EPISODE SEVEN: THE GOLDFISH FILES
I should have known the goldfish was going to be trouble from the first moment I laid eyes on him. He certainly looked innocent enough, suspended silently in a clear plastic bag filled with water. But there was something particularly inscrutable about his expression that I found rather unsettling. And I wouldn’t mind but it had really been a cuddly toy panda that I had my eye on anyway.
The fairground was something of an unscheduled stop in our ongoing quest to meet up with Colonel Pendlebury. Michael and I had received a telegram directing us to a rendezvous in Constantinople and it was with this destination in mind that we found ourselves standing on the platform of a small country station somewhere in the Balkans. We were waiting to catch an overnight express to the Turkish capital when we heard the wheezing strains of an old barrel organ drifting across the platform. With nearly an hour till our scheduled train was due to arrive the temptation to investigate the source of the music proved irresistible.
We didn’t have to follow the notes very far. Just a few hundred yards away, nestled in a tree-lined dell behind the station, we came across the fairground, a bustling field packed with coconut shys, merry-go-rounds and candyfloss stalls. What possible harm could it do, I had asked (and Michael had readily concurred), to take a casual stroll around in the time we had to wait for our rail connection?
Mindful of our travel schedule, we made a conscious effort to resist the many calls and cries of the fairground folk encouraging us to try our luck or taste their wares as we strolled around. But about two-thirds of the way round Michael found himself accosted by a very small, very determined gypsy woman who was adamant that he should step inside her brightly painted Romany caravan to have his fortune told. Grasping hold of his arm she appeared quite impervious to his polite but firm rebuttals, insistent that her service offered unparalleled value for money.
“Look, thank-you for the offer, but I have absolutely no inclination whatsoever to know my future,” maintained Michael, struggling to free his sleeve from her tenacious clutches.
“I don’t suppose, being technically dead, that you actually even have a future,” I added casually.
It might be supposed that this revelation would have come as something of a deterrent to the gypsy woman but in response she only grasped Michael’s sleeve even tighter as she gazed up at him with wide eyes. “You are a dead man?” she asked sharply.
“Well, I suppose, in a manner of speaking…” Michael reluctantly confessed.
“In that case you must certainly have your fortune told,” the gypsy woman snapped decisively. “No question.” Noting the rather bemused expression on Michael’s face she added encouragingly, “For you I make no charge.”
“Really?” I said in surprise.
The gypsy woman narrowed her eyes as she gazed up at Michael. “It is said that great secrets are held in the fortune of a dead man,” she hissed mysteriously.
“I really don’t have the time,” protested Michael, mildly alarmed. “We have a train to catch.”
“I will be very quick,” retorted the gypsy woman. “Five minutes, no more.”
It was quite clear that Michael was contending with a will much stronger than his own and there was only ever going to be one winner of this tussle. Eventually, still protesting feebly all the way, he allowed himself to be led up the steps into the colourful Romany caravan to have his fortune told.
Whilst I loitered idly outside, waiting for his reappearance, my attention drifted over to a small hoopla stall sheltering under the branches of an isolated beech tree. It was here that I noticed the aforementioned cuddly toy panda peering down from a dusty array of prizes lined up along the back of the stall. The panda’s rather shabby and moth-eaten appearance created a sudden and unexpected tug on my heart-strings. He looked like he needed rescuing.
Casually ambling over, I thoughtfully fingered the tidy collection of doubloons that nestled in my jeans pocket, the fruits of a recent tour of duty Michael and I had made on a pirate ship. For once money was not an object. Surely it couldn’t hurt to chance my arm whilst Michael’s fortune was being told?
The stall-holder was a middle-aged woman with a long, angular face. She sat on a stool inside the booth, implacably watching the crowds as they passed. In contrast to her contemporaries, who were mostly straining every nerve and vocal chord in their efforts to entice the punters, she appeared entirely indifferent as to whether anyone took up the challenge of her particular game. Even when I approached she made no move or sign to acknowledge my presence, preferring to remain at her post, silently observing the masses. I had to cough loudly twice before she eventually deigned to rise from her stool and accept my proffered doubloon. With the utmost indifference she scooped up the coin and slapped down three wooden hoops on the counter before swiftly resuming her stool.
