Anyone who’s walked down the alleyway off Fifth Avenue will remember it. And they’ll tell you to take any other road.
For a start the street is suffocatingly narrow. The old, grey buildings look like they are trying to either squeeze the life out of you, or fall on top of you. Then, there’s the cobblestone path that has so many cracks, trips and loose bricks, it surely wants to break your ankle. But worst of all is the smell. First, you’re assaulted by the sharp, pungent odour of nail polish remover, which might not be too bad if it wasn’t followed up by a tangy, hot metal taste that sticks at the back of your throat. If you make it that far you still have the delight of sulphurous fumes hitting your nose, making you gag before you escape.
Certainly, no one in their right mind would live there. No one, that is, except Canky Tops.
Mr. Tops shuffled, like he did every day, into his workshop. He put a hand on the iron bench for balance and used it to settle down on his uncomfortable wooden stool. He could feel the hard pine wood press into his aching pelvic bones, and he let out a wheezing groan of relief.
A child of no more than eight years old followed him into the room.
‘Here’s your tea, Mr. Tops.’
She moved some grimy pliers and a roll of copper wire to make space for the mug. She balanced a single lemon next to it.
‘Thank you, Jessica. Come here.’ He took her into his arms and stroked her mop of matted blonde hair.
‘You still haven’t taken that shower like I told you to, have you?’
‘No, Mr. Tops. But the water won’t come out of the holey bit, and I can’t reach it.’
‘Ok, tell Robin to have a look at it, she might be able to figure out what’s wrong with it.’
‘Mr. Tops, if you came and looked at it, I’m sure you could fix it.’
‘I would my love, but it takes all my energy just to get to my workbench these days. And you know I have to work.’
‘I know.’ She said quietly. ‘Me and Robin and Jake are going to look for food today. Do you want anything?’
‘Just my lemons, sweetie.’
He took her hand in his and examined it briefly. It was all metal, wires and love, right up to the elbow. His own arm was the same. She would sometimes say they were twins.
The thought made him chuckle, which brought on a bout of chesty coughing.
‘Off… you go.’ he gasped.
When he had caught his breath, he took a sip of tea and proceeded to cut up the lemon into quarters. He took one slice in both hands and sucked the juice into his mouth. A drop dribbled down his chin.
‘Ahhh.’ He sighed in contentment. ‘Time to work.’
He switched on the soldering iron, and a few minutes later someone rushed past the open window holding their nose.
That evening the heavens lashed down on the cobbled street. Rivulets of water sought refuge from gravity and trickled down the inside of the stone wall onto the floor of the workshop. There was an irregular drip from the ceiling that would have irritated any other inhabitant except the one who sat there.
He hadn’t moved from the chair all day.
A child, as young as six, opened the door.
‘Come in, Jake.’
The skinny, nervous boy tip-toed over to the hunched figure on the stool.
‘I can’t see right. My eye went funny, from the rain, I think.’ He squeaked.
‘Pass it here - I’ll take a look.’
Jake reached up to his eye and popped out the robotic ball from its socket. He placed it carefully in the outstretched palm of Mr. Tops.
‘Hmm…seems the electromagnet didn’t like the humidity.’
‘How come your eye is working alright, Mr. Tops?’ the boy asked bravely.
A mechanical eyeball swivelled to look at him. Even though Jake had his own, it always slightly unnerved him; the red of the electric iris contrasting the green of Mr. Tops’ remaining eye.
‘Less water in here.’ Came the response. ‘Although…’ He surveyed the puddle on the floor. ‘Perhaps I should shut the window.’
‘Are you working on anything cool?’ said Jake.
There was a pause and Mr. Tops gave a small smile.
‘I do think this one is ‘pretty cool’ if I say so myself. It’s a replacement vestibular system. It helps if you can’t balance.’ He held up what appeared to Jake like a tiny collection of twinkling wires. The low light from the worktop bench struck it and caused a glittering array of sparkles to scatter around the room.
‘Wow!’ Jake’s mouth hung open.
‘Did you get more lemons today, my boy?’
‘Yes, we did! I tried one, it was nasty! Why do you like them?’
‘Ah, I enjoy the bitterness. You might do too when you’re older. Plus, they remind me of the outside…It’s been such a long time since I’ve been out there now.’
Jake pulled a blank expression.
Mr. Tops continued. ‘Don’t forget to let me know if you need any money. I’ve got some more gadgets here for you to take to sell at the market tomorrow. Now you go get some sleep little one.’
One morning, a few weeks later, Jake, Jessica and Robin were summoned to Mr. Tops’ bedroom. This had never happened before so they were naturally curious.
As they carefully creaked the door open, they were met with the most pitiful sight they had ever seen.
The old man was struggling to sit up in bed. His skeletal frame barely held up his lined, sallow skin. The few tufts of hair remaining on his head sat limp, plastered to his skull. They could see the light flashing on his implanted voice box and the jagged scar on his chest from the mechanical heart beating inside. He would’ve been a terrifying sight if he wasn’t the person they loved most in the world.
After a hacking cough, he looked up at them.
‘I’m sorry my little birds. I need to ask you something. There’s a place I must visit one more time, but I don’t think I can do it by myself. Will you help me?’
‘Of course.’ They chorused.
‘I can get your wheelchair, when do you want to go, Canky?’ said Robin, her words emanating from a carbon-copy of the voice box she saw in front of her.
‘The sooner the better, it’s been too long since I’ve been...It’s not far. There’s a park just ten minutes’ walk along Fifth Avenue, towards the river. It’ll be on the left.’
