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The Fiction Issue 2015

The Silver Spiders

New fiction from London-based VICE contributor and 'poignancy magnate' (not his words), Johnny White.

Photo: Sohrab Hura (Magnum Photos)

The doll had trouble understanding how something so heavy as sleep could follow on from such basic days. Days spent just sitting in rooms. It seemed unwarranted, absurd even, like wandering bored into some public swimming baths and paying the money and changing in the changing rooms and walking out to the edge of the pool to then dive deep into an ocean with high waves and faraway cliffs and dark shapes moving under the surface of the water. Falling asleep is easy and hard, and often the doll didn't feel worthy of sleep at all.


The doll was fourteen when he became scared of people. It began in a small way but grew and grew, and by fifteen the doll felt sick from fear near enough every day. Years passed. Afternoons spent in rooms with nothing to do. Sometimes he'd brush his hair for hours at a time, sometimes he'd sing to himself. In the daytime the doll's only true experiences were of fear and boredom and at night he had dreams. The doll dreamt about people. People standing in rooms, people visiting shops, people on the telephone, people walking down paths, people doing nothing. But if he went near the people, he would be destroyed. He knew that for definite, so he kept himself hidden, even in his own dreams. In time the doll came to accept what he was. Not a real-life person, he was a doll. A little doll being picked up and thrown about. A tiny pathetic doll being endlessly turned over by an unseen and unknowing monster.

One cold night the doll dreamt his last real dream. In the dream the doll was in his hiding place, a red room at the top of an empty house, and a man found him there and the man attacked the doll, pushing him up against a wall and squeezing a tendon in the doll's leg between his finger and thumb. The doll could feel his blood slowing down. It was very painful. The doll tried shouting at the man, but this only made it worse. Then he tried saying soothing things, comforting things, but they came out silly like he was mocking the man. Finally in desperation the doll reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a stack of photographs of himself as a child and began to rip them up in front of the man's face, saying, see what I'll do, see what I'll do.


After that the doll wasn't in his own dreams anymore. He just watched them like films on a screen as they became ever more violent and unpleasant. Horses on fire, human heads turned all the way around, sinks filled up with blood and sugar.

From time to time the doll would try to confront the fear. He was a normal person. There was nothing wrong with him. Maybe if he stopped behaving as if there was something wrong with him, the fear would go away. Maybe the fear was a response to laziness and disorganisation. Maybe all he needed was a routine, a daily itinerary, things like that. So he'd set about arranging his days better. He'd make a plan. Wake up early, have breakfast and go out into the world. As you can probably imagine, this didn't change anything. Why would it? The doll would normally get as far as waking up before the fear kicked in, and if he did go out into the world, within a few minutes he'd be back to breathing funny and looking at the ground and saying oh no oh no oh no under his breath.

The doll came to the conclusion that maybe the fear was his destiny. This thought provided an odd kind of comfort because at least he had a destiny, although it didn't seem fair and he wished he had a different life and a different destiny. Then one night in the middle of a dream, where tarantulas squealed and ran across a hanging bridge, an idea came to the doll and he opened his eyes. It struck the doll that he'd been thinking about everything the wrong way. People weren't the real problem. People weren't even a problem. It was all the fear. The fear was the constant. The fear was self-supporting, alive and unkillable, and if the doll couldn't defeat it, maybe he could change it. He wanted to be a part of the human race and was willing to try anything.


So it came to be that the doll embarked upon his grand and cowardly experiment to change his fear of people into a fear of spiders.

The listing in the phonebook read: Christopher Samways — Doctor of The Mind.

The doll had found it a day earlier and underlined the number with a pencil, before running into his bedroom and sitting against the wall for the rest of the afternoon, breathing funny and looking at the ground and saying oh no oh no oh no under his breath. Some days later, after many failed attempts, he dialled the number and put the phone to his ear, making such a tightly balled fist with his free hand that his wrist ached.

A man answered. The doll's heart was going bang bang bang. Christopher Samways, said the man.

The doll didn't know how to respond to this.

Christopher Samways asked if the doll could hear him. The doll thought that this might be a trick question.

I think I can hear you.

OK. Can I help you?

This question confused and angered the doll. Of course he could help him. Why was Christopher Samways trying to sabotage his life? The doll wanted to throw the phone against the wall and burst into tears.

Do you need help with your mind?

Yes, I do.

