FICTION: Stick Man by Rich Rose

When I was four, I drew a stick man.

A long figure in black crayon, with spider-like hands and a featureless round head, he stood on jagged grass like the blade of a saw, while behind him a yellow ball shone bright lines into the sky.

Mum was thrilled when I gave her the picture.

“Oh Toby, he’s wonderful!” she cooed. “He’s going right on the fridge.”

And so, my drawing was fastened to the fridge door with a magnet, displayed for all to see.

When Dad came home that evening, Mum winked at me and said, “Notice anything different there, honey?”

He took a beer, closed the fridge and scanned the door. His eyes fell on my stick man.

“Did you draw that?” he asked.

I nodded.

He patted my head and opened his beer with a foamy pssst.

That night, I heard a crash from downstairs.

“Mum?” I called. “Dad?”

There was no answer.

I got out of bed, pulled my dressing gown on and peered out into the landing. The door to my parents’ room was ajar and I could hear Dad snoring. I tiptoed past and crept downstairs.

I gently pushed the kitchen door open.

The clock ticked lazily on the wall. The curtains were drawn and the only light came from a lamp in the corner of the room, giving the space a dull, sickly hue.

And there, sat at the table, was my stick man.

His limbs and torso were black tubes, about as thick as broom handles, and his impossible body, almost seven feet tall, looked firm and oddly meaty. He was in Dad’s chair, with his back to the door, but when I entered he turned, and his featureless head followed me. His hands were placed on the table and in front of him was my drawing.

Timidly, I lifted my hand and was about to ask for it back when he stood, pushing the chair noisily across the floor. He leaned forward, so that his head was in line with mine. It was strange to have another being so close, yet feel no breath. He placed his right hand, with its four chopstick-thin fingers on my shoulder, and led me out of the room.

I walked up the stairs with the stick man behind me; his feet didn’t make a sound on the floorboards. When we reached my room, I scrambled into bed and pulled the duvet over my head.

The door closed.

The next morning, there was a space on the fridge where my drawing had been. Mum was busy filling a bin bag with old clothes for charity, so I did not mention it. It was not until we were eating dinner that evening that she noticed.

“Oh Toby,” she said. “Where has your man gone?”

She got down on all fours and peered underneath the fridge. Dad watched, slowly chewing his food.

“I can’t see him,” she said, shaking her head. “I don’t know where he’s gone. I’m really sorry honey.”

“It’s okay, Mum.”

“Oh but he was so good,” she said. “I loved him.”

“I’ll draw another one.”

Dad took a swig of beer and narrowed his eyes.

I did not draw another one.

As I descended the stairs that night, I saw that the bag of charity clothes by the front door had been opened.

I entered the kitchen and found my stick man in the low light.

Laid out on the table in front of him, was one of Dad’s old suits. Next to it was a pair of scissors, and in his hands, a needle and thread. He had sliced the trousers in various places, altering them so they were thin enough to fit on his pole-like frame.

He turned to me for a moment and I stared up that black bulb of a head, then he lifted a leg and pulled the trousers on. There was a ball of twine on the table. He unraveled a couple of feet and ran it through the belt loops, tying a knot above the fly. He flung the jacket on importantly and walked over to me in his new suit. I began to back away, but his hand came down and pressed against the small of my back. I did not argue as he escorted me back to my room.

When inside, I turned and looked up at that unreadable face. Slowly, he pulled the door shut.

After a minute, his shadow departed.

The next morning, Mum could not find my Peter Rabbit jumper. We rummaged through my drawers and discovered several other items of clothing were missing.

“I bet your father hasn’t taken them out of the tumble dryer,” she sighed.

As we left for school, she picked up the bag of charity clothes by the front door. It was full and sealed.

Bang!

I awoke.

Leaning over the bannisters, I saw that mud had been tracked into the hallway carpet.

In the kitchen, my stick man was sat in his customised suit, drumming his fingers on the table. As I drew closer however, I saw that they were not his fingers.

His left hand was still black and thin, with only four long digits and no thumb. But protruding from the right sleeve of his suit was a human hand, with pale skin and fine whiskers running up the side.

When he turned to me, I knew the drill, and walked myself out of the room.  At the end of the hallway, I turned to see if he had followed, but he was just sat there, watching me with no eyes. I went upstairs and closed my bedroom door.

Every night, I would sneak into the kitchen to find my stick man that bit more human.

