Susan had left the french windows open during the morning, glad of the sunshine and the freshness in the air after the days of miserable late-summer rain. With Michael soundly asleep in his carrycot, just inside the open doors, and a whole day to herself now that the health visitor had left, she set up for a few hours of her hobby: doll restoration.
She had found two dolls in a small shop in Bloomsbury, two months ago. They were Victorian bed-dolls, designed to be placed on the pillows in a child’s room. She wasn’t sure if they made an original pair, although they were ‘man’ and ‘woman’. They had been clumsily and crudely restored around the face and hair, and she had decided to unrestore them and return them as closely as possible to their original appearance.
The female doll wore a lacy dress, with linen underclothes. She was barefoot, but the letters A and Q had been drawn on the cotton covering that formed her socks. The male doll wore a tight black jacket and drainpipe trousers. The leather of his shoes was perfectly preserved, even to the tiny laces, one of which was tied in a double bow.
Susan had paid twenty pounds for the pair, but was convinced they would be worth much more. Meanwhile, the immediate pleasure was in the restoration. And she wouldn’t be teaching again until the spring term.
She made herself a pot of coffee, peered down at Michael, who was murmuring in his sleep, then began the slow task of unpicking the clumsy stitchwork of the dolls’ previous owner. She wore reading glasses, propped halfway down her nose. In recent years her eyesight had begun to deteriorate rapidly, but she refused to wear contact lenses; they hurt, and they made her eyes water. Richard thought she looked ‘sexy’ in the gold-rimmed spectacles. Susan herself was more concerned with how increasingly difficult it was to focus for any extended period of time on anything, like a book or a doll, which she held close to her vision.
After half an hour of the intense work her back began to twinge and she put down the doll, removed her glasses and walked out into the garden. Despite the rainy conditions of the previous day, everything seemed so dry now, so hot. She could hear the neighbour’s dog, barking among the fir trees that were a feature of next door’s garden. She walked down to the gate and swung on it, staring out across the cornfield, over the ‘tump’/ at the drift of woodland above the quarry, and the bare ridge of the land that marked the drop down to the dykes and sedges of the saltmarsh itself. The wind was fresh. She could smell sea. From the garden the Whitlocks couldn’t see the English Channel, but its scents and the feel of being close to the edge of the land way sharp on these bright days when the wind was on-shore.
Seagulls pestered the field.
Michael wailed suddenly, but the sound went away, and as Susan returned through the fruit trees, mostly alert for the child, passingly aware that the cherry trees had rust-infection, she felt calm. At peace. Quite content.
Stepping in through the french windows she was aware of the phone ringing. She smelled fresh earth, but dismissed the sensation, glancing at the carrycot, aware of its stillness, vaguely aware of something wrong …
The phone was an insistent call and she plucked the receiver from its cradle.
It was Jenny, a close friend who taught at the same college. She wanted to help with the christening party that Saturday, and had had an idea for contributing to the buffet meal.
‘Thanks. But Richard wants to make roast lamb.’
‘For a christening party?’
‘He sees it as a sort of challenge.’
‘Roast lamb for forty people?’
‘He sees it as a challenge. He’s a man. He can do it.’
‘But… roast lamb?’
Jenny paused, then sighed. ‘So a tuna casserole would be superfluous.’
‘No room in the oven to swing a minnow.’
‘I’ll make pudding, then. Fruit salad.’
‘Pudding has been organized by various “mothers”. The real help we could do with is … well, to put it bluntly… ‘
‘The woman is psychic. Yes. Baby-minding. Just for a few minutes here and there while I look after the aunts. Richard will be looking after the booze, of course. And his lamb.’
‘What am I going to do with all this tuna?’
‘Throw them back. Let them have their freedom. And thanks for the thought. Jenny.’
What was smelling so bad? What was that smell of freshly dug earth?
She went into the kitchen and set the percolator on for a second jug of coffee. She placed the leftovers of the previous evening’s casserole into the oven and set the timer. Richard wouldn’t be eating with her tonight, and she was hungry now, so the idea of supper at five in the afternoon seemed a good one.
But that smell!
Puzzled, she went back into the sitting room. It was an odour she associated with her father’s garden; freshly tilled soil, the metallic smell of forks and other garden implements moist and slick with constant use. The scent of wet, of vegetation, of humus, of compost; sharp, woody. So many feelings were evoked by the odour. So many memories…
She walked to the french windows. The smell was stronger here, and she became very disturbed, looking quickly round, beginning to feel panic.
When she saw the carrycot she nearly screamed as she ran for her child and plucked him into her arms.
‘That damned dog. That bloody dog!’
Michael was covered with damp earth. The carrycot was filthy. His, chubby hands were black where he had reached and grasped at the dirt. There was a scattering of soil around the cot, on the carpet. It had been this darker stain on the dark fabric that had almost alerted her earlier.
‘Damn! Damn! ‘
The creature was often to be seen in their garden, prowling and digging at the flower beds and in the vegetable patch. It must have come into the sitting room, filthy from its excavations, to stand right up on the cot, its muddy paws on her son.
Susan cradled the boy for a moment, then brushed him partly clean. She took him to the bathroom and washed the sticky earth from his fingers and face.
Michael was very quiet. Susan could hear the dog barking from across the fence. It had gone back home, then, after straying into Whitlock territory.
‘You poor love. It’s my fault. It’s all my fault. I’m so silly. I should have thought about that bloody pet next door.’
She finished cleaning the boy, then vacuumed the dirt from the carpet. She closed the windows and sat down with her dolls again. But she was angry now, so angry that she had risked her son’s life. The dog could have been dangerous. It could have smothered him. She hadn’t been attentive enough. A lesson learned!
The dolls lay there, forgotten. Michael slept and whimpered. Slowly Susan relaxed, folding her arms across her chest, thinking about the boy, about the adoption, about the look in his birth-mother’s eyes…. and about Saturday. Such a big party! So much to do.
‘It will all be fine,’ she told herself. ‘Just don’t get upset. Don’t get upset…’
Next door the dog howled. It had never entered the house before. Perhaps in its narrow, canine way, it knew that it had done wrong.
She walked out of the room and across the lawn to the fence, half inclined to call to her neighbour and say something about the dog’s straying.
But when she looked over and into the next door garden she felt shocked, then confused.
The dog – an Alsatian of dark and grim demeanour – was chained to a post in the middle of the lawn. Stretched at the end of its lead, it was watching Susan, and howling with frustration at being so cruelly tied…
Extract from The Fetch, 1991