Every girl loves a showman reckoned Big Micky Taverne.
Stand behind their car as the waltzer takes a group of them up and down. Watch as they huddle up, heads rested on shoulders, screaming in unison. One if not all will be giving you the glad eye, willing you on. Come on they’re saying, give us a spin. So, you do and they scream so loud it would burst your eardrums if they weren’t already bust from the music.
There was an art to riding the waltzers. As you got cocky you could move about from car to car ending up where a lad was sitting with his girlfriend. You’d wink at the lass, really rub it in. The lad would be seething, he might throw abuse your way as he steps off, his wobbling legs and misplaced steps making him look comical. He’ll probably call you gypo or pikey but you’ll know better than to do much more than grin. Once or twice a lad had returned the following night to have it out with Malachi. He’d stand bold with his mates making out this town was his territory and these were his women. They’d end without incident. There’d be abuse but they knew better than to throw a punch. It wouldn’t end well. You had to laugh at the townies, mugs with a steady wage but with minds only fit for drudgery.
Don’t fall in love if you work the fairs. Never fall for a girl who wanted a settled life. They’d pull you away and you’d trudge through years of unhappiness on some tied bound street. If you’re born to the fairs you might grow up thinking that there’s more to life than all these shifts and manoeuvres but you’d be wrong, and if it’s the life you’ve chosen then there’s really no escape. Whatever it was that brought you here is what will keep you. Malachi remembered that whenever he got restless, started working out where he’d be in life if he hadn’t wandered into that site behind the leisure centre a few days after his 16th birthday. Straight out of care. The council had found him a place, a shared flat on the third floor of a block by the canal. There was support. People who came by and did things for you, he’d be living with three other ex-care kids, one or two were older. Mentors if you like, people who knew the ropes, who’d learnt how to get on. You’d get more freedom but you wouldn’t be alone. You could get a job, or even better get to college. There’s a building trades course, teaches you a bit of everything. You come out with certificates and there’s never any shortage of work. How does that sound Malachi? Could you go for something like that?
Nah. Not that. He never wanted anything like that. After a childhood spent in homes and with foster carers he craved a fuller freedom. He’d never nursed fairground dreams it was just an escape route. He wandered onto the site, spoke to a skinny lad with a skinhead and earring, said he was looking for work. It was him who’d pointed him in the direction of Micky. He was sitting on the steps of a large camper van, fussing the neck of a German Shepherd dog that was curled up on the tarmac, its eyes a struggle to stay open. They’d talked, Micky said he’d not had a runaway for years, said he’d be willing to try him out. If he’d turn his hand to anything and prove himself a grafter, then maybe he could stay. He was bunked up in a caravan with three other lads. Hard workers, hard drinkers. Talked more about women than they saw action. There was etiquette involved. If someone came home with a girl you didn’t just avert your eyes in your bunk while the whole caravan rocked, you pissed off for an hour or two, wandered around town, took in the night time sights.
“Stick true to your nature,” said Micky. “Keep moving, never settle down”.
Micky loved to hear their tales. He claimed he’d been a proper boy in his day but he’d been married to Iris since he was twenty so his reign of pleasure was probably short-lived. Family mattered to the carnies.
Malachi always had a soft spot for the Nottingham accent. Goose Fair, best week of the year. The most tiring, the most extraordinary. A place for a young man to fall in love countless times. There’d been so many marriages made at the fair, a few kids conceived over the years too. He’d returned time and again through his late teens and twenties, all those springs, summers and autumns on the road. Goose Fair was the grand finale. More often than not it would piss it down and the Forest Rec would turn to quagmire. But everyone was there. The biggest travelling fair in Europe they reckon. It was where he’d met Elaine.
He saw her eating candyfloss. She did that thing that girls did where she pulled bits off, wound it disinterestedly around her finger before putting it and her finger in her mouth. He watched her from the booth of the Twister. She had nut brown hair like in a song, long and curly, not tied back into an amateur facelift like so many girls who knocked around the fairs. He was immediately smitten. Gav had leaned in, passed him some change and when Malachi looked again she was gone. That would have been it but she was there again the next night. This time he was having a breather, smoking a roll-up when he saw her glancing over. Time waited for no man so he crept across to say hello.
“Ey Up Duck. Are you well?”
She’d shrugged, done a naughty smile and said “yeah, not bad.”
