286 – The Afternoon

Cut out and keep--your very own Campfire Burning paper doll!

My sister has a bad back. The pain comes and goes, and though I’m in no doubt as to its severity it sometimes appears conveniently, as if summoned so she might escape doing something she doesn’t want to do.

That’s an opinion I’ve held for a long time. It’s wretched that I should feel this way–as well as being bad at so many other things I’m a bad brother to boot. I should be supportive, not cynical.

Because she lives in London and I was visiting there on Tuesday, we’d made plans to meet up. It could well have been the last opportunity we’d have to see each other for years, and we wanted to take advantage of that. But her back’s been playing up quite a bit this past week; every time she mentioned how bad the pain had become I’d rolling my eyes, thoroughly expected her to cancel our meeting.

If she’d known what I was doing, maybe she would have.

Soldiering on–a little crooked but upright nonetheless–I caught sight of her walking into Leicester Square, striding apart from the crowd. I’d come to London on important business I’d already wrapped up, and had spent the rest of the day walking to and fro, mentally mapping its streets, working out where everything was in proximity to everything else. Despite being a conspicuous landmark Leicester Square was in the throes of heavy construction work and difficult to navigate: blue boards blocked famous shops and attractions from sight; plastic netting looking like it had once held several gross of beer cans barricaded walkways; heavy machinery patrolled like robots, keeping humans away from the torn, heaped ground beyond.

Still, it was difficult not to spot her: bright red hair, pink boots with checker-board toes, earphones like an electro-shock therapy headset. She looked like an eighties New Wave album cover brought to life, owning the street.

Slightly stooped, she walked past without a second glance my way. I’ve changed, you see. I’ve had to.

I followed from a distance, wanting to be sure–as if there could be any doubt–that this was my little sister. It’s been a while since I last saw her. She’s dumpier than she was and wears a lot more make-up: her fingernails were beetle-blood orange and her face was crusted in powder. In some indefinable way she looks more like our mum than she used to–but then, I look more like our dad than I once did, too.

She stopped by a knot of Japanese tourists and looked for me, her radar skipping past twice before I smiled and waved and recognition hit.

“Let’s meet at Leicester Square,” she’d said some weeks earlier, over the phone. “Although it does get a bit busy. We should meet somewhere specific–what about M&M’s World? That sounds mental; I mean, what kind of pervert would make a world dedicated to M&Ms? Let’s meet there.”

So we met in front of M&M’s World, both of us looking older, both of us the same as we’d always been.

“I hardly recognised you!” she said. “Oh my God, I can’t believe you’re here!”

“I can’t believe it myself.” Then, looking around: “There are a lot of people, eh?”

“How’s your day been?”

“Oh, it’s been hell,” I said. “Total hell. But aside from that it hasn’t so bad.”

She laughed. “Where do you want to go? I have so much to show you! God, look at you–and look at this place!”

We looked at M&M’s World. It’s one of those strange places that doesn’t seem bound by the confines of its lot, where figures and other bits and bobs protrude, beckoning to tourists. Anthropomorphic M&Ms stood in the window, waving American and British flags; the doorway was a red double-decker bus with a busby-wearing M&M on the side; there were flashing lights . . .

We Burnings have always had a problem resisting flashing lights.

“Let’s go there,” I said.

“Are you sure? I’ve never been to M&M’s World before. It looks a bit scary.”

“It’ll be great,” I said, pointing to a slogan etched in the window. “Look, it has ‘four floors of fun’. Don’t you want to know how they’ve fill four floors with M&M-related shit?”

“M&M’s World it is!”

Once inside we were like kids in a candy store–if the candy store had been filled with utter bollocks and the kids had been easily amused. Though the place was busy–it’s amazing how many people are content to wander about a shrine to M&Ms as if it wasn’t an execrable piece of branding run amok–we were personally shadowed by security, guards from which appeared behind us at every step through the store, acting nonchalantly when we turned to spot them. The bag-for-life I’d brought with me was riddled with holes–one of my pens had poked through and scribbled over my trouser leg–so I’d hefted it onto my shoulder; it’s possible the guards thought I was going to shoplift, though what they thought I’d steal in such a place is beyond me.

Disappointingly there’s a dearth of M&Ms in M&M’s World. I’d hoped to see Crispy, Pretzel, even Festive Peppermint M&Ms for sale–M&M varieties from all around the world–but they only sold Chocolate and Peanut, in every colour of the rainbow.

“They’re all the same inside,” I said, snarky. Close by, a security guard glared and went on his way.

“If only they sold Smarties,” said my sister.

The uppermost floor sold jewelry for idiots. I don’t know what kind of person would have the money or inclination to spend hundreds of pounds on a jewel-encrusted M&M mirror, but I can guarantee they’d receive benefits for being partially-thoughted.

“M&M bling,” I said. “I don’t get it.”

