Billy and me had looked at just about everything at the fairground before we spotted the man in the top hat. He stood alone on a platform outside a tatty old tent. Just him. No boxing men or dancing ladies nor no animals like on the other stands, just him; but he had the biggest crowd around him of any we'd seen and it drew us like a magnet.
I pushed Billy over to the edge of the crowd and, just like always, they parted and let us through as soon as they noticed Billy.
Billy's my young brother. He's eight, three years younger than me but one leg and one arm is withered and he can't walk, so I push him around on this trolley my Dad made for him. He don't get much fun but I take him everywhere I can and he's happy to sit and watch us kids playing football or wrestling or whatever we are doing. At home my Dad hasn't got much time for him and our Mam smothers him like a baby, so he likes it when I take him out and try to treat him normal. He can just about hobble if I support him so we reckoned he could have a go on most of the rides, but we didn't tell our mam we was coming here in case she went all soft and stopped him. Our dad wouldn't give a bugger.
We'd saved our money for today and it had been great. A man saw me struggling to get Billy onto the swing-boats and took him off me and lifted him in and even paid for us, so that meant we had an extra ride; the man on the merry-go-round helped him onto a horse and we rolled pennies, saw the fattest woman in the world, the biggest rat in the world and the smallest circus in the world with fleas pulling tiny carts and walking tight ropes. We were down to our last few pennies when we saw the man in the top hat.
He was tall and thin and the high hat made him look even skinnier. It was black like the picture of old Scrooge in our school reader, with a wide brim that shaded half his forehead. The expression on his narrow face changed constantly as he talked, like he was all the characters in a film wrapped into one, and how he could talk! One minute he would be pronouncing death and gloom and the next he had the crowd in hoots of laughter as he talked about something called their drive. I didn't understand much of what he said but I laughed with the rest of the crowd.
Billy kept tugging at my coat to go, but the man fascinated me and, anyway, we had no more money for rides so I thought we might as well stay and listen to the Top Hat Man for a while. I nudged our way right to the front and could then see that he was selling little bottles of golden liquid. He picked one up and threw his arms wide like our vicar does when he tells us we are all about
to be saved from our wickedness, although the only real wickedness I could be saved from was sneaking a look at Mary Wilkinson's knickers and I don't know that I want to be saved from that.
He almost sang out his words; 'This small bottle was filled from the Fountain of Saint Angelina, deep in the forests of Brazil.' He stood on his platform a few feet above the crowd so that even the tallest men had to look up at him. From where I was, he looked to be towering into the sky. He pointed at the bottle and went on in his sing-song voice;
‘Towards the middle of the last century some missionaries led a small band of followers in search of a tribe of natives who, legend had it, lived healthy lives for well over a hundred and fifty years. By the time they found them the little party was on its last legs and several had died of exhaustion and malaria.' His voice dropped to almost a whisper and everyone leaned forward, trying to catch his next word; 'As they saw their friends slowly dying before their eyes the missionaries begged the tribesmen for the secret of their long life, but they refused.
Then a wonderful thing happened; the chief's son fell in love with the beautiful young daughter of one of the party named Angelina, a child of flawless beauty, with golden hair and liquid blue eyes and when she, too, became sick and began to sink towards death the young man went to his father and begged him to save Angelina.'
The crowd hardly breathed. Some of the girls clutched the hands of their boy-friends and I saw several men put their arms around their wives. The Top Hat Man had us all waiting with baited breath.
'The old chief yielded in the face of his son's despair and ordered the women of the tribe to bear the weak body of Angelina into the jungle to the place where sprang the source of their health and long life. The missionaries were locked into a hut so they would not discover the secret, but one escaped and followed the procession as the women made their way through the thick, damp undergrowth to a clearing, at the centre of which, bubbling from a rocky outcrop, was a fountain of crystal clear water.'
He paused dramatically and a woman next to me sighed, and another muttered, "the fountain of St Angelina!!" The man brought his hands together, as if in prayer, clasping the bottle between them. 'Slowly the women lowered the dying girl into the pool at the foot of the fountain and completely immersed her, then they lifted her out and lay heron the grass beside the pool. A woman draped in the flowers of the forest then stepped forward and held an ornately carved wooden bowl below the flow of water. The minute the liquid touched the bowl it miraculously turned a golden colour that caught the rays of sunshine and sparkled like a bowl of precious stones. The native woman raised it slowly above her head...' and the Top Hat Man at that moment raised the small bottle up to the lights above his platform where it caught the rays of one particularly bright bulb and glowed a miraculous golden colour. Every eye followed his movement.
'Then she brought it to the mouth of the stricken girl and forced a few drops between her lips. Seconds later the girl raised her head. Colour began to replace the deathly pallor of her face, her eyes opened and she smiled up at her saviours. Within minutes she rose and stood, supported at first but moments later unaided.'
He threw his arms into the air with a joyous cry.
'She was cured.'
