I squint at the colossal wooden structure, and as seagulls waltz above its highest arch, I’m convinced it wobbles. It’s like a plate of poorly stacked Belgian waffles ready to tumble. Yet, after all these years, it’s still standing.
“You sure you want to ride that?” I ask, digging for tokens from my jeans and glancing at my phone, 35 minutes until kick-off.
“Hurry, look at the queue,” Liam says, one hand flat out, the other tucking away his liquorice-coloured locks. While he scuffs across the gravel joining a queue of teenagers, I look towards my dad, minding Alice on the teacups, then realise he’s wandered off. Crowds amble past the whirling cups, blurring my view, but I recognise her honeycomb curls splashing over the rim of her blue polka-dot cup. Were they ever this fast? They should be called the double espressos. Just as I pace towards the ride in time with ‘Rhythm is a Dancer,’ I hear someone shout, “Dad!”
Turning, I see Liam.
“That was quick!”
“I need more tokens,” he says, pointing to a hand-painted sign staked between a group of prattling girls. ‘3 tokens per ride.’ I spot the pop-up booth nearby, selling tokens in multiples of 10. I shake my head, tutting, “They’re not bloody stupid are they!”
“What?” Liam says.
I empty my jeans, finding twenty quid and a few tokens. Dropping one in his palm, I try to ruffle his hair, but he dodges with a grunt and re-joins the queue. I fold the note into my denim shirt pocket for a punt at Ladbrokes later.
I continue to the teacups, passing a bouncer of a bulldog, dragging his owner toward a doughnut stand. While a small boy at his side struggles to restrain his paw patrol balloons, all chasing the sea breeze, straining their ribbon leads. The ride has stopped. I can’t see Alice. She should wait. She knows to wait! Just as I jog, cursing my dad, a Ghost Train siren wails in the distance. I halt at the queue, peeking frantically through shuffling parents, like I’m trying to witness a penalty kick. Then something grabs my sweaty palm.
I suddenly feel like the Bristol Channel has flooded the fairground, and smile at those cheeks like red round lollipops.
“Hello princess, you had me worried. Was it good? Where’s grandad?”
“I wanna go on the horses.”
I bend down and look into her grey eyes, “ca, row, sel.”
“I wanna go on the ca, ra shell.”
I grin, squeezing her hand. “Let’s find grandad first.” She skips and twirls in her floral dress as we head towards a burger van near the exit. Through the running boys and drifting couples, I can just see the roller coaster. Between two carriages of giggling girls, Liam boards alone. He slumps forward, and my heart aches, but then skips. Will he bang his head on something? That wouldn’t happen, would it? Was I his height at 13? Just as my anxiety climbs, the girls scream and a clang and rattle whips him further from me.
I’m startled by The Ghost Train siren again, and glimpse spray-painted movie monsters all hogging a corrugated iron display. Nearby, I recognise a hunched figure, dressed in a tattered suit, with a gaunt and haunted face. I feel a twinge, or perhaps an ache, ever so slight somewhere within my stomach. It’s a distant fear I haven’t felt for decades, but I recognise it. Although the waxwork man now seems comical, I shelter Alice and turn our path away from the thing. Then she bolts towards another hunched figure, dressed in a tattered suit, with a gaunt and haunted face, destroying a cheeseburger.
We join him on a bench near rowdy arcades. Bleeps, rings, and constant cha-chings.
I check my phone, 30 minutes until kick-off.
“I thought you were watching Alice?”
“I went to get a burger. I could see her.” He says, onion slugs trying to escape his mouth.
“She was on her… never mind.”
His remaining hair, like wisps of white candyfloss, flaps in the breeze, and somehow he has ketchup on his forehead. “Where’s Liam?” He asks.
“He’s on that thing.” I point to the replica mine carts climbing the precipice of the rollercoaster, and it’s like time stops. The house music, the children’s laughs, even the gulls stop screeching. The ride hangs for so long that I think it’s finally broken. But screams, rattles and rumbles ensue, and time restarts. ‘25 minutes until kick-off, should make it.’
“I remember taking you on that, you shit your…”
I look at Alice, who thankfully is engrossed by a gang of seagulls attacking a polystyrene chip box. “Come on then Alice, let’s get Liam, perhaps grandad will take you to the Carousel before we go back to the caravan.”
“Yay,” she says, pulling my dad’s arms.
He plays along, wincing as he rises. “Cor you’re getting strong young lady!”
We reach the herd of porcelain white steeds, with manes and tails of twisted gold, all trotting to a halt. “I’ll get her on,” my dad says, stumbling onto the metal plate. For a moment, I think he is going to slip. I stand back and watch his bruised, fragile hands lift Alice onto her chosen horse. Deep red roses and emerald braids adorn the purple seat and reins.
The horses all have an expression that is both distant and insane. Perhaps because of decades spinning around and around. How many furlongs have they run? When will be their last race? I notice my dad’s expression is similar. Decades of walking around and around. How many times has he been here? When will be his farewell fairground?
I turn to see Liam hovering silently next to me. “Heard you screaming,” I say, “Was it good?” He makes some kind of noise, hands in his hoody.
