Doris had always loved dolls. They were her babies, she said. She had never married, although she had once been engaged to a pilot, who had been killed during the Battle of Britain. But Dolly, as she was always called, had bravely officiated as bridesmaid at her sister Jean’s wedding towards the end of the War.
There had only been her and Jean, although there once had been talk of a baby brother, long since forgotten, and after Jean moved out, she lived quietly with her parents in the house both girls were born in. After their death, she had filled her days with tending the large garden, and adding to her collection of dolls. She would visit toy museums and exhibitions, and was a stalwart of church jumble sales. The staff in the local charity shops knew her well, and would put by for her any items that might be of interest, so she constantly added pieces to her family of dolls and soft toys, all kept in the back bedroom – Dolly’s Room.
Born in 1914, just before her Father went away to war, she outlived her sister by several years and had only recently achieved the grand old age of 100 when she passed away; the carer who called daily to do her housework and shopping in later years found her sitting peacefully in the old armchair in Dolly’s Room stone dead but still smiling, and holding her Birthday card from the Queen.
The family were sad to hear the news; they were all fond of their Great Aunt, and it was no surprise to learn that in her will she had left her money and the house itself to be divided between Jean’s children Sarah and Robert. The contents, which as well as the usual household effects included the doll collection and other bits of bric-a-brac stored in a shed in the garden, were to be shared between Sarah’s daughter Vicky and Rob’s daughter Michelle, who had spent hours playing with the dolls when they were little.
The cousins lost no time in arranging to meet at the house, and here they were, a month after the funeral, which seemed a decent enough interval to begin sorting Aunties’ belongings. But where to start? The girls rinsed out a couple of cups and made some coffee.
The cottage was at least two hundred years old, and though not in the best condition, should realise a good sum, and Sarah and Rob were anxious to sell up as soon as possible.
‘Well’ said Vicky, ‘I vote we do Dolly’s Room first, I’m dying to have a proper look at all the dolls; I’m sure there must be some valuable ones amongst them. I’ve brought my lap-top so we can look stuff up and make notes on what’s there. Then when we’ve sorted it out we should call in an expert to have a look.’
‘Good plan’, said Michelle, slurping the last of the coffee. ‘No time like the present’.
Dolly’s Room was a large room overlooking the now rather overgrown garden. The door creaked as they let themselves in.
They both gasped. There were dolls everywhere, many more than they remembered; on shelves, on chairs and display tables, and spilling out of half-open cupboards. A large doll in Welsh costume sat by an exquisite gold harp in the old stone fireplace. The room felt stuffy and as Vicky opened the old sash window a rush of cold air made them shiver, and a plaintive note came from the Welsh Harp, making both girls squeal with fright.
‘I’ve got to have a ciggie after that’ said Michelle, heading for the door.
‘Idiot, we don’t have to go out to smoke; there’s no-one else here but us!’
‘No, let’s go out Vick, I feel a bit weird smoking with all these eyes on us!’
An hour later, fright over, they had made some headway with listing and cataloguing the dolls as they found them. They carefully took photos before disturbing the collection, as Vicky had some idea about writing an article for a specialist magazine.
The dolls that were obviously old and some that looked valuable were placed carefully into one of the large plastic boxes they had brought for the purpose. Some even had notes pinned to them of when and where Auntie had acquired them, and other details. Neither of them however felt like touching the Welsh Harpist, who seemed to stare at them balefully from under her tall black hat.
‘Hey Shelly, look at this! It’s a Cabbage Patch doll! Fancy Auntie Dolly having one of those! Ugly bugger ain’t she!’
‘Well I guess a collection is just that, a collection. You don’t actually have to like each piece. I don’t suppose it’s worth much anyway, there were millions of them made. I think they had adoption papers with them too; if we come across them it might make a difference to the value. Put it in the blue box with the ‘maybes’.’
A while later, there was only a big old-fashioned wardrobe left to do. They decided to go to Michelle’s flat to order in a pizza and look through their notes, then come back later to do the rest, and perhaps make a start on the garden shed.
It was nearly lunchtime the next day when the cousins arrived back at Great Aunt Doris’ house. Several vodka shots and the best part of two bottles of wine had ensured they both had sizeable headaches. They took two large mugs of coffee with them to Dolly’s Room, both ready this time for the creak as they opened the door. It all looked much as they had left it the previous evening. They opened the wardrobe and began examining the contents. Most of the dolls in here seemed to be rather older than the others, some in quite poor condition.
‘Look at this one Vick, I reckon it could be a proper antique!’
‘Not much of the clothes left, but it does look old. Put it back a minute while I finish these photos, then we’ll take her home to study later. Better wrap it in some of Auntie’s tea towels, just in case’.
Photos done, Michelle turned to look for a safe place to put the old doll while Vicky went to find some linen to use. Auntie’s big old armchair caught her eye.
‘Vick, what did you do with that Cabbage Patch Doll?’
‘It’s in one of the blue boxes, in case we find the paperwork.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes, have a look in that……’
She fell silent as she turned to speak to her cousin. Both girls stared open-mouthed at the armchair. The one Auntie died in.
The Cabbage Patch doll was sitting there, and a piece of paper lay beside her.
‘Bring us that paper, Shelly.’
