This is the twelfth part of a fiction serial, in 1900 words.
June 1901. Marcel buys a doll.
He wasn’t certain if it was the blonde hair or the cupid lips that first caught his attention, but Marcel knew immediately that he had to have her. He fixed a smile as he entered the small shop, his story prepared. As usual, he had never shopped there before. It had to be a different shop every time, or they might get to know him too well. The female assistant returned his smile as he spoke. “The doll in the window, with the blonde hair and red hood. Can I see it please?” Her eyebrows raised, and she tilted her head. “Oh I see that Monsieur has excellent taste. That is by one of the finest doll makers in the country”.
When she handed it over, the feel of the material and the sight of the delicate lace almost took his breath away. After a few seconds, he handed it back. “Thank you, I will take it”. The assistant hesitated, as she hadn’t mentioned the price. The customer looked respectable enough, but his shoes were worn, and the cuffs of his shirt had been turned. “Did you see the small label with the price, Monsieur? Dolls of this quality don’t come cheap, I’m afraid”. What she said was true enough. It would eat up almost half of his savings, but would be worth it. Opening his wallet, he spoke in a cheery tone. “Please gift wrap the doll. It is a present for my niece for her birthday next week”. As he counted out the notes, his fingers were trembling.
Marcel Vannier had no living relatives.
After leaving with the doll, he stopped at a shabby-looking haberdashery shop on the next corner. Haggling with the almost-toothless owner got him some red velvet and a scarlet ribbon for a reasonable price. But he would have to make do without the lace, which was too expensive. Clutching both parcels, he hurried home to his three-room apartment in a run down area of Paris. Saturday afternoons and Sundays were his only free time, and he knew how to make the best of them. He had left his home in a village near Dijon to find work in Paris as a legal clerk, and these Parisians knew how to work you. Ten hours a day, and a half-day on Saturdays too. But at least it gave him the freedom and anonymity he sought.
In the spare room, he started work on the outfit without even taking off his jacket. With the new doll perched on the edge of his work table, he studied it carefully as he cut the material into shape. If he worked fast into the night, it might be ready tomorrow. In the early hours, eyes red and sore from the close work, he took one last look at the completed outfit, wrapped around the dressmaker’s mannequin. The shelves behind were lined with dressed dolls of all shapes and sizes, and the walls covered in sewing patterns, or pages cut from magazines. Bending to pick up the large oil lamp, he walked through into his living room,, and the small bed in the corner. He was in need of sleep.
Awake early on Sunday, Marcel walked through to the workroom excitedly. He was soon looking through his cupboards and drawers, selecting the best hosiery and underwear. Once he had applied the rouge and make up, he tried on the latest outfit. When topped off with a blonde wig from his extensive collection, he looked exactly like the new doll. At least he told himself that. Prancing around the small room in a pair of specially-made side-button half-boots, he spoke to the rows of assembled, silent dolls. “What do you think, girls? Do I look divine? Better than any woman, I am sure you will agree?” He sat on the stool by his work bench, ruffling his skirts and petticoats, smiling coquettishly into his reflection in the small mirror. Today was going to be a wonderful day, he was sure of it. Later on, he might even wear his favourite black dress with the veil, over the front-lacing corset he had commissioned. He looked wonderful as a widow.
As he set off on a tour around his three rooms, the sharp heels clicking on the bare boards, he thought he heard something. Standing still, he listened again.
“You should try a white dress, a bridal gown. You would indeed be a beautiful bride”.
The voice was that of a young woman; soft, and rather seductive. Could someone be in the apartment? But there were just three rooms, and the door was locked. As he hesitated, he heard it again. “More fetching than any woman I have ever seen. Dress for me, and I will adore you”. His head turned with a snap. The voice was coming from the row of dolls near the work-table. He edged closer, despite feeling a little afraid. “I will tell you what suits you best. What goes with your colouring, how to do your make-up, and how to entrance anyone”. There was no doubt it was the new doll, the one with the scarlet ribbon that matched the one he was also wearing. Marcel was no longer afraid. In fact, he was flattered.
“A bride you say? Yes, I would make a delightful blushing bride indeed”. That evening, he wore the black dress. He had never felt better in his life.
