The triplets’ real names were George, Alan and Robert, but they insisted on being called Tricardy, Dicardy and Boo. Together they were known as the Trilobites because they were just a little weird; small identical brothers with the same thoughts apparently inhabiting three bodies. One of them would start a sentence and another finish it. It could be quite spooky. Other parents were overheard suggesting they were probably Midwich Cuckoos, though not within earshot of their proud mother and father.
Tricardy was the oldest by 30 minutes, and then came Dicardy, and lastly Boo, who only differed from his brothers by giggling a lot.
As they grew older (but not much larger), their birthdays became more problematic. Being identical, friends and relations were inclined to buy them exactly the same things. They should have known better and were always mortified by the way their gifts of soft toys, colouring books and Transformers were pushed into a cupboard and ignored. The boys much preferred to play with the building materials they somehow intimidated older friends to scavenge from skips. The influence the eight-year-olds had over other children was inexplicable to the adults who wondered what they were building.
Tricardy, Dicardy and Boo spent all their spare time at the bottom of the garden constructing, what their parents assumed to be, a portal to welcome the aliens they claimed would shortly invade Earth.
While everyone else thought that the boys were odd, their parents assumed that it was normal for identical brothers to behave in exactly the same way until their mother started to become increasingly apprehensive about her sons’ ability to perceive weird things no one else could see. It reached the point where Tricardy, Dicardy and Boo noticed the tension growing between their parents. It didn’t worry them; they just carried on piling up planks, corrugated sheeting and wooden crates until they had created a rickety structure large enough to accommodate all three of them, Del the family dog, and any alien who might have dropped in. It was quite dangerous so one night their father dismantled the structure before it collapsed.
Tricardy, Dicardy and Boo expressed no annoyance at this act of vandalism, which the adults found more disconcerting than a triple tantrum.
During the ensuing argument between their parents, they overheard their mother tell their father that she had brief relationship with a young man at a motorway hotel over nine years previously. This confirmed their father’s suspicion that the strange triplets were not his, though the boys couldn’t understand why it made him so angry.
With a supreme effort, he overcame his outrage and spent the following evenings sulking in the local pub.
In a few weeks life returned to normal; the boys building another dangerous structure and their mother behaving as though nothing was wrong.
Then Tricardy, Dicardy and Boo saw a handsome man arrive at the house. He hesitated at the front gate as though expecting Del, the elderly family spaniel with few remaining teeth, to attack him.
Even from the bay window, the triplets could see that the visitor’s eyelashes were unusually long and dark, like theirs, and his skin had that yellowish pallor, which doctors had once thought was jaundice. He had not come in a taxi or car, and it was several miles from the nearest railway station. Perhaps he had landed in his spaceship?
The boys somehow knew the stranger had come to see them. They dashed out to meet him before he could reach the front door.
“Father is at work...” said Tricardy.
“And mother is ironing,” said Dicardy.
“And they didn’t speak to each other this morning,” giggled Boo.
At the last comment the handsome man’s eyes opened wide.
“Did you want to see her?” asked Tricardy.
“I can fetch her,” offered Dicardy.
“But we don’t really want to,” giggled Boo.
“She’s in a very bad mood.”
“Why not talk to us instead?”
“Not many people talk to us.”
“They say it’s too confusing.”
As the triplet’s responses merged, it was easy to see why.
“I have come to see you,” announced the man.
“We don’t know who you are.”
“I know who you are,” the visitor told them.
“Who are we, then?”
“The same boy.”
“How can we be the same boy?”
“That’s what mother says.”
“All the time.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to see her?”
The handsome man noticed a neighbour glowering suspiciously at him.
“Say nothing to her. I must go now. Meet me here at midnight without waking your parents.”
And he strode away.
The triplets looked at each other. They didn’t speak because they were all thinking the same thing.
Leaving the house at the dead of night was not easy. Slipping the bolts on the back door without waking Del was the most difficult part. If he woke up he would demand to go for a walk and howl if they refused to take him.
Del woke up.
Tricardy quickly fastened his lead and took the elderly spaniel with them.
