The shirt was a tight, white, cumbersome affair. Part of the hated uniform.
The fair ground, his play pen for now, was at a Saturday high. Peter, his name tag read in blue writing. Ice-cream Peter in bold letters. A casual.
‘Strawberry – str a w be-he-rr ry!!!!!’ pushing the fruity sounds out like in the song from Porgy and Bess. He’d always fancied that part of the musical. Judged the whole performance by how that particular singer could hop over the notes and make it sound sexy. While he’d been living with Clare he’d made her watch it twice. Back in the day when the sun still shone out his arse. Before Danny showed up.
‘Strawberry, str a w be-he-rr ry!!!!!!!’ – the cadence brought attention, so he followed it up with ‘choco-choco-chocolatttohhhhh vanillllllllllllll la!’ Tickling his tongue around the l.
‘Come and get your flava!’
‘Here you go superman, one chocostrawberry tower for you’.
It had been Danny’s plan of course to set up operation on this fairground in the middle of town. Danny the mastermind, Peter the bitch. This would be their big coup, practised and finetuned over the last nine months.
His cell peeped twice – five minutes to go. Aim for the ghost rides. He pushed his sunglasses down from his head over his eyes, kept his head down. ‘Be invisible dude, more invisible than normal’ Danny had threatened him a hundred and twenty times.
Better not serve anyone for now, just make it to the ghost rides on time. He stepped into a puddle, winced, pushed on, socks squooshing in his black sneakers.
Two minutes. Don’t sweat, don’t look back.
This had to work otherwise he had no hope in hell of ever getting out alive. Danny would hammer him if he messed up.
He was in place, spot on time when invisible Danny kicked into action for ‘lights off’, the show stopper! Generators coughed, rasped and were strangled into silence, the rollercoaster died upside down, the roundabout horses did another half ‘up’ in their slow trot, gave up. Silence. Fairylights blinked in surprise, closed their eyes.
He heard his breathing as he moved forward towards the goulish face of the ticket booth at the ghost rides. Counted to 30 very slowly. By 13 the screams started.
Children yelled, mothers first laughed hesitantly, unbelieving, then
‘Jonny, where are you?’
‘Lizzy darling …?’
He stepped around the puke-green flaked cheek of the witch’s grimace. Had practiced this by the river at night. 27, 28 and moving in.
It was where Danny had said it would be. He fingered the box, exhaled, farted a stinker in relief. Everything was as he had been told.
No announcement – Mr.Uberboss was away for the week-end, no one else would have the brain power to look for the loud hailer. Now people were beginning to scramble like blind mice, shouting for each other. Cell phone torches danced an unchoreographed firefly ballet. Some youngsters still laughed the haha of young bulls running against a wire fence: ‘yo man, don’t touch me like so, ooi!’
He forced himself into slow-mo, slid the box into the ice cream cart, plop on top of the cherry ice, then made for the deserted toilets.
Fuck ice-cream, he really wanted a drag now. His gums were dry, his teeth like cardboard soldiers battling a mouth full of dry pronutro.
The lights came on when he heard the first cop car sirens. The toilet mirror was small, smudged but sufficient. He used the battery powered pocket razor, took time to cut and clean his fingenails, washed, got changed and arranged. The music had started blaring again, loud voices and laughter around all corners. Time to move.
Danny was slinking around the Strong Man near the parking lot, looking smart in power jeans, not giving anything away. Not seeing him either although he was close, taunting fate.
He walked slowly, swinging his hips, thinking of Clare on a night out, taking small steps.
He’d chosen the blue bag with the strong leather strap although the loot was only paper weight, fitting in snugly, promising a foothold on the bottom rung of the escape ladder. It went with the outfit, the bag.
‘Lady! Can I give you a lift?’
He turned his head slowly, almost smiled, said that would be lovely, thank you, stepped into the Merc.
Danny lifted the Strong Man’s hammer, passing time, waiting for Peter.
The night is drunk on the wine and song of the carnival. Suspended above the silhouette of trees, a huge neon parrot preened in a rainbow of metallic feathers, is blinking on and off like a psychedelic eye in the sky. At the edge of the galaxy, the moon’s wild swan spills her brood of intoxicated stars to pop the darkness into a dazzle of light.
In the dizzy swirl of the fairground an octopus dips its armed fists tilting crazed passengers towards the Milky Way. Shrieks escape from the steel cars streaking through the stratosphere. A red-nosed clown on stilts levitates above the aroma of roasted nuts and hot dogs lathered in Ketchup. Excited children chase puffy pink balls of candy floss on sticks. The Ferris wheel waltzes in step to the tune of Ricky Martin belting out ‘Shake Your Bon-Bon’. Next to the House of Horrors and its gothic screams, children gallop in a giddy circle on a carousel of ponies. In the throng of the crowd, a crone, bejewelled in bling bling, calls from her caravan steps … ‘Your destiny revealed … Come, come … There’s no time like the present to know your future.’
He stops, the ball poised mid air, aimed towards the rotating jaw of a painted clown’s head. Her voice, evocative of some foreign country, tunnels down his ears. The little girl pulls at his sleeve. He steadies his hand and throws. The ball plops into the gaping mouth. The stall holder shouts ‘Bravo’ and takes the celluloid doll down from the shelf.
‘Thank you mister, thank you.’ The street child jumps up and down with joy.
