“Nevis,” I said, “why do you think we’ve lasted this long? I mean, there were thousands of us when we were new. I remember being in a workroom and I was just one of a sea of faces that looked all alike, or pretty much so. Why aren’t there more of us?”
We had been drinking a bit. Normally, Nevis isn’t my chosen gossip companion. However, I’ve been drinking more than usual, myself, in these unsettled times.
He grunted a bit, put down his drink and looked at me. I don’t think he normally likes me much better than I do him. He thinks I am a shallow stuck up snob, and I think of him as a drunken ne’er do well who has wasted his life away. I know he’s intelligent, but what good is intelligence if you let it sit and sour?
“I’m not very well made,” he said, after a bit of thought. “I’m composition, and composition doesn’t hold up well. I was never made to last. I was made to be a plaything for boys, who are rough on their toys to begin with. I’m a wartime toy and boys blew us up with caps trying to be realistic about a war that was brutal and beyond their understanding. Boys were using us to act out what they thought the grownups were doing.
“You,” he added, “were a pretty thing from the beginning. Meant to be dolled up and looked at. Created to be treated gently.”
“But we weren’t,” I said. “I can’t tell you the last time I met one of my own family. Sure, bisque is more durable than pressed sawdust, but bisque breaks, doesn’t it? Crumbles into bits. My body is old leather, and it’s all dark and brittle. I don’t think we were meant to last this long. I feel awfully old! I’ve outlived so many friends, and I’ve had so many owners. I can’t help feeling this is all wrong.”
“Why worry?” he said. “What is is what is. Just accept it.”
“I want to understand it,” I said. “If there’s a reason why I’m alive out of hundreds and hundreds of my sisters, I want to know what it is. I feel as though I’m meant to be doing something. As if there is some greater meaning to my life and I can almost see it but not quite, and it really bothers me. I feel horribly ancient and I miss the old ways and people who are gone, and I really miss Amelia. She was my first owner. I guess not really the first, but the first who loved me and played with me.”
“I can’t believe you were owned by anyone who didn’t love you. You’re something rather special, and always were. You were no common dime store dolly,” he said.
“No,” I agreed, not being conceited or anything, just stating a fact.
“I was high priced to begin with,” I said, “but my first owner was a little girl who had so many dolls she didn’t know what to do with them. When I was given to her, I was just thrown upon the heap. I think she was really too old for dolls when she got me. She never cared about me. One day she gave me to a maid at the house and that’s when my life really began because I was given to the maid’s niece and that was Amelia. Amelia loved me with all her heart. I was pretty much her only doll. There was an old rag thing that barely had a face. Amelia loved her, too, and would never throw her out. We used to sit together on the shelf. Hattie Sue was her name. I can’t believe I still remember it. Hattie Sue. What a long time ago that was. I wonder whatever happened to poor old Hattie Sue. She was a fright but she was jolly and not a bit jealous when I came to live with them. I would’ve been jealous, but then I’ve never been a nice person. Not really.”
“Poor little rich girl,” Nevis said, and poured me another glass of wine. Like I needed it. Nevis used to write poetry and stories, though I never read one (wouldn’t he be shocked if he could see me? scribbling down my thoughts), and I think he was very sympathetic, since he spent his time trying to imagine how other dolls felt so he could write stories about them.
I shrugged. “I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve had my share of hard times, like all of us. I’ve been lucky, but I’ve been unwanted and unloved plenty of times. My face saved me, I guess. If I weren’t so pretty I’d be out on the trash heap.”
“I was born during the war,” he said. “I belonged to a boy who grew up and became a soldier himself and died. Playing with me led him to his destiny, a grassy hill thousands of miles away from home when he was 20 years old. His sister kept me all her life to remember him by.”
We are talking World War I here. Nevis is a battered composition doll who still wears his uniform. I think it’s the only outfit he’s ever owned. He has a little tin hat and a bayonet. His uniform is a steely brown color and he has heavy boots. He is a poet who drinks to excess. My friend Tina has been in love with him for years.
Perhaps it was the wine. We were drowning in memories.
“Were you a dime store doll?” I asked. “What was your store like?”
