Get Her, Polly
“Dolls’ Eyes” by A. S. Byatt
Her name was Felicity; she had called herself Fliss as a small child, and it had stuck. The children in her reception class at Holly Grove School called her Miss Fliss, affectionately. She had been a pretty child and was a pretty woman, with tightly curling golden hair and pale blue eyes. Her classroom was full of invention, knitted dinosaurs, an embroidered snake coiling round three walls. She loved the children—almost all of them—and they loved her. They gave her things—a hedgehog, newts, tadpoles in a jar, bunches of daffodils. She did not love them as though they were her own children: she loved them because they were not. She taught bush-haired boys to do cross-stitch, and shy girls to splash out with big paintbrushes and tubs of vivid reds and blues and yellows.
She wondered often if she was odd, though she did not know what she meant by “odd.” One thing that was odd, perhaps, was that she had reached the age of thirty without having loved, or felt close, to anyone in particular. She made friends carefully—people must have friends, she knew—and went to the cinema, or cooked suppers, and could hear them saying how nice she was. She knew she was nice, but she also knew she was pretending to be nice. She lived alone in a little red brick terraced house she had inherited from an aunt. She had two spare rooms, one of which she let out, from time to time, to new teachers who were looking for something more permanent, or to passing students. The house was not at all odd, except for the dolls.
She did not collect dolls. She had over a hundred, sitting in cosy groups on sofas, perching on shelves, stretched and sleeping on the chest of drawers in her bedroom. Rag dolls, china dolls, rubber dolls, celluloid dolls. Old dolls, new dolls, twin dolls (one pair conjoined). Black dolls, blond dolls, baby dolls, chubby little boys, ethereal fairy dolls. Dolls with painted surprised eyes, dolls with eyes that clicked open and closed, dolls with pretty china teeth, between pretty parted lips. Pouting dolls, grinning dolls. Even dolls with trembling tongues.
The nucleus of the group had been inherited from her mother and grandmother, both of whom had loved and cared for them. There were four: a tall ladylike doll in a magenta velvet cloak, a tiny china doll in a frilly dress with forget-me-not painted eyes, a realistic baby doll with a cream silk bonnet, closing eyes and articulated joints, and a stiff wooden doll, rigid and unsmiling in a black stuff gown.
Because she had those dolls—who sat in state in a basket chair— other dolls accumulated. People gave her their old dolls—“we know you’ll care for her.” Friends thinking of Christmas or birthday presents found unusual dolls in jumble sales or antique shops.
The ladylike doll was Miss Martha. The tiny china doll was Arabel. The baby doll was Polly. The rigid doll was Sarah Jane. She had an apron over her gown and might once have been a domestic servant doll.
Selected children, invited to tea and cake, asked if she played with the dolls. She did not, she replied, though she moved them round the house, giving them new seats and different company.
It would have been odd to have played with the dolls. She made them clothes, sometimes, or took one or two to school for the children to tell stories about.
She knew, but never said, that some of them were alive in some way, and some of them were only cloth and stuffing and moulded heads. You could even distinguish, two with identical heads under different wigs and bonnets, of whom one might be alive—Penelope with black pigtails—and one inert, though she had a name, Camilla, out of fairness.
There was a new teacher, that autumn, a late appointment because Miss Bury had had a leg amputated as a result of an infection caught on a boating holiday on an African river. The new teacher was Miss Coley. Carole Coley. The head teacher asked Fliss if she could put her up for a few weeks, and Fliss said she would gladly do so. They were introduced to each other at a teaparty for incoming teachers.
Carole Coley had strange eyes; this was the first thing Fliss noticed. They were large and rounded, dark and gleaming like black treacle. She had very black hair and very black eyelashes. She wore the hair, which was long, looped upwards in the nape of her neck, under a black hairslide. She wore lipstick and nail varnish in a rich plum colour. She had a trim but female body and wore a trouser suit, also plum. And glittering glass rings, quite large, on slender fingers. Fliss was intimidated, but also intrigued. She offered hospitality— the big attic bedroom, shared bath and kitchen. Carole Coley said she might prove to be an impossible guest. She had two things which always came with her:
“My own big bed with my support mattress. And Cross-Patch.”
