In the town of Bajkowy, in a narrow cobbled street which wound its way through the tumble-down buildings of the old quarter, there sat a toy shop. In its cracked and dusty window a dozen wooden knights, heroes from the old myths, fought bravely against a wooden dragon. The red crosses on their greying mantles had long ago faded to pink and the dragon’s scales, once bright green, now peeled and flaked. Cobwebs had fallen across them all, thin dusty strands draped between friends and foe alike.
Times were hard for Stolarz, the toymaker. No children ever stopped on their way past his shop to stare through the window and press their noses against the glass. He knew that they were not interested in the old fashioned toys he carved and so from the angry traders in nearby Duze Miasto he bought modern toys. He hung them in the window besides the knights and the dragon. They were dull misshapen things in clear plastic bubbles. Their names were written among the Chinese characters on the bleached backing cards and read STAR WARRIORS and POPPY POCKET and TRANSFIGURES. But still the children kept their money in their pockets and walked quickly past.
“You must take in a lodger,” Stolarz’s daughter Nadzieja told him over the phone from London. “You don’t need all that room, you there all on your own. It makes no sense. You could be earning a few extra euro a week.”
“You’re right, Neda,” said Stolarz. “You have your mother’s brains.”
“Brains!” snorted Nadzieja, scorn crackling down the line, mixing with the static. “She had brains alright.”
And so it was that the dwarf Bohdan came to live with the toymaker of Bajkowy.
Stolarz wrote ROOM TO LET on a piece of cardboard and propped it in the window next to the dragon. No sooner had he done so then the sadly unfamiliar rattle of the brass bell announced the opening of the shop door. Stolarz had not had time to walk back to the moth-eaten red curtain which separated the shop from his workshop, had only just reached the rough wooden counter. He turned to see who had entered.
The dwarf had a bushy black beard and wore a tattered greatcoat several sizes too big, with the sleeves rolled up and the hem tacked high. Over his shoulder was slung a dirty kit bag, and in his hand, arm flung out to one side to counterbalance the weight, he carried a large square package, brown paper tied with dirty string. He plucked the piece of cardboard from the window and tossed it down on the counter, reaching up to tap it with a stubby finger.
“Is me,” he said. “Show me room.”
Stolarz lead the way up the creaking stairs.
“This used to be my daughter’s,” he said, opening the door.
The dwarf stomped around the room, looking at the bed, the table and chair, the wardrobe, running a hand along their surfaces, admiring the craftsmanship.
“Good work,” he said with grudging approval. “You?”
“All my own,” said Stolarz. “Thank you, Herr…?”
“Bohdan,” said the dwarf. “Just Bohdan.” He threw his kit bag into the corner and, with considerably more care, place the square parcel on the table. Then he climbed onto the bed and sat with his legs swinging over the side. “Yes,” he said. “This will do. This will do.”
Bohdan made himself at home and soon his chaotic routine became the routine of the toy shop. He would leave at all times of the day and night, returning hours later, a black refuse sack bulging with unknown treasures slung across his back.
“He steals from the bins behind the supermarket,” said the baker’s wife when Stolarz called next door for his weekly loaf of dry black bread. “He pulls trash out of the river. You’ve found yourself a real prize tenant in that one, Stolarz, you old fool.”
When the brass bell tinkled the toymaker no longer rose expectantly from his work bench in the back of the shop. It would just be Bohdan again. Bohdan back from another of his mysterious errands. Long gone were the days when Stolarz would bustle forth eagerly, hoping for the sight of some rosy-cheeked child, pocket money in hand. Now he didn’t even anticipate the distraction of a lost tourist seeking directions to the Old Church. So he sat, idly whittling what was turning out to be a lion from a small piece of wood, not hearing the impatient shuffle of feet or the theatrical sighs. It took the cry to bring him to his feet.
“Where are you, toymaker, you old crook? Do you think you can hide? Stop skulking and face me.”
Stolarz pulled the curtain aside. Frau Dźwigar stood before him in all her cubist glory, a weather-beaten concrete statue to the suffering of the workers, arms like a shot-putter's crossed over her bosom, her face beneath a dirty green scarf folded into an expression of anger and contempt. Little Tomasz peeked out from behind her.
