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As Cymbals Clash

Seated at the edge of the stage, Godfrey untied the knot in the handkerchief that Caroline had embroidered his initials into and filled with tokens of love. The audience watched. The audience waited. There were no tricks hidden within the square of white cotton, yet the audience perched at the edges of their seats as if expecting cannon fire to erupt. A drum roll echoed from the orchestra pit. They expected something of him. Cymbals clashed.

Everyone expected something of him. Except for Caroline. It seemed she no longer expected anything of him at all.

Caroline tied the yellow apron around her small waist and chattered about her day at the post office. With each anecdote, Godfrey’s animosity grew until it lodged in his throat. He could no longer find the words to tell her that he knew her customers, that he knew the inner workings of the post office because it was his job prior to the war and she had stolen it from him as readily as Germans had stolen his friends.

As she turned from peeling potatoes, looking for a smile from him, he coughed his hate into his palm and pulled his lips into a smile. It lasted only for as long as she looked at him. Once she’d turned back to her work, his shoulders slumped and a fresh hairball formed in his throat. For a moment, he considered wiping the remnants of his hate on the handkerchief. Instead, he wiped it down his shirtsleeve.

“I did miss you so,” she said.

Slamming the door behind him, Godfrey disappeared into twilight-lit streets. The sun dipped behind pre-fabricated houses built on the old green where he’d played as a boy. The post office windows still wore criss-crosses of tape. The row of terraced houses that ran alongside had reduced to rubble and brick. He peered in through the post office window at ghosts. His dead swelled about him, urging him away from the past. They knew only damage lay there. The problem was he ached to have that world back brick for brick and hour for hour. This new world confused and he couldn’t find his place in it. Pulling his collar up against a biting wind and his hat low, Godfrey headed into town, trying to chew back hate before it suffocated him.

He’d show Caroline he could make his way in this world. She could keep the job. He’d find something better. So why did he feel as if he was something less?

The intent had been to drown a beer, instead Godfrey stood outside the local theatre. A recruitment poster flapped from the wall, its paper yellowed. A short man, his suit two-sizes too large for him, exited via the stage door. He didn’t so much enquire as to whether Godfrey was interested in employment with them as ushered him inside and offered him the job. The moment left Godfrey dizzy and his throat dry.

“If you have a position for a stage hand or an usher,” Godfrey said.

But the man was already running his fingers through the racks of clothing that lined the hallway and a sweat had gathered on both their foreheads.

“Your name,” the man said.

At the words, “Godfrey Fairlie,” fate sealed itself to the bricks and mortar of the Lakin Theatre.

The little man jumped and clicked his heels. “Oh, The Great God Fair. A magnificent magician. This theatre has never seen the likes of before.”

“I’m not a performer,” Godfrey said.

“Pfft. Pfft. Just stand there and look pretty. Your assistant will deal with the theatrics. Despite the twist and turns of the world’s theatre, the locals expect a man in a top hat and a woman in a sparkly outfit.”

He’d be a stooge and nothing more but Caroline need not know that. This would remind her of who he was and of what he was capable. If only it would remind him.

Caroline’s laugh ricocheted around the kitchen. “That’s nice, dear,” she said. “But I have chores to do so won’t be able to catch your show tonight. I’m sure you’ll be splendid though. It’s all fake anyway, isn’t it?”

As she chuckled to herself, his throat closed with a fresh hairball of hate and he had to stuff the handkerchief in his mouth to stop from biting into her neck to shut off that dreadful laugh. It made his bones ache.

By the time he left the house, his face had swollen from crying, his fists hurt and his head spun. He locked the door behind him. You couldn’t trust people not to just walk into your home and the neighbours were overly friendly. He used to like that.

The Great God Fair.

Godfrey stood before the poster with its elaborate drawing that painted him as something magnificent. They’d not left any colour of the rainbow out of the inking. See what he brought back from the war. His dead. Splashes of red to the edges of the poster as if to paint him monster as well as marvel.

