S Bhattacharya Woodward is an award-winning science and health journalist whose articles been translated and featured internationally. She has written for New Scientist, Nature, BBC Sky at Night magazine, the Mail on Sunday and Psychologies amongst others. She has also contributed to four Dorling Kindersley non-fiction titles and acted as a consultant for television.
SHE had always hated that doll. By the time she had finally got rid of her, or so she thought, she counted – on dreamless, listless nights – that she had tried 57 times to kill, destroy or wilfully abandon Doll. But like some diminutive, blessed demon, Doll always found her way home.
Diana had drowned Doll. She had buried her alive at the bottom of the garden, near the muddy stream, her bare hands scratching and boring into the earth. She had pushed her off a high wall. She had fed her to the neighbours’ hounds, their muzzles dripping. She had left her in the park. She had dropped her off a ski-lift, head first into a freezing white abyss. She had left her in the supermarket. She had thrown her to cackling monkeys that danced across the bonnet of her parents’ car on safari. She had left her on the beach at high tide. She had gatecrashed a teddy bears’ picnic, and left her among half-eaten sandwiches, squashed pink cakes and chewed carrot sticks. She had left her alone in the woods, with no pebbles, no breadcrumbs.
But Doll always boomeranged back. When nothing worked, Diana had upped her game. She tried to cleave Doll’s cold head with a rock the size of Daddy’s fist. She tied Doll by the neck and played Swingball with her. She had her teddy bears beat Doll up.
And now she was back. Again. So many years later.
Sitting smug with her glacial blue eyes, yellow curls, slightly rouged cheeks and thin sugar-pink lips, slightly parted and slightly upturned at the corners in an enigmatic smile.
Doll was in Diana’s home. With her dearest. Her little demon feet tucked nicely under a gingham-smocked table.
“Di-Di always loved that doll!” said Mother a few weeks ago, when she produced the package to Diana’s horror. “I kept it for you dear. No don’t thank me, really don’t.”
“I don’t know what your problem is,” Richard, her husband had said seeing Diana’s repulsed face as she unwrapped the paper shroud, while watching his baby daughter’s face thrill at the corruption of golden curls that tumbled over Doll’s pink dress and the smoothness of her vellum skin, clammy after years of captivity in Mother’s attic. “Polly loves her. It was really thoughtful of your mother to keep her all these years,” he said.
When had she finally disposed of Doll? When? When? Diana dug deep into a fog in her brain.
Doll had just disappeared. As indistinctly as she had come. Diana’s early days of staying home playing tea with Doll while her brothers did archery, played chess and roamed the wood just ended. She ran. She could outrun them. So fast, she was flying. Trees, flowers, fields and hedgerows skittered and scattered to the wind as she soared past. She won school, county, and country. And Doll? She was left behind. Ditched in a hedgerow, behind the sofa. Gone.
“Oh, she and Dolly did get in some scrapes!” her mother laughed to Richard in their kitchen that Saturday morning.
“They were inseparable. We had to take Dolly to the supermarket, park, zoo, the maze at Hampton Court… everywhere that Di-Di went, the doll was sure to go.”
“Oh, the number of times I had to rescue Dolly, or fix her up – once I even sent her to the Doll Hospital! There is one, did you know? Di-Di had Dolly’s head wrapped up in vinegar and brown paper!” Mother guffawed, the corners of her eyes were moist. “Turned out that Dolly had the most awful gash in her poor little head.
“When I asked Di-Di what happened, she said Dolly had walked into a door and that she was trying to help her.”
“Yes, yes Mother.” Diana wiped her hands on the dishcloth hanging on a hook by the sink. “Richard, did you manage to fix the harness on the buggy?”
“Hmm, yes darling.”
“Hmmm?” Richard looked up, one finger poised carefully above the screen of his smartphone.
“The buggy? Did you fix it?”
“Uh no, I’ll do it in a minute,” his eyes went back to the screen. Polly scuttled in. There was that blasted doll. Polly cradled her golden head lovingly.
“Dolly want breakfast,” said Polly. “Daddy, you hold Dolly,” she said, thrusting Doll’s rigid limbs into Richard’s arms. Doll’s curls caressed the crook of his right elbow, which angled stiffly to hold his phone in position. Her blue eyes seemed to fix on Diana.
Polly busily readied her tea-set. “Well, I must get going dear.” Diana’s mother rose from her chair at the kitchen table, hooking her bag over her arm.
“But Mother, I thought you came round to look after Polly this morning? Remember I was going to go for a run, and you said you could take her for an hour?”
She would start training again. She had promised herself. And Mother and Richard had agreed that it would be good for her. “Yes, get back in the saddle. Why not?” Richard had said weeks before. Mother had agreed. “A hobby would be good for you,” she’d said.
“Mother, it was my job, my career. And I’d like to make it back for the next international games.”
“You have a child now, don’t pressurise yourself Di-Di,” Mother had said. “I don’t think those trinkets in the downstairs loo are helping you. They are just a reminder of a past life, don’t you think?”
Mother had thought Diana should remove those trophies, box them up so they would become a distant memory; not taunt her.
