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SA Partridge

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

First Date

A short story about young love and ponies.

They were on a date. It was very by the book.
His mother had pressed a crisp one hundred rand note into his hand before she dropped them off at the entrance to the carnival.
To her credit, she kept the embarrassing behaviour to a minimum.
It was a perfect night; not too cold with a cloudless sky ablaze with stars. It was a night where magic could happen.
He bought his date a bag of pink candy floss and took her hand. She was very pretty in her Jay Jay’s mini skirt and pink cardigan. Her blonde hair was pinned at the back with a Hello Kitty scrunchie. She looked very much the naughty schoolgirl.
He had made an effort too. For the first time in months, he had let his mother iron his jeans.
“I want to go on the carousel,” she squealed, pulling at his arm like a little kid.
“What are you, like five years old?”
She let go of his sleeve and he mentally kicked himself for being such a jerk.
“I’m sorry. We can go on the carousel. I’ll get us tickets.”
“I don’t want to anymore.”
“No c’mon. It’ll be fun.”
When a smile twitched to life at the corner of her mouth he knew he had won. She had such a pretty smile, even in the dark with the only light coming from the fun-fair rides.
They joined the carousel’s queue, made up mostly of little kids restrained by worn-out mothers.
They were lucky to get the last two places after a scared little girl changed her mind at the last minute.
He didn’t blame the kid. The carousel was one of those old-fashioned kinds with detailed horses painted to look like they were stuck in time. Some seemed to be screaming into the air, others leapt over imaginary hedges.
Someone had twirled fairy lights around the poles, but this only made the creatures’ nightmarish expressions and glaring eyes stand out more.
She climbed onto a pale blue horse with a flaming green mane and silver filigree rein and hugged it around the neck.
“I love horses,” she confessed in a rush.
He nodded slowly and remembered his best friend telling him that the pretty girls were always the craziest.
He pulled his hood over his head and went to stand next to her. He hoped no-one he knew from school was around to see him.
“You’re not going to ride one?”
“It’s not really my thing.” He shoved his hand inside the front pocket of his hoodie.
He was pushed out of the way by a mother trying to calm down her near-hysterical son. He shifted closer to his date and took hold of the pole above her head.
“This is cosy.” She peered up at him with those crazy eyes of hers, one brown, one blue.
He relaxed. How could he be embarrassed next to such a stunner of a girl?
The music started, tinny at first, then more melodic as the carousel started to turn.
He jumped back as her horse slowly rose into the air then sank back down again.
He laughed. It wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be.
The fairy lights around the edge of the roof merged into a solid neon line as the ride gained momentum. The rest of the fair became nothing more than a smudgy blur.
“Where’ve you gone?” she asked. She must have noticed his faraway expression.
“What?”
He leaned down to hear her better, just as her horse rose. Their lips met and the world was sucked out of existence.
He closed his eyes and concentrated on her movements. When her tongue went left, he moved his right. Her lips were softer than anything he’d ever felt before.
When she pulled away, it took him a moment to get back to the real world. A couple of stars popped before his eyes.
She giggled. She had a very girly giggle.
When the ride stopped he bought a ticket for the Ring Toss and won her a stuffed toy. It was a pony, just like the one on the carousel.

They swung their hands between them as they walked.
“What’re you thinking?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she replied too quickly.
He smiled at her guilty expression. He was sure they both had the same goofy feeling in their stomachs.
He had thought about asking her out for months. There was a lot to consider. Too many other guys were into her. Another reason was that she was very eccentric, not the best trait in a potential girlfriend. He wouldn’t hear the end of it from his friends. She always hummed some song regardless of how quiet the classroom was or that everyone could hear her. She didn’t care about what other people thought. But then she was really pretty. If he didn’t make a move someone else would for sure.
He was glad he had.

He glanced up at the Ferris Wheel which emitted a mechanical squeal every time it turned.
He squeezed her hand.
“What do you want to do now?”
She hesitated before answering.
“Let’s go see what’s happening over there.”
She pointed to a small crowd standing in front of a red-and-white candy-striped tent.
He let her pull him forward.
The crowd watched a guy on stilts twirling a set of fire poi around his naked torso. The flames formed Catherine Wheels in the air.
He didn’t think it was that impressive, but everyone had the same dumb expression, like a pack of dogs watching a metronome swing back and forth.
“This is lame. Let’s get out of here,” he told his date.
“No, wait. I wanna stay.”
He looked at her incredulously, but he could see by the way the fire danced in her eyes that she was as entranced as everyone else.
He crossed his arms with a sigh, and waited for her to lose interest.
While he waited he studied the fire dancer, surprised to see he wasn’t very much older than they were – maybe sixteen or seventeen. He had an impish grin, as if he loved the affect his movements had on the crowd.
“C’mon,” he whined into her ear.
She rounded on him, her eyes wide with excitement. “Do you want to sneak into the Big Top?”
“What do you want to do in there?” he asked, surprised.
She stood on her tiptoes so she could whisper in his ear. “Maybe we can find somewhere quiet to hang out. You know, just you and me.”

