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Extract One: The Doll

by Anthony Edwards

It’s strange that you should mention a doll. It reminds me of a tale I was told many years ago while engaged in a consular capacity in a foreign, and, indeed, remote and brutal land. I heard this story at first hand and relate it to you as I received it. The man himself was no wild savage to look at. His eyes were soft and wet, his hands broad and generous. The voice, however, seemed to come by circuitous paths from the land whence “no traveller hath returned”.
According to his tale he had lived in the same house by the river since a lad, had married and had a child in it, and there our story begins.
The child’s mother having died giving it entrance to this world, it was reared roughly, without playmates, until it could walk and talk and think for itself. The father himself had been an only child. He knew well enough it lacked company, but it was not till the child was seven that he gave her the doll. He had seen it many times while passing the small corner shop in the nearby town, its blue eyes following him each time across the square, rebuking him for this treachery.
As time passed, the little child grew fonder and fonder of her little “Barbara”. At night, lying in his cold bed he would hear her little voice in earnest communication, sometimes soothing, sometimes cross and scolding. At times he would imagine hearing an answering voice, but could never be certain if it spoke from inside his own head or through the thin wall.
One night, some two years after he had given her the doll, his daughter’s screams woke him from his deep sleep (at first he did not know if the screaming and crying were part of his own private night).
Between hysterical cries she begged him to take away and burn the doll.
“She says you don’t want me Papa, she said she’d be a better daughter than me. She wanted to come into my cot, Papa.”
The doll sat in its usual position in the corner of the room. It’s pale face and clear eyes gave no hint of his daughter’s dream. He removed it to his own room, and talked his sobbing child to sleep. In the morning she woke him, wondering why he had taken her doll away.
He himself began to have nightmares, waking frantically in the dark. In the morning he would have forgotten the substance of his dreams, but the sense of horror persisted till after midday.
The fateful night at the centre of our story occurred in late Spring. He had taken to sleeping outdoors, on the small veranda at the rear of the house. The nights were warm, too warm, and he slept fitfully. By his own reckoning, it was a little after three when the first screams pierced his sleep.
“Unnatural”, and “terrible”, were the words he used to describe them, cries that chilled him, and brought him shaking to his daughter’s room.
The floor lay strewn with blankets from the cot. His daughter sat in the corner of the room, sobbing, breathless and pointing at the cot. There, in her place, the doll lay grinning up at him, whispering “Papa, Papa, Papa”.
As he lifted it up she clung to him, burying her cold face in his neck. Scarcely knowing what he was about, he ran out of the house to the river wall and there threw it from him far out into the black rushing water, its tiny cries for help dwindling in the night.
He sat there by the wall until he remembered his daughter and walked slowly back. In her room, the cot lay empty, and there in the corner, as you’ve doubtless guessed, the doll sat clear-eyed, and pale skinned, blank as the moon in the sky.
Of course, there was little I could do to help him. He did have some claim on my time, as his mother came from our great country, but I am a businessman, sir, not a lawyer, and they hanged him shortly afterwards. And the doll, why, there it is behind you in the corner.


Taken from ‘Sticks and Stones’ (1989), pages 6-7.


Anthony Edwards