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A plain transcript of Janet’s narrative would be unintelligible to even the most energetic reader, and so I am required to fashion a story out of what she had said. You will simply have to trust me that nothing significant has been left out.

When Janet was a little girl, she spent several years living with her sister Lu in the big manor house outside the village of Waldingham. It was wartime and so the children had been sent away from Edinburgh and the arena of the Firth. An invading Nazi tank was unlikely to ever pause at Waldingham, other than to curse the bare fields and possibly execute the driver by the roadside for getting them so lost.

Janet was a tiny child and she was kept mostly on the first floor of the house. Here, she pattered about happily within her own little world, absorbed in conspiracies amongst her dolls which sounded as tangled and flimsy as cobwebs to those who sometimes listened in on her. Lu was several years older than Janet and she was unable to conceal her impatience with her little sister’s company. She was expected to look after Janet and the kitchen staff disapproved of her tendency to instead scamper off helter-skelter around the countryside, like a leaf blowing on the air.

Various people had lived in the big house with the children, but the children had known less than the birds about their names and positions. The head of the household was away serving in North Africa. The man who he had left behind as his representative always caused Lu to feel uncomfortably alert whenever he made an appearance on the floor of the house. He would shuffle about, gloating and smirking to himself, as if he was making private calculations which were working out to his satisfaction. He had nonetheless acquired the portliness which befitted a minor authority figure. Some historical skill at bookkeeping, which largely put a polish on his innate deviousness, also set him a whole level above the rest of the household.

The children had referred to this figure as Mr Man. Though it had not occurred to them at the time, his surname might have been Mann. The kitchen staff sometimes gossiped thrillingly about Mr Man’s remote German ancestry. On these occasions, the children overheard how a fearsomely bearded figure in leather clothing would every day study the household from afar. Through his binoculars, he would pick up secret messages from Mr Man’s coordination of the dinner times and grocery deliveries.

Once Lu had ventured into Mr Man’s cabin-office, frantic to know if anybody on the estate had found her missing tennis ball. Out in the garden earlier in the afternoon, she had hit the ball with such unbelievable power that she had shocked herself. She had spent the next fifty minutes searching the surrounding area for it. The ball had apparently vaporised and the mystery was maddening.

Mr Man replied that he would make inquiries about the tennis ball, in such a way as to confirm that he would never think about it ever again. He then sat back, with that smirk pinching at his face. It was clear that he wished to open a new topic of conversation and he proceeded in as casual a tone as possible. “You’re very bright aren’t you?” he began. “I can see that. I can tell that you are very bright.”

The subtext to this was: so am I, you know!

Lu thanked Mr Man without warmth. But he had sat forward before she was finished.

“How fast can you read though? Do you think you can read as fast as me?”

Lu had no idea.

“Look at this,” Mr Man instructed her.

He opened a Bible on his desk and began to silently examine it. As he did so, Lu became aware, with a shudder, that he was running his finger down the side of the page to indicate the rate at which he was reading. He was seemingly reading two lines of Scripture per second. He then paused and sat back to gloat at Lu, with a film of sweat now on his brow.

Lu trooped away, still more concerned about her tennis ball.

Most of the rest of the household consisted of pleasant, roly-poly old ladies who Lu naturally assumed were immensely wise. The sort of old lady who they don’t make any more: who knows how to cook magical, spiced little biscuits, and what is the correct thing to smear on a nettle rash, and where exactly the local hedgehogs live, and what all of the verses are to “one for sorrow, two for joy…”

Yet the person who Lu liked most of all was an elegant, sad-looking little man with silver hair called Mr Hatter, who helped out in both the house and the gardens. Despite having no children of his own, he was always entirely relaxed with children. He was one of those adults who are unfailingly polite to children and instinctively conscious of their needs. Whenever Lu was playing up, he would wheedle and advise her, never raising his voice or getting cross. This made him a figure of incomparable authority to her. Mr Hatter also had a baggy brown dog, called Jack, who looked just as sad and noble as Mr Hatter did. Mr Hatter would usually find an opportunity every day to run down through the woods to Waldingham and Jack would pad briskly alongside him. Lu always wanted to come too, not because she wished to visit the village, but because she felt calm in Mr Hatter’s company.

