A sample chapter of 'New Toys' 

Chapter One

The Fatestones

    jade Beastwarden and Hodgejade Beastwarden and HodgeWith only two shopping days to go before Christmas, Toymania was packed to bursting. You could hardly have squeezed another customer through the automatic doors with a bulldozer. From the Toddler Pound in the basement to Pooh’s Tuckbox on the topmost floor, the entire store was awash with that special colour and excitement that only Christmas can bring. Yuletide melodies surged joyously through each of the thirty-eight departments: Randolph and The Turkey's Christmas and Ding-Dong Xmas Party and Santa Doesn't Love Me Any More. Over the heads of the struggling shoppers galloped long teams of mechanical reindeer, energetically getting nowhere. Giant inflatable Santas wobbled beside the tills, inviting children bored by waiting in the long queues to use them as punchbags. Every assistant wore a silly hat and a glowing nose.

    Mr Stryde, helping on the hi-speed checkout, was in a state of bliss. His tills had been ringing—or rather beeping—since nine in the morning, and there was still no sign of any let-up. And all the sales were so large! It was as if the looming arrival of Christmas Day had put every mother and father into such a panic that they no longer cared how much they spent, just so long as their children got everything they had asked for.

    ‘Oh, thank you, madam,’ he said again and again. ‘Why, thank you, sir. Merry Christmas to you, sir. —What was that, madam? Another Sweetie-Pie? Why, thank you, thank you very much. And a hunt-and-kill submarine, certainly. Two? Why certainly, madam. And what’s this? A Warlord? Goodness! Wrap this one up quickly, Mrs Hawker, before it walks out of the door!’

    Mr Stryde, being the shop’s owner, did not wear either a glowing nose or a silly hat.

 

Garnet Dragonspawn in civviesGarnet Dragonspawn in civvies

    The Warlord – or, to give it its full title, ‘The Warlord of Pandemonium’ -- was the latest in a series of exclusive best-selling products that within a few short years had made Toymania the leading toyshop in the land.

    Every spring, Mr Stryde would leave Girsley on a very special and very important quest. What he was looking for was the new toy that in his opinion (and his instinct in these matters was infallible) was going to set the next trend. Sometimes he had to travel a very long way, to countries only mentioned in obscure corners of the internet; but however long and inconvenient his journey, sooner or later his patience would be rewarded. At which point he would descend like a hawk on the unsuspecting manufacturers, and snap up the entire first consignment, lock, stock and barrel, thereby stealing a march on the few competitors he had left.

     It was an excellent policy, and in past years it had served Mr Stryde well. But this year was different. Never before had he had the good fortune to stumble across a toy so amazingly, so deliriously, popular as the Warlord of Pandemonium. It was a phenomenon: the Toy of the Century. It would make his name. Better than that, it would make his fortune. Calling it to mind, Mr Stryde rubbed his hands in glee. When he walked, it was with a bounce in his step. From time to time a snatch of song burst spontaneously from his lips.

    But just as every cloud has its silver lining, so, eventually, will every silver lining develop its little rip. Towards three in the afternoon, on that busiest of all busy days, Mr Stryde was informed that a Mr Hapkido of Nemesis Toys was waiting to see him.

    Normally, any representative coming at such a time— with or without an appointment—would have been shown the door. But Nemesis Toys was the company that manufactured the Warlord of Pandemonium, and they could be forgiven almost anything.

    Mr Stryde would have his little grumble, even so. ‘Did it have to be today?’ he complained. ‘Why couldn’t he leave it till the New Year?’

    ‘I’m sorry, Mr Stryde, sir,’ said Mrs Bayles, his secretary. She spoke tremblingly, as if she were the one insisting on wasting Mr Stryde’s valuable time, and not the persistent gentleman from Nemesis Toys. ‘He says it’s urgent, it’s frightful, it can’t wait.'

    ’Oh, very well,’ said Mr Stryde resignedly. ‘I’ll see him in my office.’



 

    HapkidoHapkidoMr Hapkido was a small person with sleek, silvery hair combed straight back from his forehead and a very large briefcase, which he hugged tight to his chest like a non- swimmer clinging to a lifebelt in icy seas.

