Fiction: The Doll Thing, by Mercedes Webb-Pullman

There is enough room for four of us kids along the back seat of our big blue car. The front bench seat holds Mum-and-the-baby, Julie and of course Dad–the-Driver. We are on the way to the beach for a swim. We’re not going to the usual beach, though, this time we’re going to Opononi, to see the doll thing.

dolphin with girl.jpgIn the back seat we fight to be first to call “I can see the sea! I can see the sea!” and Robyn, as eldest, must judge. Mike and Rex push to be near the window. But it doesn’t really matter who sees it, that first glimpse of misty white-speckled blue, seen between green hills that slope together and somehow hold the magic wedge up against the blue sky, makes us all break out in song and shout and noise, until Dad turns around and cuffs casually at the heads bobbing behind him, so we draw back and become silent. “When will we be there?” asks Rex, but quietly, no longer insistent. The view of the sea means the journey is almost over, an end to the games of I Spy and verses of the Quartermaster’s Store and Ten Green Bottles, of counting cars and watching for white horses and black dogs.

I play with my new doll, moving the eyes open and closed. They are blue and glassy, and move with a little clunking sound. Although her head has only painted-on hair, the eyes have bristly brown eyelashes like little fans.

Dad parks on the sand, near the hotel and walks over to join the group of men spilling out onto the jetty. “I’ll keep an eye on the kids from there, OK?” expecting no answer, while Mum carries the baby and holds Julie’s hand, Robyn and Mike take the baskets and bags, and Rex and I carry the blankets down to
the beach. Togs and towels organized, Mum stays there with the baby. “The big kids have to look after the little kids, and no fighting.” says Mum.

I’m a middle kid, and I’m already five and going to school. I was little, until the new babies came. Robyn isn’t my boss any more, but I’m not boss of anyone.

The sea is calm. I’m allowed to go in by myself while Robyn makes sandcastles with the boys. I like being wet, I like the cool feel of the little waves moving past, the wet sand giving under my feet and above, the blue sky with cotton wool clouds. There are a lot of children in the water, splashing and shrieking in the sun. Someone says “The doll thing! There’s the doll thing!” and I look around. My doll is on the beach with Mum and the baby, lying in the sun with her eyes closed. I imagine a doll with a fish tail, swimming with me.

Then, there beside me in the water, is a big fish – with bright button eyes, that seem to laugh with me. I laugh more, smacking the water with the palms of my hands and crowing. The doll thing turns and swims back next to me, puffing air, smiling with its little teeth and the bright black eyes, making a chattering sound that is almost a question. It is very shiny and looks as smooth as the plastic of my new doll.

I hold out my hands to it, palms open, the way I ask Mum for a hug. The doll thing seems to understand. It swims closer, rolls over in the water beside me so its bright eye is looking straight up into my eyes, then swims behind me, and I feel its blunt nose come between my legs, and lift me. Then I am moving on the doll thing, it is swimming and I am swimming on it, moving through the water sitting on the doll thing.

Everyone is looking at us. I try to hold on but there is nothing to hold on to so I just sit, laughing and moving, feeling the doll thing moving under me, cool and smooth in the water. There are voices and seagulls and sun, people are calling to me, and pointing at me, and the sea is moving, and the feel of the doll thing.

This is almost like flying, I am flying in the water, laughing and waving, looking up into the sky and the clouds. I feel as if the doll thing could take me into the sky, right now, we could just fly out of the water and into the clouds.

Then Dad is there, up to his waist in the water, calling out to me. “DeeDee! Don’t go too far! You’re in deep water! Hop off now!” with his angry voice. I lose balance, and the doll thing swims away from under me, leaving me coughing and struggling in the water, dogpaddling to Dad. He walks beside me until I am standing on the sand again; now he’s not angry, he’s laughing at me and telling me I am special because the doll thing chose me. I am happy, filled with such a big feeling I don’t know how to let it out. “Did you see me with the doll thing, Dad? Did you? The doll thing took me for a swim!”

Strangers are talking to me, but I save my words for my sister. She is the one who tells me stories; she will know how magical this is. I run up the beach, laughing and calling to Robyn. “Did you see me with the doll thing?” and she turns from the sand castle, says “Dolphin. It’s called a dolphin. Don’t you know anything?”

I stop. Somehow the day has just turned inside out. The sun is not so bright any more. I pick up my doll from the sand and sit with her, opening and closing her eyes with a faint clunk clunk, staring at the sea where the dolphin lives.

 

First published in Rangitawa Publishing’s first anthology.

Click through to find out more about Mercedes Webb-Pullman’s work. 

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