I saw her at the tip mine a few times before I approached her. She was an obvious tyro – there was no plan to her digging, and she had no idea of the customs. She kept wandering over to neighboring stakes and rummaging through them.
I’ve been a tip miner for forty years, so the others came to me and asked me to speak to her. They had tried, but she just stared at them blankly and went on rummaging where she shouldn’t.
``Hi,” I said. ``I’m Grace Fletcher.”
She had a pile of stuff around her, none of it valuable – plastic bags spilling household garbage.
``Do you need some help?” I asked. ``I been at it a long time, I got plenty of experience.”
She rummaged in her pocket and thrust a laminated card at me. I saw the name Rose Hammond.
``I got my license,” she said defensively.
``I know, but you’re doing it all wrong, and well, you just need to be aware of the rules.”
``Rules?” she gave a harsh laugh. ``Rules? There are rules at a rubbish dump?”
``They’re called tip mines now, and there are always rules.” I was surprised she didn’t know. Some of the stuff from the last century is so valuable – aluminum foil, plastic bottles – there have to be rules or tip miners would murder each other over a well preserved beer can.
``What are you looking for?” I asked. ``Got any focus objects? We want to help you, but you’re getting some of the others’ backs up. You gotta realize you can’t trespass on their claims.”
``Trespassing? Am I?” Her eyes suddenly filled with tears. ``I didn’t know. I’m not looking for the same as them anyway.”
I glanced at my watch. It was time I took a break, and the cool cafeteria up on the landfill would be a better place to argue it out with her than down on the baking hot surface of the tip itself.
``Come on up to the café,” I said. ``We can talk there, over a cup of Joe.”
I led the way. She was sniffling behind me like a kid caught stealing apples. The others watched us sympathetically then went back to their tasks. At least they knew while I was with her she wouldn’t be rummaging through their claims.
At the café, I ordered lunch and sat with her near the window. I waited until she had calmed down a bit, which she did after she sipped at her coffee.
``So,” I said, ``this is the deal - we tip miners watch out for each other. You understand the nature of a claim, don’t you? It’s your area, where you can mine as deep as you like and everything you uncover belongs to you. With so much great stuff buried in these landfill sites, it’s a valuable thing, a claim.”
She nodded. ``I know, I’m sorry. But I get so desperate.”
``What are you looking for?”
``I’m looking for one thing – one particular thing.”
Slowly, over coffee, she told me the whole story.
She had been married once, but divorced for longer. She had one daughter, a lovely girl called Felicity. As a child, Felicity had been spoiled, she admitted – far more than was good for her.
``But she was beautiful, and so happy – my parents were just crazy about her. Mom was always buying her special handmade gifts. Everywhere she went she would pick up something new. It had to be perfect, there couldn’t be a mark on it. She bought Felicity the doll.”
Her voice shaking, Rose described the doll to me. It was made to resemble the child it was bought for – a photo of the child was manipulated into 3D on a computer and a head cast from that. The doll looked exactly like Felicity. And she loved it, took it everywhere.
``She’d had the doll for a year, when I began to notice things,” she said. ``Just little things at first. One of the doll’s painted nails was chipped. Felicity cut her finger in the same place. Then the doll fell off the bed and there was a mark on its forehead where it hit the floor. The school called me and said Felicity had a fall in the playground.”
I reached for my coffee. The air seemed suddenly cold.
``One of the dolls legs became loose – Felicity fell off her bike and she was limping for a while. Things like that. I didn’t tell anyone, not even my mother,” she added in a whisper, ``they would have thought I was crazy, or tried to destroy it the doll. And – well, I couldn’t do anything to the doll, could I? I mean, I couldn’t – she drew in a long shuddering breath - ``burn it.”
``So what did happen?”
``I put the doll away so it wouldn’t get damaged. I was going to put it in a glass cabinet but as soon as I did, Felicity had an asthma attack – her first ever. She couldn’t breathe until I opened the cabinet. So I put the doll on a high shelf, I surrounded it with cotton wool – I tried to make it as safe as possible.”
``One day a bird got in through the window and knocked the doll off the shelf. The head was cracked.”
I waited, my mouth, I realized, hanging open.
``The hospital called me. Felicity was in a coma – she’d had a car accident. I rushed to the hospital of course – I sat by her side day after day – then it occurred to me. I went home and took the doll to a doll hospital. They fixed the crack – and she woke up.”
``And she was all right?”
``For a while. I took care of her, and Mom helped me sometimes. My parents, they didn’t come round much – Felicity wasn’t perfect any more. Then she started wandering off – sometimes she stayed out at night and I had the police looking for her. They’d find her sleeping on the street.” She looked up at me with haunted eyes. ``I tried locking her in, but she just kept finding a way out. She’s been gone for three weeks this time. The doctors told me she kept wandering because she was brain damaged, and I believed them. But a few days ago, I saw it – I hadn’t noticed before because I had so much else to think about. I’d put the doll back on the shelf, so it wouldn’t fall, and when I looked, it was gone.”
``You mean –“
``Mom threw it out, yes, threw it in the garbage because it was damaged. She didn’t know – I guess she couldn’t bear to look at it anymore, like she couldn’t bear to look at her grand child anymore. I should have told her about the doll.” She began to sob, and I sat helpless, not knowing what to say. As she spoke again, the tears continued to flow down her cheeks.
“My daughter’s soul is in the garbage – her mirror image is on that tip. And if I find the doll, and bring her home, and clean her up and put it safely back on the shelf – “ she left the rest unfinished.
With all of us digging, we found her by the end of the day. We lifted her tenderly out of the trash and carried her down to Rose, who fell on her knees, weeping, and tried to brush the dirt from her face.
We gathered around them, awed into silence by such grief.
But we never found the doll.