I needed to find a way out of this, or at least stop getting caught. This was the third Sunday in a row I’d lost to ‘environmental engineering’.
“When I say your names, collect your bag and grabber from the pile, then go with your partner to your designated area,” said Mr. Coin. I used to think he was ok. I might’ve even pitied him for losing his Sunday too, but he was a teacher!
He read off his list of names, and each time I watched a different friend walk off with people that weren’t me, chatting away. He always paired me with someone I didn’t know to make my day drag. After Arnold was paired with a boy in the year above, there were just two of us left.
“And that leaves Mr. Soldberg, and Miss. Hay,” said Mr. Coin, stating the obvious with glee.
“Have fun with your Ewok! You won’t have to let this one win!” shouted Arnold as he walked away, but still in earshot.
“Hey!” she shouted back, the first words I’d heard her speak since we’d arrived in the park. Arnold stopped dead and glared at her; she lost her resolve as suddenly as it appeared, and looked away to her feet. Her glasses slid down her narrow nose.
“That’s enough out of you,” commanded Mr. Coin, “I’ve not signed off your hours yet. Anymore lip out of you and you’ll be here again next week too!” He stood motionless as he made sure Arnold turned and walked away in silence. Satisfied, Mr. Coin turned and started walking back to our mini-bus. “You too Soldberg,” he said without looking back, “I don’t want any trouble from you today either – get to it! Good luck Miss. Hay.”
By the time Mr. Coin closed the mini-bus door behind him, we were already making our way to our designated area; the tenth pair always got the pond, and I was always the tenth pair. Mr. Coin parked the mini-bus on the opposite side of the park to the pond, and it was a long walk.
“Sorry about him,” I said to break the awkward silence.
“Who? Mr. Coin?”
“No, not him. Short Change will leave us alone for the first hour at least – he’ll be too busy reading his paper. Then he’ll sneak around to try and find us slacking to deduct hours.”
“Oh,” she said to her feet. Her glasses still sat low on her nose but didn’t seem to bother her as we continued walking.
“I meant Arnold,” then I continued despite the lack of encouragement, “the guy that shouted his attempt at a joke.”
“Oh,” she repeated again, “is he your friend?”
“Yeah, I’ve been stuck with him since primary school, our mums are friends.” I tested the grabber I had been left with and thankfully it wasn’t the stiff one with the shortened bungee cord. “He thinks jokes are like fine wines that get better with age.”
Finally she made eye contact with me, and pushed her glasses back up her nose. She looked confused and I realised she was still missing a key piece of the puzzle.
“My name is Han,” I said, holding out my hand to shake. Her hand was small in mine and looked pale in contrast. “My parents are big Star Wars fans, and they made it a cross for me to bear.”
She smiled back at me, then quickly let go of my hand and looked away. She continued her conversation with her feet again. “My name is Greta, I think my parents just liked the name.” I watched the side of her face, and with the bounce of her walk, her glasses returned to their favoured position.
“I like Star Wars,” she told me without looking up, “but I’d rather be one of the bounty hunters.”
“Good choice!” I said, and then suddenly I found the conversation had dried up.
We walked in silence, with Greta slightly behind, and letting me lead the way. The awkward silence was almost making me miss Arnold’s stupid jokes, until Greta spoke.
“Do you do this a lot?” she asked without taking her eyes off the grass in front of her. She watched it intently like she expected a snake to jump up and bite her the second she looked away.
“Yeah, a few times. I’ve not seen you here before?”
“No, this is the first time I’ve volunteered.”
I burst out laughing before I could stop myself. Greta whipped her head to look up at me, and for that split second before she looked away again I saw fire in her eyes that didn’t match her demeanour.
“Sorry to laugh,” I said. I’d only known her for a few minutes and had already apologised twice. “It just caught me by surprise, as I’m not here by choice.”
“What did you do?” Greta quickly realised that how she chose to spend her Sunday was my punishment.
“Ironically it was littering.”
“Well technically it was littering, but the fact it was a cigarette butt and I was on school grounds might have played a part too.” Then I saw the corner of Greta’s mouth curl up, but she didn’t speak. “Short Change always gives me the pond since someone egged his car last year, and he thinks it was me. But at least I know a short-cut there now that’s quicker than the main path.”
“The eggs? What are you a snitch?”
“No!” she said, with fire in her eyes again, “was just asking.”
