Something most peculiar happened on my recent antique hunt. I dare say the event is inexplicable, mind-boggling, downright fantastical. Or perhaps it is that I am prematurely losing my marbles. As a fellow antiquarian who is privy to what I dub collectors’ mania, that intoxicating high caused by the crazed veneration and desire of a newly discovered article of virtu, maybe you can be the judge. More to the point, maybe you can help.
Arriving a day early in D– for a Coins and Antiquities auction, I asked Mrs Gruffydd, the landlady at the B&B I was staying at, whether she knew of any antique or curiosity shops in the area. You know me, always on the lookout for the more obscure establishments. After some thought, the stout woman said she believed there was a small vintage toy shop not too far off, but she couldn’t recall ever seeing the place open. As a matter of fact Mrs Gruffydd believed the shop to no longer be in business. I thanked her for the information and as I had no plans for the afternoon, I thought I’d try all the same.
I found the sleepy dead-end street the landlady had directed me to without much difficulty. Walking further down the cobbled lane, past the red brick terraced houses, I came to the only shop on the street. There was no obvious signage on the façade, but I noticed a rusted plaque affixed to the door. Using the sleeve of my cardigan, I wiped the film of grime off the plaque to reveal the black engraved lettering underneath. Pavone’s Toy Antiquinarium. This had to be the place. I could see no lights on inside through the dusty display window. And given its general air of neglect, I feared the shop was, as Mrs Gruffydd had suspected, permanently closed.
On the off chance, I checked the door and was surprised to find it opened. A cluster of overhead wind chimes jingled discordantly into the gloom. I leaned in and called out to see if anyone was there. No answer. The shop fell back into a deep all-consuming hush. Oh well, I thought, as I was here I’d have a quick look around; see if anything tickled my fancy. Surely someone would turn up soon enough and they would pardon my trespass once I made a purchase, no matter how small.
I closed the door behind me and as my eyes adjusted to the shadowy interior, I was astonished to see that every inch of surface space in the tiny shop was covered with vintage toys and playthings of all kinds. There were rocking horses and dollhouses of all sizes and builds. There were lavish chess tables set with intricately designed ivory pieces set and ready for battle. Teddy bears and china dolls sat gazing at me with their black beady eyes from open cupboards. I saw several pull toys and wind-up clowns and monkeys that could bang drums and splash cymbals together. Model steam trains and railway tracks lined the floor. Marionettes and ornamental air balloons and paper lantern planets dangled from the ceiling.
Gazing around at all the marvels on display, I spotted a curious looking wooden box on one of the upper shelves. I say curious, but the box was actually quite ordinary in almost every conceivable way. I think it was its ordinariness that made it so conspicuous amongst the other more fanciful gewgaws and trinkets surrounding it. From the crank attached to the cuboid’s side, I recognised the object to be a jack-in-the-box. There was something inexplicably alluring about this piece, and I had an instinctive urge to purchase it then and there despite not knowing its price or even its condition.
“Hello,” I called out. “Is it OK if I take a look at this item please?”
Still no reply. The shop was as silent as a dummy sans ventriloquist, of which there were also a few lying about, slack-jawed and dead-eyed.
Only fair I should inspect the merchandise I thought. I was a prospective customer after all and not some timewasting window shopper. Standing on the tips of my toes, I reached up and lifted the wooden box down causing a light shower of dust to rain on me. It was heavier than I expected and, on first impressions, it appeared to be unlike any jack-in-the-box I had ever come across. My collector’s intuition told me this was a priceless one-off curiosity of the kind I would never see the likes of again. I ran my fingers down the grooves in the veins of the wood. The paint had long since lost its lustre, but I could easily imagine how glorious it would have looked in its prime, all royal red with Arabian styled golden motifs decorating each of its corners. The porcelain handle affixed to the crank was cracked and a little chipped, but all in all it seemed to be in good condition. I took mental note of these minor defects in hope I could bargain the price down once the proprietor finally turned up.
There was only one thing left to check. The jack inside. I gently wound the crank and the mechanical music box inside came to life to the familiar melody of Pop! Goes the Weasel. It jingled and jangled, sounding gloriously discordant as it tinkled along to its own timeworn tempo. Now fumbling behind the beat, now faltering to a reverberating pause before coughing up another spatter of notes. On and on it went. I stood entranced singing along to the nursery rhyme under my breath: Every night, when I go out, the weasel’s on the table, take a stick and knock it off …
But there was no sudden burst, no shock surprise of the jack jumping out at me. Maybe the hinges needed oiling. Maybe the spring was rusty. These were things that could be fixed easily enough once I took the toy home to my workshop. I added these imperfections to my list. More ammunition for my haggling.
Finally, after what seemed like an age, the lid unlatched with a soft click, and with the grace of a cereus flower blooming in the desert in the dead of night there ascended a jack; proud, wide-grinned, arms to the wind. It was a wonder to behold. I gasped at the curio in my hands, studying the figure’s deep emerald eyes, its hooked Roman nose, and scarlet jester cap.
“Magnificent,” I said.
“Indeed, and much more besides,” replied the jack, its head tilting backwards as if to consider me in my gigantic entirety.
