• Vol. 04
  • Chapter 08


My father said it was all smoke and mirrors. But I don’t remember seeing any smoke. And we were standing too far from the little stage where the creature was displayed to be able to tell whether she was surrounded by mirrors at all. And, if so, where they were positioned. I was too young to know that the alcoves in the café had been designed as an ironic tribute to 19th century sideshows. But the flesh on display was real. I was mesmerised by the mythical names on the vintage posters: The Alligator Boy, The Mermaid, The Jackal Man, The Panther Woman. Especially, The Panther Woman! I had recently seen a black and white film on TV where a woman became a panther at night. And I pictured in my mind a creature with the body of a black panther and the head of a glamorous woman, elegantly walking inside a cage. Dangerous but beautiful. So I insisted and, to my surprise, I managed to convince my father — who was very sceptical and too stingy — to buy tickets for the family to see The Panther Woman. It must have been my birthday.

How disappointed I was!

To begin with, it was not a black panther; it was a spotted panther. There was no cage; just the poorly lit stage. And this panther could not walk; she was hanging in the middle of the stage, her stumps tied with ropes to four posts around her. The conceit was that she was so ferocious that they had to keep her tied up at all times, even after all her legs had been severed when captured in the deepest recesses of the Indian jungle. Yet the moustachioed MC, in his thick Eastern European accent, did not sound persuasive. Even someone as naïve as me could tell that the “creature” was simply a woman tightly wrapped in a leopard print costume, the presumed fur around her face clearly a hood. This woman had no feline features other than her cheap, stained bodysuit.



The MC prompted us to marvel at her ability to smile, talk and even cheekily pull her tongue at us — at which point my father truly lost his temper. No mirrors could explain the noticeable absence of limbs inside her costume. The obvious explanation did not dawn on me until years later I saw a very old black and white film where a dwarf in a circus sideshow, aided by a cohort of freaks, took cruel revenge on his mischievous fiancée. The inkling this gave me on the possible backstory of the woman I saw at the Turf Coffee House made the experience even tawdrier than I remembered. I wondered about the other exhibits. What could have been wrong with the skin of The Alligator Boy? What could have been the tragedy behind The Jackal Man? What disease or accident or act of violence could have turned a person into a grotesque mermaid in the late 20th century?