Such a little doll - Editor
The Lost Girl
by A J Madden
They’ve never found the body, but they found the doll.
They saw its porcelain head poking out from the dirt in the woods. Its left eye was gone and a worm had burrowed in the empty socket. They thought it might be the corpse at first, but soon realised it was only a doll. They pulled it up and sent it away to be examined.
She was used as evidence in the inquest, I believe. My mother could vividly remember a lawyer holding it in the courtroom, dangling her around for everyone to see. The poor thing looked so confused, very lost and far away from home. I swear once that I saw a desperate flicker of emotion in its remaining right eye, but of course that’s ridiculous. I was just a child, attaching meaning to things that weren’t there.
I don’t really know how the doll came to be with me. Bad luck, I suppose. After the trial, it was given back to the girl’s mother, who abhorred it and screamed that she wanted it out of her sight. The mother’s sister – my mother - said not to do that, and that she would give the doll a home until the mother saw fit to look at it.
Forty years later and almost everyone involved in that story is dead. The doll - still eyeless, dirt smudged into the petticoat - lies dormant on the mantelpiece. It has been there ever since we cleared out my mother’s house.
The doll was no longer a simple ornament; it became a haunting memory, a lost child crying in the woods. I’d think of her pretty face; forever trapped in youth, forever entwined with the doll. I would begin to question what could possibly have happened to her, and why she would ever leave the doll behind. I’d sit for hours and wonder, the doll looking back at me with the same hopeless stare.
I did think about taking it to an antique dealer, but the sentimental value is too much. I don’t whether anyone should want it. The blond curls are colourless and flaccid, the face blotchy and scratched, but it is still an antique. I’d never do it really; it would dishonour her memory, or whatever’s left of it.
I had been watching it that morning, surveying the doll with bored and tired eyes. Since leaving work, I spend most of my mornings in the same seat, watching the four walls around me. I had almost drifted off when I heard the telephone. Its incessant ringing quickly drowned my macabre thoughts, and I went out to the hallway to answer it.
The voice on the other end was a familiar one, which always unnerves me more than hearing a stranger’s. Family always want something. True enough, my cousin Marcia had a favour to ask. Our mutual uncle, Sidney needed somewhere to stay while she went and pleasured herself with a four week cruise.
“He says he’s fine to be left on his own,” she said “But we all know he isn’t. We’d be so grateful if you could.”
I grudgingly accepted. I’d never warmed to my Uncle Sidney, for reasons I can neither recall nor truly understand. He’s a lone figure that traipses through my childhood memories, with no ropes of sentiment or emotion binding him to me. I hadn’t seen him for decades, a state I remained entirely ambivalent about. Much as I opposed the idea, I didn’t want to seem unwelcoming, so it was decided he would come and stay. Pretending to be happy about this, I put the phone down.
The doll, slumped as usual against the wall, stared at me. Dolls can’t look at people, so I suppose I mean that I was staring at it. Either way, our eyes met. I know as much as the next sane person that she’s just an inanimate object, but there’s still something human about her that appeals to me. I suppose she makes me feel nostalgic.
My Uncle arrived a few weeks later, and it was clear he had succumbed to the pitfalls of age as much as the poor doll on the mantelpiece. His face was mapped with creases and dips, grey eyes sunk back into their sockets. His hair, once thick and auburn, has been reduced to smoky grey tufts between canyons of bare scalp.
“Diane…” his greeting was cold, distant. “Nice of you to have me.”
He’d brought a stuffy grey armchair from home, and I seated him in it carefully. Dust clung to it like creeping ivy. We seated him few feet away from the TV. The doll was almost hidden from view, tucked away in the corner of his eye. I saw him turn, glance at it, and immediately withdraw his gaze.
We rarely spoke, quickly adopting the template of an embittered married couple. I brought him his food and helped him to the toilet, carrying out menial tasks that required no conversation. Sometimes I’d close the door and eat my food in the kitchen just to avoid talking to him. I’d sit there, listening to him watch the television. There was an unspoken awkwardness between us, one neither of us could rightfully place. I couldn’t anyway. Not at first.