As she stretches her arms towards the prize, the belly of the night splits open in a heart rending cry. The octopus flings one of its cars like a little metal bucket into the night, decapitating the gaudy parrot and falling through the trees before dive-bombing into the carnival crowd.
‘Come, come …. Let me tell you all from my crystal ball… come… come … No time like now …’
She draws her black shawl tight around her shoulders. Gold hula hoop earrings reflect dancing lights in her long auburn hair.
He pulls himself back into the moment.
Is he crazy or something …?
Reluctantly he climbs the steps.
The air inside, behind closed curtains, is cocooned in fragrant incense and pungent smelling herbs.
The gypsy waves him towards a chair.
Her long red nails are talons. She reminds him of an exotic bird peering into the secret depths of her crystal ball.
Their eyes meet … hers are smouldering coals. She wrings her hands together. Silver bangles clutter her wrists.
He presses two notes on the velvet cloth, backs out of the caravan and stumbles down the steps.
At the Purple Lizard he stops to steady his nerves over a double J&B, thankful to slip back into reality with the distraction of the sport on the overhead channel and Joe’s mundane gossip, ‘Saw Laura Phipps this morning … tells me she has another bun in the oven … there’s more to working in the Blue Monday Laundromat than meets the eye … I think she’s quite a girl, that one …!’
The barman winks and flattens a cockroach crawling across the counter with the ball of his thumb.
Through layers of nicotine they raise their glasses.
There’s always one more drink for the road.
In the morning, the alarm jerks him out of a fitful sleep. He showers, slaps margarine onto thick brown bread topped with marmite, makes a flask of coffee and heads for the door.
Reaching the Grand Parade he quickens his step, pulls the collar of his anorak up against the north wind, muscles his way amongst the crowd of daily commuters. A young Coloured boy selling the Cape Times shouts out the morning headlines. ‘Read about it …Death at the Fairground … Read about it … Death at the Fairground …’
He stops, immobilised.
It’s all there on the front page.
Mechanical problem with octopus last night at fairground sends car careening into the crowds. Both occupants killed instantly and fatal casualties on the ground. Among the dead are Amira Rashida the Fortune Teller and a little girl clutching a celluloid doll.
He drops the flask and lunch box and rushes blindly towards the railway track.
The Yellow Teddy-Bear
The pulsating racket draws Ellen from the shelter of her home. This
throbbing, pounding noise. She stands at the entrance to the Fairground, with its Ferris wheels, merry-go- rounds, beer tents, stalls, throngs of people. The smell of braising onions, sausages, hot chips, reaches her nostrils. Her stomach growls unexpectedly. A man tears a ticket, says, ‘That will be ten rand.’ She stares up at him myopically, adjusting the angle of her trifocals. She squeaks, ‘Do you give discounts to old-age –pensioners?’ He shakes his head. ‘Oh, well,’ she grumbles. She scratches in her bag for her purse. Her fingers are all thumbs, she can’t see clearly. ‘Let me, Lady,’ the ticket dispenser is impatient, there’s a queue behind Ellen. ‘Oh, but,’ she protests. He extracts two coins from her purse and waves her on.
Ellen pauses and leans heavily on her cane, clutching her bag close to her chest, under her heart. The letter’s in there, the one from David in Adelaide. He writes that her granddaughter is going to have a baby. A baby? Her granddaughter was little more than a baby when she left this country with her parents twenty years ago. The news has filled her with joy, short-lived, then with sorrow. She doubts she will ever see this great-grandchild. ‘Excuse me,’ she whispers to passers-by. ‘Can you help me?’ They rush past. Is she invisible?
She takes a few steps here, a few steps there, blinded by the brilliant lights, deafened by the cacophony. She becomes aware she has a shadow. She turns. Who is this person with the white painted face, the sad clown’s eyes, peaked eyebrows, red bow lips? He mimics her limp, her dormouse stare, an imaginary bag clutched to his chest. She moves. He follows. She turns to stare at him. He looks behind him. ‘What do you want?’ she quavers. He removes his cap, holds it humbly in front of him, clown eyes beseeching. ‘No,’ she folds both arms over her bag. ‘I – you can’t – I don’t have any.’ He droops, shrugs.
In front of her, a stall with numbered prizes. She sees a large yellow teddy- bear with button eyes, expectant stitched smile and a tartan ribbon round his neck. His arms stretch wide as if to say – come get me. The soft yellow fur would be ideal for a baby to hug, to take to bed. ‘Oh,’ she cries, ‘can I try?’ ‘Hoopla,’ the stallholder bellows. ‘Try your luck. Throw a ring, win a prize. 50c.’
Ellen fumbles. ‘Here, lady,’ the man says, reaching for her purse. ‘Oh, drat,’ she says. ‘How – what do I . . .’ ‘Take this ring,’ he thrusts a rubber ring into her shaking fingers. ‘See these hooks?’ he gestures behind him. ‘Aim for the number you need.’ She veers her eyes to the teddy bear. No.6. She finds the hook with no.6 above it. She steadies herself against the counter, tries to focus. Do I throw overhand or underhand? she wonders. She swings wildly. The ring shoots sideways, clipping the stallholder on the head. He swears. A group of children jeer loudly. ‘Kyk die ouma –sy gooi mis.’ Ellen shrinks. ‘May I?’ A smooth voice in her ear. She turns to see a dark –skinned man reach out his hand for the ring. His teeth shine white. ‘Let me. No.6?’ She nods, transfixed. Where does this stranger come from? Nigeria? DRC? He has exquisite manners. The ring sails through the air, falls on the hook. The yellow bear is safe in Ellen’s arms. ‘Thank you –how kind.’ He bows, vanishes into the crowd.
