A prompt on a writer’s group about childhood memories brought to mind funfairs on the town common when I was a teenager. I didn’t expect it to take this turn but as usual the characters took over with an ending I wasn’t expecting.
I was lost. As it had been over forty years since my last visit I’d expected some changes but nothing was recognisable. The major carriageway I remembered from my childhood seemed little more than a back road leading through housing estates. Where were all the pub landmarks? Where were the few posh houses backing onto the open common? Perhaps I had taken a wrong turning?
With little traffic around I did a U-turn and retraced my route; something which would have been an impossible task in the old days. The late afternoon sun reflected off the roof tops as I pulled into a dead-end lane, with a wooden fence blocking the path to a grassy area in the far distance. Leaving my car, I walked through the maze of identical houses and there was the common, or at least what was left of it.
As a kid I had cycled for miles over the public land, walked the dog through the woods, and picked wild blackberries from the brambles, returning home with stained hands and an over-stuffed belly. Summer had brought the travelling circus and the fun fair, popular music blaring into the night air, teenage boys showing off to impress the giggling girls, exotic gypsy guys flirting as they handled the rides. The aroma of fried onions had regaled the air as it vied for attention with the sweet, sickly smell of candyfloss.
‘Roll up, roll up. The next show starts in five minutes. Feast your eyes on sights never before seen. Admire the costumes of our glamorous dancers. Wonder at our bearded lady. Gasp as Nikita performs with a 30-foot python. Be astounded at the strength of our strong man. Witness the smallest woman in the world. Roll up, roll up. Get your tickets here. Over 18s only.’
The sound travelled through the gathering darkness but I had seen no lights or advertising posters. Intrigued, I pushed through the trees unsure what to expect. The sight greeting me was exactly as I remembered. Girls in stiletto heels and mini skirts linking arms as they floundered across the muddy ground, the glaring lights, the 60s music, the crowds, the noise. Perhaps it was some sort of revival festival.
For a while I wandered through the sideshows and booths, undisturbed by the people milling around me. They all looked young; no doubt they thought an old man nearing seventy had no right to be out late at night at an entertainment designed for teenagers. There was something odd about them, and for a while I racked my brain trying to decide what it was. Suddenly it struck me. Having spent all my life in London I was used to a myriad of languages and nationalities, but here I only heard native English accents.
‘Roll up, roll up. Good evening, my fine sir. Welcome back. Go right through and take a seat; we’ve been expecting you. The show is just starting.’
It was the same voice I had heard when I decided to walk across the common. Dressed in full showman’s regalia, he held open the curtain and encouraged me into the darkened theatre beyond. Chairs were laid out in a semi-circle in front of a make-shift stage and as I settled myself near the front, a lady with a tray hanging round her neck approached.
‘Good evening, sir. Cigarettes? Rothmans? Players? Only five shillings for twenty.’
‘Thank you, but I don’t smoke. I wouldn’t mind a Mivi though. I haven’t had one of those for years.’
‘Certainly, sir. On the house as a last request.’
The other seats had filled up rapidly, the curtains opened and six girls in sparkling costumes began a high-kick dance routine. It reminded me of ‘Sunday night at the London Palladium,’ and I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear the MC announce the star of the show as one of the great American crooners.
‘Mary? Mary, is that you?’ As the last girl left the stage she turned and smiled in my direction. She was the spitting image of my first love but that was impossible. This one was only in her early 20s, and my Mary had been only a year or two older than me. Perhaps it was her granddaughter? The resemblance was uncanny. No one stopped me as I left my seat and made my way behind the stage.
‘Hello, Frank. You’re looking well. I hope you’ve had a good life.’
‘It’s been fine. Betty was a wonderful wife but I never forgot you. How has your life been? Did you achieve your show-business dream?’ Why was I asking about her past life when she hadn’t even lived it yet?
‘I stayed on with the circus for a few years but it didn’t work out between me and my Romany boy, so I took off for America. The chap I married was a lot older than me so it was lonely sometimes, but he was a good man. He died before I was 40 so I became a very rich woman. I can’t complain. Memories eh, Frank. I did love you, you know, but you never asked me. I guess that’s why we’re both here tonight, to say goodbye.’
As we talked, the years fell away and I was once more a young lad at the start of life’s adventures.
‘We’ve got a second chance. I’m not rich but I’ve a nice house and enough to keep us comfortable until our time comes. What do you say, Mary? We could make it work, I know we could. Make new memories for our twilight years.’
‘It’s too late, Frank. Time only travels in one direction and we can never go back. When the grim reaper comes for us we can take comfort from recalling the past. Make the most of the reminiscences while you can.’
A sudden pain hit my chest and as I gasped my last breath, the curtains closed for the final time.
© Voinks July 2018
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