At the end of his first week, he mentioned the doll. I felt as though he had wanted to since arriving, I imagine the words had been nagging at his lips all day and night.
He knew exactly what it was. I glanced casually upwards from vacuuming. My hand gripped the side of his armchair.
“Don’t you remember?”
“Yes, I do remember,” he said quietly, anger stirring in his face. “But I thought I’d have to be seeing things.”
I sighed through gritted teeth. “What do you mean?”
“It’s morbid, is what it is. Why on earth would you put something like that up for everyone to see?”
“It reminds me of her,” I replied meekly. “Does it bother you?”
“It’s very strange, Diane. Very strange.”
That stayed with me for days.
One night, we were watching television. He’d dozed off in the chair, and I was about to join him. As my eyelids fell heavy over my vision, I suddenly caught sight of the doll, its face turned enquiringly at me. As I stared at it, half asleep, my uncle’s words from floated back in my mind.
“Why on earth would you put something like that up for everyone to see?”
I had shrugged, continuing my housework. But the words returned to me, each one chiming with a chilling new significance. I bolted upright, the shackles of sleep falling quickly away. My eyes drifted from the doll to my uncle, and back. Suddenly realising I was almost completely in the dark, I leapt to my feet and made for the light switch.
Uncle Sidney stirred in his chair.
The light went back off.
The following day, while Sidney had fallen asleep watching daytime television, I took the doll from its rightful perch and marched it upstairs with me. In my bedroom, I took a damp cardboard box from the wardrobe and spilt the contents over the mattress of my bed.
Yellowed newspaper clippings and legal documents tumbled onto the sheets, curling at the edges like stale sandwiches. I searched through them, spreading each one out in search of a pattern.
Search for missing child continues
Local man suspected in child’s disappearance
Thirty Years On- The Mystery of the Lost Girl and the Doll she left behind
There were photos too, black and white snapshots of the two of us standing together in matching dresses. We were both smiling, innocent smiles. I remembered how we would play in the forests, treating the quarries and mines as though sections of our own private play area.
My smile soured. I wanted to fight the thoughts that were creeping into my head, but instead I let them flow over me.
What if it had been him? I knew I was acting on irrational impulses – namely the evidence of a child’s doll - but I couldn’t stop myself. He had always been unusual, never having married or held a steady job. I’d overhear my mother and aunts talk pityingly of him, wishing he’d find a nice girl to settle down with. Strange that he didn’t. Stranger still was his strained and awkward relationship with me. Perhaps…
I tried desperately to make something of it, trawling my memories for any hints or clues. My recollections of her death are hazy in the extreme, and I’ll only occasionally remember the odd scene or snatch of dialogue in passing. I could possibly have repressed some of it, perhaps because of him.
One thing I do recall is the day of her funeral, with everyone clad in black and crying in the living room. I had been sent to play with my cousins, and when I returned everyone was sitting in the chairs, eating sandwiches and drinking lemonade.
I asked what was wrong, and my question hung in the room for an eternity. Then Uncle Sidney had looked at me, giving me a distant and unfeeling glance. I felt as though he’d taken a cold, bony finger and prodded it into the back of my spine. Then I had started to cry.
Forty years later, and I was still crying. Crouched over my patchwork of papers, I failed to prevent a steady stream of tears rolling down my cheeks and into my mouth. If these cloudy speculations formed into a hard truth then the repercussions were colossal. It also meant I was sharing a house with a child killer. My blood boiled, chilled, ran in cold streams through my veins. I ran to the door suddenly and bolted it.
I picked up our photograph again, the black and white snapshot in the lives of two little girls. I was wore a smug smile, my thick black hair bound in clumps. She, blonde and freckled, presented a gap-toothed smile to the camera. The doll hung from her hand, lopsided head and also looking absently into the lens.
