The story of the china doll

China Doll

In 2015, for the first time ever, I entered a writing competition! It was something I’d always thought about doing, but never actually done – so I did it!   Although I didn’t get anywhere, I still kinda like my story and it made me, my sister and my Mum cry  –  so I feel like there must be something to it.  Anyway … the theme was Hero and it was only allowed to be 2,500 words.  I had about three months to write it in, and I wrote it about five days out from the deadline in about two hours.  Silly.  But see what you think …

Since then I have entered twice more and plan to keep entering, because it’s fun writing to a theme and writing is my happy place.  Anyway – I’m re-posting this because something I saw yesterday reminded me of it.  I hope you enjoy.

The story of the china doll …

When I was thirteen, it made me sad. When I was fourteen, it made me angry. From about sixteen onwards, I just ceased to care. Looking back, that seems incredibly callus, but I guess that’s what you’re like when you’re young, right? It’s all about you.

Imogen was my sister – is my sister – for a while we weren’t close, but you’ll find out about that soon. Mum says when we were little we played together all the time, even though Imogen was five years older than me. I don’t remember playing with her to be honest – I wish I did –we’ve lost enough time already. Mum said our favourite game was to dress up and pretend to be famous ballerinas. Normal childhood stuff for a couple of sisters I suppose – it’s just that when we’d grown up, only one of us could be a ballerina, and that was me. You need legs to be a ballerina …

Black Swan
Black Swan image via Pinterest

When I was thirteen and Imogen was eighteen, she didn’t have much time for me. I was still obsessed with ballet and she was “grown up” – or so she said. She never seemed that grown up to me, in fact most of the time she seemed far from it, but I had my life to lead, full of gymnastics and ballet exams and she had hers – full of boys and phone calls to her friends. I was angry with her for giving up dancing though – that was the one thing I admired her for – she was a really, really good dancer. I used to love it when my class finished and I could rush downstairs to her studio and watch her teaching her troupe. She was graceful, beautiful and happy, and at those times, I was proud of my sister.

But then Imogen met Ben and that’s when we grew apart. Ben was scruffy and rude and smelt of cigarettes. I hated him; Imogen loved him. Mum and Dad hated him too – they were always pleading with Imogen to stop seeing him and to find a boyfriend who was interested in her life and who treated her well. Like all parents I guess, they wanted him to treat Imogen like a princess; Imogen seemed happy with far less.   Inevitably I suppose, Mum and Dad banned him from the house and Imogen of course, moved out. That was the last I saw of her for nearly a year.

For the first few weeks, Mum and Dad just carried on as normal, but I could tell they were worried. Mum jumped every time the phone rung and I’d catch Dad constantly watching the driveway, both of them expecting her to realise how stupid she’d been and to come home. But she never did.

It was five months before they finally found her; holed up in a grotty, damp little house in Auckland where she and Ben lived with six other losers. Mum and Dad were horrified to see how she was living, but even more so, they were horrified at how much she’d changed. Imogen was a beautiful girl when she left – raven-haired with green eyes and a lithe dancer’s body, she had a fresh, wholesome look. With her pale, alabaster skin, she was always being told she looked like a china doll. Now, Mum said with tears rolling down her face, she was skinny to the point of emaciation, her hair was dirty and dull and her skin had broken out. Mum said she just wanted Dad to pick her up, put her in the car and take her home with them. Despite Mum and Dad’s pleading though, Imogen wouldn’t leave and told them to go away and never contact her again. Dad tried to talk to Ben about it, but I don’t imagine that conversation went well. Actually, if I’d been able to speak to Imogen at that time, I probably would have told her how disgusted I was with her and how sad and upset she was making Mum and Dad. If you ask me, she was just downright selfish and stupid, and I didn’t miss her at all. But I know Mum and Dad did.

Life carried on, as usual, for another seven months – Mum and Dad still tried desperately to stay in touch with Imogen and they made several trips to Auckland to see her. The last time they went though, Imogen and Ben had gone and their flat mates didn’t know where to – or so they said. One of them though – Julie I think her name was – told Mum that Imogen needed help; Ben was abusive and they were both addicted to meth, which was basically Mum and Dad’s worst fears realised in one hit.

Not long after that, the phone call came. That awful phone call in the dead of night that every parent dreads. It was the hospital – Imogen had been in a serious car accident and was not expected to make it through till morning. It turned out she’d come home that evening and found Ben comatose on the bed with a needle sticking out of his arm. Panicked, she and her flat mate had put him in the car and Imogen had been driving him to the hospital when she lost control and veered across the lanes, hitting the median barrier hard and rolling the car. Ben was dead and Imogen was seriously injured. The really sad thing, the doctors said, was that Ben was dead long before she hit the median barrier; her frantic dash to the hospital was already in vain. Why didn’t she just call an ambulance you ask? Apparently drug-addled brains don’t work that way.

Imogen did make it through that first night – barely. And she made it through the next few touch-and-go nights as well. She lost both her legs below the knee though and has a big, jagged scar that goes from the bottom of her chin, across her cheek and stops just under her right eye. She says she’s more like a china doll now than she used to be, except this china doll has lost its legs and has a crack across its face. She says flaws can be beautiful though and now I think she’s right. Back then I wasn’t so sure.