    ‘Sit down, sit down,’ said Mr Stryde, indicating a high- backed chair upholstered in plum-coloured velvet. Turning to his desk, he pressed a small red button next to his ornate gold telephone; at which the gilt-tooled spines of several yards of dummy books slid silently sideways to reveal a massive bank of television screens, blinking and flickering with colourful images. There was a screen for every till, so at any particular moment Mr Stryde could see exactly what was being sold—or stolen—and by whom.

    ‘My monitors,’ explained Mr Stryde unnecessarily. ‘You won’t mind if I consult them from time to time?’

    ‘Please. I regret the interruption.’
           

    ‘Don’t mention it,’ said Mr Stryde, without trying very hard to sound convincing. ‘Perfectly all right.’

      Mr Hapkido took a deep breath; he seemed a bit embarrassed. ‘So,’ he said, opening the huge briefcase in an oddly ceremonial way. ‘Down to business.’ Dipping inside, he took out a parchment chart folded up into a very small square, and a polished rosewood box containing a set of dull, red stones the size and shape of sugar cubes.

    ‘Ancient Oriental Fatestones,’ he explained, holding out the open box with a reverent gesture of his little hands. ‘With these we foretell the future.’

    ‘Another product, is it?’ guessed Mr Stryde, his professional curiosity roused. ‘If it’s half as good as your last— the Warlord, I mean — we’ll all be in clover. We’ve sold hundreds of them -- thousands! And at hundreds of pounds a time. It’s marvellous. I’ve never seen a toy like it!’

    ‘Ah,’ said Mr Hapkido awkwardly. ‘You bring me to the point of my visit. This “Warlord of Pandemonium”, you see—there is a problem. Unfortunately quite serious. It must be withdrawn.’

    ‘ Withdrawn?’ said Mr Stryde incredulously. ‘Withdrawn? My dear fellow you must be joking!’

    ‘I regret not,’ said Mr Hapkido.

    Kneeling on Mr Stryde’s plum-coloured carpet, he began to spread out the enormous chart, brushing out the creases with brisk little movements. ‘Attend, please,’ he said. ‘I will demonstrate.’

 

    Elsewhere in the store, Mrs Marjorie Wilmot was doing her best to be served by one of Mr Stryde’s brightest stars, Mr Pocock.

    In every part of Toymania that afternoon the crowds were packed in tight, but the tightest pack of all was round Mr Pocock’s counter. There he had erected a walled enclosure of reinforced glasticene, like a fishtank, within which the Warlord of Pandemonium was showing its paces.
           

    There were in fact two Warlords occupying the arena. One was yellow and the other green. As Mrs Wilmot drew near, the green was just applying a ferocious armlock to the yellow’s neck.

    Stripped to their loin-cloths, their vast chests naked, their huge jaws clenched like monkey-wrenches, the pint- sized Warlords (they were actually about as big as a sturdy three-year-old) swayed back and forth, grunting and snorting: each refusing to give an inch. This went on for some seconds. All at once the balance tipped. The green swivelled; the yellow fell heavily to his knees. The green was on top of him in a trice, binding leg and neck together in a grip that seemed certain to break his opponent in two. The yellow went limp. The green relaxed his hold. And like a snake the yellow twisted, coiled, practically turned himself inside out: and hurled the green away from him.

    He bounced off the glasticene wall.

    The nearest children, noses pressed against the wall, sprang back in fear. Others at a safer distance yelled with delight.

    ‘Gerrim, Saffron!’ they screamed. ‘Flattnim! Bash ‘is head in!’

    Obediently the yellow went in for the kill. He pounced on the green, put an armlock on his neck. The green twisted, roared, kicked backwards. The yellow fell back. And instantly the green was at his throat—one two, one two!—hacking at it with disabling hatchet-blows of the hand. The yellow curled up defensively; the green closed in. Pinned him down with the knees, tore off his head, and threw it up and out of the tank into the cheering crowd.

    He pointed his chin to the ceiling, beat his swelling chest, and roared like a lion. The crowd roared back. ‘Jade, Jade, Jade!’ they chanted, including among them many of those who a minute before had been rooting for Saffron Fangbite, the yellow Warlord. ‘Rip ‘is legs off,’ cried one excited child. ‘Smash 'im into bits!’

