The Strangler Fig Slide

Ben Pullar

The slug on my left wrist made me want to vomit. The trouble was there was no bucket, so I opened up the glove box of my car and vomited all over a 1955 street directory. A pity, a bit of a relic, but sometimes you have to open up your mouth and empty your stomach all over some sort of antique, it’s a refreshing way to live life.

It was that sort of afternoon, getting headaches, having to deal with slugs all over my body. I was driving my big green Ford along a wet road, feeling very glum, and was just about to give up hope of anything good ever happening again when I saw the strangler fig slide. It appeared in the rainy windshield like a frozen broccoli. Five hundred metres of steaming waterfalls and carpet snakes hissing at wasps, it shimmered with magical life. It kept disappearing behind smears of rainwater, then the rusty wipers would clean the big broad window lens I was looking through and it would pop up again.

It flickered ahead of me, and for a few moments I forgot about my troubles. Then the wipers broke down, the tree got foggy again, and they came back to me at top speed.

I was having a bad run. Not just slugs. My parents were making me miserable and my career options were a bit grim. I hated my job with the Danish shipping company, and I didn’t think things could get much worse. I decided to treat myself to a bit of fun, so I pulled into the vast empty strangler fig slide car park and got out.

The tops of the tree were hidden in a bank of black cloud. I lit a cigarette and noticed the slug still perched on my wrist.

“You’re ruining my life,” I said to it. It barely flinched.

I wound up the windows of my car and walked through pelting rain to a small entry booth.

An ancient woman of about eighty-five was operating the till.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“I’m working. You?”

“I’m hoping to have some fun on the waterslide up there,” I said. “I’ve just had an altercation with a slug.”

The woman sneered at me.

“Shoot it.”

“No, I won’t do that,” I said, a bit shocked at her attitude.

“Why not?”

“Doesn’t seem very humane,” I said.

“Slugs aren’t humane,” said the woman. “They eat crickets.”

“I doubt that,” I said.

“Fifteen dollars,” said the woman.

I was staggered at the price. I turned and looked at the tree again.

“Pretty steep,” I said, looking around at the mossy lawns and pavements below the gigantic rotting fig.

“Gee, sorry about that,” said the woman, sniffing very loudly with both nostrils.

I paid the money, got a ticket, and waved at her as I walked through the turnstile.

“Have a great day,” I said.

“Don’t forget,” she said to me, her beady eyes flickering in the dark afternoon light, “crickets.”

I bought some togs from the souvenir shop attendant, a squat man named Kenneth who wanted to talk about boat hull problems. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

I stood below the great fig and felt awed by it again. The thing had its own rivers, lakes and groves, it seemed to me. It had its own microclimate. Tiny cyclones were festooned under its larger branches. Its trunks fell to the ground like melting wax spirals.

I caught a chairlift and followed its wires up the enormous fig’s part wooden, part fiberglass trunk. Thick syrupy water fell from the distant canopy, while bad-tempered frogs peered from caves in the tree’s wet hide. The chairlift rocked back and forward in the rain and I held on tightly. There were a few bad moments, like when the darker gusts of four o’clock rain came washing in and drenched me in wet flowers. There were a few moments when I thought the old wires might break, and I’d be dropped through the air, dashed against the root systems hundreds of metres below.

But after about fifteen minutes I finally made it to a rotting green-stained pine platform deck near the tree’s top.

The deck led to the opening of the single water slide’s mouth. It was being tended by an old man. He was sitting in an iron chair under a big umbrella, growling at the weather and, I guess, me. He wasn’t doing all that much tending, admittedly. He was doing more “moldering” than “tending’, I thought, and his eyes were closed.

I approached the water slide mouth, trying to be as quiet as I could, but I stepped on a waterlogged flower bud and I knew I’d spoiled all of my sneaky traipsing actions.

The old man’s eyes flashed open.

“Halt,” he said.

“There a problem?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said the old man, “have you checked your height credentials?”

He pointed to a sign of a four-foot tall koala bear holding his right arm out at about the three and a half foot mark.

“If you fit neatly under that koala’s paw you’re too small for this slide,” the old man declared.

“I think I’ll do fine,” I said, a bit testy by now.

“I’m serious,” said the old man. He got to his feet. He was wobbly, obviously a bit weak. The water had seeped into his flesh and swollen his skin up quite a bit.

“You go and stand beside that koala, and if you’re too small for this slide, you don’t get to go on it,” he coughed.

I sighed.