Ellen meanders contentedly towards the exit. She will send this to her great-grandchild. But how will she package its bulk? And the cost? Nothing is straightforward. A couple, walking nearby, stop in mid-tracks. Ellen hears a moaning gasp from the woman as she clutches her bulging stomach under a tent dress. She and the man look down at her wide-spread legs, at the water gushing into a puddle. The woman cries in distress. ‘My water’s broken. Pete, get me to the hospital.’
Peter dials a number. ‘Don’t panic- just breathe. Victoria Hospital’s a minute away.’ Into the phone. ‘My wife’s in labour. Send an ambulance to Maynardville immediately.’ Ellen hovers, her heart beating. A crowd gathers to witness this drama. Ellen remembers her own labour, long ago. Oh, the agony and the ecstasy. An ambulance rolls through the gates, red light flashing. Paramedics lower a stretcher, push through the crowd. The woman lies down, moaning, her eyes wide with fear. Ellen surfaces from the past, approaches her, holding out the yellow teddy-bear. ‘Here, lovey,’ she says, ‘take this for your baby, it will bring you luck. ’ The woman’s eyes beam gratitude, despite her pain. She disappears into the back of the ambulance. Doors shut. Ellen watches the ambulance drive away, then turns her back on the Fairground. She has a box of baby patterns at home somewhere. She can still knit – something small perhaps? Bootees, bonnets, bibs. Did babies still wear them? Yes.
Maybelline has a way with men.
I’ve tried to pick it up by watching her in the restaurant where we both work, how she presents the bill to her customers with a little flourish. “Thank you!” she writes on the bill in her large flamboyant script and then a winking smiley face “Love, Maybelline” she adds. Sometimes she’ll shorten her name to “Maybe”. Men like her light flirty air – Maybe Babe they call her – rolling the thrill of its suggestiveness on their tongues. Then again, everything about her is suggestive. Well Mummy thought so when she and Daddy had dinner at the restaurant one night. Her eyes followed Maybelline around surreptitiously all evening; Daddy of course didn’t spare Maybelline so much as a glance; that would be risking too much.
I’m not like Maybelline.
“Your flatmate’s quite something, isn’t she?” Mummy says later her voice steeped in disapproval as I’m removing their plates and Daddy has gone to the bathroom. And I know immediately she means Maybelline’s aura of allure, how she carries her perfect round breasts before her like ripe fruit offerings, half bared to view, the artfully careless way her hair falls, covering one dark, heavily shadowed eye, the swinging curve of her hips as she scoops the plates up in a smooth graceful arabesque as she passes, the red half-smile, teasing, hiding. Of course she doesn’t actually say any of these things but it’s what she means all the same.
I shrug dismissively and carry the plates away. Do I plod? I feel heavy.
“She’s ok.” I reply when I return. “She’s got a lot of boyfriends.” I don’t add “unlike me”. But Mummy hears it anyway.
“Saaandra,” she says reproachfully “You’ll have plenty of time for all that after your studies. You’re doing so well!” She frowns. As if “all that” might be an infection I’m in danger of catching.
“Mmmm” I say.
”So these boyfriends of Maybelline’s. Do you ever see them? Do they come to the flat?” There’s a repressed but eager shine in Mummy’s eyes.
I wonder what she would say if she could see Maybelline’s bedroom. Next to the elegant restraint of my neat and orderly cream and white bed, the smart oak desk, the pale beige carpet, Maybelline’s room is shocking. I remember peeking into her room for the first time while she was out, just after she’d moved in. I caught a glimpse of a scarlet four poster bed draped with hangings, a lamp hung with bright orange fringes, numerous candles, the bed cover dizzy with dazzling embroidery and tiny Indian mirrors, before hastily shutting the door. My heart pounded with guilt and furtive pleasure. It was as if I had seen a forbidden shimmering mirage. As if I’d slipped through a crack into a larger reality, more dangerously vivid and alive than my own and then instantly retreated into something small and narrow. And safe.
Mummy is looking at me expectantly, curious.
“Oh!” I catch myself. “Sometimes. They’re really good looking guys, they come to fetch her in their fancy cars. To go dancing at clubs, I think.” I’m embellishing a bit, wanting to live up to the hidden eagerness in her eyes, provoke it into showing itself openly. The cars haven’t been that fancy really; once there was a Merc convertible and the men are more slick and self-assured than handsome. I don’t tell her that I hear them coming back together in the early hours of the morning, that I hear their stifled laughter followed by hot silences through the thin partition wall between our bedrooms. I don’t tell her about the sweat-saturated cries which drag me out of my cool virgin sleep, my neatly buttoned up tamped down envy.
And then Daddy comes back and we both know this isn’t for his ears.
How could I have guessed everything would change?
One late Saturday afternoon there is a knock at the door. Maybelline is in her room getting ready to go to work and I am fuzzy with studying on the sofa. Thinking this can only be one of her men, I stumble up to answer the door.
