‘Circling the Night’ by Helen Gordon
Our new short story of the month is ‘Circling the Night’ by Helen Gordon.
“You look pretty,” Gemma says, accusatorily. “You’re going to pull tonight.”
For Leila and her friends a night at the fair is full of opportunities that only the heady world of teenage relationships, fancy dress and friendship can provide.
Helen Gordon's short fiction has won the Cambrensis Short Story Competition, been shortlisted for the Real Writers Short Story Awards and longlisted for both the Bridport Prize and the Fish International Short Story Prize. Her non-fiction has been published in The Big Issue and The Church Times as well as in local lifestyle magazines. She currently lives in Shropshire, where she brings up her two boys and works as a freelance journalist.
Circling the Night
Leila makes her father drop her by the bridge, where they can hear the muffled boom of the fairground shaking through the dusk.
“You look beautiful,” he tells her as she slides out of the car and fluffs her skirts back into a bell.
“Go!” she hisses. But he doesn’t. He watches her tug at the ringlets she’s spent the whole afternoon curling, fiddle with the silk daisies in their midst. And he’s still watching as she picks her way down the alley, turns the corner and lets the fairground take her.
It’s a scratchy excuse for a fairground; a few spidery rides cornered into the tiny car-park that can barely contain them. It’s a sideshow to the pub-spilled streets, thick with messy delight; a gathering-ground for teens too old for costume competitions but too young to squeeze up against heaving bars in the hope of getting a pint.
Leila’s shoes - her mother’s old tap shoes that she found crushed at the base of the dressing-up trunk – tap across the pitted tarmac towards the waltzer, where Gemma and Lizzie are waiting.
Gemma has added a short chequered tie to her school uniform, pulled a flimsy police hat firmly over her curls and rolled her skirt so short that the gusset of her fishnet tights is showing. She has a thick truncheon in one hand and a bottle of 20/20 in the other, and both of them look dangerous.
She puts the bottle down on the bottom step of the waltzer to take in the pink ribbons curling through the net of Leila’s skirt, the pinafore frills of her top, the improbable white of her tights.
“What the fuck are you? Little Bo Peep?”
“A clockwork doll” Leila says, turning to show the gold-sprayed cardboard key sticking sideways out of her back and then completing the circuit self-consciously, fingers splayed, just as she had for the camera at home.
“You look pretty,” Gemma says, accusatorily. “You’re going to pull tonight.”
It’s a promise and a threat, and Leila’s heart leaps and cramps, leaps and cramps until it merges with the disco beat pounding through her veins.
Lizzie, in a pink fur-trimmed cowboy hat and thigh-high leather boots that go no way towards closing the gap on her skirt, takes a deep swig of the 20/20 and thrusts the lurid green liquid in Leila’s direction. She’s got a psychedelic rock dummy strung round her neck and she sucks on it provocatively, her eyes fixed on the bare chest of the boy spinning the cars of the waltzer.
Leila drinks, breathes through the syrupy burn, and looks out across the night. The fairground’s already busy. Clumps of oddly dressed youths cluster together letting the disco beat thump them into a state of excitement. She scans them, endlessly, her heart twitching in hope and fear, but she can’t see Rhys Davis amongst them.
“Come on then, who d’ya fancy?” says Gemma, curving her back against the waltzer railings and puffing out her chest. “Oh don’t be a stuck up bitch. Come on.”
She thrusts the half-empty bottle into Leila’s face, watches her swig, then pushes it back until it re-connects with her lips.
“It’s not fucking cough mixture” she says, “Drink!”
“Right then,” she repeats, when Leila’s swallowed to her satisfaction “Tell us who you fancy.”
“Come on. It’s Rob Thomas isn’t it?”
“No-” she says far too quickly, because a year ago it had been, and the thought of Gemma knowing makes something delicate crunch inside her, like a ladybird under a boot.
“No, it’s not. It’s not. ”
Shame’s burning through the pink circles she’s painted so carefully onto her cheeks and Gemma’s watching it cat-like, her claws twitching in anticipation of the kill.
“Honestly. Not Rob Thomas. Someone else.”
Gemma eyes the bait coolly, waits for it to turn its pale belly towards her.
“Go on then…”
“It’s Rhys Davis,” breathes Leila and even the words have a music to them, a soft rustle of pleasure that whispers somewhere in the tissue of her skirt and lingers like a sigh, cooling the burning circles of her cheeks. Rhys Davis. Rhys Davis. Rhys Davis.
Gemma curls her lip in revulsion.
“What d‘you fancy that lanky dick for? He’s rank. Anyway he’s been getting off with my cousin.”
Gemma’s cousins are many and nameless and Leila knows better than to mess with the suggestion of one. She reaches instead for the booze and holds the fiery green liquid in her mouth until it dissolves the surface of her teeth, burns away the horror crawling at the base of her belly.
“Alright alchy!” says Gemma, snatching the bottle back and taking a long answering swig of her own. “It’s not just for you, you know.”
