Ruby hated going to sleep in the light and waking up in the dark. It was unnerving. Aunt Julia must have gone to bed because the house was quiet and there was no soothing strip of brightness under the door. Ruby’s bedroom curtains breathed in and out, glowing slightly. There were quick footsteps along the pavement outside and swirling fairground melodies in the distance. She got up and pulled the curtains open. Even from here she could see the air above the park, warm with colour. A stream of people walked towards the park, spilling into the road in places. There was laughter below her window and someone said, “Come on, hurry up!” so close it felt as though they were talking to her. A few minutes later she was downstairs. She buckled her shoes and pulled on her coat quietly. Easing the front door open, she let herself out of the gloomy house.
Ruby pushed her hands into her pockets and kept her head down, carried along by the crowd. She walked behind other children hoping no-one would notice she was on her own. The flow of people swelled as more families flooded out of their houses, making last minute grabs for a hat or umbrella. Ruby could hear the pulse of blood in her ears, even louder than the rhythm and chatter of the crowd. Carried along by the river of people she arrived sooner than she expected and saw the big top rise up in front of her, lit up from inside. A man was standing in front of its flapping mouth silhouetted against the glimmering canvas. He was selling tickets for the show. Ruby’s fingers flicked the dust at the bottom of her coat pockets. No money.
To her left she saw a carousel. A ring of parents stood around the ride, waving madly. Ruby stood and watched the flashing lights and swirling colours. Children rode on twirling tigers, bronze and black, or on flying horses with huge teeth, legs kicking out in front, black manes snaking and glossy. One little girl, sitting on a giraffe, was crying, a shiny trickle caught the light as it ran down her cheek.
On the other side of the big top were the dodgems. There were more people here, their screams of laughter mixing with the calliope’s steamy whistling. Ruby had to squeeze between hips and under arms but she still couldn’t see. There was a barrier all the way around the ride, about as tall as she was, with two gates, one to enter and one to leave. Stepping onto a narrow ledge about a foot off the ground, she could finally look over. The passengers were just getting out, while those coming in were trying to find free seats. Two chubby ladies zigzagged across the smooth floor, holding on to their hats, giggling and squashing themselves into a car. Then the pot-bellied man in the booth shouted “All clear!” and the ride started. Some needed to be pushed off by the scrawny young men that hung on to the cars gliding around the track, leaping from one to another when they needed to sort out a jumble or get someone moving again.
The bumper cars swept close to where Ruby was hanging over the barrier. A grubby boy next to her reached out his hand so that those in the cars would touch it as they passed. When the next car came close, Ruby did the same and a lady reached out to her, smiling broadly. Ruby laughed and the boy laughed too. “These ones will do it,” he said as a young couple got close. He was right. Next, an older man drove towards them, with a stout lady on the side closest to them. She looked away, ignoring their outstretched hands. Ruby and the boy hung back, disappointed, until two young boys reached out to them with clammy hands as the next car swung by. Above the music of the dodgems she heard a crackling megaphone. The cars stopped and everyone scrambled out. A big push of people jostled towards the big top from all directions. Ruby leapt down from the ledge and let herself be swept up in the wave of bodies. The boy darted off and Ruby lost sight of him as the crowd closed around her. A man stumbled behind her, shoving her forward so that she fell on to one knee. She couldn’t find her footing in the damp grass.
“Ruby!” someone shouted, just behind her. It was Mary, she was with her mother who reached down to help Ruby up.
“There you go, girl. You alright, duck? Where’s your aunty?” Mary’s mother pushed back her hair and looked around.
“Can’t find her,” Ruby said, thinking off the top of her head, “Lost her in the crowd.”
Mary’s mother looked at Ruby closely, Ruby hoped she wouldn’t notice her night dress peeking out from the bottom of her coat and her sock-less feet. “Come on then, come and sit with us.” She pulled out a string of red tickets and yanked one off for Ruby.
“Thanks!” Ruby crushed the ticket in her palm, feeling the thick paper crumple.
“S’alright,” said Mary’s mother, “It’s only me and her today, but I bought for the whole family, so we’ve plenty spare. The littl’uns have got tummy trouble, and I’m not taking them to the toilet ten times during the show, so they’re at home with their dad. Bout time he did something for a change.” She looked around, “They probably won’t even check tickets, it’s so busy, needn’t have bought the bloomin’ things!”
Ruby smiled at her and clung onto Mary’s sticky hand, so that she wouldn’t get lost. She remembered Aunty Julia calling Mary’s mother a ‘jam sandwich mother’, she meant cheap, like jam was all she could buy, but Ruby thought it sounded nice, the sort of mother who would hug you a lot and buy you too many sweets. She didn’t seem mean at all.
They spilled in through the mouth of the big top onto the ring, the empty canopy of the tent looming above them. People rushed around finding seats, saving them for their friends and family with bags and coats. The place smelt of sweat and mould. They found some space on the benches a few rows back. A small boy sitting near to Ruby kept standing up and sitting down, waving to his friends in the crowd. Some of the men wore straw boaters though it was a cold night for June. Everyone was laughing and chatting loudly, calling out when they saw anyone they knew. Ruby saw mothers handing out food and drinks or shepherding groups of children on last minute trips to the park toilets. It was a happy sort of mayhem. It made her ache to be part of a proper family, with a tumble of brothers and sisters to look after you or to look after and a Mum and Dad to feel safe with. She’d never had that and she knew she never would.