Fortnightly Fiction | Small

Rupert never liked his name. Nobody was called that on the black box with the moving pictures which lived in the corner of the room and was always on.  His friends had names like Mags or Dave or Shaz. His mum, called Mary, said it was good to be different. He would much rather have had a name like everyone else, and he would much rather have called his mum, Mum. Some of his on-screen friend’s dads had died or left, but he had never had one.

Mary named him after her favourite character that lived in the pages of a book. The Bear wore custard-coloured trousers that were too short for him (like his were), and he was a lonely only-child too. Mary told him that he would grow up to be famous with a name like that, and would live on the screen with his moving friends. Rupert didn’t know what famous meant but he didn’t like to ask, as Mary would laugh and that didn’t feel good. He wasn’t sure he wanted to be tiny and be stuck inside the box.

Mary’s favourite colour was pink.  The big drooping flowers on either side of the door were coloured like a tongue. The front door opened directly into the room with the television and the couch. There was a candy-stripe border running around the room, cutting it in two. It was pink as salmon flesh, and green as a pea. This was no place for a man. It made Rupert feel dizzy to look at. The house was very small, and there was only one bedroom and one bed. Mary told him they should be very grateful, that a kind person called ‘the council’ had given it to her and him. He didn’t like the word grateful, Mary said it a lot.

Rupert didn’t go to school. Mary and the television taught him all he knew, and all he would ever need to know. He was a very lucky boy. He was allowed to watch as much TV as he liked. They didn’t have a car as a car was dangerous, and they didn’t go anywhere except to the hairdresser’s and the supermarket. They walked, and Mary held on to his hand, even though it was sticky. Other people stared. ‘Let them stare,’ Mary said. ‘They have nothing better to do.’


The best days were when they went to the hairdresser’s. The music was a little too loud, but Sharon – the lady who cut Mary’s hair – spoke in a gentle voice, and had a lovely smile. She allowed him to sweep up the hair that had been cut off the ladies’ heads, and was now lying on the speckled floor. The ladies liked having their hair cut, and were happier after than before. They thanked him for sweeping, and told him he was doing a great job. Sharon gave him milk and brown biscuits.

Mary liked to do her food shopping with her hair freshly done, on the first day of the week. Sometimes when she was talking very fast and very loudly and her eyes were glassy and she giggled at everything, she would decide on a pink-food feast day. They would buy salmon and strawberry jam, beetroot, marshmallows and candy popcorn. Rupert liked the taste of pink, especially strawberry jam although it made his tummy sore.

By Friday there was no food, and the curtains were pulled and Mary didn’t get out of bed. He was a very good boy, she told him, and would he just lie beside her and hold her? It made her head feel soothed, she said. He did as he was told and got a wet face-cloth and put it on her forehead to take away the hammering in her head. She liked him to lie with his tummy to her back, and stroke her. By Saturday his head would be spinning and hammering too, and his belly-button would stick out as there was nothing inside him only wind.

Monday always came again, and Mary would get out of bed and put lipstick on her lips and cheeks, and tell him in a high, bright voice to hurry up – they were going to the hairdresser’s. On this particular Monday, Mary’s cheeks were red-pink and swollen, and her eyes were shining. ‘What a special day,’ she said as she skipped into the soft sunlight of May at noon.

‘Hello Rupert-the-Bear,’ Sharon the hairdresser said, as he pushed open the familiar glass door, and held it open for Mary. He inhaled the clean smells of bleach, and peach shampoo, and itched to grab hold of the sweeping brush to swish swash all the cut-off bits and bobs of hair that lay strewn on the ground.  ‘You look very grown up today,’ said Sharon. Rupert looked down at his black patent shoes which pinched his feet, and tried to wiggle his squashed toes. ‘He’s a big boy now,’ Mary answered for him, and started to sing in a loud voice that was not at all pretty: ‘Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday dear Rupey, Happy birthday to you.’ The other hairdressers and the women getting their hair cut joined in, and pretty soon everyone was clapping for him. He thought he might fly, his feet were so far above the ground. The room was spinning and he heard himself laugh.

