Chapter 9: Fair
‘Mooooooorning,’ Veggie trilled, flicking the light on. TM blinked himself awake, lifting his arm from where it was protectively draped around Ziggy’s shoulder.
‘This isn’t what it looks like,’ TM started to protest, but Veggie held up his hands.
‘I know,’ he said. ‘No worries. Looks like you two make good nap buddies, though.’
TM grinned; Ziggy yawned and stretched her arms out, somehow rocking herself upright. ‘I have never slept so well in my whole entire life,’ she declared.
‘TM’s pretty comfy,’ Veggie said, taking a mostly-empty box of cereal from a cupboard. ‘We snuggle up sometimes, don’t we?’
‘When there’s nobody else in there with you,’ TM said.
‘Soooooo… are we going to the fair?’ Ziggy asked eagerly, as Veggie handed her a bowl of cornflakes. She revolved it around in her hands for a few moments, inspecting it with interest from all angles, then put a flake in her mouth and smiled excitedly as it crunched.
‘Er, yup,’ said Veggie, tipping his entire bowl into his mouth at once.
‘I’ve never been to a fair,’ Ziggy said wistfully.
‘Well, today’s your lucky day,’ TM told her between spoons of milky cereal. He reached down between the cushions of the sofa and yanked out a brightly coloured flyer, handing it over.
‘Celebrity appearances?!’ she read with astonishment.
‘Oh, yeah,’ Veggie said with a merry crunch. ‘It’s always just some minor local who-the-heck-ever peeps, though. Marty got asked to do it one year.’
‘Awesome,’ said Ziggy dreamily. ‘So – your dad won’t be mad with you about missing yesterday?’
‘Naw,’ TM said. ‘If I tell them I was with a girl, they’ll forget all about it and just start fawning over you. Sorry in advance for that, by the way.’
They took turns in the shower; TM was relieved to see that Ziggy, when she slid the filing cabinet across and emerged, looked much the same as she had when she went in. Albeit with slightly wetter hair, but TM could deal with that.
‘Think I’m sticking with this look, for a bit,’ she said, noticing TM’s glance. ‘Wouldn’t want to confuse everyone.’
‘It works for you,’ TM told her honestly.
‘Aw, thanks,’ she said, beaming.
‘You two are such girlfriends,’ Veggie said, shaking his head. Ziggy’s response was to flick her hair at him and tell TM how great his nails looked.
They headed out into the world of Outside the Flat, TM and Veggie looking rather more natural and comfortable than they had in their suited personae the day before. TM wore a burgundy shirt, sleeves rolled up, while Veggie proudly sported a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of Marty’s band. Ziggy had somehow found a pair of leggings and a long, slim-fitting checked shirt – neither of which belonged to her flatmates, TM was certain, but somehow this was entirely unsurprising.
‘Can we get candyfloss?’ Ziggy asked.
‘Yeah, why not,’ TM said, patting her on the shoulder. ‘We owe you that much, at least.’
Veggie hooted with laughter. ‘We owe you… like, your entire weight in candyfloss,’ he declared. ‘Which, since candyfloss weighs pretty much nothing, would be an absolute fuckton of candyfloss. Not that I’m saying you weigh a lot. I mean, stars weigh a lot, but… you don’t look like… you’re looking good,’ he concluded sheepishly.
‘Aww,’ said Ziggy. ‘That’s nice.’
They wandered down the streets towards the fair, which was a yearly event held in a large field not too far from their flat. It was generally something of a let-down, but Ziggy’s enthusiastic presence lent a certain novelty to the ordeal. She started to smile as soon as the bright colours of the banners and poorly-constructed attractions came into view; more and more teeth were revealed as they drew closer, her smile widening to the point that Veggie started asking her to put her teeth away.
’This is flipping awesome,’ she said with delight. TM exchanged a glance with Veggie, who shrugged and winked.
They entered the field, Ziggy leading the way. She twirled around to take in everything, from the food stalls that looked as if they might collapse at any moment to the lurid carnival games emblazoned with slightly creepy pictures of clowns and celebrity caricatures. The space around her seemed more open for her being in it.
