Dolls’ Hospital by Christopher Morley
Our new Short Story of the Month is ‘Dolls’ Hospital’ by Christopher Morley.
A young boy’s persistent curiosity sets him on an adventure to the mysterious Doll’s Hospital, in which he learns that not only dolls need mending.
Christopher Morley was born in Nottingham in 1946. He is a retired primary school teacher, a fine artist and short story writer.
The Dolls’ Hospital was at the top of Alfreton Road near to Canning Circus. I had been aware of it ever since we had taken to visiting friends at Bobber’s Mill. It was necessary to catch a trolley bus, and the stop was almost outside the Dolls’ Hospital. Waiting for the trolley bus gave me enough time to gaze at the window display. The Hospital was a shop front of one large window, a recessed entrance and a much smaller window. Boards obscured the interior of the premises but afforded shallow display areas. On display were mostly dolls and teddy bears. Some were bandaged or had an arm in a sling. One teddy with a leg in plaster was propped up on a crutch. Some dolls wore old fashioned nurses’ outfits and tended patients in shoe-box beds. The main fascination for me was the small group of lead soldiers that represented the Army Medical Service. A wounded redcoat was being carried by blue tunic stretcher bearers towards a Florence Nightingale figure waiting at the entrance to a white medical tent. I wondered if there were more soldiers to be seen inside, but the Hospital was never open when I was there. There was a notice on the drawn down door blind that said that the hours were 9:30am to 5pm, with a lunch break between 12:30 and 1:30. Also the Hospital was open only Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. We visited our family friends on Saturdays. Anyway I didn’t have an excuse to go inside because I had no dolls that needed treatment, and I would never dare just go in for a look.
Mrs Hilton said that it would be nice to hear some diary entries read out. I shrank down hoping I wasn’t chosen, not because I couldn’t write or because I was nervous of reading aloud. I never seemed to have anything suitable to write about. Playing at soldiers and going to the cinema with my parents seemed so commonplace. Julia Billington was eager to read her diary. It was a sad account of her pet Chow-Chow who chewed off an arm belonging to her favourite doll. I sat up. I resolved to speak with her on the way home.
I caught up with Julia and Lorraine. Lorraine glared at me when I broke the rules and spoke to Julia. Julia beamed and listened.
‘You can get your doll’s arm mended at the Doll’s Hospital.’
When I told her where it was her ready smile faded. She had no idea where Alfreton Road was, and her parents wouldn’t let her go far without a suitable escort.
‘I could take you next week, it’s the holiday.’
Lorraine’s eyes bored into me. Julia resumed her smile and agreed to meet me at the bus terminus opposite her house on Tuesday to catch the 9:40 into town.
I fretted about this adventure all weekend, but was reassured when I saw Julia waiting beside the Number 19 with a parcel under arm. We sat downstairs on the left so as to be ready to get off. She peeled back the brown paper enough to show where the missing arm should be.
‘I told my Mother I was going to play with Mickey Hazeldine. What did you say?’
‘Oh, I said I was going to look at new dolls in Beeston with Lorraine. I’m allowed to go to Beeston if I’m with a friend. Lorraine’s really gone to her cousin’s.’
The conductor was looming with his ticket machine. It was the one that my Mother said was lairy. He certainly was full of himself
‘Two halves to Canning Circus, please.’
He grinned as he wound out the tickets, ‘Family outing is it?’
‘Yes,’ replied Julia, ‘We are taking baby to the hospital. She’s got polio.’
The conductor backed off. Julia was quick. Being a redhead she had had plenty of practice batting off silly remarks.
We got off just after the Drill Hall where the Territorial Soldiers met. It was only a couple of minutes’ walk around Canning Circus to get onto Alfreton Road. As soon as we turned the corner we could see the sign for the Dolls’ Hospital standing out from the wall. It was just about ten o’clock. There was a light on in the Hospital, much to my relief. The door pinged when I pushed it open.
The inside of the place was amazing. Behind the counter was a wall of wooden shelves crammed with shoe boxes. Each box had a glued label with the patient’s details. At the back was a brown velvet curtain draped over a door. Most of the counter was covered with trays of small body parts and sets of tools. The proprietor behind the counter was an older man, about my Grandfather’s age. He had very sparse grey hair and round lens glasses. He wore a dark blue suit waistcoat over a grey flannel shirt. He was talking to a woman and a girl of about my age. The mother handed over some cash and then the two turned to leave. The girl was tightly clutching a doll which looked complete. She seemed delighted. The door pinged again and it was our turn. Julia pressed up against the counter holding out her doll. As she explained the problem I noticed a tray of lead soldiers on the counter. Most of them had been wounded in battle. Pivoted arms were missing, but most had a loose head posted on a match stick into the body. They looked like human giraffes.
‘Ah, yes, we can fit a new arm and it will be a good match. This is a popular size doll. We carry a lot of spares. It will be two shillings.’ He paused for a moment. ‘Can you afford that?’
I slid my hand into pocket and squeezed my silver coins.
