When clearing out the loft in my basement recently I came across an old metal box. This box was ornately engraved, studded with glittering pieces of ruby, sapphire and emerald, and looked Arabian in origin. It was obviously very old, and was also very heavy. It occurred to me, from lifting this beautifully constructed item, that it contained some thing.
I smashed it to pieces and the contents revealed themselves. Photos. Certificates. Trinkets. Papers and bound journals. Stories of people’s lives. People I knew nothing about.
I’ll be writing about these people from time to time. They are obviously my family, but asking surviving family members about these people draw a blank. They knew nothing about them and, in fact, prompted the comment ‘Who the fuck has a loft in their basement?’
The first story is of my great, grandmother, on my great, great grandmother’s side. This is the story of Gwen.
Gwen was a circus freak. But not just any old circus freak. She was the world’s number one circus freak. She made a fortune for both herself and her manager, CeCe Peniston, who had a travelling freak show she called ‘The Most Fascinating Show on Earth And Much Better Than That Wanker PT Barnum’s Piece Of Shit. Which Is Well Shit.’
Gwen was a bearded lady. But that wasn’t it. Oh no siree Bob. She also had four legs, three arms, one of which was in the middle of her forehead. She had lobster claws for hands, a rear spoiler, heated back windscreen and a sunroof. She also spoke with a deep growl, had two eyes on her three noses and generally trumped all the other circus freaks around the world. She was more popular than Three Eyed Jake, who had three eyes, The Cock and Fanny Man of Liverpool, who had both male and female genitalia ON HIS HEAD, and The Bearded Lemon Pie, who was not merely a bearded lady, but also a Lemon Pie.
She was the talk of the town and adored by thousands. I don’t know the exact figures but it’s something like 10, 663. She was loved. Desired. Wanted. Why? She was a FREAK? Well you know how some things are so much one thing they become the complete opposite? You know the idea of the further right you go in politics you actually come out almost totally Marxist? Well, Gwen was like that. She was so ugly she was actually incredibly beautiful. Crown Princes of Europe fell in love with her at first sight. And thus did Prince Leopold of Prussia, Europe’s richest man and a man with such a good beard he could have any woman he wanted. Leopold was so desperately in love with her he promised her his entire wealth, but Gwen spurned him, and he was so saddened by her refusal to marry him that he tried to end his own life by drinking himself to death. But, as he was also Europe’s stupidest man, he tried drinking himself to death with milk, which merely gave him terrible gut ache and diarrhoea for a few days. So saddened by his failure to kill himself was he that he threw himself out of a hot air balloon while flying over Kent, giving a nasty surprise to Arthur and Mary Harris of Maidstone when he crashed into their garden, killing their goat and exploding in a big mass of milky shit.
My great, grandfather, Chang Hui, was the man who eventually married Gwen. He was named by his parents Dave and Geoff Hobbs who had an interest in the mysterious Orient, but he actually came from Nottingham. Chang Hui was a miner, terrible work at this time, but toiled so hard that we worked his way up, eventually becoming a hot air balloon pilot. And it was his hot air balloon that was carrying Prince Leopold, the day the milk-laden fool decided to throw himself over the side and accidentally kill Arthur and Mary’s goat.
When the balloon came to land, Chang Hui noticed that the Prince had left a note. The note read “Please deliver 7000 extra bottles of milk. I will end my life as I cannot be with Gwen, the Wonder Freak of old London town.”
Chang Hui felt he should deliver the news of the Prince’s death to this woman and travelled quickly to London, taking the A2 as it wasn’t particularly busy at that time of day.
And when he saw Gwen he too fell instantly in love. And when Gwen saw Chang Hui, so did she. Her numerous eyes shyly looking to the ground as he came to speak to her.
I know this from her diary. Written in an elegant hand. I know this from their love letters. Excerpts of which I shall now detail:
“My darling Gwen. When I saw your beard I knew you were the one for me.”
“My one Chang Hui. Nice buns hun. Swit swoo. Meet me in my tent at 9 of the clock for a right good cocking”
Chang Hui and Gwen ran away together, that night, and were married three days later. They had three children who later became Glady’s Knight’s backing singers The Pips. They lived in relative obscurity in Penge and both died on the same day, at the age of 75.
Gwen’s last diary entry reads thus.
“Chang Hui’s dead. Bugger. Tropical Monkey Ooga Booga virus. I don’t have long. Tell the children we love them. I feel the Midnight Train to Georgia will soon come to take me to my eternal love.”
The secrets one keeps within family eh? Who knew that I’d find this beautiful box, now smashed to shit, and that these treasures would be revealed to me. Next up, the story of my Great Great Great Great Uncle Geoff, a man with massive testicles and the inspiration for the song ‘I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts.”
Thanks for reading.