…brash, brazen, brassy, bold and beautiful, a carnival of clashing colour, a cacophony of calliope chords, a festival of the fantastique. The circus entered Fekenham riding over the hills like a trail of elephants with each vehicle hugging the tail of the one in front until you arrived at the leading van.
It was a long wagon with fluttering side curtains that parted as the wind blew or as it bucked over the dints and dents of the road. In the cabin were two men. One was long, tall and thin while the other was a neck-less blob that appeared to be made of suet. Each van, lorry, truck, trailer and caravan was painted in gaudy colours and each van, lorry, truck, trailer and caravan had the legend Spiegelie Zirkus emblazoned along its side. The cavalcade had passed by the village and as it went a voice from a loudspeaker attached to the roof of the first van boomed out.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls of all ages, for your delectation and delight the circus is in town bringing acts of antiquity, of danger and of high amusement. There is Boris the Human Blob whose very flesh is like putty that no tool, weapon or device can puncture. Knives cannot harm him; bullets simply sink into his frame before dropping harmlessly to the floor. We have Flavia the Fish woman who lives in a tank of water, who needs no air to breathe, no oxygen in her lungs, just fish to feed on. The Twins Turbo who fly above your heads on the great trapeze defying gravity as they spin and turn somersaults in mid-air. Then there is the Old Lion Tamer Zagreb whose very feats tame the hearts of not only the beasts of the jungle but of nature itself. Watch as he inserts his head into the jaws of death and his feet into the maw of mortality. See Erik the Elongated Man whose impossible limbs stretch beyond human ken invoking imagination and provoking potentialities. Can anyone be so tall, so thin, so malleable? All are welcome so come and see us as we perform in the big top on the village green!”
Heads had popped out of windows as they drove by. Mille Mead’s eyes had been on stalks but within minutes she was out doing her unpaid part in telling everyone of the circus’s arrival. Ethel Blowvalve had been out walking Bladder when the flotilla had passed. She had grinned broadly, remembering the last time she had been to the circus. Then, as the touring players arrived on the green, so Verity and Ralph had watched from their cottage. Ralph nodded his head negatively.
“I never much liked the circus. I always thought it kinda cruel having animals caged like that.”
“What about a zoo then? It too has caged animals.”
“Not sure I like those any better even if they do purport to be saving endangered species. I like my animals either in the wild where they belong or as a poor compromise on a safari park. At least that way the public get to see animals in facsimile conditions of freedom.”
The couple watched as the collection of vehicles arranged themselves into tight formations as they parked on the green. The telephone rang and Mildred hurried to answer its call.
“I’ll get it,” she called out as she sped to pick the receiver up. “Hello! Yes, speaking. Thank you. It is good to hear from you again. No, not at all, I was just gazing out the window. Yes, of course. I can be there within the hour. The same place as before? Yes, I remember it, how could I forget. Okay then, see you soon.”
Ralph was not jealous by nature but this was the third call Verity had received in so many weeks. She had gone off the other day to meet with her caller but had refused to say where she was going or whom she was meeting. Ralph had noted that when she left she had looked like a million dollars as she did now.
“Who was that, hon?” asked Ralph.
“Just a business colleague,” replied Verity as she dabbed eau d’ parfum on her wrists.
“Chanel Five for a business meeting? You must be trying to impress. Who’s the lucky colleague?”
“No one you would know. I won’t be long. Bye!”
Ralph watched as she climbed into the car. Her hair was loose which in itself was unusual as Verity seldom wore her hair down when at work. Her brown hair streaked with grey framed her face giving it a soft, sensual look. She was wearing a navy blue suit with a white blouse undone at the throat and a pair of black stilettos. She reversed the car out of the drive then was off to her secret assignation. Behind her Ralph could see the village green with the circus encamped upon it.
It was October now; leaves were still falling as autumn advanced toward winter. A chill wind blew across the grass kicking up dirt and the detritus dropped from tree branches. Behind one tree Sally Braganza-Smythe and Billy Twist were caught in a passionate embrace. Billy, fast approaching sixteen, now stood a good head taller than Sally who had one of her legs wrapped around Billy’s thighs.
