by Mike W
There's a little bit of magic in us all.
The Candle Maker
Travis was a genius with wax. In the back of his little shop he would work it with his scents and his dyes and his moulds and conjure the most exquisitely beautiful candles I had ever seen. His shop was full of them, stacked around the shelves in amongst all the other weird and wonderful stuff that he sold. I loved that shop. I filled my home with strange and beautiful artefacts from it. Travis sold things I had never seen anywhere else before. Whenever I asked where he got it all from his answer was always the same: "The fairies, Caroline." His soft voice, thick with his northern roots, would suppress a chuckle. "They bring it all to me."
"And the candles?" I would say. "Do they bring those as well?"
"Ah, the candles," he'd sigh, looking around the shop. "The candles are all my own work, I must admit. But, you know, Caroline, the fairies do not possess a monopoly on magic. There's a little bit of it in all of us."
I thrilled to the thought of that. "Is that how you make them, then? By magic?"
"In a sense," he'd say, in that deliciously mysterious way of his. "In a sense..."
Travis was a strange character, not quite real somehow, not quite rooted in this world. He was tall and thickset with a night-black beard and kind eyes, and yet, despite his imposing physical presence, whenever I looked at him I was always struck by the strangest impression of looking at a double exposure photograph, almost as if he'd been superimposed over his background. It was very disconcerting. He was impossible to pin down, to focus on. Truth be told though, that's exactly what I liked about him.
I always thought of Travis as a character from a favourite novel. From time to time I would dip into his world - a magical place of fantasy and fairies as he would have me believe - and he would draw me inexorably in with an enticing web spun with tall-tales and fairy-stories. Whilst there I would be happy, child-like. The little trinkets I bought from his shop were treasured souvenirs of happy visits.
I would have loved to live in Travis' world, to believe - really believe - in all the strange and enchanting things he told me. But sadly I just couldn't. I was too bogged down in reality. And there - in case anyone's at all interested - was the root of my problem. At various times in my life I'd been told, by disapproving boyfriends and bosses and family and friends, that I was either too much of a dreamer or a bit of a dull realist. The awful truth was that both viewpoints were correct. Sometimes, when I thought of it, I felt so sad.
These days, it seemed, I felt so sad so much of the time...
On the Saturday I told him I thought I was falling in love.
On the Sunday he dumped me.
This was Carl, the latest in a long and tawdry line of badly-chosen boyfriends.
Monday I managed to drag myself into work but I have to admit it was not one of my more productive days. My boss shouted at me and I cried.
Tuesday I phoned in sick. Heart sick.
I'd really thought that Carl was different – love-struck fool that I was. I'd thought he was sensitive and kind and caring. His parting words, however, were nothing of the sort. I'd never guessed he had such a cruel streak. Carl was firmly in the 'dull realist' camp. Very dull in fact, as he took great pains to point out to me. I bored him. I was clingy. I couldn't possibly love him, because he sure as hell didn't love me. He didn't even fancy me anymore. He'd just been waiting for the right moment to end it. Surely I'd known. Surely I'd guessed. Well, no, actually I hadn't. Never even suspected. More fool me.
And that was that. The end. Goodbye, Caroline, and good riddance.
All day Tuesday I cried and cried and cried and when the tears finally stopped I was empty: a Caroline-shaped shell. I looked around my home and felt nothing. My gaze landed on one of Travis' candles. I hardly ever burned any of the candles I bought from Travis' shop. They were too beautiful to destroy. But, looking at it, I felt nothing. I remembered Travis' assertion that we each had a little bit of magic in us. I reflected bitterly that my own particular magical gift, it seemed, was for making the people I loved disappear.
I dragged my empty body to the bathroom. I ran a hot bath and poured in just about all the creams and oils and potions I owned, a recipe normally guaranteed to raise my spirits. This time though, nothing. I felt nothing. I lay there until the water turned cold and my skin wrinkly. I thought of nothing. My mind was a blank.
I went to bed. I slept. I did not dream.
Wednesday I didn't go to work again. I didn't bother to phone in. I took my empty shell out of the house and I let it wander where it would. It ended up at my favourite shop.
"Caroline." Travis' soft voice was warm and friendly and welcoming as I entered. I ignored it.
I wandered aimlessly around the shop, looking without seeing at the intricate wonders displayed there. After a while, I became aware that Travis was at my side. He picked up a glass paperweight.
"Beautiful, isn't it?"
Inside the glass were impossible multi-coloured swirls that almost seemed to move as you looked at them. I turned away and said nothing.
"The fairies have done me proud this week," said Travis. His voice was so soft, so comforting, but it had no place in my world, in my reality. I moved silently away.
