The Real Thing
I knew I was in trouble the first time I saw you. It was the way you moved. It was clear you were incredibly strong, but at the same time there was a fluidity in the way you moved around the space. You were masterful, each action so well practised, so known. I suppose you had been doing the job for years, travelling from place to place, but the fundamentals stayed the same wherever you went. I could see that people felt safe with you. You were there to make sure they had a good time, and they did, they really did.
Before I met you, I had an average life. I worked in a call centre on the industrial estate, selling insurance for mobile phones. Some people think that this is a boring job, but I got a kick out of it. I liked helping people look after their things. People are so attached to their phones. I gave them peace of mind that if disaster struck and their beloved was lost, broken, or worse of all, stolen from them, they would get another, fast. And thanks to the miracle that is cloud computing, not a single photograph or phone number would be lost. It wouldn’t be the same, it couldn’t truly replace the one they’d lost, but it was something. It might even be better, eventually.
____The people I worked with were mostly bearable. We formed a circular pod of desks facing inwards, but, mercifully, we were usually too busy on the phones to talk to each other. What I liked most about the job was the headset – the cool metal of the headband, its elegant arc; the soft foam lightly caressing my ears, the rubber wire resting gently against my neck.
____It started like any other day. I worked for exactly three and a half hours, then broke for lunch, traipsing down to the canteen with the others. As I began to peel the cling-film slowly off my sandwiches, I noticed my colleague Sharon’s gaze fixed on the wall behind me.
____“Will you go?” she asked, bobbing her head. I twisted round to see what she was referring to. It was a poster announcing the arrival in town of Funderworld, the ultimate fairground experience. I shrugged.
____“Johnny’s taking me,” Sharon said, a note of pride in her voice. She made a show of inspecting her fingernails. These were easily the most impressive thing about her, pillar box red and made of acrylic.
____“That’s nice,” I said. Sharon had been chasing Johnny, a wan divorcé who worked the floor below us in the upgrades team, for weeks. I couldn’t for the life of me understand what she saw in him. Admittedly my experience in such matters was limited, but from what I could tell, he didn’t seem very interested in her. But this wasn’t for me to say. Perhaps Sharon would finally beguile him at the fairground.
____“Why don’t you see if Miles will take you?” she said.
____I almost choked on my crust. The idea of needing a man to take me to the fair was preposterous, quite apart from the fact that I no idea who she was talking about.
____“I’ll probably give it a miss,” I said, regaining my composure. “I need to bleed my radiators this evening.”
____Sharon rolled her eyes.
____“You need to get a life, Kit.”
____I ignored this. I was rather looking forward to spending an evening with my radiators, which were the elegant, cast-iron Victorian type, but that was none of her concern.
The fairground was heaving. Frenetic. Music blared in competing rhythms and that inescapable fairground smell hung in the air – chip fat and hot sugar, with a top-note of frankfurter. It was incredible to think that just the night before it had been a desolate football pitch. Now it was its own town, bustling with steel and souls.
____Amongst all the activity, you stood out, overseeing proceedings from your vantage point between the helter skelter and the ghost train. You had such presence. Maybe it was because of your lifestyle – some imperative, created by transience, to assert your existence immediately, irrefutably – but you seemed to glisten with a raw energy that had no parallel in my everyday life. I stood watching you, mesmerised, while people moved around me like lava.
____Sharon’s shriek seemed to call her into being in front of me, a ghoulish apparition snatching my attention away from you. She was like a mannequin in a 1980s shop window, eyelids and lips slathered with primary colours, too-tight clothing squeezing her lumpen body in unfortunate places. Johnny, with her, had a wilted, hangdog look.
____I greeted them without enthusiasm, hoping they would move along quickly.
____“Thought you were bleeding radiators tonight?” Sharon found this inexplicably hilarious now, cackling loudly and nudging Johnny with a leopard-print clad elbow.
____“I changed my mind.”
____“We saw you from the big wheel. You’ve been standing there for ages. Geezer caught your eye, eh?” she said with an exaggerated wink, gesturing in your general direction. Johnny shifted his weight awkwardly from one foot to another. They both looked cold, steam shooting from their nostrils.
____“You should stay away from pikeys,” Johnny mumbled.
____“You should mind your own business,” I said, walking away.
You wore your name on your front, but it was three nights before I told you mine. Blurting it out over the roar of the music, I felt a bolt of energy pass between us. I know you felt it too. You had a boy helping you, taking money, sliding notes into a pouch slung low around his hips, ushering people forward. I lingered late at the fairground, waiting for him to leave so we could be alone together. Some things should not have spectators.
