Happy Faces

The heavy feeling coursed through her again and her heart started beating faster. The happy faces surrounding her seemed to be moving in slow motion in comparison to the inner chaos of her frantic thoughts. She deepened her intake of breath so that she could almost feel the weight of her own lungs swallowing oxygen and other peoples’ smoke. Closed her eyes and counted to ten, like she had practiced. Unwillingly reopened them and tried to focus on a tree by the roadside, on one branch on that tree, on one leaf on that branch on that tree. It seemed paper thin and ready to snap off and float away on the light breeze at any moment. How easy to be a leaf, she thought.

So, he was gone again. The air was full of orange and red. Bejewelled, masked figures threw their arms around wildly and dance-marched to the beat of speakers on crawling carnival floats. From the one ahead, a 5-piece band played joyous Caribbean rhythms whilst the next competed with some kind of frenetic blast of drum ‘n’ bass. The layers of sounds and lights clashed against one another as the happy faces dance-marched further. Moving, always moving, but where to? When this lawless procession stopped would the happy faces disappear too?

The crowd jostled forwards and she was moved along with them. Lights, music, dancing, glitter. Her senses were overloaded by the sheer movement of everything around her, it was nauseating.

Pushing through the clammy mass she reached the pavement and half-fell away from the thick plait of revellers, rebels and ravers. She was a loose thread that had become undone from the knit, intrinsically linked but neither needed nor wanted. Unlike the leaf she couldn’t snap off and float away.

Deep breaths. Count to ten. Walk away.

Turn left down a quiet street. Cut across the square. Straight ahead to the canal. She sat down at the edge where brick gave way to empty space and folded her feet beneath her.

How she craved stillness in this city of unrelenting activity. She felt as though she had been moving around a lot recently. But she had come to realise that moving didn’t always mean having a direction. It wasn’t just rivers that moved as they flowed to the sea. It wasn’t just trains that moved as they crossed invisible lines from here to there. Clock hands moved too, she considered, but were forever pinned to the same point and condemned to trace the same circle for eternity (if indeed there is still a 4 o’clock and half past 10 in eternity). Lifts moved, up and down, up and down according to the whims of external sources. Movement was restricted, movement was restricting. All she wanted was to be still.


She had moved to the city a year ago, for a man apparently. She had found a job and met interesting people, and she enjoyed moving with the city, too. That memory seemed so indistinct now that she couldn’t quite believe it had ever really happened.

At some point, he had decided to start living in a soap opera. He left a note on the kitchen table. Something about how she had changed since the move. Moving had changed her somehow. It was so utterly banal that she almost felt sorry for him.

She thought that she might enjoy her newly imposed freedom. Instead the thoughts in her mind became ever more frantic and she became ever more withdrawn from the interesting people. She had heard that Berlin was a great city for young people, there was always something going on. Sometimes she thought that she could become one of the happy faces too. In reality the constant cycle of things to do and people to see had become exhausting; the constant possibility and opportunity clashed until her mind was filled with a battle between joyous Caribbean rhythms and frenetic drum ‘n’ bass. Everything should have been perfect, but it was all circles and cycles, her thoughts growing on top of one another and consuming one another. It was all the wrong kind of movement.

Pins! and needles! She unfolded her legs and took out the notepad that accompanied her everywhere. She sucked on her pen lid for a couple of moments, then held the tip against the page and allowed words to spill out. Carnival, lights, music… And then that familiar face that had appeared between the bejewelled, masked figures. She had known he would be there. He always loved the carnival.

It hadn’t taken so long to find him, surprisingly. He seemed so happy, part of the mass in a way that she could never be. She had wanted to barge her way past the happy faces and tap him on the shoulder. How shocked he would be to see her again. How in awe of her newfound joie de vivre. Yes, she could be one of them too! She would tell him how ecstatically happy happy happy she was. Look at the glitter on my happy face! She had to move now or else she would lose him to the crowd again. But she couldn’t. The heavy feeling coursed through her again and her heart started beating faster…

It was a release to write it all down, transforming a subjective experience into objective ideas. Ideas that she could mould as she pleased. It was just words on a page, it wasn’t real. She wrote in her journal that she was a happy face too. Sometimes she thought she could still become one. She watched her pen curl around the page, the nib scraping the surface of the paper and leaving an ink trail behind. How easy to be a leaf, she thought again. Floating down to the ground; down, down, down. Round, round, round. She suddenly realised that she was drawing a spiral.

She lay back on the grass. There were no clouds in the sky. She cupped her hands around her eyes like blinkers, so that she could only see the bright blue above her. She breathed in deeply and made believe that everything was still.

by @annacjmackenzie