“Stop, Billy, stop!”
Billy pulled away. He was breathing rapidly, his lust evident.
“I thought you liked it?”
“I do, that’s the problem but we have to be careful.”
“I’m fine with that but being careful seems to equate to doing nothing and I thought you wanted to?”
“I do but I’m scared.”
“I’ll be gentle I promise.”
“Not scared of doing it, scared of what might happen if we do.”
Billy scuffed his shoes against the tree then looked over to where the circus had parked. As much as his heart said one thing his head said another. He conceded to his girlfriend’s wishes.
“It’s getting cold. I’d better walk you home. Your Dad will be going mental.”
Sally took Billy’s hand in hers then placed a kiss on his cheek.
“I love you Billy Twist.”
“Would you like to go to the circus?” Billy asked.
“Are you asking me to go with you?”
“I suppose so.”
“Then I’d love to go.”
They walked off together hand in hand. Watching them with his other eye on the circus was Ernie Stallworthy. He was observing them from the far corner of the green. Beside him were both Codpiece and Scrubbs, the two canines Ernie had rescued. The former had grown fatter in the few months Ernie had been looking after the pair whilst Scrubbs, still lame in one leg, remained the same scrawny hound he had always been Ernie’s interest was less about Sally or Billy and more the circus. As a child Ernie had seen travellers arrive on Hackney Marshes the same time each year. Ernie’s family had been too poor to be able to allow one of their children visit the circus so Ernie had found other ways to see the performances. Having the ability to seemingly become invisible was a skill Ernie learnt early on. It was a talent that stayed with him all his adult life proving to be of enormous benefit to both himself and his fellow villagers on more than one occasion.
Evening was drawing on. The circus sat on Fekenham green. Its fairground lights glowed a welcome, acting in the same way a flame attracts moths only in this case the moths were the children and citizens of the local area. Ernie turned on his heel, clicking his tongue at the dogs that followed behind their rescuer. As soon as he arrived at Martha’s he intended to ask her if she would like to go. He was confident she would. The trio walked on. The man in the lead with the Dachshund waddling behind as the cross breed limped in last place. The sky went from fading blue to grey then to a hallowed red recalling the timeless saying of ‘red sky at night, shepherds’ delight.’
The Frog and Radiator was full to bursting. Ever since Olive had closed down the Old Trout and moved away to pastures green so that pub’s clientele had switched allegiance. Arthur Bentwhistle stood behind the bar at the Frog and Radiator. To his side Lupini was serving Elvis Linkthorpe with a glass of Ginger Wine. It was the vicar’s favourite tipple. Seated, waiting for him at a gnarled, round table sat Susanne Beaufont, a.k.a. Anais Sin. She looked pretty as a peach in the glow of the fire that heated the public bar. Susanne was petite with an elfin face and large, liquid, deep brown eyes. Her slender nose highlighted her generous, sensual mouth. Her hair, like her eyes dark brown, had been trimmed into a shapely style that was cut close at the nape of her neck before it flourished into a heavy fringe that followed the curve of her brow. She looked the epitome of Parisian chic.
“I have found the first of my girls,” she informed Linkthorpe as he sipped at his drink.
“Really, what is she like?”
“She is perfect. Blonde, big breasted with wide hips. The men will love her. Her name is Delores.”
The vicar choked on his drink, coughing loudly before hastily composing himself.
“Not Delores Dewhip?”
“Why yes, do you know her?”
“She used to work here at the Frog as the barmaid.”
“So Lupini and Arthur know her then?”
“Yes indeed, Arthur intimately.”
“Mon dieu. Perhaps I should warn Lupini.”
Elvis sipped again at his Ginger Wine which he then placed on the table in front of him. Drawing his forefinger around the rim of the glass, he responded to Susanne.
“Best say nothing. Let them both find out in their own way. It looks like Arthur is trying to make a go of his marriage so I really don’t think he needs to know and it would only worry Lupini.”
Susanne looked troubled but said nothing. Instead she picked up her glass of Bordeaux.
