The tents went up every year in a field bordering the motorway. Not just plain white marquees, either, but soaring brightly-coloured jobs, like circus big tops.
No one had ever really noticed the fair before the opening of the motorway, but now everyone drove into Glasgow that way, and the buses had been redirected along it. Near the beginning of August, we saw the tents going up. Or, rather, we glimpsed images of them half-erected, noticed them when the site was seemingly complete, and then saw them, in stages, struck and removed. But we never observed any actual movement, never saw people working there, never noticed the fair in progress.
Once pitched, the site stayed there for a few days. Of course, it wasn’t easy to see anything when you were driving past at fifty miles an hour, but car and bus passengers likewise never saw anything going on. Jim, who had been leading Scripture Union camps every summer since they had been all-canvas affairs, suggested that the fair must happen after dark.
‘It doesn’t get dark till nearly ten at this time of year,’ said his wife, Bella.
‘I once got the last bus home once when the fair was up,’ said their daughter, Tracey. ‘It was dark then. The fair was lit up, but I didn’t see any people moving around.’
At first, we all assumed it to be a travellers’ event. ‘They’ll buy and sell horses there,’ Janice Jones said. She was a schoolteacher, had a loud voice, sounded convincing and got herself listened to. ‘The place is probably even harder to reach now that the motorway cuts off some of the approaches, so they’ll like the privacy.’
It was always dinner-party chatter – ‘I see the tents are going up for the fair’ – and then when social media became prominent, speculation about who ran the fair and what happened there went haywire. I was partly responsible for the mushrooming of chatter. My daughter, Anna, has a horse. Last August it was a bit wrong in the spine so we called in Jacob, the local ‘back man’. After he’d done his stuff (they always do it in secret, alone in the box with the horse) I recalled seeing the tents that day and asked, ‘Do you go to that fair up by the motorway?’
Jacob lit a fag, drew deeply on it, exhaled volcanic plumes of smoke and resumed counting the money I’d just handed him. ‘What fair’s that?’ he said, finally, his lips hardly moving.
‘You know, the one in the field by the motorway. The striped, coloured tents.’
He gave a harsh laugh. ‘Tents, you say? Us travellers are a bit beyond that kind of thing now.’
He agreed to ask around and next time he came back to the stables he told me it definitely wasn’t a travellers’ event. ‘A few folk have noticed it,’ he said, ‘but it’s not our people and none of us go there.’
And so the theories began. Ghosts, demons, souls in torment, zombies and everything in between. Dan, who was a retired cop, suggested that it might be a Nazareth, a market where criminals sold off their booty, but you surely wouldn’t advertise such a thing with candy-striped tents?
Late the following July I pulled out the local OS map, the 1:25,000 scale one. As you drove into the city, you passed on the right a scruffy, untended wood, and it was immediately after this that the tents appeared. On the map was a little blob of green that represented the wood, and true enough, just west was a large open space, shown as farmland, though it hadn’t been that for a long time. It was perhaps a couple of acres, roughly triangular. The motorway formed the southern boundary, a disused railway ran south west to north east and the third side was formed partly by the little wood and partly by a fence.
I checked on Google Earth. Even from space it looked scruffy. Over the fence on the north eastern side was tended farmland, and you could make out the ghostly dots of cows. There was no vehicle access to the site. How did they manage to get all the tents there?
Janice had contacts at the council. ‘They insist there’s no mystery. The rough ground, and the fields to the north east, are both owned by Barrway, the housebuilders.’
‘They own a lot of land in the green belt,’ said Jim. ‘They hang on to it until there are councillors and officials who’ll accept a bulging brown envelope.’
‘Aye,’ said Joseph, a local builder, ‘and then before ye know it the whole place will be covered in four-apartments with monoblocked driveways and barely six feet between houses, the wood will be felled for a motorway slip-road and do you know what? I won’t get any of the work.’
A bunch of us had met in the local Costa and were setting the world to rights.
‘What did the council say about the fair?’
Janice shrugged. ‘They claim not to know anything about it. Just said that no one has permission for an event there.’
Everyone dwindled away and only Joseph and I were left.
‘Give’s a look at that map again,’ he said. He studied it for a bit and said, ‘Why not sort this out once and for all? It’s Sunday tomorrow – neither of us are working. Let’s walk over to that fair and see what’s going on.’
I tilted my head to one side, a habit I have when thinking.
‘Could do. Just the two of us?’
‘My lad’ll be dead keen to come.’ Joseph’s son Ryan was sixteen. ‘He’ll think it’s some kind of Harry Potter quest.’ He returned to the map. ‘I’d not be happy leaving the car in the middle of nowhere but the bus will drop us here,’ and he stabbed the map where a minor road made a junction with the route to the motorway, ‘and we’re just a couple of fields from the fair. Getting through the hedges and over the fences will be a job, I bet you, but the people at the fair get there somehow. There must be a way.’
‘I suppose so. Not if it’s raining, though.’
‘OK, Indiana Jones, not if it’s raining…’
On Sunday we waited until after eight, so that it was beginning to gloom over. It had been cloudy all day and it looked as if it might rain. We were all dressed in dull hoodies and dark jeans or trackies, like a very non-elite special force. When the bus left us and growled away there was still some traffic heading for the motorway but standing by the edge of the road we felt very isolated.
‘Let’s go, then,’ said Joseph.
