A Handful of Talent
A Short Story by Kiltie Jackson
Eric closed his bedroom door firmly behind him. He really wanted to slam it hard but he knew that would bring his Mum up the stairs to see what was going on. She’d already nagged him enough over dinner, asking him what was wrong because he was so quiet.
He longed to tell her that Slimy Face Simon at school had been bullying him again, because of his arm, but he knew that would only cause more trouble. His Mum would be straight up to see his Head Teacher to complain and people would call him a snitch. Nope, it was better that he kept this to himself. After all, Slimy Face didn’t bully him all the time, just sometimes when he was bored. Eric knew he could live with that.
Sitting on the edge of his bed, Eric removed the prosthetic from his arm and rubbed his stump. It didn’t normally bother him. He’d been born this way – having just a short stump below his elbow – and, after nine years, he’d certainly managed how to live with it. It was just that sometimes….. Well… It did bother him. Like, when they played basketball in gym classes and he wasn’t able to grip the ball properly and dropped it. Then his class mates would laugh at him. He would laugh along with them but, inside, it hurt him that they didn’t understand.
He looked at his stump, suddenly very angry with it. He began to punch it really hard with his right hand. “Stupid, stupid arm!” he cried, hot tears of temper streaming down his face. “I hate you, I hate you! I wish I been born with a proper arm. You’re useless!”
“Well young man, that’s not going to do it much good now, is it?”
Eric looked up in shock, his hand hovering in mid-air, ready to administer another punch. Standing in front of him was a little creature, almost the same height as himself. It had a silver shimmer all around it and smelt of babies and cookies. Its face reminded him of the dragon cartoons in one of his books, complete with little horns on its head, although its body looked more human. He could see some little wings fluttering behind its head and a small tail on the floor between its, surprisingly, brown shod feet. In fact, the shoes were exactly like the ones Eric wore to school. Although, he most certainly would not have been seen dead, in the red and white stripy socks the creature was also wearing.
The little creature stood waving at Eric, with both hands, and introduced itself.
“Hello Eric, I’m Bryn Evans and you are coming with me!”
Before Eric could do anything, the creature grabbed his wrist tightly and pulled him forwards. Eric felt a whooshing sound around his ears and then saw multi-coloured spirals above his head. Glancing about, he saw he was in a tunnel and it was exactly like those you saw in cartoons, when people were jumping into other dimensions. Before he’d had a chance to digest what might be happening, it went completely dark and he couldn’t see anything. There was only the sensation of floating slowly downwards until he landed on what felt like a trampoline. He bounced a couple of times before coming to a stop.
“Don’t open your eyes just yet, take a moment for your jelly to stop wobbling,” said a voice in his ear.
Eric did as he was told. He did feel rather wobbly. He could hear all sorts of strange noises around him and the smell of babies and cookies was really strong. He knew what babies smelt like because it reminded him of his sister, Cora, when she was born. She’d had a special smell and all the adults who came to visit always picked her up, had a big sniff, and then exclaimed how they loved the smell of babies. That was when Eric decided that grown-ups were really weird sometimes!
A few more seconds passed and then he felt an arm around his shoulder and the same voice saying “Right, let’s sit you up and get those eyes open.”
Once he was upright, and the wobbly feeling had passed, Eric opened his eyes and was shocked to find himself in a large, bright, sunny room, surrounded by lots and lots of shiny silver machines. The machines were all being operated by little creatures who looked just like Bryn Evans, the one who had brought him here.
“Err… Where am I?” he asked the man sitting next to him, who – thankfully – appeared to be human like him. “And who are you?”
“I’m Freddie the Foreman, pleased to meet you.” He held out his hand for Eric to shake.
Eric returned Freddie’s handshake as it was the polite thing to do. “You still haven’t told me where I am,” he replied.
Freddie pulled Eric up onto his feet and let go of his hand. Turning to face the room, he swept his arm in front of him and said “Eric, welcome to the B.B. Factory.”
Eric looked up at him. “The what? The Baby Factory?”
“Not quite,” replied Freddie. “The B.B. Factory. Which stands for The Baby Baking Factory.”
“The Baby Baking Factory? There’s no such thing?” Eric said incredulously.
