A Christmas gift from Still contributing writer David Rose.
He gets tired, goes flat, effervesces less and less, has to act the part more. This is the second of the day, the fourth this week.
It’s almost set up now: the puppet kiosk in the lounge, the bouncy castle inflated on the patio, his skeleton suit on under a track-suit, the black curtain hung over the door. Now the task he has come to dread.
He takes a balloon, stretches the neck between two fingers, slips it over the pump, pumps with his foot, looking away. The balloons are raw, resistant. He used to re-use them, Snap off the clip, allow to deflate, store in a box. Waste not, want not.
Now he finds the deflated ones worse. In their shrivelled state they resemble even more closely spermatozoa, statically swimming in their cardboard box.
He can hear the children, still at table in the dining room, the noise ebbing and flowing with the serving of the courses. He bunches some balloons, garlands the kiosk, arranges others in piles around the room.
He strips off his track-suit, pushes it under the kiosk, and he’s ready, just in time. He disappears behind the open door as they file into the lounge.
They are looking around, expecting someone to be there, disconcerted to find there isn’t. He feels their expectancy, allows it to mount as he pulls on his skull mask.
One boy kicks into a pile of balloons, followed by some of the others. That’s good – it allows him to identify the dominant ones. He waits as the noise and kicking increase, then, as a climax, slams the door shut, standing against it, framed against the black backdrop.
He lets the shrieks die away.
‘Are you all friends? Has everyone here got a friend? That’s nice, that’s good. Everyone needs friends. Don’t be like me. I’ve got nobody. No body.’
(Stick to the old stuff, the tried and tested.)
He puts a hand on his chest.
‘No, it’s sad, that’s why I feel sternum. It’s not funny, it’s not humerus (waggling his arm). Alright, laugh if you like, I can take a ribbing.’
He pulls a pair of drumsticks from his back pocket, starts tapping his neck.
‘Quiet, please. I’m playing the clavicles. I can’t play the organ, I haven’t any.’
He has them now, taking them with him. He takes a saucer from his other pocket, holds it below his knee.
‘Here, tibia, tibia. What? Of course it will. Look, the saucer’s empty now. Oh yes it did. You think I’m telling fibulas?
Now, meet Elvis. Right, down to the windy plains of Ilium. Never heard of Ilium? You haven’t been doing your Homerwork, have you?’
This is above them, he’s in danger of losing them, although the inquisitive ones will look it up later. He needs to win them back.
He picks up the xylophone, starts to play Dem Bones, Dem Bones, leads them in a conga twice round the room, wends towards the kiosk, ducks inside and pulls on the diving suit.
It gives him time to calm himself. For the numbers in the room have suddenly swelled. Amongst the children crowding the kiosk he sees the hosts of the unborn jostling for attention, standing on tiptoe or shyly watching.
He dons the helmet, slowly rises above the ledge. The crowd has shrunk back to the corporeal. He breathes deeply in the helmet as he works his fingers into the rubber octopus.
‘Don’t forget the diver.’
Even he doesn’t remember ITMA but the catchphrase still works. They are fully attentive. There is one boy in particular, about eight, with a reddish glint in his hair and wonderfilled eyes, enchanted by the underwater scene in the mock aquarium, the iridescent shells and ceramic crabs. Quiet, studious, not an alpha male. He feels a kinship with the boy, decides to play to him. He points into the pebbles.
‘Look, there’s Algy.’
The boy responds, laughs, understanding the joke, leading the others.
In every party he can pick out one, the one his wife would take to, take as her own, the one who would spark off the old regrets.
He tries to shut it off, concentrate on the slow-motion movement of the octopus. It’s something he’d like to have discussed with her, but he’s never felt up to it. A problem shared is a problem doubled. He has simply passed it off as one of life’s ironies. ‘Cobblers usually go unshod.’
He finds himself drifting to the fathomless depths, working the puppets on automatic pilot. He has to pull himself back to the surface, back to the eyes.
‘These? They’re book ends. This is the Continental Shelf. Where’d he come from? Cheeky urchin.’
