We’d decided to meet up on the far side of the Moor. Me and Sophie. All very innocent, we were practically neighbours. We were just neighbours, classmates, friends. We just happened to be going to the same thing at the same time. No problem, no big deal.
We’d talked about it over coffee in the Town’s Art house cinema. A chance coffee after a coincidental movie. An old British folk-horror thing; naked witches, old country houses, people driving around in Jags.
That’s when the idea grew. An ironic visit by bemused art students to a staid and static and terribly recherché Northern institution. The Hoppings. The annual confluence, convergence and congregation of pretty much every travelling circus in England.
The Hoppings wasn’t just dodgems and haunted houses, it was a real old-school carnival with mouse circuses; knife throwing, fortune telling, strong men and freak shows. Or so we’d heard. None of us had actually ever been. The chatter grew in the common room; in parties, at our end of term shows. Let’s do it! Lets go to the Hoppings! Me and Sophie glowed with our little secret excitement.
The Hoppings were held every year at the end of June, supposedly it evolved out of a medieval Whitsun Fayre. Perhaps something older. A great way to celebrate the end of our degrees, the passage into adult, independent life. It had been the talk of the common room for a couple of weeks.
I’d been the driver of the expedition. Despite the fact that I always hated circuses and fun fairs. The sudden prospect that I might never see Sophie again had been the impetus to my uncharacteristic enthusiasm.
But over that unplanned coffee, we had plotted.
“Will Ruth be there?” She’d asked innocently, running her middle finger around the edge of her coffee cup.
“Yep, we’re meeting there, she has something on in the day. Of course you should tell Andrew.” I suggested tepidly.
“I think he might be busy in the day time too!” I thought I detected the hint of a curl at the corner of her mouth.
“There’s a nice little picnic place up there, I’ll bring the food, you bring the booze.”
All suggested with a demure flicker of her eyelashes.
So here we were. It was warm and still, above us a big Northern blue sky, flecked with little fluffy clouds. You could smell the horses. People still grazed them up here, and the fairground. Doughnuts frying; candy floss, cigarette smoke. Woozy fairground music and distant thumping techno mixed and drifted in the air.
I felt a prickle of nervousness, we sat together on the dry grass. She had brought a Tupperware box of samosas in a little leather satchel. I’d brought a bottle of Soave and two cheap glasses in a blue plastic bag.
“Cheers!” We clinked and sipped the lukewarm wine. It was all silent. I suddenly couldn’t think of anything to say. She smiled at me. A strand of her hair fell over her eyes. She tucked it behind her left ear. The silence stretched.
Then the silence was shattered.
“Shit!” She said, “there’s Ross!”
Ross was in her department. I knew him from gigs and parties. He seemed ok. He was a local. He was walking across the park fifty yards away, in our direction. We couldn’t really do much except sit there.
“Hey Ross!” she waved and coo-eed. I was a little taken aback, but then I realised attack is probably the best form of defence.
He turned and smiled and wandered over in a loose-hipped casual fashion. He was in a band. I’d been to a party at his house. It was a big old Edwardian three-story in a quiet road. He had had great hair and Black 501’s.
I felt jealous. I looked at Sophie; cream Breton jersey with thin blue stripes, blue serge pedal pushers and little black pumps. They would make a great couple. I sweated in my junk-shop leather jacket and army trousers.
“Hey, what are you two up to?” he asked with a soft Northern inflection. Sophie’s fingernails clicked on her Ray-bans as she pulled them out of her hair and pushed them over her nose, looking up into the bright halo around Ross.
“We’re off to the Hoppings! We thought we’d load up first. Have a Samosa!”
“The Hoppings?” he smiled wryly. “You’re brave!”
“Oh, don’t be silly, it’ll be fun!” said Sophie brusquely, “why don’t you come with us, you can be our bodyguard!”
“Thanks, but I’m off to see dad, he’s in the hospital.”
The University hospital ran along the far side of the Moor.
“Oh no, is he ok?” Again, that was Sophie, I hadn’t said a thing. I felt tongue-tied, strangely anxious, my palms were wet. I was getting nervous about the Hoppings, God it was going to be tawdry. Why did I suggest it?
“Yeah, he had an operation on his leg a few years ago, and they botched it. He has to go in now and again for pain management. But he’s ok, once the Morphine kicks in.”
“Sounds great!” I heard myself say. He raised an eyebrow. Sophie did a little roll of her eyes for my benefit. I shrugged my shoulders “Sorry, hope he feels better!”
He nodded silently. “Enjoy the Hoppings, I hear it’s dying off now, might be your last chance, it was heaving when I was a kid. Not my thing really though. See ya.”
He fluttered his fingers and headed off. I watched as Sophie’s eyes followed him and then rolled back to me. She held my gaze for a second then frowned and packed up her stuff. “Come on,” She said; “I guess we should go meet the others.”
My little fantasy world had just imploded.