As soon as he could get out of work the next Saturday, he went to the garment district. A long walk, but worth it. The white silk material was terribly expensive, as were the white silk stockings, and white underwear. Unable to get any soft white shoes in his size, he settled for a pair that would be too small. He would just have to force his feet into them. At least the material for the veil was cheap, and he could wear his late grandmother’s jewellery to set off the ensemble. It took all night to make, and he had no time to sleep before trying it on late the next morning. Tottering painfully into the workroom in the ill-fitting shoes, he curtsied before the doll. The voice he heard was still soft.
“Oh, how wonderful. You truly are the most lovely bride I have ever seen. From now on, I shall call you Marcella”.
The next few years were some of the best Marcel had ever known. With the help of the doll, he transformed himself into a beautiful woman, every weekend. Her tips on style were perfect, and she had ideas he would never have thought of. But the satisfaction came at a price. Buying new material every weekend had wiped out his savings. The doll insisted he get new underwear and shoes for each new outfit too. He had to use the same shops more than once, and his constant search for female shoes in the largest possible sizes was beginning to attract unwelcome remarks. He had also missed some Mondays at work due to being so tired. His employer was irritated by his feeble excuses, and gave him a warning that the next time he didn’t turn up, he would lose his job.
Struggling to get by on his wages alone, his savings gone, he started to sell off many of the dolls in his extensive collection. Eventually, only two remained. The small Widow Doll dressed in black, and the one that spoke to him. She would not tell him if she had a name, so he called her ‘Red Ribbon’. As he reached for the Widow Doll late one evening, Red Ribbon suddenly spoke. This time, the voice was not soft. It was sharp, and strident. “So you are going to sell her, are you?” I thought it would come to this. Well I warn you now, if you ever think of selling me, I will tell everyone about Marcella, and what you do every weekend. Don’t think I can’t do that. Your employer will know, your landlord will now. You will have no job, and be cast out onto the streets, laughed at everywhere you go”. Marcel snatched the Widow Doll, and ran out of the room.
On the following Saturday, he used the last of his cash to buy the claret coloured material to make the dress Red Ribbon had demanded to see him in. It was a complex design, and not finished until Sunday afternoon. Exhausted, he dressed as he had been told to, and presented himself to the doll for inspection. The comment was less than flattering this time. “I suppose it will have to do”. Marcel didn’t wake up until almost ten that Monday, and he was still wearing the dress, and full make-up. By the time he got cleaned up and changed, he didn’t get to work until after eleven. His employer looked at him with dead eyes. “Don’t even bother to sit down, Vannier. You are finished here, and will get no reference”. As Marcel tried a flimsy excuse, the man held up his hand, and turned his back.
There was no money for food, or for coal. As he sat shivering in his living room, Marcel pondered his bleak future. Eviction, wandering around looking for work, the possible indignity of labouring for a living. Existing on handouts as a beggar perhaps, in a city full of beggars. He could sell the dresses, but who would they fit? Then what would he wear, for his only diversion and obsession? And now that he no longer had anything to lose, he could sell Red Ribbon. But what he could get for her would only last a few days at the most. He gave a deep sigh, and made a decision.
Two stockings would be enough. They will stretch nicely, he thought to himself as he tied them together to fashion a noose. The only thing strong enough to hold his weight was the large bracket supporting the highest shelf on the wall of his workroom. He walked through with a sense of purpose, and dragged the stool over from the table. Kneeling on the seat, he tied the stocking around the cold metal, then pulled on it with all his might. It was good. It would hold. Before he could slip the loop around his neck and climb up to stand on the stool, Red Ribbon shouted from across the room.
“Wait!” He stopped and turned, looking directly at the doll. “You should wear your black dress, the widow ensemble. It is definitely your best look, and you will want to be looking your best when they find you, won’t you?” Marcel smiled. The doll was absolutely right.
When no rent had been forthcoming for two weeks, the landlord let himself in. The smell was overpowering, and the sight that greeted him almost too much to take in. He closed the door, and went out into the street to summon a policeman.
Constable Leclerc had been a policeman for almost twenty years, and nothing surprised him any longer. As he waited in the room for the men to come and remove the body, he glanced around. The doll on a shelf looked expensive. He sauntered over, and picked it up. Opening some buttons on his tunic, he stuffed it deep inside.
There was a shop he knew. They would buy it, he was sure.