Thursday, 19 April 2007

A few years back we had the chance of a long holiday in Orlando, Florida.

I was writing well at the time, so "tuned-in" seeing loads. Like anyone else I read the papers, listened to the news, saw faces, heard about shootings, etc.

But in the time I was there, just in Orlando, it seemed like carnage. There were drive-by shootings, an escaped tiger (really), suicide-murders, it seemed like every day.

But for me, taking the kids round Disney or Universal or Sea World, sunny, sanitised, while at the same time realising that "out there" (even though we were out there already) was all this killing, madness... it really highlighted for me (a Brit) that something was wrong, off, crazy.

Personally I was attracted to all this, excited by the bright-lights and danger. I wrote this.

PS i inadvertently double-subbed this one and it was accepted by two journals hours apart and I had to eat crow...

BTW, except for the protag's death, all the incidents ACTUALLY happened in a 19 day spell. I had almost broken into Atlantic Monthly at this time and had developed a very good relationship with an editor there. When she read and rejected this one she said, "Oh Alex, it's really NOT as bad as that you know."


It's a last-minute booking. Susan White is about to start a new job and she needs the break, some sun, some rest. She fancies Greece, one of the islands, but her husband thinks that Florida would be better for the children. Susan agrees, but she isn't convinced that Orlando is for her.

"It's brash," she says, "too American, all glitter and superficiality."

"Oh, come on, "Ray says, "you need to feel the sun on your back, and you know the children would love to see Mickey."

Susan can't argue with this so she has given in, but only after trying the danger angle. "It may be pretty, Ray, but people get killed there every day."

Ray says Susan is exaggerating things, they could get killed crossing the road. But the level of danger obviously worries her so he agrees to book them into a more expensive hotel, one with perimeter guards and electronic locks. But he has only booked their room for a night. After that he thinks they should cruise round and see the effects of market forces. It's mid-season the travel agent says and there are bargains to be had. The children light up when they see the pictures, so Susan puts her small anxieties away, settling for the fact that she will at least get some sun.

A taxi takes the family the forty miles from their Surrey home to Gatwick Airport. Susan has been a little edgy but the children are excited. Ray is quiet. When they arrive at the airport they have time for a breakfast in Macdonald's before they go through passport control. They chat quietly now that things are settled, and Susan feels a little better. After their meal they make their way to Gate fifty-seven. Through the glass walls they see the aeroplane that will take them to America, a Boeing 747-400, huge, red and white, silver.

The aircraft amazes Ray and he tries to take in its size, its power. Susan thinks it's bloody big too and she points to a painting below the cockpit, a glamorous blonde wrapped in a red cape, the scrawled word Virgin, and the word Tinkerbelle. Susan's daughter is enchanted by the name, but her son is with his father now, by the windows, pointing at the engines. When Ray looks at the painted woman he thinks of World War II and Enola Gay, and he thinks, a woman as pretty as that and a virgin, no way! "No way a virgin," he says when he comes back.

On board the aircraft, Susan is tense again, but only because she has to fly. The children play and crayon. Ray is quiet, but then he becomes fascinated by his personal video screen. He chooses one of eight films to watch, Mars Attacks. Soon he is laughing outrageously and Susan has to tap his leg. He lifts one ear-piece, "What?"

"You're laughing like a drain," she says.

"So is everyone else," Ray says. "Try it."

Susan gives in and watches the same film. It's so funny that after lunch she watches it again. They eat and then they are landing in Orlando. Susan feels tired but Ray is in a good mood. He says this technology amazes him.

Their children are called Clem and Bridget, from Ray's Irish side. They love the late afternoon warmth of Orlando and the glass and plastic shine of the terminal building. Ray was persuaded to upgrade the rental car in the UK, but when they get to Alamo he is persuaded by the hire clerk to make another upgrade, a two-for-one.

Susan shakes her head but the kids are thrilled by the big red car and Ray is excited with the four-litre engine and automatic drive. Susan is unhappy.

"Please," she says.

It's getting dark and she wants to get the children into their beds.

Ray shrugs and says OK. They load the car. The trip to International Drive is smooth - he loves this - and they read as many of the advertising boards as they can take in. The children fall asleep.


