Tales for the Nursery

It was a beau­ti­ful dawn in Toytown. Sun­light spread from roof to roof. Bird­song drif­ted on the breeze and the earli­est risers drew back the curtains.

But the bliss­ful scene was broken by a baby’s screams and the sound of torn fabric.

Five years later, as the wooden birds chattered just like they had on that first morn­ing and every morn­ing since, Andy had a night­mare. His par­ents were there, Hugsy the Doc­tor was there, and they stared at him in hor­ror. Then there was a rip­ping sound. Blind­ing, agon­ising pain, and Andy awoke to a dull ache in the stuff­ing between his legs.

His days were spent at school. Les­sons on hug­ging, flower pick­ing, embroid­ery, and get­ting the per­fect smell when bak­ing. Every class was taught the same things, year after year, until they were old enough to get a job in the hug­ging mines or the rain­bow fact­ory. And when they were older still, they would retire to a life of bak­ing deli­cious pies until they gradu­ally faded away.

Today, the stu­dents laughed and played together, as they always did, and everybody’s work was col­our­ful and per­fect, as it always was.

Except Andy’s. Time after time he took home burnt cook­ies, dark, har­row­ing stitch­work, and his hugs were always uncom­fort­able because of the way he’d move his hips.

The teach­ers sent home let­ters first, then vis­ited his par­ents when he still didn’t improve, but noth­ing changed. Tutors became uncom­fort­able with the way he stared and stopped turn­ing up. He couldn’t con­cen­trate when his par­ents tried to teach him, haunted by his night­time vis­ions of them. Worse still was being taught at the kit­chen table, his mother’s hustle and bustle around him. He asked to read in the ima­gined quiet of his father’s study, but it was forever locked to him.

Rumours spread around Toytown, no mat­ter how much Andy’s par­ents tried to quiet them. Andy was dif­fer­ent. Andy brought some­thing else to Toytown, some­thing it hadn’t exper­i­enced before. He made people uncom­fort­able in a way they couldn’t understand.

Then the day of the incid­ent came. Andy was knead­ing dough in bak­ing class, press­ing his wool-stuffed fists deep into it and hold­ing them there. This part he enjoyed, but as soon as the dough was in the oven he lost interest. The other chil­dren gathered around each oven, one at a time, to appre­ci­ate the smell of bak­ing bread or cook­ies or cakes while Andy stared out the window.

But today, he caught sight of the bak­ing teacher, Anne, lean­ing over with her eyes shut. She was sniff­ing at a pupil’s apple pie, smil­ing appre­ci­at­ively, and he felt some­thing new. A tingling in his belly and the same ache that he woke to each morn­ing. He didn’t real­ise he was mov­ing until he was behind her, press­ing against her in a strange par­ody of their hug­ging classes.

It was a first for Toytown; a child was sent home from school.

Lying in his bed, Andy could hear the mur­murs of his par­ents through the gaps in his floor­boards. Doc­tor Hugsy was with them, his paws mak­ing a racket as he awk­wardly tried to drink tea.

We thought it best to talk to you,” said Andy’s father.

He was sent home from school today,” said Andy’s mother.

Yes, yes, I heard,” said Hugsy, “you’re wor­ried he has the drive.”

There was a shocked silence.

At the time,” con­tin­ued Hugsy, “I thought the extrac­tion was suc­cess­ful, but it’s pos­sible we missed some small portion.”

Oh no,” said Andy’s mother, begin­ning to sob.

Don’t cry, dear,” said Andy’s father, “it’s not that bad.”

I’m afraid it is,” said the doc­tor, “we’ll need to repeat the operation.”

Now, Andy’s mother wailed out loud.

Tech­niques have improved. I’m sure we’ll be able to do a full extrac­tion this time. You still have the original?”

Locked in my study,” said Andy’s father over his wife’s cries.

I’d like to take a sample of it. If we can piece together the exact com­pos­i­tion, it will make identi­fy­ing any affected stuff­ing that much sim­pler. We can pen­cil in Fri­day for the operation.”

What should we tell people?”

Any­thing but the truth. Tell them he is ill. Tell them you expect him to have recovered in a week. We are a stub­born lot here in Toytown. We are blessed, and we can’t risk your son upset­ting that. I know you and your wife have suffered more than any­one through this, but do so in silence a little longer. Per­haps one day we can explain what happened, per­haps not. But cer­tainly not today.”

