It must be Fête (short story)

Bending over the cash box – pretending to count the float – I inhale the sharp, tin scent of well-handled small change and lick my lips.

‘Jacob? Is that what you’re planning to wear this afternoon? How rustic.’

I straighten my back, sifting coppers through my fingers and forcing a smile. ‘I’ve been prepping the charcoal burners, Ceci.’

‘I’m sure you have. Well done, keep up the good work.’ She wanders on to the next stall, loudly declaring how delightful it is to see the fine tradition of whack-a-rat being kept up. I walk out of earshot of her childhood reminiscences, wiping my hands on the cleanest patch left on my apron.

‘Isn’t this just scrummy!’ An unknown blonde woman accosts me with a piece of Victoria sponge.

I flinch away.

‘Don’t you just love a good fête?’

I nod, smile and don’t disagree out loud. Behind the marquee I find a shady patch to lie down and shut my eyes. My arms are aching from unusual exertion and more than anything I want to go home, take a shower and sleep. The weeks of planning have left an emptiness in me which the promise of the day is so far failing to fill.

My mobile rings. It’s Larry demanding to know the postcode for the sat-nav.

‘It doesn’t have a postcode. It’s a field.’

‘Bollocks. There aren’t any fields in London.’

I promise I’ll ask someone and he demands I call him back immediately.

Standing up takes more effort than I think it merits. I tell Larry he was meant to be here half an hour ago anyway.

‘If I’m doing a gig for free, I’ll turn up when I like.’

‘It’s for charity, not for free.’

He says he probably isn’t far now.

Over by the entrance, members of staff are starting to trickle in early. There aren’t many occasions in our social calendar where we get to suck up to all the Board members at the same time as showing off how pretty our families are and what fine, upstanding people we try to be in our spare time. Mandy – one of the nicer shelf-stackers at our library – is explaining in a practised chant what the entrance fee entitles them to. ‘It’s a fiver, yeah, and it’s a donation but we give you a ticket for the tombola and you can win stuff. Nah, it’s a fiver each for adults, half-price for kids under ten. Nah, food is extra this year, there was a memo sent round.’

Mandy catches me watching her and beckons. I keep my distance in case she wants help, then I spot Larry’s Audi pulls up to the edge of the yellowing parking green and jog slowly over, my legs feeling like they’re about to drop off.

‘What is this bollocks anyway?’

‘I told you before. It’s a charity fundraiser.’

‘It’s a bunch of tossers in a field. Is it the WI?’ He grunts as I help him lift a large black case out of his boot. ‘Do I at least get a changing room?’

‘Is the rabbit in here? I’ve cordoned off part of one of the catering marquees for you.’

‘Tell me there won’t be any kids.’

‘I can’t lie to you, Larry. There will be kids.’

He flops his arms around theatrically, fake-sobbing loud enough to make a nearby group of girls in straw hats stare at us. ‘Effing hate kids, you know that.’

‘You’re a magician. You’re meant to love them. Just not in a creepy way.’ We start walking to the tents. I carry the bag and he links his arm through mine companionably, carrying nothing but a folded black cloth I assume is a cloak.

‘I’m an adult magician, mate. I do hen parties normally.’

‘Whatever. You’re a free magician and you’re here to make me look good.’ I show him to his impromptu backstage and promise to save him a burger.

The crowds are starting to thicken but there aren’t enough people to stop Ceci from spotting me and summoning me over to meet someone standing in the shade of a tree.

I brace myself and obey.

‘This is Marcia from the St. Lawrence Trust. Marcia, this is one of our display staff from the library. He’s in charge of today.’ Marcia is a thin, brown, nervous bird of a lady.

She asks me if I’d like to meet some of the children.

I lie through my teeth, telling her I’d love to.

‘Does them good, having a run around somewhere green for a change.’

‘I hope we raise a lot of money for them.’

‘Money isn’t everything, young man.’ We walk and talk over to an impromptu football pitch and watch a handful of children of assorted ages run in circles round a ball. A priest blows a whistle and runs after them, stopping every so often to put his hands on his thighs and cough. Maria lectures me on the importance of love and acceptance until the skin on my cheeks is stretched so tightly into a fake smile of interest that I think my face is going to snap off and I have to make my excuses and leave.

I wash my hands and arms with carbolic soap in the trough-like sink behind the barbeque. I take the filthy apron off and try to brush as much in the way of grass stalks off my jeans as I can, then I wash my hands again and my face and slick my hair down. In my head I’m running through stalls and rough estimates of people and trying to tally the costs. I think it’s going to cover it. Then a young man with the unblemished face and golden hair of an angel taps me on the shoulder and I jump and almost knock over the folding table covered in condiments.

‘Are you Jacob?’

For him, I would be anyone. I stare at his biceps.

