The writer Susan Cartwright-Smith hails from Cumbria, a region rich in folklore and storytelling. Her story “The Doff-Off Goblin”, published below, takes its inspiration from the darker side of fairy-tale, and is a good example of how the medium can be a mirror for our deepest anxieties and sorrows.
The Doff-Off Goblin by Susan Cartwright-Smith
“Why don’t we rest awhile.”
Dad leaned on my shoulder, as he strode over the tree roots. He weighed almost nothing, and the pressure should have been greater. I held his arm as he struggled to sit down. Always fit and agile – the word “spry” always came to mind – he was now gaunt and drawn.
I sat beside him. With my padded behind, I found it uncomfortable. I couldn’t imagine how Dad found it with his bones showing through.
“Do you remember you used to tell me that horrible story of the Doff-Off Goblin?” I asked, as the memory rose, from nowhere.
“No story – that was a real thing.”
“No it wasn’t, it was a fiction! A goblin? Come on, Dad.” I knew he was ill, but he wasn’t getting away with that.
I thought of the time I remembered him telling me, although there had been many more. In a more innocent time for children. Or just maybe for certain children. Or maybe not a time of innocence at all, but a time to allow oneself to feel innocent.
It had been one Christmas time, and for some reason the house was packed full to bursting. Dad and I had been relegated to sleeping on the sofa, which had magically transformed into a bed. I had never seen it do so before, and I don’t believe it ever did again. I don’t know why Dad was there with me, maybe I had insisted, being afraid. For whatever reason there we were. There was an earthquake that year, and the air was filled with the supernature of Christmas time.
In the darkness, with occasional twinkles from a bauble catching a streetlight, my father’s voice rose up: “The Doff-Off Goblin comes for children who don’t sleep, you know.”
Not likely to instil restfulness in anyone, this was hardly going to make a restless child sleep. “Tell me about the Doff-Off Goblin.”
“Well, once upon a time, there was a naughty little girl who would not sleep. Her poor parents were driven to distraction. But she refused. She would not get undressed for bed, nor settle down to sleep.”
He looked at me, out of the sides of his eyes. I squirmed, feeling the reprimand.
“Then all of a sudden, she heard a scrapey scrapey sound at the window. Her parents had turned up their television extra loud so they would not hear her silly noises or jumping about. Who could it be? She took down the large incongruous cactus her father liked to keep” (again another look to me – I hated my father’s cacti) “and she peered out. She got a terrific shock, when appearing suddenly was a hideously ugly fellow, even worse than Heather Johnstone’s dad. She squealed in fright, and leapt backwards. But then the nasty creature looked so pitiful, so yearning, she returned, and opened the window.
‘What do you want – ‘ she began, but the goblin had pushed past her, and landed in her bedroom, as lightly as a cat.
‘I will scream – you see if I don’t,’ she said, petulantly.
The goblin sneered at her – ‘Your dadda’s not a-lissenin
Your mamma’s makin’ tea
Nobody will come to you
There’s only you and me
There’s no-one wants to hear you
You’re shut up in your room
You might as well be Cleopatra
From inside her tomb…’
The horrid thing sang, and weaved round her. She felt annoyed, but she knew, deep down, that the goblin was right.
‘My mummy and daddy love me.’
‘Maybe, but they don’t LIKE you,’ said the goblin, pressing his face close to hers, ‘not now. Your mamma keeps on making tea…tea..tea..tea..all the time. Why? To DROWN YOU OUT.’
The little girl’s face crumpled. ‘That’s not a nice thing to say.’
‘You’re not a nice little girl,’ it said.
‘I don’t want you to say that. How can I make it better?’
The goblin narrowed its horrid eyes, and scratched its warty forehead. ‘Well…you could start by doffing off your jumper.’
Doffing off – is taking off. You know that, don’t you?” Dad said.
“Very well. ‘You could make a start by doffing off your jumper,’ the goblin said, steepling its fingers, and grinning a nasty, slow grin.