“Of course there is,” responded Freddie. “Where do you think the expression ‘a bun in the oven’ comes from?”
Eric gave him a blank look.
“Hmmm, too young for that one I see. Never mind, we need to get on. Can’t stand chatting all day, there’s work to be done. Come with me”
Following along behind him, Eric asked “Where are we going?”
“The screening room, we have a small film for you to see.”
Eric trotted along behind Freddie, surprised to note that he was very curious and not in the least bit scared.
As he passed the little creatures working the machinery around him, they all stopped to smile at him and give him several vigorous waves with both their hands.
“Freddie, I don’t want to be rude but the creatures working here aren’t human. What are they?”
Over his shoulder, Freddie replied “They’re Microwaves.”
Eric stopped short and burst out laughing. “They’re not microwaves,” he chortled. Naturally, he was thinking of the oven in his Mums kitchen.
Freddie turned round and looked at him. “Of course they are,” he replied. “They’re very small and they never stop bloomin’ waving!!!”
Eric glanced around. Freddie did have a point on that one. They were all waving at him and waving to each other.
“STOP WAVING AND GET BACK TO WORK!” Freddie yelled. Looking down at Eric, he said “Once they start waving they forget to stop. So I have to remind them why they’re here.”
“Why do you have the Microwaves making the babies?” Eric asked as they resumed walking.
“Because they’re small. Babies are small and we don’t want to frighten them,” answered Freddie.
Eric could see the sense in that. “So, where do they come from?”
“A country very, very far away called Wales.”
Eric stopped again. “No way! I’ve been to Wales and no-one looks like that.”
Freddie turned round and walked back towards Eric. “Have you seen the Welsh Flag?”
“Yes,” replied Eric.
“What animal is on it?” asked Freddie.
“A dragon.” Eric remembered this because he liked dragons.
“And what animal do the Microwaves look like?” Freddie swept his hand towards the factory floor.
“Erm… dragons?” said Eric hesitantly.
“Exactly!” Freddie began walking again, clearly signalling an end to the discussion. Eric quickly followed behind.
“You’re human though Freddie, why is that? Are you the only human here?”
“There are some humans employed here at the factory. They need tall people to fix the machines if they break down.”
Once again, Eric was impressed by the logic in the statement. The machines were rather huge!
Just then, they walked past a big box which was shimmering brightly. Stopping to look inside, Eric saw that it was full of silver, shimmering discs. “What are these for?” he enquired.
Freddie picked a disc out of the box and held it up between his thumb and forefinger. “What do you see” he asked Eric.
“Nothing,” Eric replied. “It’s blank.”
Freddie then put the disc in the palm of his hand and clenched his fist tightly around it. When he opened it again, Eric could see Freddie’s name imprinted on the disc along with, what looked like, a date.
“That’s my date of birth,” said Freddie.
Taking Eric’s hand, he dropped the disc onto his palm and said “Now you clench it tightly.”
Eric did as he was told. When he opened his hand, the name now imprinted on the disc was his and it was his own date of birth he could see. “Wow! That’s amazing. What are they used for?”
“We put one in every baby mixture so we know exactly who the baby is and where it needs to go. It helps to prevent a lot of confusion, let me tell you.”
Just then, they arrived at a door and walked through it, into a room which looked just like a small cinema.
Freddie gestured towards one of the big comfy looking chairs and told Eric to sit down. “I’ll be over in a minute. I just need to start the film.”
“What are we watching?” Eric couldn’t believe he had been brought here to watch a movie. Although, he was still trying to work out exactly why he was here!
“You’ll see!” was all the reply he got.
A few seconds passed and then Freddie was sitting in the chair beside him. The room went dark and the screen lit up.
A title came up on the screen. It was Eric’s name.
It went all dark again and then he saw a Microwave, walking across the screen, with a big mixing bowl in his hands. It looked just like the one his Grandmother used when they made cakes together.
The Microwave walked over to a tall man whom, he could now see, was Freddie. The Microwave spoke to him.
“Freddie, we’ve got a problem with this baby order. The delivery for left forearm powder is three days late and we’ve run out. They can’t say when the order will get here. This little one is already delayed and we need to get him cooked. We can’t wait any longer.”