   Mr Pocock activated another Saffron Fangbite, and lowered him carefully into the tank.

    Mrs Wilmot was in a hurry: she was meant to have met her mother five minutes ago, and the dear old lady hated to be kept waiting. ‘How much are they?’ she called.
           

    Regretfully, Mr Pocock switched off the power. The Warlords of Pandemonium froze.
           

    Mr Pocock was the most smartly dressed of all Mr Stryde’s assistants. He had jet-black hair and straight, black eyebrows and a neat little pointed beard. Even the mandatory glowing nose failed to disturb his air of efficiency and competence—on him it looked no sillier than any other badge of office.

    ‘The Warlord of Pandemonium is the product of ten years’ research,’ he began. ‘Its circuitry, comparable in complexity to that of a computer costing many thousands of pounds, is capable of handling up to fifty different operations, including speech. It has a basic vocabulary...’

    ‘Tell me the price, please,’ insisted Mrs Wilmot, thinking of her mother, left to her own devices in a world quite foreign to her.

    Mr Pocock's face took on a strained appearance, like a man in a dentist's waiting room. ‘Prices start at two hundred and fifty pounds for the yellow model, Saffron Fangbite,’ he began reluctantly. With the more expensive toys it was best to have talked the customer into the purchase before money was mentioned.

    ‘Why is it cheaper? I don't want to buy a piece of rubbish.'

    ‘Essentially it’s a matter of capacity. Jade Beastwarden, for example—that’s the green Warlord—isn’t primarily a fighting toy at all; his main function is educational. If you would like me to demonstrate...’

    ‘No,’ said Mrs Wilmot quickly. ‘I haven’t time.’

    ‘But don’t let that put you off Saffron Fangbite. Weak he is not. He scares off hostile dogs, fetches tennis balls; you can get him to tear a telephone directory in half...’

    ‘It won’t damage the furniture, will it?'

    ‘Not unless you tell him to, madam,’ quipped Mr Pocock. ‘Only joking,’ he added quickly. ‘There’s a fail-safe circuit built in which prevents them operating independently of their owners. So they can’t run away, for example.’ 
           

   ‘I’ll have one,’ said Mrs Wilmot. Her son had been haunting Stryde’s for weeks, ever since this first consignment of Warlords had gone on display. He had refused to consider any other present.

    ‘Certainly, madam. Saffron Fangbite, was it?’

    ‘The yellow one, yes,’ snapped Mrs Wilmot, looking around her to see if anyone she knew was watching. She hated to be seen buying the cheapest of anything, even if it did cost two hundred and fifty pounds. ‘Could you wrap it up quickly, please. I don’t have much time.’

    ‘Mrs Jarvis!’ Mr Pocock signalled to a haggard woman manning the till. Mrs Wilmot reached for her credit card.

 

    Alone again, Mr Stryde sank back in the plum-coloured upholstery of his favourite armchair, mopping his brow with a silk handkerchief. Withdraw the Warlord of Pandemonium, he thought: what an idea! Has he any idea how much I’ve spent promoting that toy? Has he any idea how many I’ve sold? If that object is withdrawn they’ll all want their money back. And my Christmas takings will be decimated. He shook his head, chuckling uneasily. No, indeed. If that toy’s unsafe, I’m a ripe banana.

    What made it doubly ridiculous was the fellow’s grounds for calling the toy dangerous.

    Hapkido, it turned out, was Nemesis’s resident fortune-teller -- apparently it was this company’s policy always to keep one on the Board of Directors, backed up by a team of high-powered wizards, and a standby exorcist in case anything went badly wrong. Anyhow, a year or two earlier Hapikdo had been silly enough to get himself kidnapped in some remote part of the world, and Nemesis had had to pay a small fortune to get him released. After one look at the Warlord, the foolish fellow had wheeled out the Fatestones, and come up with all sorts of dire predictions — earthquakes, alterations in the wind and weather, thrones toppling here, there and everywhere — unless the toy was modified in some way or other.

