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The Gingerbread Boy

Once upon a time there was a gingerbread boy. He lived in the land of Faerie where people sat on tuffets from Ikea all day and princesses took long afternoon naps and small German children got eaten in houses made of chocolate. This was long before the introduction of the ASBO.

People used to ask where Gingerbread boy came from and sit back and wait for him to tell them long stories about storks and cabbage patches. But he only told these stories after he got one or two drinks into him. People in the land of Faerie will believe anything after one or two drinks.

The truth of the story was much more straightforward. Gingerbread boy was baked in the bakery by the Baker in Faerie town, just like all the other gingerbread men. He came from the same mould all the other gingerbread men came from. He was baked in the same oven and laid out on the same table to cool.

But something about Gingerbread boy made him different from all the others. There was something wrong with his mouth. He could see all the other gingerbread men laid out beside him, all identical with their little round icing mouths, each one painted with a kind of mock surprise at their own existence.

But Gingerbread boy knew his mouth was different. He knew that something must have gone wrong when the Baker had been icing his mouth. Maybe the bell of the door of the bakery had rang, maybe his cellphone had gone off, the vibration of the phone in his pocket jarring his hand at just the wrong moment. Maybe the Baker just didn’t care enough to fix the crooked sugary scar left on his face.

Something had gone wrong with Gingerbread boy. And now he was left scarred with a crooked line on his face where his little ‘O’ of surprise should have been.

Gingerbread boy knew he was ‘damaged goods’. And he knew what happened to all the other ‘damaged goods’ in the Bakery. He wouldn’t be fit to lie on the shelves behind the counter, waiting to be chosen for the little boy’s birthday party. To lie on the plate on the table, beside the birthday cake in the shape of a tank made from Cadbury’s flakes, just on the far side from the M&S cocktail sausages. He knew as ‘damaged goods’ he’d never make it to that birthday party. And going to birthday parties was what gingerbread men were made for. If he knew nothing else then he knew that.

He knew he was destined to end up with the other broken gingerbread men in the Baker’s basket in the back yard. Joining the other misfit gingerbread men, the ones with only one leg and three eyes. To make a feast for the Baker’s dog and the pigeons come closing time.

In a fright he sat bolt upright on the tray and glanced around him. The other gingerbread men just lay there like a Faerie version of the Terracotta army. With their little ‘O’s of perfection sitting smugly in the centre of their heads, somehow feigning surprise, as if saying ‘who? me? perfect?’ Gingerbread boy felt angry, wanting to rip the nose off the nearest gingerbread man just to spite his face.

But he knew his time was short. Soon the Baker would be back to fetch his most recent batch to go out to the front of the shop. Looking around him, he caught sight of an open window leading into the alley behind the shop, and made a leap for it. He caught a fleeting glimpse of his ‘scar’ in his reflection in the glass and promised himself he’d never look at it again.

And so began Gingerbread boy’s adventures in the Faerie. Most people know the story of what happened next. How he slipped away from the bakery, from the child in the street and then the pig in the wood, all who wanted to eat him. And how when he got to the river and realized he couldn’t swim across it was the fox who offered to take him across on his back. And how when they got to the other side the fox broke his word and tried to eat Gingerbread boy.

But most people don’t know that the story didn’t stop there. For when the fox turned on him Gingerbread boy pulled out a little bottle of pepper spray from his back pocket and that was the end of the fox’s treachery.

Gingerbread boy roamed far and wide and spent some time with Humpty Dumpty shortly before he discovered hard liquor and had his great fall. Once he saw red-riding hood’s wolf in a failed attempt to catch the three blind mice. When the wolf saw he couldn’t catch either a small, stupid girl or three visually challenged rodents he went into a bit of a decline and took solace with the troll under London bridge. Together they drowned their sorrows singing depressing songs that London bridge was falling down… falling down… falling down.

Gingerbread boy saw he wasn’t the only ‘damaged goods’ in Faerie. It seemed everyone bore the scars of their own story. But he wouldn’t let this stop him, for now he no longer had the bakers basket to fear. Gingerbread boy set his heart on making his fortune and becoming the envy of all of Faerie.

