Having watched the original film on TV over Easter I got this idea into my head and found myself writing this little piece. It will probably just be a two part story but all reviews are welcome.
For the few people who knew him well, it was hard to believe that Willy Wonka had once had a childhood. He did not appear one day, fully formed, under a toadstool in the Chocolate Room nor did he spring from the forehead of Zeus like a character in a Greek myth. Once, long ago, he had been a child like everyone else although sometimes he found it hard to believe it himself.
If he did think of his childhood, which was seldom, it was like looking an old photograph, stilted and monochrome, something that had once existed in a particular place and time, a world left behind along with his name and his old life. His childhood world was the beloved holiday enclave of Coney Island but the little grey one roomed hovel tucked into an embankment beside the railway line seemed a world away from the fun and razzmatazz of that place; indeed the bleak, greyness of his family's life seemed to shut it all out like an invisible wall in those early years.
His parents knew nothing of joy or magic or fun. They too seemed bleak and grey, like everything around him. They had left behind a dreary life in their dreary homeland and simply exchanged it for another dreary life in America. Of all their babies, he was the only one to survive but their tiny ghosts seemed to haunt that sparsely furnished hovel for as long as they lived there and his parents' faces grew older with each loss. They worked hard, both inside and outside the home; their entire lives seemed to consist of nothing but drudgery, worry, fear and the constant fight for survival. They longed for nothing, aspired to nothing, simply accepted their fate with sighs and sad eyes, maddeningly content to live their lives in black and white.
"Surely there must be more to life than this?" he would wonder each night in his narrow bed. Sometimes he thought he must have been born asking this question for he could never accept the world around him as the only world and spent as little time as possible in it. The amusement parks that were so close yet a million miles away intrigued and called out to him from an early age. His mother would sometimes indulge him in this fascination against her better judgement; indeed she had walked him past the gates many times as a baby, hardly realising how obsessed he would become with this loud, frightening symbol of American life. On the few days she was neither working nor tired from working she would take her son as far as the entrance of the nearest park to their home, clutching his hand as though scared of losing him to the noise and dazzling sights that lay behind that gate. But her son was never scared; this was where he wanted to be most of all, only not just looking on but part of it.
Mr Finkelstein had been running the candy shop on Surf Avenue for as long as anyone could remember. For a child from the railway line the shop was a palace of sights, sounds and smells, full of tiny treasures in gold and silver foil, boiled candies of every colour and design, cotton candy, toffee apples, chocolate in all shapes and sizes, all made by hand by Mr Finkelstein and his assistants. There was no money for luxuries like these but Willy Wonka would peep through the window at the children lucky enough to have pocket money to buy all these wonderful things, wishing he could go in there himself. His parents never went inside either, but rarely stopped him from looking in the window, reluctant to deny him this tiny treat.
They saved their pennies and bought him his first bar of chocolate on his seventh birthday. His eyes widened as he saw the familiar wrapper in his father's hand. Even just to hold it was enough but soon he was tearing off the gold foil to reveal the chocolate beneath, smooth and brown, just waiting for him… "Go on," his parents urged him, showing more excitement than he had ever seen. Nervously, he broke off a piece. The sound made it even more real to him. This was chocolate. He was about to eat chocolate.
The moment he bit into it everything changed. Suddenly his world burst into colour; beautiful, vivid colour. The sweet, milky, creaminess of it, the texture of it, melting slightly under his tongue… Each bite brought something new and unknown, thoughts and feelings of joy and excitement that he had never known before. He'd been right; there was something more to life and this was it. Suddenly he came back to earth, remembering that his parents were in the room, that he had not floated off somewhere after all. He did try to share the rest of the chocolate with them but they insisted they didn't like sweet things and gently encouraged him to enjoy his birthday present. After his father had gone to work at the factory his mother took him down the beach for a while, which was a rare treat for both of them.
Down on the beach you could be anything you wanted to be. A pirate, a sailor, an explorer, just an ordinary person sailing away from here and travelling the world… How did you get to do those things? How did you have adventures like the people in the colourful storybooks he gazed at in store windows? As he paddled he watched the tourists arriving on the ferries or speeding past on the train, going home to lives that existed away from here. He'd kept the rest of his chocolate like a precious jewel and ate it down there on the beach, quietly thinking of all the people and places across the sea as his mother watched.
"Always in a world of your own, aren't you dear?" she asked him with one of her rare smiles.
"I wish I could live in my imagination," he replied sadly.
"Don't be silly, child, no-one can do that. Come on, let's go home. It's getting cold and I have to go to work later."
He followed his mother back to the everyday world with his head down and shoulders drooped, the taste of chocolate still on his tongue and in his mind. He was different now but around him nothing had changed. Even as they climbed the embankment to the little house the greyness seemed to spread its tentacles out towards them, enveloping them triumphantly once more. And all the time the child thought over his mother's words, about not being able to live in your imagination.
But what if you could?