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It wasn’t entirely clear what the furry purple… creature… was supposed to be. Even before it lost one eye, most of one arm and had half its polyester body melted into a black sheen of carbon, it could either be a bear, a marsupial, or some sort of shrew. Its paper toe tag bore only the inscription, “Aleppo, Feb 2019.”
This was the first exhibit in the Museum of Forgotten Toys, the upstairs rooms in the three-story townhouse on this cobbled Ghent side street. First by donation, that is, not by provenance. That latter honour went to a mould-speckled ragdoll called Matilda, which a farmer had found in his Ardennes field, and which a Brussels toy antiquarian had dated to 1910.
Thierry Albrecht had run a popular tea shop with his wife Megan since 1987, when they’d both been in their twenties. In 2018, Megan, a writer of television shows and children’s books had written a story for one of Belgium’s broadsheets on the 73rd anniversary of the second world war liberation of Belgium. Entitled “The Museum of Forgotten Toys,” the story had captured the imagination of the newspaper’s very liberal readership, and there had been many letters of praise.
However, there had been some confusion too, since the story had gone viral (which Thierry’s son informed him was seemingly a good thing) and readers of De Morgen had started mailing in soft toys, dolls and other playtime refugees found in bombsites, cellars, disaster areas and the occasional tilled field.
“Megan,” Thierry had remarked when the postman delivered the first haul, “you did frame it as a short story, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t think I needed to,” Thierry’s wife replied, bemused as she tore open a jiffy bag containing a wind-up metal drummer, sans key, who had also lost one of his drumsticks.
“They think it’s real,” Thierry said, pushing his pince nez spectacles up his nose to read aloud the letter accompanying the purple creature that, so far, nobody had given a name.
I read the De Morgen article and felt immediately moved to send you this little friend, which I picked out of the rubble on a Christian Aid mission in Syria. I kept it on the dashboard of my jeep for fifteen months and then packed it unthinkingly into my suitcase upon my return to Brussels. When I read your piece, I immediately knew what I had to do.
“Maybe it is real,” Megan said mysteriously.
And thus, the museum shifted from being a metaphorical conceit, to becoming a reality. Recent empty nesters, Thierry and Megan had a whole third floor vacant in the 18th century townhouse Thiery had inherited from his grandfather. The building was a little lopsided and unusually narrow, as if it were being bullied and squeezed by the much grander residences on either side, but they had always loved its idiosyncrasies.
The couple had long considered moving upstairs to the rooms once occupied by their son Mathieu and daughter Jeanne, but Thierry’s dodgy knee made the stairs difficult. They could have opened a performance space there, it’s true, as had once been their dream, but the added work booking performers, marketing events and pulling in audiences made them blanche. Thierry and Megan were now in their 60s, and consciously simplifying their lives, rather than complicating them.
A museum, oddly enough, made a lot more sense. Since the postman brought them forty-four parcels in the three weeks following Megan’s short story publication, they already had the makings of a collection to hand. Thierry set to work putting up shelves, while Megan liaised with donors to establish provenance (as well as to thank them and invite them to the grand opening). The newspaper did a follow up story and Mathieu handled social media and pulled in a flurry of new donations.
Less than ten weeks after the idea was first mooted, the museum opened its doors, with a somewhat incongruous champagne and truffles reception. Thierry and Mathilde had decided to charge no entry to the museum, but worked hard to solicit donations, which they gave to children’s charities specialising in war refugees. By the end of 2022, the museum was listed in the Rough Guide to Belgium and Ghent’s Top Attractions website, and the stream of visitors went from a trickle to a manageable stream.
One visitor stood out. He arrived ten minutes before closing time on a wet Thursday afternoon. He was a young, elegantly suited black man, with a pristine goatee, an expensive silk shirt and equally magnificent shoes. He said his name was Roger, and spoke better English than Thierry, but his accent betrayed a hint of its African origins.
“I’ve been working in Brussels, on an EU resettlement program for refugees. I have to fly back to London tomorrow, but I couldn’t miss this place,” he explained as Thierry issued him a ticket from behind the counter at the top of the third-floor stairs.
“We’re supposed to close in ten minutes, but I don’t like to rush anyone. It can be an… emotional experience,” said Thierry, gesturing at the beaded curtain which filled the doorway to the museum proper.