He started a business making stringed instruments for cats, and made lots of new friends till one day his dear friend the dish ran away with the spoon and broke his heart and the cow jumped over the moon with the profits to get away from the Inland Revenue. Gingerbread boy was left bankrupt and soon found out that although he could easily, and with one simple phone call, consolidate all his debts into one manageable repayment… he knew this just wouldn’t be enough.

Walking back alone through the woods that night, his icing mouth felt more crooked and snarled than ever. It felt continually in spasm, the pain sending jolts through his head. He was convinced that no one would stay with him, with his face the way it was. He thought that Faerie folk just use people like him and that he just couldn’t trust them any more.

With a heavy heart he turned back towards town, giving up on his fortune he resigned himself to find whatever happiness there was to be had in Faerie town, and the Baker’s basket be damned.

He took a job sweeping the streets at night, once all the Faerie folk had gone to bed. During his lonely shifts he thought about the Baker and how careless he must have been to make such a slip while icing his mouth. Every night he always skipped cleaning outside the bakery, night after night the rubbish piling higher. He told himself this was revenge, but deep down he was scared to go too close in case he saw the other gingerbread men staring back at him from the shop window.

He found a flat on the wrong side of the tracks, down by the old graveyard where the demons and the goblins and the vampires lived. Working night shifts he found this the only place to get peace and quiet during the day so he could sleep.

Gingerbread boy soon forgot his dreams of birthday parties, or of making his fortune and being the envy of all of faerie or even finding whatever happiness he could. He forgot most everything. Except of course his crooked mouth and the painful spasms.

Gingerbread boy took to drinking to drown his sorrows, till his sorrows learned to swim. He changed to drugs till they didn’t work and just made things worse and it was just the needle and the damage done. He kept thinking that if it made him happy then why the hell was he so sad? He lost his job cleaning the streets of Faerie and spent his evenings off snorting lines of coke through $50 bills with the goblins down by the canal. He’d get drunk or high or both and get into fights with the goblins over who was going to go pick up the pizza.

One night he got so off his head, he started on about his time with the Baker and how this made him special and better than all the goblins. The goblins, who had been behaving pretty decently for goblins till now, could take no more of this upstart and turned on him.

Two days later he woke up in hospital with one gingerbread leg reduced to a gingerbread stump and with a white bandage covering the hole where his left cherry eye should have been. He lay awake in the hospital each night thinking of his scars, thinking of how damaged he was.

They made him spend time in rehab, though he tried to say no, no, no. He was trying to escape coming to terms with everything that had happened since he’d left the Bakery. He talked with smiling, kind-hearted people about getting his life back together but in his head he didn’t want to leave. Not knowing what he’d do whenever they let him out.

In time he got to like it there. He liked the kind-hearted people, knowing that a good heart these days was hard to find. One day a gingerbread girl turned up at group. She had purple Smarties for buttons down her front and a red liqourice lace as a scarf round her neck. But Gingerbread boy could she that she was ‘damaged goods’ too. Her right cherry eye was squeezed shut with her little green icing eyebrow tugged down to meet it. She looked like she was grimacing all the time.

Gingerbread girl didn’t remember the Bakery, she’d grown up with the old woman who lived in the shoe on the outskirts of town. She said she’d always been hungry growing up, as there was never enough broth to go round and the old woman was mean and was forever whipping them and sending them to bed. She’d ran away when she got the chance, but things hadn’t gone well.

She’d never worked out where she’d come from – she’d always been too scared of the perfect gingerbread men in the Bakery, to ever set foot inside and ask the Baker. She had no answers to why she was ‘scarred’. Her eye hurt so dreadfully all the time, and though she knew that everybody hurts, that everybody cries, sometimes… but she had no friends to take comfort in. And she was on her own in this life and the days and nights were so long, and she thought she’d had too much of this life to hold on…

So she’d taken a stack of sleeping pills she’d bought from the demons down by the canal. She took them all at once and she went to sleep thinking of princesses that slept for a thousand years only to be woken by beautiful frogs dressed as princes and… the sounds of sirens as the ambulance raced her to hospital. That had been three days ago, and well… here she was, a small, obscure section of the mental health act away from doing it all over again.