The applause sounded like bones breaking, like bullets slapping against tin hats. He bowed a dozen times and yet he’d not performed a single act yet. He’d stepped on stage and that, apparently, was worthy of their applause. They expected too much of him. Just stand there and look pretty. In the dressing room, he’d put on make up to make him appear the Great God Fair of the posters. He owned the face if not the soul.

See what he brought back from the war. Emptiness and loss.

A sweat built at his neck, he loosened his collar and bowed until his assistant entered from stage left. The applause stopped. Godfrey held out his hand, which was about all he knew of the routine, and she took it, offering the audience a bow. As she did so, his hand emptied. The assistant had broken into a dozen doves that fluttered above the audience, while her shoes had melted to form a field of poppies. To him, they smelled coppery, like blood.

The crowd stomped their feet and clapped so hard it was a wonder the roof didn’t cave in on them. As the assistant re-entered, from stage right this time, the birds broke into feathers. They rained upon the audience.

He almost expected her to break apart again. She wore a dress to attract an army and a smile to bedazzle an enemy. This time when she took his hand, it was so he could appear to help her into the glass coffin that sat centre stage.

“This is where you vanish,” he said.

He’d seen such tricks performed prior to the war.

“I’m already gone,” she whispered.

Storm blew against doors and windows, howling along the hallway. Caroline was at the sink again. She always seemed to be in the kitchen washing dishes or making supper. The slam of cups and saucers against the draining board were akin to shells erupting at his ears. Lightning flashed, bleaching the room and erasing his wife. She must have ducked into the pantry or gone upstairs and yet he had not seen or felt her pass him. As thunder rumbled, Godfrey crawled into the cupboard beneath the stairs. In the kitchen, the shelling of dishes against metal continued.

As he went to call to his wife, his voice caught behind fear and anger. Today he hated himself. He dug into his pocket for the handkerchief and pressed it to his chest. Palpitations stole his breath.

I love you too. He pressed a kiss to its cotton.

Although it was dark amidst the vacuum cleaner and brush and other things, things he didn’t want to see, he couldn’t see the contents of the handkerchief, but he knew each one well enough to imagine them. He’d opened this handkerchief a hundred times during lulls in the battle. A fabric heart cut from the dress she’d worn on their first date, a lock of her hair from before it turned to grey, a love note, and the arrow tip that had pricked his heart with love for her, his Caroline.

The storm had washed debris into the gutters. Torn branches and pieces of masonry covered the pavements. As a door slammed across the way, Godfrey flinched. He pressed his hand to his hip and found pocket and handkerchief rather than gun. He hurried to the theatre so he could paint on his mask and hide within the glare of stage lights.

“There is magic in love.”

Although the voice sounded like his wife’s, when he turned, Godfrey saw the assistant. She looked as if she would break apart again, this time into crows and bullets. He wanted to pick at her edges, see if she proved jigsaw, find out of what she was constructed. Instead, he pressed the back of his hand to his forehead to check his temperature.

“What do we do now?” he asked, attempting to add an air of the theatrical to his voice.

“This is your show, my love.”

My love. She’d not called him that before. He wasn’t having an affair. He wouldn’t. Yet from a certain angle, it seemed almost as if she could reform into his dear Caroline. The girl that he’d left behind.

He coughed to dislodge his voice. “Ladies and gentlemen.” His words hovered above the stage in visible smoke. “Tonight my assistant and I will”—the floating words distracted—“enchant and horrify you, most of all we will make you crave more.”

At times, he thought he could settle into this life, into this charade. Then he remembered that he was a stooge and anyone could play the Great God Fair. She could reveal the lie at any time.

He often thought the audience the same each night; as if the show riveted them so much-and it was magnificent—that they never left their seats. He bowed because he wasn’t certain what else to do and this evening it seemed the assistant had decided to follow his lead.

He helped her, his almost-Caroline, to climb into the glass coffin. They’d done this trick several times and though it often changed, he figured he could pull something from it. Her edges jarred as she climbed in. What would she break into tonight? He feared the answer.