“No it wasn’t!” I found I was looking down at the grass too, “But once you get labelled, proof becomes secondary to reputation.” Realising more questions wouldn’t be welcome, she didn’t ask them.
The silence was becoming less awkward, and wasn’t broken till I started veering to the left, away from the path.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“I told you, it’s a quicker way down to the pond than the path.”
“But some of the circus tents are still up.” As she looked up at me I realised her eyes weren’t blue like mine as I thought; they were a dark emerald green.
“Those are Romani gypsies with that circus, my mum told me to steer clear of them.” Then I grimaced at what I said; now I either sounded like a kid who believed in gypsy magic, or a mama’s boy. “And if Short Change sees us I’ll be back here again next weekend.”
“If we put some of their rubbish in our bags, I’ll say it was my idea to help out.” I couldn’t tell whether she held my look longer than usual because of pride for her idea, or because she knew I’d agree.
“Okay, let’s go.” Anything would be better than stomping around that pond anyway. So I followed as Greta led the way to where the circus was pitched.
Greta’s eyes didn’t leave the big top as we made our way over to what remained of the circus. It just looked like a tatty old tent to me, but she was transfixed. All of the rides had been broken down into the parts small enough to tow. Most of the animals were in their cages on the back of lorries, except a couple of defiant camels being round up by some kids. I wasn’t going to pick up after them!
As we got among the tents still pitched, Greta used her grabber to place some litter in her bag. I filled my bag with proof of good intentions too. Most of the rubbish had been cleared away, all that remained were the lighter things that submitted to the will of the wind, and were hard to catch. Thankfully the wind had dropped as soon as we walked among the tents making our task easier.
“What good children you are,” spoke a voice that appeared out of nowhere. “Picking up the trail of litter the circus leaves in its wake.”
We both turned to find an elderly lady standing behind us wearing a warm smile. It was like she’d appeared out of thin air, and then spoke again before we could reply.
“You make a beautiful couple.”
“We’re not a couple,” I snapped back, finding my voice. “We’re not even friends.” Watching Greta’s cheeks flush red I clarified further, “We’ve only just met.”
“I know,” said the woman, “I never said you were friends, I said you were a beautiful couple, and your children will be even more beautiful.”
I felt the heat in my own cheeks with each word the woman said, and Greta was about to show the fury she’d shown Arnold, until she was stopped in her tracks by the woman’s raised hand.
“I know these things,” she said, pulling her head scarf tighter round her neck, and flicking it over her shoulder. The motion made the large golden loops hanging from her ears glisten. “I’m a Mystic, and I would be honoured to read your fortunes.”
I looked to Greta and her objections had been washed away with the wave of the woman’s hand; her eyes urged me to indulge her, and I felt compelled to give her want she wanted.
“My tent is just over here.” The woman motioned with the same hand she had raised. It was a wide theatrical sweep, and I felt the performance had already begun. I was sceptical, but the wind had picked up as quickly as it had dropped, and as it cut into the back of my neck the desire to be inside the tent was already warming me.
I looked back to Greta and returned her new smile with one of my own. As we walked over to the tent there was a new bounce in her step.
I hadn’t noticed the woman’s tent, despite the bright graphics on its walls. It was covered with images of food; sweets and candy from all over the world. It was flanked by a candy floss machine, and candy apple stand, like the corner towers of a castle. The woman led us between the towers, and the howling wind was silenced when she closed the tent door behind us.
In the middle of the tent was the classic crystal ball, centred on a round table. It couldn’t get more clichéd; but when I saw Greta’s face glowing with anticipation, I took my seat beside her without comment. I looked around the tent, and the space looked much smaller than it did from the outside. Before I could take in the details of the knick knacks scattered inside for atmosphere, the woman spoke and drew my attention to her.
“I am the Mystical Jadoo Jana, and I will tell you your fortune.” She placed her outstretched hands onto the table palm-side up. I took her hand without hesitation, and felt Greta take my free hand. I looked to Greta out of the corner of my eye, and she watched Jadoo Jana with laser focus, over her glasses.
“We must join hands for the mystic forces to flow through us.” Then without further word the woman threw her head back, rolling her neck from side to side, chanting in a language I didn’t recognise. If I wasn’t holding hands with Greta I would have walked away from this laughable farce, but it did still beat stomping around that pond.