The little girl looked at him, and pulled a mulish face. But if she were to be a good little girl, then getting undressed for bed would be a good start. She pulled the jumper off over her head. The goblin took it, sniffed it, and ate it. ‘You won’t need that again,’ it whispered.
‘Next, you can doff-off, doff-off…doff-off your skirt,’ it rasped. It rubbed its hands together with a sound like sandpaper, and bit at its lower lip with fervent excitement.
The little girl felt horribly awkward, but undid her skirt, and stepped out of it. Once again, the goblin picked it up, inhaled deeply of it, and then devoured it. ‘No need to be leaving that lying around,’ it wheezed.
The little girl was standing in vest and pants, and started to shiver. ‘Why don’t you doff-off, doff-off, doff-off your…pants?’ murmured the goblin.
‘I don’t really want to,’ said the little girl.
‘Are you being naughty? Do you want your parents to dislike you forever?’ said the goblin.
The little girl shook her head, and a tear rolled down her cheek. She pushed her pants down, and held them out to the goblin, who took them, and as before, ate them. ‘And now you can doff-off, doff-off, doff-off your vest,’ it said, plainly.
The little girl, silent sobs shaking her body, did so.
As she watched the goblin eat her vest, she crossed her arms over her little body. ‘And shall I get into my nightie now?’ she said.
‘No. Now, now, little girl…now, you must doff-off, doff-off, doff-off your SKIN!’ the goblin shrieked, and the girl watched in horror as his nasty sharp teeth grew longer, and his eyes glowed red. She screamed in horror as his long fingers reached for her, and his pocked face blocked out the light.”
“And then the screams of the little girl brought the parents running? Her daddy came and saved her?”
My dad closed his eyes with a small satisfied smile. “No. In Teralisle that night, the Doff-Off Goblin took the little girl’s skin, and climbed inside. He sat down and watched her shivering, bloody body. He got into her pyjamas, and got into her bed. He looked just like her, in her skin, in her bed. The girl’s daddy came up later, and saw what he thought was his daughter in her bed. He kissed her cheek, smelling her scent, not smelling the rank mustiness of the goblin. The little girl tried to cry out, but the goblin had taken the skin from her tongue, and so no sounds came.
The little girl’s mother came up later, tea in shaking hand. She was delighted to see her little girl in her pyjamas, in her bed, asleep. She didn’t see the bloodied creature that sat looking on, unable to cry, unable to speak.
Eventually this little girl faded away, sitting skinless in her bedroom. And the goblin watched out of eyes that were not his own. Night, night.” And Dad kissed me and rolled over, and was soon snoring raucously away.
I sat, wide-eyed, but silent. I remember starting at every noise, and every time the rambling rose scratched the window, I jumped in fear.
It didn’t make me a punctual bedtimer, though, but did provide many colourful nightmares. But I often begged for the Doff-Off Goblin story. Maybe to see if Dad would allow her a happy ending. But he never did.
“Why did you think about that?” Dad asked, now his breathing had returned to approaching normal.
“I’m not sure. I think demons are appearing everywhere at the moment. I think I’m beset by things we cannot change. The Doff-Off Goblin seems like one of those things.”
“Aye – the world is not a comfortable place. There might always be someone watching with false eyes, ready to harm you.” He rested a hand on my shoulder. “I did try and warn you. Perhaps my words were not the right ones. Perhaps you needed words that were not a story.” He looked downcast. “Maybe the Doff-Off Goblin had already been, Dad.” He looked sorrowfully into my eyes, his usually bright blue ones clouded and dull, mine still bright, but filling with tears.
“No”, he whispered. “I would’ve known. And I would have always come running had you ever screamed out. But you never do, do you? No-one ever knows with you.”
We sat awhile, foreheads pressed together, years unsaid.
Then we stood – me helping him up, gingerly, and continued on our way. The day had darkened in, and the first prickles of winter twitched at our noses, and I shivered, as if icy fingers were closing round my arm. I turned my head, half expecting to see the grim figure of the goblin, but all that remained was the place we had seated ourselves. Nothing more than that. Yet a lifetime’s memories concealed had poured forth, and it surprised me that there was nothing physical to mark that.
We continued on our way.