They helped old Mr. Tops into the wheelchair and pushed him out the front door. He squinted as the daylight pierced his eyes. The warmth of the sun made his hairs stand on end and his skin feel like ice melting after a long winter. The three children looked at him and somehow he appeared even paler than usual - almost translucent in the light of day.
He was wheeled along the bumpy stone of the alleyway, and as they turned the corner to Fifth Avenue, he took a breath. The air tasted as fresh as sweet summer flowers and he could almost feel the dust blow out from his lungs, like pages of an old book opened after many years. He momentarily regretted not venturing out more. But he quickly reminded himself of the importance of his work; he could never give it up.
The buildings passed, drab and grey, on either side of the road, until the black metal railing bordering Orley Park came into view. Mr. Tops felt his mechanical heart beat faster.
As the final façade fell away, he saw the grass expand out in front of him. There, in the centre of the low grass, was a single, large lemon tree. The children wordlessly took him towards it, and saw it ripe with yellow fruits.
The scent of citrus hit Mr. Tops like a blast of hot air. A spasm of pain, a swelling of pride, and a spear of panic took him whirling into the past.
Pale lights. A woman and her husband are before him. The woman is hooked up to an intangible mess of wires and tubes. The husband sits at her bedside, head in hands. Canky Tops sees his own body in a mirror on the far wall. It is whole. Flesh and blood. He speaks, no, begs the husband.
‘Julien, my friend. You know better than me how much time we have. There are no donors. You have to trust me; I’m telling you this will work. I’ve spent the last ten years of my life on this, and I couldn’t have made it without your expertise. You know how it works.’
Julien didn’t look up, but he shook his head.
‘I can’t do it Canky. I know…I know it should work, but I can’t swap Anya’s heart for an untested piece of machinery.’
‘I thought you might say that.’
He reached down into the case he had brought with him and pulled out two robotic hearts.
‘So I made a spare. Test it on me, Julien. Do the surgery. If it works, you’ll know for sure it will work for Anya too. Please, this is all I have.’
Julien’s watery eyes looked up at Canky Tops. They shone with uncertainty, but there was a shadow of hope that had been missing for a long time.
‘I couldn’t…you’re risking your life.’ He said.
‘You can. You must. It’s her only chance.’
A comfortable, well cushioned room. Various medical posters on the wall and bookshelves holding titles with intimidating names.
Canky Tops sat in front of a desk. Behind the desk was a bespectacled man with dark, curly hair. There was a name plate between them that said ‘Dr. Julien Monford.’
‘Mr. Tops, I’m afraid it’s not good news. Your daughter has restrictive cardiomyopathy. This means the walls of her heart have stiffened and blockages can occur - it’s what caused her heart attack.
Unfortunately, she will need a heart transplant so we’ve put her on the donor list straight away. If we can get a replacement heart there’s hope. I am sorry.’
The walls and ceiling seemed to cave in around him.
Sunlight trickled through the branches of the young lemon tree. The most beautiful girl he had ever seen was dancing around the little tree singing a nursery rhyme. Her bare feet moved lightly through the grass and her voice chimed in his soul.
‘Papa, look, I see a lemon growing!’
‘Yes, my darling, this is the first year it’s going to bear fruit. We can eat them together.’
‘The first year? How old is it? Is it older than me?’
‘No, it’s the same age as you Lula. We planted it the day you were born.’
‘So I was born first! I’m older!’
She grinned and her smile was as golden as the sun.
When Mr. Tops opened his eyes, his cheeks were wet. He saw the children had picked a lemon from the tree, cut it for him, and placed it in his lap. He took a slice and tasted its bitterness. A drop of juice slipped down his chin and combined with the tears.
The next day he was part way through sketching out the layout for a new circuit board design when he heard a knock on the front door. This was followed by the excited patter of feet as Jake and Jessica ran to see who it was and yelled out, ‘We’ll get it!’
With a great effort he picked up his weary bones and hobbled out of the workshop. In the hallway stood a woman as old as he, but in much better health.
A spark of joy and pride struck Mr. Tops simultaneously. It was always a pleasure to see his friend, and an immense relief to know his invention hadn’t let her and Julien down.
‘Anya’s here Mr. Tops, look! Can we invite her in?’ Jake asked.
‘Of course.’ He replied.
His eyes touched Anya’s and he beamed a wrinkly smile. She returned it, but not before her face betrayed her shock.
‘Oh Canky, you’re so thin! I’m sorry, how rude of me - how are you? It’s been far too long! I’ve brought bread and biscuits for you and the children.’
She held up a basket in front of her while fussing over him.
‘I’ve brought someone to see you too. Come out, Deion.’ She said.
From where he’d been hiding, as the hallway turned to meet the front door, a young boy tentatively came forward. Every other step was made with a clunk as, where his foot should’ve been, a wooden support hit the ground.
‘I found him rummaging in the bins near Market Square. He’s another one of those orphan house kids who’s run away, Canky. Can you help him?’
Mr. Tops looked into the boy’s lost, dark eyes. Deion briefly held his gaze before he hesitantly dropped his eyes to the floor.
‘Don’t be afraid, Deion. I know I look quite a sight, but I can look after you, give you a better life. You can have friends here and food.’
Canky Tops looked down at his own two feet and then back to Anya with a wry smile. ‘I reckon I can make something for him. And if I need to test it, I’m sure I can spare one of these old feet.’