Critical Thought: Jennifer

Jennifer and Nicola was one of those (precious few) stories that wrote itself, very inconveniently, as I was driving down the A1 at the time and was already late. I had a notebook resting on the steering wheel. It came out in a splurge and the finished version wasn’t that different from the original wobbly scribble. I have a lot of trust in drafts that come out like that, as though from somewhere else …. Usually when I write stories, I labour away at them, and they can go through maybe fifteen rewrites. But Jennifer and Nicola wasn’t like that.

What prompted it was a road sign that said ‘Doll Museum’. I saw it as I was passing, and it made me think about how weird and horrible dolls actually are. I gave myself the creeps, driving along and thinking of all those po-faced little characters with their nasty smirky faces cackling away all night when the museum was closed. I was a child in the 50s /60s and the dolls in this story were two dolls I actually owned. Jennifer had been my mother’s; she had a china face that had cracked and her hair was glued on and came out in clumps. As a child I found her repulsive but felt compelled to care for her.

After I wrote the story up, I could see how very lonely that child-narrator was, how angry she was with her neglectful mother, how her ambivalent feelings had become invested in the dolls. That story taught me about the massive mis-match in communication that there can be between a mother and a daughter. The dolls had become a kind of grotesque go-between, a sign of their mutual longing and inevitable disappointment.

Shelley Day Sclater has been a lawyer and an academic psychologist but she has given up on the day job and now writes only fiction. She is currently working on the 2nd rewrite of her first novel The Confession of Stella Moon. She's had a few short stories published and won one competition and been commended in three others.

Jennifer and Nicola

Jennifer’s the one with the cackly laugh and hair the colour of polished conkers. You can tell it’s synthetic. Her face has the eerie bland evenness of tone that the dead have, but she’s the kind of girl who can wear red, and she does wear red, her dress is red, red velvet with matching knickers. Nicola - the baby - her hair is thick tight ash-blond curls, exactly the hair your mother wants. I covet it, she says, covet it. It sprouts up out of proper roots, no glue. I covet, you covet, he she it covets.

You want them dead and buried in shoe boxes, but they’re your babies your mother says glowingly, they cost money. You say, I’ll have the money. Kill them, kill them dead, and give me the money.

Your mother knits pale rompers for the baby and spends hours smocking viyella. For Jennifer it’s the red velvet dress and knickers, with a remnant. You are cut to the quick with pinking shears, the very idea of remnant.

In your pagan phase you give them woad with smudgy biro and nail varnish. Your mother removes it with acetone while you sleep and sits them freshly laundered at the bottom of your bed.

You jam their little staring eyes shut with plasticine – they won’t stop looking at you, following you around the room and making judgements – and you sit them facing the wall. You make the baby eat a pipecleaner. You stab at her wee-wee hole with a crotchet hook. Your mother picks the plasticine out of the eyelashes with a toothpick and shouts. How would you like it, if someone did that to you. You stand still and say nothing. Your mother comes at you her lips so tight they’ve disappeared. She’ll swing for you, she will.

Night and day they smirked, the pair of them, day and night. Tight little painted mouths poised for mockery and insolence filled you full of dread and made you angry. Made you cruel. You locked them in the cupboard and left them for days on end and wouldn’t listen to a single word they said.

After your mother dies you discover them crouching in the wardrobe where they must have been muttering and hiding for twenty seven years. You pick Nicola the baby up by her thick tight ash-blond curls and Jennifer by the burnished coppery tones and without so much as a glance at their shiny clean self-satisfied faces you pop them into a Tesco’s bag and throw it onto the skip along with garden rubble and the remains of the kitchen. In the night it rains and the red from Jennifer’s velvet dress bleeds right across the baby’s face but no-one’s there to notice.

by Shelley Day Sclater