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Orphans Of The Carnival By Carol Birch

Maybe you've heard of Julia Pastrana. More likely, you haven't. Pastrana, "the singing, dancing marvel from Mexico", was a star of what, in the 19th century, was known as a "freak show". Born with hypertrichosis, her face and body were covered with thick, dark hair that meant many couldn't see past her appearance to the obvious intelligence and talent that lay beneath. This wonderful reimagining of her life by Man Booker shortlisted Carol Birch (Jamrach's Menagerie) takes the bare bones of Pastrana's story and brings it to life, as she leaves the apparent safety of her home in Mexico and crosses America and then Europe with the circus. As magical as Angela Carter's Wise Children (and I don't say this lightly), Birch more than does justice to an incredible woman's story. SB

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ORPHANS OF THE CARNIVAL

Carol Birch

£14.99, Canongate Books

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Maybe you've heard of Julia Pastrana. More likely, you haven't. Pastrana, "the singing, dancing marvel from Mexico", was a star of what, in the 19th century, was known as a "freak show". Born with hypertrichosis, her face and body were covered with thick, dark hair that meant many couldn't see past her appearance to the obvious intelligence and talent that lay beneath. This wonderful reimagining of her life by Man Booker shortlisted Carol Birch (Jamrach's Menagerie) takes the bare bones of Pastrana's story and brings it to life, as she leaves the apparent safety of her home in Mexico and crosses America and then Europe with the circus. As magical as Angela Carter's Wise Children (and I don't say this lightly), Birch more than does justice to an incredible woman's story. SB

Chapter:

One

This is where your lost toys went, the one the dog chewed, the one your mother threw out without asking when you left home, the ones you always wondered about. 

The island says: bring me your lost, your scorned, forgotten masses, bring me your maimed and ridiculous, bring me so much as a finger or a toe and I’ll take you in. Be you ever so grotesque or beauty sublime, it’s all the same to me. Everyone’s allowed in. Doesn’t matter who you were or what your story, doesn’t matter what state you’re in. You could’ve been smashed to smithereens, even your broken bits are welcome here. 

***

There’s nothing to the island. The Aztecs made it, many moons ago, long before the white men came. Trees, a stream, a few shacks, an old wooden landing stage. White butterflies hover over red flowers. From time to time a bird whistles, high and thin and querulous. A stream of water makes no sound. The dolls are legion. Strange fruit, they hang on every tree, and the trees crowd close. They hang like bunting on rusty wires running between the trees. They have covered all the walls, inside and out, filled every crack and cranny. The oldest has been here for more than fifty years; the youngest just arrived. The filth is proud. 

In the centre of the island, at the centre of a shrine in the middle of a mouldy old shack with the word ‘Museo’ over the door, a solemn black- haired, blue-eyed girl doll sits like Buddha under a framed colour photograph of the hermit of the island, now dead. She is decked with beads and thin curled ribbons, some faded, some less so, surrounded by the gifts people bring to her, a strange trove of jewellery and holy pictures, sweets and candles, coins and finger puppets, small toys, a Rubik’s Cube, a troll, a worn set of Pokemon cards and a pink-haired white pony with large mascaraed eyes. This little girl will want for nothing. She is the little girl who drowned here so long ago, whoever she was. No one knows. It doesn’t matter. Little girls are loved and they drown, and there must be comfort for what can’t be cured. There must be dolls and shrines and remembrance in the company of a host of faces. Under the corrugated roof, dolls and their parts dangle from the rafters. From ceiling to dirt floor they hang on the flaking whitewashed walls. Spiders have woven furry grey curtains between them, veiling the faces of a few. There is a blunt-faced boy, made by the cobwebs into a strange smudged apparition. Flies hum. Silky eyes, whitened as if by cataracts, peer through trailing grey lianas. Baby dolls, sexy dolls, rag dolls, teen queens, ugly dolls, demon dolls, elvish dolls, dolls in the national costumes of various countries, naked and clothed, suspended, flying like angels. A strung up baby in a blue romper suit hangs broken-necked, half-faced, dirt-encrusted. A gangster’s moll in a silk dress is losing her hectic red curls. A tiny face sleeps in the rafters, the underlip tucked in. The closed eyes have the authentic, ancient look of the newborn. 

The smell of long-established mould was thick and warm on the air. 

Outside, a slight breeze scarcely moved the long leaves and whip-like branches. You could walk round the island in a couple of minutes, but no one did. The endless diversity of decay slowed you down, variations on dollskin: poxed, blistered, burned black, bleached white, patterned elaborately, sometimes geometrically, by weather and the passage of time. Flies crawled on the dolls, gathering like mud in the creases of their clothes. Their eyes spewed bugs. Crazed with a million cracks, mud-splattered, twined with leaves, they grinned with filth-clotted mouths, reached out for a hug, beseeched, pondered, smiled serenely. Most of them were babies. 

An obscene pink knob poked out of a headless torso. A girl with mud-be- draggled hair and the left leg of another leaned down in greeting, her face a moving black mask of bugs. An old lamp lay in a thicket, a head with black-rimmed eyes poking out of it. A single strand of hair hung down to its chin, and its large blue eyes were innocent and interested. It seemed about to speak. A fat white leg hung on a line. In the root of a tree, a tangle of limbs clung to each other. A clown wore a bonnet. Naked Barbies with hair gone wild had colonised a thin tree, one of them sensibly wearing her sunglasses. 

It was a sky burial in slow motion. 

***

1854 

The train shook, her brain shook. She flew into the future, dreaming she was lost in a big white house that went on forever, the windows dusty like the windows of the diligence taking her on the first stretch of her journey, from Culiacán to Los Mochis, to get over the mountains and out of Mexico. She saw glimpses of far mountains and miles of scrub, and occasionally a poor peon tramping in rags. Then she was back in her bunk, listening to the sound that had woken her up: a baby crying, far along the train towards New Orleans, a lost thin bleating like a lamb. 