“All right, all right,” I said. I went and stood beside the koala. I put my hands on my hips. I felt stupid standing there in my togs, my bandy legs looking like cassia stems next to what was a very short koala. Its paw nudged my upper thigh area.

“Well?” I asked after half a minute.

“Hold your horse, boy,” said the old man, “I’m trying to just make sure.”

“Oh for god’s sake,” I said, “this is ridiculous!”

I had had enough. I’d had years of having to put up with all sorts of elderly relatives, including my grandfather the colonel, and I was not about to start taking orders from this bozo. I immediately walked over to the waterslide mouth and leapt in head first. I’ve no idea what the old man did. But I have a feeling he made arrangements. Got in touch with his insiders in the fig itself. I have that feeling because I had a really bad time in that fig that afternoon.

I slid down that dark water tube, over mossy timbers and through green lights and occasional grim afternoon glimpses, and things got faster and faster.

I quickly got worried about the speed. Then I started to fear the dreadful sounds.

Strange howling unnerved me. Then there were the weird chuckles.

Giant red eyes appeared and I started to really get bothered.

It was the hairy monkey hands reaching for me that finally made me scream with terror.

They appeared out of vents in the slide walls and grabbed at my arms and legs. Their claws tore great wedges of fat from my back and shoulders. Only my terrific speed saved me.

Then the snails struck. They snapped at my fingers and toes, spat venomous sputum at me from behind leaves, generally snarled and joked and haunted me.

They were aided by bats. And spiders. And of course the snakes, who really scared me. I dodged and ducked and hoped for the best, and I think I did a pretty good job avoiding those wretched creatures.

Then, when I thought I had averted the worst things in that deep dark well of damp timber, I was suddenly wrenched from the slide by a net. I was thrown onto a green-carpeted floor in a cozy fire-lit living room.

A number of heavyset men stood around me. A whispery voice coughed and said “that’s all right men, leave him be.”

The men walked off, and I looked up and saw a small man in a velvet dressing gown sipping tea and combing his black beard.

“Hi,” said the man, “I’m Nesbit. Nesbit the poet. How are you doing, enjoying your afternoon?”

“No,” I said.

“Oh, dear. Oh, dear me, that’s not good. Not good at all. Really? You’re really not enjoying it?”

“It’s been awful,” I said. I got to my feet. The poet threw me a towel, and I dried off my hair a bit. “I don’t know why I bothered to come here, really,” I said. “Big mistake. I’m having dinner with my parents at six.”

“Oh, no,” said Nesbit, “that’s never fun. A pity you’ve not had time to brace yourself for dinner with the parents. Instead you’re all damp and scratched. Well, I tell you what you should do. You should get back in the slide and go and complain to management, you see. The fellow who runs this park, he’s a reasonable man, but sometimes the direct approach is best. I’m always at him to clean up his act but he ignores me. I’ve had a poetry residency here now for about fifteen years and I’m afraid nobody listens to an ensconced poet much after a while. They might listen to you, though.”

I quite enjoyed my time in Nesbit’s living room that afternoon. I ate some chocolate biscuits, cooled down a bit, and had a look at some of Nesbit’s poetry volumes.

“I’m due to put out a new selected poems edition shortly,” he said, flipping through one of his earlier selections. “Quite relaxing revising things in this atmosphere. Constant sound of running water. Every day’s a rainy day. And on actual rainy days you double your money!”

I waved goodbye and thanked him for having me.

“Oh, don’t mention that, pleasure to have you aboard, so to speak. Good luck, matey!”

I leapt back into the slide then, and although the rest of the trip wasn’t exactly fun, I survived the monkey hands and the vicious nocturnal snails and the bats and got spat out of an enormous tap root into a snug pool of warm water roughly seven minutes later.

I clambered out of the pool, collected my clothes from the toilet block I had originally changed in, then stalked through the park, determined to have words with the slovenly park manager.

But as I walked deeper into the park things got darker and stranger, and I started to wonder whether I should just make a break for it and get back to the car.

Ferns grew over the paths, cobwebs tangled with phone wires.

Cedar trees fell down, blocking roads.

Finally I came to a moss-draped demountable building near a falling fence. Beyond there was thick scrub.

Rain fell hard now.

I crept into a water-spoiled room, a sort of mossy foyer covered in lizard droppings. A young woman sat behind a desk.

“Hi,” I said, “I’m looking for the manager here.”

“Manager?” she said. “You mean Rhodes, I suppose.”

“I suppose I do,” I said.