Gingerbread boy soon got to know Gingerbread girl. Nothing much changed, but it seemed like everything changed. Gingerbread boy was still stuck with his umbrella shaped candy cane as a crutch to get around, he still had no job, no money, and he’d forgotten all the dreams he’d started out with. But somehow this didn’t matter quite so much cause Gingerbread girl was his daisy through concrete.

They fell in love. Though Gingerbread boy merely fell over first, still getting used to his candy cane crutch. When they got out of the hospital they moved into the big shoe on the outskirts of town. The old woman having been accused selling dope to dopey the dwarf and evicted by social services.

Gingerbread boy got a job in the office of a company selling snow to Eskimos and carrying coals to Newcastle. And for the first time in his life he thought he’d found what he was looking for.

He forgot the old dreams of birthday parties, or of making his fortune, or of finding whatever happiness Faerie had to offer him. He even could see himself forgetting his ‘scar’ for a while. Like everyone he had good and bad days but when he looked at Gingerbread girl he thought if heaven didn’t exist what would he have missed and this life was the best he’d ever have.

I’d like to say they lived happily ever after, for that’s what happens to most folk in Faerie, but sometimes the story doesn’t always get told. Gingerbread boy got scared. Scared of the nightmares that came back to him, scared of the friends that scorned him, scared of the Baker laughing at him and throwing him in the basket. And most of all Gingerbread boy was scared of Gingerbread girl falling out of love with him.

Gingerbread girl had been working as a waitress in a cocktail bar when she met him. Who he was doesn’t really matter. He doesn’t really matter in this story. What mattered was that this ‘him‘ wasn’t Gingerbread boy. What mattered was that Gingerbread girl fell in love with him, and they had their own story to write from then on. And it was a good story as stories go, but there just wasn’t room for Gingerbread boy in it.

Gingerbread boy tried to write her a letter, tried to put things right. He told her how proud he was just to have her sitting with him and how if she were here he would admit that he was wrong. But it was too late, he knew that now it was over, there was no way he could stay sober, though it wasn’t like he tried. He remembered how the troll used to sing under the bridge, that his old man always said that hell would have no flames, just a front row seat, to watch your true love pack her things and drive away.

Gingerbread boy spent a week alone in the shoe. Lying on his bed staring at the ceiling. Wondering how life could be this cruel. The spasms in his mouth came back, a continual reminder of how ‘damaged’ he was.

He lifted his candy cane crutch and hobbled out of town. He walked and walked and walked and then walked some more. Crossing the river just before dawn, he climbed the wall of the bridge and stood staring at the icy water below. And he thought how everybody hurts sometimes. But surely not this much.

And it was only then he remembered the bakery, and the other gingerbread men, and birthday parties. It all seemed so very far away, so very long ago. He stared at the water, but the cold scared him more than the fall and he climbed back down again and sat at the base of the wall with tears streaming down his face.

It was then he noticed the van heading towards the bridge, its headlights brilliant in the pre-dawn. Soon they were at the bridge and the van was slowing, indeed stopping. A voice called from inside,

YOU NEED A RIDE?

It’s not that the driver was shouting, just that his words were the brightest, most beautiful, most solid thing Gingerbread boy had ever heard, and emboldening or italicizing the type would never quite get that across. His words were of the sort that didn’t need quotation marks, when he spoke he needed no announcement.

Gingerbread boy climbed up beside the driver and mumbled a muted thanks, knowing that no matter how long he’d sat on that bridge he’d never have plucked up the courage to either leap off or walk away.

YOU DON’T REMEMBER ME DO YOU?, said the man. The words were laughing and rich, Gingerbread boy was sure there was a melody behind them.

Gingerbread boy looked around him and suddenly a smell hit him, his mind flooded with memories, the smell of day old bread. As the sun inched above the horizon he looked at the driver and realized that this was the Baker. And all of a sudden it hit him how odd that he’d so long hated a man he’d neither seen nor sought.