“Hmmmm…. Pop him on the scales and let’s see what we’ve got.”
The Microwave and Freddie walked over to a large set of scales but they looked totally different from the ones Eric’s Grandmother used. Instead of numbers, these ones had baby stuff on the display. Eric could see things like ‘Small Baby Girl’, ‘Big Baby Boy’ and ‘Medium Baby Girl’.
Leaning over to Freddie, he whispered “Why the different sizes?”
Freddie whispered back “Because humans are different heights and sizes and we can’t give a large baby to small parents. That would cause all sorts of problems, especially for the milkmen.”
Once again, Eric looked at Freddie with a blank expression.
“Hmph! Still too young……!” Giving a small cough, Freddie inclined his head towards the screen. “Eyes front young man,” he said.
Eric returned his attention to the screen and saw the mixing bowl was now on the scales.
“Oh dear, this is not good. Not good at all.” Freddie was looking at the display and the needle that had fallen short of the ‘Medium Baby Boy’ option. “You’re right Barry Jones, he’s coming up short. And there is definitely no left forearm powder left?”
“None at all Freddie. I’ve looked everywhere.” Barry was really upset by this.
Freddie straightened his shoulders and said “Now, now, no need to be so dismayed Barry Jones, we have other ways of sorting this. Now let me see…..”
Freddie walked over to a large cupboard full of canisters and picked up seven or eight in his arms. He walked back to the mixing bowl.
“It’s very simple Barry Jones, we just have to make the weight up with other stuff instead. Now let’s see, what have we got? Ah yes, Football Skills. We’ll put in some extra of that.”
Freddie opened the canister and put three big scoops of the powder into the bowl. The needle on the scales edged closer to ‘Medium Baby Boy’.
Freddie then opened another canister – this one had Music on the label – and proceeded to put a further six big scoops of powder in the mixing bowl. Again the needle moved nearer to where it had to be.
Freddie continued to add scoops of powder from the canisters lined up in front of him. Freddie could see ‘Skateboarding’, ‘Cycling’, ‘Running’, ‘Art’, ‘Maths’ and ‘Determination’ on the labels.
As the last scoop of ‘Maths’ went into the bowl, the needle moved into the middle of ‘Medium Baby Boy’ and a yellow light flashed on.
“There we go. This one is now ready to cook.” Freddie lifted the bowl off the scales and returned it to Barry.
Barry looked up at Freddie and answered “But what about his arm Freddie?”
Freddie looked down and replied sombrely “Sometimes Barry Jones, things will be less than perfect. It’s not the first time we’ve had to alter our baby recipes but you will always find that, when we run out of body ingredients, we always make up the weight with other special talents. It’s not a bad thing really. It ensures that people who will be great mathematicians, artists, engineers, writers or actors are born. It ensures there is always diversity and difference. Can’t be having everyone the same, can we? How boring would that be?”
Barry smiled up at Freddie, reassured that the baby in his baking bowl would turn out just fine.
At that point, the screen went blank. Eric turned to speak to Freddie but Freddie stilled him by saying “Wait”” and holding up a finger.
Eric sat back and looked towards the screen which was now showing different pictures and clips from his life. There he was, aged five, blowing into his first trumpet. He could vaguely remember it had been a reward for learning to use his first prosthetic arm. He was very good on the trumpet and had passed all the grade exams he’d taken so far.
He then saw a moving clip of him on his skateboard, weaving his way down the road where he lived. Next, there was a photograph of him being carried on the shoulders of the school football team last year. He was the youngest player on the team but that hadn’t stopped him from scoring the winning goal which had also seen the school lift the County Trophy. He had a replica on his bookshelf at home. The film then cut away to show the letter his parents had received, a few days ago, saying he had been selected to try out for the Schoolboy Football Academy of a large Premiership Football club.
The film on the screen began to speed up – there were more and more clips of Eric’s life flashing in front of him. Of him playing his guitar, getting top marks in his Maths exam, cycling through the woods with his friends last summer, begging his parents for a drum kit after finding out he’d be able to play with a special adaptor on his false arm, just like the one he had for his bike.
