Jan Carson is a writer based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Her first novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears, was published by Liberties Press in 2014, followed by a short story collection, Children’s Children in 2016. Her flash fiction anthology, Postcard Stories is forthcoming from the Emma Press in 2017. Her stories have appeared in journals such as Storm Cellar, Banshee, Harper’s Bazaar and The Honest Ulsterman. In 2014 she was a recipient of the Arts Council NI Artist’s Career Enhancement Bursary. She was longlisted for the Sean O’Faolain short story prize in 2015 and shortlisted in 2016, won the Harper’s Bazaar short story competition in 2016 and was shortlisted for a Sabotage Award for best short story collection 2015/16.
“This one or that one?” he asks.
She raises her hand and points to the tank which is full of soft toys shaped like characters from a children’s movie.
“That one,” she says, though really she doesn’t give a toss which machine they play as long as it’s loud, as long as it keeps him from trying to talk.
The Arcade’s roof rises above them. It is a kind of cathedral: a holy place of colour and light and flashing, coloured lights. Here is all the happiness. Here is the noise of young people living and here the slot machines ching-changing, the disco beats, the carousel creaking and, every so often, public announcements, garbled as if spoken underwater. She holds the smell inside her nose: popcorn, burnt sugar, salt air and locker room sweat. She feels each loud noise as a sort of bruising pressure. The music. The lights like tiny eyes winking. The unspent glory of it all. She feels almost impossibly tired.
“Are you sure you want to play that one, Sarah?” he asks. “This one has better prizes.”
“Different teddies?” she asks.
“No, watches and electronic stuff. Have a look yourself. I think there’s a Playstation in there.”
She steps forward and presses her face against the glass. It is neither cold nor warm though she’s braced herself for ice. He stands beside her. His arm slopes around her shoulders like the arm of a husband should. It hangs there, heavy as uncooked meat. There is no intent in this gesture, no patience either.
“Look,” he says, tapping the glass with his free hand, “I could win you one of them. Would you like that, Love?” He is always wanting to give her things: coffee, back massages, weekends at the Port. She understands this as a form of apology.
She looks past his tapping hand, past the glass and the flickering lights. There are Ipods piled inside the machine, gift cards for Amazon and teddies with twenty pound notes elastic-banded around their plush middles. The machine is full of items which normal people aspire to own. She’s seen these things on television adverts and in magazines at the doctors. She doesn’t want any of them.
“Let’s stick with the first machine,” she says. “I don’t really need any of this shit.”
He sighs. He intends the sigh to be heard. His arm slides free of her shoulders and hooks itself into his belt loop. He leans away from himself. This is how he stands when he doesn’t want to be in a place but cannot leave: Top Shop, church, her sister’s living room at Christmas. He wants her to realise that he is making the effort; that a little effort is required on her part. She has no effort left in her. She can barely bring herself to pour his coffee in the morning.
She steps away from the Ipods and turns her attention to the second machine. Little, yellow creatures are avalanching round its insides, anxiously avoiding the claw. She can’t remember what they’re called but there is a high-pitched noise associated with them, like air forced through the neck of a stretched balloon. She leans in for a closer look and the make up on her forehead leaves a peach, furred circle on the glass. She doesn’t try to wipe it off though this would be easy enough to do. She has a tissue tucked into the wrist of her sweater. It’s still damp from the sadness on the beach. There’s a whole box of tissues in her suitcase, back at the hotel, the expensive kind, infused with balsam. She’d known there would be sadness. There always is, even on holidays.
“It’ll be good to get away for the weekend,” he’d said, and carried all their problems with him: in his pockets, under his nails, in their pull-on suitcase, nestled next to his wash bag. In their room they’d discovered drawers enough for everything they’d brought with them and a wardrobe for those items which could not be folded. They were only staying the weekend but he’d still insisted upon unpacking everything. “A change is as good as a rest,” he’d said as he tucked and tidied their crap away. She sat on the bed watching him. She had not known how to help.
Shoes. Sweaters. Special underwear. Razor, (hers). Razor, (his). Hairbrush. Toothbrush. Travel sized toiletries. He’d read the labels out loud as he lined the little bottles round their sink. When he was nervous he liked to read out the words he could see –road signs, labels, newspaper headlines- each syllable swelling in the dry silence. “Timotei. Vosene. Radox. Colgate.” These could be the names of children in a foreign country, he’d thought, Germany most likely or possibly Greece. He’d wanted to tell her this, but didn’t. Any talk of children could pierce her, though she might well find the mention of them funny in this case, like when they’d looked at babies with too much hair on Facebook and laughed until there wasn’t any noise left to breathe. There was no knowing with her anymore.