Greta remained silent throughout the process – the woman was doing enough talking for the three of us – and once she was done, she feigned exhaustion, and released our hands to break the circle. Greta looked over to me and her eyes shined brightly from the unnatural light inside the tent. I no longer wanted to walk away, and it wasn’t the touch of Greta that held me.
The woman reached to her side and picked up a bowl of boiled sweets that I hadn’t noticed was there. She took a handful and placed them on the table in front of herself, and then put the bowl in front of us.
“Eat. You must replace the energy the mystic world borrowed from you.”
Greta reached into the bowl and took a sweet. I wasn’t hungry, and thought I’d said no thank you, but as the woman begun to tell us our fortune I realised I was already placing my second sweet into my mouth.
She spoke endlessly, but I didn’t take in any of her words. I felt I couldn’t focus. I felt tired, but no amount of sweets could replenish my energy. The woman seemed focused on Greta more than me as she spoke, and I was glad. Since she had stopped chanting the look in her eyes unnerved me.
Then I heard the woman say my name. Greta seemed unfazed and continued to listen closely, but I knew we hadn’t told her our names. With all the power I could muster, I forced myself to speak between chews, and interrupt the flow of information she was pouring into Greta.
“I think we better go,” I could hear my lips smacking between each word, “I’m sure Mr. Coin will be looking for us.” After speaking those few words I felt like I’d done a cross-country run.
The woman stopped as soon as I spoke, and slowly turned to face me; my regret at speaking burrowed down to my very core.
“Oh don’t worry,” she said, “they stopped looking for you two a long time ago.” Greta looked over to me, and now I could see my own fear reflected in her eyes.
Then Jadoo Jana snapped her fingers with inhuman speed, and the tent door behind us flapped open. I spun and saw that it was dark outside; we must have been in the tent for hours.
“What tent?” she said. Then the tent vanished with another snap of her fingers, replaced by the interior of a drab caravan. I could see drawn curtains on the opposite wall to where I sat; their irregular brown and yellow pattern concealed the outside world. Jadoo Jana vanished with the tent, and a wizened woman now stood in front of me with a toothless grin, as she stirred a cast iron pot that was simmering on the stove.
With shock and confusion pulling my mind in all directions, I hadn’t realised that I was searching my surroundings from behind metal bars. I was in a cage, and Greta was beside me. What was going on!? I looked down into my hands, and saw that the ‘sweets’ I’d been eating were actually mouldy pieces of bread. I instantly dropped the disgusting food, and my repulsion forced me to the back of the cage.
“Don’t drop any crumbs!”
My body followed her command against my will, and I had to helplessly watch as it crawled on its hands and knees back to the bread. The floor was covered in left-over food from the circus, and stains I was glad I couldn’t identify. Greta was in the other corner of the cage, silently eating discarded candy floss. A chunk of candy apple covered in hair had stuck to the palm of the hand in front of me, and I watched it reach down to pick up the crumbs I’d dropped. I heard Greta retch as I licked the fingers clean.
“Good boy. Littering is a filthy habit!”
All eyes turned to the door as it flung open and a foot appeared, followed by a body. When I recognised the pissed off look on my mum’s face, I could have leapt for joy, if my body was still my own. She stormed into the caravan holding her phone, and in that moment I realised it was the ‘Find My Phone’ app she forced me to install that had brought her to us…I owed her an apology.
As she scanned the room and saw us in our cage, her anger evolved into rage, and she flew at the woman like a wild animal! Her arms were a blur as she punched and clawed at this being of pure evil. The force of the impact knocked the woman into the stove; her arm tipped over the simmering pot and she was instantly engulfed in a green flame, as if her soul itself was flammable.
The flaming tornado howled in agony, then spun to the opposite end of the caravan; wrapping itself in the curtains, ripping them off the rail, and letting the outside world illuminate the room.
A beam of light from the window shone on an axe that had been propped up beside the stove. My mum grabbed the axe without a moment’s hesitation and turned her back on the woman tangled in the curtains, which had only served to fuel the fire rather than smother it.
The padlock broke open with one swift blow. No longer under a spell, Greta and I flew out of the cage under our own power. My mum led us out through the door, and closed it behind us.
Standing at a safe distance from the burning caravan, my mum hugged us, and we both clung on tight! We stood motionless watching the flames, until all that remained was a smouldering chassis, and silence.