“Frau Dźwigar,” said Stolarz, slipping behind the safety of the counter. “What can I — ?”
“Don’t you Frau Dźwigar me,” snapped Frau Dźwigar. “Think you can palm me off with cheap tat, eh? I demand my money back, you rogue.” She punctuated her words by stabbing at Stolarz with something small and curved and grey she held in her hand. It took him a moment to recognise it as an arm.
Little Tomasz clutched the doll to which the arm had once been attached, hugging it tightly to his chest. It had purple and bile green markings and stubby wings and a potato head inside its fishbowl helmet. Stolarz remember that doll. It was a cosmonaut from an American movie. He had ordered it specially from the angry traders in Duze Miasto for the boy’s birthday a couple of months previously.
Stolarz wrestled the arm away from Frau Dźwigar.
“What happened here then?”
“Just fell off,” said Tomasz, not looking at Stolarz.
“And it doesn’t sound right,” said Frau Dźwigar. “Not like it does in the films. Show him, Tomasz.”
Tomasz held up the doll. “Let’s go to space!” it warbled in a high, childish voice.
Stolarz scratched his head with the disembodied arm.
“I don’t know — ” he began.
“What’s not to know?” snapped Frau Dźwigar. “Give me back my money, you cheat.”
Stolarz opened his arms, a beseeching gesture. “This is what you asked for. What else can I do?”
“Give me back my money,” Frau Dźwigar repeated.
“I don’t have your money,” said Stolarz, and as the desperate words spilled from his mouth he seemed to deflate.
Frau Dźwigar glared at him in silence for what felt like an eternity.
“Tomorrow morning,” she said, slowly, quietly, “I will bring my husband.” She snatched the doll out of Tomasz hands and banged it down on the counter. “Then you will give me back my money.”
Taking Tomasz by the arm, she turned away and then abruptly stopped. Bohdan stood by the open door. How long has he been there? wondered Stolarz. Frau Dźwigar hurried out, keeping herself and her son as far from the dwarf as she could. Bohdan bowed courteously as they passed, closing the door behind them.
Stolarz looked at the arm he still held, not really seeing it. He put it down on the counter, next to the doll which had now lost one of its stubby wings. In his room behind the curtain he fished a bottle of vodka from the ice box and sank into one of the battered arm chairs before the electric fire.
“Will you have a drink with me, friend Bohdan?” he called. The dwarf made a grunted reply which sounded negative, and Stolarz heard him trudging up the stairs to his room. The toymaker raised a glass in silent salutation to his lodger and drained it in one gulp.
What was he to do? He did not have the money to give to Frau Dźwigar. And if he did, would he give it to her? He thought that he might, if only to get the unpleasant woman out of his life. But he didn’t have the money. He drained another glass.
He couldn’t take the doll back to where he got it from, back to the traders who sold toys from a rusty white van at the edge of the marketplace in Duze Miasto. He had asked them for a refund, once before. They had explained that, regrettably, they were unable to give him his money back, but if he liked they would, happily and at no extra charge, help him shove the toy in question up his arse. He drained another glass.
Stolarz didn’t know how anyone who sold toys could be that angry and unhappy. How could you not draw pleasure, even the tiniest amount, from knowing the happiness you were bringing to the children? His wife had called him a sentimental old fool — it had been the mildest of her insults — and perhaps she was right. His daughter would scold him for letting the traders in Duze Miasto push him around. Perhaps she was right, too. He drained another glass and fell asleep, dreaming of the days when he had fallen asleep there in front of this same fire with his wife sat across from him and his daughter curled up on his lap.
Stolarz was awoken the next morning by a violent banging. With bleary eyes and a groggy head he fought his way past the curtain and opened the shop door. Herr Dźwigar pushed his way inside, Frau Dźwigar and little Tomasz behind him. He took the front of Stolarz’s shirt in one gigantic hand and pushed him back against the wall.
“You’ll give me back my money now, eh?” laughed Frau Dźwigar.
“Be quiet, woman,” snapped Herr Dźwigar. He yawned. “All night I’ve had this. On and on. It’s not what you want after a hard day’s work. I couldn’t wait to get back to the factory, for the peace and quiet. Now, what is this she’s saying about the boy’s toy?”
