THE BEST MEDICINE • by Rob Francis

Miranda wandered through the crowds along the Thames, trying to remember what happiness felt like. She was sure she’d experienced it before — brief moments, or perhaps something more — but now it was just a word, with no memories to give it form or meaning.

She drifted amongst the tourists as they watched the street entertainers, feeling only a leaden ache that seemed to slow her down and wear her out with each step. She felt small, diminished. Over the embankment wall Miranda glimpsed the river, and imagined again what it would be like for the thick, grey water to close over her head.

Miranda wondered where Simon was now, and whether he and the girl were happy. She knew the girl’s name — they had been friends for years before she stole Simon away — but chose not to think of it. Simon, Simon. Almost her husband. All those years together, all that shared life, burned for the girl.

Miranda saw a man rolling around the pavement in a giant metal hoop while wide-eyed children looked on, but the spectacle held no interest for her. She moved past, pushing her way through the throng.

A clown stepped in front of her.

She was tall — oddly tall, it seemed to Miranda — and wore a patchwork suit of bright, multicoloured cloth. Her upper face was covered by a fierce red mask, though beneath it the clown’s mouth was smiling.

“You worry too much,” she said. “Please, allow me.”

And from somewhere she drew a long slender stick lined with feathers, a great plume of them blooming at the end like a bouquet of flowers.

Miranda turned away, but the clown was already dusting her with the feathers, in her neglected hair, her neck, even under the hem of her unwashed dress.

She felt her face redden and stumbled away, mumbling, “No, no. I’m sorry,” under her breath, though she wasn’t sure what she was apologising for. People stepped aside to let her pass, and when she looked back, the clown was gone.

Harlequin, she thought. That kind of clown is called a harlequin. Though she wasn’t sure where that particular nugget of insight came from.

Feeling oddly ashamed and a little queasy, Miranda crossed to the Westminster tube entrance. Typical, she berated herself. I try to go out for a change, and what happens? I get attacked by a demented harlequin and her fucking tickle-stick. She smirked at herself, though it wasn’t funny, not really.

She rode the escalator down beneath the heavy earth, and remembered the looks on the people’s faces as they had parted for her. She must have made quite a sight. She snorted a half-laugh.

By the time she slipped her ticket in the turnstile, she was chuckling to herself. She didn’t stop all the way to the platform.

As Miranda boarded the train, she burst into laughter, though she was not sure why. She hadn’t laughed like that in years, ever since her carefree days at college. Tears rolled down her face and her belly ached, her side hurting as she shook.

People were looking at her, some with amusement and others with mild alarm.

The train rolled through the tunnel towards St James’s Park and she sucked in a breath, told herself to stop laughing and get a grip. What the hell was she laughing at, anyway? For some reason she thought of Simon, and then she roared again, doubling over like she was vomiting mirth across the carriage. Her stomach convulsed and she could hardly breathe.

Everyone was staring at her, open-mouthed.

When the train doors opened she ran out, racing up the stairs to the tube entrance, the pain spreading though her body, unable to draw breath, lights sparking in her vision.

Outside the station she staggered into a narrow street of perfume shops and boutiques, quiet in the late afternoon sun. She slumped against a wall and slid to the pavement. In the shop window Miranda saw her reflection, mascara running down her face with her tears so that she looked almost clownlike herself. Except that she hadn’t put on any make-up that morning.

She felt like she was on fire, and still she laughed. Something seemed to break inside her, yet the howls of hilarity continued. She was going to die.

And then it stopped.

Gradually the pain faded, leaving a tingling numbness. Miranda sat up. She felt scoured clean, burned through. The aching sadness she had carried everywhere with her was gone. She stood, marvelling at the variegated colours of the bricks in the walls, the glint of sunlight on storefront windows. It was like she’d never even seen these things before. What had happened?

The harlequin slipped into the street and Miranda watched her approach, her loping strides covering the distance between them in moments. She smiled, then knelt before her, holding up the feathered stick as she imagined a knight would his sword.

“A gift,” she said. “To use, and to pass on.”

Miranda took the stick, thrilling at the feel of the silken plumage that seemed to almost send sparks along her fingers.

The clown stood, bowed, and then cartwheeled away, leaving Miranda to rejoice at the shifting mosaic of beautiful colours she made against the drabness of the street, like a tropical bird fluttering in a cage.

For a moment Miranda basked in the sensations of the city, listening to the roar of people and traffic, scenting the subtle fragrance of perfumes from the shop doors.

Then she went to rejoin the crowds of strangers, stepping lightly as a child.

Rob Francis is an academic and writer based in London. He started to write speculative fiction in 2014 and since then has had around twenty stories published in various online magazines and anthologies, including SQ Mag, SpeckLit, Theme of Absence, Broadswords and Blasters, You Are Here: Tales of Cartographic Wonders, and right here at Every Day Fiction.

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