Needing privacy, she’d paid a few extra dollars to get a berth for the night. The sleeper was dark and cramped, the passage very narrow, people walking up and down it constantly, brushing against the thick hessian curtain she’d pulled across in front of her bed. A man in the bunk across the passage snored and snorted and tossed, so close it was indecent, and the clanking and screeching, the jolting and swaying, the dusty coal smell kept her awake. At least she had sheets and they were clean. She huddled down into them with old Yatzi, thinking about the great city, every great promised city, New York, Chicago, Boston, and the people she’d meet tomorrow in New Orleans. Yatzi’s bald wooden head was tucked under her chin. 

The whistle was a soul in distress. God but this land was flat and endless. Miles and miles of spreading green, some trees, occasionally a crossroads. The flatness had become a dream verging on nightmare. No one lived here. That there were at places in the world she’d known, but the enormity of it scared her even more than crossing the mountains. She’d been afraid all the way from Culiacán. The first couple of days she kept thinking she’d get off at the next stop and go back home. She thought she’d be discovered. They’d be attacked by bandits, robbed. Killed. Two more weeks, slogging higher and higher into her mother’s mountains in a smelly wagon she couldn’t even get out of to stretch her legs, not till everyone else was asleep, and then only for a brief interlude of wide cool darkness, a quick look up at the frosty stars. The driver and all the passengers thought she was a young girl travelling alone to meet her guardian, veiled because of a vow she’d made to Our Lady. Respecting her silence, they left her alone and were kind and helpful whenever they made a stop. Up the mountains, down the mountains, going mad with boredom, sleeping and drifting, jerking awake a hundred times, and with every mile that jolted by feeling more and more unreal, losing all sense of distance, the world a giant carpet unfolding endlessly. 

In the morning they pulled into a depot. She was up and dressed and veiled, sitting by one of the small windows. The porter came with bread and coffee. New Orleans was no more than a couple of hours away, he said. The coffee was appalling. She was sick to death of this veil. She’d never had to wear it so much at home. It didn’t matter. All these new people she’d have to meet, she’d be famous, Rates said. She would perform. They’d flock in their millions. And they’d pay. After New Orleans, New York. Let them goggle. You show them, you show them what you can do, how proud you are, you go out there and let them see you. Can’t do it, she thought. Scared. Scared. Have to. Come this far. Who is this Rates anyway? Mama, I’m lost. She sipped the bitter muck. He could be a crook or a madman for all she knew. All she remembered was a suave podgy little man, well-spoken. In New Orleans, Mr Rates said, there’d be a big rehearsal room where she could practise on a real stage. What if he wasn’t there? Alone in New Orleans. Never get back home. 

The conductor was calling all aboard. The place filled up. She watched the country roll by again, at as ever still, but broken up now with vast stretches of water and acres of sugar cane, and people sprinkled out like black corn, working the flatness. The long car was packed, boys passed up and down the aisle selling candy and papers, and the heat was terrible. Off in the distance from time to time a cluster of slave cabins would appear, and sometimes a great white house. The windows didn’t open. The air was ripe with sweaty people. A stove at one end leaked smoke. 

At the station she stood with her grip on the ground beside her. The place swarmed, the same as all the other waystations they’d stopped at along the road, only bigger and noisier. She didn’t see Mr Rates and didn’t know what to do, where to wait. Everyone was shouting, shunting luggage around, She tried to get out of the way, close to tears. And then he loomed in front of her, the portly man from the night of Marta’s wedding, with his thin-lipped smile and small pale eyes. At the wedding he’d been dressed like a gentleman, but here he wore a loud check jacket and carried a black cane with a silver tip. 

‘My dear Miss Julia,’ he said in an oily way. 

‘Mr Rates,’ she said, ‘I was just wondering what to do if you hadn’t been here.’ 

‘Of course I’m here.’ 

A thin pock-marked boy whose nose turned up extremely appeared at Mr Rates’s side. He looked straight at her veiled face then away. 

‘And on time, you see,’ Rates said. ‘Is this all you have?’

She looked down. Her stuff looked paltry. ‘This is all,’ she said. 

‘Excellent. Michael!’

The boy picked up her grip and her guitar and set off briskly, weaving through the crowd. Mr Rates offered Julia his arm and led her after. ‘You must be tired,’ he said. ‘Terrible journey, terrible, I’ve done it myself. All went well, I take it?’ 

‘Yes.’

‘Excellent.’

Outside, the horses hung down their long brown heads, nostrils steaming. Their carriage smelled of dung and lemons. All the books she’d read in Don Pedro’s house had not prepared her for the excitement of New Orleans. ‘But it’s too big!’ she said with a nervous laugh. ‘It goes on and on.’ It was a city of long streets and tall terraces, big houses with gardens, Spanish courtyards that put her in mind of Culiacán, and everywhere people teeming, loitering, meeting and parting, more people than she’d ever seen. Music flashed by, the high whistling peal of a street organ. Trying to see, she carefully lifted her veil, and was aware of a tightening in Rates’s attention. But she held it slantwise, cleverly, so that it was like looking out of a tunnel. No one could see her. 

‘Careful,’ Rates said very softly by her ear. 

She had never felt so buried yet so alive, and she dropped the veil. 

‘I’m scared about meeting all the new people,’ she said too quickly. 

Rates leaned back. ‘Of course,’ he said, ‘it’s only natural. But there’s nothing to be afraid of.’ He smiled, and putting on his grand stage voice declaimed, ‘You were born to entertain!’ 

‘I’m sick, sick of this veil!’ 

‘Not long now,’ he said. ‘You can take it off soon,’ patting her gloved hand and leaning close so that she could smell a slight odour from his breath. ‘You’re not shy, Julia,’ he said. ‘It’s what I noticed first about you. How calmly you faced the world with that stupendous, utterly unnatural face of yours, and of course – you know the spirit in which I say that, it’s merely a stated fact – I knew then you were a natural. No no, there’s no doubt in my mind, no doubt at all, but that you’ll thrive.’ 

