August Clementine “Clem” Masters brushed his floppy fringe from his eyes and stepped over a rusty girder, lying abandoned on the ground, the sole of his worn brown boot raised high, skimming the ends of the overgrown grass whiskers that sprouted from the ground all around him, the blades bearing that colourlessness that is all the English eye can see after days without sun. Clem adjusted his black coat and set off, the open sides of the coat flapping slightly at his thighs in a silent wind.
A short way ahead of him, the shape of a ferris wheel filled the scene, iron spokes and iron bucket bench seats, rusted to some exquisite shade of pure decay, neither chilli nor chocolate, a half-hearted shade or two redder than the earth bed below, from which the ashen grass grew. Bushes of the kind that are found innumerably in Britain, but are too common to be named, had spread, parasitic, up the ferris wheel, reaching, stretching up the spokes towards the rust seats, like some insatiable fungus that feeds only on decayed ferrous metal. The result was a many-limbed starfish of growth, bush arms petrified in a grotesque mutation of a child mid-starjump, some humourless parody of what the ferris wheel used to be. In a fit of poetic inspiration, new life had sprung from the wheel’s rigor mortis, encrusted with the hideousness that the desperation and stubbornness of organic life alone can supply.
The bushes rustled as the slender figure of Laura Wethers emerged from behind the ferris wheel like a time-lapse film of a bud unfolding itself from the lifeless community of plants around it. Her hair, a rich but glossless gold colour, like an aged wedding ring, was tied to expose her face, but the long, straight strands curved down past her shoulders. Her skin bore a weathered look that marked resilience without compromising its attractions. She had that simplicity of appearance labelled by eighteenth-century writers as handsomeness, to distinguish from beauty, and by artists as minimalism, a composure that lacks conventional aesthetic, the raw elegance of Japanese gravel gardens: her face presented such consistent reality and subtlety as to blend perfectly with the real world that now surrounded her. This trend followed to her plain clothes: the discoloured jeans, the grey woollen pullover, the black, sleeveless, collarless jacket, the sturdy brown boots, outlining her curved shape, while emanating a sense of confidence and strength. An idiosyncratic half-smile curved her lips.
Clem saw a challenge in her slightly widened eyes, and held her gaze, and little by little her half-smile grew as he refused to look away. Eventually she let out a laugh, revealing a glimpse of white teeth, and blinked her gaze to one side, before inclining her head to indicate that he should follow her lead. He fell into step beside her as she set off, leaving the ferris wheel behind and to their right, and it soon disappeared into the mist.
Other structures were now emerging around them, long-abandoned remnants of a once-busy amusement park, old steel frames and cracked plastic novelty figures, grim reapers and friendly dragons alike distorted into something twice as grotesque by neglect. Around them, the bushes gave way to sticks and the skeletons of the undergrowth, remnants of some fire or other. A giant yellow plastic caterpillar lay a few feet away, staring up through wide plastic eyes with a wide smiling mouth, eyes, nose, mouth and forehead caked with mud, like some war-torn soldier driven to insanity by battle, his mad smile still rigid as dried plaster on his face.
And then the brown, dead sticks gave way to brown, dead earth, and before them stood the entrance to lightless tunnel, made up as a tiger’s open mouth, jagged teeth reaching down from the top of the doorway, eyes wide and jaw dropped in a hideous Cheshire cat grin, plumes of fur or fire, it made no odds, spreading out either side of its head like a huge, orange, Elizabethan ruff. Once-lit neon letters arched over the cat’s head, the missing letters rendering the sign unintelligible, save the predictable word “scary”.
They bypassed this forgotten junk just as they had bypassed everything else. They were heading out into the most lifeless patch of the field, not only brown and dead, but composed almost entirely of soil so dry it could have been brown sand: it did not seem ever to have been alive. It was here that Laura turned, and held out a hand.
There was something incredibly elegant about her in that moment. Her entirely asymmetric stance, one leg extended further out than the other, one arm outstretched, the other passive by her side, her balance perfect but deviated from the centre. She was beautiful, and the hand as he touched it was neither soft nor coarse. Her grip was not slack or firm, and she smiled with white teeth. Then a pressure began to emanate from every pore of her body. It extended through her hold on him to spread through his own body, and pressure slight and irresistible, like drowning in bourbon whisky. But the pressure was the only fluid thing, all else was coarse and flaked and powdered, and dry. She was his only salvation as she brought him slowly sinking down into a suffocating, arid Hell.