Wednesday 11 July 2018

The Carousel

by Kim Martins


The night circus arrives in town every summer with its promises of pink cotton candy and carousel rides.

The painted horses of the carousel always attract Kate’s son. "I want to ride the horses," James pleads, pulling her towards the rides. She can never say no to her tousle-haired boy.

The carousel whirls and Kate catches glimpses of the excited faces of children, ice-cream trickling down their chins as they watch a clown perform.

"Honey, let's get off now, okay?" she says, as the platform completes its final turn and slows down. She turns to look at the brightly-coloured horse her son has been riding.

"James, where are you? We need to get off so other people can get on," she says, searching for her son in the jumble of lifeless eyes and carved manes.

"Do you need help?" Kate sees a young woman staring at her from ground level. She is struck by the intensity of her hazel eyes and puzzled expression.

“My son,” she says. “He is wearing a green dinosaur T-shirt and brown shorts. Have you seen him? He was on the horse right behind me.” Kate steps off the carousel and tries to calm her rising fear.

"I don't think there was anybody on the ride behind you,” says the young woman, her voice calm and measured.

The horses set off on another journey. The organ music cranking through loudspeakers reverberates in Kate's head, making her feel dizzy. She looks for a place to sit down.

"My name's Naomi. There’s a bench over here. Let me help you," she says, gripping Kate’s elbow and guiding her towards the nearest bench. Naomi smiles but there is something about her that makes Kate uneasy. She notices a small galloping horse tattoo on Naomi’s inner wrist and she’s certain she has seen it before.

"Where's your husband? Maybe James is with him or maybe he saw some friends and went to be with them?"

Kate’s dress clings to her back, slick with sweat. "My husband is in the city on a business trip. I brought James here…", she says, feeling hot tears brimming. She wants to find her son, not sit here wasting time talking to this stranger.

Kate feels she is being watched and glances at the carousel operator, a gnarled man with a salt and pepper beard. He is smoking a cigarette between rides, staring at them intently.

"Look, why don't we ask the guy in charge of the carousel ride? He's just over there. He might recall seeing your son,” says Naomi.

Kate hesitates before getting up, unsteady on her feet. She walks the short distance but is frightened by a knowing look that flickers between Naomi and the carousel operator.

"What have you done with my son? Where is he?" she yells. She knows she is losing control but her hands are shaking, her breath short and fast.

"Ma'am, take it easy,” says the carousel operator. His face is lined with wrinkles, his expression detached. “I 'aint seen your son. I don't know what y'all talking about and you best not go around accusing people of things.”

"Please calm down,” says Naomi. "I'll go look for him and you should call your husband".

Naomi sets off in the direction of the large red and white-striped tent. Kate fumbles for her cell phone in her purse.

She calls and waits for Tom to pick up, hoping he isn’t at a client function with the phone switched off.

"Kate? Everything okay? I can't talk for long," says Tom. She can hear the unease in his voice or perhaps he’s just tired.

"It's James. I can't find him.”

“For heaven's sake Kate -"

"He was with me on the carousel ride and then he…".

"I'm calling Geoff. I know where you are. Stay there," Tom rings off.

Kate moves back to the bench and waits for Geoff to arrive, watching the dips and curves of the wooden horses as they glide by. She squints as splintered reflections from the gold lights that decorate the carousel bounce off its mirrored-centre. There are moments when she wishes she had never brought James to the night circus.

Some time later, Kate hears her name being called and senses a man sitting next to her, the familiar smell of his aftershave a welcoming comfort. “You shouldn't be here,” he says, reaching a strong arm across her shoulders.  “It's been two years now.”

Kate’s head is aching and she thinks, not for the first time, that perhaps she needs to go back to the hospital.

"Oh, Geoff. I just wanted to feel like I was with him again, the place where he disappeared," says Kate, almost whispering the words to her brother.

She looks up and sees Naomi and the carousel operator standing together, deep in conversation, watching children ride the painted horses.

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