Marc Joan

Thirty-Five Dolls

All of us on Mabson Road know Mr Tanaka. Or rather (for it is very different), we all know who he is, this Japanese gentleman, and where he lives. His house, scrupulously maintained, stands in mute, reproachful counterpoint to the rest of the shabby Victorian terrace. Even the old bricks of No. 49 seem cleaner than those of its neighbours; the white wood of the window-frames paler, the roof slates darker.  And as for the tiny front garden, next to and narrower than the littered pavement — well, it could be ten square feet of Kew. Nobody’s ever seen an errant weed there, still less one of the cigarette ends or food wrappers otherwise ubiquitous on the street. Yes; good old Mr Tanaka. We all know who he is, this tidy man, alone on our street. And we all know about the one-eyed dolls; but we don’t know why.

You’d think it would be easy enough just to ask him. There’s certainly been enough opportunity. He’s been here for thirty-five years, they say; came to study in Cambridge, and never left.  And in each and every one of those thirty-five years, they say again, once a year, on New Year’s Day, he has done the same thing. As the city awakens, dull and grouchy from excess, Mr Tanaka’s front door opens, and the gentleman himself appears, clean and fresh-faced as ever. He sits in his front garden, by the pavement, wrapped up against the cold, on a small fold-up chair he brings out of the house. Always the same chair. Or, if it’s raining, he keeps the door open, and sits just inside, out of the wet, while his central heating warms up January. In either case, once sat, he rests a doll on his lap. Always a finely-made doll, a doll of quality. A different one each year, they say.  Some bigger, some smaller. Some pale as fresh bone, some brown as unhusked rice. Some in scarlet taffeta, some in vermilion calico. But all of the red-wrapped dolls have this thing in common, this one thing that they share. They have no eyes.  And so each and every New Year, Mr Tanaka sits a pretty, blind doll on his lap, by his front door, next to the pavement. And then, every each year, he paints an eye on the doll.  Just one eye.  Never the second.  He paints it carefully, almost lovingly.  And as he paints it, his lips sometimes move, as though murmuring a prayer or supplication: Let them see; o please, let them see! And then he gets up, smiles courteously if anybody is near, folds up his chair, and goes silently back into his house. With his pretty, ruby-swathed, one-eyed doll. But nobody’s ever asked him why.

Three doors down from Mr. Tanaka, there is a break in the hunched parade of Mabson Road two-up two-downs, where a narrow path shoulders its way between Nos. 43 and 41. This dim, littered stretch of fractured tarmac, permanently damp, soon meets and ends at a nettle-bordered track of mud and grass, favoured by cats and approved by the nodding blossoms of self-seeded buddleia, running parallel to but unseen by the road. A green vein bringing life and light to the squatting accretions of brick and slate, the track is a kind of no-man’s land that serves several practical functions. It gives access to the back gardens of the terrace, and thence to the houses, for emergency services and the like. It gives residents the option of entering or leaving their houses by a point other than the front door; even the possibility of emerging, via some tributary path, in a parallel street, as though slipping through a wormhole in space. And it lets them remove their domestic rubbish, accumulated in the council bins stored in their back gardens, by wheeling the bins up the track, onto the broken tarmac path and thence to the pavement at the front of the terrace.