As I expect, a man stands there. But he’s nothing like Maybelline’s usual sleekly groomed and suavely dressy boys. He is a stolid looking man, sunburned from working outdoors and wearing an ordinary checked shirt and jeans. His hands are calloused red and rough, his expression earnest yet guarded. He looks at me uncertainly. I hear Maybelline clipping behind me in her high heels, coming to see who it is.
“Is … is … Marie here?” he’s hesitant, softly spoken, almost shy.
“Sorry. I think you’ve got the wrong flat. There’s no Marie here.” I begin to close the door when he catches sight of Maybelline. His eyes widen in shock and strangely, relief.
“Marie! Marie! Please … Marie …” His voice is now hoarse and urgent and he pushes past me towards Maybelline. Maybelline, who has turned white beneath her makeup, whose open cherry red lips now gape soundless as a wound against the sudden pallor of her skin, can only stare at this stranger with a look of horror in her eyes. He doesn’t dare touch her, only stands before her. Mute, beseeching.
“Maybelline? Do you know this guy? What’s going on, Maybelline?” I’m confused, afraid, feeling out of my depth.
“It’s alright Sandra.” Maybelline’s voice is raw, skinless. “This is Hendrik.” Her eyes glint bright with grief. “My husband”.
“Come back, Marie, please,” Hendrik says quietly.
A panic-stricken rebellious expression flares across Maybelline’s face and she makes a desperate sideways move, a last minute futile attempt to escape, to run away. “Marie!” he implores. “The children!” She stops suddenly, still turned away, as if he has stabbed her, cut her down. “They really miss you, they really miss their mother!”
And Maybelline breathes out, in tiny tearing gasps, her life torn into bits with every breath.
I contemplate myself in the mirror in her room. I’m wearing her gold sequinned top. She left all her furniture and clothes behind – said I could have them, that she’d never have a use for them where she was going. The top is tight fitting and cut much lower than Mummy would like but I’m going to wear it anyway. I pick up an eyeliner I’ve found on her dresser and begin to shade my eyelids in dark glittery smoke-coloured smudges. Maybelline it says on the side.
‘One tasteful beige and cream room to let,’ I say to myself softly, trying out the words.
In the caravan I smeared honey all over Sonia’s face. It was half past two on a grey humid afternoon. The muffled roar of traffic floated across the Thames. I should’ve been out there doing my act. I told her, ‘Honey’s great for the skin. Gives it flexibility, relaxes it.’ So she let me.
I massaged it in, pure Champagne honey. ‘Mmmm,’ she sighed, ‘I like it.’ And she lay back on the sofa and enjoyed it. I could see because she wriggled and squirmed a bit like a little girl. I had a friend once, a fag. He had a nose job and Botox pumped into his lips. His consultant told him, rub honey on your face every day. (I never forgot that.) He did. Rubbed honey in every night, lay on the bed letting it soak in. He began to look a whole lot younger than forty.
‘It’s great for the skin, see,’ I said, as my middle finger insinuated itself round the curves of her lips. She nibbled at it .
Outside the plane trees spattered the morning’s raindrops onto the stalls. Funny how people still came to the park to lug balls at coconuts and bury their faces in candy floss. All that sweetness melting into air, the promise of nothing. Ugly carousel organ music was grinding away and wooden horses hurtled round with stricken black and white eyes.
But I kept going with the honey. ‘That’s enough Wayne,’ she said when I eased a sticky palm under her T- shirt. She sat up, put her feet on the floor.
‘Come on. Stay here and get warm.’
‘No Wayne, I can’t.’
‘Oh come on Sonia, why not?’
She was washing her face. ‘I don’t know. I’m a cautious person. Maybe Wayne when you’re, like rich. Then maybe you’ll want to marry me.’
‘You mean when you’re rich.’ I stared at her.
Someone banged on the door. ‘Wayne. Wayne? Get your arse out of there. The cops are here. They’re asking for you.’
‘Oh shit Wayne, what’ve you done?’ said Sonia. She paused between mascara brush strokes, forgetting to breathe.
I ran a comb over my hair, pulled on a leather jacket. The constable looked harmless enough but the plain clothes detective had mean eyes. ‘How can I help?’ I sounded ingratiating.
They were looking for someone called Hugh O’Malley, an Irishman from Dublin.
‘What for?’ I said.
‘We want to ask him a few questions,’ said the copper. ‘We’ve heard you’re a friend of his.’
I said I didn’t know where he was. Last time I’d seen him was at the World’s End. I had to raise my voice against the blare of music and kids screaming in joyful terror. ‘No, I said, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t help you with Hugh O’Malley. He could be in hospital for all I know. Did you know he’s got a head problem? Tried to top himself two months back.’
They left saying to let them know if Hugh showed up any time.
Hugh’d tried more than once. There was that time he climbed onto the roof of a four storey in Orchard street. He was high as a kite on coke or something. They got him down as he swayed on the parapet, arms outstretched like a trapeze artist. He couldn’t stop crying back on the ground. About some posh teacher woman he’d met in a pub who ‘led him on’. He’d fallen for her. Then she dumped him – no, he wasn’t her type, she told him. He couldn’t understand it. He tracked her down to where she lived on a houseboat on the Embankment. But she’d left off living there. So he sat with her roommate, a South African exile, and they drank Teachers into the dawn. Next, Hugh was in prison for housebreaking – and he sent a letter to the teacher saying it was her fault he was fucked up and he’d get her when he was out.
