A story by Joanne Harris
The Boy with the Borrowed Face by Joanne Harris
Every year since the publication of Chocolat, I have been to the Oxford Literary Festival. Over that time, I’ve watched it grow; I have become a patron; I have met hundreds of fascinating people, both readers and writers.
This year, I was asked to be writer-in-residence for the festival. The Landmark Trust, one of the festival sponsors, offered to house me in one of its local properties, The Old Parsonage in Iffley, where I spent a delightful week, watching spring push its head through the snow, walking into Oxford along the river every morning and investigating some of the many events, readings and discussions the festival had to offer. It was idyllic. The Old Parsonage is beautiful, gracious, blissfully quiet, possibly haunted, but vibrant with untold stories – a perfect, creative environment for both writing and relaxing.
My only problem was that I feared not being able to do justice to my surroundings simply by describing them. A building can be a character as complex as any human soul. And the Old Parsonage has a soul; something almost tangible, which the Landmark Trust has brought back to life. I wanted to try and articulate, not just the beauty of the place, but some of how it made me feel.
And so I wrote a story. Here it is.
The Boy With the Borrowed Face
I remember this place. I’ve been here before. Long ago, when I was a child, when I was six, I knew this wall; this doorstep. It’s a church wall, with lavender growing alongside up the path, and the short stubby tower of the church rising not too high above. This door, too, I once knew: a white door, bound in black iron, without any knocker or doorbell. There’s no letter-box either, perhaps because there’s no-one there, or perhaps to stop the world getting in. Either way, it’s faceless, a blank. Nothing going on inside.
Up the lane, beyond the door, there’s the gate to the churchyard. Today it’s open, and I can see in. A yew tree stands by the gatepost, and beyond it, a mellow stretch of lawn interspersed with gravestones, around which grow bunches of snowdrops, primroses and crocus.
The gravestones are faceless, like the door. Time and erosion have rubbed them out, rewarding their patience with rosettes of gold and silver lichen, like prizes at a church fête, as if there were prizes for being dead; first class; second class. I used to try and work them out, long ago, when I was a child, kneeling on the sun-warmed grass, tracing the indentations in the stone with the tip of my finger. There’s a something that might be an A – and something else that may be a 16 – or maybe they’re only the trail-tracks of a stone-munching worm, moving idly from one word to another, making nonsense of history.
There’s no such thing as stone-eating worms, says the voice of my grandfather.
Oh, but there are. I know there are, just as I know there are Small Things, because I’ve always seen them. Not so often nowadays, but that was the year my mother died, erased like blackboard chalk from the world, and that year the Small Things were everywhere: sitting on the church wall; scuttling across the lane; blinking at me in the air; waiting behind the sofa to reach out a hand – or a finger – as soon as I turned my head away.
That’s what happened to me that year, the year of my sixth birthday. At the time I wasn’t sure what had changed, or for how long. Later, they would tell me the truth: that she’d been killed in an accident; that my father had stayed at home; that I had been sent to my grandparents’ house, in Oxfordshire, out of the way.
But all I knew at the time was that everyone gave me presents, even though it was Easter and nowhere near my birthday; that I was taken out of school three days before the end of term, and that when I asked after my mother, people would tell me different things; that she was with the angels; that she had gone on a journey; that she was tired and had to rest.
No-one told me she was dead, which frightened and confused me – because I knew what dead was, and no-one else seemed to understand. I tried to explain to my grandmother that there were no angels, but she only pursed up her mouth as she did when I’d said something she didn’t like, and afterwards, when I wanted to play with my toy cars, lining them up and crashing them like in The Dukes of Hazzard, she said I was just like my father, and what was to become of us all. And so I took my toy cars and went out into the lane to play, with instructions not to go too far, and not to get in anyone’s way.
It was sunny, and not too cold, the way all holidays used to be. In the lane, there were wallflowers and tulips and pale-yellow primroses growing along the old stone wall that ran from my grandparents’ house to the church. It was sunny, with long shadows, and a Small Thing ran alongside me, thinking I couldn’t see it, fast and bold as a running rat, before disappearing into the wall.
I wondered if she’d seen them too. If that was why she’d crashed the car. I could see it only too well; my mother’s blue car, and the Small Thing – which might have chosen to appear as a rubber ball, a dog, a bike or even a little boy like me – dancing into the path of it, awaiting its chance to steal her away.
