A Little About Dolly: A Short Story
No one but Dolly knows how old she is. Not because she’s embarrassed. She’s not ashamed that her body goes to sleep each night working and carries on in the same vein the next morning, with no imminent signs of stopping. She’s not one of those ‘age is a privilege’ people though. Her fridge is slogan free. Truth be told, Dolly isn’t particularly happy with the waking up each morning and going to sleep each night thing. But it is what it is, and the reason no one knows how long Dolly Blue has been doing it, the sleeping and waking, is because there is no one to tell.
Except her cat, but he’s blind and deaf. He doesn’t espy any new chin hair or hear the hollow creak in her left elbow when it’s due to rain. He sees and hears no evil in the world. Dolly often envies him. She could tell Poirot the cat her age she supposes, but he’s not interested in such trivialities, plus, he likes to work things out for himself.
Her age doesn’t matter anyway. Dolly is frozen in time; she has been cryogenized. Inside, preserved in amber, salted in brine, is a fourteen-year-old girl. Outside, her body is turning méringue-like. Her skin pale and brittle, her bones chalky. Don’t get Dolly wrong though. She’s not bitter. There is sweetness inside her, hidden away in the centre. An egg yolk-youthfulness waiting to be found among all that flotsam and jetsam. There is just no one to excavate it.
Dolly is a small person in a small life. Her days are a seemingly endless exercise in bed making and hoovering. Round she goes and back again. Whack-a-mole. Vacuuming away like a little hungry hippo. Dolly’s house is a living thing that breathes and sneezes dust. It belches memories, hiccups hairballs, moults mothballs. The furniture casts shadow puppets that loom over her, pointing out jobs, demanding attention. Dolly can’t leave it for long, her house. It can’t be trusted.
Dolly survives by living single-mindedly in the moment, dotting and dashing about, in her own little Morse code, to a To Do List only she knows. Duster, bleach, beeswax too. A pinny round her waist, a scarf over her hair. She cleans like she is performing an ancient martial art. Lots of sweeping arms and bent-kneed jabs. She is determined, our Dolly. Crackles with static. By the end of the day the scarf has fallen and her hair is often spiked up, like she’s rubbed a balloon over it, which Dolly probably would, if given one. You see, Dolly has been alone for a very long time. She’s missed out on a fair bit. Dolly has been stuck at the side of the road, watching the traffic flow, wondering how to swerve back onto the motorway. Life, to Dolly is like those skipping games the girls used to play at school. You have to know when to jump in, to have that courage, that knack. But Dolly has been struck by the rope too many times, and that sort of thing burns.
She’s an onlooker now. A bystander. Perhaps, if given the opportunity, she’d pick back up where she left off, all those years ago. But life doesn’t work like that.
Dolly can still giggle though. It may not seem likely, that someone so old with such a burdensome house and no help would giggle, but nothing ever is. Likely, I mean. Her laugh is the sound of a child weeing on long grass, by the side of the road, held up by her father. An ear of corn tickling her peachy bottom, and the delicious threat of being caught by oncoming cars.
She drinks too. Daily. Her dad swallowed back rum the colour of shiny conkers. Dolly wishes she could, but she can’t. She’s tried. She sips Advocaat and lemonade instead. Crème de menthe on Saturday evenings. Whiskey on a Sunday. Blue Nun in between. Dolly sings Dean Martin as she tops up her glass; ‘Little old wine drinker me’. Twirls to her Dansette, the sounds of the Rat Pack filling her living room like smoke.
She is the most perfect mix of happy and sad, like a bag of nuts and raisins, like one of those tall townhouses, bombed in the war. One half in ruins, the other perfectly preserved. Velvet wallpaper intact, table dressed for dinner with shiny silverware. A death-drop where the stairs should be.
Dolly stays in guarding her house, observing the world from under the safety of her netted curtain, which she wears like an ornate veil about her head. She’d be the most wonderful Neighbourhood Watch candidate. Can recite the bin collection schedule, including Bank Holidays, and Christmas adjustments. Knows every bus that ever comes along her street. Knows them, not just by number, but by driver too. ‘That’ll be the forty-six,’ she says to Poirot ‘and Dennis is driving today, taking the corner too quick as usual and then having to slam on the brakes.’ She’ll never sign up to the meetings though. It’s enough just to watch her neighbourhood, without the candidacy. Through her polished window, the world is a museum that Dolly can frequent anytime. That’s close enough for her. She can stand and observe, then go off to get a cup of tea when her legs get tired.
