THE music of the hurdy-gurdy swirled and whirled and waltzed in the air, swelling in undulating waves over the fairground. It was a shining day, the sunlight bright and sharp on the gaudy reds and yellows of the painted roundabouts, with the stretched galloping horses endlessly chasing each other’s streaming tails as they rose and fell on their candy-twist poles.
A smaller roundabout carried solemn-faced or squealing children driving blue puffer engines or fat green tug boats or red fire engines, all with their clanging bells. The pungent smell of throbbing petrol-driven generators mixed with the warm, sweet smell of candy floss and sticky toffee apples.
Max Reynolds held Delia’s hand as they watched the laughing, shrieking people on the roundabouts, the waltzers and boat-swings, and the brave attempts of young men to shoot clay pipes or knock over coconuts to impress their watching girlfriends.
But it wasn’t only young men who were unable to resist the challenge to impress. More mature males were still susceptible.
“Four balls for fourpence sir!” the stall holder called, and Max paid his money and Delia stepped back.
His third ball dislodged a coconut and brought a shout of surprise and delight.
Max presented the prize to a little fair-haired boy whose wooden balls had hardly reached their target. Delia watched the little lad dodging through the crowd until he found his parents. She saw him holding up his trophy.
“Let’s have an ice-cream. What do you say?” Max asked.
Delia’s glance came back to him. When she looked again the little family had gone.
“Or some candy floss,” Max was saying.
“What?” Delia brought her mind back to reality. “Oh, ice-cream.” She smiled brightly at Max. “It’s ages since I had a cornet.”
The fun fair was pitched in the municipal park and they found a bench away from the crowd and sat for a few minutes in silence. They finished their ice-creams and sat watching the scene in front of them. Then Max suddenly said, “Do you ever get tired of the music halls, Delia?”
“Yes,” she said. The quickness of her reply surprised her. “Yes, sometimes. But it’s what I do.”
“Yes, I know, and you do it very well. We have musical talents and we have to use them, show them off, and we become addicted to applause, to pleasing people.”
“Yes, that’s true,” she agreed. “And some day the applause must stop. But not yet.”
He sensed the anxiety in her voice. He quickly placed his hand on hers.
“Oh, no, not yet. Certainly not for you. But I’m older, and I’ve begun to think lately about what I shall do when the music stops and the curtain comes down for the last time.” He laughed suddenly. “Oh, dear. I sound like a Somerset Maugham novel.” Then he became serious again, his hand still resting lightly on hers.
“Each time I think of the future, my thoughts seem to come back to you.”
Delia’s heart had begun to beat more quickly. She had told Kate to think carefully about her relationship with Johnny West. Had she given enough thought to her and Max? He was handsome and charming. She liked him.
He went on.
“I have no commitments. Oh, I know there are stories about me.” He chuckled. “A faintly risqu reputation does no harm to my stage persona. The ladies seem to like that kind of thing. But I have no commitments, Delia. I wanted you to know that.”
“Thank you, Max.” She smiled at him. She hesitated about what to say next. Then, behind them, a church clock began to chime. She looked round then back at him. “We’d better be making a move. There may be a full house this evening. The local press has been full of Nesbo’s new illusion.”
They stood up. He released her hand.
“I hope it goes well for him,” Max said. “Perhaps he’ll be in a better mood.”
“Oh, he’s been short with everyone lately, not just you.”
“Particularly with me,” Max insisted. “He’s jealous, of course.”
“Well, he’s been top of the bill for the last two years so perhaps . . .”
Max threw back his head and laughed.
“It’s not that. He’s jealous of us. Me and you. I’ve seen the way he gazes at you when he thinks no-one is looking. Well, he’s had his chances, so hard luck.”
Delia was shaking her head.
“No, Max. You’re quite wrong. You don’t know him as I do.”