Erbach’s Emporium of Automata

The following story comes from D. P. Watt’s recently reprinted short story collection, An Emporium of Automata, available from Eibonvale Press. Watt also has a new collection out this year from Egaeus Press called The Phantasmagorical Imperative and Other Fabrications. Watt’s fiction is a unique blend of magical realism à la Jorge Luis Borges with disquieting settings that recall the works of Robert Aickman. To learn more about Watt, visit his website, The Interlude House— The Editors

***

They call her ‘The Rocking Horse’. I know she is Ivy Wilkins. We used to play together. Sometimes the kids will stand beside her, there at the end of the pier, and rock back and forth, or from side to side, giggling and running away when they have had enough. She never acknowledges them. She never turns away from that long stare out to sea. But it is no horizon that she watches—as though for a long lost lover to return. And it is not stormy waves she gazes at—mourning the loss of a dear one to the depths. It is a darker place her eyes fathom—an infinite expanse inwards, into the very mechanism of her soul. The course to that strange land is plotted through memory, and most specifically the memory of Erbach’s Emporium of Automata.

Ivy Wilkins was the first of us to go into Erbach’s Emporium. I’m glad she did.

***

It was located at the end of the pier, in what had been a small musical theatre. That had been sold off just after the war when everyone was too hard-up to go there. That’s when Erbach moved in. I don’t remember it ever opening up. One day Tommy Jenkins came and got me from the sweetshop and said I had to go and see this new place at the end of the pier. I went along, thinking it was a bit of a ruse to try and throw me in the sea. But he was right, there was an amazing new entertainment arcade. A short man with black hair and a bristly moustache was cleaning the windows from the inside. There were quite a few kids there by then, all trying to peer into the windows to see what the place was. It must have been late autumn because there weren’t any foreigners there. That’s what we used to call the kids, and their parents, that used to come to our town in the summer so they could swim in the sea and play on the beach: foreigners. We never really knew why so many of them came, and didn’t like it much when our favourite places were stolen by them and their silly deckchairs and hampers. Our parents said it was good for the town, but we couldn’t see how; with all the rubbish and so many kids having accidents in the sea and having to be rescued all through the summer.

This place though already seemed to be special, and because there were no foreigners around it was just for us. Tommy, who wasn’t usually very brave, had managed to stand on a fish crate round the back and peer through the back window. He said that the place was full of all these large cases that had dummies and statues in and that there were all sorts of tall cabinets and things that looked like clocks. We said he was a mad liar and he said he’d bet even his catapult that we were wrong.

We were wrong, because about an hour later—the crowd having swelled considerably and now with a number of adults—the door was opened by the stocky man and he carried out a brightly painted board that read ‘Erbach’s Emporium of Automata. Stick a Penny in the Slot and Watch’. A thick smell of wood and polish, mixed with the dark scent of pipe tobacco, wafted after him. The crowd started muttering. He stood just inside the doorway looking at us all very carefully. Then with a swift movement he bowed and beckoned us in with a little grin which seemed to put most of us at ease.

During the first few weeks it took everyone some time to get used to the place and what you were supposed to do in there. Erbach never seemed to talk to anyone. He just sat at the back of the Emporium, on a high stool, reading books and looking up occasionally at whoever may be in there. Occasionally he’d go behind a little blue curtain and come back with a little cup of coffee or a plate of curious looking biscuits. I said to Ivy that he reminded me of that imp, Robin Goodfellow, that we’d read about at school, and she agreed.

Ivy was the first to go in, as I said, before even any of the adults. By the time I got in she was already deep into the huge theatre auditorium gazing in marvel at all the intricate machines that had been assembled. There were all sorts of things, mostly great boxed contraptions. As the sign said, you stuck a penny in and it would come to life, whatever it may be.

There were the simple ones: an old dusty clown that would gyrate and wave his hands whilst laughing loudly, his fractured wooden mouth moving awkwardly up and down; a racing game where six wooden horses would creak across a metal track—and the penny back if you picked the right one; a top-hatted mannequin that played the violin as a black cat at his feet danced to the tune. Lots of the larger machines played music and he even had a brightly painted one that blasted steam through pipes to the beat of a jolly soldier with a baton as dancing maids rang bells.

Then there were the intricate ones. These were mostly scenic: a tin diorama, layered to suggest a steeply inclined seaside town would carry a tin car, complete with family, up to the scenic viewpoint on a hill beyond (whose green paint had long since crumbled to reveal the dented metal beneath). There was a marching band of miniature stuffed monkeys who paraded round and round a circus ring to the applause and waves of a cardboard crowd beyond.

