A Christmas Wish on a Carousel – Lottie Cardew

One of my most vivid memories was of a carousel. The smell of metal on my hands, the candyfloss stuck to my teeth. It would come to me in piercing flashes, against my will. Music, dizziness, joy. My dad’s arms tight around me as his laughter mingled with mine; his warm breath in my hair, and the feeling of absolute safety as the world spun around us. A world I thought was kind and fair and full of possibility. But I wasn’t wilfully naïve back then, I was just a little girl. The carousel in front of me today, though oddly familiar, was different from all the carousels I’d ridden as a child. It wasn’t summer, and this wasn’t a seaside pleasure park or a travelling fair set up on a village common. In spite of my layers of thermals, woollens, and wadding, a gusty wind still sneaked through. All my fingers and toes had long since gone numb. Each breath pluming like a feathery mist in front of me, I felt frozen in more ways than one. A statue. Staring up at the merry-go-round lit up in red and green and gold, candy canes rising up from snow-white horses with shimmering, midnight-blue saddles. For some reason, it was quiet at this end of the Christmas market.

I’d managed to slip away from my friends, who seemed intent on sampling every stall that sold alcohol rather than drifting around soaking up the atmosphere. Baileys and hot chocolate, beer in plastic tankards, gluhwein in decorative mugs you could keep as a souvenir. Having volunteered as driver for the journey home, I’d stuck to plain hot chocolate before eventually detaching myself to look for a loo. A lie; I just needed a moment on my own to breathe again. The weight of expectation (this-is-why-I-hate-blind-dates-with-a-passion) was suffocating. Except it hadn’t been sold that way. More a group thing, with no pressure. Cue fake laughter. The bare branches of the trees around me, intricately strung with fairy lights, suddenly fell still as if the wind had paused a moment to let me take in the carousel in all its strange, gleaming glory. ‘You want a turn, Miss?’ The voice jolted me from my thoughts. I looked round. He was tall; his hair as long, dark, and curly as mine, but pulled back in a pony-tail. Towering over me, he smiled. ‘Do you want a turn on the carousel, Miss?’ He probably called every woman under a certain age ‘Miss’. Unless it was just a vibe I gave off.

‘No, it’s all right. Thank you.’ His smile slowly broadened to a grin, with the same empathy my dad would have used on me, as if sensing my apprehension. I trusted him instantly somehow: this swarthy man with tiny stud earrings as bright as stars. Perhaps there was still too much of the little girl left in me. ‘There’s no one else on it,’ I pointed out. Why or how it wasn’t overrun, I didn’t know. There were still plenty of families milling around the market. The carousel was set slightly apart from the other stalls and attractions, though; more enticing the longer I stood and looked at it. ‘That doesn’t matter.’ He moved towards it, beckoning me to follow. ‘I won’t even charge you.’ ‘But I’m an adult.’ ‘There’s no upper age limit.’ He laughed, his teeth white and enviably straight.

‘What’s your name?’ I knew I shouldn’t have told him. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have given out my name to every strange man who asked. But nothing about this was ordinary. And this man was more than just strange, he was mesmerising. An astonishing specimen. Dressed in a long black jacket as slick as leather, mulberry coloured jeans, an inky velvet shirt, open at the collar. ‘Cara,’ I said. ‘Hello, Cara.’ He scraped a small bow that would have been condescending from anyone else. ‘I’m Angelo.’ He held out his hand and, willingly, I took it. Minutes later, the world was spinning up and down and all around me, as I held on to the candy cane pole rising up from the horse Angelo had steered me to, its peculiar name in gold script across its saddle. ‘Heartfelt’. As a familiar tune from The Nutcracker tinkled loudly around me, I laughed, I smiled, I thought of my dad and that long ago day I’d tried to box up and store away, where I couldn’t find it. I thought of all the happy days boxed up and consigned to dusty shelves in my head.

And for the first time in what seemed forever, I felt a sense of possibility bubble inside me. ‘Make a wish,’ said Angelo, his voice close to my ear. Yet when I turned my head briskly he was standing a few feet away. ‘Make a wish,’ he repeated, more serious now, his own smile fading. ‘You know you want to, Cara.’ I would humour him. There was no harm in it, was there? I closed my eyes. ‘Don’t tell me,’ he added. ‘Don’t say it aloud. There’s no need.’ It wasn’t a conventional wish, as wishes went. But it came from the heart – I think. It sprang into my head, fully formed, surprising and desperate. Nothing happened, of course. Nothing changed.

