El­iz­a­beth Har­rower shares a new short story

In this short story from a new col­lec­tion by El­iz­a­beth Har­rower, a girl’s 10th birth­day cel­e­bra­tion takes a strange turn

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

And then, as if the light­ning that ripped the sky apart wasn’t enough, the lights round the edge of the swimming pool, and even the three big ones sunk into it on ce­ment piles, went out.

At once the solid black­ness rang with shrieks and laugh­ter; only Janet was struck dumb to find that she had been oblit­er­ated. It was like noth­ing so much as that as­tro­nom­i­cal dark­ness into which she had been plunged last year when they took out her ton­sils.

Up to her chin in wa­ter, she gave a lit­tle squeak of fear and curled her toes into the sandy floor of the pool, en­treat­ing them to hang on so that she wouldn’t be washed away to the deep end, or out through the pipe that went un­der the rocks and into the ocean. The Pa­cific was just over there some­where. Be­hind her.

Where was Un­cle Hec­tor? She would call him.

Ex­cept that she wouldn’t. He had only brought her tonight be­cause Aun­tie had given him ten shillings, and be­cause Janet had said “please” three times, and crossed her heart she wouldn’t bother him and Leila.

Then when they met Leila he had said, ‘‘I know. But I had to. Mum’s or­ders. It’s for her birth­day.’’

For a long time — at least ten min­utes — Leila said not one word.

Some­one close to Janet be­gan to gig­gle — a slow per­sis­tent sound like the pop-pop of an out­board mo­tor. She lis­tened hope­fully. Surely no one would laugh like that if any­thing was wrong?

Just the same, un­der her breath she said, “Un­cle Hec­tor …” and she licked the salt from her crin­kled lips. “Un­cle Hec­tor …”

The surf roared on the beach, and men’s voices shouted some­thing about fuses.

Now, sound­lessly and with­out warn­ing, the lights came on and star­tled ev­ery­one. Janet saw Un­cle Hec­tor five yards away. Leila was with him. “Hello,” she said. “Where were you?” “Come on!” Un­cle Hec­tor spoke to Janet, but looked at Leila. Leila was nine­teen. She had long dark hair, brown skin, and a red-and-white bathing cos­tume.

“Come on!” he said again, swimming away with Leila, mak­ing the wa­ter foam be­hind him.

And laugh­ing now, and splash­ing and look­ing all round, Janet fol­lowed them out.

“I was good, Un­cle Hec­tor. You’ll tell Aun­tie I was good?”

Leila was un­pin­ning her hair, wring­ing out the short skirt of her cos­tume and smil­ing.

“Huh?” said Un­cle Hec­tor. “In the dark and light­ning I was good — you’ll tell her?” “Oh! Yeah! I’ll tell her.” He sniffed, pushed back his hair, then stood, hands on hips, feet apart. “Lis­ten, you two. I’ll meet you out­side the dress­ing sheds in five min­utes. Five min­utes!”

“Bully!” said Leila, press­ing her hands against her wet cos­tume. “You just wait.” “What for?” He rocked back on his heels. They stood look­ing at each other so long then, not seem­ing to no­tice that they blocked the path round the pool, that Janet, made reck­less by the night, cried, “For us! You’ve got to wait for us!”

“Oh, shut up!” said Un­cle Hec­tor in­dif­fer­ently. And Janet did. She lived with Aun­tie (who was Hec­tor’s mother), and she knew she was a trial. In­deed, she was so far from ideal, in spite of her in­ten­tions, that it was sug­gested in her de­fence that she’d been born rather badly be­haved.

Still, to­day she was ten. Aun­tie had talked to her se­ri­ously, and said that she must turn over a new leaf and be good and grate­ful. And she had things to be grate­ful for …

When he met Janet and his girl­friend, now fully dressed, Un­cle Hec­tor said, “We’ll go up there for a while,” and he pointed to a bluff of land where chains of coloured lights — to which were at­tached chairs and shriek­ing girls — soared out over the edge of the cliff.

They reached the top and wan­dered into the fair. A boy shrieked past on a fly­ing horse, wav­ing an arm at no one in par­tic­u­lar. Be­mused by the brassy gold, the red and white, the stream­ing hair and glow­ing faces, Un­cle Hec­tor, Leila and Janet stood with the crowds and watched.

The bulbs and neon flashed and sparkled, mes­meris­ing the au­di­ence, but slowly, and more slowly, the horses flew. They were re­turn­ing from the dar­ing hor­i­zon­tal to the ver­ti­cal. It seemed a pity.

Lit­tle groups be­gan to drift away. A few peo­ple bought tick­ets from the lady in the red box, but Un­cle Hec­tor said, “We’ll see the rest first,” and with Leila cling­ing to his arm, and Janet fol­low­ing, all eyes, they strolled af­ter the oth­ers into the heart of the fair.

Daz­zled, bad­gered and bumped, they wound past the sideshows — the wrestlers, sword swal­low­ers, snake charm­ers. A woman said, emerg­ing from the hyp­no­tist’s pa­per cave, “Yes, I saw him eat it, Eck, but how do we know it was a can­dle?”

