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Daydreams of angels, p.22
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       Daydreams of Angels, p.22

           Heather O'Neill
 
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  “Are you mad? A tale about a goose? What kind of insight can a goose have? Do you have any of that existentialism that’s supposed to be all the rage in Paris?”

  The next day, the Toymaker left the house. He knocked on the door of a lawyer who lived in town. The lawyer was surprised to see the Toymaker at his door, and was even more surprised when he asked if he could borrow some books from his library.

  When the soldier went to bed that night, there was a copy of a book by Albert Camus on his nightstand, next to a glass of milk and a small plate of cookies.

  The soldier felt that on some level he should be touched. He knew that the Toymaker was doing everything to make things special, but he didn’t want to feel indebted. The soldier wanted to pay his own way in this world so that he could act exactly as he wanted. He resented that the Toymaker was expecting things from him.

  He had a compulsion to open the matchbox as he sometimes did when he was reflecting on things. He could never bear more than a minute or two though, as the music of the cricket always made him feel kind of sad, even though there was nothing for him to be upset about. And this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. He actually quite liked it. It made him think that there was some part of him that he knew nothing about and that was going to very much surprise him one day. Nobody really wants to know themselves completely, especially not when they are young. What’s the fun in that? He didn’t mention the book at all when the Toymaker peeked in later that night. This time too he closed the matchbox soon after opening it.

  The Toymaker sat by himself on a little chair in the kitchen. He had to admit that he was disappointed because he’d thought that he and the boy would do all sorts of things together. He had pictured them looking for mushrooms together in the forest. He had imagined them on a beach, looking for pretty seashells. But he also had to admit that he wasn’t as lonely anymore. It was as if any company was better than no company.

  * * *

  The boys in the village kept begging to try on the soldier’s topcoat. They wanted to play with his radio. The soldier found two of them in his room one afternoon, pretending to electrocute another little boy seated on a chair, demanding he give up the names of Resistance fighters. The soldier yelled at the boys to get lost and chased them right out the door. He sat on the bed, wondering about his aborted mission in France and where he was actually supposed to be.

  “You can be a role model to those boys,” the Toymaker said. “They look up to you. Why don’t you go out and play some football with them? I bet you could take on all of them by yourself.”

  The soldier didn’t say anything, but he slammed his bedroom door shut in the Toymaker’s face. All the paintings in the house fell off the walls. The Toymaker thought that this was what being a real parent was like. It was not all wine and roses. You had to try to make your child feel loved and wanted and worthy over and over again, no matter what they did. If he kept at it, he could teach the soldier to be loving and kind.

  “They know your face,” whispered the Toymaker on the other side of the door. “Your days as a spy are over. You can’t go out there, but you can be happy here.”

  But as much as he tried to be a parent, the soldier refused to be a son to him.

  * * *

  One of the neighbouring farmers delivered food to the Toymaker’s house every week. The soldier always found the culinary selections unsatisfying.

  “Don’t you have any way to get wine and meat, for God’s sake?” the soldier asked.

  “You have to go into the Big Town to get them. It’s too far a walk for me.”

  “Well, why didn’t you say so? I’ll go for you.”

  The soldier got dressed in a long grey coat and a beret and scowled with feigned disgust. He stood in the living room for the Toymaker and the children to admire his new look as an indignant Frenchman. Although he couldn’t remember anything about his past, he had a feeling that his having been shot had had something to do with a woman and not his subterfuge skills.

  “You will be found and killed,” the Toymaker exclaimed.

  “Oh come on, no German in the world can tell that I’m not from France. I just have to scoff at the trees and the rocks and existence as I walk—that’s the hard part. I’m going into town now. I’m going to be somebody’s Cousin Loïc, okay? If I get shot, it’s not the biggest deal in the world is it? A passing mechanic’ll surely be kind enough to put me back together. I’ll have exhaust fumes coming out of my ass when I run. Or maybe an electrician will find me, and when I wake up in the morning my head will glow like a lightbulb.”

