The third in the trio of stories from my Creative Practice blog was inspired by my discoveries from our trip to the Metropolitan Archives.
It's inspired by Pollock's Toy Theatre shop, which ran in the East End for decades and now resides in Fitzrovia as part of Pollock's Toy Museum.
The Carters' car trundled through the streets of East London, making for home after a long day of shopping. Mr. Carter looked at his son and daughter, tired and bored on the back seat, looking bemusedly out of the window. It had been a long day for them, their mother having dragged them around several of the finest clothes retailers in the city in an attempt to find them something appropriate to wear for the weekend’s grand dinner party that she was throwing. The children had at first behaved well, but after hours of changing in and out of uncomfortable clothes Jack had collapsed on the floor refusing to change anymore and Milly had thrown a full tantrum, bursting into tears at her mother’s continued disapproval of the dress choices. Mr. Carter thought it was ridiculous to spend so much money on clothes for young children that would soon grow out of them, but he hadn’t wanted to get into a row with his wife.
The Carters sat silently together in the back of the grand car, their driver silently delivering them through the streets. The day’s exhaustion lay heavily over the family, and the tension had not quite subsided since Milly’s outbreak. Mr. Carter looked back out the window and at that moment caught site of a shop that immediately grabbed his attention.
“Stop the car,” he said to the driver, who started to slow down.
“What, here?” his wife said, “do you have a wish to be mugged?”
“Calm down dear. I just saw a shop back there that I thought the children might enjoy visiting.”
“What kind of shop would be of interest to children here in Hoxton? Besides, they’ve already been bought enough treats for one day – do you want to spoil them?”
“Cynthia, the day has been long and hard and not much fun for them,” he looked at his children’s long faces to confirm this. They were looking at him expectantly. “I just saw a window full of toy theatres and I thought it might be nice for the children to have a look. I used to thoroughly enjoy putting on plays with my brother for my parents when we were young.” The unexpected evocation of his brother cut through him, the image of his youthfulness, prematurely cut down in his prime in a Belgian marsh was still a fresh wound for him. “Come on children, let’s go.”
“I refuse to step onto this wretched street,” said Mrs. Carter.
“Suit yourself, we’ll be back in a little bit,” Mr. Carter said as he swung open the door to let out the kids. “Protect her from the murderers will you, Charlie?” he said to the driver with a smile.
The father and two children approached the shop with its small square windows, piled high with boxes and cut out figures on the inside.
Jack stopped, scrutinising the storefront, trying to read its name, “what does juv… juv… juvnil mean?” he asked his father.
“It says ‘The Old Curiosity Shop of the Juvenile Drama’”
“What does that mean?”
“It means there’s lots of interesting things for young people like you,” said Mr. Carter as he pushed the small door of the shop open, letting his children scramble past, following behind.
The cramped atmosphere suggested by the haphazard display in the windows was more pronounced on the inside; Mr. Carter having to remove his hat in order to stand fully upright. The air was musty, filled with the smell of parchment, wood and glue. On all the walls were play sheets, depicting the characters from each of the varied plays that could be bought there. There was an old man sitting at a desk at the back, behind a beautifully decorated small wooden theatre. He stood when they entered and beamed at the children as their eyes took in the details of their surroundings.
“Good afternoon, my name is Mr. Pollock, it’s a pleasure to welcome you to my shop,” he said cordially.
“Say hello, children,” said their father.
“Hello,” they chimed together, and returned to their visual exploration of the room.
Mr. Carter went over to talk to Mr. Pollock. “I didn’t even realise that there was still a market for this kind of thing,” he said, “my brother and I used to put on performances when we were young, about forty years ago, but I thought they’d all but died out by now. Life has changed a lot in those decades, and everything has gotten rather more… serious.”
Mr. Pollock eyed him for a moment before replying, “Yes indeed you’re right. I can’t say we have many people coming in here looking for new playscripts or stages for their children, it’s just not the fashion anymore. I have been here in this store for over half a century, and the business has never been so slow. This last Christmas I sold barely half a dozen stages, in the past I’d have been working non-stop for months in advance of the festive rush.” Mr. Pollock looked contemplatively at the children, still meandering slowly around the room. “It’s been my life’s work though, and I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. The joy of seeing children’s imaginations take flight through juvenile drama is one that still strikes true for me, even if it is far rarer these days.”
At this point Milly came up next to her father and took his hand.
“Hello there, young lady,” said Mr. Pollock, “what have you seen?”