"Are you alright, Caroline?" he asked, full of concern. I nodded, unable to speak, to look directly at him. I felt suddenly lost, a helpless child again, not knowing what to do or say or where to go. Acutely aware of Travis' uncomprehending gaze behind me, I eventually, reluctantly, turned to face him, to look up into those dark and infinite eyes. They drew me in.
"No," I whispered. "No, I'm not."
And then suddenly, somehow, I was crying again and Travis' arms were around me and he was making soft shushing sounds. He led me gently into the back of the shop and sat me down. The air was thick with the smell of incense and wax and candle scent, making my head feel woozy. I felt drunk. Travis' voice seemed far away as he cajoled the whole sorry story out me with his kind words and gentle prompting.
After a while the tears stopped and, feeling a strange disconnection from reality, I was shown around Travis' workshop. The atmosphere was totally intoxicating and I could well imagine magic being worked here. There were moulds of all shapes and sizes, encrusted with old wax, scattered around the ancient benches and shelves; pans and chalky dyes and tiny bottles of scent; long strands of wick and bits of what looked like blu-tack lying around; and candles of course, hundreds of candles, half-finished, work-in-progress. I drank it all in, Travis' soft voice, heard as if from the next room, explaining it all to me, sometimes matter-of-factly, sometimes with his impish fairy references.
Feeling faint and light-headed, I was vaguely aware that Travis was handing me something. It was one of his candles. I tried to focus on it. It was a thick church-type candle with beautiful pastel shades and an elusive smoky swirl right at the centre of it which could be glimpsed only briefly before it disappeared under my dizzy attempts to concentrate.
"This is for you," Travis seemed to be saying. "For you, Caroline."
"What?" I slurred. I looked up at him. All I could see was the endless black of his eyes. The room seemed to be spinning.
"Burn it when you need to." The voice seemed almost to be inside my head. "To release the magic inside you."
"I don't understand."
"The magic inside you..." The words echoed around me.
"I... I don't feel well," I remember saying and then I must have passed out.
I was standing outside Travis' shop and my head was pounding. In my hand I held a gift bag. I looked inside and there was the candle that Travis had given me. It was exquisitely beautiful. I shook my head, trying to clear it, trying to shake off the wooliness. I couldn't think clearly, I felt disorientated and confused, and so I returned home and went straight to bed. I slept for the rest of the day, dreaming fitfully of strange and faraway lands.
The first thing I saw on waking was Travis' candle, standing on the chest of drawers where I'd placed it the night before. The smoky swirl at the centre of it still thwarted any attempts to focus. I was still feeling a little fuzzy around the edges, but I felt generally much better and decided it was time to return to work. I functioned reasonably well and got through in a numb, detached kind-of-way. People commented on how quiet I was. I smiled back and muttered something about the flu. I was doing a decent enough job of not thinking much about Carl but something kept nagging at the back of my mind. Three days later I was forced to acknowledge it and accept the fact that I was late.
The prospect filled me with dread. I considered contacting Carl, but even if it were true, what did I expect him to do? Come running back and tell me he loved me after all and everything would be alright? Yeah, in Travis' fairy-land maybe... Somehow I couldn't quite see him reacting that way and he already hated me more than I could bear. He didn't need anymore reasons. Maybe it wasn't true anyway, I told myself. Maybe it was all down to stress...
A couple of days later however my worst fears were confirmed. I sat on the edge of the bed staring in quiet despair at the little blue lines, feeling my world crumble about me. If I couldn't cope with my own life, then how the hell was I supposed to be responsible for someone else's?
I sat there for ages, until the room grew dark around me, just staring at nothing. I couldn't even cry anymore. Eventually, I went out and bought a bottle of vodka. I already had the paracetamol. I'm not proud of myself.
I sat in my room in the dark and I lit Travis' candle.
For a while I watched, entranced and enchanted, as its pastel shades seemed almost to be illuminated from within, casting pale shadows about the room, caressing the darkness. It really was beautiful. Too beautiful for this world. I looked at the pills and the vodka lying next to me, aware of a subtle aroma emanating from the candle. It was nice, soothing, comforting. I felt woozy but this was probably down to the two large glasses of vodka I'd already had. I noticed a small trail of smoke drifting up from the burning wick, making my eyes swim blearily as I tried to follow its path. The illusive swirl at the centre of the candle seemed much more prominent now and appeared to move slowly, hypnotically, pulsing.
Feeling more tired than I had ever felt in my life before I lay down on the bed. The room span. I closed my eyes and drifted off into sleep. And started to dream...
