It is Saturday afternoon. She knows it is. You have to keep a good grip on time, one firm hand clasped around its collar, because if you let it go, its meaning will slip away from you and you’ll never get it back. Meanings are important, and if you’re going to let them go, you have to be damn sure you’ve got something in their place. And she certainly isn’t sure of that. So she marks it on a calendar, a large one with pictures of Bournemouth through the seasons. It’s not particularly attractive, but then it’s Bournemouth. They can’t work miracles.
In the kitchen she bends low over the freezer and pulls out a lasagne. Best Before next week. She pulls off the cardboard wrapper, revealing the crystals of cheddar underneath. That will do. She leaves it thawing on the surface and pauses in the hall.
He’s asleep, his head nodding over his chest. His hair has thinned again, a couple of lank strands left now. The television is left droning to itself, a history programme. She swings her bad leg over the first stair, ignoring the stair lift, a great plastic white contraption blocking the bottom of the stairs. She has tried it once or twice, sailing up perched on the sticky faux leather, but she felt utterly ridiculous, like a breeze block being hoisted by a crane. Now she squashes herself past its wipe clean seat and begins to drag herself up, one stair at a time. Halfway up she stops to rest her bad leg; the bluey white, puckered flesh spilling over the top of the surgical stocking.
Her body these days is something she has to manipulate, to heave into place. Even crossing her legs is an effort, hauling one sagging wedge of flesh on top of another and trying to keep it there. She would disgust herself, if she had the inclination. Her daughter worries, but then Sue has always been a worrier. Even as a little girl she would gnaw her nails down to the quick about a sick rabbit, or a spider in the loo. Now it’s diabetes and losing legs. ‘Mum,’ she chides, as they shuffle together up the supermarket aisle. ‘Mum.’ It’s the same voice she, Deirdre, had used when Susan was a child and pulling back from the school gate. ‘Come on, now. Be sensible.’ But defiantly, a child again herself now, she makes for the biscuit aisle, for custard creams and golden syrup cake, for sponge puddings and those little jelly trifles from the fridge section. A box of Black Magic. She doesn’t care. Her leg is probably better off than on anyway. One less thing to haul about.
At the top of the stairs, she flicks the switch, grubby now, and makes her way through the jumbled bits and pieces, the bags of clothes waiting to go somewhere. Teddies, duvet covers, her old motorcycle leathers in a St Michael’s bag.
The room is cold even on this blistering day. Jim had built it in the seventies, when no one cared if you built yourself an add-on, or if it was a bit leaky around the edges. No council snoopers. John’s room. Her last baby. Fifty now, and still uncertain, still hanging back as he had when the four of them were children. He’d gone bankrupt last year, and the rest of them had bailed him out. They were good to each other, still, the children. All so different. Susan, turning to religion, to everyone’s horror, and setting up a square, boxy home with a square, boxy fellow from that hideous modern church. Andrew, always laconic, wry, with his passion for his vinyl records, and his glamorous, tense wife clacking about in her heels stinking of Chanel No. 5. Bobby, Jim’s pride and joy, studying at Cambridge. And her John. There are still marks on the wall from the cot where he’d slept, thumb in his mouth, with his blue rabbit. In the half dark she can almost still see him, and there it is again, the familiar ache, neither sadness nor joy. She has no time for it. Sentiment. Pointless.
Her hand runs over the box of matches she slipped into her cardigan pocket before she came upstairs, its cardboard corners poky and incongruous through the wool. She hauls herself over to the far end of the room and there it is, as it always is, the dolls’ house, its unchanging red brick and gables and garden laid out across the high table.
It was a sweltering summer, too, when she started. 1969, the garden dried to a crisp. The last one of them leaving home, the boxes piled up in the Ford and Jim with car keys in hand. What a houseful, people used to say, when they glimpsed the bikes and coats and shoes cluttering the hall, the rabbit hutch, the cats, the hamster, the budgie, the tortoise. Bobby splayed out on the rug with his wind-up toys, Susan stitching a stuffed animal, fluff on every surface and two detached eyes waiting on the table. Noise, always so much noise at dinner. Fights and the chatter of them, overlapping, trying to get their word in. And now the hall was empty, only her and Jim’s coats on the pegs, and there was John, skinny in his jeans, taller than her, his hair longer than it ought to be, waiting to be driven to London to God knows what. To take his chances. And what would be left? Her houseful, emptying every year, like water leaking out of a bucket.
A few days after Jim had come back in the empty Ford, she had found the magazine in a corner shop after work. ‘Your Miniature Home’ it was called. It came with a free dining table, only four inches long, beautiful little turned wooden legs, and six chairs with red velvet seats. It caught her eye, poking out of the wrapping. Without thinking, she picked it up and paid for it, double the amount of the crossword book she’d come in for. Jim was still at work, and so she let herself into the silent house and sat in the armchair looking at it, turning the table over in her hand.