In the hotel, Ray undresses his children as they lay ragged in a cool bed. With a little help from the air conditioning the evening warmth is easing. He should be tired but he's not. Susan begins to unpack, but he reminds her they may move tomorrow, so she takes out underwear and fresh light clothes for the morning. Ray flicks on the TV and browses the channels. He stops on a local news report. Two boys, thirteen, one is dead. One teen says the other wanted to play Russian roulette and when he tried to stop him, the gun went off. Investigations continue. Ray can't sleep. He says should he nip out and get some wine, maybe a pizza? Susan doesn't want him to go but she says OK. When he is gone she double locks the door and puts the chain on.


The car is gorgeous, the radio is playing soft rock and Ray drives easily, looking at neon signs, the palm trees, dark green against a lit, oozing, brass-red sky. He feels smooth and warm, and when he finds a 24-hour grocery store, he drops in there, gets a bottle of cold Chablis, potato chips, and a newspaper. Then he goes next door, browses through books and magazines.


The next day, the children wake very early and when Susan is up, they have a quick swim, pack their cases, and leave the hotel before eight o'clock. Last night Ray saw rooms as low as $35 and he is pumped up. Clem and Bridget catch his excitement and he laughs and jokes with them about Disney, Mickey Mouse, about ET and Barney, and about Shamu, the killer whale that Clem thinks is called Free Willy and Bridget calls Frilly Willy. Even though Susan wants to be low, she catches it too, and ends up smiling. They cruise around and find a Comfort Inn for peanuts. Ray has calculated they have an extra $600 spending money. Susan is a little nervous but Ray points to the security guards on the road and the open car-parks, well-lit.

They drive to breakfast and in her newspaper, Susan reads, Medina Must Die: Justices reject idea he has severe mental illness. When they get to Denny's, Ray borrows the paper, orders hash browns and explains how he wants his eggs. The waitress is uncertain and says, "Easy over?" and Ray says, "Sure," almost matching her accent. He drinks coffee, reads about this black guy, mentally ill, but rational enough to know he's been convicted of murder and that carrying out sentence will kill him. He reads that Medina has been eating his own feces and communing with Einstein. But the Supreme Court thinks he's an actor and he dies next week. When the eggs arrive they are perfect and he says, "Let's go to Sea World as it's near the hotel."

It's hot already, but the Shamu display is truly magnificent. Ray, Susan, the children, sit centrally on the rear edge of the splash zone, and the power, the excitement, affects them all. Clem, just four, is plucked from the crowd and a huge TV screen shows him signalling the killer whale. Susan is proud. Ray says allowing ordinary people, kids, to see these magnificent creatures justifies their imprisonment. Susan doesn't comment. Bridget likes the baby Shamu, the baby Frilly Willy.

Now it's too hot. They go back to the hotel. It doesn't feel quite as safe as the first hotel but it's cheap. They change, go for a swim, and Clem learns to jump in. Then they go back to the room to dodge the worst of the afternoon sun. On the TV local news a boy, fourteen has been shot by a man, seventy-six because he trespassed in his yard. An addendum says the man owes the state three million dollars in fines for storing junk without a permit.

Susan and the children are asleep but Ray is wide awake, and buzzing. He remembers the tremendous killer-whale display, and the scarlet-rubbered handlers in the water and above it. He fidgets and picks up the paper. When he opens it he reads about Ronnie Ray Brown a suspected serial rapist. A series of rapes stopped when Brown went to prison for possessing cocaine, restarted when he was released. His bail is $15,000.

Ray flicks on the television and Susan moves, groans in her sleep. There is nothing much on and Ray turns back to the newspaper. He reads about Rose Matos, a grandmother accused of aggravated assault and child abuse by wilful torture. Her attorney has said that his client has done nothing wrong.

Ray gets up, lets himself out, leaves the door ajar briefly, and goes along a balcony to a central point where there is an ice machine, a drinks dispenser. He gets a diet Sprite and a bucket full of ice-cubes. When he comes back he opens the drink and sips at it while planning the holiday. Tonight, for dinner, they will try a Red Lobster, tomorrow they'll go to Universal, Bridget wants to see Barney. Then he picks up the Sentinel again.