His left hand was next to change, and when I approached, he raised it and wagged the index finger, slyly reprimanding me.

The next night, he had disposed of the adjusted trousers, and wore a pair with a torn pocket that Dad had left out for Mum to repair. Sticking out of the legs were two narrow feet with prominent blue veins.

The night after that he had a torso, with a chest that puffed out proudly.

Only his head remained a black ball.

Then, on the fifth night, I came down to find a human being sat at the table, with his back to me.

He was wearing a pinstriped suit, polished shoes and a shiny gold watch. His dark hair was slicked back, and though I only caught a glimpse of his face in the reflection of the window, his black eyes met mine and the flicker of a smile crossed his lips.

I wet myself standing there in the presence of my stick man. Then he stood and I ran back upstairs and buried my head under my pillow.

The next morning, I came into the kitchen to find Mum mopping up my puddle.

“Were you walking around here last night?”

She sounded concerned. I shook my head.

She gave me an orange tablet before bed that evening. After that, the noises stopped and night became just night again.

A year later, Dad died.

He was visiting his brother in Cornwall. He left the pub drunk one evening and was found the next morning in a ditch, his head cracked open on a rock.

I am eighteen now.

At the start of this year, I was putting together a portfolio of paintings for my art college application. While rooting around in the attic for some of my old pieces, I found a drawing. It was rolled into a tube with an elastic band around it, buried at the bottom of a box. The paper was brittle and the colours had lost their vitality, but there he was: a long, black figure, with four fingers on each hand, stood on a jagged lawn, with a happy sun shining behind him. I rolled him up and stuck him back, deep inside the box.

A few days later, Mum sat me down.

“Toby,” she said. “This might not be the easiest thing for you to hear, but I’ve been alone for a long time. I miss your father, I do. But I don’t want to grow old with no one.”

She smiled and stroked my hand.

“I’ve started seeing someone. And I think… I think this one could really go somewhere.”

I was happy for her. There had been a handful of men over the years, but they never lasted. She would begin to get attached and then, with little or no warning, they would disappear. I hoped this one would be different.

He arrived at our house on Friday evening. Mum was doing her hair when the doorbell rang so I went to answer it. Through the frosted window, I could see the silhouette of a tall man with pale skin.

I lifted the latch.

“Hello,” he said. “You must be Toby.”

He wore a pinstriped suit and was holding a colossal bouquet of flowers. He had a thin nose, thinner lips, and big, black eyes. His dark hair was flecked with silver.

“May I come in?” he asked. His voice was soft, but not warm.

I stood aside and he entered.

“I’m Stan,” he said, extending a hand. I shook it.

“I’ll be down in a minute!” Mum called. “Toby, take Stan through to the living room.”

“Would you mind if we went to the kitchen first?” he asked. “I could do with a glass of water.”

I nodded and he followed me.

He hovered in the kitchen doorway for a moment while I got a glass from the cupboard, then the hard soles of his shoes clacked across the floor. A screech as he pulled a chair out from the table. I knew which chair.

I filled the glass and placed it in front of him. He drummed his fingers on the table.

“Do you have any ice?” he asked.

I took the glass and walked over to the fridge. I opened the freezer, popped a couple of cubes in the glass and closed the door. When I turned, Stan was standing beside me.

I handed him the glass. He smiled emptily and his eyes moved to the fridge door. It was a jumble of holiday snaps, school photos and colourful magnets. He sipped the water.

Mum entered in a red dress with a white shawl around her neck and a small, silver handbag over one shoulder. I had never seen her in heels so high. She tottered slightly. Stan turned to look at her.

“Stunning,” he whispered.

She brushed a strand of hair behind her ear and I thought I saw her blush. She spotted the flowers on the table.

“Oh Stan, they’re beautiful,” she exclaimed, picking them up and inhaling deeply.

“You both look so handsome,” she murmured, her eyes filling with tears.

Stan had booked a table at a French restaurant.

“This is fancy, isn’t it?” Mum whispered to me, as the concierge took our coats.

We were led to a table by the window. The lighting in the place was dim: a dull and sickly yellow.

A waiter came around with a basket of breads. Mum and I each took a couple of pieces. Stan did not.

“Have to watch my figure,” he said, patting his stomach. It made a hollow sound.