The boys would never have done something this risky if the handsome man had not been so familiar. They instinctively knew that he would tell them something their parents had been keeping from them.
The stranger was waiting for the brothers on the other side of the front gate. He beckoned to them and they followed. Even if Del was virtually toothless, it was so dark he might have been ferocious for all the man knew.
Tricardy, Dicardy, and Boo, in their dressing gowns, and Del, anticipating a romp on the heath, reached the hollow where children lit bonfires and roasted potatoes. Even in the moonlight the place seemed familiar until the spaniel, which had been running ahead of them, suddenly stopped at the sight of a dome pulsing with a dull glow. It was higher than the garden shed, but concealed from the nearby houses by a stand of trees. As the triplets approached, the pulsing of the light increased as though it recognised them.
Tricardy was tempted to reach out and touch its surface. “Are you an alien?”
Dicardy joined him. “And experiment on humans?”
“We wouldn’t like that,” giggled Boo, placing his hands on the dome. “It feels really funny - like lots of ants crawling on my skin.”
“It will do you no harm,” the handsome man reassured them.
“That’s what adults say when they know it will...”
“But we never listen to them...”
“But we trust you. You have long eyelashes, like ours.”
“And are yellow.”
The stranger at last explained. “About nine years ago something dreadful - and quite wonderful - happened. It was because of me you came into being.”
“We know how that’s done.”
“Adults do very silly things,” Boo giggled.
“When I met your mother I had never encountered a human so attractive before. She did not realise who I really was. I should have known better than to make love to her and been aware of what could happen. The genetic compatibility to create a child is only temporary and very limited.”
The triplets, not understanding a word, were now convinced he came from another planet.
“Who are you?” asked Tricardy.
“You have to tell us before we listen to you.”
“Even if that is very silly as well.”
The handsome man stood against the dome, silhouetted by its glow. “We are your father. I am Jepat, Colos and Varin.”
As he spoke his silhouette divided into three parts.
“My name is Jepat,” said one.
“Mine is Colos,” said another.
“And I am Varin,” explained the last. “Together we are one.”
The triplets were too astonished to say anything.
“On this world you should also be one. The trinity of being can only exist on my planet.”
Each manifestation of their true father reached out to the equivalent of his corresponding son. Tricardy, Dicardy and Boo took the offered hands and grasped them. As they did so the triplets’ bodies merged and became one sturdy young boy.
Jepat, Colos and Varin reverted to the good-looking man who had helped them make sense of their existence.
The children who had been christened George, Alan and Robert never saw him again. He may have solved the conundrum of who they actually were, but not how their mother was going to explain the triplet’s disappearance to family, friends and neighbours and arrival of a new son.
At least her husband was more inclined to accept the tall, handsome child as his, unlike the tiny, irksome trio forever finishing each others sentences and building contraptions to welcome aliens.
There was an elephant, and then a witch on a broom.
Sunita waved to them as they scudded by and was sure the clouds responded by rolling and swirling as she willed them into different shapes.
Her father found this preoccupation with cumulus and cirrus amusing, but then he found most things amusing, especially children.
As Sunita’s mother had died when she was born she had never known what it was like to have two parents, unlike most of her friends, and sometimes wished that her father would remarry. Joyce in the corner shop was rather nice, and her father liked Joyce, but she was twice his age and her husband probably wouldn’t have agreed.
Perhaps Sunita could conjure up a beautiful woman in the clouds to come down and fill that empty space there seemed to be in the house when the surgery closed. Dr Ranjit was constantly busy, but always found time for his imaginative daughter. They lived above his surgery so she was never alone when it was open and liked to chat to the patients in the waiting room. Some of the elderly ones told her tales from their childhood, when there were no doctors unless you were wealthy enough to pay for them. One small boy who was seriously ill would not have survived if he had been born then. Sunita was particularly fond of him because he never complained or cried. Every week Simon, always carrying an old, much-loved yellow teddy bear with a pink bowtie, would visit her father for a regular check-up.