“Did I?” said her mother. “Oh no, dear, I don’t think I did. I’m holding one of my coffee mornings today. It’s been in my calendar for a while. I only popped over to see if you had any of those lovely apples from your tree I could take…I’m going to make one of my apple cakes.
“Right. Here you go Mother, help yourself,” said Diana, pushing the fruit bowl, piled high with a pyramid of red apples, across the kitchen table.
Her mother bundled a clutch of apples into a carrier bag she produced from her handbag, briefly air-kissed Diana’s hair, and left.
Diana paused. “Richard?”
“Huh?” His eyes had not moved from the flat screen of his phone.
“Could you watch Polly for a while?”
“Sorry darling, didn’t I tell you? I have a match with Ben today? In fact, it’s a good job you’ve just reminded me – I’m running late.
“But I think it’s great you’re going to start running again. We’ll make some time for you to do that, we really will. I want you to get back to things.’
Richard rose from his chair, putting his phone in his pocket. He patted Polly’s head, which was locked conspiratorially with Doll’s. Golden tendrils seeped from Doll’s crown into Polly’s soft, brown curls. Doll sat seated smugly as Polly picked up a tiny cup and lowering her head next to Doll’s fed her gently, wiping her sugar lips carefully afterwards with a baby wipe.
“What are you girls going to do today then? Gadding about as usual?” he said, playfully swiping Diana’s rump on the way out of the living area.
Diana felt the old urge rising: to grab Doll and throw her. Throw her far, far out of the window; or hard against the wall. “I don’t know,” said Diana quietly. “Yes, I expect we’ll gad about, go to the park perhaps.”
“Okay, great stuff,” said Richard, collecting his tennis gear and pulling on his coat. “Bye girls, have fun!” The front door slammed. Diana leaned back against the cold steel of the kitchen sink. A circle of wetness grew at the back of her T-shirt. She could not move. Diana leant back and let it wash over her.
Diana glowered at Doll. When she had returned a few weeks ago, Diana had considered a re-match. She’d also considered letting bygones be bygones. But Doll’s constant smirk, and her stealthy inveigling her way into Polly’s tender heart, had hardened Diana’s. She felt ashamed. Irrational. But it didn’t stop her. There was no direct action, but more a passive lowering into situations which happened to be convenient.
It was not deliberate, Diana would tell herself, when she let, no encouraged, Polly to take Doll to the “Show and Tell” morning at the Wednesday playgroup and nearly lose her. There amongst the toddlers’ much-loved teddy bears, superhero paraphernalia, princess crowns, fairy wands and even one obscenely dressed and proportioned Barbie, sat Doll. Cool, collected and demure. It wasn’t Diana’s fault when in the toddler affray of free play, Doll was pushed to the wall. It was pure accident when Diana packed up the buggy to leave, her tired mind remembering to pick up baby gloves – check, dummy – check, hat – check, cardigan – check, water beaker – checker, snack pot – check, packet of wipes – check; forgot Doll.
A kind-faced nursery worker had followed them out of the building and handed Doll to a beaming Polly. “My little girl loves her dolly, she’d be gutted if she ever lost hers,” she said, ruffling Polly’s hair. You don’t know, you just don’t know, thought Diana. Doll’s upturned eyes locked with hers.
Two days later, Doll found her way into the recycling. Richard, in an unprecedented burst of household conscientiousness, decided to sort metal from plastics and fished Doll out. “Oh well,” he said, brows knitted. “Polly must have decided to ‘tidy’ Dolly away.”
A day later, Polly’s impressionable heart had well and truly been pierced by Doll’s diamante-tipped arrow; and Diana’s weary heart could no longer bear to steal away her daughter’s treasure, no matter what the cost in the long run.
Diana had sidled up to Doll, when Polly was having her midday nap. “I know your game, and I will never let you win.” The declaration came out as a guttural growl. They were her first words out loud to Doll since her return. The vocalisation shocked Diana. She’s a doll, just a doll. She isn’t stopping you do anything.
Polly’s back arched, taut as a bow, her face red as she howled. “Come on now,” Diana was calm as she manoeuvred the toddler’s heavy body into the buggy, and dodged flailing, angry limbs. “You want to go to the park, don’t you?”
Polly screeched. “What’s the matter?” Diana’s pinned Polly in the seat while her other hand groped for the buckle.
“Not this one! Not this one!” Polly pulled at her coat, her pudgy toddler hands unable to grasp it and free herself.
“Okay,” Diana took it off calmly. There were bigger battles to fight.
Polly slumped into her seat. “That one,” she pointed.
Diana picked up the red, cashmere poncho. It was softer than anything she had ever owned. Richard, forgetting they no longer had the ease of two incomes, had seen it in the window of a boutique shop on the High Street, and forgetting his unease in such shops, had gone in and bought it; wrapping his little girl up in its soft folds like a collector’s doll.
Polly smiled as Diana pulled the poncho over her head. The red hood framed Polly’s soft brown curls. “Right, let’s go,” said Diana, fiddling with the buckle once more. “Why won’t it work?
