I shivered. Steve always erected the ghost train at the rear of the fairground where the wind seemed to find its way into every corner. ‘The whistle of the wind creates a good effect,’ he always said, ‘besides, the ghost train should be the climax of a visit to the fairground.’
It was an impressive ghost train and Steve had built most of it himself. He’d assembled the exhibits. He was an avid collector of exhibits. And he’d painted those horrible gargoyles with the ghoulish grins. I didn’t like it. It spooked me. If it wasn’t for Steve I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near it.
‘Remember,’ he called after me as I turned to go, ‘bring your friends here.’ I nodded and waved my hand. I didn’t want to bring friends there, but I knew that Steve would be angry with me if I didn’t.
The grass, cool, springy and slightly damp, caressed my sandalled feet. I enjoyed the feel of it, knowing that it would soon be trampled flat. The first day of the fair always had this special feel to it, bright and glittering, before it lapsed into a shabby tawdriness.
I moved among the sideshows and amusements. Each one spilling out their own musical welcome, but it was too early for many people to be there.
A group of noisy, young lads brushed past. They didn’t even see me, they were so busy joking and jostling each other. Steve would soon get rid of them. He hadn’t forgotten a similar gang who had destroyed some of his precious exhibits and he certainly wouldn’t give this lot a similar opportunity. I slipped behind the nearest sideshow. I didn’t like rowdiness, and I didn’t want to see how Steve would handle them.
The vibrating noise and engine smell of the large generator vans providing the power and energy for the fairground attractions nauseated me, and I felt the urge to move on. All my life I’d been attracted by the friendliness and the glamour of the fairground but, even now when I was part of it, I still didn’t want to know about the monsters powering it all.
I hurried along the narrow alley between the sideshows and the vans until I emerged at the opening to the fairground. There were no generator vans here, at the spot where an unseen line divided the fairground from the outside.
Calderhead was clearly visible from where I stood. Was it only last year I left? I tried to remember what the town was like, but could only remember the humdrum streets and the dingy flat where I grew up. Even the florist’s shop where I’d worked, now seemed dreary, and I couldn’t recall the fragrant smells that I was sure I used to enjoy so much. I looked toward the centre of the fair, vibrating with movement, and throbbing with noise and realized that this was where I now belonged.
The crowds were starting to arrive and the fair seemed to pulsate with life, a life that I wanted to embrace and be part of. I turned my back on the town which no longer existed for me. Smiling, I turned to walk towards the cacophony of sound, no longer looking for familiar faces but just watching and enjoying.
I hadn’t expected anyone I’d known before, in my past life, to see me. So it was a moment before I realized someone had spoken my name. It had been so long since I’d heard it. Steve never used names, but that had never bothered me. We had our own way of communicating.
‘Emma? It is you, isn’t it?’
I turned to the girl standing just to the side of me and smiled. I didn’t feel like smiling for I’d never really liked Sharon. She was everything I’d never be, nor had any hope of being. Still that, in some ways, made it easier.
I mumbled something in reply. It didn’t matter a great deal what I said because Sharon would probably talk enough for the two of us. She always had.
‘You are a sly one,’ she said. ‘Fancy running off with someone from the fair. I saw you, you know, with that peach of a guy. Nobody else noticed, but I did. Are you still with him?’
I nodded mutely, watching her as she fingered her long brown hair. I used to be envious of those curls, and of her hazel eyes that seemed to be able to flash green sparks at will, particularly when she was trying to attract a man. Beside her I’d always felt I wasn’t there, but then, maybe I wasn’t.
‘Can I meet him?’
I could tell what was in her mind and couldn’t bear it, so I turned to watch the bumper cars. They crashed, sparked and thudded before me. The hot electric smell making me light-headed. The rumble of the cars and the screams of their occupants faded into the distance, as if they were no longer part of my existence. But they were still there, menacing and aggressive. I found myself wishing Sharon into the centre of their arena, where they carried out their ominous bumping and grinding.
As if sensing my thoughts the cars slowed to a stop, and Sharon was still at my side saying, ‘Can I meet him? Can I?’
The crowd swayed before me as people struggled out of the bumper cars and others pushed in, to take their places in the impending assault.