It was in Erbach’s Emporium of Automata that I first thought about eternity.

A great favourite with all the children was the wind-up table. This was a huge flat table covered in green cloth. Thinking back it must have been a snooker table once. To us, then, it was the size of a field. For those too small to see onto it Erbach would provide wooden soapboxes to stand on. At exactly midday on a Saturday he would take out a small leather suitcase and bring it to the table. From it he would extract delicate wooden and metal figures and animals and with a twist of his fingers he’d set them into life, marching, rolling or flipping across the green cloth, whizzing towards us or slowly sliding away. Eventually there would be so many fantastic gadgets parading around the table that it was difficult to make one out from the other. Was that automobile being driven by a jumping frog, or was a woodcutter taking an axe to a pirouetting ballerina’s knee? I don’t think I ever saw the same thing twice on that table, yet it was a weekly highlight for us all, especially in winter. He must have had hundreds of the things, probably all stored out the back, beyond that frayed blue curtain. No, sorry, there was one that I did see more often, we all did. It was the cyclist. This was a fairly large figure compared to the others. It was about six inches high. It was a bowler-hatted gentleman riding a penny farthing. With most of the others you could see how they worked: a metal cog here, a pulley there, and so on. With this there was no winding key, no pulley, or discernible mode of propulsion. It was always the final toy to be brought from the suitcase. Erbach would stand with the wheels between his hands, almost clasped in prayer. His eyes would close a moment as the final flutterings of the toys on the table top would cease. He would rest the cyclist on the cloth and it would begin its journey, taking detours to avoid other toys and slowly making its way towards the other side. A few inches before the edge it would stagger to a halt and all of us would cheer and applaud. But I remember always thinking how sad it was as the last few staccato movements brought the cyclist to a standstill.

It was in Erbach’s Emporium of Automata that I first thought about death.

We never knew if Erbach was his real name, or if it was his surname or Christian name.

We never called him Mr Erbach, and he never asked us to. It was just Erbach.

Someone said he was an ex-Nazi, on the run, and that he’d been responsible for unimaginable atrocities. Someone else said he had been in those death camps and had been a victim of the unimaginable atrocities. We were children. We did not know anything about what had happened way back then, over ten years before. Ten years ago, to a child, is a different world—unimaginable, atrociously distant.

We did not want to know anything about Erbach.

No, that is not right.

We wanted to know everything about Erbach—but only those things that confirmed the deeper mystery. We only wanted to create more myths about what lay behind the tattered blue curtain, rimmed with frayed gold braiding; from behind which his little kettle would splutter and sing, making him scuttle like a hungry crustacean to the little pot. He would emerge with an old can cradled between his stubby fingers and the whole place would fill with the scent of tea made from rare crushed herbs and other exotic things. These were the only things we wanted; the scent of thick European bread baking in his little oven he kept on the desk, beside the cash register, and the occasional glimpses of him spooning a thin purple soup to his lips in winter. He would catch us watching from behind a machine and laugh. And as with everything about him it was a gentle laugh, only noticeable through his body which would shiver slightly as though disturbed by a draft. Then he’d look straight at us and roll his eyes in their sockets until only the whites remained. We’d squeal like little pigs and run around the machines, scared and enthralled.

That was why I was surprised when Ivy went behind the curtain one day. She was the last one, I thought, who’d want to extinguish the magic.

I only found out she’d gone behind the curtain one weekend during summer. I didn’t go there much in summer, not many of us did. We were too busy playing cricket on the beach, or going hunting for shrimp in the rock-pools. Besides you had to get to the beach early in summer to get the good places before all the foreigners arrived. And also the foreigners seemed to love the pier, and Erbach’s, so we tried to stay away. But that day I’d had an argument over the new ball that Tommy had gone and forgotten to bring with him and he’d refused to go home and get it even though it was mine. So I went off and thought I’d go and see if anyone else was around on the pier because Tommy wasn’t my friend anymore if he was going to be like that.

There weren’t many people about. It was too hot really, all the foreigners were just frying on the beach and any normal people were in home with a cool drink. When I got to the Emporium I found it empty, which was most unusual, even for the summer. Erbach wasn’t on his stool and Ivy was nowhere to be seen. I looked round the place, which seemed especially dark given the bright sunlight outside. It felt very creepy. I was stood right next to the laughing clown and there was something about the way he stared at the door that made me feel scared.

Then I heard Ivy’s soft laugh. It was coming from out the back, behind the curtain. Already shaking a bit I made my way over to see if I could peep through and find out what was happening.

