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The Short Story Project ~ A Story

First published: Thursday, November 5th, 2009
3,700 words ~ spooky scale: ••••• 13+

All the fun of the fair

Night was falling when Big Michael left his caravan and made his way through the funfair to his stand. The diesel generators and compressors thrummed and whined, and the first fairy lights sparkled as the attractions were reopened and verified after the afternoon’s session in preparation for the evening’s crowds. Dusk softened the edges of everything, and the paint and decorations which had seemed tardy and gaudy in the autumn sunlight now glowed, took on relief and depth, coming into their own in a world sculpted from shadow and artificial light.

Big Michael stopped off at the dodgems, the big wheel, the swings, shaking a hand here, exchanging a word there as the smell of sugar and grease, the ozone from the electric arcs, the diesel and exhaust from the generators embalmed the fairground, combining to become a perfume that said ‘Come and play, come and take a chance, come and forget, come and dance, come away and forget your troubles for an evening, for a night, for a day’…

Once he got to his stand, he unlocked the great padlock on the back door and stepped inside, switching on the lights. He was greeted by the piles of stuffed toys that lined the shelves: cats and panthers, chicks and Pokemons, elephants, giraffes, monkeys and lemurs. And high up on the top, Edward looked down. In much the same way that it would cross no-one’s mind to call Big Michael ‘Micky’, he was Edward Bear, and never Teddy. For Big Michael he was more than a mascot, he was a sort of familiar. They’d taken on the stand together and he’d always worked under Edward’s watchful eye. It was a good partnership.

He set his Thermos flask under the counter, slipped the cash box back into place, cast an eye over the piles of wooden balls, then unclipped the front and lifted it up.

From outside came the first squeals and cries of the public, the music blasted over the speakers; the electronic scales, jingles and ditties rang out; the whooshs and swishes as the wheels and swings swept through the air; and the anorexic tinkling of the asthmatic pipe organ over at the Ghost Train — it could no longer hold a note and stuttered and trilled instead.

Big Michael looked up. It was early for punters. But the person standing at the counter wasn’t a punter.

Jeannie screwed up her eyes as she spoke.

“Gran’s still poorly,” she said. “She wonders if you can handle the rides again tonight…”

The sleeves of her jumper hung over her hands and flapped as she danced from one foot to the other, as if jogging on the spot.

“Tell her it’s no problem,” he said.

They needed an adult to run the Ghost Train and a strong one at that: to release the carriages and pull the lever that dangled the strings, the netting and the cloying damp rags onto the unsuspecting heads and shoulders of the passengers.

The girl screwed up her face, pressing her lips together as if she was biting back her tongue in an attempt to keep herself from saying something.

“Or perhaps I can tell her myself and you can look after the place ‘til Malky gets here…”

The girl burst into a smile, her eyes lighting up.

Big Michael reached over the counter, slipped his hands under her arms and, effortlessly, lifted her up and set her down inside the booth.

“Thanks Big Michael,” she said, looking up at him and beaming.

“You know the rules,” he said. “And don’t forget to lock the door after me.”

It was surprising that attractions like Big Michael’s stand and the Ghost Train were still around in the age of video games and DVD players, of the Wall of Death and the increasingly sophisticated rides and stands but that must be part of the pull that the funfair still held. Somewhere it was still a magical place, somehow greater than its creaky, worn and knocked together parts.

He sent Malcolm on his way, inviting him to take his time, let his little sister deal with the evening’s first punters, and climbed into place at the entrance to the Ghost Train. Painted skulls, skeletal hands, skinny bats and plump ghosts gazed down at the small crowd already waiting to board the small wagons while the pipe organ tweeted and wheezed, barely covering the sound of the compressors from round the back.

He took banknotes and coins and handed back change as he seated couples and families on the wooden seats, pulled the lever freeing the wagons to shudder their way along the rails then leaned back to pull on the ropes and pulleys to liven up the ride. He smiled as he heard the screams and squeals from inside.

For Big Michael the evening passed quickly, rhythmed by the regular arrivals and departures of the Ghost Train.

When the crowd thinned, he saw Jeannie leaning on the tent wall opposite. He nodded to her, inviting her to come and join him. She skipped over and jumped up on the wooden platform.

“Want to try your hand at the glove?” he asked.

“Can I really?”

“That’s what I’m asking you, Jeannie.. Do you want to give it a try?”

She nodded and searched the drawer for the long black glove. When Gran was in charge, the children were sometimes allowed round the back where, using the holes specially placed in the scenery, they could slip a gloved hand through and tap patrons on the head or neck, stroke hair and sometimes even pinch a fleshy upper arm and add some more thrills to the rickety ride.

