It started with a post on Facebook. I still used it heavily, back in those days, and had just joined a new group which posted about playgrounds in the local area. I was looking for one with a bird’s nest swing, I remember, and this group had a handy map showing where they all were. One rainy lunchtime, I was browsing through my feed and idly wondering whether I could face getting up and heading out for a walk when I came across a picture someone had posted up near Caldecotte Lake. It showed a beautiful gothic doll in a black gown, perched in the branches of a tree. The poster had been out walking his dog, and was asking if anyone knew who it belonged to. No-one had replied. Intrigued, I headed for the door before I could change my mind.
The Facebooker hadn’t said exactly where the tree was, only that it was nearby the lake shore, but I had a feeling I knew which tree she was in. There’s a place by the lakeside with a semi-circular bench where I often went at lunchtime as it has a great view over the lake to the windmill. It’s windy enough there that the surface of the lake often ruffles up into waves and you can just about make-believe you’re at the seaside if you try hard enough. I was pretty sure that the tree in the picture was the one just behind the bench. It only took me twenty minutes to walk over to the lake… Lo and behold, I was right.
There she was, in the crook of the branches, staring out across the choppy grey lake. The weather really was foul, and I slid about in the mud, walking round and round the tree to get the best angle. As you can see from the photos, the doll was really something special. Someone had clearly gone to a lot of effort to dress her up so grandly, in her black satin and netting, with her carefully styled black and crimson hair. It didn’t look like the sort of thing you’d buy off the shelf, which made it even stranger that she had been left out here, exposed to the elements.
And anyway, just how had she ended up out here in the first place? She didn’t look like a little kid’s doll, something that could have been dropped by mistake. She could have been a prop from Halloween, which had just passed a few days ago, but that didn’t feel right – there wasn’t anything kitschy or melodramatic about the way she had been dressed or her cold, resolute expression. She had an ancient, knowing air about her. It reminded me of old stories from my Midlands childhood, grim tales about witches perching in the skeletal trees bordering darkened country lanes, waiting for unwary travellers to pass underneath so they could swoop down and do whatever it was witches did to the unwary. But she looked too elegant in her finery to be any old witch, and that’s when I decided she must be on her way to her wedding. From then on, in my head at least, she became the witch bride.
I must confess to a particular fascination with dolls: I’ve been researching something called the uncanny valley for the last decade. I’ve become something of an expert on those faces that are almost but not quite human, but which make us feel unsettled and even disgusted. Dolls are one of the examples that I usually use to illustrate the effect as most people have a good mental image of a creepy doll or puppet whose fixed eyes seem to follow them around in a most disconcerting manner. Professional interest aside, the witch bride was one of the most disturbing things I have ever come across in my time exploring this strange, secretive city.
I spent half an hour at the lakeside, taking photographs and the video clip I’ve shared here. In all that time, there was no-one else around, and even in the grim weather that seemed unusual. The lake is popular with runners and folk like me out for lunchtime walks, I never usually have it to myself. I could have stayed longer, but it wasn’t just the cold wind and rain that drove me back to the comfort of my office. It was the eeriness, and it probably didn’t help that I’d convinced myself that someone had left the doll there to be found, and might have been concealed nearby, watching me.
As I walked back to work, I found myself wondering who would find her next, especially if it was someone braver than me who decided to pluck her from the tree and take her home, perhaps even give her to one of their children to play with. I think she’d probably like to be indoors and out of the cold, and might even warm to the attentions of someone cleaning the mud from her skirt and brushing her hair. But I shudder to imagine sleeping in the same room as that endless stare, knowing at any moment she could turn that dead gaze upon me.
I’m glad I left her where I found her. But do I wish I knew what happened to her after all…