As her father drifted in and out of consciousness, Louise watched the convoy of caravans and trucks spill out on to the recreation grounds opposite his hospice window. Food vans selling the usual greasy hotdogs and burgers, an array of try-your-luck side stalls, and the signature showstopper rides – the ‘Freak Out’, the ‘Twister’, the ‘Sizzler’ – all trundled in, towing trailers, like adolescents being dragged on a journey they weren’t sure they wanted to make. The last arrival was the carousel; the horses, stacked in rows, stared at her with glassy eyes, their painted mouths agape, voicing a lifetime of silent regrets.
Over the course of hours (or was it days? – she found it hard to keep track), the fair took shape with a methodical, almost military precision as sinewy, sandal-clad “carnies” hammered and wrenched their pound-a-ticket livelihoods into existence. She was grateful for the distraction; it gave her something to talk about, even though she doubted her father had the mental acuity to comprehend much of anything. He’d declined quickly since his admission into the facility three weeks earlier, and despite the daily reassurances that “Hearing is the last sense to go… It’s important that he knows you’re here…”, Louise wasn’t convinced anything was penetrating the soupy fog that muddied his mind, so that he scarcely recognised her, his only daughter. Even so, she figured, it didn’t hurt to try, and it was better than hours spent in silence.
“It’s the end of summer fair, Dad,” she said, describing the site’s piecemeal transformation, from empty playing field to glittering funfair. “Do you remember the time you won me that giant orangutan?” she wondered aloud. She must have been around eight. It was not long after her mother passed and she – they – were still figuring things out, treading cautiously through the maze of their grief. He must have sensed her longing as she surveyed the prizes on offer, her urgent desire to hold something close. She recalled the unfamiliar steely look in his eyes as he approached the Test of Strength game. As if in slow motion, she watched as her dad dug in his pocket, retrieved a pound coin and waited his turn. A soft-spoken man not given to public displays of bravado, her father seemed at risk of making himself a laughingstock. Louise could feel her face redden as he gingerly handled the mallet, then suddenly lifted it above his head – she swore he had grown inches, even feet – and brought it down with such ferocity, such uncharacteristic brute strength, that fear overtook her and she burst into tears. At that the spell was broken, and her dad rushed to her side, himself again, and comforted her, while the attendant plucked the biggest prize from the shelf and grudgingly placed it in her outstretched arms. As she cuddled that enormous orangutan, over half her size, she had never felt such gratitude, or such awestruck pride. Having witnessed his hidden strength, she saw her father differently from that moment. Not just as a provider, but a protector. And above all, a champion.
A gentle knock on the partially open door and a voice proclaimed with respectful sobriety, “Dinnertime.” The smiling carer – Alice, a soft-spoken twenty-something-year-old whose youth seemed misspent around such marked morbidity – entered carrying a tray with a dome-covered plate. She went through the motions of placing it at the man’s bedside and unwrapping the plastic fork and spoon from the napkin, as though by a stroke of magic he would rouse himself, sit upright, and muster the strength to eat. “Can you manage?” Alice asked, already edging out of the room. Louise nodded. “Let me know if you need anything,” she added, then disappeared down the corridor. Warily, Louise removed the lid from the partitioned plate to find the usual Tuesday evening hospice fare: spaghetti hoops, green jelly, milk. This is how we end up, she thought. Being served toddlers’ food. She’d never in her life seen her dad eat jelly and shuddered at the thought of artificial lime being his – or anyone’s – last taste of this world. Still, she would try. She had to.
“Dad, Dad, it’s dinnertime?” She gave him a gentle nudge. “Will you eat something… anything? Please?”
The next day, Wednesday, her father slipping further away, to a place beyond her reach, Louise walked across the road to the fair to lose herself, finding a strange solace among the rickety rides with their spray-painted backdrops of big-breasted blondes and onetime popstars. The heavily tattooed ticket booth attendants that she’d found mildly threatening as a child now took on a seductive allure, tempting her to give it a try: a winner every time, babe.
She gravitated towards the side stalls, their faded bunting framing an array of dingy stuffed toys strung up like carcasses at a butcher’s – the splotchy leopard with the misaligned, eerie glass eyes, the stiff-armed teddy with mangy fur, the lame-looking horse, the dirtied yellow minion-rip-offs, all of them stirring a sudden pathos in the 38-year-old woman who stood gawking at these unwon, and unloved, prizes. Where is the orangutan? she thought, scanning the shelves.
“C’mon, have a go,” a voice crooned. Shaking her head, she took a step back and instead watched others as they ascertained which game had the highest probability of a big win. One after another, players tried their luck with the hook-a-duck, the ring-toss, the target-shoot, the wheel of fortune, until parents’ pockets were scraped bare and children’s limp arms and glazed expressions spoke of a world-weariness they would grow to understand as the lie of the land: we queue up, we aim and shoot, we miss. We lose.
But there’s always an exception. The renegade who defies the odds, beats the system and pulls through. My dad won the big prize once! The words welled within her. And on this late-summer evening, standing in the same field where she’d whiled away countless hours of her largely ordinary childhood; where she’d played football, learned to cartwheel, messed around with boys, tried a cigarette – here Louise waited, as inconspicuous in her blue cotton t-shirt as the early conker at her feet safely nestled in its yellow-green spiky husk. She used to knock them from their branches with sticks at this time of year – Too soon, her dad would caution; You need to wait until the shell starts to split – then she’d stamp on them with all her weight, wrest them open.
