It was like I had stepped into Alice’s doll’s house. Everything was perfect, if you opened our house up and looked in. It was as if someone was about to reach in with their stubby fingers to pick up Alice and I, our limbs loosely strung together underneath our Sunday best. They would listen to mama’s quiet singing dispassionately, caring only for the boxes they knew we must tick. We had to be perfect, from the same set as papa, or they wouldn’t ever put him back.
Thinking of papa was like the times mama read to me. I knew the tale; I had heard it so many times it had been imprinted into the backs of my eyes. But when I looked at the pages and the words, though I knew what they were meant to say, it was as if someone had turned my eyes to glass; I could see them, but they wouldn’t connect to my heart and make sense. When I thought of papa, I thought of a face, worn by paper. I did not like it when mama spoke of him; her hollowed-out heart made her voice sound disfigured and unfamiliar. It made her voice drip with water that fell onto my face and into my eyes so that one day, I might do the same.
Our crisp clothes had turned to paper, and though the fire purred quietly in its hearth my ears felt as if they were numb from hearing the same sounds for so long. Mama’s face had turned to porcelain, and dinner had turned to rubber on the table from waiting. The soft knock at the door cracked through the comfortable sounds of home like a gunshot. The brick walls suddenly felt as though they were made of ply-wood as another hand reached into our doll’s house, and I felt very small. Mother walked to the door slowly, as if she was wading through something deep and viscous and the door had manifested into something unnatural and terrifying.
I peered around my mother’s comforting figure as the bitter gales swept into our house with wings that were sharp and hurt my eyes, mocking the winds native to our little corridors; quiet and submissive. The man reminded me of a blank sheet of paper, old and wrinkled. His expression had been dispassionately scribbled onto his features in grey-lead; all the better for it to be erased quickly and without hassle. His voice was raspy, rising and falling in the customary tones of regret that people of his station said with their tongues but never their eyes.
His tongue said prettier things than his eyes. ‘We have opened your doll-house’, said his eyes. ‘And it is not handsome enough to match your father. We shall keep him.’ Behind the artificial words of his tongue, I could hear mother’s heart break. The papery man must have heard it too because it was then that he rustled out a thin ‘I’m sorry’ before stalking out of our little house, shutting the tiny door with practiced care as he went to assess the suitability of the next family.
The winds of our house missed the gales from outside.
Some people describe despair as something graceful. They speak of swans with clipped wings, falling, tears tracing graceful patterns on flesh. First, it was like a hot flannel when one has a fever; hot, sticky and uncomfortable. Mama’s tongue probed at all of the riddles her mind had been skirting all this time with increasing urgency and incomprehensibility. Despair contorted her face into something ugly and unrecognisable, and she yelled with the frantic anger of someone fighting for something they had already lost. In the opposite corner was a paper doll, her dress stained with tears and snot, trying to make herself smaller than she was already. We held hands, anchoring one-another in a misty sea that was confusing and frightening as we listened to our dolls house begin to crumble and fall.
Eventually, her tongue ran out of things to say. The man had cut mama’s strings, and she fell. Out of fuel, she sputtered and grasped blindly for her anger, for anything to keep her out of the void.
She found her children.
Just as we anchored one-another, we learned to pull her towards us when she ran out of strength. When she could, she would wade towards us. After what felt like years, she held us. She smelt of flour and cinnamon and home. She smiled at us but her porcelain face cracked, and water rushed out onto our faces and into our hearts. It blurred my vision and stung my eyes, but, through all of the water and the plywood and the porcelain, my heart glowed and I was happy. Because, once something has been broken, it can be repaired. I would become their protector.
I would fix our dolls-house.
Absolute sorrow can only be spoken with silence. But so can true happiness.