The Write Stuff: The Last Soldier by Keith Gray

Illustration: Grant Paterson

Illustration: Grant Paterson

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IN this extract from his latest book, Scottish author Keith Gray channels childhood fears as his young protagonist visits a sideshow

Even before we reached the river and the Mitchums’ farm we could hear the hoots and whistles of music on the breeze. The tune was Bronco Billy Rag. It led us across the bridge and at Hay Street Bend we joined a straggle of townsfolk all heading the same way.

The Strongest Man in Texas would wrestle me for a dime

The bustle and noise drew us like a magnet, stronger and stronger the closer we got. Joe’s mood was lifting, too. He wasn’t rubbing at his elbow no more. He grinned at me, and his eyes were bright and excited.

I’d been worried the carnival would never get set up in one day. But now we could see the strings of jewel-coloured lights all around the field.

“They look like happy stars, don’t they, Joe?” I said.

Joe rolled his eyes at me and my embarrassment shut me up. But it was true. In the light of the setting sun, I reckoned that was just how all those twinkling bulbs looked.

I remembered what Mama had said about carnivals, but many of the Lansdale folk didn’t seem to agree. Maybe they just didn’t care. The Mitchums’ field was a buzzing, bustling maze of tents and lights and rides and corndog stands. Everything around me felt like it was brimming over with colour and movement and noise and smell. It was too much to take in at once. I stood in the middle of it all as it spun and whirled and shouted and blazed around me.

The Strongest Man in Texas would wrestle me for a dime. The Bearded Lady would kiss me. And Dr Lucker would sell me his World Famous Super Cure in a bottle. Even I knew it was just Coca-Cola and whiskey mixed, but I saw Preacher Blake buy a crate-load.

Joe had forgotten his plan of what things to do and see in what order and now wanted to try his skill on the shooting shy. He was a real good aim most of the time and got cross when he missed the tin ducks first time around. Then angry when he missed them again. The skinny guy on the stall chewed on his cigar and pushed his hat off his eyes. He egged Joe on with promises of prizes if he tried just one more time.

“Pa taught me how to shoot,” Joe said. “I’m good. You know I should of got them goddam ducks, don’t you?” The guy cocked a brow at Joe’s cussing.

“I was just warming up,” Joe told him. “Your goddam gun’s crooked!”

We ran rabbit before the guy could get his hands on us.

We dodged and weaved among the crowds to the Ferris wheel. We paid and climbed into the rocking seat side by side, and let it swing us up. High, high, high.

From the top the town looked so small. Like I could gather it up in my arms. Or maybe sweep the whole lot behind the hills. I loved that we could see everything, and that we knew everything we could see. The schoolhouse, Chapman’s Pond, Main Street, Wood Street…

“That’s Mr Gunther’s shop, see?” I told Joe. “So that’s our rooms, right?” I waved as if Mama might see us.

But Joe’s mood darkened. “Don’t you hate that everything’s so small?” he said. “Maybe that’s why Pa hasn’t come back yet. I’m getting to think I don’t blame him.”

Joe said the Museum of Marvels was too babyish for him, so after the Ferris wheel let us back down to earth, I went looking for it by myself. I reckoned Joe was going back along to the shooting shy to lose the rest of his money.

It took me a while to find what I was looking for. It was right at the very far edge of the Mitchums’ field, right above the steep river bank. There was no crowd here. And it was almost dark. It was about as far from the noise and buzz of the rest of the carnival as you could get.

The Museum was a long, low truck trailer perched on top of the high river bank. It looked like one good push might send it crashing and sliding all the way down into the water. The outside was painted with pictures of the Marvels that were to be found inside. Maybe the pictures had been bright once, a long time ago. The snarling wolfman and beautiful mermaid were faded now. Even in the dim light I could see the paint was flaking away. It made me remember what Mama had said about the carnival’s glitter and sparkle washing off in the rain. And maybe I would have turned back, gone to find Joe again, but someone was watching me.

An old woman smoking a stinky cigar sat on the short steps that led up to the door. She was dressed in flouncy skirts of red and gold. Her heavy gold earrings dragged her lobes into baggy loops. She must have been twice as old as Mama, but she had a tiny baby in her arms. The baby sucked on the old woman’s little finger like it was a bottle. They both watched me walk up.

“Is it open?” I asked. I felt very far away from the carnival crowds. Maybe part of me wanted her to say it was closed.

“Don’t you think you’re a tad too tiddly for this?” the old woman asked. Her voice was not from around Lansdale. She hooked a thumb over her shoulder. “Were you not told? These things? Well, they can give young ’uns terrible nightmares.”

