The Ball Room

Im not employed by the store. They don’t pay my wages. I’m with a security firm, but we’ve had a contract here for a long time, and I’ve been here for most of it. This is where I know people. I’ve been a guard in other places—still am, occasionally, on short notice—and until recently I would have said this was the best place I’d been. It’s nice to work somewhere people are happy to go. Until recently, if anyone asked me what I did for a living, I’d just tell them I worked for the store.


It’s on the outskirts of town, a huge metal warehouse. Full of a hundred little fake rooms, with a single path running through them, and all the furniture we sell made up and laid out so you can see how it should look. Then the same products, disassembled, packed flat and stacked high in the warehouse for people to buy. They’re cheap.


Mostly I know I’m just there for show. I wander around in my uniform, hands behind my back, making people feel safe, making the merchandise feel protected. It’s not really the kind of stuff you can shoplift. I almost never have to intervene.


The last time I did was in the ball room.


* * *


On weekends this place is just crazy. So full it’s hard to walk: all couples and young families. We try to make things easier for people. We have a cheap café and free parking, and most important of all we have a crèche. It’s at the top of the stairs when you first come in. And right next to it, opening out from it, is the ball room.


The walls of the ball room are almost all glass, so people in the store can look inside. All the shoppers love watching the children: there are always people outside, staring in with big dumb smiles. I keep an eye on the ones that don’t look like parents.


It’s not very big, the ball room. Just an annexe really. It’s been here for years. There’s a climbing frame all knotted up around itself, and a net made of rope to catch you, and a Wendy house, and pictures on the walls. And it’s full of colour. The whole room is two feet deep in shiny plastic balls.


When the children fall, the balls cushion them. The balls come up to their waists, so they wade through the room like people in a flood. The children scoop up the balls and splash them all over each other. They’re about the size of tennis balls, hollow and light so they can’t hurt. They make little pudda-thudda noises bouncing off the walls and the kids’ heads, making them laugh.


I don’t know why they laugh so hard. I don’t know what it is about the balls that makes it so much better than a normal playroom, but they love it in there. Only six of them are allowed at a time, and they queue up for ages to get in. They get twenty minutes inside. You can see they’d give anything to stay longer. Sometimes, when it’s time to go, they howl, and the friends they’ve made cry, too, at the sight of them leaving.


I was on my break, reading, when I was called to the ball room.


I could hear shouting and crying from around the corner, and as I turned it I saw a crowd of people outside the big window. A man was clutching his son and yelling at the childcare assistant and the store manager. The little boy was about five, only just old enough to go in. He was clinging to his dad’s trouser leg, sobbing.


The assistant, Sandra, was trying not to cry. She’s only nineteen herself.


The man was shouting that she couldn’t do her bloody job, that there were way too many kids in the place and they were completely out of control. He was very worked up and he was gesticulating exaggeratedly, like in a silent movie. If his son hadn’t anchored his leg he would have been pacing around.


The manager was trying to hold her ground without being confrontational. I moved in behind her, in case it got nasty, but she was calming the man down. She’s good at her job.


“Sir, as I said, we emptied the room as soon as your son was hurt, and we’ve had words with the other children—”


“You don’t even know which one did it. If you’d been keeping an eye on them, which I imagine is your bloody job, then you might be a bit less…sodding ineffectual.”


That seemed to bring him to a halt and he quieted down, finally, as did his son, who was looking up at him with a confused kind of respect.


The manager told him how sorry she was, and offered his son an ice cream. Things were easing down, but as I started to leave I saw Sandra crying. The man looked a bit guilty and tried to apologise to her, but she was too upset to respond.


The boy had been playing behind the climbing frame, in the corner by the Wendy house, Sandra told me later. He was burrowing down into the balls till he was totally covered, the way some children like to. Sandra kept an eye on the boy but she could see the balls bouncing as he moved, so she knew he was okay. Until he came lurching up, screaming.


The store is full of children. The little ones, the toddlers, spend their time in the main crèche. The older ones, eight or nine or ten, they normally walk around the store with their parents, choosing their own bedclothes or curtains, or a little desk with drawers or whatever. But if they’re in between, they come back for the ball room.


They’re so funny, moving over the climbing frame, concentrating hard. Laughing all the time. They make each other cry, of course, but usually they stop in seconds. It always gets me how they do that: bawling, then suddenly getting distracted and running off happily.


Sometimes they play in groups, but it seems like there’s always one who’s alone. Quite content, pouring balls onto balls, dropping them through the holes of the climbing frame, dipping into them like a duck. Happy but playing alone.


