Matilda sat with the dollhouse cradled between her knees. Blonde hair tumbled down to frame her face as careful, delicate hands worked to arrange each little piece of furniture: the little velvet couch that had once been a sweet blue but had faded to almost grey, the little China sink, the little double bed with its matching kitten motif duvet and pillows. Everything was little, so small and perfectly sized for her hands.
They weren’t fiddly. For some people they might be, people with big and clumsy and impatient fingers; Matilda curved her body over the house, as if to shield it from the thought of them. Instead of finding them fiddly, she loved how easily she could take it all apart, then start anew and place them all back wherever she liked. She needed no help with it, no advice from the blundering fingered ones.
The dolls were the best part. There were three of them, each shaped from China, like the little sink and bathtub and kitchen worktops and table. Synthetic fibers made up their hair that she would twist into any style – she even had miniature hairbands and clips. One had blonde, falling elbow-length, currently in two braids tied with bows. The two had darker: the first brown and tangled to the shoulders, with messy bangs and the other with black, in close-cropped style. They all smiled, wide eyed and flushed. Matilda could imagine it was in excitement, or hope or content. They could be anything she liked, and they could be always happy and perfect.
They were all feminine at first glance, but she had masculine clothes for them as well if she wanted a male character, and they had no set age. Sometimes they would be a married couple and their orphaned niece or nephew, sometimes three best friends or constantly arguing siblings, who really just loved each other in the end. Every day was a new show, a new wonderland to fall down into.
When Mama and Papa had first given her the dollhouse, they’d said that, if she wanted, they could be the three of them. They’d gotten her their first three little outfits – the rest she’d collected loyally over the years, outfits for all occasions, from swimming to firefighting – a pink laced dress with a sweetheart neckline for Baby Mattie, then work clothes for Mama and Papa. Matilda was the blonde one, of course, Papa the black haired (yet admittedly without his now-greying roots), and Mama the brunette. Though she’d protested, for surely Mama could see that the doll’s hair was a much darker brown than her own, which was of a lighter, milk chocolate shade, with almost blondish highlights. Mama had said that it didn’t matter; with a tiny bit of Mattie’s imagination, the dolls could become whoever she wanted. Whatever she wanted.
Matilda had never underestimated her imagination after that, because it allowed her to escape everything.
Rolling her legs in and out so that her toes would bump, she dressed them this way, as close as she could to how they’d first been placed in her care by Mama and Papa. She couldn’t remember whether Mama’s hair had been down or up, or if Papa had worn his black or brown work shoes, but eventually she decided by wild instinct on an option for each. She got out a minute brush that matched the pink of Baby Mattie’s dress and sat – crossed legs now, the dolls pillowed in her lap – brushing out each individual tangle in Mama’s hair the way she’d always done for her, and then put Papa’s black shoes on, because he’d always preferred them for work (as they didn’t show the dirt, he told Matilda one time, but that was a secret). She tilted the dolls to face her, gazing tenderly.
“Is that right?” she whispered. Mama and Papa smiled. Yes, they’re happy, she thought, with a pleased gasp. She rocked left and right in her crossed-legs position, always making sure to switch directions just before her knee hit the carpet. They’re always happy. I can’t do anything wrong.
I can’t do anything wrong. She paused, her unreality blurring for a second. She could feel the overwhelming emotions set behind their dam - fear and stress and anxiety and worry and responsibility - and she could feel it cracking.
No, no, I don’t want to come down yet. Just a little longer. Please, pretty please.
Gravity was wrapping her arms around Matilda again, but she desperately pulled away from the grip, thinking again: Of course, I can’t do anything wrong. Mama and Papa are my grown-ups, my protectors. I’m the baby.
Mama could stay with Baby Mattie as she played, while Papa went to the shops to get dinner. Matilda placed the blonde and brunette dolls in the room with the double bed, the larger room on the second floor of the dollhouse which had cream and white striped wallpaper: she’d earlier decided it would be the master bedroom for now. Papa’s doll went toddling off to where she imagined the shops were – Mattie had mastered the act of using just two fingers to push the legs in a walking motion, and she could almost hear Papa’s humming to the eighties music in his earphones. Matilda had always felt eighties music was silly and old, something Papa scoffed at, but whenever she heard it, she thought affectionately of him. She could always think affectionately of him, and Mama. They were so constant, so loving.
Papa would come back from the shops soon, Matilda knew. He never left Baby Mattie alone for too long, because she was still his little girl, he said. She’d always be his little girl. He’d come back with a basket full of goodies, everything Mattie liked, and for no price. Everything could be free in this world. No bills, taxes, loans, all that awful–
“Mommy, have you forgotten to make dinner again?”
The dam broke; Matilda’s wonderland shattered, like the glaze on the China dolls. She looked at them bleakly now. They were so fragile.
“Mommy,” the soft, whiney voice came again, “are you playing with my dollhouse?” Matilda glanced from the dolls still in her lap to the dollhouse in front. Childhood – something that felt so, so far away. “Mommy.” She scooped up the dolls, not Mama and Papa and Baby Mattie anymore, just dolls. Not even her dolls, not anymore. “Mommy.”
Dinner. Had she forgotten? Probably. She didn’t think she even had anything in the fridge. Money was so tight and she was so young.
Not dollhouse-playing young. She straightened up, stretching the aches in her back that had formed from stooping over. Seventeen. She was practically a grown-up. An adult.
“Mommy, you’ve gone away again. Come back.”
But I’m still the baby.
And she was aware that she had to let go a little, sometimes. If your grip gets too tight on reality in all its sharp-edged brutality, it starts to cut through your skin like knives, to get at your heart. To survive, you have to let go. But not all the time. She knew that; she had to. Otherwise, she’d float away, and she’d never come back.
She looked up at the rounded, rosy-cheeked face staring curiously at her, innocent eyes wide. One day he’d face reality, too, and it would try cut at him. At least she could do all in her power to shield him from it all from as long as possible, drag him back down when his mind flew too far away. Not the other way around.
She painted a smile, like the ones on the little, fragile dolls. They smiled, but inside they were empty, really.
She had to smile. For him.
“Sorry, baby. Of course, I haven’t forgotten.”