I was trudging behind Andrew and Sophie, holding Ruth’s limp, damp hand. Martha was trailing in our wake, bemused in an old mackintosh with her polaroid camera and beret. I looked down at the matted grass trampled into the dried mud of the moor. Candy floss sticks, plastic cups and crisp packets. Fag ends and spat out bubblegum. I tossed the blue plastic bag next to an overflowing bin, the empty bottle inside clinked against the mesh.
The Moor was an old exhibition ground. Back in the nineteenth century they had held an industrial exposition here. The decrepit stucco’d exhibition hall was still there, it held a tatty collection of photo blow-ups and Xeroxed posters. No shiny locomotives, no glistening beam engines. The ornamental lake was full of algae and floating chip wrappers. No Zoological gardens, no treasures of the Commonwealth.
How do you describe the Hoppings?
It was like an expanding cosmos. It displayed thermodynamic principles. The heat death of the cosmos was written here on cardboard and tarpaulin. Bright at the centre, entropy at the extremities.
It was all pretty quiet; a few teenagers jostling each other and shrieking, youthful parents dragging gangly, disinterested kids around. Martha snapped a few polaroids.
“I want candy-floss.” she said “Anyone else?” I shook my head.
A spray- painted Freddy Kruger glared down at us from the Haunted Palace.
Ruth twisted her hands free from mine, Andrew seemed keen.
“We’ll see you back here in ten minutes,” said Martha.
Sophie shrugged and smiled; “Come on” she said, after the gang had disappeared around a shooting gallery, “let’s see if we can find any of those freak shows.” Oh god! I thought.
“Sophie?” It sounded odd saying her name, like I was summoning something.
“Why did you go to that weird movie the other day?”
“Family connection; My mum was in it!”
“And so was I”
“Sort of of-she was one of the naked witches, she was pregnant with me when she filmed it. She was quite self-conscious actually.”
“Right, I bet.”
The further out from the whirling dive-bombers and big wheels and techno-techno-techno music you got, the quieter and stranger it got. Neon and plastic gave way to pasteboard and poster paint, canvas and guy ropes.
Esmerelda the Fortune Teller
Help and advise,
She can tell your future!
“Go-on,” nudged Sophie; “looks fun, drink this!” She handed me a hip-flask. I took a swig.
“Esmeralda? Isn’t that from the Hunchback of Notre Dame?”
“Probably the same one.” she winked.
“Ok, won’t be long!” I said with a simulacrum of enthusiasm.
It was a small marquee; the flap half open, I entered the gloom. It felt pleasantly cool after the dust and heat. There was a cloying scent floating in the air, musky and funereal. There were silk hangings and a brocade covered table.
Then there was the Gypsy.
She had the face and eyes and calico dress of a doll. Her little hands lay flat on the table. As I approached, I wondered if it was an old automaton I was to put a penny in a slot to activate, but then I saw the porcelain face was acne-scarred and dimpled by old piercings. Wedgewood-blue eyes blinked.
I felt myself sitting down.
As teenagers we’d messed about with it. I thought I’d driven it from memory. There was a cool prickle at the nape of my neck. I felt fuzzy and vague. She learned forward; there was a tattoo on her breast, something pagan. A figure perhaps. She spread out her cards. I remembered Alistair Crowley had designed a deck.
“How was it?” Asked Sophie as I stumbled back into the light. The heat and the radiance were a sudden shock. I blinked. “Great; fine, actually it was quite amazing, she seemed to know me.” My voice caught, but I turned it into a little laugh.
“Great!” She said “Let’s go explore!” She put her arm through mine and her hair tangled on my shoulder. She smelled of almonds. Now we were deep in the real carnival. It seem to glow golden as the early evening light filtered through dust and smoke. The colours of the painted signs were Vivid, they crackled and sparked. There was the painted lady, There was a girl in a g-string pulling knives out of a target. Tiny people in little suits doing acrobatics. And there it was! The Mouse Circus! I shook my head and beamed in wonderment. Even the sweating faces of the carnies seemed gloriously welcoming.
I felt myself being pulled away by Sophie. She pirouetted, I nearly stumbled, everything was a woozy blur.
We were inside another tent. We pushed through a thin crowd under turquoise lights and looked down into a glittering plexiglas tank.
Her black-green hair was splayed out like seaweed on rock. Her skin was seashell-translucent. Her long elegant tail flicked languidly. She smiled serenely. I’d never seen anything so wondrously beautiful in my whole life. Tears ran down my face. Sophie squeezed my hand. I felt a great warmth radiate out of me towards the mermaid. Towards Sophie; towards the whole crazy, marvellous carnival. This was my place, these were my people!
“Sophie?” I said her name again, it sounded good, it sounded like I could say it for the rest of my life. “That was a love-potion wasn’t it? That drink you gave me…I worked it out, I took the hint…your mum?”
“Ha!” She snorted “Sort of, Ross gave me some of his dad’s pain medicine; he has a stash of it. I thought you needed chilling out; come on, let’s go get some chips!”