My father didn’t want me to have her but in the end he gave in. My mother managed to persuade him he was overreacting. One evening, long after I was supposed to be in bed, I sat in the dark at the top of the stairs and listened to them arguing about her. ‘I won’t have it in the house,’ said my father. ‘You don’t want to encourage him, do you? That’s exactly how these things start.’ ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ my mother countered. ‘He’s only seven. He’ll have forgotten all about it in a week.’
I understood that my father was angry, but I didn’t know why. I had never heard my mother call my father ridiculous before, and the idea that I was the source of conflict between my parents was unnerving but strangely thrilling. Not that I dwelled on the matter for long. What mattered to me was not the argument, but who would win it.
Her name was Marina Blue and I loved her on sight. In a world that was confusing and occasionally frightening, she gave my heart a focus. In a shop full of bisque-headed mannequins, it was she who brought the others to life.
In reality she was nothing special. Dolls like Marina Blue roll off the production lines in their thousands and are of little value to the collector. Yet there was something, even so, that set her apart from such generalities. She drew the eye, as all things born of sentient creativity are bound to draw the eye. She had presence. More than that, she had dignity. I knew from the moment I saw her that she would change my life.
The town I grew up in was small, not much more than a village. There were three pubs and a small hotel, one main shopping street and the old cinema, which had recently been converted into an indoor antiques market. There were two parks. One was at the top of the town close to the Rivermead housing estate and had infamously been the site of an abduction. The other, whose official, unsuitable title was the Heathfield Pleasure Gardens, was frequented by drug users and petty criminals through the hours of darkness and turned instantly to quagmire whenever it rained. I was not allowed to play in either of the parks. I was not allowed to go into town at all unless my mother was with me.
The school I attended was called Martens. I used to believe it had acquired its name from the dozens of house martins that nested beneath the eaves, though when I was older I discovered it was named after its founder, a Pieter Martens who came to Britain from Copenhagen to study at Oxford. At the time I was there, the school still had outside toilets and that species of enormous, green-painted radiator that dated from before the war. There were around fifty pupils. My ordeal did not properly begin until I graduated to St Merriat’s, the upper school, but there were intimations of trouble, even so. My classmates were growing quickly. In spite of their apple cheeks and choirboys’ voices, they had started to mutate into men. I was a moon-faced, pot-bellied, grub-shaped boy with wet-looking hair and glasses. Still less than four feet tall, I was too weak to kick a football, too small to scramble a fence. Boys who had happily included me in their games just the summer before began to take note of these differences, and draw away.
The school day ended at three. My mother collected me at the gate and afterwards we would go shopping. Not the serious, fortnightly shopping that required a car but small, pleasurable errands such as buying sewing thread or fruit cake or the Radio Times. My favourite shop was Prendergast’s, the stationer’s, where my mother bought her writing paper and envelopes, and which doubled as a toy shop. I was allowed to browse the shelves while she completed her purchases. I soon learned that if I mentioned any particular toy often enough, I would usually be given it eventually. On the day I first saw Marina Blue sitting in Prendergast’s window, there were still a full three months to go before my eighth birthday. I immediately became convinced that someone would buy the doll before then, that I would never see her again. It never entered my head that there was more than one Marina Blue, that in all probability there was an entire warehouse stacked with them. Her eyes were a deep sapphire, her glossy, waist-length hair the perfect shade of chestnut brown. Her head, hands and feet were made of unglazed bisque porcelain, her body of cotton twill stuffed with kapok. She wore baggy, bell-bottomed trousers and a red hooded top. Her square-heeled, lace-up ankle boots were sewn from real leather. I felt weak and slightly nauseous at the sight of her, as if I were about to faint.
‘Come along Andrew, don’t dawdle. We need to get to the bakery before it closes.’ My mother grabbed me by the hand and tried to pull me away from the window, but I resisted her. For perhaps the first time in my life I was torn between my usual habit of compliance and the dark and delicate thrust of my own desires.
‘I want to go inside,’ I wheedled. ‘I want to see the little girl in red.’ ‘That’s a doll,’ said my mother. She glanced quickly towards the window display and then away again. ‘Dolls are for girls.’
I felt close to tears. ‘It’s nearly my birthday,’ I said. ‘That’s what I want.’
‘You’ll change your mind long before that. You know what you’re like.’
In fact this was untrue and both of us knew it. I had always been a child who loved certainty. I gazed at my mother in despair, then allowed myself to be led away in the direction of the bakery. In the weeks that followed, I made sure to mention Marina Blue every day, speaking with the studied nonchalance I had previously employed in pursuit of other treasures I had coveted: the miniature kaleidoscope, the magnetic dragonflies, the pewter monkey. In its early stages, my gambit met with a seeming indifference that was easily the equal of my own. Then, with less than a fortnight to go before the day itself, I overheard my mother and father having their argument. This was the endgame and I knew it. When I finally sneaked off to bed that night it was in the expectation and fevered hope that the victory was mine.
