Niamh Cullen

The Toy House

Two stories. 

No, three. Four, says Molly, standing on the bed to reach the bookshelves, heaping out board books onto the duvet, crumpled by her feet.

Ok. But only four you say, knowing it’s quicker to agree than get into an argument. 

The baby is getting restless in your arms, threatening to wriggle out of your grip at any moment. 

Eventually you get them sitting on the bed and open the first book.

I need a drink, says Molly. 

You almost trip over the wooden toy house on the carpet as you pull yourself upright, your vision obscured by the baby in your arms. Molly follows you, sliding down the stairs and giggling. Pulling at your cardigan as you fill the sippy cup with milk. 

And a biscuit. 

Molly we’ve talked about this already, haven’t we? We can’t eat biscuits upstairs because they make a mess. 

But I’m hungry, she pulls plaintively at your cardigan again. 

You agree, of course. You would agree to anything just to get them back upstairs, and finally you are all sitting on Molly’s single bed again, laughing at pictures of mice, moons and bananas. Molly crunches her digestive biscuit slowly, squashing it in her warm hand as she eats and crushing crumbs into the duvet cover. Finally Molly lies down and you sit beside her, breastfeeding Dan. 

He is restless at first but finally begins to settle, taking your milk in slow, even swallows. You are growing drowsy yourself in the half dark as you flick through pages in the web browser on your phone, taking care to angle the glow of the screen away from the children’s faces. After a while your eyes find instead the gap between the curtains and the window frame that run alongside the bed, the thin sliver of darkness that reminds you of the world beyond the bedroom. You can barely make out the shape of the back garden in the deep grey of the late autumn evening. In the gloom there are the usual sounds of the old house amplified in the stillness. The dishwasher downstairs beginning its cycle and the gurgles of the plumbling in the bathroom opposite. Molly begins to sigh contentedly as she drifts towards sleep. Dan is snug against your body, your face full of the clean smell of his hair as he feeds drowsily, limbs gradually growing stiller. 

Glancing up from your phone again, you see lights on in the bedroom of the house behind. Curtains wide open, you can see clearly and precisely into this other bedroom. You’ve never noticed it before. Framed by the neat rectangle of the window, it glows yellow in the darkness. There is a mother, a young child and a baby. Your mirror images. The mother – you assume – is holding the baby and playing games with him, making funny faces and bouncing him up and down on the pale pink bedspread, the grey lightshade overhead. The young child sits on the bed, watching and giggling along: on and on it goes, the giddy games and pantomine happy faces. For whom exactly who is she putting on this little show, you think. For a second, her eyes seem to stare right in your direction and you look away, afraid of meeting her gaze. 

You found it oddly reassuring at first but now the scene is beginning to grate on you, even as your eyes remain fixed on the glow. Beside you, the two children are sighing contentedly, the little mounds of their sleeping forms rising and falling under the covers. The darkness of the bedroom mingles with the light of the landing to create a greyish gloom. Outside the window, the deep blue of dusk has long faded into grey, the garden almost fully dark now. Ahead and slightly off centre, sits the perfect rectangle of light where the little play takes place. It is the small backlit stage of a puppet show. A scene that some children have carefully set up in a doll’s house.

And then it’s gone. You must have looked away for a moment because you don’t notice the woman drawing the blinds. It’s like a door suddenly snapped shut. All dark now. You stay there motionless for a moment or two then sit up heavily, Dan still in your arms. You slide slowly out of the bed, taking care not to disturb Molly as you lift Dan up and carry him to the sidecar cot in your own bedroom. Something brittle under your fingers as you push yourself up: biscuit crumbs.


You only moved to the neighbourhood a few months ago. It was summer then and you’d all spent a lot of time in the back garden trying to create some kind of usable play space out of the mess of gnarled tree stumps, scrub and stony soil that you’d inherited with the house. You hadn’t gotten very far with it by the time Alan’s annual leave ended. There was only so much you could do with two small children in tow. Then the cold weather set in and that was the end of it. You had left it more or less as it was, a monument to your half-hearted efforts at home making. Mounds of stony soil heaped in uneven patches across the muddy expanse, the stumps of long-dead bushes half dug up.

