I prefer to work behind the scenes as a Puppet Mistress because I’ve had my fill of being controlled. Yessir, up to ‘ere, I tell ya! I’m only a meter and a half high so that’s a bloody lot! No more headlining in Freak Shows for me.. full time anyways. Gotta start somewheres, I guess. I’d rather create me own fantasies than live in this depressing reality, as a freak. Ya see, I was born with a facial deformity and bowed legs, which me own Mother capitalized on by sending me away to a traveling Circus Freak Show when I was a wee lass, just six years of age, for a whoppin’ two shillings! Me Mum never looked back, I only remember seeing the back of her bright blue and yellow floral sundress and wide brimmed straw garden hat as she strolled away from the railroad station.. away from me. I wonder if she ever missed me, her one and only daughter?
The Ringmaster took me in as his own, but he’s a businessman at the end of the day and I’m not the only orphan in the Circus Freak Show. His time’s spread thin with booking shows, breaking down and putting up tents, traveling here and there, everywhere really, kissing audience members’ arses, wrangling the performers, hiring and firing the crew, refereeing quarrels, and of course.. putting up with us freaks. The Ringmaster, we call him “Burly Burke,” he’s the closest to kin I’ve had for the past two decades. Even though he’s the lad is charge and I’m just one of his many workers, we get on just fine. I can’t say the same for the naughty kids, they call him “Burke the Jerk” behind his back. I don’t believe any of their hogwash about Burke being a jerk though. I choose to believe this unsavory nickname came about because Burke is always chewin’ on beef jerky.
One day soon, I hope to be promoted from Puppet Mistress (like an Apprentice) to Puppet Madam; I just gotta prove my stuff first, impress Burke and Gertrude, win over the audience, and not muck up too much. If I do all that, I just might transfer from Freak Show to Puppet Show. I’d have more creative responsibility as a Puppet Madam: writing scripts and crafting the puppets, which is much better than untangling the puppet strings. What a shite gig! Seriously, a monkey could do it. I mean, we do have a thirty-three year old chimp named Marmalade, we call her Ol’ Marm, she doesn’t seem to mind, as long as you don’t look her in the eye. Her full time job is being the Ringmaster’s right hand. She follows Burke around carrying a satchel with anything he may need. Rumor has it that Ol’ Marm is a retired undefeated boxing champ. I cannot imagine Burke putting her in the ring with a drunkard for three shillings a round! Well, I guess if this is all true, that would make her Burke’s unofficial bodyguard too. I read in a mustard stained, ale soaked National Geographic magazine that I found in a bin that a chimpanzee has 1.35 times the strength of a human being.
Reading seems to be the only escape I can get from this place. The Puppet Madam, Gertrude, begrudgingly taught me how to read and write a couple years ago. I think she saw potential in me because she’s never taught anyone else before or since. Crippling arthritis robbed her ability to write Puppet Show scripts and craft the puppets. Her previous illiterate pissants were able to memorize the scripts from her dictation. She still dictates, but now I’m beginning to write for her. I’m still learning how to craft. Gertrude has quite a few strict rules. Top of the list is: “No Improvising” as she thinks it mucks up the whole production.
“Bloody hell Deirdre! What’d I tell ya?” Gertrude demanded while stomping her cane with one hand and wiping her twisted fingers across her face with the other. “Rule number thirteen: “Do Not Be Seen.” We’re meant to be invisible to the audience because it creates a sense of believability that the puppets are performing on their own.”
“S-sorry M-mum,” the new puppeteer, Deirdre, quickly apologized, avoiding eye contact and shuffling her feet, ready to retreat. “A-anything else before I g-go?”
“No child,” Gertrude softened with a tight lipped smile. “Off with ya,” as she waved her moth eaten handkerchief and plopped down on an uneven footstool. Deirdre vanished before Gertrude finished her second syllable. I don’t blame her because when an elder comes at you like that, we expect to be beaten, and if you can outrun ’em.. You might as well give it a go.
“Brilliant show tonight, Mum,” I said while pouring two cups of hot tea and handing one to Gertrude.
“Eh. We still have two more to go,” she muttered with a sip and a yawn. “I don’t think I can muster through.”
“Oh, w-well, I-” I began, gathering all the courage to continue. “Y-ya know, I-I could take over for ya so you can r-rest?”
