The girl’s head rested on a small pile of orange-and-brown leaves.
Her almond eyes stared up at the canopy of sycamore, beech and oak, but they didn’t see the tentative fingers of sunlight that poked through the branches and sprinkled the woodland floor with gold. They didn’t blink as shiny black beetles scurried over their pupils. They didn’t see anything any more, except darkness.
A short distance away, a pale hand stretched out from its own small shroud of leaves as if searching for help, or reassurance that it was not alone. None was to be found. The rest of her body lay out of reach, hidden in other secluded spots around the woods.
Close by, a twig snapped, loud as a firecracker in the stillness, and a flurry of birds exploded out of the undergrowth. Someone approached.
They knelt down beside the unseeing girl. Their hands gently caressed her hair and stroked her cold cheek, fingers trembling with anticipation. Then they lifted up her head, dusted off a few leaves that clung to the ragged edges of her neck, and placed it carefully in a bag, where it nestled among a few broken stubs of chalk.
After a moment’s consideration, they reached in and closed her eyes. Then they zipped the bag shut, stood up and carried it away.
Some hours later, police officers and the forensic team arrived. They numbered, photographed, examined and eventually took the girl’s body to the morgue, where it lay for several weeks, as if awaiting completion.
It never came. There were extensive searches, questions and appeals but, despite the best efforts of all the detectives and all the town’s men, her head was never found, and the girl in the woods was never put together again.
Start at the beginning.
The problem was, none of us ever agreed on the exact beginning. Was it when Fat Gav got the bucket of chalks for his birthday? Was it when we started drawing the chalk figures or when they started to appear on their own? Was it the terrible accident? Or when they found the first body?
Any number of beginnings. Any of them, I guess, you could call the start. But really, I think it all began on the day of the fair. That’s the day I remember most. Because of Waltzer Girl, obviously, but also because it was the day that everything stopped being normal.
If our world was a snow globe, it was the day some casual god came along, shook it hard and set it back down again. Even when the foam and flakes had settled, things weren’t the way they were before. Not exactly. They might have looked the same through the glass but, on the inside, everything was different.
That was also the day I first met Mr. Halloran, so, as beginnings go, I suppose it’s as good as any.
“Going to be a storm today, Eddie.”
My dad was fond of forecasting the weather in a deep, authoritative voice, like the people on the telly. He always said it with absolute certainty, even though he was usually wrong.
I glanced out of the window at the perfect blue sky, so bright blue you had to squint a little to look at it.
“Doesn’t look like there’ll be a storm, Dad,” I said through a mouthful of cheese sandwich.
“That’s because there isn’t going to be one,” Mum said, having entered the kitchen suddenly and silently, like some kind of ninja warrior. “The BBC says it’s going to be hot and sunny all weekend. . . and don’t speak with your mouth full, Eddie,” she added.
“Hmmmm,” Dad said, which was what he always said when he disagreed with Mum but didn’t dare say she was wrong.
No one dared disagree with Mum. Mum was — and actually still is — kind of scary. She was tall, with short dark hair, and brown eyes that could bubble with fun or blaze almost black when she was angry (and, a bit like the Incredible Hulk, you didn’t want to make her angry).
Mum was a doctor, but not a normal doctor who sewed on people’s legs and gave you injections for stuff. Dad once told me she “helped women who were in trouble.” He didn’t say what kind of trouble, but I supposed it had to be pretty bad if you needed a doctor.
Dad worked, too, but from home. He was a writer for magazines and newspapers. Not all of the time. Sometimes he would moan that no one wanted to give him any work or say, with a bitter laugh, “Just not my audience this month, Eddie.”
As a kid, it didn’t feel like he had a “proper job.” Not for a dad. A dad should wear a suit and tie and go off to work in the mornings and come home in the evenings for tea. My dad went to work in the spare room and sat at a computer in his pyjamas and a T‑shirt, sometimes without even brushing his hair.
My dad didn’t look much like other dads either. He had a big, bushy beard and long hair he tied back in a ponytail. He wore cut-off jeans with holes in, even in winter, and faded T‑shirts with the names of ancient bands on, like Led Zeppelin and The Who. Sometimes he wore sandals, too.
Fat Gav said my dad was a “frigging hippie.” He was probably right. But back then, I took it as an insult, and I pushed him and he body- slammed me, and I staggered off home with some new bruises and a bloody nose.
