The Mechanical Man
Strolling through the mazelike backstreets a while later, Echo and Ixawod passed a filthy shop window which would have held no interest for them but for the few miniature figurines lined up against the pane. They were moving, waving and tapping on the glass as if calling for help. Echo found herself touched.
“Oh, let’s go in there. They’re adorable!” she cried. “I should get one for my brother.”
“This is your baby brother who’s, what, twelve years old now?” asked Ixawod with an incredulous look. “You should get him an airship. I’m serious. Don’t get him a doll. He’ll disown you like that.” He snapped his fingers to illustrate how quickly it would happen.
“Come on,” urged Echo, and took his arm.
The bell dinged as they pushed the door open into a gloomy workshop that looked like it had not been swept in years. They poked about, and Echo picked up some of the little figures and turned them over and over in her hands. Dust covered everything.
“Some of them are broken,” she said. “Look.”
She showed him some of the miniatures, blowing particles from them. Most of them were missing arms or legs. Others – vehicles – were missing wheels but as Echo discovered, many had other functioning mechanisms. They were all exquisitely made. The paintwork was more than perfect; it was artistry. No detail was there that ought not to have been there, and every detail that should have been there, was.
“I wonder who owns this shop,” she said. “Maybe they made all these toys.”
“I don’t think anyone owns it anymore,” Ixawod replied. “This place looks derelict.”
But no sooner were the words out of his mouth than there arose from the back of the shop such a cacophony that he swore aloud.
“Hello?” he called out nervously. “Hello?”
“It must be the shopkeeper,” said Echo. “Hello? Is someone there?”
At that, there was a kerfuffle, as if someone was struggling out from under a pile of papers, and then another noise that went tock-tock-tock. Ixawod and Echo looked at each other, frowning. Tock-tock-tock-brrriiinng!!
They edged closer to the doorway where the activity seemed to be coming from. Abruptly, in a puff of dust and torn-out book pages, out shot the most peculiar-looking individual either of them had ever seen.
He was a small man with neat, glossy black hair that looked like it had been moulded onto his head and a large brass key protruding from the middle of his back. His actions were machinelike and he walked with the straight-backed gait of a toy soldier. Every movement he made was accompanied by that tock-tock-tocking sound and the key turned. His face was white and as perfectly smooth as a freshly-laid egg with a painted-on smile. Was he a toy? A boy? A man who acts like a toy? A hybrid? Neither Echo or Ixawod could tell. One moment he walked in that odd, stuttering way and the next he seemed to move smoothly as if he were on wheels.
“Ah!” this new apparition exclaimed. Tock-brrring! “Visitors!”
“Morning,” Ixawod mumbled. He was staring wide-eyed at the shopkeeper. He couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Do you make these toys?” Echo asked softly. Ixawod turned his head on creaking neck towards her and in that instant he knew her kind nature would never let her hate or judge, even a bizarre mechanical man such as this. The realisation hit him like a punch to the gut, completely irrefutable. So strong was the feeling that Ixawod felt a lump in his throat at the mere consideration that he should let this moment pass unmentioned, so in the next second he blurted out his feelings in four clear words so as to be perfectly understood. Not a line of guile or deception was left on his face. He felt like he had survived a war and been born anew.
“Ah! To be young and in love!” the toymaker cried. “I too am in love! All that you see about you are the fruits of that labour!” Tock-whirr, tock-whirr.
“Excuse us please,” said Echo. She turned, grabbed Ixawod’s mop of blond hair and kissed him powerfully, her plump red lips rubbing up against his. They stayed like that for several seconds in front of the motionless, slowly-tocking toy man.
“I do, I do,” she panted when they had separated. “I do, I do, I do.”
The toy man’s painted-red mouth had turned into an etched frown of puzzlement. He was perfectly still.
“I’m not sure how to proceed,” he said after a pause. Tock … tock … whirr … “Ah!” Brrrinngg! “A present!”
He wheeled away to a workbench. Echo and Ixawod smiled at each other breathlessly, their fingers intertwined. They followed the toy man and looked over his shoulder. Had they just fallen in love?
The Toymaker’s own white fingers moved deftly, assembling tiny wheels into scattered pieces of plastic before jamming the whole ensemble together over a skeleton of wires. Once he was done, he spun around and raised up his creation, scarlet smile beaming again.
“For you!” he said, handing the couple a minute replica of themselves standing as they were now. It wasn’t a perfect reproduction but it had sensitivity to it. The toymaker tocked expectantly.
“Wow,” Ixawod whispered breathlessly. “Wow, this is – thanks! – you are – you are something else.”
“Something else? No, I am Smithwick Flanders, Toymaker! Toy Flanders to the children.” The toy man stood with his features drawn into a confused expression.
“No, I mean … I mean, this is amazing!”
Toy Flanders closed his eyes and blushed, two perfect circles of pink on his porcelain cheeks. He gave a small bow.
“Thankyou, kind sir. I love my work. But no-one else does,” he said sadly. His rose-red mouth was painted down at the corners and his sad brown eyes were delicately rimmed in black.
“Explain,” said Ixawod, with a baffled expression on his face. “If you have made all these toys, how can people fail to be impressed? I’m no expert, but I can … this ... all this … is amazing.”
“No-one wants toys anymore,” Toy said softly. He sniffed. “No-one comes to Toy Flanders’s little shop any more. Children want only money or clothes. They don’t like my toys any longer.” There was a single blue teardrop at the corner of each eye.
It was all Echo could do to stop herself putting her arms around the toy man. She wanted him to tell of his grief, though, not to have it smothered out of him, but she also wanted to help him so badly. Then she had an idea.
“I know! I’ll work for you!” she said. “I’ll work for you – for nothing. We’ll make your shop and your toys great again!”
The Toymaker considered this, tock-whirring thoughtfully. Ixawod regarded the pair of them from the corner of his eye. This was moving rather fast.
“Oh, I thank you, kind lady, but I fear it’s too late, for the age of toys is over,” he said sadly.
“Nonsense!” said Echo. “My brother loves them. I’ve … well, I’ve made a few myself actually,” she added shyly. “Let me help you, please.”
“Toy Flanders does need an assistant, it’s true,” he said, looking shamefacedly around the dusty shop. “But not for nothing. One who loves toys as I do should always be compensated for their work.”
“Alright then, but I don’t want any wages. Whatever I make and sell, that’s my wage. Whatever people want to pay for your toys, my share of that – nothing more.”
“For our toys, not my toys. They are our toys now,” said Toy Flanders. He looked up at the two of them, going tocktocktock-whiirrr! happily, before whizzing off on his wheels to the other side of the shop. Two tiny pinpricks of joy flashed in his gentle brown eyes.