Sitting at the table next to the vicar and his lover were Fekenham’s widows three: Ethel Blowvalve (the only real widow among the trio), Rose Buckshot and Violet Springheel. They were discussing among other things Thrush, the menopause and the extortionate price of vegetables.
“Old Gracegirdle has closed his shop down just like Bert Meade. Now we don’t have a green grocer or bakers. I blame that Snatch-Kiss fellow for opening that Voxco supermarket in Winchester,” said Rose, patting her perm with the flat of her hand.
“I heard that Old man Gracegirdle shut his shop in Fekenham and has moved to Muckleford on account he can drum up more business there,” said Violet, adjusting the strap of her bra as she spoke.
“Millie’s none too pleased with Bert. He travels each day t’ Winchester which is a journey of some twenty miles and is costing him a packet in petrol. He has said he wants to move there. Of course Millie is havin’ none of it and told him so. Daft bugger is what he is.”
Rose looked at Ethel who was drinking a pink gin.
“That pig o’ yours is getting big, Ethel. You won’t be able to keep him penned up in the tiny shed you cobbled together much longer.”
“My Bladder is just fine even if he has grown a touch. If I have to build a bigger shed then I will. He’s very affectionate is Bladder so don’t go thinkin’ I’m about t’ get rid o’ him.”
Rose and Violet looked at each other then at Ethel shaking their heads as they did.
“No, no, no, course not!” said Rose.
“Wouldn’t get rid of a dog now would you just ‘cos he got large so why would you a ruddy great brute of a pig that will eat you out of house ‘n home?”
Ethel gave Violet a dark look but said nothing.
The door to the pub opened with its normal rusty creak revealing the Hamfist family of Will, Madge, Elton and Noddy. The latter hobbled in with his neck still in a brace. His broken ribs, albeit still sore, had all but healed. His left leg was getting stronger day by day and he was now able to put his full weight on it. Will stomped up to the bar.
“Three pints o’ Widows’ Whiskers please Arthur and a glass o’ gin for the missus. ‘Ave one yerself and also one fer Lupini.”
“Very generous of you,” responded Arthur, “I’ll have the same as you. What would you like Lupini?”
“Rum and coke please. Thanks Will,” responded Lupini.
The fire cackled like the three fates. Flames danced in a circle sending smoke rising up the chimney with a rosy glow onto the Frog’s walls. The Frog’s front door opened again and in walked Martha Horncluff accompanied by Ernie Stallworthy.
“Evening Martha, Ernie!” called out the trombone-voiced Arthur Bentwhistle. The greeting was then echoed by a host of other villagers.
“Wotcha!” responded Ernie his flat vowels crunching the English language.
“Evening all,” smiled Martha.
In a corner, quiet and still, the Sisters Merryfeather, Pippa Tipping and Tilly Velvet, raised their glasses of amontillado sherry then smiled by way of greeting. They were not an unfriendly couple but kept themselves pretty much to themselves. The smoke-filled, fire-warmed lounge hummed with conversation as the villagers at rest relaxed.
Tucked away in an alcove, Flora Gusset sat knitting. By her right side a tall glass of stout, looking black and sinister, stood untouched while on her left a large bag filled with balls of brightly coloured wool lay open. From the bag several threads connected to the needles she wielded. Her needles clicked then clacked as her frantic fingers flew back and forth. A head formed followed by a featureless face as yarn was threaded together. Finally an oddly shaped raggedy doll emerged from the blaze of multi-coloured wools. The article finished, Flora placed it into her bag then picked up her glass of stout which she drained. Emitting a burp soundlessly behind her hand Flora walked up to the bar which was as tall as she was. She waved her hand to gain attention. Lupini caught sight of the diminutive dame and smiled.
Glass refilled and paid for, Flora walked back to her seat, passing as she did Anita and Shazli Braganza-Smythe who were huddled close together deep in discussion.
“I understand your concerns Anita,” expressed Shazli with gesticulating hands, “but it won’t cost us a penny, in fact we will make a little on the deal.”
