By Kit Whitfield
When she was sixteen, my mother saw a freak show for the first time. She wandered the dust paths in sandalled feet with toe-nails painted Cardinal Red, gazing at the coloured bulbs, a few of them broken, the squashy-faced clowns and sharp-nosed jugglers, and flames and coloured scarves and pipe-organ music were in the air all around her. Then she found the freak tent, striped green and yellow, sagging under the guy-ropes. She liked green and yellow, so she lifted the flap and stepped into the darkness. Her feet made a little rustle on the sawdust, and the smell of it mingled with old cigar-smoke and sweat; she breathed it in. Eyes wide, one hand playing with the end of her long yellow braid, she tip-toed from spotlight to spotlight.
The first sign declared, The World's Tiniest Man and Woman. They stood, faces and bodies together, turning in a slow, stiff-backed waltz; it reminded her of her musical box at home, with a ballerina in it turning on a pivot while the little engine picked out music. There was a dip in the sawdust under their turning feet, and no footprints around it. She imagined them standing there, turning all evening. After a while, her eye was drawn to the next spotlight, where the Strongest Man In The World stood, smothered in shifting muscles as he lifted his bar bell. His leopard-spotted loincloth left his chest and legs bare; they were shaven as smooth as her own.
The she stepped nine steps to another spotlight, past the formaldehyde jar containing the Six-Legged Spider Frog, and saw the contortionist. That was it for her. She stood alone in the tent and watched him for two hours without ever sitting down. People came and went, sometimes clustering around her to watch him, and, if she held her breath long enough, wandering on to look at something else. She stood, her braid in her mouth, and watched the thin young man winding his limbs around each other as if they were paper. After an hour, he walked over to the piano in the corner of the spotlight with a pace as upright and light as a marionette, and laid himself on the stool, chest down, bending his legs over his shoulders so he could play with both hands and feet. He played a funeral march which she half-recognised, but with a chiming dissonance she couldn't place, until she looked and saw that each playing limb had six fingers or toes. Her hair in her mouth tasted faintly of bitter shampoo, and her lips had never felt warmer.
After two hours, a midget brought him a battered thermos and he sat down in the sawdust, his legs folded up to his chest like a spider, sipping. Then he looked up at her and held out the cup. As he smiled, lines wrinkled around his eyes, lines twistier than his whole body could create, and she walked forward on buckling legs to take the cup. His voice when he started talking to her was clear and soft, and her own took on an intonation that she didn't recognise. She sipped the cup, a mixture of tea and some burning spirit, which almost made her gag but also set wings fluttering in her head that her few swigs of cheap whisky on too-loud Friday nights had never touched. He didn't laugh at her as she choked. They talked without suspicion, and when he reached out and touched her cheek with his six-fingered hand, she dropped the cup, and hot tea and gin soaked into the sawdust.
Later that evening, she knocked at the caravan of the circus owner and asked for a job.
'Can you juggle?'
'Lift heavy equipment?'
'Well, not really.'
'Trapeze? Tame animals? Work a carousel?'
'Any deformities, can you pass as a freak?'
'Go on home to your mother, girlie,' he said, and shut the door. She banged on it, and his hoarse voice roared from within, 'Be off with you, before I put you out!' She heard a soft mutter within; it sounded like the word 'useless'.
Tears in her eyes blurring the bright lights, she stumbled away. She went to hide in the first marquee she came to, and ducked inside, to find herself in the clown tent. She sat huddled on the floor, shrinking down at every roar of laughter. As the clowns slapped each other, she thought about going home, going back to church and embroidery on Sunday, to rows of clean desks at schools, to rides in parents' cars with boys who thought getting drunk an achievement. She huddled lower, and bit hard on her fingernails to keep from sobbing out loud. The clowns were playing tricks on one another now. The one who had sat down on a custard pie whipped a pen out of his pocket, and squirted it into the face of the other. The inked clown shook his head and rubbed his eyes, smearing blue all over his face and hands. My mother watched and somewhere in her head, an idea came that made her shiver, and she slipped out of the tent and made for the road, skipping all the way.
The second car that passed noticed her shiny hair and outstretched thumb. The driver talked a lot about pretty hair and pretty skin and how he'd love to properly christen his car, but she stared out of the window all the way, and when they got into town, she opened the door and hopped out with a 'Thank you', which was as much conversation as he had out of her.