He’s relaxing into it again, the routine second nature – the nervous wreck, the ice cream jelly fish, the struggle to open the sunken chest (‘No good, won’t budge. You need mussels for this job.’) Now he starts building up to the climax.
He manoeuvres the octopus toward his neck, flicking the tentacles at his helmet. Some of the children shout a warning.
‘What’s that? Can’t hear with this helmet on. Who’s attacking? What? Aaaargh.’
He whips the tentacles so they twist round his neck, prolonging the battle as long as he dares, judging the point at which the tension will fall, then picks up a harpoon, spears the octopus repeatedly, has it flounder and thrash and sink out of sight.
‘There. He’s an octagon.’
He gathers a handful of foil-wrapped chocolate coins from among the pebbles.
‘Look. Six squid. No, they’re pieces of eight. Dubloons. Dubloons, dubloons, dem dub-loons. Hurray.’
He throws them by the handful out into the crowd. They shout and laugh as they catch them, scuffling over the ones on the floor.
He comes out from the kiosk, wades in among them, leads them in a slow-motion dance around the room, making gurgling noises inside the helmet. He thinks he sees, through the visor, the room filling up again, hears a soundless clamour beneath the shouting. But he’s safe now, it’s almost over. And the thing he once dreaded is now part of the performance.
He pulls off his helmet, and from a pocket in the suit takes a packet of hat pins.
‘Right. Line up. Harpoons at the ready. Go.’
They attack the piled balloons with gusto, a frenzy of stabbing, kicking, shrieking. Three boys fight to burst the last one. Now they all stand, keyed up, expectant of anti-climax.
‘On to the bouncy castle.’
They cheer, swarm through the French windows, throw themselves onto the castle.
He relaxes now. Picks up his dustpan and brush, sweeps up the shredded rubber. One balloon is still intact, shrivelled rather than burst, a faulty seal maybe. He picks it up with finger and thumb. It reminds him, even more forcibly than usual, of the sperm depicted on the poster in the clinic, a last warning before the final decision. ‘Are You Sure?’
He drops the balloon into the dustpan, finishes sweeping, checks the corners. Now he can pack up, dismantle the kiosk, take down the black curtain, take off the diving suit, start loading the van.
He checks on the children, still squealing and jumping. He picks out the boy, her boy; he’s fully integrated into the crowd, the laughter.
He goes back to the van, sits inside, allowing them an extra half hour, to wind down gradually.
After twenty minutes, the castle is deserted, the garden quiet. He goes back to deflate the castle, fingers the valve, realizes the extent of his tiredness, the allure of the castle. He lies down, undulating.
He finds himself shivering in the wind, newly-risen, He gets the diving suit from the van, pulls it back on, resettles himself on the castle.
Each stir of wind animates it. He imagines himself drifting with the tide, then descending, into the green amniotic depths, the silence.
But even the depths, the oceanic trenches, teem with life, with prodigal birth, driving him back to the surface, the single atmosphere, the deserted garden.
He keeps perfectly still.
The wind has pushed back the clouds to reveal the moon. Its light shivers through the chill air. Silver chains of moonbeams dancing. In the house there were swags of paperchains, hand-made from paper twisted and gummed, probably by the children. Long spirals looping from the picture rails. Blue and gold to match the décor.
He had seen a programme on DNA, computer-animated, the floppy ladder wound into every cell, spiralling back over generations, on into the future, endless sequence, a reverse-lottery tickertape endlessly reproduced.
‘Are You Sure?’
He looks up at the moon, imagines himself there, his gravity-less tread in his rubber suit.
Are the footsteps still there from three decades ago? Or blown away by the solar winds, the moondust resettled in the whispered cosmic surf?
It’s time, he knows, to collapse the castle, stow it in the van, drive home, put on one more act, describing the evening to his wife; the house, the children, as many as he can remember, the acts, the applause, relive it all over again.
David Rose lives in Middlesex. His stories have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies, including Still and Murmurations (Two Ravens Press, 2011). His first novel, Vault was published in 2011 (Salt Publishing).