Lord of the Nutcracker Men

BOOK: Lord of the Nutcracker Men
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I took the model of my dad and hopped him up onto noman's-land. I shouted a battle cry and started to run him forward. But he got only a few feet before I stopped.

He was changing. He looked old and pale, not right at all. I lifted him up from the battlefield, a thousand feet up in his scale of little men. I cradled him in my hands.

“What's wrong?” asked Sarah.

“He's sort of broken,” I said.

“Well,
I
didn't break him,” said Sarah. “Don't say that
I
broke your man.”

I didn't say anything. My lip was pinched in my teeth.

All my nutcracker men, all my Tommies and Frenchmen, looked as bright as they had on the day they were made. But the model of my father was changing. The khaki paint of his clothes had dulled to a moldy green. It had washed away from his knees and his arms, and was fading everywhere else. I could see the grain of the wood through his tunic and his trousers, the black swirl of a knothole starting to show in his chest. His mouth had once stretched in such a broad grin, but now it was small and grimly straight. A thin little crack—just as thick as a hair—had opened down his middle.

“Are you going to keep playing?” asked Sarah.

She was still on her knees in no-man's-land. The lieutenant stood by her, facing the nutcracker men, who seemed frozen in their mad rush toward safety.

“Johnny, are we going to finish the battle or not?”

I didn't care about that, or anything else. I felt as though I was looking at my real father, as though I was seeing him old and sick.

“Johhny!” Sarah stamped her feet. Mud sprayed from her shoes, and the wooden soldiers trembled. “Answer me!” she said.

I shook my head.

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For Kathleen

C
HAPTER
1

My dad was a toy maker, the finest in London. He made miniature castles and marionettes, trams and trains and carriages. He carved a hobbyhorse that Princess Mary rode through the ballroom at Buckingham Palace. But the most wonderful thing that Dad ever made was an army of nutcracker men.

He gave them to me on my ninth birthday, thirty soldiers carved from wood, dressed in helmets and tall black boots. They carried rifles tipped with silver bayonets. They had enormous mouths full of grinning teeth that sparkled in the sun.

They were so beautiful that every boy who saw them asked for a set for himself. But Dad never made others. “They're one of a kind,” he said. “Those are very special soldiers, those.”

I had no other army to fight them against, so I marched my nutcracker men across the kitchen floor, flattening buildings that I made out of cards. I pretended that no other army even
dared
to fight against those fierce-looking soldiers.

When I was ten, the war started in Europe, the war they said would end all wars. The Kaiser's army stormed into Luxembourg, and all of Europe fled before it.

But for me, the war really began on the day the butcher vanished, when I found his door mysteriously locked. Inside, the huge carcasses hung on their hooks, and the rows of pink meat lay on the counters. Yet there was no sign of Fatty Dienst, who had greeted me there just the day before—as he always had—with a great smile and a laugh, with a nub of spicy sausage hidden in his apron pocket. He'd pulled it out in his hand that had no thumb, and said—as always—“
Ach,
look what I've found, Johnny.” His accent turned my name into Chonny. “That's goot Cherman sausage there, Chonny,” he'd told me.

That night I asked my dad, “What happened to Fatty Dienst?”

“That
butcher
?” said Dad. “I suppose he's gone home to be with all the
other
butchers. To join that
army
of butchers.”

I didn't understand; they had always been friends. Many times I had seen Dad laughing at Fatty's jokes, or the German winking as he slipped an extra slice of ham in with the rest.

“I never trusted that man,” said Dad.

Then the others vanished: Mr. Hoffman the barber, Henrik the shoemaker, Willy Kempf the doorman. They slipped away one by one, and soon only Siegfried was left from all the Germans I'd ever known, poor little Siegfried who worked as a waiter. I went to school with one of his sons.

But it wasn't much longer until I saw
him
leaving too,
with his wife and their children, each with a suitcase made out of cardboard. A crowd of boys and barking men drove them along like so many sheep. Some of my pals ran in circles around the poor man, who walked so slowly and sadly that I felt like crying.

Dad was watching beside me, in the window of our flat. He looked furious. “Do you know what that fellow was doing?”

“Serving people?” I asked.

“Telling them he was Swiss,” said Dad, his hands clenched. “But I demanded to see his passport, and showed up the rotter for what he was.”