The tattooist's was still open. She'd stared at it before with her girlfriends, all of them covering their mouths and giggling, but the windows were full of posters showing the pictures you could get on your body, and beyond them, closed Venetian blinds, so she'd never seen the inside. Now she pushed open the door, which had a bell at the top which jingled like a jeweller's, and tiptoed in.
There were a few easy-chairs, all empty, and a counter, behind which a man with half-moon glasses and grey stubble came out of a back room. 'What can I do for you, Missy?' he asked.
She emptied her purse on the counter, containing all the money she had. 'What will you do on me for this?'
'Well, that'll buy you a pretty little something. Here, have a look at these, see what you like.' He took out a thick book like a photograph-album, with pictures of hearts and roses and butterflies, none of them bigger than two inches across.
'Is that all?'
'How much were you thinking of?'
'All of me.'
'I want to be tattooed all over me.'
'On that pretty skin? Are you sure?'
She nodded. 'I'll pay you, I promise. Only I'd have to pay you in instell - instalments. I'd give you my address and everything.'
His eyes took in her white summer blouse and gingham skirt and ankle bracelet. 'I don't know, Missy.'
'I'll pay you double.' He sighed and frowned. 'Triple. I'll pay you triple. With interest, you can name it. Here, look, this is my address, the Gerry Capaldi Travelling Circus. I'll post you money every month, I promise.'
'You got any proof you're from there?'
She felt in her pockets and took out a flier, the same one that had brought her to the circus and the coloured lights and the tea and gin soaking into the sawdust. On the back were the next few months' worth of venues, which the contortionist had scribbled down. 'Please?'
He looked at her a moment, then gave a little laugh. 'You're under age aren't you? Don't answer that one, I don't want to know. Triple, you say?'
'Well, business is slow tonight. You come on in, Missy, we'll fix you up.'
It took several sessions to cover her, months. In the days between, she swept and cleaned and cooked, and slept in one of the easy-chairs in the waiting room, and sat tapping her feet in his office, looking at the calendar. She sent a postcard to her parents to tell them that she had not been kidnapped but would not be coming home for some time, and a long letter to the contortionist with a return address.
The needle buzzed and stung, tracing slow patterns into the night. My mother lay on the couch with shut teeth, and thought of swarms of bees and scratching cats' claws, and sawdust, and twelve supple fingers. She made a resolution not to look at herself until it was done; so when he was working on her, in between other clients, she lay there, gritting her teeth to stop herself twitching with impatience. Time went by slowly under the needle, but more and more patterns were burned into her. She came to know the room very well: the ceiling cracks got fixed in her memory from hours of lying on her back, staring hard to keep herself from flinching, the red, scuffed linoleum she learned by heart while he did her back. The dark corners were her favourite; when she stared at them, the shadows seemed soft and welcoming, something else to think about. The room smelled of antiseptic cleaning fluid from when she had got sick, the first session. She never complained, but only pressed him to keep going. They didn't talk during the sessions; he leaned over her and focused on one inch of fair, fine-grained skin at a time; stretching it with one hand as she bit her lips and clenched her fists, and repeated in her head the phrases from the letters the contortionist sent her.
The final session was completed in the small hours at the end of a long day. There was a little window, high up in the corner of the room, and grey light was seeping through it before he finally set down his needles. He rubbed his eyes; the room was cold in the early morning. 'You can look at yourself now. It's finished,' he said, his fingers pinching the bridge of his nose, and jerked his head towards a mirror.
She slid off the couch. She was naked in the cold dawn. Her chest, the last area he'd done, was stinging like frostbite and seeping blood along the fault-lines, and she clutched her arms round herself, wishing he'd turn away. But once she saw herself in the mirror, she thought she'd never feel naked again. From neck to ankles, there was no more bare pale skin but a burst of flowers - irises, roses, daisies, speedwell - with snakes entwining in their stems beside butterflies and watching eyes. It was crudely done, of course - she'd hurried him to finish so much that he'd left gaps between the flowers and given few details; she looked like a child's drawing, but she was covered and bold and colourful, and the simple designs pleased her eyes. Her hands and feet were bare of colour; at each ankle and wrist was a bracelet of interlocking ivy leaves, with a choker of the same pattern around the neck. Her eyes had hollows under them; the skin on her face was dull and her hair was limp, but a sprig of ivy twined up her neck with a spray of roses that blossomed on her cheek and dimpled into three dimensions when she smiled. She was smiling now, and her lips were still pink, and she rose on tiptoes and spun around on her bare feet, laughing. Her chest hurt with the movement, but she kept spinning, light-heeled, and couldn't stop.