Fliss considered. The bed would be a problem but one that could be solved. Who was Cross-Patch?
Cross-Patch turned out to be a young Border collie, with a rackety eye-patch in black on a white face. Fliss had no pets, though she occasionally housed the classroom mice and tortoises in the holidays. Carole Coley said in a take it or leave it voice, that Cross-Patch was very well trained.
“I’m sure she is” said Fliss, and so it was settled. She did not feel it necessary to warn Carole about the dolls. They were inanimate, if numerous.
Carole arrived with Cross-Patch, who was sleek and slinky. They stood with Fliss in the little sitting room whilst the removal men took Fliss’s spare bed into storage, and mounted with Carole’s much larger one. Carole was startled by the dolls. She went from cluster to cluster, picking them up, looking at their faces, putting them back precisely where they came from. Cross-Patch clung to her shapely calves and made a low throaty sound.
“I wouldn’t have put you down as a collector.”
“I’m not. They just seem to find their way here. I haven’t bought a single one. I get given them, and people see them, and give me more.”
“They’re a bit alarming. So much staring. So still.”
“I know. I’m used to them. Sometimes I move them round.”
Cross-Patch made a growly attempt to advance on the sofa. Carole raised a firm finger. “No, Cross-Patch. Sit. Stay. These are not your toys.”
Cross-Patch, it turned out, had her own stuffed toys—a bunny rabbit, a hedgehog—with which she played snarly, shaking games in the evenings. Fliss was impressed by Carole’s authority over the animal. She herself was afraid of it, and knew that it sensed her fear.
Carole was a good lodger. She was helpful and unobtrusive. Everything interested her—Fliss’s embroidery silks, her saved children’s books from when she was young, her mother’s receipts, a bizarre Clarice Cliffe tea-set with a conical sugar-shaker. She made Fliss feel that she was interesting—a feeling Fliss almost never had, and would have said she didn’t want to have. It was odd being looked at, appreciatively, for long moments. Carole asked her questions, but she could not think up any questions to ask in return. A few facts about Carole’s life did come to light. She had travelled and worked in India. She had been very ill and nearly died. She went to evening classes on classical Greece and asked Fliss to come too, but Fliss said no. When Carole went out, Fliss sat and watched the television, and Cross-Patch lay watchfully in a corner, guarding her toys. When Carole returned, the dog leaped up to embrace her as though she was going for her throat. She slept upstairs with her owner in the big bed. Their six feet went past Fliss’s bedroom door, pattering, dancing.
Carole said the dolls were beginning to fascinate her. So many different characters, so much love had gone into their making and clothing. “Almost loved to bits, some of them,” said Carole, her treacle eyes glittering. Fliss heard herself offer to lend a few of them, and was immediately horrified. What on earth would Carole want to borrow dolls for? The offer was odd. But Carole smiled widely and said she would love to have one or two to sit on the end of her big bed, or on the chest of drawers. Fliss was overcome with nervous anxiety, then, in case Cross-Patch might take against the selected dolls, or think they were toys. She looked sidelong at Cross-Patch, and Cross-Patch looked sidelong at her, and wrinkled her lip in a collie grin. Carole said
“You needn’t worry about her, my dear. She is completely well-trained. She hasn’t offered to touch any doll. Has she?”
“No,” said Fliss, still troubled by whether the dog would see matters differently in the bedroom.
When they went to bed they said good-night on the first floor landing and Carole went up to the next floor. She borrowed a big rag doll with long blond woollen plaits and a Swiss sort of apron. This doll was called Priddy, and was not, as far as Fliss knew, alive. She also borrowed—surprisingly—the rigid Sarah Jane, who certainly was alive. I love her disapproving expression, said Carole. She’s seen a thing or two, in her time. She had painted eyes, that didn’t close.