One day when he arrived for his appointment he was very tearful. His mother explained that his teddy bear had mysteriously disappeared. Later, when he could not hear, she told Sunita that the toy had to be hidden away because it posed an infection risk. Poor Simon was inconsolable however much she tried to comfort him. To Sunita it seemed so unfair that the teddy that kept the seriously ill child content had to be the very thing that could kill him. His mother had tried to find another just like it, scouring everywhere from the high street to online retailers. But the bear was unique, custom-made for a great aunt who had passed it down through the family. Small wonder it might have carried a century’s catalogue of infections.
That evening Sunita dejectedly sat in the garden as the sun went down and watched the round, yellow cumulus about to pass over the radiant globe. It was bubble-shaped, so she willed the cloud to take the shape of Simon’s teddy bear and a wispy swirl of red cirrus untie itself from the sunset to settle at the bear’s neck in the shape of a large pink bow.
Sunita leapt up and clapped her hands with joy. Her father, working in the sun lounge, wondered what had so delighted her and came out to see a large, yellow shape gently floating down from the sky.
Dr Ranjit had seen many things and, though he would not have declared it too loudly to some patients, believed in the multitude of gods that existed in all living creatures. This was so remarkable he wondered if his young daughter could be one of those deities. Anyone else, seeing the large yellow bear with the pink bowtie sitting on the lawn by the pots of geraniums, would have suspected it was a trick. But Dr Ranjit knew his daughter. There was not a devious gene in her body.
Just to be convinced that he was not seeing things and the original bear, which should have been well hidden, had not made an unexpected reappearance after a good shampoo, he took it into his surgery and plucked samples from its fur to send away for analysis. When the results came back they confirmed that there was no trace of any infection which could harm Simon; in fact, it possessed antibacterial properties to prevent it.
Sunita wrapped the bear and put it in a box, which she presented to the young patient the next time he came for his check-up, and handed the proof of its clean bill of health to his mother. From then on the toddler began to grow stronger. Soon Simon only needed to be examined once a month.
Someone dressed like an evil clown had been terrorising the children at Sunita’s school as they left the gates, so most parents waited outside for them. Others went home in groups. Jerry, Dr Ranjit’s receptionist, usually collected Sunita after locking the waiting room to ensure she did not have to come back alone.
The clown had not harmed anyone, but the police did not want to take the chance he would and had an officer in uniform standing by until everyone had left.
One afternoon Jerry’s car was involved in a minor collision on the way to the school, which meant he had to exchange details with the other driver and was delayed. Sunita had forgotten her mobile phone again and he was unable to contact her. By the time he arrived, the school gates were closed so Jerry assumed that Sunita and her friend, Tracey, had decided to return home together.
The walk through a lane to the other side of the estate was almost a mile. Sunita and Tracy were halfway home when the creepy clown wearing make-up straight out of a horror film jumped out in front of them.
He moved menacingly towards the girls.
That was what he wanted to hear and raised his white-gloved hands as though about to attack them.
But Sunita was angry. Any adult who needed to scare schoolchildren was a bully and a coward. He needed to be taught a lesson.
In reply, she raised her hands to the sky.
The clouds above churned with stormy malice.
The clown didn’t notice them and found Sunita’s defiance amusing - the girl should have been terrified, not challenging him. The bully felt protected by his vile make up. Knowing he could not be recognised, the clown took out a baseball bat which had been hidden by his baggy jacket.
Tracy was now hysterical. This terror of the school gates had never threatened to harm any of the pupils before, but out here in the deserted lane there was no one to stop him.
The malicious clown raised the weapon to strike Sunita and ensure she never dared confront a bully again.
Then he suddenly stopped and stared.
Behind the girls, silently pounding towards him, was a monstrous clown twice his height and ten times as scary. The giant was surrounded by an unearthly glow and his wide mouth, filled with sharp teeth, wore a scowl that could have curdled milk.
The other clown suddenly felt very small and scared. He dropped the baseball bat and ran off, screeching in terror.