The back room must have been quite large, but it seemed small because of all the cluttered objects. Everything was brightly lit by small electric lights which shone up into display cases that had various ornate animals and jugglers, circus artists and racing cars, all whirring and jiggling with their automatic light. In the centre of this cranking metal menagerie there was a low table just a few feet away from me, at which were crouched Ivy and Erbach. A black felt cloth was spread across the table and on it were two very curious devices. One seemed to be a large golden apparatus which had the planets turning and spinning on their axes around the sun, which seemed to actually burn with some orange flame. The more I looked though I could not see any mechanism that held the planets in place, they did not seem to be connected to a central pedestal or any sort of wire suspension grid. They just hung there, like globes animated by some incredible magician. Erbach seemed fascinated by this object and he stared into the centre of the burning sun for what seemed like ages.

Ivy was captivated by something altogether more peculiar. It was obviously quite old and had a wooden base which seemed to have had some sort of quilted material attached to it that was cushioned in places to resemble small hills. It had been covered then with a thick green cloth which had worn away at the edges, revealing the dark wooden base. Upon this patch of ‘grass’ there leapt and played, hopped and danced, what I can only describe as a rabbit. It would have been no more than 3 inches high and was clearly fashioned from old cloth. It wore a striped blazer and some green dungarees. Again I tried to fathom the means by which this thing operated. But there was nothing that either connected it to the ceiling or to the cloth patch around which it danced. It even appeared to react to Ivy’s laughs and glee, performing ever more intricate performances for her. I was amazed. As it finished its gambols it even took a short bow and the joyful round of applause from Ivy that followed.

Then the thing saw me.

It did nothing really, except pause a moment, looking at me (if looking is the right word for a stuffed rabbit with beads for eyes). Then it collapsed, as did the other machine that Erbach had been watching. I was already running by then and so I just heard his cry as I reached the door. It was not anger, far from it. It was a word, perhaps in his original language, but the emotion it carried was pure despair.

I stood on the beach waiting to see if Ivy came out of the Emporium. After about ten minutes she did. She looked so depressed and I felt awful. I was scared to think of what I thought I had seen in those two machines without any means of operation, but I was more scared that Ivy would hate me forever.

She walked straight up to me, her arms hanging limply by her side. I had never seen her face so emotionless, so devoid of life.

He told me something, John,’ she said dreamily. ‘And I don’t think I’ll ever be the same again.’ With that she walked off and made for the long climb up to Cliff Gardens, and I presumed to have her tea.

***

She only told me what he said to her once, shortly after that last visit to the Emporium. He had said, ‘God is always in the detail.’ It sounds somewhat clichéd, I know, but she then gave me a look. I say she gave me a look but it was more that she looked into me. Her face saddened and I knew she watched every small vessel passing my blood back and forth, each tiny valve that opened and closed, each cell active and energetic and those faded and dying, and finally she looked into the churning steam-piston that powered it all: my heart. How I knew this I do not know. As a child you are ready to simply accept the facts. I knew and that was that. Children are so much more mature than adults when it comes to the facts. Nothing is absurd or ridiculous. Things are the truth, or not the truth. All this nonsense that speaks of the idyll of innocent childhood. Children are pure rationality, mechanisms of truth. Then we teach them lies. Ivy saw inside me that day—the truth: the total system of my operation.

She smiled kindly and we never spoke again, in fact I don’t think she ever spoke again.

Erbach’s Emporium gradually declined over the years. People weren’t interested in mechanical toys anymore, and the foreigners only seemed to come to get drunk. They didn’t want attractions like the Emporium.

We didn’t see Ivy for years. Our parents always spoke about her quietly, but from what we overheard she was in what they called the ‘special school’ or ‘funny-farm’—to me that sounded quite good fun, and I thought she’d probably like it there. And that would have been true, had the place really been the ‘funny farm’; but it was not.

The year after I was married, Ivy came back to our little town. I was working for the bank then and I saw her walking towards the pier one day as I cycled to work. It’s strange because, despite having grown into a woman, she looked no different really. And in seeing her I was almost a boy again.

She owns that house up in Cliff Gardens now that her parents are gone and I hear she lives very simply. Every day she goes to stand at the end of the pier, right by where Erbach’s Emporium used to be. It is now an amusement arcade. Perhaps Erbach would have liked the noises these new machines make, or perhaps he would have found them rather vulgar. I don’t know. Funnily enough it was only last week that I saw they had thrown out Erbach’s old sign board, the same one he’d put out so many years before.

For over forty years that sign never changed: ‘Erbach’s Emporium of Automata. Stick a Penny in the Slot and Watch’. It yellowed and peeled, there in the sun and the sleet, immune to the dull climb of inflation. Always a penny. But I suppose that is a minor detail.