Off they went, with their little cardboard suitcases, down toward the railway station on Victoria Street. Dad flung open the window and shouted after them, “Go along home!” It made no sense; their home was in London, just around the corner. Only the week before, I had seen Dad get up from our supper at Paddington Station and press a tanner into little Siegfried's hand. But now he seemed full of hate, and I thought I would never understand how a man could be his friend one day, and his enemy the next.

Then the Kaiser's army stormed into Belgium. I saw them at the picture show, hundreds of soldiers looking just like my nutcracker men, all in black boots and silver-tipped helmets. They flickered across the screen, their arms held stiff at their sides but their legs swinging high. They marched on and on as though nothing would stop them. And I started asking my dad, “Can you make me some Frenchmen? Can you make me some Tommies?”

There was nothing Dad wouldn't do for me. He whittled away in his shop, and came home with a tiny
Frenchman, his blue coat buttoned back into flaps, his legs marching. I named him Pierre. The next day it was a Tommy that Dad brought home, with the tiniest Union Jack I'd ever seen painted on his sleeve. I put him into the battle on the fifth day of August, 1914, the night that Britain went to war.

All of London seemed to celebrate. Men joined up by the hundreds, by the thousands, marching away in tremendous, cheering parades. They passed my father's toy shop, stepping along, singing along, as the women shouted and the children dashed in amongst them. Through a blizzard of rose petals, they passed in such numbers, with such a stamping of feet, that the smaller toys shook on my father's shelves. But Dad didn't go with them.

“Aren't you signing up?” I asked him. “Aren't you going to the war?”

“Johnny,” he said, “I'm afraid the King doesn't need me just now.”

We were watching them pass, the new soldiers. They were clean and smart, like freshly made toys.

“Don't you
want
to go?” I asked.

“But what about you? What about your mother?” He shook his head. “No, Johnny, I think I'm better off here. Some of us have duties at home.”

“Like what?” I asked. The soldiers were still passing by.

“Well,” he said, “I have to build up your little army, don't I? Someone has to stop your nutcracker men.”

Already, they had captured nearly all of the kitchen. They were spilling through the parlor door, where my lone Pierre was putting up a brave fight. Then my mum
stood by mistake on my army, and one of the nutcracker men got his hand broken off.

“Look what you did!” I cried.

“Oh, Johnny, I'm sorry,” she said. “But do they have to be underfoot like this? Can't you play somewhere else?”

So I rushed them forward, into the parlor. And leading the charge was the man with no hand. I pretended it was Fatty Dienst. “Go forward!” he shouted as the Frenchman retreated again. “Go forward for Chermany!”

Down the street, in the little butcher shop, the meat turned gray and then brown. A horrid smell came out through the door. Someone smashed the windows; then a bobby came round and boarded them up. And the Germans kept marching, west across Flanders, rolling armies ahead of them with no more bother than my nut-cracker men.

Ambulances carrying soldiers from the front went rattling past my dad's shop. People turned out to cheer them as loudly as they'd cheered the soldiers going the other way. Big advertisements appeared everywhere, enormous posters that said, “Your Country Needs You.” And more parades of new soldiers marched down the streets, though Dad stayed home. He built up my little French army one man at a time.

“Is Dad a coward?” I asked my mum.

“Of course he's not,” she said.

“Then why doesn't he go to the war?

” “Well, he doesn't like to say this, but he's just not tall enough, Johnny.”

“Not tall enough?” He seemed like a giant to me.

“He's five foot seven,” she said. “An inch too short for the King.”

It made me sad that he was too short, and sad that the King didn't want him. But Dad was even sadder; he never laughed, or even smiled, as summer turned into autumn, as the war went on in France. He started flying into rages at the least little thing, and he scattered my army of nutcracker men when they came too close to his favorite chair. In Europe, the French and the British turned the Germans back at the Marne, but even that didn't cheer up Dad.

In late September he brought home a cuckoo clock that was all in pieces. “Someone smashed it,” he said. “I had it in my window, and a fellow got into a fit because he thought it was German!” The little cuckoo bird dangled from a broken spring, and it chirped as Dad shook the clock. “Anyone can see that it's Swiss.”

BOOK: Lord of the Nutcracker Men
8.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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