Mum talked most of the evening and I watched Stan. He nodded and laughed and looked sympathetic in all the right places, but behind his expressions, there seemed to be nothing. Occasionally, he would glance at me and I would look away. He barely touched his food.

“Toby is planning to study Fine Art,” said Mum. “Isn’t that right, Toby?”

I nodded.

“Are you good at art?” asked Stan, cleaning his fork with a napkin.

“I enjoy it,” I said.

“He’s being humble,” Mum giggled. “He’s very good. He’s always had a great imagination. He used to draw me pictures when he was little.”

“Is that right?”

Those black eyes met mine and I looked down.

Mum excused herself and went to the bathroom. Stan removed a packet of indigestion tablets from his pocket and popped one in his mouth.

“Fine Art,” he said, moving the tablet around with his tongue. “What is it you intend to do with that?”

“I don’t know yet,” I said.

“Well, better start thinking. Time passes quickly.”

He leaned forward and put his elbows on the table.

“Have you maybe thought about a more vocational degree?”

He let the question hang there for moment.

“I mean, when you finish your course, you don’t want to have to return home and live with your mother, do you? Wouldn’t be at all fair on her. It’s all well and good splashing paint around now, but at some point you do have to consider: where can it get you?”

He took a sip of sparkling water and smiled. “After all, you can’t afford to just sleepwalk your way through life.”

Mum returned, a little wobbly from the wine. Stan took her hand and stroked it with his thin, white fingers. They kissed.

A month later, he had moved in. I wanted to say something to Mum about how fast it was all going, but she was smitten.

Stan and I hardly spoke. He would look at me sometimes and I would look at him, each regarding the other as an intruder in their house.

He wore a suit every day, though on occasions when he was expected to relax, the jacket and tie would come off, and he would roll his shirtsleeves up.

One night, we were watching TV. He did not sit like a normal person; he never sank comfortably into the cushions, but would remain rigid, hands on his knees and feet together. In the flickering glow of the screen, he looked even less lifelike than usual.

I was in the armchair with a sketchbook open on my lap, doodling.

“Scribbling away there,” he sneered. “Always scribbling.”

Mum entered with a bowl of popcorn and snuggled up beside him. He put an arm around her, took a single piece of popcorn and inserted it mechanically into his mouth.

Hatred bubbled up inside me. I turned the page in my sketchbook and started to draw him. It was not a realistic depiction, but a horrible caricature. I elongated his sharp nose to the point of absurdity and made those big, black eyes even bigger and blacker.

All of a sudden, Stan began to gag. He leaned forward, hacking and spluttering, and his eyes filled with water.

“Jesus, Stan!” Mum exclaimed and slammed him on the back. He clutched his throat as she walloped him again and again, until the popcorn flew out of his mouth and landed by my feet. “Are you okay?” she asked, running her fingers through his hair. “God, you gave me a fright.”

A string of drool hung from his bottom lip. He looked over to me and I slowly closed the pad.

The next day at school, I sat in class, drawing in the margin of my exercise book. I scribbled a little cartoon of Stan: eyes bulging, tongue lolling, and a single piece of popcorn flying out of his gaping mouth. I gave the popcorn a little face and speech bubble: “Freedom!”

When I got home that afternoon, Mum explained that Stan wasn’t feeling well and had gone for a lie-down. Upstairs, I could hear him breathing heavily in the bedroom. I pushed the door open. He was lying on top of the duvet. His eyes were wide and focused on me.

“Always drawing, always scribbling,” he hissed, before letting out a low groan and clutching his stomach. I closed the door.

The desk in my room was usually covered in art materials: charcoal, pens, pencils and paints. When I entered that evening, there was nothing. The paper in my drawers was gone too.

That was when it struck me. If a drawing brought him into this world, perhaps another could take him out.

While he slept, Mum and I ate dinner together, like old times.

“So Tobes,” she said, pushing a piece of broccoli around her plate. “Stan and I have been chatting, and we wonder if art college really is the best decision. You’re very talented, but honestly… I just don’t know what you can do with a Fine Art degree. Would you not be happier studying something like Journalism? Or Politics maybe?” She glanced at me. “Just something to think about.”

When I got home from school the next day, my books on Picasso, Dalí and Turner, which were always kept under the coffee table in the living room, had been chucked carelessly on my bed. My ‘Artist at Work’ mug had moved from the kitchen cupboard to the floor of my room, and I nearly knocked it over when I came in.