Sandra left. It was nearly two weeks after that argument, but she was still upset. I couldn’t believe it. I started talking to her about it, and I could see her fill up again. I was trying to say that the man had been out of line, that it wasn’t her fault, but she wouldn’t listen.


“It wasn’t him,” she said. “You don’t understand. I can’t be in there anymore.”


I felt sorry for her, but she was overreacting. It was out of all proportion. She told me that since the day that little boy got upset, she couldn’t relax in the ball room at all. She kept trying to watch all the children at once, all the time. She became obsessed with double-checking the numbers.


“It always seems like there’s too many,” she said. “I count them and there’s six, and I count them again and there’s six, but it always seems there’s too many.”


Maybe she could have asked to stay on and only done duty in the main crèche, managing name tags, checking the kids in and out, changing the tapes in the video, but she didn’t even want to do that. The children loved that ball room. They went on and on about it, she said. They would never have stopped badgering her to be let in.


*  *  *


They’re little kids, and sometimes they have accidents. When that happens, someone has to shovel all the balls aside to clean the floor, then dunk the balls themselves in water with a bit of bleach.


This was a bad time for that. Almost every day, some kid or other seemed to pee themselves. We kept having to empty the room to sort out little puddles.


“I had every bloody one of them over playing with me, every second, just so we’d have no problems,” one of the nursery workers told me. “Then after they left . . . you could smell it. Right by the bloody Wendy house, where I’d have sworn none of the little buggers had got to.”


His name was Matthew. He left a month after Sandra. I was amazed. I mean, you can see how much they love the children, people like them. Even having to wipe up dribble and sick and all that. Seeing them go was proof of what a tough job it was. Matthew looked really sick by the time he quit, really grey.


I asked him what was up, but he couldn’t tell me. I’m not sure he even knew.


You have to watch those kids all the time. I couldn’t do that job. Couldn’t take the stress. The children are so unruly, and so tiny. I’d be terrified all the time, of losing them, of hurting them.


There was a bad mood to the place after that. We’d lost two people. The main store turns over staff like a motor, of course, but the crèche normally does a bit better. You have to be qualified, to work in the crèche, or the ball room. The departures felt like a bad sign.


I was conscious of wanting to look after the kids in the store. When I did my walks I felt like they were all around me. I felt like I had to be ready to leap in and save them any moment. Everywhere I looked, I saw children. And they were as happy as ever, running through the fake rooms and jumping on the bunkbeds, sitting at the desks that had been laid out ready. But now the way they ran around made me wince, and all our furniture, which meets or exceeds the most rigorous international standards for safety, looked like it was lying in wait to injure them. I saw head wounds in every coffee-table corner, burns in every lamp.


I went past the ball room more than usual. Inside was always some harassed-looking young woman or man trying to herd the children, and them running through a tide of bright plastic that thudded every way as they dived into the Wendy house and piled up balls on its roof. The children would spin around to make themselves dizzy, laughing.


It wasn’t good for them. They loved it when they were in there, but they emerged so tired and crotchety and teary. They did that droning children’s cry. They pulled themselves into their parents’ jumpers, sobbing, when it was time to go. They didn’t want to leave their friends.


Some children were coming back week after week. It seemed to me their parents ran out of things to buy. After a while they’d make some token purchase like tea lights and just sit in the café, drinking tea and staring out of the window at the grey flyovers while their kids got their dose of the room. There didn’t look like much that was happy to these visits.


The mood infected us. There wasn’t a good feeling in the store. Some people said it was too much trouble, and we should close the ball room. But the management made it clear that wouldn’t happen.


You can’t avoid night shifts.


There were three of us on that night, and we took different sections. Periodically we’d each of us wander through our patch, and between times we’d sit together in the staffroom or the unlit café and chat and play cards, with all sorts of rubbish flashing on the mute TV.


My route took me outside, into the front car lot, flashing my torch up and down the tarmac, the giant store behind me, with shrubbery around it black and whispery, and beyond the barriers the roads and night cars, moving away from me.


Inside again and through bedrooms, past all the pine frames and the fake walls. It was dim. Half-lights in all the big chambers full of beds never slept in and sinks without plumbing. I could stand still and there was nothing, no movement and no noise.


One time, I made arrangements with the other guards on duty, and I brought my girlfriend to the store. We wandered hand in hand through all the pretend rooms like stage sets, trailing torchlight. We played house like children, acting out little moments—her stepping out of the shower to my proffered towel, dividing the paper at the breakfast bar. Then we found the biggest and most expensive bed, with a special mattress that you can see nearby cut in cross-section.


