"Gypsy Goat Woman" by Jake Genen
Gypsy Rose Lee applied makeup and adjusted the wig. She handed me a mirror and I gasped. More Sleazy Slut than Sleeping Beauty, but she assured me I was perfect.
Fifty years ago I was in show business. True, only for the week of my Easter holiday from school, and true, my employers were tinkers. Only you can’t use that word these days. But in those days it was quite all right, and country entertainment in Ireland was both ruder and more rudimentary than today.
Trudging home from school one fine spring afternoon, I turned the corner of our road and saw a brightly painted red and green cart parked outside our house, with a pony grazing on the grass verge. Somebody was visiting my mother, but I didn’t know that pony or cart. I felt hot, sweaty, like a sack of potatoes in my school uniform and not like being polite to any of my mother’s callers.
“They’ve come to buy Biddy,” my mother said.
Biddy was my pet Alpine goat: the runt McNabb the farmer had given me and Gerry, McNabb’s gawky, carrot-coloured son, had carried in a cardboard box to a place by our kitchen fire.
For months she was the prop in my fantasy of Heidi, and then the horse I dreamed of. I taught her tricks, called her Circus Goat. My mother found two old silver thimbles to put on her budding horns, to give her head “magic tips.” But Biddy, fully grown, became a “bloody nuisance,” eating what-should-not-be-eaten by a goat in our garden, attacking the postman, and I grew tired of walking the roads with her for more grazing on the grassy verges. I would be fourteen in a month and having a pet goat was childish. My mother had put an ad in the paper, “Young Alpine nanny goat with training and personality for sale,” and here were the buyers. Jesus!
I opened the door to a kitchen full of tinkers, drinking tea, laughing and enjoying big slices of my mother’s caraway seed cake, rubber Wellington boots rolled down to their ankles like d’Artagnan. One big old man, with a good head of salt and pepper curls, was doing the talking and my mother was making up to him like he was Rockefeller.
“Patsey here wants to buy your Biddy. She’s going into show business. Gypsy Rose Lee, the fortune teller, needs a new goat.”
By the fire, a ruddy-faced woman waved her piece of cake to acknowledge that she was the fortune teller. I comforted myself. At least Biddy would not be a breeding farm goat, but close to humans, for she was used to being treated like a pet dog, not a goat. My eyes took in my mother’s guests, the olive-skinned young man especially, who helped himself to another slice of seed cake, which I knew to be on the road to staleness. There was always cake seasoned in a tin in case visitors called, but the vintage of the cake didn’t seem to worry him. Tinkers I had never seen up close. You’d see a mess of old vans, carts and ponies camped by the roadside, and the word out was to take in your washing or your best linen might go travelling. The women, babies wrapped in their plaid shawls, came selling artificial flowers and wooden clothes pegs. God knows they never used pegs; they spread their washing on hedges and the grass around their camp. Trust my daft dealer-mother to invite them in if a bit of profit was involved. Half- mortified and half-fascinated, I eyed the young man and his genuine Romany look, so different from our weather-beaten Irish nomads.
“Is that your daughter then?” asked the auld fellow, Patsey. “Would she like a wee job?”
“I’m at school,” I answered. “I have my exams in June.”
My mother would love to have me earning. Every year was a battle to stay in private school, where I was a scholarship girl, and to stay out of the secondary school, training for some drudgery the day I turned fifteen.
“Och. Only for a week till we move to the South,” said Patsey. “Our Sleeping Beauty is expecting and she’s beginning to show. Her wee sister will take over ‘the role’ in Monaghan.”
Aware of my “puppy fat” and the odd pimple, I did not feel any shape of beauty.
“A blonde wig, makeup and the right fairy-tale dress, and you’d make a great wee Beauty,” said Patsey. “Half a crown an hour and her food,” he told my mother. “Nine o’clock to nine o’clock with breaks when it’s slow. We’re in the Castle grounds next the circus Big Top. We’d run her home in the car at night.”
“Not the cart?”
Money tempted me immediately, but I wanted details; I wanted things clandestine and not to be paraded home on a cart.
