Read Doll Online

Authors: Nicky Singer


Nicky Singer

For Tom who also speaks to stars


The night my mother died she gave me a doll.

“This is for you, beloved,” she whispered, her voice soft and low. “Hold it next to your heart. And I will be with you. Always.”

And of course I didn’t look at the doll then, because I was looking at my mother. Her big, beautiful, belligerent body calm at last. Hushed on the bed. Her black hair pushed away from her face. Her eyes – ever that startling blue – placid now. Her skin pale, the waxy cream of the candles I lit around her, church candles, fifteen of them. Her choice, as were the roses I’d gathered in armfuls from the garden.

“Let them be red,” my mother said.

And they were red. Petals the colour of blood.

She smiled then. Despite everything she smiled.

“Light the incense,” she smiled.

And I did. Cinnamon. Which is for healing but also for love.

“Healing!” my grandmother exclaimed.

And I might have riposted “Love!” But I didn’t. I just sat beside my mother and held her hand until I heard her breathe out but not breathe in again. There was a pause in which a clock ticked. Tick. Tick. Then my grandmother came to the bedside, slid my mother’s eyelids shut and everything went dark.

“Let go now, Tilly,” grandmother said.

And when I didn’t let go, she leaned down and took our clasped hands (my mother’s and mine, her daughter’s and her granddaughter’s) and prised our fingers apart. She was not ungentle. And I was glad in a way, because I cannot see otherwise how I could have released my mother’s hand. I would have had to stay sitting there for ever.

“Go to your room,” Grandma said. “I’ll deal with everything here.”

And I went. Gratefully. The smell of cinnamon still on me.

It might be five minutes since I left my mother’s room. It might be five hours. I have lost track of time. These things only I know: my grandmother is not in the house; the night is still dark; I’m out on the swing.

My father put up this swing. Screwed rings into the outstretched limb of a tree and hung the chains. The rings used to be greased but now they’re dry and rusty. They squeak. A rhythmic squeak, in time with my swing. My bare arms are around the chains, like I am hugging them. The metal is cold and so is the night wind. All the hairs on my forearms are standing up in protest. But I don’t care about the cold. In fact I’m glad of the cold. It makes me feel alive. Under my feet the ground is wet. When I was six I wore this patch to mud. I came to swing and swing and tell myself stories. All the stories had happy endings.

“You’re not a child any more,” says Grandma.

And I’m not. I’m fourteen years old. But there’s mud beneath the swing once more. I’ve started to come here again. To tell stories – maybe, but also to think. Tonight, I’ve come to look at the doll.

It’s a small thing, no bigger than my hand, and
quite unlike the thousand other dolls my mother made. This doll is not sewn of remnants and jumble fabrics. It’s made out of material my mother wore next to her own skin. Her face (for the doll is a girl, a woman), her hands, her feet, in fact all of her flesh is cut from my mother’s white kid gloves. The long ones. The ones that went to her elbows.

“Every woman,” said my mother, “should have a pair of white kid gloves, at least once in her lifetime.”

I touch the doll’s face, run a thumb across her tiny cheek. The flesh is warm, supple, animal. Then I can’t help lifting the doll to my face. And there she is, my mother, the conflicting scents of her: jasmine, leather, sweat, candle wax, engine oil. And, and … that thin, distilled, sweet odour that makes my heart reel.

don’t know what you’re talking about, Tilly
,” says my grandmother.

I swing harder, higher. The chain creaks, a soothing rhythmic creak. The wind blusters against my face. I’m cold. I’m alive. My mother loved me, loves me, gave me this doll.

I lift the doll again, look again. The dolls my mother made to sell wore dresses. This one wears trousers. Black leather trousers. And I know at once
what the leather has been cut from. My mother’s biking gear. And now I am a child again. Five years old, waiting at the playground. Last to be collected – as usual – the teacher tutting, clicking her fingers. Then a roar from around the corner, the screech of brakes, and a huge figure dressed head to toe in black advancing towards the child and the clicking teacher.

“Has your mother got a bike now?” asks Miss Pretty.

I shake my head. Because my mother doesn’t have a bike. At least she didn’t when I left home that morning. Besides, this huge advancing thing cannot be my mother. Its head is too big. The figure stops. It takes off its hat.

“Surprise!” it says and peals laughter.