Roger nodded and gave a thin smile. He looked awkward, out of place, as if he was already regretting his visit. Thierry would usually accompany lone visitors, since he’d found many of them wanted to talk, particularly if they encountered an exhibit which hit home.
This time, however, something made Thierry hold back. He let Roger pass through the curtain, then waited ten minutes before closing the till and carrying the takings downstairs to Megan.
“Still on up there,” he said to Megan, who was washing crockery in the kitchen.
“Somalian?” she asked. Thierry shook his head as he placed the takings in the small safe hidden at the back of a cupboard.
“I don’t think so. I’d best check on him.”
Megan nodded, knowing her husband carried kindness in his concern, rather than suspicion. In the nearly three years the museum had been open, they had never suffered a theft. Plenty of anonymous donations left outside the door on Sundays and Wednesdays (when they traditionally closed), but nobody was vicious enough to steal from a museum dedicated to the innocent victims of atrocities.
As Thierry stepped into the museum, he suddenly knew exactly where to find Roger. He wouldn’t be in the Somali or Haitian section, nor with the tiny but growing selection of toys donated by the descendants of slave owners. He’d be round the corner with the gorillas. Thierry had been thinking about the subtle scar running from Roger’s left ear to just beside his nose. A machete wound, long-healed.
Thierry turned the corner quietly, and immediately stepped back, embarrassed. His shame wasn’t prompted by what he saw, but by the fact that he seemed to be interrupting a ritual. Roger was sitting on his haunches, rocking a little, singing a song under his breath in an African language, cradling the gorilla with only one arm. The one with almost thirty-year-old bloodstains, a morbid reminder that not all the toys here were simply lost or abandoned. Some were violently stolen, like their owners lives or innocence.
Although Thierry had backed away out of sight, he heard Roger jump to his feet and compose himself. He soon strode back into the main room, his eyes still moist from tears, his voice thick as he said, “I may be wrong, but I think I found Theo.”
Roger took his wallet out and extracted a long-faded, creased photo of three children, two girls aged around three and five, and Roger beaming between them, clutching a toy gorilla in one hand. The toy still had both its arms and looked immaculate, but it was unmistakably the same as the relic in Thierry and Megan’s Rwandan display.
“Do you want to take him?” Thierry asked gently. It was a question he’d asked three times before and so far, he’d always had the same reply. This time was no different.
“Is okay. I just wanted to see for myself. I don’t know if it’s the same one. We bought at the gorilla sanctuary gift shop – hundreds, there were.”
“What did you call him?” said Thierry, wanting to ask about the two little girls in the photo but not daring.
“The gorilla?” said Roger. “Theo. You know about Rwanda? The French…”
Roger let the explanation hang, perhaps ashamed to be explaining European colonialism in Africa to a Belgian. Thierry didn’t have any Congolese toys… yet.
Thierry nodded, and then stopped Roger with a gentle hand as he was about to start down the stairs. He felt awkward bending behind the counter for the toy, but it was a rule Megan had insisted upon, and Thierry meant to abide by it. He extracted a small plush dachshund from the carboard box. It was only a cheap throwaway, five inches long, with a Museum-branded tag and a neckerchief in the colours of the Belgian flag.
“It’s dumb,” said Thierry apologetically, “but you get one of these for leaving a donation.”
Roger laughed, pushing the toy gently into his jacket pocket.
“I’ll give it to a child at the airport,” he said.
Thierry knew that he would and was glad.
After Roger had left, and Thierry had switched off the museum lights and locked the door to the second landing, he joined his wife for their customary glass of jenever before dinner.
“Rwandan?” asked Megan. Perhaps she too had seen the scar.
“Well done, dear,” said Thierry, sipping the fiery liquor. The rain had all but dried on the cobbles outside and the streets were beginning to fill with young people seeking nightlife and older tourists looking for restaurants and the nearby Hot Club jazz bar.
“Oh!” he remembered with a start. “And I have a name for our new Syrian friend.”
He was referring to the purple shrew-bear-whatever which had begun their collection but which, naively hopefully of it being reunited with its owner, they had never named.
Megan downed her glass and assented, “About time, too.”
Thierry felt an odd sense of relief flood him. He cleared his throat, which had become clogged with old sentiment. “Do you mind if we call him Roger?”