Once on the morn of a grizzly, drizzly, goose-pimpled day in Neovia, a baby was wrapped in a blanket and laid tenderly down in a very unorthodox place to leave a baby.
1114 Dowderby Street was an address of general intrigue among the seedier ranks of Neovian society. It was a corner store of sorts, a bric-a-brac mart, a one stop shop for all your household needs and personal fancies, dealing in everything from used clothes to toys to magazines, laundry soap, picture frames, pens and ink, costume jewelry, penny candy and well-aged Cheeses From Around the World.
The proprietor and upstairs tenant of this curious little establishment was one Robert Thompken, a rainbow Tonu whom, when asked about his colour, would proudly proclaim he had fallen into a vat of magician’s potion at the circus as a little boy. The truthfulness of this claim was a subject of much speculation within the Neovian community, as was the more pressing question of how Bob obtained his vast and varied shop inventory. There were rumours surrounding Bob Thompken of a dark and unpleasant sort; he had a reputation about town as a less-than-savoury character.
Those who were on intimate terms with the shopkeeper would tell you that money was Bob’s first love. He was a server of mammon, to hoard the mighty Neopoint was his highest purpose and pleasure. There were some who even went as far as to assert that Old Bob Thompken would do anything for money; would stop at nothing, no matter how morally degrading in the eyes of Fyora and man, in his quest to become a zillionaire, or whatever his aspirations were.
It was therefore no small surprise that a baby, of all things, should be left at the doorstep of 1114 Dowderby Street, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Some folks made the hasty assumption that the child had been left by its mother for the express purpose of being sold as merchandise! It should be noted though, Reader, if only for posterity’s sake, that an orphanage stands to this day at 1141 Dowderby Street. Could this have merely been the case of an innocent mix-up? I suppose we’ll never know.
Bob Thompken was encouraged by friends and patrons to take the baby to this very same orphanage. You had better believe, Reader, it came as a bigger shock than the first, when Bob publicly declared that he would not, under any circumstance, do any such thing, but planned to keep the child himself and raise him as his protégé.
I will tell you the truth, Reader, as far as I know it. Bob Thompken was indeed crafty, cunning, ever more interested in his own gain than helping others. His record with the Neovian police was as long as your arm, from pickpocketing and petty thievery (as a boy) to money laundering and extortion (as a man). He was treacherous, traitorous, deceitful and duplicitous; he was always tricking people, that Bob! But was he entirely without hope, Reader? Did he have any redeeming qualities? Well Reader, he did take in a baby off the streets. Whether or not that redeems him, I’ll let you be the judge.
Time went on. The baby grew up in quite the usual way. He was a happy, healthy child with four arms and two legs. He had large dark eyes, soft green skin and two antennae. By all accounts he appeared to be a Ruki, a green one; though in the early years his face was often so covered in dirt from the sooty city streets that you could barely see the colour underneath.
Oh, but Old Bob did right by the boy! Scarcely a soul could deny that. He fed him and clothed him, washed him when necessary, gave him the best practical education this side of Neovia could boast. Bob taught him his manners and when to use them: when to say please and thank you, when to say pardon me and when to shove right on through. Bob taught him to read and write as best he could, and, perhaps most importantly, Bob taught the boy arithmetic. He taught him how to add and subtract advantageously; how to divide in equal parts, always leaving some left over in the right quarters; and, best of all, how to multiply. Everyone knows the most essential thing to learn about sums from the very beginning is how to multiply them, so they may get bigger, and bigger, and BIGGER...
Ah, but I suppose I’ve gone off on a tangent! I haven’t even told you the boy — our worthy protagonist’s — name. Well Reader, it is a bit of a story to tell. I may have neglected to mention that on the blanket in which the child was wrapped, embroidered in thin blue thread, was the name Jenkins. Whether this was a first name, a last name, or the name of the company that sewed the blanket, no man could say. Even so, as the closest thing to a piece of identification the child had, it seemed only natural that the lad should take Jenkins as his name.
