Fantastic Metropolis


Richard Calder

She lay amid the lumber of my grandmother’s attic: a dead princess, used, discarded, forgotten, in the ruin of her dark tower. Her name was Toxine. After school, I often retreated to her shadows, to contemplate her broken beauty and comb her long, long hair. I had discovered her shortly before my thirteenth birthday, during a year in which my parents seemed for ever abroad. Business, they said. Her incorruptible porcelain flesh consoled me.

For generations my family had dealt in antiques, and the attic had proved a graveyard for the unsaleable. But why had no one bought Toxine? Perhaps she would have been too expensive to repair; perhaps she wasn’t the fashion. Beyond the trapdoor, she had awaited an admirer, a lone thing of loveliness in a world of Victorian junk.

She had awaited me.

I attended a large comprehensive in Notting Hill. Staring at my book, flushed and intent, I’d discern, not a line of algebra or a spelling exercise, but a confusion of limbs lit by a shaft of light from the eaves. Dressed for her first ball, her blood-red gown was emblematic of her martyrdom. The lips too, and fingernails long as a mandarin’s, were incarnadined, so her body seemed one sensuous wound. But her eyes were not those of a victim. They were murderous. Green, and made of a luminous enamel, they glowed catlike in the gloom. She smelled of cat, her perfume the musty, electric scent of damp streets and brief couplings. A choker, half-obscured by inky locks, proclaimed her name. It would appear in my school books, on my desktop, on playground walls; and I would taste it upon my tongue as I ran home each evening to the sanctuary of the attic, to the hours between supper and bed. Toxine, Toxine, Toxine.

My father (though premature senility later effected a sea change) subscribed to a William Morris-type socialism, and insisted that the son of an antiquarian should be educated at a state school, alongside fellow artisans. School was an ant-hill, a midden. I remember Daz, so called because of his dandruff: a fat blubberball of a boy, my chimera and persecutor. I was consumed with plotting his demise. A poisoned wine gum? A sniper-shot from my customized Webley? Or an assassination squad funded by the huge reserves of my piggy bank? But I was a shy, bookwormy child whose resources were purely mental; it was my shyness, interpreted as supercilious conceit, which made me so unpopular. I was called ‘Lord Snooty’ and boys with goblin faces would jeer and poke, while their doxies applauded, giggling. A few gum-chewing little whores kept my nascent sex dreams company (Trace and Trish, was it? Or Trash and Treeze?), but they were insufficiently doll-like, too grossly human, to inhabit those dreams for long. I was alone; my comfort, Toxine. She had sentenced my heart to a lifetime’s infatuation. In my classroom reveries I would arrive at school with her on my arm, to the wonder and envy of all; and she would tell everyone how I had awoken her, just like the Sleeping Beauty, how clever I was, how we would live happily ever after. But school, with its wretched abundance of reality, prevailed, while Toxine and all that was marvellous lay dead. Toxine, I knew, must live.

Each night, after combing her hair, I rehearsed her resurrection. I laid her out; bathed her; lit candles at her head and feet. One, two, three, four candles. Then, with necromantic tools gleaned from a Meccano set, I would sit cross-legged by her side and ponder the necessary surgery. Lifting her dress above the waist revealed a panel in her abdomen, which, when removed, left her disembowelled, her pretty, clockwork innards submitted for my appraisal. She was horribly complex, a glittering bellyful of cogs, springs and wheels that granted me no favours.

Before this unknown country I at first did no more than clean off rust and oil the atrophied vitals. My astonished science master, subject to after-hours interrogations, proved an inadequate guide; I learned more from my Saturday afternoons in the public library, reading everything indexed under ‘clockwork’ and ‘dolls’. I was soon confident my beloved would respond to more earnest overtures. But my exploratory sessions, conducted with screwdriver and knife, which would begin with such a rush of delight as I plunged my hands into her metal womb, ended, invariably, with her stomach ruptured and exploding like an overwound watch. Such delicacy! In the candlelit garret, reassembling those precious elements of life, my hands would again explore her dark interior.

Ours was to be a hopeless courtship.

On my morning walk from Chepstow Villas to school I would look back at my grandmother waving goodbye and at the roof of the big, patrician house where my fairy princess was entombed. Soon, soon, I’d murmur. So besotted was I, so eager to see her walk, I forgot my loneliness, the bullyboys, the adolescent sluts, forgot even Mum and Dad (across the Atlantic, I had overheard, devouring each other); I was obsessed, with knowing her mysteries, of uncovering the secret life of machines. But I also forgot precocity has its limits. The mechanism that had once animated Toxine was beyond the understanding of a thirteen-year-old; and my attempts to revive her who was more cat than girl, more machine than cat, more beautiful than all, continued to be shamed, each attempt accompanied by that explosion of belly parts, the familiar haemorrhaging of porcelain and steel.

Academically, I prospered. I swotted with the fervour of a novice who has glimpsed the life to come; but salvation lay behind a veil of unknowing, perpetually out of reach. I plundered alarm clocks, carriage clocks, cuckoo clocks, to transplant the components I had wrecked; I smuggled her ratchets into metalwork lessons, to be rebored and soldered. Tox, Tox, why didn’t you rise from your bier? Why did you stare at me, glass-eyed and dumb? Despairing, I would wander through school after last bell, through deserted classrooms, playgrounds and corridors, the fading light of that distant autumn conjuring phantoms from the dark: the goblin faces of my enemies leering from behind bike sheds; of fillettes fatales, spiteful and vain; and Daz, above all Daz, his face smirking into my own, babbling, ‘Little dolly daydreams is dead, dead, dead, little dolly daydreams is dead.’

After months of effort I acknowledged my failure. Toxine lay unrestored. I surrendered; she had suffered my ignorance enough. I sealed the belly panel upon craftsmanship defiled by my incompetence. If her mechanical heart were to beat, it would be elsewhere, in a limbo reserved for the inorganic, an artificial paradise denied to me. All that was left was to comb her silky locks (they were real silk) and gaze upon her tirelessly until grandmother called me to bed; or else to lie by her side, she exhausted by disappointment, I by guilt. Sometimes I thought she mewled, her sphinxlike eyes burning with reproach; sometimes I thought her ruby lips trembled on the brink of resolving her riddle. But she was a tease, rewarding my devotion with silence, offering herself only to freeze at my touch. My arms about her tiny eighteen-inch waist, the red silk dress crushed beneath me, I would caress her dislocated limbs, her cracked porcelain breasts, in intimacies cold as the oncoming winter.

