Henry had worked for many years for a major auction house. He worked as a buyer and often negotiated for whole collections: occasionally he was the auctioneer, though he found this painful (“too close to the public”). His job gave him access to unusual objects, and he amassed several small collections. He liked things which were not necessarily valuable in themselves, but which could be displayed together in groups, like with like, in order to show their qualities and the subtlety of their owner. Henry was a completist of sorts: 1930s jugs with bird motifs, large plaster maidens being pulled along by dogs, green plates with oranges superimposed round the rim, clockwork toys, little dancing ladies with long frocks.
One collection was special, though. These were his “Bathing Beauties”: little figurines about 3" high, made in the 1920s and 30s. All the little ladies wore bathing suits, and they disported themselves with great confidence and style. One balanced upon a rock, one astride a dolphin, one nestled inside a giant flower, one inside a conch shell. One dived into the waves: another pirouetted on a ball. They were made in a period when, for the first time, women began to feel at ease with their bodies, and could use or display them for their own pleasure. They all smiled, but for themselves. They were athletes of the heart.
Henry arranged the Bathing Beauties on a table close by his bed. He loved to touch them, to stroke them, to re-arrange them in new groups. Just occasionally, in fanciful moments, he thought he saw a flash of rage on their faces - as if they felt they were being interfered with. Of course this was nonsense, mere conjecture on his part. But it would do them no harm to be reminded of who owned them, and so he made a point of moving them around every night. Diffident and fastidious, he found them troubling.
Henry was no longer young, and he started to experience some tiresome symptoms which he attributed to old age. The most bothersome was pins-and-needles in his fingers. Sometimes little dabs, sometimes sharp stabs, they came on every night and lasted all day. Ah, thought Henry, I have trapped something in my neck, and he duly visited an osteopath and a chiropractor. But to no avail: all the crackings and manipulations in the world would not do the trick. Finally, in desperation, Henry consulted a specialist who thought he might have Multiple Sclerosis and who put him through many rigorous tests, to no avail. It was not that which ailed him.
Finally, he began to have the most troubling dreams. Every night, the Bathing Beauties came alive, and in his dream it seemed as though they clambered onto his bed and danced upon his counterpane. They scrutinised him (as he was wont to do to them) and romped up and down on his sleeping body, which he was powerless to move. But worse was to come. From somewhere, perhaps from his bedside drawer, they had procured a needle case. Each of them drew out (as it seemed to Henry in his dream) a needle, and brandished it like a sword. They advanced towards his fingers, lying inert like sausages, and pricked them again and again - sometimes on the knuckle, sometimes on the soft fingertips. He awoke with a yell, and the little ladies seemed to have scattered: but the counterpane was spattered with blood. His fingers bore the marks of tiny stab wounds.
Henry now began to feel really afraid, although he knew it was ridiculous. How can anyone fear something that is only 3" high, and female to boot? They were doubtless angered because he had touched them and looked at them, and the most sensible thing to do would be to smash them or sell them. But this he could not endure, so he locked them in a little glass cabinet. For some months all was well, and he could view them in their incarceration. They were not smiling quite so much now.
The cleaning lady was careless, or perhaps she had been suborned by their winsomeness to set them free. One day she left the case unlocked and when Henry returned home, it was empty. He was frantic of course, but hoped they had been stolen. Certainly they were nowhere to be found, and gradually he relaxed back into a somnolent grief. Where were they, his little vixens, his naughty playthings?
They were waiting for him. One night, his neighbours were wakened by terrible, searing screams, and when they broke into Henry’s bedroom, they found that his eyes had been skewered by needles. There had been ten Bathing Beauties, and there were ten needles. Henry was blinded. He later insisted that they had come to wreak their revenge on him, and that they must be found and broken. But none could be seen, except the littlest one, and Henry instructed his helpers to grind her, and her dolphin, to powder.