“It’s junk,” sneered Frau Dźwigar. “He tricked us.”
“It’s wonderful,” squealed Tomasz in delight.
“To infinity and beyond!” boomed a heroic voice.
“Look Papa!” Tomasz squeezed past his mother and held up the doll.
“So you fixed it,” scoffed Frau Dźwigar. “Don’t think you’ve squirmed off the hook.”
“No, Mama,” said Tomasz, in what was a very serious voice for such a young man. “It isn’t fixed. It’s better.”
Stolarz took the doll out of the boy’s outstretched hands and examined it. It appeared different to how he remembered it. The cosmonaut’s body seemed the same, but the arms and legs were different. More detailed, more skilfully articulated. Beneath the fishbowl helmet the potato head now bore recognisable features and a film star chin.
“The wings work and everything,” cried Tomasz, snatching the doll back. Holding it above his head he ran circles around the small shop, making whooshing and zooming noises as he sped round and round.
Herr Dźwigar looked at his son, then at his wife, and then at Stolarz.
“I must be going to work now,” he said. He rested an enormous hand on the toymaker’s shoulder. “We must share a drink some time, friend Stolarz. Come along Tomasz. Wife.”
For a while after they left, Stolarz stood thinking. It was always possible that he was still asleep, although the fierce tightness around his skull would suggest otherwise. In which case, how…?
A floorboard creaked overhead. Stolarz regarded the ceiling for a moment, and then climbed the stairs. Bohdan opened his door a crack. All Stolarz could see of the room was a part of the wardrobe. A faint rhythmic whining, like cheap windscreen wipers, slipped over the dwarf’s head and reached his ears.
“Am I disturbing you?” Stolarz asked. “I was wondering… The child’s toy, which was left on the counter last night…?”
Bohdan grunted. “Fixed it,” he said, and closed the door.
So surprised was Stolarz, it took him a few moments to think to yell, “Thank you!” through the woodwork.
It was to be a week full of surprises. The next day, a child came into the shop and bought a toy.
Stolarz turned the packet over in his hands. The backing card and its plastic bubble were familiar enough, but he couldn’t remember ever seeing the finely detailed plastic figure inside.
“Are you sure this is one of mine?” he asked.
“It was in the window,” said the child. He stood on tiptoes, pushing the tattered bank note further towards Stolarz, his eyes pleading, the fear that the toymaker might change his mind and refuse to sell him the toy palpable.
Stolarz smiled, took the proffered note, handed back the toy. The child snatched it away hungrily.
Stolarz followed him out into the narrow street and studied the display in the toy shop’s window. He recognised most of the toys. They had been hanging there, unsold, for so long that they had become, not exactly old friends, more unwanted family members, the type you couldn’t shake off, who wouldn’t take a hint and leave. They were ugly plastic things, misshapen, seams and nubs visible, paintwork dull and sloppy.
Some of the toys, however, were new to the toymaker. They hung there in the same faded packets as the other toys, but they weren’t like them. Their lines were sharper, their colours far more vivid. Exotic butterflies among a colony of moths.
“Locked yourself out, eh?” cackled the Baker’s wife, passing by with heavy shopping bags. “No? Then what are you doing out here in the street, you old fool? And without a coat. You’ll catch your death.”
Stolarz went back inside. There was no doubt in his mind whose work this was. He got to the foot of the stairs and paused, one boot already up on the first step, a hand gripping the banister. What would he say to the dwarf? He would thank him, of course, but then what? Would he ask Bohdan’s why he did it? What would the dwarf reply? Would he appreciate being confronted in his own room? He did seem to treasure his privacy. Maybe, Stolarz reasoned, it might be better to wait. Choose a better time. Maybe, he thought, he would mention it casually, the next time the dwarf passed through the shop on his way in or out. Pleased that he’s talked himself into a course of action which required nothing of him, Stolarz turned away from the stairs and went to sit besides the electric fire.
The next day, the toymaker discovered that more of his stock had undergone a magical metamorphosis overnight. Standing on the cold cobbles in the thin morning light, he was joined by a group of children on their way to school. They stared and pointed and talked excitedly among themselves in the way Stolarz had always dreamt his customers would.
“Run along lads,” he told them. “They’ll still be here later. Come back then.”