The music and the carousel and the lateNovember night whirled and dipped around me. It wasn’t really that sort of wish. All too soon, although in other ways it seemed an eternity, the carousel slowed and my turn was over. Angelo helped me down, holding my hand again graciously, at a distance. ‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘That was kind of you. And generous.’ Not that my payment, which he still wouldn’t accept, would have covered the electricity for even one spin, let alone however many we’d just taken. It could have been twenty spins, it might have been a thousand. My sense of time, of space, of reality, felt warped now. ‘Goodbye, Cara.’ He bowed again. ‘And good luck.’ I walked away without looking round, not wanting the magic to fade, not trusting myself to resist running back. The market swallowed me up with its cacophony of voices; jostle of bodies; blend of smells, both sweet and savoury.

My smile felt brittle as I spotted Sallie and the group I’d come into town with, dragged along with them this evening the way I was pulled through life these days. ‘There you are!’ She raised her sculpted eyebrows at me. ‘How long does it take to find a loo?’ ‘Hope you didn’t go too far?’ Greg jerked his thumb over his shoulder. ‘There’s actually a loo just down there.’ ‘Thanks, I wandered just far enough.’ I knew Sallie had meant well, setting me up like this. I still felt like a gooseberry, though. Maybe Greg did, too. ‘Here.’ My best friend thrust something wrapped in several paper serviettes under my nose. ‘Hog roast bap. Extra stuffing and apple sauce. You said you fancied one earlier, and they were about to sell out.’ With an acuteness that took me by surprise, I was suddenly hungrier than I’d been in ages. As if I could feel things more intensely after stepping off that merry-go-round.

After holding Angelo’s hand. ‘Sal, thank you.’ I would have hugged her if there wasn’t an over-stuffed bap between us. ‘You seem to fancy that more than you fancy Greg here.’ Sallie’s husband Laurence chuckled and wafted beer fumes towards me. I let him off. He would never have said anything like that if he was entirely sober. My fixed smile met Greg’s. Perhaps we shared a flicker of apology and regret. I’m not sure; I’d never been great at reading signals or flirting. Or whatever the opposite of flirting was if you didn’t like someone that way. As usual, I was overthinking things. Just eat, Cara, and let it pass. Eat and remember, tomorrow’s a new day. But that was the problem.

Most of my tomorrows were the same as my yesterdays. Little Cara Mia Shaw, stuck in a perpetual rut. Sallie linked her arm through mine as we headed back towards the car park, sharing jokes with Nushrat and Nushrat’s boyfriend Tod over my shoulder. I tuned them out without meaning to, and caught Greg’s eye again. He smiled stiffly. He wasn’t bad-looking, and it wasn’t as if I had a strict physical type I always went for, but the initial chemistry wasn’t there. Would it be worth forcing, though, to see where it might lead? My mum had taught me that. About giving things a chance. She hadn’t been drawn to my dad at first, she said. But then a few days later, he’d made her laugh when laughter had felt impossible. And that was it. Enough to tip the scales. ‘Love’s like that,’ Mum had counselled, when I was fifteen and impressionable enough to commit her words to memory. ‘Sometimes it can come at you out of nowhere, loud and brash and glorious, and other times it just creeps up from behind and overtakes you. On rare occasions, I think it might somehow manage both, each as miraculous as the other.

’ I don’t recall how we’d got on to the subject, but I remember we were sharing a slab of lemon drizzle cake, and Mum had been quite lucid and poetic and almost luminous that day, as opposed to dull and grey and lost. I could have listened to her for hours when she was like that; her accent so musical, yet her syntax so precise, as if English was her first language. In a way it was by then, I suppose. The only language she’d spoken in years; studied with a passion since childhood, almost as if she’d known what was going to happen. What if I missed an opportunity, by not giving Greg a chance? He seemed nice enough. A colleague of Laurence’s. Steady income. His own home. A mortgage he could afford. Clean driving licence. Sallie had filled me in on that much. On paper, he was everything a single thirty-one-year-old like me might want in a romantic partner. I couldn’t confirm or deny if I was looking for a new relationship, though. To be honest, the whole business of dating and settling down confused me more than ever. And looping back to that carousel, and my spur of the moment wish… Had I even asked for love, let alone true love? No; not in a conventional, fairy-tale sense.

I’d wanted something else that seemed even further away, even less attainable. As we dropped Greg off, I let him take my number. ‘I’ll text,’ he said. ‘Maybe we can go for a drink on our own? Chat properly?’ There were encouraging murmurs from behind me, and I found myself nodding and shrugging. ‘Okay, why not?’ I dropped off the others in turn, taking the large, seven-seater SUV back to mine. Sallie or Laurence would walk over and pick it up the following day. A Saturday. For once, I wasn’t working. My time was my own. The entire weekend stretched ahead emptily.


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Updated: 24 November 2021 — 02:06

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