Gwenda Keary — my mum

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Gwenda suffered a stroke and died on September 13th 2007, just as she was resigning herself to life in a retirement home. She would have hated it.


Gwenda Schettini

The following account is extracted from an early draft of The Novice.

Before she married, Mum's dream was to go on stage, in spite of her father's insistence that she keep her respectable position as a Post Office clerk, and that's exactly what she did. She was still a teenager when she joined Bertram Mills Circus as a Millimetre Girl, or acrobatic dancer.

During her first week, as the circus was taking to the road one morning, one of the other performers asked, “Would you care to join me? I’m driving a car for somebody.”

“Oh? Who?”

“Shit-teeny. He’s got two.”

Gwenda asked: “Two cars? Who on Earth is this Shit-teeny?” She giggled at the mangled name.

“You’ll find out soon enough. If by some miracle you don’t notice him, I’ll point him out to you.”

“Oh, all right.” Gwenda’s curiosity was piqued.

They got into the large Peugeot and drove on the quiet, narrow roads through the old English countryside. Every so often they passed one of the circus’s ponderous steam traction engines which had set out the previous night, dragging its enormous load at two or three miles an hour. It was a warm day and Gwenda felt languorous, delighted to be away from her hateful, sensible job at the Post Office, doing instead what she’d always wanted. She’d even secured her father’s begrudged blessing for her dreamed-of life as a dancer. The circus was her family now. She leaned back, looked at the blue sky and enjoyed the ride. All she could hear was the quiet purring of the staid motor car and the wind.

The silence was shattered by the roar of a huge engine and the raucous blare of triple horns.

“What on Earth …,” she began in alarm. A beige and chrome Horsch flew past. In the passenger seat sat a huge Saint Bernard dog, its white coat rippling, it’s eyes narrowed against the wind. The driver wore a leather flying helmet, straps unfastened and jangling. With one elbow on the door and a cigarette holder gripped in his teeth, his lips were parted in a furious, smiling grimace.

The Millimetre Girl in 1937


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