That’s when I stopped and saw the door. A white door, bound with iron bands, with no doorbell or letter-box. I could tell that it was old; the wood under the white paint was scarred and kicked and battered with age, like something that has been out to sea and come back laden with treasure chests.
I turned away. The Small Thing was back, furtively teasing the tail of my eye. This time it was like a cat playing with a piece of string – darting out, darting in – retreating every time I looked. Small Things didn’t like to be seen, except when I was alone sometimes, and even then not always. Small Things have no faces, of course, but sometimes you can see them; the one that looked like a small blue car sitting on the doorstep, a small blue car just like the one my mother was driving when she died –
I turned back. There it was, on the step. A blue toy car – not one of mine – just sitting by the old white door. The back of my neck was prickling. I took a step forward, but by then the small blue car had already gone. And the door was open.
For a moment I wasn’t sure what to do. I knew I wasn’t supposed to go into strange houses, but somehow this place drew me. Perhaps because of the blue car, that might have been a Small Thing.
I took a step towards the door. A bunny-hop. No-one was there. The lane was empty. Another hop. I remember thinking that if I hopped in, rather than just walked in, I would be safe.
Safe from what? I didn’t know. But I had been raised on stories in which wicked queens and witches lured small children into their homes and fed on them, hungrily, body and soul. They told me they were stories, and stories were only make-believe. And yet I was supposed to believe that my mother was with the angels. Why believe in angels, I thought, but not in monsters, witches or ghosts?
I was wearing blue shoes. Blue shoes, with buckles. Girls’ shoes. It was their fault, I told myself: their fault that she’d gone away, and now they had brought me to this house, and slyly taken me inside.
I took another bunny-hop, which carried me over the threshold. Stone flags paved the hallway floor, and there was a scent – not unpleasant, but as yet indefinable – of age, of wood, of stone, of smoke; a slightly churchy scent that filled the air with soft sparkles.
There was a set of wooden stairs leading upwards, to my left. The blue car was sitting on the stairs, looking as innocent as could be, as if only a moment ago it hadn’t been out there in the street. I remember it was a Matchbox car, a sky-blue Mini just like hers, and I knew that if I played with it, it would still have that new-car bounce in its shiny rubber tyres, the bounce that all my scuffed old cars had lost in my years of playing with them.
Behind me, the front door clicked shut. The outdoor Easter-light went cold. Something caught the tail of my eye – a Small Thing; grey and faceless. I turned, and by the time I’d turned back, the blue car was halfway up the stairs, where a little arched window (like Play School, I thought) looked out onto the Easter sky with a piece of kaleidoscope glass in its eye, red and blue and green and brown. I walked up the twisty little stairs, and now the air was filled with Small Things, singing out in those colours like a string of fairy-lights. It was pretty, and somehow wrong, but I wasn’t at all afraid. It never occurred to me that I’d been lured inside, like the children into the gingerbread house, or the boy into the Snow Queen’s lair. Instead I began to feel a strange excitement, as if there were something in that old house that had been left just for me to find –
The stairs led to a landing. Above it, they kept going, and I followed them right to the top, where I found a bedroom with two little beds, both neatly-made and bare of any sign of life. There were snowdrops in a vase by the side of the window – snowdrops were her favourite flower, and I thought of the churchyard, with its swathes of snowdrops over the mellow graves of the dead, and wondered if she’d be buried there, with snowdrops nodding over her head like wise little elves and the stone-worms eating away at her carefully-wrought inscription so that soon she would be just like the rest, worn as smooth as a butter-pat, smooth as an old man’s memory.
The soles of my blue shoes were made of crepe, and they creaked and squeaked on the wooden floor, a floor that was as old and worn as the deck of a pirate ship, worn smooth by the passage of thousands of feet. If this was a ship, I told myself, then this must be the crow’s-nest, where I would watch for a glimmer of land, and the Small Things would hover like birds in the air between the giant cloud-coloured sails.
There was a seat in the window. I climbed onto it and looked outside into the garden below. I saw a lawn, a wall, some trees – one especially old, I thought, with its own set of crutches to keep it upright – some flower-beds and a gentle incline down towards the fast brown unsettling river, where there were a set of stone steps leading to the water. This water was the Thames, I knew, although it had a different name in this part of the country. An older name, come from somewhere else, charged with menace and mystery. There was a shining speck of blue in the middle of the lawn. I knew without having to look that it was the little blue car, there on the grass. It had been a Small Thing, after all.