He’d decided not to say anything which didn’t need to be said, and placed their suitcase under the bed where she couldn’t see it and think of leaving. Later, they’d slept like train tracks running the length of each other and woke to find everything come loose in the night. All the things they’d brought with them muddled across the floor, like islands or tiny altars. She wouldn’t get out of bed. She said she couldn’t see where to stand without ruining things. Even then he hadn’t said anything to her. He just went rooting through her handbag for the tissues.
He’d said nothing during breakfast. Nothing for three miles round the coastal path. Nothing on Ramore Head with the wind howling through their anorak hoods, or in the café over steaming bowls of vegetable broth. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Then, on the East Strand, a kind of avalanche.
Why he’d picked the beach for talking, she’d never know. In the past she’d particularly liked this beach with its pebbly edges and its long sands rounding the bay like a raised eyebrow. Now, it is ruined for her, forever associated with the way he’d screwed his feet into the sand, anchoring himself against the impulse to leave.
What was he thinking? He could have drawn his lines in the hotel room, or last night, in the restaurant, with the candle flame nodding out its encouragement. The beach was always going to be the wrong place for moving forwards, what with the sea coming and going behind them; promising and promising, yet never quite delivering.
“Enough is enough,” he said.
“We can’t keep trying forever,” he also said.
“Maybe it’s time to give up.”
She’d tried to say the word, “No,” but it was stuck in her throat like a headache tablet, refusing to come up or down. Then she had tears in her nose and in her eyes, also on her cheeks, (though this might well have been the sea spray), so her sadness was damply apparent and she didn’t need to say, “no, let’s not ever stop trying.” He just knew. Then, there was a short silence, during which neither knew what to say, or how to touch each other kindly. So, they didn’t. Finally, the tide came in far too quickly, chasing them up the beach and into the Arcade, just to stay out of the rain.
“Will we play the slots for a while?” he said. “It’ll be fun.”
“Why not? We’re here anyway,” she replied. It would be easier to stand inside other people’s noise for a change.
They played the two p machines, the fruit machines with their spinning lemon heads and several shooting games on old-fashioned consoles. They spent ten pounds in shrapnel. He smiled hard enough for both of them. Though they weren’t at all hungry they ate candyfloss on a stick. One cloud shared between two. He held the stick while she pinched off lumps and fed them into her mouth, enjoying the crunch of pink wool crystalizing between her teeth. They did not question the moment or the wisdom of eating candyfloss from a stick with so much yet to be decided. It was as if they were happy and the beach had never happened, although when she looked past him, over his shoulder, she could still see it blonding through the Arcade’s window.
Lastly, they came to the claw machine and here they are now, deliberating between one tank and the other. There is almost a foot of cold air between them and he is leaning away from her, but you can still tell they are a couple. There are couples just like them -only taller or fatter or more with a Derry accent- playing the slots all over the Arcade. This is what couples do on weekends away. Of all the amusements, the claw machine is her favourite. She understands how it works: mostly it takes, occasionally it gives. Like God, she thinks, though with God there is no element of skill involved.
“I’m going to win one of those,” she says, pointing at the little, yellow creatures tumbling round their tank.
“Let me get one for you, Sarah,” he says.
“No, I’ll do it myself. This one’s mine.”
He doesn’t like this. He wants to be the one who gives her things: a yellow creature from the claw machine, a house with two floors, and a baby which is part of him and also part of her. Because he is a man. Because he doesn’t know how to say, “I am happy enough the way we are.” Because he knows she isn’t.
“I’m going after that one,” she says, and points at the yellow blob closest to the top of the pile. He gives her twenty pence. This hardly costs him anything. He fingers the change in his pocket and wishes she’d asked more of him: a pound, a hundred pounds, a kidney or two kidneys if this would settle the need in her. There isn’t anything he wouldn’t give her. He is prepared to stand here all afternoon, handing out twenty pence pieces until she finally wins something. She can bankrupt him if she wants. He’d like to feel a little sacrificial. She doesn’t thank him or even acknowledge the coin. He is glad of this oversight. Anger is a solid sort of thing to bite into, much sharper than failure.
She slips his coin into the slot. The machine sings. “Blinketty, clinketty, beep, beep, beep,” a computerized version of an old Madonna song. It is hard not to hum along though the music sits oddly inside his mouth. Like teeth on a very young child. She reaches for the levers which steer the claw, holding them lightly as if they are cutlery, one in either hand. Right is up and down. Left is left and right. The smug, red button centred between the levers is drop and grab. She will have to work it with her thumb. She can just about reach if she stretches.
She has a face on her like the face she keeps for driving: concentrated, hunched, angling forwards as if ready to arrive before she’s even left. He doesn’t know what to do with her when she is like this.
“I’m here if you need any help,” he says.
She doesn’t reply, doesn’t even blink. In situations like this he is only ever a passenger. Maybe he’d like to hit her. He knows he never well. He shoves his hands into his pockets just to be sure.