‘He’s my lucky number eleven today.’ Mary’s face was red and blotchy and her breath was hot. She blew into his face when she spoke, and he felt the rest of the room go silent.

‘Well I never,’’ said Sharon. ‘I would have sworn he was about eight. He’s so small.’

‘He’s my perfect little bear,’ said Mary.

A strange bubble started to swell inside his tummy and catch in his throat. He didn’t want to be her anything. He wanted to run as far away from Mary as he could, but his feet were stuck to the ground. He noticed Sharon smiling brightly down at him as she took him by his hand which was very sticky now, and gestured to the high swivelling chair. ‘Well this is a big day, young man, why don’t I cut your hair for a change?’ she said, and looked to Mary for permission. Mary liked his hair long and curly, but after a few moments, with a sore look in her yellowing eyes, she said: ‘I suppose it is about time.’ He thought she might cry and he closed his eyes as he climbed onto the chair. He concentrated on the snip snip sound the scissors made, and enjoyed the barely-there tugging feeling at the roots, as Sharon gently pulled his hair from his head and cut in silence. A calm came over him then, and his head was free from Mary. After, he looked at himself in the mirror and liked what he saw: he looked neat and tidy. His head felt light, and clean.

While Mary was paying, Rupert bent down quickly and picked a piece of his hair off the ground. He put it in his pocket and rubbed it between his thumb and his forefinger. A secret. His hand felt dry and his cheeks were cool. After he said goodbye to Sharon, Mary took the same hand out of his pocket, and held it tightly. He cursed inside himself, like he had seen Shaz do on TV that morning, and it felt strong.

They went to the supermarket where Mary piled the trolley high with pink food. It was a special day for her special boy she told anyone they passed, and sang loudly – Happy birthday darling boy – as she skipped down the aisles with a wide grin. They went home and sat in front of the TV and ate lots of marshmallows. ‘You will be up there one day, little man,’ Mary said, nodding at the screen. He understood then that this was because he was so small.

He didn’t want to climb into bed with Mary that night, but knew she wouldn’t go to sleep without him there. He held his breath until he heard her whistling in the dark: a wheezy whistling through her nose.

As soon as he was sure she was asleep, Rupert took his body away from hers, and lay stiff and silent in his own space on the other side of the mattress. He savoured the cold sheets, and the odd feeling of his own body lying there. Not bad-odd, but good-odd, he decided in the dark. He got up slowly, although he knew nothing would wake Mary once the whistles started. She had taken three pills that night, and would be out until late morning. He dressed in the clothes of the day before, pulled on his too-tight shoes, walked slowly to the kitchen and poured a glass of water for himself. It was cold and belonged only to him. He drank deeply, and went to the long cupboard where the big scissors were kept. He picked them up in one hand, and although they were heavy and huge they felt like they were part of him. There was a fizzing in his body. He hawed on the metal, and rubbed it with the sleeve of his jumper. The blades shone back at him, and let him see himself reflected there.

It was dark outside and the chimneys on the cottages all around him looked like giant’s fingers pointing at the sky. The terrace was still and the air crisp. It was a beautiful night, he decided, as he looked up at the pinpricks of light that twinkled. A fox slunk by with a carcass of something in his mouth. He could hear the bones crunching.

His feet took off and he followed. They knew what they were doing now, they didn’t feel sore. He saw an open window, and climbed through – he knew now why he had been made so small. At the top of the stairs, there was a room with the door half-open. Inside were bunk beds, and two little girls with yellow hair tied high on their head. He snipped first one, then the other, and looked down at his treasure. It was thrilling to lighten their load. They’d wake up in the morning and be free of whatever was bothering them. It was a pity they couldn’t feel the gentle tug and pull of cutting.

The walk back home was exciting. The big trees at the end of the street were whispering and dancing in the soft wind. He wanted to hug one of the old fellas, and he felt sure they wouldn’t mind. The feel of the bark against his cheek was like what he imagined his favourite animal, an elephant, would feel like: wrinkled and wise. His arms encircled the gnarly trunk and reached only a third the way round. This was better than Mary’s sweaty back. He held on tight and felt something solid grow inside him.