“That’s awful kind of ya,” Gertrude breathed with a sigh, her wrinkled face relaxed as she leaned against a splintered tent post and closed her eyes; teacup still in hand.
I carefully wiggled the warm teacup out of her tight grip and tucked a frayed quilt around her. She started to snore and drool, which were signs she was out. Over the years, I’ve learned the saying: “The wise man doesn’t poke a sleeping bear with a stick.” Wonder if there’s a story behind that? Maybe someone published their unpleasant experience in an issue of National Geographic? Which reminded me that I needed to rummage through the bins later for something new to read.
“Well done, mate,” I said, patting Deirdre’s shoulder as we both stood from kneeling on footstools for what seemed like hours.
“Thank ya?” Deirdre hesitantly replied, motionless, waiting for more to come.
“I mean it,” I continued, handing Deirdre the puppets and props one by one. She placed each of them into a steamer trunk. “I think you’re gonna fit in here. Don’t worry about Gertrude. She’s a tough ol’ broad, but she grows on ya.”
“If you say so,” Deirdre replied, locking the trunk and sitting upon it. “So, what’s your story?”
“M-me?” I asked, not expecting the conversation to turn. “Oh, ya know, um, classic runnin’ away to join the circus story. I heard something about you stealing some bread from one of our tents? Couple weeks ago?”
“Yes’m, I’ve been on the streets for as long as I can remember,” she reminisced while twirling her short greasy golden locks between her stubby fingers with one hand and pocketing the steamer trunk key. “This traveling circus gig seems to go with my nomad lifestyle, so we’ll see how it goes..”
“So, you’re a gypsy?”
“More or less.”
“More of a thief? Less of a gypsy?”
“Jury’s still out on that one,” Deirdre said with a quick grin. She shifted her weight to the edge of the steamer trunk and her shiny penny-less loafers rhythmically tapped the ground. “Anything else before I go?”
“Uh, aye,” I started, clearing my throat, and leaning against a tent post. “Those are some nice shoes ya got there.”
“Thank ya?” Deirdre questioned the compliment, as she crossed her legs and arms.
“Lookit, I live in a grey world,” I put my hands up in surrender. “I was just gonna ask if ya could maybe be on the lookout for a size three and a half for me?”
Deirdre uncrossed her arms, leaned back resting her palms on top of the steamer trunk, stretched her still crossed legs out, and squinted her blue eyes up at me.
“I-I’m way overdue for a new pair. I g-gotta hole in each sole. These damn bowed legs need b-better s-support. W-whenever it rains, I c-catch a cold. I can’t a-afford losing anymore work.”
“What’s in it for me, eh?”
“I’ll put in a good word for ya with Gertrude and Burly Burke?” I proposed while absentmindedly thumbing through the puppet show scripts in my burlap apron.
“And teach me how to read?”
“Think you’ll be around long enough to learn?”
“I’ll see to it that I do. Haven’t had nothing to look forward to in- -,” Deirdre trailed off, averting her gaze, and quietly chuckled to herself. “I’ve never had nothing to look forward to.”
“Got yourself a deal,” I agreed.
“Aye,” Deirdre leaned forward to her feet and extended her hand towards me.
I slowly lifted my hand out of my pocket, Deirdre firmly shook my hand, and I instinctively winced.
“You okay?” Deirdre loosened her grip and looked me in the eye. “Didn’t mean to hurt ya.”
“O-oh, n-no, um, it w-wasn’t t-that,” I began, voice trembling, and letting go of her hand. “I-I, uh, d-don’t have a lot of p-physical c-contact.. with a-anybody.”
“Not even Gertrude? Y’all seem friendly,” Deirdre’s assumption prompted me to shake my head. “Burke?”
I slowly shook my head again, feeling uncomfortably awkward.
“I’m sorry,” Deirdre whispered, grabbing my hand again, and squeezing it gently.
“Blimey! Look at the time,” I blurted to end the lingering silence, disconnecting our hands. I fumbled to open my cracked pocket watch and closed it in my jittery hands.
“Are you turnin’ in?”
“I think it’s best. I’m knackered,” I excused myself in a hurry and stumbled out from behind the dusty maroon velvet curtain into the twilight air. “Oi! Watch it,” I exclaimed as I bumped into a wee lass.
“AAAAAHHHHHHH!!!” the toddler screamed, her eyes wide as saucers. “A-a m-monster!”
