The Terrible Toyshop
It was the dead of night in the High Street.
Tina, Trog and Jamie knew where the CCTV cameras were pointing and how to avoid them. Despite causing mayhem in the small town, they had not been caught yet.
The more disruptive troublemakers they used to steer clear of had disappeared weeks ago. Now the three teenagers had the town to themselves.
The porch of the small shop offered plenty of cover, and the glass-fronted door had only one draw bolt. It would be easy to break into, so there was probably nothing worth stealing inside. They could still trash the place, though. That’s what they were best at; the worst nightmare of all shopkeepers who opened up in the morning to discover their valuable stock destroyed. If Tina, Trog and Jamie just stole what they could carry it would have been understandable, but they only did it to inflict grief on others. It gave them a feeling of control in an increasingly complicated world.
Tina broke the stained-glass panel in the door and reached through to open the single bolt securing it. There was no alarm and the inside of the shop was lit by a safety light, so she beckoned Trog and Jamie to follow her in.
As they explored, the teenagers became aware that they were being watched. Malevolent glass eyes were turning to follow their every movement.
The young delinquents were terrified and would have dashed back out if a deadlock on the door hadn’t turned with a resounding “clunk” and shut them inside. There was no key to open it and the broken glass panel too small to escape through.
They were trapped.
The only way out was through a small door at the rear of the shop.
One pair of marble-sized glass eyes belonged to a sinister clown which loomed from the shadows towards them.
Panicking, Tina, Trog and Jamie tripped over each other to escape through the door.
When they were on the other side of it there was no one to hear the teenagers scream.
The shelves of the newly-opened Victorian toyshop were filled with dolls wearing thin-lipped smiles on their ceramic faces, monkeys in fezzes, which could jump up and down on a stick, glove puppets of cats and dogs, and picture puzzles of flowers, cottages and children with wistful expressions. And at centre of it all was the merry-go-round of prancing ponies, unicorns and a flying pig.
In this mysterious shop the rocking horse rocked without being touched, the ballerina on the music box whirled to its trill tune without needing a turn of the key, and the merry-go-round waltzed round and round at the slightest draft. The local newspaper had dismissed it as electronic trickery because the proprietor refused to be interviewed by one of their reporters.
The occasional customer came in to stand and marvel, yet no one purchased a toy for their children. There was something too sinister about these playthings to inflict on a modern infant. It was more like an outlet for grandmothers who disliked technology’s gadgets and their grandchildren. Toys that had to be pushed, pulled or wound up should have thrilled many infants, but the sinister, glass-eyed ones displayed in this toyshop were more likely to make them burst into tears.
So how did this shop make any money? Did it carry out all its business online? Were its customers wealthy collectors? None of the toys were priced and there was no proprietor to purchase them from. The antiquated till with yellowed keys looked as though it had not been used for a hundred years and its float was probably in shillings, pennies and farthings. With the lack of security it should have been a shoplifter’s paradise, but the menacing ambience of the place was a deterrent in itself. And then there was the way the toyshop had appeared overnight, fully stocked, in the small property between the local supermarket and newsagent. The premises had been empty for years, and both outlets had tried to purchase it, but the agent told them that the leaseholder was holding it in reserve for when the community needed it most.
One young mother reported the toyshop to the police for scaring her children. But they had other things to worry about. Local teenagers had been disappearing. All of them were troublemakers and it was assumed that they were hiding to avoid being charged with criminal behaviour. Now so many had gone missing it could no longer be ignored, however glad law enforcement was to see the back of them.
The local newspaper was also more interested in the lost tearaways than wasting column space on the strange toyshop. As that was so low on their list, Coral, an aspiring reporter, decided that this would be a good qualification project for her course on journalism. Her writing skills were exemplary and interviewing techniques remarkable for a 15-year-old. All she needed now was an A pass for investigative reporting.
Coral checked in the wardrobe mirror that she looked the part before setting out. It was essential to appear professional and five years older.
Was her skirt too short, too tight or the wrong colour?