What a waste, she thought, shaking her head, then returned to the sight before her: the clamour and carnage of a funfair at dusk – squeals of terror wafting on the grease-tinged breeze; candy floss-fisted children running feral, wielding spun sugar lollies like torches; weary fair-goers walking among the artificial light and sound in a daze; and there, a pony-tailed girl of five or six perched on her father’s shoulders, her arms draped loosely around his head, her face rapturous, oblivious to her father’s firm grip on her ankles but certain she would not fall.
How she wanted to freeze-frame that scene; to wind back time and be that girl again. But like a whirl of leaves on a blustery autumn day, a divinely choreographed dance that could never be replicated, she saw it for what it was: a moment that would pass. Soon the father would hoist his little girl off his shoulders and she would have to walk by herself; navigate her way through the mess of discarded bottles and cans, plastic wrappers, shattered glow sticks, lost things. Would the girl grow up and make her father proud, as she herself had struggled to do? How many broken engagements, unborn children, missed opportunities would she tally up in her lifetime? For Louise there had been too many disappointments to count. She had done nothing to earn her father’s unstinting love, and now it was too late.
They’d said when she’d moved her father into the hospice that it would be a good idea to bring a few “home comforts”, to make the room his own. He had never been a man of many possessions, but among the paltry belongings Louise had brought were some choice photographs: her mother and father’s wedding portrait; pictures of cousins whom she rarely saw these days; holiday snaps of her and her father at the seaside, and her favourite, one of the few taken with her mother that she could will herself to remember – the two of them perched on a white horse. She must have been about four and was terrified to get on the creature that seemed monstrous, but her dad had gently coaxed her, lifting her onto the beast’s back so that he could get a good shot. And to her great relief her mother climbed on too, holding her so close Louise felt like their bodies had fused into one and all her fear had been snuffed out. Smile, princess! her dad said. And she did.
As she’d sifted through the photos, Louise could find very few of her father. He had always been the one behind the camera capturing the moments. After her mother died and Louise grew more distant, and, in her teenage years, more defiant, the photo record tapered off. There was one of Louise and her dad at her twenty-first birthday party, his arm draped proudly around her shoulders and she with the usual look of mild annoyance; and she’d taken a few at the half-baked retirement party she’d thrown together for him. After thirty-five years at the same accountancy firm, he’d deserved more than a cold buffet at the local village hall with only a handful of guests. Why had she been such a poor excuse for a daughter all these years? It had taken her too long to see all that he had done behind the scenes, quietly and without complaint, to keep their little family going. His was a lifetime of uncaptured snapshots: of meticulously mown lawns, simple meals cooked, rubbish bins dutifully emptied, lifts to friends’ houses unquestionably given, driving lessons painstakingly endured, advice plainly offered, money freely gifted, and only months ago, of absolute acceptance (no regrets, he’d said) of the fact that he would not live to be a grandfather.
“You in the queue?” a small voice asked, jolting her from her reminiscence. She’d found herself mesmerised by the merry-go-round in front of her with its lights and lilting calliopic melodies. She shrugged. “You can have my last ticket if you want; I’ve been on three times and mum said it’s time to go,” the voice, a boy’s, continued. He dug in his pocket and retrieved a scrunched-up ticket, offering it to her in his open palm. “Thank you,” she replied with a shy smile. “I’ll make sure to use it.” And the boy scampered off, disappearing into the crowd. She unfurled the crumpled ticket, still warm from his hands. Smoothed out the creases.
In front of her the ride beckoned. She watched as it came to a slow halt and the last, reluctant child dismounted and tenderly patted the chipped fiberglass horse goodbye. Then, the operator unclipped the fraying rope and stepped aside, admitting the next set of riders through to the carousel that stood dazzling and otherwordly behind him like some modern-day temple of lights and mirrors. He stopped each in turn, hand outstretched, and gruffly received their offerings, unceremoniously shoving the tickets into the snap-on belt that sagged around his middle. It bulged with the weight of their expectations, with the dreams of girls and boys eager to leave their parents’ sides for the thrill of a ride on their own. In seconds the carousel filled up, the stragglers frantically seeking out a free mount, until only one space remained.
Louise stood at the front of the queue. She hesitated before handing the attendant the ticket, then heard the click of the rope behind her and the disappointed sighs of the children left waiting on the other side. A sudden giddiness surged through her as she sought out the only remaining horse: the white stallion in the middle row, the one with the glossy golden mane and red saddle. She’d barely mounted before the music started and the world began to spin. As the carousel picked up speed, she lost herself in the blur of lights and sound, the hypnotic up and down. Around her children squealed and shrieked in delight, manically waving at the silhouettes of parents, each one indistinguishable from the next through the glare. Holding the pole tightly, Louise squeezed her eyes shut, a muddled mosaic of colour penetrating the darkness, a whirligig of fairground sounds spurring her on, faster and faster until her head spun and she was dizzy. She felt her grip slacken, and for a sudden awful moment she thought she was going to slip off. A vision flickered, of herself flattened on the floor of a merry-go-round still in motion, the children jeering, the horses looming menacingly over her.
No, she chastised, straightening in the saddle, opening her eyes. She was still riding. Still holding on. She would not fall. The carousel began to slow, parents’ faces sharpening into focus again. Louise stared into the distance, beyond the crowds and the noise and the artificial world. Look, Daddy! I’m riding on my own. I can do it!
She sat tall, smiled and posed for the camera.