Tracy stopped panicking, wondering what had frightened off their attacker. Before she could turn, the huge clown had dispersed back into the sky. Minutes later, Jerry’s car with its buckled fender pulled up beside them just in time to see the clown disappearing into the distance. He phoned the police and gave them the exact location.
The clown was not caught, but never bothered the pupils of Sunita’s school again.
It was the dead of night in the High Street.
Tina, Trog and Jamie knew where the CCTV cameras were pointing and how to avoid them. Despite causing mayhem in the small town, they had not been caught yet.
The more disruptive troublemakers they used to steer clear of had disappeared weeks ago. Now the three teenagers had the town to themselves.
The porch of the small shop offered plenty of cover, and the glass-fronted door had only one draw bolt. It would be easy to break into, so there was probably nothing worth stealing inside. They could still trash the place, though. That’s what they were best at; the worst nightmare of all shopkeepers who opened up in the morning to discover their valuable stock destroyed. If Tina, Trog and Jamie just stole what they could carry it would have been understandable, but they only did it to inflict grief on others. It gave them a feeling of control in an increasingly complicated world.
Tina broke the stained-glass panel in the door and reached through to open the single bolt securing it. There was no alarm and the inside of the shop was lit by a safety light, so she beckoned Trog and Jamie to follow her in.
As they explored, the teenagers became aware that they were being watched. Malevolent glass eyes were turning to follow their every movement.
The young delinquents were terrified and would have dashed back out if a deadlock on the door hadn’t turned with a resounding ‘clunk’ and shut them inside. There was no key to open it and the broken glass panel too small to escape through.
They were trapped.
The only way out was through a small door at the rear of the shop.
One pair of marble-sized glass eyes belonged to a life-sized, menacing clown.
This began looming from the shadows towards them.
Panicking, Tina, Trog and Jamie tripped over each other to escape through the door.
When they were on the other side of it there was no one to hear the young people scream.
The shelves of the newly-opened Victorian toyshop were filled with dolls wearing thin-lipped smiles on their ceramic faces, glove puppets of strange animals, and monkeys which could jump up and down on a stick. At centre of the shop was a merry-go-round of prancing ponies, unicorns and a flying pig.
In this mysterious shop the rocking horse rocked without being touched, the ballerina on the music box whirled to its trill tune without needing a turn of the key, and the merry-go-round waltzed round and round at the slightest draft. The local newspaper had dismissed it as electronic trickery because the proprietor refused to be interviewed by one of their reporters.
The occasional customer came in to stand and marvel, yet no one purchased a toy for their children. There was something too sinister about these playthings to inflict on a modern infant. It was more like an outlet for grandmothers who disliked technology’s gadgets and their grandchildren. Toys that had to be pushed, pulled or wound up should have thrilled many infants, but the sinister, glass-eyed ones displayed in this toyshop were more likely to make them burst into tears.
So how did this shop make any money? Did it carry out all its business online? Were its customers wealthy collectors? None of the toys were priced and there was no proprietor to purchase them from. The antiquated till with yellowed keys looked as though it had not been used for a hundred years and its float was probably in shillings, pennies and farthings. With the lack of security it should have been a shoplifter’s paradise, but the menacing ambience of the place was a deterrent in itself. And then there was the way the toyshop had appeared overnight, fully stocked, in the small property between the local supermarket and newsagent. The premises had been empty for years and both outlets had tried to purchase it, but the agent told them that the leaseholder was holding it in reserve for when the community needed it most.
One young mother reported the toyshop to the police for scaring her children. But they had other things to worry about. Local teenagers had been disappearing. All of them were troublemakers and it was assumed that they were hiding to avoid being charged with criminal behaviour. Now so many had gone missing it could no longer be ignored, however glad law enforcement was to see the back of them.
The local newspaper was also more interested in the lost tearaways than wasting column space on the strange toyshop. As that was so low on their list, Coral, an aspiring reporter, decided that this would be a good qualification project for her course on journalism. Her writing skills were exemplary and interviewing techniques remarkable for a 15-year-old. All she needed now was an A plus pass for investigative reporting.