A similarly vajazzled jacket–something Michael Jackson once wore in a commercial, perhaps–stood in a nearby display case. My sister made me assume the same pose next to it, taking pictures and cackling like the devil. She took a lot of photographs in the shop, something else that might have aroused the security guards’ suspicions. “I’ve got a mate who’s obsessed with the green lady M&M,” she said, snapping a glamorous centrefold-style green M&M calendar. “He thinks it’s disturbing. Disturbingly sexy, probably; he’s going to love it when I send him hundreds of pictures of her.”

The green lady M&M was everywhere, from key-chains to cushions. “Look at this!” she said, holding one up. “It’s just a mouth and eyes!”

“Reminds me of those Japanese anime pillows,” I said. “I bet there’s a fat spotty nerd on the Internet who’d love one of these for Christmas.”

“Oh God. What if he drilled a hole in it?” She nearly dropped it on the floor at the very thought.

(On one of the four floors of fun was a human-sized model of the green lady M&M. My sister took a couple shots of me trying to look down its blouse)

Despite the slogan at the door promising fun there was really very little of worth in M&M’s World, and very few of the people milling within were buying anything. Two greeters at the shop front tried to foist foldaway bags onto would-be customers as they entered; unanimously, the customers refused them.

Almost unanimously: we did see one man loaded up with tat on the way to the cashier. “He’s got a bucket, Campfire,” my sister whispered sotto voce. “A bucket! What’s wrong with him?”

M&Ms themselves were sold from a rainbow of perspex tubes each containing a single colour or blend of them. At the far end of the floor visitors could watch people working to mix certain M&Ms together to make orange and black Halloween Mix or red, white and blue British Mix–it put me in mind of watching hospital goldfish, swimming brainlessly among the sick.

Another floor was home to a device that claimed to match people to their perfect M&M colour. One chap–wearing a tilted back baseball cap, expensive-looking street clothes, a snarl on his lips and a swagger in his walk–took the hot spot in front of the camera. His friends watched on as the machine went through its spiel.

“Your colour is . . . dark pink,” it intoned, sending everyone watching into a fit of giggles.

The guy pimp-walked away from it, sucking his teeth and trying not to smile. “No it isn’t,” he said, rejoining his jeering mates. “That machine is broke.”

For all the figurines, t-shirts, bedspreads, posters, sunglasses, tea towels, pillows, and everything else with a picture of a sweet on it, we ended up not buying anything at M&M’s World. “I could murder a packet of Skittles,” I said, climbing the stairs toward the exit.

“Or Galaxy Minstrels,” said my sister.

“Or Vice-Versas.”

“Ooh, yes,” she said. “I wish they still made those. Much better than bloody M&Ms.”

Barring the way out, looking very much like a killer blood cell from Fantastic Voyage was a man in a red M&M costume. He was very much preoccupied with having his picture taken with a little girl; ensuring we wouldn’t be his next victims, my sister and I sidled around the bus at the entrance, found another exit to the side and–having learned from Orpheus’s mistake–fled the shop without looking back.

“So that was M&M’s World,” said my sister as we walked in the safe outdoors. “It was terrifying. Where do you want to go next?”

We went in search for a shop that sold board games (her initial barely-contained sneer of superiority softened during our visit, even becoming tempered with a little curiosity) then she took me through Chinatown, where she bought me a pork bun fresh from the steamer. Fluffy outside, dripping wantonly in the centre, it was terribly good.

In the end we spent too much time exploring London; I had to be back at Victoria coach station at five and my sister’s back had started playing up, so we couldn’t walk there together fast enough for me to catch the Megabus back home. “I could get the tube and you could walk,” she said, “but that would be stupid. I don’t want to split us up yet. We’ll catch the bus.”

So we did.

“You know, I’ll miss you,” she said on the ride to the station. I pulled out photographs I’d brought with me–pictures of myself, my wife and assorted family members which, in the end, hadn’t been needed–and gave them to her as keepsakes. “I know it sounds stupid because it’s not as if I get to see you anyway, but I wish we could do this again. Try and book your flight for at the weekend, so I can come and say goodbye. I know it costs more but still, if you can . . .”

Then she saw a picture of my youngest niece and I. “You’ll make a wonderful dad,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll ever have children–I mean look at me, I’m still a kid myself! But I tell you what: I’ll be the best damned aunt there ever was.”

We hugged goodbye at the station as the bus turned up, then she came out with me into the queue and hugged me again as one by one the people in front slung their luggage aboard and climbed to find their seats. I didn’t dare hug her too tightly for fear of hurting her back but she hugged me fiercely, as if she might never see me again.

The bus was too high and the station too busy, and I couldn’t spot her through my window to watch her wave me off. Once I was gone she’d hobble off to see another friend arrive at the station. She’s a popular girl, my sister, who complains that London’s too big and too ill-mannered but that some afternoons it’s more alive than any place else on the planet.

Slipping home under dusk, a few photographs less in my folder, I knew exactly how she felt.

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