Battersea Park was mayhem. I thought, I hate this place. Why was I tagging along with this fairground lark. My one-man band on a uni-cycle went down well enough with the crowds; even better when I wore the gorilla suit and played the sax. They liked that stuff, those classics I copied from ‘Bird’ and Canonball Adderley. The kids wondered if I was for real, a gorilla on a bike playing a sax. When they got close up I squirted them with my plastic water pump stuck in my buttonhole.
Inside the caravan Sonia was frying egg and bacon sarnies. The coffee smelled strongly of Colombian beans. I put a shot of brandy in it.
‘Wayne, you ok?’
‘Yeah. . . . I guess.’
‘Wayne, next time you could be more generous with the honey.’
What sort of invitation was that? What the hell. I had to get on my cycle, earn some dosh. But my head was full of Hugh – him standing high up there against the sky. Him folded up on the pavement, knees drawn up to his chest, sobbing. Anyway I wasn’t ready for marriage. Even if Sonia did get rich.
‘Ugh Sonia – I’m a cautious person,’ I said. She blinked at me.
We drank the coffee.
What happens when you kiss a soldier?
Tamsin plays her guitar near the entrance to the fairground every day. She looks sweet and cool in her long dress down to her ankles and her sandals and her hat with daisies and a red ribbon around the brim. A brace of young children stand watching her, fascinated by her fingers as they dance along the strings.
Tamsin watches them with affection but knows that they are not likely to put any money into the open guitar case standing hopefully near her feet. It is just as well that her father gives her a good allowance or else she would starve and maybe have to live in a garret. She always liked the idea of a garret. Artists are said to starve in them. Although at the age of 15 she doesn’t really know what a garret is.
On this particular day her thoughts are a little muddled. She’s been trying to smoke pot recently and although it makes her dreamy eyed and gives her day dreams she doesn’t really like it and her father would freak if he ever found out. But she needs the sense of peace. It allows her to feel detached from the noise and heat and movement of the fairground. But today the fairground noises flow around her as if they don’t exist. She seems not to hear the shouts, the calls of the stall holders, the organ grinder, children’s laughter or even the screams of fear from the high and wobbly rides.
Tamsin comes here to get away from her parents who really don’t know what life is all about. They really don’t understand her music or even why she wants to dress in flowing clothes, have people admire her voice and the way she strums the instrument. She loves that guitar and she loves the songs she sings. They are all about the senselessness of war and the stupidity of young men who choose to become soldiers. Tamsin despises soldiers,
This is the way she has been feeling this week. But there is a disturbing thought in her mind. She had wandered around the stalls and performers yesterday and seen the Greek belly dancer. She loved what she saw and even found a moment to chat to Nadia – that was the belly dancer’s name. The lithesome movements, the secretive smile, the lowered lashes were things she would love to possess, to be able to use to get people to admire her.
No matter that the belly dancer wasn’t really Greek but just a local girl like herself. This makes Tamsin think that just maybe it would be possible for her to become a belly dancer. She flicks her hair back, closes her eyes and visualises herself with a jewel in her navel catching the light and winking as she moves her hips to the sensuous music.. She realises that somewhere in amongst her songs about war and death and love gone wrong she is strongly attracted to being a belly dancer.
Tamsin shakes her head impatiently and strums out a tune. She strums a little harder on her guitar, raises her voice a little to make the children who stand solemnly watching her get a good hold of her message about loving your fellow man and the world they live in. Despite her love for the songs so critical war she wonders if the children wouldn’t enjoy a belly dancer more. There had been lots of children watching Nadia. Tamsin’s voice wavers and her fingers falter on chords she has played hundreds of times before.
Suddenly the lights in the fairground seem to dim. The noise level rises. Tamsin sees people running towards the Ferris wheel and then notices that all the lights around the wheel have gone out and it is no longer turning.
People are running towards the wheel, some shouting and screaming. But the fiercest screaming comes from those who are sitting in the cages now stuck at the very top of the wheel. Tamsin moves with the crowds towards the big wheel and as she draws close she sees a man and a little girl in the cage at the very top. The little girl is crying, screaming really, and the man has his arm around her.
She runs back and fetches her guitar. Returning to the base of the wheel she looks up and sees that the man is wearing a uniform. He is a soldier. Tamsin calls up to him: “Hey soldier! Can you hear me?” He nods firmly and she begins to sing for the little girl.
“Once I had an elephant…”. Her voice is sweet and she makes it up as she goes along. The child starts to laugh and the worry on the man’s face is replaced by a slow smile.
Soon the lights come on again and the wheel turns slowly disgorging its occupants onto terra firma. She runs up, embraces the child and then reaches up and kisses the soldier firmly on the lips.
Tamsin turns away and drifts towards the little three-legged stool she sits on to play her songs about love and peace. The weather seems warmer, although a cool wind is starting to blow. She picks up a shawl and draws it around her shoulders. She picks up her guitar yet can’t bring herself to play those anti-war songs and after a few bars stops her strumming.
She can feel the warmth of the soldier’s lips upon her own and she sits quite still realising that if she could kiss a soldier she can surely learn to belly dance.
