He hung his washing out slowly, lifting and clamping each peg down deliberately. When I looked at him he looked back and lifted a hand. He waved slowly. Without thinking I jumped the low fence separating the two gardens and stood in front of him. He lowered his hand and smiled slightly then turned back to his washing. He continued to hang his washing. I wondered who he was.
‘Hey,’ I said. He held a bright red peg between his fingers. ‘Who are you?’ He shook his head. ‘I know you don’t live here,’ I continued. ‘Nobody lives here. The council are smashing the house down. We got a letter. They’re going to build units.’
The man kept pegging his clothes silently. He looked at me and smiled, and I wondered what he was smiling about.
‘Um,’ I said. I studied the man. He wore a musty brown tracksuit, and a cheap plastic watch on his wrist. He tapped the watch gently and and sighed.
‘Do you think it’s gunna rain?’ he asked. He stretched his arms out and shrugged. The way his shoulders heaved made me think of something sad. He looked lost, like a sad schoolboy, dateless on dance night. He dragged his fingers across his face and scratched at his cheek. I leant in for a closer look at his washing. Dresses. He was hanging dresses. Dozens and dozens of tiny coloured dresses. Far too small for even the smallest of babies.
‘What’s all this?’ I said, waving a hand.
‘Dresses,’ he said dumbly.
‘Well yeah. But why? And why are you hanging them here?’
The man shrugged again. He had big, grubby hands and I wondered where he came from.
‘I live next door,’ I added. The man said nothing. He looked me up and down, folded his arms, and then turned and started to walk away. ‘It is going to rain,’ I called after him. He stopped and turned back to me. His dark eyes glittered.
‘How do you know?’ he asked. I pointed to the sky.
‘Um, it’s grey. Look at those clouds coming in.’
‘Shit,’ he said. ‘I need these dry.’ He moved back across to the line and started pulling the tiny dresses down. He shoved them into a garbage bag.
‘Um,’ I hesitated and rocked back and forth on my feet. ‘I have a dryer you can use?’ The silence was thick, and it spread out between us like a blanket. He tugged on his beard thoughtfully. ‘A cycle only takes like forty minutes. And these are small, so they’ll dry quickly,’ I stuttered. The man looked at me again, narrowed his eyes, and then nodded.
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘If it really is going to rain.’ We both stared up at the sky. It was grey, and a single bird spun round above us. I watched the way it moved sluggishly, flapping its wings, and I wondered if it had anywhere to go when the rain started. I led the man over the fence, through my garden, and inside the house, into the laundry. He said nothing, and I said nothing, and then he emptied his garbage bag out onto the table and I stared at all the tiny dresses. Some of them were beautiful. Soft, elegant pieces, muted pinks and blues, deep purples, and rich greens. He watched me examine them wordlessly. Then he sighed, loudly. ‘They’re for dolls.’
I just looked at him. ‘Oh,’ I said after a while. ‘Right.’ I switched the dryer on. We stood there and watched the dresses go round. He rubbed his eyes and blinked, and I hoped he’d say something else so that I didn’t have to but he remained silent.
‘Do you want a cuppa or something?’ I muttered. The strange man nodded.
‘Will they be okay?’ he pointed to his dresses.
‘Yeah. Come on. I’m Angie by the way.’ I stuck out my hand but he didn’t take it. He just looked at me and shook his head. I pulled my hand back and showed him into the lounge room. I filled the kettle with water and flicked it on. ‘Tea?’ I called.
‘Yeah,’ he said, and while I waited for the cups to brew I wondered what he was thinking about. After a few minutes I stuck a steaming mug in front of him. Rain was starting to fall, lashing against the windowpanes. Outside it looked grey and white.
‘It’s raining,’ he said needlessly. ‘You were right.’
‘Um, yeah. So, um, anyway who are you?’ I placed my hands around my mug and took a sip.
‘Thanks for the tea,’ he said slowly. ‘Do you have any sugar?’ I stood up quickly, snatched the mug off him, and stalked back into the kitchen. I lumped two large spoonfuls of sugar in and stomped back over. He took the mug and sipped. ‘Too sweet,’ he said, and then he leant back in the chair and closed his eyes. I stared at him. I curled my hands into fists. And then, when he didn’t move, I shook the chair he was sitting on. He opened an eye lazily.
‘What?’ he said.
‘Who are you?’ I said again. ‘What’s with all those dresses? What were you doing next door?’
‘Oh,’ he opened his other eye and sat up. He tapped his watch again and then yawned. ‘I’m tired.’ He slurped his tea. I stared at him angrily. ‘This is a nice house, you know,’ he said. ‘I don’t live in a house.’
‘What?’ I said blankly. ‘Where do you live then?’ He waved his hand absently. The rain was getting louder and louder, smashing down on the roof. I wondered if it was going to start hailing soon.
‘Oh well, around,’ he said. ‘You know.’
‘Um,’ I paused. ‘No, I don’t know.’
‘Oh,’ he said, and he looked sad but I couldn’t work out why. His grey blue eyes sparkled and it took me a minute to realise he was crying. The tears fell down his face quickly and he brushed them aside but for every tear he swept away, another two appeared. ‘I’m homeless,’ he said, and he pushed his words together really hard, and looked down at the floor and then up at the ceiling and then he lifted his hands to his face and covered his eyes.
