The Bareback Lady of My Youth

By Ron Waywell

My dad never really approved of my sister's boyfriend Wilf after the circus incident. On more than one occasion be referred to him as "just a big soft lad" and could never understand what my sister saw in him. But as a seven-year old, in 1928, I thought he was wonderful. He used to race me for sixpence and let me win, and he took me to the baths every Thursday afternoon when it was his half day off from the Co-op grocery shop.

I shall never forget the day when the circus came to the Tip. This was a patch of land near my home, which was used by the local wireworks for waste disposal, and part of it had been reclaimed. I watched, fascinated, as the small procession of battered vehicles trundled through the Tip gates and formed a rough circle. The Circus had come to town!

First there was a monstrous traction engine painted in faded red and green. It chuffed along, sending out clouds of smoke and steam, and was to provide electricity for the big top. Next came three large vehicles festooned with strange equipment, each pulling a trailer. All bravely carried the garish legend "Chadwick's Travelling Circus" in a vain effort to disguise their down-at-heel appearance. This motley vanguard was followed by an assortment of motor transports, each with its load of circus paraphernalia. And finally, much to my delight, came two horse-drawn gipsy caravans with their distinctive curved roofs.

Throughout the afternoon I watched as the king pole was positioned and the tattered grey canvas of the big top raised around it. This was much patched, with frayed guy ropes, and was in keeping with the unshaven men in dirty cotton vests who heaved and pulled at it. And almost without exception, each had a cigarette dangling from his mouth. There was one man in particular who intrigued me. He was small, pale-faced, and toothless, and his puny arms ware covered in blue tattoos. He underlined all instructions to his fellow workers with rude words and seemed particularly angry at a large brute of a man. This man wasn't smoking but punctuated nearly every sentence with a great glob of phlegm. I found them all fascinating.

The two horses had been unhitched from their caravans and were grazing quietly nearby. Between the caravans, two drab women tended a smoky open fire, and a snotty-nosed child played with a ginger mongrel dog.

Towards evening it started to rain, and my hopes of seeing my first circus seemed doomed. But eventually the weather improved, and Dad reluctantly gave in to my pleading. He agreed that Wilf could take me on the understanding that he must look after me well. And so, hand in hand, we walked through the dark streets and on to the Tip.

We entered a world transformed. What smell is more evocative than that of a travelling circus? - an odour compounded of stale steam, coal smoke, horse dung, damp sawdust, and human sweat. Because of the poor weather the battered seating was only sparsely occupied, but I was in heaven and full of excitement.

And then the show started. I can't recall music, but there must have been. What I do remember was a white-faced clown and two beautiful ladies. The clown had a shiny red nose and a huge open grin, which revealed a cavernous, toothless mouth. His tongue had a light blue sheen and was very mobile, darting here and there. He wore baggy trousers and a sleeveless jacket, which revealed arms covered with tattoos, and round his neck was an enormous white collar. He was very jolly indeed, making us all roar with laughter.

One of the ladies was a bareback rider in pale-blue spangled tights, her shiny blonde hair caught up in a silvery gossamer snood. She performed all sorts of tricks with her two clever horses, which trotted around the ring, and I fell completely in love with her. The other lady was dark-haired and beautiful. She rode the trapeze with a complete disregard for her safety, and I envied the muscular man who caught her in his arms. And there was also a little boy with a clever dog, which could count by barking.

The intermission was only bearable because Wilf went off, together with many others, to buy me a large ice cream.

And it was at this point that something happened which made a magic event even more unforgettable. It was a blustery autumn evening, and the earlier rain suddenly returned and now came down with a vengeance--and with it, a strong wind. The damp canvas started to flap alarmingly, and the guy ropes tugged at their pegs. And still the wind rose. Suddenly a number of guy ropes came away and the big top started to sag. Luckily the king pole was firmly anchored, but in spite of the circus people's efforts, the canvas tent slowly collapsed around it as the remaining guy ropes came away. The few people still seated started to panic, and there was a general rush to the exits. And then the lights went out.

Throughout all this I felt strangely detached, almost enjoying the excitement--too young to understand the danger, I suppose.

And then the big top was down. I felt a weight of soggy canvas dragging me inwards and sank to the ground, listening to the cries around me.

I felt no pain but must have lost consciousness. The next thing I knew, I was lying in a bunk bed with a strong smell of paraffin oil about me. I had a cloth soaked in vinegar on my forehead, and a lady was bending over me.

"Ee, you poor love," said the bareback lady. "Don't worry. You're all right now."

I wasn't worried. Far from it. Wilf was nowhere to be seen, but I was in heaven. Admittedly, at close quarters the lady's make-up was blotchy and matted, her breath smelled of stale tobacco, and her armpits reeked. But I tell you, I was in heaven.

Then the lady's husband came with a mug of cocoa. He'd put his teeth in and had got rid of his makeup and he asked me where I lived. Then he went off to inform my parents.

By now the rain had stopped, and it was calm night once more. I sat on the caravan steps, wearing the clown's collar (which rested on my shoulders), drinking my cocoa and vowing to join a circus at the first opportunity. They talk about "the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd." I really believe that my love of the theatre spells from that very special evening.

All too soon Wilf came back with the magic clown. After searching for me, he had been home to report me missing, and my parents were about to inform the police.

In spite of all this, Wilf became my brother-in-law. He is long dead now, and I am an old man. But whenever I see a picture of Yogi Bear I remember that collar. Then my mind goes back to the circus and my first love, the bareback lady of my youth.

Copyright 2001, Ron Waywell

About the Author

Ron is 80 years old and served with the British Army in India (and Ceylon) during World War II. He retired from the teaching profession in 1985 and, following his wife's death shortly afterwards, took up creative writing as a hobby. Since then he has had short stories and poetry published and broadcast. The North West Network of the B.B.C has broadcast seventeen of his stories.

Ron Waywell passed away at the age of 86 in 2008.

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