'One last touch, Missy,' said the old man's voice, making her jump. She stopped twirling; the world wheeled for a moment and she sat down on the couch with a bump. The room was still spinning as he took hold of her left earlobe, and buzzed on a pattern. Then he passed her a small hand mirror, and she turned her head to one side to see.
'A gold coin,' she said, smiling.
'That's a reminder for you. Here's what you owe me,' he said, and wrote down some numbers on a piece of paper. She swallowed when she read it, and looked up at him. 'You pay me every month now, you understand?'
'I'll pay you,' she said.
'Right, now, let's get you bandaged.' He wrapped her chest in white, leaving her thick and stiff-armed like a corpse. 'You remember the drill. Leave those bandages on for twenty-four hours and keep dry till the scab comes off, then you can do what you like.' She nodded; it was hard to breathe with her chest wrapped so tightly. He taped a bandage over her ear, anchoring it on her unpainted cheek. 'That's all. Now off you go.'
Blinking with tiredness and feeling sick, she walked out of the shop. The lift she hitched back made no comments about her pretty hair, but saw the bandages and kept a respectful silence. As she watched him, she breathed deeply and her sickness began to fade. She smiled, wrinkling the dressing on her cheek.
She slept all day at a friend's house. The friend cried when she said she was running away, and scolded her over the tattoos, but she lent her her bed. My mother stayed in bed for the day, hiding under the covers and imagining the ink soaking deeper and deeper into her flesh, the flowers taking root under the scabs. On the twenty-fifth hour she rose, peeled off the bandages and slipped her short-sleeved blouse and knee-length skirt over her new multi-coloured body. She took out her earrings and left them with the ankle bracelet for her friend; she didn't need them any more. She went home and packed a small case, showed herself to her parents to give them the opportunity to throw her out rather than miss her as a runaway, then hitched a lift. The circus had moved on, but the letters had told her the right venue. It was early morning, and there were few cars on the road, but she got a lift from a woman who cast nearly as many glances at her arms as at the road, and my mother leaned back, awarding herself a penny for every glance. By the time she reached the circus, her fortune was made.
On her way to the manager's caravan, she met the contortionist again - met my father, that is. He ran over to her, smiling, and stopped short when he saw the green arms and legs. 'I'm joining you,' she told him. He looked at her, a little wide-eyed. His look went up and down her patterned limbs, over the same blouse and skirt she'd worn when they met, a little dirty now, a little worn; over her hands clutching each other, and back to her face. She swallowed, and gave him her best smile. He looked at her an instant more, and then burst out laughing.
'Come on,' he said, and took her hand. 'Have you asked Gerry for the job yet?' She shook her head. 'I'll come with you. I can't wait to see his face.'
She stopped, and pulled on his hand to stop him too. 'Have I done right? Do you like it?' she said, and tightened her hand on his.
He looked at her watchful face, and touched the flowered cheek. His fingers dabbed at her skin, testing the green and red pattern. She almost flinched - the memory of the needles was still close - but instead she leaned towards him and turned her face against the curious fingers, and he looked a little surprised to find that her skin was as warm and smooth as when they'd first met. 'You look beautiful,' he told her. 'Now come along, and let's see if Gerry has a heart attack.'
Hand-in-hand, they made their way to Gerry Capaldi's caravan. 'Gerry!' my father called. Gerry stumped to the door and opened it, his hair half-slicked with gel and half still in juicy black tangles, with a comb in his hand.
'Gerry, this young lady would like a job,' my father told him. Gerry gave a grunt, and turned to look at her. She stood in the dust, and slipped off her blouse and lifted her skirt, giving a slow twirl.
He put his comb down. 'Weren't you the one here the other night?'
'Will I do now?' she asked.
