479. Snap at his Bench

Here is a peek at Like Clockwork, the steampunk novel I’m working on now.

Snap worked every day in his shop, sometimes on maintenance, sometimes on new toys. Day after day, the children cleaned and polished and wound the mainsprings on the toys that he had already built. It would have been cacophony if all the toys had all run all the time of course. Even a good thing can be overdone. Still, every day at least ten of the clockwork toys whirred, clanked and blatted (if it was a clown) or sang (if it was a doll).

The ships whose sails shifted with the wind were entirely Snap’s. So were the several kinds of self-bouncing balls, and the elfin forest of trees that waved their branches to an unfelt, fairy wind. The toys which had faces were his and hers — the mechanism was by Snap and the wood or porcelain flesh came from Pilar’s hands. The dolls which cooed and snuggled in a child’s arms had hands and faces of of clay that Pilar had moulded, fired, and glazed.

Every iteration of the year, a dozen new creations were added. Hundreds of toys lined the shelves and a few each day clanked, chirped, crawled, waltzed, rolled with laughter, and bounced in acrobatic arabesques. Their motion came from Snap; their expressive faces came from Pilar.

Rarely did anyone buy them. Once a year, perhaps — almost never twice in one twelvemonth — someone from the other London made his way to the street outside, saw the sign that said Like Clockwork, looked through the window at the wonders inside, and entered. Then one of Snap’s and Pillar’s clockwork offspring would reach the outer world, and for a time there would be meat in the pot, and new brass, paint, clay and springs for future creations.

Their daily bread came from Pilar, who worked alone in a back room with a spring pole lathe and carving tools, making nutcrackers, jester’s heads and crudely carved puppets. She had no more than six or seven patterns, and she produced them quickly in the time she could spare from other work. They sold for a shilling, but they sold. There were thousands of children in Luddie London without toys, and a few parents who would set aside a penny here and a penny there until they could buy one of the toys Pilar made.

Eve, Lispbeth, and Pakrat were an integral part of the enterprise. Snap called them his sweepers and dusters and winders. They kept the place spotless. The delicate machinery of the toys demanded it, and Pilar demanded it. The children worked continuously, but joyfully. No one made them come each morning.

Outside the toy shop lay hunger and cold, fog and soot, bullying and torments. In the streets and alleys and tenements life was lived by the law of strength, augmented by the rule of want.

Inside was warmth and kindness. Even Pilar’s stony look seemed a mask over a beating heart — but it was such a good mask that the children were afraid to take chances with her wrath. Snap was a massive presence at the workbench, short and thick with muscle, with fingers that were always bleeding a little from scrapes and punctures given to him by slivers of brass or steel or wood, but ignored in his fierce concentration. From time to time he would look up and smile, at Pilar or one of the children, but his eyes always turned quickly back to his task.

Inside there was food, simple and not plentiful, but always there, always to be counted on.  And work, unending, undemanding, unpaid. In the mind of each child there arose a formula, as sure and unrelenting as algebra — work equals warmth, work equals food, work equals safety from the world outside the shop, work equals acceptance.

Work equals self-worth.

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