THIS WHOLE CIRCUS (Angels& Other Occurrences 6.3)

This whole circus was getting to be a pain, truth to tell.

The Professor’s chair had had to be lifted up the trailer steps with him still in it, which had taken four of the burliest and most heavily tattooed of the gypsy menfolk. The four were also somewhat surly, not because of the muscles and the tattoos but because they had been up very late last night drinking beer and home-made hooch round a camp fire, playing the violin and singing and entertaining a nervous father-to-be. They had hangovers, and the chair was very heavy and fitted through the trailer door with less than a knife-blade’s clearance.

And then there was the Indian gent in the puffy jacket and worn-out trainers, brandishing a rolled-up something or other in a lengthy cardboard tube. Too light to be a shotgun. The only visitors they ever had, normally, were the polis or the bailiffs. They were not well-disposed towards visitors. And all this had happened since the ice-cream van turned up, with the Italian-looking fella and his highly pregnant lady. And now there was the baby as well; the birthing trailer was out of use just when several of their own women were about to give birth. It was all very inconvenient.

And now there were two ice-cream vans, the old, clapped out one and a brand new, giant, pink-and-white new one sporting more chrome and silly mirrors than you could shake a stick at, and artwork like you’d never seen – angels and lambs and some Indian goddess in a long pink frock – couldn’t deny it was effective, but what was all that to do with ice-cream? The thing’d draw the polis here like bees to a honeypot. You could probably spot it from Lynn, up here on the hill.

And driven here by this blonde fella in the dinner jacket and black bow tie, who was obviously one of those agency look-alikeys. Couldn’t be the real thing: apart from anything else this one’s voice was too deep. Big, booming actor-ish voice, like that Blessed chap from Z-Cars with the beard, or one of those opera singers. Genuine fella had a much higher one than that. They never can get that right, these look-alikeys. Was he going to want beer? The Indian in the anorak and the chap in the big chair had already refused. Too early in the day, so they said. When was it ever too early for a free can of lager?

What were they all doing here? Why should three men, who had obviously never set eyes on one another before, suddenly turn up in a muddy field demanding to see a chit of a girl and her baby? Babies were just babies – welcome, precious and loved, of course – but women were always having them, popping them out like shelled peas. What was so special about this one?

How could a famous footballer have even known their van had broken down in a field in Norfolk, and why would he have bought them a new one and driven it here himself, overnight, all the way from Scotland? And the Indian gentleman – he had brought his own gift – a pink, rhinestone-studded jacket – obviously a market knock-off. Yet he had handed it to the girl as if it was the most precious thing in the world. And, to her credit, she had accepted it as if she truly believed it was. She had laid it tenderly beside the child, where it lay in its padded cardboard box, and reached out to touch the man’s arm.

The footballer look-alikie fella – well, he had brought the van. Pretty big gift, that one. He had handed the keys to her husband, the Eyetaliano, Sepp, who had gone out to look at it. He was in there still – probably gawping at everything with his mouth wide open. It was an ice-cream van and a half, that one.

But the old van was of more interest to the gypsies. They had earmarked it for spare parts, then the scrap metal merchant. They had already costed it down to the last pound. At least they’d be getting something out of all these shenanigans once everybody left. Which would be soon, please God.

But the Professor – he didn’t seem to have brought anything. Just sitting there in that big old chair, thinking. Except that, down the arm of the chair there was – now, what was it? He was bringing it out now. Only something small. One of those computer things – what do they call them, now – a memory stick? Or would that be a dongle? And he seems to be holding some sort of conversation with the child. How does he think the baby’s going to understand him? Babies don’t understand plain English let alone something coming at them through a gadget that makes a man sound like a Dalek. And then – and then he’s reaching out. How is he reaching out, when a moment ago…? And now – he’s standing up. How is he standing up? He’s putting the little computer thing beside the child, and he’s laughing, as if there’s some sort of a two-way conversation going on here.

“You must already know the Theory of Everything, sir, but I’m giving it… I’m leaving it to you, and it’s for you to decide whether you let it be known to mankind. This, as you know, has been my life’s work, and I’m giving it up to you.”

“You didn’t need to heal me. I came here because the angel brought me. I didn’t expect anything. I just hoped for, maybe, peace.”

“Now, sir? Do you know, I believe I will leave my chair behind for the gypsies to dispose of. I will walk to the nearest town and purchase a back-pack and supplies and I will back-pack around the world!

“Seventy-three? Do you think that feels old to a man who can suddenly walk and talk again? Why, a hundred and ten would not be too old for me to circumnambulate the globe!”

Circum- what’s he on about?

*

A small girl had been peering through the trailer window. She had the beginnings of a cold and was wiping her nose on her sleeve at intervals. “What about the others?” she asked her father?

“What others?”

“The other three inside. Nobody’s looking at them.”

“What other three? What are you blathering on about now, Maisie?”

“The very tall black man with the wings, and the green-eye-feathers; the lady in the pink dress with the two elephants and all the golden bangles, and that thing made of numbers and squiggles like a cloud – the one that came in with the bent up chair-man. Why’s nobody taking any notice of them?”