She came in a cardboard box, nestled in yellow crêpe.
‘It could be valuable one day,’ my father said. ‘You know what they say about antiques of the future.’ He rubbed his hands together as if he were cold.
‘I hope this is still what you want,’ my mother added.
I felt as if something was expected of me – a particular turn of phrase in expression of gratitude – but I was too marvellously overwhelmed to say anything at all. I briefly fingered Marina Blue’s red jacket then put the lid back on her box. I took exaggerated pleasure in the other gifts I had been given: a mint-green anorak, a pack of playing cards on the theme of capital cities, a carton of sugar mice. I blew out the candles on my birthday cake and afterwards the three of us played charades. It wasn’t until later, alone in my bedroom, that I felt able to hold her. She felt heavy in my arms and wonderfully real. Her hair smelled of pinewood. When I laid her on her back, her eyes slid closed.
I placed her box gently on the chair beside my bed. Even with the lid on, I found I could remember her in every detail.
A great deal has been written on dolls. There are volumes on the history of dolls, the provenance of dolls, the value of dolls, heavy catalogues filled with lavish illustrations, images that quicken the blood and stimulate desire. I have read that the doll is a surrogate: for friendship or for family, for love. Most children grow out of dolls eventually, but not the collector. The true collector, like the poet or the idiot, remains prey to the intensified sensibilities of childhood until the day they die.
In the introduction to her memoir, A Brief History of Wonderland, Doris Schaefer, the renowned doll collector and curator of the Museum of Childhood in Bad Homburg describes the moment when she first saw an Ernst Siegler ‘Gabi’ doll at an auction in Frankfurt. Schaefer was thirty years old at the time, a partner at law with a flourishing practice, but her encounter with the doll was an epiphany. She gave up the law the following year and devoted her life to the creation of the museum.
I am four feet nine inches tall. Most of the puppy fat fell away in time, but because of my restricted height I still appeared round. In addition to that I wore heavy National Health spectacles, which seemed to accentuate both my shortness of stature and my pudgy physique. For my sixteenth birthday my parents gave me a pair of glasses with tinted rectangular lenses and narrow black frames. The new glasses streamlined my moon face, at least a little, but did not stop me resembling a diminutive schoolmaster, which is what everyone assumed I would become.
Most of my classmates called me the Dwarf, though there were other names, too. I knew from an early age there was no point in my even trying to belong, that aspiring to be like them would, in some mysterious way, increase their contempt. Rather I regarded my schoolfellows as members of another tribe, whose customs were mysterious and filled with savagery.
My intelligence I took for granted. I enjoyed all my school subjects, but my true interests already lay elsewhere. The school library had little to offer me, but the public library in Welton was surprisingly well-stocked. There was also Ponchinella, a monthly magazine filled with articles on all aspects of dolls and doll collecting. I saved my pocket money so I could buy it the day it came out. I read each new issue from cover to cover and then read it again.
Even my father came gradually to accept that my passion for dolls was not something I was about to grow out of. In the end he stopped worrying about me. I think he was able to come to terms with my obsession by convincing himself that my hobby would eventually pay off. A lifetime in business had taught him that anything can become valuable, given time and the right circumstances, be it piggy banks or Victorian underwear or used beer bottles. One memorable Christmas he presented me with Merrick’s Price Guide to World Dolls, an indispensable textbook that had thus far been well beyond my means.
‘We ’ll have you working for Christie’s at this rate,’ he said. He smiled at me, and it was a good smile, open and friendly and relaxed. I don’t think I was ever the son he had imagined for himself, but we always found plenty to talk about and, in any case, I liked my father. I didn’t see any reason to trouble his mind by explaining that the goal of the true collector is not the accumulation of riches, but the consummation of passion.
I remember how my father adored his cars, both the steel-blue Volvo he drove for work and the vintage Jaguar that lived in the garage and was taken out only at weekends. The Jaguar was racing green with chrome trim and soft, chestnut leather upholstery. My father cleaned the Jaguar once a fortnight without fail. I was sometimes allowed to buff the upholstery, using a chamois leather moistened with a yellow polish called Heller’s Wax that came in a tin. I loved the smell of the Heller’s, resinous and woody as ambergris. I think my father hoped that by letting me help him with the Jaguar he might be able to spark my interest in cars in general, but although I listened carefully in an effort to please him, I invariably forgot most of what he told me more or less as soon as we went back inside.
I never learned to drive, and after my father died I stopped pretending I ever would. By the time of his death, both the Jaguar and the Volvo had been sold. He ran an Audi saloon instead, a car he always despised, though I never knew why.
I have always found it interesting, the way people and their vehicles can become inseparable in the mind. My dear friend Clarence drives a white Ford van with a cracked rear windscreen and a large dent in the passenger door. She flexes her muscles as she gets into the driver’s seat, like a soldier climbing into a tank. Often when I think of Clarence, I think of that action, the way the van has become identified for me with her strength, her chaotic yet indefatigable way of being.