And come back they did, bringing their pocket money with them.
So it went on. Every morning Stolarz would wake to find new toys hanging in shop window or lining his once-bare shelves. The toymaker would try to speak to Bohdan, to thank him, but the dwarf would hurry through the shop, showing no inclination to stop. And Stolarz would have no opportunity to waylay him, as the dwarf always chose to make his entrance or exit at the busiest times, when the children were three deep and clamouring for the toymaker’s attention.
Times were good. Every night, Stolarz went to bed happy, and his dreams were filled with the dozens of delighted excited smiling faces he had seen that day. The new toys brought a constant stream of children to the toy shop. But they brought other people, too.
Stolarz recognised the man’s type straight away. He wore a brown leather jacket and a bushy moustache which hadn’t been fashionable for thirty years or more. He was thin and rat-like. It was hard to tell how old he was. He browsed the toys efficiently, running his fingertips across each in turn, occasionally plucking one from the displays.
“Can I help you, friend?” asked Stolarz.
“Looking for something for my niece, yeah?” said the man.
Stolarz recognised the breed of insolence there in his manner. This type of man had hung around the bars Stolarz has frequented in his younger days, expecting you to buy them drinks and answer their questions about your neighbours.
“Was there anything in particular you were after?” asked the toymaker, his politeness forced and false.
“Nah. These’ll do,” said the man, tossing half a dozen toys down on the counter.
Stolarz carefully totalled their prices.
“Some of these are for boys,” he said.
“You said you had a niece.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve got a nephew too, ain’t I? Say,” said the man, leaning in and changing the subject, “you’ve got a good selection here, ain’t you? Where’d you get ‘em all from?”
The toymaker smiled. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
The man didn’t like that. He snapped upright, his expression cold. “Is that so? I wouldn’t believe you, eh? Hurry up and add those, will you. And make sure you write me a receipt, eh?”
After he had gone, Stolarz found himself thinking over the man’s question and the reply he had given. Truthfully, he didn’t know where the toys were coming from. With a creak, the floorboards overhead drew his attention to the one person who could provide an answer to that riddle.
Stolarz climbed the stairs and knocked on Bohdan’s door. The dwarf opened it a crack and looked the toymaker up and down.
“Come for rent?” he asked.
Stolarz chuckled. “No, friend Bohdan. There’s no rent due. If anything, it is I who owe you.”
“That won’t be necessary,” said Bohdan, and closed the door.
“I wanted to say thank you,” called Stolarz.
“That won’t be necessary,” repeated Bohdan, his voice now muffled.
“And I wanted to ask you about the toys.” There was silence from the room. “Won’t you tell me where you get them from? Won’t you tell me how you make them? As one craftsman to another.”
The seconds stretched out, whole eternities between beats of his heart. And then the door opened.
The first thing Stolarz saw were the piles of rubbish. It was all he could do to swallow the angry words which welled up from inside him. To see his precious daughter’s room despoiled like this. But when he looked closer he saw the order, the bottle sorted according to shape and colour, the tin cans sparkling and clean, the copper wire neatly coiled.
On the table sat a wooden box, really no more than a frame, each of its faces mostly cut away. Inside, a mesh of cables and tubes supported and fed something frighteningly complex, an upside-down pyramid, a clockwork spindle, tarnished and blackened in places.
“Mobile fabrication unit,” said Bohdan.
Stolarz looked at it blankly.
“3D printer,” the dwarf explained. “Assisted self-replication. Military grade.”
“You were in the army?”
“Artificer. First class.” Proudly tapping his chest as he said it. “Over the mountains.” He accompanied this with a nod of his head which could have included any of the lands from steppe to desert to icy tundra. “Is used to build replacement parts. Drone bits. Maybe weapons, in last resort. One shot coil gun, you know?”
Stolarz hunched down and looked in aghast fascination into the workings of the little machine. The suspended part was in constant motion, tiny motors turning the belts which dragged it this way and that. As it moved, a thin thread of colour emerged from its pointed tip. Stolarz thought of the Baker’s wife piping icing onto a cake. He reached out a hand. Bohdan caught his wrist.
“Is very delicate,” the dwarf said. “Carefully balanced. Too easy to throw out the belts. Also, is very hot.” With a stubby finger he traced the workings. “You fill hoppers here. Is heated here, pulled through here, squeezed out here.”