He finds, tucked away on page B-6, a report of a meticulously planned murder-suicide in West Palm Beach. After leaving gift-notes on toys and furniture, the mother climbed into bed with her sleeping eight-year old son and allowed the father to shoot them. He then sat in a chair and shot himself.

Ray still can't sleep. He goes out to the balcony and stares down at the I-4. Traffic is steady and far off he hears the wail of sirens. The edge has gone off the heat but it's still hot for an Englishman, hot and a little muggy. He goes inside and turns the aircon onto max. When Clem wakes up he says to him, "Wanna go for a swim, little guy?" Clem does. Now that he's not scared of going under the water Clem likes to jump in. "Live a little dangerously!" Ray says and they leave, lock the women in, and go down to the pool. The water is warm, they cruise, the sun is fat in the sky and things are, well, cool man. Now Clem wants to learn to dive.

That night they go to The Red Lobster. They don't have to wait in line for long and the waiters are friendly. Susan has cut out a piece of The Sentinel marked "Ticked off". Orlando folk can e-mail or telephone their gripes about what's wrong with life. They complain about the smell of smoke on smokers' clothing, waiters with body odor, the slobs who leave fast food bags in their neighbours' drive-ways, Wendy's, MacDonald's, last night a Burger King.

But her favourite "Ticked-off" is about "baby-boomers who take their kids to art festivals." The complainant says that if they can't afford a baby-sitter, they can't afford the art, and they should leave their dogs at home, too, dogs don't appreciate art.

If she knew of them all, Susan would say something about the three dead children, the dead mother, the dead father. Was no-one ticked off with that? But she doesn't. Ray has started hiding the worst stuff because he knows what Susan is like.

The meal is excellent, if a little large; lobsters, scallops, shrimp. They take it with a nice Chardonnay and the children eat chicken strips and fries. When they leave, Susan glances left and right before they hurry to the car, but Ray makes a joke of it as if he's chasing the children. When he gets in to the car, Susan says please centrally lock the doors. They drive back to the hotel, carry their sleeping kids to the room, leave the TV off and crash.


They swim before breakfast and are at Universal early. By ten o'clock Clem and Ray have been on the ET ride three times and only now are the wait lines getting long. The first Barney and Friends show is at 10:30 and they go there. Even after three times round on the ride, the boys were still impressed. Ray thinks Bridget would have been frightened, but she will love Barney.

A man called Mr Peekaboo does a holding job at the doors and the crowd seems to enjoy him, but for some reason he makes Susan feel uncomfortable. Inside, after they have imagined the doors open and imagined Barney's Park, they sit down and Mr Peekaboo reappears. On orders, the children imagine, imagine, again, their fingers pressed to their temples. The lights dim and then dark, and ceiling stars twinkle, until, with an explosion of music Barney appears, purple, and toothless, in a shower of silver petals. Ray can't decide if he came up through a hatch or slid silently up the ramp while little eyes scanned the stars.

Whatever, Bridget is not yet three, Clem still four, and they know Barney is real. The performance is slick and when Barney is joined by his friends, BJ and Baby-Bop, they are transported. They sing, "If You're Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands," and "Grandpa's Farm" and by imagining hard they make real snow fall from above, real raindrops sprinkle down. Finally, they sing, "I Love You, You Love Me" the dinosaurs hugging each other before they slip away. There's no doubt the kids love it, but coldly Susan says, "Fast Food". Ray responds, "But you must have been impressed by the snow, that was something else."

"The kids enjoyed it," Susan says.

On the TV local news that night, before they go out to try a Japanese Kobe restaurant, a drive-by shooting. There is some argument about whether the victim, black, eighteen, was or was not involved in the drug scene.

In the paper next day there is a commentary but the headline news shouts, Loose Tiger Surprises Worker, Mauls His Leg During Feeding Time. On the television later they show video footage; a creature as magnificent and as beautiful as Shamu, tranquillised and shot dead by sheriffs within seconds. They listen to radio as they drive to Universal for a second day. The protests are heartfelt and encouraged by the radio jock. So why, he says, tranquillise the poor tiger and then open fire less than two seconds later? Someone phones in and says, "Man that Tiger was so damn beautiful, it ain't right."