The next evening when putting the children to bed, you look for them, your model family. You keep your eyes fixed on the thin sliver of outside that’s visible through the gap between curtain and window frame, but there is only darkness. Gazing idly outwards, you expect the scene to light up at any moment, their perfection throwing the tears, the tantrums and the biscuit crumbs into sharp relief. Nothing. You keep looking every night for at least a week or two, but you don’t see them again. Sometimes a thin line of light seeps through the crack in the curtains of the house opposite, but usually all is darkness.

You wonder why the mother – if indeed she was – chose precisely that night and no other, to allow you into her private family play? Was it a broadcast of sorts, meant for anyone to see, or something more intimate that you somehow slipped into?

One night you fall asleep in the children’s bed while gazing out, waiting for the scene to light up. You jolt awake to the sound of Alan’s key in the door. Blearily, you rise out of bed, placing Dan in his cot before quickly making your way downstairs. 

Where were you? The house was so quiet when I came in. 

Oh, just upstairs, you say. 

His eyes linger on your crumpled cardigan and your hair, fuzzy from the pillow, before they settle on the piles of dishes in the sink and the toys scattered on the floor. He helps you tidy up and you offer to heat him something since you had dinner with the children, but he’s already eaten.  

You try to figure out who the family are. It should be easy, since their house backs onto yours. A quick walk along the next road should be enough to figure out which one it is, but the problem is that the houses and gardens on that road aren’t uniform. They are mostly older structures dating from the 1960s, and their arrangement is an uneven patchwork. Some have wider gardens, with space for two garages or elaborate extensions. A few are squeezed into meaner slivers of land, or oddly shaped so as to fit a corner triangle or a curve in the road. Every time you take that road on the way to the shop, you try and fail to pinpoint it. 

You begin to imagine a life for them, your model mother and her children-in-the-window. She is always cheerful and neat. She lets the children paint but the house never gets messy. She reads stories to them without skipping any words and she always does the funny voices like she means it. She probably went to school nearby and came back to live here after university, goes for walks and coffees with her mum group. She barely sees her husband during the week but somehow the sex is still great. And she has the children wear cloth nappies of course, would never dream of using disposable ones. You aren’t sure whether you envy her or hate her. 

You mention them to Alan once. You try to make the whole thing sound as casual as you can, but it comes out too studied and precise. The details of her imagined life start tripping out before you realise it. He looks at you a moment. 

Maybe you made them up, he says. You probably fell asleep up there one evening.

Why would I make it up, you answer. 

I don’t know, Alan says, but you seem so far away these days.

You’re barely here, you answer, your voice a loud hiss in the quiet of the house, the children asleep upstairs. 

How do you know what I’m like, what our lives are like here? 

What do you mean? Alan cuts across you, raising his voice too. I thought we both chose this, he continues. Isn’t this what you wanted too? 

Oh leave it, you say, brushing past him. 

You take the stairs up to the children’s room, where you sit in the dark, watching them sleep. You’d first met each other while interning for the same publisher. Alan had just finished his degree at Bristol and you’d just arrived from Dublin the summer after graduation. London was equally alien and equally exciting to you both. By the time you’d moved to the flat in Clapham, it seemed like a place you’d built together. You’d been happy there for years, though the constant smell of damp from clothes drying indoors began to bother you even more when Molly came along and the washing piled up. The apartment seemed so much smaller when it became stuffed with her toys and things; the bouncer in the living room, the cot and buggy in the hallway. Some vague idea began to take shape about exchanging window boxes for a neat lawn with a clothes line and a trampoline. In the gloom of the bedroom, you think of the familiar bustle of city streets and a life of purpose. The outline of the toy house, set on the floor between the two beds, is solid though you can barely make out any other details in the half-dark. 