We made up later, of course. Fat Gav could be a right penis-head — he was one of those fat kids who always have to be the loudest and most obnoxious, so as to put off the real bullies — but he was also one of my best friends and the most loyal and generous person I knew.
“You look after your friends, Eddie Munster,” he once said to me solemnly. “Friends are everything.”
Eddie Munster was my nickname. That was because my surname was Adams, like in The Addams Family. Of course, the kid in The Addams Family was called Pugsley, and Eddie Munster was out of The Munsters, but it made sense at the time and, in the way that nicknames do, it stuck.
Eddie Munster, Fat Gav, Metal Mickey (on account of the huge braces on his teeth), Hoppo (David Hopkins) and Nicky. That was our gang. Nicky didn’t have a nickname because she was a girl, even though she tried her best to pretend she wasn’t. She swore like a boy, climbed trees like a boy and could fight almost as well as most boys. But she still looked like a girl. A really pretty girl, with long red hair and pale skin, sprinkled with lots of tiny brown freckles. Not that I had really noticed or anything.
We were all due to meet up that Saturday. We met most Saturdays and went round to each other’s houses, or to the playground, or sometimes the woods. This Saturday was special, though, because of the fair. It came every year and set up on the park, near the river. This year was the first year we were being allowed to go on our own, without an adult to supervise.
We’d been looking forward to it for weeks, ever since the posters went up around town. There were going to be Dodgems and a Meteorite and a Pirate Ship and an Orbiter. It looked ace.
“So,” I said, finishing my cheese sandwich as quickly as I could, “I said I’d meet the others outside the park at two?”
“Well, stick to the main roads walking down there,” Mum said. “Don’t go taking any shortcuts or talking to anybody you don’t know.”
I slid from my seat and headed to the door.
“And take your bumbag.”
“You’ll be going on rides. Your wallet could fall out of your pocket. Bumbag. No arguments.”
I opened my mouth and shut it again. I could feel my cheeks burning. I hated the stupid bumbag. Fat tourists wore bumbags. It would not look cool in front of everyone, especially Nicky. But when Mum was like this, there really was no arguing.
It wasn’t, but I could see the kitchen clock edging closer toward two and I needed to get going. I ran up the stairs, grabbed the stupid bumbag and put my money inside. A whole Åí5. A fortune. Then I charged back down again.
“See you later.”
There was no doubt in my mind I would. The sun was shining. I had on my favorite T‑shirt and my Converse. I could already hear the faint thump, thump of the fairground music, and smell the burgers and candyfloss. Today was going to be perfect.
FAT GAV, HOPPO and Metal Mickey were already waiting by the gates when I arrived.
“Hey, Eddie Munster. Nice fanny pack!” Fat Gav yelled.
I blushed purple and gave him the finger. Hoppo and Metal Mickey both chortled at Fat Gav’s joke. Then Hoppo, who was always the nicest, and the peacemaker, said to Fat Gav, “Least it doesn’t look as gay as your shorts, penis-
Fat Gav grinned, grabbed his shorts at the hems and did this little dance, raising his chunky legs up high, like he was a ballerina. That was the thing with Fat Gav. You could never really insult him because he just didn’t care. Or, at least, that’s what he made everyone think.
“Anyway,” I said, because despite Hoppo’s deflection I still felt that the bumbag looked stupid, “I’m not wearing it.”
I unclipped the belt, slipped my wallet into my shorts pocket and looked around. A thick hedge ran around the outside of the park. I stuffed the bumbag into the hedge so it couldn’t be seen if you were walking past but not so far that I couldn’t grab it again later.
“Sure you want to leave it there?” Hoppo asked.
“Yeah, what if your mummy finds out?” Metal Mickey said, in the snide, sing-song way he had.
Although he was part of our gang and Fat Gav’s best friend, I’d never liked Metal Mickey much. There was a streak running through him that was as cold and ugly as the braces that ran around his mouth. But then, bearing in mind who his brother was, perhaps that wasn’t really surprising.
“I don’t care,” I lied, with a shrug.
“Who does?” Fat Gav said impatiently. “Can we forget the frigging bag and get going? I want to get to the Orbiter first.”
Metal Mickey and Hoppo started to move — we usually did what Fat Gav wanted. Probably because he was the largest and loudest.
“But Nicky’s not here yet,” I said.
“So what?” Metal Mickey said. “She’s always late. Let’s just go. She’ll find us.”
Metal Mickey was right. Nicky was always late. On the other hand, that wasn’t the deal. We were all supposed to stick together. It wasn’t safe at the fair on your own. Especially not for a girl.