____As their canvasses came down, I said a silent goodnight to the hook-a-duck, the rifle range, the tin can alley. Finally, the boy loped off towards the rows of parked trailers at the edge of the field, their windows framed by slivers of welcoming yellow light.
____Clothed in darkness you were all the more exciting. In the shadows I pressed my body against you and felt your hardness. You smelt delicious, of leather and engine oil. Heat rushed through my body, bearing down, gathering low in my pelvis, pulsing between my legs. Dropping to my knees I reached for you with my mouth and you were rigid against my tongue.
You were different after that. Tender, more protective. I shortened your name to Walt; you seemed to like it, winking at me that way you do. You held me a little closer, I yielded a little faster. How safe I felt in your grip. How easily you kept me in your thrilling orbit. The boy, I think, found me odd coming back to see you night after night, but he humoured me. I liked him. I expect he liked my ticket money.
____With each day that passed, time went more slowly at work. My customers were moronic; my colleagues, ever more unrelatable. The headset no longer held its appeal.
____“You look how I feel,” said Sharon, across the Formica canteen table as we loosed the lids of our respective Tupperware to reveal their uninspiring contents.
____“Johnny’s dumped me.” This was rather an over-statement – it was common knowledge around the call centre that Johnny had refused to go out with Sharon again since their date at the fair. I thought this a lucky escape. Sharon, slouching in her chair, her mouth drooping, unusually naked without its smear of bright lipstick, clearly did not agree. I felt sorry for her. She wanted so much to be loved.
____“I’m sorry to hear that Sharon,” I said. “Plenty more fish in the sea, isn’t that what they say?” But it wasn’t a fish that Sharon wanted; unfathomably, it was Johnny, a casual racist who was ashamed to be seen with her.
____All I wanted was you, Walt. But the Funderworld poster was already curling at the edges and soon it would be taken down, along with your pop-up city and everything in it, and nothing would be left there but squashed polystyrene smeared with ketchup, and empty drinks cans crushed into the ground, and I didn’t know how I would bear it.
I knew there were other people in the world like me, other people who think and feel about things the way I do, but I had never had a reason to seek them out before.
____They were right there for me, there in the cloud.
____All it took was a few taps on my phone, a string of simple words to explain my predicament, and they knew just what to do. Some of them had done it themselves. Some of them were still waiting for the One. I hoped they could all be as lucky as I had been to find you.
Now, the scene is set. I have arranged everything. A small crowd has assembled. Overcoming their initial bewilderment, the fairground people have seized on the opportunity for publicity. I’ve spoken to three journalists already. There’s even a TV camera here, its perfectly round, unblinking eye trained on me, dressed in the fanciest outfit I could muster at such short notice – an ivory skirt suit with a matching silk flower in my hair. A few people from work have turned up. I’m sure some of them are here more to gawp than to give support, but I’m too happy to dwell on that. I understand that this is beyond the comprehension of most people.
____Sharon’s here. She was actually very sweet when I told her, after she made me repeat myself three times and almost stopped breathing from laughing so much. “You do you, Kit, who am I to judge?” she said, which must be the most enlightened thing I have ever heard her say. She’s brought the fabled Miles, who, it turns out, had his eye on her, not me, all along. He suits her, with his leather jacket and extravagant sideburns. She’s cock-a-hoop. Johnny has started sniffing round Sue from accounts. To her credit, Sue’s not having any of it.
____You lit up last night when I ran it all past you. I was bold, asking the boy for something of yours, some token, that I can keep with me always, to feel close to you when we’re apart. He gave me this – a shiny, hexagonal chrome nut, cool to the touch and unmistakably imbued with your essence. I’ve laced it through a chain around my neck for now, but as soon as I can, I will have it made small enough to wear around the third finger of my left hand.
____Walt, I hardly deserve you – you, who exists to serve others. But for what I am worth, I am yours. When we are apart, which I hope won’t be much, I will look down at my wedding band and know that we are one and joined forever.
____I say all this to you now.
____I say it silently, but I know that you can hear me because your soul hears mine. And in a moment I, Kitty Jones, will say my vows to you aloud, before the gathered congregation. Then I will climb onto you, and I know you will give me the most exhilarating ride I have ever had, whipping me this way and that, up and down, holding me firmly in your centripetal force. Flesh against metal. Heartbeat against vibration. Energy zapping back and forth between us, sending me into paroxysms of bliss. How beautiful you are, Walt, with your undulating boardwalk, your blinking bulbs of rainbow light, your swooping curved seats, your solid, gleaming chrome.
Originally published by Loft Books.