Her days pass easily, tipping into and rolling over one another. Time sitting on itself like honey, like a layer of sediment. But that’s okay. She seems fine, you may be thinking. Safe, like an unpeeled banana. Contained, like a haiku. Her and Billy Bones and Poirot, too. She’s got her music and her giggle and her liquor and her cat. Why not let her be?
Well, because Dolly, like all of us, has to go out sometimes. Has to wrap her pin curls under a hair net (you never know when hair thieves may strike), wrangle herself into her new fuchsia pink plastic mackintosh (which she got from a catalogue), matching booties, and dab on clashing lipstick. Complete the look with two Aunt-Sally balls of blush on her little downy cheeks. Has to kiss her own lips to sort out the blotting. She has to unhook her unravelling wicker trolley from its spot in the porch, and after a triple check that she has her keys, purse and marbles, Dolly has to shuffle out of her door and into the world beyond.
Dolly has a list in her hand of the places she needs to go, and what she needs to buy when she gets there. First stop is the cash machine. She could go to the Post Office to get money out, but that would mean talking to Rhonda, and Dolly doesn’t like to talk to Rhonda. She just wants to get her sundries, her fresh crusty loaf, and get back home, as soon as possible. She needs to clean her fridge out today and wash the towels on a hot high spin.
The thing is, she’s not very good at cash machines. She worries that her money will be snatched from her fingers by a hovering idler. Worries that the machine will eat her card. Worries she’ll take out all her savings in one go by mistake, and then a big gust of wind will come and whip her security away.
‘Be my lookout, Poirot,’ she says quietly.
‘Just get on with it, Dolly,’ he says impatiently.
Dolly’s new mackintosh makes a squeaking sound as she bends to put her purse back into her wicker basket. It squeals when she moves her arms. It draws attention to her as she walks along the high street. Unwanted attention. People turn towards the sound, puzzled. Poirot walks ahead, embarrassed for her. She tries to keep her sharp little blueberry eyes fixed straight forward, but she can see them, the mothers, children, dogs even, looking at her quizzically.
The quicker she goes, the louder she squeaks. She is forced to adopt a casual stroll, not Dolly’s style at all. She likes to trot like a pony, like Neddy in the nursery rhyme; ‘Horsey, horsey, don’t you stop, just let your feet go clippety-clop. Your wheels go swish and your tail goes round, giddy-up, we’re homeward bound!’
Dolly’s little feet go up and down to the song in her head. She pads past a hardware shop and comes to an abrupt stop. A lightbulb of an idea pinging on in her head. She could oil her coat. She oils the wheels of her trolley, and that works perfectly, so why not the armpits of her pink mac? It just might work. She swerves indoors and buys some WD40. She’s not planned for this, which makes her panic, so she also buys a giant bag of bird seed (not on the list) and a solar powered frog that squirts water (also not on the list). At the counter her hands shake as she tries to do maths in her head. What will she forgo? Because there is always a price to be paid.
She sprays the WD40, like deodorant, in an alleyway reserved for graffiti artists and ne’er-do-wells. A rapscallion looks at her with something like amusement, and then asks if he can ‘have a go’. Dolly dashes off quickly, but to her dismay, the lubricant has only made the problem worse. Amplified the sound.
By the time she’s been round the Co-Op, she can bear it no longer. The noise of herself. The looks. The giggles. Dolly knows why people laugh. She sounds like she is letting out a parp, a little, high-pitched slushy puff, with each step she takes. The whole of Brighton seems to have stopped, paused in time, to laugh at her.
‘Dolly Blue, please stand up.’
Dolly is eight-years old, sitting in assembly, frozen in place. Glued to the spot.
‘I said, Dolly Blue, stand up, now.’
The liquid seeps through onto her skirt. She is sat cross-legged and can feel it, bleeding into her socks, stinging the graze on her thigh.
‘Urgh! Look! She’s wet herself Miss!’
Dolly forces herself to keep moving, tries not to use her arms, but finds without them, she can’t propel herself along. Can’t remember how to walk. Sticking out her chin, she advances with quick short steps to the closest charity shop. Inside, the first thing she does is wrestle the coat off her narrow frame and shove it (still whining, like a small dog) into her trolley. A new coat is not on her list, but the wheels are off now. Dolly’s plans, like those of mice and men, gang aft agley.