‘Get it yourself, I’m not going near it, this is too weird’.
Vicky approached the chair and quickly whipped away the paper. It was the doll’s original Adoption Certificate, signed by Auntie Dolly some forty years ago.
‘This is to Certify Barbara Marie was born in the Cabbage Patch on 1st October 1971 and was adopted by Doris Spurling.
I promise to always care for my Cabbage Patch Doll, to love her forever and never forget her.
Signed Doris Irene Spurling.
And there was Auntie Dolly’s signature, and a date.
‘Urgh! This is too spooky Vick. Let’s just shove the doll and the certificate in the box and get on with the job. The sooner we start..’
‘You’re right. Let’s finish this wardrobe then we had better deal with the Welsh doll.’ They got through it at great speed and soon everything was sorted and ready to be taken away. A doll expert from a London Toy Museum had agreed to visit the next day. The only thing remaining in the wardrobe was a large old-fashioned holdall. They took it out and laid it on the ground to wrestle with the rusty buckles holding it shut. As the dark green canvas parted, both girls let out a scream.
‘OMG, it’s a baby!’ Recovering her composure, Vicky took a closer look.
‘Don’t be daft Shelly, it’s an old china doll. Very realistic, but a doll nonetheless.’ As they carefully removed it, they saw its arms and legs had large brown patches, as if it had been burned. ‘I think this is another one for the expert. Now let’s have a proper look at the Welsh doll, and get out of here.’
As before, a sharp breeze flicked through the window, still open from the previous day, making the girls shiver, and once again the eerie sound of a plucked harp string hung on the air.
‘Right! That’s it! Bung the Cabbage Patch Doll back in the box, stick the baby back in the bag and grab the Harpist. I’m off to the pub’.
Michelle tried to lift the doll, but it seemed to be stuck to the fireplace.
‘Be careful Shelly, she may be valuable. Let’s have a try’.
Vicky wiggled and tugged at the doll, until she fell backwards as the doll came away, revealing a small cupboard at the side of the fireplace. Curiosity overcame fear, and they opened the door. A foetid smell filled the air. Michelle ran to stick her head out of the window, while Vicky pinched her nose and covered her hand with one of Auntie’s tea-cloths. She pulled out a dusty bundle tied with string, laid it in the fireplace and carefully pulled at the knots. It was another baby doll! It looked older than the first one, a lot smaller, and very unattractive indeed. There was a faded note pinned to its hand embroidered clothes.
‘Shelly – you’ve gotta see this!’
But as Vicky turned round, there was no sign of her cousin. Imagining she must have gone out for a cigarette, she walked over to the window, and looked out into the garden.
Next afternoon, Doctor Stephanie Green from the Toy Museum arrived as arranged. She was surprised to find no sign of either of the women she had expected to see, but as there was a car in the driveway and the door was ajar, she let herself in. The only sign of life was a squeaky door gently bang- banging on the first floor. She followed the sound to Dolly’s Room, and was amazed to see the vast array of dolls, most already packed in boxes. There were however, three dolls on the large armchair in front of the fireplace, and a rather special Welsh doll in the fireplace itself.
Fascinated, she first picked up the Cabbage Patch doll in its original box, complete with signed Adoption Papers. Stephanie smiled. She had seen many of these, but this was one of the rarer ones. The bisque-headed baby doll sitting up in an old holdall interested her a lot, as did the label round her neck which read:
‘This is my own doll called Lucy. Burnt in a fire during the Battle of Britain’.
It was always good to have more information about exhibits. The third was a small baby doll wrapped in a dusty rag and with a note pinned to its nightgown. She picked it up carefully to examine it more closely, then screamed in horror as the delicate material covering its face began to crumble, revealing the perfect skull of a newborn. Then she read the paper:
‘Peter Spurling 20th May 1917. God forgive me, and have mercy on his innocent soul.’
Feeling the bile rising in her throat, she knew she was going to be sick, and ran to the window for some fresh air.
It was early evening when Sarah and her husband arrived; they had’nt heard from Vicky and had decided to come looking for her.
Heading straight for Dolly’s Room, they too saw the dolls on the armchair, and read the note pinned to the tiny baby. They too were nauseated and were drawn to the window. It was Sarah who spotted the three bodies lying smashed on the rockery below.
When, days later, Rob came to the house looking for Michelle, he also made his way to Dolly’s Room, and picked up the Cabbage Patch Doll’s Adoption Papers. He took the trouble to read both sides, taking it over to the window to catch the light. The back of the certificate read:
Baby Peter is Doris’ half-brother born out of wedlock while her father was fighting in France.
Doris treated Lucy like her own child but she is just a doll. Her real baby was born too early to live and Doris’ father burned it in the grate for shame of having a bastard grandchild. That’s how Lucy got scorched. His name is Michael and his ashes are in the pot under Welsh Myfanwy’s chair.
Myfanwy is our friend. She takes care of us. I was a Cabbage Patch Kid and was officially adopted by Doris Spurling therefore I am her child and only heir. This is MY house.
My name is Barbara Marie Spurling.
Rob felt a hand on his back and turned just enough to get a glimpse of a tall black hat before, he too, fell to his death on Auntie’s carefully tended rockery below.