It helps to know more about a doll’s store. We have such fond memories of our stores, perhaps because we were at our utmost beautiful, sitting there waiting to be bought and to be played with, sitting there untouched in all our glory with our hopes and dreams whole and untarnished. It’s like a golden memory. Some of us didn’t ever have much beyond the store. So many of us don’t last long. I don’t know why I get so maudlin sometimes.
“No, not a dime store, but not much of a step up. It was a wonderful store, though. A department store with anything anyone could want. A big warm friendly store with the greatest toy department. I was a Christmas doll. Under the tree and the whole bit.”
“A Christmas doll!” I exclaimed. “Oh, how lucky you are.”
He gave me a rare smile. “Lucky,” he said. “People don’t call me lucky.”
“Oh, but think of the joy you brought to your boy. I can tell he played with you. It’s written all over you.”
He laughed. “Oh yes. He certainly played with me. A soldier doll for a soldier boy. A doll to make the army and the fighting seem like a game, to lure him into death..
“Well you didn’t know that. You can’t help being a soldier doll, it’s how you were made. Did anyone ask you what you wanted to be? And you didn’t tell him to join the army, did you? He did that all on his own. And you made him happy while you had him, didn’t you? What was he like, your boy? What was his name?”
“I am named after him. He was the first Nevis. His sister gave me his name after he died. He called me Bertie the bombardier, even though I was no bombardier, I was a common foot soldier. You know how kids are. They never see you for what you are.”
“Oh yes,” I agreed. “Amelia had a wonderful imagination. What did he look like?”
“Brown hair,” said Nevis. “Brown eyes. Wonderfully warm brown eyes. Always laughing. Always thinking up mischief, and I was in it up to my neck whenever I could be. It’s a wonder I’m in as good shape as I am. The only time he was tidy was when he first got dressed, and then we were in and out of whatever there was to be into. Stables, woods, attic, cellar, soccer field. It was a marvelous lifetime of sticking plaster and stolen biscuits.”
“His sister used to have a photo of the two of us together,” he added. “Had it framed and it sat on the shelf beside me. It helped me out a lot, remembering. I wish I still had that picture. It got lost somewhere along the way.”
“What got lost?” said Tina, who was just getting there and was about three drinks behind us. She had been washing her bits and pieces, she said.
“Nevis was telling me about his boy, and the picture of the two of them,” I told her. She hugged his shoulders and kissed the top of his head and settled into the stool beside him.
“Poor love,” she said.
“What about you, Tina? Where did you come from? What’s your story?” I said.
“We have been trading pasts,” said Nevis.
Tina downed one all in one gulp. She is an experienced drinker, being Nevis’s constant companion. Tina is a simple soul, following him around like a dog. He is her whole life, and she’s never wanted for anything more. I hope whatever happens to us, wherever we end up, they end up together, because I can’t picture one without the other.
She held out her empty glass towards the bartender. You perhaps cannot picture a bar in a doll’s life, and certainly it’s not anything we normally share with our human counterparts, but all sorts of establishments pop up in little unused corners of your houses. This little book of writings is an attempt to share what a doll’s life is like. Life would be quite dull if all we did was stand on shelves with metal contraptions holding us up. I may not be as reprobate as Nevis and Tina but I see nothing wrong with a drink from time to time and a sit with a good friend to get the gossip.
Perhaps this night I had drunk more than usual.
“You already know all about me,” said Tina. “I have no secrets. I was born a bed doll and never belonged to a child at all. I’ve smoked and drunk since I was born. I’ve danced and laughed and never had a care in the world. I’m no beauty and I was born with this cigarette hanging out of my mouth. My old wig fell off and my dress was so cheap it fell apart in shreds. This is new hair (not very new anymore, I guess) and this crazy polkadot dress is a remake. Even my face is painted over. I was born cynical. What can I say?”
She laughed her husky laugh and sipped at drink #2. I sat and thought of the infinite sadness of having never been loved by a child. I was glad I was me and that it was Tina who was Tina.
I am especially glad I wasn’t born with a cigarette hanging out of my mouth.
(Gabriel Canul’s sketch of Nevis)