  All the children laughed uncontrollably at this joke, holding their bellies, which were getting cramps from being doubled over, and crossing their legs so that they didn’t pee themselves. But the Toymaker didn’t even smile. On the contrary, he was very serious and worried. He interpreted the soldier’s lack of sensitivity as being due to immaturity. He was no more than a silly little boy—and silly little boys lost their way in the woods.

  But the soldier managed to get to the Big Town after a two-hour walk without incident. On the black market he bought a bottle of wine, a long row of sausages, some bread and a bag of coffee. He walked through the woods, whistling a Bartók tune, looking forward to eating some proper food.

  On his way back, he spotted a striking young woman coming toward him. There also happened to be a big tomcat following her down the path. She was tall and had red hair that was coming out from beneath a white fur hat. She wore a black fitted coat that went down almost to her ankles. What a fox! the soldier thought.

  “That’s a pretty coat,” the soldier said.

  “I found it in an abandoned house. I knew that no one was going to come back for it. It’s so warm. Do you want to buy it?”

  “No thanks. That’s a giant cat you have there. It looks as if the two of you have had some really good times together.”

  “He’s the only one I can trust in this world. You can’t trust people anymore. It’s the people that are the animals.”

  The soldier paused, not knowing what to say for a moment. This girl had an odd way of making small talk.

  “Do you want some food?”

  “Please,” she said, her voice cracking.

  She ate a piece of sausage ravenously. She went through all his food, shoving chunks of bread into her mouth. When he was about to object and say that there were others who wanted the food, she hurriedly put three sausages in one of her pockets and the bag of coffee into the other. Then she put her hands up to his face.

  “Kiss me. I so want to be kissed right now. I don’t care if it’s good or proper. I just want to feel alive. I need to be reminded that I’m alive and that I’m not in the grave.”

  The soldier forgot about anything else that was happening in the world. The girl’s cheeks tasted like tears, but oh my lord, how she kissed. It was a bit of a disappointment when she took off her coat. She looked so skinny, her ribs were poking out and her arms were covered in bruises. But the woman had eyes that looked at him in a way that none of the little girls ever could. She was having dirty thoughts. That’s what he had felt was missing in him in the quaint little house in the woods. The Toymaker and the little girls knew nothing about getting naked and the secret things that adults liked to do when they couldn’t sleep. Nobody had read to him from The Complete Marquis de Sade to try to revive him.

  “Let’s find a place to drink this, shall we?” she said, taking his bottle of wine and waving it.

  He looked down at the cat. Maybe he was imagining it, but the cat seemed to have a smirk on its face. The smell of coffee whiffed around him. Oh Lord, how long it had been since he had had a cup of coffee. How long it had been since he had had a naked girl sitting on his face. He suddenly remembered who he was. He was a man. He slid his hand inside the woman’s dress and onto her right breast and grabbed it hard. And the woman moaned.

  Everything inside his clockwork body began pumping away madly. He didn’t even care if his heart exploded and b
urst into a million little screws and bolts. That was what it felt like it was going to do any moment, and if it did, it would be worth it. She put her mouth on his dick and he turned his head up toward the sky and laughed and laughed. He felt alive.

  He knew that he had to get out of that house in the woods—after he had taken her from behind and she had cried out so loudly that it had startled birds in the neighbouring village.

  As soon as the soldier was spent, the girl quickly put her clothes back on. The girl picked up the cat and held it tightly, as if it was all that was valuable in the world and she was suddenly terrified of losing it. She barely even said goodbye as she hurried away. The soldier found himself aching when he saw her go. He loved the sensation of it. For the first time since the Toymaker had brought him back to life, he felt fulfilled by an emotion. He wanted to ache like that again and again. He was impressed that the girl had made love to him and then got up and just left. While he watched her disappear into the woods, he decided that he was going to walk away from the Toymaker. It was what adults did.

