MovieLand! (A Christmas Story. Part 3)
Some researcher based at Leicester University had discovered it was the white colour of the wind turbine blades that attracted insects. In turn the insects attracted birds or bats. Then the blades killed them.
This same researcher found insects were a lot less attracted by the colour purple.
Ed was straight on the bandwagon.
The blades had to be painted purple. It was a no brainer. That's why birds and bats had always been flying into them. Hadn't we all seen it ourselves?
We heard Doug’s reaction and we weren’t even in the room. He wasn’t going to paint the blades purple. Did Ed have any idea how much that would cost? Ed pushed a piece of paper across the desk. He had got a quote. Doug pushed the piece of paper back. He didn't even look at it.
Ed was not a man to be beaten.
If Doug wasn't going to help him out then he’d do it himself.
One morning he rowed out to turbine seven, hoisted himself up to the blades with a rope and pulley system of his own devising and set to work, a pot of paint dangling between his legs.
It was me who'd found him.
It was during the first of the morning tours.
“Get down you idiot!" I shouted. "You're going to kill yourself!”
It was as he was looking down that he’d fallen.
There are some things which are difficult to live with.
It’s not a question of getting over them, more of accommodation, finding a place inside yourself where they can live. It made it easier that I knew Ed would forgive me. He was the most decent person I’d known.
That’s why I wanted his advice.
I glided the boat to a halt. Looking up, although it was too dark to see, I knew one of those spinning blades would still be half purple. Doug said we’d leave it that way as a memorial to Ed. That getting it repainted white would incur a cost, of course hadn’t entered Doug’s mind.
What a toerag!
“If you can hear me Ed,” I said. “I need some help. You’ve got a kid, you know what they’re like. Did you ever go through any bad patches with Ed Junior? Not that this is the same thing. You weren’t an absent father. Nor were you a homosexual. If I’d have been there and loved his mother in a regular way things might have been better. Although I still would have screwed up. That’s the only thing I’m good at. Screwing up. I know. You’d tell me I’m being hard on myself but that’s why it was easy to go when Tara told me to go. I looked deep into my heart and asked myself if I would be a good dad. I don’t have to tell you what answer I came up with. I went into James’s room before I left. He was asleep. He looked so perfect like that, in his pyjamas, hair spilling across the pillow. I put my hand on his head, said, ‘You’ll be better off without me son. I’ll bring you down. That’s what I do. I’m like a disease. I’d infect you. I’m like a mirror you look in and see everything that’s bad about yourself. So I’m going. It’s a cliché but I will always love you. It’s because I love you that I won’t be around to screw up your life like I screwed up mine’. Then I left.
“It wasn’t until I saw him at the train station that I realised what love is. It’s a mess. It’s imperfect. It does screw you up but what’s the alternative to not being screwed up? Emptiness? Alienation? Long nights alone? I wanted to reach out my arms to him but I didn’t know how. Now he’s gone and I think it might be too late. What do you think I should do?”
I knew Ed was dead and so I hadn’t expected an answer. Not really. Just talking had been a help.
I had started at some place and wound up someplace else. That was all I needed really, just a kick up my own backside. I fired the engine and headed home.
Spartak was sprawled out on the sofa asleep in front of the tv. What I hadn't told Ed was that it was Spartak who had taught me how to love. How it could be messy and difficult but it could also perfect and heart affirming. I loved him. I put a hand on his shoulder and shook him awake and said I wanted him to help me find James.
“We used to track people down and break their bones,” he said rubbing sleep from his eyes.
“Go with the first part,” I said.
“Ok,” he said. “Have you got recent photograph?”
I pointed towards the door. I scrunched my face up in an imitation of James the last time we’d seen him.
"You’ve seen him," I said. “He was standing right there.”
“To show other people.”
I shook my head, ashamed suddenly that I didn't have a single picture of my son.
“Don’t worry,” said Spartak, “we can draw.”
The following day we had a group of trainee hairdressers taking the tour. I thought I was being cheeky when I asked for a haircut but they were more than up for the idea.
"I can only do one length," said Amanda, the one who had volunteered herself and produced from her backpack a lethal looking pair of scissors. "That's all we've learnt so far."
"That's ok," I said, "I only want it one length."
And she laughed as if I'd said something funny.
The deck of the boat rocked.
Over our heads the blades of turbine sixteen swooshed. The truth was when we found James I wanted to look my best, to make him proud.
"Are you going anywhere nice on your holidays this year?" Amanda asked.
Another of the hairdressers laughed.
"Day 1. Lesson 1. Entertaining The Clients."
When I got home Spartak said he had some news.
“They didn’t recognise him at the train or the bus station. That narrows it down.”
“To other forms of transportation.”
I hadn't been asleep long when I felt Spartak shaking me awake. He had a broad grin on his face. Some people don't like gold teeth but I like them.
“I think I have breakthrough.”
In his hands he was holding a single sheet of paper.
“This is statement from owner of garage shop. Every day boy who matches description of drawing comes into shop to buy food and cigarettes. This mean he is not far away. Then tonight I see something and, how do you say?, bingo!”
He led me by the hand through the door of our bedroom and then outside.