Other dolls took turns to go up the stairs. Fliss noticed, without formulating the idea, that they were always grown-up or big girl dolls, and they never had sleeping eyes.
Little noises came down the stairs. A cut-off laugh, an excited whisper, a creak of springs. Also a red light spread from the door over the sage-green staircarpet.
One night, when she couldn’t sleep, Fliss went down to the kitchen and made Horlicks for herself. She then took it into her head to go up the stairs to the spare room; she saw the pool of red light and knew Carole was not asleep. She meant to offer her Horlicks.
The door was half open. “Come in” called Carole, before Fliss could tap. She had put squares of crimson silk, weighted down with china beads, over the bedside lamps. She sat on the middle of her big bed, in a pleated sea-green nightdress, with sleeves and a high neck. Her long hair was down, and brushed into a fan, prickling with an electric life of its own. Cross-Patch was curled at the foot of the bed.
“Come and sit down,” said Carole. Fliss was wearing a baby blue nightie in a fine jersey fabric, under a fawn woolly dressing-gown.
“Take that off, make yourself comfortable.”
“I was—I was going to—I couldn’t sleep . . . .”
“Come here,” said Carole. “You’re all tense. I’ll massage your neck.”
They sat in the centre of the white quilt, made ruddy by light, and Carole pushed long fingers into all the sensitive bits of Fliss’s neck and shoulders, and released the nerves and muscles. Fliss began to cry.
“Shall I stop?”
“Oh no, don’t stop, don’t stop. I—
“This is terrible. Terrible. I love you.”
“And what’s terrible about that?” asked Carole, and put her arms around Fliss, and kissed her on the mouth.
Fliss was about to explain that she had never felt love and didn’t exactly like it, when they were distracted by fierce snarling from Cross-Patch.
“Now then, bitch,” said Carole. “Get out. If you’re going to be like that, get out.”
And Cross-Patch slid off the bed, and slunk out of the door. Carole kissed Fliss again, and pushed her gently down on the pillows and held her close. Fliss knew for the first time that terror that all lovers know, that the thing now begun must have an ending. Carole said “My dear, my darling.” No one had said that to her.
They sat side by side at breakfast, touching hands, from time to time. Cross-Patch uttered petulant low growls and then padded away, her nails rattling on the lino. Carole said they would tell each other everything, they would know each other. Fliss said with a light little laugh that there was nothing to know about her. But nevertheless she did more of the talking, described her childhood in a village, her estranged sister, her dead mother, the grandmother who had given them the dolls.
Cross-Patch burst back into the room. She was carrying something, worrying it, shaking it from side to side, making a chuckling noise, tossing it, as she would have tossed a rabbit to break its neck. It was the baby doll, Polly, in her frilled silk bonnet and trailing embroidered gown. Her feet in their knitted bootees protruded at angles. She rattled.
Carole rose up in splendid wrath. In a rich firm voice she ordered the dog to put the doll down, and Cross-Patch spat out the silky creature, slimed with saliva, and cowered whimpering on the ground, her ears flat to her head. Masterfully Carole took her by the collar and hit her face, from side to side, with the flat of her hands. “Bad dog,” she said, “bad dog,” and beat her. And beat her.
The rattling noise was Polly’s eyes, which had been shaken free of their weighted mechanism, and were rolling round inside her bisque skull. Where they had been were black holes. She had a rather severe little face, like some real babies. Eyeless it was ghastly.
“My darling, I am so sorry,” said Carole. “Can I have a look?”
Fliss did not want to relinquish the doll. But did. Carole shook her vigorously. The invisible eyes rolled.
“We could take her apart and try to fit them back.”
She began to pull at Polly’s neck.
“No, don’t, don’t. We can take her to the dolls’ hospital at the Ouse Bridge. There’s a man in there—Mr. Copple—who can mend almost anything.”
