The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale

Do you remember when you believed in magic? It is 1917 with war waging across Europe, yet in the heart of London is a place of hope and enchantment. Read on for an excerpt from The Toy Makers

The Emporium opens with the first frost of winter. It is the same every year. Across the city, when children wake to see ferns of white stretched across their windows, or walk to school to hear ice crackling underfoot, the whispers begin: the Emporium is open! Christmas is coming, and the goose is getting fat . . .

If, at a certain hour on a certain winter night, you too had been wandering the warren between New Bond Street and Avery Row, you might have seen it for yourself. One moment there would be darkness, only the silence of shops shuttered up and closed for business. The next, the rippling snowflakes would part to reveal a mews you had not noticed before – and, along that mews, a storefront garlanded in lights. Those lights might be but pinpricks of white, no different to the snowflakes, but still they would draw your eye. Lights like these captivate and refract the darkness. Lights like these can bewitch the most cynical of souls.

Watch out, because here one such soul comes, hurrying out of the night.

He is a barrel of a man, portly to those who would look on him kindly, corpulent to those who would not. Outside the Emporium, he stops and gazes up, but this is not the first time he has been enchanted by these lights, so he steps through the door to be met by the whirlwind smells of cinnamon and star anise. Ribbons of navy blue stream apart and, in the vaulted ceiling above, miniature bells tinkle, spiriting up memories he has tried hard to forget: sleigh rides through parks too painful to remember, wassailing on the village green, Christmases in better, more innocent times.

Come, go in after him. You would not be the first. Children are already tugging on their parents’ hands; a pair of young lovers hurry to make secrets of their gifts to one another; an old man unwinds his scarf as he hobbles in, if only to feel like a boy again. If you follow after, there will be much to see.

He is already disappearing into the throng when you come through the doors. What had seemed a tiny shop from without reveals itself to be a grand labyrinth within. At your feet a miniature locomotive glides past on rails set into the floor and, beyond that, each aisle explodes into a dozen others, floors stacked upon floors like the illusion of a master mathematician. Shoppers disappear along one aisle, only to reappear, bewildered, on the galleries above.

It would be easy to get lost in a place like this, but the man we are following knows the way. Alone among the shoppers, he does not stand to gawk at the displays – and nor must we. There will be time for lingering later. For now, do not let yourself get distracted by the bears whose eyes follow you from every shelf, nor the tin soldier who stands to attention as you pass (he is only playing a parlour trick to tempt you into taking him home). Forget, for a moment, the whinnying of the hobby horses eager to be ridden. If you see a doorway through which there lies a wintry grove bedecked in lights, do not give it a second glance. Keep your eyes on the man in front, for he is almost at his destination. Come closer now, that we might listen.

The Toy Makers

'Lights like these can bewitch the most cynical of souls'

The man, let us think of him as a friend, queues at the counter. Before his turn comes there is a family laden down with a nest of silver satin mice, and a lady who must keep the Russian dolls in her basket from clambering out of one another in their haste to be bought. By the time our friend reaches the counter he is purpling with impatience.

‘Madam,’ he begins, ‘you may recall me. I have been coming here more Christmases than I remember. I came here not one week ago, to find a present for my sons.’

The storekeeper may or may not have been the one to serve the gentleman. The Emporium has been a maelstrom of activity since before this century was born; its storekeepers are many, and increasing year on year. Every new toy demands a new assistant; new atriums and playhouses are being discovered with every exploration.

She does not remember, but she nods all the same. All are welcome at Papa Jack’s Emporium, for everyone was once a child, no matter what they’ve done or whom they’ve grown up to be.

‘How are your boys enjoying those toys?’

Our friend is incandescent. He sets his leather briefcase upon the counter and opens it to reveal a battalion of toy soldiers, wrapped carefully in the crêpe paper in which they were bought. Upon bringing them out, he lines them up in formation, sparkling creations of varnish and wood.

‘Well,’ he says, and here he pauses, as if he is himself confounded by the thing he is about to say, ‘picture it, if you would. It is Christmas morning, and two boys are tearing open their presents. Imagine how thrilled they were to see these. So noble and proud, so lifelike! Well, they wanted to play their battles there and then – but it is Christmas, and first there must be church, and then there must be dinner, and then, only then, can the boys set out to play. I tell you this so that you can see – they had waited all day for their battle. So when the time came and they lined up their soldiers across the parlour floor, you can imagine how excited they were.’

‘And what happened?’

‘It is, perhaps, better if I show you.’

The customer takes three soldiers and positions them at one end of the counter. With great care he places an opposing force at the other end. ‘If you would,’ he says to the storekeeper, and as he winds the first soldiers up, she winds up the second.

At opposing ends of the countertop, the soldiers start to march.

‘You can quite imagine their excitement. Noah was crying out for victory. Arthur could barely contain his delight. Which one would win out? they started asking. Father! Arthur cried. Come and see! So I did. And what do you think I found?’

On the countertop, the fronts have advanced. Some other customers have drawn near, lured by the commotion. See the woman with the cage of pipe-cleaner birds, the vagrant soldier marvelling at the stuffed dogs lounging in their baskets? Keep a careful eye on them; you will see them again. But, for the moment, bring your gaze back to the battle. The soldiers are almost on top of one another. Three more paces and the fronts will collide; according to the rules of boyhood battles, the last soldier standing will reign supreme.

One pace, and rifles still drawn. Two paces, and the barrels of those rifles hang so closely that the opposing soldiers can see into their beady black eyes. Now, at last, is the moment all have come to see.

Then – the soldiers stop. On each side the soldiers spin their rifles, holding them aloft.

And, on the end of those rifles, hang rippling white flags.

Each figurine lifts a hand to grasp the hand of the soldier it was sworn to kill.

‘Well?’ our friend demands. ‘What is the meaning of it?’

The storekeeper has stooped down to study the soldiers, the forces so interwoven that only a boy of the keenest eye could separate his own from his playmate’s. Our friend is telling her how it happens every time, how Christmas morning has been ruined and reparations must be made – but the storekeeper is silent, and none could miss the beatific look she is trying hard to keep out of her eyes.

These simple toy soldiers, these lifelike recreations on which the Emporium has built its Empire, these playthings that have sat upon the shelves for as long as the store has existed, who have provided generations of boys with untold delights, have, for the very first time, lain down their arms.

‘They have surrendered,’ she whispers – and she doesn’t care at all for the outrage of our friend, for the money she must pluck from the till and return to his hands. The soldiers she is staring at are happy now, and it is the most incredible thing.

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