Two

The carriage swerved to get by a crowd spilling into the road. 

‘Tell her about the Saint Charles Theatre, Mikey,’ he said. 

‘It’s grand,’ Michael said, bored, looking out of the window on the other side, where a horse pulling a big dray was blocked by a lop-sided cart. The man driving the dray started shouting in an accent she couldn’t make out. 

‘Wait until you see New York,’ said Rates.

‘I can’t believe I will.’

‘Oh, you will,’ he said, ‘you will.’

‘Wish I could go to New York,’ said Michael grumpily.

‘It’s not as pretty as New Orleans,’ said Rates, and the boy gave a crude snort as if prettiness was over-rated. ‘It’s like an old whore,’ he said, ‘all paint and dirty underneath.’ 

Mr Rates’s sister-in-law ran a rooming place in one of the faubourgs, an area where shuttered cottages mingled with low terraces and overhanging roofs. On shady wrought iron balconies, on steps, porches, people, people everywhere, all kinds, Spanish, black, white, every mixture. They pulled up beside a high fence in a busy street, not far from a corner where women hovered seriously over baskets of fruit outside an oddly shaped store. A tall middle-aged woman in a dark blue dress opened the gate immediately as if she’d been watching for them, and peered into the carriage eagerly before they’d even had a chance to get out. ‘Well, the new girl,’ she said and giggled like a giddy girl. Her face, vivacious and fleshily wrinkled, was heavily powdered white and wafted a scent of flowers into the airless carriage. ‘Can’t wait to see what you got under there,’ she said cheerfully. 

‘Julia, this is Madame Soulie,’ Rates said, ‘my sister-in-law.’ 

‘Terrible journey, I dare say.’ Madame Soulie stood down so the driver could open the carriage door. Rates descended heavily, turned and gave his hand to Julia. ‘It was such a long journey,’ she said breathlessly, stepping down. 

‘Hellish, I’m sure.’ Madame Soulie aimed a kick at a wiry grey dog rooting in the trash that bloomed along the bottom of the fence, snarling and unleashing a stream of furious French at it before snapping back startlingly into her practised smile. 

‘Please,’ she said, ‘this way. What a tiny little thing you are!’ 

They followed her through the yard to the house, while Michael came along behind with her luggage. Pink azaleas bloomed along the sides of the path. On either side of the cottage a shingle roof hung down low, and a pomegranate tree shaded the walkway to the back. Somewhere inside a piano plink-plonked lazily. 

Madame Soulie jumped up the step with a girlish bob unsuited to her bulk and called, ‘Charlotte!’ She held her hand out behind her to Julia, who took it and stepped into a wide yellow-walled room with a door on either side and a gallery above. She got an impression of faded, leaf-patterned divans. ‘Charlotte,’ Madame Soulie called again. ‘Where are you? Oh there you are.‘ 

A bony mulatto girl of about twelve appeared silently. 

‘Charlotte, take Miss Julia across.’ Madame Soulie wore five or six very long strings of beads that she fiddled with constantly. ‘Are you hungry, dear?’ 

‘Not at all,’ said Julia, ‘only very thirsty.’ 

‘Rest a while,’ Rates said genially, flinging himself down in an extravagantly exhausted way on one of the divans as if he himself had just come all that way. His belly was a dome of worn white linen. ‘The girl will bring you hot chocolate. Time enough to meet the others.’ 

Michael shuffled in, dumped Julia’s grip and guitar in the middle of the floor and stood looking down at them, breathing heavily. 

‘Well, don’t just leave them there,’ said Madame Soulie, ‘take them across.’ She clapped her hands, and as Michael picked up the grip and Charlotte the guitar, turned the clapping into a Spanish dance in their wake, urging Julia after them. 

‘We are all one big happy family here, Madame!’ she called after them as they emerged into the back yard. It was large, with three two-room shacks opening onto it. Curtains hung over the windows. A table and benches were pushed against the side of a brick kitchen, and half a dozen chickens pecked between weed-grown stones in front of it. A swing had been fixed to the bough of a very old apple tree. She was aware of figures, one in a doorway, one peering out of a tiny criss-cross window, but she felt scared and didn’t look at them. Half way across the yard a little stooping goblin came running out from the kitchen, sudden and utterly impossible. She screamed. 

‘It’s only Cato,’ Michael said. 

He was all face and not enough head. What there was of his head was dark brown and exaggeratedly egg-shaped, bald and tapering to a point like a dunce’s cap. 

Seizing her hand in his little stick fingers, he spoke urgently in a high voice that broke and stuck and skidded nasally, drowning any words. 

‘So tiny,’ she said. 

His fingers were hot and squirmy. His face pushed itself avidly at her with a massive width of smile. A fat black woman in a guinea-blue skirt and white blouse appeared in the doorway of the kitchen, a wooden spoon steaming in her hand. ‘Come on now, Cato,’ she said patiently, ‘you get back now.’ 

‘He likes people,’ Michael said, looking back over his shoulder. ‘You never saw a pinhead before?’ 

‘Never.’ 

She stared into the shiny crinkling eyes, wanting unaccountably to unveil. 

‘He’s just a big baby,’ Michael said.

‘Cato!’ the cook called.

Mewing excitedly, Cato ran back to the kitchen. His breeches were cut off at the knee. His legs were thin, bent sticks and his feet were too big. He put his head very far back and smiled up at the cook as if he was trying to break his face. 

‘Here we are.’ Michael was lugging her grip through an open door. Charlotte, a frail thin-faced girl, stood back and waved her on in, staring at the veil as if trying to see through. 

‘Thank you,’ Julia said. Wouldn’t you just love to know what’s under here? She looked around. It was plain but comfortable. Someone had tried to make it nice with blue flowers in a jug and a clean yellow tablecloth. A game of patience was abandoned on a side table. Two narrow beds were neatly turned down, and a pink curtain was half drawn back on a rail of wide, brightly coloured skirts. Michael put her grip down. Charlotte drew back another curtain, heavy grey linen. ‘You in here,’ she said. ‘You sleep here and put your things in there. You want chocolate?’ 