    Purest superstition, in Mr Stryde’s view, the lot of it. How a company that was in every other way so forward-looking could fall for such a load of codswallop was beyond him, it was really. He had done his best to be polite, naturally; he hadn’t wanted to spoil a very useful business relationship.

    Unfortunately, Hapkido couldn’t be made to see sense. He’d even insisted on casting his blessed Fatestones there and then, down on Mr Stryde’s carpet, as if that could possibly prove anything.

    In the end the little blighter had become perfectly hysterical. Mr Stryde had had to have him forcibly removed from the premises. He chuckled again, remembering how Mr Hapkido had sworn incomprehensible oaths, and run up and down the room hooting like a train going into a long, dark tunnel.
           

    ‘Don’t stock them?’ screeched a distant voice from the region of his monitors. ‘What do you mean, don’t stock them?’

    Mr Stryde snapped to attention. Someone -- a member of his staff -- had failed to keep a customer happy. He crossed quickly to his monitors. Spying on this sort of transgression was what his surveillance system had been invented for.

    One by one he checked the store's departments. Monster kits? No. Pop Up Books? Of course not. Sweets and Chocolates? No, again. Cuddly Toys?

    Yes, there it was: till number eight.

    Under a mountain of fluffy purple cuddlies, one of his most experienced assistants, a Mr Wadable, was engaged in a noisy dispute with a tall, gaunt woman of advanced years—a customer (so the Toymania Training Manual would have described her) in the Granny Category.  This particular version of the type was unusually malign. She had a twisted, knobbly stick in her hand, and she was brandishing it at Wadable as if she wanted to hit him with it.
  

  Nora and HodgeNora and Hodge  Slightly out of breath, but wearing his sweetest expression, Mr Stryde arrived on the scene.  ‘Is everything all right, madam?’ he asked, displaying his teeth in a solicitous smile, while firing a glance of pained reproach at Mr Wadable.

    The granny – her name was Mrs Nora Blenkinsop, and she was the mother of Mrs Wadable --  rounded on him. She was a formidable old biddy, with a long jaw and a narrow, bony forehead and eyes that burnt brightly in their sallow sockets.

    ‘I doubt it,’ she said acidly. ‘But let’s try you out. Do you or do you not advertise yourselves as “Britain’s Biggest Toyshop”? Answer me that!’
           

     Mr Stryde had no difficulty in answering that at all. ‘The biggest, madam, and the best,’ he said proudly.

    ‘Is that so? Then kindly explain to me—’ she raised her stick threateningly,’—why you cannot provide the toy I am asking for?’

    Wadable tried to speak, but Mr Stryde held up a hand for silence. ‘Madam,’ he said, ‘there has been a mistake. I beg you, put your request to me.’

     ‘I merely asked,’ said Mrs Blenkinsop, ‘for a bear.’

     Mr Stryde’s eyebrows shot up to within an inch of what had once been his hairline. ‘Wadable,’ he hissed under his breath, ‘you are dismissed. Collect your documents from Mrs Bayles, and leave.’

    Wadable opened his mouth to protest, and then closed it again. With silent dignity he removed his hat and his glowing nose, and placed them beside the till. Now you could no longer tell him from one of the customers, unless you looked at the expression on his face.

    Mr Stryde turned to the grandmother. ‘Would you believe,’ he said in hurt tones, ‘that man has been with me for twenty-five years?’

    ‘Then it’s high time he found something better to do with himself, poor devil,’ said the old woman shamelessly. ‘Now what about my bear?’ 
           

    ‘Ah, yes, bears. Bears bears bears.’ A glaze of satisfaction formed over Mr Stryde’s smooth, pink features. ‘This year we have eighteen different brands of bear to show you. The market leader, if I may use that expression, is Spunky Bear the Children’s Pal, manufactured out of durable washable polyprodexterine, and supplied in seven different sta-fast night-glo colours and three different sizes. There is Spunky Pa, Spunky Ma, and Spunky Junior; and each one comes complete with a replica British Passport issued in the bear’s own name...’

    He could have said a lot more about the Spunkies, but after a lifetime in retail he could judge to an atom when a customer was taking the bait; and this one most definitely was not.