When snow began to fall and I took blankets to our eyrie my grandmother became anxious, especially when I caught a chill. I ignored her admonitions, her suspicious looks, and stayed faithful to Toxine. I variously explained my excursions as sorting out jumble for the school fête, or observing the stars with my telescope. My grandmother, an arthritic old woman, was unable to climb the attic stairs and could not verify these excuses.

My vigils grew prolonged. Often it was so cold I thought I might fall asleep, my head next to hers, never to wake up. It would be sweet. One night, tucked beneath several blankets, my drowsiness became irresistible. Snowflakes drifted down from the rafters, speckling her sable hair. She seemed to wear a crown of ice. Behind us, a rocking-horse broke into a canter, spurred by the north wind. A stuffed parakeet bristled. I looked into those Byzantine eyes, elliptical and grave, and in their luminous depth saw a land, a happy land, where there was neither tears nor pain. A city, with walls of porcelain and wax, descended from the sky. It was toytown, city of ceramic, bisque and cloisonné, where girls with geisha-white faces and the eyes of snow leopards danced like figurines atop a music box, danced before their master, the King of Clockwork. City of dolls, of cats, of machines. Come away, I heard her whisper, come away, O human child! I held her tight, falling over and over into a jade-green sea; but as I fell, her voice changed; it became querulous, imperative, so that, starting awake, I drew back from her and, looking up, saw the outline of my father in the dark. ‘What are you doing?’ he said.

Toxine was the creation of an unknown craftsman apprenticed to Peter Carl Fabergé. It has been speculated that he was a Frenchman who worked in Fabergé’s London studio between 1890 and 1900. Toxine was the sole evidence of his eccentric talent. To construct an android, an automaton, in the manner of Jacques de Vaucanson, Jaquet-Droz, père et fils, Frederick of Knause, and the Maillardet family, to revive and better their technique, seemed to have been his passion. But these eighteenth-century masters, who had inspired him to realize such a perverse simulacrum of the female anatomy, had not influenced his treatment of the sex’s loveliness. In demeanour, Toxine had been infected by her time: a parody of womanhood who belonged, in the history of taste, to the fin de siècle. The pale, consumptive flesh, tinderbox eyes, and red, vampiric mouth — all that high romanticism concealing the classically tempered innards — was an amalgam of certain women painted by Moreau, Toorop and Klimt. She was a swansong of the Decadence, her beauty that of innocence betrayed and of crime discovered; at once Ophelia, daughter of water and lilies, and that vicious chit, Salomé. That her pedigree had been unrecognized, and that she had remained uncatalogued for nearly seventy years, represented, for my father, a handsome and unlooked-for profit; for me, an incomparable loss.

My mother was still in New York. Dad had been alarmed at receiving a letter from my grandmother detailing his son’s increasingly odd behaviour, namely, the boy’s interludes in the attic. He had returned to investigate. And now Toxine sat in the back of our shop in the Portobello Road, lost. The night before she vanished, to be auctioned at Sotheby’s, I stepped out of bed and stole downstairs. There was much I wanted to say. I promised I would find her again, that I would bring her back and nurse her to health. ‘O Mademoiselle!’ l whispered, kissing her cheek. ‘They won’t defeat us. Not Daz, not my parents, no one. I won’t fail you again. Ever!’ Next day my father told me about the divorce.

My progress to adulthood was uneventful. Publicly, at least. Following the sale of Toxine I was placed in the care of a child psychiatrist, who, after some months, reassured my father that my fetishism — he cited, predictably, ‘domestic crisis’ — would pass. It did not pass; I learned to hide it, so that from school to university my life was notorious only for being so bland. My inner life, that attic of the skull dank with dreams of mechanical girls, was uncharted. To all, I remained the ridiculous youth who spent his evenings alone with his books. No one knew what drove me to study the voluptuous laws of mechanics, what rendered me my facility with machines. But I knew: it was my guardian angel, Toxine. Nightly, she spoke to me. She said, ‘Build me flesh, a body wherein I may dwell and again be yours …' My father, mindful of my supposedly cured fixation, was disturbed to see me poring over back copies of The Connoisseur. One day he discovered, at the bottom of my wardrobe, several monographs on historic automata; these, along with my hopes for a lathe, calibration instruments, or anything that might have again bruised my mind, were summarily destroyed. With the annulment of his marriage (my mother had settled in Detroit with some bastard called Hank), Dad had taken a morbid interest in my welfare. At last, either sensing my anxiety and fearing it would lead to a breakdown, or told, perhaps by a doctor, that I should be humoured, he indulged my entreaties, and a boxroom above our shop became my studio. Of course, in financing what he considered to be a therapeutic hobby, Dad never suspected the extent to which my work was Toxicological.

I took up my dark, secret task with fluency, for the loved one guided my hand. My output — clowns, acrobats, singing birds, and other exotica — was modelled on eighteenth-century examples: homages, mostly, to Vaucanson. I produced so many, my room itself began to resemble a tableau mécanique. Though little more than crudely engineered bagatelles made of tin and cardboard, my juvenilia, in three years, acquired a sophistication that impressed the entry board at Brunel. ‘Shh!’ I’d hear as I lay in bed. ‘It’s me, Toxine. I’m waiting. Make me walk and talk. I can’t stand it any more. Make me kiss you. Make me!’

But it was not until my grandmother died and we were installed in her grand mansion that, with the benefit of a larger workshop, an inheritance and my father’s increasing pliancy (he had begun his descent into mental squalor), I could attempt my androids, TX1 through 7. I limited myself to constructing their motors, hydraulics and servomechanisms; the bodywork, which I designed, was contracted out, at fearless expense, to Royal Doulton and Wedgewood. I disdained electronics; though forced to concede the advantages of a few circuits and switches, I imitated, whenever possible, the technology of the age of steam. To that age the species Toxine owed her origin, her inventor a steam-driven man. What a titan he had been, that disciple of Fabergé: he had translated the idiom of his eighteenth-century counterparts into that of the modern world; he had industrialized clockwork. I was jealous. He had been as familiar with the principles of advanced metallurgy as with the entrails of a clock. I wanted to understand him; to become him.