‘I’d love some,’ said Julia.

‘Look,’ the girl said. ‘You got a window.’

It was open for the air but covered with a net. Another net was round her bed. Veil on veil on veil.

‘I’ll bring you some chocolate,’ said Charlotte, staring blatantly. ‘You’ll want hot water too, I guess.’

The boy didn’t look at her at all.

When they’d gone, she tore off the veil and tossed it onto the bed. She was dazed. Three weeks and she’d be on a real stage in a theatre. What have I done? She got under the net and lay down on the narrow bed with her hands over her face, moaning softly. I should have gone back to the mountains, she thought. When she was little she thought the mountains were full of people like her, that there was a place up there where all the women were hairy and had more teeth. And it had occurred to her to just set off, take that path she clearly remembered, along which her mother had walked away. The path rose first gently and then, in the distance where everything turned blue, very steeply. 

Where was the girl with the chocolate and the hot water? She jumped up again and stood at the window listening to the sounds beyond the end of the street, a muffled hum, a whistle, a rumble and a call. The Mississippi, how far away she didn’t know, not far, she’d seen it from the train, the big steamboats paddling up and down with people on the upper decks with hats and parasols. I am a woman who’s been on a train, she told herself. I’m in a great city. I’m going to New York. I could go anywhere. 

A baby cried somewhere, out along the back alley. 

She’d met Rates the day of the wedding. She’d been called from the kitchen to sing and play her guitar. All the doors and shutters were thrown open to the patio. Everyone was there, all the bright sparkling crowd of them, the boys, the young men and their wives, Doña Inés, her mouth held in the tight way she had when she was pretending not to be drunk, all the young bucks and flowery girls, and the children, some of whom had not seen her before. This was a particular treat for them. But it was nothing. She’d been stared at since she’d come into the world. She wore her red dress, a red flower in her hair, stood before the bank of paper flowers and strummed on her guitar, the same old thing she’d learned on, red and scratched. She sang ‘Llorona’ and ‘La Chapparita’, then laid the guitar aside, took up her harmonica and played for Doña Inés, A La Nanita Nana’, and everyone sang along. Afterwards Don Pedro came forward, kissed her hand and held it and stood smiling before the crowd. ‘My dear friends, Señorita Julia Pastrana!’ he said, and they cheered and laughed and some gave her sweets and little gifts. Listen to her! That voice coming out of that face! One lady gave her a necklace made of blue stones. ‘I think you’re miraculous,’ the lady said. The mamas brought their babies in their arms to look at her, and she smiled and smiled. One child was afraid and screamed and was carried away by his scolding sister, saying ‘Oh, Enzo, making such a fuss. Señorita Pastrana will think you’re very rude.’ 

‘Not at all,’ said Julia, but the girl did not hear. Poor little boy, she thought, will he wake screaming, with a great jerk, seeing me in the dark? 

‘Who taught her to sing?’ someone asked. 

Will he try and try to put my face from his mind and be unable, and wish he’d never seen me? Will I have him waking in a sweat still when he’s a man grown up with his own babies. 

‘I did,’ said Marta, who’d changed out of her wedding gown and put on a green-and-white dress over several layers of frothy lilac petticoat. She had not taught Julia to sing. Julia had always sung. She’d sung around the Palace as a child, sang as she worked, sang as she fixed a hem. She never showed herself unless she was called, and these days she was not called upon so much, usually only when Don Pedro had a visit from some important somebody with silk lining in his cuffs. And if that important somebody or that important somebody’s wife had heard of her and wanted to see her, she’d come out when they were sitting with their cigars and brandy, all ready and waiting and agog, in her red dress with a red flower in her hair. That had been Don Pedro’s idea, but she liked it. Red flower, black hair. Or purple bougainvillea from the vine growing along the boys’ balcony. Hoolya! Hoolya! Calling her to the patio. Hoolya! Hoolya! Summoning her to entertain them. 

Rates had appeared in front of her, a round-faced man in late middle age with a prissy little mouth and the plump chin of a great baby. He was in company with an intense boy, one she remembered, one of those who got the pull, whose eyes got stuck on her in a troubled way. 

‘Señorita Julia,’ the boy said, ‘you did not dance.’ 

She wasn’t at her best; she was tired. She’d been up long before light with the other servants. It had been a horrible day. She’d been crying because of the blue dress. If she was very careful, she could cry without anyone knowing, letting the tears hide one by one, strictly controlled, in the hair beneath her eyes. This was useful. 

‘Not tonight,’ she replied.

‘I saw you dance once before.’

She smiled politely.

‘I wish you would have danced,’ he said stubbornly, his eyes steady. 

‘Shall I dance for you now?’ She smiled, picked up her skirts and did a couple of swirls, backwards and forwards, side to side, stamping her feet and finishing with arms akimbo. A cheer went up from those close by who saw. The older man applauded. 

‘You have talent,’ he said with a slight bow of the head. A Yank, by his accent. 

‘Thank you, Señor.’ 

‘Didn’t I tell you?’ The boy spoke with an air of great seriousness. ‘She’s remarkable. She speaks English, Uncle. And you ought to see her dance. The way she points the toe.’ 

‘Indeed.’ The man held her gaze. ‘Miss Pastrana,’ he said in English, ‘you really ought to go on the stage.’ 

Julia smiled, looked down. 

‘She exceeded all expectations,’ Don Pedro said jovially, appearing at her side and putting one arm about her shoulders. ‘I taught her to read myself. She can make a good fist of French as well if it’s called for. Can’t you, Julia?’ 

‘Mais bien sûr, Monsieur,’ said Julia, raising a laugh. 

‘Miss Pastrana,’ the man said, as the band struck up once more and Don Pedro was dragged away to the dance floor by one of his daughters-in-law, ‘have you ever been in New Orleans?’ 