“Go through the door, the one covered in rat dung,” she said.

I did as I was told. I walked into a giant burgundy room of flickering red and orange lamps. A fish tank covered one wall five meters to the high ceiling. An old Mozart 78 played on a gramophone next to a drinks cabinet.

A man in a white hat and a white suit sat behind a vast desk. He was on the telephone.

“Tell them I would do that, but I can’t. I just can’t. All right? That clear? Charmed. Bye now.”

He hung up the phone and leapt up from his desk. He stormed over to me and held out his hand.

“Hi,” he said, “my name’s Horsham Rhodes, inventor of the strangler fig slide theme park and assorted other lesser creations. Like Dodgem World, the world’s largest dodgem park. Long closed down. How can I help you?”

“I came to tell you this place needs a bit of renovating,” I said. “It’s dangerous.”

Rhodes laughed.

“This is a joke, obviously,” he said, smiling.

“No,” I said. “Somebody will get killed soon. It’s a death trap.”

“That poet put you up to this I bet,” groaned Rhodes, frowning suddenly. “You know his favorite meter? Quatrain. I mean, come on.”

Rhodes stalked over to the drinks cabinet, poured us a brandy each, stalked back.

“Absolute bloody berk. Still, nice enough. For an artist.”

“He advised me to talk to you,” I said, “but I had already formed the opinion that this place is a death trap. You need to clean up your act or else.”

Rhodes sighed and sat down at his desk.

“Yes, yes, I suppose I do. I suppose you’re right. I guess it is high time things changed here.”

He lit a small cigarette, offered me one. I took it with all the gusto I could manage.

“You know,” said Rhodes, sounding very sad and defeated, “this place came to me in a sort of vision? I was young, hungry, desperate. A bit dyspeptic. One night after a lot of beer, I saw a great green tree filling up the world. Next morning I went and bought an old fig in Perth, started to renovate it. Bought an old secondhand water slide set from Hong Kong, and presto! Easy as that. Still,” he added sadly, “the years have not been kind.”

I smoked that cigarette and I commiserated. I could understand Rhodes’ pain only too well.

“I have my own problems, you know,” I said. “This slug on my left hand. Drove me up the wall this afternoon.”

I wriggled my wrist in front of Rhodes’ face.

“Yes,” said Rhodes, “I noticed that, a bit on the hideously ugly side I thought.”

“Like a sea cucumber,” I said. “And it didn’t just happen, you know. It took years to get this slug on my left wrist this afternoon. I looked down an hour ago and there it was. Awful.”

There was silence for half a minute. Then Rhodes seemed to perk up.

“All right then, since we’re both so down in the dumps, let’s help each other. Here’s my advice to you. Put on a glove, hide the slug.”

“I don’t actually own a glove. I’ll have to buy one.”

“There you go, sorted. Now,” he said, his eyes beaming like ocean liners, “give me some ideas, what do you have for me, eh?”

He opened up a notepad, got out a biro, waited for me to come up with something. Anything. I gave it some thought. Was there any way back for a place as moldy and sludgy and old fashioned as the strangler fig slide theme park? How could it ever return to its 1978 glory peak? Then I had some sort of green light flicker up in my head.

“I think I know,” I said at last.

“Well then, dish it out, what is it?” Rhodes’ pen hovered over his notepad like a flying saucer.

“I can’t tell you. I can only show you,” I said. “Come on, follow me.”

I led Rhodes to the telephone. “Call up every media representative you know,” I told him. “Every family friend. Everybody. I’ll do the same. Tell them to be here in two hours for a wonderful spectacle.”

Rhodes was curious, and bothered, but he did it.

Two hours later we stood in our togs atop the platform next to the water slide tube entrance. Rhodes still wore his white hat of course.

Below us thousands of people filled the theme park. They clambered on rooftops, in trees, around the warm pool below the great fig. Some were even brave enough to climb the actual fig, though the snakes chased most of them off.

“Rules are simple,” I said, “first into the pool below wins the inaugural Strangler Fig Slide Classic. But it doesn’t much matter who wins really. The main thing is we’ll have put on a show. That’s the way to do things, Rhodes. Everyone understands a good show.”

Rhodes looked pale.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, putting out my latest cigarette on a leaf.

“That thing about it not mattering who wins,” he said. “That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard a man say.”

I winced slightly.

“Do you read books, Horsham?”

“Sometimes. More of a pamphlet man myself. Years running a theme park. You get to know the form.”