'Huh. Tattooed lady, eh?'
'A pretty sight,' my father put in, cradling a patterned forearm in his hands.
Gerry cast him a suspicious look. 'Like that, is it? Eh, well. Wait there and I'll get you a contract.' The two of them smiled, and caught each others' hands again. 'But you'd better marry the girl, you hear? I don't want you making a habit of this.' And he shuffled into the depths of his caravan, leaving my parents standing outside, looking at each other in mild shock in the dawn.
I was born about nine months after that - in the first-aid tent behind the marquee, with Simon, the circus's resident medic, in attendance. The flowers on my mother's stomach stretched as I grew inside her, turning them into species unknown in the Western hemisphere. My earliest memories involve her doing sit-ups on our caravan floor, trying to pull them back out of the Amazon into a temperate zone. 'This is a daisy,' she'd point, 'and this is ivy, and this is a snake lost in the jungle.'
'Does she ever get home?'
'No, she doesn't. But she doesn't want to. She likes being lost, she's happier in the jungle.'
'What about the eyes, Mummy?'
'Ah, the eyes. They're magic eyes. They make sure that nobody looks at you in a bad way. People can only give you good looks, lucky looks. They keep you safe from bad eyes.'
There was no room for a crib, so I slept in a drawer lined with a tea-towel, lying with my feet under my chin like any other bendy baby and sucking my left hand - the one with six fingers, not just five. It was only when I started to walk that they realised I was quite stiff, too stiff for a performer, and started to make me lie on the ground while they stretched my legs this way and that to limber me up. My mother thought I should get tattooed down my five-fingered, five-toed right side, and learn to twist my six-digitted left, so we could do a triple act, but that could wait till I was older. It had to wait, actually, since payments on her own tattoos were still nowhere near being settled. I was earning my keep by dancing with the midgets and letting Mick the strong-man lift me on his dumb-bell - which I loved, it was as good as the rides Eddie the carousel man, who used to give me toffees behind my mother's back, would let me have. I'd dress in a green and yellow checked clown suit, too, and ride on the two-headed goat when we paraded through the towns, and I was trying to learn to juggle, though I was far from good at it. Jackie-of-all-trades, everyone called me, and I've been Jackie ever since.
That brought some money in. My mother insisted that Gerry pay me for my hard work, though I always thought of it as playing, and she'd add my little monthly wage to about half of hers, and post off a cheque to the tattooist. This wasn't much. The circus was never quite on the ropes, but always close to them; Gerry paid insurance fees and site rentals and taxes and things with long names I never took in, so no one got paid a lot. There were points where we had to live off porridge. That's another early memory of mine - my father saying 'Porridge again? Why in hell did you agree to pay him triple?'
'I wasn't much of a haggler back then,' my mother told him, with the closest to an apologetic face I've ever seen on her, and my father gave a resigned sigh.
'Well, you like porridge, don't you pet?' he said to me, and poked a spoon at my face.
I did. Eddie would always good for a few toffees, and there was always plenty of porridge to go around; to my mind, this made up a staple diet. 'Sweets are bad for your teeth,' my mother would tell me when she caught me eating them. 'They'll all fall out.'
'We could make her hair grey if she did.' remarked my father. 'No teeth, lines on her face - The World's Smallest Old Woman?'
'I don't want to,' I told him. He laughed, and pulled one of my plaits, but my mother sighed. I was seven by then, and still only doing odd-jobs. I was getting too big to ride on goats, and I couldn't balance on Mick's dumbbell, and for all the stretching exercises, I'd never be as supple as my father.
There was an old man from Quebec
Who wrapped both his legs round his neck,
But then he forgot
How to undo the knot,
And now he's an absolute wreck.
That was me. My mother told me limericks, along with fairy-stories and tales about lucky eyes, and that one felt like my epitaph. The one time I'd managed to get my feet behind my head, I'd stuck like that, and cried and cried for half an hour before my father could finally unbend me. I'd been trying to juggle since I could walk, but I still dropped balls. The two-headed goat had died, and sat stuffed in the freak tent, and no live replacement could be found for love or money, even if I had been little enough to ride it. Even if there had, animals tended to get stubborn or nervous when I tried to manage them. Six fingers and toes on one side didn't qualify me as a freak, and I was too young to be tattooed. I had no mechanical sense and couldn't remember the simplest lighting or sound procedure. Worst of all, I was afraid of heights. In a circus, I was just plain useless.