“Aye, we have a car. Tito here’ll run you home.” He gestured to the olive-skinned boy. “Just be in the Castle grounds at nine in the morning on Good Friday and we’ll get you ready.”
My friends wouldn’t miss me for one week, and in any event with no spending money I couldn’t share in the Easter holiday pleasures: new clothes, the chance to go to a dance. Might as well be sleeping on my first job. Biddy and I were both going into show business, even if only a sideshow.
“Ready for what?”
The dress was smelly and pale blue, and the black velvet waistcoat pushed my breasts up to make a cleavage. Pregnant predecessor had stretched the material so it fitted my puppy fat perfectly. Gypsy Rose Lee applied makeup and adjusted the wig. She handed me a mirror and I gasped. More Sleazy Slut than Sleeping Beauty, but she assured me I was perfect. It wasn’t too uncomfortable. The open-topped case had glass on only three sides, and a mattress to feign sleep on.
“Tito here takes the tickets. You’ll get breaks between gawkers. Don’t worry. You’ll just have to play dead asleep for about ten minutes at a time.”
Down I lay on the dirty white sateen sheet, and after a few adjustments to my hair and clothes, Rose Lee had me ready for my audience.
My first “gawkers” were a bunch of children with a woman.
“Is she really Sleeping Beauty?”
“Is she dead?”
“Is she sleeping?”
They believed it! I was charged with enthusiasm. In my glass case, I lay and dreamed of Hollywood and me in a Marilyn Monroe dress on Tito’s arm and him wearing black patent leather shoes, not Wellies. More gawkers came and went. I changed my daydream to exam strategies and what might come up in the final papers. My bladder filled. I longed for a break. Just when I thought I was bursting, I heard Patsey call for Tito to shut up the tent and for us to come for some tea. Off to the latrine I rushed, and holding up the princess dress, I peed long and loud into the stinking pit.
In the huddle behind the carnival tents there was smoky, sweet billycan tea and cold bacon sandwiches. Biddy ignored me, already making up to Gypsy Rose Lee for a nibble at the bread. No faithfulness of the dog or horse there.
The day was long, but the novel situation and thought of money at day’s end made the time pass. I hung up the dress, fluffed out my hair from the weight of the wig, but kept the makeup on.
“Tito here will give you your run home,” said Patsey, as he handed me the promised three pounds in crumpled notes.
In the car, I could feel the closeness of Tito. I breathed in his halo of male sweat and tobacco. I wanted him to touch me and I leaned close on the turns in the road, but he ignored me until we came to a stop outside our house.
“Get out. You’re home,” he said in a tone not Irish and not that interested.
So days passed and the weekend came. More men—farmers and labourers in wafts of carbolic soap, whiskey and fart—paid to see the Sleeping Beauty in the tent. Some put their hands in their pockets and jerked in a rhythm of their own. One leaned over the glass and kissed me on the lips: a dirty, salty, disgusting kiss that made me sit up and push him away with a scream. Tito sauntered into the tent and firmly pushed the decrepit old prince outside.
“I keep better eye on you now.”
But that was not enough to stop three young men, sodden with Old Spice and beer, hawking up on me the very next night. I recognized them from the boys’ private school: Sixth Form boys, their fathers pillars of society in our small town, but they were happy to get drunk and spit on who they thought was a tinker while Tito skulked in the flap of the tent. He wiped the phlegm from my face with a cloth and said something in his language. I returned to my princess bed and willed my last nine o’clock to come.
Tito drove me home and when he stopped the van he leant over and kissed me on the cheek.
“Those boys rubbish. You good Beauty. You make good money this week.”
My eldest sister was in when I got home. She was married with a baby, but no job and no money to spare.
“Ah! Here’s my wealthy baby sister! Goin’ to take us out for a drink to celebrate your first job!”
My mother, my agent, was dressed, ready to go. I took them to the Widow’s Pub and I bought them sherries and myself a lemonade. No one questioned my age, and no one but me saw Tito and a skinny young woman with a burnished face and a swollen belly sitting in the corner sipping porter. He was stroking her hand just as he had stroked mine the night the randy old farmer had given me his salty, sordid kiss.