Once upon a time I had a friend. A very, very best, best, bestest friend in the whole wide world. She lived at the end of the road and she lived in a fantastical, magical world. She was an only child and her Dad owned a fairground.
Parked in their driveway along with a couple of old cars and a caravan was a merry-go-round, a trailer carrying a bouncy castle, swingboats and parts of a helter skelter. At times there were vans storing bumper cars, a candy floss machine and kid’s slot machines. The big lorry, always referred to as the ‘wagon’ was a big brown smelly Aladdin’s cave of everything that isn’t magical about the fairground – old raffle tickets rotting in spilt cherryade, plastic bags full of cuddly Buzby toys (remember Buzby? – he was the mascot of British Telecom back in the day), bits of machinery and old fairy lights. The magic happened when we arrived at the showground. Grey and muddy fields in the shadow of industrial North Manchester were transformed into wonderlands. The lights lit, the music blaring you forgot to notice the giant cooling towers and chimneys in the background or the mess and dirt in the back of the wagon.
With the fairground came a motley crew of the ‘boys’. It’s hard to put an age on them now, I was around 8 or 9 so everyone over 13 looked grownup to me. What I do know is that they were intimidating; they spoke with strange accents – meaning they were likely from 10 miles up the road from us – they were fearless and noisy and strong. My friend wanted to be like them, I wanted to hide from them. I didn’t like her when she hung around with them because they could be mean and used rude words and I was a nice middle class girl from the suburbs.
Every Saturday in the summer we would take the bouncy castle and candy floss machine to a local town park. What a feeling of power for a 9-year-old to be selling the tickets and sitting on the castle’s turrets as it was blown up. All the kids wanted to be us – I mean, free goes whenever we wanted and as much candy floss as we could eat. These were the best times, they felt safe and I was on familiar ground. I didn’t like it when we went further afield and worse when we stayed overnight.
One time when I was around 10 we all went to Chester to the county show. It was an enormous showground and we were staying in the caravan for a couple of nights. It was a really big deal, even her Mum came and we took all the castles and roundabouts and stalls with us. The excitement of going away with the fair, sleeping in a caravan, spending a whole weekend with my best friend, it was all just a bit too much, so much so that after one night I called my Mum from a payphone in tears and asked her to come and get me. Too much noise, not enough cleanliness and order, too many strangers and strange people; the fairground people were rowdy and outspoken, they lived in their caravans year round. I was overwhelmed and out of my tiny depth, my friend fitted right in and wanted to run away with them.
My friend’s parents weren’t like the other parent’s I knew. Her Mum was quiet and elegant but sickly and therefore seemed terribly old. Her Dad ran the house, he cooked and did the washing, he organized everything and was the parent who picked us up or dropped us off. Her Mum was often-times resting in her bedroom with just the poodle for company. On her bad days my friend could go and visit in her room but we had to be silent in the house so that we didn’t disturb her.
They lived in their big kitchen, the rest of the house was out-of-bounds and full of antiques; gloomy portraits of ladies in long dresses and oils of hunting scenes complete with bloody hares and foxes. If we were lucky we were allowed into the living room which had a big television in a huge wooden cabinet. I loved that room – real fur rugs on the floor, red velvet cushions and wooden boxes filled with treasures on every surface. My friend lived in a 3 bed det in suburbia. Her house from the outside looked like everyone else’s and yet when you walked in you were in a different world.
Her lifestyle was a clash of two worlds. With her Dad she was rough and ready; a noisy tomboy but when her Mum was well enough she would come downstairs and make us walk with books on our heads and recite poetry. While I played with my Sindy dolls and went to Brownies my friend went to elocution lessons and played tennis and yet on the weekend she would be hauling machinery with the fairground boys and giving as good as she got.
At age 11 my friend left our village. I was distraught and yet somehow relieved. Her world was weird and wonderful at 8 but at 11 was beginning to seem too odd and, desperate to fit in, I was being pulled between my new ‘normal’ friends and my love for and history with this strange family.
10 years later I attended her Dad’s funeral. We had stayed in touch sporadically and she had moved to the same seaside town my Granny lived in so I had seen her occasionally, but this was the first time we’d met in many years. It was like someone had completely transformed her whole face. Gone was the all year tan, the upturned freckly nose, the wide-eyed, cheeky girl I knew and in her place was a tiny erect porcelain faced doll. Her white blonde hair was the only part unchanged. Even her voice had changed, her accent, her pitch. I was entranced by her. Where had that girl gone?
That was the last time I saw her. The house by the sea was sold after her mother also died and now I don’t know where she is. I wish I did. I wish I could talk to her and reminisce with her. I want to shake the memory of the doll that would have fitted into her antique living room so perfectly. I want to know that the tomboy from the fairground who filled my imagination with UFOs and ghosts, whose family treated me as one of their own and opened their strange and wonderful world to me, is still there. Where are you now fairground girl? Do you ever think about me?