No matter that her Dad would not approve. Maybe the little girl and the soldier might even have preferred a belly dancer.
Tamsin gathers up her things and leaves the fairground not quite sure of what exactly she is going to be tomorrow, or even the day thereafter. But it really doesn’t matter – life is so full of promise when you are only 15.
Where I live.
The dusty paths winding between the tents have dark patches where water has been thrown to keep down the dust. Occasional pools of water reflect strings of lights. A still figure draws the eye, a woman middle aged and soft with too much flesh, and a long plait winding its way down her shoulder. Her face is lined, and there is grey mixed in with her pale blonde hair. Her brown eyes twinkle at the crowd. She hugs her knee, and rocks as she sits and watches the crown spill past her table of knick-knacks. Her wares are pretty, pictures of unicorns, dark green household objects painted with flowers.
She rocks a little again, and her mouth lifts in a smile as she scribbles some figures on a scrap of paper. “Petrol money, yes. The most important thing, but if I have electric light tonight I can finish the trays, and they always sell well there. And then I can borrow from Ayesha, and then still get there tomorrow, and have some cash for driving back”.
Her hand, with rings too tight, reaches out to stroke the wood nearest her. “I could just work by candle light, but then it may look like nothing. And no chance of enough cash for the week. A cheque coming in regularly, man, that’s nice. Only good thing about that bloody school. “
Her mind skitters away from the image rising in her of herself standing in the staffroom, and the headmaster saying how much they had appreciated her work, and how she would be missed. He had not met her eyes once during his speech, read from a crumpled bit of recycled departmental circular. She had stared back at them, and smiled, and lifted her head, and straightened her shoulders, like some textbook soldier. She had pitied them, refusing to feel bad, and smiled and thanked them, and stared at them, hoping to put a hex on them just by staring, and smiling. The smirch of their smiles did not touch her.
She keeps smiling now, although the procession of floats has drawn the crowds away, and no one passes close to her table. Her head tilts back, and she smiles, a brave smile she thinks. Over the noise of the music thumping through the loudspeakers, she hears a scream. The crowd stares in the direction of the biggest float.
“What is it?” she calls to the security guard hurrying past.
“That Carmen, she’s fighting with Brit on the bloody float.”
She stays where she is, staring into the gathering dark. She could go and watch, like the others, not like anyone was gong to steal her stuff. Couldn’t give some of it away. She looks up and sees the boy hesitating, half turning away. She goes very still, and calls to him.
“Derek. What are you doing here?”
“Nothing, Aunty Jocelyn.”
“Come here then, what is going on?”
He walks over, with the shambling gait of an adolescent, not quite meeting her eye.
“I thought you couldn’t come.”
“My dad didn’t come home, so he wasn’t going to say anything was he?” The boy stares at his feet, and twists his head, so that his body faces hers, but his head is turned away. His belligerent tone stops her.
She stands up, and puts her hand flat on his chest. His head turns back to face her, and his body stills under her touch. And then they are looking around them, instinctively checking for observers. But the gaze of the crowd is still fixed on Carmen, and the fight, and no one is watching.
“Come home with me.”
The boy shrugs.
And she decides candlelight will be just fine for what she has in mind for the evening.
The day after the fair, I began my search for you. Gone, they told me, an Irish visitor, roped in to help raise money. Leaving Jane mystified and only slightly tearful, I followed your tracks, from friend to friend, from home to here.
I hear the low murmur of your voice and a giggling girl pushes her way past me. And I know that whatever it takes, wherever you lead, I am in the right place. A place that has been waiting for me ever since I saw that sign, in another field, another country a few short weeks ago.
‘Come on,’ Jane begged. ‘Just for a laugh.’
‘No,’ I answered, ‘it’s absolute nonsense.’
‘You know, Simon – I knew you’d say that – and I’m no fortune-teller.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You’re bloody boring, that’s what I mean.’ Her voice rose. ‘You never want to try anything. And you’re so predictable. I even knew what clothes you’d be wearing today, the usual cotton shirt and ironed jeans. You could be really handsome if you’d only loosen up a little.’
‘What’s wrong with ironed jeans?’ I was bemused.
‘Oh! If you don’t know, how am I supposed to tell you!’ And with that, Jane turned and stormed away. Leaving me alone and feeling rather foolish outside Madame Róisín’s tent.
‘I say,’ I found myself muttering to her departing back, ‘that’s a bit unfair.’
‘Are you next?’
Her eyes were green and penetrating, the rest of her face hidden behind a diaphanous scarf. Her hair, tangled red curls, was drawn back from her pale forehead, and large golden hoops dangled from her ears. I’d always imagined fortune-tellers as wrinkled old crones, but Madame Róisín was tall, lissom, and very beautiful.
‘No, no I don’t …’ I stammered, like a 14- year-old school boy.
‘… like to do anything unpredictable? Your girlfriend doesn’t mince her words, does she?’ Her amused manner nettled me. I opened the curtain and entered the tent.
I sat and Madame Róisín sat opposite me. Her long dress, deep purple and velvety, shimmered against her creamy skin.
‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ she asked. She laughed gently. ‘It might change your life.’ Her voice was low, with a soft burr. I stared at her stubbornly. Predicable? Boring? I wasn’t leaving that tent until she’d told my fortune. I opened my wallet and placed R20 on the table.