“The bottles and cans?”
“Yes. Is battlefield spec. Not fussy, like domestic version. Eats whatever you can find. Grind it up and put it in. Not all plastics, but most. Tin — proper tin, no aluminium — for wiring, but prefer copper. Can print basic circuits, but for most design you need extra bits.” He waved a hand at the table top which was strewn with electrical components, all apparently salvaged from electronic rubbish and all alien to Stolarz. Among them were scattered half-finished toys, arms and legs, wheels, swords and shields, wings, brightly coloured ray guns. Stolarz picked through them.
“You designed all these?” he asked, impressed.
The dwarf laughed. “Of course not. Are from internets. For which, by way, must thank your kind neighbours baker. You are bad landlord, have no wifi.” He wagged a finger at Stolarz. “Download, slice, print. Some assembly necessary. Then, done. Toy.”
“So you’ve taken in a lodger but you aren’t charging him rent?” The line from London once again crackled with Nadzieja’s contempt.
“How can I, after all he’s done for the shop?”
“Yes. And why is that, eh? Why has he done all this for you?”
“I don’t know,” said Stolarz. He was as puzzled as his daughter.
“Don’t you think you should find out, huh? Don’t you think that might be an idea? Before he turns round and starts charging you rent.”
Stolarz sighed. “I wish your mother was here. She would know exactly what to do.”
“Then why don’t you ask her?” snapped Nadzieja. “You make it sound like she died instead of running off with the baker. They only live next door. If you want to talk with her go talk with her.”
“You’re an ol—” began the Baker’s wife, but Stolarz cut her off.
“An old fool,” he finished. “Yes, I know, I know. But what should I do?”
“You should know better than to make deals with fairy folk. No good can ever come of it.”
“Fairy folk? Who said anything about fairy folk? He isn’t a fairy, he’s a soldier.”
“And is that meant to be better? You think that a deserting squaddie is doing this out of the kindness of his heart?”
Stolarz left the bakery in a blacker mood than when he entered. Outside the toy shop a small crowd of children had gathered. The toymaker watched as they selected one of their number and pushed him towards the door. He would approach it timidly, stretching out a hand, and then at the last moment turn and bolt back to the safety of the pack.
“Hullo, lads. What’s all this?” asked Stolarz.
“Please, sir,” piped up one of the children. “There’s a monster in your shop.”
Stolarz found Bohdan behind the moth-eaten curtain, pacing and agitated. He moved with a nervous energy, flitting from table to workbench to shelves, picking up a random tool or partly-shaped piece of wood, examining it, turning it deftly in his hands, and then putting it back down again.
“What’s up here?” asked Stolarz. “Don’t like children, eh?”
“Love them,” said Bohdan with a fleeting smile. “But couldn’t eat a whole one.” He paused a beat. “Old joke. Is very funny, yes?” He moved on and stopped, not for the first time, at a small wooden chest tucked away on a low shelf. It was a plain cube of blonde wood, its faces inlaid with simple geometric marquetry. His fingers stroked it in a tender, absentminded way, as if for reassurance.
“You like it?” asked Stolarz.
“Is beautiful,” murmured the dwarf.
“Please, take it.”
This shook Bohdan out of his reverie. He jerk his hand away as if the box had become electrified, backed away from it.
“You must,” insisted the toymaker. He took the box from the shelf and thrust it at Bohdan. “After all you’ve done.”
“That won’t be necessary,” complained the dwarf. But slowly his arms raised, as if of their own volition, and he took the gift.
That evening, Bohdan joined Stolarz in front of the electric fire. He showed off the latest toys.
“See. Now is robot. And now is spaceship. And now is train.”
“Yes. See. Choo choo!”
“Well well well,” said Stolarz thoughtfully, examining the toy.
“You don’t like?” There was something anxious in Bohdan’s posture, so Stolarz chose his words carefully.
“I like toys which feed the imagination. Which allow a child to dream. Like those plastic building blocks. I like those.”
“Children don’t want that,” said Bohdan. “They want the toys they see in the cartoons.”
“Maybe. But all these electronic noises and flashing lights…”
“The children like them,” said Bohdan. Stolarz thought he detected a sulkiness to his voice.