Leila hardly notices. Because there, at the far end of the car park, is the silhouette she’s been looking for all night, and a tight spiral of joy is corseting her lungs, making it difficult to breathe. Rhys Davis: in khaki shorts and a cork-dangled hat, with two white streaks of sunblock slanting each side of his perfectly crooked nose, is walking across the car park.
“No, No: - No, No; No, No” pumps the music, its rhythm forcing her hiccupping heart back in line with its beat, “No, No;-”
“Look out girls!” shrieks Gemma, cutting through the refrain and tugging Leila back from the other side of the fairground, “I think we’ve pulled here-” because a group of lanky cavemen in tiger-print togas are advancing from behind the burger van brandishing inflatable clubs.
They’re just the boys from year twelve, exotic in their nakedness, their furs. They converge on Lizzie first of course, then settle themselves on the surrounding girls like wasps on a picnic.
A tall one with a knobbly collarbone and a great flop of blond hair, whose name might be Karl, drapes a heavy arm around Leila’s shoulders and grins blurrily into her face.
He smells of sweaty onions and lager and some deeply disguised musky spray that curls sensuously around those other smells and makes Leila swig gratefully from the can he offers her; tilt her hip sideways so that it curves into his thigh.
She hopes Rhys Davies can see her here, surrounded by men, bending softly under the weight of this broad-armed caveman. But when she glances out across the car park his cork-hung hat is gone.
They pass the cider-can back and forth silently between them, hips hooked together like stickle-bricks, until the last swig is gone and there’s nothing left to do but kiss.
“Hey,” he says, letting his hand flop down her back and rest on the cardboard key. “Want me to turn you on?”
“Oy-Oy!” roar the cavemen, slapping him on the back as he grins, delighted with his conceit.
“Turn you on,” he repeats, eyes sugary with desire.
“Just fucking get off with her,” says Gemma, and as if he’s been waiting patiently for this order, he does. For a moment everything’s a dark, warm blur of tongues and lips and teeth. Then he wraps his heavy arm around her waist and narrows his eyes at the darkness.
“Let him finger you, but kick him in the bollocks if he tries anything,” Gemma calls after them, as he pulls her into night. And with that the caveman steers her around the pools of vomit to the back of the waltzer, where he can press her up against the rattling side of the generator to smudge the pearly pink of her lipstick and rip the tiny white stitches of her skirt.
It’s just beginning to drizzle when Leila re-emerges into the flash and spin of the fair. Her face feels raw where his mouth gnawed against hers, there’s a cold hole in her chest where a button ought to be, and however hard she tugs, her skirt remains permanently displaced, like a cork that’s been pulled from the bottle and will never fit again.
She can see Lizzie’s pink-trimmed cowboy hat pressed up against the wall of the toilet block behind some other caveman, but Gemma is nowhere in sight.
The waltzer-man is breathing a long slur of words into the microphone that bounce senselessly around the ride, and somewhere amongst the spin and slur a woman starts to scream.
“…to ride the waltzeeeeeeer!” the man finishes in a breathy wheeze, raising his thumb at the shirtless boy, who gives the nearest car another perfunctory spin.
Leila leans against the rail and watches the cars spiralling through the flash-lit dusk in a frenzied spin of adrenaline. Her heart is still paddling in time with the generator, the unpleasant taste of someone else’s cider is stuck under her tongue, but there’s a sick sense of victory settling in her belly too; the giddy satisfaction of knowing that she’s pulled.
“Alright Leila,” says a voice, and there’s Rhys Davis lowering himself onto the step beside her.
The night stalls and then loops backwards in a flicker of silvery strobe.
She tugs at the ripped edges of her blouse and presses them to her chest in an effort to hold her heart in place, pushes her ringlets back behind her ears, smiles and then stops smiling, for fear she’s smiling too much.
Rhys stretches his long legs out and presents her with a can of Carling from the SPAR bag at his feet. He says something about the rain, although she’s not sure what, because his hand is on her knee and her mind’s full of the perfect proportions of his fingers, the solid square set of his knuckles. She glances up at the glorious bump of his nose, his white-streaked cheek bones, and some hidden part of her flops open in exhausted relief.
Rhys’ shoulder is pressing warmly against hers and she leans gratefully into it, trying to memorise the exact weight of his arm, the exact proportions of those fingers.
She feels, perhaps, she should speak. But Rhys is happily pouring lager down his throat, and so they sit side by side in silence whilst the beat of the waltzer tingles through their buttocks and groins and spines.
“What are you then?” he asks, brushing his fingers down the crinkly static of her skirt.
“A clockwork doll.”
She tilts her body forward to reveal the cardboard key; waits for him to offer to turn her on. But he doesn’t. He just grins at her, lets his pupils float over the surface of her face, leans so close she can do nothing but close her eyes.
“Oi, what d’you think you’re doing?”