It was Gerry, bless him, who finally pointed this out. One morning when I was about eight, he knocked on our caravan door.
'Got your mail,' he said, handing a letter to my mother.
'Hello Gerry,' I said, looking up from my juggling balls. I'd been on the verge of giving up and going back to picking at my stickers of cats and rainbows on the yellow-glass window by the bed, but seeing that he was watching me I threw them back into the air again. One I caught, just - I had to lean way over and grab at it - one bounced off the wall behind me, and one hit Gerry.
'For Godsake, child!' he roared.
'Sorry, sorry,' I whispered, and crawled under the shelf-bed, pulling the blanket down to hide myself.
'Not much of a juggler, is she?' he said to my mother.
'Not much,' she said.
'Well, what can she do?'
'Oh, this and that,' my father put in.
'Like? Time she started working at one thing if she wants to get good.'
'She hasn't quite made her mind up yet,' my father said, sitting on the bed above me and feeling under it with one bare foot to find me.
'Don't sit there and lie. She can't do much, can she?'
'She's willing enough.'
'She's plain useless. You know I like the girl, but she's got to earn her keep. We can't afford wages to a kid who isn't working.'
'Gerry!' said my mother. 'She's a good girl. She tries hard.'
Gerry grunted. 'Try she may do, but she still can't juggle worth a damn.'
'Gerry, we need the money.' my father said, his voice quiet.
Gerry sighed. 'Don't we all.' Nobody said anything. 'Look, let her start doing odd jobs, tidying up and that. And for Godsake, find something she does well.' With that, he left, leaving the door to bang back open behind him. I could hear my mother going over to shut it, and muttering something about fixing the latch.
I whimpered, and my father reached under the bed, located me, dragged me out and set me on his lap. My mother sat down beside him and opened the letter. I cuddled up to him and sniffed, and she passed me a pack of tissues, not taking her eyes off the letter. She glanced through it for a moment more, then gave an angry, hissing sigh and slapped the page with the back of her hand.
'What's up?' my father asked.
'Listen to this. Dear Madam, we deeply regret to inform you of the death of Mr. Isaiah Gow. We understand that you still have a debt outstanding to him; since this is a business and not a personal debt, there can be no remittal of the same. In future, kindly make out cheques to his successor, Mr. Caleb Gow. Thank you for your cooperation, yours sincerely. Oh, I wish they'd let up.'
'How much longer is it going to take us to pay it off?' my father asked over the top of my head.
'At this rate, years. It's down to a couple of thousand, but we just don't have it. It could be years.'
'God,' he sighed, and put me down. He put an arm around her, fingering her left earlobe, the one with the gold coin on it.
'Are you sorry?' she asked, not looking at him but into her lap.
'That I did it. That I landed myself on you with this debt.'
He brushed a strand of hair off her face. 'No. Are you?'
'I - never regretted it. I just feel bad for you sometimes, you and Jackie.'
'We'll manage,' he said. 'And you'll find something you like doing soon, won't you love?' he added to me.
'I'll try,' I said.
'Don't worry about it,' he told me. 'Gerry's bark is worse than his bite, anyway. There's no hurry.'
I watched them for a moment, the smooth curve of his back, my mother's green arms. He leaned over and kissed her. The rose on her cheek shifted as her mouth pulled out of line. She drew away and turned to me. 'Go and play with Eddie, will you love?' she said. I went out of the caravan and stood in the dust outside. I leaned against the van wall for a while, chewing my sixth fingernail and listening, my eyes welling up again, but it was very quiet.
In the end, I sniffed and went to find Eddie. He was tinkering with the carousel engine when I found him, his grey-and-brown hair in his eyes, his slightly hunched back looking more crooked than usual as he leaned over it. 'Hello Eddie,' I said.
'Hello you,' he said, without looking up.
'Will you give me a ride?'
'Can't, sorry Jackie, the engine's on the blink. Here, have an apple. You sound a bit down.'
'Thank you,' I said, taking the apple; fruit was a rare treat in my family. The apple was a big green one with a sharp juicy inside; I sank my teeth in.