It was then that I first began to feel a glimmer of unease. I’d gone into a stranger’s house uninvited, which made me a TRESPASSER. Then there was the house itself; so beautiful, and so empty. You know when a house isn’t lived-in; just as you know when a dead person is really dead, and not just asleep or faking. Not that I’d seen a dead person then, but I knew it anyway. And nobody lived in this old house. Even I at six could see that; the beds were clean and unused; the drawers in the dresser all empty. And yet it was warm and spotlessly clean; there were flowers in a vase; even the lights were working.
Going back down the stairs, I checked the second floor, and found it as empty as the third; two bedrooms, one with a big double bed and a set of mullioned windows; a bathroom with a giant bath big enough to drown in. No clothes in the drawers or the wardrobe; no dust on the threadbare rugs or the dark old furniture. There was a painting on one of the walls: a lady in a long dress, with dark curly hair like my mother’s, but her face was blurred and in shadow and I couldn’t see who it really was.
For some reason I didn’t like it. Nor did I like the portrait on the landing, a shadowy portrait of someone old, but once more blurred and faceless, as if a big thumb had smudged it away. Perhaps that’s what happens when someone dies: the face in their picture disappears, just like the name on their gravestone. I wondered if my mother’s face would also disappear in my mind. I thought that in time, it probably would.
From the corner of my eye, I saw something dart from left to right. There were lots of Small Things here, and that too made me uneasy. It made a little sound, too; a kind of skittery chuckle, as if it knew it had startled me. I went downstairs. I opened a door into the parlour. Here too, was deserted. A big empty fireplace; oak-panelled walls; pirate-ship floors that pitched and rolled. Beyond, there was a dining-room with a long oak table and lots of chairs; then a kitchen, with a dresser filled with pretty blue-and-white china. Here, too, there were portraits of men and women in old-fashioned clothes, but none of them had faces; just that blurry thumbprint where the features used to be. There was a panel of stained-glass in the top of the kitchen door: a picture of two cherubs with wings. I remembered my grandfather telling me she was with the angels. But even the angels were faceless here, their curly hair covering nothing but space.
The little blue car was outside the door. I could see it through the glass. But the kitchen door was locked and barred and I couldn’t open it. A Small Thing snagged at my elbow, almost making contact, but I was too quick as I turned round. I heard that chuckling sound again, from somewhere in the dining-room, and imagined the Small Things watching me, perhaps from the dark old fireplace, ominous with shadows now, but large enough to roast an ox.
There was another vase of snowdrops on the kitchen worktop. I wondered who came to put flowers in a house where nobody lived. And then I realized something else; in all my exploration of the house, I hadn’t seen a mirror. Not one. Not even in the bathroom, or on the bedroom dressing-table. There were no mirrors and no clocks, as if even Time had no face here, making the stillness absolute.
I wondered if I still had a face, or whether I too had been rubbed away, and I tried to look at my reflection in the mullioned windows, but the glass was rippled and strange, and all I could see was a pale smudge.
That frightened me, and I turned to go. Small Things scuttered as I did. They were grey, like field-mice, but quicker. I didn’t like them. I wanted to say: Go away! You’re just Small Things. You don’t exist! But then I wondered if I, too, wasn’t just a Small Thing, running behind the skirting-board of the adult world; faceless; casting no shadow. I started to run towards the hall, my blue shoes squeaking against the boards. My nerve had gone; the Small Things scattered like marbles.
I opened the parlour door and saw the little blue Mini sitting there, on the flagstones in the hall, as if it wanted me to stay, to stay forever in the house and play with my cars on the polished floors. And there was someone on the stairs, someone whose face I couldn’t see, but whose shadow fell against the wall, huge and soft and blurry –
The house was a crackle of whispers. Small Things watched from everywhere. And then, the thing on the stairs said my name, softly, but perfectly audibly. A voice that was almost familiar – although that was impossible – and the little blue car was there at my feet, very there and very real –
“You’re not here,” I told the air.
Oh, but I am, whispered the voice.
“Who are you?”
Who do you want me to be? I can be anyone at all. Give me a face. Give me life.
I shook my head. “You’re a ghost,” I said.
There are no such things as ghosts. Only dreams and memories. And no-one ever really dies, as long as someone remembers them. So give me a face. I know you can.
“Is that what you did with the pictures?” I said. “Did you steal their faces?”