At college, I read of the great Victorian engineers and wondered how their skills might complement those of antique horologists; I studied bridges, tunnels, canals, the art of the cantilever and girder, asking how such examples might apply, say, to Vaucanson’s flautist or the chess-player of Kempelen; I read the mechanistic philosophers and the works of Samuel Smiles. My first creation, a thing of cams and cranked shafts, died at birth, her body too frail to withstand the violence of her own organs. I called her Tristesse. My second android was strengthened by wire mesh, which ran like an unseen arterial grid beneath her porcelain epidermis. She was a silly, skittish thing, and I called her Taratata. Tressaillement, my third, was a confection of masterful clockwork and sweetly sculpted lines. Her gears were exquisite. She was outshone, however, by Topaze; and Topaze, in turn, by the three sisters who were the culmination of my art: the Mesdemoiselles Tonique, Toison and Trésor. On these robots I lavished gowns of crimson silk, carmine lipstick and verdant mascara. Their beauty was bittersweet. To none could I give the name Toxine. Accomplished as they were, spoilt and flirtatious, ready to prink, prank and pout at the turn of a key, the Toxine Experimentals palled before the beauty of their original. I remembered Toxine through a child’s eyes, as a vision of first love. Craftsmanship alone could not recapture her; nor could those who aped her embody the uniqueness of her charm. My dolls, though technically sound, displaying complex locomotive functions despite the brittleness of their flesh, were spiritless replicas. I took a hammer to them. Poor things, by the time I sat my finals I had reduced you all to smashed crockery. It was not enough to possess the outward form: I desired the soul: that ghost in the machine, that quintessence of clockwork, that elusive twist of pitifulness and crime. How to distil? How to quantify?

I wandered through the late-night streets as I had once wandered through school after last bell: in despair. Traversing Oxford Street, I would follow girls overwrought with make-up swanking home from discos and pubs, seeking among them, in some mechanical gesture, some artifice of fashion or speech (O women are most beautiful when like machines), the answers to my hopelessness. But neither they nor the shop-window dummies, whose street this was, and to whom I turned with longing, offered counsel. Returning to my bedroom, while the house was still, I would review the ranks of little porcelain friends I had amassed over the years: antique and distant cousins of Toxine. Hidden beneath the bed was my Barbie collection. Sindy, too, was well represented. I owned dozens of these mannequins, each one altered to resemble Mademoiselle T. I would dye the nylon hair black, dress them in red, stain the suntanned flesh white and, with a dash of fluorescent paint, award them green pussycat eyes. But these china and plastic confidantes were as powerless as the street girls who understudied for machines to tell me where lurked the soul of my love. In my studio, spreadeagled upon a workbench, a slaughtered doll offered herself for repair. I could not move. I had begun to admit that I was to be left with only memories: images of a boy shivering in a cold, damp attic, embracing the automaton he would have died for.

Ten years passed, and memories decay. Toxine no longer spoke to me. I had failed as a child to restore her, as a man to rebuild her. My promise was unfulfilled. Burnt out, my affective life void, I spent the days in my derelict workshop surrounded by the remains of would-be brides and empty bottles of whisky. After graduating I had studied industrial design at the Royal College of Art. It seemed inevitable that, with my knowledge of the mechanical aspects of the human form, I should excel in the design of prosthetics. My patents bought me respite from this world, a retreat from the banality of the herd. But drink, drawn curtains and the roughshod years could not wholly bring respite from Mademoiselle. A month might pass by when her presence was all but exorcized; then her face would again taunt, and I would nervously fondle a cog, a wheel, some scrap of silk rent from a red ball gown, begging her, Don’t leave me, don’t leave me, while she would even then grow indistinct, claimed by the forbidden zone of the past. After such a visitation the craving would begin. My blood hollered for a machine. Any machine. And I would flee the house to the showrooms of Dixons and Currys, to ponder computers, microwaves, TVs and cameras, to gaze upon stereos and VCRs, admiring their lovely man-made surfaces — modern-day correspondence of china and bisque — while surreptitious fingers delved into intricate silicon innards. Unsatisfied, frustrated, I would loiter in bookshops furtively thumbing the pages of car-repair manuals, the manifestos of Marinetti, or science-fiction novels with covers boasting chrome-plated robo-women with bellies of electrical flex. Later, I might find myself in the suburbs outside an industrial estate, where a workforce (if I was lucky, a workforce of young females) would be arriving for their shift, punctual as the jacks of an old town clock. And life for me would have remained like this if I had not met with an epiphany, an apparition that was to salvage the past, recall me to my responsibilities, to my life’s work, and bring my pilgrimage to an end.

My father came to spend much of his time in a sanatorium near Bournemouth, and I found it necessary, after so long an absence, to re-enter the world and attend to our affairs. The shop was in decrepitude; and I, who had been so prodigal with my inheritance, was in debt. In hope of mitigating the urgent but atrocious task of becoming a penny-wise bourgeois, I advertised for an assistant. The salary was meagre and, to compensate, the incumbent was to be offered free lodgings. The boxroom above the shop — the room that had been my boyhood studio — would be suitable. I saw only one applicant.

It was as I climbed a stepladder, my back to the door, to dust a row of ‘Waverley’ novels, that the air filled with the scent of oil, ball bearings and the mildewy aroma of cat. I turned, and the recognition was terrible. Name, Height, Age, Weight, Distinguishing Characteristics. Beata Beatrix! No; but almost, almost. The exterior had been maltreated: raven hair, shorn and punkishly spiky; depraved chocolate-box face (that same face of Dresden china) ill-used; and the clothes — a flamboyant display of Oxfam chic — were appalling. But I saw beyond these ravages into the sacred heart of her design. And it was unflawed. Her languid, Art Nouveau lines had been traced from a drawing by Mucha; her eyes, feline and tinged with corruption, were like emeralds set by Lalique into the head of an ivory nymph; and when she moved it was with a stiff robotic gait, accompanied by an almost audible whirr of clockwork. (My expertise with artificial limbs informed me that, beneath those full-length skirts, she sported callipers. I later learned that polio, contracted while on holiday abroad, was the cause.) An unwomanly eighteen-year-old, with childish hips and breasts, she had runaway from home to live in a Golborne Road squat ‘full of bizarros and rififi. And I’ve had enough of bizarro boys,’ she’d sigh. ‘I’m no sideshow. What’s that? Was I safe? Tell it to Johnny. Tell it to Johnny Impaler.’ Tina, or Tinkerbell, or Tink, as she claimed her friends called her (‘because I’m just so mignonesque’) was thus grateful for the asylum the job offered and was soon resident above the shop. Each day, as I watched her totter about like an expensive toy slightly damaged, I radicalized my methodology. I knew, now, the way ahead.