You don’t bring them up again, your model family, but they stay with you, as if silently glowing in the gloom.


When you moved, the weather was still warm and sunny. People were around. They trimmed their hedges and mowed their lawns. Parents trooped slowly behind children learning to cycle or panted to keep up with older ones hurtling along on scooters. The park and local playground had been noisy and cheerful. Now it’s November and the days are shorter. You realised once school began, that it was a ghost town really, a dormitory town. There was hardly anybody around on weekdays. One gloomy morning in October, Molly swung alone in the solitary gloom of the local playground while Dan looked on, mute and cold. It hardly seems fair to cajole them into leaving the house much after that. 

A few weeks later you find a place for Molly a couple of mornings a week in a local playgroup in a community centre on the outskirts of the large, Victorian-era park to the west of the town. You walk through it, pushing Dan in front of you as he sleeps, the wheels of the pushchair crunching mercilessly through the huge drifts of leaves that border the pavements. The trees are mostly bare. Idly you wonder where exactly it is that the autumn leaves go. By spring time, they’d be gone. You think about how they will get damper and more compressed over the winter months, weighted by relentless rainfall and footsteps until they eventually turned into mulch and became indistinguishable from the mud, soil and gravel of the parkways. You had come here so that you could write, in between looking after the children. That in between time turned out to be mostly an illusion, and in any case, write about what? Even in the small gusts of time you find, there is nothing you can think of to write about. The ideas, words and scraps of sentences that usually drifted around your mind are gone now. They floated away before you could catch them. That’s why you walk instead, pushing the buggy wheels through the dense damp of the mounds of leaves – their brown turning darker as October seeps into November.

Sometimes you walk through the nineteenth-century graveyard that borders the park to the south, steering through the stillness of the moss and lichen covered headstones, lettering barely visible against the weathered stone.  

Other times you steer the buggy carefully along the footpaths that line the rows of manicured gardens towards the local high street, passing Waitrose on the corner and then the betting shops and the charity shops, as you approach Sainsburys. Which one does she shop in, you wonder? What does she buy? You pass the café windows, behind whose glint sit the odd trio of eldery women sharing tea and cake, or a larger group of mothers, pushchairs fanned out in a large circle around their tables. Is she in there you think, your mother-in-the-window? But you don’t want to meet her, to have the illusion burst by finding out she is one of those vacuous yoga mums who wears juicy couture and giggles a lot. Besides, for all that you imagine her, you have trouble picturing her outside the house, her image faltering as she steps outside the electric-lit frame of the bedroom. You stop outside to zip the fleece-lined buggy cover a little higher, to keep out the gusty November chill. 


It’s late November and you are just home from the shops. Sainsbury bags for life still full on the countertop while you sit on the floor between the children to stop Dan knocking down Molly’s duplo towers. A message on your phone from a friend in Dublin. 

Did you hear about that case? 

It was all over the news, the story of the mother who drowned her children. 

Yes, so awful, you text back. Unthinkable.

You tell yourself that you don’t want to know the details but you click on the articles anyway. Then you can’t get them out of your mind. None of it has anything to do with you, with us, you think, as you wipe the porridge off the children’s faces, try to be more patient with them. But you are left as the year is coming to its darkest point, with a vague sort of fear about nothing in particular, a sense of foreboding closing in around you although the darkness, you tell yourself, is only winter. It happens every year. 


In the great green room, there was a telephone, you whisper. Dan is in your lap as usual, Molly resting her head against your shoulder. 

And a red balloon and a picture of – the cow jumping over the moon. 

You pause at each scene, waiting for Molly to point out the objects or animals in question. And two little kittens, and a pair of mittens. And a toy house and a young mouse. 

I think somebody’s awake, Molly giggles, pointing at the toy house with its warm orange glow. You each have your lines polished by now. On the carpet opposite the bed, the wooden doll’s house that belonged to you and your sisters is pushed against the wardrobe, chunky Ikea furniture just visible from the angle you are sitting at. 