Shazli, of Asian descent with an India father and English mother, had the appearance of a Latin. He had large brown eyes, brown almost black hair with skin the colour of Latté. Anita was also dark of complexion with long chestnut-coloured hair that was swept back and held in place by a band. She was plump but not matronly. Her face looked serious as a frown creased her brow.
“It isn’t the money that concerns me even if having some would be nice. It is the fact that the shops are part of your family’s history.”
Shazli nodded in agreement.
“I know but history doesn’t pay the bills and unless I sell the shops, all of them, we will simply be sitting on times past. The Old Trout is up for sale. I spoke with the agent and told him about the shops and how I inherited them. He is willing to make a deal with me. We could buy the Trout, as it still has that captive passing canal trade, work it for ourselves and have a little cash put aside in case we ever need it.”
Anita conceded with a nod of her head and a smile.
“It would be better than having to scrimp and save doing gardening for the Brigadier I suppose. Okay then, I’ll leave it up to you. I don’t mind working as a barmaid if it helps. You don’t think Lupini or Arthur would mind do you?”
“Why would they? Ever since Ralph purchased the Duck and turned it into a restaurant the Frog has been doing great business. Our canal trade isn’t of any interest to the Bentwhistles. I’ll have a word with them if you like.”
“Before you do there is something else I’d like to discuss with you. It’s Sally; Sally and Billy.”
Shazli’s face darkened. He put down his half of stout.
“She isn’t pregnant is she?”
“No, but I think they, that is she, is ready to, erm, ready to commit physically to Billy.”
Shazli’s face turned thunderous.
“I’ll kill him if they do!” he said, far too loudly.
“No you won’t! They are in love, and please keep your voice down. We need to be rational about this. She loves him and he loves her. We cannot stand in their way. If we do we will only drive them away. We have to be supportive, understanding even. They need advice and guidance and not you making angry threats.”
“She’s still my little girl.”
“I know and I remember being my Dad’s little girl too. It didn’t stop us though did it?”
“That was different.”
“No, Shaz it wasn’t. We need to discuss this with them and treat them like adults.”
“But they aren’t sixteen yet.”
“Still, better to have them in a steady relationship with our knowledge and support rather than have them doing ‘it’ behind our backs in some corner of a field. Anyway, Sally is sixteen even if Billy isn’t.”
The door to the Frog flew open as another customer entered the bar. The fire leaped high gratefully accepting the sudden rush of air.
In came Brigadier Humphrey Largepiece. The ex-military man strode into the public house as neatly presented as if he were on parade. A trilbury hat sat at a jaunty angle on his immaculate head. He wore a blue shirt that was unbuttoned at the throat with a red cravat tied around his neck. The blue shirt lay beneath a Royal Blue blazer that was emblazoned with highly polished brass buttons. That blazer hung over a pair of biscuit coloured slacks. His black brogues matched the shine of his brass buttons. His face was long but not hangdog thin. His hands were defined less by the flesh that covered them and more by the bones that supported his skin. His knuckles - one hand was holding a newspaper - were prominent as were the ends of his fingers. A series of blue veins carried across the backs of his hands and were slightly mottled. He sat down at an empty table whereupon he unfolded his copy of The Times which he then creased lengthways twice until he was holding an extended strip of newsprint.
Flora spun another thread of wool around her needles and began to knit. It was to be another wool dolly. The doll began to take form as she worked. It was a thin faced creature which looked remarkably like the Brigadier who, looking over at the bar, nodded a greeting to Lupini and Arthur both of whom returned his nod with smiles.
From behind the bar, Lupini took down a bottle of vintage malt. Unscrewing the top, she poured two fingers of the liquor into a robust tumbler. She then walked over to where the Brigadier sat then placed the drink in front of him. Not a brass farthing exchanged hands.
“Thank you m’dear.” said Largepiece lifting his eyes toward her and smiling. He took a sip of whisky then smacked his lips together in a satisfied manner much like a sea lion does after it has swallowed a tasty kipper.
“Did you see the circus on your way here?” asked Lupini.
“Couldn’t fail to what with all those ruddy lights, I must say I haven’t seen one for years.”
“Do you think you might go?”
“What the circus? No, I shouldn’t think so; never did like clowns; all too sinister for my liking.”
