She’d left it too late and the shops were already closing by the time Sarah reached the small indoor market. She had all but given up on finding a gift, when down one of the narrow alleyways she noticed a shop she couldn’t remember seeing before.
From the outside it had the look of an old-fashioned toyshop, though surprisingly there were no baubles, brightly coloured strands of tinsel or crepe paper streamers decorating the window. In fact, it was rather dim and gloomy; with most of the toys being carved out of dark wood or painted in bland colours. Even the one concession to the time of year, a two foot high Santa Claus, was dressed in robes the colour of dried blood.
She almost carried on walking; despite the yellowing “open” sign hanging inside the door, the shop looked as though it may well be closed, but something made her stop and peer through the grimy window. In amongst the darkly varnished trains and wooden soldiers poking out of Santa’s sack there was a shimmer of silken gold. She stood up on tiptoes, almost pressing her face against the glass to try and get a better look. She thought it could possibly be a doll. Yes, it was a doll’s golden hair.
She bit her lip. A doll would be an acceptable gift; even her tight arsed sister-in-law couldn’t take umbrage at a doll as a present for her spoilt offspring.
She pushed on the door and nothing happened. ‘Damn!’ Then she noticed the handle and with a twist the door swung open, the jolly tinkling of its bell jarringly at odds with the shop’s dour interior.
Inside was just as gloomy as it had looked through the window, though it was bigger than she’d expected. Shelves full of goods covered the walls and behind the counter a long passageway was also lined with racks filled with boxes, packets and shadowy shapes.
An old-fashioned upright, brass cash register, its ornate case discoloured by a verdigris patina of neglect, sat at one end of the cluttered counter. Even the air smelled dusty, with a hint of something vaguely reminiscent of old ladies. She turned to leave; she could just imagine Imogene’s nose wrinkling with distaste as she handed a musty smelling gift to Daisy.
‘Can I help you?’ a voice said, as if from nowhere.
Sarah glanced around, searching for its owner, when, from within the shadows, a tall, slender woman dressed in black appeared.
‘Umm, yes. I’m looking for a present for my niece. A doll or something, she’s only three.’
The woman’s eyes looked black in the subdued lighting and her skin porcelain pale, though her smile was welcoming enough. ‘A doll you say?’
‘Well, anything really. Something that’d be suitable for a small girl.’
‘You have no children yourself?’
Sarah’s own smile was more of a grimace. ‘No.’
‘Ah,’ the woman said glancing down at Sarah’s ringless left hand. Sarah saw her look and stuffed her hands into the pockets of her coat. If the woman noticed she didn’t show it. ‘I have several items that may be appropriate. Let me see.’
‘I thought I saw a doll in the window. In Santa’s sack.’
The woman walked out from behind the counter and Sarah was slightly taken aback to see she was wearing a long black dress that grazed the toes of her black leather shoes. The dress was shiny and held together at the front with tiny black buttons. If Sarah hadn’t known better she’d have thought the woman had walked straight out of a Victorian costume drama. Then it occurred to her that the small, indoor market must have had a Victorian-themed Christmas Eve event, which would explain it.
The woman crossed to the window, where she reached into the display to pull the doll from the sack and place it on the counter.
‘I’ll see if there’s anything else you might like in the back,’ she said disappearing down the long corridor at the side of the shop.
Sarah picked the toy up with a sigh. It was a chubby, baby doll with a short blonde cap of hair and dressed in an overlong, white dress; like a christening gown. She turned it over to take a look at its face and gasped, practically dropping the thing. The doll had a long, scar-like crack along the right hand side of its porcelain face and there was a gaping hole where its eye should have been. As Sarah hastily placed the doll next to the cash register black, hairy legs appeared from within the empty eye socket and a spider with an over-plump body the size and shape of her thumb hauled itself onto the doll’s rosy cheek. The spider scuttled down the doll’s face and Sarah had to fight back a squeal of revulsion as the creature disappeared within the frothy, white lace collar.
Sarah backed towards the shop’s door; her heart pounding. She wasn’t overly fond of spiders at the best of times, but the creature now residing within the doll’s clothing had been disgusting, even more so than the repulsively disfigured doll.
‘I have something else you might like,’ the woman said from the shadows making Sarah jump, ‘though you’ll have to come back here to take a look as it’s quite big.’
‘If it’s too big for me to carry . . .’
‘No, no. I’m sure I can box it up to make it easier for you.’
There was nothing Sarah wanted less than to go further into the shop. ‘What is it?’
‘A doll’s house,’ the woman said.
Sarah hesitated. A doll’s house would be perfect. Imogene couldn’t possibly object to such a gift. ‘Is it expensive?’
‘Just come and see. It is quite beautiful.’
As long as it isn’t full of creepy crawlies, Sarah thought. ‘All right, I’ll take a look,’ and she reluctantly followed the woman into the dim passageway.
There was a flare of light and suddenly she could see the shopkeeper gliding along in front of her carrying an old-fashioned oil-lamp.
‘Here,’ the woman said gesturing with her hand and holding the lamp up so Sarah could see.
‘Wow,’ Sarah said. It was beautiful; more of a doll’s mansion than a house, with three floors and glass, leaded windows throughout. ‘Can I look inside?’
The woman bent forward to undo two catches and the front swung open, revealing nine rooms; three on each floor, with staircases and corridors and other doors leading out to the back of the house.
‘I couldn’t possibly afford this,’ Sarah said, leaning down to peer into one of the top bedrooms, where a small doll was lying in bed. She looked so real. Sarah could have sworn she could see her breathing. She bent a little lower to look into one of the lower rooms. A doll dressed in black stood in front of a large fireplace, as if warming herself. Flames leaped and danced in the grate and Sarah thought she could even hear the popping of wood. ‘How on earth do they do that?’
‘Have a closer look. You’ll see. It’s very clever.’
Any disquiet Sarah had felt disappeared as she became mesmerised by the miniature rooms and their tiny furnishings.
‘If you breathe in deep you can even smell the smoke,’ the woman said from behind her.
Sarah did so and she really could smell burning wood. ‘It’s got a slightly perfumed aroma.’
Sarah reached into the room where the fire blazed. ‘It even feels warm!’ she said and picked up the doll that had been standing there. It too felt warm and as she turned it in her hand she began to feel a little lightheaded.
‘Oh,’ she said looking down at the small figurine. ‘She looks a bit like you.’
The figurine moved within her palm. ‘She . . .’ And as she tried to make sense of it all, her vision began to swim, and suddenly the whole world was rushing past her as she began to fall and fall and fall and . . .
The woman in black walked to the front of the shop and locked the door, flipping the sign to closed. By the morning the shop would be gone and no one who passed by would remember it ever having been there. She returned to the doll’s house and peered in through one of the windows at the back. Sarah lay huddled on a bed, eyes red from crying, throat sore from screaming, hands battered and bruised from pounding on the doors and windows in an effort to get out. It was to be expected for the first week or so, though sometimes it went on for months, and once or twice a new resident had become quite self-destructive and had to be replaced a lot sooner than was desirable. Of course it never stopped her young charges having a grand old time playing with the doll’s house and its occupants. Truth be told they found the ones that were the hardest to tame the most fun, though she hoped Sarah wouldn’t be one of those – she really did quite like her.