“Let’s give her five more minutes,” I said.
“You cannot be serious!” Fat Gav exclaimed, doing his best — so pretty bad — John McEnroe impression.
Fat Gav did a lot of impressions. Mostly American. All so terrible they made us crease up with laughter.
Metal Mickey didn’t laugh quite as hard as Hoppo and me. He didn’t like it if he felt the gang was going against him. But anyway, it didn’t matter because we had just about stopped laughing when a familiar voice said, “What’s so funny?”
We turned. Nicky walked up the hill toward us. As always, I felt a weird kind of fluttering in my stomach at the sight of her. Like I was suddenly really hungry and felt a bit sick.
Her red hair was loose today, falling in a tangled jumble down her back, almost brushing the edges of her frayed denim shorts. She wore a yellow, sleeveless blouse. It had small blue flowers around the neck. I caught a glint of silver at her throat. A small cross on a chain. She had a large and heavy-looking hessian bag slung around her shoulders.
“You’re late,” Metal Mickey said. “We were waiting for you.”
As if it had been his idea.
“What’s in the bag?” Hoppo asked.
“My dad wants me to deliver this crap around the fair.”
She pulled a leaflet from the bag and held it out.
Come to St. Thomas’s Church and praise the Lord. It’s the greatest thrill ride of all!
Nicky’s dad was the vicar at our local church. I had never actually been to church — my mum and dad didn’t do that type of stuff — but I’d seen him around town. He wore small, round glasses and his bald scalp was covered with freckles, like Nicky’s nose. He always smiled and said hello, but I found him just a bit scary.
“Now that is a pile of stinking Buckaroo, my man,” Fat Gav said.
“Stinking” or “flying Buckaroo” was another one of Fat Gav’s favorite phrases, usually followed by saying “my man” in a really posh accent, for some reason.
“You’re not really going to, are you?” I asked, suddenly envisioning the whole day being wasted, traipsing around with Nicky while she handed out her leaflets.
She gave me a look. It reminded me a bit of my mum.
“Of course I’m not, you Joey,” she said. “We’ll just take some, scatter them around, like people have thrown them away, and then stuff the rest in a bin.”
We all grinned. There’s nothing better than doing something you shouldn’t and getting one over on an adult while doing it.
We scattered the leaflets, dumped the bag and got down to business. The Orbiter (which really was ace), the Dodgems, where Fat Gav rammed me so hard I felt my spine crack. The Space Rockets (pretty exciting last year but now a bit boring), the Helter Skelter, the Meteorite and the Pirate Ship.
We ate hot dogs, and Fat Gav and Nicky tried to hook ducks and learned the hard way that a prize every time does not necessarily mean a prize you want, and came away laughing and throwing their crappy little stuffed animals at each other.
By this point, the afternoon was already getting away from us. The thrill and adrenalin were starting to fade, along with the growing realization that I probably only had enough cash left for two or maybe three more rides.
I reached into my pocket for my wallet. My heart leapfrogged into my mouth. It was gone.
“What?” Hoppo asked.
“My wallet. I’ve lost it.”
“Of course I’m frigging sure.”
But I checked my other pocket just in case. Both empty. Crap.
“Well, where did you have it last?” Nicky asked.
I tried to think. I knew I’d had it after the last ride, because I checked. Plus, we bought hot dogs afterwards. I didn’t have a go on the Hook a Duck so . . .
“The hot-dog stall.”
The hot-dog stall was all the way across the fair, in the opposite direction to the Orbiter and the Meteorite.
“Shit,” I said again.
“Come on,” Hoppo said. “Let’s go and look.”
“What’s the point?” Metal Mickey said. “Someone’ll have picked it up by now.”
“I could lend you some money,” Fat Gav said. “But I haven’t got much left.”
I was pretty sure this was a lie. Fat Gav always had more money than the rest of us. Just like he always had the best toys and the newest, shiniest bike. His dad owned one of the local pubs, The Bull, and his mum was an Avon lady. Fat Gav was generous, but I also knew he really wanted to go on some more rides.
I shook my head anyway. “Thanks. It’s okay.”
It wasn’t. I could feel tears burning behind my eyes. It wasn’t just the lost money. It was feeling stupid, it was the spoilt day. It was knowing that Mum would be all annoyed and say, “I told you so.”
“You lot go on,” I said. “I’ll go back and have a look. No point us all wasting our time.”
“Cool,” Metal Mickey said. “C’mon. Let’s go.”
