They were Grandma’s, Effie’s mother said. My grandma’s, I mean, not Nanna’s. Nanna Boswell hates them. She’s a silly old lady, your Daddy’s mother. Full of Spiritualist claptrap. Won’t come in this room. Thinks they’re possessed. That’s where Daddy’s madness came from. You like them, though, Effie, don’t you?
The room was lined, floor to ceiling, with dolls of various ages and types. There were Victorian bisque dolls in delicate silk dresses, ancient apple-heads all withered and strange, corn-dollies, paper dolls. Just below the upper dado rail, sets and sets of Matryoshkas paraded. Marionettes were suspended from hooks and rails in the ceiling. Effie’s mother took down one of the marionettes and danced a brief ballet with him. His red dress and kolpak bobbed and shifted, and the whistle in his neck hooted softly.
There, Little Peter, said Effie’s mother. You’ve had your dance. Back on the rail you go. She wriggled the control paddle, pretending that the puppet was beating her with a stick and refusing to return to his place. Effie blinked again, and her mother laughed at her.
You are a strange silent little thing, she said. Whatever will I do with you? She hung Little Peter back on his rail, and bent down to cuddle the little girl. Perhaps you are too young for these yet, she said.
Effie said nothing, but snuggled into her mother’s arms. Her mother lifted her up, squeezed her gently, and took her into her bedroom for a nap.
Effie didn’t go back into the doll room for a long long time. The house was big, and there were other things that needed to be done, her mother said. Grandma’s estate had to be sorted, whatever that meant, and Nanna Boswell wouldn’t stop interfering. Effie had never quite understood her mother’s dislike of Nanna Boswell: she was a sweet, kindly lady, even if she was a little distant with her only grandchild.
Nonetheless, Effie had become obsessed with the dolls. She would dream about them, especially the bisque ones. Those dreams were fun – she danced hand in hand with the little girls, who weren’t that much smaller than she was. Sometimes, if she was upset, she would have nightmares about Little Peter. He kept trying to kiss her. Sometimes, her mother’s Grandma would come and save her; but her face was a wizened little apple, and Effie would cry and cry until she woke up.
She dreamt a lot about Grandma in the days before the funeral. She was the first person Effie remembered seeing, with her squished, wrinkly face and sunken mouth. She had been whispering something at Effie, who was choking and coughing, weeping with the effort to breathe. There there, said Grandma. You’ve been sick, my poor dear, but you’re all better now. You’ll never be sick again. Effie stopped coughing, and tried to sit up. Then her mother came, gently pushed her back down into her pillow, and told her to rest. She’d been very very poorly, mother said, so she might feel strange for a while.
Effie felt very odd on the day of Grandma’s funeral. There weren’t many people there – Grandma had been widely considered ‘eccentric’, at best. Most of those who did come avoided Effie and her mother. Effie felt like she was floating outside of everything; she didn’t feel quite real, and wondered if she was getting sick. But Grandma had said she would never be ill again. Mind, Grandma was dead, so Effie wasn’t sure if that meant everything she’d said and done was dead too.
Maybe Effie was just sad. She didn’t know.
Mother had left Effie with Nanna Boswell whilst she spoke with a couple of the kinder funeral guests. Nanna Boswell looked at her with sad eyes. You look so like her, she said, and reached out to touch Effie’s cheek. But she pulled back at the last moment and shuddered. Then she put her head in her hands. Whatever will I do, Effie heard her whisper. Whatever will I do? Then Nanna Boswell started to cry. She’d done that when Effie’s Daddy got taken away. Effie wanted to reach out and touch her, but her limbs felt stiff and heavy. She missed Daddy and couldn’t remember what he looked like.
Then mother picked her up, and took her to look at Grandma’s grave. It was covered in flowers, and photographs of her small family and her favorite dolls. Effie saw a photograph of herself, and stuck her head in her mother’s armpit.
Effie found herself near the doll room. She wasn’t quite sure how she’d gotten there – perhaps she’d been asleep. She was starting to forget lots of things. Even though it had been a week since the funeral, they’d not left Grandma’s house yet. Mother had started looking at her strangely, and she’d sometimes run away sobbing. Effie didn’t know why.
Loud noises were coming from the doll room. Effie’s mother was crying – big, heaving, grieving breaths – and it sounded like she was tearing up the floor. Effie pushed the door open and went inside. She touched her mother’s leg, and the woman screamed. Oh, Effie. You gave me such a fright. Her eyes were red. She picked Effie up, and sat her on the shelf next to a large German doll in a white confirmation dress. Effie felt happy and sleepy.
I can’t find the book, mother said. I’m sorry darling. She looked sadly at Effie.
Effie wanted to hold her mother, but she was floating and very far away.
I should have let you go the first time, mother said. It wasn’t fair, what we did. I was just so sad. But it made Daddy go mad, and it made Nanna Boswell hate me. We shouldn’t have done it. But I couldn’t live without you, she said. I can’t live without you.
When Nanna Boswell opened the door to the room several hours later, she found her daughter in law, blue and tangled in the marionette strings, with the porcelain doll in her arms. As the marionettes swung, gently, all the other dolls looked up at them.