Flora knitted on, a perfect effigy of the Brigadier gathering shape and form. Her face appeared to be deep in concentration, attending to the task in hand but in reality her ears were listening to all that was being said; listening and observing. Once again the door flew open ushering in this time a handsome man in his late thirties to early forties. The man had long blond hair that brushed his collar and also a blonde goatee that profiled his rugged chin.
“Urpington Crust, you’re back!”
“Got back this morning. I finished my business in London then drove over to see how the place is getting on.”
“I noticed that you’ve had builders and decorators in.”
“Yes, indeed. They have been stripping out all the foul modern tosh that Snatch-Kiss had put in. That chap really buggered up the old house. I have had to fork out an absolute fortune getting it back to its former glory. I am not going to bother knocking down that hideous conservatory he built. I think I might annexe it and use it as an office or something. It looks like a glass wart.”
“Did you hear about what happened to Snatch-Kiss and Nasaltwist?” asked the Brigadier.
“You mean the business with the Enema Bandit?”
“Serve ‘em both right if you ask me. I have voted Tory all my life but those chaps are not my stripe of blue at all. Did you bump into the next Warden of Wessex in London?”
“He has to be elected first but yes, I did. in fact I attended a meeting with both of them.”
“Really?” said the Brigadier his interest piqued. “What was that all about then?”
“I am sorry to say that I can’t tell you, not yet anyway but things are beginning to make some sort of sense now. Just give me a little longer and then I will be able to fill you in with all the detail.”
Flora cast her last purl then snipped the woollen thread with a pair of shears. The limp doll facsimile of Humphrey Largepiece fell into her bag on top of the other doll.
Ruth and Neil had chosen not to go to the Frog and Radiator even though Neil had wanted to.
“I had hoped to see Ted Sandpip,” said Neil, a touch morosely.
“You would prefer to be looking at Ted’s face rather than mine?” asked Ruth quizzically.
“That’s not what I meant and you know it.”
“Then perhaps I should let you have your wicked way with me again.”
“Is that why we haven’t gone to the pub?”
“It might be,” smiled Ruth.
Then they had gone up to Ruth’s bedroom scattering as they went items of their clothing: socks on the sofa; a shirt on the stairs; underpants hooked on the door handle; knickers and a blouse on the bedroom rug; a brassiere thrown over the footboard. Ruth needed Neil more than she cared to admit, needed his attentive, caring ways but, as reluctant as she was to admit it, she also needed his physical self. His very maleness was addictive and so unlike Dafid. She had enjoyed a good, if brief sex life with her husband and, apart from her fling with David Vanderputte, had been faithful but there was something raw about Neil, something driven and urgent. His hands upon her were strong but gentle, his mouth warm and knowing as his tongue brought her the first climatic little death before he moved within her for the second.
After their mutual climax, they had fallen apart; Neil onto his back, his chest glistening with perspiration while Ruth had curled up by his side. She looked at him now as he lay breathing deeply from his passionate exertion. He wasn’t as tall as Ralph Ramhard and nowhere near as broad or big as the Hamfist brothers but Neil was still muscular with large hands and thick, sinewy forearms. His brown hair was just beginning to recede at his forehead but not so as you would notice at first glance. His hazel eyes, now gazing at her, were generous with a mass of tiny crow’s feet lines from all the time he spent laughing. He was a jovial, good-natured soul which was one of the things Ruth had liked about him. The only feature that presented weakness was his chin which seemed to sink into his neck.
“Do I pass?” asked Neil raising an eyebrow.
“You seemed t’ be giving me the once over.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to stare.”
“I don’t mind,” smiled Neil, “fact is I rather like you looking at me. You know how I feel about you Ruth.”
“And I am fond of you Neil but let’s take things slowly. I have only just separated from Dafid.”
The truth was, not that Ruth would have admitted it, that she was still unsure of her feelings for Neil. She liked him and was growing fonder of him but having a fondness for someone was not the same as being in love with them.