It was a beautiful one they chose, very spacious, five bedrooms, gables and a red roof. A small fortune, but Jim was good with his hands, and put it together over two days to save money, coming down for dinner smelling of wood glue. It stood there, waiting for her to fill it with life, piece by piece, week by week.
The magazine came fortnightly, and then every six months the directory and the brochures, and then once a year the Dolls’ House Exhibition visited Poole, and she would pack up ham sandwiches and a flask of tea and spend the day making her way up and down the aisles.
Slowly, slowly, the miniature house had filled. She only allowed herself one or two items at a time. The kitchen first, with its broad, homely table, blue salt and pepper shakers, the laundry drying on a clothes horse, a set of copper pans, a little fire oven with a blackened glass front. Sandwiches just made and cakes fresh on their tins with glass cherries. A tabby cat curled on the hearth, and another on a wooden chair. And then the garden, with a little robin on the fence and pots of lavender, and a tool shed, and a tiny spider’s web between the fence and the house. Babies in the nursery, twins and a glassy eyed toddler made from the white smock she’d put her own children in, then two more boys, and an older girl with long brown hair, all of them sitting stiffly where she wanted them. A mother and a father. A real home. A houseful.
She lifts the front away, turns the lights on, and peers inside. Jim had wired it all up one Saturday in the seventies, each little light linked to a tiny lamp or glowing fire. When he had flicked them on, just before tea, it was like a miracle. Let there be light. And there is light, casting shadows over the house as she stands, face so close to the edge of the rooms that her breath moves the curtains.
The girl had come with Andrew’s son, Danny, a few weeks ago. Keeley, her name was, which sounds to her like fishing equipment. Engaged at twenty-three. Why they would be so utterly foolish now, in this time, with all the freedom they have these days, to hook themselves up together before they know a scrap about the world, she cannot fathom. It was different for her. But now. If she was young again she’d be off on her motorcycle on the cross channel ferry and to hell with the lot of them.
She had scanned the girl briefly, her big eyes and denim shorts. Dressed for the seaside, where they were to head to after this courtesy call. Drop in and see lonely old Grandma first. Good deed done for the year.
‘Keeley loves dolls houses,’ Danny had said. ‘She’d love to see yours.’
‘I really do love them,’ the girl had echoed inanely. ‘Ever since I was a little girl.’
She has never understood why the very young are considered attractive. She pities them. Their uncertain gait. They don’t know what to do with themselves. They are insubstantial; even their hairstyles are self consciously nondescript. This girl had eyed it up, her dolls’ house. Oh, wow, she had exclaimed, her eye roving over the detail. Oh wow. She, Deirdre, hates this Americanism. Wow is a noise for dogs, not people, she had nearly said, but had bitten her tongue.
‘That’s just beautiful. Oh, look at those little things. How gorgeous.’
She wanted it for herself, this girl. Anyone could see that, her hands roving so freely over the house, touching and picking up and examining. Put that down, she had wanted to say, the teacher in her rising up after three decades of silence. Put that down and keep your hands to yourself.
She feels no sentiment towards this girl, although she will attend the wedding and smile passively from a chair while the girl dances at the centre of it, all white lace and heels and laughter. She liked to see Danny grow up, to know that Andrew was happy enough. He was a sweet child. But her love for him is diluted. It’s not the solid, love-agony for her own babies, for their touch. Bending over their sleeping bodies, her heart thick with feeling. The thought of the children Danny and this girl in her bunches and her too-small t-shirt will one day have is no comfort for the end of her motherhood, for her own imminent death, for the loss of Jim’s mind, for the slow fade-out of their life like a song she can’t start again. She wants it back. Like one of Andrew’s vinyls, carefully lift the needle and set it again. Reset her family, her body, her house of people. Not this vicarious living through someone else’s while she sits in an armchair smiling blithely, passively at the joy of future generations, her own connection weaker and weaker as the years pass. And fade to silence.
She flicks out the electric lights and places the front back on the house. In a single movement she wraps her flabby arms around the walls of the house and hoists it into the air. She can feel the contents slide, the crash of tiny crockery. She can barely see over the top.
With difficulty she lugs it to the door, the hard corners of the roof pressing into her arms and hips, and almost slips on the carpeted stairs. The jolt as she reaches out to save herself dislodges the chimney, and even now she is cross with her own carelessness. She makes her way past Jim, still napping. Nazis now, which she can’t stand. The prurience of it, poking about in other people’s suffering.
