The tops of his socks gripped tightly around his shins. He felt the prickle of sweat burrowing through nylon. He felt the tinge of embarrassment as grownups would pause for a moment and examine his entry on the table; and he would watch their expression alter as they attempted to comprehend, take in, adjust themselves to the thing that they were seeing. He had expected this, of course. He had wanted it; desperately sought and dreamt about the examination of his capability by adult eyes and minds. Yet now – had he had any help from anyone at home? – as he stood – was this his first year exhibiting? – beside the table – had it taken him a very long time? – receiving this realisation of imagination – it was ever so good, they were sure it would win – this fantasy of praise; he found he had not prepared any responses for the comments, and so he blushed and burrowed fingernails into the fleshy cushions of his palms.
It was ever so good, was Toby’s. They couldn’t understand why he had not entered the competition before.
Only that, thought Toby, was the very point of the thing. He could not have entered until he had been sure. He had been to the event in previous years and had strolled along the long U of trestle tables, hands behind his back, silently observing the other children’s projects. If he were to tell anyone that, then they might presume that he had entered because he thought the other entries were no good; that he’d seen their standard and had known he could do better – but nothing could be further from the truth.
Toby had come here year after year – silently; never speaking – and he was of the opinion that the other children’s entries were excellent. He had been in awe of their production, of their skill and their attention to detail. He had imagined that if he were to enter he would, quite simply, be laughed out of the competition.
But he had also longed for the praise. He had watched successive children stand on the erected little stage and receive the tiny silver cup and have their photograph taken for the local evening newspaper. Toby could sense how that would make him feel. It was a feeling that was real and potent and forcibly equal to the pain that would touch him if he weren’t to win, if he was laughed at and made to realise that his dream was not for him.
It was no absurdity to imagine the laughter. Though there were many entries that were truly brilliant, there were also those that were not. He had heard the judges’ whispered comments as other children had suffered their disappointments: the glue was not applied very tidily. There was not enough string. The piece was imaginative, but was not to scale. It lacked scope. That bit there, it was rather askew. What if Toby was one of those children?
As each year came, he resolved that he would enter that time. In the weeks before, he would lie in bed, his back on fire against the mattress as his brain reawakened his single plan for what he would make to display at the competition. There was only one idea: the same plan year after year. Only whenever it was time, the imagined pain of not winning would present itself and his back would become cold again, and he would realise that the competition was not his to be won. The plan was never realised. It was for better children, more talented ones.
So this, it appears, is our story. One year Toby overcame his shyness (for that, if we’re frank, was all it was) and he entered the competition. We might infer a moral – that once he received the praise that he so desired, he did not know what to do with it, or it did not satisfy him as he thought it might.
Only this is not the story at all.
For while it’s true to say that Toby only ever had one plan of what he would make for the competition, the thing that he entered was almost unrecognisable to the initial dream. Successive years of frustration, of disappointment, had contrived to adapt his vision. He knew that if he were to win he would have to create something so astonishing that it stood out far beyond the entries of the other children; something so technically perfect that it would halt the judges in their tracks.
Only that is not the story either.
For Toby’s entry did not grow out of a spirited sense of competition. It was a development of frustration. As the years passed, successive failure became a comfort to him. He began to trust the mellow hopelessness of not putting in; of his silent tread about the trestle U, examining the other children’s entries but not his own. Whenever he came to imagine the thing – that leap into the air, that burning fear – it could all be comforted by the dampish sense of failing to fly. He knew what to expect from failing and would cuddle up to the unmade thought at night.
It’s a tricky business growing up. Talents mature, and failure for a boy like Toby became harder to achieve. He became more skilled with his fret saw. He learned how to solder neatly, and found easier methods by which he might wire the mechanism to the stand.
As much as Toby wished to build something that would defeat the other children’s attempts, he also longed to build something that would defeat himself and bring that delicate salve of frustration. So the plan, though there was only ever one plan, grew more intricate, more hopelessly baroque, more likely to fail. Until finally he failed at failing.
He boiled the bones himself in his mother’s milk pan. He used a dentist’s drill (obtained with his own pocket money from the back of a homeopathy pamphlet) to bore neat holes through each epiphysis. Through these he ran green silk threads to attach them to the central cog.
He cleaned the brass rods with methylated spirit which he applied from the end of a cotton bud that later proved invaluable for lighting the little burner beneath the glass dome of condensed rainwater. He placed the snails into the glass tube one by one and coaxed them to glide further into the pressurised funnel with a corner of iceberg lettuce.
With a craft knife he scored away the many oblong windows of the telephone box doors, which he had modelled with perfect accuracy in white metal at 1:42 scale. These he left unglazed and hinged them to the boxwood frame so they could flip open and act as vents for the steam to escape.
Using a tiny needle he stitched together the swatches of grey leather, and attached them to the starched fabric he had formed upon the reproduction death mask of Napoleon found in the art store at his sister’s school. The bulbs he painted black, and screwed all twenty in by hand; and around these he pushed pheasant feathers at alternating lengths into the ox-blood putty that he had moulded about the vertical sheath.
The trumpet was the trickiest part, but it was attached to the bellows with a minimum of tape, and gripped by the skeletal retort he had positioned, reaching with deathly stillness from the arm of a 1920s dinner sleeve.
It was ever so good was Toby’s.
All who saw it admired it and said he had done so well making all that in so little time.
Only, Toby thought, it’s taken me my childhood to make this thing. Years of worry have resulted in this one object. So many thwarted attempts to enter have conspired to produce something so unlike the thing itself – magnificent – but fulfilling only by frustration.
And the mechanical fingers whirred; and Napoleon’s glass eye swung round upon its silver spring to face the many judges; and the trapped skylark, tail feathers nailed to a little wooden cross took fright and finally began to sing; and the plaster lips parted as the trumpet struck up: this is heartbreak, this is heartbreak meanly felt – but the thing admired was not how Toby had dreamt it.