For Mavis Gallant
It was Fair Day. Weeks before, the woman and her son had decided they would go along and now the day was upon them. In her mind, the woman had pictured them riding the Ferris wheel many times since it had first been mentioned, high above the crowds with fairy floss sticks in their hands and sun on their hairlines. She had become fixated on the freedom of the Ferris wheel, imagining them up there at least once a day, becoming more and more sure of how wonderful it would be. The woman rather liked her own tendency to become fixated. It seemed to her a strong quality; one of holding on and never letting go, like a dog with some flesh or a bone. She had little time for those with weak ideas.
By the time they arrived at the fairground gates, the woman was almost drunk. She knew she had swallowed rather a lot – warm cider, beer and mildewed liqueur at home in the breakfast room while her son had been bathing and dressing and bowing his tie. She had already forgotten the flask of sherry finished in the taxi on the way, the flask that now sat empty on the taxi seat two towns over, abandoned. The woman’s son had looked away as she took slight sips and talked too much to the taxi driver. She did not know where her son had picked up such timidity. It was best to confront uncomfortable feelings, to tell someone if you wanted them to stop. The woman imagined being confronted by her son in the taxi, giving him a look of gentle scorn, placing the top back on the flask and moving her eyes carefully out the window. The thought stoked the warm feeling in her chest.
‘Mother, are you drunk already?’ the man asked the woman. He was a man and not a child, she remembered now, watching the hairs of his moustache glisten in the morning sun. She saw that he was holding a child on his hip; a small, watchful child with blonde curls. Her granddaughter.
‘Where did she come from?’ the woman asked, the sun right in her eyes now so that she could hardly see either of them.
‘She was here with us all along, for goodness sake,’ her son replied, his tone pointed and heavy. She resented his disapproval. The child was small and didn’t make much noise – she could easily be missed. He got his huff from her husband’s family; her dead husband with his need to flaunt her faults to anyone who would listen. She would not let it spoil her day.
‘Well, I suppose she will enjoy the Ferris wheel.’
The line, when they found it, snaking around the side of the haunted caravan and past the Beaver Tails stand, was much longer than the woman had hoped. She detested waiting, felt the small of her back and the arches of her feet begin to ache as soon as they settled in behind a family eating a pizza straight from the box. Sweat had gathered in all the places she never mentioned, and she was thirsty.
The child was looking at her, eyes blue as the sky above, reminding her briefly of her son as a child wrapped in linen looking up at her. They both had expectation in their eyebrows, the slight smile of their mouths.
‘How old is she again?’ the woman asked her son, the man, regarding his daughter, the child.
‘Three,’ said the child.
The woman moved her face into a sharp frown.
‘Is she always this rude?’
The woman prided herself on speaking her mind. There was no point in pretending that everything was okay, that people were behaving themselves when they were not. She had asked the son a question and the grandchild had answered, when no one had even addressed her. It was good sense to put her in her place.
‘I’m not going to answer that,’ her son answered.
‘Are you always this rude?’ the woman asked her grandchild, golden dumpling floating in a soup of dainty clothes and sun. The child was still looking at her, still smiling that slight smile. She knew what she was doing.
‘Daddy says I am a very good girl.’
She did not remember children speaking this much when she had had them, but there you are, the world is changing, thought the woman, and decided she would look for somewhere to get a drink.
‘Yes, I’m sure he does tell you that. But you mustn’t let your innocence go to your head.’
As she walked away towards a far-off sign featuring a frothy glass of beer, the woman heard her son sigh. He was just like his father, with an air of regret as dense as smoke.
When the woman returned the man and the child were at the start of the line. She produced a note and paid for them all, the beer hydrating her heart. The Ferris wheel was pretty, just as she had pictured it, with thin, pastel painted bars and baskets decorated with bears and stars and lollipops. She wondered why her son and the child did not exclaim at the sight, for it was beautiful and they were lucky to behold it.
In their little basket, the woman and the man and the child sat. There was barely a wait before the Ferris wheel whirred into motion, swinging their little basket as they moved slowly across and up towards the top.
‘Daddy!’ the child exclaimed, her body clambering to be on top of them both, to be able to see the most. The woman nudged a chubby leg off her knee; she didn’t care for overweight children.
‘Daddy!’ the child yelled again.
‘Quiet child, we are trying to watch,’ the woman told her.
They all sat still, the child on top of the man’s shoulders, precarious and stunned. Below them the world heaved and fluttered, as if they were not up here in the air looking down. The woman closed her eyes. Now that she was finally here, at the top of the Ferris wheel, stopped in a slightly swinging basket, she wished she were alone on the ground where she could be free to drink and imagine.
When the woman opened her eyes the child was sitting alone opposite her, wrapped in bunting. Her son, the man, was gone.
‘Where on earth – ? Where has your father gone, child!’
The child across from her was different, less chubby and more rigid, its eyes less blue and more grey. The woman wondered if the man had fallen and remembered she loved him, despite his faults. She looked down below their rocking basket but could not see any bodies or gasping crowds.
‘Child – where did he go!’ The woman took the small girl in her hands, wanting to show her this was serious; but feeling not skin, but plastic beneath her fingers. The child was a doll. Her grandchild a doll and her son gone! In that moment, as the woman’s heart became icy with fear, the Ferris wheel sprang back to life and lurched forward. It moved quicker than it had earlier and the pastel-coloured machinery was dull and cold. The woman closed her eyes again. The Ferris wheel kept moving and moving, but when she opened her eyes and closed them and opened them again it had never reached the bottom.
The woman sat in her basket on the Ferris wheel as the sun said hello to the horizon and then went to sleep behind the plains. She wrapped the fabric that had circled the doll around her for warmth. She could not see any of the other baskets no matter how she strained her head or her body, and she wondered if she was asleep or very drunk; if in fact she was only dreaming. The woman drowsed through the night, rocked to sleep by the swaying of the basket as the Ferris wheel huffed up and up, never seeming to descend. It was infinite, the time she would spend here; this she began to understand. She wondered if she was being punished. In the morning, in the afternoon, the woman knew she would not last long. She looked at the doll, once her grandchild. She wished her son was there to hide its glossy skin.