The Gift: The Terror of Dolls

Last week it was announced that I won the Writing Times Halloween themed Short Story competition with my story ‘The Gift’ (available online here) – much celebrating ensued.  This is the first horror story I’ve ever had published and the first time I’ve written in the epistolary style, and as stories go, was one I very much enjoyed writing.   ‘The Gift’ is about a seemingly innocent birthday present – a rag doll that holds some nasty surprises.

So what is it about dolls? They give me the creeps. When I was very young I preferred teddy bears, nice, safe, cuddly and soft. Dolls were hard, with those glass eyes that seemed to follow you around the room. They were cold and uncompromising whereas teddies were soft and accepting and would make any child a lovely best friend.   Dolls just sit there looking at you, wherever you are, they are mini humans, frozen and timeless. Dolls won’t get wrinkles, they will just stare at you like a scolding aunt, watching everything you do with those evil little eyes. I often wondered who or what was trapped inside that plastic skin.

When I was young my teddy family were always welcome in my bed to keep me company every night but dolls always stayed safely tucked in their own little cot the other side of the bedroom, or preferably, in a room downstairs (or locked in the shed at the bottom of the garden?) People gave me dolls but I just couldn’t take to them. They quite frankly gave me the creeps. I had a long skinny doll with flaxen hair – a prehistoric Barbie type – made of hard plastic.  It had a moving head, arms and legs; the trouble was the hair kept falling out in clumps along with one of her eyes, not a good look. Or did one of the other dolls do it out of jealousy?  I had little doll triplets, with moulded plastic hair and blinking eyes with long eyelashes. My mum used to make clothes for them all which only made it worse. Teddy on the other hand looked lovely in his hand made pyjamas, the same material as my own at the time. In fact he is sitting on top of the bookcase in the spare room still wearing them today, it’s probably the only thing keeping him together at his great age. The dolls are long gone, thank goodness.

Where-ever the dolls were, when the lights went out, I would have to listen for signs of movement. Dolls always had the potential to jump up from their cot and start doing things in the night – or day. Doing what, I have no idea, but my fertile imagination could see them dancing around and getting up to no good.

When I was about ten years old I saw an old black and white horror movie which involved a rag doll. The little girl kept it on the end of her bed but every night it jumped up and caused all manner of evils. I won’t dignify the thing by calling it ‘she,’ that would only make it worse, ‘it’ tore at the bedspread, threw toys around, ripped the curtains and did more serious things like leave things at the top of the stairs ready for someone to trip and break their neck.

I think this probably finished me off in the end as far as dolls were concerned. I fail to understand why adults actually collect the things and fill their houses with them. I cannot look at just one of the evil little midgets without shivering and imagining all the evil that these little frozen people can do!  Which is why there was no question about what was going to star in my Halloween story.

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Adventures in Enterprise: Family Business Partners, Part 1

While my early adventures in enterprise had been for the fun of meeting my school’s challenge, my first serious business venture, and one of the most important ones I’ve ever done, earned my fiancé (now husband of over forty years) and I enough money to put down a deposit on our first home.

At the time we both worked at Heathrow Airport as export and import clerks and were saving hard for a house, but the pot was slow to build up. One day someone in my office mentioned that they were interested in buying a bulk amount of tights, if the price was right. I thought about this and wondered if there was an opportunity to make some money. I was surrounded by about a hundred other offices and probably several hundred potential customers.

I had a quick chat with my other half who said that he knew of a wholesale warehouse not too far away so we rang them to check opening hours and eligibility to buy, then dashed down there the same night. It was like Aladdin’s cave. We made a list of all the things we thought would sell, a quick note of wholesale price versus our possible selling price and soon spotted that there was a good profit to be made provided we could find the customers. I typed up a sales sheet with our names and phone numbers on the top – while not the most sophisticated catalogue, it worked a treat. We asked nicely and our bosses were happy to allow us to use the office photocopier (if we didn’t take the mickey) so we could then drop off copies of the list to all the other offices.

In a couple of days we had taken orders for all sorts of things, not only tights but gallons of washing up liquid and bleach (they were a big seller!) duvets, pillows, batteries, you name it we sold it. Customers knew where we worked and used to drop in order forms or pass them to us as we went around the building. Then we would hit the warehouse and fill up our car boots. We could then back up to the delivery door of our customer’s office, unload the orders and collected the cash. No credit was a good rule even then. The only problem with the whole thing turned out to be fitting in our daily trips to the wholesaler with our actual employed jobs, but needs must when money is to be made.

As a young couple just starting out, it was a bonus to find that we also worked very well together in business; we both saw the possibilities in what was a very simple business, had a lot of fun and I discovered that my future husband was great at keeping control of the finances of a venture. (A skill that would come in useful several times in the future.) After a year of trading, we managed to save enough for our house deposit and we will always be grateful for that first business for providing the home we started our family in.

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Adventures in Enterprise: Starting Young

Self-employment, don’t you love it! And obviously I do since that’s about all I have done for the last forty years or so. Being a bit of a control freak I knew I could never depend on waiting for someone else to provide what I needed (possibly my dad dying when I was very young helped reinforce this lesson as my mum had to work nonstop to keep us afloat.) My first and best lesson in enterprise began when my primary school wanted to build an outdoor swimming pool. The headmistress asked for volunteers and she gave each of us the equivalent of 12 ½ p and told us to use our imagination and turn it into as much money as we could during the summer holidays.

