Carol was the seventeenth and last reader at Story Shop 2015, the daily Edinburgh International Book Festival showcase of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today.

Her appearance was on Mon 31st August 2015 at 4 pm in the Spiegeltent. Story Shop performances take roughly ten minutes and are free and unticketed.

Carol has been awarded a Jerwood/Arvon mentorship 2015 and is working with Ross Raisin on her second novel. In 2013 she received a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship and is a previous winner of the Scottish Book Trust’s New Writer Award. Her website is carolfarrelly.com and you can follow her on Twitter @cm_farrelly.

You can hear the author read an extract of the story by clicking the play button on the photo above.
 

 

The Knack of Carnival
a short story by Carol Farrelly

Carnival is how it feels to Jess. A new, percussive pulse. She steps off the pavement and the crowd accept her, a movement, sleek, silver, hard-wired. Pride they call it, but she wants to call it carnival. Flags sway above the people’s heads, and she sees shoulders rise and fall in the rainbow colours. Two orange balloons drift above the crowd and float higher than the roofs, higher than the blue clock of St Martin-in-the-Fields. The sun burns her eyes. She looks down. A dark-haired girl, twenty maybe, moves in front of her. A bracelet slips down the girl’s arm as she points up at the balloons. ‘Look. Floating peaches,’ the girl says to a friend, in a red dress, who walks beside her. ‘If they hit that spire, they’ll drench us all in the sweetest pulp.’ Her friend, or girlfriend, rolls her eyes. Jess smiles. This girl feels it is carnival too. Mardi Gras. Paddles of butter and sugar scent the air, and tingle the tips of tongues.
    Jess squints skywards again and imagines peach rain falling. She imagines the dark-haired girl leaning into her friend, saying she told her so, while everyone else, in groups, or pairs, shrugs, smiles, scatters in various directions to take their satisfactions home. There is nobody else alone here: Jess will be the only one to leave her satisfactions behind today, a tourist to this place. Anyone who gives her the quickest glance, she’s sure, can tell. She has followed, but that doesn’t make belonging.
    All her classmates would stare, if they saw her now; anyone who knows her would stare right now. Jess Hughes, they would say–so straight, in every sense. She should be with the others, trailing around the Victoria and Albert, her mind a buffering wheel as the guide rattles on, pointing out yet another detail that they should find fascinating, if they just would just stand there for a moment, focus, discover the lost art of immersion. She shouldn’t be in this easy crowd, imagining giant peaches, which only properly belong in children’s books, dripping juices as rain from a clock-blue sky.
    Her mobile vibrates. A message flares across her orange screen. Olivia has finally disentangled herself from her latest boyfriend, noticed her absence.
    ‘Where in hell r u? Clayton will go radge when he realises.’
    Apoplectic, Jess wants to text in reply. She smiles at the imagined scene: Mr Clayton counts heads once, twice, three times and then his swearing rips through every room in the museum and silences every rattling guide. But not yet. She shoves her mobile back into her pocket and looks again for the girl, in the sleeveless black top, who spoke of peaches. Her face is in profile now, as though she’s just turned away. Jess wonders what would happen if she said hello to her.
    She opens her can of coke and drinks.
    The crowd turn a corner. Now, they’re snaking down one of the widest roads she’s ever walked. Coke drips onto her white T-shirt as she takes in the street signs. Whitehall. She takes another gulp and turns her head. She glimpses glass and railings and uniformed men and a painted door and a sparrow, she thinks, on a lamppost lit at this time of day. She imagines standing on that strange, barricaded little street. The sky there will be a muted, old-fashioned blue. Sparrows will fly, plentiful as pollen, and sing in three-four time. And the lampposts there are always lit, of course, just in case, for safety’s sake. It’s the world her mum would like to make of their house; and the world her home village would like to reclaim, her conservation village, where once a Nazi parachuted down onto the moor by night. It’s everything she wants to leave behind.
    She presses the coke to her cheek, but the can is as warm on her skin as its liquid on her mouth. A couple stop and kiss. Jess blushes as she sees their bodies sway and want more, realises she is staring, and walks onwards. To kiss in daylight, she thinks, amidst carnival, oblivious to glass or railing or unnecessary lamplight– it is the most beautiful thing she’s seen in forever. It’s belonging: to trust the earth beneath your feet as you kiss. She’s never learnt the knack.
    Her mobile vibrates again. She doesn’t look.
    ‘On your own?’ a voice asks.
    Jess turns. The dark-haired girl stands before her, one hand hooked slack around the ribbon-like belt on her friend, or girlfriend’s dress. She extends the other hand, smiles.
    ‘Hi. I’m Helen.’