They all shambled off. I could see they were relieved. It wasn’t their money lost, or their day ruined. I started to trudge back across the fair, toward the hot-dog stall. It was right across from the Waltzers, so I used that as a marker. You couldn’t really miss the old carnival ride. Right in the centre of the fairground.
Music blared out, distorted through the ancient speakers. Multicolored lights flashed and the riders screamed as the wooden carriages spun round and round, faster and faster on the revolving wooden carousel.
As I got closer, I started looking down, shuffling along more carefully, scanning the ground. Rubbish, hot-dog wrappers, no wallet. ’Course not. Metal Mickey was right. Someone would have picked it up and nicked my money.
I sighed and looked up. I spotted the Pale Man first. That wasn’t his name, of course. I found out afterwards his name was Mr. Halloran and he was our new teacher.
It was hard to miss the Pale Man. He was very tall, for a start, and thin. He wore stonewashed jeans, a baggy white shirt and a big straw hat. He looked like this ancient seventies singer my mum liked. David Bowie.
The Pale Man stood near the hot-dog stall, drinking a blue slushy through a straw and watching the Waltzers. Well, I thought he was watching the Waltzers.
I found myself looking in the same direction, and that’s when I saw the girl. I was still pissed off about my wallet but I was also a twelve-year-old boy with hormones just starting to bubble and simmer. Nights in my room weren’t always spent reading comic books by torchlight under my bedcovers.
The girl was standing with a blonde friend I vaguely recognized from around town (her dad was a policeman or something), but my mind instantly dismissed her. It’s a sad fact that beauty, real beauty, just eclipses everything and everyone around it. Blonde Friend was pretty, but Waltzer Girl — as I would always think of her, even after I learned her name — was properly beautiful. Tall and slim, with long, dark hair and even longer legs, so smooth and brown they gleamed in the sun. She wore a rara skirt, and a baggy vest with “Relax” scrawled on it over a fluorescent green bra top. She tucked her hair behind one ear and a gold hoop earring gleamed in the sun.
I’m slightly ashamed to say I didn’t notice her face much at first, but when she turned to talk to Blonde Friend I wasn’t disappointed. It was heartachingly pretty, with full lips and tilted almond eyes.
And then it was gone.
One minute she was there, her face was there, the next there was this terrible, eardrum-wrenching noise, like some great beast had bellowed from the bowels of the earth. Later, I found out it was the sound of the slew ring on the ancient Waltzers” axis snapping after too much use and too little maintenance. I saw a flash of silver and her face, or half of it, was sheared away, leaving a gaping mass of gristle, bone and blood. So much blood.
Fractions of a second later, before I even had a chance to open my mouth to scream, something huge and purple and black came tearing past. There was a deafening crash — the loose Waltzer carriage smashing into the hot-dog stall in a hail of flying metal and splinters of wood — and more screaming and yelling as people dived out of the way. I found myself bowled over and knocked to the ground.
Other people fell on top of me. Someone’s foot stamped down on my wrist. A knee clipped my head. A boot kicked me in the ribs. I yelped but somehow managed to bundle myself up and roll over. Then I yelped again. Waltzer Girl lay next to me. Mercifully, her hair had fallen over her face, but I recognized the T‑shirt and fluorescent bra top, even though both were soaked through with blood. More blood ran down her leg. A second piece of sharp metal had sliced right through the bone, just below her knee. Her lower leg was barely hanging on, tethered only by stringy tendons.
I started to scramble away — she was obviously dead. I couldn’t do anything — and that was when her hand reached out and grabbed my arm.
She turned her bloody, ravaged face toward me. Somewhere, within all the red, a single brown eye stared at me. The other rested limply on her ruined cheek.
“Help me,” she rasped. “Help me.”
I wanted to run. I wanted to scream and cry and be sick all at once. I might have done all three if another, large, firm hand hadn’t clamped down on my shoulder and a soft voice hadn’t said, “It’s okay. I know you’re scared, but I need you to listen to me very carefully and do just what I say.”
I turned. The Pale Man stared down at me. Only now did I realize that his face, beneath the wide-brimmed hat, was almost as white as his shirt. Even his eyes were a misty, translucent grey. He looked like a ghost, or a vampire, and under any other circumstances I would probably have been scared of him. But right now he was an adult, and I needed an adult to tell me what to do.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Ed — Eddie.”
“Okay, Eddie. You hurt?”
I shook my head.
“Good. But this young lady is, so we need to help her, okay?”
