Ellen stood, gazing around the room in awe. Claire had said it was OK to look in here, but she felt somehow guilty, as if prying. Surrounding her, stood and sat on the floor, and on shelves around the walls, were perhaps two hundred dolls.
She’d come to babysit her friend’s five-year-old daughter, Bonny. Claire had told Ellen that she collected dolls, that she had ‘a roomful’ of them, but Ellen had never imagined Claire had been speaking literally. She’d put Bonny to bed after the little girl had fallen asleep watching a Disney DVD, made herself a sandwich, watched TV, and, growing bored, thought she’d look around the house. Look but don’t touch. The babysitter’s dictum.
In the front row was a female doll with a black tunic top and rose-coloured skirt. Wavy silver hair descended to her shoulders beneath a conical pale yellow hat, and bright blue eyes looked out from the lifelike face above pronounced pink cheeks. She bore a curiously neutral expression. You couldn’t tell if she were happy, or cross even. Claire guessed the doll’s costume was Swiss or German. The other dolls were of every size, shape and nationality. Chinese dolls with slanted eyes, Indian dolls in beautiful saris, babies in shawls, ‘ladies’ in emerald green finery, and blonde hair piled high in immaculate curls.
Then there was a section of clown dolls, perhaps thirty in number, varying in height from just a foot or so, up to an almost life-size clown in a rocking chair. Its face was chalk-white, its eyes were black hollows and its grinning lips a garish red.
Ellen noticed that they universally sported red noses, the one unique identifying feature of a clown, she supposed. She heard the front door close and Claire call out, “Ellen, where are you?”
She checked her watch. Eleven o’clock. “Coming!” She closed the door quietly, hearing a creak from within. That was odd.
Downstairs, Claire was looking happy. “Hi, how was Bonny?”
“Oh, she was fine. We watched The Little Mermaid, and she fell asleep.”
“She must’ve seen that one twenty times!” Claire went into the kitchen. Ellen followed. “What did you get up to?” Claire asked.
“Oh, after I’d put Bonny to bed I watched TV. Then I looked at your dolls. I didn’t know you meant it when you said you had a roomful. They’re amazing!”
Claire took some bread out of a container. “Yes, I collected them over the last thirty years. I’m making a sandwich. I’m starving, you want one?”
“No thanks, I already had one.”
“What did you do with the carving knife?” Claire asked.
Ellen looked puzzled. The block that held the knives had an empty socket. “I’m sorry, I washed it. I thought I’d put it back.”
“Don’t worry.” Claire opened a drawer and picked out a serrated knife. “This’ll do.” She cut two slices and opened the fridge, taking out a pack of Lurpak Light and some slices of ham. “Which dolls did you like best?”
Ellen laughed. “Well, I’ll tell you which one I didn’t like. That big clown doll in the rocking chair!”
Claire turned, looking pale. “What d’you mean? I don’t have a big clown doll. I sit in that rocker myself!”
Heavy footsteps were coming down the stairs.
Featured in the book and audiobook, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories
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