Once inside the cottage, he sat down on the couch in front of the TV that was always on, and watched Psychic Sally, who seemed to know the answer to everything. A phone number flashed up on the screen, and he went to the phone in its cradle and woke it up. He dialled the number and a voice asked him his name. Silence. What did he want to know? Silence, breath. The kind face on the screen became something else then. He put the phone down and touched the hair in his bulging pocket. He had his answer already.

He went to the long cupboard in the kitchen and carefully replaced the scissors, then went into the bedroom, took Bunny from the bedside chair and placed the hair up inside its bottom. There was a flap there and it was a perfect hiding place. Bunny was his buddy and he wouldn’t tell. Having removed his clothes he crept back under the covers and remained some distance from the body of his mother. He had his back to her and that felt good.

The next morning Rupert woke earlier than Mary and went to the kitchen to make her breakfast, as he did every morning. Two slices of buttered toast, smothered in strawberry jam, and a cup of milky tea. He did as was expected, and kissed her on the cheek and rubbed her forehead until the swollen eyelids eventually opened. Her eyes had lines of red swirling in them.

‘Hello my darling boy. Did you sleep well?’

He smiled and shrugged.

‘What would I do without you?’

He shrugged.

‘You’ll never leave me Rupey, will you? I couldn’t live without you.’

The bubble started to swell inside him, so he turned his back and remembered his adventure of the night before. He willed himself back there and pretty soon he was flying over the chimney tops and above the dancing trees. He felt the fizz, and saw the shine of the scissors. He could see his face reflected there as he snip-snipped the little girl’s pretty hair. He looked at Bunny.

‘You’re terribly quiet today son. Anything the matter?’

He turned to look at her and pointed to his throat.

‘Oh baby, you have a sore throat. Let’s go watch TV and cuddle up under the blanket,’ she said

After a long day watching the small people on the screen, and eating toast with salmon paté, Mary suggested a bath. He shook his head to indicate no. Mary said okay, tomorrow night then, as he was not well and it might make him cold after. He vowed never, ever to take a bath with Mary again.

Once the whistling started that night in the bed, he rose and dressed and went straight to the kitchen. He got the scissors and held them in his hands. The fizzing started. He opened the door and walked jauntily into the street. He saluted the giant’s fingers and the twinkling lights, and waved at the trees in the distance. He walked longer this time, because it was cold and there were no windows open. There was a big black wheelie bin outside the cottage at the corner, and he hopped onto it and clambered onto the roof.  There was a skylight at the back of the house, so he climbed over the ridge at the top. He felt his patent shoes start to slip and slide. This was like being in the circus. He managed to stretch a hand towards the skylight as he was holding tight to the chimney stack with the other, and he pushed against the plane. It swung open and he let himself slide.

He landed with a thump in the upstairs bedroom. He sat silent for a moment and let his eyes adjust to the dark. There was no sound from the body in the bed. After a few moments, he rose and rubbed his ribs which had been stabbed by the sharp end of the scissors in the fall. When he put his hand underneath his jumper he felt a warm and sticky liquid. He rose and walked to the edge of the bed. Lying there was a woman with thick black hair fanned out on the pillow. This would require him to be more careful and so he set to cutting methodically, his tongue sticking through his teeth, as it always did when he was concentrating. When he was satisfied he had taken away enough of the weight to make the woman light, he crept downstairs, and slipped out the back door.

The pain in his ribs tickled him – a private type of tickling. He knew he would have to stop the flow of blood to stop the flow of questions that Mary would fire at him if she found blood on his person. He pressed the soft silky hair against the cut, and let it soak up the hurt.


Night after night Rupert cut away people’s hair, and took away their troubles. Pretty soon Bunny was full to the brim, and swollen-looking with hair. He transferred his treasure to Woof, the one-eared dog who didn’t have a flap already open, so he cut a hole in his underside and stuffed him too. Then Bear Bear, then Giraffe, then Hog, until all his furry friends were full with hair too, stuffed and happy. For two delicious weeks Rupert operated in a private world, until one morning the TV intruded, and told him and Mary that there was a thief on the loose who was stealing women’s hair in the night.

