The dolls were a gift from the man that ran me down. It was my own fault and I didn’t deserve the present. I was playing out with friends from across our street. Even the most cautious of parents let their children do that in the mid-1950s. A group of us girls were teasing another by banging her front gate.
‘If you do that again I’ll tell my mam,’ our friend (I don’t remember her name) said tearfully.
Aged six, and rather a ‘holy terror’ as my Nan liked to say, I slammed the gate one final time and ran into the road, directly in the path of an oncoming car. The police asked my parents if they wanted to prosecute but seeing the man (well, just a boy really) so shuck up and acknowledging that I was not completely blameless they declined. They didn’t insist I refuse the chocolates and doll set though for which I was greedily grateful. My injuries were fairly minor; although I have a huge scar on my knee and a smaller one on my chin as lifelong reminders. I was soon out playing again, if confined to the garden for quite a while. As we lived alongside a rail track I didn’t mind too much and spent a few weeks in my own individual Railway Children drama. That was when I wasn’t separating, reassembling, stacking and, most importantly, conversing with my dolls.
My eight nesting babushka - beautifully painted, complete with decreasing sized headscarf’s and aprons – remained my very favourite plaything well beyond the summer of my accident. The largest outer doll soon became somewhat scuffed and faded, not through neglect or mistreatment, but her resting place on the window ledge in direct sunlight and the continual handling took its toll.
In my teen years I calmed a little, grew out of, what would probably be referred to now, as my ADHD stage. I left school at fifteen and started work in a milliners just two days after hanging up my school hat for the final time. I had an eye for colour and a neat hand and I spent much of my spare time designing, and occasionally making up, new dresses, skirts, jackets and of course hats. My dolls played their part as I copied the designs on their aprons and scarfs. My favourite colour is green, the predominate colour on the second doll’s clothing.
I married at eighteen having indulged very little in the so called swinging sixties. Surprisingly shy around boys I avoided the dances and fairs my friends loved to frequent and met the one I was to marry at work. Barry worked in the stockroom and at twenty-five to my seventeen seemed both worldly wise and glamourous. Like generations before me and many to follow I thought I’d lose him if I didn’t and believed him when he said I’d be ‘safe’ if I did. The result was a daughter born five months after the wedding, at which I walked down the aisle in my elder sister’s slightly altered dress, surrounded by the disappointed faces of my family and friends.
I didn’t have much of my own in the marital home - which was actually just one room in his widowed mother’s house - just a few books, a box crammed with my designs and my dolls. ‘What are those?’ Barry sneered, as I unpacked my small box the day after our marriage. ‘Dolls at your age. You daft cow, the real thing will be here and screaming soon enough.’
I wasn’t insistent on much but saying nothing I moved aside a couple of his darts trophies so that I could arrange my dolls in descending order of size. Night after night I concentrated on them; their bright colours, the intricate design. In imagining different lives for each one I was able to take myself away from the moment as I lay silent and rigid under my husband’s persistent bulk. Two more children followed Anna, the first. She would sit on the floor quietly playing with and talking to my beloved babushka whilst I fed, changed and comforted her brothers who, from the start, were more fractious and demanding than she ever was. When I packed the dolls away at the end of each day I prayed for a better future for the children and me.
Now in my seventh decade I have many more memories of my dear dolls and so much to thank them for. My silent conversations with them gave me the strength to eventually leave and divorce Barry. Their presence comforted me when no children came along in my second marriage which ended from our mutual disappointment. They sat on my desk and encouraged me through college and a short but satisfying end of working life career when the children had grown and left. And now the eight of them have pride of place on the bookcase (my worn copy of Nesbit’s classic is there too) in my small but comfortable flat. Nearing the end – I received the diagnosis quite recently – I am more grateful than I could ever express for their presence in my own personal lifelong game of Russian roulette.