GILBERTINE & THE EXCHANGE (Volume One) — Chapter 1 “Black Pinocchio” (Part 3)

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The music stopped abruptly and, for about ten seconds, everything went black.

This was never a gentle going through the mist, the way Alice did, to a room beyond that was almost a mirror image of the one she’d left behind. There was, instead, a sense one instant that I was in freefall in the darkness, only to feel that I was being sucked through a vacuum an instant later, changing, in turn, to a sensation of being bounced off some force or other, as I hurtled through the ether to a destination I could neither know nor discern.

I came to rest in pitch blackness, a glowing object spinning in the distance.




I crept toward it, discovering my former phantascope had become a grand zoetrope,[1] spinning in front of me like a luminous roulette wheel.

I’d no need to peek into it, as with most zoetropes, for this one was hurling animated figures against the wall. No, not against the wall, after all, but into the air itself.

A horse and rider galloped off in one direction in an endless steeplechase, as two boys went off in the other, playing leapfrog into the eternal ether.

One by one, a profusion of toy soldiers appeared, only to ride and march into battle as an opposing but similar profusion materialized. But then, a marching band of apes barged into the midst of the battle, sending combatants on both sides into disarray. A simian calliope player followed the band, leading a troupe of ballet dancers, a gold-clad prima ballerina at the head, all astride dancing tigers, camels and ostriches, followed, in turn, by a full circus parade.




The light of the zoetrope and its creations was enough for me to see I was in a room, barred to Stan, and Ian, as well as to me, in the Queen’s Theatre’s “backstage labyrinth,” as we came to call it.






The room, which would have been a Victorian child’s idea of playroom heaven, had been the only one to deny us entry.

Once again, a music box – one only – began to play as the parade faded, but it was a different, unfamiliar theme this time.

Profusions of bubbles filled the air as thaumatropes[2] spun around me, dual images on their opposing sides merging into one as they spun, until the images became three-dimensional objects encircling my head. Parachute men descended from a ceiling I couldn’t yet see, leading a charge that was followed by a profusion of gyroscopes, revolving serpents, pinwheels and Aeolian tops, each more colorful and glimmering than its predecessor, all dangling in midair, the dark further illuminated by their collective radiance. As they did so, the theme played by the music box was taken over by a full band, with voices singing wordlessly along. It would later become quite familiar to me but, at that moment, I’d never heard it before.[3]

The zoetrope disappeared, with a giant toy carousel revolving in its place,

Tiny actors and actresses performed on an ornate, colorful, three-dimensional toy stage.












Toy horses on wires ran race after race from an Ascot game box. Steiff bears played croquet on a table set their size, or danced, tumbled and cavorted around giant wooden blocks.

In a corner previously too dark to see into, a trio of sconces lit themselves, to reveal a pair of papier-mâché wrestlers gamely grappling, cheered on by a squad of jumping jacks for an audience of tumbling toy acrobats, skyhooks and tin toys.

Then, figurines from an imposing open-fronted Victorian dollhouse close by, slowly and sedately walked over and joined them.



Beyond it all, in a corner opposite the dollhouse, on a throne-like pedestal large enough for a small child, sat a classically beautiful, exquisite Victorian porcelain doll. Her hair was dark brown, her skin a dainty powder white. She was clad almost entirely in purple satin. Only silver lace at the edges of her sleeve and scoop bodice, silver fringe on the parasol she carried, and blackness of her two tiny, delicate velvet gloves and tiny velvet choker with a black and white cameo deviated from the outfit’s complete purple tidal wave.

As I looked at her, she opened her eyes and looked back at me. Then, she rose from her throne and opened her parasol.


[1]  Sadly for Plateau, the phantascope had only a two year reign (1832-1834) before supplanted by the more accessible Zoetrope. Consisting of a large canister/half-cylinder with equidistant slits on the side and sequential pictures on the inside wall, between the slits. It spun horizontally; several people at a time could look through the slits and watch the pictures move. It became a favorite of Victorian children’s parties.

[2] The thaumatrope, or “wonder tuner” was a toy, consisting of a disc of wood or cardboard with a picture on each side and a pair of holes, though which yarn or string was threaded. When rapidly spun, it created an optical illusion of the two pictures merging, e.g., a bird on one side, a cage on the other looked like a bird in a cage, a horse on one side, rider on the other, like a rider on the horse.

[3]  Because, at the time, it had yet to be written. It was the title track to Kevin Ayers’ album Joy of a Toy. I wouldn’t hear it again until its release in 1969. But sometimes, for reasons that aren’t clear, pieces of music and art will jump the space-time continuum, and momentarily manifest prior to their actually being created.

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