She shrugged, floated her hands above the ball and peered into it intently. Her lashes were long, thick with mascara. A musky scent rose and my head began to ache. Her hands moved in slow swimming movements, and then she drew a sharp breath.
‘What is it?’ I asked.
She looked up at me, her eyes softer, questioning.
‘I see nothing,’ she said.
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘Nothing you would be able to hear.’
I held her stare, and to my surprise, the cheeks above the shawl reddened. ‘What do you see?’ I repeated. She sighed and again her hands moved, flickering white and thin in the dim light.
It might have been a trick of the eye, but the crystal seemed to glow from within.
‘I see a woman, tall and slight.’
It was my turn to smother a smile. Jane was short, and, to be absolutely honest, rather dumpy.
‘She will take you across the seas. You will follow wherever she leads. You will abandon everything, for without her your heart will know no peace.’
The scarf slipped fractionally, and I saw her parted lips. ‘No peace.’
And now, here I stand, in a green field, drawing curious glances. Perhaps it’s the idiotic grin on my unshaven face. Or my dirty jeans and rumpled sweatshirt. I haven’t slept or changed since setting foot on Irish soil. I part the curtain and step inside. My heart leads, and I follow.
Eight-year-old Sue Simon had vivid memories of last year’s Spring Show and could hardly contain her excitement as the family got ready g. There was to be a talent contest at 3p.m., and Sue, her heart set on being an actress, was determined not only to participate, but to win. Her parents were anxious- she had a slight limp. “She shouldn’t get her hopes up too high,” her father had said.
“But darling, she’s been practising for days.”
“Well, let’s just wait and see.”
Once at the fair grounds, John and Rose left the children at the swings and “rides” with enough money for them to have a few rides each. Sue and James would meet their parents at the tent where the talent contest was to be held at half-past two “at the latest,” said Rose. “You’ll need to calm down after all the rides.”
“’Bye Mom, ’bye Dad’,” they said and ran off to ride on flying swings and the wonderful roller coaster.
The fair ground was busy and there was a lot of noise: the crowds calling, children squealing on the more daring rides, the music from several booths and over all this noise, there were the mixed smells of candy-floss, hot-dogs and pop-corn. Surprisingly too, there was the rather “wild” smell of a group of animals in a far corner of the fair-grounds. This year, a small “zoo” – perhaps some retired circus animals in cages, – had been allowed at the fair and for a small fee, several people were looking curiously at the lion: this was a sad-sack of an animal, not regal at all. Pressed against the bars of its cage; an elephant stood under a tree and accepted the buns and bananas thrown to it, and four ponies with faded finery in their harnesses stood meekly under another tree- a safe distance from the elephant. Particularly thrilled, was a group of orphans- about twenty of them- looking in wide-eyed amazement at these beasts. Suddenly there was a loud cry and the orphans were squealing and crying; as well as running in all directions and shouting “Lion! Lion’s out!” Somehow, perhaps through the action of one of the children themselves, the lion’s cage was open and the sad-sack of a creature was standing bewildered in the centre of the field. The two teachers supposedly in charge of the orphans were nowhere to be seen (in fact they had gone in search of the trainer) but the orphan children presented a real problem – as much as the “ escaped “lion did.
“Quiet!” Sue Simon stood between the lion and the orphans. “This lion can’t hurt you. Now listen to me! ‘Said the shark…’”
The children did go quiet and in a short while, they were cheering Sue while the animal trainer had coaxed the lion back into its cage.
From another corner of the fair-ground, there was an announcement over the loud-speaker that the talent contest was to begin in fifteen minutes and that no more competitors would be allowed into the tent.
Sue grabbed James’s hand and they ran through the crowds towards the tent in the opposite corner to the “zoo”.
Crumpled, her hair awry and her face red and shiny, Sue went and sat next to her father. A tall, confident blonde girl was reciting a poem which amused the audience. “Am I too late, Daddy?” Sue whispered.
“‘Fraid so, darling.”
“But the lion got out and…”
Then one of the judges stood up. “Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls…” he began. “I think we’ve heard everyone. …”
“Just a minute!” There was a loud voice at the back of the tent. “Where’s the little lion girl? The one who saved the orphans? We need to hear her! She has just done an amazing thing.” And briefly he told the audience about Sue’s action of a few minutes earlier.
Sue didn’t feel very confident about her appearance, but she’d read enough stories about the show going on, so, in spite of her crumpled dress and dusty shoes, she stood up on the little raised stage and recited her poem ;
“ Said the shark to the flying-fish…”
She knew the poem so well, put the right expression into all the words that the audience cheered and Sue the Lion-Tamer won first prize!
It is a sunny Saturday morning. Brigitte is still in her plain green flannel pyjamas. The top can hardly cover her bulging belly. She is busy cleaning their two small-roomed Wendy house. Her mother is already out at the nearby flea market trying to sell the products of her needle work.
Brigitte has just finished making her eight-year old brother’s bed when she feels a bolt of lightning strike her belly. She can hardly breathe. Her head is a lake of confusion. This cannot be a contraction!
When she revealed her pregnancy to her mother, the latter went mad at her for being such a disappointment to her. Brigitte was in Grade 11 and a brilliant student. She was the only spark of hope for a better future for the family, especially after the tragedy. When they had arrived in Cape Town from the DRC, it had not been easy for them to settle. Then to add to their misfortune, Brigitte’s father died in a car accident.