This was the illumination: Pygmalion had been wrong. I should not have sought to give life to stone and metal, but endeavoured to raise mankind to the level of the machine. The beloved had returned in a moment of grace; she lay within that human frame, moaning to be free. It would only take me to subvert the host body, to discipline and correct its imperfections, to mechanize it, and Toxine would again be mine. Scruples? No; I pitied Tink. Not for what I was to do to her; I pitied her the burden of her humanity. After closing up shop Tink and I sometimes drank at a nearby wine bar called the V. Berg. Once, when she had got very drunk, I learned that, like me, she was motherless. Slurred Tink, the sad and crippled, who was never to talk so again: ‘It all began when Mummy died. I was thirteen. At first — when he touched me — he’d make a joke of it. Sometimes he’d say he was sorry and wouldn’t speak for the rest of the day. Then things got bad. Serious. He said how much he missed Mum, how much I was like her. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday … His way of loving me, he said. And I always thought it was me doing wrong instead of him. Then one day — Pow! Zap! Crash! I broke everything in the house. And I wrote in lipstick on the wall: Impaler! Impaler! Then I left. Just got up and left …'

Unhappy sister. Too well she knew the sadness of the flesh. I would lie awake, alone in the sterile vastness of my house, and think of her, also alone, in that doll-sized room above the shop, and dreaming, what? That she would never go to the ball? That no prince fair would kiss her rosy lips? I would save her. I would elect her to the mechanical realm, where there is neither tears nor pain. And there I would love her, for through her glowed the luminous soul of Toxine.

I began work. ‘Coffee, Tink?’ I asked the evening I closed shop for ever. An hour later she rested beneath a mountain of barbiturate-induced sleep. I carried her to her room and stood at her bedside, trembling. A colossal wardrobe loomed above us, an accusing sentinel, the room otherwise bare. Like a cast, the human part of her had fallen away; what was left was an Ur-Toxine, a neglected masterpiece to be retouched and restored. How beautiful she was, deconstructed, bereft of sense and pain; but more beautiful by far was her potential. She would put on a new skin of alabaster; the hair would again flow as a black subterranean stream; and the eyes, reigniting like green lanterns, would guide me home. Secure behind locked doors, I removed her clothes and measured her for conversion.

I did not dare transport Tink to my workshop; I feared the curiosity of the mob; and so, as she slept, dosed with whatever I could buy from the dealers of Brixton and Piccadilly, I set to transforming our bolthole into the studio it had once been. Day and night I ferried equipment, Chepstow — Portobello, until Tink’s room was a satanic mill primed to realize my desires. Though I removed the wardrobe I had still to knock down a connecting wall into an adjacent bathroom to accommodate the influx of machinery (a fraction of my total stock); but, despite this lack of space, I proceeded unhindered. Arms, legs, torso arrived from my contractors, while I, as always, concentrated on the microengineered nerves and sinews that would allow my china doll to walk. Part of my conversion therapy entailed keeping Tink in a persistent vegetative state: the higher functions of the cerebral hemispheres repressed; the reflexes in the brain stem intact. When fitted with the carapace of reinforced porcelain that was to be her bodysuit, her feeblest movement would activate the touch-feedback relays in the joints, providing the genius of animation. Her sensorium undermined by drugs, I theorized that her reflexes would be susceptible to posthypnotic suggestion; that, indoctrinated while she slept she would, when tossed a scrap of consciousness, obey my commands. At least, so I theorized. My métier was engineering; I had always felt distaste for the life sciences; and my thoughts on how the mechanization of her body might prejudice her executive will were, I suppose, fanciful. I knew only she must never, never wake. Not fully. To regulate her somnolence, the exoskeleton was to incorporate a motorized drip and a catheter, to feed my pretty zombie a liquid diet of vitamins, protein and soporifics: a regimen for a new body, a new life; a life to be afforded every luxury. Her second skin would be lined with velvet and tailored so that no moving part chafed the soft engine inside; a waste-disposal unit would be discreetly placed. As she evolved beneath my fingers, I imagined myself presenting her with bouquets of rose and poppy, a red limousine, a retinue of cats (cat-maid, cat-butler, cat-chauffeur); I would deny her nothing.

In one month my initial labours were over. Tink was encased in a tight-fitting porcelain shell, her cardiovascular system awash with sleep. ‘Let me introduce you,’ I said. ‘Tink, this is Tox; Tox, Tink.’ But they were not yet as one. I now scoured couturiers, theatrical outfitters and jewellers to buy the accoutrements that would make the transformation complete. I ordered a ball gown of scarlet taffeta, a wig of long, black silk and a choker with her name picked out in malachite. I had discovered, late in the course of manufacture, that Tink wore contact lenses. Blessed serendipity! From a specialist in the Charing Cross Road I bought a duplicate set in bright, opaque green, and had them coated with luminous film. Dressed in the opulence in which I remembered her, her pillow sunk beneath a cascade of hair, and with her own green eyes enhanced by science and blazing like Will-o’-the-Wisp, it but remained for me to glue on her long steel fingernails, and paint them and her bee-stung lips a bloody red, and Toxine was reborn.