The kids love Barney. Clem and Ray go on ET again. It gets hot so they go back to the hotel, swim and doze the afternoon before going back. They watch Barney again go on ET again. Ray says, "Hey, I didn't realise, these characters don't speak, it's pre-recorded. They simply dance to the music."

Susan says, "And you're surprised?"

It's evening. When they exit they hear music, follow it, and stumble into a Mardi Gras. People are screaming, screeching, waving, and the men and women on the floats are throwing out bead-necklaces for them to catch. The crowd is competitive and after ten minutes trying, Ray, with Bridget on his shoulders, has failed to intercept one. Around him, huge men are festooned with fifteen, twenty, thirty necklaces. He wants to put his girl down, go fight for some jewellery, but Bridget is crying now.

Susan almost catches a pink dayglo necklace, but a large fat man wearing a Goofy hat has his hands on it too and they tussle. They lock eyes and Susan hangs on for a second, then lets go. Now Clem begins to cry and the family decide to leave carrying a slow, silent frustration. Ray feels angry, but then as they walk beside an artificial lake where the water has been dyed green, a group of teenagers passes and two of the teens break away from their group, smile to Susan, and offer the bare-necked kids two necklaces each. Susan and Ray are touched, and briefly they forget the large-fisted men in hats.

But they are tired and can't be bothered with a restaurant. They grab a take-away pizza and eat it in their room, the kids wasted, lying above the sheets, their necklaces precious beneath their pillows.

In the morning, breakfast at Denny's, (hash browns, bacon, two eggs easy-over). Over coffee they read, "Doctors Operate on Tiger Victim" and to the right, "Medina Still Fights to Save His Life." At the bottom of the page it says "Lake Student, 13, Found With Gun at Tavares Middle." And at the end of the article it says, "When officers pointed out the gun wasn't loaded, Hugo said he planned to 'hit someone upside the head with it.' "

Today they are going to Disney, The Magic Kingdom, Mickey Mouse.

Susan decides that Walter's World has taken surface to the ultimate. When they arrive, they travel on a fake paddle-steamer across an artificial lake, and look out at a man-made beach. She is almost surprised when the squawking seabirds turn out to have beating hearts. But Ray and the kids, love it. When they disembark, they walk a path of octagonal tiles all etched with families, Joe, Mary, Clint & Michelle, Chicago; Harry & Diane, Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Susan suspects the tiles are reconstituted, maybe even some kind of plastic.

But Ray doesn't care. He has decided he likes this, the shine, the neatness, the efficiency. The order impresses him, he sees no litter, and when they get inside the Magic Kingdom and stumble on Minnie Mouse dancing, Bridget is in raptures and Clem's eyes widen. Ray's seduction is complete, and Susan distracted. Despite herself, she forgets what's real, what cruel.

Susan tells herself the day, the morning, is for their children. They fly with Peter Pan, sail "It's a Small World", ride a horsed carousel, float between pirates and defensive castles, soar high over the magic Magic Kingdom in an aerial car, drive and bump throbbing racing cars, buy hats and balloons.

When it gets too hot, they pick up their children, carry them to the gates of the Kingdom, leave, find their car, and slip efficiently away.

That night's news doesn't contain a murder, just a grandmother mown down by a hit and run driver while she waited for a bus, two men drowned in Lake Orlando, trapped in their car, and news that three-hundred and fifty violent offenders, rapists and murderers are to be released from prison early. And a memorial service is announced, for an eighteen-year-old Canadian boy, held tomorrow at Daytona Beach. It's a year since he was shot, on the first day of his vacation. He had stopped to ring home.

Susan no longer quite hears these things. She feels not exactly a numbness but a kind of disbelief, as if she has stumbled into a badly written movie. But Ray has adapted. Now fascinated, he swallows the deaths, the gun-shots, the sirens. Now he sees the news as one step up in excitement from Miami Vice. Susan asks him to turn off the TV. She insists they watch no news while the children are awake.

They shop the next morning. Susan and Ray can't believe how cheap cars are, how cheap the petrol is. Ray calls it gas now. They browse stores selling sports kit at a quarter the price of home, and with variety, colour, so much choice that Ray is dizzy. They buy Star Wars toys for Clem, and Barbie dolls for Bridget, a small radio they will smuggle back into England, cases, books.

