A little boy dragged back against his grandmother’s firm grasp of his wrist. He seemed reluctant to enter the high shining gates, to join the celebratory crowds, to immerse himself in the bright, insistent music. I mentally placed him as one of these shy children, happier to spend a quiet day in the woods than to participate in noise, heat and fun.
“Oh, come on, Neville,” the grandmother said, tugging querulously at him again. “I’ve paid good money for this and you’re going to love it. Joyfullest place on the planet, they call it.”
I met little Neville’s eye. Without diminishing my beaming smile I shot him a look of sympathy, and he relaxed his backward pull enough for his grandmother to drag him along with the queue.
“Granny?” he said. “Granny? Why is she smiling?”
The woman glanced round at me. “Well, because she’s happy, of course. It’s a magical place, and she’s a magical princess, Snow White or something. So of course she’s smiling. Let’s start off with an ice-cream, then you can tell me what you want to do first.”
“Can we get one for her?” Neville asked, indicating me.
“All right, if you want, but I don’t suppose they’re allowed.”
“Would you like an ice-cream?” Neville asked me.
“No, thank you,” I beamed.
“I—I’m not hungry right now,” I lied. “Have a totally magical day.”
“Why are you smiling?”
I smile because I need to pay the rent. Because I need to eat. Because I dropped out of theatre school when my uncle’s business went bust, and I can’t go home without facing, all over again, the reasons I had to leave.
“What’s your name?” Neville asked, giving up on his last question.
“No,” he frowned. “Not the pretend name. What’s your real name?”
“I’m Cinderella in more ways than one,” I said lightly. At the end of my shift, face aching, feet swollen, dress soaked with sweat and smeared with candyfloss and children’s body fluids, I would face two hours of cleaning and laundering, raking out the cinders of the day’s magic and fantasy.
Your cheek muscles improve, with time, and you can even get promoted to a supervisory role over the newer recruits. You have some good ideas for cutting costs, for improving peripheral sales or raising customer satisfaction figures, and your acting talents stand you in good stead until you no longer require them. One way and another, by the end of twelve years I earned a good wage. I had a daughter of my own, just old enough to thoroughly enjoy the world of fairytale fantasy for herself. It all seemed worth the struggle, observing her innocent belief in the magic of make-believe, granting her constant greed for costumes and candies. My little Helena-Jo already saw herself as part of the theme park, in the role of a sort of mini-celebrity, posing in fancy dress for everything from adverts to customers’ selfies. Maybe I could find some vicarious fulfilment of my half-forgotten childhood ambitions through my daughter’s successes. Helena-Jo disported herself with a sort of coy brashness, a knowingly infantile demeanour that deserved to become a brand in itself. Even her tantrums had power to charm: one of them very nearly went viral on social media.
“Life is good,” I said, zipping my little VIP into a new Thumbelina costume.
“I’m good,” Helena-Jo retorted, sticking her tongue out at me.
“Sure, princess,” I replied. “Now, do please stay with Samurai Girl and don’t go off in the crowds.”
“I hate Sammai Girl,” Helena-Jo lisped. “She’s a poopy-face.”
“I know, honey, but I’m ever so busy today. I’m doing the training session with those new costume workers.” The temporary summer employees, bane of my life, took half a day’s training and often lasted less than a week.
“What I want to see is a positive attitude,” I instructed this new group. “No excuses. Never stop smiling even when your feet are blistered and your head’s splitting. And commitment, of course, After you clock off, you stick around, pitch in and help with cleanup. Be professionals. Go over and above.”
“Do you pay us over and above if we do?” someone asked.
“Do you want this job?” I countered, and she fell silent.
“Twelve years ago,” I told them, “I was standing where you are now. I didn’t get where I am today by complaining or giving up. I stayed on my feet, smiling through everything from flu to fallen arches. And you can too if you’ve got what it takes. This is an amazing little world of magic and fantasies, and you are here to make the dreams of little children come true.”