On Saturday morning, I entered the kitchen to find Mum carrying a large cardboard box.

“Morning honey,” she said. “I’ll get breakfast started in a moment. Stan’s feeling a bit better you’ll be pleased to hear.”

“Mum. What are you doing?” I asked.

She was still for a second then she smiled wanly and padded over to me in her slippers. She stroked my face, and as she did, I glanced inside the box. Framed photos, books, CDs, a novelty corkscrew and couple of fridge magnets lay inside.

“Stan and I talked about it and I think it’s time we got rid of a few things. We can’t keep this stuff forever; it’s not healthy. Dad would want us to move on.”

“No, he wouldn’t!” I snapped.

“Please,” she whispered, “don’t make this harder than it needs to be. Let me move on.”

That afternoon, there was a knock on my bedroom door.

“I’m revising”, I said, not looking up from the periodic table. Since Mum had expressed concern for my future, I had made a conscious effort to pay more attention at school and was doing my best to resist the urge to doodle.

Mum entered and sat on my bed.

“Tobes,” she whispered. “I’m just letting you know, it’s Stan’s birthday next weekend. You should really get him something.”

I dropped my pen and gritted my teeth.

“I think it would be a nice thing to do,” she continued nervously. “He does live here after all.”

I sighed.

“What are you getting him?” I asked.

“A new suit. There’s a place on Savile Row where they’ve tailored one for him. We’re going on Saturday to pick it up. Then we’re going to Penhaligon’s in Covent Garden for some aftershave…”

“Mum,” I said, “This all sounds pretty expensive.”

Her whole face tightened.

“It’s his birthday Toby,” she said coldly. “I’m treating him.”

“Why does he need all this fancy stuff?” I muttered. “Dad would have been—”

“Your father would have been happy with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and a six pack!” she snapped.

“I’m sorry,” she said and shook her head. “But I wish you’d give him a chance. You just don’t seem to see him as I do.”

The next morning, when she was stood at the kitchen counter, grinding the beans for Stan’s coffee, I came up behind her and said: “I was thinking, I might paint a portrait of Stan. For his birthday.”

She turned and hugged me tightly.

“I think that’s a great idea! Oh Toby, he’ll love that.”

She crossed to the hob and poured the coffee into Stan’s tiny percolator.

“By the way,” she said, “I’m going to Cornwall tomorrow to visit Uncle Mark. So it’ll just be you and Stan for a few days.”

She emailed me a photo of Stan for reference, taken when he was sat on the sofa, unaware. He looked somehow false in the picture, like he’d been superimposed.

When school finished on Monday, I went to the art department and got to work. I’ve always been better at landscapes and objects than people, but drawing him came surprisingly easy. It felt familiar. My hand travelled effortlessly across the page and within half an hour minutes, I had settled on how I wanted the final image to look.

When the sketch was finished, I packed it away to return to the next day.

Stan was sat at the kitchen table when I got home. The lamp was on low. He looked pale and tired, and his suit was beginning to fray around the edges. As I passed, he drummed his fingers on the table. I took a can of Coke from the fridge.

He stood and the chair screeched back. He walked over to me and leaned in close. “It’s time we had a chat,” he said. “I know you don’t want me here. I realise that, but it’s not up to you. Your mother loves me. So, for her sake, can we at least try to get on?”

His breath smelt sour and wrong.

He extended his thin, white hand. Warily, I took it. Those long fingers seemed to swallow mine up. He smiled. “Good,” he said. “I’m glad we had this chat.”

When I went upstairs, I was not surprised to find that several of the drawers in my desk were open, like he had been looking for something.

A picture.

The next day, when school was over, I returned to the art department.

I squeezed a blob of red, yellow, blue and white paint onto the four corners of my palette then mixed them all together. The result was dark and gory. I added more white then a little yellow, until I was satisfied that I had a good base for the skin. I slapped it onto the page. The background was blue and behind him I added a lamp, which shone, bright and yellow.

When I got home, Stan was in the kitchen. As I entered, he stuffed a piece of tissue up his sleeve. It was flecked with blood.

I crossed to the fridge and opened it. There were only condiments inside.

“I’m not hungry anyway,” I said.

On Wednesday, I refined the shadows and highlights. Mars Black for the eyes.

When I got home, Stan was in bed and the bathroom smelled of vomit.