We must have been about nine or ten years old at the time and I have no idea what everyone else did but to me this was a no brainer. I pottered off on my own, spent the money on a book of raffle tickets, spotted, but didn’t yet buy (I didn’t have the money), an impressive box of chocolates in a local shop that I could offer as a prize and hit the neighbourhood. The chocolates only cost about 25p – yes things were rather cheaper then but money was scarce so it all worked out evenly!

As soon as I had enough to actually buy the prize I did, I could then show this to my prospective customers so they knew what they were getting. I quickly sold out. All the neighbours were friendly so it wasn’t difficult persuading them, and with tickets at 2 ½ p and a bit of chat from me describing how lovely the prize was, I soon had a bag full of coins. With the money I could then buy the prize.

By the time school started again I had made the princely sum of £2.50, a whopping increase on my 12 ½ p. Less the cost of the chocolates, as a percentage that’s a nice bit of profit. I managed to earn the highest and this was duly announced in front of the whole school. The swimming pool was built, costing no doubt a little more than £2.50 but I was specially invited back from my senior school and was the first person to swim in it. (Blinking freezing and an experience I never want to repeat!)

My mum thought the whole thing was a great idea as long as I didn’t harass anyone in the process. But then, since cash was very tight, mum had already fallen into a small enterprise herself: the previous Christmas she had handmade a box of Christmas crackers – just for fun – and given it to her sister as a present. My aunt took them to work and in a few days mum had orders for 300 boxes. Mum and I worked late into the night for a week to make the things, and while she only earned about 30p a box profit, it brought in enough money to pay for Christmas dinner and a few little extras.

It must be in my genes. Just don’t ask me to make any more crackers.

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Landlords: Improve Your Chances in a Dispute

The Deposit Protection Service recently released figures showing that only 18 per cent of disputes over tenant’s deposits are won by landlords. This statistic could be vastly improved if landlords better protected themselves at the start, during and at end of a tenancy agreement.

For starters, some landlords are failing to put a letting contract in place, or they have very unfair clauses in the contact. Other landlords don’t conduct an adequate check-in and check-out, or don’t keep copies of correspondence with the tenant which could be evidence in a dispute.

It is so important for landlords to ensure they get all the paperwork right at the start and at the end of a new tenancy agreement. Over and over again, we see landlords losing disputes because they can’t provide the right evidence to show that a tenant has damaged the property.

Aside from ensuring there is a fair contract in place at the start of a tenancy agreement, landlords should have a thorough and detailed inventory which will enable both parties to be treated fairly and reasonably. By opening a dialogue and using an independent inventory clerk, disputes can be resolved quicker and without the hassle that is often experienced at the end of a tenancy period.

The AIIC has outlined some guidelines below to help landlords improve their chances in a potential dispute:

For new tenancies, landlords should ensure that the property starts the let in a clean and tidy condition. A tatty property will not magically improve by the end of a tenancy and landlords can’t charge their tenants for ‘betterment’. Gardens – if your garden is hideously overgrown at the start, don’t expect any improvement on the day of check-out and don’t expect the tenants to put things right for you at their own expense.

Always address maintenance issues as soon as they are reported. We come across many cases of minor issues that have become major problems – which the tenant can prove were reported during their tenancy and which the landlord has not bothered to do anything about. This results in a property deteriorating, which in both the long and short term will affect re-letting capabilities and rent achieved.

Always have a properly compiled inventory. This will always be much more detailed than a landlord’s own document and will provide vital evidence in any end of tenancy dispute. Your tenants should check and sign their agreement detailing the inventory when they check-in.

At the end of the tenancy, always encourage your tenant to be present during the check out inspection. It is important that they are aware of any problems and chargeable issues to their deposit. This will avoid nasty disputes. Using a deposit scheme dispute service should always be a last resort. The landlord should make every effort to communicate and negotiate with their tenant.

On check-outs – use an independent inventory clerk as they will have the knowledge and experience to make sure this process runs smoothly. They can make sensible judgements on normal wear and tear, items that are the tenant’s responsibility and landlord’s maintenance issues.

Photography – detail is vital and fine detail is even better! Take dated photographs of the garden; interior of the shed or garage; inside of the oven; and keys handed over to tenants – these are the main areas of problems that occur and are often down to misinterpretation at the end of a tenancy. Remember, you don’t need photos of every single corner of the property, these are frankly a waste of time and effort (and would be impossible to do) – stick to the important things. Don’t try to produce a completely photographic or filmed inventory without a complete written accompanying inventory. Films and photographs alone will be of little use in a dispute when an adjudicator is trying to find hard evidence of a particular area. You can bet the problem in question just won’t be something you have photographed in the first place!

Make sure your property is fit for letting – on check-in day, the place should be completely clean and any garden areas should be tidy, lawns cut, borders weeded etc. If you don’t start correctly, then things definitely won’t improve by check-out day/end of tenancy and you’ll end up with a very tatty property, which won’t be let easily. Tenants cannot be charged for improvements – for making good/cleaning things that were wrong at the start and are still wrong at the end of the tenancy.

Have a full check-in – where you or the inventory clerk check through every line of the inventory. Add any amendments needed and then ensure that the tenant signs the agreement. When moving out day comes, try to make sure that the tenant is present at the check-out and make sure all the problems are explained – nasty surprises later will cause certain disputes.

Always try to keep good communication ongoing with your tenants and encourage them to report any problems as and when they occur during the tenancy. This ensures that your property will stay in as good a condition as possible and will avoid problems at the end of the tenancy.

(This article was originally published on The Deposit Protection Service Blog)

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