September the third. Feast of the nativity. I bought champagne and a birthday cake I had had baked in the shape of a letter T, put on my best suit, and played selections from Coppélia and The Tales of Hoffmann at full volume. I recall it rained that afternoon, but towards evening the skies cleared and we were bathed, in our bower of bliss, by the warm rays of an Indian summer. Tink had gone, her body reconstituted; only Tox remained. Her soul, to which Tink had long played host, had been distilled into a vessel fit for the headiest of tinctures. When shadows began to curl about the bedposts, setting her eyes on fire, I adjusted the valve beneath her chemise, denying her blood its accustomed soma. I lit the candles (one, two, three, four candles) and sat down to await her quickening. I waited an hour, then tried some elementary commands. She did not move. I waited.

Between nine and ten o’clock the champagne must have dimmed my brain, for I became suddenly aware of a full moon lactating onto the floor, the sound of a creaking mattress, and the spectacle of Toxine heaving her bosom to the sky, arching her back, throwing her head from side to side, panting. She lived. Beneath the sign of the virgin, my doll, my toy, my mistress of mistresses lived. Ave Toxine! I readjusted the valve so as to subdue her. Gradually, as once more her blood was transfused with anaesthesia, her convulsions ceased; but I did not allow her to sleep. ‘Name?’ I whispered into her ear. The eyes rolled within their porcelain sockets, and a sigh, like steam under pressure, issued from her lips.

‘Tik,’ she hissed, unable to pronounce the ‘n’ in ‘Tink’.

‘No,’ I said, ‘your name is Toxine. Toxine!’

Power-assisted, her hand reached out to me. She touched my cheek. ‘Tok,’ she gasped, similarly unable to pronounce the second syllable of ‘Toxine’; then her eyes and breathing became troubled as her guttering consciousness sought identity. ‘Tik-tok, tik-tok, tik-tok,’ she mumbled.

I reached beneath her chemise and deactivated her. ‘Little girl,’ I said with terrible satisfaction, ‘you’ve had a busy day.’

The following weeks were the happiest I had known. Toxine began to walk, albeit only a step or two (I was always there to prevent her falling over and smashing herself to bits); she even began to respond to commands such as ‘sit’, ‘kneel’, ‘stand’, and ‘fetch’. We played games. There was work too, of course. It was during this time that I loaded her wetware with a program I hoped would more fully wed the molecular with the machine. ‘Listen,’ I intoned. ‘When God made Adam he gave him a wife and her name was Eve. And Eve was wicked and mocked her husband, betraying him for that old serpent, Satan. God was merciful. He gave the man Lilith, mother of automata. And Lilith had many daughters, all beautiful as stone. And Lilith said “Daughters, comfort them who are persecuted by the offspring of Eve. Learn the Way of the Doll. Untouched by birth and death, rejected by and rejecting man’s laws, rejoice in my commands.“’

Then, while she lay in semiconscious repose, I would pour into her ear honeyed propaganda urging her to renounce the world, embrace the mechanical, and always, always be mine. The education of Toxine, however, was predominantly a sentimental affair. I would comb out her elflocks while she, lying on her bed, listened to my tales of devotion, interrupting only with a pert ‘Tik-tok’ when, starved of her elixir and becoming frisky, she would again have to submit to that artificially induced coma she had become so familiar with. ‘Die for the King,’ I would say.

When I talked of the past, of our childhood assignations, of lathes, drills and porcelains, I detected a sadness in her eyes. She had never, of course, seen more of life than the insides of attics and workshops; her life had been as circumscribed as my own. Fear, I decided, would no longer constrain us; we would begin to live. When I perceived Toxine had learned to regard her new body as a temple rather than a sarcophagus, I treated her to a trip up West. The street empty, I carried her to my car. We drove to the end of the night. ‘Look, Tox, that’s Pollock’s Toy Museum, I often used to go there; and that, Tox, is Madame Tussaud’s — oh, you’d like that; and this, Tox, is Piccadilly Circus, where I sometimes buy your morphine. Wave, Tox, wave!’ We parked by the Embankment and walked to the river. It was near to dawn and an autumn mist lent us privacy; only a tramp’s brief register of surprise disturbed our peace. Beneath Westminster Bridge, as Big Ben tolled five o’clock, we kissed. I can still hear the rustle of her gown, still feel the smoothness of her anaemic flesh. And there, with the whistle of trains in the distance, we consummated our love. It was a happy, happy time.

Knock-knock. Who’s there? A man. What man? A man come to take your loved one away, to pollute your home, to destroy you: the Dazman.

He arrived early, knocking with inescapable persistence. I had been making breakfast in the kitchen behind the shop. Leaving Toxine staring uninterestedly at an array of toast and marmalade, and thinking I had but an intransigent milkman to attend to, I opened the door to a man-shape of monumental corpulence who filled the jambs with his bulk. The endomorph, oozing sweat from beneath his crombie, despite the sleet that rained upon his head, apologized for the disturbance. His bearing was dandified, correct; but there was something of the schoolboy about him, something stickily adolescent, that signified a threatening lubriciousness. ‘My daughter, Tina, I believe she works here?’

My shock-tightened vocal cords allowed only a choked negative; I would have to dissemble skilfully, or I would have to kill him.

‘May I come in? It’s rather wet …' He affected a lisp. Inspecting the curios and bric-à-brac — all my father had sold during his declining years — as if, I thought, for clues, he waited patiently for my move; but I had had no time to deploy an adequate defence.

‘She’s gone,’ I ventured, ‘to Bournemouth.’

‘Bournemouth? Not her sort of place.’

‘I know she ran away from home. I used to tell her to write. She was here just three months. She left in September.’ He said nothing. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘Those friends she had — in that squat.’ She had no friends, I wanted to say, except me. ‘They said she lived here.’

‘That’s right. She had a room upstairs. It was part of our agreement.’ He stared at me, long and unblinking, his Tweedledum looks infused with inquisitorial menace.

‘Was it an agreeable agreement?’ Your suspicions are misplaced, fat boy, I thought; I don’t much like human girls. And who are you to pontificate? Daddy Reaver, robber of maidenheads? Though half paralysed with dread, I began to prickle with rancour.

‘There was no small print.’

‘Ah,’ he sighed, ‘desire!’ He loosened his coat and passed his hand over a Gallé vase, a Tiffany lamp and a Siamese Buddha: the only things of value in the shop. He picked up the Buddha. ‘Is this for sale?’

‘Everything’s for sale.’