The way Aster walked always reminded TM of a child learning to ice-skate. He remembered the one time he’d been to a rink as a kid – there were never any close by, in the city, so it was a real event if they ever made a trip to one. He’d been nervous, uncertain, always holding onto the wall or his father’s hand. Whenever he did let go, it would be for a brief push; he would lean forwards, zooming along so as to reach the next wall as quickly as possible, wobbling the whole way. Aster, too, was constantly trying to connect herself to the world, whether she realised it or not. Whenever she opened a door or turned a corner, her hand would brush against the wall until her arm was straight and her fingers lost contact. If she passed a fence or hedge, she would raise her hand and let it trail across the surface until she could no longer maintain the touch. She rarely held TM’s hand, but always held onto him by the arm. TM wondered whether she was afraid of floating away if she let go for too long.
’Remember what you were saying about needing to see things as a whole and not trying to break ‘em down all the time?’ TM asked her, one day as they sat on a bench in the park. One of her hands was holding the metal arm of the bench, the other the fleshy arm of TM.
‘I was just thinking about that,’ she said, looking out at the world. ‘I was thinking how beautiful it is just to sit here and watch… everything, you know? The image of the world, just as it is. I’ll start looking at individual clouds and hills and stuff in a minute, and I’m sure they’ll all be individually great, but I managed to have a moment where I could just appreciate everything in totality.’
‘Sounds like the sort of thing everyone could do with a bit more of,’ TM said.
‘Mm. Sorry, you were going to say something…?’
‘Oh, yeah. Veg was telling me the other day about a guy he knew, or read about, or had sex with, I forget. Anyway, the guy had some sort of… brain damage, I think. He had this thing where he kept thinking that everyone he knew was an imposter disguised as the people he loved. He believed that objects in his house were being switched out and replaced with copies that looked exactly the same, but were somehow inferior.’
‘Eh, he got pretty paranoid, but it wasn’t just that. He wasn’t seeing stalkers around corners or anything, just… became unable to recognise the continuity of things.’
‘Yeah, it would be,’ TM agreed. ‘If I thought that you and Veggie were being replaced by identical imposters every time I lost sight of you, I’d probably be pretty messed up.’
‘So what happened to him?’
‘Oh,’ said TM. ‘I don’t actually know. Veg just sort of told me about the guy.’
‘Anyway, I was thinking that it’s almost as if he lost his ability to see stuff as a whole. Every time he saw somebody, he broke them down into every individual part, and nobody’s ever going to look exactly identical every time you see them. Different outfits, hair, expressions even. So the parts never added up to the same whole on two different occasions.’
‘He got hung up on the detail and forgot how to look at reality,’ Aster mused.
‘Something like that, yeah.’
Aster rested her head on TM’s shoulder. ‘That’s a sad story,’ she said. ‘I’d hate to be unable to see the wood for the trees. Or your face for the features, I guess.’
Ziggy hopped over, snapping her fingers in TM’s face.
‘Hey. Earth to TM.’
‘Hello,’ TM said, then wondered why he had said that.
‘You looked a bit spaced out,’ Ziggy told him, examining his eyes with concern. ‘Back in the room?’
TM blinked. ‘I think I was just appreciating the world, and you being a part of it.’
‘That’s cool,’ Ziggy said. ‘Hey, a Zen Buddhist goes up to a burger stand and says “make me one with everything”. Can I have a burger?’
‘Absolutely,’ Veggie said, taking her by the arm. He marched her towards the nearest food stand; her head whipped side-to-side as they went, taking in all the sights. TM moved to follow, but stopped in his tracks when an enormous, muscular frame put itself in his way.
‘Hi,’ TM started to say, then let out a yelp as the man wrapped his arms around him and hoisted him into the air,
‘Juuuniooooor!’ he declared, raising TM almost above his head.
‘Hi, Dad,’ TM said.
