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by Leyland Perree
The man the children had come to know as Puppet Daddy had led two lives. Despite the pain and regret he felt as they both passed before his eyes, he still managed to raise a tiny smile.
His Happy Life took place behind the red velvet curtain of his puppeteer's booth, or underneath the faded wooden stage. Even in the cramped workshop where he designed and whittled, painted and dressed his lifeless wooden dolls, he was happy.
His puppets were the closest thing he would have to children of his own. Shelves were lined with his creations; clowns, ballerinas, traditional Punch and Judy, mischievous imps and hook-nosed devils - he owned them all, he created them all, but no fairy magic or talking cricket would ever bring them to life like he could. He looked after them and loved them. They were his children and his Happy Life.
The other life he despised. It robbed him of the gladness he felt after a full days sweat in the muggy heat inside his puppetry tent. Too many fragile evenings by the fire in the company of his cold and silent wife only served to thicken the walls between them. The few sounds that rent the still air were the occasional crackle of kindling and the constant tick of the living room clock. Puppet Daddy was forever looking forward to the tock.
He had been happy with both lives once. That was long ago when he first studied the art alongside the only man who had meant anything to him. They learned and perfected their craft together, and even enjoyed each other's company beyond the dry rot walls of the workshop. Then along she came; a wondrous creature, an angel among lesser beings. She captured both their hearts, but it was Puppet Daddy whom she chose to wed. In those days he was young and dashing and to her, most desirable.
The other had slipped away and watched them from afar. At first he was glad for they had both found happiness in each other. Envy followed soon after and from that grew callous animosity. He started to plot
Puppet Daddy's audiences began to dwindle and it soon became clear who was the more successful puppeteer. Faithful children were lured away by the trickster's gimmickry and special effects while Puppet Daddy stayed true to tradition as always, with his wonderful dolls carved from wood and love. Puppet Daddy didn't mind, after all he cared for his puppets and his art, whereas his rival viewed them only as tools of a dying trade. Puppet Daddy enjoyed his craft; his rival came to abhor it, feeling shamed and ridiculous, crouched beneath his own candy-striped canopy, hidden from the world.
Puppet Daddy was happy then.
Nothing did he know of the affair and the lure of success.
Now, after forty years of marriage, he struggled to pin down the moment when her love for him had died. She had moulted her angel feathers one by one, unnoticed, unresolvable, until they were gone. And Puppet Daddy never knew until it was too late. He would have given anything to have her love again, his angel. He would have given his life, and would have still if ever the chance arose.
Somehow, whether it stemmed from love or foolish hope, he felt that secretly she yearned for him, her Puppet Daddy, the only one who could really pull her strings. And at those times, he would smile a sad smile and carry on whittling an arm, painting a foot, looking forward to the next elusive tock.
Puppet Daddy felt more tired than he had ever been in his life. He had suffered of late with strange dreams; they were of his lost love, his angel. He dreamt as if looking through the eyes of another; an admirer envious of her betrothal to an old and meek puppeteer.
The first night of his dream, he had seen her standing by the river, looking as she used to forty years ago, gazing out over the derelict wharf to the stars slung above the horizon like God's own puppets.
Puppet Daddy just stood back off the roadside and watched her watch God watching back.
The second night he approached her and, not even moving to look at him, she slipped one milky hand into his and they stood at the riverbank watching, silent. Happy.
In a mere month of dreams, her love for him had returned to its former glory - but one thing remained that kept their love from being truly free. She was bound by the ring on her finger, the way a puppet is bound to its master.
They talked of running away, even tried it, but although they would flee to far off places, the next night they would meet up again at the very same wharf, gazing at the same stars, with the same God gazing back down at them. There appeared to be no escape.
Puppet Daddy felt drained in his waking hours. His shows at the beach hut shortened, he spent less time in the workshop tending to his children, and too much time listening out for the tock.
Puppet Daddy's Happy Life had started to die - it was time enough and he knew what had to be done.
The plan was hatched in their dreams one night, while Puppet Daddy's cold and loveless wife lay in her bed beside him, snoring loudly.
They met as usual at the road by the wharf. That dark night there were no stars to watch and no God to watch back. The water was a barely visible stain against the horizon. They spoke no words, but held each other instead. It was to be their night of escape, of freedom. Of murder.
He waited until she opened the back door for him from within the house, and he crept up to the puppeteer's bedroom, his love following behind.
The man was asleep; his brow furrowed and mouth whispering unheard secrets. The stage curtains would close on him tonight.
Puppet Daddy let the knife plunge deep.
He awoke to find a man standing over his bed, knife in hand. Puppet Daddy was bleeding from his stomach.
The trickster backed away with a look of shock and regret on his face, as if suddenly returned to his senses from a half-forgotten dream. Behind him, Puppet Daddy recognised his wife, his tick, his lost angel. She smiled up at her lover, the trickster, and a puppet himself and dragged him, still shaken from the room, closing the door behind them. With the marriage broken they could escape to happiness, and Puppet Daddy was glad and proud of his work.
In the shadows behind the bedroom door, a puppet swung from a bent nail, half-finished, an old and ragged man with most of its strings severed. It reminded him of him.
Puppet Daddy had puppeted all his life. That night he had puppeted to end it.
He had done what he had promised himself; given his life to have her love again.
'I always was the best,' he thought with a smile as he waited for the tock.
Final Word Count: 1,205