I lived in a house in a town with real shops and houses and streets. But a lot of what went on was only make-believe.
There was the library with its room of toys. With Victorian teddies in oval shaped glass cases. With old tin planes going rusty at the rim. With wind up frogs that croaked; with birds that sang. And mice that squeaked. And paper hats and painted boats. And zoetropes. On Thursdays kids were allowed to get the toys out of the cupboards. To play with carefully on the tables with the library staff keeping watch. What is a toy I always seemed to be asking myself? Something to play with. Well I knew that.
Toys are for children. To keep them happy and so they can practice how to behave when they grow up. First I’d take out a tiny car from the library cupboard. I rolled off the tyres and rolled them back on again and zoomed the car along the tabletop with my hand. Acting the part of an adult driving on a road. Next I reached for a doll and brought it over to the table. A doll is a type of toy. I was me but the doll was not itself. Because a doll is a pretend person and nothing more. Most of the dolls in the library were girls. They had girl-type hairstyles and smiled as girls were supposed to smile in photos. They had lipstick-coloured lips. And eyelids that closed when you lay the dolls down.
How do you play with dolls? Well, you can take off their outfits and put them on again, and sit the dolls down and stand them up. There are the cuddly-baby types with curl-around legs so you can play at being a mother and the teens you could think of as your girlfriends. The teen-dolls had slightly rounded boob shape. I’d noticed though, they were nippleless. And underneath all the skirts there was just plain plastic smooth as smooth. No holes for something messy to come out because there was nothing messy inside them to come.
Children play with dolls but playing with dolls does not teach them about people. Adults pretend to children that humans are doll-like, but it’s far from being true. And when you lift up the dolls’ clothes you’ll find otherwise. Dolls do not have genitals. They do not have hanging bits or holes because they do not need them. If you look under the clothing of a person you’ll see it’s another matter. I sometimes felt the part of me where the wee came out. It was fleshy, like a pair of lips.
At the library cupboard I once took out a boy doll in a dark blue sailor’s suit. He had a painted on smile just like the girls. I did the undressing game to see what he looked like when his shorts were off. But there wasn’t anything to see. He looked the same as all the rest.
The bodies of the humans and the dolls are not at all the same but the clothes they wear have a lot in common. There can be many kinds of outfits. Clothes from other countries and clothes worn for different jobs. Also uniforms. In the library there was a policeman doll and a nurse doll. Clothes cover up the differences between the humans and the dolls. Clothes are a cover up.
A human is pretending to be a doll and at the same time it’s the other way around and the human is telling you the doll is pretending to be a human. But it’s not the doll itself who is doing this pretending. A human has ideas about what a human is and what a doll is. A doll, the human likes to say, represents a human. But it does not. The adults like to see their kids playing with dolls and pretending the dolls are people. This takes the lie further and makes sure it goes that much deeper.
The human body is composed of flesh and there is the possibility of liquid, plus a smell. There is blood red blood. Adults want children to unthink all of this. When they play the game that humans are doll-like, or that the doll is person-like are they saying that flesh is not suitable for children to see and think about? Are they saying the unreal is better than the real?
And there was the lane with the dairy; with the gnats in summer. That flew around your face, sometimes zooming. They made me itch. There was a dampness from the canal which bothered my throat so that I’d very likely wheeze. Especially if it had been raining. And if it had rained recently the lane was a trough. I used to wipe my shoes on a tuft of grass to try and get rid of the mud.
The dairy was dark red brick on the outside and inside the walls had square white shiny tiles. There was an ancient life sized photo of silver milk churns bunched together on a wooden stand outside a nearby farm. A group of brightly smiling locals stood each side waving at the camera. Dolls in traditional farmer-style dress. The dairy was so toy-town. Or that’s what the images said.
Mr Combes was the dairyman. He wore a long white coat as though he wanted to be a dentist doll. But he didn’t seem like a dentist. Mr Combes was bald with a round head and a belly to match and a dome shaped tapered face which made him look like a bull terrier. He had a wife, Mrs Combes. The kind of doll Mrs Combes was pretending to be was an office worker doll because she wore smart little skirts with coordinated tops. And yet she was wiry grey like a saucepan scouring pad. She and her clothes were not a good match. But when she looked in the mirror maybe she only saw what she wanted to see. Mrs Combes came down to the dairy once a month, did the books and went away again.
At the dairy there was a helper. This was Valerie Leam, I think, but it was hard to catch the second name. It could have been Lean or Gleam. The helper was a different kind of pretend-doll. When I saw her I thought of a bulldog with protruding teeth. She stood square and solid and there was this snarling something about the expression on her face. Even when she was giggling.
So she and Mr Combes were in sync you could say. In dog terms at the very least. Valerien would most likely be wearing a burst-out top with jeans that didn’t do up. Which slipped lower and lower as the afternoon wore on. And she had frilly panties which you could see more and more of as the day got later. They were see-through mauve or turquoise. Or see-through flying saucer pink. With a fizzy possibility. Burst out is what her boobs did. Very nearly anyway. At least when she giggled. Which by the time it got to the evening was quite a lot. I knew so much about the two of them because when I’d got nothing better to do and felt a bit bored I came down to the dairy to observe the state of play. Mr Coombes and Valerie were very different from the dolls. I found them a whole lot more interesting than the dolls.