As it was soon broadcast far and wide that Old Bob Thompken had taken in a little boy, the child was often referred to, in the gossip of the streets, as simply Thompken’s boy, or Thompken’s Jenkins. Over the years this appellation stuck, and became so habitual that the apostrophe was all but lost. If you were to ask the boy his name now, and he were in a truthful mood, he would almost surely tell you Thompkens Jenkins.
And so Thompkens Jenkins we shall call him.
The sun crept over the chimney tops, diffusing its pale rays among the smog clouds that perpetually choked the Neovian sky during the hot weeks of midsummer. Merchants’ caravans clattered over the cobblestone streets, as choked with people as the sky with smog. Pedlars cried out proclaiming their wares, Whinnies whinnied, shoppers called one to another over the din. It was market day, and from every house, from the squalid dwelling places of Succotash Street, to the mansions of Calabrese Court, Neopians of all walks of life flocked to the town square, to buy, to sell, or simply to catch their bit of the action.
Market day was one of the only days of the month on which Neovia’s rich and poor could be seen rubbing elbows in the streets. Those who stood near the luxury cloth stall on this particular market day were in for a real treat, as they were about to see rich and poor in closer proximity than ever before.
“Matilda! Hurry on and carry my purse!”
A rather heavyset pink Uni spilled, rather than stepped, out of her chaise, and steered herself like a woman on a mission (though hopefully not an urgent one, as her pace was rather slow) towards the aforementioned stall. Her lady’s maid, a skittish-looking faerie Lenny, tripped along behind her, somehow taking four steps to the Uni’s every one.
“My stars! Why do they insist on setting this stall farther away from the road every month?”
The Uni stopped to recover her breath, giving her servant time to catch up (though I’m sure this was not her intention, as she hadn’t looked behind her once). She smoothed her dress, which was of a very fine blue silk that couldn’t possibly be made smoother, and adjusted her necklace which had slid to one side. It glimmered in the steely sunshine, radiant sapphires and diamonds — or something very near them, at least.
Having sufficiently composed herself and regained her bearings, the Uni was proceeding with new vigour towards her destination when she was arrested in her tracks by a body pressed flush against her own.
“Mum!” cried the body, “I’ve found you at last!”
The Uni screamed. Her lady’s maid screamed. Matilda seemed to consider hitting the interloper over the head with the purse she carried, but as she wasn’t sure whether this effort would be rewarded or condemned (for it was the lady’s purse), she instead employed herself by running around in circles, flapping her wings madly, and crying, “Help!”
“How could you do it, Mum?” the clinging body wailed. “You left me out in the cold, helpless, with not a penny to me name! What kinda cruel, unnatural mother could desert her own child?” With this the body, which the Uni could now see was a young boy of some sort, proceeded to weep. He clung harder. “How many months ‘ave I been wand’rin’ these streets? How many months ‘ave I been starvin’, pinin’ away not only from want of a bit to eat, but from a dearth of a mother’s love!” He sobbed wildly into the Uni’s dress.
A crowd was beginning to gather now. They stared and halloo’d and gaped at the spectacle of the reunited mother and son. The Uni made a last infuriated effort to save herself. “This little ragamuffin is not my son!!
“That’s what you always said, Mum!”
The boy held on for a minute longer, two arms around the Uni’s neck, two arms around her ample middle. Suddenly he looked up, as if in realization of something. “You’re not my mother!”
The crowd gasped. The Uni moaned aloud. Matilda the lady’s maid was insensible.
“My mother sure an’t no Uni. Sorry for the inconvenience, ma’am.”
“Inconvenience!” The Uni blew steam from her nostrils and ears. “You accost me in public with your wild accusations, then dare apologize for the inconvenience??”
“Truly I am sorry, ma’am.” The Ruki started to cry again. “I thought you were me mother, honest! I haven’t seen me Mum in so long...” And he wiped his eyes with his soot-blackened hand and grimy sleeve.