‘I have never been anywhere, Señor.’ 

In English he replied, ‘Should you decide to make your fortune, Señorita, come and see me in New Orleans. My card, Señorita.’ Which he presented with another small bow. 

‘My uncle is in the entertainment business in New Orleans,’ said the boy importantly. 

The name on the card was Matthew Rates. 

‘New Orleans,’ he said, ‘New York.’ 

Three

The outer door opened, Charlotte coming in with the chocolate.

‘Charlotte,’ she called, ‘I’ve taken my veil off. You can bring the chocolate in here if you like, or leave it on the table and I’ll get it when you’ve gone.’

Julia set about unpacking her grip, putting things in the small cupboard next to the window. A moment later a voice said, ‘Miss Julia, there’s some pecans too,’ and when she turned Charlotte was standing by the curtain with a bowl of hot chocolate and a dish of pecans on a tray. For a long moment she held Julia’s eyes, devoid of expression, then she set down the tray. ‘Mr Rates say he’ll come by for you when you’re rested,’ she said. 

‘Thank you, Charlotte.’ 

Then she was gone. To tell. She was used to freaks of course, but still. The chocolate was dark and wonderfully rich, and Julia drank it by the window, eating pecans and looking out at the twining plant on the back wall of the yard, thinking about Cato. He doesn’t know he’s a pinhead, she thought. He lives in that face like I do, but it’s different because he doesn’t think about it. 

I do. 

And there were more to meet. She’d be a difference among differences. It was a peculiar feeling. 

Later Mr Rates came across with Madame Soulie. ‘At last!’ she said, walking straight over to Julia and peering down eagerly into her face, ‘I can see you! Oh my, oh my, you really are the strangest person I have ever seen.’ Her eyes bugged out. ‘And believe me, I’ve seen a few.’ She reached down and touched the hair on Julia’s cheek with one finger. ‘You are quite unique.’ 

‘So I’m told,’ Julia said. There were no freaks among freaks, but it was dawning that she really did surpass the lot.

‘You didn’t exaggerate, Matt,’ Madame Soulie said. 

‘What did you expect’ Rates looked smug. ‘When have I ever exaggerated? She’ll slay them in New York.’ 

‘Ooh, it’s lovely and soft!’ 

Madame Soulie’s hand was light and cautious. She stepped back. ‘You are so like an ape it’s scarcely credible,’ she said. ‘You just don’t look human. And yet you do. And you speak so nicely.’ 

‘I can’t be an ape because they don’t talk,’ Julia said in French, smiling, ‘but I know how I look,’ 

‘Absolutely!’ Madame Soulie laughed. ‘An ape doesn’t talk!’ 

I talk,’ said Julia. ‘I speak French and English and Spanish. An ape doesn’t speak French and English and Spanish.’ 

Madame Soulie goggled with delight.

‘Mr Rates,’ said Julia, ‘Who am I sharing with?’

‘Myrtle and Delia,’ Madame Soulie said. ‘You’ll get along fine.’ ‘Of course you will,’ said Rates. ‘Come and meet them.’ They were in the next-door shack, which had big shutters opening out onto the yard and served as a communal parlour. The room smelled heavily of citrus and was crowded with fraying armchairs. Rates led her in by the hand through the open door. They’d been told about her and knew what to expect. There was a White Negro, a Rubber-Skinned Man, a Girl With No Arms and a Girl With No Legs. Michael sat scratching his pockmarked face on a piano stool. Seeing her for the first time, he smiled slowly. 

‘Jonsy,’ Mr Rates said, gesturing at the yellow-haired paint-white Negro, whose cochineal-coloured suit matched his pink eyes. He stared at her, aghast. ‘And this—‘ indicating a dark, heavy-jawed girl in a calico dress, who ended at the waist and appeared to be growing out of the florid roses on the rug ‘—this is Delia.’ Delia twitched a corner of her mouth and one eyebrow. ‘And Myrtle.‘ A plump blonde woman in an orange kimono and red shawl half reclined in an uncomfortable-looking, over-stuffed green armchair, drinking from a tin cup. 

‘Pleased to meet you,’ she said. 

‘And this is Ted.’ Ted sat beside a small card table knitting a black stocking very nimbly. The Rubber-Skinned Man, she assumed, but he just looked ordinary. 

‘And here,’ said Rates, grandly, ‘is Julia.’

She smiled. She was terrified.

‘Sit here, Julia, next to me,’ said Myrtle. ‘Want a drink?’ She flourished an opened bottle of brandy.

The chair was scratchy, the smell of perfume overpowering. Myrtle handed her a tin cup with brandy in the bottom. It warmed her and went straight to her head. So this is how it’s to be, she thought. No return. 

After that, though she remembered talking to Myrtle about the journey, and realising that the hand raising the cup to Myrtle’s reddened lips was actually a very supple, long-toed foot rising gracefully from layers of skirt, she was so tired it all became dreamlike, and she said she really must go to bed or she’d fall asleep where she was. 

***

In bed with a swimmy head from the brandy, she thought of old Solana back home. Her voice calling, high and thready. Lying there bedridden now, peevish thing worn out from nursing them all, the young men and boys, Marta, Julia too when they brought her in from the orphanage. Julia was the one in and out all day dealing with the dribble and phlegm, the smell of piss, the feeding and washing and wiping of mess. The night of the wedding she’d shown Solana the man’s card. ‘Look.’ In the process of emptying the old woman’s bedpan. ‘This man thinks I could make a lot of money on the stage.’ 

‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ Solana had just finished a coughing fit. Her eyes streamed and her nose ran clear water. Her face was like the picture of a brain in a book in Don Pedro’s study. 

‘Why is it so ridiculous?’

Solana’s breath came in long icy shards. ‘What man anyway?’ 

‘I don’t know. Just a man. Sit up.’ Wiping the old woman’s nose. 

Solana squinting knowingly. ‘What’s the matter with you? 