The colours were the colours of a child's painting: primary and daubed with abandon. The grass sloping up at my left was impossibly green, the sea to my right bold splashes of paint-pot blue. I was on a worn dirt path and I appeared to be alone, except for some sheep grazing peacefully around me. However, when I looked more closely, I realised with a start that, far from being alone, I was actually just one of several people strung out along the path, walking in both directions. I don't know why I hadn't noticed them before.
I looked down at the rocky shoreline to my right. Waves foamed angrily against the jagged rocks and children edged as close as they dared looking for flotsam.
I walked along for a while with no clear idea of where exactly I was going. It was a gloriously bright day with an edge of chill spray blowing in from the sea. I was kind of aware that none of this was real but somehow that didn't seem to matter anymore.
I came to a gate on the path and once through I suddenly saw, at the top of a hill ahead and slightly to the left of me, the ruins of a castle. The gateway and one tower were more or less intact; the rest of it was impressively crumbled. A number of people were on the grassy hill, either heading away from or toward the castle. I set off up the hill.
As I reached the gates of the ruin I turned and looked back down the grassy slope towards the foaming sea and away to my left where there was a steep drop down to the water. People continued to mill around but it was unnaturally quiet. I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to find Travis standing there, smiling warmly. Somehow I was not surprised to see him. He looked more real, more substantial then he'd ever done in his shop. He looked like he belonged here, in this strange world of quiet and childish colours.
"Caroline," he said, black eyes twinkling. "Come inside." And he turned and walked up the gravel path leading through the castle's gates. I followed, feeling happy and light, pleased to find him here, to guide me, to help me.
Travis led me to a spot within what was left of the castle's walls. He sat down on crumbling masonry and looked about him at the ancient ruins scattered amidst the vivid green of the grass. I joined him, suddenly aware of darting flashes of movement glimpsed at the very periphery of my vision. Travis laughed as he saw me trying to locate the source. I smiled up at him.
"You won't see them," he said. "Not until you stop looking."
"What?" I asked, bewildered.
"The fairies," he replied.
"That's what I call them. Who knows what they really are. In a sense it doesn't matter. They're all around us."
I could tell he wasn't joking. I stared into those deep dark eyes of his and was once again transfixed. Over his shoulder, amongst the ruins, I could half-see out of the corner of my eye, several small creatures darting in and out of the stones, each one carrying shiny sparkly things. Beautiful things. The kind of things in Travis' shop. I burst out laughing. "Fairies!" I cried, delighted. "I can see them."
"Yes." Travis smiled back at me, his black eyes shining.
As long as I didn't try to focus on them, kept my eyes firmly fixed on Travis', I could see them. They were scampering all over and around the castle's ruins, like children.
Just like children...
All of a sudden I was overcome by an all-encompassing sadness. Tears welled in my eyes.
"Children," I whispered. Travis looked at me quizzically. "They're just like children." My hand went to my belly and rested there.
He understood. "Stay," he said.
"Here?" I looked around.
"Yes. Stay here with me."
"But... it's not real... none of it is... is it?"
"It's as real as you want it to be."
"But what about...?" I looked down.
"It's ok. Nothing ever changes here. You'd be happy. As you are now."
I caught a sudden movement to my left and looked around, but of course I saw nothing. I looked back into Travis' eyes. "I can't," I said. Something wouldn't let me. Something wanted me back. I started to edge away.
"That's fine," he said, still smiling kindly. "It's ok. When you're ready. We'll be here. Waiting."
I was moving further and further away from Travis until I was standing outside the crumbled walls and I could no longer see him. The sky was growing dark. An impossible sun was setting dramatically behind the castle's one stark tower, silhouetting it. I drank in the scene and then turned and walked away.
I looked back only once...
I awoke fully clothed with a very sore head. The candle had gone out. I sat up groggily, running a shaky hand through my hair. Beside me was the almost empty vodka bottle. And next to that, the pills. I was shocked to think I'd even considered such a thing. Thankfully I'd passed out before I could take any. I felt guilty. Everything seemed different now. Brighter. The strange dream was still vivid in my mind and I had a sudden urgent need to see Travis again. I felt he may have some answers for me.
I felt rough as hell from the hangover, but I made myself presentable and rushed down to Travis' shop. When I got there, however, the shop was shut and an air of abandonment hung heavy about the place. Pinned to the door was a note. I pulled it down and read it. In Travis' flamboyant, almost girlish, hand it said, quite simply, "Away with the fairies". I laughed out loud, folding the note neatly and putting it into my pocket.
I went home and ran a bath, pouring in generous helpings of foam and oils. Placing Travis’ candle at the end of the bath I got in and immersed myself in the hot water and soothing scents. I felt relaxed, happy even. Running my hand gently over my belly, and thinking of the magic inside me, I gazed into the gently swirling heart of the candle and contemplated whether or not I should light it.