It was a midgey evening and we often stopped for a good scratch; the horrid creatures have a talent for getting right through your hair to the scalp and hoodies are no defence. Some of the trees were starting to rust and there was a chill in the air which I hoped would eventually send the midges to roost, if midges roosted. We followed an overgrown track, barging through ragwort and thistles and squeezed through a hawthorn hedge gone so wild that there were gaps between spindly trunks. Beyond the hedge we splattered through liquid mud, and then climbed a fence. Dark shapes formed in the gloom, and lumbered towards us. We were a field of cattle. There was a squelch and Ryan squealed at having trod right in a cowpat. It wouldn’t be the last.
The field rose steadily in the direction of the fair, and the boundary fence was at the highest point. As we neared the fence I was conscious of the soft darkness of the little wood on the left and the buzz of distant motorway traffic. And then we reached the top of the hill, looked over the fence and into a bowl of light.
The whole site seemed to be illuminated – it wasn’t clear how, or by what – and each of the tents was independently lit from within, and each one stood magically, like a birthday cake with candles. Beyond, indifferent, the traffic on the motorway droned on. Other than that, there was no sound. There was no movement.
Who was this fairground for? What were they doing? And where were they? The fair tingled and blazed with light but we could see nothing moving.
And then something did move. Between the fair and the fence, two shapes staggered, fitfully and crazily, towards us. I felt those on either side of me tense. And then Ryan said, ‘That’s Danny and Speeto. They’re in my class at school.’
The two boys seemed to be in the last stages of exhaustion or perhaps fright. They came up to the fence, gasping, their breath forming great ectoplasmic plumes in the darkening sky. Joseph and I hauled them over the fence by hooking our hands under their arms. They slumped flat on the tussocky grass.
They couldn’t really speak. Ryan and I helped them back to their feet and began to lead them towards the road. Joseph paused, looking down into the valley of ghostly light with something like longing. Then he turned away and came back with us.
It took an hour to get to the road junction and still we could get no sense out of the boys. They walked like automatons, often tripping or just missing their footing. When we finally reached the junction we were muddy and wet and had leaves and twigs sticking to our clothes and hair. Joseph had phoned for a taxi (and what a trial he’d had describing the remote corner of a motorway access road we were to be picked up from) and before long it arrived.
The driver climbed out and looked at Danny and Speeto. ‘They’re no drunk, are they? Or worse? I’ll no have anybody throwing up in my car.’
‘They’re not well. We want to go to A and E at the Royal.’
‘Ferr enough, but let me get some sacking from the boot. I’ll put it on the seats before you manky lot sit doon.’
We spent most of that night in A and E, just waiting while the obviously serious cases were attended to and the plaintive drunks wandered about wondering why they weren’t being seen. Finally, one after the other, the boys were treated. There was nothing wrong with them. They’d just had a fright.
No harm done, really, since school didn’t start for a couple of days. Their parents were grateful and so pleased to have their boys back that they weren’t at all curious why we had been in that cursed place. I had worried they might have thought we’d taken them there. Then I phoned the police.
The parents of the boys weren’t pleased about this, but in any case neither of them could remember anything besides having decided to go and crash the fair. What had happened to them there, they simply couldn’t remember. Possibly, they chose not to.
‘Let’s sort this out once and for all,’ said the policeman. ‘We’ll go there, we’ll go to this place and speak to whoever runs this thing.’
‘Can I come?’ I said.
He thought for a moment. ‘Ach, might as well. You’re a witness, after all, though I doubt if any actual crime has been committed.’
So, after work on the Monday a police car picked me up at the house. We drove through town in the darkening, past the sad loneliness of deserted Monday night takeaway joints and darkened shops and homeless people cowering in doorways. We gathered speed once we were in open country on the motorway access road. Then we turned right at the junction where the bus had dropped us, stopping just a few hundred yards along the minor road. We all climbed out. The policemen began changing into wellies retrieved from the boot.
‘I did request the helicopter,’ said the sergeant who was in charge, ‘but they just laughed at me.’
We set off on the route that was so familiar to me, under familiar conditions; we quickly grew warm and sweaty and scratched furiously at the midges. The climb up the field seemed mountainous and steep but finally we could hear the distant whooshing of traffic on the motorway. The sergeant’s flashlight played on the wire strands of the fence at the top of the hill and we sped up for the last few yards.
I looked back down into the shallow glen of the fair. There was nothing. Just rank, late summer grass and reeds and docks and ragwort.
We climbed unsteadily over the fence and followed the white cone of the sergeant’s torch beam. The ragwort and the reeds grew tall and strong. The ground, boggy here and there, was firm and unmarked by tyre tracks or the outline of newly-struck tents.
We didn’t say anything. However, when we were back at the car, and the policemen were squeezing out of their wellies again, the sergeant said, ‘I’m not submitting a report for this. There was nothing to see, we saw nothing, there’s no crime been committed, there’s nothing there. Perhaps there never was.’
I started to protest, but caught myself just as I was about to speak. I needed a lift back to town, after all.
With the tents gone, all the talk and speculation and social media frenzy ceased. ‘Until next year,’ Jim said.
But that February we saw from the motorway that the greenbelt was being turned into a brown dustbowl. Barrway Homes had begun excavating the fairground and the fields, the latter now emptied of cows; then they began felling the trees in the little wood. Some palms had been greased, it was clear, and a little mystery and magic had gone out of the world.
Once the houses are built, I don’t think many people from our neighbourhood will want to move there.
David McVey lectures at New College Lanarkshire in Scotland. He has published over 120 short stories and a great deal of non-fiction that focuses on history and the outdoors. He enjoys hillwalking (ie hiking), visiting historic sites, reading, watching telly (ie TV), and supporting his home-town football (ie soccer) team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC.