“I don’t want to!” I watch the young girl as she tugs on her father’s hand. Her hair is sunrise red, her skin pale as mist, and she is as reluctant to move as a boulder lodged in soft earth.
“Rowan, you’ve been pestering me all day. We’ve paid, we’ve queued, we’re going. You’ll like it once you get on.” The girl’s father looks down, sighs, then picks her up with a grunt of effort and tucks her on his hip. She is a little too old to be carried, I think, but nevertheless she buries her head in his shoulder. They step across the line, into the oval-shaped capsule with its clear, glass walls.
I follow them. I’m last, and the doors close behind me with a shhhnick sound. The air inside is stuffy, thick with the scents of people past and present. I catch a hint of aftershave, or something like it. It’s tangy and sweet, but there’s an acrid undertone. I wrinkle my nose and look for the source. A man, wearing a thick jumper with a shirt underneath. The woman he’s standing too close to is hunched slightly, a large handbag clutched in front of her stomach. Her red lips are smiling, but the upward curve feels unnatural, forced, as though it might spring into some other shape at any moment.
“Did you know,” he says, in a voice that seems to have bypassed his larynx and come straight through his nose, “that there are thirty-two capsules on the London Eye, but the numbers go up to the thirty-three because, haha,” he gives a little snort of a laugh, “people believe that number thirteen is unlucky?”
“Really, Graham?” says his companion, as she stares through the glass.
“Yes. Aren’t these old superstitions ridiculous? Why is thirteen unlucky and not, oh, twenty-seven?”
“It’s something to do with Jesus’ disciples, isn’t it?”
He waves a hand, “yes, yes, but how is that relevant in this day and age? Such silliness. I expect it was a woman who made the decision. Typical female thing, all that superstitious rubbish.”
“I suppose you wouldn’t want bad luck on this thing,” his companion murmurs, fiddling with the clasp on her bag.
He snorts again, and she recoils from the puff of warm air. He doesn’t notice.
“Hello,” says a small voice behind me. I haven’t noticed that the red-headed child has wriggled away from her father’s grasp and crept up behind me.
“Hello, Rowan,” I reply, straight-faced.
Her eyes widen, green pools swollen with rain water. I touch my nose and wink. I turn towards the glass wall of the capsule, pull a coin out of my pocket and flick it into the air. It spins, its shiny surface catching the afternoon sunshine, glinting and then… there is no coin. Only a remnant of light that fades away.
She stares at my tightly pinned-up white hair and long black dress. “Are you… a witch?” she whispers.
I smile. “Oh, witches don’t ex-”
“Rowan, are you bothering this lady?” her father is behind us.
“Daddy, she’s a witch!”
He flushes. “That’s very rude! I’m so sorry!” He scoops her up again and moves to the other end of the capsule.
“exist. Anymore,” I finish, softly.
We have reached the top of the arc. I stare out at the whole of London, stretched out before me. A messy carpet of buildings and roads and tiny cars and buses. Directly below us, the river, its glistening surface painted with the shadows of the tall buildings on its banks.
I worked in one of those buildings once, when there was still something for me to do. Before everything changed. Before I retired. Before so many years drifted by.
Something snags the corner of my left eye. I turn my head, there’s nothing there, but I have a sense of unease. I rub my thumbs against my forefingers in response to the strange prickling sensation there. Something I haven’t felt for a long time. I look around but everything is normal. The soup of voices has no anxious flavours. Graham is still too close to his companion, but she’s staring at the doors with quiet determination. Rowan is trying to swing on her father’s arm. I look outside again.
Another flicker, now on my right. This time, I don’t look. I stare straight ahead. Another flicker. I still refuse to look. Another, and another, and then…
I can’t not look, because it’s right in my eye-line. I knew it would eventually tire of being ignored. Still, my mouth drops open a little. I hadn’t really expected to see this. Not now, not in this time. It’s been… how long? I try to remember. I was little more than a child, trying to help.
It’s small, less than the span of my fingers. Green-gold scales catch the sunlight. Tiny rainbows flicker in wings so fine they’re like the surface of bubbles. But I know from experience that these will not fall apart at a simple touch. The creature might be beautiful, if not for the eyes that glow with the dull light of coals after the yellow flames have died away. And the claws that curve gracefully into hypodermic points. It looks at me and grins. Its mouth is too wide, and too full of teeth. I can’t hear it through the glass, but I’d swear it’s laughing.
I look around. We’ve passed the apex of our circuit and we’re moving slowly down, but it will be several minutes before we reach the ground. None of the other passengers have seen what I’ve seen. My fingers tingle, and I reach up to the glass. I tap my forefinger and middle finger against it and a tiny spark of light appears. My aim is good. It hits the creature and it rolls up, ball-like. Its wings freeze, motionless, and it drops.
Relief and exhaustion wash over me, followed by a spike of concern. I look impatiently around. There’s nothing to do but wait until we reach the bottom and the doors open again.
“I mean, no offence or anything,” Graham is saying, “but you women do fuss over things that are completely unimportant. Take my ex-wife for example. No, please, take her!” He laughs at his own joke. The hands of the woman with him clench into fists.
There’s a sound, like someone gently but firmly dragging a fork across a plate. My head whips to the doors of the capsule.
We’ve stopped moving, and the doors are opening.
They can’t be, because we’re still high in the air.
But they are. They’re slowly pulling apart as though hauled by invisible hands. I catch a flash of green through the gap.
I take a step towards the doors, and then things happen fast. Three little balls of gold-green appear and grab Graham, one by the hair and one on each shoulder, and drag him towards the widening gap. For a second I wonder why him.