“This is what I need you to do . . . hold her leg here, and hold on tight, really tight.”
He took my hands and placed them around the girl’s leg. It felt hot and slimy with blood.
I nodded again. I could taste fear, bitter and metallic, on my tongue. I could feel blood seeping between my fingers, even though I was holding on really tight, as tightly as I could . . .
In the distance, a lot further away it seemed than the sounds actually were, I could hear music pounding and screams of enjoyment. The girl’s screams had stopped. She lay motionless and quiet now, just the low rasp of her breathing, and even that was growing fainter.
“Eddie, you have to concentrate. Okay?”
I stared at the Pale Man. He unwound his belt from his jeans. It was a long belt, too long for his skinny waist, and it had extra holes in it where he had made it smaller. Funny, the weird things you notice at the crappiest moments. Like I noticed that Waltzer Girl’s shoe had come off. A jelly shoe. Pink and sparkly. And I thought how she probably wasn’t going to need it again, what with her leg almost cut in two.
“You still with me, Eddie?”
“Good. Almost there. You’re doing great, Eddie.”
The Pale Man took the belt and wrapped it around the top of the girl’s leg. He pulled hard, really hard. He was stronger than he looked. Almost straight away I could feel the gush of blood slowing.
He looked at me and nodded. “You can let go now. I’ve got it.”
I took my hands away. Now the tension had gone, they started to shake. I wrapped them around my body, under my arms.
“Is she going to be okay?”
“I don’t know. Hopefully, they can save her leg.”
“What about her face?” I whispered.
He looked up at me, and something in those pale grey eyes stilled me. “Were you looking at her face before, Eddie?”
I opened my mouth, but I didn’t know what to say, or understand why his voice didn’t sound so friendly any more.
Then he looked away again and said quietly, “She’ll live. That’s the important thing.”
And that was when a huge crack of thunder broke overhead and the first drops of rain started to fall. I guess it was the first time I understood how things can change in an instant. All the stuff we take for granted can just be ripped away. Maybe that’s why I took it. To hold on to something. To keep it safe. That’s what I told myself anyway.
But like a lot of stuff we tell ourselves, that was probably just a pile of stinking Buckaroo.
THE LOCAL PAPER called us heroes. They got Mr. Halloran and me
back together in the park and they took our photo.
Incredibly, the two people in the Waltzer carriage that broke loose suffered only broken bones, cuts and bruises. A few other bystanders caught some nasty gashes that needed stitches, and there were a few more fractures and cracked ribs in the stampede to get out of the way.
Even Waltzer Girl (whose name was actually Elisa) lived. The doctors managed to reattach her leg and somehow save her eye. The papers called it a miracle. They didn’t say so much about the rest of her face.
Gradually, as with all dramas and tragedies, interest in it started to fade. Fat Gav stopped cracking bad-taste jokes (mostly about being legless), and even Metal Mickey got bored of calling me “Hero Boy” and asking where I’d left my cape. Other news and gossip took its place. There was a car crash on the A36, and the cousin of one of the kids at school died, and then Marie Bishop, who was in the fifth year, got pregnant. So life, as it tends to, moved on.
I wasn’t so bothered. I’d got a bit tired of the story myself. And I wasn’t really the sort of kid who likes being the centre of attention. Plus, the less I talked about it, the less often I had to picture Waltzer Girl’s missing face. The nightmares started to fade away. My secret trips to the laundry basket with soiled sheets became less frequent.
Mum asked me a couple of times if I wanted to visit Waltzer Girl in hospital. I always said no. I didn’t want to see her again. Didn’t want to look at her ruined face. Didn’t want those brown eyes to stare at me accusingly: I know you were going to run away, Eddie. Until Mr. Halloran grabbed you, you would have left me there to die.
I think Mr. Halloran visited. A lot. I guess he had the time. He wasn’t due to start teaching at our school until September. Apparently, he had decided to move into his rented cottage a few months early so he could settle into the town first.
I supposed it was a good idea. It gave everyone a chance to get used to seeing him around. Got all the questions out of the way before he stepped into the classroom:
What was wrong with his skin? He was an albino, the adults explained patiently. That meant he was missing something called a “pigment” that made most people’s skin a normal pink or brown color. And his eyes? Same thing. They were just missing pigment. So, he wasn’t a freak, or a monster or a ghost? No. Just a normal man with a medical condition.
They were wrong. Mr. Halloran was many things, but normal was never one of them.
Author Photo: © Bill Waters