'Damn,' he muttered; a little bit of metal flicked out of his fingers. I picked it up and handed it to him. 'Thanks.'
'You're a bit quiet today. What's wrong?'
I gripped the apple with both hands; drops of juice gleamed at the bitten edges. 'Gerry says I'm useless.'
'Good old Gerry, never was very tactful. And why are you so useless?'
'I can't do anything.'
'Tricks and stuff. Mummy can't either, but she's got tattoos, and I'm too young. And I can't do any of the stuff Dad can . . .' I drowned my sorrows in another mouthful of apple.
'Doesn't make you useless. You can always use a pretty face. Let's see, what can you do? Pass the spanner, will you?'
I passed it. 'Nothing really.'
'Well, you could be a ringmaster, they don't do tricks.'
'I'm a girl.'
'Anyway, my voice isn't loud enough.'
'An usher, front-of-house stuff?'
'Gerry says you have to be able to juggle to do that.'
'Oh dear. I know, what about a disembodied head?'
'Easiest thing in the world. You build a box, with three sides and glass at the front, paint the sides, and put two mirrors in. One of them goes down the side, the other's at forty-five degrees to it - like that -' he sketched a V in the air - 'So they reflect each other and it looks like an empty box. Then you stand behind the back one and they can't see your body, it looks like a head by itself. You just stand there and look like a head. It could go in the sideshow.' Eddie grinned. 'How about that?'
'We don't have a box,' I said in a little voice.
'Then we make one, Miss Doom. Shouldn't cost too much, just mirrors and wood, and there's always paint kicking around here somewhere. How's that sound?'
'Well . . . easy.' I smiled at him and crossed my fingers for luck. It sounded good, but also like the kind of thing I could still be fired from and replaced, not something that was part of me. Still, it was better than nothing, enough to cheer me up.
'That should do it,' said Eddie, nodding at the engine. 'I'll test it this afternoon. Let's go suggest it to Gerry, shall we?'
Gerry liked the idea - that is, he gave a nod and said 'Guess it might work.' My mother came looking for me while we were sitting by the carousel, Eddie sketching plans of how the box should work, and we explained the idea. 'Eddie, you're a genius,' she said, and kissed the top of his head. 'You like the idea, Jackie?'
'Think, you'll be just a head. It'll be like my lucky eyes, you can be a lucky head.' I smiled, and traced a flower on her leg.
By the time we moved on again, the box was finished. Eddie had built it to flat-pack, and it stowed easily in our great vans. We marched through the new town, handing out leaflets to the sound of the pipe-organ. I always loved this part; the chance to see the enormous houses with so many windows and several stories, the people all upright and curious with their little cars like toys, the shiny shop-windows and pavements and post-boxes, fantastical towns with everything either too big or too little. I bowed and smiled and handed out leaflets while my father and some others drove the vans and caravans to the site quietly, round the back. Once we got to work putting tents up, I got out of the way, and stayed in our caravan making cups of tea for people and practising faces in my father's shaving mirror, ready to go into the box. I did my homework - imposed by my mother, who was teaching me herself; there was always a stack of books, history, geography, maths, science, in the corner of our caravan. I always did my homework quickly - it was boringly easy. I had it long finished, and was beginning to be bored, when my father came into the caravan an said, 'Come on Jackie, let's get you made up.'
I giggled, and he tossed me a box of foundation. I tried to catch it one-handed, missed it and laughed again. I picked it up and layered on thick, pale smudges, covering my face. My father tilted my chin up and applied other touches - lipstick, eye-shadow, some little stars at the corners of my eyes to match the ones painted on the box. 'That should be enough,' he said. 'Better not overdo it if they're only going to be looking at your face - you can leave your dungarees on, pet, nobody'll see them.' He started to make up his own face. 'Now off you go. You're in the green and yellow tent - Eddie's waiting for you to help you with the box.'
I skipped out of the caravan. It was a warm afternoon, and I tried not to run - I'd get all sweaty and smear my face - but I still trotted all the way to the tent. Eddie was there, hunched over the box. 'There you are,' he said. 'Right, step inside.' He folded mirrors in front of me, then others at an angle to them; they were in three sections, one lot hiding my torso, one hiding my hips and thighs and one hiding my legs. The neck-hole was sanded smooth; I leaned against it. 'Now, you can open the box yourself from the inside - you just press here,' he explained. 'Only don't, not when people are around, or they'll see you've got a body. Okay?'