“Her pretty dress is torn. There’s a toothmark on her face.”
“You’ll be surprised what Mr. Copple can fix,” said Fliss, without complete certainty. Carole kissed her and said she was a generous creature.
Mr. Copple’s shop was old and narrow-fronted, and its back jutted out over the river. It had old window-panes, with leaded lights, and was a tiny cavern inside, lit with strings of fairy-lights, all different colours. From the ceiling, like sausages in a butcher’s shop, hung arms, legs, torsos, wigs, the cages of crinolines. On his glass counter were bowls of eyeballs, blue, black, brown, green, paperweight eyes, eyes without whites, all iris. And there were other bowls and boxes with all sorts of little wire joints and couplings, useful elastics and squeaking voice boxes.
Mr. Copple had, of course, large tortoiseshell glasses, wispy white hair and a bad, greyish skin. His fingers were yellow with tobacco.
“Ah,” he said, “Miss Weekes, always a pleasure. Who is it this time?”
Carole replied. “It was my very bad dog. She shook her. She has never done anything like this before.”
The two teachers had tied Polly up into a brown paper parcel. They did not want to see her vacant stare. Fliss handed it over. Mr. Copple cut the string.
“Ah,” he said again. “Excuse me.”
He produced a kind of prodding screwdriver, skilfully decapitated Polly, and shook her eyes out into his hand.
“She needs a new juncture, a new balance. Not very difficult.” “There’s a bite mark,” said Carole gloomily.
“When you come back for her, you won’t know where it was.
And I’ll put a stitch or two into these pretty clothes and wash them out in soapsuds. She’s a Million Dollar Baby. A Bye-Lo baby. Designed by an American, made in Germany. In the 1920s.”
“Valuable?” asked Carole casually.
“Not so very. There were a large number of them. This one has the original clothes and real human hair. That puts her price up. She is meant to look like a real newborn baby.”
“You can see that,” said Carole.
He put the pieces of Polly into a silky blue bag and attached a label on a string. Miss Weekes’s Polly.
They collected her the next week and Mr. Copple had been as good as his word. Polly was Polly again, only fresher and smarter. She rolled her eyes at them again, and they laughed, and when they got her home, kissed her and each other.
Fliss thought day and night about what she would do when Carole left. How it would happen. How she would bear it. Although, perhaps because, she was a novice in love, she knew that the fiercer the passion, the swifter and the harsher the ending. There was no way they two would settle into elderly domestic comfort. She became jealous and made desperate attempts not to show it. It was horrible when Carole went out for the evening. It was despicable to think of listening in to Carole’s private calls, though she thought Carole listened to her own, which were of no real interest. The school year went on, and Carole began to receive glossy brochures in the post, with pictures of golden sands and shining white temples. She sat looking at them in the evenings, across the hearth from Fliss, surrounded by dolls. Fliss wanted to say “Shall we go together?” and was given no breath of space to do so. Fliss had always spent her holidays in Bath, making excursions into the countryside. She made no arrangements. Great rifts and gaps of silence spread into the texture of their lives together. Then Carole said
“I am going away for a month or so. On Sunday. I’ll arrange for the rent to be paid while I’m away.”
“Where,” said Fliss. “Where are you going?”
“I’m not sure. I always do go away.”
Can I come? could not be said.
So Fliss said, “Will you come back?”
“Why shouldn’t I? Everyone needs a bit of space and time to herself, now and then. I’ve always found that. I shall miss the dolls.”
“Would you like to take one?” Fliss heard herself say. “I’ve never given one away, never. But you can take one—”
Carole kissed her and held her close.
“Then we shall both want to come back—to the charmed circle. Which doll are you letting me have?”
“Any of them,” cried Fliss, full of love and grief. “Take anyone at all. I want you to have the one you want.”
She did not expect, she thought later, that Carole would take one of the original four. Still less, that of those four, she would choose Polly, the baby, since her taste had always been for grown girls. But Carole chose Polly, and watched Fliss try to put a brave face on it, with an enigmatic smile. Then she packed and left, without saying where she was going.