By now they were driving, through the wood that Gingerbread boy had first passed when he’d escaped with his life from the Bakery. At once, a myriad of different questions for the Baker arose in his head, why had he messed up his mouth so long ago? Why had he condemned him to the path he now found himself on? Why had he made it so hard for him? He was just beginning to order his thoughts when the Baker spoke.

YOU WANT TO KNOW WHY DON’T YOU? THEY ALL DO… DON’T FEEL BAD LADDIE, IT’S THE WAY IT WORKS FOR EVERYONE. LET ME ASK YOU ONE QUESTION FIRST. WHY DO YOU THINK NONE OF THE OTHER GINGERBREAD MEN EVER RAN AWAY?

Something inside Gingerbread boy snapped, to put it simply he lost it. He told the Baker how he knew what happened to ‘damaged goods’ in the Bakery, he told the Baker how scarred and damaged he’d been left and he told the Baker (in no uncertain terms, using some pretty fruity expletives he’d picked up from the goblins) how it was all his fault and how if he hadn’t been so darn careless then he’d never have had to run away. The Baker made no attempt to stop him and so before he knew it, Gingerbread boy had launched into the whole story. He told him how it all happened and what he’d been through, all the pain, all the suffering, all the loss, and always, always the spasms and pain from his scar of a mouth.

The van continued to bump slowly across the old road. Silence descended in the cab for a few moments.

INTERESTING THEORY I SUPPOSE, BUT YOU NEVER REALLY ANSWERED MY QUESTION ABOUT THE OTHER GINGERBREAD MEN, WHY THEY NEVER RAN AWAY. LET ME PUT IT TO YOU ANOTHER WAY. DID YOU EVER ASK THEM WHY THEY STAYED?

Gingerbread boy admitted that no, he’d never asked them, thinking back to how smug they’d been, just lying there in their perfection.

AND DID YOU SEE ANY OF THEM WAVE GOODBYE WHEN YOU LEFT?

Again Gingerbread boy said no, they all seemed far too interested into getting behind the counter than seeing him off. Silence fell between them again. A thought occurred to Gingerbread boy, why didn’t they ever show him any sympathy? Even a nod of the head in acknowledgement that he existed, damaged as he was…

But then come to think of it, Gingerbread boy couldn’t recall them nodding at all, couldn’t remember them ever doing much of anything to be honest. They just lay there, looking perfect. He wondered why he’d never thought about that before, it certainly seemed odd… The Baker continued as if he knew the answer already.

I WOULDN’T SAY I WAS SURPRISED WHEN YOU CAME OUT OF THE OVEN THE WAY YOU DID, BUT I WAS CERTAINLY PLEASED. PART OF ME DIDN’T THINK IT WAS SUCH A GOOD IDEA, IT CERTAINLY WOULDN’T HAVE GONE DOWN WELL WITH OTHER BAKERS. BUT I WAS SURE PLEASED ALL THE SAME.

IN A WAY I THOUGHT IT WAS SO OBVIOUS THAT YOU WERE SPECIAL, THAT YOU WERE DIFFERENT, THAT I DIDN’T NEED TO TELL YOU. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?

And now, only now did Gingerbread boy understand. That he’d never seen the other gingerbread men do much of anything, because they couldn’t, because they couldn’t move so much as a cherry eye, and they never would. Simply being made of gingerbread wasn’t enough, something different had happened with Gingerbread boy. That he was more special than he could have imagined. At that moment his mouth went into spasm again, all the old scars and pain were jolted back again, worse than ever. It settled after a few minutes. The Baker spoke again.

SO I SUPPOSE IT’S ONLY FAIR I TELL YOU ABOUT YOUR ‘SCAR’ THEN. YOU SEE I WAS SO HAPPY AT SEEING YOU COME OUT OF THE OVEN THE WAY YOU DID THAT I THOUGHT IT WAS ONLY FIT THAT YOU LOOKED RIGHT FOR THE OCCASION. I MEAN, HAVE YOU EVER TRIED NOT FIGHTING THE SPASMS IN YOUR MOUTH?

Gingerbread boy felt the corners of his mouth twinge again, the beginning of another spasm but this time he took the Baker’s advice and didn’t fight it. And to his surprise the pain didn’t come. Indeed something else entirely came.

