Authors: Charles Elton
Copyright © 2009 Darkwood Ltd.
First published in the United Kingdom in 2009 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books Ltd, London.
Other Press edition 2010
Yvonne E. Cárdenas
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The Library of Congress has catalogued the printed edition as follows:
Mr. Toppit / Charles Elton. — 1st American ed.
eISBN: 978-1-59051-391-0 1. Families—Fiction. 2. Children’s literature—Fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
And out of the Darkwood Mr. Toppit comes, and he comes not for you, or for me, but for all of us
It had taken Mr. Toppit a very long time to arrive, and while the wait itself was not a problem, the brevity of his appearance clearly was for the small coven of dissenters who felt, frankly, shortchanged by the fact that when he did turn up, it was only in the last sentence of what turned out to be the last book of my father’s
. But what I think is that the majority of the
faithful were secretly rather relieved not to have to face the almost certain anticlimax of a more definitive appearance by Mr. Toppit. At any rate, there has never been any shortage of people telling me in numbing detail which side of this particular fence they sit, Mr. Toppit-wise. In fact, I firmly believe that, throughout the world, wherever people gather to communicate and converse, from the
of Vienna to the boardrooms of Wall Street to the rock churches of Ethiopia, someone somewhere will be discussing what the last sentence of the last book actually means. Personally, I have no idea.
If I could remember a time before
, I think it would seem so golden to me that I could only presume I must have imagined it. The truth is that there is no Before. Although it was only some years after his death that my father was elected to the sainthood of children’s authors, the sales of the books had always been steady, though modest, and the name of Luke Hayseed not unknown among more progressive parents, who felt
their children should not be shielded from the cruelties and uncertainties of life—the very cruelties and uncertainties that were the stock-in-trade of the
books. But what is undeniable is that I was not, at that time, accosted by complete strangers in restaurants or pinned up against walls during cocktail parties by people telling me how I had ruined their childhood or—much, much worse—how I had been an inspiration to them.
Our mother, Martha Hayman, always maintained that anybody could have known something extraordinary was going to happen. While the efficacy of Martha’s dark powers was never in question, I doubt whether even she could have predicted that Laurie’s spontaneous decision to add the “Hayseed Half Hour” to her radio broadcasts in Modesto, California, would have been the catalyst for what subsequently happened.
But by the time Laurie had graduated from radio to television—still talking about
The Hayseed Chronicles
—not only the books themselves were all over the place but also a book
the books. When
, originally published by a small press in Modesto whose biggest seller to date had been a guide to the bicycle trails of Stanislaus County, had sat on the
New York Times
best-seller list for forty-seven weeks, it was clear that it was time for the extant members of the Hayman family to acknowledge that something extraordinary had indeed happened.
I don’t keep a complete set—why would I? I was there at the beginning. I
the beginning—but if you trawl book shops and gift shops and computer shops and duty-free shops and mail-order catalogues, and ads in this magazine or that magazine, and special offers on the back of certain cereal packets, you will find some of the following: the original five paperbacks (of course), the boxed set of the original five paperbacks, the activity book for older readers, the hardback deluxe compendium
edition with the colored (or colorized—the originals were black-and-white) illustrations, the board game (“A throw of the dice decides which entrance you take into the Darkwood”), the PlayStation Hayseed game (“Do you dare to be Mr. Toppit?”), the Royal Doulton cereal-bowl set, the eggcups, the porcelain figurines of Luke, the DayGlo rucksacks, the pencil boxes, the notepaper, the Christmas cards, the T-shirts with “My brother went to the Darkwood and all Mr. Toppit allowed him to bring back was this lousy T-shirt” emblazoned on the back (unauthorized, I suspect—I’ll get the lawyers on it), the baseball caps, and the keyrings.