“Are you real?” he asked. Then louder, addressing the audience, he said, “Is she real? Do you believe her the girl who waited at home for you?” He moved to the edge of the stage. “Ma’am, do you recognise your dead?”

Ask him a hundred times and he’d never find the answer for why he asked that particular woman that particular question.

The woman, who wore a grey suit with a red necktie, gasped. Godfrey spun on his polished heels. Within the glass coffin his assistant had transformed into or been replaced by a young man of about twenty. He wore a torn uniform and his colour was death. This trick would be nothing more than a distraction. The audience had focused on him and on the woman and ignored what happened mid-stage.

In the audience, the woman stood. “Philip?” she asked.

The boy in the coffin looked to be of an age to be her son, but just missing someone often prematurely aged a person. He’d found his Caroline much changed on her return. She’d no doubt found the same in him. His hand ached. In another world, in another time, Caroline would soothe them with kisses.

The woman struggled to get onto the stage. Despite his short stature, the stage manager played bouncer. Godfrey wanted to assure the woman it was an illusion. Rightly so, for the boy was transforming back into the assistant despite that a thousand eyes watched the box. The woman fell to her knees, dragging part of the curtain with her. The stomp of feet, the clash of cymbals, deafened and almost brought the ceiling down. Dust rained from the rafters. Godfrey helped the assistant from the box with no question as to how she’d achieved it. She now wore Caroline’s face. It was grey and cold and lifeless.

The manager of the post office, Mr. Dent, rushed along the road at such a pace that Godfrey thought him eager to have him back behind the counter and the balance of the world restored.

“Your wife hasn’t been in the last three days. I’ve knocked on but there’s no answer.”

Despite that it was out of character for Caroline to let anyone down, Godfrey brushed it aside and offered his services. “I could cover in her place.”

The fat little man, who hadn’t done a day of fighting, looked fit to spit on Godfrey’s shoes. “I have another girl who can cover.”

Watching Mr. Dent waddle back to the office, Godfrey wrung the handkerchief and its belongings between his fists. The act caused him to stumble, but no one saw.

Prior to the war, Caroline and he never argued. They’d thought each other perfect. Now that the world was poorer and greyer, their faults magnified, annoyed. Her coat hung in the hallway but he couldn’t find her within the house. He stood in the kitchen, in the spot she normally haunted.

“I miss who you were,” he said, as if expecting her to materialise at his words.

If only he had the magic to dredge the past of all that wronged it and step back into a safer, more content world. Seated at the kitchen table, surrounded by coffee cups filled with dregs (upon some of which floated congealed milk that had turned green), a scream caught in his throat. Pressing his hands to his lips, he tried to keep it trapped within, but it pushed and pulsed against fingers and throat until it ripped free, sending his mind howling back to the muddy fields of France. Then it dragged him to fresh horror to Caroline standing at the kitchen sink, her once-pink cheeks drifting from grey to snow beneath the twist of his hands.

He hoped to hide within the theatre’s magic. He couldn’t bear to be in that house anymore, in the place where he couldn’t find his wife’s kind face, where he couldn’t resurrect her smile. Despite that the theatre was closed, the audience long dispersed, the glass coffin sat centre-stage, and within it his grey-wife. Only in this death, she looked younger, more the girl he had left behind. Whatever the image, the crime remained the same.

Sitting at the edge of the stage, he pulled out the grey handkerchief, his initials embroidered into its cotton. A drum roll echoed from the orchestra pit followed by the clash of cymbals. This time, there was no audience to watch, no expectation. As he untied the knot that held their love together, fingers shaking, inside he found the fabric heart, the arrow tip, the lock of hair, the love note turned to dust. With breath from someone unseen, the dust dispersed across the empty bombed-out theatre.

About the Author

Cate Gardner’s stories have appeared in Shimmer, Black Static, Fantasy Magazine, Postscripts, and many other wonderful places. Her novella, The Bureau of Them, was nominated for a British Fantasy Award, as was her short story “When the Moon Man Knocks.” You can find her on the web at