OK. What seems to be the problem?

The doll paused. He wasn't sure how to put it.

It's something to do with fear.

Fear is something we all experience, there is no need to feel ashamed.

I don't feel ashamed.

And I'm not suggesting that you should.


Should I feel ashamed?

I'm encouraging you not to.

But I don't.

Christopher Samways said it was good that the doll didn't feel ashamed and the doll said that actually he did

feel ashamed. Terribly ashamed. Christopher Samways said that this would be something they would work on.

What is it about fear that you feel you need some help with?

The doll paused.

I want to be afraid of spiders.

Christopher Samways stammered a little and then asked the doll why he thought that was.

What do you mean?

I mean, why do you think it is that you want to be afraid of spiders?

The doll asked if this was another trick question.

Do you feel as if I have posed multiple trick questions?

There was a confused silence. Christopher Samways stammered some more.

Just tell me everything.

Everything about what?

About you.

The doll thought for a moment and then told him everything. The fear, the terrible fear, the years spent hiding in rooms. It calmed him to speak about it. Afterwards Christopher Samways asked the doll about the spiders and the doll outlined his plan. Christopher Samways was silent as the doll spoke and the doll was worried that he would reject his idea outright, but he seemed quite taken with it. He explained to the doll that there were ways of conditioning the brain, of unlearning and relearning habits of thought, ways which could yield impressive results without having to suffer through years of unravelling every tiny detail of the mind and attending to each one individually. He said that the doll's fear conversion plan was a forward-thinking, pragmatic approach to self-improvement and that the doll should be proud of himself for even thinking of it. The doll said that he didn't feel very proud of himself. Christopher Samways suggested a day that he could come to the doll's house and begin his treatment.


Can we not just do it over the phone? said the doll.


Are you sure?

Yes, I'm sure.

The day arrived, and the doll was so scared about having another person in the house that he half considered running away, but where would he go? So he waited, sat on the floor, and as he waited, the doll pretended he was somewhere else, somewhere far in the future or the past. On a boat perhaps, or flying, floating above a deserted ship on a deserted ocean in a dead world. A friendly albatross, king by proxy of all the skies. Long silver tassels sparkling in the light. The daydream was interrupted by a knock at the door, and the doll jumped up. He started saying oh no oh no oh no under his breath and then he said it louder and then he was shouting oh no oh no oh no and almost without his permission his feet started taking slow steps towards the door. It was as if his feet could take no more and needed the doll to take action against the fear, even if the doll was unwilling to, and the doll surrendered to his feet and closed his eyes. Then he was at the door, still shouting oh no oh no oh no, and violently he pulled the door open with one hand, the other hand held to his mouth and in a muffled voice he said please please please please and then opened his eyes. Stood facing him in the doorway was a man in a suit carrying two tins of paint. The man looked at the doll strangely. He tried to say something and the doll raised his hands to protect himself and said, I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry. The man said hush now and the doll was silent.


You have a lovely home, said the man.

Photo: Sohrab Hura (Magnum Photos)

Christopher Samways was a short, square man in a grey suit that shone as if it was damp. The doll was afraid of him, but not as much as he thought he would be.

Can I come inside?

The doll shook his head.

You'd prefer me not to?

The doll said sorry and that he'd meant to nod his head.

So I can come inside?

Yes, said the doll.

Christopher Samways came inside, walking through the hallway and into the doll's large, sparse living room.

The doll slumped down onto the floor. His breathing relaxed a little. Christopher Samways sat down as well and began to talk to the doll. Christopher Samways explained that the first stage of the treatment was about future prevention. He said that together he wanted them to create a safe, spider-free environment for the doll to live in after the treatment was completed. He said the doll should think of it as a spider sanctuary.

The doll pointed out that a spider sanctuary was probably the last place he should live in if he did develop a fear of spiders. Christopher Samways told him in that case to think of it as an anti-spider sanctuary.

The idea was to paint every inch of every surface in the doll's house white so that spiders would have nowhere to hide, nowhere to lurk and plot violence, nowhere to lie in wait and rear up and inject venom or entomb you in silk and eat you.

So they painted all day everyday for the next fortnight.


They painted everything. The doll even painted over the screen of his television. Christopher Samways would arrive every morning with fresh paint and the doll came to look forward to him arriving. This was a new life with a purpose. A brand new destiny.