The evening played out peacefully, chugging along on its own rails until, come midnight, the couples and families had deserted the Ghost Train, leaving the swings, the dodgems and the rifle ranges to the overexcited youths. Jeannie helped Big Michael close up shop, then turn off and purge the compressor. The doleful notes from the pipe organ stopped at last.

“Thanks,” she said, trying to keep her eyes open.

“Get off home now,” said Big Michael, handing her the cash box with the evening’s takings. “And tell your Gran everything went fine, but for her sake, I do hope she feels better soon.”

“Will do,” said the girl, walking backwards. “‘Night, Big Michael.”

She span round and darted between the tents back to the caravan. Big Michael walked back to his booth.

As he approached, he saw that the crowds had also deserted his stand. Throwing wooden balls into holes and buckets to win cuddly stuffed animals wasn’t the sort of thrill the late night crowds of teens came looking for. Nonetheless he smiled as he saw Malcolm hadn’t given up, and was still calling out to the passers-by.

“Time to call it a night, Malky,” he said. The boy nodded. “I’ll lock up. Don’t you worry.” He reached into the cash box and took out a couple of banknotes. “For your troubles, kid.”

“It was no trouble, Big Michael. Honest.”

“Malcolm. You listen. If someone offers you good money for honest work, you don’t protest, you take it. You can always get yourself something for your Gran, or your sister.”

He folded the notes into the boy’s hand.

“Right, Big Michael. I mean, thanks.”

He made to cuff the boy on the ear, lifting a big hand in slow motion. The boy turned away, flashed a grin back at Big Michael and ran off down the alley.

Inside the stand, Big Michael locked down the front and had a last look round before picking up the cash box and switching off the lights. Something nagged at him, some little detail that he couldn’t put his finger on. He shrugged it off, shut and padlocked the door, then walked the alleys back to his caravan.

He had the impression that he had hardly slept when the sound of banging on his door woke him the next morning.

“Get out of it!” he called through the blankets. “Some of us are trying to get some sleep in here!”

“Police,” called a voice, adding in a undertone that could still be clearly heard through the door: “Personally, some of us would much rather be catching up on some shut eye, too.”

He pulled the blankets round him, hanging onto the warmth of the night.

“Door’s open!”

He closed his eyes against the light as the door opened and a uniformed Policeman put a booted foot onto the step.

“Just going door to door,” said the Policeman. “Asking questions. Mind if I come in?”

“Don’t mind me,” said Big Michael, lifting a blind and squinting at the outside. “Ugh! What time is it?”

“A little after seven. You usually sleep late, do you?”

Big Michael grunted and rubbed his eyes.

“Switch that on, will you? You’re nearest.” He pointed to the kettle on the draining board of the minute fitted kitchen. “Mugs are clean and the bags are in the pot. Make one for yourself if you want.”

The Policeman pressed the button on the kettle.

“So, what’s this about?” asked Big Michael.

“Just routine. There was a bit of trouble last night. So we’re trying to see if anyone saw anything out of the ordinary, like.”

“What sort of trouble?”

Big Michael looked the Policeman up and down, getting a good look.

“Just a minute, Sir,” said the Policeman. “Can I ask you your name first?”

He was now holding a notebook.

“Big Michael”, said Big Michael.

“That’d be… Michael Alistair McMunn?”

“I dare say… And how come you’ve already got my name there?”

The Policeman sighed.

“We’re knocking on doors all over the place. Me and a colleague are doing the fairground, that’s all. I’ve collected a lot of names. But if I was the DI who sent us all off this morning, I’d say that as you’re travellers, it’s better to get it over with and well done and thorough like, and when you go off on your way, no-one can accuse us of not doing a good job. For your sakes and ours…”

Big Michael nodded.

“Seems fair to me. I take it we’re not talking about stolen cars or a lost cat..?”

The Policeman gave half smile.

“Not really…”

He pulled out a colour photocopy. You could see the girl had been hastily cropped out of a larger picture, then blown up to fill the space. The photocopy had increased the contrast, sent the skin tones bright pink and white, darkened the mass of shoulder-length hair. She was frozen with a remark just about to cross her lips.

“Ring any bells?” asked the Policeman.

Big Michael shook his head.

“You were on the Ghost Train last night…” The Policeman had consulted his notebook.

Big Michael nodded.

“That’s mostly families at the start of the evening and couples later on,” he volunteered. “Was she with a bloke?”

“Not that we know of for the moment…”

“Missing..? Or worse?”

The Policeman looked at Big Michael as he spoke.