  He felt in his pocket to make sure the matchbox was still there. He couldn’t leave the cricket behind as it was a present. The Toymaker had gone through so much trouble to fix up all his parts and build him a new metallic heart. The least he could do would be to accept the gift that he had given him. He was undoubtedly an asshole, but when he felt the matchbox in his pocket, he thought for a brief second that he might have a conscience after all.

  Although he was taking the cricket with him, he didn’t dare take it out of its matchbox and let it play its bittersweet violin as he walked down the road. The wee violin tune might fill his head with all sorts of emotions that he didn’t want to have. Those were the sorts of emotions that ended up keeping you in one place. They would make you feel guilt and a sense of responsibility. Those emotions were like cages.

  * * *

  The soldier made it out of France. A pretty peasant woman showed him a way out after he made love to her in a haystack. He found his way to the secret rendezvous spot set up by the Canadians to escort Resistance fighters and prisoners back to England. He was whisked across the water in the dead of night. Upon his return, nobody could believe that he was still alive. A doctor looked at the stitches on his torso and whistled at the handiwork. He put a stethoscope against the soldier’s chest and said he’d never heard such a regular heartbeat in all his life. He gave the soldier a clean bill of health.

  As a reward for his daring spy ventures, he was given a desk job in England for the remainder of the war. He went out dancing every night with the other soldiers, trying to meet local girls. He was happy there. He found that the girls in London sounded like they had lollipops in their mouths when they spoke. They had adorable little beer bellies from being out drinking all night. The girls in England found everything funny. The commanding officer had to tell the soldiers not to tell the English girls so many jokes, because one of them laughed so hard that she had an asthma attack and died.

  When he would get back to base every night, he always had the craziest stories about making love to women. He really outdid all the other soldiers.

  He made love to a girl under the bandstand. When the drums were banging, it made all his nerves tremble. He made love to a girl a minute after New Year’s and there was still confetti in her hair. He made love to a girl in a bathroom while she held both their beer mugs, trying not to let them spill.

  He made love to a girl who was six months pregnant and said that the father of the child was missing in action. He put his head against her belly and felt the baby kick. He liked anything new. He liked anything unusual. He went to pick up a girl who wasn’t there and he ended up having her mother on the kitchen table. When they were done, she lectured him about keeping her daughter out too late.

  Some of the girls would make love to him for a pair of nylon stockings. Some of them, he didn’t even know why on earth they were making love to him. They clearly didn’t like it. There was something about him that made him irresistible. Maybe it was because he didn’t have a soul. Or perhaps it was because he didn’t have a conscience. Women go crazy for a man with no conscience.

  He never came close to falling in love with anybody. Instead, he went around having trysts, looking for encounters that would make all the cogs and wheels in his heart begin to spin wildly. He could feel all sorts of little bolts sliding into different compartments and prongs going into different levers. And tiny little pistons started going up and down, and oil would be released over all of his hinges and he felt he moved so smooth and well.

  One night he was in an alleyway with a short girl with blond corkscrew curls falling down her round face. She was getting on his nerves because she wouldn’t put out. He naturally sometimes liked the hard-to-get types, but he had just had enough of them for one week. And she bore an uncanny resemblance to the dolls in the Toymaker’s shop, which he found disconcerting.

  “Where do you see us ten years from now?” she asked.

  “How in the world would I know something like that? What do you take me for? A fortune teller? Am I carrying around a crystal ball?”

  What sort of lie did this silly girl want to hear? the soldier wondered. What idiotic fable would she take her clothes off for? She wanted to hear about having a family, of course. If there was anything more ridiculous to the soldier than romantic love, it was undoubtedly this idea that you were supposed to have a family. He felt like lying to her if only to mock her values.

  “Well, come to think of it, I see myself living in a really big house.”

