Everything is broken. I don’t even know how we got here. Last I knew, we were zipping together down the dirty-yellow plastic flume at the local leisure centre. Now we’re here, adrift in clear shallow water at the foot of a cloud-smocked peak in god knows what part of South America.
I’m not complaining, per se. I am wondering how we return. Did we move through time or space? Have I forgotten our journey here, or did we never make one? After the leisure centre, my mind is a blur, a scramble. A mundane last memory, but one that melds perfectly with our situation. Did we tumble from the slide into this dream?
Another day I might remember. Give me another day here, and I might forget more. I sweep my arms above my head, sending swirls of ripples across the lake. They fan out and, from high on the mountain, perhaps someone can see an angel in the water.
“You’re drawing me again,” she said. A simple, flat statement of fact which remained unacknowledged. She continued to stare out of the window and his pencil continued to drift across the paper, settling down to create borders around the soft off-white, shaping her face.
They came overnight, and we did not notice. Not at first, no, because their brothers and sisters were already here, a discreet phalanx of unobtrusive invaders. An expeditionary force, embedded deep cover in our towns and cities. Our villages. Everywhere. Waiting for the signal.
“Mate,” he said, not looking at me. “Mate, come on. It’s just up here. In this pond.” Pond, I thought. Maybe that’s a local name because it looks like a lake to me. But then again, I’m no fisherman. If I was, I probably wouldn’t be here. I’d be somewhere safe, a long way away.
The lights burn holes in your eyes if you stay out too long in front of the curtain. They say you can tell the long-time performers by the glimmer of darkness nestled in their gaze; the spots have punched their lights out. It’s not a sad place to be, not when you’re up there. The wash lights warm your skin and melt the greasepaint into your mouth. The performance becomes you, if you want. There is no mask but your face, a painting with those terrible black holes in the centre.
As manager, it doesn’t touch him. He closes his eyes and feels the performance thunder through the boards. The crowd roars, heckles, squeals with delight. It kicks up dust and sunlight as the day starts to vanish and the evening shows begin, the crowd changing timbre as the dark closes around them. The edgy, half-contained violence of a mob is always part of the spirit at the Fair and it gets harder to push back into the bottle as the drink flows.
Everyone knows not to mess with the manager, though. He sits at the front, just outside the idiot stare of the lights, and listens. The sway of the throng creates the breeze that plucks restlessly at his flat-combed hair, he tastes it like a snake. His face is unreadable, but after all these years he is tired and he is sad. He has seen and felt too much. He opens his eyes and stares at the light.
Takes a lot to get me to notice things. I’m hoovering the rug one morning and it didn’t even occur to me that there was no table on it. What had happened to the coffee table? Then I started thinking maybe we’d never had a coffee table but no, there were the dents in the pile although they were fading and filled with dust.
Gravity is such a weak force. Anyone could defy it with the least effort, pulling bodies free with every step. Yes, we sent rockets pummelling out of the atmosphere on columns of concentrated fire, but a child could break the bond with a leap. It’s the smallest thing, and it took almost nothing for it to fail.
So early in the morning it was still night, out in the deep grass where the deer have held court since the days of the Tudors. The mist dragged across the world, milky white cataracts. What we were doing was wrong, but there was no option.
No presents. Something needed to be done, so here I am in the back yard of a house far from home, dressed in black and carrying a crowbar. I wait. I’ve been here three nights in a row and I know to wait. The lights on the tree switch off and still I wait. Give them half an hour, 45 minutes to be sure.
In at the window, splintering the wood to wrench up the sash. In. No light but a streetlight a few yards down, doesn’t matter. Everywhere is the same in suburbia. I roll the balls of my feet across the parquet floor, balloon my legs silently across to the tree. There, gifts. Too many for this small family, they sha’n’t miss a few. I pull off and pocket the tags. Someone shifts upstairs. A child sighs in their sleep. I think of Jo, sprawled on the rug, hollow-cheeked and sad-eyed. No presents. Could I disappoint her?
The presents are wonderful. Jo will be happy, maybe she will smile for the first time in months… but something nags at me. A sigh. A tag sat in my pocket. Something needs to be done, or I will never feel well.
So here I am again, in another yard. Waiting for the lights to go off, waiting to go in and take not so many gifts. No need to replace like for like. Then tomorrow; another house, a few less, to make up for this. And then tomorrow.
What, this came out as poetry? Clearly some sort of mistake.