The crowd gave up a general murmur of sympathy. As big tears continued to wash the little lad’s grubby face, and the Uni stood aware that all eyes were on her and that she had a public image to upkeep, the wealthy lady put on her best consoling voice and begrudgingly tossed a ten Neopoint note at the little beggar. “Use this to procure yourself a bit to eat, as you say it,” she grunted hatefully.
The Ruki’s face lit up. “Why, thank you kindly, ma’am!” And then the unthinkable happened — the Ruki actually pressed his dirty face against the Uni’s own, and kissed it!
The crowd seemed divided between hysteria and amusement. The Uni may have fainted at this point, but Thompkens Jenkins never knew, as he was already off down the street.
The steel grey sun, now high in the sky, glinted off the sapphire-diamond necklace as its new owner melted into the throng.
Robert Thompken’s shop was a truly wondrous sight to behold. From the outside it appeared a simple grey brick building, with some mismatched bricks squeezed in at odd angles where the original ones had fallen out. From the inside it was the same square room with whitewashed walls, covered up in much the same way as Thompkens Jenkins’ skin, except instead of only dirt, the walls were covered with the most multifarious assortment of items imaginable: whole legs of cured meat hanging from hooks; used clothes and “new rags” pegged on a clothesline; pots, pans, forks and knives dangling at precarious angles; yesterday’s newspapers on a wall-mounted shelf labelled The Archives.
By the checkout counter was the Featured Item Stand, its contents rotated every other day. Today it displayed a set of fine china, in perfect condition save a few chinks in the glass and dark stains in the bottoms of the cups. Inside one cup was a tag bearing the slogan “Easily Washed Out.”
Turn your eyes a little over to the left, and you’ll see a blue Lutari at the checkout counter. He has just put down a can of paint, some paint brushes, and a string of black licorice. He stands there rubbing his scalp under his hat, waiting to be served.
“This all for today, Mr. Brackenreid?”
“‘Tis all, Thom. Paintin’ a table at home. Me wife’s been on me about it for donkey’s years, but I never could bring meself around to it. Thought today, Saturday as bein’ a half holiday, it might be a good time to get off me bum and appease the lady.”
Thom did some quick calculations with a pen and paper, biting the tip of the pen as he was wont to do. “That’ll be fourteen Neopoints, sir.”
“Fourteen?” The Lutari lifted his hat and scratched his head again, fixed his spectacles (for he had bumped them during this action), and looked down at his prospective purchases. “Fourteen Neopoints for a can of paint, some paint brushes, and a licorice stick? By my calca-lations should be nine.”
“Yes,” said Thompkens Jenkins slowly. “But that’s before accountin’ for the Chicken Tax.”
Mr. Brackenreid blinked. “Chicken Tax?”
“Why, of course! Didn’t you hear? There’s a grain shortage in Meridell right now.”
Mr. Brackenreid massaged his scalp harder. He seemed to be trying to discern what grain in Meridell had to do with him, but he said nothing.
“Meridell is where all the layin’ chickens are, Gobblers and Wibreths and the like. Without even enough grain to sustain ‘emselves, naturally the poor gals ‘aven’t been doin’ a lot of layin’, as you’ll understand, Mr. Brackenreid.”
“Uh, of course,” the blue Lutari spluttered. “But, excuse me for askin’ Thom — I’m just a poor labourer, as ye know — what does chickens not layin’ eggs have anythin’ to do with paint?”
“Why, didn’t you know, Mr. Brackenreid? Egg shell is a primary ingredient in paint!”
“Yes! Well, this paint. Ahem!” As Thompkens Jenkins cleared his throat, a myriad little bells jingled as the shop door swung open. Thom continued with renewed ardour, “It is the sworn duty of every person sellin’ eggs or egg-based products to charge a Chicken Tax, of a particular percentage, for every item sold. All money collected goes di-rectly to the Save the Chickens Foundation, a strictly charitable organization devoted to the plantin’ of grain in Meridell, as well as fundin’ alternative sources of chicken feed.”
