Fairground, by Malcolm Terry

We are pleased to announce that the winner of the 2019 Prescot Festival Short Story Competition is Malcolm Terry, for ‘Fairground.’ The theme this year was ‘Magic, Myth & Mystery,’ and the judges felt this tale had all three and a wonderfully macabre atmosphere.

It is published here for the first time and will also be published in the August 2019 Prescot Parish Magazine. Malcolm receives a cheque for £100, and we congratulate him on his second consecutive win in this contest. All the judging is completely anonymous, so the double win was as much a surprise to the panel as it was to Malcolm.

By Malcolm Terry

“Come!” said the notice with a big, blood-red exclamation. “Explore the deepest regions of hell. See the ghosts and ghouls in the place where the demons dwell!”

The words were written in the form of a large banner scribed on boarding and the garishly painted face of a horned demon glared down at us. It seemed natural that we should finish at the ghost train at the end of the evening.

Kathy suddenly took my hand, like we were more than friends. Her and felt nice in mine, cool and firm.

“Are you sure?” she asked.

The other two were already at the booth, buying tickets.

“You go ahead, my back is aching from the last ride. Have fun.”

Her hand slipped away and then she was off with the others. They quickly jumped into an empty carriage, squeezing in together.

A man briefly emerged from the booth and checked that the safety bar on the carriage was secure. Then, without waiting for more customers, they were suddenly off with a peal of laughter and disappeared into a gaping maw of darkness, hidden.

I rubbed absently at my back for a few moments. I’d injured it during the summer vacation working for the council, gravedigging.

I waited for a few moments while the shouts and screams of children staying up late, mingled with the rattle of machinery around me. The enticing smells of frying onions and beefburgers wafted by.

I was lured by the thought of a burger, walked away and bought one, then returned, happily munching on the tasty snack.

My friends were taking a long time to return; they were certainly getting their money’s worth. I stirred restlessly, looking round; perhaps there was a hidden exit and they would come round the corner in a moment. They wouldn’t be so silly as to hide from me.

Across the fairground booths were closing, lights were going out, people were leaving. I was suddenly alone.

I frowned, feeling uneasy.

The man came out of the booth. He wore large sunglasses, an absurd affectation on a dark evening where the only illumination was from the fairground lights and the distant moon. He sidled towards me, and I felt an instant dislike.

“It’s time for the last ride,” he said. His voice was a whisper that crept through the noise around us and into my brain where it lingered like the memory of an unwanted caress.

I felt a cold shiver.

“Come,” he whispered. “Take the last ride.”

I stepped back, but he reached out, caught my sleeve.

He was thin as a wraith, almost skeletal, but the bony grip on my sleeve felt strong.

“Come,” he repeated. “It’s your last chance, we shall be gone tomorrow.”

His words spun a web in my mind; I felt captured in it, helpless. His voice was hypnotic, hard to resist, a thing of steel and shadows. His will felt irresistible.

But then the hidden part of me that was so much stronger than my everyday self came to my aid.

“I think not,” I said and, with a swift movement of my arm, broke his grip.

He staggered, his glasses slipped, almost but not quite revealing his eyes, and he hurriedly adjusted them. He seemed suddenly rattled and stepped back from me.

“As you wish,” he whispered, retreating.

He returned to the booth, and there he started flicking switches, and the lights on the ghost train died.

I hurried forward. “Wait, are you closing? My friends haven’t come out yet.”

He glanced across his shoulder at me, and there was a thin smile on his face. “Your friends?” he whispered.

“Yes, they took the ghost train a few minutes ago; you saw them.”

He shook his head slowly. “You must have missed them. They have gone. They had a good time.”

“What? Is there another exit?” I demanded.

“Only one exit,” he said. He started to turn away.

“Wait,” I protested.

He paused. “Were you here the whole time?” he asked.

I hated the sound of his voice; it made me think of crawling insects.

“No,” I replied uncertainly.

“Then you must have missed them,” he said with finality and turned away. He started pushing sliding boards across the entrance to the ghost train, closing it down.

I shook my head. This was crazy, they couldn’t still be inside. I must have missed them when I went for a burger. I must have missed them in the dark and the shadows and among the people passing by.

A tannoy crackled and a loud voice rang across the fairground, asking people to make their way to the exit.

I drifted hesitantly away, confused, followed the last of the people as the fairground closed, and we were ushered through the gates. I kept looking round but I still didn’t see my friends.

I never saw them again.

I never saw the ghost train again either. The fair was gone next day, leaving only patches of discoloured grass, scorch marks and a scatter of litter.

Their families made enquiries, and later, the police came. They viewed me with suspicion, but all I could answer was how I lost my friends at the fairground.

Where did they go? What happened on that last ride of the ghost train? I almost feared to know, but I remembered the words painted blood-red on the boards. I couldn’t get those words out of my head.

“Explore the deepest regions of hell. See the ghosts and ghouls in the place where the demons dwell.”

And I remembered the feel of Kathy’s hand in mine, and the happy sound of their laughter before they disappeared, and I wondered if they were trapped somewhere, thinking of me and praying for a rescue that never came.

Whenever I hear of a fairground now, I go looking for the ghost train and its strange attendant. But what should I do if I found them? Should I ride that ghost train?

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