“Indeed they do,” agreed the toymaker. “And that’s far more important than the opinion of a stupid old man.”
The children liked the toys and so they kept visiting the toy shop, sometimes bringing with them their meagre pocket money, more often just coming to stare in wonder at the marvels which packed the shelves. Every day their happy laughter filled the toy shop. It filled the heart of the old toymaker, and also, Stolarz liked to think, whatever beat within the little barrel chest of the dwarf Bohdan.
Then one day the man in the brown leather jacket came back. He brought other men with him, and together they chased the children out of the toy shop and turned the sign on the door around to CLOSED.
“You’ve been very naughty,” said the man, lounging against the counter. “You shouldn’t be selling these things.” Behind him, the other men were putting the toys into boxes, tearing them down form their hangers and sweeping them off the shelves.
Stolarz watched, helpless. A chill crept through his bones where he knew the fire of anger should be flowing.
“You know, each one of these you sell steals food from the mouths of some American millionaire’s children?” The man laughed. “You are stupid. You should’ve charged more. The real things go for ten or twenty times what you’re asking.”
It took them mere minutes to strip the toy shop bare.
The man in the leather jacket sighed. “Do you know what trouble you’ve caused me? Can you image the stack of paperwork I’ll have to deal with? Can you even begin to comprehend the cost to the state of all this?” He stared hungrily at the cash box behind the counter.
Stolarz handed across all the money he had.
“Thank you, citizen,” said the man, tucking the bundle of notes away in the depths of that jacket. “And while you’re in a cooperative mode, maybe you’ll let me see if I can believe where these toys came from, eh?”
“I buy all my toys from the traders in Duze Miasto,” said Stolarz, and it wasn’t a lie, not really.
“Very good,” said the man, his smile triumphant and sickening.
The men left, pushing through the small knot of children who hung around forlornly outside the shop. A few of them appeared to be crying. Stolarz couldn’t stand to look at them. Why had he let himself believe that things would get better and stay that way? Had he learnt nothing from his long, miserable life? He pushed through the curtain and climbed the stairs to Bohdan’s room. Somewhere along the way, he noticed with an odd detachment, he had picked up the large wood axe which had leant for years gathering cobwebs in the corner of his workshop.
He walked into the dwarfs room without knocking. There on the table sat the machine. The damn machine which had caused all this. The box from which hope had flowed before being snatched away once more. Stolarz raised the axe. And stopped. He lowered his arms, let the axe slip from his grasp.
“Go,” he said without looking at Bohdan. “This is no place for you.”
The toymaker left the dwarf’s room, left the toy shop. He climbed up the narrow cobbled street, away from Bajkowy’s old quarter. He passed the tiny shops and family-run hotels. He passed the American fast food restaurants which he knew would be identical in his daughter’s London and in ten thousand other cities around the world. He followed the river past slowly-rotting factories to the edge of town, where the concrete blocks loomed. They had been built by men who claimed to hate kings but ruled like tyrants. Even the graffiti which covered their walls was dull, all creativity drained from it by the surrounding ugliness.
Stolarz walked. The day ended and night fell and it became cold. He found himself climbing a narrow cobbled street, and again stood outside the toy shop. He entered and climbed the stairs.
The room was not empty. The neat piles of rubbish were still there, the scavenged components strewn across the table. But the dwarf and his machine were gone. Where the machine had sat there was now a different box, its blonde wood inlaid with skilful marquetry. Stolarz stood contemplating it for a while before carefully undoing the catch and opening it, letting down its front panel. Inside, suspended in a web of cables and tubes, hung something like an upside-down pyramid, a spindle covered in clockwork, gleaming and new.
In the town of Bajkowy, in a narrow cobbled street which wound its way through the tumble-down buildings of the old quarter, there sat a toy shop. In its cracked and dusty window a dozen knights, heroes from the old myths, fought bravely against a dragon. The red crosses stood out brilliantly against their crisp white mantles and the dragon’s bright green scales shone in the sun. Sometimes its eyes would flashed yellow and a terrifying roar would escape its throat. And every day the children would crowd around, noses pressed up against the glass, to see what new magical wonder the toymaker Stolarz had dreamt up for their delight.