When I was a little boy, I spent many an afternoon dashing from bush to bush toting a plastic machine gun, my belt lashed diagonally across my chest for my grenades to hang from, dirt smeared across my cheeks like the soldiers in the films I enjoyed with my father and (due to the re-appropriation of my belt) my shorts half way down my arse. My friends and I would undertake such daring military campaigns as the liberation of Paul's sister (We'd locked her in his dad's shed to be able to rescue her) and the taking of the pile of bricks in Hilary's back garden. Bravely, with floppy plastic dagger gripped between my teeth and firearm rat-a-tat-tatting, I never flinched from my duty to vanquish the Nazi scourge or alien invasion force.
Except maybe once.
Paul and I were on a commando mission of the upmost importance. We had to get from his dad's shed to the dining room window unseen, navigating the minefield of little dog turds laid by Benji, the family's Yorkshire terrier, that littered the grass we had to crawl across, before leaping up and scaring the living shit out of Paul's sister who was sitting in the window happily playing with her presents, it being her birthday.
Paul's sister had been given a "Girl's World", a macabre looking, dismembered head with wiry, unrealistic hair and the hundred metre stare of the recently lobotomised, designed to enable the girls of the seventies to practice the art of plastering make-up on, an educational toy which would eventually lead to the rise of the popular "painted slag" look of the eighties.
Giggling, crouched beneath the window sill with our backs against the wall, we readied ourselves for the final, devastating assault. Wobbly daggers in hand and itchy fingers on triggers, we leapt into action. I roared and jumped up, sure of victory.
But I found myself to be premature.
Our noses separated by four millimetres of window pane, I came face to face with an unnervingly realistic, plastic face, now grotesquely painted and on display facing out into the garden. I very nearly soiled myself. Screaming, I fled, falling victim to several of Benji's lethal land mines in the process and leaving a trail of his excrement all the way across the road, up my garden path and trodden into the beige carpet on the staircase at home.
It was all Benji's, honestly.
Still now, aged forty-five, those freakish doll's faces fill me with dread. As do beige carpets.
My dislike of girl's toys grew even greater when, upon opening a dusty, old box in my grandmother's spare bedroom whilst staying there in the school holidays, I came face to face with my mother's childhood collection of dolls.
I gazed, eyes like saucers, into the box.
Smelling like I imagined the inside of a coffin would smell, the box contained twisted limbs, discarded bonnets and booties and a selection of the scariest visages I both had and have ever seen. Painted, porcelain faces peered back at me, the ancient glaze crackled and holes that had once contained hair peppering the scalps, I stood transfixed.
With great trepidation I reached within the box and removed what, it later transpired, had been my mother's most beloved doll, Cordelia.
Cordelia was special. When my mother had received her, Cordelia had lustrous, long locks, eyes that gently closed as you lay the doll on it's back and a small "voice box" inside her chest cavity. When you sat Cordelia up a little, lead weight would slide down a tuned string and elicit a noise that sounded like the gentle giggle of a baby.
It was now several decades since my mother had last played with Cordelia or any of her porcelain siblings and the tuned string inside her had become un-tuned. As I lifted her out of the box gravity urged the lead weight do what the lead weight was designed to do, it slid down the string and elicited a noise that sounded less like a happy infant and more like the wheezy crackle of a seasoned smoker shouting through a dirty stoma.
So close to soiling myself I was touching cloth, I ran.
Once my grandmother had finished pointing out that I was "being a poof", she brought the box downstairs and began sorting through it. All of the dolls had seen better days, all had the wild eyed look of Bette Davis' Baby Jane and one contained the remains of a mouse in what had once been it's soft, plump tummy. Watching my grandmother remove a rodent's blackened corpse from the straw filled abdominal cavity of the doll was like watching a Hellish Caesarean birth and finally cemented my hatred of all things doll related.
The dolls were, quite obviously, as knackered as they were horrific. I offered to take the box to the dustbin, an unusually helpful offer made only because I wanted those diabolical things as far from where I was going to sleep as was possible, but Grannie Annie said no.
My grandmother knew of a doll's hospital in the city centre so, the following morning and after a fitful nights sleeps, we jumped on one of the big, orange buses that, once upon a long time ago, served the newly created Greater Manchester region.
Back then you could smoke on the buses. Only on the top deck, and there was always that little entreaty stencilled on to the bulk head that had once said "Please do not smoke" but that had invariably been altered by school kids. It was the seventies, they had ashtrays on the backs of the seats and cigarette smoke was no more harmful than some of the other shit we were forced to breath in by big business anyway. We climbed the stairs to the almost deserted upper deck and I selected the seat that would be directly above the driver's seat, as always, before embarking upon my usual adventure.