Thomas Major, Sr. was an unusually large man, dark-skinned and boisterous. ‘And is that Jonathan over there?’ he asked, shifting TM’s entire body weight to one arm so that he could gesture towards Veggie, who was trying in vain to remember Ziggy’s order as she rattled through almost the entire food menu.
‘That’s him,’ TM replied, wheezing slightly through constricted ribs. ‘Happy birthday, by the way.’
‘Ah!’ exclaimed Senior, throwing his son up in front of his face by the shoulders. ‘Where were you?’
‘We were in a business meeting,’ TM explained, half-truthfully. ‘Can I go back to being on the ground now?’
Senior glanced down at TM’s dangling feet, as if he’d forgotten that he was lifting his son bodily from the ground. He plonked him down. ‘There you go,’ he said apologetically, and gave TM an affectionate pat on the head. TM felt his feet sink a few inches into the ground, as if he were an unusually-shaped nail bashed down by his father’s hammer of a hand. ‘Who is that girl with Jonathan, then?’
‘You know nobody calls him that,’ TM told his father.
‘Does anybody else call you Junior?’ Senior asked pointedly.
‘Er…’ said TM. ‘Oh, there she is.’
‘Hi, Junior,’ said TM’s mother.
‘Junior here was just telling me about Jonathan’s new girlfriend,’ Senior confided; TM scratched his ear awkwardly.
‘Another one?’ TM’s mother asked, looking half-impressed. Lily Major was, in all outwards appearances, the opposite of her husband: petite, blonde – now greying, though gracefully – and wallflowerish, but they were as close a couple as TM had ever come across.
‘She’s actually not,’ TM told her, kissing her on the cheek. ‘She’s our new business partner.’
Lily gave him an intrigued look. ‘Really? How’s that working out?’
‘Well, we’ve made more money since yesterday than we did for the entire lifespan of our business up to that point, so I’d say pretty well.’
‘Hm,’ she said, a twinkle in her eye. ‘She’s pretty, isn’t she?’
TM rolled his eyes. ‘No grandchildren on the immediate horizon,’ he said. ‘But yes, she is.’
‘Aw,’ she said disappointedly.
Senior marched over to Veggie and Ziggy, who had eaten her mountain of delicious greasy fast food and bounced along to hook a duck. ‘Jonathan!’ Senior bellowed; Veggie jumped, causing Ziggy to whack him in the face with her plastic fishing rod.
‘Good morning, Mr Major,’ said Veggie, standing straight upright. Ziggy looked him over in confusion, then gave Senior a casual nod.
‘Sup,’ she said.
’How are you doing?’ Senior boomed, shaking Veggie’s hand. It looked like a cocktail sausage in his enormous grip.
‘I’m well, thank you, sir,’ Veggie said timidly.
‘No need for all the politeness, you know,’ Senior said, leaning in slightly too close. TM thought that it was supposed to be a reassuring gesture. ‘You’re my boy’s life partner, after all!’
‘And you are…?’ Senior took Ziggy’s hand with all the gentle care of a bull elephant holding an egg in its trunk, and kissed the back of it.
‘Hm,’ Ziggy said.
‘He’s a real charmer,’ TM told her, patting his father’s forearm.
‘I’m Ziggy,’ she said, with a small bow.
‘You kids and your weird names,’ Senior guffawed. ‘I just can’t keep up,’ he said to Lily, who embraced Ziggy.
‘Nice to meet you,’ she said; Ziggy returned the hug, smiling widely.
‘You too,’ she said.
TM spotted Dominika a couple of stalls away, collecting an enormous bear as a prize from a can-shooting game. Derrida and Marty stood by her, leaning on the stall; Derrida was applauding reluctantly. TM waved them over.
‘She’s a really worryingly good shot,’ Marty said, making the bear wave at them. ‘Hi, TM’s mum and dad.’
‘Hello, Benjamin,’ said Lily, kissing him on the cheek.
‘Your name is Benjamin?’ Ziggy gasped.