I myself do this, each fortnight, trundling my cargo of wrappers and offal past the tight-shut gate set into the tall, shiplap fence of the back garden of No. 49. But, when performing this dull ritual one evening last week, just as the daylight was starting to fade, I paused, enveloped in the sour vapours of rotten food, momentarily oblivious to the following wasps; for (ye gods and little fishes!)  Mr Tanaka’s back garden gate was not shut. Indeed, it had swung wide open — whether through oversight, or wind, I could not say — and remained so, an invitation so unparalleled as to demand a double-take. How can this be? Mr. Tanaka’s gate has never been seen like this, never. But there it was; and I paused, and looked through, and saw, much as I had always suspected, a beautiful little domain, almost magical, no bigger than a large rug, wonderfully cultivated, in all senses of the word. Clipped bushes, neatly mown grass, and a patch of raked gravel; a bonsai yew in a shallow blue pot, a puddle-sized pond with water lilies, and flowering Hebe bordering a short path to the back of the house.  It was just so beautifully Japanese. To the left of the kitchen door was a brightly lit ground-floor window, through which I could see armchairs, and a table with a vase of flowers. And on the wall behind the chairs, there were shelves. Broad, deep shelves; perhaps four or five of them, supported by braces affixed directly to the wall. And on each shelf, leaning against each other, or propped back against the wall, in tidy abandon, in cloth of incarnadine, were the dolls.  All staring blindly out with their unitary eyes. I suppose there must have been thirty-five of them. One for each of his English years. But I didn’t stop to count; the kitchen door was opening. Ashamed of my inquisitiveness, I hurried on, the bin rumbling and bumping behind, the wasps disturbed into angry flight.

However, that brief vision of Mr Tanaka’s pretty, hidden world started me thinking. Mabson Road has a largely transitory population. Mainly students; some young professionals. They arrive, cause the normal amount of noise and annoyance, and leave again. They have no impact on the few long-term residents. Of these, I am one of the most settled, having been here seventeen years.  And we old-timers, who have lived by our quiet neighbour for so long, and called with him this road home, what do we know about Mr Tanaka? Only what was passed on to us by those who lived here before us, and who now have gone. And who was the last to speak to Mr Tanaka? Not I. I have never exchanged a word with him. And now I come to think of it, I know of none that have.  He is like part of the urban landscape. Occasionally visible, but always unseen; part of the road, but not part of the community. You would no more think of speaking to him than you would to the lamp-posts or the telephone box. Or to a doll on a shelf.

The next day, I knock on his door. A lovely Victorian knocker, polished brass, in the shape of a dolphin. It is stiff, reluctant to move. The knock sounds hollow, and I could swear that a faint echo returns to me from behind the painted panels. Even the door sounds surprised, I think. I hear shuffling from inside. It reminds me of something. Of course: Mr Badger. Mr Badger in his carpet slippers; grumpy, perhaps, at this incursion of Society, waking him from his long sleep beneath the snow. But he needs to know that summer’s here. The door opens. I realise Mr Tanaka is older than I had thought. Perhaps sixty? Certainly close to that.  He looks at me, gravely, somewhat quizzically. He seems a little tense; a person who waits, perhaps. But for what?  

Now that I am here, I feel slightly foolish. But the Rubicon is behind me, and I press on regardless. ‘Good morning, Mr Tanaka’, I say. And I introduce myself, in the customary way; we are neighbours, I say; we have been neighbours for many years. How silly it seems, that we close neighbours never speak! And I press upon him the chocolates and the wine; tokens of goodwill, and expressions of hope for the future. Mr Tanaka smiles. His English is accented, but clear and articulate.  We have a chat on the doorstep about this and that, and I invite him to dinner on the weekend. I don’t know why.  Hopefully the kids will behave. They’d better. Anyway, I leave, feeling, somehow, that a wrong has been righted. Again, I don’t know why.

Funny thing: later on in the day, driving back from the shops, I see Mr Tanaka sitting in his front garden, smiling.  It’s not New Year; it’s June. But even so, he is sitting in the front garden, with his paints. There is a doll on his lap. As I park up on the roadside, I can see that it is a fine doll, a beautiful doll. And Mr. Tanaka is painting an eye on it. A second eye.

Marc Joan is a biomedical scientist by training, and his background includes a PhD and post-doctoral research in molecular biology. He draws on this and other experience for his fiction, which is currently restricted to the more economical formats (short stories and novellas). Marc’s stories have been published in Madcap Review, Danse Macabre, and Hypnos, and accepted for publication in The Apeiron Review. Currently, he lives in England with his family.