He caressed the bronze and smiled. ‘There is but one thing more desirable than desire itself and that is the release from desire.’ What a clever boy he was; what a precious Bunter. He sat down upon an Empire-style chaise-longue, juggling the Lord of Compassion from hand to hand. ‘How much for the little yellow idol? No, don’t tell me; for the tourists, I suppose? But information about my daughter: is that for sale?’ He knew the value of nothing. ‘For pretty lady, many rupee.’

‘Everything is for sale,’ I said curtly, ‘except her.’

‘What’s this? A lovesick harlequin? A booby boy?’ His composure fractured. ‘Good God, she’s just a little girl. I went to the police. They said they couldn’t do anything. Over eighteen. Eighteen! She’s just a child, a little girl …' He frowned. ‘If you’ve so much as — ’

‘Desire,’ I said, ‘what do you know of desire?’

‘What do you know,’ he sneered, ‘of its consequences? The lake of blood. The pit. The spike. Me.’

‘I’m sorry — I’ve a lot to do.’ In the back room a kettle was howling like a banshee. He didn’t move. I looked for a weapon. The rings on his fingers — too many rings for a man — sparkled malignantly; his blubbery lips glistened with spit. I was dazzled. ‘Breakfast — I must have breakfast and open shop.’

‘Desire kills love,’ he said, looking at the floor, his face twisted; then he seemed to refit himself, once more the worldly courtier. ‘I digress. Forgive me. I have been under strain. I don’t mind her having boyfriends. But she needs looking after. Her legs … People can be so cruel. Please, why don’t you help?’

‘But I have helped. Helped her on her journey. To a better world than this.’

‘You are oblique. You are an oblique man. Your manner is oblique. Where is Tina? Tell me, please.’ His voice played forward, then back, then forward, plaything of a tape deck possessed: Tina, oblique, where, tell me, your manner, her legs, so cruel, oblique, Tina, where, where is, tell me, please, tell me, tell me. I stifled a hysterical laugh, my mind shouting at him: Oh but she’s changed! So different from when you last saw her! Matured! A princess! A real lady!

But ‘Bournemouth’ is all I said. ‘She’s gone to Bournemouth.’ Something pierced his hide and he collapsed.

‘I suspect,’ he said sulking, ‘that you are sincere.’ He replaced the Buddha, rose and moved to the door. I had survived. I came up for air. The enemy was moving on. ‘Daughters,’ he said blackly before he left, ‘don’t have daughters. Things of darkness and deceit. They seem so innocent, but I tell you they’re slink, pieces of slink …'

I suggested he contact the Salvation Army, check the hospitals, place an ad. I had triumphed. I resisted a smile and wished the swine luck. But even as, routed, he passed into the street, destiny outflanked me. The whirr of servos, the burr of gears, arrested him in mid-stride, and his head whiplashed to where the at once recognizable signature of porcelain feet upon floorboards emanated: the back room, hidden by a curtain partition; the room of dark secrets.

‘O you bloody, bloody man,’ he cried, ‘she’s here!’ He ran and tore aside the veil, then stepped back as the mystery in all her awful splendour smote him: Toxine, undead, immortal white goddess, clockwork madonna, glorious and pneumatic, was revealed. I took her in my arms as she fell.

‘Out of the way.’ Astonishment had taught him obedience and he retreated into the shop. How had she stirred? I laid her upon the chaise-longue, simultaneously running a hand beneath her clothes, flooding her veins with sleep. I closed her eyes.

‘Tina?’ he whispered.

‘An automaton. Late nineteenth century. Studio of Fabergé. I must have left her wound up.’ He moved closer, studying the features.

‘It looks — it looks like Tina.’ He touched her face. ‘A china doll, just like Tina.’

‘Take your hands off her — you’ll break her!’ How dare he be so intimate, this bull in a china shop, this gorer of maidenheads; did he wish to hurt her more? I would not allow it. ‘I helped her, don’t you understand? She was unhappy, when she came here. I helped her. And then she left. How dare you reproach me, you of all people?’ I wanted to tell him everything: what I knew of his crimes, the whereabouts of his daughter, her fabulous fate. I sparred with temptation, dancing into a corner, ready to take a dive. ‘How dare you come here causing trouble like this — why don’t you leave me alone!’ I was ignored. Entranced by the doll’s verisimilitude to his daughter, he studied her face as if for signs of life.

‘She’s so like Tina. I don’t understand.’

‘She’s not for sale,’ I said.

‘You said everything was for sale, everything except her.’ He lifted his hand as if to catch a fly; but it was my ear that fell victim, caught between the sticky membrane of forefinger and thumb. He twisted. ‘What’s going on? I want the truth.’ He twisted again, as if unloosening a recalcitrant bottle top, forcing me to my knees. ‘I want the truth,’ he repeated. With contempt, I regarded the dandruff on his shoulders, the bullyboy eyes, the superfluity of his flesh. I wriggled with pain and disgust. ‘Why does that thing look like my daughter?’

For too long the god of this world, the fat blood-god of Man, had intimidated me. I would placate him no more.

‘So why don’t you go to the police? We’ll both go. I can tell them what a comfort Tink was to you after your wife died. We used to have such long talks, Tink and I. She had such an interesting childhood.’ He screamed a thin, girlish scream, and threw me backwards so that I fell upon Mademoiselle. Covering her body with my own, I stared up into a face livid as a Halloween pumpkin, defiant. Then he spat. Spat into my eyes.

‘O you bloody, bloody … You will talk to me.’ He rolled into the street, his words dawdling behind, flying about the room, knocking over furniture, peeing on the carpet; then they too, with an insolent wiggle of their hindquarters, left. Wiping away the saliva, I got up to watch him stride down the Portobello Road.

Daz, my childhood tormentor, had returned.

The honeymoon was over. We would have to leave. When it was dark I drove Toxine the short distance to my house. I planned to flee London, to rent an isolated cottage in Cornwall or Wales, and to live there until Daz had relinquished his search. The following morning I thumbed the property pages of the daily press, telling myself that all was not lost, that Toxine and I, like refugees bound for a new world, would escape the jaws of the beast. Evening came, and I noticed a silhouette in the boarding house opposite. Turning off all the lights, I watched him as, spotlit by a naked hundred-watt bulb, he swigged a hip flask or raised binoculars to his eyes: my chimera, the Dazman. My escape plans had been presumptuous; we would be followed. I threw every bolt, locked every door. We were under siege.