“Worse. Much worse. You’ll hear the rumours soon enough so I might as well tell you. Came over with a couple of girlfriends, spent the evening here at the fair. Drove them home. Someone found her very early this morning. Cold dead. Still in her car.”

The kettle switched itself off in a small cloud of steam.

Big Michael shook his head.

The thing that had bothered him last night came back, nagging, to his memory.

Edward.

Edward hadn’t been at his place at the top of the pile.

“If anything comes back…” said the Policeman and he set a flyer down on the small draining board. “Do call…”

“Yeah,” said Big Michael. He looked into the distance and didn’t like what he saw there. “Yeah.”

The Policeman looked at him before pocketing the notebook and leaving, shutting the door against the morning light.

Big Michael sat on the bed thinking. Then he pulled on a pair of jeans, slipped into the t-shirt and sweatshirt he’d been wearing yesterday and pulled on socks and shoes. Grabbing a donkey jacket he stepped outside. He looked around, then walked briskly over to the caravan the children shared with their Gran.

He rapped on the door and didn’t wait for a reply.

Malcolm looked up from spooning cereals into his mouth. On a shelf next to him a small television flickered soundlessly.

“Big Michael,” said the boy.

“Malky,” said the other without even stopping to say hello. “Last night, did you let someone take the bear. Edward.”

The boy swallowed.

“I tried, Big Michael. Honest.”

“Just answer me, Malky. Did you?”

He nodded quickly and lowered his eyes.

“Like I told the cop, she wouldn’t take no for an answer. And her friends and some blokes all piled on to. I couldn’t do nothing…”

“Malky?”

“Yes. She took it.” He hung his head. “But it’s just a bear. Got nothing to do with what happened to her..?”

Big Michael turned and left. He felt in his pockets for the keys as he walked over to his stand. Once inside he switched on the lights.

Edward stared down at him from his place on the top of the pile.

It was happening again.

Big Michael slammed the door and locked it. Then he remembered the lights.

He unlocked the door. The bear hadn’t moved.

He switched off the lights, padlocked the door and pulled on it to check it was firm and solid, then walked back to his caravan with the weight of realisation on his shoulders.

He sat and buried his head in his hands.

He had to get rid of it before anyone else saw it. And more importantly, saw him with it.

He got up and rummaged through cupboards until he found a sports bag that appeared about the right size. Would he need anything else? A hammer perhaps…

A brisk rap on the caravan door startled him.

“Mr McMunn? Constable Winters… Hello?”

Big Michael pushed the door open, the uniformed Policeman at the bottom of the steps moved back.

“Yeah?”

“Just a question… The funfair was in Weston-super-Mare two years ago—” He looked at his notebook. “—in September.”

“Yeah.”

“Thought so… The station called in. Amazing what they do with computers, isn’t it?”

Big Michael scowled down at the man.

“What’s that got to do with me?”

“With you?” The Policeman stared. “Nothing. I just wanted confirmation—”

“Look. They came and saw us, same as you did. Asked a lot of questions and told us nothing at all. So don’t you come round all sneaky like and try and pin a bunch of lies on us.”

The Policeman held his hands up.

“This is a murder investigation, Mr.. Mr McMunn. We ask a lot of questions. That’s how it goes. And when the station radios up and tells me to go and ask some more, I do it. That’s my job, pal.”

“I’m not your pal. I’m just trying to make a living. And I get sick and tired of people making accusations just because we’re travellers.”

Big Michael felt he was going to explode. Break into a thousand pieces. Scatter all over the field. Blast everything away. Starting with this yapping little police dog.

“Goodbye!”

He slammed the door shut and slipped back onto his chair. He realised he was still holding the sports bag.

He looked over at the door, willing it to open. Willing the Policeman to knock and enter and give him an excuse to hit out, to let off stream.

There was no knock. The door didn’t open.

He breathed heavily until he felt more calm, then gripping the bag he set off for the stand.

With each step he took, he imagined opening the door, switching on the lights and seeing nothing… Or at least, no Edward crowning the pile of soft toys. He’d imagined everything. It wasn’t all happening again.

Outside he fiddled with the padlock, pushed open the door and reached for the light switches.

In the garish light, the bear looked down at him.

“You’ve got to understand,” started Big Michael. “I never wanted it to come to this.”

He pushed the bear into the bag and zipped it shut.

It weighed nothing. He hadn’t expected that. He had expected to feel something.

“Now I’ve got to get us out of this mess,” he said, and left.

The fairground was mostly sleeping: stands still shuttered, swings and trains and cars all chained up. A few school kids walked the alleys like strays.