Lifting an arm he pointed over the roofs of the Quonset huts.
At first I didn’t know what I was looking at. It looked like nothing, but then I saw it. High up, a light.
“MovieLand Theme Park,” said Spartak.
He gripped the roll of flesh at my waist and pinched.
“One word. Person who shows light at night wants to be found. Trust me. ”
Even in Russian I didn't think that could be one word but who cared?
Spartak was telling me exactly what I wanted to hear.
We went together.
The security fencing was no match for a former Russian gangster.
Spartak pulled out the multitool he always carried with him and within seconds it was toast.
With its discordant shapes and moon cast shadows the theme park was eerie at night.
When James was three years old he always made me check under the bed before he went to sleep. And in the cupboard. And behind the curtains.
He told me once I was his hero, his big blue eyes wide open, just like that.
"You're my hero."
Sometimes we lost sight of the light but then it would reappear again over the roof of a concession stand or through the angular struts that supported the roller coaster track.
It was obvious anyway where we were going. Spartak had worked it out. To be that high up he had to be in the very highest gondola of The Living Daylights Big Wheel.
The wheel stood right in the centre of the park and the regulars said, back when there were regulars, that it was possible to see its massive structure from the other side of the channel.
Or the moon.
It loomed and groaned above us in a way that sent a shivers down my spine.
"Oh James, be safe."
“We find engine room," said Spartak, gazing upwards towards the twinkling light. "Then we bring him down.”
I put a hand on his arm.
I could his taut muscles through his shirt.
“I rather think I’m supposed to go up."
I attempted to sound brave.
"Let me do this. It's important.”
I felt like a character in a Biblical story as I climbed. Or Cary Grant in the climax of North by Northwest, scrambling up Mount Rushmore.
I knew the trick was not to look down but I wanted to look up anyway.
I thought of Ed and how he had died for what he believed in. I would do this for Ed. And me of course. I would do it for me.
And I wouldn't die.
The door of the gondola had been wedged half open with a broken off sign from one of the concession stands.
James had made the inside cosy enough.
He had a sleeping bag in there and there were some pictures pasted up on the inside of the glass, impossibly beautiful women who set you up for disappointment later in life.
From their raggedy edges I guessed they came from that magazine he had been reading the first time I’d seen him. Nuts.
If he was surprised to see me he didn’t show it.
“That climb scared The Living Daylights out of me," I said.
To my surprise this rather feeble line was answered with a laugh.
"I've told myself the same joke every time I've climbed up here."
James was sitting with his knees pulled up to his chest and he had his arms wrapped around them.
"What happened to your hair dad? It looks weird."
"It was cut by a trainee hairdresser," I said. "She asked me what I was doing on my holidays. Apparently that's in the very first lesson."
It came to me then that this was the first time James had called me dad.
Taking this as encouragement I hauled myself fully inside.
It wouldn't do to fall just when I had got so close.
“Of all the gin joints in all the world I should walk into yours," I said.
And then I said, "Casablanca."
And then I said, "I've let you down."
James turned away, gazed out of the window. Somewhere out there the blades of the turbines were turning, powered by the Earth’s own energy.
"I'm sorry son," I said.
When James turned back to me there was a tear in his eye.
“It's not because you're gay. Mum told me about that years ago. And I've got a friend at school John. Although he prefers to be called Vivienne now. He's having gender corrective surgery.”
James lifted an edge of the sleeping bag, dropped it again.
"Actually that's why I'm here. Mum said me and Vivienne were getting too close. She caught us Skypeing on the internet together. I was only helping her chose some shoes but Mum was worried I'd end up like you."
"And so she sent you to me?" The words snorted out of my mouth.
James smiled. "I know. That's mum’s logic for you." He paused. "Spartak, is he your...?"
I thought about explaining what I had said to Ed out on the water but sometimes when you say words out loud they don't have the same meaning as they did when they were in your heart.
And besides James was James and Ed was Ed.
They were different people.
Shuffling over until I was right next to my son I lifted an arm and put it around him.
"I love you," I said and he kind of fell towards me and he was crying.
After all that had happened it was as easy as that, a simple contraction of skeletal muscle and three small words.
I had left James and then he had left me. He had wanted to be found. I had found him.
Insecurities and self-hatred could only take you so far in life.
There came a point where you had to make a choice.
We couldn’t all reach for the stars but we could reach for something.
After a time James bent forward and lifted an object from under the blanket.
“I hope you don’t mind. I borrowed this. Although it might not have seemed it at the time I thought what you tried to do that day was actually kind of sweet.”
In his hands was the wind-up yule log. I hadn’t even realised it had gone.
James gave the key some twists and pressed the button that started the music.
In the distance, a squat square amongst other squat squares, was the Quonset hut I called home, past that were the wind turbines, toothpicks pricking the horizon.
I imagined their blades, invisible from here, spinning in time to the music.
“O tidings of comfort and joy, Comfort and joy, O tidings of comfort and joy”.
"Happy Christmas son," I said.
"Happy Christmas dad," James said.
MovieLand! was previously published in Speak My Language edited by Torsten Højer and with an introduction by Stephen Fry.