The Fat Lady
The first time I saw the Fat Lady was when the circus came to town. I was just a boy, and the day is seared on my memory.
The sleepy Hertfordshire morning was jarred by the crash of cymbals, and I almost fell out of my bedroom window as I craned to take in the extraordinary scene unfolding below.
The parade was as long as the High Street. Bravely-painted clowns and a couple of acrobats, sequins glittering in the sunlight, their antics drawing laughter from the gathering crowds, and then gasps as the lion paced in his cage. There was a beautiful young girl balanced on the back of a grey pony, and beside her, a man with flames shooting out of his mouth. Then, right at the end, heralded by the derisive oompapah of a solitary tuba, came a very old elephant, carrying a very Fat Lady.
The elephant shuffled mournfully along the cobbled road and the Fat Lady wobbled on his back, smiling brightly and waving her gargantuan arm.
“Hello there!” I bawled from my window as she swayed past and, as she turned to look at me, I saw that her smile did not reach her eyes, at all.
The circus and fair pitched site in Hobbs’ Pasture and later in the day, when the Big Top had been hoisted, they opened for business.
I’d been saving my paper round money for some weeks, to buy a model aircraft from the shop in Trumpington, but instead I raided the toffee tin, and headed for the circus, pockets heavy with coppers and half crowns.
After a couple of rides, and peering through a corner of the canvas at the show, I was left weighing up choices. Should I spend my last few pence on candy floss, or a toffee apple? Then, I noticed the tent in one corner of the pasture and I wandered across to read the sign.
“Mademoiselle Frangipane” it said. “The Amazing Fat Lady. Threepence a Look.” I don’t know why I paid up, but the wizened man at the entrance smiled gummily, and I was inside before I knew it.
The Fat Lady was sitting on a huge red velvet pouffe, biting her nails. She was swathed in a pink and gold sequinned tutu and white tights, her face caked with bright paint. As she breathed in and out, her vast body rippled softly like a field of wheat. In morbid fascination I stared at her feet, which were normal size but looked incongruous compared to her trunk-like legs. She was wearing pink satin ballet slippers, the ribbons cutting into her ankles.
Finally, unwillingly, I met her eyes. To my surprise they were friendly, interested, intelligent eyes. Blue like forget-me-nots, like the flash of a kingfisher. I realised with a terrible shock that she was really quite a young girl, perhaps just a little older than I was.
“Hello, again, then,” she said, chins wobbling. “Aren’t you the boy who was hanging out of his bedroom window this morning? Nice pajamas.” She giggled and blushed.
I was embarrassed that she had recognised me. Suddenly, I felt as if I was the one on show. “No,” I muttered, voice breaking, “not me. Must’ve been someone else.”
The Fat Lady looked sad. “Oh,” she said, a little wistfully. “I thought it was you. I thought perhaps you had come to be friends with me.”
I looked at her incredulously, laughter bubbling, but not for the right reasons. Imagine, just imagine, introducing her to my mates at school. Imagine the ragging I’d get. I’d be teased, tormented – never hear the end of it.
My dismay must have shown, because she sighed and when I looked her in the face, her blue eyes were indifferent, shuttered. “Well, if you’ve finished your gawping, you’d best get out,” she said coldly. “Threepence doesn’t buy you room and board, you know.”
Sheepishly I retreated. All the way home, I could see her in my mind’s eye, fat and comical and lonely. It made me angry that I didn’t have the courage to be her friend. I was young, I cared too much about what the other lads might say, I suppose.
For the rest of the week, I avoided the fairground and when the circus paraded out of town and along to the coast for their summer season, I went out the back of our cottage and chopped wood for the stove, although my mother called me to come out and see them go by.
The summer passed, golden and uneventful, as did most Hertfordshire summers of my childhood, or so it seems when I look back, now.
In fact it was six or seven summers later, when I was back home visiting after my first year at medical school, that the circus returned.
I was up at church, helping my father to scrub the gravestones, when I heard the onslaught of noise, cymbals clashing and the baying of animals. Clutching my hat to stop it blowing away, I ran back to the High Street but by the time I got there, the tail end of the parade was just passing into Hobbs’ Pasture. The elephant carried no rider. It had been harnessed up and as soon as it arrived in the pasture it was used to pull the Big Top erect, fluttering in the breeze. I skirted around the crowd of clowns and workmen, and made for the tent in the corner of the meadow.
The old wizened man was even more old, more wizened. He was sitting outside the tent reading the paper.
“Excuse me,” I blurted. “Can I see the Fat Lady?”
He eyed me laconically. “Not open for business yet, sonny.”
“I’m a friend, sort of,” I said.
He raised an eyebrow and looked at me a bit harder. “Didn’t know our Jenny had any friends,” he said noncommittally. Then he jerked his thumb to a large pink caravan parked behind the tent. “In there.”
I knocked. When there was no answer, I opened the door and peered around it. The curtains were drawn, the light was soft and mellow. In a corner of the clutter sat the girl, biting her nails. She was still as fat as I remembered, fatter, in fact. Her eyes were still blue, bluer than a robin’s egg. They were desperately alive in the prison of her face. For a second, they flared with recognition and disbelief, then they shuttered.
D’you remember me?” I said.
“No,” she said. “And I’ll thank you to get out of my room. I don’t go on show til tonight, so you’ll have to wait for your thrills. And pay.”
“I know your name. It’s Jenny,” I faltered.
She look up, warily.