At this point, Andy stopped listen­ing. He covered his head with his pil­low to block out the cries of his mother.

His par­ents kept him off school for the rest of the week and locked him in his room. He watched the other chil­dren play­ing from the win­dow, prac­tising hug­ging or arran­ging large, col­our­ful wooden blocks into words, but when their par­ents noticed him star­ing they dragged their sons and daugh­ters away to play inside, whis­per­ing to them as they did.

Doc­tor Hugsy vis­ited most days, bring­ing dif­fer­ent bags with him each time, and he could hear hushed con­ver­sa­tions down­stairs. They must have been in the study, look­ing at whatever ter­rible thing lurked there, as he couldn’t make out what they were saying.

Fri­day crept closer. Andy was still locked in his room, sand­wiches brought up to him three times a day. He’d try to sleep, but he’d wake up feel­ing like his stuff­ing was about to burst out, dream­ing of the doc­tor and his par­ents over and over. He dreamt of the study too, the door open­ing as he approached, only to reveal his par­ents and the doc­tor laugh­ing together, or a blind­ing white light and the memory of pain, or more and more doors, stretch­ing forever onwards until he didn’t remem­ber whose house he was in.

It didn’t take long for him to for­get the town out­side, his school les­sons, the smell of fresh baked pies and the feel of the cot­ton roads under his feet. He was con­sumed by the know­ledge that some­thing was about to hap­pen, that his life would be irre­voc­ably changed. He tore at his woolen hair until it threatened to rip from his head.

Fri­day morn­ing arrived. The sun was as bright as always, the birds sung in the trees, but the oppress­ive mood that had hung over Toytown since Andy’s birth was heav­ier than ever. No cur­tains were opened. Chil­dren were kept home. The town might not have been told of the Rag­dolls’ struggles, but they could feel them. Save for Doc­tor Hugsy, not a soul moved between the brightly painted wood­b­lock houses. Not a single wooden car moved down the yel­low roads.

The knock down­stairs made Andy jump. He was wait­ing by his bed­room door. There hadn’t been a sand­wich this morn­ing or the night before, and he knew this was a sign. He could hear each creak of his stitch­ing when he moved, every pad­ded step of his par­ents around the house. Then he heard foot­steps on the land­ing and knew it was time.

The door opened inwards, hid­ing Andy behind it. The pil­lows under his duvet were arranged to look like a sulk­ing child lay beneath.

Andy,” said his father, “it’s time to get up.”

His mother sup­pressed a sob.

Come on, Andy,” con­tin­ued his father as he stepped into the room, “wakey wakey.”

Andy stepped from behind the door and pushed with all his might against his father. It wasn’t much, but it unbal­anced him. He lost his foot­ing and stepped on the marbles strewn beside him, slip­ping and fall­ing on his back.

Andy hadn’t waited to see if it worked. He threw a toy train at his mother, hit­ting her in the face and crack­ing a but­ton eye. Then he charged and drove his elbow into her mid­sec­tion. She stumbled back­wards into Doc­tor Hugsy and they both rolled down the stairs in a tangled embrace.

Andy dodged his father’s grasp­ing hand. He leapt over his mother and the doc­tor at the foot of the stairs. He was run­ning for the study.

The door was open. He sprin­ted through it and found him­self in the oft ima­gined but never glimpsed room. It was like any other in their house, the same floor­boards, wall­pa­per, light fit­tings, everything. All that set it apart were the books that lined the walls and the equip­ment that Doc­tor Hugsy must have been trans­port­ing for the last few days: a table covered with a white sheet; a set of surgeon’s tools on a tray next to it; a bright lamp shin­ing right at the middle of the table.

And there was one thing that Andy knew had always been there. A jar with some­thing unnat­ural float­ing in it.

Andy knew what he had to do. He could already hear his father yelling. His mother and the Doc­tor were on their feet again. He didn’t have much time.

He grabbed the jar, raised it above his head and threw it straight down. Glass and foul-smelling liquid spilt every­where, but a pink lump lay in the wreckage.

His par­ents arrived at the door too late to stop their son, but just in time to see him push the small, meaty thing back between his legs.

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