The first time I saw something I was on my way home from the library. I had heard this loud clonking as I passed the dairy and when I took a peek through the window I saw empty bottles going round and round as though on a bumpy fairground ride. Milk squirted down into them as they went and the bottles came out at the end of their rattling journey clamped with silver caps. It seemed so clever. I was ten years old. Even later on, when I’d learned this was a piece of practical machinery and was called a conveyor belt I still thought it looked like fun.
To start off with I was only aware of the revolving bottles. The rest of the dairy was dusky grey with no sign of Mr Combes or the helper anywhere in sight. Then I heard this trilling noise. As though someone had fallen into the canal and murky water had poured into their throat. It was creepy and made me think of dead people morphing into ghosts. I was about to run away when I realised it was only Valerie. I’d heard her giggly laugh quite a few times when I’d happened to pass her in the lane. This was not giggling so much as gurgling but it was close enough. When I looked hard I saw the two of them lying in a twisty-lumpy heap together. I wouldn’t have noticed them then if it hadn’t been for the rocking and rolling of their wobbly legs and arms. I soon got to know the whole routine and learned the sequence of events. Soon knew what to look for and when.
So picture a Thursday evening. A young girl has come out of the public library and gone round the corner into the lane, passing the canal which is gloomy-green. And swirly because it’s getting close to the weir. Soon she arrives at the dairy and this is where she stops. Behind the circling bottles there is already something happening. She sees the bodies of Mr Combes and Valerie the helper with their clothes peeled off. They both have baggy tummies and roll of fat thighs. What the girl finds so strange is that they can bear to look at one another now they are undressed. She lurks at the window. If anybody should come by it’s quite easy to duck out of sight behind the nearby lilac bush. Though she understands it is wrong to spy on people she is so drawn to what she sees that she just can’t seem to stop. The only word that comes easily as a description is disgusting. Watching the goings on is a bit like enjoying a horror movie. Her mother would have called it a lurid fascination.
It all kicks off with a certain high pitched giggle. The giggle is the telltale sign things are about to get serious as it always leads straight into the main action. Unbelievable sights accompany the sounds. In the giggling opener Mr Combes and Valerie begin playing the undressing game. Their naked wobbly bodies then lie pressed against one another on a daybed that stands the other side of the bottle rack. Hoarse croaks rise up. When the girl hears these raspy noises she holds her face very close against the window to get the perfect view. The adults have started writhing. This goes on for ages, getting faster towards the end. At last there is a rush of hard breathing as though they’re having trouble finding air. Finally they both began to groan. The girl is still waiting for something: A final gurgling noise. Wet and splashy is the way it sounds. Valerie is drowning. Only she isn’t really; not quite. The girl knows by now this is only the sound of closure. She can leave the window and slip furtively along the lane.
Unlike the sailor doll Mr Coombes had bits. And unlike the girl dolls Valerie had nipples. Both these body parts were wonky and saggy at the start of the action but interestingly they perked up when Mr Coombes and Valerie begin to suck and gnaw at one another’s arms and shoulders – I could never quite bring myself to call it kissing. The two adults slid in a squashy circle on the floor together, sometimes shouting in out of tune voices as they squeezed one another’s flesh. A harsh and scary tone that fitted in well with the sights I was seeing. It seemed more ghoulish than human or as though the gnats had got to them and they were bleeding from within. How could Mr Coombes and Valerie be doing these things to one another is what I always ended up asking. How? They were grownups and as such were supposed to be sensible and kind. They were supposed to be reliable and in charge but the truth was they were monsters. I used to wonder if the two of them were suffering from some hideous disease and couldn’t help worrying in case whatever it was might be catching. If ever I saw either of them in the town, which I did here and there, especially at the weekends, I always made good and sure to keep away.
In this town people went about as though living a toy life, masquerading as dolls that had absolutely no fleshy bits hidden underneath their clothing. And come to think of it the houses in the town looked prettily toyish too. They seemed to be telling you that only dolls could actually be living there. All of them were painted in delicate shades of cream and beige and stood in neat little rows with gardens. There was a tick tock retro feel about the place. A bit too cute for comfort. The furniture in the store on the high street looked as though it were meant for a human sized dolls’ house. And day after day people passed up and down with painted smiles and talked as though a string had been pulled and left them without a choice of words. Because they always said the same things to one another as if they had been programmed. Good morning, Have a nice day. Good evening. They were sweet and clean looking and this is toy like too.
The toy is a product of the humans and their fantasies. Dolls are part of the surface people want to sell you as really-real and parents encourage you to undress them when night time comes around. Because they want you to discover for yourself that dolls are not concealing anything at all however many layers they may be wearing. However far down you go. Adults would like you to believe it’s just the same with them. But I’m telling all you other kids that to get a truer picture of reality you need to pay a visit to a place like the dairy. Then, as I did, you will grow up fast.
Jay Merill is published by or has work forthcoming in Brilliant Flash Fiction, Cheap Pop Lit, Entropy, Epiphany, Hobart, The Literateur, Lunch Ticket, Matchbook, Prairie Schooner, Thrice Fiction and Trafika Europe. She is a current Write Well Award nominee, a Pushcart Prize nominee and the winner of the Salt Short Story Prize. Further work has appeared recently in 3: AM Magazine, Crack the Spine, Literary Orphans, SmokeLong Quarterly, Spork, tNY, Wigleaf and other great publications. Jay lives in London UK and is Writer in Residence at Women in Publishing. She is the author of two short story collections published by Salt —God of the Pigeons and Astral Bodies—which were nominated for the Frank O’Connor Award and Edge Hill Prize.