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My dad was a toy maker, the finest in London. He made miniature castles and marionettes, trams and trains and carriages. He carved a hobbyhorse that Princess Mary rode through the ballroom at Buckingham Palace. But the most wonderful thing that Dad ever made was an army of nutcracker men.
He gave them to me on my ninth birthday, thirty soldiers carved from wood, dressed in helmets and tall black boots. They carried rifles tipped with silver bayonets. They had enormous mouths full of grinning teeth that sparkled in the sun.
They were so beautiful that every boy who saw them asked for a set for himself. But Dad never made others. "They're one of a kind," he said. "Those are very special soldiers, those."
I had no other army to fight them against, so I marched my nutcracker men across the kitchen floor, flattening buildings that I made out of cards. I pretended that no other army even dared to fight against those fierce-looking soldiers.
When I was ten, the war started in Europe, the war they said would end all wars. The Kaiser's army stormed into Luxembourg, and all of Europe fled before it.
But for me, the war really began on the day the butcher vanished, when I found his door mysteriously locked. Inside, the huge carcasses hung on their hooks, and the rows of pink meat lay on the counters. Yet there was no sign of Fatty Dienst, who had greeted me there just the day before--as he always had--with a great smile and a laugh, with a nub of spicy sausage hidden in his apron pocket. He'd pulled it out in his hand that had no thumb, and said--as always--"Ach, look what I've found, Johnny." His accent turned my name into Chonny. "That's goot Cherman sausage there, Chonny," he'd told me.
That night I asked my dad, "What happened to Fatty Dienst?"
"That butcher?" said Dad. "I suppose he's gone home to be with all the other butchers. To join that army of butchers."
I didn't understand; they had always been friends. Many times I had seen Dad laughing at Fatty's jokes, or the German winking as he slipped an extra slice of ham in with the rest.
"I never trusted that man," said Dad.
Then the others vanished: Mr. Hoffman the barber, Henrik the shoemaker, Willy Kempf the doorman. They slipped away one by one, and soon only Siegfried was left from all the Germans I'd ever known, poor little Siegfried who worked as a waiter. I went to school with one of his sons.
But it wasn't much longer until I saw him leaving too, with his wife and their children, each with a suitcase made out of cardboard. A crowd of boys and barking men drove them along like so many sheep. Some of my pals ran in circles around the poor man, who walked so slowly and sadly that I felt like crying.
Dad was watching beside me, in the window of our flat. He looked furious. "Do you know what that fellow was doing?"
"Serving people?" I asked.
"Telling them he was Swiss," said Dad, his hands clenched. "But I demanded to see his passport, and showed up the rotter for what he was."
Off they went, with their little cardboard suitcases, down toward the railway station on Victoria Street. Dad flung open the window and shouted after them, "Go along home!" It made no sense; their home was in London, just around the corner. Only the week before, I had seen Dad get up from our supper at Paddington Station and press a tanner into little Siegfried's hand. But now he seemed full of hate, and I thought I would never understand how a man could be his friend one day, and his enemy the next.
Then the Kaiser's army stormed into Belgium. I saw them at the picture show, hundreds of soldiers looking just like my nutcracker men, all in black boots and silver-tipped helmets. They flickered across the screen, their arms held stiff at their sides but their legs swinging high. They marched on and on as though nothing would stop them. And I started asking my dad, "Can you make me some Frenchmen? Can you make me some Tommies?"
There was nothing Dad wouldn't do for me. He whittled away in his shop, and came home with a tiny Frenchman, his blue coat buttoned back into flaps, his legs marching. I named him Pierre. The next day it was a Tommy that Dad brought home, with the tiniest Union Jack I'd ever seen painted on his sleeve. I put him into the battle on the fifth day of August, 1914, the night that Britain went to war.
All of London seemed to celebrate. Men joined up by the hundreds, by the thousands, marching away in tremendous, cheering parades. They passed my father's toy shop, stepping along, singing along, as the women shouted and the children dashed in amongst them. Through a blizzard of rose petals, they passed in such numbers, with such a stamping of feet, that the smaller toys shook on my father's shelves. But Dad didn't go with them.
"Aren't you signing up?" I asked him. "Aren't you going to the war?"
"Johnny," he said, "I'm afraid the King doesn't need me just now."
We were watching them pass, the new soldiers. They were clean and smart, like freshly made toys.
"Don't you want to go?" I asked.
"But what about you? What about your mother?" He shook his head. "No, Johnny, I think I'm better off here. Some of us have duties at home."
"Like what?" I asked. The soldiers were still passing by.
"Well," he said, "I have to build up your little army, don't I? Someone has to stop your nutcracker men."