Life was pretty dark for Imogen in those first few months, as you would expect. Mum moved to Auckland to be close to her when she left the hospital and went to the rehab centre. Dad and I stayed home in Cambridge and tried to carry on as best we could. We’d drive to Auckland every Friday night and come home early Monday morning. That was the way we kept our family together and that was the way we tried to help Imogen heal. And Imogen needed to heal – not just physically, actually the physical bit was the easiest I think – she needed to heal mentally. I sat with her for hours, talking and reading to her in those first horrible weeks, while she struggled to come to terms with what had happened. She told me one day Ben had “shattered her soul” and she’d welcomed the drugs because they made her life bearable. I asked her why she hadn’t just called Mum and Dad to come and get her and take her away from it all, but she said she was scared of Ben and what he might do to us if she ever left him. He was violent, she said, and angry all the time. He was also mean and sadistic. The really weird thing though, and she couldn’t explain why when I asked her, was that she still loved him.

Image via

So, like I said at the start, I was thirteen and this whole thing with Imogen made me really sad – sad for her, sad for Mum and Dad – even sad for me, really. But you know what? When I turned fourteen it started to make me angry. We were doing everything we could for Imogen and Imogen just wasn’t getting any better. In fact, she was getting worse – she was just awful; nasty, uncooperative and ungrateful for all the support and help she got from Mum and Dad and the doctors and nurses. For a while I tried to be sympathetic, but then I turned sixteen and I stopped being sad and angry – actually, I just stopped caring.

It was around that time I stopped visiting too. I had been trying to get out of the weekly trip to Auckland for a while, but this particular weekend I had a really important show rehearsal and Dad finally relented and let me stay home in Cambridge. From then on, I stopped visiting and Mum and Dad stopped talking to me about her. Sure, they’d mention her in passing now and again, but I never asked about her – it was almost like I didn’t have a sister any more. Looking back, I guess I didn’t really. The sister I’d had; that beautiful, dancing china doll had gone; to be replaced with a moody, scowling shadow of her former self. It seemed that Imogen had disappeared into the shadows and was afraid to come out into the light.

So I carried on, without my sister; and I hardly noticed. My world was full of dancing and performing – I’d moved to Auckland by that stage to take advantage of the opportunities to perform that just weren’t available in Hamilton. I spent my days practicing and my evenings either performing or working in a local bar to pay my way – being a dancer in New Zealand is not easy financially, that’s for sure. It never occurred to me to visit Imogen – in fact, by the time Mum and Dad bought her to see my show, I hadn’t seen her for seven years.

I was the principal dancer in the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and it was my third performance when Mum and Dad bought Imogen along to watch the show. Mum had sent me a text earlier in the day to say she and Dad were coming to the evening’s performance – she didn’t mention Imogen – I learned later it was because Imogen didn’t want to come and Mum wasn’t sure she’d be able to talk her into it. Anyway, as I glanced into the audience it was a shock to see Imogen there at the end of the row in her wheelchair – and you know what? In that brief moment when I caught her eye, she wasn’t scowling – in fact, she looked happy. That night, I danced my little heart out; I danced for Mum and Dad, but mostly I danced for my china doll sister who could no longer dance herself, even if she’d wanted to. When we came onstage for the curtain call I could see tears rolling down Imogen’s cheeks, but she was clapping and laughing and I couldn’t believe it. Mum told me later she and Dad hadn’t seen Imogen happy since the accident – it was like those shadows she’d been living behind had been blown away and Imogen had taken one great leap into the sunshine.

All of a sudden then – at the age of 23 – I had a sister again.   And it was awesome – she was awesome. When I asked her about her sudden change of attitude to life, Imogen said that while she was watching me dance on stage, she’d suddenly realised her life didn’t have to be over. She may not be able to dance, but she could teach and she could laugh and she could love. And that, she thought, might just be enough.

Imogen never did anything by half; before long she had moved back to Cambridge, got herself a little flat and was back teaching again at the local dance school. She was spending more and more time on her prosthetic legs and less and less time in her wheelchair, and slowly but surely, her sparkle returned and my beautiful china doll sister was back.

Sure she was a little bit flawed, but that made her even more special to me. I realised how much I’d actually missed her all those years when I was telling myself I didn’t care. We talked about that, and she said she was surprised I’d stuck around as long as I did. Knowing she forgives me for it makes me feel better, but I’m still very sad we missed those seven years of our lives.

Do you know what Imogen does now? She’s the ambassador for a charitable foundation known as “No Drugs For Our Youth” – she travels around the country visiting secondary schools, telling them her story and pleading with them not to get involved with drugs in any way, shape or form – ever. At the start of every session she tells the kids she has a little sister; a little sister who is her hero and who showed her that life was precious. If only she knew – all I did was dance.

Imogen – my fragile, flawed, china doll sister. My hero.

China Doll
Image source unknown – if it’s yours, let me know!


I hope you enjoyed my little story …




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