‘Oh,’ I said. I stood up. ‘Um. Do you want more tea?’ The man sobbed, and outside the rain roared, and the wind shook the house, and I switched the kettle on and watched the steam rise. I set another tea down in front of him and he removed his hands from his eyes and smiled at me. It was a sad smile but a smile nonetheless.
‘Sorry,’ he said. I nodded quickly.
‘What’s with the dresses then?’ I asked.
‘Oh,’ he fingered a piece of loose cotton hanging off his jacket. ‘They’re for dolls.’
‘Yeah,’ I frowned. ‘Yeah, you said that. But what are they for? Why do you have doll dresses?’
The man shrugged and put his hands together. ‘Well, I make dolls don’t I?’ And then he blinked, like it was obvious and I was stupid for asking. ‘Lots of dolls.’
‘You, what?’ I didn’t understand. ‘You make dolls?’
‘Yeah.’ The man stood up. He went across to the window and pressed his head up against the windowpane. Standing there he looked small and he reminded me of a kid. For a second I wondered if he was lying but then why would he lie? And he did have all those dresses.
The man turned back around and stared at me. ‘What do you mean, why?’ He sounded almost angry, and his lips curled, and suddenly it occurred to me that I shouldn’t have let this strange man into my house. I didn’t know the first thing about him.
‘What do you make dolls for?’ I whispered. He turned back to the window and put a hand on the glass.
‘I sell them,’ he said to the glass. ‘At markets. They need dresses, you know. Nobody wants to buy a naked doll.’ He turned back and looked at me.
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Yeah. I mean, no. I mean, I guess they don’t. So you make the dresses too?’
'Uh huh.’ He looked right into my eyes and I found myself looking back. He had soft eyes. I realised with a jolt that the dryer had stopped. ‘I buy the fabrics and I have a sewing kit,’ he added.
‘You do it all by hand then?’ I raised my eyebrows. The doll maker came and sat back down.
‘Well duh,’ he said. ‘Who else would do it?’
‘Um. I dunno. You might have a sewing machine or something.’ The man laughed at me.
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I wish.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said awkwardly and he nodded and pointed towards the laundry.
‘I think it’s finished,’ he said and he got up and I followed him back into the laundry. He took out the dresses gently, folded them, and placed them back into his garbage bag. I had so many questions for him. Where did he keep the dolls? How did he make them? ‘I don’t want to talk,’ he said when I started to ask. ‘But if you want to come by the market one day and have a look, you should.’ He slung his bag over his shoulder and made for the door. It was still raining. I pulled him back.
‘You don’t have to go,’ I said. ‘I mean it’s raining. The dresses will just get wet again anyway.’ The man looked at me and laughed. He laughed so much I thought he was going to be sick but he came and sat back down in the lounge room. He dumped his garbage bag full of dresses on the floor and looked at me. He didn’t ask me anything about myself and I didn’t know what to say so we just sat in silence, listening to the rain.
‘I like the rain,’ he said after a while. ‘I always have. Even when I was a kid.’
‘Rain is nice,’ I agreed.
‘It makes stuff grow,’ the man said. He stretched his arms out in front of him. His jacket was too small for his long arms and I wondered how often he washed his clothes. I wondered where he slept. How did he keep himself warm? What did he eat? Who did he talk to when he was lonely? Was it hard making all those dolls? How many dolls did he make anyway?
‘Do you want to, um, I dunno, do you want a hot shower or something? I mean, not that you smell. You don’t smell but you might wanna a shower anyway? I dunno? Or not?’ I said lamely but the man didn’t seem offended. He smiled instead.
‘That would be nice,’ he said. I led him into the bathroom, fetched him a fresh towel, and then went and started on dinner. I wondered if he’d stay for dinner. If he would stay the night. I could set up the spare bed. Would that be weird? I mean I didn’t know the guy. Should I really let a strange man sleep in my house? He could do anything. He could grab a kitchen knife and stab me while I was sleeping. I tried to shake those thoughts out of my head. I sliced potatoes, sprinkled them with salt and pepper, and put them in the oven to cook. When the man appeared again, he was back in his brown suit but his hair was wet, dripping over the carpet. He smelt clean though. Of lemons and soap.
‘Hey,’ I said.
‘Hey,’ he said back. ‘Um.’ We stared at one another. ‘Thanks.’
‘Yeah,’ I waved a hand. ‘Yeah, no worries.’
‘Well,’ he hesitated. ‘It’s stopped raining, so I better get going.’
I wanted to tell him to stay. That I had food in the oven and beer in the fridge. I wanted to tell him to sit down and wait while I had a quick shower myself but something inside me said not to. So I watched him pick up his garbage bag and turn the doorknob and step out onto the blue pavement.
‘Thanks again,’ he said and I wondered why he was thanking me, what exactly I had done but I smiled, and he smiled back, and for the first time that afternoon his smile seemed to be real. He stepped out onto the road. He had a strange lopsided walk, swinging his bag over one shoulder, and I wondered where he was going. As I watched him walk I knew that I would never see him again and deep down, somewhere that I usually tried to ignore, I felt something heavy in my stomach. I looked up at the sky and it was so white. I wondered what his name was.