She rests her head against the glass, for balance and support, leaving a second make-up stain just inches from the first. Part of her is stuck to the machine now, like fingerprints but less romantic. She doesn’t even try to remove it with her tissue. It’s just another mark to ignore. She lets her eye fall loose. All she can see is heaped yellow. She doesn’t care about any of the marks she’s leaving behind.
There are marks on his back from last night. She’d noticed them this morning as he sat on the edge of their hotel bed, the t-shirt sliding over his shoulders and down, down, down like a Roman blind. She hadn’t touched the marks though she knew they’d be exactly the shape and slice of her fingernails.
When they’re trying, as they were last night, she often tears at him: letting something in, clawing another thing out. She can’t keep her hands from saying how much she wants this. This is the thing which will make them proper, (proper couple, proper family, proper Christmas, as it is in the movies). It never quite catches but they keep trying. The marks remind her how hard they’ve tried. When she sees them lining down his back she thinks of prisoners crossing the days off their walls. This is not a bad feeling for her. It is similar to the feeling of tiredness after exercise, after putting the effort in. She has put the effort in. She is not the one who wants to stop. She has marks too. They can’t be covered with a t-shirt.
The machine clink-clunks into life and the claw slides sideways with greedy intent. It is fashioned from four prongs of cheap chrome, the kind of metal used for clasps on ladies’ handbags. It looks vicious. It will not go where she wants it to go. The sticks are overly sensitive in her hands: an eyelash of a nudge translates as ten lurched inches inside the tank. The claw shudders and swings like an Alpine cable car. It stops. It starts. It moves along its tracks with arthritic determination and ploughs into the stuffed creatures, causing the topmost to tumble from its perch.
“Like a burst yoke,” she thinks as she watches the yellow run. Her stomach heaves. She no longer eats eggs. The idea of cooking one disgusts her. Even scrambled she can still see what it could have been and horrors herself on the thought of half-formed wings, of beaks and thready legs sizzling as they hit the frying pan. She hasn’t eaten an egg in years. She won’t even let his mouth near hers after a cooked breakfast.
Now, there is a hole in the yellow. Behind the yellow there is pink. Her eye catches on it. He sees it too and leans in for a closer look. Pink is not the right way of saying this colour. It is more like peach or pale, mottled cream: the colour of raw sausage. Or flesh.
“What’s that?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” she says.
She knows exactly what it is.
She can feel the urgent pull of it singing its way up the claw and into the various wires, all through the machine’s electrics and down her own arms, into the pit of her belly where she has, for so many years, been waiting to sing. She feels three full months of morning sickness go rising up her throat in one brief swallow. She wonders if the water will come rushing out of her, forming a puddle on the Arcade floor. People will think she’s pissed herself. The cleaner will come and mop her waters up as if it is ordinary water or spilt Seven-Up. They won’t understand the miracle of it. How could they?
“Is it a baby?” he asks, and she doesn’t even have time to say, “yes, yes it is. It’s the smallest, most unlikely looking baby I’ve ever seen, but I’m going to have it anyway,” because her thumb has run ahead of her and pushed the red button and the claw is already descending and here comes the baby, dangling for a moment like the Christ child, cloud-suspended in medieval paintings. The claw has it by the waist, its head turned towards the glass so she can see its furious little face, its fists like two curled walnuts, its eyes which are maybe, possibly –she chooses to say definitely- her father’s eyes peering through the glass. Then the baby drops and it is pure luck or some sort of instinct which bids her bend to catch it just before it hits the floor. She holds it in both hands like water cupped from the sink. It is beautiful. It is the luckiest thing she has ever touched.
“We have to put it back,” he says, “we can’t keep it.”
“But it’s everything we’ve ever wanted,” she says.
She is careful to say ‘we’ and not ‘I’ though she isn’t -in the moment- thinking of anyone but herself and the baby, who she’s planning to call Mary, after her just-dead aunt and also the Virgin Mary, because of the association with miracles.
“I do want it,” he says. “But not like this.”
Eventually he’ll come round to the idea of it, she thinks. In the same way he warmed to the wallpaper in the downstairs bathroom. Eventually he’ll admit that those blue water eyes are her father’s eyes blessing up at them. And he will be happy to say “yours,” and then, “ours,” and one day, possibly, “mine,” which will be the end of everything she wants.
Standing next to her, he thinks, how different it would have been, how much more bearable, if I’d been operating the machine.
“Blinketty, clinketty, beep, beep, beep,” sings the claw machine. This is the first sound the world gives the baby. It is not a particularly pleasant sound, something classical would have been better, but the baby doesn’t even cry. It is just relieved to be here in the ordinary air.
High above them the lights flash red, yellow and blue, all the colours of the disco spectrum. Here is the noise of young people living. Here is the glory and all the shame. Any minute now someone will break into song.
©2017 Jan Carson
'Settling' in The Irish Times
'We've Got Each Other and That's a Lot' in The Irish Times
Jan's collection Children's Children at Liberties Press