“There’s no rush Ruth, I can wait but you are and always have been the only one for me. I love you Ruth and nothing would make me happier than having your hand in marriage but as I said, there’s no rush. Let’s keep things the way they are until you know how you feel about me.”
His openness was both lovely and terrifying as it effectively put all responsibility on her. Ruth didn’t want that burden. Things were fine just the way they were..
Another villager who didn’t visit the Frog and Radiator that night was Ralph Ramhard. A man of integrity whose normal high moral standards, renowned in the short time he had lived in Fekenham as being as strong as sterling, found himself in a dilemma. Verity had, for the third time in as many days, gone out without him. Her having a life of her own was not what bothered the large American but rather the veil of secrecy that covered these apparently social activities did. In the three and bit years Ralph had known and loved Verity they had pretty much shared everything together. He had never met anyone quite like her and was still head over heels in love. The truth was Ralph was suspicious and a tad jealous
In his hand was Verity’s current diary. He had never before so much as looked at a single entry but now, much to his shame, he had just read that day’s entry. It was unusually short and succinct but it nonetheless made Ralph’s stomach churn and his heart fly to his mouth.
Another call from darling Ken. How I love to hear from him. Of all the men I have known he is one in a million. I am meeting him tonight at his hotel room. Dinner first then down to some serious business. How we haven’t seen each other for years is madness beyond belief. The last time was February 1985. It feels like twenty three years wasted.
Ralph took the diary and put it back exactly as he had found it. He knew of Verity’s reputation but had thought that her formative years were things of the past, that her sexual drive had finally found rest with him and him alone. He then went to where Verity kept all her diaries. He found the one marked 1985 then opened it at the date in question: February 17th..
After the sordid business with the irksome Regus Nasaltwist I was determined never again to socialise with aspiring politicians, even though I have for many years’ harboured designs, when my career in teaching ends, of entering politics in some fashion
Today I met with, quite by chance, Ken Stark a current member of the Tory government. He is a great deal older than me at forty eight and quite portly too but oh what a keen mind. His role as minster for education in the Major cabinet has given him a high public profile. If the PM is seen as being to the far right of the party then he firmly occupies the centre ground much as did MacMillan and Churchill before him. I find Margaret Major to be little short of fascist with no wonder all the old Tories are so opposed to her and her strong- arm methods. Still, she has been in power now for five years and looks set to win the next election. Much of this I suspect is due to the weak leadership of the Whigs by Marsden Munch.
Ken and I met quite by accident at a convention organised by the Department for Education. It was one of those dull events that one feels obliged to attend. I certainly have to if I am to achieve all the targets I set myself.
Among the speakers were Formara Frontbottom who obviously sees herself as the natural successor to her leader but who in reality lacks that thrust, that all important killer instinct. Her talk was as boring as a pensioner’s boiled underpants and equally colourless. I stifled as many yawns as there were pauses in her diatribe. Hopefully, she didn’t see me nodding.
Ken’s speech was the very opposite to his cabinet colleagues. It was incisive, witty, intelligent, amusing and marked by a passion few in his office can seem to muster. He genuinely seems to care about education.
Afterwards, when the attendees and participants mingled for aperitifs, drinks and conversation, I was introduced to Ken. Oh! What a charming, casually debonair man he is. He insists on wearing brown suede shoes which I found extremely cavalier. At first all we spoke of was politics of which we share like-minded opinions. He has little time for the right’s desire to re-convene the Commonwealth into some faux Empire. He believes, as do I that we should work closely with Federal
Europe but also with the and that all the Western world should be trying to consolidate against the threat of Imperial USA . He agreed with me that we spend too much time squabbling over insignificant detail and not enough time on things that matter: education, health and, so vitally important, defence. China
After a while our conversation turned to other things namely the arts and music. He is an aficionado of jazz and comes across as being passionate about the subject. I told him of the dear old Brigadier who shares his taste and who lives so near to me. Ken’s love of jazz is much like his enthusiasm for education. Once he gets interested in any given subject it seems to consume him.
We left the convention to its dry dialogues. I went with Ken back to his hotel room where I spent the night listening to Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane. The morning arrived all too soon. It was a wonderful night spent with a wonderful man.
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.