“Oh, bugger.. I’ve been called worse,” I mumbled under my breath, as I attempted to bend down to her level and comfort her. This only made matters worse. She shrieked again and scurried off towards a woman wearing a faded blue and yellow dress and tattered straw hat. Safe to say, her Mum.
“Aw, what’s the matter, love?” the woman calmly asked her distraught daughter while tenderly stroking her hair. The wee lass hid behind her Mum’s leg, peering out with one eye, and pointing her index finger in my direction. The Mum locked eyes with me, she tilted her head, mouth agape.
“Apologies, Miss,” I stepped forward. “Didn’t mean to give her a fright- -,” I trailed off as I witnessed the Mum guiding the wee one away from me towards the exit. Thrice, the woman glanced over her shoulder back at me before she disappeared amongst the crowd.
“Whoa, whoa, what’s going on?” Deirdre flew to my side, checking her surroundings, wondering what the commotion was all about. “Thought you turned in?”
I didn’t hear her. I was lost in thought. Replaying what just happened. That woman’s bewildered face.
“She looked familiar,” I murmured as I stared after the departing visitors, hoping to catch one more glimpse of her. “Vaguely, and yet.. still familiar.”
“What are babbling on about?” Deirdre beseeched, still looking around for any clues to piece together.
“I accidentally bumped into a kid and when she ran screaming to her Mum- -” I cut off, remembering where I’d seen that dress and hat.
“Then what?” Deirdre pressed, holding onto my shoulders and trying to make eye contact.
“I-I t-think,” I sputtered, repeatedly blinking and my knees began to buckle. Deirdre caught me before I tripped over myself.
“What? C’mon, spit it out,” Deirdre demanded, repositioning her hands on my shoulders, not letting go.
“I think that w-was m-my M-Mum,” I said, my mind whirling with uncertainty, but my gut gurgled with assurance.
“Did you really?” Deirdre asked, unsure how to respond to such monumental news.
“A-And m-my s-sister,” I stated, surprising myself, finally putting the pieces together.
“Wicked!” Deirdre celebrated, patting me on the back with one hand, and resting the other on her hip.
“N-No, no, it was h-horrible- -,” I divulged, deciding whether to share my past with her.
“Oh, so, uh, those weren’t screams of a happy reunion, then?”
“No, no, definitely not.”
“Wanna talk about it?”
“I don’t know.”
“C’mon then, let’s go for a pint,” Deirdre insisted, while putting her arm around my shoulder and we walked side by side.
“Don’t be daft! It’s almost curfew.”
“Bollocks! Curfew, shmurfew.”
“It’s Gibberish or Pig Latin,” Deirdre chuckled, while bumping her hip into mine.
“You’re thick. Those aren’t real languages.”
“Rubbish! Says who?”
“I, for one. And I’m sure everyone at the pub will agree,” I stated matter-of-factly as we entered O’Sullivan’s.
“You’re on,” Deirdre declared with a wink and squeezed my shoulder as we approached the bar.
“What’ll it be lasses?” the bartender asked with his back to us.
“Two pints, please,” Deirdre said, holding up her thumb and index finger.
“I’ll put it on your tab,” the bartender stated, now facing us, taking two coasters from.. Ol’ Marm who popped up out of nowhere from behind the bar!
“Burke?” I asked, while positioning myself on top of a sticky barstool. “What brings you two here?”
“Oh, well, y’know, when somebody’s a no-show; we gotta pick up the slack,” Burly Burke expressed with pride while gently petting Ol’ Marm’s head. Like an assembly line, Ol’ Marm filled two pint glasses and she handed them to Burke. He slid one full pint glass across the shiny walnut bar top into my hands. Then to Deirdre.
I smiled while lifting my sweaty pint glass in agreement with him. Burke half-smiled back at me and was off in a flash to take the next patron’s order.
“That chimp’s a cheeky bastard,” Deirdre teased in a hushed tone. She abruptly cleared her throat and raised her glass towards me. “Cheers, mate!” We clinked pint glasses, took long sips, and “aahhh-ed” with satisfaction.
“So, what’s your real story?” Deirdre craved for the full scoop on my life.
“We’re gonna need another pint,” I admitted, while downing the rest of my beer. “Burke! Fill ‘er up?”
“That good, eh?” Deirdre followed suit.
“Settle in. It’s gonna be a long night,” I burped and we both burst into laughter.