Perhaps they like his aftershave?
“Help!” he squeals in an unnaturally high-pitched voice. His companion stares. She doesn’t, I can’t help noticing, move.
For a moment I can see two outcomes in my mind. Crisp and cold. Like a fork in a mountain stream; same water, different rocks. In one, I turn around and let the obnoxious man go. It will be a tragic accident. A “technical fault”. I will reach the ground and walk away, and then I’ll report it properly. Let the right people deal with this. It’s not my problem.
In the other…
I sigh. “No,” I say calmly. A few quick strides and I reach reach out and grasp Graham’s arm. His other hand is now gripping the edge of the door, knuckles white. His bottom is wedged in the gap, but it will soon be wide enough for him to fall through. One of the other passengers yells something. They cannot see the Kolim – to them it must look at though Graham was leaning against the doors and they’ve somehow given way. I haul on Graham’s arm, but he’s heavy, and the Kolim are pulling in the opposite direction. He starts to slip, and I realise that if I’m not careful, I’m going to follow him.
I try to find the tingle in the fingers of my other hand, but there’s nothing. So many years.
“Nononononono!” squeals Graham, his words whipped away by the wind as his head tips back into empty space. The doors are still sliding apart.
Worse, I can see more flashes of green and gold. More than three. Many more.
A hand grips Graham’s arm in front of mine and the wrench on my shoulder lessens. It’s one of the other passengers. Everyone else is pressed against the back wall.
“What are the fairies doing?” It’s Rowan. She’s a few steps away, I realise it’s her father who’s grabbed Graham.
“Get back against the wall, Rowan!” he shouts. Then, “he’s going to fall!”
“No!” I say.
“I can’t hold him!”
“No,” I say, “I mean, Rowan, come here!” Rowan stares and our eyes meet and lock and once again I have that sense of splitting. Of two different realities. And one is bad.
And one is really, really bad.
She steps towards me. I breathe out.
“You can see them?” I hiss at her ear.
“Yes,” she says.
“They’re not fairies,” I say. The soles of Graham’s shoes are tilting see-saw like on the rim of the door. His face is white.
“What are they?” she asks.
“I’ll tell you,” I say, “if you help me.”
She nods, eyes wide.
“When I say go, grab my hand. Understand?”
She nods again.
I count in my head. One. Two. “Go!” I let go of Graham and drop my right hand to Rowan’s. She grips it and…
The world falls away, as though everything is a cardboard film set. There’s just Rowan and me, and she’s bright, as though lit from inside with a spotlight. Or maybe a small sun.
I draw her light into me. The tingling sensation grows and spreads. Every cell in my body seems to stop for a moment, readjust itself and then…
The world rebuilds itself around us from the inside out. Energy is crawling across my skin. I can still feel Rowan’s fingers, but her grip is loosening.
“Hold on,” I say.
I feel her small fingers grip more firmly for a moment, but then her weight is heavy on my arm, and then it’s gone. Her fingers have slipped from mine, and she’s crumpled to the ground.
It’s all right. It’s enough. Less than a second has passed. Rowan’s father is still focused on Graham, who’s holding onto the edge of one door with his fingertips. I look past him and concentrate. It takes no effort, it’s terribly, terrifically, easy. I almost have to hold back.
There’s a flash as a ball of pale blue fire appears behind Graham’s head. Kolim hiss and pop as it touches them. It spreads out, splitting into fine tendrils at the edges.
And then it is gone. And so are they. And Rowan’s father hauls Graham back into the capsule. He falls onto his face, hands spread on the floor as though trying to hold onto the flat surface. The doors slide slowly shut as if they have all the time in the world.
I look down at Rowan and feel a surge of relief. She’s sitting on the floor, apparently unscathed. I crouch down and she looks at me, and I look at me in her eyes.
“When?” she says.
“Soon,” I say.
Her father scoops her up then, and people are crowding around me now, the brave old lady who tried to stop the silly man from falling out of the malfunctioning doors. The old lady who took the hand of the scared little girl and kept her from getting too close.
There’s a lurch as the capsule starts moving again. Someone cheers. It’s a brittle sound, tinged with hysteria at the edges. Oh, yes, there was a flash. Ball lightening, they’ll say. They always blame ball lightening. A freak electrical storm. No doubt it caused the doors to malfunction, too. Makes perfect sense.
Someone hands me a bottle of water. I take it gratefully. I swallow. The cold liquid is like a coating of snow on a dirty landscape.
The capsule reaches the bottom of the circuit and, finally, we can get off. Paramedics are waiting to help Graham. A man in a uniform wants to talk to Rowan’s father. Me too, I expect, but I have a knack of avoiding this kind of thing. People will say, “she was here a moment ago…”
But they won’t find me again.
Unless I want to be found.
I catch Rowan’s eye. We both nod. She will find me. I owe her.
I take a deep breath and start walking.
And then I freeze, because I’ve just caught another flash of green-gold.
I turn my head slowly and I see the woman who was with Graham. His bored companion. She smiles at me with very red lips.
And she snaps her handbag shut.
I wrote the first version of this story a year ago. There was something pleasing about that initial effort, but it was a bit of an uninflated balloon of a story – there was room for a lot more in the middle. I tinkered with it, and then ended up leaving it partially finished in a folder. Wanting something for February, I came back to it – and remembered that I rather liked it. Suddenly, the middle section seemed to come together, and here you see something a lot more substantial. It just goes to show – never throw anything away…