‘Come on Shar! We’re going on the bumpers.’
I hadn’t noticed that Sharon was with a group of friends because I had been so caught up in my resentment towards her.
‘Go with your friends,’ I grated. Glad of the chance to be rid of her.
‘No! I want to meet your guy.’ She turned and shouted to the group who were already boarding the cars, ‘You go ahead. I’m staying with Emma.’
I could see their puzzled looks as the bumpers started off. It didn’t surprise me, for I’d never been the type of person that anyone would choose to be with.
‘Well,’ she demanded, ‘are you going to take me to meet him! What’s his name anyway? Tell me about him?’
‘His name’s Steve,’ I didn’t want to tell her but knew she’d give me no peace until I had, ‘and he runs the ghost train.’
‘Ooh! A ghost train. My favourite,’ Sharon’s eyes glowed.
I shivered. I didn’t want to take her to the ghost train and I didn’t want her to meet Steve. I knew she would flirt with him, it was one of her games, and I knew Steve would respond. For the first time since I’d met Steve I was afraid, and yet I knew that I belonged to Steve and that he would never let me go.
The ghost train was a landmark in the fairground. It loomed over everything, tall and menacing. The painting of the ghoul in the centrepiece, at the apex of the structure, seemed to embrace everybody. Watching and waiting for those unwise enough to approach. Sharon was now approaching it and I had no option but to follow.
Steve was still leaning on the wooden rail where I’d left him earlier, and as Sharon and I approached I could feel his eyes watching us.
My step slowed and an uneasy feeling crept over me as we neared the ghost train. Sharon, at my side, jabbered in my ear but the words swept over me and past me and had no effect.
Steve leaned over the rail. ‘You’ve brought a friend,’ he breathed, and I could see by the look in his eyes that he found Sharon attractive. ‘I’m always telling her,’ he nodded at me, ‘that she keeps herself to herself too much, and that she should bring her friends here.’
Sharon fluttered her eyelashes at him and I could see her eyes start to change colour. The greener they became the more annoyed I became. All of a sudden the fairground noises seemed to be rushing and receding, wave after wave, my ears clogged up and I felt dizzy. I looked at Steve, and for a moment his flesh started to ripple and seemed to melt. I blinked and then glanced at Sharon, but she hadn’t noticed anything. I shook my head to clear it and came to just as Steve was saying, ‘It’ll be my pleasure.’
What was his pleasure? I glared at him and he winked at me. ‘You’ll go on the ghost train with Sharon. Won’t you?’
‘I . . . I’d rather not,’ I stuttered. Staring at the swing doors that led into the gloomy interior.
Sharon was already in the carriage. ‘Oh! Come on Emma, don’t be a scaredy-cat.’ She looked adoringly at Steve, although she was speaking to me, and I felt a flash of irritation.
I glared at her and then at Steve as I took my place beside her. I tried not to touch her and sat rigidly in my seat, my right hand firmly gripping the side of the carriage as it moved towards the swing doors.
We clattered through and I sensed once again the oppressive darkness and the familiar, fetid smell that I could never forget. So I closed my eyes resolving not to open them until I emerged into the daylight at the other end. I could hear the rustles of Sharon as she sat giggling and gasping beside me but I paid no attention. Not even when I felt her jerked out of the carriage.
It was only after the doors clattered again that I opened my eyes. Thankful to be breathing fresh air and to see the daylight.
Steve bent over to help me out of the now empty carriage, and he smiled at me in that special way he has.
‘Maybe you should go back inside and sit with her until she’s ready to join us,’ he murmured.
I no longer hated Sharon — not now she was about to become one of us — so I smiled and nodded, before walking back to the swing doors. They barely moved as I passed through them, and as I sat down beside Sharon I didn’t look at her face. I made a point of never looking at the exhibits, not even my own.
It wouldn’t be long now, I thought, as I looked at her swaying feet, and it would be quite nice to have some company.
Chris Longmuir is a crime novelist as well as a short story and article writer. She is a member of the Society of Authors, the CWA (Crime Writers Association), the SAW (Scottish association of Writers) and is a founder member of Angus Writers Circle. She won the 2009 Dundee Book Prize with her novel Dead Wood.