From my vantage point I would imagine that, rather than the shuddering, diesel fume spluttering, 252 bus from my grandmother's home in Sale to City Centre Manchester, I was piloting a small shuttle from an orbiting spaceship above the streets of this alien world, hovering at traffic lights and banking around corners. Back then, before someone thought it would be a good idea to install an enormous and convoluted roundabout, you crossed the border from Trafford to Manchester via an overpass. An overly steep ramp took vehicles high into the air for a little while before swooping back down to ground level. The driver below me would drop his clutch and hit the revs as he took to the ramp, signalling the point in my adventure where I would have to take evasive action from the surface to air missiles launched by the evil aliens below and make haste to the stratosphere, and also that we were nearly at our stop.
I'd imagined a doll's hospital to be similar to a human hospital. Crisp, white sheets, nurses bustling about pushing wheelchairs containing teddy bears recuperating from the big surprise they got when they went down to the woods today and Action Men hobbling about on crutches.
It wasn't very similar, really.
At the very top of a winding staircase in what had appeared to be a derelict building, above a taxi office and a "private" shop (I asked my gran what that meant, she said she couldn't tell me because it was private) was a windowless landing, a dim bulb casting more shadow than light swinging from a pendant high above our heads, and a very ordinary looking door.
I followed Grannie Annie through the ordinary looking door and froze.
A small, gloomy room, the walls lined with shelves laden with spare limbs and heads for dolls. A hundred glass eyes stared at me as I stood, trembling, behind my grandmother.
What I imagine was the chief surgeon sat at his desk, a lamp fixed to his forehead and a large magnifying glass on a pivoted arm giving him the appearance of having one ordinary and one enormous, mutated eye. A shock of ginger curls cascaded from the sides of his head, retreating from his scalp and revealing a dome of shiny wrinkles with a skull cap atop. He was fucking terrifying and appeared to be performing an autopsy on Tiny Tears whilst eating a corned beef and mustard sandwich.
It turned my stomach, everyone knows it should be brown sauce with corned beef.
None of his patients looked like they were going to pull through, it didn't look good for Cordelia and her gruesome clan.
Unfortunately, Cordelia beat the odds and did pull through, sort of, and we went to collect her a couple of days later.
Mismatched plugs of hair adorned her previously balding pate. Her eyes now rolled open easily, revealing different coloured iris'. Her crackled glaze remained, but with the addition of a few dabs of paint here and there giving her the 80's painted slag look, the look that would one day be so in vogue, a decade too soon.
And she had one black leg.
He had reinstated the small bladder and pipe that had originally enabled Cordelia to relieve herself when picked up and had cleaned the voice mechanism. Whereas before she had only been capable of a slow, deep, demon like groan, young Miss Cordelia now screamed in a similar fashion to someone being burnt at the stake. When he proudly demonstrated these last two repairs, a crooked, discoloured smile on his lips and a Player's No. 7 cigarette clamped between his teeth, it wasn't only a doll that a little bit of wee came out of.
Now, just like Cordelia, I'm old myself. My eyes, though still both the same colour, have been prodded, pierced and pissed about with by doctors. My hair is missing in places it once colonised, and has colonised new places and, although in a more monotone fashion than that of the decrepit doll, it's no longer the same colour all over. My raspy voice grows ever raspier and while it remains a similar colour to my other three limbs, my left leg isn't half giving me gyp these days.
No little man with mustardy breath will be coming to save me from the ravages of time and return me to the beautiful creation I once was. I think, if I were to be in the unenviable position of Cordelia and awakening from anaesthesia to be faced with an airbrushed body, undoing all the great work those years of abuse we call living had brought, my initial reaction would be a similar agonised scream.
The years write upon our faces, the spidery writing of their tales running like crackles across our glaze. There's no beauty like the beauty found in the face of the old. A toddler's twinkling eyes and happy, natural smile is the blank canvas onto which those wise eyes and weathered faces are painted. We were all young once, and the young are getting older. So often these days we ignore the beauty of what once was in favour of other, more fleeting, beauty. The lives lived behind the faces of those around us are more fascinating than even the most convoluted mystery drama. Every one of us carries at least one story worth sharing, one event that took our breath away and that would entertain others.
Okay, sometimes the story is that of a murderer or other miscreant but still, fucking fascinating.
Our memories need sharing just as we need to share our memories. Quid pro quo. Your stories are worth telling, and it's never been easier. I'm a big fan of blogging and of blogs. Not technical blogs, not "how to" blogs, people's blogs. Those "There was this time, right..." blogs. People's lives, stories I've no right knowing, laid out for me to know. Fascinating.
What about that story you tell, usually at Christmas when that film is on, about that thing that happened that time? You know the one, the story that you've already written in your head. Why not write it down for posterity? Why not share it with the world?
If you've not already, why not sign up for a blogging service? It's free and easy, even a fool like me can do it, and I'd love to read your stories. If you are a blogger, tweet me the link with the hashtag "#therewasthistimeright" and I promise you'll be sure of at least one reader. Two, if I mither Dickfingers.
(Reading back, this is beginning to sound like a plug for a blog hosting site. Well, it's not, they're not paying me a penny. I'm just nosy and want to hear all about you. This is why I'm on my arse, you see? No business acumen. Anyway, I digress...)
If you think "no ones going to be interested in my story", just remember this...
...today, you sat and read a story about a box of broken dolls and a bus ride.