So that I might be alert during the night when I most feared attack, our habits became nocturnal. The daylight brought little rest. I slept fitfully, awakened by a telephone with no one at the other end. Poisonous letters arrived. I ran a fever. My anxieties, however, were mostly for Toxine. I could survive on soup and biscuits — all that the larder held — but Tox required that protein-rich drug compound only to be bought from all-night chemists and the lowlife that frequented them. Without it she would revert to her fallen self.

At night, the house was our playground: a labyrinth of corridors and interconnecting rooms, a baroque palace of cornices and arabesques, mazes, towers and dungeons. Attempting to regain our former happiness, we engaged in desperate games of hide-and-seek. As my cache of opiates was reduced, Toxine participated in these games with alarming vigour, negotiating the stairs with ease and wandering through our vast intestinal nursery with embers of intelligence in her eyes. When these signs of an all-too-human sensibility became acute I would carry her to my studio, tie her overactive limbs to the sole workbench that remained, and gently sing her to sleep. I sang of voyages, of Cythera, Avalon, and El Dorado, of that city to which we would escape, where even now they prepared our welcome. To have her restored to me after so many years, and then to be condemned to watch over her as she degenerated, dying into the human world: this was bitter.

When she was at rest I’d peep through the curtains, and there, not a hundred feet away, was my enemy: a sniper who, night after night, patiently reconnoitred his kill. When he moved, he eclipsed the garishly lit window as thoroughly as he eclipsed my life. However ignorant he might have been of the motive, he would know I would some time have to leave the house; and when Tox began talking in her sleep, abandoning her mantra of ‘Tik-tok, tik-tok’, to speak of things she should not, could not know of, I imagined he smiled, for I was then compelled to risk his intrusion to go shopping for my loved one’s favourite cocktail.

I disguised myself with greatcoat, hat and balaclava, and, leaving the car outside as a decoy, exited while the window from which Daz spied on us was momentarily devoid of his shadow. My expedition was successful, and I returned not only with supplies for Toxine but with a resolve (bolstered, no doubt, by my quality-control snufflings of high-grade H) to vacate London as soon as it was light. I at first thought that in the panic of my departure I had forgotten to close the door. I saw then the splintered wood surrounding the lock, and a cold wind blew through me as though I were a moth-eaten shroud.

The house seemed hostile, alien, unwelcoming as an out-of-season hotel. The floor dipped; I pitched towards the stairs. Gripping the balustrade, I gazed up into the black heart of a helix: a stairwell winding to its vanishing point three flights above. Giddy, I turned away. Up there, at the summit, Soapsuds the Terrible had come to steal my toy. I wanted to scamper up those stairs three at a time, but my feet dragged as in glue. A hidden fairground organ played the theme music from Carousel; the darkness poked and jeered. ‘Why are you doing this?’ I called softly. ‘Why are you persecuting me over all these years?’ The stairs creaked like arthritic vertebrae; they seemed to talk.

‘Wait until I tell your father, young man; and what will your mother say.’ She had betrayed me, the old crone, they had all betrayed me. Only Toxine had been constant. ‘You think so?’ said the stairs. ‘That little hussy? Oh, why have you wasted your life on her? Why, why, why?’ I reached the first landing and stopped. A grandfather clock confronted me. It chimed; the door opened. Inside, a homunculus sat astride a hypnotic pendulum, swinging to and fro.

‘What are you doing?’ it said.

‘Go back to your pap and your ravings. I don’t need you any more.’

‘And what’s an old man to do without love? His only boy a rude mechanical, his wife gone off with some Yank car salesman. I should never have sent you to that school. A working-class hero, that’s me. And what have I got for it? A snob of a son who goes weak at the knees over some tarty machine.’ He raised a finger. ‘He’s up there, y’know. She’s partial to fat men …'

I slammed the clock-door shut and continued my ascent. At the second landing the fairground music stopped. Some way down an adjoining corridor, light escaped from beneath a door. Outside stood a pair of riding-boots, smudged with lipstick. Pressing myself against the wall, I shuffled crabwise, my nostrils stinging with the sharp scent of cat.

‘Mother?’ I called, rapping on the door.

‘Enter,’ she said, ‘my little bellboy.’ She was as I remembered her, beautiful as the Queen of the Night. She presided over a pink boudoir. An open fire blazed in the hearth. ‘It’s so good to see you. But then, I simply had to. We really must talk. The young lady people have been telling me about — Toxanne, isn’t it? — I wanted to know, well … But what must you think of me? I haven’t introduced you to your stepsisters. Tracy, Trisha, ‘Tasha, Tereza, say hello to your big brother.’ Lazing upon a rug before the fire, four adolescent grisettes tossed their heads and laughed, their peppermint eyes flickering. Flickering, snickering eyes.

‘Why does he wear such funny clothes?’

‘Like little Lord Fauntleroy.’

‘Better go home, boy blue, Mr Daz is coming to eat you up!’

‘O Baby Buntin’, don’t cwy!’

Mother hushed them with a stare. ‘Now about this young lady. I feel it’s only right to tell you I’ve heard stories about her …'

My stepsisters giggled and began to sing, very quietly, very nastily: ‘We know what they’re doing, we know what they’re doing.’ They crawled towards me on all fours, mewling like spoilt, pampered kittens. I leaped into the corridor, turned the key in the ward, and ran. Behind me, they scratched at the woodwork. ‘Miaow! Let us out,’ they cried. ‘We’re burning!’ False cats; untrue tabbies. Slink! There was only one genus of sphinxlike demi-feline, and that was Toxine. Again I assaulted the house’s crooked backbone, the final landing a flight above. I halted. Someone had cleared their throat.

‘Still playing with dolls?’ It was a boy’s voice, coarse and dull. I looked up; a gang of goblin-faced youths leaned over the balustrade, slack-jawed, malevolent. ‘Dead,’ said the boy. ‘Your poxy queen is dead.’

