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
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.