Before she left, in secret, Fliss kissed Polly and told her “Come back. Bring her back.”
Cross-Patch went with them. The big empty bed remained, a hostage of a sort.
Fliss did not go to Bath. She sat at home, in what turned out to be a dismal summer, and watched the television. She watched the Antiques Roadshow, and its younger offshoot, Flog It!, in which people brought things they did not want to be valued by experts and auctioned in front of the cameras. Fliss and Carole had watched it together. They both admitted to a secret love for the presenter, the beautiful Paul Martin, whose energy never flagged. Nor, Fliss thought, did his kindness and courtesy, no matter what human oddities presented themselves. She loved him because he was reliable, which beautiful people, usually, were not.
And so it came about that Fliss, looking up idly at the screen from the tray of soup and salad on her knee, saw Polly staring out at her in close-up, sitting on the Flog It! valuing table. It must be a complete lookalike, Fliss thought. The bisque face, with its narrow eyes and tight mouth appeared to her to have a desperate or enraged expression. One of the most interesting things about Polly was that her look was sometimes composed and babylike, but, in some lights, from some angles, could appear angry.
The valuer, a woman in her forties, sweetly blond but sharp-eyed, picked up Polly and declared she was one of the most exciting finds she had met on Flog It! She was, said the purring lady, a real Bye-Lo Baby, and dressed in her original clothes. “May I look?” she asked sweetly, and upended Polly, throwing her silk robe over her head, exposing her woollen bootees, her sweet silk panties, the German stamps on her chubby back, to millions of viewers. Her fingernails were pointed, and painted scarlet. She pulled down the panties and ran her nails round Polly’s hip-joints. Bye-Lo Babies were rarer, and earlier, if they had jointed composition bodies than if they had cloth ones, with celluloid hands sewn on. She took off Polly’s frilled ivory silk bonnet, and exclaimed over her hair—“which, I must tell you, I am 90% sure is real human hair which adds to her value.” She pushed the hair over Polly’s suspended head and said “Ah, yes, as though we needed to see it.” The camera closed in on the nape of Polly’s neck. “Copr. By Grace S Putnam// MADE IN GERMANY.”
“Do you know the story of Grace S Putnam and the baby doll?” scarlet-nails asked the hopeful seller and there was Carole, in a smart Art Deco summer shirt in black and white, smiling politely and following the movements of the scarlet nails with her own smooth mulberry ones.
“No,” said Carole into Fliss’s sitting room, “I don’t know much about dolls.”
Her face was briefly screen-size. Her lipstick shone, her teeth glistened. Fliss’s knees began to knock, and she put down her tray on the floor.
Grace Story Putnam, the valuing lady said, had wanted to make a real baby doll, a doll that looked like a real baby, perhaps three days old. Not like a Disney puppet. So this formidable person had haunted maternity wards, sketching, painting, analysing. And never could she find the perfect face with all the requisite qualities.
She leaned forwards, her blond hair brushing Carole’s raven folds.
“I don’t know if I should tell you this.”
“Well, now you’ve started, I think you should,” said Carole, always Carole.
“It is rumoured that in the end she saw the perfect child being carried past, wrapped in a shawl. And she said, wait, this is the one. But that baby had just died. Nevertheless, the story goes, the determined Mrs. Putnam drew the little face, and this is what we have here.”
“Ghoulish,” said Carole, with gusto. The camera went back to Polly’s face, which looked distinctly malevolent. Fliss knew her expression must be unchanging, but it did not seem like that. Her stare was fixed. Fliss said “Oh, Polly—”
“And is this your own dolly?” asked the TV lady. “Inherited perhaps from your mother or grandmother. Won’t you find it very hard to part with her?”
“I didn’t inherit her. She’s nothing to do with me, personally. A friend gave her to me, a friend with a lot of dolls.”