I stroked it, a combination of hope and horror swilling in the pits of my stomach.
I dropped the tray of processed, ready-cooked food onto his lap. He winced with pain, and looked up at me with a flash of anger.
“Do you mind not dropping it on me like that?”
I opened the curtains in a rush, and unwelcome light sprayed into the room. The morning after my epiphany, I decided that I should interrogate my Uncle about the subject which had irritated him so much the previous day. I sat down on the sofa opposite his armchair, and our eyes inevitably drifted towards the doll.
“Why didn’t you want me to have that doll up there?”
He grumbled into the hollow globe of his teacup. “It’s morbid, that’s all.”
The anger crept into his voice. “Because it’s the doll of a dead child. And it was used at the inquest.”
I pounced on a single word he had chosen. “Dead? You’re assuming she’s dead then?”
“Of course she’s dead. We held a funeral.”
“I know, but they never found her body, did they? You don’t think she….ran away?”
He turned, his wrinkled face taking an age to incline toward me. He raised his eyebrow slowly.
“Do you think she ran away?”
I averted his gaze. “Maybe…”
We both returned to watching the television. A myriad of colours were thrown onto the face of the doll, which became animated under the rapidly changing lights. We sat in silence for a few hours, and then I helped him into bed. I returned to the living room, and watched the doll. It seemed unusual to find the pieces falling into place so long after the jigsaw had been thrown away, but perhaps things had been overlooked or rushed at the time. Sidney had certainly been questioned by the police initially, but released due to lack of evidence.
Sitting alone with my thoughts, I quickly fell asleep and began to dream. I was walking through a forest, and everything had a sepia tinge. Uncle Sidney was calling to me from somewhere, but I only saw flashes of his face through the trees. I’m not sure whether he moved towards me or vice versa, but his white, wrinkled face was suddenly leering into my face behind a mask of branches and leaves.
Suddenly back in my house, we watched the television and I told him not to scare me like that again. He laughed loudly and his laughs mutated into knocks at the door. As I got up to answer, I shot a casual glance at the mantelpiece. The doll was gone, and in its place a little girl. A dead girl. With empty eyes and a bloody mouth and pale as a mortuary slab. I remember trying to scream.
When I awoke, the living room was cold and my mouth was dry. The doll was slumped forward, dirty hair hanging over the face. I heard shouting, vague and wordless, and ran to Sidney’s room. He was sat in bed, looking helpless and impotent. His whimpering face stared up at me like a frightened child.
“Where have you been?”
“Sleeping. I’m sorry.”
“I can’t get out of bed by myself.”
“I know…I know…”
I felt a pang of sympathy for him, a momentary lapse that quickly dissipated. I jerked him upright suddenly, and his face winced in pain.
“Nothing, nothing…just my leg…”
I wasn’t thinking rationally at this point, already starting to convince myself that he had been held up in her death. I felt drawn to the mystery surrounding her, as though a shard of my own life was trapped there too. The two of us were inseparable as children, and it’s possible that he was involved with both of us. I realise now how twisted and perverted these thoughts were, but they seemed so vivid and real at the time.
“Will you bathe me?”
There was a painfully long silence.
“I told Marcia I could manage by myself….but I’ve realised I can’t. I need a wash….could you help me in and out of the bath?”
The initial thought filled me with revulsion, but then something clicked at the back of mind.
It seemed perfect. A time for questions.
We agreed to have a bath the following night.
This gave me ample time to decide my questions, to reassert that I was doing the right thing. All that time, one empty mind spinning with fresh ideas. Within days I had decided he was the killer. It felt like such a fitting conclusion, and I wondered how it had not occurred to me before. After all, it was fact that murder victims were very likely to know their killers.
My own childhood was also extremely hazy. There were so many gaps, patches of white that I desperately wanted filled in. I suppose I can see now that I was searching for myself as much as I was her.
