was the ventriloquist's dummy, and on the barrow lay the body of Anatole. I looked closer - it was clear by the way his head was lolling over the side of the barrow that his neck was broken. Little Frets gave me a bloodthirsty grin, and in a scraping, taunting tone he sneered something in French, then cackled horribly. I yelled and bolted from the nightmare, running like a child from a spider, as if the dummy would leap onto my back and do God knows what to me, I kept running until I had to slow to gasp for air... My head was spinning, trying to understand what had happened - what did it say? That my friends were next? I knew I couldn't leave it like that, I had to tell somebody... After a while I caught my breath and summoned the courage to return to the inn - I burst through the door, and ran to the bar...

"Barman! M'sieur, something is wrong! Something terrible has happened!"

"Hmm, yes?"

"Anatole has been murdered! I saw him being carried along the road on a barrow, and his neck was broken! But not only that, the murderer, the one that was carrying him away - I know this sounds insane, but it was Little Frets! You have to believe me!"

The barman gave me a huge grin, then turned around to translate what I had said to the others in the room. For a moment there was silence. Then everybody in the bar burst into screams of laughter. I could feel my ears burning, as I tried to understand what was going on. After a while the noise died down, and the people returned to their drinks. Then the barman said to me,

"Ah, yes sir, you see, Anatole is the dummy, and Little Frets is the ventriloquist. But I will be sure to let them know that you liked their act!!"

June, 2016

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