Someone upset you?’ 

‘No.’ 

‘I don’t know why you still let things upset you, Julia,’ she said, irritated, ‘I’ve told you enough: God loves you, that’s all you need to remember.’ 

‘I know.’

Do you know? – cough cough – Do you? I don’t think so.’ 

‘I’ll fetch your broth,’ said Julia.

And later, in spite of the tiredness pinching her bones, she hadn’t been able to sleep. You have talent. She’d got up and gone down to the inner patio, drunk water from the pump and sat on the steps with her head leaning against the dusty pink wall. Indeed. You really ought to go on the stage. Her feet ached and she wanted to cry for no good reason. They were still at it in the salon, but it was peaceful here. Yes, I am a very lucky girl. I know. 

And you, Julia— Solana’s voice when she was younger. You’ve done well. This lovely house. You started off in a cave and now look! You can read! That day he came for you, that day was your lucky day. 

Solana came from Zacatecas and had two lost sons, one killed by Santy Ana’s soldiers, the other gone away with them to Texas and never come back. Died at the Alamo because he’d have returned if not, God knows he surely would have returned. Santy Ana was a fat little devil, Solana said. That good man Don Pedro, a great man, a kind man, took me in, and was fair from the first day. While Julia scoured pots and cleaned the sink, Solana told her how it was. ‘He took you in too with your curse, and he wouldn’t have any us say a thing against it. Got you from the orphanage. And all I know is your mother went out walking in the dark of the moon, and that’s not your fault, and there’s no more to it than that.’ 

‘Why?’ 

‘Only God knows.’

‘There may be more people like me.’

‘Not where you came from. They wouldn’t have put you out if you’d been the same as them. You’re from the Diggers, way up there,’ pointing a finger up as if to Heaven. ‘It’s a terrible hard life up there, poor as dirt, but they’re not like you. There’s no more. You’re one of a kind, my love. Your mother wasn’t like you, no one was. Doesn’t make you worse than anyone else. You’re what you are. You’ve still got a soul. Now wash those radishes.’ 

The courtyard was softly shaded. There was that old iguana Federico on the vine watching her, a wily old beast who’d lived with the family for as long as anyone could remember. It had all been so pretty, the carretelas departing, the padrino escorting the bride, the horses’ manes white, threaded with scarlet. And all the lovely dresses, the orange, the pink, the blue one Marta screamed over. She should have given it to me, Julia thought. She’s got so many, she’d never have missed it. I could have altered it, it would have fitted. She stood up, the blue dress falling around her in imagination, Rates’s words in her head as she climbed to the gallery: Should you decide to make your fortune, Señorita, come and see me in New Orleans. She leaned out, pretending she was behind the footlights in a theatre. A cheering crowd threw roses. The men tossed their hats in the air. Such tiny fine feet, they said. 

Yo soy como el chile verde, Llorona, picante pero sabraso . . . 

Still. Not a single one of them would ever love her. Solana had made that clear. ‘I’ll be honest with you,’ she’d said, a long time ago, ‘you can be as good as anyone, and you can be proud and always stick up for yourself and get respect, but there’s one thing you won’t get, nena, and that’s a man. Not with your face so far gone. Don’t expect it.’ 

‘I know.’

Hadn’t she always?

‘The world’s a cruel place, and there’s nothing fair about it.’ 

Julia had been about nine or ten, and even then Solana had been very old. She’d taken Julia’s face between her hands and looked fiercely into her eyes and said, ‘Listen, you. It’s not your fault. None of it’s your fault. And you won’t get a man but it doesn’t matter. What’s a man? Same as a woman. Nothing. It all goes anyway. God loves you, and Solana loves you, and your mother loved you, and that’s all that matters. She did it for the best, your mama. Of course she didn’t look back. That would have made it harder for you. She gave you to the vaqueros because she wanted you to have a good life.’ 

She remembered the vaqueros, big men with wide sunburnt faces, high on their soft-eyed brown horses. They drove three black-spotted cows with twisted horns before them. She’d never seen horses and cattle and men before. They put her on a horse, wrapped up like a bundle, strapped safe to the ripe poncho of a fat vaquero, and her mother walked away. She could say ‘Mama’ by the time she reached the orphanage, that much she knew because they told her so. Mama was in the big mountains. Mama was a kind, surrounding feeling that could bring tears to her eyes if she let it. And Mama was a sharp clear picture, the first memory, her mother’s back walking away from her, with resolution. She’d cried out, ‘Mama!’ But her mother never turned around. Mother’s shawl was sad and frayed. Her pigtail curled at the end under a battered straw hat. Water ran nearby, and the mountains glowed with a light that seemed to flicker faintly at the edge of vision. 

Julia had ancient dreams. From the very beginning they were there, before any articulation – dreams that had little of substance, but friendly oceans of feeling. In the dreams Julia was full and warm, and darkness was above and all around, safe. And there were places of great light, where the ground fell away and birds with forked tails flew below her. But it had all gone, whatever it was. The Sanchez household had its own little chapel. When the priest told them about the Garden of Eden, she thought that was it, those mountains into which her first clear memory, the memory of her mother’s back, retreated. The fat vaquero made kind clucking noises at Julia as they rode down into Culiacán, speaking a language she’d yet to learn. The men stared at her, big brown bloodshot eyes all over her face. One of them dabbed himself here and there, thick fingers to the shoulders, the forehead, again and again as they babbled and jabbered, she as strange to them as they to her. She looked back with her thumb in her mouth, clutching her doll and crying. You, Yatzi. They took her away to a place where a woman looked at her and screamed. They tried to give her a proper doll with a painted face, but she didn’t want it, she wanted Yatzi that had come with her out of the mountains, and she screamed when they tried to take him away. They said her mother said she wasn’t her mother. Then again, said the nun, the man said she wept as she handed the child over, and kissed her, and prayed over her. Julia didn’t remember that. Only the pigtail. Then the shadows in the orphanage, the smell of beans and garlic, a wide white staircase rising up to a shady corridor in the Palace, arcaded and tiled in blue and white, and two boys playing a game of cards in their Sunday suits. Their iguana, the one there on the vine, sitting patiently watching from the top of a balustrade. These things were so far away they inhabited a space from which also rose dreams and fairy stories and the things you saw half way between waking and sleeping. 