Should she wear lipstick and mascara, or tie up her box braids?
Heels, trainers or sensible flat shoes?
If she had stood and thought about it any longer she would have never left the house, and it was a good mile walk to the town centre. So flat, sensible shoes it was - the trainers were far too shabby anyway.
When Coral reached the toyshop it seemed different, but she couldn’t work out what had changed since she last went past. The clown in the stained-glass door panel looked larger - though that wasn’t possible when the door was the same size... and its smile had turned into a scowl.
Shrugging off the uneasy feeling, Coral pushed the door open. The bell rang resoundingly on its coiled spring and she felt the glass eyes of the toys gazing at her. At this point her less determined friends would have quickly left. This teenager was made of sterner stuff though, and strode to the mysterious merry-go-round, trying not to wonder what had set it in motion.
Another sinister clown in its cabinet cackled insanely, daring her to put a coin in its slot. The teenager refused to be intimidated and explored the small shop of scary toys until she came to an alcove concealed by a faded maroon curtain. Coral drew it aside to find a child-sized door. Perhaps the proprietor was in the parlour on the other side, creating another magical invention?
This was Alice in Wonderland territory. Should the aspiring reporter go in and eat the cake or drink the potion which would make her the height of the Eiffel Tower or rabbit-sized, and be rewarded with the story that would secure her career? Having seen what cannabis did to people, there was no chance of that.
But there was no harm in peering inside, so Coral lifted the latch. This was a door to no parlour.
It really was Wonderland.
Despite its Victorian ambience, this world lacked Lewis Carroll’s dreamlike reassurance. Coral mustered all her confidence and went through into a place inhabited by life-sized toys that giggled manically or frantically waved as she passed by. They were all horribly real.
The ballerina pivoting on the huge music box did so as though she desperately wanted to escape. The monkey on the stick was more boy than simian, contorted into awkward movements against his will, and other huge, stuffed toys flapped their boneless arms as if trying to break out of their stitches.
It was quite terrifying.
Passing the monstrous toys as fast as she could, Coral reached the imposing roundabout at the centre of this weird playground. It was a life-sized version of the replica in the shop and the only exhibit not moving, as though waiting for the next visitor gullible enough to get onto one of its sinister looking mounts. Even if she had been tempted, the evil squint of the flying pig was deterrent enough.
The aspiring reporter pulled out her camera.
She was recording the collection of nightmare toys when a forbidding figure dressed in a long black skirt with the sheen of a raven’s wing glided towards her. The woman must have had legs, yet moved as though she had no use for feet. Her beauty was spoilt by - what the teenager thought was - a wicked expression. She was hardly the benign proprietor the teenager had anticipated, more vampire than mortal toymaker.
“Well now, what are you doing here, little one?”
Although the woman was floating threateningly above her, Coral resented being spoken down to as though she was an infant. “I might ask you the same thing?”
“I am the Toymaker, and merely passing through.”
“To do what, and for how long?”
“To fulfil a popular public service, which will last as long as it takes.”
Coral had already guessed what that - somewhat disturbing - public service was. “There are probably laws against using a toyshop to trap badly-behaved teenagers. Just what have you done to them?”
The sinister woman was taken back by her acuity and floated down to look her in the eye. “Well aren’t you the clever one. Worked it out without having to ask.”
“So this is what you call a public service? Trapping young people my age and turning them into toys?”
“Oh, it won’t be forever, just until they learn how to behave themselves.”
However much Coral disapproved of delinquent behaviour in her peer group, it was difficult to believe that they deserved to be turned into animatronics and stuffed dolls. “And I suppose you are the judge of when that will be?”
“No, not at all. As soon as they are genuinely sorry, they will automatically be released.”
“You are aware their parents must be going out of their minds with worry, aren’t you?”
“Well of course they aren’t. Their children wouldn’t have turned out this way if they had cared enough to bring them up properly. And time in the real world is a mere blink of the eyelid. They can stay here for as long as it takes, but return to whatever point in time they choose.”
