There was once a girl who worried about everything. Charlotte worried that her mother would die in a car crash on her way to work- she’d heard that things like that could happen. Her mother said that she always drove carefully, and accidents like that didn’t happen very often, but Charlotte didn’t believe her. She’d seen her mother drive far too fast when they were late to get somewhere. She would screw up her eyes in the back seat and pray that they would get there on time, alive, even though she didn’t believe in God.
One day, Charlotte went into the bathroom while her mother was in there. Despite her mother’s explanations about women’s monthly cycles, Charlotte couldn’t get the thought out of her mind that her mother might bleed to death. She worried that there was something seriously wrong that her mother wasn’t telling her about, and monitored her closely for signs that she might be about to die.
At school, Charlotte worried about upsetting the teachers, or being left out, or whether she was wearing the right type of skirt. She worked hard and was eager to please. Once, she lost a school library book and worried about it for weeks until it was eventually found, in the library, where she had taken it. Somehow it hadn’t been checked in properly. The librarian was most apologetic, but Charlotte couldn’t escape the feeling that somehow a mistake had been made, and she would be hauled at any moment into the headmistress’s office to explain herself.
Charlotte’s mother wanted to do something to help her troubled daughter, so she bought her a set of Guatemalan worry dolls. They came in a small wooden box, their tiny bodies constructed from brightly coloured fabrics and wire. Their faces were all much the same; eyes and mouths stitched with cotton. They looked crude, but Charlotte agreed to try talking to them each night before she went to sleep. The idea was that the dolls would take away your worries while you slept. She gave them all names, but her favourite was Frieda. Frieda had a long pink skirt and striped top. She wore a serious expression on her tiny paper face that Charlotte found reassuring. The most pressing concerns were always saved for Frieda, who would listen with infinite patience. Sometimes, Charlotte convinced herself that Frieda really was listening to her; a fleeting change in expression might appear to pass over her face, although logic told her that this could not possibly be true.
As Charlotte grew, her worries did not diminish. When she was thirteen, her uncle died from lung cancer. She nagged her mother to give up smoking, convinced that they might both become ill; she had heard about the dangers of passive smoking. Her mother agreed to give up, but Charlotte knew that she still had a small packet of tobacco in her bedside table, and the thought of it there would keep her awake at night, as she imagined the toxic cancer fumes leaching out towards her mother like a malevolent brown snake. She spoke to Frieda of her worries each night, imploring her to keep her mother safe.
Reaching the end of her studies at school, Charlotte realised that she could never go away to University like the others at school. The very idea of it filled her with terror: having to make new friends, find her way around a strange, unfamiliar city, exams, deadlines, having to budget. Most of all, moving away from her mother was something she could not begin to contemplate. It was like a mountain she couldn’t even begin to try to climb. Instead, Charlotte got an office job not far from home. She told her mother that she was ‘considering her options,’ and avoided any further discussion of her plans.
Realising that her continued dependence upon the worry dolls may be viewed by some as childish, Charlotte tried to talk to them less often. She decided she would use them only when things were truly desperate, and began a process of weaning herself away from them. This gradual withdrawal reminded her of the time she had had to stop using painkillers after her appendix operation, and had eked out the tablets over many days until finally taking them in quarters at a time. The effort in itself left Charlotte with a sense of lingering guilt that she knew was irrational, as if she had cast off a childhood friend for someone new, and that the dolls may feel personally affronted.
Charlotte worked hard at her job and was liked by her colleagues for her diligent nature. Each evening she would return home to have dinner with her mother, and they would then spend a quiet hour or two reading or sewing, while her mother spoke about the people in the town and what was happening in their lives. Charlotte would listen and nod, rarely able to recall the people her mother mentioned. She thought little of the future, and saw no reason why things should not continue in this same way forever. The most important thing was that she should remain close to her mother, so that nothing could happen to her, like it had to her father. Her mother soon gave up asking the questions she knew her daughter found difficult, privately feeling quite pleased that her daughter was so passive and had never caused her the sorts of problems she had heard about from her friends and their young daughters.
After several years of smiles and polite small talk, Charlotte agreed one night to dinner with the man who brought the post to her office each morning. He was familiar and pleasant and Charlotte could think of no reason why she should not agree to the suggestion. To her surprise, she found his company enjoyable; he made her laugh and she was able to forget her worries for a short time. Their arrangement became a weekly fixture, and one day, he asked her to marry him over a plate of fish and chips in their local pub. Charlotte said yes without much thought, because it seemed only polite after he had taken her out so many times.
When the time finally came for her to leave her mother’s home and move in with her husband, Charlotte worried that she was making a terrible mistake. She would telephone her mother several times a day and visited frequently. The dolls remained a part of her life, but now the small box remained hidden inside her bedside cabinet, taken out on rare occasions only. Frieda’s pink skirt was fraying around the bottom, and her face appeared tired and worn, but the same stern, irresolute expression remained. Charlotte imagined that Frieda was telling her that it was time to let go, that she didn’t need the dolls any more, but she didn’t feel able to part from them.
When their baby daughter was born, Charlotte’s worries turned to whether the baby was gaining enough weight, or if she could be ill, or whether she was caring for her in the correct way. Everybody told her that her feelings were normal, and that all new parents shared these anxieties, but Charlotte was not convinced. She could never rid herself of the constant anxiety that something terrible was about to happen to her, or to someone she loved.
Charlotte’s doctor suggested she try counselling, which she agreed to without question. The counsellor was a man in his forties with a soft-looking beard; black flecked with grey. His voice was without tone, and soporific like the sea. He taught Charlotte relaxation techniques and told her to envisage placing her worries onto a leaf that would float away downstream on a bubbling brook. Charlotte wanted so much for the counselling to work, for it to help, and for a time it did.
When Charlotte’s mother passed away suddenly from a brain aneurysm, Charlotte was distraught. Here was something she had never anticipated, and could not have prevented. She now knew with certainty that it would never be possible for her to live her life free from worry. Life would always find a way of surprising her and there was nothing she could do about it. She was powerless against the universe, and could not seem to cope the way others could. Feeling that she had had enough of living this way, Charlotte dug out the worry dolls from the back of her drawer, and ran from the house.
With no plan of where to go, she ran for several miles before she found herself at the park where she had often walked with her parents as a young child. She stopped on the bridge that crossed the river, ready to hurl the dolls into the water, and herself afterwards. As she opened the box, she thought she saw a movement. Frieda’s cotton-stitched eyes met hers, and she could hear the doll talking. The voice was not high-pitched, but low and calm.
“Charlotte. Stop,” she said.
Charlotte was too stunned to reply. The doll spread wide her arms in a gesture that seemed to say, ‘What are you doing?’
“You’ve never helped me. You’re just a doll!” Charlotte shouted, tears bursting from her eyes.
“Charlotte, you don’t know how much we’ve done for you. But we can only work with what you give us. We can’t predict the future, and we can’t work miracles.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do now?”
“Take my hand and I’ll show you. Do you trust me?”
“Yes, of course.”
Feeling that nothing could become any stranger, Charlotte held the tiny wire hand, and felt herself shrink. In a moment she was the same size as Frieda and the others. They stood together on the metal handrail and stared down at the water below. It looked clear and cool. The sunlight danced upon the surface and she could see down to the rocky bed beneath. A small brown trout moved its tail back and forth in the current, then darted away.
Charlotte closed her eyes and jumped. Her body felt weightless as she floated down like a spider on a silk thread. When she opened her eyes, she saw that they had landed on the back of an orange maple leaf. She turned to Frieda who smiled at her, and together they floated downstream hand in hand. Charlotte had never felt so free.