Big Michael thought furiously as he walked: should he throw the bag in a river? Leave it in a dustbin? Perhaps he should bury it somewhere? Burn it?

It was too dangerous to just leave the bear somewhere. Even in the most improbably place someone could find it.

No, he had to destroy it.

He looked up. At the end of the alley, the Policeman was standing. Standing and looking straight at Big Michael.

He looked round. He was at the other end of the fair, far from both his caravan and his stand. What had he been thinking of? He felt the Policeman’s eyes looking through him. Looking through him and seeing his thoughts. Seeing the bag he was carrying.

He turned into an alley and hurried away.

The Police. They were after him. But what could he do?

Jeannie was standing outside his caravan. She lifted her head at his approach and flapped her hanging sleeves against her hips. A puppy dog, he thought. A little bird.

“Not now, Jeannie,” he said.

She looked up from under her fringe.

“It’s Edward, isn’t it,” she mumbled. “Malky told me.”

“Malky should keep his face shut.” He opened the door and climbed inside. “Well don’t just hang about out there,” he called out over his shoulders. “Get inside.”

She sat down on the side, her knees pressing her hands together. She watched him put the bag down carefully on the draining board.

He collapsed into a chair and took his head into his hands.

“What can I do to help, Big Michael?”

He lifted his head. Blue eyes stared straight at him.

“Stay out of it.”

“But why does—?”

“Not a word. You already know too much for your own good.” He sighed. “S’not really Malky’s fault either. He’s a good lad at heart. He wasn’t to know. Not really. It’s all my fault. Can’t go blaming anyone else.”

“What’cha gonna do, Big Michael?”

“What can I do? Get rid of it. Stop it. Got no choice, have I?”

“But how?”

“That’s for me to decide.” He shook himself, like waking. “Anyways what I am doing blabbering to you about it? Get out Jeannie. Get out while you still can.”

“Where did Edward come from?”

“What? Search me. He’s always been there, hasn’t he? What you looking at me like that for? Like I should know. Came with the stand, didn’t he. That’s all I know. Now get away Jeannie, leave me alone.”

This time the girl did get up and did open the door. She looked back at Big Michael, his head in his hands, and closed the door on the caravan, on the man sitting in the chair, on the bag on the counter.

Eventually, Big Michael pulled himself up, took the bag and walked to one of the upended oil cans where they sometimes roasted sweet chestnuts. He started the fire with paper and tinder, stuffed in the bag and piled coke and wood in. The nylon and plastic smelt awful as it burnt, spitting blue flames and greasy, oily smoke. All the while he expected the Policeman to appear and ask him what he was doing.

He watched as the fire consumed everything, then poked at the coals and cinders with a stick to make sure that nothing recognisable remained.

Only then did he breathe more lightly.

Back at the caravan, he fancied he could smell the smoke and burning plastic, as if he’d brought it with him on his clothes.

He opened his stand that afternoon as if he was in a trance, and the takings showed it. Instead of calling out to the punters, challenging them, alternately mocking and encouraging them, instead of calling out to the lads to prove their worth to the girls and win a cuddly animal, instead of hailing champions and pouring scorn on losers, he just sat on his stool and looked at nothing, looked at anything so that he didn’t have to turn and see the empty space at the top of the pile where Edward had once sat proud and king of the stand.

On his way back to the caravan afterwards he noticed the flyers taped up all around. The overexposed image of a smiling girl. The words ‘Have you seen this woman?’. And a telephone number.

He closed the door and sat down, waiting for the evening and the dark. He fancied his clothes still smelt of burning, of ashes and plastic catching the flames and crinkling inward and outward into smoke.

At last he could no longer see and still he sat until the habit of a lifetime forced him to prepare for his evening on the stand.

He reached over and switched on the light.

Edward was sitting opposite, on the kitchen bench, his white fur singed and blackened, showing bald tissue in places. But staring at him with two glass eyes.

Big Michael didn’t move.

He still hadn’t moved when Jeannie and Malcolm came by, worried that he wasn’t manning his stand.

They knocked on the door but got no answer. Seeing the light they climbed the step and entered.

He was sitting in the chair, his eyes wide open but seeing nothing. And strangest of all, his clothes were smothered in cinders and scorch marks.

Jeannie and Malky ran for their Gran as the wheezing music played from the Ghost Train’s creaky pipe organ, as the sounds of screams and cheers and loud music covered the night. And somewhere Edward Bear sat waiting for someone new to find him and take him home.

THE END

Please note that I have lots of teddy bears, and love them all dearly. Although, strangely enough, none are named ‘Edward’ or ‘Teddy’…

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Last edited: Thursday, November 5th, 2009

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