I arrived in London on October 28th, and at Christmastime I was still unemployed, still sharing a bunk bed in my cousin’s house. So I was happy enough to abandon my ongoing failure and head north with my cousin to my aunt’s house for the holidays.
I always felt closest to my mother’s family, even though they lived in the UK and we lived in Canada. We visited several times through my childhood, and they came to visit us. I bonded with the aunt in question – my mother’s sister – during one particular visit late in my high school years. My family was living out in the countryside at the time, and I was deeply unhappy. My mom, my aunt, my sister and I all went for a wander down in the valley behind the house. We found a tree that had fallen, and climbed up to sit on its branches in the autumn sun. And we talked. And in that conversation I felt like a grown-up too. It was the first time I felt comfortable articulating in front of my mother how miserable, how excluded I felt around my stepfather. There was an honesty that was unlocked in those hours, just women together, with the sun and the wind and the tree. I loved that tree – always thought of it as ‘the girls’ tree’ – until it decomposed to mulch and moss and we eventually moved away. Sans stepfather.
The town in the north of England where my aunt lives is, it turns out, a wonderful place to spend Christmas. I hadn’t ever been there before – she lived in a tiny village in Cheshire the previous times I’d visited her, in a 200-year-old cottage that still had meat hooks in the kitchen and slots in the wall to hold a bar across the front door. The cottage had once been a part of the nearby estate, and we used to go for walks on its grounds to see the deer if the weather was nice. Some of my earliest memories are of visiting that little cottage – being bathed in the sink, because the bathroom was an extension on the back and only had a shower, no tub; walking to a nearby park to play, even thought the air was thick with the stink of tar being laid on the road.
My aunt’s new house was in what had once been a Victorian spa town, full of stone-built buildings and wrought iron gazebos. Up in the hills of the peak district in Derbyshire, the town reliably got a dusting of snow for Christmas, and the air smelled of coal fires in the evening. My romantic heart loved it instantly.
There were enough bedrooms in my aunt’s new house that we could each have our own. Mine was up on the third floor under the eaves and contained the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in. Something about the way my aunt tucks wool blankets under the fitted sheets creates a little slice of heaven.
I missed being at home for the holidays, missed my family and our particular traditions, but I was grateful not to be alone at Christmas. Even if I did feel a bit like a fifth wheel at someone else’s celebrations. We called Canada in the evening on Christmas day, so I could talk to my mom and dad. I tried to enjoy myself and not stress too much about my continuing unemployment.
In the lazy days after Christmas, my cousin picked up a newspaper while she was at the co-op to buy milk. She wanted the television listings to see if there were any good movies on for her daughter. Later that evening, tucked in my aunt’s living room, cozy in the combined glow of Christmas-tree lights, a coal fire, and the movie playing on television, I picked up the newspaper and flipped to the job listings almost out of habit. Because that’s what you do with a newspaper, you look for work.
The paper was a slim evening edition and the employment section was tiny, maybe half a page. And down in the bottom right-hand corner was a small ad that changed my life. I wish I had clipped it to keep forever, but I didn’t know it was significant at the time.
The circus was hiring in a number of different departments – everything from sous-chefs to school teachers. They provided a website address for further information and applications. That ad hit me like a cattle prod. My whole body burned with it. A job with the circus? Yes, please. A million times yes.
The only thing standing between me and that dream was a complete lack of internet. My aunt didn’t have internet in the house, the small Victorian spa town didn’t have an internet cafe, wifi and smartphones didn’t exist yet, and the library was closed for the holidays. I bounced on my impatience for the rest of the visit, terrified all the positions would be filled, that they would disappear before I could apply for them.
We drove back to London – in my cousin’s bright orange VW camper van – on New Year’s Eve. The previous night had been so cold the water in the windshield washer tank froze solid, and the van didn’t have working heat. It was a long, cold, five-hour drive, and we arrived home to a house where the heat hadn’t been on in two weeks. My cousin went out to celebrate the night with friends. I spent New Year’s Eve wrapped in blankets and pressed against the radiator.
I hit the local internet cafe in our suburb of London bright and early on January 2nd, when it finally re-opened after the holidays. I found the circus website and the jobs were all still there. And there was even an admin position available – assistant to the tour manager. I spruced up my resume and sent off my application and tried not to get my hopes up.
1. My cousin, who is a dozen years older than I am, was a punk when she lived with us in the early ’80s. I remember sitting on the back deck of the house I grew up in, watching her earrings swing as she chatted with my mom. The earrings were so long the bright silver bobbles on the dangly ends brushed her collarbones. She was the coolest thing in the world when I was four. Her hair changed shape and colour regularly – first long, then short and spiky, scarlet red, half black/half white.
When I moved in with her that fall, decades later, her hair had been its natural colour for many years, she was a mother, she was putting herself through university, but her wild streak still showed through in her choice of vehicle. I kind of loved that van. (BACK TO POST)