The shadow on the stairs gave a sigh. I don’t steal, I borrow, it said. You people forget so easily. A year or two – ten at the most – and already they begin to fade. But you remember your mother’s face. Let me wear it, little boy. Let me see the world again -
I thought of my mother and tried to recall the shape of her face, the blue of her eyes.
Let me wear her face, little boy.
“You wouldn’t be my mother,” I said.
I could be, if you let me.
I thought of the wolf in the grandmother’s house, waiting to eat up the little girl. I looked down at my blue shoes.
What if you could have her back? The voice was soft and caressing. What if you could have her back, just for a moment, what would you do? What would you say?
I closed my eyes. Beside me, I felt movement. I could smell her perfume now, the bluebell perfume she always wore, and hear her feet on the wooden steps.
I know you want to see me, she said. I know what you want to tell me.
And she was right. It was the shoes, those girls’ shoes with the buckles. She’d bought them for my birthday, for me to wear at my party, but I’d known my friends would laugh, and so I’d refused to put them on.
“Don’t be silly,” my mother had said. “They’re not girls’ shoes, they’re party shoes. Try them on, at least. For me?”
I’d shaken my head. I’d closed my eyes and held my breath.
My mother had sighed.
It would have made her so happy, I thought. I knew shoes were expensive. And then she’d gone out in her little blue car to go and pick up my birthday cake, and I hadn’t even kissed her goodbye –
I won’t. I won’t. I hate you! I’d said.
That little word. Such a small thing. But now it followed me everywhere. The thought that if only I’d worn the shoes, if only I’d stopped her to kiss her goodbye, if any one of those small things had got in the way of what happened next – the lorry that had taken a turn at the wrong intersection, the little blue car that had been dragged right underneath the trailer, with the birthday cake on the back seat crushed into a jammy mess –
All it had taken was seconds. These, too, were small things. I wondered how such small things could be so huge, so momentous.
You can tell me anything, said the shadowy thing on the stairs. Let me remember her for you. Let me take the little blue car and the blue shoes and the birthday cake. Let me take the small things. You don’t need them any more.
And for a second, I wanted to. I wanted to more than anything. I started to open my eyes, to say okay, yes, you can take them all, but even as I did, I knew that, if I looked the thing in the face (assuming that it had a face), it would stay with me forever, perhaps until the day I died. And it was hungry. Like the wolf, like the wicked witch, it was hungry, and it would feed, not on my soul, but on my memories. And the thing inside would wear her face, and walk from room to room of the house, sitting in the window-seat, looking down at the garden, and I would forget her, day by day, and that would be unbearable…
And then I saw that the outside door was open, just a tiny crack. And I stared at it for a second, and saw the sunshine on the other side, and then I went for the open door as fast as my crepe soles would go, making an ear-splitting squeak on the flags, just like the brakes of a speeding car –
Behind me, I heard my mother cry out. A high, forlorn and plaintive sound, that seemed to tear at the heart of me. At the same time I felt something clutch at my sleeve, but I didn’t look back. I flung open the door and fell out into the sunlight. The door slammed shut behind me with a flat finality. The street was in full sunshine, with never a trace of a Small Thing.
That was sixty years ago. I never went back, until today. And yet it seems like yesterday. The door hasn’t changed; nor has the house, and when I look up at the window, I see my own face looking back – not the face I wear today, but the face of the boy I was, staring solemnly down at me…
The procession has reached the graveside. Black cars line the alleyway. From the church tower, a bell rings twelve times, then falls silent. I wonder how long it will take for me to blur and fade to nothingness. I wonder if the stone-worms will worry away my inscription. And I wonder, if I try that door, that white door with no letter-box, whether it will open for me, or whether it is closed for good.
I can see hyacinths in a vase in the bedroom window. They were my favourite flower. Over the wall, in the churchyard, my son will plant hyacinths by the grave. Their bulbs will nestle alongside the snowdrops, hatching back to life every spring.
I remember this place. I’ve been here before. I remember it as well as I remember the face of my mother. Her blue eyes, her smile; the kiss she planted on my forehead. No-one ever dies, she said, as long as we remember. And now I understand what she meant. I hope my son will see it too. And I hope, when he finds this house – which he will – he will know what to leave behind.
I try the door. It opens.
The hallway smells of hyacinths.
(Joanne Harris,The Old Parsonage, Iffley, March 2013.)