The filing system was large, dense and complex. They always are, in your head, but ask modern archivists and they will tell you about well-lit rooms with motorised carousel storage that shrinks the world to a two-digit number on a keypad. But in your head, the filing system was filled with shadow and indexed by a demon.
I remember my Grandmother’s cabinet. Glass-fronted, each panel etched with a complex pattern of flowers and leaves that never quite seemed to match your memory. I had favourite knot-whorls in the surface of my Grandmother’s table, I had the grain of the brushstrokes in the paint on the walls of her bathroom memorised, but I could never quite get the patterns on the cabinet fixed. I should have had a favourite flower, or known a leaf that looked like a dog. But it went through my head, like trying to catch sunlight in a sieve.
The day had been short, lit by a mocking sunlight that refused to admit Christmas cheer into its long black shadows. People now churn through the streets of the City, pushing home, diving here and there from the crowd to chance a last-minute bit of gift shopping. The dark evening barely intrudes in the continuous stream of headlights, streetlights and the bobbing rectangles of phone screens, frantically being consulted for opening times, stock levels, last trains.
Everything is broken. I don’t even know how we got here. Last I knew, we were zipping together down the dirty-yellow plastic flume at the local leisure centre. Now we’re here, adrift in clear shallow water at the foot of a cloud-smocked peak in god knows what part of South America.
I’m not complaining, per se. I am wondering how we return. Did we move through time or space? Have I forgotten our journey here, or did we never make one? After the leisure centre, my mind is a blur, a scramble. A mundane last memory, but one that melds perfectly with our situation. Did we tumble from the slide into this dream?
Another day I might remember. Give me another day here, and I might forget more. I sweep my arms above my head, sending swirls of ripples across the lake. They fan out and, from high on the mountain, perhaps someone can see an angel in the water.
“Mate,” he said, not looking at me. “Mate, come on. It’s just up here. In this pond.” Pond, I thought. Maybe that’s a local name because it looks like a lake to me. But then again, I’m no fisherman. If I was, I probably wouldn’t be here. I’d be somewhere safe, a long way away.
The lights burn holes in your eyes if you stay out too long in front of the curtain. They say you can tell the long-time performers by the glimmer of darkness nestled in their gaze; the spots have punched their lights out. It’s not a sad place to be, not when you’re up there. The wash lights warm your skin and melt the greasepaint into your mouth. The performance becomes you, if you want. There is no mask but your face, a painting with those terrible black holes in the centre.
As manager, it doesn’t touch him. He closes his eyes and feels the performance thunder through the boards. The crowd roars, heckles, squeals with delight. It kicks up dust and sunlight as the day starts to vanish and the evening shows begin, the crowd changing timbre as the dark closes around them. The edgy, half-contained violence of a mob is always part of the spirit at the Fair and it gets harder to push back into the bottle as the drink flows.
Everyone knows not to mess with the manager, though. He sits at the front, just outside the idiot stare of the lights, and listens. The sway of the throng creates the breeze that plucks restlessly at his flat-combed hair, he tastes it like a snake. His face is unreadable, but after all these years he is tired and he is sad. He has seen and felt too much. He opens his eyes and stares at the light.
Takes a lot to get me to notice things. I’m hoovering the rug one morning and it didn’t even occur to me that there was no table on it. What had happened to the coffee table? Then I started thinking maybe we’d never had a coffee table but no, there were the dents in the pile although they were fading and filled with dust.
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