She led him away from the crowd, searching the edge of the tent till she found a dark slit in the canvas.
“This way.”
He followed her inside, like Alice chasing the white rabbit into Wonderland.
Except Wonderland didn’t smell like poo.

Once inside, she suppressed a squeal with her hands as she jumped up and down.
The source of her excitement was a speckled white pony tethered to a pole in the centre of the tent, the kind of pony little kids like to ride.
Before he could stop her she rushed forward to pat it.
“So much for finding a place to be alone,” he said under his breath.
“Isn’t it cute?” she squeaked.
Every girl had a special voice they reserved for babies and animals. He had just discovered hers.
Once again, he waited for her to do her thing.
The sound of rustling canvas made him spin around.
“I see you’ve met Sophie.”
The fire dancer entered the tent. He still hadn’t put a shirt on. A delicate silver chain hung around his neck as bright as his smile.
“Is that her name? She’s beautiful,” she said.
The fire dancer wasn’t very tall without his stilts, but he was well built.
He stretched his rippling muscles as he walked over to where she stood.
“Yep, she’s an old girl now. We’ll need to replace her soon.”
“Oh no! Don’t say such mean things.”
Was it his imagination or had she just switch to her flirty voice?
He cleared his throat. “We shouldn’t be in here. Let’s go,” he shouted.
She puckered her lips into a pout and shot him a look from those knock-out eyes.
“I want to go for a ride.”
“But?”
He watched in quiet fury as the fire dancer helped his date mount the animal. They circled the tent a few times.
When the pony reached the entrance, the fire dancer held up the flap for it to pass through.
“Wait,” he called after them.
She looked back at him, an expression of unrestrained delight on her face.
He could hear childish screams coming through the opening. The fire dancer grinned and they were gone.

He burst through the canvas flap into the cold, night air.
He looked left and right, but he couldn’t see them anywhere.
He circled the tent.
He went back inside.
He circled it again.
He ran to the food stalls and to the giant tea cups.
He went back to the tent and sent her an SMS.
He decided to wait for a while. After all, they couldn’t have gone far.
He tried to phone her. Twice. Both times he got her voicemail telling him to leave a message.

The crowd began to thin.
He ran up to a woman with an anchor tattoo on her shoulder and a ring through her nose. She looked like she belonged with the carnival.
“Do you know the guy who does the fire poi? Short with blonde hair?”
“Hmmm, I’m not sure. If he’s with the show he’ll either be in the Big Top or round back packing up.”
He followed her directions to where a bunch of men in overalls loaded boxes on to the back of a truck.
“I’m looking for the guy that does the fire poi?”
“Looking for a date?” someone laughed.
“C’mon. Does anyone know where I can find this guy?”
A heavyset man dropped a crate at his feet. “The performers are all out front. Try looking in the Big Top”

Lights started blinking out around him. Only a handful of people still lingered on the field.
His mother would arrive soon to pick him up. She might already be waiting. He decided to search around the carousel again. He imagined his date would probably want to get a last look at it before leaving. She was that type of person.

The fairy lights were still on making the carousel resemble a golden crown; its detailed carvings and painted murals the shining jewels. But it was the sort of crown an evil queen would wear – the sort that kept magic mirrors and poisoned apples.
He weaved his way through the horses, running his fingers across their still backs.
The ride was far less intimidating when it was covered with little kids.
He stopped at the horse that she had ridden. It seemed different somehow, like it had shifted position since he last saw it. But he knew that was just his imagination working overtime. He hadn’t paid enough attention before.
He thought back to their kiss and smiled. He played the moment back in slow motion, remembering the feel of her lips. It had been a pretty good first kiss.
He decided he was being stupid. She was probably waiting for him at the entrance, anxious to see him again. The thought of kissing her again made him smile.
He drummed his fingers on the backside of a pink horse and positioned himself to leap off onto the ground. But a nagging feeling at the back of his mind made him hesitate.
He looked back at the pink horse, realising with cold horror that it was situated right at the spot where he had stood earlier.
He bent down to take a closer look at its face.
It had one brown eye, one blue.

© S.A. Partridge

 

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