Debonair and mysterious, without being especially handsome, that was my uncle – Ambrose Walton, the painter – and the luminary of the family. In the eighties he’d held sway over a morning television audience of would-be artists and doting grandmothers with his black cloak and beret.
“How’s young Sammy?” Uncle Ambrose would ask, on infrequent visits from his current abode in Paris, ruffling my hair with long bony fingers that hurt my scalp. His appearance always seemed to coincide with unspecified absences of my father, I noticed.
A moment later, he’d be unpacking his trunk. I would watch in awe as he unfolded his clothes and hung them in a huge wardrobe made of polished walnut. Green corduroy trousers, burgundy waistcoats, huge knitted sweaters in royal blue, and cloaks of crimson. He was no shrinking violet!
I’d seen some of the old TV programs. Wielding a hand-held palette, Uncle Ambrose would attack a canvas with flamboyant strokes, somehow instantly suggesting the recognisable profile of a film star or celebrity. With bold stabs of red, blue, green and white, the features would be filled in with prowess, to adulation from an audience bedazzled by his technicolour interpretations.
“What does Uncle Ambrose do nowadays, mother?” I’d asked.
“Well, he works for a theatre, painting scenery. And he still paints pictures and sells them through an important gallery. His work is much in demand.”
Well, how much in demand I never did find out, but as for the theatre, I was given an insight when he pulled out from the bottom of his trunk a bundle of brown and green pieces of wood, connected together with black string. I saw what looked like a maroon jester’s hat with a bell on either end, and with a snap of his wrists the whole assembled into a marionette. The mouth was wide and the upper lip almost a beak. The eyes were bright blue and stared into mine, giving me the creeps.
“This is Fritz,” he said, pulling the strings so that the puppet made a little bow. He unfolded a large black-painted board and stood behind it so that the marionette dangled in front, it’s blackened strings hard to discern.
“He loves to dance!” Uncle Ambrose exclaimed, pulling the strings and whistling The Skater’s Waltz, so that the little jester appeared to be dancing with an invisible partner, whilst Uncle jiggled the puppet’s head from side to side such that the bells rang in time to the tune Smiling a smile of self-indulgence, he manipulated the little man through a number of antics – walking in a drunken manner, crawling, dancing a jig, and even doing a handstand.
I clapped enthusiastically.
“Very good, so lifelike!”
“Well, you keep him. A gift for Sammy!”
I looked at the bright blue eyes and the bright blue eyes stared back at me. “Er, thank you.”
That night, I awoke from a dreamless sleep. There was a new moon and the room was pitch black. Why had I awoken? Then I heard it and froze, the quiet jingle of tiny bells. I’d laid Fritz on a sofa at the other side of the room and I had a thought. “Poppy, Poppy?” I called softly, but there was no answering miaow. Instead, I heard what sounded like the quiet tap of little wooden feet on the linoleum and, again, the tinkling sound.
The light switch was on the other side of the room. I fumbled around in vain for the torch that had guided me to bed.
Tap-tap-tap. A little louder now.
I lay there in the blackness, feeling icy cold and breathing fast.
I started to pray. “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name …. “
Then something jumped onto my bed with a loud jangle. I felt the weight on my legs, not heavy but abhorrent, then rattling and tinkling towards my chest. “Get off!” I screamed.
Suddenly, I found myself awake with the rising sun lightening the room. Fritz still lay on the sofa where I’d left him.
There was a quiet knock on the door. “It’s uncle Ambrose.”
He entered, wearing a purple dressing gown; his hair ruffled up like Stan Laurel. “Are you OK, Sammy? I heard you, er, shouting.”
“I had a bad dream. About … Fritz.” I looked towards the puppet and my blood froze. The head had turned and the blue eyes seemed to be staring directly into mine.
The door opened again. “What’s happening?” It was mother in a nightie and dressing gown.
“Oh, Sammy here had a bad dream, that’s all.”
I gestured towards Fritz. “Mother, don’t leave me alone with … that.”
She looked at me with an odd expression. “Go back to sleep Sam, don’t be a baby.”
She smiled at Uncle and took his arm. “Let’s go back to bed.”
Uncle Ambrose turned towards me and nodded towards Fritz. “He’s a rascal that one, but I’m sure you’ll grow to be good friends!”
They left and I swear I heard the sound of quiet laughter from the sofa.
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