Marty shrugged. ’Can’t be a frontman without a stage name. Benjamin Miles Parker isn’t particularly rock-and-roll, but Marty Rook…’
‘Looks like your merchandise is doing well,’ Lily said, gesturing to Veggie’s T-shirt. Veggie pulled the hem proudly, stretching the front out so as to better display the logo.
‘We’re not doing too bad,’ Marty agreed with a grin. ‘Not as well as these three, though.’
‘Yes,’ said Lily, with an affectionate look at her son, ’it’s nice to see them finally having some success.’
‘Oh, thanks,’ TM huffed.
Senior shook Derrida and Marty’s hands and gave Dominika a tight one-armed hug, then picked up one of the tiny plastic fishing rods between two fingers and smoothly swung the hook through the air, lifting a yellow duck from the water. Ziggy applauded politely.
‘I win!’ Senior exclaimed, examining the number on the duck’s underside. The teenager manning the stand handed him a bear even larger than Dominika’s, which still looked much smaller by comparison in his massive arms. He held it out to his wife, who took it and beamed like a girl on her first date.
’You two are adorable,’ Ziggy said with admiration. TM thought he heard a hint of sadness in her words.
‘Aww,’ Lily cooed, turning her infectious smile on Ziggy. ‘This one’s a keeper, you know,’ she told TM pointedly.
‘You wanted candyfloss, right?’ TM said loudly to Ziggy, taking her by the arm. ‘We’ll be around, okay?’
Senior nodded his approval and smacked his son on the back with what felt like more than enough force to win the strongman contest. TM stumbled, but smiled.
‘I like your family,’ said Ziggy, as TM led her away.
‘They’re not bad,’ TM admitted.
‘Do you think they like me too?’ she asked, biting her lip and wringing her hands as if it were the most important thing in the world to be liked by the parents of a bloke she’d only met yesterday.
‘Course they do,’ TM assured her. ‘They like most people, to be honest. They’ve got this theory that if… let’s use me and Veg as an example, right? If I hate Veg, for whatever reason, that’s still fundamentally my problem and not his.’
‘What if he’s a really bad dude?’
‘There’s kind of justified disapproval and then there’s outright dislike,’ TM mused. ‘Point is, if you’re just being yourself and not hurting anybody, then the only people who won’t like you are people whose opinion you shouldn’t really care about. Although Veggie really, really does hate the Swede.’
‘Makes sense,’ Ziggy said. ‘Can’t help really wanting everyone to like me, though.’
‘Oh, yeah, that’s called being part of human society, you’ll get used to it. Most of it sucks.’
‘Your family’s better than mine, anyway.’
‘You have a family?’
‘Yeah, sort of. I think I have a twin, somewhere, but… I don’t know if she came down, too. I don’t even know if she’s a she. And then I’ve got some sort of… undefined relatives going on somewhere.’
TM gave her a searching look. ‘I don’t understand.’
She returned his gaze without flinching. ‘I don’t really expect you to,’ she said kindly. ‘Now buy me candyfloss.’
TM shook his head, having accepted by now that there was generally very little point in trying to get more out of Ziggy than she wanted to give. ‘You’re on,’ he said, trotting over to the appropriate stand.
‘Heyyyy,’ trilled Veggie, joining them in the queue. ‘Celebrity host reveal in a few minutes, apparently.’
‘Ooooh,’ said Ziggy, eyes widening.
‘Don’t get your hopes up,’ TM advised her, handing over a bouquet of pink candyfloss. She took a bite, then stuffed the entire thing into her mouth aggressively.
‘Hm,’ said Veggie. ‘Enjoying that?’
She nodded, cheeks bulging.
‘May as well check out the stage, at least,’ TM said; Ziggy gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up. ‘Seriously, though, it’s not likely to be anyone decent,’ he warned her, in reply to which she flicked a dismissive hand in his direction.
‘Everyone is decent,’ she said, the words leaving her mouth in a cloud of pink sugar.
‘Except the Swede,’ Veggie said darkly.