Coral checked in the wardrobe mirror that she looked the part before setting out. It was essential to appear professional and five years older.
Was her skirt too short, too tight or the wrong colour?
Should she wear lipstick and mascara, or tie up her box braids?
Heels, trainers or sensible flat shoes?
If she had stood and thought about it any longer she would have never left the house, and it was a good mile walk to the town centre. So flat, sensible shoes it was - the trainers were far too shabby anyway.
When Coral reached the toyshop it seemed different, but she couldn’t work out what had changed since she last went past. The clown in the stained-glass door panel looked larger - though that wasn’t possible when the door was still the same size... and its smile had turned into a scowl.
Shrugging off the uneasy feeling, Coral pushed the door open. The bell rang resoundingly on its coiled spring and she felt the glass eyes of the toys gazing at her. At this point her less determined friends would have quickly left. This teenager was made of sterner stuff though, and strode to the mysterious merry-go-round, trying not to wonder what had set it in motion.
Another sinister clown in its cabinet cackled insanely, daring her to put a coin in its slot. The teenager refused to be intimidated and explored the small shop of scary toys until she came to an alcove concealed by a faded maroon curtain. Coral drew it aside to find a child-sized door. Perhaps the proprietor was in the parlour on the other side, creating another magical invention?
This was Alice in Wonderland territory. Should the aspiring reporter go in and eat the cake or drink the potion which would make her the height of the Eiffel Tower or size of a gerbil and be rewarded with the story that would secure her career? Having seen what cannabis did to people, there was no chance of that.
But there was no harm in peering inside, so Coral lifted the latch. It was not the door to a parlour.
It really was Wonderland.
Despite its Victorian ambience, this world lacked Lewis Carroll’s dreamlike reassurance.
Coral mustered all her confidence and entered a place inhabited by life-sized toys that giggled manically or frantically waved as she passed by.
They were all horribly real.
The ballerina pivoting on the huge music box did so as though she desperately wanted to escape. The monkey on the stick was more boy than simian, contorted into awkward movements against his will, and other huge, stuffed toys flapped their boneless arms as if trying to break out of their stitches.
It was quite terrifying.
Passing the monstrous toys as fast as she could, Coral reached the imposing roundabout at the centre of this weird playground. It was a life-sized version of the replica in the shop and the only exhibit not moving, as though waiting for the next visitor gullible enough to get onto one of its sinister looking mounts. Even if she had been tempted, the evil squint of the flying pig was deterrent enough.
The aspiring reporter pulled out her camera.
She was recording the collection of nightmare toys when a forbidding figure dressed in a long black skirt with the sheen of a raven’s wing glided towards her. Her beauty was spoilt by - what the teenager thought was - a wicked expression. This was hardly the benign toymaker the teenager had hoped to meet; more vampire than mortal craftworker.
“Well now, what are you doing here, little one?”
Although the woman was floating threateningly above her, Coral resented being spoken down to as though she was an infant. “I might ask you the same thing?”
“I am the Toymaker, and merely passing through.”
“To do what, and for how long?”
“To fulfil a popular public service, which will last as long as it takes.”
Coral had already guessed what that - somewhat disturbing - public service was. “There are probably laws against using a toyshop to trap badly-behaved teenagers. Just what have you done to them?”
The sinister woman was taken back by her acuity and floated down to look her in the eye. “Well aren’t you the clever one. Worked it out without having to ask.”
“So this is what you call a public service? Trapping young people my age and turning them into toys?”
“Oh, it won’t be forever, just until they learn how to behave themselves.”
However much Coral disapproved of delinquent behaviour in her peer group, it was difficult to believe that they deserved to be turned into animatronics and stuffed dolls. “And I suppose you are the judge of when that will be?”
“No, not at all. As soon as they are genuinely sorry, they will automatically be released.”
“You are aware their parents must be going out of their minds with worry, aren’t you?”
“Well of course they aren’t. Their children wouldn’t have turned out this way if they had cared enough to bring them up properly. And time in the real world is a mere blink of the eyelid. They can stay here for as long as it takes, but return to whatever point in time they choose.”