‘How lucky I am to have you here to protect me,’ said Mary to her son, who could only nod his head as he still wouldn’t speak.

Rupert nodded and smiled although his face was flushed.

‘I’m worried about you little man. Where is your voice gone to? If this keeps up, I’ll have to take you to the doctor.’

Rupert knew that he was safe from doctors as Mary hated them. She had told him this many times. ‘Don’t let them take me away.’ He had never been to see a doctor and Mary got all the pills she needed from the pharmacy.

On the second Monday after Rupert had started his adventures, they went to the hairdresser’s as usual. ‘Hello big boy!’ Sharon sang too loudly and stared too long. Rupert did not like people staring like that. He looked away.

‘Is he still not speaking?’ she said to Mary who shook her head. ‘I don’t like that. I’d worry about him. Have you taken him to the doctor?’

Mary’s face went dark pink, like a beetroot, and she told Sharon to stop interfering –  they were fine, thank you very much. Sharon looked upset, Rupert thought, and he wanted to make her smile her lovely smile again. They went straight home that day and there was no new food in the fridge that week, or the week after.

A woozy feeling came upon him, and he became clumsy in the dark. He had to go farther and farther each night, as all of the cottages in the terrace had been warned against the thief. They had double-locks on their door, and alarms with green lights on.

Nine days after their last supermarket outing, Rupert found all the houses barred to him. In a kind of a trance he walked and walked until he came upon a big house with an open window on the lowest floor. The house was whispering an invitation to him, and he climbed easily through. It was a beautiful house with clean soft bouncy carpets, and pretty cream walls. He followed the smell of a lady’s perfume up the stairs and found the loveliest woman he had ever seen, lying close to a little girl. They both had golden-red hair. This was his best treasure yet and Hog would be pleased to be fed such a delicious treat. He realised then that he was starving. How lucky he was that there were no men in this house. They would have pretty food.

With his pockets bulging with hair, he tip-toed his way down the stairs in search of a fridge.  The first door he pushed open led directly into the kitchen. This house wanted him here, he decided. He opened the fridge which creaked loudly and had a bright white light which almost blinded him. He gulped down a carton of orange juice while chewing on cheese and pickles. He saw something called taramosalata which he put in his pocket for Mary. She would be delighted with this pretty pale-pink food, and would eat something. She might stop singing then, and put some more clothes on.

Just as he was about to leave he sensed a shadow in the doorway, and then saw that the shadow was a man with a bat in his hand.

‘Don’t fucking move.’ The man said. ‘The police are on their way.’

Rupert didn’t like the police, or this man, or this house, anymore. This house had tricked him, and its walls were closing in on him. In his panic, he ran straight into the man who caught him roughly by the neck of his jumper, and stuck the bat into his sore and scabbed ribs. Mary told Rupert to never ever let a man touch him. He struggled but couldn’t scream. He couldn’t find his voice now. His throat was raw, and the bubble inside of him grew and grew into a huge balloon and threatened to burst. He could hear sirens, and saw wavy lines in front of his eyes, and then two men in uniforms entered. The air was sucked out of the room, and he felt himself shrinking. It went dark.

The men were carrying him and he didn’t want to be touched. He couldn’t open his eyes. He was put inside a car. Cars were dangerous. It smelt of fumes which got inside his nose. He heard men’s voices as he felt the car speeding underneath him.

‘Poor little fucker,’ said one policeman to the other. ‘He’s tiny and filthy and hungry.’

‘What’s with the hair?’ asked the other.

This was what it was like to be tiny and stuck inside the box with men with blue suits and sirens and speeding cars. He wanted to tell them that he was doing a good thing – that the women felt better after he cut their hair; that they felt light and clean, that the hair was his treasure, and it was the only thing that was for him alone. He wanted to tell them that the hair was feeding his friends. He wanted to tell them to take him back to the cottage, and he would never go out alone again – he would lie beside his mother and stroke her hair, as he was supposed to do. He knew he wouldn’t say these things; the balloon had inflated in his chest, pushing its way into his throat and his voice was stuck somewhere deep down in his bloated belly. He didn’t know if he would ever speak again.


Featured illustration by Delaney Davis.