The blue Lutari still wore a flummoxed expression. The Chicken’s Greatest Advocate had no choice but to pour out his soul to the hesitant contributor. “Oh Mr. Brackenreid! Imagine the poor creatures, out there wastin’ away to nothin’! Their once glossy coats now faded and wretched, their majestic cokadoodledoos no more than pitiful, hungry clucks! The poor chickens!” For the second time that day, the Ruki wiped hot tears from his eyes.
“The poor chickens,” Mr. Brackenreid echoed weakly, as his eyes, too, began to fill with tears.
“But we won’t let the poor gals starve to death, will we Mr. Brackenreid!” Thompkens Jenkins pounded the counter with a tightly clenched fist, and a most impassioned look on his young face. “With every contribution you make, via the Chicken Tax, you may be savin’ a helpless creature’s life!”
“Here here!” Mr. Brackenreid slammed the desk in chorus.
“Enjoy your paint, sir! With each stroke of the brush, remember the countless poultry souls your money has gone to help.”
“Aye! We’ll save the chickens, every last one of ‘em!”
“Have a great day!”
As Mr. Brackenreid left the shop, Old Bob Thompken himself strode out of the corner where he had stashed himself through Thom’s monologue. “A Chicken Tax!” He boomed his roaring, jolly laugh. “That’s brilliant, lad! Why didn’t I think o’ that myself?” He delivered his protégé a good-natured clap on the back, which sent Thom rolling over the counter.
“I blew it though, Bub,” said Thom, straightening his hat knocked askew. “I coulda told ‘im the paint brush bristles were made of chicken feathers and taxed ‘im for that too!”
“Ah well, we’ll get him next time,” the rainbow Tonu chuckled.
One thing I may not have mentioned about Bob Thompken, Reader, is that, for all he was treacherous, traitorous, deceitful and duplicitous, he was really a jolly, good-humoured sort of fellow. He had a boisterous laugh that could spark mirth in a heart of stone; in fact, it was probably the shopkeep’s racy jokes and crazy tales that kept customers coming back, as well as his merchandise.
“And so my dear lad, how was the market today?” Bob asked with keen interest as he bustled about his premises.
“I made friends with a proper wealthy lady. She gave me this!” Thom grinned as he pulled the nobbled necklace from a hidden pocket in his breeches, and held it to the light for Bob to see.
“Crikey!” Old Bob’s rainbow eyebrows shot up high. “She gave it to you, you say? That’s one kindhearted swell you had the fortune to meet. Those’re hard to come by, they are.”
“She gave me this too,” Thom slipped the ten Neopoint note from his pocket and waved it in Bob’s face.
“Ten Neopoints? That’s nice, but a bit superfluous after the necklace, wouldn’t you think?”
“She’s a rich toff,” scoffed Thom, “Superfluous is probably her middle name. Cecilia Superfluous Supercilious Yorke!” Thom stood himself straight and puffed out his chest, raised his voice several octaves and took some dainty steps forward, in proper wealthy lady style.
“You’d be almost convincin’ if you looked a mite prettier,” Bob guffawed.
Thompkens Jenkins marched up to a tin of dentifrice, boldly removed the lid (though it was merchandise), and smeared some of the pink substance on his cheeks for blush. “This little ragamuffin is not my son!” he shrieked his best Uni lady imitation. “My son is fat and slow and smells of roses!”
“Is that what she said to you?” Old Bob beamed.
“That or some such.” Thom muttered as he slinked his way towards the door, scrubbing his cheeks as he went. “I’m gonna take this necklace to Maude. I’ll be back in a trice.”
“Maude? Why can’t we sell it here?”
“Maude’ll be able to tell us if it’s real or not!” expounded Thom. “Besides, if the coppers were to come in here and catch you with a hot necklace, you’d be up a gum tree.”
“So it’s hot, is it!” Bob descried. “You lied to me, lad?”
“Of course, Bub! I learned from the best.”
Bob caught the boy’s head, tousled it, and rubbed the rest of the pink off with his sleeve. “‘At’s me boy.”
Released from his surrogate father’s grip, Thom took off in search of his friend Maude.
To be continued…