     ‘And then,’ he hurried on, ‘we have the Soppy Dates, popularised, as I’m sure you will know, by a daily three hours of cartoons on children’s television.’ He paused. The Soppy Dates were not going down too well either. ‘But the most popular of the lot,’ he declared with new energy, reaching for one of the toys in question from a handy display towering over the crow-like feathers of the woman’s hat, ‘is Pighead. Note the purple “punk-style” hairpiece and the endearing pimples. It’s wonderful how the younger children these days love to have something they can identify...’

    He stopped short. The customer’s face was grim, the lips a long hard line of uncompromising refusal. For the first time in many years he found himself at something of a loss.

     ‘Your man’s shown me these articles already,’ spat Mrs Blenkinsop. ‘They have been pushed under my nose in every shop in town. I will not disguise to you that your establishment, with its reputation for gimmickry and trash, was my last resort. Regrettably—’ she slapped her stick against the open palm of her left hand with a crack like a gun-shot,  ‘— I see my instinct was right.’

    Eyeing the stick warily, Mr Stryde retreated to a well- defended spot behind a display-table of Spunkies. ‘But madam, these bears. . .‘ he began, taking one in his hand.

     ‘These bears,’ she repeated scornfully, ‘these bears will not do. They’re muck. Plastic trash. Only fit for the rubbish bin.’ Hefting her stick like a rapier, she jabbed it into the giant Spunky Pa, which presided over the display like a furry blue Buddha.

     The Pa toppled, bringing down a number of his smaller offspring. They fell to the carpet with a succession of soft thudding sounds.

    With great dignity, Mr Stryde retrieved Pa from under the table. ‘I see,’ he said frostily, while two of his assistants carefully restored the display.     ‘Are you saying that you require a less ...  sophisticated bear? A bear, shall we say, in a lower price range?’

    The old woman shook her head vigorously. ‘Not at all,’ she said. ‘I require another kind of bear altogether. A Teddy Bear.’

    Mr Stryde widened his eyes. ‘A ... teddy ...?’

    Dim memories stirred: of something plain and shabby, with dull button eyes and a stitched-on smile. He sighed; he shook his head. ‘I’m afraid, madam, that the manufacturers stopped making that type many years ago. No call for it any more. Today’s children require something more interactive. The Spunkies are the stars of a full-length feature film. They walk, talk, and exhibit comical table manners. The children know them as friends. They have adventured with them through a thousand exciting fantasies. A child without a Spunky Pal is a child deprived.’
           

    His voice tailed away. He was getting nowhere; if anything he was going backwards. New tactics were required. He lowered his voice. ‘Between you and me, I think it’s rather a pity. I rather miss those old-fashioned toys sometimes. In their time they gave sterling service. And you know... oh!’

    The knobbly stick had just flown through the air and was now wagging itself threateningly an inch away from his nose.

    He swayed backwards, gaping. The old woman eyed him malevolently, nodding and poking her sharp chin forwards in a spiteful grin. The knobbly stick was back in her hand. Surely she could never have reached so far? He must have imagined it. Unless—well, unless the old creature had the thing attached to her wrist with a piece of elastic, and had tossed it at him, and then yanked it back again. Could she have done that?

    Unlikely, unlikely. Come along, Stryde, he told himself severely. Pull yourself together. This is a customer, a customer.

    ‘Enough claptrap. Can you, or can you not, supply my requirement?’ demanded his customer, patting her stick approvingly with her free hand, as one might stroke an obedient dog.

    ‘Mr Stryde, sir,’ a voice piped up. ‘Perhaps I can help.’

    Mr Stryde’s face froze in mid-expression. There was a long pause. He revolved his head. Standing at his elbow was a pale youth with protruding ears and thin, strawlike hair. His silly hat was pink. His nose—his real nose, that is—was so long and pointed that the red ball on the end gave it the look of a giant pawn. ‘And who are you?’ demanded Mr Stryde.

    ‘Pyle, sir,’ said the youth. ‘You took me on last month, Mr Stryde. To help with the Christmas rush.’