‘I’ve been sent to report for duty.’ The angel shifts from foot to foot and just as I’m about to say something he smiles and I all I can think of is the French phrase, coup de foudre, which means thunderbolt but also means love at first sight and I know exactly why because something has knocked all the breath out of me.

Mandy winks at me behind the angel’s back when I explain that he will be helping her on the ticket desk. I wink back and ask how the takings are.

‘We’re raking it in,’ she says. ‘Those kids are going to get more books than we’ve got in the library.’

‘Is that why you give the profits to the St. Lawrence Trust?’ asks the angel, fussing with a spare fold-out chair. ‘Because of the book connection?’

‘He’s the patron saint of librarians, so we thought it appropriate,’ I say. ‘I call this thing the annual cooking of the books.’

Mandy winces, but the angel tips his head back and laughs. He has perfect teeth.

‘Don’t you need to check on the barbeque?’ says Mandy.

I agree and walk away slowly, checking back over my shoulder. She’s bending over his shoulder, showing him how the ticket system works. Her top is – in my opinion – inappropriately low-cut for a work event.

Larry is working his way along the queue for burgers, asking the punters to pick a card, any card. Ceci strides over to me and stands watching him.

‘He’s good, isn’t he?’ I say.

‘He’d better be, for what we’re paying him.’ She curls her lip. ‘Card tricks aren’t quite what I expected.’

There’s a whoop from the queue as Larry reaches over, pulls a sausage out of a child’s ear and eats it.

I smile at Ceci. ‘He’s worth every penny. Trust me.’ Larry starts to pull a string of raw sausages out of someone’s cleavage and I cross my fingers in my pocket and hope he remembers it’s a family-friendly occasion.

Skipping the queue, I steal two burgers and return to the ticket desk. ‘You’ve been here for ages.’ I say to Mandy, handing her one of the burgers. ‘Take a break.’

‘Is that for me?’ asks the angel. ‘I’m a vegetarian.

‘It’s for the magician,’ I say. ‘Mandy’s about to take it over to him.’

Mandy gives me a dirty look and takes a bite of her burger.

‘You’ve got sauce on your chin.’ I tell her.

She rearranges her top and leaves.

‘Everything going according to plan?’ The angel leans back in his chair, running his fingers through the tousled gold of his hair. ‘Do you always organise this?’

‘So far so good. I’m up for promotion so I volunteered to help out. I didn’t catch your name by the way.’

‘Benedict.’

‘Patron saint of students,’ I open and close the cash box, trying to gauge the thickness of the pile of banknotes. ‘Are you a student, Benedict?’

‘Dropped out last semester. I’m thinking of going back to do foundation photography next year. What about Mandy?’

‘Patron saint of brewers and vintners. Very appropriate in her case, you should see her after work on a Friday night. Mess doesn’t cover it.’ In the distance I can see Ceci rounding people up for the jam judging. I point her out to Benedict. ‘That’s Cecelia Mountford. Lady Mountford. Allegedly patron saint of music but actually patron saint of being a bitch.’

‘Who’s a bitch?’ Mandy comes back holding two plastic cups of lemonade. ‘You look hot, Benedict. Drink this. Cheers for helping out, Jacob. Don’t let us keep you.’

I can’t think of an excuse to stay.

Five hours later, the numbers are beginning to add up. I can pay off the Visa entirely and this quarter’s interest on the online account and still have enough left over for the deposit on the new flat.

‘What’s that?’ Larry drops his chin down on my shoulder and I pull a biscuit tin over the paper in front of me.

‘Accounts for the fête. I’m checking the budget balances. You’re covered in sweat. That’s disgusting.’ I shrug him off.

‘What budget? Enough in there to buy me an effing drink to say thank you?’ Larry wanders into the corner of the tent and begins to get changed out of his costume.

‘It’s for charity, remember. Books for deprived kids.’

‘Depraved kids, more like. One of those little tossers tried to nick my wand.’

I fold the sheet of paper into my pocket and pick up the cashbox. ‘I’m off. See you later on.’

Larry finishes pulling a t-shirt over his head and raises a hand in salute.

I walk out, then duck back inside. ‘Thanks, by the way. You were great.’

‘Any chance of a hand lugging this back to the car.’

‘Sorry, got to say goodbye to the dignitaries.’

He gives me the finger.

By the time I’ve done a full circuit of the field, all three marquees have been dismantled. I find Mandy eating leftover burger buns; her ample cleavage is covered in crumbs, which she picks off slowly while informing me that Benedict is helping his mother carry tables. ‘You’re too old for him, Jacob. How old are you anyway, forty two or forty three?’

‘I just wanted to thank him for helping out.’ Forty four.

‘Have you been thanking all the volunteers personally?’ I threaten to squirt ketchup on her skirt and she agrees to shut up.

Over by the vans, I am unable to avoid the stick-like figures of Ceci and Marcia. I hold up the cashbox and shake it. ‘We’ve done well today,’ I say. ‘Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.’

