They were all looking at me, a frozen audience, unseeing eyes, painted, glass and embroidered eyes.
Mrs Lorne smiled at me. She was a tiny woman with white hair and her eyes were bright blue, glowing with the pleasure of showing me her collection.
‘You know that the Japanese believe that dolls have souls, given to them by their maker? When the doll is broken or no longer wanted, you have to take it to a special temple.’
‘What on earth do they do with all the piles of old dolls?’ I asked.
‘I’ve no idea,’ she said. ‘It’s just something I read.’
This house was like a sort of doll temple, with a room upstairs and this one downstairs crammed with dolls of all descriptions. Apparently they were worth a lot of money, and I was here to photograph every single one of them for insurance purposes.
‘How many are there?’
‘Seven hundred and eighty three.’
This was going to be a long job.
Mrs Lorne watched as I set up a shooting platform in the only unoccupied space in the room, with a little doll chair for them to sit on.
‘Each one must go back in its proper place,’ she said, ‘and when you’re finished here, you can move upstairs.’
I expected them to be dusty, but they weren’t, which must mean that Mrs Lorne either dusted them daily, or played with all her dolls, or both. I tried not to think about that. In my time I have photographed a lot of collections for the insurance company, but this was definitely the creepiest.
On the third day, they began to talk to me.
I was arranging a large French doll on the chair, fanning out her elaborate skirts and positioning her head, when she said, ‘Which of us is prettiest?’
She obviously meant for me to say that she was, so I smiled and carried on with posing her.
‘Don’t you think that I am beautiful?’ she said.
You should understand that her mouth did not move, she did not move, but her voice was quite clear, and at first I thought it was only in my head. I went back to the camera and checked the focus.
‘Don’t ignore me!’ she said, a tart edge to her voice.
‘I’m not ignoring you. I’m thinking. It’s not usual to be spoken to by an inanimate object. I think I may be having a psychotic episode.’
‘What’s that?’ she said. ‘And don’t call me an inanimate object. I am animated every time anyone looks at me.’
I took my shot, made my notes and went to put the doll back in her place.
‘Don’t touch me!’ she snapped.
I could not help noticing that she was glaring at me. Had her expression changed? Those wide-open blue eyes, pink cheeks and rosebud mouth certainly seemed less charming and more set in annoyance.
Taking a breath, I picked her up and deposited her back on her own personal stand, half afraid that she would slap me.
I took a moment to get hold of myself, then left the room. Mrs Lorne had set up a coffee machine for me so hot coffee and a supply of biscuits were waiting. I had to drink it in the kitchen — hazardous liquids were not allowed near the precious things — but that was fine by me. Two chocolate digestives and a mugful of bitter black coffee later and I was ready to laugh the whole thing off as the product of low blood sugar and an overactive imagination.
The sooner I got this job done, the better, then. I washed up my mug and went back to it.
The room was in an uproar. The dolls sat perfectly still, but hundreds of tiny voices were bouncing off the walls — something inside them was alive and kicking.
‘Quiet!’ I yelled, and the row subsided.
‘She thinks she’s so important,’ said one little voice.
‘You’re all fools,’ said a rough voice, emerging from an odd carved doll near the window, dressed in beaded rags. ‘Your beauty is fake Jeanne, and your spirit is that of an angry wasp.’
‘Shut up!’ said Jeanne, the French doll who had started all this. ‘You are just a crude bit of old wood. I hope the worms eat you.’
‘Be quiet the lot of you,’ I said. ‘Jeanne, you are pretty, but you need to learn manners.’
Then I realised that I was talking to a roomful of dolls and I stopped. I consulted my notes and picked up the next doll, which happened to be the wooden doll in beaded rags. This doll had a crudely carved face with worn painted eyes, mouth and hair, and its clothes were made of a loosely-woven fabric not quite as coarse as hessian, onto which a large number of small glass beads had been randomly stitched. The cloth was blackened here and there at the edges and there was a faint ashy smell. It was quite ugly, but I liked it.
It was a bit too small for the doll chair, but I balanced it on there in a pleasing attitude and took the photo.
‘Take me away from here,’ its little raspy voice said. ‘I can’t stand these empty-headed fashion dolls. I was made for a real purpose.’
I considered this for a moment, then decided not to pay any more attention to these voices in my head.
‘I’ll be your friend,’ it said.
I shivered, but pretended not to hear. Replacing the doll, I went on to the next.
That day I completed the photos of the dolls in the downstairs display room, and on my way out I told Mrs Lorne that I would move on to the room upstairs in the morning.
‘I heard you talking to them,’ she said, smiling.
I mumbled something in reply, embarrassed.
‘They get to you, don’t they?’ she said. ‘I’ve been talking to them for years.’
‘Do they ever talk back?’
She laughed, but there was a curious look in her eyes.
At home, before I got dinner, I downloaded the day’s photos and went to my bag for the tablet with my notes. A little, worn, carved face was looking up at me.
‘How did you get in there?’ I said, horrified. Mrs Lorne would think I was stealing from her.
‘Don’t worry about that,’ said the rough, splintery voice.
I was going to have to go back straight away, return the doll and make some excuse for myself.
Mrs Lorne’s street was blocked off. There was a fire engine in front of her house and the smell of smoke in the air. I dodged around the barrier and ran up there. A fireman stopped me.
‘Mrs Lorne?’ I cried.
‘You know the old lady? She’s okay, shocked but not hurt. They took her to hospital because she was very upset. The fire was confined to one room. You know, we had to stop her from running in there. That room is completely burned, but the rest of the house is fine, we’re not sure why.’
I knew which room it was.
‘Jeanne is not so pretty now, eh?’ said the voice from my bag. ‘Remember, I’m your friend now.’