They talked. The night drew in around them, the bright lights, the smell of frying onions and pure sugar toffee, the dampness underfoot. She’d made some excuse to her friends and he’d let her sit with him in the booth. Every time her brother and his mates came near she’d duck her head out of sight. Her bezzie was covering for her. Malachi had caravan rights that night. She’d given him her address, said she wouldn’t expect to hear anything from him. She knew what fair lads were like. Had she done this before he asked. No, she hadn’t. There were just, you know, stories. The world’s full of stories he’d said but he’d not known what he’d meant. That’s another thing she’d said, you fair lads are full of bullshit too. He’d not known what to say so he’d laughed. He took the address, put it in his wallet behind the rack of notes. He thought he’d look her up when he came back next year.
What shook him up was just how much he thought about her in the intervening twelve months. She’d had these dark brown eyes and her lips had been as soft and pillowy as any cliche. It was only with hindsight he’d realised how beautiful she was, at the time she just another girl. There’d been plenty since but he’d not remembered them like he did her. Somehow, he lost the address and when the Goose Fair rolled around again this time there was no sight of her. He’d felt sad. Perhaps a bit lonely too, but there was stuff to do and you push on through. Before you know it you’re dismantling, packing away, shoving stuff into the back of vans and heading somewhere new.
He was working for Micky’s cousin Gerry at the time, all the Tavernes did him a favour at one time or another. Gerry was a sullen bastard compared to Micky but he always did right by Malachi. He looked old at his cousin’s funeral. It had been really striking. But then sometimes when Malachi caught sight of himself in the mirror he was surprised by the middle-aged man looking back at him. The thing was working the fairs doesn’t prepare you for anything so if you don’t have the capital to buy a ride of your own and you end up quitting there’s not much you can do. He’d drank away his savings and ended up in warehouse work. It was okay. A small nowhere town in middle England where the rents were cheap and few people knew his name. Just down the road from Nottingham as it goes.
It was hard on your own though. He’d always lived with other people while managing never to be particularly sociable. He thought he’d survive just fine but sometimes he sits in his flat looking at the rain that hits the window and he wonders if anyone would notice if he died.
There’s the internet now. He took himself to the library to learn about it. Free lessons. They looked at him oddly. How did someone of his age not know about the internet. Was he a traveller maybe? They can be cautious about new things.
“Aye yeah, a traveller,” he said. He couldn’t be bothered to explain. A young woman, pretty with lots of hair and glasses leaned over him when he sat at the computer, put her hand on his as it rested on the mouse.
“That’s it,” she’d say. He learnt how to search for things. He learnt about social media. He learnt about dating sites and places to do job searches. You could read the newspapers. The young woman asked him if he was alright with his reading and writing. He couldn’t be bothered to be offended either.
It was then he had a flash of inspiration. A memory from somewhere. Elaine’s surname stuck in the memory because it made him laugh. Twelvetrees. She said her name was Twelvetrees.
Elaine Twelvetrees, Nottingham. He typed it into Google and hit the search. The answers were confusing. There were lots of Elaine Twelvetrees. It was all so long ago that his Elaine Twelvetrees was probably married with kids and no longer a Twelvetrees. She might be a full-blown Wood or even a Forest by now.
There was something from the Nottingham newspaper. He clicked on it and waited as the page took an age to load. It took him a while to make out what it was he was reading. There was a slightly blurred black and white photo of a woman with curly brown hair, a huge smile all over her face sitting with a baby on her lap. It was only after he’d worked his way down the first paragraph that he realised he was reading an obituary. It was eight years old. The woman had died in her early thirties. She had one child but there was no mention of a husband. He looked at the photo and tried to make out if this was the Elaine that he knew.
He stared. Moved his head nearer the screen as if that might help. The age was about right and there was something about the smile that seemed familiar. How could he ever tell though? He slumped back in his chair and dropped his hands by his side, swivelling a little from side to side. The young woman came across to see him.
“Is everything ok?” She glanced at what he was looking at. “This someone you know?”
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
“Right. Oh cancer. Aww, that’s so sad.” It didn’t sound sincere.
He put a hand back on the mouse. Closed the page and stood up.
“You’ve got another ten minutes or so.”
He left the library. It was raining. He walked back down the high street, through the eighties shopping centre, across the car park and back to his flat. It felt cold and empty. He had so little in the way of personal belongings. He’d reached his mid-forties and there was next to nothing to his name.