“Tell me the truth now, chavi. Would you have been eating them mushrooms again?”

(Matthew 2: 1 – 12)

ARE YOU LONESOME TONIGHT? (Angels & Other Occurrences 6.2)

Raj takes out the Genuine Elvis Jacket for the last time, though he is trying not to admit it is the last. This is his one and only treasure and he keeps it on top of his wardrobe, wrapped in many layers of tissue paper, and the whole inside a heavy-duty supermarket bag. Every so often he brings the Jacket down, unpacks it, dusts it with a soft cloth and checks it for moths and spiders. He does the same now, trying not to know it is the last time. But the trying isn’t working, and tears run down his cheeks. He holds his face away from the jacket as he cries. There must be no salty marks. That would lessen its value.

The jacket is in the softest of leather and a rich and variable pink that exactly matches the wondrous sari of Lakshmi. Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, prosperity, fertility and power – none of which has come to Raj in his middle-aged lifetime. Lakshmi, who is greatly loved, and whose picture remains on his bedroom room wall. A rare beauty, she is seated upon a lotus flower; two of her four hands hold up smaller lotus flowers, the remaining two shower coins into a bowl. To her right and to her left are elephants, their mighty trunk raising a golden pitcher, showering water down. No need to worry, he tells her, I shall take you with me. I shall keep you in the picture at all times. This is what I know: the day after tomorrow some men will arrive, and they will take away the house. This is because I have no money left in the bank. I told you, didn’t I, that my taxi was hurt in an accident? She was so badly hurt that I could not drive her again. It is my fault for picking the wrong insurance company. They would not replace my vehicle and I have lost my livelihood.

I have lost our home. And now I have no money and the mortgage persons are coming to claim back the part of my house which is theirs – which is most of it. But I promise you will be coming with me, my lady, wherever I am going. Raj did not elaborate on this, because the truth was that he had no idea where that might be. For all he knew, in a day or two’s time he and Lakshmi might be sheltering together in shop doorways.

He had purchased the Genuine Elvis Jacket from a place on the internet, with an inheritance from his father. It was the largest sum of money Raj had ever had and he’d spent every last rupee of it, and more, on the Genuine Elvis. One single, mad, foolish press of the button and it was his. It had come with a folded paper, something called a Provenance. The Provenance was signed by the King himself, or so it claimed, to confirm that this was, genuinely, his own jacket. Raj’s English had not been good enough at the time for deciphering the convoluted legal English it was written in, and had hesitated to ask an English person for fear of being rebuffed or looking a fool. A small part of him feared the jacket might not be Genuine after all, but he had never let himself dwell on that.

Nowadays his English is greatly improved but he continues to resist the temptation to unfold the Provenance. Instead, he plays and re-plays his collection of Elvis Long-Players on the ancient record player he found in a second-hand shop soon after he arrived in this country. He knows the words of all the songs by heart. He combs his hair back into a passable Elvis quiff. He copies the way the great man used to curl his upper lip into a snarl and the way he did the ah-ha-ha in the middle of some of the lines. He grasps and imaginary microphone and serenades his mirror image, and Lakshmi, and when he does so he escapes for a while. He is no longer an impoverished Asian taxi driver in a shabby Norfolk town, with persons coming to repossess his property. He is The King himself. Glamorous. Rhinestoney. Revered.

And now he is about to give away the Genuine Elvis because Lakshmi has instructed him to do so. She appeared to him in a dream last night and was most beautiful, and most insistent that this be accomplished. He is to give the Genuine Elvis to a baby, just born in some sort of gypsy trailer in a field, over Thetford way. It sounds most unlikely, but if Lakshmi commands it, it will be his privelege to do it. Delicately he unpeels her poster from the tacky stuff holding it to the wall. Gently he rolls her and places her into a cardboard cylinder. “I must trust you to show me the way, my lady.”

It is a longer journey than he imagined. It takes him all day. He has not really planned how he will get there, perhaps not caring much whether he arrives or not. He sets off as he is, unshaven, in trainers and thick socks, a puffy anorak and a woolly hat. He catches a train, then a bus, then another bus. He stops people and asks them when he gets confused, no longer discouraged by these grim, white English faces; their foreignness to him, his own to them.

He has brought no food, but someone on the first bus feels sorry for him and hands him their sandwiches. Someone else gives him a cup of tea from their flask, and a small bottle of water. They seem to know he is on a journey of some importance, and what he needs. At last the bus sets him down at the edge of a smallish wood, snaking up the side a small hill. And now, he senses, it is time to walk. He does not know which way to go but Lakshmi, in her cardboard tube, feels confident; she urges him this way and that and he obeys her. He keeps his mind empty so as not to interfere. With increasing frequency he shifts the carrier bag from one hand to another. The Genuine Elvis has been getting heavier and heavier the nearer he gets to his destination, and now is beginning to feel like it weighs more than the world itself. The plastic handles cut into the palms of his hands.

As Raj follows, his feet become sore, his lungs become short of breath and his ribs hurt, but something like peace has entered his heart. Lakshmi is with him, showing him the way. He has no idea at all where they are heading, the pair of them. Yet it feels like coming home.