Christmas was coming soon. As I walked down Leytonstone High Street to my bus stop I stopped to look in the brightly decorated windows of Bearman’s Department Store. One window had a living room scene with a fireplace, a decorated Christmas tree with gifts wrapped in shiny paper, and an angel on top. In the room were two child mannequins dressed in their best little suit and tie, and frilly dress and patent leather shoes, down on the floor opening presents, while their Mum and Dad mannequins, in their best suit and tie, and velvet dress and red pumps, smiled down at them. The boy was playing with a model train set and the girl was setting furniture into a beautiful dolls’ house. A lot of people were stopping to stare into this window. It was very well done and looked so real I could smell it – all the lovely, warm, nostalgic smells of Christmas past.
My brother and I didn’t have many toys when we were growing up, because it was wartime and you just couldn’t get toys or anything vaguely resembling a “luxury item.” I don’t remember feeling deprived at all. Our Christmases were spent playing games with as many family members as we could cram into our little front parlor on Napier Road. We made do with what we had.
“Ooh, look at that lovely dolls ‘ouse,” said the plump woman next to me. “I ‘ad one when I were a nipper, but I think mine was made out of a cardboard box!” She was what I thought of as a typical Cockney, hardworking, jolly, with shining, apple-red cheeks, sparkling blue eyes and more laugh-lines around her mouth than on a page in a book.
I couldn’t help but laugh with her, and then I remembered, “Oh, yes, I had one too. I’m pretty sure my Dad or my uncle made it out of plywood, but it was the best toy I ever had.”
“Oh, look, ‘ere comes the bus!” and we hurried over to the bus stop. Of course the bus was crowded, it was rush hour. My Cockney friend took a seat near the front but there were no more. Then a nice, smiling man got up, saying, “Here have my seat, I’m getting off next stop.” I was glad to sit down, as my feet were starting to hurt. I only work part-time in the office of a real estate agent, and I’m lucky and very grateful to still have a job at my age, but by the end of the day I’m tired out. I was glad the bus stop was close to our house, although the traffic got noisy sometimes.
I walked into a cheerful, warmth that smelled so delicious it made my mouth water. “Hello love,” I called to my husband Joe, “what’s for tea. It smells lovely.”
“Sausage and mash with fried onions and tomatoes,” called Joe, “I’ll bring you a cuppa in just a sec.”
A kiss, a hug, and a nice cup of tea, what more could a woman ask for? Joe is so good to me. Not all husbands would cook tea for their wives. Joe used to be on the buses, but he’s older than me and is retired now. He keeps busy though. We have the best garden and most well looked-after house on our street, and he volunteers at the church youth club and the old people’s home.
“You’re to call Henry.” Joe is a man of few words, the strong, silent type.
“Henry, why is everything alright?”
“Yes, he’s fine. He just said he wants to talk to you about something he found in the attic.”
“Well, that sounds mysterious. Perhaps I’d better call him now,” and I dialed my brother Henry. He and his wife Jenny, their children, and their grandchildren were all well, and so were ours, so I asked him what he found in the attic.
“Do you remember your old dolls’ house?”
“Of course I remember it. You mean it’s still there in Mum’s attic? I thought she’d have thrown it out years ago.”
“Well she didn’t. It’s still here, and I’m clearing out the attic so I can make it into a kind of loft where the grandchildren can sleep when they come to stay, and I wondered if you’d like to have it?”
“Oh, yes, please. We could come down and pick it up one weekend. When would be good?”
“This weekend would be good. If the weather’s nice you could go down to the beach. Why don’t you come Saturday and stay overnight, then you could head home after Sunday dinner. We’d love to see you and Joe, you haven’t been here for ages.”
My brother lived in Bognor, so a visit to him meant a visit to the seaside. “Joe, can we go down to Henry’s this weekend? Go there on Saturday and come back Sunday?”
“Yes, that would be nice. But what exactly are we picking up?”
I laughed at that, “My old dolls’ house.”
“Henry, looks like we’ll see you Saturday afternoon some time. Can we bring anything with us? No. Well, we’ll bring some wine. OK, see you Saturday. Love to Jenny, bye.”
My eyelids prickled, tears formed and so did a lump in my throat when I looked at my old red dolls’ house. It was faded and dusty, but seemed in good shape. Henry told me our uncle Clifford had built it and some of the furniture out of odd scraps of plywood and bits and pieces he found round the house. Auntie Kitty had made the curtains, mats, and covers for the furniture. They covered it in a miniature red-brick wallpaper, and painted the doors and windows red, which is why it was named the “red dolls’ house.” Basically it was a rectangular box and one long side was hinged at the corner allowing it to open up and show the rooms inside. The roof was peaked, but there was no way into the attic. There was a kitchen, a living room, a dining room, and a big parlor downstairs, and three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. There was some kind of plastic used for the windows, but this had yellowed and hardened with age.
For almost sixty years this hand-made and well-loved toy had been separated from the love and joy of a child playing happily with it. This thought made me cry again.
Since my phone call with Henry I had been pondering who should get the dolls’ house, but seeing it convinced me. My youngest granddaughter Karen was a fiercely independent single Mum. Everyone in the family tried to help her, but she refused to take our money. She would take vegetables from Joe’s garden, and anything we made. Her little girl Fiona was four years old, just about ready for a dolls’ house, and maybe Karen would be happy with us giving a hand-made gift to Fiona at Christmas.
Most of the furniture was handmade by Uncle Cliff, Aunt Kitty and my Mum and Dad, but some had been bought or found. My favorite room in the house was the bathroom, which had a little tin bathtub, a tiny jug and bowl on a washstand, a tin bucket, and a clothes horse for hanging the tiny towels. There was even a miniature scrubbing brush with a long handle for dolls to scrub their backs in the bath.
In the living room was a sofa upholstered in red velvet stuffed with cotton wool, which was just beginning to poke out of a hole in one of the seats. I called Joe to come and look at it, “Do you think you could patch this old thing up and make it look good for a four year old girl?”
“I could give it a go,” he said, “and would that girl be Fiona by any chance?”
“Yes, do you think she’d like it?”
“Oh, she’d love it I’m sure,” answered Joe. Fiona was his favorite. “We could look around the second hand shops for dolls house furniture too,” he added. One of our favorite things to do for fun was to wander round antique and second hand shops, and Joe loved it even more than me. We didn’t ever buy much, we just loved the nostalgia we felt looking at old things, and the red dolls’ house gave us a good excuse to do just that.
I found a book in our local Library on how to make a doll house family out of woolen and cotton yarns, and I put aside my usual knitting to make some. This doll family had a little girl, a mother, and a great grandma and grandpa. Oh, and a dog and a cat. Joe and I had a lot of fun in those weeks before Christmas getting the dolls’ house ready and I think it did us a power of good – neither of us had our usual winter colds or flu!
Finally, the house was ready. Joe had made it look just as good as when it was new, and it was still a red brick house, with red doors and window trim and shiny new (plastic) windows. I made little rose-print curtains for the windows and Joe made rods for them so they could be pulled open or closed. We sat the family in the living room and added a tiny tree with a star on top and little presents underneath. We were as eager for Christmas to come as if we were four years old ourselves! Then on the big day, Joe, Karen, and I shed tears as we watched Fiona’s eyes grow big as she unwrapped her present, and gave us a smile as wide as the sky. Then she got down to the serious business of playing with her new red dolls’ house.