Once a very tall, pale young man had appeared at the house but neither of the children took to him. It was said that he was a pilot, but they did not know if he was injured or merely on leave. He always seemed to walk as if he had sprained a muscle somewhere in his lower body, but you could have never put your finger on where. He was cheerful in that false manner that people usually exhibit when they are confronted with children and don’t have the precise level of magnetism to connect with them. The pilot drifted around the house for several weeks and it was at some point during this interregnum that he built the dolls’ house.

Lu was old enough to perceive that the house had not been really built for them, out of kindness, but merely to demonstrate, or even to exercise, a technical skill which the pilot took pride in. She had the impression that if no children had been quartered in his home, the pilot might have still constructed something like the dolls’ house and then dedicated it to some of the neighbours’ children or a nearby hospital. They had been told that the pilot was busy building the house for them in his workshop and this made Lu nervous. When prompted, they would have to supply a suitable display of gratitude.

At last the dolls’ house was unveiled and it was impossible to feel any genuine gratitude for it. There was simply no redeemable feature for a potentially grateful little girl to latch on to. The house corresponded to the form of a dolls’ house in all practical respects, but the pilot had evidently never looked at the house through a child’s eyes or imagined how a child might play with it. The house was generously proportioned, but excessively plain. There was no boudoir for the dolls to luxuriate in; no dark den where the bad dolls could lurk and plot. The house was also dreadfully understocked when it came to furniture. In the nursery, the baby doll was apparently expected to lie on the floor staring at the ceiling. In the dining room, the table and chairs had been painted on to the wall and the dolls were ostensibly just meant to stand in front of them. And the dolls themselves were not dolls which any child could love. They were wooden pegs, with faces and limbs crudely hacked out of them with a pocket knife almost as an afterthought. They were almost too big to successfully inhabit their own house. In some rooms, they had to lean sideways in order to fit between the ceiling and the floor.

Before they were led to their new toy, Lu had to bribe and threaten Janet to look as if she liked it. There might be trouble if the house received a cold reception. Lu could picture the pilot spluttering with vexation and stamping his foot, before expelling them from his house so that they would have to live out the rest of the war in the woods. Lu would not in fact mind such a fate, at least were she to be by herself, for she vaguely fancied that she could forge her way in Tahitian splendour, feasting on berries and sipping nectar from the flowers. If Janet was going to tag along too, though, this would spoil everything. Janet would be always moaning that she was cold and constantly adamant that she was bored or hungry.

Thankfully, Janet would react to the house with theatrical gratitude, squealing “thank coo” as insistently as if this was the magic spell which would open a cave door. She then became actually preoccupied in pouring over this bulky eyesore, peeping through the windows and sticking her nose into its drearily wallpapered rooms. Lu was relieved. The pilot looked startled that his house had inspired such interest.

Although Lu disliked the dolls’ house, she could not entirely dismiss it from her mind. The pilot had bungled this house. It reminded Lu rather of a huge stodgy brown cake without any icing, the sort of cake which had seemed to reign over them like an insatiable tyrant throughout this war. Lu was not a spoiled little girl – she was conscious that many children were not being currently treated to any new toys at all. When she looked at this house, however, she could only see the house that it could have been.

Janet fidgeted over the house and enlisted the dolls in some wispy little games. But even these began to gravitate inexorably away from the house. The dolls went out into their garden, or at least to the blank carpet which Janet had bestowed on them as a garden, for a picnic, leaving behind their dingy rooms. Next they had gone on holiday. Finally, Lu gathered, they were compelled to live away from their house because a war had been declared.

[Next instalment: “The Waldingham Woods.”]