By Friday, the picture was finished. When the caretaker came to lock up, I ran my fingers over the paper’s coarse surface. Satisfied that it was dry, I slid it into my portfolio case.

When I got home, I could see Stan in the kitchen, hunched at the table and, for a moment, I thought I heard him crying. I went straight to my room with my portfolio and pushed a cupboard up against the door.

Around midnight, the door handle jiggled violently.

“It’s my birthday tomorrow,” he spat. “Your mother is back early and we’re going shopping together.”

I did not move. He stumbled off down the corridor and I heard the bedroom door close.

I woke on Saturday to find the house empty. There was half a bottle of champagne on the table and two crystal flutes.

I was in the kitchen, changing the bulb in the fridge, when I heard the front door open a little after 9 o’clock that evening. Mum said something in the hallway and they both laughed, before entering the kitchen. Stan was in a navy blue suit with gold buttons. He stood with one hand on his lapel and the other on the small of Mum’s back. His cheeks were sunken and his skin looked almost loose.

“Hey, sweetie,” Mum said. “Aren’t you going to say happy birthday?”

I looked at Stan.

“Happy birthday.”

Mum put a hand on his chest.

“Do you have something for him?”

I allowed myself a flash of smile then closed the fridge door. Stan’s face dropped. Fastened to the door with an Eiffel Tower magnet was my painting.

“Oh Toby,” Mum shrieked. “It’s wonderful!”

She turned to Stan, beaming.

“What do you think? Isn’t he brilliant?”

Stan’s arm dropped and he walked over to me, not taking his eyes off the portrait.

“Extraordinary,” he whispered. “You really are very talented.”

His eyelids fluttered and he collapsed. Mum screamed.

***

Three weeks later, the chemotherapy started.

Mum went with him to the hospital and when they returned that evening, he went straight to bed.

Mum and I ate together. She said nothing, while I admired the portrait, which had remained on the fridge door.

I barely saw him over the next fortnight. Mum asked if I had anything for him to read while he was at his second chemo session. I gave her my books on Picasso, Dalí and Turner.

On his third session, I visited the hospital. Mum sat next to him as they did The Times’ crossword together. He had a drip in his arm.

“Hi Stan,” I said, pulling up a chair.

He looked at me with weary eyes.

“Hello Toby,” he said. “Thank you for coming.”

Mum smiled sadly.

As they continued with the crossword, I opened my rucksack, took out my sketchbook and drew.

At the end of the session, Mum and I waited in the corridor as Stan was weighed. When he came out, she asked him what the results were like.

“We can talk about it later,” he said.

She took his arm and they walked together ahead of me.

The last time I saw Stan it was a little after midnight on a Tuesday morning. I woke with a dry throat and went downstairs for a glass of water.

He was sat in a low light, in what had been Dad’s chair. He was just skin and bone, and the light bounced off his bald head. I sat down next to him and sipped my water. On the table was my portrait of him. He brushed his fingers across the bumpy surface of the paper.

“It’s a real talent you have here,” he said, looking at me with those big, black, frightened eyes.

“I just love your mother. I feel like… like I was made for her. I want her to be happy. That’s all.”

He looked at me then ran a hand over his round head.

“But if you think you can make something of this. This gift you have… then I guess you should go for it.”

He smiled thinly.

I stood and walked out of the room. When I got to the stairs I turned, and the stick man and I looked at each other, one last time.

Shortly after the funeral, I received an offer from my university of choice to study Art and English Literature. Mum drove me to the station a couple of days before the start of term, with all of my bags crammed into the boot of the car. On the way, I told her I wanted to visit Dad’s grave.

It was a beautiful, sunny day, and when we reached the cemetery, Mum said she’d wait in the car.

It took me a little while to find him. When I did, I sat by his gravestone and told him how excited I was to be heading to university. It didn’t hurt the way I thought it might.

On my way back, I saw that the car was empty.

I walked on through the cemetery and in the distance, I saw my mother: a silhouette by Stan’s grave. The grass beneath her feet was long and sharp, and in the brightness of the afternoon sun, her limbs had narrowed to lines.

Rich Rose is a writer and comedian from South London. He is one half of award-winning comedy double-act, Ellis & Rose, and co-writer of YouTube sitcom pilot ‘Whipped’. He graduated from Goldsmiths, University of London in 2011, with an honours degree in English Literature with Creative Writing. He is currently working on his first novel.

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