“May I ask what were your childhood dreams?” one of the trainees asked—a nice-looking boy, name-tagged Nev, one I had already mentally registered as a possible costume-companion for Helena-Jo’s Pirate Girl outfit.
“I—I wanted to be an actress,” I found myself admitting, with a feeling of surprise—a sense of reopening things forgotten. “Why do you ask?” I added sharply.
Nev shrugged. “Excuse me. The habit of curiosity; I’m studying journalism.”
“Well, you won’t be doing any journalism here,” I said briskly. “You’re in for a busy summer. Sixty hours a week on shift, plus your preparation and takedown tasks. The work ethic we look for is a willingness to sacrifice physical comfort and wellbeing for the benefit of our customers. And this is a business model that really works: profits are rising every year, and there are good prospects for those of you who stay with us.”
“Survival of the fittest,” Nev remarked helpfully.
“Yes. Absolutely!” I mentally added this to my repertoire for future pep-talks.
As I had hoped, Helena-Jo liked Nev and expressed herself happy to stay by him the following weekend while he manned the Pirate Ship, our newest and most popular feature.
“I gonna have my own ship when I’m all growed up,” I heard her telling him. At eight years old, she used words like “growed” for cuteness rather than necessity. Everyone found it adorable.
“A pirate ship?” Nev inquired almost absent-mindedly. I paused to listen, making a mental note to speak to Nev later. Helena-Jo should receive better-quality interaction, full attention, proper validation and praise.
“A princess ship. I gonna be a princess. And you gonna be a prince in my palace.”
“Oh, I’m not a prince. I’m going to be something much more ordinary.”
Helena-Jo usually hated a contradiction, but curiosity took over: “What are you then?”
“An investigative journalist.”
“A vestative gerbil?” I could hear her trying to charm him, but he seemed devoid of normal sentiment.
“Someone who finds out about injustices and makes documentaries about it.”
“What’s justices?” Helena-Jo didn’t want to know. She just needed more attention.
“Injustices? Unfair things that happen.”
“Like what fings?”
“Like...” Nev paused. “Like workers being paid below minimum wage, or not allowed to take proper breaks.”
“I can take bakes. Cos I’m portant. You can’t.”
I gasped. Turning and rounding the plastic prow, I came back to face Nev, eye to eye.
“Go to my office,” I ordered. My voice shook with rage, but he moved slowly, almost casually, showing neither fear nor shame.
“Honey,” I said to Helena-Jo, “you come back to Reception and sit with Lee for a bit.”
Helena-Jo can always tell when she loses the limelight. She began to jump up and down. “I don’t wanna! I don’t wanna! I hate Lee! Lee made of poo and pee!”
“Please, princess,” I begged. “I’ll get you a present. A big present.”
Pouting, she came along. I settled her with an ice-cream in the ticket office, then went to settle with Nev.
“Well?” I said, once inside my office.
He met my eye calmly, too calmly, and I finally recognised that feeling I got from him: the sense of someone watching me, someone who had seen me before.
“Who are you?” I asked harshly.
“Nobody,” he said. “Nobody as yet. This job—I was doing this place for my senior thesis. The joyfullest place on the planet.”
“So where have I seen you before?”
“Oh, I was dragged in here as a child. I remember seeing this frightened, lonely Cinderella desperately trying to smile. I read that story again when I got home, and I found I really had seen Cinderella in the flesh.”
“So?” I said. “I’m not Cinderella any more. Am I?”
“No,” he answered. “You’re not Cinderella now. You’re Lady Tremaine.”
“Leave,” I told him, “before I call security.”
He left, and I have never seen him since. I took an iced tea and wandered out among the reassuring scene of my success in life, my magic domain. But everywhere around me I saw Cinderellas, graciously greeting and serving, gracefully picking up litter, smiling by rule at the shrill, demanding children and the parents who had paid for fairy stories and would take nothing less.