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The Grand Marquee

  • S.G. Parker 
  • 6 min read

The solution, my father announced, with only the crown of his head visible above the stacks of packing boxes, was to raise a marquee.

A grand marquee, my mother added.

Delivered the next day, the marquee consumed the entirety of our small suburban bungalow’s back lawn, its guy ropes penetrating the hedges and flowerbeds and throttling the pillars of our neighbour Mr Nettle’s chestnut feather-board fence. The central pole stood so tall that a group of young children knocked at the front door to ask if the circus was in town.

Despite the lawn turning to mud and the roses withering due to the lack of light, for the next few years, all went well until a rope broke free in the storms of last summer, leaving half of the contents exposed and sodden. Within hours, the moonlit patio glistened with slime as a mass of slugs and snails slid in to feast on our rotten belongings.

The slugs brought the toads, who invaded the neighbourhood en masse, rustling the shrubbery and swamping the roads as they swarmed towards the marquee, croaking with delight at the bounty of escargot, only to thud against car wheel arches as our neighbours returned home for the night.

Flies, flies, flies and flies. The stinking mess that now covered the streets crawled with maggots who slithered away into darkened crevices to emerge as fizzing bullets of filth and disease, or became impregnated with parasitic larvae that gorged upon the writhing sacks of pus before transforming into vicious, yellow-jacketed bringers of pain.

Me, I welcomed the arrival of the bats. I listened to their squeaks of delight as their plump, furry bodies swooped through the night. I found comfort in the flap of their skinny clawed wings as they cleansed the air of the buzzing, crawling, stinging things. But the bats, just like the rats, provoked howls of complaints from our neighbours despite my parents’ assurances that the marquee was only a temporary necessity, a minor inconvenience until the long-planned garage conversion was complete, which would take only a few short months, once the work began.

With the cold weather, new intruders arrived. We found Mrs Miniver’s black cat, Sabbath, and six kittens nestled in a box stuffed with my musty, moth-eaten baby wear from when I was a child. No sooner had the cats been removed than the night was disturbed by drunken stumblings, frantic fumblings, stifled giggles and muffled whispers. The aroma of illicit teenage rebellion breezed through the air, infiltrating the ventilation cracks and aggravating Mr Nettle’s sinuses.

The next morning, beside a tear in the canvas, we found a confetti of torn cigarette papers and rolled-up cardboard roaches. And a single strangled condom. The eldest from No. 7, Mr Nettle opined—bad through and through, ever since birth. An awkward visit by my mother ensued. The mellow nocturnal haze dispersed, and the midnight trysts ceased, along with our Christmas cards from No. 7.

More sinister visitors soon came by. From a large white van emerged three white men whose breath hung white in the winter’s night. With professional ease, they slit the worn skin of the ageing marquee and secreted box after box into the idling van, binding the rear doors closed with a bungee when the last wouldn’t fit. All the while, our neighbourhood slept, save for Mr Nettle and his ever-watchful eye.

The police responded to his emergency call three days later. The weary young constable, his pen and pad poised, asked us what was missing. No idea, my parents said in unison. The top layer of boxes on the leftmost aisle was all my father could suggest. Holiday brochures, an old, cracked crockery set, and a Fisher-Price petrol station were my mother’s best guesses.

I looked for myself, but not knowing what had been there, it was hard to say what wasn’t. The thieves hadn’t taken the handheld hoover, the broken printers or the sandwich toaster. They’d left the dried flowers and the Perspex chandelier, and they’d ignored the Bullworker and the exercise bike and ball. The 2-tracks and the 8-tracks and the cassette tapes were all in order, as were the LPs of Pinky and Perky and Fleetwood Mac. The guarantee and instruction leaflets of long-dead appliances were left untouched, just like the boxes of unknown cables and power adapters.

And so, breathing a sigh of relief, we thanked our lucky stars that the crooks hadn’t made off with anything of value.

Yet worse was to come.

Reports of a homeless in the neighbourhood preceded Mr Nettle’s sighting of a shadowy figure scaling the moonlit garden fence. Without delay, we roused the neighbours and banded together to hunt the vagrant down. It was Mr Nettle himself who discovered their makeshift cave, cunningly disguised within the walls of the marquee’s centre-most aisles. A single mattress from aisle nine had been dragged inside, upon which lay two of our mouldy sleeping bags. Out of one poked the head of a grubby, half-blinded children’s doll, while nearby stood an extinguished tea light beside a tattered photo of a dark-skinned man.

This was the final straw. My parents called Hoarditall, the secure self-storage facility, and arranged for a team of workers to empty the marquee. We pulled up the tent pegs, severed the guy ropes and tore down the soiled cotton canvas. We rallied the neighbours to donate their combustibles and amassed the whole mess in a vast stinking pile.

Once darkness fell, we gathered around and lit it alight. The flames licked up the central pole, blackening and melting the one-eyed doll we had tied to the top as if it were Guy Fawkes. As the inferno raged and the sparks spat out into the starless sky, we toasted marshmallows on long forked sticks, and Mr Nettle set off fireworks, much to our delight. The eldest from No. 7 fetched her guitar, and together we danced in circles, singing Imagine and Stand By Me until the fire went out and we all said goodnight, shutting our doors on the smouldering remains and the stench that still hung in the air.

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