For lunch, another Red Lobster meal, wine, beer, chicken again for the kids. Susan is quiet but Ray swigs at his Bud and says, "When you get used to things, it's OK, isn't it? I could live here." Susan looks up at him. He is red with sunburn. Then she looks down at her meal. She doesn't answer. They go back to the hotel, down to the pool, and Ray tries again to teach his son to dive. He fails, but Clem is young and there's time, Susan says. The sun beats, the blue water shimmers, and three of the family are laughing. Whenever anyone looks at her Susan manages to smile.

They have five-day tickets for Universal Studios and in the evening Ray says why don't they go to the Mardi Gras again? He could get plenty of necklaces now, he says, now he knows the score. Susan says it's too hot, but he could take Clem maybe, or maybe go on his own? Ray is disappointed. He says that's not what holidays are about, they should be together.

"I'm tired," Susan says. Ray softens and says OK, they'll crash early. Later, when the children heavily sleep, he turns on the television and he hears of a child taken and eaten by an alligator while playing.

"Jesus Christ!" he says, "I thought they didn't attack people." Susan, her body turned to the wall, pretends to sleep.

"I'm hungry," Ray says, "You hungry?"

Susan grunts.

"How about a pizza?" Ray says.

He leaves her, goes out for a while.


In the car, cruising, oozing, the night black, the signs red and sharp, Ray plays the radio loud. He hears "Eye of the Tiger" and thinks of Rocky Balboa in sweats running through the market, loping up the steps. America suits him and he imagines anything is possible, starting with a cheap pepperoni pizza. He pulls in between a 7-11 and a Pizza Hut. There are maybe a dozen cars, people walking along the sidewalk. There's a low, friendly, amber light.

Susan sleeps. When Ray does not come home there is no click of the key in the lock. She does not hear him moving in the room. She does not roll over and say, "Hey, you were quick, love, did you get any garlic bread?" But then, sometime deep in the night she wakes, and suddenly she is full of fear.

When it is all finished, days, uniforms, an identification later, Susan White and her children are flown home by Virgin Airways. They are put upstairs in first-class, a management decision to protect them from intrusion. As they board the plane people are hushed but look and whisper. One or two women, mothers, feel tears coming. One man, in a Jaws T-shirt, swallows, clenches his fist at his side, and walks away quickly, towards the toilets. They all saw it on the news. Most have kept a copy of the Sentinel, packed flat in their suitcases.


In the hush before take-off the stewardesses flutter around the family and speak softly, kindly. The mother is very quiet, but that's to be expected. The stewardesses smile at Clem and smile at Bridget and as the jet taxis, they sit close by. The children sleep on the night flight back. They are wrapped in soft woollen blankets, and rest on tiny white pillows.

Tinkerbelle lands at Gatwick in the cool of an English spring morning. The family steps down - their luggage will be dealt with - and they are led away to somewhere private. Shortly they will be taken home in a luxury car, but then a soft-spoken man thinks of the children. Perhaps Mrs White would like something, perhaps Bridget and Clem might like a MacDonalds?

Susan White is wearing the darkest thing she could find but it is nowhere near black. The man is not unpleasant but when he speaks, his words cut deep into her and she sees him as suddenly ugly. She breathes, then speaks.

"No, she says, "no, not a MacDonald's. Please just take us home."


It takes thirty miles before the first tear comes. It swells, and when Susan blinks, it rolls down her cheek as she looks out at the passing fields, at little, ordinary England, at beech trees, elms, a village green. Susan had thought she would be stronger, but somewhere thirty miles from Gatwick she has heard Ray again, that last night. He was a little too excited, his voice pitched a fraction too high. He couldn't sleep he said, and he was hungry. He wanted to nip out and get something.

"How about a pizza?" Ray said. Susan was facing away from him. That afternoon she had noticed that his forehead and his nose were red where he had caught a little too much sun. He would need to be careful. She tried to remember, when she had told him, how she had raised her hand and touched his cheek.

She tried, but now, though she tried, she couldn't quite picture his face.

4,103 words.

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