The game was laid out with a series of thick wooden blocks serving as targets. The targets were staggered in rows, each marked with a points allocation according to the difficulty of its position. I made a quick calculation of which blocks I would need to target in order to secure the prize panda. After some consideration I picked out one yellow ‘easy’ target and two of the more difficult red ones as my best bet.
Back in the real world the annual fair at Yarm had been a regular highlight of my childhood and, not to blow my own trumpet or anything, but in my youth I had been considered something of a prodigy along the hoopla stalls. In fact, rare indeed had been the year when I had not gone home with some variety of over-sized stuffed toy as proof of my prowess. Of course, as I got a little older I abandoned the hoopla in favour of what I considered to be the slightly more grown up challenge of the rifle range. And then, naturally, as I got older still I abandoned all such games in favour of getting off with Jamie Hogarth round the back of the waltzers. But still, I fancied I might have some residual skill at the game upon which I could call.
Fearing my skills may be a little rusty though, I chose to aim for the easiest target first and was rewarded with the sight of my first hoop hooking neatly over the yellow block. I couldn’t resist a quick glance at the stall-holder to see if my early triumph had been noted but she remained motionless upon her stool, resolutely scanning the crowds as they passed behind me.
Buoyed nonetheless by my early success, I made a slight adjustment in my stance and let fly at one of the trickier red targets. Again, I was rewarded with another perfect shot. Two down, one to go.
I took a few moments to select my final target, none of the remaining options being entirely appealing. But after some careful deliberation I lined up another red block. A minor adjustment of the feet, a quick practice swing of the shoulder and I was ready to let fly. The hoop sailed from my hand and swooped gracefully down towards its intended target.
But this time the angle was ever so slightly off. The hoop dropped just a little too quickly, hit the front edge of the target and bounced back to land on the floor of the booth just a few inches away. A very audible groan of disappointment escaped from my lips as I stared helplessly, calculating the millimetres that had separated failure from success.
For an instant my hand reached automatically to my pocket for another doubloon, determined to conquer the game at a second attempt. But after turning the coin over in my fingers for a few moments I let it drop back into the fold. If there was one thing I had learned from my youthful fairground experiences it was to know when your luck was out. With a regretful sigh, I turned to head back towards the gypsy caravan.
I hadn’t taken more than a couple of steps though when my progress was halted by a cry of “Just a minute miss!” I turned around to find that, to my surprise, the stall-holder was up off her stool and beckoning me over to her. Rather curious, I returned to the front of the booth. As I drew near I was quite shocked to see that the impassive expression on her face had been replaced by an anxious, almost frantic look. She waited until I had come up close before she spoke. “You forgot to take your prize,” she said in a low voice.
“Oh that’s okay, I’m not really bothered,” I replied casually. Knowing that I’d missed out on gaining enough points for the panda I wasn’t really interested in any consolation prize.
The woman stared at me intently for a moment or two then abruptly reached down beneath her counter and thrust something into my hands. “You must take this,” she said urgently.
I looked down to find myself clutching a clear plastic bag full of water in which hovered a small, bright goldfish.
“Oh, thank-you, but it was really just the toy panda I was after,” I explained, holding the bag back out to her. “And, as I didn’t get enough points for that…”
I rather hoped that she might take the hint but she appeared to be momentarily distracted by something she spotted in the crowds somewhere behind me. When her attention was restored she firmly rebuffed my attempt to return the goldfish. “No, you must take the fish,” she insisted.
“Really, it’s very kind but I’m sort of in the middle of a long journey,” I protested. “I can’t possibly look after a goldfish.”
But the woman wasn’t listening. She snatched up a pen and piece of paper and began scribbling hastily. “I will give you instructions for his welfare.” She folded up the paper and thrust it into my spare hand. “You must take good care of him.”
“Seriously, I don’t want a goldfish,” I insisted.
The woman took another anxious glance into the distance before fixing me with a look of real desperation. “I’m sorry but you must take him,” she said plaintively.
I opened my mouth to protest again but she took a step backwards and, reaching out her hand, tugged sharply on a cord at the side of her stall. Instantly a wooden shutter descended abruptly across the front of the stall and I found myself making my objections to a blank screen.