“I suppose you supply packed lunches and the fare to start new lives in the Andromeda Galaxy as well?”
Coral was obviously being sarcastic. She didn’t expect the sinister woman to admit, “If that’s what they need to be free of their old ways, certainly.”
Coral glanced at her camera and saw that it hadn’t recorded one image. It was enough to make her wonder if she wasn’t imagining it all. One glance at the unguarded expression of the Toymaker told her that was what she had been counting on it. A promising student damned by the label of fantasist would be no threat to her ‘public service’.
“I’m still not leaving without a story,” Coral declared defiantly.
There was not much the woman could do about that. This tough teenager was totally unlike the others she dealt with. She was intelligent.
“What sort of story?”
“A good exposé that can be backed up by facts.”
“Oh, you are a little madam, aren’t you?”
“You’d better believe it.”
Coral’s main fault was ambition. That was no reason to turn her into one of the terrible toys.
The Toymaker decided to give her what she wanted, and at the same time put to rest one of her failures. “Some while ago a couple of youths killed a young boy for fun. Unfortunately I cannot be in all places at once and watch every miscreant but, had I been paying attention at the time, I could have prevented the murder by including them in one of my ‘corrective’ facilities before they committed it. They got away with it, buried the child’s body, and went on to have the fulfilled lives they had robbed him of. The police and boy’s parents have been searching for him ever since.”
Coral was immediately enthused. “Tell me who they were?”
“Not so fast, little one. Before dying, consumed with remorse at helping to cover up what his son had done, a father of one of the youths wrote a letter. It reveals where boy’s body was buried. In the grave is enough forensic evidence to convict the perpetrators.”
“Why not just tell me who his murderers were?”
“Don’t be foolish. If you approached them - as you well know - you could be killed as well, and your ambition to be a reporter will end there. I will tell you where you can find this sealed letter. Research the details, write up the story, and then take what you find out to the police.”
It was an offer Coral could not refuse. Any story about the phantom toyshop would destroy her career before it started. “How can I trust you?”
“Look at your phone.”
Coral saw a text message arrive. It gave instructions on how to contact the executrix handling the estate and papers of the father in question. How Coral persuaded her to surrender the letter would be up to her.
This gave the budding journalist an idea. “We couldn’t come to some arrangement about you supplying me with more stories, could we?”
“Don’t push it, kid.”
The Toymaker’s black gown folded about her like raven wings and the next second Coral was standing in the high street outside the toyshop. The front was now boarded up with a TO LET sign nailed above it.
Learning about the youths who murdered a child for fun tended to dampen any empathy Coral had for the teenagers trapped by its last nightmare proprietor.
Normality was restored by the shoppers spilling out of the supermarket with loaded trolleys on one side, and customers leaving the newsagents with their cigarettes and newspapers on the other. Would any one of them have believed that the toyshop between the two outlets had trapped several young tearaways who had been disrupting the life of the neighbourhood? And would they have particularly cared?
Coral went to the park to check out the story in the text and plot her next move. According to news reports of the time, the murder had been true. Traces of tissue and blood had been found but, as the Toymaker had told her, no body or incriminating evidence. It was more than ambition which made her feel obliged to pursue the story. The bereaved parents needed to know where their child was. The fact the culprits were now adults, probably with families of their own, was an injustice too far. Coral didn’t know it at the time, but this was the moment her life was set on course as a crusading journalist.
The budding reporter closed her smartphone and strolled around the lake to think. The ducks were squabbling and trying to beat the pigeons to chunks of bread tossed by children. The park was peaceful without rowdy clusters of young people congregating to drink cider and intimidate passers-by. It was such a relief to be able to walk from one end of it to the other without some lewd comment or the risk of being mown down by a mountain bike.
The story of the phantom toyshop was absurd anyway. The only things on her camera were snapshots of her parents in a loving embrace when they thought the younger children weren’t watching and a beautiful rainbow over the gasometers, which had been irresistible.
Thank goodness there was still some beauty in the world.