On his next shift, he’d try to make conversations with his workmates but it felt like the words they had in common were becoming fewer. He’d never been one for football, he didn’t have a wife or a girlfriend and to the best of his knowledge there were no kids to his name. The lads at work were mostly younger than him now, a lot of them were Polish. They kept themselves to themselves mostly. They were like carnies, a people apart. He never knew what to say to them though other than the usual greetings and goodbyes.
His head’s full of stories but there’s few who want to listen. There’s memories of limestone towns, and redbrick towns and rows and rows of pantiled roofs, beneath the clambering misplaced concrete of a post-war pipe dream. Towns in the folds of gently rolling countryside, all hedgerows, old oaks, gorse and fox runs. He recalls smoking a cigarette at the foot of an Eleanor cross as one by one the lights went out from rides and stalls, the music that’s been on a loop since lunchtime finally peters and the last of the townies trudge off back to their coop. There’s the middle night. The nights where you know you don’t have to pack up the next morning. Those seconds of settled stillness where you know you’ve transformed this place and for a few hours at least it belongs to you. You’re a magician. A wandering something or other. Or maybe he’s just looking back on his youth and forgetting about the hardships. Sleeping in caravans, the back-breaking work, the pittance you got paid, the showmen who tried to rob you of your profit share. There’s no dreams come true in this life but there are glimpses of arcadia here and there.
There’s fairs in charters written by medieval kings, fairs where hearts meet and hearts are broken and fairs where care kids finally find their freedom. If he screams at the four walls closing in around him would his life start to go faster? But he’s not a screamer, he doesn’t bellow or greet.
Instead he rattled the gathered change out of his whisky bottle onto the laminate floor, stray pound coins amidst the browns and tiny silver shrapnel. The woman from upstairs was singing something at the top of her voice what melody there was slowly being strangled out of it. Someone told him she once worked the clubs but the bookings had dried up. It wasn’t hard to understand why. He’d bought some earplugs for just such occasions. He moulded them into shape, and shoved them in place. If he couldn’t stand the singing and his legs felt so arthritic at this age what would he be like in twenty years?
The Goose Fair wasn’t long. Six weeks away. Enough time to squirrel away as much cash as he could. He’d get the train. He’d arrive the morning it opened and sleep rough somewhere. It would hardly kill him. It didn’t matter if it pissed it down. He’d find a bridge or a disused warehouse. He’d become a chancer again. He’d wander the fair, go on the rides, talk to the showmen and the young lads. He’d explain how things used to be done. More importantly he’d ask around, see if anyone recognised any of the old names. There had to be some of them there. There might be someone who’d want to take him on.
He could find some elderly carnie and his creaking Mrs. They’ve probably been reduced to a coconut shy or a rifle range. He’ll sweet talk them. He’ll tell them how they’re too old for all this. Didn’t they know how bad the damp was for old bones. There’s a reason why everything clicks and creeks. It seeps up your legs from the cold ground.
In the days that followed he looked at the flat and the people he worked with differently. It wasn’t permanent. This was just another town to pass through, a place to earn some cash then move on. He felt lighter somehow. It was obvious. He didn’t know how to live like these people and never would. At the end of an early shift he sat on the steps of the Eleanor cross in the market place eating a bag of chips as usual, not minding the sneering looks of the arrogant kids from the grammar school. The lot of them could fuck right off.
He didn’t sleep a wink that night. By 2am he’d given up trying. He’d not told anyone that he was going. He’d not explained to work why he wouldn’t be in. There wasn’t any need. They could keep whatever money they owed him. None of this mattered too much.
He packed a small bag with a few clothes. He’d leave the rest. He locked the flat door then pushed his key underneath the gap at the bottom. The landlord would let himself in when he realised the rent had stopped. It didn’t take long for the train to reach Nottingham, nor for the bus to reach the Meadows, the site already starting to bustle with people.
It was bigger than he remembered. It would be easy to get lost. He wondered if he’d become a missing person. Were you only missing if there was someone to miss you? He stood for a while and watched the first punters sit on stationary rides waiting for cars to fill up. There were girls of sixteen who were the spitting image of Elaine Twelvetrees, lads taking money who looked like he once had. Some of them would be dead before they knew it, others might go missing. Then there’d be those standing here in thirty years’ time wondering what was lost and how they might reclaim it.
Banner Image: Pixabay.com