She swings my schoolbag round her neck, and puts me astride the bike. The saddle is wider than my splayed legs, or so it seems to me.

“Hold on,” my mother cries and puts the hat over my head. It’s heavy and it doesn’t fit, even with the strap pulled to its tightest. I can’t breathe.

My mother gets on in front of me.

“Hold on,” she shouts and revs the engine. Hold on to what: the hat, the bike, my mother’s too-big waist? I glance imploringly at Miss Pretty and then we
are off. Instinct alone preserves me. I dig my nails into the ridged hem of the leather jacket, I clutch and clutch. The hat bounces and throttles.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” My mother’s voice comes by on the wind.

“Didn’t you love it?” she says when we stop.

“Yes,” I say. “Yes. I loved it.”

Later, when my father finds out, he shouts at her. The first of the rows I actually remember.

“I gave her the helmet,” my mother cries indignantly. “What’s the fuss? Anyway, she loved it. She said so. Didn’t you, Tilly?”

Later my mother took me aside. “Pay attention, Tilly,” she said. “A bike’s not a method of transport. A bike’s freedom.”

And it is to these bike leathers my mother took her scissors. I imagine that first impossible cut. My mother knifing through – what? The jacket? The trousers? The trousers probably. The leather thinner there. I can hear the sound, that slight crunch as the metal blades close on skin. Animal skin. And human skin. For that’s what cutting the leathers would have felt like to my mother. Like cutting her own skin. Yet she did it. For the doll.

For me.

What else has she cut? The doll’s bodice is velvet, a strokable patchwork of my mother’s more sumptuous tastes. A fragment of magenta, from a scarf probably. A snippet of gold, the trimming of that black evening gown, and yes, a tiny scrap of white from her “purity jacket”.

“For atonement,” she said, kissing me and going out with my father in the days when they still did such things. I was four, I think, I didn’t know what “atonement” meant. Though it meant, for a while, that my mother stayed closer by me.

I move on to the doll’s face. The hair is jet black and straight. You buy it in curls, so my mother must have brushed and brushed it to be like this. She has also shaped a fringe.

“Don’t you think you’re too old to have a fringe now, Judith?” Grandma asked her.

“No,” said my mother.

The doll’s eyes are blue. Two startling June-sky sequins with a sewn black centre. And the mouth is smiling.

But what’s this? This thing around the doll’s left wrist? A bracelet of tiny red glass beads, wound tight
so they cut into the flesh a little. What can this mean? My mother never had anything so flimsy. She wore bone and amber and circlets of silver. And she never wore red, except on her lips. The bracelet is an impostor, I feel like ripping it off, freeing that left wrist. But this is my mother’s gift to me.

Swing, Tilly, swing.

“Tilly? Tilly!” It is my grandmother. She has returned. She knows where to find me.

“Come in, Tilly,” she says. “Please.”

I slow the swing, put my feet to the mud, slip the doll into my pocket. For the doll is just between me and my mother.

“You must be chilled to the bone,” says Grandma.

“I’m alive,” I say.

“Oh, Tilly.” She takes my hand and leads me inside. I am content to be led. Now that she is holding me I feel a rush of exhaustion. I want to lie down. I want to be asleep. Although I do not expect to sleep. Not for a long time.

She brings me to my room. Rubs and rubs my hand, as if to find blood. Then she goes to my bed and unfolds my nightdress.

“I’ll be OK.”

“Sure?” she asks.


She bends to kiss me. When my grandmother was a child her father pressed a black cane against her spine to teach her the virtue of a straight back. She bends like the rod is still there. Sometimes I think there will be one kiss too many and then she’ll snap in two.

“Goodnight,” she says, though it cannot be a good night.

I wait till she closes the door and then I slip, naked, into bed. The doll is still in my hand. Have I been delaying this moment? No longer. I press the doll against my heart. For a moment there’s nothing. Nothing at all. All my expectations roar with panic. For there has to be something, something I can feel, something I can know, trust. And then it comes, a warmth, a small fire just beneath my hands. And of course it could just be my hands, the rubbed blood clasp of them, but I don’t think so. I think it’s the doll.