They all rode on the Fer­ris wheel, the raz­zledaz­zle, and the horses. Then limply Janet wait- ed while the other two threw rub­ber balls at ducks.

A paralysing yawn over­took her and she leaned against the side of the booth, but at that mo­ment Un­cle Hec­tor flung away down the path and she and Leila had to run af­ter him.

Toss­ing her long dark hair over her shoul­ders, Leila winked at Janet and whis­pered, “Lis­ten to this!” Then, when they caught him in the space be­tween a tent and a flimsy black build­ing, she said, rang­ing her­self be­side Janet, “Well, no prize, no —” And she jerked her head at the black card­board build­ing. Janet read, Tun­nel of Love. Un­cle Hec­tor pushed both hands in his pock­ets and snorted through his nose with ex­as­per­a­tion.

“Once Un­cle Hec­tor won a prize for his friend Elaine,” she told Leila. “It was a dog. With spots. Not a real one. Glass.” There was another of those in­ex­pli­ca­ble si­lences. Janet added, “I didn’t see it. She told me once.”

Un­cle Hec­tor, amaz­ingly, seemed pleased. His grin ex­tended even over her.

Leila snapped, “Well, what’ll we do with her?”

“She can look at the gi­ant,” he grinned. “He’s just next door. Here’s six­pence, Jan. Get your­self a ticket and go in and see the gi­ant for a while. We’ll meet you later. If you’re out first, just wait.” “The gi­ant?” But they had dis­ap­peared in­side the door­way of the Tun­nel. She felt de­serted. A gi­ant, she thought.

“Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!” cried a man in a brown checked suit. “The show is about to be­gin. The great­est ro­mance since Romeo and Juliet. Step up and buy your tick­ets now! See the great­est gi­ant in the world and his lovely lit­tle bride.” Janet swal­lowed. “Yes, but is he? Is he?” “He’s lovely, dear. Hurry! Hurry! The show —”

It was a small tent. About a quar­ter of its length was cut off by a cur­tain be­hind which, pre­sum­ably, dwelt the gi­ant and his bride. Over­head hung a bat­tery of bare elec­tric light globes.

Janet drooped with weari­ness. There was noth­ing to see — a wooden pole, two wooden chairs — but she looked for a mo­ment or so, and then yawned and buried her face in her towel. Jack and the Beanstalk. Jack the Gi­ant-killer, she thought.

When she opened her eyes she saw on the plat­form, close to her, straight in front of her, a very small woman. She was much smaller than Janet, but not so young, oh, not young at all. Un­der the pink make-up, the lit­tle face was hard and wrin­kled.

On a level, their eyes met, and Janet went cold, then colder, trans­fixed by the look and by a sud­den strange sen­sa­tion in her chest. The dwarf had never seen her be­fore. The dwarf did not like her.

The dwarf bride smiled at her and Janet shiv­ered. She hugged her towel and bit a piece of the fringe. She stared down at the ground, at her dusty toes pok­ing out of her san­dals. To prove that she could, she made them wrig­gle. When she lifted her head, the lit­tle woman was gaz­ing into space, blankly, look­ing bored, so bored …

Humbly, Janet moved her eyes from the small mon­key face to the long, never-end­ing, red-trousered legs that stood be­side her. She fol­lowed them up. There was a navy-blue coat

in the dis­tance, above that a face, above that a red cap.

The face, apart from its dis­tance from the ground, was supremely or­di­nary — pale, but or­di­nary. And this was the gi­ant!

Like the woman, he stared with­out ex­pres­sion straight ahead. There was, from him, no look for Janet, no smile that was not a smile.

As they were meant to do, the au­di­ence watched them: no one spoke. But from the back of the tent into the si­lence came a snicker. Janet felt her arms go hot, and her shoul­ders and ears. She wished Un­cle Hec­tor hadn’t sent her here.

The gi­ant and the dwarf moved closer to­gether. Then, with a si­mul­ta­ne­ous cran­ing of necks, they ex­changed their first public ac­knowl­edge­ment of each other’s pres­ence, a look that was empty yet com­pletely fa­mil­iar. With an al­most au­di­ble “One, two, three …” they started.

“The story of our love be­gins far away un­der the blue skies of Africa, where we met and fell in love …”

The gi­ant went on alone, “I, a tall and shy young man, scarcely dared ask for the hand of the dainty young maiden …” When he had fin­ished, the dwarf cleared her throat to take up the recital, and, shame­faced, the au­di­ence lis­tened.

All Janet knew was that they didn’t mean it. They didn’t mean a word they said. She blinked at them.

And they don’t care if we know it, she thought. They’re say­ing all this and hat­ing us. Love, they’re say­ing.

“Lit­tle lady,” the gi­ant re­peated. “Would you mind telling us your age?” He was look­ing straight at Janet. “Me?” she whis­pered. “Tell him, dear,” said a woman be­hind her.

She glanced over her shoul­der. “Ten,” she said, and the gi­ant heard.