One wall of Helen’s living room is books, from ceiling to floor, every shelf vertical and horizontal with pages. Jess wonders if she has a sugar-dappled copy of Dahl’s story pressed somewhere between dictionary and textbook. Cupboards open in the room next door. A cork pops. Jess shifts on the sofa and looks up at the oval mirror that hangs above the fireplace and has glass enough to hold two faces, close. There are no such mirrors in her own house, only a handful of small mirrors are permitted, to brush hair or pluck an eyebrow. Fragments only. No faces composed entire. Nothing whole of her mother, or Jess.
    The clock on the mantelpiece clicks eleven. The door opens. Her mobile vibrates again. Twenty-five missed calls. Helen enters the room, holding two glasses of white wine.
    ‘Again? You’re popular,’ Helen gestures to her mobile. ‘Boyfriend?’
    Jess bows her head and switches the mobile to silent.
    Helen sits down next to her on the sofa. She leans in and whispers. ‘Girlfriend?’
    Jess blushes. It’s the possibility that brings the blood keen to her skin. The permission. One woman is asking another who she is and what she wants. Helen thinks Jess might fit on that carousing street. She might be a girl who has or wants a girlfriend. Two women might sit by side and admit attraction, test it as gold between one another’s bites.
    ‘Not sure?’ Helen’s hair wisps against Jess’s cheek.
    Jess shrugs.
    Helen leans back and Jess’s cheek is bare again. She wishes she knew how to reach out and touch that near sweep of hair. It should be so simple–to touch in a room that is only theirs, not even to kiss, not even in open air. And she knows that to reach would be to leave behind all those discomposed faces or to snowstorm them and make them whole.
    ‘We visited the war museum yesterday,’ she announces.
    ‘We?’ Helen asks.
    ‘I’m on a school trip.’
    Helen’s landline squeals into life, but she doesn’t move. She says nothing.
    ‘And I’m only seventeen,’ Jess continues.
    Helen half smiles. ‘I see.’
    The doorbell rings. Jess expected it. She carries on talking. She’s telling her truths now, but she’s not sure they’re the right ones.
    ‘We came to see the wreckage of a Nazi plane.’
    ‘What?’
    The doorbell rings again. The policeman, with a red-faced Mr Clayton no doubt muttering beside him, holds the sound longer this time.
    ‘We’re studying Nazi Germany at school. It’s part of our local history. Rudolf Hess parachuted down onto a moor by my village. On a peace mission, they think.’
    Jess remembers the torn fuselage from the museum yesterday–the black cross imprinted on white and the silence it brought upon them all, a silence that was the opposite of reverence. She remembers how she stared into the gape of the wreck and saw the web of wires clinging to the insides. And all she could think was that someone should have ripped out every wire long ago.
    ‘Isn’t it strange?’ she says. ‘A group of teenagers travelling all this way to see a burnt-out Nazi plane? I mean, why? Why do we keep such things? Once, people went on pilgrimages to see saints’ remains–to be in awe. Now we visit Nazi wreckage to see what hate and fear teach us.’
    The bell rings again.
    Helen tilts her head, reaches for Jess’s hand. ‘Not many of us believe in saints anymore. But we know there are holocausts and dictators. And conformity. So maybe we want to see all that close-up, shredded and burnt.’
    Jess looks down at Helen’s hand in hers.
    Knuckles rap on the front door.
    Helen leans in. ‘Tell me why you’re here.’
    ‘I just told you.’
    ‘No, here. With me.’
    Jess gulps the wine. ‘Why did you invite me?’
    Helen leans forwards. ‘Say it.’
    ‘I came–’
    A door lock clicks.
    ‘–to find a life that’s beautiful.’
    Helen narrows her eyes and leans back. The front door opens. Helen’s friend from the parade, Anna, stands there beside a tall blonde girl. ‘Sorry! Thought I’d lost my key. But you could have answered.’
    Helen shrugs, laughs.
    Anna looks at them both a moment and opens up a brown paper bag. ‘Here.’ She plucks two tangerines from the bag, winks and throws them towards Helen, who catches them both. ‘Far more delicious than peaches.’ Anna grins. ‘And no daft floating. Earth-bound. Resilient.’
    She turns, slides her arm around the other girl’s waist and stumbles down the hall.
    Helen places the tangerine in Jess’s lap.
    ‘And have you?’
    ‘What?’
    ‘Found a life that’s beautiful?’
    Jess picks up the fruit and throws it into the air. The tangerine loops and falls towards them, the smallest orange parachute. Jess catches it, turns to Helen and smiles. She leans forwards.

(c) Carol Farrelly, 2015