The following morning, I placed a bacon sandwich on his lap. He murmured thanks –our conversations having slowed to bare minimum. Looking up at me, his eyes conveying an uncertainty.
“About that bath?”
I began to walk away, casting a casual glance backwards. He was doing exactly the same to me. Our eyes met in an awkward stare, and we both quickly returned to our separate activities.
That night, I drew him a bath. I watched as the cool ceramic was filled with piping hot water. Steam rose to the air and into my eyes. The mirrors turned glassy silver as they steamed over.
The temperature of the room rose steadily; the sweat running down my arms and mingling with the bathwater before I could stop it. I heard him coming. I heard the deep thuds of his walking frame as he made his way across the landing toward me. When he did finally emerge, our eyes refused to meet. Walking slowly to the bath, his cane fell from his grasping hands and hit the cool white tiles of the floor. The noise it produced made me feel like I’d been smacked in the teeth.
I had to undress him, working through each layer of clothes until we reached his bare and wrinkled flesh. Watching him standing in the cold sent a shiver down my spine. Age was a cruel, circular thing and in Sidney’s spotted, stretched body I was seeing the worst it had to offer. I lowered him into the tub, the clear water making his body sway and ripple as though it weren’t actually real.
“I’ll just come back in a few minutes.”
I descended the staircase, entering the living room at an angle so that the doll was looking right at me. I walked over, lifting her from the seat she had occupied for almost forty years. A ring of dust remained as I raised the doll into my arms and carried her out of the room. Her head lolled in my lap, decaying face nodding against my heaving chest. I stroked the dress, stared hopelessly at the optimistic curve of her lips. For one awful moment I felt I was holding her, the dead child in my arms. It’s difficult to describe, but I felt the doll needed so desperately to be there – to hear whatever he had to say for himself.
I opened the bathroom door once more and saw the look of terror shadow his face as I brought her over the threshold. His eyes darted around awkwardly.
“What the hell are you holding that for?”
I ignored him, and placed the doll on the window sill. He was watching it, rather than me, as I stepped back to the bath and knelt down besides it. His head turned to me suddenly, still waiting for an answer.
“I want answers, Sidney”
“Answers about what?”
The muscles around his mouth twitched, his tongue stroking empty words. He spoke carefully, each letter and syllable carefully enunciated.
“What do you want to know, Diane?”
I felt my confidence failing. The sheer idiocy of the situation knocked me sick in the stomach, and I almost laughed with embarrassment. I almost stopped dead, but then I saw her face. The face that has always lived on in my memory, long after the death and decay of the original. I paused for what seemed like endless time, before finally soldiering on.
“I think there might be something you’ve not told me. I think you may have been involved in her death.”
His eyes widened in what appeared to be genuine shock. Then, his face sunk back down. He didn’t answer my accusations, but rather directed a question back to me.
“Do you remember her, Diane? Do you really remember her?”
I was puzzled by the question. Rather than bringing him back to my point, I decided to answer.
“I remember her about as well as anybody else. Obviously, there are gaps.”
“Really? And how much do you remember about her?”
A nostalgic smile wet my lips. “Oh, plenty. Her curly hair, her cute little dresses, her laugh…I really loved her…”
He sneered. Gooseflesh rippled across my arm.
His clawed hand reached from the bathtub and grabbed my hand. Water ran from his skin to mine. His eyes were aflame, more life burning inside of them than I had seen in many years.
“You hated her. Hated. You went out of your way to make her life a misery, didn’t you?”
I balked at the suggestion. “You’re lying! None of that’s true.”
“You pushed her, you kicked her, and you tore her hair because it was nicer than yours. You were an absolute bitch to her, Diane, and only I ever seemed to notice…”
I shook my head in utter defiance, pulling away from his limp grip on my arm.
“You’re just taking attention away from yourself! You’re making all this up!”