“Oh, damn, he didn’t fix it,” Diana stood up, and drew a breath slowly. “Okay. No running away Polly.” She hefted the buggy towards the door, and Polly screamed again.
“Doll-eee! Want Doll-eee!”
Diana grabbed Doll by the arm and dumped her in Polly’s outstretched arms.
Branches lay over the path that ran through the park – there had been a storm the night before. Diana dodged the limbs that hung jagged and askew off the torsos of trees. “Want more sticks,” said Polly, seated in her buggy. “That one!” She pointed to a fat, gnarled stick, about the length of Richard’s forearm.
“What is it about kids and sticks?” Diana muttered, kneeling on the sodden ground. For a moment the stick merged with leaf and muck and sinking earth. She felt she was sinking too; dissolving to the earth. The sky hit her like spun gold – sunlight sharp and straight in the face. Diana steadied. She groped for the stick. It was solid, an anchor. She turned around.
Her eyes lighted on the running track, out of the wooded side of the park. She gave Polly the stick and wheeled the buggy away from the trees and across wet grass to the track.
“No! No! Want more sticks!” Polly screamed from her seat pointing back at the woods, her red baby-face puffed out like a demonic cherub.
“One moment, darling, I’m just looking,” said Diana, parking the buggy a metre from the chalked lines. She turned her back and crouched down to touch the start line of the track. With a thrill, she angled one muddy boot to the line, lowered the other behind, and dropped down on her haunches, her fingers raking the cool, familiar earth. There was the calm. That wonderful, tense calm in the seconds before the gun fired.
Diana spun round.
The buggy seat was bare, except for Doll. Her eyes met Diana’s in a cold stare. Doll cradled the broken buckle in her lap.
In the woods off to the right, Diana saw the soft redness of a diminutive hood flash between twisted trunks. She grabbed the handles of the buggy, and ran with it across the grass.
As she reached the path and Polly was in clearer sight, Diana relaxed. The red hood disappeared and reappeared like a defiant spot of blood lighted by shards of slanting sun between dark boughs; there was an occasional child’s laugh. Oh Polly. Diana slowly wheeled the buggy off the path and into the fleshy yielding of decaying leaves.
Then, a sudden scream; a flash of low sun; and a dreadful baying. Diana rushed forwards. Two massive hounds, with eyes shot through with bloodied veins and hanging cheeks with dripping fat folds, lurched either side of the baby. Polly stood, clutching the stick Diana had given her horizontally with both hands across her body.
“Throw the stick Polly,” Diana said, one hand gesturing and shaking. “Throw it over there.”
“Don’t like it. Doggies not nice.”
Polly screamed. In a burst of teeth and blood and heavy limbs they were upon her little body. Diana screamed at the beasts and with a superhuman surge lifted the buggy as high as she could and crashed it down on them.
She felt a tearing at her right arm; a dreadful weight and pain as one brute hung onto her with sunken canines as she smashed the heavy frame on the other animal’s head. It still went for Polly.
“Run baby, run!” Diana screamed, flailing. The first hound came off her arm as its attention drew away. Weight fell off Diana’s arm and a crimson waterfall smattered to the ground, pooling red in the upturned dead leaves. The buggy dropped. Out rolled Doll.
The hounds turned. First slowly. Then with sudden fury: they tore her limb from limb.
“I’m sorry darling. I’m so sorry. I’m coming right now.”
What for? “It’s fine. Or it will be,” said Diana exhausted. She felt nothing. “Just come.” Richard was on his way now to the hospital. Diana could not remember if Richard had said he would tell Mother. Diana had forgotten him as she and Polly had sped away from the park in the ambulance. Now afterwards, slumped in the hard plastic of a hospital chair, Diana could see only Polly on the stretcher in the ambulance; drenched in blood with her delicate curls matted on her little doll-face. There was a clawing at Diana’s heart.
Diana and Polly had been extremely lucky, said the doctor. Though she had looked horrific, Polly had got away with scratches. Diana’s right arm was shredded and fractured in two places. The medics had patched it up and put it in a cast, but she would have to come back for another operation and physio. “You won’t lose it,” the doctor had said gently. He had smiled. “This one though. I don’t know if you’ll ever be able to put her together again.”
He had gestured to Doll, who Polly had insisted through noisy tears, could not be left. The baby had sobbed like a mother bereft, as she clung onto Doll’s loose limbs which somehow held together in the bloodied fabric of her dress. After Polly and Diana had been fixed up, a nurse smiling and chatting to Polly, had wrapped white bandages round Doll’s crown where her old gash had re-opened. Now Doll sat in a visitor’s chair next to a sleeping Polly.
“Maybe I can mend her.” Diana paused. “There’s a Doll Hospital you know? I wonder if it’s still there…”
The doctor wished her luck as he left the room. There was a quiet. Diana went over to the hospital bed and looked at Polly. She brought her head close to her daughter’s soft brown curls, stroked her cheek, and inhaled the precious babyness of her. There was a calmness, and a clearness, and an unending warmth.
A few minutes later, she went over to Doll. Diana sidled up to her broken, little body. Doll’s arms hung limply about her sides. Doll looked at Diana. Diana looked at Doll.
“Okay. You stay.”