When her mother’s anger about the pregnancy had subsided, she warned Brigitte to go regularly to prenatal consultations for her sake and her baby’s. At her last visit she was told that her baby was due in a week.
Carefully Brigitte holds her belly between her hands, like a basketball player ready to score a goal. Slowly, she lowers herself onto the bed she has just made, both hands supporting her back.
By this time, her little brother who has been playing outside comes in panting, pours himself a cup of water from a bottle and sends it down his throat noisily.
“Clean up the floor, I’m not feeling well,” she begs her brother.
“It’s cold in here, I wanna be in the sun, I’ll sweep later.”
As he walks out out, Brigitte pulls herself together and grabs the collar of his T-shirt. “You’re not going nowhere… Ooooooooo!” She screams as lightning strikes again. It sends her to the floor where she sits, legs spread apart.
Brigitte’s brother is watching her in puzzlement.
“Hold my back … No, bring me my cell phone. I need to send a please-call to my boyfriend and another one to Mum, I don’t have airtime.” She forces the words out between her sobs.
The little boy is too scared to face all this drama. He disappears shouting, “I’m gonna call Maman Gode.”
Now, Brigitte has stopped crying. She wipes her face and slowly reaches for her baby’s suitcase to arrange it properly. She is convinced that her baby wants to be out today. There has not much of a preparation for this birth: half a dozen nappies, two woollen suits and a shawl knitted by her mother, three vests, three plastic panties and some toiletries.
Eventually when she feels some relief from the pain, anger builds inside her. Why does she have to suffer alone? Her boyfriend is still going to college. She had to stop after all the gossip at school about her pregnancy despite her vain attempts to hide it.
So it will always be like that. The woman has to pay the price alone. She remembers the comment that one of her teachers made about the woman caught in adultery and brought to Jesus. “She was supposed to be stoned to death. Where was the other sinner? Shouldn’t he have been stoned too?” Brigitte smiled wryly.He presumably had walked away a free man.
As she keeps herself busy packing the stuff neatly, her waters break. Her pants are wet. There is a mixture of panic and disgust in her. She removes her pyjamas, wipes herself with a towel, and changes into her bitenge outfit.
There has been no reply to her messages. Her message to her boyfriend could not be delivered. Her mother has probably ignored her message, too busy trying to make the money to pay for the rent of their Wendy house.
In no time, the little boy, Maman Gode (a neighbour and a close friend of Brigitte’s mother) and her husband arrive in their Renault 5 to take her to the hospital.
Maman Gode tries to comfort Brigitte, telling her that her mother’s labours used to be as quick as a fart. She tells her that she may have inherited this as well. Maman Gode locks the place and escorts her to the car where her husband is waiting, a his face anxious. Maman Gode asks the boy to go and play with her children at her house.
The little boy watches the car pulling away, shakes his head and mumbles, “I’m glad I’m not a girl.”
A Memory Healed
A dwarf stands at the entrance to the circus tent collecting tickets. His large hands sweat as he holds the greasy stubs. He is glad that it is nighttime. During the day the sunlight hurts his eyes and balloons cause an unexplained anxiety. Now the fairground is beautiful – the darkness hides the grime and the faded elegance. The fairy lights give everything an air of magic and mystery.
He watches the crowd pass by. It is noisy and pressing but the odd person catches his eye. He sees a beautiful young blonde woman, weeping. His heart contracts in sympathy. He understands sorrow and wonders what could have upset her. Part of him considers abandoning his post at the entrance of the tent to follow her. He feels uneasy – something is not right. His long experience of watching life from the sidelines has given him a sixth sense when something is wrong. He vacillates because he knows that he is old and deformed. She would probably run away from him and call for help. He bites his lip indecisively.
Suddenly the lights go out. The unaccustomed darkness leaves him blinded and he hears the screams of frightened people. He knows instantly what to do. There is a generator behind the tent. Once turned on it will provide some light to the surrounding area. He slips away from the doorway and edges his way around the tent, stepping carefully over the guy ropes. His foot stumbles over something soft and unresisting. He reaches down and feels clammy skin and a slender body. To his distress he realizes that it is a young child. As he bends over, searching the darkness for clues the lights suddenly come back on.
He sees the gash in the child’s head and reaches into his back pocket to retrieve the lucky charm he always carries with him. He wipes the blood from her cheek with a red striped baby grow. It is the only momento he has that proves he too once had a child. He remembers the horror of losing her and the greater horror of finding her lifeless form still clutching a balloon in her tiny hand. He puts aside his memories and focuses on helping the living. Gently he lifts the girl from the ground. She opens her eyes and looks at him with confusion.
She shows no fear only acceptance that he is there to help. He smiles at her and carries her to the first aid caravan around the corner. A paramedic looks at her with concern and leans forward to take her. As the dwarf turns away to retreat back into anonymity of the fairground night the beautiful young woman he had noticed earlier runs down the caravan steps and grabbing hold of the child, sobs with relief. The child, back in her mother’s arms, also starts to cry.
As the dwarf explains what happened the young woman holds him in a three way embrace and kisses his furrowed cheek with gratitude.
“Thanks – you found my child. I’ll never forget you”.
– April 2009