“Grandad needs tokens.” My dad is trying to hand the carousel assistant coins. Rolling my eyes, I walk over and explain for the 10th time. Alice chuckles, grasping the twirling silver rod. The three of us stand back, watching the horses gallop. Laughter blends with the voice of the organ as smiles rise and fall. We do not speak. My dad has a gloss in his eyes, mesmerised by the spinning. He is thinking of something, something past, something forgotten. I watch Liam’s gaze draw to a group of older teens loitering near the dodgems, all of them on the cusp of learning to drive actual cars. They are laughing. Are they teasing that attendant? I try to read Liam’s expression, but I just can’t. It feels like yesterday when I could read his little mind. Is it fear? Intrigue? Jealousy of their freedom? Some of them are smoking. I pray he is too smart, after everything we’ve been through.
I glance at my phone, 20 minutes until kick-off. Wonder when the bookies close?
Before my dad offers, I reach for Alice, who clings to me, dismounting.
“Did you take a picture daddy,” I feel a sharp twinge.
“You were so fast! I couldn’t see you properly. Come on then, home time.”
“Teddies!” She jumps off me, leaping to grab my dad’s hand.
I groan, he chuckles, and our legs drift with the crowds like we’re all travelling on conveyor belts hidden beneath the dust. We stop at a stall of bobbing ducks with wooden signs in black and yellow vintage font, declaring ‘win a prize every time.’
“Here love,” my dad gives the attendant some coins, but just as I pipe up, I notice another carnival sign ‘cash accepted.’ I summarise the prizes on offer. A deluge of fake barbie dolls, toy machine guns, archery kits, and stuffed teddies that might give me nightmares, let alone Alice. What happened to the fish? At least when you won a fish, you knew it lasted a few years, or was it weeks? Days? I grin, thinking about some warehouse full of dangling overgrown fish, almost bursting their bags. The memory of my fingers struggling to grasp that cellophane balloon feels so close. I can even see the bulbous eyes looking at me. Did I call him Trevor? No, was it Gary? When did they stop giving them out? Why? I cannot remember the change. It whooshed past without me noticing. Alice takes the bamboo cane. I try to guide her hand, but she shoos me away.
“I don’t need help, daddy!” She catches a little duck. I catch something in my throat.
I peek at my phone. They’ll be doing the National Anthems now, maybe watch the first half in the bookies?
“Well done, Ali,” my dad shouts. She has picked one with a high number, but my instincts tell me it means a small toy. As my dad mumbles his disdain to the poor teenage girl replacing the duck, Alice decisively points for a pink-haired plastic doll. I turn, nudging Liam. “Wanna go?”
His face drops, but for a millisecond, a grin is hiding. I take Alice’s hand and we walk on.
The crowds increase with the setting sun as the flashing bulbs brighten. Then I suddenly feel 13 years old, like we’ve walked into a time loop to some secret part of the fair.
“Bloody hell! dad look! that’s not legal, is it?”
I even recognise the cowboy font. The words are fresh and pop from the wooden hanging signs between targets filling the circular stall. Can’t be the same signs?
“Can I have a go, daddy?” I remind Alice she’s too young then rummage for coins, thrusting them into the attendant’s hands and muddle with an air rifle. I pause, seeing Liam, hands in his pockets, looking both fascinated and lost.
“Come on mate, I’ll show you.” I hand him my rifle. He gingerly picks up the pellets while we listen to the assistant’s instructions.
There’s no prize he would want. I know it’s all about the gun. That first pull, I can feel it, I can hear the little pop from 30 years ago.
Liam fumbles the pellets in, then raises the rifle slowly. He pauses. Then looks at me, so I crouch next to him. “Right, mate, try to look down the barrel with your right eye. That’s it. Take your time, breathe slowly.”
He skims the paper target. “Dammit,” he says, hastily reloading. “Am I holding it right?”
I envelop him, altering his grip and remind him how to aim, then whisper, “perfect.”
“Woah! Bullseye! Well done, mate, you’re a pro!”
“Liam, I don’t think your dad ever hit bullseye, good lad.”
We all cheer him, then I rustle his hair and kiss his head. A distant, special scent still lingers. His face changes. A smile I have missed spans his freckled face. I see a dimpled little boy in his Batman pyjamas, Christmas tree lights twinkling in his blue eyes. Without browsing, he picks a massive stuffed unicorn and hands it straight to Alice. Pursing my lips, I grasp his shoulder. “Good boy.”
I glance at my phone as we stumble past the Waltzers, I can feel the earth rattle with every spin.
“I remember when that was a shilling!”
The kids chuckle at dad’s catchphrase as I ponder the first time I went on with a girl. Was it Fran?
“Ya dad met ya mum on these things.” I smile at my dad, squeezing Alice’s hand, my arm still over Liam’s shoulder.
Just as I reach for my phone, I stop and pull out my folded twenty, and hand it to Liam.
“Get some more tokens, mate.”
Alice bounces at me, then Liam, still beaming, takes her hand and scampers to the nearby stall.
I feel a jab in my ribs.
“Here, take it.” My dad says.
“Don’t be silly,” I wave away his notes.
He pokes again until I jump and laugh, giving in.
“I might be old,” he says, “but you’re still my little boy.”
J. R. Xander lives with his family in a quiet, old mining village in Wales. When he isn't driving his wife and children mad, he reads and writes. His short stories cover a wide array of genres, including: everyday slices of life, magical realism, science fiction, horror, and anything dark, weird and wonderful in between.