  When he said this, she undid her top button and jutted her chest out toward him. The girl’s bust was really large and the dress had to, undoubtedly, be pulled together to be buttoned up. The idea of all those buttons coming undone encouraged the soldier to continue his fantastical lie.

  “I see myself reading a newspaper in the mornings. And I want to be a father, because I want to know what that feels like. Because I had such a special relationship with my own dad, you know?”

  The girl released another button from its tiny hole.

  “That’s the most important thing to me: having a close-knit family. I only ever wanted to have one girlfriend, because I know that the task of keeping one girl happy is a big enough job for a fellow like me.”

  Every time a lie caused a button to jump free, his dick grew more erect. He didn’t think that he had ever had such a hard-on as the one he had for this curly-haired girl. He pushed her up against the wall and she let him have his way with her as she closed her eyes and fantasized about laughing children climbing into their bed in the mornings.

  Later that night in his room, the soldier felt empty. Each affair left him with more assured proof that he didn’t have anything like a soul inside of him, and as though life were insignificant and meaningless. But that night, pretending for a moment that he did care about the idea of a full life had left him with such a sense of the grand futility of everything that he felt as though he were about to be swallowed up by nothingness. That night he decided that he had to go back to France and work as a spy again. He still couldn’t remember his former life, but he wondered if this sort of feeling wasn’t what had sent him over to France as a spy the first time.

  A few days later, as he was packing a small bag with only necessary items, he noticed the matchbox with the cricket in it. He opened it and the cricket started playing the most depressing and creepy Bartók tune. It gave him an unholy feeling and made the hair stand up on his neck. He closed the box quickly.

  Honestly, he didn’t understand that cricket at all and he wasn’t sure that he ever would. He didn’t even know how the cricket got it into its head to play in such a strange way. What in the world was music like that for? You couldn’t dance to it and it certainly wouldn’t put any babies to sleep.

  Nonetheless, he stuck the cricket inside his pocket. The cricket had been with him this long and was the closest thing he had to a past. And, in any case, he wasn’t quite sur
e that it was a wise decision to go and leave this little cricket playing its mournful, melancholic tunes on windowsills. Someone was bound to take a shoe and clobber it.

  * * *

  It was especially risky for this soldier to return, as he had already been found out and the German soldiers would be looking out for him, but he had insisted on returning to finish his work as a spy. He knew that he was doing a deep good, but he didn’t even know if he was doing it for the right reasons. Everyone admired his bravery. But was he doing it because he wanted to engage in a profoundly moral action, or was he doing it because he hated himself and wanted to put himself in danger in order to feel alive? That feeling of having a gun up to your heart, about to pull the trigger—at least that would make his damn heart beat faster.

  They tossed him out of the plane, his parachute burst above him like a single piece of popcorn in the night and down he went onto occupied soil. He didn’t look for the Toymaker, but no one could fault him for that as he was so busy being a hero. He and the other Canadian spies worked hard delivering information and maps to the Resistance fighters, ferreting Allied soldiers out of France and onto boats to England. One night he was hurrying down a road on a bicycle, trying to get to the coast of Brittany. It was the quickest way to get to the coast and he was rather enjoying it, inhaling enormous gulps of air while riding the bicycle over the gravelly ground, when he was stopped by German officers waiting for him at a bend in the path. When they found the radio in his bicycle basket, he knew that he was done for.

  * * *

  The soldier was in a bedroom. The torturers had secured bolts and locks on the door and had hammered planks of wood over the windows. He was wearing his navy blue cable sweater over a shirt, loose-fitting pants, a coat with a fur lining and boots that went to his knees. He was attached to a chain that had been secured to the metal framework of the bed.

  Everything valuable had been dragged out of the room. There were no clothes in the dressers, no books on the shelves. He noticed that there was a small teddy bear in the corner, grasping the leg of the armoire and looking at him. Whether it had chosen to stay behind or had been left there, he could not say. It had probably once been a child’s bedroom.

 
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