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Struggling up the steep granite steps to the hotel, she realises she should have known better; she’d hardly been out of the house since she’d been so very poorly in the winter. So reasonably priced, door to door collection and, prominently, the picture – the very hotel her parents had taken her to as a child! The doctor had suggested a little break would lift her from her depression, as if she had such a thing. In her opinion, depression was most definitely just a word people used for being disinclined to do anything these days. However, she’d seen the advert that same day and had felt somehow destined to take her last holiday where she had taken her first.
But the effort: three days of strange beds and with food being so very confusing these days. The rest of the coach party have all disappeared. They are mostly youngsters in their seventies, wearing unsuitable clothing, trainers and sportswear. Indeed, she wonders, is it worth stretching one’s horizons at this time in life – perhaps to shrink down into a few rooms and a small acquaintanceship is more desirable? She stares around the residents’ lounge, so sadly unfamiliar, although with its leather armchairs, sporting pictures and swagged curtains, it is a modern approximation of the Edwardian period. She sits down, to wait for her order to be taken, sinking rather alarmingly into a deep armchair she knows she will struggle to get out of.
It’s a different room she remembers, breakfasting with Father, while Mother rested in bed, gold sun on white walls. That and the view of the sea and the exciting palm trees, from a bedroom window, Mother cool in her linen dress, pulling on her clean pale gloves for afternoon tea – when had women stopped wearing gloves in public? So much more hygienic. Her own white dress with starched petticoats and a darling little bolero jacket edged with Swiss embroidery – she remembers that, and Mother adjusting the white hair ribbons in her pigtails and saying, “How sweet and neat. Like a little doll.” Mother was such a beauty it was hard to even consider that one might turn into such a being. She remembers the powder puff and the perfumes in their crystal bottles – a light floral for day and something darker, more mysterious for evening, though a lady never wears too much – “common” on a falling intonation, almost a whisper as if the very word was contagious.
Of course, it was Nanny who tied the pigtails and brought her down on the train with the luggage and spent hours each morning taking her on educational walks round the castle or sitting while she sketched the parish church, while Mother rested – such a pity Nanny turned so odd. And they’d paid for her lodgings for years; she didn’t really see why it was your financial responsibility to keep someone for life, just because you happened to be unfortunate enough to be the last employer. An old woman, all alone – but the family came crawling out of the woodwork when she died, my word they did.
She is seated too low to see the glorious view of the sea from the window. She sighs. There was no beach as such, but Mother said, sitting around on dirty sand was most unhealthy and so they took pleasant walks instead, along the sea front, which was not a promenade as the town was more refined than that. She struggles to pull herself from the armchair to look out. Dismay! The garden overlooking the sea is a car park with a solitary bed of rain-bedraggled geraniums. Oh she shouldn’t have come – what had she expected? Time doesn’t stand still. That garrulous woman with an off the shoulder top and tattoos – surely she cannot be a resident of the hotel? It is shocking really – the district nurse who visited her through the winter had actually had a tattoo on her arm. She imagines Mother, demanding a replacement and getting one. Of course, she’d had a private doctor who came to the house to politely misdiagnose her and a private nurse to administer what little they had as she died in agony of cancer somewhere unmentionable to a young teenage girl. She still doesn’t know. But presumably it wasn’t genetic as she’s ninety six now and still healthy. But time is indeed standing still – the service is appalling!
She sinks back into the armchair. The smell of Father’s leather driving gauntlets! Of course, father had a car – a wonderful open topped creature. They had taken gentle excursions along the empty lanes, driving in the sunshine across the island, the sun in her eyes, curled up behind them in the dickey seat, wrapped in blankets… and children coming out to stare – cars were still a rarity in rural villages. She’d known she was the luckiest child in the world then. That’s all she’d hoped for now really, to wander the pretty town, take afternoon tea in the hotel, see the sun in her eyes, feeling that mouthful of happiness again.
“Do you want to order? You need to order at the counter.” A plump faced girl in a limp white shirt and tight black trousers is standing in front of her. Then she adds, “Are you OK?”
It is hardly the trained service one would expect but the girl looks concerned, kindly.
“It used to be proper table service.” Her voice comes out strangely quivering, which is annoying as she had planned astringent.
“If you tell me what you’d like, I’ll put the order in and bring it… are you a resident? Only if not you’ll need to pay when you give the order, but if you’re resident it can go on your bill?”
This appears to be information but is said in such a questioning tone she is not sure for a moment what is expected. The tea and Welsh cakes arrive surprisingly promptly. They are a disappointment, hard and oversweet, with gritty currants. She remembers them differently. That is why you shouldn’t go back – the mouthful of happiness turns to grit in your teeth. At least she has her teeth. For all mother’s famous beauty, she had a plate with four teeth on it by the time she was thirty. It had got forgotten when she was buried, left in the bedside drawer. When she’d found it Father had shouted at her, as if finding that your mother wasn’t perfect was somehow a betrayal. Poor man: tobacco, tweed, his large, very clean hands. Those awkward Christmas holidays, back from boarding school. He’d cried; ghastly. Men weren’t supposed to and she knew he hated her for seeing him cry. When he’d died in an air raid it had been almost a relief that he was no longer heaving his grief around like an old suitcase. Pity he’d not thought to throw himself into his work, the way people were meant to – his business all to pieces. Everything had gone, even Mother’s portrait in grey silk and pearls. The war had done for the flat, the business and Father.
