I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but when babies are born, so are Tickles. Wild Tickles.
At first, Wild Tickles are very confused. They try to latch on to nearby adults, but they frequently get mistaken for strange, grown-up things like “hormones” and “gas”. So they generally end up scuttling away – peering from bookcases, snuggling between sofa cushions, daringly dangling from lampshades. They’re waiting, but it’s not until it comes that they know what they’re waiting for. And that is The First Laugh. When the First Laugh comes, they know, and they leap.
A Wild Tickle’s favourite places to latch onto are the centre of the belly and directly under the chin. These are where First Laughs generally come from (and if they’re honest, the Tickles enjoy the jiggling and squishing). Once a Wild Tickle has found its home, it can stay there for anything from a few hours to several years. In the first few years, Tickles develop and grow. Sometimes one will hang around the toes for a while, getting cheesy; other times it’ll reappear behind the ear or nest in the crook of an elbow. They jostle for space with the other Tickles. Sometimes they even work in pairs or groups. You’ll know when Tickles are working together when you laugh so hard you can’t breathe and dribbly things come out of your nose.
Children are never more than about three hours from an encounter with a Tickle, so they’re mostly thoroughly infested with them. (It’s disgusting if you think about it, but also pretty funny.)
One Tickle, however, was without a home. Its previous owner – Josh, aged 12 – had recently banished Tickles on a semi-permanent basis, and a smart Tickle knew when its time was up. The only thing to do now was to find a baby (tricky, as they were usually surrounded by brand new, very Wild Tickles) or find a new friend, a small child. This particular Tickle especially liked the proper belly laughs you get around the age of four, and appreciated that this was the age at which children traded Wild Tickles back and forth in the playground more or less daily. It considered it might prefer a girl for a while, just in case there was a difference (there’s no difference, but Tickles are just as silly as people when it comes to these things, and must learn it for themselves).
As luck would have it, Hema was in the market for a new Tickle. She had recently given away a Wild Tickle to her best friend, Natasha, and she tended to quickly go through Tickles. (There was a game – the Start / Stop Tickle Game – that they played at home. It exhausted the Tickles until even they had to run away and take a breather. Some just didn’t choose to come back, though the one that jumped onto the cat and got scratched to pieces really regretted that move).
When Hema was made to put her itchy cardigan on in the playground and it scratched through her shirt, the Wild Tickle spotted its chance. It leaped into her armpit, barrelling into another Tickle that was on its way up from a shirt label, and was immediately rewarded with a giggle.
It settled in, jiggling around a bit and evading Hema’s scratching fingers. It thought it might very well grow to like it here. After all, every kid loves to be Tickled, right?
“What are you laughing at, Hema?”
Hema stopped scratching and looked appraisingly at the new girl, who looked confused.
“My cardigan. It’s tickling me!” The Tickle bristled a little at not being given full credit and Hema wiggled and laughed.
“Oh,” said Lauren, who was new, and shy, and now just felt weirder than ever. “I don’t get ticklish.”
“What, never?” Hema had never heard of a person who was not ticklish, except some boring adults, who barely counted as people. All children were ticklish. They had tickle fights. They had tickle wars. Tickling was a major form of communication, and anyone who could not be tickled was surely some kind of superhuman. Which was cool, but also kind of strange.
“Never,” agreed Lauren.
“I don’t believe you,” said Hema. “Can I tickle you and see?”
Lauren was used to this. “Alright,” she said. “But you’ll see.”
The Tickle – just as confident and doubtful as Hema – got ready. This was its big moment. It was going to make Lauren giggle. It would make her laugh. It might even stretch to a guffaw and be the Best. Wild. Tickle. EVER.
Hema put her hand under Lauren’s chin, and the Tickle jumped over. Hema’s fingers danced around, and the Tickle wriggled and jiggled and shuffled and crawled.
They moved together to behind Lauren’s ear. With Lauren’s permission, they tried the crook of the elbow, her tummy and even under her arms. The Tickle jumped and juddered and bristled and wobbled.
Not. One. Laugh.
The Tickle was distraught. I must be a broken Tickle, it thought. I must not work anymore. And what use to anyone was a Tickle that couldn’t make people laugh?
Hema took a step back. “You’re right,” she said to Lauren. “You really aren’t ticklish.”
“I know,” said Lauren. “I’ve never been ticklish.”
