LIVING DOLL `Look what Mr Masters gave me,' Hattie said.

Tom stared astonished at the object that Hattie had placed on the kitche n dresser. Eighteen inches high, porcelain faced with glassy blue, expressionles s eyes, curly eyelashes, red lips and ash blonde hair fanning round her face, th e doll was dressed in a salmon pink frock. `His plaster cast came off a couple of days ago and he's managing OK now, so h e doesn't need me anymore.' When their reclusive neighbour Mr Masters, who lived on his own in the bi g house with the large garden at the bottom of the lane, slipped in the supermar ket and fractured his leg, Hattie had stepped in to do his shopping and cook him tasty meals that he'd heated up in the microwave. `It was really weird,' Hattie said. `Meaning?' Tom took out a bottle of wine from the fridge, uncorked it and f illed two glasses. `He showed me into his study and there they were- rows upon rows of dolls. All dressed differently but all uncannily identical to look at except there wa s one that was covered in tattoos and boasted lip and navel rings. He asked me to select one as a thank you present for all we'd done for him. I demurred but h e just wouldn't take no for an answer and ended up choosing this one himself. In f act, he practically thrust it into my hand.' `Crazy having that kind of hobby. Is he a perv?' `I can't complain. He's always been pretty decent to me,' Hattie said. `And generous . But he's no perv. He's probably just an eccentric collector and they say living a lone can addle you.' `Well, we'll have to make room for the thing or else hand it into a charity sh op,' Tom said. `Hey,' he bent down to pick up pages of that day's newspaper that were f luttering to the floor. `What's it with that draught?' He got up and went into the hall to find the front door wide open. `Hattie you're losing it- you forgot to shut the door.' `Not guilty,' Hattie said. `You were last in so it must have been you.' `Me? Never!' said Tom as he banged it shut. They moved some of the books from the topmost shelf of the bookcase on th e bedroom landing to make space for the doll. She gazed down at them as they we nt in to the bedroom at night and when they emerged in the morning. The next few weeks were possibly the worst they'd experienced since their r ecent marriage. Their cat disappeared and they roamed the neighbourhood despera tely sticking lost kitty notices on lamp posts and trees. Then Hattie was knocke d down by a bicycle on her way to the train station. Tom cooked a steak and kid ney pie for supper and they returned from work to find it on the kitchen table, half eaten whilst the champagne they were keeping for Christmas lunch had been s pilled onto the floor. The few pieces of jewellery Hattie owned were missing fr om the jewel case only to be discovered in the oven. At night they tossed and t urned trying to identify what sounded like heavy breathing that kept them awake. Hattie, returning from the gym, found the doll by the front door. Tom denied m oving it. How could it have got there they wondered? They didn't employ a cleaner and no one could have accessed the house in their absence. Tom promptly put the doll back on top of the bookcase. They bought a spruce and decorated it with Christmas tree baubles and a pre tty Christmas fairy. A few days later they found the doll gracing the topmost branches of the tree; the fairy nowhere to be seen. Hattie accused Tom of messi ng with her and they had a little row. That evening, after the doll had been rel egated to its patch, they smelled a strong whiff of gas and had to summon the e mergency gas man and when Hattie logged into online banking she found their join t bank account had been hacked and a substantial sum siphoned off. The next mor ning as Tom was shaving he noticed the doll perched on the edge of the bathtub. A creepy feeling engulfed him. Tom said nothing to Hattie. When he got to work he called her on his mobile and told her to meet him in the lunch hour as they was something he wanted to d iscuss that couldn't wait until they got home.

`Things haven't been the same since that doll came to share our lives,' Tom said carefully as he shared a pizza with Hattie. There was small pause then Hattie said. `I didn't want to say anything in case you thought I was going mental but I've had this horrible feeling that something wasn't right. A sort of malevolence.' Tom nodded. `Yes, the atmosphere's been spooky.' They looked at each other. `Let's return it to Mr Masters. I don't care what he thinks - we're not giving it any more house room.' Tom's mind was made up. Hattie said. `Suppose he refuses?' `Then we'll get rid of it at the Council dump. Donating it to a charity shop i sn't the solution.' When they got home from work that evening the doll was sitting on the sofa . They deposited it inside a plastic carrier bag and holding hands walked the s hort distance to Mr Masters's house. `Tom's allergic to the synthetic stuff that's used to make the doll's hair,' lied Hat tie. `It's brought him out in a nasty rash.' She gestured to the vivid blotches on Tom's face and hands which they'd artificially and rather cleverly, they thought, creat ed, having followed the instructions of a Hollywood make-up artist on the inter net. `So, sadly, we'll have to part with your thoughtful gift.' Mr Masters didn't look at Tom. He sat the doll on his knee and addressed it. `You were evicted from home as punishment for all the games you played with me, Miss High and Mighty. Now, do you promise to behave?' Hattie and Tom could have sworn the doll blinked and shed a tear and its li ps wobbled. `Now you're back where you belong but let that be a salutary lesson to you.' Speechless, Tom and Hattie arrived home to find their cat, bedraggled and h ungry, sliding through the cat flap and the fairy sparkling high up in the tree . The End

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