The girl is standing in front of her again. “Gaynor, that’s the manager – she says did you know about the dolls’ house exhibition – in the function room? Along the corridor?”
Dolls’ houses! She’d had one of course. Spent hours making teeny embroideries for carpets and little bedclothes and painting tiny portraits with frames from matchsticks painted dark brown: grey silk and pearls; how she’d loved arranging that miniature world, when Nanny was always cross and Mother always resting and the afternoons seemed so long and she’d read the Bastable books and longed for brothers and sister to have adventures with. But there, Mother had been right. There were far too many people in the world.
She sips the tea and crumbles the Welsh cakes. The butter is in foil packets, which do not look as attractive as the delicate curls of butter on a small round silver dish she remembers, but do at least mean no one has fingered it.
The function room is at the end of the corridor, which she negotiates slowly. It is bright with sunlight from French doors that lead into the garden that is not a garden. It is the breakfast room. She recognises the light and the French doors – but now the white table cloths and the smart waitress have gone and the space is filled with trestle tables covered with sheets with an array of dolls’ houses and miniature arrangements. There are so many! She moves carefully, peering into the miniature worlds. A shoebox arranged as a shed, with tools and even a string of tiny onions; Victorian styled houses, filled with stiff dolls in period costume clutching warming pans, face a stark nineteen sixties house with a sloping roof, garish fabrics and stacks of miniature black vinyl records – so ingenious. She leans closer – what is the substance the modellers have used to craft the accessories, the food? It is smooth, plastic-like and yet has at some stage been as malleable as plasticine. How she would have loved to work with that.
“Marvellous, aren’t they?” The woman is wearing a badge on her slightly grubby peach coloured cardigan. “I just do the paperwork for the society,” she adds, “but my husband built some of them and he puts in little electric circuits for the lights. He lit that big one for Mrs Cledwyn – have you seen it? You’ll love it!” She is pointing to an enormous, L shaped house that takes up a whole table to itself in the bay window.
She dutifully moves towards it, taking in its many rooms. It is vaguely Edwardian, with a large sitting room that looks strangely familiar, with small, stiff legged people propped on leather sofas – that is the problem, she thinks, the people so often destroy the illusion of a perfect reality – out of scale, lumpy or stiff legged – surely there should be a way to make them more realistic? There is a large, busy kitchen with chefs in whites, clutching tiny copper pans and upstairs there are many bedrooms, with sumptuous beds and in one, a tiny dressing table with tiny brushes and bottles and a golden haired doll. There is a sweeping staircase and in a breakfast room with small aspidistras in pots, a child in a white frock and a nanny in starched uniform with a baby in a pram – had there ever been a baby in a pram? Oh dear yes, poor little Ernest, the longed for son – it was different then. It was no one’s fault, babies with a hole in the heart just breathed, fast and painfully – their tiny faces, fragile grey – until they didn’t.
The signs say DO NOT TOUCH but she longs to. There is a corridor with miniature trunks and yes – as she goes round the table, to the front of the house, there is the colonnaded porch with the grand granite steps and the revolving doors. It is the hotel. She claps her hands together – it is so perfect, so much better than the real thing. The woman in the peach cardigan laughs. “It’s wonderful isn’t it?” then turns away to welcome a large family into the exhibition.
She stands, looking for a long time. One must not show weakness… she holds onto the corner of the table, her hands trembling. Remembers her own dolls house, the tiny pram, the little perfume bottle – all blown to bits. If only one could go back and arrange life so much better. She leans forward, feeling her heart beating, so fast, so painful now. “Mother,” she whispers, putting out her hand, one finger gently brushing the little door. “I’m here.”
“I honestly couldn’t say when she left,” the woman in the peach cardigan said. She’d not noticed her go – just her joy – the clap of her hands – people came and went all day and some of the exhibits were large so you didn’t always see people as they moved about the room. “Sorry,” she said, “I really am. She loved it.”
“She seemed OK,” the waitress said, “just really ancient; frail. She didn’t know you have to order at the counter. But not like, you know, demented. She drank her
“A proper old fashioned lady,” was the coach driver’s view. He said he’d never lost one before.
“Pleasant but reserved,” the tour party agreed. “It’s certainly put the dampeners on a nice trip.”
They board the coach home, leaving the local police searching the town, checking cafes and gift shops. There have been no sightings. The helicopter hovers over the Straits, searching for the vulnerable adult she has become. In September an inquest opens, is adjourned.
In September too, the exhibition closes. Unfortunately Mrs Cledwyn Hughes, creator of the hotel in miniature has had a fall late August, so it is her daughter who carefully packs the furniture, dolls and tiny accessories. She’s never really seen the attraction, but it’s good to have a hobby and she’s proud of her mam’s skills. She doesn’t notice how many dolls there are – the chefs, the men from the leather sofas, the Nanny and the little girl and an old lady, in a tweed skirt, her white hair in a bun. She is propped, as if creeping along the corridor, her hand on the door to the bedroom where the elegant golden haired doll in evening dress stands stiffly by the window staring out at nothing.
The elderly lady doll, so neat and sweet in a tiny twinset with teeny tiny pearls: Mam is so clever, this one is her most realistic yet. She wraps the body in acid free tissue; pops it in a little box.