The pictures and clips went on and on, showing him all the things he had already achieved in his short nine years.
Suddenly the film stopped. The picture he saw now was of him this evening, after dinner, when he had been so upset and was wishing he had a proper arm.
Freddie turned to look at Eric. He stayed silent for a few minutes, allowing Eric to process all that he had seen. Finally he said “Do you still want a full arm? We could sort that out for you now. It’s not often we’re allowed to do this but The Lassie Upstairs has given us permission on this occasion.”
Eric looked at him. “Who’s The Lassie Upstairs?”
Freddie replied “The boss girl up the stairs.”
“What’s her proper name?”
“Dunno?” Freddie shrugged his shoulders. “She just always calls herself The Lassie Upstairs. That’s how she signs her memos and what she writes in her Christmas Cards. Now, stop prevaricating and answer the question.”
“Stop previ….what?” Eric asked in confusion.
“Prevaricating. It means to be evasive and not giving a direct answer when asked a question. Such as, ‘do you want to go home with a full arm and two hands?’ ”
Eric looked up at the cinema screen and watched as the pictures of his life slid across the screen. He let out a sigh and turned back to Freddie.
“Would I still have all my talents or would you take those back?”
“I’m afraid it would be a straight swap Eric. You can have the arm or the talents but you’re not allowed to have both. That would be unfair. It is the lack of your arm which has made you quite exceptional.”
Eric hung his head down and stared at the floor. “Oh!”
Freddie leaned over and put his hand on Eric’s shoulder. “That’s not to say you will suddenly become rubbish at football and stuff, it simply means you will have to try so much harder to achieve the success you’ve had up till now.”
Eric glanced up at the screen again. The slide show had now stopped and he was, once again, looking at the photograph of him sitting on the football team’s shoulders. He remembered how good that had felt, when everyone had praised him and complimented him. Had it bothered him then, that his arm was not complete? No, it hadn’t. In fact, he hadn’t given his arm a single thought that day. Just as, Eric realised, he hadn’t given his arm any thought when he was cycling, skateboarding or playing his musical instruments. Only today, his teacher had announced that his art project was the best in the class. Had he worried about his arm then? No, he hadn’t.
Eric began to realise that he only ever disliked his disability when things were not good – such as Slimy Face bullying him but that had all come about because Slimy had been second in the art project and he was jealous of Eric. Well, that was his problem, not Eric’s!
Eric sat up straight and lifted his shoulders and head high.
“Freddie, if it’s okay with you, I would like to stay exactly as I am! I like being able to do all those things well,” he pointed at the screen, “and want it to stay that way.”
Freddie smiled at Eric’s answer. He’d always known that the extra scoop of Determination had been a good move.
“Eric, I am very happy for you to stay as you are. You’re doing just fine.” Looking at his watch, Freddie carried on. “Now, I think we need to get you home young man. It’s almost your bedtime. Come on.”
They got up and walked towards the door. Freddie opened it and said “After you Eric.”
Eric walked through and found himself back in his bedroom. “What?”
He spun around but there was nothing there. No doorway, just his computer desk and bookcase. He could see from the clock on the bedside table that no time had passed at all.
As Eric continued to spin round, trying to understand what had just happened, he became aware that he was clenching his right fist tightly. He stopped and, bringing his hand up closer to his face, he slowly opened it. There, lying on his palm, was a silver, shimmering disc with his name and birth-date etched upon it.
He gazed at it, the proof that something quite magical had indeed happened to him. Just then, however, a little hand grabbed it off him.
“Oh no you don’t laddie! These are not for this world.”
Bryn Evans stood in front of him, the disc now in his hand. Without another word, he gave Eric a big smile, waved with both hands and disappeared. The only evidence of him being there was some shimmering dust in the air and a strong smell of cookies and babies.
Eric let out a giggle which soon turned into a laugh. Oh what an experience that had been. When he eventually stopped laughing, he looked down at his stump.
“It would seem, Little Arm, that I have a lot to thank you for.” And, with those words, he popped a quick, tiny kiss on the end of it before gathering up his pyjamas to get ready for bed.
© Kiltie Jackson, May 2017