For me, it is a slow descent into merchandise hell, and whenever I find myself there, I think of Lila, for it was her drawings that had trapped me in it, those simple pen drawings she had done for love. The publishers had paid her a flat fee and, in signing whatever contract they had flashed before her, she had passed the copyright to them. It was a small price to pay to secure her position in the
Hall of Fame and, though I still find it hard to believe, she appears to feel no resentment even though so much money has been made by everyone other than her. What she feels, as she tells everyone she meets—now mostly television repairmen as she’s waiting for her second hip—is simple happiness that she could be “a small part of it all,”
ein kleiner Teil des Ganzen
drawings and her life with the Hayman family are all the fuel she needs to keep her warm at night, to get her through the day. Her flat, which my sister Rachel and I called “the shrine,”
contain every piece of merchandise, jostling alongside scrapbooks of press clippings and photographs in silver frames. She should break and tear and grind into dust every single one for what the books did to her. Now I can almost
forgive her for pinning me down like a fly in aspic, trapping me on the page (on the mug, on the teacup, on the pencil box) dressed in those ridiculous pantaloons, secured almost up to my armpits with the cord from Mr. Toppit’s dressing gown, the gardener’s boots on my feet and a battered straw hat on my head.
She only added those details later—the drawings for the first book were much simpler, before my father had really created the world of the Darkwood. At the beginning, she kept me still on the chair in the kitchen with her legendary child skills: “If you do not stop fidgeting, I shall draw you with only one eye and no hair, and when you wake up in the morning that is what you shall look like.” I kept still. Her pen scratched, her eyes darted back and forth from the sketchpad to me.
From behind me Rachel would shout, “Is it my turn next? Is it me now?”
And Lila never let me look. When I leaned over, she cupped her hands around the paper. I only knew the next morning how she had drawn me as I stared at myself in the mirror, touching my eyes, counting my fingers.
After the first book, she needed me less and less. She had created the template and she spun Luke Hayseed off in a direction of her own, taking him away from me (taking me away from me) and creating the likeness of a boy who would stride manfully up the path to the Darkwood. He would always be eager to return to his quest to find Mr. Toppit, to flush him out, even though—as Luke knew to his cost—Mr. Toppit could be cruel and capricious, and never really did, despite the last sentence of the book, reveal himself, and even though the Darkwood, every leaf and branch and stone of which Mr. Toppit inhabited, was a dank, terrifying place.
You wouldn’t have caught me dead doing that.
When you were young, or maybe not so long ago, not very far from where you live, or perhaps a little closer, Luke Hayseed lived in a big old house. The woods behind the house were called the Darkwood and Luke Hayseed thought he owned them, that they were his, that they were in his blood. If trees and leaves and brown earth could travel through veins, they did so through Luke’s. But if he thought he was the only one to have them in his blood, he was very wrong, as wrong as it was possible to be
Listen: there are some rules. It isn’t that I object to my childhood being ransacked, my past being vandalized, my name being stolen—not only stolen but worse: diminished, scaled down—but there should be some sense of fair play.
First, the books should have sprung out of bedtime stories. Yes, that’s the way it ought to be done—a story created to soothe a frightened child in a thunderstorm, say, or a fantastical tale woven round a favorite toy, or a fanciful explanation of why certain things in the world are as they are. These stories, simple but full of meaning, unstructured but truthful, quite clearly hit such a nerve in the child (the crying child, the wide-eyed child, the enchanted child) that their weaver knows that children
all round the world
will respond in the same way.
Or what about this? Some modest note at the beginning, some disingenuous foreword implying that, despite the writer’s natural diffidence, his children’s lusty cries for “More, please!” impelled him, reluctantly, of course, and with no great hope of success, to offer these humble scribblings to other children in the vain hope that perhaps they, too, would find some small pleasure in them.
Second, there should be some truth in the stories, some little nugget (at least) that rings true. The fact is, Luke Hayseed,
, and even I do not know where it all comes from, all that
stuff in the books. I’m not saying precisely that nothing is truthful. I’m saying I don’t understand the connections, and it is these connections, or whatever you want to call them—the links, the adapters, the conduits, the funnels, the transformers—that constitute the lie that became
The Hayseed Chronicles
, the lie that turned Luke into Luke.
For instance: when we were children there was a particular lavender bush by the corner of the house. In the summer the flowers were covered with bees, circling and humming and landing. I spent hours watching them, and there came a moment when I realized something important.
What I knew was this: they did not want to be there and they could not help themselves. What I did was this: I moved them from the bush and put them under the shade of a tree in another part of the garden. I picked them up, I held their wings together between thumb and forefinger and I laid them on my palm and carried them through the garden to put them under the particular tree I had chosen, which I knew, with unerring certainty, the kind of certainty I would kill for today, was where they wanted to be. And I was never stung.