NOW LOOK IN THE WING MIRROR LADDIE

As he turned to look he remembered the only other time he’d seen his reflection and how it had been etched on his memory, the twisted snarl across his face. But what he saw now surprised him, so much that he was sure there was a different Gingerbread boy looking back at him. It must have been someone else, for surely the scar was gone and in its place was only… a smile?

SO MAYBE I GOT A BIT CARRIED AWAY, I JUST THOUGHT THAT IF YOU WERE SPECIAL ENOUGH TO BE ABLE TO MOVE THEN IT SEEMED ONLY FAIR THAT YOU COULD SMILE AND ENJOY IT. MY HAND NEVER SLIPPED, MY HAND NEVER SLIPS, YOUR MOUTH WAS ALWAYS MEANT TO LOOK THAT WAY. YOU WERE MEANT TO SMILE. THOUGH I KNOW YOU NEVER CAUGHT ON.

AND WHEN I MADE GINGERBREAD GIRL TO GO WITH YOU SHE WAS MEANT TO WINK, AS A SORT OF ENCOURAGEMENT TO YOU. BUT SHE WAS AS SURPRISED AS YOU AT BEING IN THE BAKERY… WELL YOU KNOW WHAT THEY SAY, THE BEST LAID PLANS OF MICE AND MEN AND ALL THAT…

Something told Gingerbread boy that Baker hadn’t really meant the last bit, and that he’d just added it on to make Gingerbread boy feel better about the whole thing.

The van had stopped, though Gingerbread boy hadn’t noticed when. Words failed him.

WELL, YOU BETTER COME IN IF YOU WANT TO GET THAT LEG FIXED. IT’LL NOT TAKE TOO LONG BUT THERE’S NOT MUCH TIME TILL THE PARTY.

Without thinking Gingerbread boy found himself hobbling into what he now saw was the Bakery. He saw the rows of gingerbread men in the window. As ever, just lying there, as they always had been. Looking back he thought how silly he’d been to be scared of them, how silly he’d been about a lot of things. His mouth twinged again, but he knew now not to fight it, that he was made for the twinges.

He hopped up on a stool and up onto the table as the Baker kneaded some dough on a cutting board beside him. As Gingerbread boy lay there he thought back on all he’d been through, as the Baker took a hunk of dough and began moulding it around Gingerbread boy’s stump of a leg. The Baker spoke again.

RIGHT THEN, INTO THE OVER FOR 30 MINUTES AND THAT LEG WILL BE AS GOOD AS NEW

Gingerbread boy sat up in fright, just as he had done when he’d woke up for the first time in the Bakery long ago. His immediate thought was the heat, then the pain. He found himself lifting his body off the table, the fresh dough pulling away from his leg, leaving him as he started. He told the Baker that he’d been through enough, that 30 minutes in the oven would kill him, and that he’d get along just fine at the party with his candy cane crutch.

IT WILL HURT, YES OF COURSE IT WILL HURT, BUT SOON, DEAR LOVE YOU, SOON YOU’LL FORGET ALL THAT. YOU SEE YOU’RE GOING TO THE BIRTHDAY PARTY, INDEED YOU’RE THE GUEST OF HONOUR, THE DANCING SMILING GINGERBREAD BOY. YOU SEE YOU’LL NOT DO AT ALL JUST THE WAY YOU ARE

When the Baker mentioned the Birthday party, and dancing and smiling, he knew that that was what he’d always wanted to do, that more than anything else in the whole world that was what he wanted to do. Slowly and carefully the Baker lifted Gingerbread boy into the oven, burning his own arm as he did.

And it hurt, more than anything had ever hurt before, more than the ‘scar’, more than being ‘damaged goods’, more than being abandoned by his friends, more than his time in hospital, more than watching Gingerbread girl pack her things and drive away. But somewhere a still small voice was telling him about a birthday party and as the whisper continued the pain didn’t get any less but he could feel the corners of his mouth rising again, he knew that he was smiling. And he knew that he was going to dance as the smiling gingerbread boy at the birthday party, and you know what? That was just about fine by him.

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