Gemma’s marching across the fairground, truncheon aloft; the thick rope of her hair swinging dangerously behind her.
“I thought I told you to keep off him.”
“Fuck off Em,” says Rhys, but his big square knuckles are gone, and there’s a cold print on her thigh where his hand no longer is.
Gemma’s doesn’t even bother to look at him.
“You trying to fuck with my cousin?” she says, lowering her face until her eyes are just inches away from Leila’s.
“We were just talking,”
“Well I don’t think Sharon’s going to be happy when I tell her you were trying to get off with her boyfriend.”
“I wasn’t! And I didn’t know…”
“I just fucking told you! Didn’t I just tell her!” screams Gemma, rounding on Lizzie who breaks away from her caveman to nod.
Gemma pulls Lizzie’s half-ravished body from the clutches of the caveman and spins her towards the street.
“Come on,” she yells, “We’re not hanging out with this bitch anymore,” and with a giggle and a strut they’re gone.
Leila stands alone in the strobe-lit dark watching them march in slow motion towards the main street. Rhys is nowhere to be seen. She stands for a few moments holding emptiness to her chest where her happiness had been, blinking in time with the beat. But she can’t stay here alone - not with lights flashing off the tears in her eyes - so she taps across the car park and drifts out into the night, the fair-beat padding the back of her ears like cotton wool.
The town is adrift in a roar of drunkenness. People pack the pavements and fill the street, tramping shards of plastic pint-glasses underfoot.
This is the town’s glory night and no-one’s going to waste it on sobriety. Everyone, from the young to the old, have donned a costume and come out to accessorise it with beer.
Leila pushes her way through the throng. Her shoes are rubbing a raw hole in the side of her foot and the blood is blooming up her tights as she slides her skirts past the revellers.
“Hey love, I could turn you on!” someone calls from among a crowd of leprechauns, but she doesn’t stop to smile.
She looks around for Rhys in a frenzy of hope and fear, but all she sees is a pack of bespectacled Where’s Wallys; a rubber-headed Michael Jackson moon-walking along the central reservation; a woman with a cabbage-leaf bra tied together with string grinding her cabbage-wrapped loins against a lamp post.
Leila taps unsteadily past them all towards the quiet of the roundabout. This night has been the highlight of the year for as long as any of them can remember. She, Gemma and Lizzie have been everything in these streets; flower fairies with pink glittery wings; sunflowers, in a giant hula-hoop pot; scarecrows with straw in their boots, three-sevenths of a giant painted rainbow, replete in neon-bright socks.
She remembers circling the town after the safety of the costume competitions was over, before being packed off home to bed; the first few revellers over-spilling the pubs, the fear haunting her parents’ eyes, the cries and laughter of the drunken; the hot smell of danger hanging in the air.
“Want me to turn you on?” says someone in a delighted slur, and before Leila can move there are clammy hands either side of her waist.
She turns to see a man almost too drunk to stand leering into her face. There’s no knowing what he’s meant to be. He’s paired a frizzy blonde wig with a pair of silver fairy-wings and has a great flop of naked gut hanging over his silver hot pants. Leila tries not to look at him.
“I can turn you on,” he drawls, pawing at the key she sprayed with three coats of gold and cut out with the tiny scissors that had dug a round notch in her thumb.
She twists her body away from him and moves off towards the pavement, but he’s caught a fist-full of skirt now and is pulling it towards him.
“Hey, love,” he slurs, jowls wobbling. “Don’t go. I’m just talking to you…”
She can hear the skirt rip as she twists again, the tiny stitches that she’d unpicked from the waistband of her old bridesmaid’s dress shredding like paper under his fist.
“I’m going to find my friends,” Leila murmurs, although really she can’t go anywhere. He’s got her by the waist, by the bum, pinning her under his arm with his belly folded against her.
All around her people roar and laugh and shove.
“We’re just talking…” he repeats to no-one in particular. His arm is so warm it’s damp, and his silver body paint is coating the white frills of her top. He lifts his other clammy hand very slowly and tries to direct it towards her breast.
“I can turn you on…” he drawls again, reaching his target at last.
“Oi, you get your dirty hands off her!”
It’s such a strong shout of reason that for a moment Leila actually thinks it’s the police. The man drops his hand. Maybe he’s drunk enough to think that Gemma’s plastic truncheon is an actual weapon of law enforcement. Maybe he knows one of Gemma’s cousins. Either way, he hangs his head, shuffles his silver hot-pants off into the crowd and disappears behind a Smurf.
“Alright you slut,” says Gemma, hands on hips. “Can’t you keep your knickers on for more than five minutes?”
Lizzie sucks her rock dummy silently whilst Leila wipes mascara across the back of her hand and looks at the tatters of her beautiful white skirt.
“I told you you looked pretty didn’t I?” says Gemma, hooking her arm through Leila’s. “I told you you’d pull tonight,” and she marches her back through the mess of drunken men towards the steady pulse of the fair.