“I saw them last time,” I said. “And I don’t get no nightmares.”

It was almost true. I didn’t get nightmares now.

The old woman looked at me for a good long time. The baby was staring at me, too with its little dark eyes. I couldn’t look back at both of them together. So I looked at the paintings on the side of the trailer.

“The wolfman,” I said, and I pointed at him. “He was my favourite. Have you still got him?”

“Mmm-hmm, was he?” The old woman chucked the baby under its chin. Her fingernails were cracked and brown, but the baby squirmed with pleasure. Then the old woman sighed and held out her hand for my money. “Did I tell you we’ve a couple of new Marvels?” she asked. “Since last time we came past this way?”

She took my nickel and didn’t offer any change.

“You’ll remember to yell out real loud?” she said. “If you get too scared?” She shuffled to one side to let me pass by. I went as fast as I could. I didn’t want her to think I was yellow. And I didn’t want to touch her neither.

At the top of the steps was a heavy red curtain. The old woman had turned to watch me, so I pushed it to one side and went straight in. It was as dark and close as the Devil’s back pocket. I stood to let my eyes get used to the gloom. Then I shuffled forward.

There was a narrow corridor along the middle of the trailer with the Marvels on both sides. I was going to have to walk all the way in between them to get out the exit door at the other end. Some of the marvels were in glass cases. Others were behind a low, sagging rope. The lightbulbs overhead glowed red then green then blue, and back again.

I didn’t like that I was alone here. If I held my breath I could hear the muffled far away sounds of the rest of the carnival.

The display on my left was called “Attacked by Vampire Bats”. Behind the glass was a man crouched down on his knees. His mouth was wide and scared. He held his hands above his head to fend off a swarm of bats on strings.

There was a handwritten sign to one side of the display. I had to squint in the gloom to read it.

“These night-time horrors come from the jungles of the darkest Amazon. They have needle-sharp teeth and a terrifying lust for blood. The people of the Amazon say they can drain a grown man dry of every drop of his blood in less than an hour. These little devils have been seen in local woodlands of late. Mind to be watchful as you walk home tonight.”

The man was a waxwork dummy and someone had painted two bloody, dribbling wounds on his neck. Vampire bites.

I couldn’t tell if the bats were real, or as fake as a crocodile’s smile. I got as close to the glass as I could. I peered up at the bats on their strings. The light went from red to green to blue and I saw their tiny eyes glitter. I jumped back.

Then I laughed at myself for being a chump. I rolled my eyes like Joe did, just in case the old woman was peering in at me through a peephole somewhere. I scratched the back of my neck, as if I could feel her stare prickling at me there.

The wolfman was on the other side. My favourite, so I’d said.

He was frozen mid-howl – his head thrown back to look at the moon painted above him. Grasping claws, snarling teeth. He was naked but for a tatty cloth to hide his pecker.

But he was also covered head to toe in thick, black hair. The sign on this display said he’d been hunted down in the wilds of Canada. It said it had taken 20 daring hunters and brave lumberjacks to capture him. But as I looked at him I saw a clump of fur was missing from the side of his mouth.

And there was something about the way his mouth was open. And the way his head was tilted.

I looked back at the waxwork dummy and the vampire bats. It was the exact same mouth. On the exact same face. One scared, the other scary. But the same. The wolfman was the exact same dummy, just dressed up different.

It wasn’t real or true at all. It was monkey-shine. Horse-pucky. A pig’s eye lie. Just like Joe had told me.

I wondered if the old woman was chomping her cigar and laughing at me out there on the steps. She had my nickel in the pocket of her flouncy skirts.

The mermaid was even worse. Her long fish-tail was falling apart with sawdust leaking out. One side of her wax face looked like it had gotten too hot on its summer journey. Her glass eye had slipped in its socket and was halfway down her painted cheek. It was staring at the floor.

I was embarrassed and sick at heart for being so foolish and young that I turned away from the baby dragon in the next display. I just didn’t want to look at it. I walked right along to the exit. I didn’t want to be taken for a fool any more. I stamped as I went, making angry echoes inside the trailer that I hoped the old woman would hear over the carnival noise.

But the very last glass cabinet caught my eye. I stopped, trapped by his stare.

“The Last Soldier.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In his earliest years, Keith Gray turned from reluctant reader to passionate reader – then straight on to being a dedicated writer. He published Creepers, which was shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, when he was only 24 and since then has penned a number of critically-acclaimed novels for children and teenagers. His new book, The Last Soldier, (Barrington Stoke) was specifically written for struggling and dyslexic teenage readers. He lives in Scotland with his partner, their daughter and a parrot called Bellamy.

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