'Yes,' I said, and shuffled my feet, doing a little dance.
'Don't do that, either, they'll hear it. Now I'd better get going, we open any minute. Good luck.'
'You too,' I called as he hurried out. I hummed a little tune to myself, waiting. Mick the strong-man was in the next spotlight, I saw. 'Are you ready, Mick?' I called.
'Yeah,' he said, glancing to and fro. 'Don't talk to me, though, kiddo, it looks bad. Just ignore everyone.'
I sighed, and stood in the box, leaning back a little. Then I glanced up - some people were wandering into the tent. I smiled a little, and opened my eyes wide, using a baby-face I'd practised earlier. I could hear Mick lifting his bar-bell, and music in the background, but I didn't turn my head. They wandered in front of me, two couples, I saw now. One of the women laughed a little, and said, 'How do they do that?'
'Mirrors,' her partner told her.
'Cute,' she said, and took his hand, pulling him to another spotlight. I bit my lip, and stiffened my feet, trying not to stamp them. Some more people wandered by, glancing at me. Two elderly men stopped in front of me. 'They do that with mirrors, you know.' the smaller one said to the taller. I smiled and batted my eyes and clenched my teeth.
I stood there for an hour, watching people drift past. Almost everyone who stopped said 'They do that with mirrors'. My back and legs were numb from standing still for so long, and I had a crick in my neck which stabbed every time I flinched. In a quiet patch when the tent was empty, I started to whimper, soft little squeaks.
Mick noticed. 'Take a break, Jack, you must be tired,' he said, and waved at Dominic, the lighting man, to cut out my spotlight. I pushed the box open and jumped down, my legs almost folding under me as I landed in the sawdust. I stumbled around the tent, looking for one or other of my parents. I came to my mother first, standing on her pedestal.
'Is it going well?' she asked.
I shook my head. 'Everyone who stops just says, they do it with mirrors.' I put my littlest finger, the sixth one, into my mouth, and sucked hard.
'That's not so bad, is it?' she said. 'After all, everyone knows how I'm tattooed, it doesn't mean they don't like looking at me. It's the same for you.' I shook my head again and stamped my foot. My mother glanced up - more people were coming into the tent. 'Take a break, Jackie,' she said. 'Go wander around for a bit, you'd better not talk to me now.'
My legs were half-asleep and my feet hurt. I staggered out of the tent. The sun had gone down outside, but it was still light. The sky was faded blue, and yellow at the horizon, and even though this site was on grass, the air felt dusty. There was a wind coming up, flapping the tents like sails. The jugglers and fire-eaters were in full swing, the flames fluttering in the wind with a noise like billowing cloth; the clowns were dancing; everyone was plying their trades. A few people glanced at my starred and painted face, but I didn't stop walking. I made straight for Eddie's carousel, and tapped him on the shoulder.
'Eddie, it was no good. Everyone knew it was mirrors, they all said so.' I could hear the engine of the carousel scraping as I talked.
'A town of cynics. Next one will be better, you'll see.'
'No it won't.'
'Don't be a misery. Anyway, I'm working, I need to keep an eye on the machine.' The scraping got louder, and Eddie looked towards it and frowned. 'Do you hear that?'
'Yes,' I muttered.
'Doesn't sound good. I'd better shut down after this ride.'
'I can crawl under and see if it's wobbling.'
'No you can't, miss - oh God, what now?' There was a squeak from the crowd. Something white blew past me - a lady's hat. The wind tumbled it under the carousel. Eddie grimaced.
'I'll get it!' I shouted, and dived after it.
'Jackie come back, the engine's on!'
'Don't shout at me,' I called back, crawling after the hat. The draught kept moving it along, and I wasn't quite quick enough to catch it.
'Jackie, it's not safe, get out of there!'
'I can do it! I can do it!' I yelled. The engine was right beside me; I could feel the heat as I stretched for the hat. I could almost reach it.