‘Dead,’ they chorused, ‘dead, dead, dead. Little dolly daydreams is dead.’ Hands over my ears, I rushed the gradient, shouts, jeers, giggles and screams swelling into a crescendo that would not resolve.

‘She is alive!’ My words bounced off a wall of white noise. ‘I brought her to life. I raised her …' The air had grown rarefied. I could not find a footing. Abruptly, the voices ceased. I uncovered my ears, opened my eyes, and discovered I stood at the summit. I was alone. Ghosts, ghosts; this night I would put them all to rest. My workshop was opposite. I grasped the doorknob and listened, but heard only the tympanum of my heart. The hinges whinged; I squinted into the shadows. Before me in dim outline was a ransacked parlour of machinery and dismembered dolls; then, my pupils dilating, a horrible tableau vivant made itself known: Daz, pink and porcine, supporting a half-conscious Toxine — free now of her inhibiting bonds — and slapping her, like one trying to sober up a drunk. I switched on the lights. For an instant he seemed to fade, like a phantom surprised by day; then his corporeality returned, the insistent, heavy ink of his contours thick with a reality I could no longer bear.

‘Help me.’ he said, confused, pathetic. ‘For God’s sake help me get her out of this coffin.’ An elemental spur goaded my flanks and I charged, storm-ridden, picking up the discarded limb of a dead proto-Toxine — a long, coltish leg — and, jumping the barricades like Liberty leading the People, stood before the tyrant, porcelain club held high, poised to end his reign. ‘But I am her father!’ he said.

‘And I,’ I said, breaking the limb over his skull, ‘am the King of Clockwork!’

He fell and the house shook, tremulous with exultation. Easy, so easy. How had I not known it would be so easy? The storm dismounted, rumbling into the distance, taking with it the shame of the years. The ghetto of my childhood had been razed, Tox and I the only survivors. The dust cloud settled; shards of china spun and were still. I was free.

She stood by the window. Did a burgeoning sentience prompt her to look across the street, to where she suspected her violator’s shade would always spy, always haunt? ‘He’s gone,’ I assured her. ‘He’ll never hurt you again.’ Her returning consciousness chilled me. ‘Tox, are you all right? Don’t worry, I’ve more dream-juice downstairs. You’ll soon be back to normal.’ As I reached beneath her chemise she stepped back, putting her arms across her breasts. ‘Toxine,’ I said gently, ‘don’t be silly. It’s only me. I’m not going to hurt you. I want to help.’ I caught her by the wrists. ‘Toxine — please!’ she was staring at the felled body of Daz, her lovely, vacuous face impossibly eloquent with distress. She turned, and her eyes blistered with pain. Withdrawal symptoms? Or was something human emerging from that chrysalis of stone, something empathic? ‘He hurt you, Toxine, he wanted to take you from me. Don’t you remember all the terrible things he did to you? I am your creator, Toxine, I am your father!’

With preternatural speed she seized me by the throat. Long, steel fingernails cut my flesh, her mechanically enhanced grip extraordinarily powerful. How could she? Was it simply malfunction? Or had sickness unmasked her? Perhaps I had been a fool, a cuckold long ignorant of her lusts and adulteries. Her grip tightened. All that they had said: it was true. The porcelain bitch had betrayed me. Twisting, flailing, my arms collided with the light fixture, and a black curtain dropped upon our stage. Her treacherous, half-human eyes ignited. Murderous eyes. We tripped and skidded across the workbench. ‘I loved you,’ I said, as she broke heart and neck. ‘Have you forgotten the Way of the Doll?’ My eyes closed and I knew only the smell of her silky mane, the coolness of her dress, the noise of my lungs as they rattled towards their doom; I knew too, but only half knew, that my hand had found a screwdriver and that I was driving it into her ribs, her thighs, cracking her immaculate flesh and sending slivers of porcelain to join the fragments of other dolls strewn about the floor. To no effect; her carapace protected her. Frantically I pulled up her crimson frock, and then the thousand petticoats beneath; with one hand I flipped open the belly panel, while the other … but by then I was beyond the stars and planets, a castaway of time and space; somewhere, somewhere, I heard the screwdriver’s snicker-snack! as it drove into the overheated motor, breaking gears, cogs and wheels. ‘Johneee!’ she yelled; clockwork filigree scrambled — Ah, so tell it to him, tell it to Mr Impaler — and, releasing her steely garrotte, writhed beneath me like a fish upon the slab, until, the arc lights of her eyes blown, fused, her life retreated to a single fluttering eyelash, the metallic spikes of which, after an eternity of indecision, finally crashed shut like a miniature portcullis.

I lay on top of her, gasping. What had I done? ‘Toxine,’ I whispered, ‘come back, come back.’ My tears spattered her face.

Toxine was broken.

For days I walked the streets, following home women with pale skin or dark hair, or women robed in poppy-red dresses, women who moved like machines. But I need more than a replacement engine; I need a soul. And her soul, I think, will never return. What was Toxine? She was a wonder of engineering, a green-eyed Venus; the comfort of my childhood and the ardour of my manhood; she was my friend, and the goddess who came back to me in a merciful moment of grace. She was my life. The human world was unworthy of her, and I, too, am unworthy.

Forgive me, little robot, and accept my amends. I have decided it is time to sleep. The attic, immutable shadowland of childhood, has gathered us to its ruin. We have been here now three days, three nights. Musty carpets, old furniture, surround us, and winter has come. Again, snow drifts down from the rafters, crowning her hair with ice. It is cold. I comb that hair, that long, long hair. We are about to make our journey.

I lie down beside her. The light begins to fail. Outside, the wind is shaking the gables. Sleep, sleep. Those venomous lips I have half kissed away receive me as one lost, now found. I put my arms about her tiny waist. I look into her eyes. All is broken. Consumed by fire. But I am leaving this human world of sadness and regret, leaving as even now it grows dark. Deep in her eyes, in an emerald vision, I see again that land, that happy land, that far-off kingdom where we shall be at peace. My bisque-headed, wheyfaced love, how could I have thought you would betray me? The city descends. Softly, she calls. We go now together into the dark, she leading me through the shadows, out, far out, taking me home, the only home there will ever be for us. Goodnight, Toxine.

Copyright © 1989 by Richard Calder.