The milkmaid awoke to the scrunch of wrapping paper. Her clockwork heart ticked into movement and she felt delight as her world was revealed to her. The candles flickering on the tree. Bunting hanging around the wood-panelled walls of the parlour. A girl looking down, blonde ringlets falling around a lively face.
With a click of gears, the milkmaid raised her arms in greeting.
“Urgh,” the girl said. “A milkmaid in a frilly pink dress. Why do you always get me such girly toys?”
“Elizabeth dear, you are a girl,” a matronly voice responded from a seat near the fireplace.
“Robert isn’t a soldier but you got him soldiers,” Elizabeth said, pouting.
“Very funny, dear,” a deep, booming voice replied from another large leather chair. “Now say thank you. Many girls would love to get such a toy for Christmas.”
“Thank you,” Elizabeth said, without the least sign of meaning it.
Confused and distressed at her new owner’s behaviour, the milkmaid looked around for some sign of the love that all toys craved. Instead, she found herself carried to a quiet corner of the room, hidden away behind an over-stuffed sofa. Elizabeth pulled a tiny screwdriver from somewhere in her skirt and turned the milkmaid over. As the girl opened up her back, the milkmaid’s world faded away.
The milkmaid awoke once more to find herself facing a row of tin soldiers beneath the Christmas tree. Each one was painted with a smart red jacket and had a clockwork key protruding from his back.
Looking at them stirred an unfamiliar and uncomfortable feeling in the milkmaid. Instinctively, she strode towards them.
“That’s it,” Elizabeth said behind her, voice quiet yet excited. “Let’s show them what girls can do.”
To her great shock, the milkmaid found herself doing just that. As the first soldier turned to salute her, she grabbed him by the arm and flung him to the ground. She hit the next one with her crook, spinning his head around so that it faced backwards and he toppled over.
The sadness of seeing him like that distracted her. She almost didn’t notice the next soldier swing his copper cutlass. It hissed past as she ducked just in time.
Everything was so bafflingly backwards that if she could have cried she would have done. Instead she lashed out at the soldier, slamming him against the base of the tree.
She stomped forwards, intent on dealing with the remaining tin men so that she could rest and be content.
There were two left.
A rifleman raised his gun and pulled the trigger, but there was nothing to fire. She swung at him with her crook, but he blocked it, then slammed the butt of his gun into her side. There was a clang and she felt something buckle. Her left arm went stiff, the joints refusing to move.
Skirts swinging, she kicked the soldier hard. He staggered back, knocked his head against a low branch, and fell to the ground in a shower of pine needles. Loose gears clicked uselessly as he lay twitching on the ground.
All that remained was the drummer boy. He was handsome and smartly dressed, but armed only with his drumsticks.
The milkmaid knocked him to the ground and dragged him across the floor. At the hearth, she lifted him up, straining her injured arm, and prepared to throw him into the flames.
A sad beauty crossed the drummer boy’s face as he gave his drum one final tap of salute.
“Hey, who broke my soldiers?” a voice cried out from near the tree.
Hesitating, the milkmaid looked at the smooth paint of the drummer boy’s face and the elegance of his uniform. He tapped another rhythm for her, slow, sweet, and mournful.
Still fighting the urge to destroy, the milkmaid put the drummer boy down away from the fire. Trembling at the conflict inside her, she reached out and, instead of attacking him, gave him a hug.
This. This was what she had wanted.
The drummer boy hugged her back.
Full of food and holiday spirits, Elizabeth and Robert sat by the fire amid a pile of broken toy soldiers. Each of them held a screwdriver and a tiny spanner as she showed him what to do. Not just how to fix the clockwork men, but how to change their gears to make them do new and interesting things.
“This is brilliant!” Robert exclaimed. “Thank you for teaching me.”
“Sorry for breaking your soldiers,” Elizabeth said with something approaching genuine conviction.
“That’s OK,” her brother said. “Now they look like they’ve been in a real war.”
At the edge of the firelight, their two least damaged toys, the milkmaid and the drummer boy, lay together holding hands.
* * *
Merry Christmas everyone! Try not break each other’s toys.