‘Yes, of course, when will she be ready?’
I released the grip on my coins.
‘This time next week. What’s her name?’
Only when the door had pinged behind us did it occur to us that we would be back at school the following week. Julia’s smile was fading.
‘I can get her back for you.’
‘Well next Tuesday after school I can run and catch the ten past four bus. I’ll be back by five. I’ll tell Mum that I’m going to Michael Hazeldine’s house to see his train set. I know it’s a sort of fib, but it won’t hurt. It’ll be dead easy.’
Julia beamed. She unzipped her purse and gave me a shiny florin.
The next day I happened to meet Richard and Terry on the street.
‘Hey up, Chrisser, what you doing with that ginger lump? I seen you ahtside the Dollies’ Hospical.’ Richard grinned, ‘ I was on a bus goin’ dahn Radford wiv arh mam to see me auntie. You was all over … what’s ’er name?’
He very well knew her name. Terry started to laugh.
‘Julia, Julia Billington……..’
‘You goin’ aht wiv ’er, then. Are you goin’ to get married?
Terry was doubled up with laughter.
I contemplated telling the truth. I also contemplated punching Richard’s mouth. I decided not to follow the second course of action because Richard was a year older than me, he was rough and he had his side-kick with him. I went for the truth.
‘I was taking Julia’s doll to the Dolls’ Hospital. It’s lost an arm. Her dog chewed it off’
They looked at me in total disbelief.
‘ Friggin’ ’ell, Tez, he’s playing wiv dollies now.’
‘Chrisser’s turnin’ into a gell.’
They were both convulsed with laughter. I turned and walked away. I wondered how Julia would have handled that exchange, but they would never have even spoken to a girl.
The following Tuesday I was tense all day. I had taken cash from my money box for bus fare and spun the tale about seeing a train set after school. As soon as we were released I hared off to the bus stop. I sat gasping on the green leatherette seat with two minutes to spare. It was less than two minutes to run the last few yards to the Hospital. I pushed the door and it jingled. There was nobody behind the counter.
‘Hello,’ I said.
Listening hard I stood and waited. Still nothing happened. I glanced about. There was an eye on the counter. It was a large brown eye, the sort a teddy might wear.
I sensed a movement to my right to the back of the room. The brown velvet curtain moved and a giant doll appeared.
The doll was the size of a man. It was wearing a man’s clothes. Its face was smooth and shiny like a celluloid doll. There was no hair or eyebrows and one ear seemed to be crushed. It was missing one eye. I gripped the edge of the counter. I was riveted to the spot. It spoke.
‘I’m sorry dad’s had to go out, and I was in the back. Can I help you?’
The featureless face twisted up into what might have been a smile.
‘Don’t be afraid. It’s not catching.’ He was now behind the counter and I could see that he was a man. He was a man with a terribly disfigured head.
I found my voice, but not my usual voice, ‘I’m here to pick up my friend’s doll. It’s called Julia Billington. It belongs to Angela.’
The man turned to the shelves and selected a shoe-box. He placed it on the counter. Angela lay inside. She now had two arms. She looked perfect.
‘It’s a mess, isn’t it? My face I mean.’
I didn’t know what to say, so he carried on, ‘You should have seen it before they patched it up - well perhaps not…. It was in the war, right at the end. A round from a Jerry Panzerschreck exploded on the Sherman I was standing by. I was knocked over and sprayed with blazing oil. Do you know what a Panzerschreck is?’
I nodded. I knew very well. I had two miniature Airfix German soldiers both using the weapon. ‘It’s a sort of bazooka, to punch holes in tanks.’
He nodded and picked up the teddy eye. ‘I could use one of these.’ He laughed.
‘That will be just two bob, sir.’
I placed the florin on the counter. When he scooped it up I noticed two missing finger tips. I wondered what more damage was hidden under his clothes.
I had to run hard to catch the bus. I had spent more time in the Dolls’ Hospital than I had anticipated. It was difficult crossing the busy Derby Road to get to the bus stop. I managed to scramble in just before my Father arrived home from work on his bike. I would have liked to present the doll to Julia that afternoon, instead I secreted it under my zipper jacket. I quickly transferred it to the bottom of my wardrobe whilst my parents greeted each other. During the meal I told them briefly about Michael’s train set. He may well have had one but I based the description on Alan’s train set which I had admired. I really wanted to talk to my Father about the scarred man. He had told me about the wonders of plastic surgery that had been developed for such people. Later I dreamed that all my class-mates had turned into celluloid dolls with only one eye each and they were all glaring at me.
Julia was delighted with her doll. Her smile faded when I told her about the encounter. She said that she was glad that she hadn’t gone with me. She brightened and said that I was brave. I just grinned lamely. Then I turned and walked away from her and Lorraine. I moved to the football end of the playground because I had noticed Richard and Terry pulling faces my way.
‘Yo' bin wiv that ginger lump again?’
I said nothing.
‘Yo’ wanna stick wiv the boys. Nuffin’ ever ’appens wiv gells.’