Already, they had captured nearly all of the kitchen. They were spilling through the parlor door, where my lone Pierre was putting up a brave fight. Then my mum stood by mistake on my army, and one of the nutcracker men got his hand broken off.
"Look what you did!" I cried.
"Oh, Johnny, I'm sorry," she said. "But do they have to be underfoot like this? Can't you play somewhere else?"
So I rushed them forward, into the parlor. And leading the charge was the man with no hand. I pretended it was Fatty Dienst. "Go forward!" he shouted as the Frenchman retreated again. "Go forward for Chermany!"
Down the street, in the little butcher shop, the meat turned gray and then brown. A horrid smell came out through the door. Someone smashed the windows; then a bobby came round and boarded them up. And the Germans kept marching, west across Flanders, rolling armies ahead of them with no more bother than my nutcracker men.
Ambulances carrying soldiers from the front went rattling past my dad's shop. People turned out to cheer them as loudly as they'd cheered the soldiers going the other way. Big advertisements appeared everywhere, enormous posters that said, "Your Country Needs You." And more parades of new soldiers marched down the streets, though Dad stayed home. He built up my little French army one man at a time.
"Is Dad a coward?" I asked my mum.
"Of course he's not," she said.
"Then why doesn't he go to the war?"
"Well, he doesn't like to say this, but he's just not tall enough, Johnny."
"Not tall enough?" He seemed like a giant to me.
"He's five foot seven," she said. "An inch too short for the King."
It made me sad that he was too short, and sad that the King didn't want him. But Dad was even sadder; he never laughed, or even smiled, as summer turned into autumn, as the war went on in France. He started flying into rages at the least little thing, and he scattered my army of nutcracker men when they came too close to his favorite chair. In Europe, the French and the British turned the Germans back at the Marne, but even that didn't cheer up Dad.
In late September he brought home a cuckoo clock that was all in pieces. "Someone smashed it," he said. "I had it in my window, and a fellow got into a fit because he thought it was German!" The little cuckoo bird dangled from a broken spring, and it chirped as Dad shook the clock. "Anyone can see that it's Swiss."
On the first of October he brought home a box of toy soldiers. They were British Tommies, little soldiers and machine gunners, cast from lead by a German toy maker.
Dad dropped the box on the floor. "You might as well have these, Johnny," he said. "No one's going to buy them now, and that's damned certain."
He never swore. So my mother gave him a dark look, and he turned very red.
"Well, they're not," he said. "If it comes from Germany, nobody wants it. No one will touch it, except to smash it. I saw a man go out of his way--clear across Baker Street--to kick at a dachshund a lady was walking."
"But we are at war," said Mum, trying to console him. "Those little lead soldiers might only be toys to you, but to other men they're something worth fighting about."
Dad scowled but didn't argue back. He sat in his chair, staring through the window at the buildings and the sky. It was just a few days later when he went off to his shop in the morning, and came home in a uniform. He had joined the British Army.
"They lowered the height!" he cried. "It's five foot five. I'll be a giant among the next batch of men."
His uniform didn't fit him very well. It drooped around him like a lot of greenish brown sacks, and the funny puttees--wound too many times round his legs--were held in place with his bicycle clips.
I laughed when I saw him like that. But Mum cried. She went at him with a mouthful of pins, tucking him all into shape like one of his little felt dolls. And all the time, as she nipped and tucked, she cried great tears that poured from her without any sound.
Dad softened his voice. "I have to do my bit. We have to lick the Germans."
He packed his things in a little bag. He sat on the floor and packed a book to read, and his carving set, his paints and inks. Mum smiled when she saw him doing that. She looked terribly sad, but she smiled. Then she bent down and kissed the top of his head.
Dad looked surprised. He gathered the rest of his things in a hurry, then stood up with his little bag. "I won't be gone for long," he said. "I'll be home in time for Christmas."
That was ten weeks away; it seemed forever.
"No tears, now," said Dad. "The time will pass before you know it." He hugged me. "I'll see you at Christmas."
He said the same thing at the railway station, and he shouted it from a window as the train started down the track. "Bye-bye, Johnny," he said. "See you at Christmas." A thousand men leaned from the windows, every one dressed in khaki, all waving their arms. They looked like a forest sliding down the platform, drawing away in blasts of steam. They left us all behind, a crowd of children and women and old, gray men. The platform was littered with rose petals.
We waved; we cheered and shouted until the train clattered across a point and the last carriage slipped around the bend. Then there was a silence that made the air seem thick and heavy. Nobody wanted to leave, but no one would look at anybody else. My mother covered her mouth with her handkerchief, took my hand, and pulled me away.
From the Hardcover edition.