After a while, she told me to stop. I asked her what the matter was, but she seemed angry and wouldn’t say. I led her out through the locked doors with my swipe card and walked her to her car, alone in the lot, and I watched her drive away. There’s a long one-way system of ramps and roundabouts to leave the store, which she followed, unnecessarily, so it took a long time before she was gone. We don’t see each other anymore.


In the warehouse, I walked between metal shelf units thirty feet high. My footsteps sounded to me like a prison guard’s. I imagined the flat-packed furniture assembling itself around me.


I came back through kitchens, following the path towards the café, up the stairs into the unlit hallway. My mates weren’t back: there was no light shining off the big window that fronted the silent ball room.


It was absolutely dark. I put my face up close to the glass and stared at the black shape I knew was the climbing frame; the Wendy house, a little square of paler shadow, was adrift in plastic balls. I turned on my torch and shone it into the room. Where the beam touched them, the balls leapt into clown colours, and then the light moved and they went back to being black.


In the main crèche, I sat on the assistant’s chair, with a little half-circle of baby chairs in front of me. I sat like that in the dark, and listened to no noise. There was a little bit of lamplight, orangey through the windows, and once every few seconds a car would pass, just audible, way out on the other side of the parking lot.


I picked up the book by the side of the chair and opened it in torchlight. Fairy tales. Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella.


There was a sound.


A little soft thump.


I heard it again.


Balls in the ball room, falling onto each other.


I was standing instantly, staring through the glass into the darkness of the ball room. Pudda-thudda, it came again. It took me seconds to move, but I came close up to the window with my torch raised. I was holding my breath, and my skin felt much too tight.


My torch beam swayed over the climbing frame and out the window on the other side, sending shadows into the corridors. I directed it down into those bouncy balls, and just before the beam hit them, while they were still in darkness, they shivered and slid away from each other in a tiny little trail. As if something was burrowing underneath.


My teeth were clenched. The light was on the balls now, and nothing was moving.


I kept that little room lit for a long time, until the torchlight stopped trembling. I moved it carefully up and down the walls, over every part, until I let out a big dumb hiss of relief because I saw that there were balls on the top of the climbing frame, right on its edge, and I realised that one or two of them must have fallen off, bouncing softly among the others.


I shook my head and my hand swung down, the torchlight going with it, and the ball room went back into darkness. And as it did, in the moment when the shadows rushed back in, I felt a brutal cold, and I stared at the little girl in the Wendy house, and she stared up at me.


The other two guys couldn’t calm me down.


They found me in the ball room, yelling for help. I’d opened both doors and I was hurling balls out into the crèche and the corridors, where they rolled and bounced in all directions, down the stairs to the entrance, under the tables in the café.


At first I’d forced myself to be slow. I knew that the most important thing was not to scare the girl any more than she must have been already. I’d croaked out some daft, would-be cheerful greeting, come inside, shining the torch gradually towards the Wendy house, so I wouldn’t dazzle her, and I’d kept talking, whatever nonsense I could muster.


When I realised she’d sunk down again beneath the balls, I became all jokey, trying to pretend we were playing hide-and-seek. I was horribly aware of how I might seem to her, with my build and my uniform, and my accent.


But when I got to the Wendy house, there was nothing there.


“She’s been left behind!” I kept screaming, and when they understood they dived in with me and scooped up handfuls of the balls and threw them aside, but the two of them stopped long before me. When I turned to throw more of the balls away, I realised they were just watching me.


They wouldn’t believe she’d been in there, or that she’d got out. They told me they would have seen her, that she’d have had to come past them. They kept telling me I was being crazy, but they didn’t try to stop me, and eventually I cleared the room of all the balls, while they stood and waited for the police I’d made them call.


The ball room was empty. There was a damp patch under the Wendy house, which the assistants must have missed.


*  *  *


For a few days, I was in no state to come in to work. I was fevered. I kept thinking about her.


I’d only seen her for a moment, till the darkness covered her. She was five or six years old. She looked washed out, grubby and bleached of colour, and cold, as if I saw her through water. She wore a stained T-shirt, with the picture of a cartoon princess on it.


She’d stared at me with her eyes wide, her face clamped shut. Her grey, fat little fingers had gripped the edge of the Wendy house.


The police had found no one. They’d helped us clear up the balls and put them back in the ball room, and then they’d taken me home.


I can’t stop wondering if it would have made any difference to how things turned out, if anyone had believed me. I can’t see how it would. When I came back to work, days later, everything had already happened.


After you’ve been in this job a while, there are two kinds of situations you dread.