I stood and gaped for a few moments and then, thrusting the piece of paper she had given me into my pocket, rapped sharply with my free hand on the shutter. There was no response. I raised my hand to knock again but was interrupted by a tap on the shoulder. Turning round I came face to face with Michael, who I couldn’t help noticing was displaying a countenance that could best be described as ashen. We both burst out with questions at the same time.
“What the hell happened to you?”
“What on earth have you got there?”
Reluctantly, Michael gave way with a wave of his hand. “Alright, you first.”
“You’re looking a bit pale, aren’t you?” I was obliged to remark. “What on earth did that fortune-teller have to say to you?”
Michael tried to adopt a casual pose. “Oh, just the usual stuff,” he replied blithely. “You know.”
“No, I don’t,” I retorted, not fooled for a minute. “Why don’t you tell me – just what exactly does the future have to hold?”
But Michael had largely regained his poise by now. “Nothing much. It’s all nonsense really.” Before I could question him further he interjected a query of his own. “But what on earth have you picked up?” he asked with a pointed glance at the fish in my hand.
“A consolation prize,” I muttered unhappily.
“You’re not thinking of keeping that, are you?”
“I wasn’t intending to,” I retorted, “but it doesn’t seem like the returns policy at this stall is much cop.” I banged loudly again on the shutter to emphasise my point.
“Well I hate to trouble you but we really ought to be getting back to the station,” said Michael. “We don’t want to miss our train.”
I rattled the shutter one last time but it was obvious that my prize-giver was not likely to reappear anytime soon. “Fine then, let’s get going,” I sighed and turned around to head back across the field to the station.
“And your new friend? Just what do you plan to do with him?” asked Michael, falling in step alongside me.
“I’ll think of something,” I replied with a shrug. “For the meantime though I’m afraid we’ve picked ourselves up a hitch-hiker.”
Dusk was gathering all around as we reached the station and we didn’t have long to wait before our train pulled in. The platform heaved with a sudden swirl of people; organising their baggage, conducting lengthy and tearful farewells with their family and haggling with the guards for the best berths on the train. In the confusion we soon discovered that all the sleeping compartments had already been bagged and no amount of pirate gold dangled beneath the noses of the conductors could secure a bunk. In the end the best Michael and I could claim were a couple of seats in a rather Spartan looking third-class carriage.
Our entrance into said carriage was delayed briefly by a large woman in a headscarf just ahead of us who had misjudged the width of the doorway and, in attempting to get both herself and her luggage through at the same time, had got her rather ample backside thoroughly wedged in the narrow space. We were forced to hover impatiently on the platform as a small army of porters, guards and conductors did all they could to wrench her free.
As the railway officials gave the backside in question another concerted shove I was distracted by a sound something like a loud ‘crump’ that appeared to come from the direction of the fairground. With all the grunting and heaving all around us it was difficult to tell but I was sure I detected a loud cry immediately following it, something that was rather sharper and more strident than the usual giddy shouts coming from the fairground rides.
“Did you hear that?” I asked Michael excitedly.
But Michael was fully absorbed by the human drama going on right in front of us. “Hear what?” he replied distractedly.
“I thought I heard something over at the fairground,” I said, straining my eyes in the direction of the field.
“It’s a fairground, it’s bound to be noisy,” replied Michael airily.
“No, look – over there!” I exclaimed suddenly. “Smoke!” I grabbed his arm and pointed to where thick tendrils of black smoke were slowly rising from beyond the tree line.
Michael watched the smoke for a while then shrugged lightly. “Probably nothing more than a candyfloss machine overheating,” he casually suggested.
“But see where the smoke is rising,” I said. “Doesn’t that look like…”
Just then I was interrupted by a cry of jubilation as the railway staff finally succeeded in dislodging the large woman from the doorway and heaving her up onto the train. Immediately the platform was a hive of activity once more as the various porters and conductors darted back to their posts. I had to hurriedly reach for my bag as a nearby guard anxiously ushered Michael and I into our carriage. We scrambled to find our seats whilst whistles blew up and down the platform to signal the imminent departure of the overnight express.
In the circumstances then it wasn’t really surprising that the question I had been in the middle of asking entirely slipped out of my mind. I never gave the strange noises and the smoke from the fairground another thought. But if I hadn’t been interrupted then what I had meant to say to Michael was; “See where the smoke is rising. Doesn’t that look like it’s coming from the exact spot of the hoopla stall where I won my goldfish?”
To be continued…