THE LIGHTS REMAIN
Outside the store in which Sandra works, there is an Orbiter. She can’t see it from the stuffy back room in which she spends most of her day, but when she takes her breaks she has a view, from the staff room window, of the travelling fair. The Orbiter at rest resembles a giant mechanical spider. When it lurches into action, it becomes a marvel of whirling limbs. She can hear the barkers eliciting screams from the girls they spin round. She can see the thrill on the girls’ faces, and the gaudy artwork on the backboards. If she opens a window, she can smell the diesel coming from the throbbing generators. Even with the windows closed, she can hear the music – an endless loop of pop that she could begin to hate.
The fair comes every year. When it seems as if winter is just around the corner, the fair turns up. Its arrival this year has coincided with a girls’ night out.
Sandra goes, with the rest of the girls, down the stairs and through the empty store. When the automatic doors open, she smells the candyfloss. The lights are bright now against the darkening sky. They head at first away from the fair, towards Paula’s house. It’s not far. When they get inside, they can still hear the music, the noise of the machines and the fairgoers. They take over Paula’s bathroom and bedroom, drinking cider and listening to chart music while they do their hair and make-up, as if they were still 17. They refer to each other as girls but most of them are nearing 40.
Leaving behind their work clothes – their logoed shirts and grey trousers and sensible shoes – they make for the front door in strappy, sparkly outfits.
They walk back into town and through the centre, stepping in high heels over the power cables that are hidden beneath ridges of temporary tarmac. The girls are loud and bright. They shine. Even their skin glitters, even their hair. They stop for hot dogs and a go on the big wheel. Sandra likes the waltzers, and the boys who spin you round, or used to – they do it more for the young girls.
They pass the kiddies’ rides, the parents waving enthusiastically each time they see their child coming round, as if every sighting were just as exciting as the first.
They enter a busy pub on Market Street and join the queue at the bar. A young man standing in front of them turns his head, holds Sandra’s gaze and says, ‘There’s a face I haven’t seen for a while.’ Sandra says, ‘Long time no see,’ and then the conversation stalls. The man turns back to the bar, orders and pays. He is holding a couple of happy-hour doubles when he meets Sandra’s eye again and nods towards a window seat.
When Sandra sits down, her face is illuminated by the merry- go-round on the other side of the window. While they talk, her hand strays, touching his arm, his knee, his thigh. She laughs a lot, although she is regretting the hot dog she ate, the smell of the oily onions that must be on her breath. From time to time, she says, ‘I ought to go and find my friends,’ but she doesn’t go anywhere. Eventually, the girls come and find her and tell her that they are going on somewhere else. They don’t ask her if she is coming with them; it is obvious that she is not. They take their time saying goodbye, though, making sure they get a good look at him. They will want to talk about him on Monday, even though Sandra will not.
When happy hour ends, she and he leave too. They walk through the fair. He puts his arm across her shoulders and she wraps her arm around his middle, hooking her thumb into the corner of the front pocket of his jeans. They pause outside the Co-op to play the fruit machines. She loses all her coins and they move on.
Making their way out of town, they stop at another bar that she knows but not very well. This is not her end of town but she has been here before, with him. It has a jukebox into which he puts some money, telling her to choose a song she likes. She selects something that shows her age. They have a couple more drinks before going back to his place.
In the morning, in the half-light, Sandra picks her spangly dress up off the bedroom floor and puts it on. She abandons her ruined tights.
In the bathroom, she checks her face in the mirror. She could do with make-up remover, and make-up, but she wasn’t planning on stopping out last night and doesn’t even have a comb in her handbag, just her glittery Friday night lipstick.
She could use his shower, his towel, his toothbrush. She could find a clean T-shirt and socks in his chest of drawers. She could make herself at home, make them both some breakfast or at least a cup of tea. She remembers how he takes it.
Turning away from the mirror, she goes downstairs with her shoes in her hand, slipping them on as she lets herself out, leaving him sleeping. She pulls his door to behind her. She does not look up at his bedroom window. He won’t be looking out.
She heads towards town. She remembers the way, but what seemed no distance at all last night, with him, seems so much further alone in the morning. She lives on the far side of town and would prefer not to have to walk all the way in these heels, but she doesn’t have change in her purse for the bus, and besides, she is not sure that the buses are running yet, this early on a Saturday.
Closer to the centre of town, there is litter in the gutter. Passing the pub with the jukebox, she vaguely remembers dancing to something in there. But, she thinks, there is no dance floor.
Her shoes are rubbing already, the straps sawing at her ankles. She is not even halfway home yet. She is only just nearing the marketplace. Up ahead, a front door opens and a woman comes out of her house with a dog. The woman looks at Sandra, at her shimmering dress and the remnants of last night’s make-up on her face. They call this the walk of shame. Sandra thinks that this sounds like something you could go on at the fair – the fun house and the ghost train and the walk of shame.
The fair is quiet now, deserted. The smells of diesel and cheap, greasy food linger. Tonight, the rides will be dismantled. She remembers being little and walking with her parents through the fair as it was closing, getting one last go on the helter skelter before it was taken apart.
She is longing for a shower or a warm bath, for a cup of tea and some telly. She will spend the rest of the weekend doing very little. She might not even leave the house. And then it will be Monday again and she will go back to the office. The girls will tell their Friday night stories and they will agree that it was a good one and that they should do it again sometime. The Orbiter will have gone from the front of the building. The absence of the big wheel will make the skyline strange for a while. The hot dog and candyfloss vendors will have moved on. The lights will remain, though, strung between the buildings and the lampposts, for Diwali and Christmas and the New Year.
She takes off her shoes. Walking barefoot on the cold paving stones with one shoe in each hand, she turns towards home as the first bus goes past.
ALISON MOORE’s short fiction has been published in Best British Short Stories anthologies and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra. The title story of her debut collection, The Pre-War House and Other Stories, won a New Writer novella prize. Her first novel, The Lighthouse, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012 and the National Book Awards 2012 (New Writer of the Year), winning the McKitterick Prize 2013. Her second novel, He Wants, was published in 2014. Born in Manchester in 1971, she lives in a village on the Leicestershire-Nottinghamshire border.