Summers in small-town southern England – windy moors, chasing quail through the gorse. Skylarks and brown hares, rain-washed sunlight. Tramping across the chalky grasslands, we children hunted for orchids and inhaled the intoxicating honey scent of Lady’s Bedstraw, bumbling about the meadows like nectar-drunk bees. Towards the end of the summer, the Punch and Judy puppet theatre would come as part of a Midsummer festival We would run down to the meadow to spend the day there, sixpence in hand.
We avoided the actual Punch and Judy show. The rollicking smack of heads and dropping of babies was too much like home for some of us. Instead, we made our way to the zoo – of sorts. A small menagerie of pitiful animals. Usually cast-offs from bigger, slicker, more entertaining fairs. The kind that didn’t set up their tents and pegs in a borrowed beach-front meadow but, instead, were invited to big cities to perform in arenas and stadiums.
The ponies and llamas in our meadow carnivals were too tired, or old, or lame to put much effort into being entertaining. They allowed themselves to be petted and fondled, however, climbed over and ear-tugged until we grew bored with them. There was always a monkey – and he was nasty and bit us after taking our proffered peanut. He had bald, mangy patches and yellow teeth.
Down at the bottom of the meadow the small, purple tent housed the fortune teller. She wasn’t very impressive. Though she dressed like a gypsy, we children knew of the real gypsies that came to my grandfather’s farm each summer. For all her golden bangles and riotous clothes, the village granny knew more than she did. The granny used real frog’s eyes and newt’s tongues, everyone knew that. The purple tent did not see much business. No one wanted to offend the granny by being seen visiting the fortune teller. The granny was short of temper and sharp of tongue and didn’t stand for foolishness.
The larger red-coloured tent in the far corner of the meadow, however – that saw a lot of business. There, for a half-penny, we could see the two-headed piglet floating in a mason jar of fluid. Or the strange, translucent sack of skin said to be the caul of a new-born vampire, blue in colour. There, we could see the mummified hand of a monkey clenched tight around a lock of human hair – the monkey lover, beheaded and hands cut off as the result of his liberties with an ancient princess. She mourned him dreadfully, apparently, and died of a broken heart.
There, also, were the stuffed remains of strange, outrageous animals from a place called Australia. Some had pockets of skin, some looked more familiar but then nature had gone awry and they were something else instead. Some looked like they had not made up their minds what they were. There were photographs, too, of the dark springy-haired people of this strange land. If we looked deep into the eyes we could see that they had seen the source of the mutations and the strangeness. Their eyes were far, far away. They had either seen heaven and were wise beyond our ken or they had seen hell and were mad. The photos made us shiver with a discomfort that went deeper than our fear of the vampire caul.
At the far end of the tent was a small room draped round with scarlet curtains. In that room was the Carnival Lady. We dared each other to enter that room. We never thought that we wouldn’t accept the dare.
As we entered we were knocked breathless by the intensity of the heat – the close, red heat of the curtains; the pulsing human heat of the figure in front of us. We were fact to face with the Carnival lady, seated on a splay-legged stool. We were knee to knee with her. The odour of her sweat filled out nostrils and throats to choking, tinged with the bittersweet bit of sandalwood. She didn’t smile. She didn’t frown. In fact, she showed to emotion at all – her face a stony study. There was nobody there, behind those eyes.
So we felt more foolhardy, staring at her – peering curiously and without shame or embarrassment at all her incongruity. She was gigantic, enormous. She filled the snug room. Her body was shapeless; it rippled in folds and bulges of flesh that changed shape and position each time she took a breath. Her lower face, the tops of her shoulders, the backs of her hands – all carpeted with thick, black hair. She was naked so as to prove, I suppose, that there was no doubt she was a woman. Her breasts hung heavy and pendulous upon her knees. Blue-veined and sheer-skinned, heavy as an un-milked heifer’s. But we could see no womanhood there below her bulging belly. It lay snug and hidden, dark and monstrous as herself, between her thick thighs like tree trunks. Thighs that could not part.
Her feet . . . her feet were small and delicate. It was as though so much effort had gone into developing her vastness that her feet had been forgotten. Her face was equally small. Above the beard her mouth was tiny. It quivered like a hummingbird, deep red as though bitten ‘til the blood rose. Her nose was a mere smudge, not seeming at all adequate to the deep rumbling breaths she breathed. Her eyes were small, swimming, vacant. Her buttocks were wide, dimpled . . .stone.
We sensed no soul behind her eyes so each of us, in our solitary turn, took great liberties with her; monkeyed with her, sticking out our tongues, leering, staring, flicking popcorn, calling her every lewd, cruel, vile name we would think of in our limited experience. We stopped short of actually touching her. However much we made fun, we feared her. Someone, though, had found courage and nerve enough to write “Frannie loves Georgie” across her buttocks in bright pink lipstick.
She was outrageous, outlandish, ugly, pathetic, gross, sad. We girls, with our sense of femininity still unexplored and tenuous, felt offended. But, more so, we left the tent unable to enjoy the day any further – a sick, ominous feeling in the pit of our bellies and a strange sense of foreboding and portent that stayed with us for a long time afterward. A vestige of warning. We ran from the carnival then, home to our measurable and steadfast lives.