I nearly dropped the box on the floor in shock, but right that moment an old rake of a man appeared out of nowhere and snatched the toy away from me, closing the lid firmly down on the jack’s head. Mr Pavone himself I assumed. Before I could utter my apologies and barrage him with the thousand questions that were popping and fizzing inside me like inquisitive fireworks, the gentlemen placed a frail but firm hand on my elbow and ushered me out the shop with the silent force of a draught blowing a feather down a corridor. Once I was on the street, he latched the door shut behind him and walked back into the shop’s inner gloominess without a word.
I banged on the window, demanding he let me back in. I shouted and pleaded in near-hysterical desperation: “I’m not a thief, if that’s what you’re thinking. I have money on me. I’ll buy that item right this instant. Just name your price.”
But it was all for naught. I caught no further sight of Mr Pavone indoors.
In my frustration I kicked the door several times like a child throwing a tantrum. Not my finest hour I must admit. But the shopkeeper’s absolute unwillingness to communicate was truly infuriating. This was no way to treat a respectable customer. From the corner of my eye, I spotted a few heads peering at me from behind the neighbours’ curtains. I realised I was making a spectacle of myself. Not wanting to cause any more of a scene, I finally gave up and marched back to the B&B.
It was only when I was in the confines of my room, and after I had drunk several tumblers of brandy to steady my nerves, that the true implications of the event really sunk in. Had I gone momentarily insane or had the jack actually spoken to me? I considered whether the toy could have been an automaton. Over the years I have read a number of articles on such clockwork machines, which through the ingenious use of cogs, gears and ratchets can appear to simulate lifelike speech and movement. But no, I concluded, it was impossible. The reply was too precise. The jack gave a direct answer to my remark and not random phraseology.
But how could a toy speak? Perhaps it was Mr Pavone’s voice I had heard, which I mistook for the jack’s being unaware of the antiquarian’s presence beside me. Yet even this explanation didn’t fully compute. Pavone had approached me from behind. The speech came at me head on. Surely I would have discerned such a discrepancy in auditory perception.
So how had it spoken? Magic? Witchcraft? Was the object cursed or possessed? I am not usually one to entertain supernatural explanations, yet, to quote the Great Detective, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” Admittedly, Mr Holmes would object to his famed aphorism being twisted so. Yet if the biographies are to be believed, I surmise that his creator Conan Doyle would (quite ironically) agree with my line of reasoning in this particular instance. I hardly slept that night. I tossed and turned in bed thinking the event over.
Needless to say, the next day I skipped the auction I had been planning to attend and returned to the Toy Antiquinarium. The shop was closed, the door firmly secure. I wasn’t too surprised to be honest. Asking one of the neighbours whether they knew when Mr Pavone would return, I was met with a gruff, “Whatchya looking for that old devil for?” before the door was slammed in my face. Another informed me that the toy collector comes and goes, and is often absent for months on end as he travels the world in search of singular items for mysterious clients. From their unanimously tetchy responses, I gleaned that the longer Mr Pavone stayed away, the happier the neighbours were.
That was all a few months ago. Since then, I have become a man obsessed. My every waking hour is haunted by that accursed jack-in-the box that was in my hands for a few measly minutes. I need to get to the bottom of the matter, or else I’m afraid I might truly drive myself into an institutionalised padded cell.
Using my limited resources, I have performed countless searches for any mention of Mr Pavone or bizarre happenings in connection with antique toys online and through several newspaper archives, all to no avail. The only possibly related information I have found was a report published several years ago in the Cairo Post, which made for a fascinating, if bizarre read.
A young street urchin broke into one of the capital’s private villas that overlook the Nile, usually rented by wealthy travelling businessmen and foreign ministers and the like. Scouring the place in search of goods to palm off to unsuspecting tourists in the flea markets, he chanced upon an open suitcase in the master bedroom. The suitcase was carefully packed with a number of curious looking toys. At that instant the boy heard a noise from inside the house. Fearing he was about to be caught red handed, he picked up the first object that came to hand – from the description given in the piece I gather the item was some sort of ancient Egyptian rag doll – and successfully fled. Later that day, locals found the boy curled up in a street corner near the city slums. The boy was wailing in agony, clutching his left wrist, a pool of blood on the pavement beneath him. His hand had been severed, cut clean off. All the boy would say was, ‘Aldamiya, aldamiya, it ate my hand!’
Naturally the police did not believe the young thief’s tall tale. For one, no puppets were found at the scene (no hand was found either for that matter). Secondly, inanimate playthings were not commonly known to bite off the hands of little children, whether they were guilty thieves or not. The working theory was that the boy was unlucky to have messed with a sadistic lunatic who was keen to teach the young offender a cruel life lesson. At the time of publication, enquiries were still being made. However, I could find no further details on the case.
I tried contacting Ayman Khalil, the reporter of the article, to see if the story had been followed up, resolved. Instead it was the newspaper editor who replied to my enquiry, and who informed me that Mr Khalil went missing in the weeks following the incident. As Mr Khalil had been investigating several of Cairo’s criminal rings, the editor didn’t believe his disappearance was connected in any way to the stolen toy incident. I know the evidence is slim, but my gut feeling is that Mr Pavone is behind these macabre events. But I have no way or proving this.
I am at my wit’s end Vernon. I need an ally, someone I can trust who will help me in my quest. That is why I am turning to you. I have always revered your extensive knowledge of all things antiquarian. So I put it to you. Have you ever heard of Mr Pavone and his Toy Antiquinarium? Will you help me locate him?