‘How well?’ asks Ceci.

I tell her I’m waiting for a few invoices, so I don’t want to commit to a number. Marcia nods and witters, thanking us both for all our hard work. I spot Benedict through the outline of trees, drinking out of a bottle of water like someone in a advert.

‘Lovely to meet you, Marcia.’ I shake her thin, brown hand. ‘I’ll see you at the board meeting on Monday, Ceci.’ Ceci and I don’t shake hands. She gives me a limp smile and escorts Marcia towards the car park. I walk casually over to Benedict.

‘Long day,’ he passes me the water bottle. ‘I expect you’re going home to sleep now.’

‘I was up at six to buy the French bread.’ I put the cashbox down at my feet. ‘You up to much later?’

‘No real plans. Might meet some people later on.’ He stretches his arms above his head, exposing his navel and I have to stop myself staring. My throat goes dry. I drink some water.

‘I’m actually going out with some mates in Shoreditch. No rest for the wicked.’ I try to both disguise and imply an invitation. ‘One of them’s the magician, actually.’

‘Will he be bringing the rabbit?’ I laugh too loudly and then there’s an awkward silence.

‘Thanks for your help today. If you end up anywhere near Shoreditch let me know and I’ll buy you a drink to say thank you.’ It sounds so obvious, I dig my nails into the palm of my hand and pass the water back to him.

‘I’ll get your number from my mum,’ he says. I’m about to ask who exactly his mum is, when Larry strolls over. ‘Hey, loved your thing with the flowers.’

‘Cheers, mate. Jacob, you want a lift?’ I tell Larry I have some stuff to see to so I’ll just take the bus. ‘No worries, I don’t mind hanging around.’ He introduces himself to Benedict and the two of them loll down on the grass; I loom over them, tongue-tied.

There are two or three people directing the last of the cars out of the car park so I tell them they can go home. Ceci and Marcia still haven’t left and I discover that they’re waiting for Marcia’s daughter to finish herding children. They fan themselves with leaflets about organic vegetable boxes and discuss literacy rates in prison.

Once I run out of people to thank and things to pretend to be overseeing, I go back to Benedict and Larry. Larry is droning on about house prices and Benedict is lying on his back, chewing a grass stalk. ‘All done, mate?’

‘Just about. Can you keep an eye on this for me?’ I put the cashbox down between Larry and Benedict. ‘I’ll be back in a moment.’

‘Just give me long enough to pick the effing lock.’ I pull a face while Benedict bares his perfect teeth in a laugh. ‘How much did you make?’

‘Hopefully enough to buy a lot of books for the kiddies.’

‘Still can’t believe you managed to persuade me to do this for free.’

‘Are all your props in the car? If you leave anything behind I can’t guarantee you’ll get it back.’

‘That’s generous of you,’ Benedict says to Larry. ‘Giving up your weekend for nothing.’

‘It’s not just me. All of us were working pro bono publico. All for the kiddies.’

‘I’ll check you haven’t left anything,’ I leave on another circuit of the field, trying to think of new ways to ask Benedict for his number. As I walk back, I see that he and Larry have been joined by three other people, two of whom are recognisably stick-like.

Marcia and Ceci are still fanning themselves even though they’re now in the shade. The large girl with them is, I assume, Marcia’s daughter. Larry sees me approaching and picks up the cash-box. ‘I’ll see you at the car,’ he says and carries it off.

‘All packed-up,’ I put on my fake cheery tone. ‘Is that you off now, Ceci?’

‘Benedict’s just told us the good news,’ says Marcia.

‘We’re delighted,’ says Ceci. ‘Quite the miracle worker, Jacob. I never would have thought you had it in you.’ I smile at them all and hope they’ll leave me alone with Benedict. Larry toots the car horn. ‘We’ve probably set a new record. The rest of the board will be very impressed.’

‘I don’t quite follow you,’ I say. ‘I think it’s about the same number of people as last year.’

‘Not attendance, Jacob. A new donation record. Because you brilliantly persuaded everyone to work for free. So the outgoing expenses will be very small. How modest of you to keep so quiet about it.’ Ceci bares her teeth at me. ‘I’m looking forward to your presentation of the budget. On Monday. I think it’s going to be very interesting.’ I smile back and murmur that I’m delighted to have done what I can. My stomach feels like I’ve swallowed Larry’s prop rabbit.

Marcia says goodbye again. Her daughter breaks off from smiling moonily at Benedict and says goodbye to me too. Benedict lifts a hand in a half wave to me. ‘Maybe catch you later,’ I say. Larry toots the car horn again and I ask Benedict if he needs a lift anywhere.

‘I’m going back with Mum.’ He tilts his head towards Cecelia.

*first published by the Ether Books app in 2011

*exhibited in Nottingham in 2012 as part of World Event Young Artists 2012

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