The Dolls' House
They wear florals in London. Florals on their clothes, florals in their hair. Leaves and stems twist over legs and along spines; petals flicker seductively from a hip, a shoulder, a wrist. Colours burst and run in the heat, and the scent is overpowering, a pungent mix of sun-baked soil and damp lilac. Florals in their houses too. Wisteria and ivy and camellia, anything that drapes and trails and envelops until barely an inch of raw stone can be seen. Wallpaper in designs that are reminiscent of wildflower meadows, carpets that float with fallen blooms. The one Emma is walking over seems to rustle under her feet.
‘Your daughter will hate this,’ her companion murmurs. ‘Shouldn’t we look elsewhere?’
Green things whisper and breathe from the walls. Emma looks at the table, large and round and mahogany, placed in the centre of the room like an old revered tree. On it sits part of a dolls’ house. Her house. Sliced into three, the upper and ground floors missing, so that the women who want to sell her their designs can peer down into the living room and dining room and study, and show her just how good their wallpaper or their carpets or their furniture will look.
‘No,’ Emma says. Her gaze is drawn to the study, where a tiny figure with long dark hair sits at the desk and swings her legs. A pencil, almost too small to be seen, traces letters across half a postage stamp of paper. Emma smiles. Her granddaughter doesn’t like her lessons, but she knows how important they are and that she must do them. ‘Annabel will like it. That’s what matters.’
‘I like the look of this, don’t you?’
Emma points to a miniature sample roll of wallpaper, thick and frothy with dark leaves and cherry blossom, and the designer hastens to unravel it. When Emma touches, a delicate fragrance drifts across her skin. Not like the cloying jasmine that catches her throat from one of the women’s dresses, but something fragile, something like the rain that fell the previous night and left the pavements steaming. Her companion shrugs.
The designer’s hand hovers over the thumb-sized sofa, the dresser with its collection of crystal glasses that are no more than glittering droplets, the armchairs with their stiff backs. Emma nods. The designer proceeds to pluck out the furniture piece by piece, and even her spindly fingers, so much like an overgrowth of stem, look bulky against the fineness of carved wood and pinpoint upholstery. The wallpaper is rolled out. Small scissors nip it off to fit the walls; a breath of cherry blossom falls to the carpet. Then the furniture is replaced. At the half-open living room door, barely the height of Emma’s hand, Emma thinks she sees another miniature figure watching before it vanishes.
‘Perhaps it’s not as overblown as I thought,’ her companion concedes, considering the wallpaper, but Emma doesn’t like it after all. Its scent is darker and edged with decay now that it’s trapped on the walls, or is it her imagination? Cherry blossom never lasts very long. Like a spun tapestry that begins to unravel as soon as it’s finished, and that won’t do at all.
‘No,’ she says, and the designer’s face clouds in disappointment. ‘Something more…substantial.’
They try others. There are wallpapers dripping in roses and ivy, others that are studded with purple-grey sprigs of lavender. The furniture of the living room is removed and replaced. Different arrangements are tried; perhaps, her companion suggests, a plainer fabric on the sofa would make all the difference, or the dresser in a different place? The designers whip out earthy browns and greens and deep, summer-tanned reds. They move the dresser so that each crystal glass reflects a petal or a leaf or a swelling, ripening fruit. A headache begins, deep behind Emma’s eyes, a far-off throbbing of too much sweetness, too much scent, too much headily-pulsing colour. Twice more she thinks she sees the other figure, wisp-like against drooping lilies and the whispering leaves of an ash tree. But no one else says anything about it. No one else seems to even see it. When she reaches in with a finger and thumb, pretending to adjust the drape of the moss-covered curtains, there is nothing there but a candle-flicker of bodily warmth.
‘I like that one,’ her companion declares. Emma looks at the foliage tumbling down the living room walls, the vibrant green shot through with butterflies and birds. Jays and woodpeckers and blackbirds, their calls rising like the smell of rain-soaked earth. Annabel will love it, she’s sure. Annabel will love her for choosing it, and the shadow that is Annabel’s mother will remain a shadow, a thin hovering of darkness at the edge of the house.
‘Maybe…’ she murmurs. She doesn’t want to appear too eager, and besides, her headache is beginning to tighten like a coiling snake. ‘I’ll leave it overnight. I must see it in all lights.’
There’s a loose ripple of assent, like water sliding over rocks.
‘Of course you must,’ her companion says. ‘And then tomorrow, the dining room.’
Tomorrow the dining room, and the day after that the study. Endless reams of wallpaper unspooling. Cloudbursts of colour falling like rain onto her walls. She cannot stay longer and so it must all be finalised, but her head pulses sickly at the thought.
‘Tomorrow the dining room,’ she echoes, and looks at Annabel. The tiny figure is still in the study, bored and swinging her legs but staying there as she was told to do. Annabel, Emma thinks, must be tired. Annabel needs to go to bed.
In the orchard of her hotel suite, she carefully reassembles the layers of the dolls’ house. Red brick glows in the evening light, rich and soft as a hollowed apple. Windows blink in shadow. She watches Annabel race up the stairs, finally released from the confines of the study, and smiles as the little girl bounces onto a matchbox-sized bed with real feather mattress. The teddy bears on the pillows are smaller than the nail on Emma’s little finger. Tomorrow she will show Annabel the living room; she must make sure of the wallpaper before she purchases, but tonight she is too tired. With a careful hand, she reaches in through the gaping roof and shuts Annabel’s bedroom door. It closes quietly, and locks with a click she knows Annabel doesn’t hear.
‘Are you coming down for dinner?’ her companion asks, and Emma nods.
‘In a minute.’
Her companion departs in a rustle of skirts and blooms, while Annabel picks up a teddy. Emma knows her granddaughter is talking to it, and she strains to hear the words. Nothing; the breeze of Annabel’s voice is too faint.
A figure hovers in the hallway outside Annabel’s room. It’s easier to see now, darker and twisted like smoke in despair and anger over the locked door. Emma smiles again, the tiny key clutched in her fingers. Behind her in the hotel room, the pears and plums on the wallpapered trees are soft, burrowed and pecked by invisible birds, but this time she doesn’t notice the tinge of expensive rot, the sweetish-sour hint of fruit on the turn. She is already anticipating the joy on her granddaughter’s face, and the paling of her daughter to something like mist.
She places the key carefully on the mantelpiece in Annabel’s room. Her headache has faded now to something fuzzy and soft, like the new skin of a magnolia bud, and she thinks that perhaps she should get Annabel some new wallpaper for her bedroom too. Something like the tropical one that she’d dismissed as too gaudy for the living room, but that would be just sweet and colourful enough for a child’s room. Coconut and hibiscus and oleander, the sugars and the poisons. Her daughter wouldn’t know the difference, but Emma would teach Annabel. Annabel would adore the parrots, and Emma would make sure that she only ever touched the coconut.
is a writer and editor. Her fiction is born at the edges of nature, memory, trauma and the body, and is published regularly in online and print journals including Splonk, Lost Balloon
and Sonder Lit
. Her flash fiction is included in the Best Small Fictions anthology of 2022, and she is the winner of the 2023 Pigeon Review Flash Fiction competition. Website: elodierosebarnes.weebly.com