“A very nice age to be!” he ex­claimed. “Now, if you would step up onto the plat­form for a mo­ment, all these ladies and gen­tle­men could see how tiny and dainty my bride ap­pears be­side a lit­tle lady of ten.” Janet stared at him. She tried to grow into the ground. Some­one gave her a gen­tle push and she re­sisted. But the gi­ant reached down with his long, long arms and said, “Up here. That’s the way!” and she was on the stage.

The gi­ant was talk­ing to the au­di­ence. He made her take the hand of the dwarf. He made them stand to­gether while he mea­sured the dif­fer­ence in height with a ruler pro­duced from his pocket.

Me­chan­i­cally, Janet obeyed him. She held the small horny hand. She turned around and felt the small warm back against her own, and the ruler on her head.

“You can turn round again,” the gi­ant said. “No, this way — so they can see you.”

There was a slight un­gen­tle tug on her arm and she turned to re­ceive from the silent dwarf, so close to her, another long pro­fes­sional smile. The dwarf did not like any­one.

Janet fell back a step and bumped into the gi­ant. He said, “Well, now, may we both shake you by the hand, and wish you the very best of luck? We’d like you to ac­cept our hearty thanks for your kind­ness in as­sist­ing at this demon­stra­tion for the ben­e­fit of our pa­trons.”

The gi­ant bowed and shook her hand. Janet said, “How do you do?”

And then her hand closed like a gi­ant’s over the toy hand of the dwarf. Tremu­lously she looked down into the hazel eyes. What was it they said to her? Noth­ing nice. Noth­ing good.

“How do you do?” said Janet. “Thank you. Good night.”

The au­di­ence clapped. She was on the ground again. The peo­ple be­gan to file out of the tent, mur­mur­ing self-con­sciously. A back­ward glance showed the gi­ant and his bride sit­ting on the chairs, smok­ing, look­ing at the roof of the tent, not talk­ing, and oh so bored, so bored … Janet looked at her hand. Out­side, it was very dark af­ter the bar­rage of lights over the stage. Un­cle Hec­tor and Leila walked slowly up to the en­trance as she came out. They seemed sur­prised to see her.

Un­cle Hec­tor said, “You got your money’s worth, all right.” He and Leila had been through the Tun­nel of Love twice.

Mute, Janet looked at their shad­owy faces. She held her hand out, away from her. All at once, she was over­whelmed with heavy tear­ing sobs. She stood iso­lated in the night, sob­bing un­con­trol­lably.

Leila let out a groan, glanced at Un­cle Hec­tor and said to Janet, “What’s the mat­ter, Jan? Did the gi­ant frighten you?”

They stood at the en­trance of the tent, where the man in the checked suit was pre­par­ing to en­list the last au­di­ence of the night. He caught the sense of Leila’s words and scowled down at her.

“Come over here,” said Un­cle Hec­tor, and they wan­dered away along the emp­ty­ing paths be­tween the booths, Leila lead­ing Janet by the hand.

Re­luc­tantly she stopped again. “Did the gi­ant frighten you? Was he aw­ful or some­thing?”

Janet shook her head, nod­ded, shook it again, and wept with such bit­ter aban­don that the two in charge of her be­gan to worry.

“This is lovely!” said Un­cle Hec­tor, bit­ing his nails. “What’ll we do?” “She’s your re­la­tion!” Un­cle Hec­tor, re­gard­ing his re­la­tion, jerked for­ward. “Here! What’s the mat­ter with your hand? What’ve you done to it?”

When he un­der­stood that it had been shaken by the gi­ant he looked at it with a flat­tered half-smile, and for­got it. “What’ll we do with her?” Leila said. Janet sobbed, “I want to go home! I want to go home!”

“I wish to heaven she could,” Leila said. “Couldn’t we put her on a bus?”

While they stared at each other and won­dered, Janet drew a lit­tle away from them. Amazed, she looked at the sky, and the fair, and her un­cle and Leila. She looked at the peo­ple who passed. Roughly she wiped her eyes and took a back­ward step.

“No, I don’t want to go home,” she whis­pered. She moved fur­ther down the path. More loudly she said, “No, I don’t want to go home.”

“Where’s she gone?” said Un­cle Hec­tor, screw­ing up his eyes in the dark­ness.

He saw her and started af­ter her but was slowed, then stopped al­to­gether, by the pe­cu­liar men­ace of her ex­pres­sion and the un­ex­pect­ed­ness of her re­treat. He couldn’t imag­ine what she was up to.

“I’m not com­ing!” she screamed at him. “You can’t make me. I won’t. I’ll never go back to you and Aun­tie.”

She ran a few steps and turned. “I don’t love any of you. I’ll never go back.” Aim­lessly, fran­ti­cally, turn­ing and twist­ing round car­a­vans and tents, up and down the paths of trod­den earth, push­ing through the thin­ning crowds, she ran, not cry­ing now, but bril­liant-eyed.

This is an abridged ver­sion of

The Fun of the Fair, from El­iz­a­beth Har­rower’s new short story col­lec­tion, A Few Days in the Coun­try and Other Sto­ries, pub­lished by Text next week.

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