Ay de mí,
Llorona, Llorona – Llorona –
llévame al río –
tápame con tu rebozo, Llorona
porque me muero de frió.
 

I could get paid for this, she thought.

That’s when she’d known she was going away. But not yet. 

Oh Saint Jude, she’d prayed, holy apostle, worker of miracles, close kinsman to Jesus Christ, hear me again, dear Jude, come now to my aid in my great need, bring the consolation and succour of heaven in all my necessities, tribulations and sufferings, and let me be loved like other girls, let me be loved like a human, and I promise to forever remember your great favour and always love and honour you as my special patron and do my best forever to increase devotion to you wherever I go. Thank you, Saint Jude. Amen. 

***

Solana died six months later, and then she was free. She left early one morning, before it was light. Federico the iguana was sitting on the fountain with his face pointing at the moon. No one else was about. The old patio, there it was as it had always been. They were all sleeping. She’d said no real goodbyes, just slipped away. She didn’t think anyone else would miss her very much. Maybe a little. After all, what was she? A servant, moving on. She took a small grip, her harmonica, her guitar, a half round of white cheese, Solana’s old rosary beads and her doll Yatzi. 

You and me, Yatzi. You and me

She heard the lonesome baby cry again, out there somewhere toward the Mississippi. Julia opened her eyes. Myrtle and Delia must have woken her, coming in with whispers and a smothered giggle. They bumped about in the dark, trying not to disturb her. How strange. Far away under this sky it’s all still there. The patio, the stone bench, the fig tree, the shadow of the fountain. She saw it in moonlight, full of broken paper flowers, as it was that night. 

Four

Hot night, summer 1983. These were not nights for sleep, too febrile, too sweaty. Rose, walking home from some eternal op-out, some smoky mustering in Camberwell, twoish, threeish, singing sotto voce the Heart Sutra to lighten the road (still the length of Coldharbour Lane to go) stopped still when the sky growled. A cosmic dog, big one with teeth. She was drunk enough to look up and laugh out loud. What the hell, there was no one around. A change of pressure, a flicker of lightning, then the first high murmur of rain. 

Rose had sad brown eyes with tired hollows beneath, a wide big-lipped mouth and hair that stood out all around her head, thick, black and wiry. A scar sliced through her right eyebrow, giving that eye a slight droop at the outer corner. The years had rolled her into her thirties, thin and rakish, somewhat tousled and rough around the edges, and it was OK. The fear was at bay. As the rain set in, she turned her face up. It was good to be drunk. Simply wonderful sometimes to fray the edges, crank up the contrast. All she had on was a loose silky top and some old jeans, and she was getting soaked, but it was nice. She walked on, savouring the dark empty street and the way the soft hissing of late night traffic from Denmark Hill, and the lights shining on the wet pavement, made everything romantic. 

Ahead of her, half way down Love Walk, was a skip piled high with rubbish. She never could resist a skip, particularly one full of the dregs and leavings of a house clearance. Whenever she came upon one, and London was awash with them, she stopped and had a good rummage and rescued anything that moved her. Many things did. When she was small, she’d bestowed consciousness on the things around her. Not just dolls and soft toys, but books, clothes, crockery, chairs, teapots and hairbrushes, rugs and pencils, even the corners of rooms and the turns of staircases, the gentle purring sound her bedroom window made when a car’s engine idled in the street outside, or the feathery stroking sensation in her chest when she was nervous with someone. All these things she’d named and given personalities. 

She didn’t do it now, of course. But still— 

Oh! Poor piece of paper, she’d think, passing a torn scrap in the street. Poor grape, last on the stalk, missing its friends and wondering why no one wants it. 

This skip was nothing special, a pile of rags and rubble. She walked round it. A drop of rain hung on one eyelash, quivering in the edge of sight. Askew on the heap was a scattering of debris, shadowy nothings, in their very nothingness as heart-wrenching as anything, she thought, but you couldn’t stop for everything. The doll’s remains lay half in, half out of a doorless microwave oven near the top of the mound. She had to clamber aboard and scramble a bit to reach him. He was naked and limbless, with brown leathery skin, and a big head so damaged that his face resembled an untreated burns victim, the mouth a raised gash, the nose and ears pock-marked craters. One eye, made of glass, was sunk deep in his skull. The other was a black hollow. 

‘Poor baby,’ she said, picking him up, cradling him sentimentally in her arms for a long moment before shifting him to her shoulder and patting his back. ‘Poor, poor baby,’ swaying happily in the rain. 

She took him back to the ridiculous rambling old tip of a house on Coldharbour Lane where she lived, four enormous floors filled with escapees from small crap towns the length and breadth of the land. The air was an essence of all the people who’d ever passed through, and even though it was the middle of the night, the house had a faint hum of people doing things behind closed doors. 

Rose went up to her at at the top of the house. A waft of incense and dope greeted her when she opened the door. Inside was like an Arabian souk, all coloured hangings and cushions, mirrors, embroidery, long-fingered plants tumbling down deep purple walls. The room was full of stuff she’d brought home from skips and gutters and pavements, shelves full of things she felt sorry for. Old matchboxes and broken jewellery, bits of paper, sticks, fragments, remnants, residues, boxes, knick-knacks, broken things, the teeming leavings of the world. 

‘Poor thing,’ she said, putting the maimed doll among her Indian cushions as if it were a cuddly toy, sitting back on her heels and looking into its round black face. The empty holes of the eyes and mouth conveyed an impression of sweetness. 

‘Tattoo,’ she said. 

