Short Fiction ~ Edward Barnfield
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 10
‘Tomoko’s Web’ is the largest exhibit in the gallery, a free-standing technicolour textile sculpture the approximate size of an aircraft hangar. There’s a cute note explaining the artist’s inspiration, some fable about watching kids clamber over an earlier installation.
Daniel always smiles at that. The Children’s Gallery is full of cute notes, writing on the wall designed to reduce your guilt about dumping your offspring here for an afternoon, keep up the pretence that the scribble corners and junkyard xylophones are ‘educational’. The space is designed around the writings of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist who argues people are happiest when they ‘flow’, so you know what to expect.
Ceri loves the web. First time they came here, she ran to it, slipped off her shoes and bounced in her socks on the padded floor. The sculpture is full of false entrances and springy dead-ends, loops where the kids can climb up but can’t get inside. If they’re persistent enough, they can find the right hole to enter the valley, access the real excitement. There are swings built with bags of canvas like stunned insects, and the more athletic youngsters leap from the ropes and slide down the sides.
Alongside the instructions not to run and banning gum, there is a text box explaining that the whole concept is designed to encourage risky play, enable kids to practice regulating their fear.
Of course, it’s perfectly safe. That’s the trick of ‘Tomoko’s Web,’ the illusion of danger, the opportunity for the child to rise to a level he or she is comfortable with. If anything, the participants are part of the exhibit – it’s the parents who experience the spectacle, the unease.
Like today. Someone’s child is howling, and a mother is trying to peer through the outer seam to trace the location of the sobs. There are two boys Daniel doesn’t like the look of untying their laces: fat and pale, English and entitled, and older than Ceri by at least three years. He catches himself, fights down the paternal throb of pre-emptive anger. No point losing it at a couple of gobby eight-year-olds.
Besides, he tells himself, he’s used to it now. They come here on the weekends when they are on this side of town; Cynthia, his wife, peeling off for a coffee or a shop nearby. Daniel has learned not to react when he loses track of his daughter among the strands. Once, he saw her fall three levels, plunging from a ceiling rope to land laughing in a smaller net at the base.
It’s all useful practice, aversion therapy to fight down the hum of parental paranoia. You can’t always be there to protect them. She’s about six feet above him now, grinning down from a tiny slit in the side. A presentiment of adolescence and beyond.
When she’s 9, Ceri will cut her knee on a broken tumbler at her friend Grace’s house. Daniel will be sharp with Cynthia for about a week afterwards. (Grace’s mum being a friend of Cynthia, inflaming his suspicions of the parenting skills that made the accident possible.)
In the now, Ceri has found a silk-hinged trapdoor, and is wiggling through a crawlspace beneath the main web. Daniel can barely make out her yellow dress, brown hair through the bright fibres, and winces when there’s a flash of football shirts in the layer above, the two boys wrestling. Again, Tomoko has anticipated, ensured there’s enough cross-stich to prevent any contact.
When she’s 14, over the summer, Ceri will retreat to her room and stop eating. Cynthia will schedule appointments with specialists. A haunted sense of failure touches everyone in the house, as though a missed symptom or lost puzzle piece enabled this sickness to infiltrate. Finally, a week before school restarts, Ceri will emerge and ask for cornflakes. Daniel and Cynthia sob, separately.
She is up among the swings now, climbing monkey-style to the absolute apex, where a second industrial safety net prevents any further escalation. Even after all these visits, he still has the urge to cry out, call her down, but he forces himself to ignore it. She jumps, graceful as a swan dive, and lands in one of the smaller inner webs. Again, the laughter.
University will be difficult. Ceri will miss out on her first choice, victim of some obscure new Department of Education mandate. (Grace, with worse grades but richer parents, is accepted). Daniel and Cynthia have separated by this point and, as they trade blame in a coffee shop, he’s struck by a vision of the scar on her knee.
There’s commotion, a clash of bodies at the web’s centre causing squeals and side-line interference. One of the Dads is remonstrating with a staff member, honking about safety codes, and another is trying to climb in on a rescue mission. Daniel knows it’s futile. ‘Tomoko’s Web’ has tensile strength enough to hold a family-size car, but the entrances all narrow to keep the adults out. He thinks he hears Ceri cry, imagines one of the football boys rolling over her.
At 22, having graduated with honours, Ceri will celebrate with her on/off boyfriend and three of his college friends. When they leave the apartment, she will notice that the driver is having trouble focusing, his speech slurred. She does not get out of the car. Daniel is asleep when the phone call comes.
The angry father collects his daughter from a porthole, carrying her out despite her protestations. The Tom Cruise manque still has one leg stuck when his son (the fatter of the fat eight-year-olds) escapes with a nosebleed and a sheepish expression. Daniel waits for a minute, holds his breath, his hopes for his daughter’s future all tangled. Finally, two feet in blue socks touch down on the cushioned ground. He lets out a silent prayer to Tomoko – Ceri, safe once more, now and forever.
Edward Barnfield is a writer and researcher living in the Middle East. His stories have appeared in Lunate, Leicester Writes, Cranked Anvil, London Independent Story Prize, The Short Story, Reflex Press, Communicate.ae, GoArchitect and Grindstone Literary. He is currently working on a novel and a collection of short stories. He’s on Twitter at: @edbarnfield