“I suppose you supply packed lunches and the fare to start new lives in the Andromeda Galaxy as well?”
Coral was obviously being sarcastic. She didn't expect the sinister woman to admit, “If that’s what they need to be free of their old ways, certainly.”
Coral glanced at her camera and saw that it hadn’t recorded one image. It was enough to make her wonder if she wasn’t imagining it all. One glance at the unguarded expression of the Toymaker told her that was what she had been counting on it. A promising student damned by the label of fantasist would be no threat to her ‘public service’.
“I’m still not leaving without a story,” Coral declared defiantly.
There was not much the woman could do about that. This tough teenager was totally unlike the others she dealt with. She was intelligent.
“What sort of story?”
“A good exposé that can be backed up by facts.”
“Oh, you are a little madam, aren’t you?”
“You’d better believe it.”
Coral’s main fault was ambition. That was no reason to turn her into one of the terrible toys.
The Toymaker decided to give her what she wanted, and at the same time put to rest one of her failures. “Some while ago a couple of youths killed a young boy for fun. Unfortunately I cannot be in all places and watch every miscreant but, had I been paying attention at the time, I could have prevented the murder by including them in one of my ‘corrective’ facilities before they committed it. They got away with it, buried the child's body, and went on to have the fulfilled lives they had robbed him of. The police and boy’s parents have been searching for him ever since.”
Coral was immediately enthused. “Tell me who they were?”
“Not so fast, little one. Before dying, consumed with remorse at helping to cover up what his son had done, a father of one of the youths wrote a letter. It reveals where boy’s body was buried. In the grave is enough forensic evidence to convict the perpetrators.”
“Why not just tell me who his murderers were?”
“Don’t be foolish. If you approached them - as you well know - you could be killed as well, and your ambition to be a reporter will end there. I will tell you where you can find this sealed letter. Research the details, write up the story, and then take what you find out to the police.”
It was an offer Coral could not refuse. Any story about the phantom toyshop would destroy her career before it started. “How can I trust you?”
“Look at your phone.”
Coral saw a text message arrive. It gave instructions on how to contact the executrix handling the estate and papers of the father in question. How she persuaded her to surrender the letter would be up to Coral.
This gave the budding journalist an idea. “We couldn’t come to some agreement about you supplying me with more stories, could we?”
“Don’t push it, kid.”
The Toymaker’s black gown folded about her like raven wings and Coral suddenly found herself was standing in the high street outside the toyshop. The front was now boarded up with a TO LET sign nailed above it.
Learning about the youths who murdered a child for fun tended to dampen any empathy Coral had for the teenagers trapped by its last nightmare proprietor.
The shoppers spilling out of the supermarket with loaded trolleys on one side, and customers leaving the newsagents with their cigarettes and newspapers on the other, restored normality. Would any one of them have believed that the toyshop between the two outlets had trapped several young tearaways who had been disrupting the life of the neighbourhood? And would they have particularly cared?
Coral went to the park to check out the story in the text and plot her next move. According to news reports of the time, the murder had been true. Traces of tissue and blood had been found but, as the Toymaker had told her, no body or incriminating evidence. It was more than ambition which made her feel obliged to pursue the story. The bereaved parents needed to know where their child was. The fact the culprits were now adults, probably with families of their own, was an injustice too far. Coral didn’t know it at the time, but this was the moment her life was set on course as a crusading journalist.
The budding reporter closed her smartphone and strolled around the lake to think. The ducks were squabbling and trying to beat the pigeons to chunks of bread tossed by children. The park was peaceful without rowdy clusters of young people congregating to drink cider and intimidate passers-by. It was such a relief to be able to walk from one end of it to the other without some lewd comment or the risk of being mown down by a mountain bike. These had been the teenagers who made it difficult for pupils like her to study.
The story of the phantom toyshop was absurd anyway? The only things on her camera were snapshots of her parents in a loving embrace when they thought the younger children weren’t watching and a beautiful rainbow over the gasometers, which had been irresistible.
Thank goodness there was still some beauty in the world.