“Well, great,” I said, approaching the slide mouth. Then, feeling bad, I stopped, turned toward him. “By the way,” I said. “I was lying.”

We leapt into the slide seconds apart. The night was thick with torrential rain and electricity. The night was full of love and hate, and we had plenty of both.

The public got a real show that night. The tree lit up with the sights of flaming monkeys grabbing for Rhodes and me. At one point they just about got Rhodes, but he let off a firework, blowing one of the monkey’s arms off, and he escaped.

But it was a near thing, and the stakes grew with every encounter.

I led early, but Rhodes caught me up quickly. He knew every stretch of that tree, every dip and straight and groove, and he let the water carry him past me in the seventh minute.

I hung in there, paced himself, and started fighting back, got within spitting distance a few times, then fell back again.

Then things got deadly.

It was the old man from the top of the tree. He started firing his air rifle at us from a hollow deep inside the fig.

“You’re too short!” he yelled at me, his voice cracking out of pure rage. He went on shooting. He got Rhodes in the neck twice, me in the right nipple. Blood gushed out but we kept up the pace.

At that point the old woman from the entry booth bought into the contest. She threw Molotov cocktails at us from one of the fig’s wet caverns. Both of us dodged them, but they broke against a fig root and introduced glass into the waters. Plus she hurled insults at us.

“You call yourselves men!” she screamed. “And you,” she yelled at me, “you had better watch out for that slug! Might mistake you for a cricket!”

It was that chance insult that saved the night for me. The slug! Of course! I had forgotten it in all the tumult. I looked down at it on my left wrist, vomited, which made things a bit trickier, but the really fantastic thing was the slug was glowing. It had gone all phosphorescent, from stress possibly, and it lit up the wooden slide tube like a storeroom. Suddenly I could see. The dark caverns were dark no more. It meant I could take incredible risks, unthinkable in the dark, but possible now I had a panicky slug to light my way.

The crowd roared as the action got channeled into the closed-circuit TV screens all around the park. They watched me gain on Rhodes, and they roared at the fun of it all.

Finally the two of us were very close to the end of the slide. Rhodes was slightly ahead, but two bends from the end he went wide, slid a bit on a snail, and I snuck down the inside into a late lead, one I took with me to the warm pool beneath the great fig.

The crowd screamed and shouted, took photographs, chanted our names.

We clambered out of the pool. Rhodes shook my hand, initially very disappointed, but he was surrounded by adoring people telling him how marvelous his theme park was, hugging him and kissing him, and he cheered up quite quickly.

One of them was Nesbit the poet.

“You were right,” said Rhodes to Nesbit, “sorry about all the insults over the last five years, sport.”

“It’s okay,” said the poet, “I made them into quatrains anyway.”

It was a grand night, and it changed both our lives in the long run.

The strangler fig slide became the biggest theme park in the southern hemisphere after a long time in the darkness, and every night Rhodes would hold water slide competitions, attracting some incredible talent from all around the world.

As for me, I became one of the world’s finest water slide racers, an acknowledged genius of the downhill swash. I started winning international titles only eighteen months after that night, and my own personal life improved a great deal to the point where I gave up cigarettes in mid-1997.

And I come back to the strangler fig on a regular basis, usually whenever I am in town and due to have dinner with my parents, who still doubt my life choices. I always like to let off a bit of steam pre-meal, so I drive through the rain and look forward to seeing that great fig, full of people, Rhodes up the top of it directing events. He waves at me now, and I grin back at him. Then I look down at Leroy, my trusty slug, perched on my wrist like a waterproof watch, ready for a night of top-speed slide action.

I no longer vomit when I see Leroy. You get used to slugs, no matter how repulsive. Now I just feel a bit funny in my stomach, but I generally hold back the vomit.

I have tried to persuade him to cover himself up, though. It turned out that Rhodes’ idea about a glove worked for me, but only got Leroy off side. He stopped glowing for a few months after I tried that, causing me to miss out on the Geneva five-hour endurance slide. I’ve since talked to him about wearing a cape, but he won’t do it. Wriggles about terribly when I try to put one on. He doesn’t like hoods, either. Or gowns. It doesn’t matter how successful you get in life, sometimes your slug just won’t listen to you on the subject of apparel.

I haven’t mentioned robes to him yet, mind you. Maybe in the Spring . . .

BEN PULLAR lives in Brisbane with his family. He has had stories published in Metazen, In Between Altered States, The Journal of Experimental Fiction and other places. He writes stories, radio comedy, novels and songs.

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