The first one is when you arrive to find a mass of people, tense and excited, arguing and yelling and trying to push each other out of the way and calm each other down. You can’t see past them, but you know they’re reacting ineptly to something bad.


The second one is when there’s a crowd of people you can’t see past, but they’re hardly moving, and nearly silent. That’s rarer, and invariably worse.


The woman and her daughter had already been taken away. I saw the whole thing later on security tape.


It had been the little girl’s second time in the ball room in a matter of hours. Like the first time, she’d sat alone, perfectly happy, singing and talking to herself. Her minutes were up, her mother had loaded her new garden furniture into the car and come to take her home. She’d knocked on the glass and smiled, and the little girl had waded over happily enough, until she realised that she was being summoned.


On the tape you can see her whole body language change. She starts sulking and moaning, then suddenly turns and runs back to the Wendy house, plonking herself among the balls. Her mother looks fairly patient, standing at the door and calling for her, while the assistant stands with her. You can see them chatting.


The little girl sits by herself, talking into the empty doorway of the Wendy house, with her back to the adults, playing some obstinate, solitary final game. The other kids carry on doing their thing. Some are watching to see what happens.


Eventually, her mother yells at her to come. The girl stands and turns round, facing her across the sea of balls. She has one in each hand, her arms down by her sides, and she brings them up and stares at them, and at her mother. I won’t, she’s saying, I heard later. I want to stay. We’re playing.


She backs into the Wendy house. Her mother strides over to her and bends in the doorway for a moment. She has to get down on all fours to get inside. Her feet stick out.


There’s no sound on the tape. It’s when you see all the children jerk, and the assistant run, that you know the woman has started to scream.


The assistant later told me that when she tried to rush forward, it seemed as if she couldn’t get through the balls, as if they’d become heavy. The children were all getting in her way. It was bizarrely, stupidly difficult to cross the few feet to the Wendy house, with other adults in her wake.


They couldn’t get the mother out of the way, so between them they lifted the house into the air over her, tearing its toy walls apart.


The child was choking.


Of course, of course the balls are designed to be too big for anything like this to happen, but somehow she had shoved one far inside her mouth. It should have been impossible. It was too far, wedged too hard to prise out. The little girl’s eyes were huge, and her feet and knees kept turning inward towards each other.


You see her mother lift her up and beat her upon the back, very hard. The children are lined against the wall, watching.


One of the men manages to get the mother aside, and raises the girl for the Heimlich manoeuvre. You can’t see her face too clearly on the tape, but you can tell that it is very dark now, the colour of a bruise, and her head is lolling.


Just as he has his arms about her, something happens at the man’s feet, and he slips on the balls, still hugging her to him. They sink together.


They got the children into another room. Word went through the store, of course, and all the absent parents came running. When the first arrived she found the man who had intervened screaming at the children while the assistant tried desperately to quiet him. He was demanding they tell him where the other little girl was, who’d come close and chattered to him as he tried to help, who’d been getting in his way.


That’s one of the reasons we had to keep going over the tape, to see where this girl had come from, and gone. But there was no sign of her.


Of course, I tried to get transferred, but it wasn’t a good time in the industry, or in any industry. It was made pretty clear to me that the best way of holding on to my job was to stay put.


The ball room was closed, initially during the inquest, then for “renovation,” and then for longer while discussions went on about its future. The closure became unofficially indefinite, and then officially so.


Those adults who knew what had happened (and it always surprised me, how few did) strode past the room with their toddlers strapped into pushchairs and their eyes grimly on the showroom trail, but their children still missed the room. You could see it when they came up the stairs with their parents. They’d think they were going to the ball room, and they’d start talking about it, and shouting about the climbing frame and the colours, and when they realised it was closed, the big window covered in brown paper, there were always tears.


Like most adults I turned the locked-up room into a blind spot. Even on night shifts when it was still marked on my route I’d turn away. It was sealed up, so why would I check it? Particularly when it still felt so terrible in there, a bad atmosphere as tenacious as stink. There are little card swipe units we have to use to show that we’ve covered each area, and I’d do the one by the ball room door without looking, staring at the stacks of new catalogues at the top of the stairs. Sometimes I’d imagine I could hear noises behind me, soft little pudda-thuddas, but I knew it was impossible so there was no point even checking.


It was strange to think of the ball room closed for good. To think that those were the last kids who’d ever get to play there.


One day I was offered a big bonus to stay on late. The store manager introduced me to Mr. Gainsburg from head office. It turned out she didn’t just mean the UK operation, but the corporate parent. Mr. Gainsburg wanted to work late in the store that night, and he needed someone to look after him.