Her trembling fingers stop flicking through the rail when she sees the yellow sou’wester. She’s a pink gal, our Dolly, but it’s a fine coat. Like a slick of custard. It is the colour of a thousand pressed daffodils. Dolly runs her finger over the collar. It’s soft too, the inside lined with blue and white stripes. Her pink mac was 100% plastic. Perhaps this is what caused it to bark, Dolly thinks, as she slides the buttery jacket off its padded hanger.
‘Well Poirot?’ she asks.
‘Hmmm’ is all he says. He’s found a cooking book of meals you can make in a microwave. Far more interesting.
It’s a pleasing weight in her arms, the yellow raincoat. It feels expensive. It feels technical, the kind of coat that a sailor would wear, her dad. Dolly scratches at her memory, like Billy Bones does the cat flap, for an image of him. His coat was so old, and it was so long ago, she can’t place its colour, only the smell. Seaweed and salt and mackerel scales. She can still remember the noise of it, the way the wax crackled as he slipped it on, the juddering of the rusty zipper. If it doesn’t go all the way up, Dolly used to think, then he can’t go. It was an awful lot of fate to place on a zipper, an old one at that; weathered by sea - but the zipper was always up to the job. Always bore the weight. Those jagged silver teeth seemed to bite directly into Dolly’s heart.
Dolly remembers the sigh her dad would let out, after he’d checked his pockets for his knife and hanky, as he half-turned to leave. His coat meant he was leaving her. She hid it once, under her bed, herself with it. If he didn’t have his coat, he couldn’t go to sea. Both were found easily. Dolly was scolded but the coat got to wrap itself round her father and be infused with his warmth, while she stood in the cold. She never hid the coat again but would glare at it, contemptuously, perched on its peg. The very smell of it tempting her father back to sea, away from her.
Shaking her head, Dolly drops her nose for a quick sniff of the sou’wester. It smells of pear drops, nicer than fish perhaps, if slightly less nostalgic. She tries it on, there and then. Oh, it’s truly something, this coat. Her arms feel like they are sliding into silk gloves, her neck is cocooned in soft jersey fabric. It fits as though it were made for her and her alone.
Dolly makes her way to the mirror in the corner, testing the squeak factor as she goes. Silence! No matter how vigorously she pumps her little elbows, even windmills her arms, the coat remains silent. Dolly is in love before she spots herself, and when she does, she almost has to sit down. Who is that dapper lady in front of her? The yellow seems to glow, like buttercups do under childhood chins. She is alive in the coat. Resplendent. She cuts quite the figure, as she turns this way and that, admiring the cut, looking over her shoulder to smile at the toggles on the back hem.
‘Yes, yes, buy the coat, Dolly,’ Poirot says, appearing from the opposite aisle with a bee-keeper hat on his head ‘and this too.’
She refuses to take it off at the till. The coat makes her feel protected somehow, something about the slickness of the material. It won’t let anything happen to Dolly, she’s safe inside all the toggles and waterproofing; everything will just slide right off. Dolly is a Teflon frying pan in this coat. The lady has to lean over and awkwardly attempt to snip the label from the back. Dolly doesn’t like to get too close to people, but she can’t risk taking the coat off. Someone else might snatch it.
‘Just came in,’ the woman mutters, fumbling about for the glasses round her neck ‘not been out ten minutes.’
‘Oh,’ says Dolly, wanting to stamp her feet with impatience.
‘I don’t know who put this label on…’ the woman says, catching one of Dolly’s curls as she tugs. ‘For f-….perhaps you could just take it off a moment?’
‘Ah, no,’ Dolly says.
Finally, the label is off, and the price rung up.
‘That’ll be twelve pounds ninety-nine pence, please.’.
A snip! Daylight robbery. This coat is worth so much more. It’s criminal. Dolly feels like a light-fingered thief.
‘You can have my old coat!’ she announces. Yes, that evens things out. Her pink mac cost almost twice as much as this one, and yes it squeaks but she can’t tell the woman that, and maybe it only squeaks when Dolly wears it. Maybe the coat did not want to be worn by Dolly. Maybe it was squealing in protest. Dolly pulls it back out of her wicker trolley with a flourish.
Outside on the street, Dolly waves her arms and admires her smart reflection in the shop window. The woman who served her, waves back, one arm already in Dolly’s pink mac. Dolly lets out a giggle that has been brewing like tea leaves. A stream of bubbling laughter, as she sets off, silent as the dead, towards the bakery, where she is going to get an iced bun with a cherry as big as her nose on it, instead of the crusty bread on her list.