“But maybe she didn’t know how valuable this little gift was? The Bye-Los were made in great numbers—even millions—but early ones like this, and with all their clothes, and real human hair, can be expected to fetch anywhere between £800 and well over £1,000— even well over, if two or more collectors are in the room. And of course she may have her photo in the catalogue or on the website . . .”
“That does surprise me,” said Carole, but not as though it really did.
“And do you think your friend will be happy for you to sell her doll?”
“I’m sure she would. She is very fond of me, and very generous-hearted.”
“And what will you do with the money if we sell Dolly, as I am sure we shall—”
“I have booked a holiday on a rather luxurious cruise in the Greek islands. I am interested in classical temples. This sort of money will really help.”
There is always a gap between the valuation of an item and the showing of its auction. Fliss stared unseeing at the valuation of a hideous green pottery dog, a group of World War I medals, an album of naughty seaside postcards. Then came Polly’s moment. The auctioneer held her aloft, his gentlemanly hand tight round her pudgy waist, her woolly feet protruding. Briefly, briefly, Fliss looked for the last time at Polly’s sweet face, now, she was quite sure, both baleful and miserable.
“Polly,” she said aloud. “Get her. Get her.”
She did not know what she wanted Polly to do. But she saw Polly as capable of doing something. And they were—as they had always been—on the same side, she and Polly.
She thought, as the bidding flew along, a numbered card flying up, a head nodding, a row of concentrated listeners with mobile phones, waiting, and then raising peremptory fingers, that she herself had betrayed Polly, but that she had done so out of love and goodwill. “Oh, Polly,” she said, “Get her,” as Carole might have said to Cross-Patch.
Carole was standing, composed and beautiful, next to Paul Martin, as the tens turned into hundreds and the hundreds to thousands. He liked sellers to show excitement or amazement, and Carole— Fliss understood her—showed just enough of both to keep the cameras happy, but was actually rigid inside, like a stone pillar of willpower and certainty. Polly went for £2,000, but it was not customary to show the sold object again, only the happy face of the seller, so, for Fliss, there was no moment of good-bye. And you were not told where sold objects were going.
All the other dolls were staring, as usual. She turned them over, or laid them to sleep, murmuring madly, get her, get her.
She did not suppose Carole would come back, and wondered if she should get rid of the bed. The headmistress at the school was slightly surprised when Fliss asked her if Carole was coming back—“do you know something I don’t?” Then she showed Fliss a postcard from Crete, and one from Lemnos. “I go off on my own with my beach towel and a book and lie on the silver sand by the wine-dark sea, and feel perfectly happy.” Fliss asked the headmistress if she knew where Cross-Patch was, and the headmistress said she had assumed Fliss was in charge of her, but if not, presumably, she must be in kennels.
A week later, the head told Fliss that Carole was in hospital. She had had a kind of accident. She had been unconscious for some time, but it was clear, from the state of her nervous system, and from filaments and threads found on her swimsuit and in her hair, that she had swum, or floated, into a swarm of minute stinging jellyfish— there are millions out there, this summer, people are warned, but she liked to go off on her own.
Fliss didn’t ask for more news, but got told anyway. Carole’s eyes were permanently damaged. She would probably never see again; at best, vestigially.
She would not, naturally, be coming back.
The headmistress looked at Fliss, to see how she took this. Fliss contrived an expression of conventional, distant shock, and said several times, how awful, how very awful.
The headmistress said “That dog of hers. Do you think anyone knows where it is? Do you think we should get it out of the kennels? Would you yourself like to have it, perhaps—you all became so close?”
“No,” said Fliss. “I’m afraid I never liked it really. I did my best as I hope I always shall. I’m sure someone can be found. It has a very uncertain temper.”
She went home and told the dolls what had happened. She thought of Polly’s closed, absent little face. The dolls made an inaudible rustling, like distant birds settling. They knew, Fliss thought, and then unthought that thought, which could be said to be odd.
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