    Now Mr Stryde remembered: this was one of his NOPAs, or ‘No Hopers’ as they were sometimes jokingly called. The initials stood for National Opportunity Programme Appointee. The Department of Unemployment had a seemingly endless supply of such young men, and currently they were paying Mr Stryde a hundred pounds a week for each one he kept in work. Any more of this, he thought, and the privilege was going to cost them double.

    ‘I do beg your pardon,’ he said acidly. ‘I shall recognise the name next time.’

    ‘That’s all right, Mr Stryde, sir,’ chirped Pyle. ‘You’re a busy man; you can’t remember everyone. The thing is, I know where we can find what this lady is asking for. There’s a bear like that up in the Number Eight stockroom, in the returns box.’

    Mr Stryde frowned. ‘Isn’t your job unpacking? What were you doing in the Number Eight stockroom, going through the returns box?’

     ‘Never mind that,’ interrupted Mrs Blenkinsop. ‘Let’s see this bear of yours. I haven’t got all day.’

    Mr Stryde took a deep breath. From the neck up he was a model of dignified restraint; below he was shaking with rage. He had his pride, after all. He was a person of consequence, and expected the world to treat him accordingly. He was not used to having mere customers speak to him like a Junior Assistant. He was not used to being threatened by flying walking-sticks. He was not used to being contradicted in public by his own employees. He was not used to being contradicted by anyone. For a moment or two he was greatly tempted to show the old hag the door, and to follow that by handing the cheeky whippersnapper his cards. But better instincts cried caution, and it was just as well. He grew aware of silence, of curious faces with wide curious eyes turned in his direction, hundreds of them. The whole store was watching.

    Mr Stryde beamed. ‘All right, Pyle,’ he said jovially, through clenched teeth. ‘Let’s have a look at this bear, shall we?

    Pyle left at incredible speed: melting wraith-like through the wall of shoppers surrounding them. He was back in moments, clutching the bear in question in both bony hands.

     ‘Oh, no, no,’ began Mr Stryde, seeing the dull, scruffy fur, the ear hanging loose, the strange alignment of the eyes. ‘Stryde’s cannot be associated with damaged goods. Our reputation...’

    But the old woman was already reaching out for it: she had it in her grasp. ‘Hang your reputation,’ she said. ‘Is this bear for sale or not?’


   

Robin and JadeRobin and Jade

Mrs Wilmot stood at the foot of the escalator, staring upwards with the look of vague dismay that came over her face whenever her mother came to stay, or even just sent her a letter.

    High above her head the mother in question glided down towards her with her stick gripped fiercely in one hand and a modest parcel in the other. As she spotted Mrs Wilmot, the grooves of her craggy face darkened like a ditch filling with rainwater. Bounding off the escalator at the earliest opportunity, she grasped her daughter’s arm above the elbow, and began to tug her through the dense crowd.

    ‘Out, Marjorie, out!’ she boomed, in a voice that could be heard in every department of Toymania’s ground floor. ‘This is a bad place, a wicked place. I can’t stand it.’ 


    ‘Now calm down, Mummy,’ said Mrs Wilmot, conscious of the pitying stares they were attracting. ‘Didn’t they have what you wanted?’ 


    ‘Thieves and rascals,’ snapped Mrs Blenkinsop, shaking her stick like a cudgel in her daughter’s face. ‘Here. Take this.’ She thrust the little parcel into one of Mrs Wilmot’s two enormous carriers. ‘Artful little counter-jumper. No guarantee, indeed! What does he think it is, a washing- machine?’ 


Petra and DebbiePetra and Debbie

    Mrs Wilmot shook her head vaguely; her attention was elsewhere. ‘Look over there, Mummy,’ she said, pointing to something that was happening over by the Dancing Plants; some kind of awful commotion. People were scattering in every direction, women screaming, writhing plastic daisies being trampled underfoot—it was really quite frightening. ‘Good gracious! Does it really take five big policemen to hold down one poor little man? I wonder what on earth he’s done.’ 


    The little man was Mr Hapkido; he had just been trying to get back in to see Mr Stryde for the third time. Both women watched open-mouthed as he was lifted shoulder high and carried speedily away. His plaintive gull-like cries rose above the crowd’s babble and the merry Yuletide melodies, and went on keening in their ears long after he had disappeared through the automatic doors and into the police van waiting outside.

  

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