Milly kept her mouth shut nervously for a moment and looked at her father, who nodded for her to go ahead.
“I saw pirates and knights and silly men in hats and ballerinas and queens and…”
“And monsters!” shouted Jack, coming excitedly up to join the conversation.
“My, you two have been having a good look now, haven’t you? But do you know what they’re all for?” asked Mr. Pollock, looking between the pair of them.
“For… playing?” asked Jack, unsure.
“Well, yes, in a manner of speaking.” Mr Pollock smiled. “But it’s done in a special way, on one of these,” he said indicating the grand proscenium-arched toy theatre on the table at the back. The children looked at it in wonder. “Would you like to see a little performance?”
Both children clapped and nodded excitedly, which was reflected back in the youthful eyes of the old shop proprietor.
While Mr. Pollock went backstage to prepare for his performance, the Carters arranged themselves on a couple of chairs that had been provided from the back room. Jack sat on one, with Mr. Carter on the other, Milly on his lap.
Mr. Pollock put on a performance of The Miller and His Men, an old classic that Mr. Carter remembered fondly from his days as a youth. From the first appearance of their hero, Lothair, they all cheered, and then settled down to watch. From the beginning Mr. Pollock put his all into the performance, projecting and contorting his voice as though he were a real stage performer, and it wasn’t long before the viewers had forgotten that there was a man hidden behind the stage enacting the parts of the paper figures. They laughed at the jokes, gasped at the duels and cheered when the hero won the heart of his love, Claudine. At the conclusion they all stood and applauded heartily, with Mr. Pollock standing up from behind to take a well-deserved bow.
“That was amazing!” said Milly.
“Father can we get one, please? Please?” Jack begged. Mr. Carter smiled and nodded.
“Look for a play you like, I’m just going to go out to the car and tell your mother what’s going on while you do that. Mr. Pollock will keep an eye on you,” he looked at the shopkeeper for a second “if that’s alright?”
“Absolutely,” beamed the old man.
Out at the car Mr. Pollock was faced with the grim task of explaining to his wife what was taking so long.
“Well how jolly for all of you!” she said when she heard his explanation. “Meanwhile I’ve been trapped in here with nothing to watch except vulgar drunkards, and nobody to talk to except Charlie!”
“I am sorry, dear, but you should see how excited the children are! Why don’t you come in and have a look?”
“No thank you, I shall wait here, like a good wife. Now hurry up and get the children already.”
Mr. Carter closed the door dispiritedly and walked back to the shop. Inside he found Mr. Pollock deep in an explanation of a play with the children. “You see, Oliver Twist is a pauper, so he has to go around the streets picking pockets and begging for scraps of food…”
“That doesn’t sound like a very nice story,” said Milly.
“Yeah, and I want one with lots of fighting,” added Jack.
Mr. Pollock pondered for a moment. “How about the story of St. George and the Dragon?” he indicated a box of playsheets. On its outside it depicted the central characters of the drama; knights, horses, a king, and of course the all-important dragon. Both children’s eyes widened at this exciting set of actors.
“Yes, let’s get this one!” said Jack, wheeling around to his father in excitement.
“What do you think, Milly?” he asked.
“Hmmm, I like the horses and the dragon, but there’s no girls in this story!”
“That’s very true,” said her father.
“One of the horses could be a girl,” said Jack, hopefully.
“Or one of the knights,” added Mr. Pollock helpfully. “Maybe even the dragon could be a girl!”
Milly gasped; “a girl dragon! Wow! Yes let’s get this one!” she said. But then she stopped cold and turned to Mr. Pollock. “But… does the dragon get killed at the end?” she asked sadly.
“I’m afraid she does…” Mr Pollock said gently. “But I suppose she doesn’t have to, you can make up your own plays if you want – that can be just as much fun.”
Milly’s eyes brightened at this. “Can we make our own play, daddy?” she asked, turning expectantly to her father.
“I don’t see why not! What would it be about?”
Milly paused thoughtfully for a second, then a cheeky smile came onto her face. “I know,” she said, “it can be about daddy” she indicated the St. George character, “and mummy,” she pointed to the dragon.
Both children burst into fits of laughter, and even Mr. Pollock couldn’t contain a loud belly laugh. Mr. Carter smiled in spite of himself, and seeing the peals of laughter coming from his three companions, he let himself go and joined in the guffawing.
“We’ll take it,” he said, when they’d all finally managed to contain themselves.