This is the second part of a fiction serial, in 1490 words.
November 2018. Maurice Silverman gets a bargain.
It paid to specialise, and Maurice was a specialist. Ever since he had sold his old train set at a profit, toys were his game. Not just any toys though, collectible dolls, and stuffed toys. He occasionally dabbled in automata too, but he wasn’t technically inclined, so resented paying someone else to fix them. Trouble was, all the antique programmes on television were making people wise. Every armchair expert knew about Steiff bears now, and Internet auction sites were so full of fakes, hardly any buyers trusted the real thing.
So he mainly dealt with the trade. Genuine auctions where those in the know went to get what they knew they could sell on.
Nonetheless, junk shops and charity shops were always worth a look, even though they were packed with people trying to get their hands on some genuine Clarice Cliff pottery for under a quid. It had become his habit to go further afield, scouting the second-hand shops in the depressed towns, those where factories had closed, and unemployment was high. And it was in one such small town that he found it, sitting at the back of an animal sanctuary charity shop, run by volunteers.
The dark red hood, the scarlet ribbon, and the hand-crafted lace. It couldn’t be, but it was. He tried to hide his excitement as he casually examined it, pretending to be browsing. It was definitely by Bru et Cie. French, from around 1895. He had seen a photo of it once in a catalogue. ‘Claudine’, a copy of a doll made for unnamed royalty, and very rare. The condition was remarkable, even though the fine stitching and lacework told him it was undoubtedly original. It had a price tag tied to it. Five pounds.
Maurice carried it to the till, smiling at the very large woman in a stained polo shirt that was covered in dog hair. “Would you take three pounds for this? I think my niece might like it”. He didn’t have a niece of course, but decades in the antique game had made lying come easy. The woman was thinking about all the cats and dogs that needed neutering, and feeding too. She stood her ground. “It’s a lovely doll, mister. I think five is fair”. He smiled back, unable to make it look even remotely sincere as he fingered the loose change in his pocket. He produced four one pound coins, and placed them on the counter. “Four for cash then?”
In the four hours since they had been open, the takings had amounted to less than two pounds, and a donation of some out of date packets of dog food. She slid the doll into a plastic carrier bag, and scooped the four coins off of the counter. “You got a bargain there mister”.
At home that evening, Maurice did some research in his numerous books, and online too. Before retiring for bed, he was sure the doll was a Claudine, and that only three others had ever been sold. Someone somewhere would pay a pretty penny for that. He would wait though. The market was always fluctuating, and the recent auction figures were not as high as he would have liked. As a middleman, he always had to take a hit. But wait for the right moment, and that hit would be less. For now, the doll could wait. He placed it on a corner shelf next to two tatty Steiff bears, and switched off the light.
Two days later, he was sitting in the room surrounded by dolls and stuffed animals wondering if the forthcoming Christmas rush was going to help him shift some stock. Since his mother had died six years earlier, he had the run of the large house, and was now using her former bedroom as a workshop-cum-stockroom. She had always nagged him about his business. ‘Playing with dolls’ she had called it. She liked to humiliate him in company too. “Maurice could have got a proper job, become an accountant, maybe even started a nice jewellery business. But instead he prefers to play with dolls”.
He had never risen to it. Some Jewish mothers thrived on that, and she was one of them.
Trying to decide on which few unsold naked baby dolls to put together as a job lot, he discarded one with a crack on its porcelain face, and was wondering whether or not to include a black doll instead. It sounded like a whisper at first, and Maurice thought he was hearing things. It might be people outside, talking on the street. Then it was slightly louder, coming from behind him, and above. “Still playing with dolls I see. When are you going to get a real job?” He almost tipped his chair over as he stood up to look, spinning around, unable to believe his ears.
It was his mother’s voice. The long-dead Rosa Silverman.
There was nothing there except for the two shabby bears, and the Claudine doll. He felt cold right down to his feet, and stared at the corner for a long time without moving a muscle. Then the voice spoke again, and he sensed a quivering as the hair around his ears stood on end. “So this is what you have done to my bedroom, Maurice. Shame on you, boy”. He literally ran out the room, slamming the door behind him. On the landing outside, it felt as if his belly was full of ice, and he had to rush into the bathroom to use the toilet before he soiled himself.
It was four full days before he could bring himself to enter the room again. He was carrying a large cardboard box, and quickly placed the baby dolls into it, before grabbing the two bears from the shelf. He avoided the face of the Claudine doll, turning quickly to leave the room. Placing the box on the landing and reaching inside his waistcoat pocket, he took the old key he had found in a drawer, and inserted it into the lock. As he turned it, he could hear his mother’s voice from inside the room. It was laughing softly.
His contact at the Doll’s Hospital gave him a good price to tidy up the two bears, and he shifted them easily enough at the next auction, along with the three baby dolls. Prices were down by at least twenty percent, but he didn’t want to have any reason to go back into his mother’s old room anytime soon. As he didn’t celebrate Christmas, he spent the holiday doing some research on the Claudine dolls. It was fairly fruitless though, other than turning up some original sales advertisements from the nineteenth century, and more press clippings about a supposed association with Russian royalty at the time of the Czars.
On the first of January, Maurice decided to start the new year by being brave enough to get rid of the doll. He had considered that he might be going insane, hearing his mother’s voice coming from the closed lips of the Claudine. But in the absence of any other symptoms, he came to the conclusion that this was something beyond his control, a manifestation of something he would never understand. Getting his digital camera from the cupboard, he walked slowly upstairs, determined to face his fears. Inside the room, he took the doll down from the shelf and placed it on the cleared surface of the workbench. Six photos were enough. Front, back, full head, and close ups of the lace, the hood, and the dress. He picked up a new box from under the table, and laid some bubble-wrap in the bottom of it. Then he hurriedly wrapped the doll in tissue paper, before placing it inside, with more bubble wrap on top of it. As he stuck the box down with parcel tape, he heard a muffled voice from inside it.
“I hope you got my best side, Maurice”.
He uploaded the photos to Ebay, and offered it for sale by auction with a starting price of five hundred pounds. There was also a ‘buy-it-now’ option, of fifteen hundred. It might have fetched more at a specialist sale, but he wanted it out of the house. In that week, there were no bids. So Maurice relisted the doll at half the previous price. Still nothing. When it got to the end of the month, he saw that one person was watching the item, so he changed the listing to a straight auction with no starting price. That created some interest, and two bidders began to battle for the doll. But on the sixth day, it was still only up to one seventy-two, and he finally had to let it go at that, plus his postal costs.
Using a marker pen, he wrote the buyer’s name on the address label.
Mrs Jane Boyd.