The two girls stood staring at each other for a moment. The Tickle curled up tight, a ball of scared misery. When Hema suddenly spoke again, it jumped slightly in surprise.
“Wait! Does that mean that I can be un-ticklish too?”
“I dunno,” said Lauren. “I think you are or you aren’t. I’m just not.”
“Tickle me!” demanded Hema. “Tickle me. I want to see if I can not laugh.” She held out her arms expectantly.
Lauren’s hands moved towards Hema, and the Tickle swung over with them, still clinging on but barely. So despondent was it at its failure, it considered just staying put, and refusing to help her out. There were other Tickles, after all. There thought there was no point bouncing back over, full of prickly pride, only to meet another wall of silence and mild itchiness while the rest of the Tickles proudly showed off what they could do.
And it had noticed that it was all alone on Lauren. It was sure the other Tickles, busy showing off, wouldn’t welcome back a broken Tickle too enthusiastically. What if it was infectious and stopped them all working? What if there was a world-wide epidemic of non-ticklishness?!
But in the end, the idea of being a lonely Tickle, all alone, made up its mind. If it was going down, it was taking the rest of the Tickles with it. It simply couldn’t be broken alone. Maybe if it could just hear laughs and be around other Tickles for a while, it would recover as suddenly as it had broken.
As Lauren reached out to Hema, the Tickle scuttled over in shame. It ran straight along her fingertips and right under Hema’s chin. The chin seemed like a safe place to hide. And as it went, it shivered under Hema’s chin and shuddered into its hiding place, expecting silence until the other Tickles caught up.
The Tickle took a quick glance around, but it was the only Tickle under Hema’s chin right now. The other Tickles were heading up from under her arms (one was currently stuck under a foot in a rucked up bit of sock, trying to get out), but the laughing must be coming from it. Maybe the Tickle wasn’t broken after all! Maybe Lauren really was just immune to Tickles!
Now, this was still pretty worrying. Tickles knew that sometimes other things made children laugh, but they didn’t really take those other things seriously. After all, Tickle laughter was the best laughter. Or so they believed. But if Hema was laughing, then this Tickle could still live its best life. And it could still deliver the best laughter!
The Tickle continued to jiggle around under Hema’s chin, but its mind wasn’t entirely on its job now and the giggles started to subside. It wanted to work out how it might still make Lauren laugh, even if she couldn’t be tickled. Distractedly, it gave one more little squirm, and Hema let out a fresh, high-pitched squeal from her throat.
And also a low, short, sharp noise from somewhere else.
Both girls suddenly stopped dead. There was a moment of stillness and silence.
“Have you… farted?!” said Lauren.
The Tickle was suddenly very warm from the red hot glow coming from Hema’s face.
“No!” she shouted. But it was very obvious, even to the Tickle, that she wasn’t telling the truth.
“Yes you have,” insisted Lauren. “That’s… that’s… that’s…” Lauren could barely get the words out.
“That’s… REALLY FUNNY!”
The Tickle watched in amazement as Lauren boiled over with hysterical laughter. Then it clung on for dear life as Hema started to shake like jelly. The giggles bubbled up through her. Within seconds, both girls were laughing so hard tears were beginning to leak from the corners of their eyes.
For a moment, the Tickle was confused. How could Lauren be laughing if it was Hema that had been tickled?
But then it understood. Hema’s ticklishness had made Lauren laugh, because if there’s one thing that can be guaranteed to be infectious, it’s laughter. The Wild Tickle realised that even if a person could not be tickled, they could still laugh because of tickling. Tickling is, and always will be, the funniest thing in the world, thought the Wild Tickle. And I, as a Tickle, am therefore the funniest thing EVER.
The Tickle, bouncing around on Hema’s shoulder the girls clung to each other and giggled, was extremely proud of itself. Its moment of self-doubt over, it celebrated with the other Tickles and danced around, setting off more giggles and making sure that Lauren didn’t feel new and awkward anymore and Hema most definitely had a new friend to play with.
A little way down, the Fart let the Tickle have its jubilant moment. After all, Tickles are quite sensitive and skittish, but Farts don’t really care who gets the credit.
if you enjoyed this in any way, you might also enjoy my beloved Tom and his paper cats, or any of the Once There Was a Girl challenge stories and fragments I actually managed to write.