He didn’t reappear until well past eleven, just as I was beginning to assume that he’d given in to jet lag and I was in for an easy night. He was tanned and well dressed. He kept using my Christian name while he lectured me about the company. A couple of times I wanted to tell him what my profession had been where I come from, but I could see he wasn’t trying to patronise me. In any case I needed the job.


He asked me to take him to the ball room.


“Got to sort out problems as early as you can,” he said. “It’s the number one thing I’ve learned, John, and I’ve been doing this a while. One problem will always create another. If you leave one little thing, think you can just ride it out, then before you know it you’ve got two. And so on.


“You’ve been here a while, right John? You saw this place before it closed. These crazy little rooms are a fantastic hit with kids. We have them in all our stores now. You’d think it would be an extra, right? A nice-to-have. But I tell you, John, kids love these places, and kids . . . well, kids are really, really important to this company.”


The doors were propped open by now and he had me help him carry a portable desk from the show floor into the ball room.


“Kids make us, John. Nearly forty percent of our customers have young children, and most of those cite the kid-friendliness of our stores as one of the top two or three reasons they come here. Above quality of product. Above price. You drive here, you eat, it’s a day out for the family.


“Okay, so that’s one thing. Plus, it turns out that people who are shopping for their kids are much more aware of issues like safety and quality. They spend way more per item, on average, than singles and childless couples, because they want to know they’ve done the best for their kids. And our margins on the big-ticket items are way healthier than on entry-level product. Even low-income couples, John, the proportion of their income that goes on furniture and household goods just rockets up at pregnancy.”


He was looking around him at the balls, bright in the ceiling lights that hadn’t been on for months, at the ruined skeleton of the Wendy house.


“So what’s the first thing we look at when a store begins to go wrong? The facilities. The crèche, the childcare. Okay, tick. But the results here have been badly off-kilter recently. All the stores have shown a dip, of course, but this one, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, it’s not just revenues are down, but traffic has sunk in a way that’s completely out of line. Usually, traffic is actually surprisingly resilient in a downturn. People buy less, but they keep coming. Sometimes, John, we even see numbers goup.


“But here? Visits are down overall. Proportionally, traffic from couples with children is down even more. And repeat traffic from couples with children has dropped through the floor. That’s what’s unusual with this store.


“So why aren’t they coming back as often? What’s different here? What’s changed?” He gave a little smile and looked ostentatiously around, then back at me. “Okay? Parents can still leave their kids in the crèche, but the kids aren’t asking their parents for repeat visits like they used to. Something’s missing. Ergo. Therefore. We need it back.”


He laid his briefcase on the desk and gave me a wry smile.


“You know how it is. You tell them and tell them to fix things as they happen, but do they listen? Because it isn’t them who have to patch it up, right? So then you end up with not one problem but two. Twice as much trouble to bring under control.” He shook his head ruefully. He was looking around the room, into all the corners, narrowing his eyes. He took a couple of deep breaths.


“Okay, John, listen, thanks for all your help. I’m going to need a few minutes here. Why don’t you go watch some TV, get yourself a coffee or something? I’ll come find you in a while.”


I told him I’d be in the staff room. I turned away and heard him open his case. As I left I peered through the glass wall and tried to see what he was laying out on the desk. A candle, a flask, a dark book. A little bell.


Visitor numbers are back up. We’re weathering the recession remarkably well. We’ve dropped some of the deluxe product and introduced a back-to-basic raw pine range. The store has actually taken on more staff recently than it’s let go.


The kids are happy again. Their obsession with the ball room refuses to die. There’s a little arrow outside it, a bit more than three feet off the ground, which is the maximum height you can be to come in. I’ve seen children come tearing up the stairs to get in and find out that they’ve grown in the months since their last visit, that they’re too big to come in and play. I’ve seen them raging that they’ll never be allowed in again, that they’ve had their lot, forever. You know they’d give anything at all, right then, to go back. And the other children watching them, those who are just a little bit smaller, would do anything to stop and stay as they are.


Something in the way they play makes me think that Mr. Gainsburg’s intervention may not have had the exact effect everyone was hoping for. Seeing how eager they are to rejoin their friends in the ball room, I wonder sometimes if it was intended to.


To the children, the ball room is the best place in the world. You can see that they think about it when they’re not there, that they dream about it. It’s where they want to stay. If they ever got lost, it’s the place they’d want to find their way back to. To play in the Wendy house and on the climbing frame, and to fall all soft and safe on the plastic balls, to scoop them up over each other, without hurting, to play in the ball room forever, like in a fairy tale, alone, or with a friend.