Short Story of the Month – ‘Circling the Night’ by Helen Gordon

Our new short story of the month is ‘Circling the Night’ by Helen Gordon.

“You look pretty,” Gemma says, accusatorially. “You’re going to pull tonight.”

For Leila and her friends a night at the fair is full of opportunities that only the heady world of teenage relationships, fancy dress and friendship can provide. 

Helen Gordon‘s short fiction has won the Cambrensis Short Story Competition, been shortlisted for the Real Writers Short Story Awards and longlisted for both the Bridport Prize and the Fish International Short Story Prize. Her non-fiction has been published in The Big Issue and The Church Times as well as in local lifestyle magazines. She currently lives in Shropshire, where she brings up her two boys and works as a freelance journalist.

This is an excerpt, read the full story for FREE on the Seren website here.

Circling the Night

Leila makes her father drop her by the bridge, where they can hear the muffled boom of the fairground shaking through the dusk.

“You look beautiful,” he tells her as she slides out of the car and fluffs her skirts back into a bell.

“Go!” she hisses. But he doesn’t. He watches her tug at the ringlets she’s spent the whole afternoon curling, fiddle with the silk daisies in their midst. And he’s still watching as she picks her way down the alley, turns the corner and lets the fairground take her.

It’s a scratchy excuse for a fairground; a few spidery rides cornered into the tiny car-park that can barely contain them. It’s a sideshow to the pub-spilled streets, thick with messy delight; a gathering-ground for teens too old for costume competitions but too young to squeeze up against heaving bars in the hope of getting a pint.

Leila’s shoes – her mother’s old tap shoes that she found crushed at the base of the dressing-up trunk – tap across the pitted tarmac towards the waltzer, where Gemma and Lizzie are waiting.

Gemma has added a short chequered tie to her school uniform, pulled a flimsy police hat firmly over her curls and rolled her skirt so short that the gusset of her fishnet tights is showing. She has a thick truncheon in one hand and a bottle of 20/20 in the other, and both of them look dangerous.

She puts the bottle down on the bottom step of the waltzer to take in the pink ribbons curling through the net of Leila’s skirt, the pinafore frills of her top, the improbable white of her tights.

“What the fuck are you? Little Bo Peep?”

“A clockwork doll” Leila says, turning to show the gold-sprayed cardboard key sticking sideways out of her back and then completing the circuit self-consciously, fingers splayed, just as she had for the camera at home.

“You look pretty,” Gemma says, accusatorily. “You’re going to pull tonight.”

It’s a promise and a threat, and Leila’s heart leaps and cramps, leaps and cramps until it merges with the disco beat pounding through her veins.

Lizzie, in a pink fur-trimmed cowboy hat and thigh-high leather boots that go no way towards closing the gap on her skirt, takes a deep swig of the 20/20 and thrusts the lurid green liquid in Leila’s direction. She’s got a psychedelic rock dummy strung round her neck and she sucks on it provocatively, her eyes fixed on the bare chest of the boy spinning the cars of the waltzer.

Leila drinks, breathes through the syrupy burn, and looks out across the night. The fairground’s already busy. Clumps of oddly dressed youths cluster together letting the disco beat thump them into a state of excitement. She scans them, endlessly, her heart twitching in hope and fear, but she can’t see Rhys Davis amongst them.

“Come on then, who d’ya fancy?” says Gemma, curving her back against the waltzer railings and puffing out her chest. “Oh don’t be a stuck up bitch. Come on.”

She thrusts the half-empty bottle into Leila’s face, watches her swig, then pushes it back until it re-connects with her lips.

“It’s not fucking cough mixture” she says, “Drink!”

“Right then,” she repeats, when Leila’s swallowed to her satisfaction “Tell us who you fancy.”

“I don’t-“

“Come on. It’s Rob Thomas isn’t it?”

“No-” she says far too quickly, because a year ago it had been, and the thought of Gemma knowing makes something delicate crunch inside her, like a ladybird under a boot.

“It is!”

“No, it’s not. It’s not. ”

Shame’s burning through the pink circles she’s painted so carefully onto her cheeks and Gemma’s watching it cat-like, her claws twitching in anticipation of the kill.

“Honestly. Not Rob Thomas. Someone else.”

Gemma eyes the bait coolly, waits for it to turn its pale belly towards her.

“Go on then…”

“It’s Rhys Davis,” breathes Leila and even the words have a music to them, a soft rustle of pleasure that whispers somewhere in the tissue of her skirt and lingers like a sigh, cooling the burning circles of her cheeks. Rhys Davis. Rhys Davis. Rhys Davis.

Gemma curls her lip in revulsion.

“What d‘you fancy that lanky dick for? He’s rank. Anyway he’s been getting off with my cousin.”

Gemma’s cousins are many and nameless and Leila knows better than to mess with the suggestion of one. She reaches instead for the booze and holds the fiery green liquid in her mouth until it dissolves the surface of her teeth, burns away the horror crawling at the base of her belly.

“Alright alchy!” says Gemma, snatching the bottle back and taking a long answering swig of her own. “It’s not just for you, you know.”

Leila hardly notices. Because there, at the far end of the car park, is the silhouette she’s been looking for all night, and a tight spiral of joy is corseting her lungs, making it difficult to breathe. Rhys Davis: in khaki shorts and a cork-dangled hat, with two white streaks of sunblock slanting each side of his perfectly crooked nose, is walking across the car park.

Finish reading ‘Circling the Night’ on the Seren website here.

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