***

Next morning Julia dressed quickly, drew back the curtain and crept silently through the room where the two girls were still asleep. A cockerel crowed in the dark, not too near. Another, closer, answered. Finding the latch, she lifted it silently and went out into the yard. Voices passed on the street. A light burned in the house. There was a movement over by the vegetable patch, and when she looked she saw the tall thin figure of a man walking backwards. With no hesitation, he passed along the side wall, turned and crossed the back of the house, momentarily dimming the light from the window, then disappeared round the corner into the leaf-hung walkway that led to the front. Though the light was coming, nothing but his shape and peculiar swift locomotion was clear. Diablo. There was no sound. He’s come for wicked children who won’t go to sleep. You don’t have to worry about that, Julia, the Sanchez boys used to joke, one look at you and he’ll run! Like the devil! When she was sure he wasn’t coming back, she walked down and used the privy, and by the time she was back Delia was up, sitting on her bed smoking a small cigar. 

‘So,’ she said in a blunt throaty way, ‘your big show.’ Thick black pigtails hung either side of her face, and a red shawl was wrapped round her shoulders. Emerging from it, her forearms were tawny and muscled, thick-veined as a fighter’s. 

‘The first,’ Julia said.

‘How long’s it been? Since you went on the road?’

‘I’m losing track. Two or three months.’

‘Ooh! So new. So how’s it all getting along with you?’ She waved one brown arm. ‘All this.’

‘Sometimes wonderful,’ said Julia, ‘sometimes frightening.’ 

‘Rates said you lived in a palace. Down in Mexico.’

‘A long time ago. My guardian was governor in Sinaloa, but I hardly remember it. Then we moved to the house I grew up in.’ 

‘He decent? Your guardian? Why you wanna leave?’

‘I was looking after an old lady,’ said Julia,‘ but then she died.’ 

‘An old lady?’

‘Old nurse lady.’

‘So was he decent?’

Don Pedro had always been fond of her in a distant way, as 

if she were a good old dog that had been with the family a long time. Sixteen years. ‘He was decent,’ Julia said. 

Delia blew out a cloud of thick blue smoke, put her head back and gazed pensively at her. ‘Has Rates given you any money yet?’ she asked. 

‘I have some money,’ said Julia, ‘a little. My guardian gave me some before I left. But Mr Rates has been buying everything, I haven’t had to . . . ’ 

‘You made a deal?’

‘Of course. There’ll be money when we’ve done the shows.’ 

‘No, I mean a deal,’ said Delia impatiently, ‘a deal in writing.’ 

‘I haven’t signed anything.’

‘Oh but you must, you must.’ Delia jumped down from the bed onto her hands, cigar in mouth. ‘Don’t go a step further till you’ve got something in writing,’ she said, loping across the floor with strong arms and poking Myrtle in the backside. ‘Wake up, Myrt.’ Sinking down, the cigar wagging on her lip. ‘Listen to this, she hasn’t got a contract.’ 

Julia hated thinking about money. There’d always been enough. Other people provided, but she had to work. She could sweep and wash and light res, or she could sing and dance and let them look. Singing and dancing won all hands down. Money made her head ache. 

‘Myrt!’ 

Myrtle mumbled then turned over. When her eyes opened they were glazed for a while, unfocused, but suddenly they registered Julia and shot open. A brief hysterical indrawing of breath, quickly controlled, and she jerked up onto one elbow. ‘Sorry, sorry,’ she said, laughing awkwardly at herself, patting her beating heart. 

‘She hasn’t got a contract!’ 

Myrtle closed her eyes again. ‘You should have had a lie-in,’ she said to Julia, ‘you’re supposed to.’ 

‘I always wake early.’ 

‘It can be a curse.’ Myrtle opened her eyes again but closed them immediately. Last night’s eye paint had bruised her pillow and lay encrusted across the top part of her cheeks. She looked both older and younger than the night before. 

‘You have to get a contract.’ Delia sprang back onto the bed. ‘No word of mouth. Today. Before you sing another note. Tell him.’ 

Myrtle clenched her eyes and yawned till she shook. The sound of Cato’s swerving stumbling voice came in from the yard along with a faint, drainy smell of sewage. 

‘Who is that?’ Julia asked. ‘That Cato. Where’s he from?’ 

‘He come from Alabama,’ said Delia.

‘With a banjo on his knee,’ said Myrtle, and they laughed. 

‘True enough,’ Myrtle said, ‘he comes from Alabama. Off of a big plantation.’

‘Does he live here all the time?’

‘No one lives here all the time.’

‘He’s not with us,’ said Delia. ‘He’s with this kid Ezra.’ 

What does he do?’

‘Cato? Oh, people just like to see Cato. He don’t do much.’ 

‘He dances,’ Myrtle said. ‘Kind of.’

‘Yeah. Kind of. But mostly he just runs around.’

Myrtle burst out of bed in a flurry of white and went behind the screen. The sound of peeing trickled through the room. 

‘Myrt, have you got my comb?’ Delia raised her voice. ‘The one with the fans?’

‘I saw it,’ came Myrtle’s voice from behind the screen, ‘but I can’t remember where.’

‘What about you,’ said Julia, ‘how long have you been doing this? 

‘For always,’ said Delia, re-lighting her cigar, which had gone out. ‘We used to be with a showman. Separate acts, this was, a long time ago, and we got along so we figured we’d try and make a go of it together and cut him out. He was slippery. Nothing written down. Got to get it written down. We get good rates now. We negotiate. This man Rates now.’ She lounged back against the pillow. ‘We all started out on the right foot.’ 

‘So you remember,’ Myrtle called from behind the screen, ‘you tell him, you want a contract, numbers, security.’ 

‘I will.’ 

‘Don’t underestimate it, Julia,’ Delia said. ‘All this. It’s hard work. Always on the move, God, you can die of boredom. You got to get paid. You make sure.’ 

‘I will. I’ll talk to him.’ 

Five

Tagged in:
BEDTIME BOOKCLUB
Books
Carol Birch
Historical fiction

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