When they'd fi nished painting, Christopher Samways brought in sacks of conkers. He said to distribute these in the corners of all the rooms.

Spiders hate conkers. They avoid them at all costs.

The doll asked why.

Because conkers are pure and spiders are impure, said Christopher Samways.

The second stage of the treatment was quite different. The doll was given pills. These pills were small and blue and they made him stay awake. For a day and a half the doll stayed awake, his heart going bang bang bang. Christopher Samways gave him photographs to look at. The photographs were of poisonous spiders: tarantulas and funnel-web spiders and giant bird-eating spiders and black widows. At fi rst the photographs left the doll unmoved, but on the second day they started to appall him, the spiders with their rows of black eyes and alien legs, their fangs, their secret motives. Soon enough the doll was crying and begging Christopher Samways to please let him stop looking at the pictures, but Christopher Samways said that he had to carry on, it was for his own good. The doll continued to look at the pictures and then could take no more and he cried and pleaded for the pictures to be taken away before passing out on the floor, dreaming awful dreams. When he awoke, Christopher Samways was gone.


And so the doll was no longer afraid of people. He found he was able to move freely amongst them, to talk with them, to use their shopping centres and parks. He found that he could walk into a café or art gallery and look people in the eye, breathe normally and say things like one day return to Hitchin, please. He discovered that he could spend the evening in a pub and make variously convincing small talk with the bar staff and then return half pissed to his bright white room, conkers strewn everywhere, and sleep and wake up in the morning and go back out into the world without fear of who would be waiting to destroy him. The doll thought his life had changed for the better and changed forever.

Every night now he dreamt the same thing. An image of a clock with no numbers on its face. The ticking was so loud that sometimes it would wake him up.

Fantasies don't last forever though, and one morning, inevitably, the doll opened his bedroom door to find a spider the size of a rat on the landing. He slammed the door shut and stumbled backwards and vomited on the white floor and sobbed saying, what about the conkers? What about the conkers?

Not knowing what else to do, the doll got into bed and phoned Christopher Samways, still sobbing.


There's one just outside my room, said the doll.

One what?

The doll fumbled the word spider. Christopher Samways took a deep breath.

So. Are you scared of it?


Yes, said the doll, pulling the covers over his head.

Isn't that what you wanted?

Yes, I suppose so, said the doll.

Well then, I'm not sure what you're phoning me about.

Christopher Samways yawned loudly.

They weren't supposed to come into the house. What about the conkers? I thought spiders avoided conkers at all costs?

They normally do.

Then why is it here? asked the doll, his voice loud and small in the darkness under the covers.

Maybe it's the king.

What do you mean?

Maybe it's the king of the spiders and that's why the conkers aren't working, said Christopher Samways, sounding bored and far in the distance and like no friend the doll ever could claim to have been his.

Angry and betrayed, the doll tore the covers off himself and threw the phone against the wall as hard as he could and it smashed into a hundred pieces.

The doll considered climbing out of his window to escape the spider on the landing. He even went as far as to tie his bedsheets to his duvet cover to make some kind of ladder, but his heart wasn't in it . What was the point? If the spider really was the king of all spiders, then the doll presumed others would follow. They were probably on their way now. Running in scrambling packs along the quiet streets. Streaming from holes in the walls and out of drainpipes and dead trees. All coming to the doll's house to stand loyally behind their king, waiting for the doll to open the door. To show him that they were there. To eliminate him. To wipe him out.

The doll began to dream. In the dream the doll made a wish that all spiders would appear to him as silver, and in the dream the wish was granted. And so the doll opened the door, and was blinded by the glimmering spiders, but not afraid, because he had changed them. In the dream the doll became the king of the silver spiders, and could walk wherever he liked without any fear, the spiders all his loyal subjects now. But as time passed he came to realise that he had cursed himself because now there was no escape from the spiders, fear or no fear, and he was no king and never had been. For now every spider glinted and shone out from the webs in the church railings and the corners of the roofs of train stations, and even when there was no spider, every raindrop on the grass or distant car on a summer's day and soon every point of light came together and sung to him over and over and in one voice: we have won. And in the dream the doll said, my name is Jonathan, murderer of horses, killer of Sunday's dogs, friend to starlings and foxes, and for my life I wanted to eat mistletoe and not be poisoned and for seawater to stay blue in my hand. What do our lives say about us?

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