“And that doll…Christ, you were so jealous of that thing….you used to actually pull it out of her grasp, poor thing…”
A change had fallen over the doll’s face. Before I had viewed it as a living being, the personification of her killer’s guilt. Now I saw only a child’s doll. An empty thing.
“Can you really look me in the eye and tell me you’ve forgotten?”
I met his angry gaze. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You were a nasty, malevolent little girl,” his lip curled over with a strong and biting hate. “I always said that something would happen…”
He was leading me somewhere with these questions, down a dark and dusty path. I let him take me there, dragged into his poisonous re-imagining of our past.
“You’ve got some nerve….accusing me of something! We both know what happened to her…”
I spat out a mute reply, mouthing only the ghosts of the words I had planned to say. Memories were slowly coming back to me, developing like darkroom photographs. Everything coloured, memories were bright and vibrant again.
His face was soured; lips snarling.
“I knew, I knew it all along…I knew you were a malicious child….but the police wouldn’t listen…they thought I was unhinged….I tried…I tried to tell them that it was……
My hand slipped against the wet surface of the bath and I lost my balance. My head missed the porcelain by inches. I tried to steady myself again, shaking.
“No, I wouldn’t…I would never…”
I would and I had. I remembered the childhood jealousy stirring inside me, the plans hatching in my mind, and the day where I told her we were going to play a little game in the forest. She had laughed, and skipped behind me as we entered the woods.
“There were so many of those old mines in those forests…so old people had forgotten they were there …”
He recounted the story as a despondent narrator, grimly retracing my own bloody steps.
“I don’t know what happened, I wasn’t there. My guess at the time – and my guess now – is that you lead her into the forest, into one of those mines….and…”
His eyes were shining with tears. I retched and my mouth filled suddenly with warm and sickly bile. I spat it out against the cold, white floor.
I wanted to shout out my denial, to scream at him that he was a dirty little liar. I couldn’t because I knew he was telling the truth. Everything was clear now, all the vivid memories forcing themselves against my skull. It was like peeling off layers of my skin, revealing a rotten inner self. I knew all the words: projection, denial, repression – but couldn’t believe any of them applied to me. I wasn’t a killer. Diane Symons was not a killer. Never.
I remembered my gleefully sadistic behaviour towards her. I loved to tease and torture her; it gave me some naïve sense of power over weaker creatures. All the sympathy, all the grief had been an invention of my own guilty psyche. Even my memory of leaving her funeral crying had suddenly been altered, I remembered it correctly now. I had been told to leave because I couldn’t stop laughing.
“Only now you’re remembering?” Sidney said, reminding me he was still in the room. “I don’t believe you.”
I didn’t reply because there was nothing left to say. My whole life I had let her bloody murder scab over with false memories and invented stories, trying to fool everyone so badly that eventually even I fell for it. He rose from the bath, and the water ran in snakes across his body.
I turned around and stared at the doll. Running towards it, I picked it up and held it against the light. I remembered burying her, covering her pretty white face with handfuls of dirt. It had stuck under my nails, and I’d cleaned them in the pond.
I started to cry. The doll looked at me impassively, giving me the same blank look it had for the past forty years. It had known all along.
“You sicken me, Diane…you absolutely disgust me…”
I ran from the bathroom. My head throbbed suddenly, and I felt as though my whole body were pumping with sick. I stopped, nearly laughed, and remembered that all this was actually happening. I tried to make it fiction, but reality was screaming in my head.
I don’t know what’s happened to him. I’ve left him in the bath. Maybe he’ll get out or maybe he will just give up and drown. I don’t know. I can’t care.
I am in my room, with the newspaper clippings. Mystery? There was never a mystery. Just the usual horror cliché, a killer hiding behind a mask. In my one hand is the doll, and in the other I clutch the telephone, ready to call the police. I will have to drop one of them. I don’t know what to tell them if I do. Diane Symons didn’t kill anyone, at least not the Diane she thought she was. I’ve changed so much. I’m not the same person anymore. Am I?
The doll cracks as she hits the floor.