My mother wired her dolls so they could bend, move. I watched her do it so many times. This doll has a wired spine and wired limbs. I’m not pressing now, more pulling, pulling the doll into my heart and I can
feel that spine and those wires and, somewhere deeper still, the fevered thud of life. And yes, maybe it’s just my life. My heart beating. But it comforts me. So I don’t move the doll and I don’t move my hands.

I’m still lying like this when I hear the door open again. It’s Grandma. She’s checking to see if I am asleep. I keep quite still and she doesn’t come any closer, just quietly shuts the door. The pretence suits both of us. We have lived a long time together, my grandmother and I.

Later, I know I have slept because I wake again. And there’s a moment in that waking when I hope, I dream, that everything that has happened, has not happened. Then I see the doll. It’s moved in the night. It lies on my pillow and its face is wet. And I have this lurching idea that the doll has been crying. But maybe it was only me crying. I scoop up the doll, hold it. Hold her.

Then I listen.

Downstairs there is noise. Grandma, who has never slept well, is up already. I hear the clatter of her in the kitchen. She will have laid a table, put out napkins. What else will she have done?

I rise silently and get dressed for school. We all
need things to be ordinary. This is the game Grandma and I play. I tuck the doll into my skirt pocket and move with agile silence along the corridor to my mother’s room. The door is ajar.

And of course, I do not want to enter there. I do not want to see again anything that I have seen.

“What are you then?” my mother says. “A mouse?”

So I go in.

The room is tidy and the bed made, which alone proves that my mother is dead. For if my mother lived there would be mess everywhere. Drawers agape, clothes on the floor, lids off lipstick. But there is no mess. There are no candles. No cinnamon sticks. Even the flowers are gone. The window is wide open and the morning air abrasively clean. In the night, Grandma has scrubbed the carpet. Got down on her stiff knees with the disinfectant. If there were stains – if there were spots – on that carpet last night, there won’t be now. But there were no spots. There were just rose petals, red rose petals. That was all. I was there. It was a good death, the death she would have wanted.

“Always tell the truth, Tilly,” says my mother. “The truth is important. Yes?”

“Tilly.” It’s Grandma calling. “Is that you?” I move quickly into the corridor, pretend that I’ve just come from the bathroom.

“Oh, good, you’re up. Breakfast’s made.”

The smell of bacon fat curls up the stairs. I go down to the kitchen. Grandma is also frying sausages, tomatoes, mushrooms. As I come in she cracks two eggs.

“You know I don’t eat breakfast.”

“Well, you should. You must. Breakfast sets you up for the day.”

We have had this discussion a thousand times. I don’t want to have it this morning. I make for the fridge, for juice. Then I see the breakfast table. It’s laid for three.

I round on her. “You’ve told him, haven’t you? You called him.”

“Of course,” my grandmother says. “What did you expect?” And then: “He’s family.”

As if in confirmation of this fact, the doorbell rings.

I watch her unyielding walk to the porch.

“Margaret.” My father steps into the hall, greets my grandmother and then turns immediately to me. “Tilly, I’m so sorry.”

He walks straight down the corridor and, uninvited, puts his arms around me. As I stand like a
stone in his embrace, I think: this is what it must be like to be hugged by a stranger. Although he’s not a stranger. I see him most weekends.

Then he says something else. He says: “Grandma told me. Grandma says it was you who found her.”

And I feel a pricking hotness in my face, as though he’d accused me of lying. And something in me wants to shout, but I put my hand on the doll and keep my mouth clamped shut.

He releases me. He’s a small man. Small and mobile and the colour of sand. How could my huge, dark mother have loved him?

“Tilly …” he begins.

“Don’t worry, Richard,” says Grandma. “I’m here. I’ll be here. I’ll look after her. We’ll be fine, won’t we Tilly?”

“Yes,” I say then.

He looks relieved.

“There’s coffee, Richard,” says Grandma. “And breakfast if you haven’t eaten.”

“Of course he hasn’t eaten,” I say. “He eats at the restaurant. That’s why he’s always gone so early.” I say it on autopilot, like my mother used to say it, half bitterly, half to explain why he was never here of a morning.

My father looks at his watch.

“I expect you’re busy,” I mimic. “I expect you’ve got a lot on.”

“Tilly …” warns Grandma.

“It’s OK,” says my father. “It’s the shock.”

“Hardly a shock,” says Grandma.

My father sits down. My mother’s mother brings him coffee, serves him a man’s breakfast. The plate steams.

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