‘Look what Mr Masters gave me,’ Hattie said.
Tom stared astonished at the object that Hattie had placed on the kitchen dresser. Eighteen inches high, porcelain faced with glassy blue, expressionless eyes, curly black eyelashes, scarlet lips and ash blonde hair fanning round her face, the doll was dressed in a salmon pink frock.
‘His plaster cast came off a couple of days ago and he’s managing OK now, so he doesn’t need me anymore.’
When their reclusive neighbour Mr Masters, who lived on his own in the big house with the large garden at the bottom of the lane, slipped in the supermarket and fractured his leg, Hattie had stepped in to do his shopping and cook him tasty meals that he’d heated up in the microwave.
‘It was really weird,’ Hattie said.
‘Meaning?’ Tom took out a bottle of wine from the fridge, uncorked it and filled two glasses.
‘He showed me into his study and there they were- rows upon rows of dolls. All dressed differently but all uncannily identical to look at except there was one that was covered in tattoos and boasted lip and navel rings. He asked me to select one as a thank you present for all we’d done for him. I demurred but he just wouldn’t take no for an answer and ended up choosing this one himself. In fact, he practically thrust it into my hand.’
‘Crazy having that kind of hobby. Is he a perv?’
‘I can’t complain. He’s always been pretty decent to me,’ Hattie said. ‘And generous. But he’s no perv. He’s probably just an eccentric collector and they say living alone can addle you.’
‘Well, we’ll have to make room for the thing or else hand it into a charity shop,’ Tom said. ‘Hey,’ he bent down to pick up pages of that day’s newspaper that were fluttering to the floor. ‘What’s it with that draught?’ He got up and went into the hall to find the front door wide open. ‘Hattie you’re losing it- you forgot to shut the door.’
‘Not guilty,’ Hattie said. ‘You were last in so it must have been you.’
‘Me? Never!’ protested Tom as he banged it shut.
They moved some of the books from the topmost shelf of the bookcase on the bedroom landing to make space for the doll. She gazed down at them as they went in to the bedroom at night and when they emerged in the morning.
The next few weeks were possibly the worst they’d experienced since their recent marriage. Their cat disappeared and they roamed the neighbourhood desperately sticking lost kitty notices on lamp posts and trees. Then Hattie was knocked down by a bicycle on her way to the train station. Tom cooked a steak and kidney pie for supper and they returned from work to find it, half eaten, on the kitchen table, whilst the champagne they were keeping for Christmas lunch had been spilled onto the floor. The few pieces of jewellery Hattie owned were missing from the jewel case only to be discovered in the oven. At night they tossed and turned trying to identify what sounded like heavy breathing that kept them awake. Hattie, returning from the gym, found the doll by the front door. Tom denied moving it. How could it have got there they wondered? They didn’t employ a cleaner and no one could have accessed the house in their absence. Tom promptly put the doll back on top of the bookcase.
They bought a spruce and decorated it with Christmas tree baubles and a pretty Christmas fairy. A few days later they found the doll gracing the topmost branches of the tree; the fairy nowhere to be seen. Hattie accused Tom of winding her up and they had a little row. That evening, after the doll had been relegated to its patch, they smelled a strong whiff of gas and had to summon the emergency gas man and when Hattie logged into online banking she found their joint bank account had been hacked and a substantial sum siphoned off. The next morning as Tom was shaving he noticed the doll perched on the edge of the bathtub. A creepy feeling engulfed him.
Tom said nothing to Hattie. When he got to work he called her on his mobile and told her to meet him in the lunch hour as there was something he wanted to discuss that couldn’t wait till they got home.
‘Things haven’t been the same since that doll came to share our lives,’ Tom said carefully as he divided a pizza between him and Hattie.
There was small pause then Hattie said. ‘I didn’t want to say anything in case you thought I was going mental but I’ve had this horrible feeling that something wasn’t right. A sort of malevolence.’
Tom nodded. ‘Yes, the atmosphere’s been spooky.’
They looked at each other.
‘Let’s return it to Mr Masters. I don’t care what he thinks – we’re not giving it any more house room.’ Tom’s mind was made up.
Hattie said. ‘Suppose he refuses?’
‘Then we’ll get rid of it at the Council dump. Donating it to a charity shop isn’t the solution.’
When they got home from work that evening the doll was lounging on the sofa. They dropped it into a plastic carrier bag and holding hands walked the short distance to Mr Masters’s house.
‘Tom’s allergic to the synthetic stuff that’s used in making the doll’s hair,’ fibbed Hattie. ‘It’s brought him out in a nasty rash.’ She gestured to the vivid blotches on Tom’s face and hands which they’d artificially and rather cleverly, they thought, created, having followed the instructions of a Hollywood make-up artist on the internet. ‘So, sadly, we’ll have to part with your thoughtful gift.’
Mr Masters didn’t look at Tom. He sat the doll on his knee and addressed it. ‘You were evicted from home as punishment for all the games you played with me, Miss High and Mighty. Now, do you promise to behave?’
Hattie and Tom could have sworn the doll blinked and shed a tear and its lips wobbled.
‘Now you’re back where you belong but let that be a salutary lesson to you.’
Speechless, Tom and Hattie arrived home to find their cat, bedraggled and hungry, sliding through the cat flap and the fairy sparkling high up in the tree.