After you close the book, the children start to settle down to sleep and as you sit, propped up by the pillow with Dan against your chest, you begin to imagine yourself wandering through the great green room with its yellow furniture and orange carpets, the telephone ringing in the background. In the corner of the page, the toy house all lit up against the gloom of the darkened room. The soothing strangeness of it all. The curious psychedelic calm of the rhyming phrases. In your mind you begin to recite to yourself: Goodnight moon. Goodnight cow jumping over the moon. Goodnight little house and goodnight mouse. Goodnight glow in the dark stars and little Lego pieces all spilled out on the floor. Goodnight creaky single bed and decades old toys. The wooden doll’s house stands on the floor, the light from the landing casting shadows on the wood. It was quite a challenge fitting it in the car to drive back home from Dublin, but your mother insisted the children should have it.  

You’d always wanted a doll’s house growing up. There was one in the window display of Nimble Fingers for years and you’d pass it, going to the supermarket with your mother. You’d gaze at it for as long as you could, your eyes wrapping around the arrangements of furniture in the rooms, at the couches and the striped wallpaper, the lamp in the bedroom upstairs that really worked, the old-fashioned stove top with its old style copper pots and serving plates of carved chicken and some kind of pie on the table. All plastic of course. You were entranced by the weak shadows cast by the lamp’s glow, and by the idea of whomever might one day arrive to sit at the table, lounge on the couch or lie on the bed. There were never any figures in these scenes, but it was all set up as if they were due back at any moment.

By the time it had arrived one Christmas morning, you were a little old for it, though you couldn’t admit to anyone that it was a disappointment. You’d set up endless scenes, making sure that everything was perfect: the table cloths and the cushions on the couches, the place settings and the curtains. You’d keep on delaying the moment when you had to place inside the tiny dolls that had had come with the house – with their simple, old-fashioned grey tunics and white collars – and have them sit on the chairs, lie on the bed. That was the point at which the idea of the doll’s house collapsed and you were left with the dull reality that all it was, was arrangements of plastic, wood and cloth. Years later, your younger sisters took it over and the original furniture got broken or lost, bit by bit, as a hybrid family of Barbie dolls and Sylvanians came to squat there.  

Downstairs you can hear the key turning and Alan’s footsteps in the hallways. It must be late if he is home already, you think. But you don’t make a move to go downstairs. It’s dark so early these days that it feels like you live in a perpetual twilight world, moving between different shades of grey and deep blue, sometimes backlit by the orange glow of streetlamps. You said something like that to Alan once and he just looked at you, before he moved on to telling you about the corporate away day they were making him do in December.

The  doll’s house is glowing now. A soft, warm glow is coming from what you suppose are the living and bedroom windows, as if the Ikea lamps have suddenly been switched on, though they are just painted wood. You look at it for a few moments and then you push slowly to your feet, sliding Dan onto the duvet beside Molly. You pad over in your slippers to take a look. The lamps are lit and the plastic food is all set out on the wooden table, together with cups and saucers from a Lego set. The chairs are neatly arranged and the scene is oddly comforting. The light is on in the bedroom, casting shade on the pale pink bedspread below. Outside the back windows of the doll’s house you can see the darkness of the winter night but inside it’s warm, even if there is no carpet, the wooden floor is splintering from wear, and the cooker doesn’t work. You bend down and peek inside the window, as if to check who has laid out such an inviting scene. Molly would not be capable of such neatness. 

You lean your fingers against the wood of the window frame and think, what if I step inside for a few moments. What if I lay down on the little couch, with its thin cover and flowery pattern. You grip the frame again, pressing down hard as you vault yourself over it and land on the grainy wooden floor. It’s quiet here. Nobody will find you. 


Niamh Cullen writes fiction and creative non-fiction. She has published essays in The Tangerine and The Honest Ulsterman. She was longlisted for the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair 2021. She is also working on a creative non-fiction book about Darina Silone, an Irishwoman in 1940s Rome.

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