Out in the garden the flowers are wilting in the heat. With an effort she gets to the middle of the lawn and half drops the house on the browning grass. Everything has slipped inside, the silk-clad mother toppling from the bed, the father lying flat on his front, his pipe still raised to his lips. She puts it all straight, room by room. Her clumsy fingers struggle with the tiny cutlery, the hair brush and hand mirror set. The tiny books she sent away for are all over the study carpet, miniature versions of the real photographs of her wedding, all shrunk down to little tomes so small that she can barely turn their pages. She puts them back on the wooden shelves. She is like a great big chubby-fingered god, she thinks, poking about inside. She is the Old Testament God that nobody likes to mention these days, sending destruction on a whim. And why shouldn’t he, she thinks. He made it.
She knows what is coming, naturally. They’ll be dead, in five years perhaps. Five years. A heartbeat. The house taken apart, the boxes rummaged in. Their clothes on the rails in the charity shops, unbought. She stops herself mid-thought. Sentiment again. She doesn’t care about it anyway, only the dismantling of it. Only the way it will all be given away, recycled, reused. And they can have the lot of it, but not this. She can’t bear the thought of it. Of this stranger, this child, who doesn’t understand anything, anything at all, with her hands all over it, prodding her fingers inside and moving bits out of their places, and no one there to put them back where they belong.
In the garage she finds the bottle of petrol and a couple of firelighters in a rather soggy packet. She heaves her way back to where the house sits lopsided on the grass. Her leg is aching badly now. With an effort she pulls the lid off the bottle and begins to pour, and the petrol splashes clumsily up the walls, over the roof tiles, across the tiny front garden with its wheelbarrow and mini clematis climbing over the trellis. The gardener, who sits glassy eyed on a bench mid-sandwich, is caught in an unexpected deluge. Carefully she pulls the house front off and soaks the inside and pops in a couple of firelighters for good measure.
She steps back and fumbles for the matches. She will allow herself just half a second, then. She looks at the stiff little family waiting impassively for their destruction. The twin babies sit in their highchairs, one with his small fist raised. The young, brown-haired girl is at her mirror, trying on her best hat. The two boys scuffle in the nursery. The dog sleeps on.
She has a ridiculous urge to apologise to them, to the house itself. A sure sign of madness, that. She has never once in thirty years pretended they were real. She has never played with them, never acted out little scenes like a child. That is not her way at all. She creates them, chooses them, crafts them, and they stay, as long as she likes them, exactly where she likes them, with every tiny detail just exactly as she chooses it from the catalogue. Her labour of love.
She had thought there might be a fumble, a couple of false starts. But it is instant, the flames catching like wind in the heat of the day. The first full force of the blaze is almost unbearable. She can hardly keep her face turned towards it. It is her rage, she thinks.
She sees that she has not picked up the fallen telephone in the hall, that it lies forgotten on the floor. She wouldn’t mind, but it is upside down and the receiver has not fallen off, and it does not look real. She wants to reach in and straighten it, but the fire is crackling even in the hallway now, snapping at the flocked wallpaper, and the air around it is wobbling with heat.
The babies’ faces are melting, the plastic expanding and softening and drooping. She almost wants to laugh at the sight of it. And then the father topples helplessly back down again on top of his pipe, his black work shoes vanishing into tarry puddles. Oh yes, she thinks, how absolutely ridiculous. And she feels triumphant for a moment at how funny it is, at how she doesn’t feel regret at all.
The flames are burning steadily now, enjoying their feast. The front of the house is starting to collapse into a heap of chewed up, blackened plastic, the bent door frame sticking up and distorting in the heat. The garden spade is curling in on itself. A few things remain curiously solid; the gardener’s wire glasses, a plastic roast chicken. The doormat.
She hears Jim call her name from somewhere inside. She doesn’t care. She’ll go to him afterwards, and count out his medication, and put on the television for Countdown, and put the lasagne in the microwave, stabbing at the plastic with a fork until it gives way. And they’ll sit and eat it together, in the house, just the two of them.
Later Sue will call, as she always does, and they will go through the motions of their daily chat, which will really mean ‘are you still there’ and ‘yes, I am’. And the day will end, another one on the calendar with a blue line through it. Am I still here? Yes, I am.
But for now she stands alone on the grass, watching, as the smoke billows up in acrid swirls into the sky, and the little house and everything in it disappear and are gone forever.
Emily is a writer and theatre maker based in East London. As a freelancer she has directed for Salisbury Playhouse and Bristol Old Vic, and as Artistic Director of international storytelling theatre company You Need Me, she has created work for theatre venues across the U.K. Her writing for radio includes two series of the comedy series The Ladies for BBC Radio 4. This is her first short story. www.emilyhowesdirector.co.uk