Then the world exploded from the knees down. Machinery ground and scraped and there was a flurry of cries overhead, and I lay pinned, my fingers plucking at the grass, screaming. I struggled and thrashed, but my legs were being torn apart. My throat hurt from screaming, the high shrieks turned into dry, hoarse cries, burning my throat. The engine growled and clattered, grinding me to pieces. I thought I could smell the blood - but later someone told me this wasn't from my legs. I gave myself a bloody nose, beating my head against the ground, again and again and again.
I remember people running and tugging at the metal and my father crawling under the machine and stretching out an arm, gripping my hand until they got me out. I couldn't see, but I could hear his voice, hoarse, saying 'It's all right Jackie, it's all right darling,' over and over. I remember a flashing blue light and siren, and lying on a hard ambulance cot with a loose sheet, with people flurrying around me. I remember the noise of the siren pulsing in my head and me crying 'Daddy make them turn it off,' and him saying 'They're doing their best Jackie,' and me crying again because the noise wouldn't stop. I remember struggling again as someone came towards me to stick a needle in my arm.
I don't remember everything.
I was only eight.
The hospital room was big and white, it was on the third floor, with a bed right in the middle of it that went on wheels but didn't fold away. It was such a waste of space. It smelled clean and like disinfectant, and the nice doctor held my hands in his when he explained why they'd had to cut off both my legs. My parents were there. My father slumped in a chair in the corner, his head down and his shoulders shaking, and I looked away, hot and ashamed - he shouldn't ever cry in front of me. My mother sat straight-backed, her hands clenched in her lap, giving me a tight, dry-eyed smile. I lay there, and when the nice doctor asked me if there was anything I'd like I asked for a biro. He brought me paper too, but I didn't touch it. I lay in bed, tracing on my arm a row of lucky eyes.
'Lucky we're insured,' Gerry told my parents. 'Thank God I paid it this year. I was starting to think it was a waste of money.'
'It may take a year or two,' the lawyer explained, 'to settle the damages. You should be prepared for that, but I think we can handle it with minimum distress to the child. Since we understand you are in some financial difficulties, Mr. Capaldi has agreed to advance you a sum against future damages - I think that would be useful?'
'Very,' my mother told them.
She made out two cheques right away. One was to the company that sold wheelchairs, for a chair that would fold up small and fit easily into a caravan. The other was to the tattooist, Caleb Gow. The money lifted us clear out of debt, and porridge began to be less frequent. She made me lift weights and practise getting myself out of the chair. Between us, my father and I figured out ways to pull myself on my hands, and my mother made me practise them. Without my stiff, heavy legs, my body became easier to swing about. After a while, I could even get up steps using only my hands.
Sometimes at night I woke up, crying, both hands clutching for where my legs used to be and only grasping sheets. In court, I put on a brave smile and stuck up for Eddie. The carousel is scrap metal now, and Eddie works on lighting, but people felt sorry for me and the insurance realised this and paid without a murmur. When I asked her to, my mother took a little of the money and went to a tattooist, a different one, a young man with clean red hair and a chipped front tooth, and an art school diploma on his wall. She hadn't said much about the idea, except that it should really be my money, but I told her things wouldn't be tidy until she had this done, and she didn't ask me what I meant. He sketched pictures in a notebook until they found a design they both liked, a new picture to cover up the gold coin on her ear. I sat in my wheelchair in the clean, bright room and watched her bite her lips and rub her fists together and refuse to hold the hand I offered her, as the new picture took shape. A delicate picture, with clear lines and pretty colours and different shades and highlights. Another flower - this one with star-shaped petals.
This is my mother's story, and mine. It could be different. I sometimes think of how different it could be, with less blood and more flowers, and fewer eyes. I could have run away and joined the hospital, or studied for law or insurance. But I'm not running anywhere now. I'm staying in the circus. My mother came here for the first time when she was sixteen, close to how old I am now, and that's all. I'm staying. It's useless to look any further.
You'll see me any evening in the circus. I am in my mirror-box, a smiling blonde head. People stop to look at my pretty face. I keep my eyes wide open and stare at them; I only blink when they look away. This makes them uncomfortable. They shift and fidget, and usually they whisper - 'They do it with mirrors.' And when they do, I unlatch the lower section they think is hiding my legs with all eleven fingers, and it swings open as if by magic.
And I watch their faces change.