“I think you do remember me. The boy in the pajamas? Look, I know we’ve both grown up a bit, and I understand now that I should have been your friend. I wanted to be your friend. I was scared. Of what the others might say.”
She stared at me stonily, mouth twitching, chins wobbling. “What do you really want? A night with the Fat Lady? Bet you’d tell your friends about that, wouldn’t you, eh? Well, sorry, Sonny Jim. My dear old pa hasn’t gone that far yet, so you’re out of luck. Get out, will you?” She turned her face away, and her huge body heaved.
I started to deny her accusation and then stopped, sensing in a rare moment of compassion that denial might be even more cruel. “Is that your father, outside the tent, Jenny?” I said. “How can he do this to you?”
“He hasn’t done anything to me,” she whispered, after a moment or two. “It’s just me, the way I am. We have to make a living somehow. He’s quite kind to me, really.”
“But Jenny,” I said, “this is inhuman. It has to stop. Parading you like some sort of freak. It’s wicked. Besides, you don’t have to stay fat.”
“I can’t help it,” she said.
“But I’m at medical school and I was asking one of the professors about you, once. You know, about obesity. You see, I never forgot you.”
“You never came back,” she said.
“I’m back now and, if you’ll let me, the professor has said that he would like to try a new treatment on someone like you.”
The tiny blue eyes glittered from their setting in the planes of fat. “Truly?” she said.
“Yes, truly,” I urged. “They’re doing all sorts of experiments in glandular obesity and hormone treatment. They’ve been quite successful in some cases, although I’m not making any promises, of course, but …”
“Not making any promises?” echoed a voice mockingly from the doorway. Her father stepped in and grabbed my arm. “You’re just raising false hopes, my lad, that’s what you’re doing. It’s wicked.”
“No, you’re wicked,” I snapped, shaking his hand off. I was shaking with fury.
“You young fool,” he said gruffly. “Why raise Jenny’s hopes? She’ll never be like other lasses. Her mother was a fat lady, and for all I know HER mother was a fat lady, and Jenny is about the fattest of the lot. Now bugger off.”
“You never know, pa” she said faintly, “you never know …”
“And even suppose she does lose a bit of weight thanks to your new scientific mumbo-jumbo?” he said angrily. “Where does that leave us, then? Who wants a Fat Lady who’s only a bit plump? None of the costumes would fit her. I’ve spent a fortune on her costumes to make this a classy act. And her shoes. Hand-made from the bloody La Scala in Milan. She’s not trained to be anything but a Fat Lady, and it’s a good enough living. So take your fancy notions and clear off, before I box your ears.”
I looked down at him contemptuously. I could have knocked him out with one punch, but beyond him, something in her eyes stopped me.
“Monday, Jenny!” I shouted as he booted me unceremoniously out of the door. “Monday at the station, ten o’clock train to Cambridge.” There was no reply.
The week dragged by, minute after minute. I was in an agony of anticipation. I had hovered around at the entry to the fair, but the stevedores had clearly been given a description, and refused entrance to me, impervious to my pleas and money clutched in my fist.
I was in an agony of anticipation by the time I stood on the platform to catch the ten o’ clock train back to Sidney Sussex college. I could see the plume of smoke in the distance growing inexorably closer, then with a great roar and hissing of brakes, the train pulled in. Heart sinking, I threw my bag in through the open window and pulled open the door. I climbed inside, and turned to look down the platform.
As I did so, above the roaring and the grinding of the train, I thought I heard a shrill trumpet. Leaning out of the train door window, it was like the repetition of a dream come true. Lurching along the platform came the most outlandish and wonderful parade.
In front, the wizened man, Jenny’s father, and a porter, balancing a huge carpet-bag between them, then two clowns, pulling a heavy chain attached to the old elephant who was trumpeting with indignation at all the commotion. And there, perched precariously on his back, crying and laughing all at once was Jenny, my Jenny.
Like a comic opera strip, the four of them hefted her down and manoeuvred her through the doorway to the compartment with the greatest of difficulty.
“Good luck, girl,” said her father gruffly. “Remember, I’ll be waiting for you, no matter what.” He glared at me. “Look after her,” he said.
Once we got to my college, Jenny was whisked away and I wasn’t allowed to see her for weeks. I was, after all, a lowly second year medic, and she was cloistered away in the hallowed research halls near Madingley.
We spoke on the phone every week, and she sounded cautiously optimistic, but homesick.
At the end of Michaelmas, I received a summons from the tutor in charge to collect Jenny for a weekend visit home. The circus was over at Great Yarmouth, and the university had laid on a car for the occasion.
Shaking with excitement at the thought of seeing her again, I was ushered into the tutor’s office. I was wearing my best suit and tie. This time, there’d be no stopping me. I’d walking along the pier, with Jenny on my arm, no matter what.
I stared in disbelief at the slender, veiled young woman silhouetted against the French windows of the study.
“They did it, then?” I croaked. “Oh my God, Jenny. You really aren’t fat. You’re not the Fat Lady, any more. You’re going to be out of work.”
The professor and the tutor gave one another a look. “Well,” one of them murmured. “You have to understand that these hormone treatments are largely experimental. We still have a long way to go.”
I interrupted exuberantly. “Yes, but it’s a start, isn’t it?” I said, and I strode across the room to capture one of Jenny’s exquisite little hands in my own.
“Are you sure you want to be my friend?” Jenny said softly, her voice a little strange. “And don’t worry about my career prospects, my dear. Pa says there is plenty of scope for a bearded lady.”
And with immaculate timing, she lifted her veil.
Word count: 2,259