Suddenly the whole crowd were clapping with delight. Some said, 'Oh, how wonderful', others whispered that it was a miracle.
'My friends,' the Man said, bringing them back to silence, 'The man who witnessed the miracle was my grandfather. He returned several times during his very long life to gather the elixir from the well and before he died at one hundred and thirty nine years of age he passed the secret to my father who passed it to me.'
He took off his tall hat to show a full head of coal black hair. 'I am evidence of the powers of the waters of St Angelina's fountain. I am in my ninety ninth year.'
The crowd gasped.
He quickly went on; ‘Now that travel is easier I visit the fountain each year and bring back as much of this wonderful liquid as I can. My father made me promise to share its benefits with my fellow man but for the sake of the native tribe, never to reveal the source. To help me keep up my good work I sell these small bottles of this wonder elixir to pay for my next visit. I wouldn't want to deceive you into thinking that these small potions will make you live forever, but they will enhance your life, cure your colds, influenza, indigestion and all stomach ailments, stop constipation and incontinence, shrink painful piles and ease the ladies' monthly stomach cramps. It will cure impotency in men and enhance your performance. Rub it onto bruises and broken skin and it will heal the wounds. In short, my friends, this little bottle of golden elixir will change your lives and it will only cost you two shillings.'
A lady on the edge of the crowd yelled that she'd take two while she had the chance and pushed her way through the throng to get to the platform, and that started the rush. Billy and me were nearly trampled underfoot as they strained to buy the miraculous liquid and in no time his pile of bottles was gone. He turned the last few buyers away empty-handed and then, with a regretful shrug stepped from his platform into the tent and was gone.
There was only Billy and me left. 'Come on our John, let’s go and look at the bumper cars,' Billy whined but, looking at him, the man's words came back to me. Wouldn't it be great if he had enough of that miraculous elixir left to cure our Billy!
'Wait on,' I said and went around to the side of the tent and crawled under the flap.
Inside it was bare, but for a trestle table and a couple of folding chairs. The Top Hat Man was there and so was the lady who was first to buy the elixir. I thought at first she had gone back for more but they were chatting as if they knew each other, about what a good pitch he'd made and how he'd have to get some more if sales kept up like that.
I was half in the tent leaning on my elbows; ' 'Scuse me Mister,' I said and he whirled around as if he was scalded.
'What the 'ell are you snooping around at,' he yelled and rushed over and dragged me fully into the tent. He held me by my ear. It didn't half hurt.
'I'm not snooping, honest Mister. I just want to buy some of that miraculous elixir to cure my little brother,' I cried.
'Oh!,' he said, 'then why didn't you buy some outside like the rest?'
'Cos we ain’t got two shillings. I thought you might...'
'If you can't pay for it you can't have it,' he said bluntly but he let go my ear.
'But Mister, it's urgent. It's our Billy's only chance.'
He looked at me funny like. 'How much have you got?'
I pulled the last of our spending money out of my pocket and started to count it. 'That's no good. You've only got ten pence there,' he said, before I'd even counted up to five pence.
'Can't I buy half a bottle?' I begged.
He seemed to soften a bit. 'What's the matter with your brother?'
'He's outside. He can't walk.'
He nodded towards the lady; 'Go and look Nellie,' he said.
Next minute she pushed through the tent flap carrying our Billy. She put him on one of the chairs.
'You could cure him, Mister, if you gave him enough of the Miraculous Elixir,' I said enthusiastically.
They looked from one to the other. I thought the lady was going to cry. Grownups can be very funny sometimes, going soft just when it's a matter of life or death, like our mam over bringing Billy to the fairground.
The man looked flustered and shook his head. 'This is stupid. I can't sell it to a kid.'
'Please Mister,' I said. 'Kids get sick as well as grown-ups. Billy hasn't got any of them stomach pains nor incompetence that you were talking about, but he needs curing just as bad. Why can't you sell it to us?'
'Because... because..'He turned to the lady; 'Jesus, Nel! What can I say?' I couldn't figure what was so difficult about my simple request, except that I didn't have enough money.
'You kids had better clear off. Clear off out of here,' he said angrily.
Billy didn't understand what was going on but the man's anger was enough to scare him and he started crying. I moved to his side and put a protective arm around him, although I was a bit scared myself.
I tried one last time. 'Please Mister, can't you help Billy?'
His anger melted away and he knelt in front of us.
'You really love your little brother, don't you?' I nodded.
'What am I going to do with you,' he said and just looked at me for a long while without speaking.
'You see, son,' he said eventually, 'Grown-ups aren't like kids. Grown-ups think differently. Take medicine for instance. Kids hate taking medicine and would never dream of taking it if they weren't really ill, would they?' I shook my head, there was no questioning that.
'Well, I can tell you that some adults can't get enough medicine and are never happy if they aren't knocking on the doctor's door.
And if I told you that in one cafe you could buy fish cooked by a famous French chef in a spicy sauce with garlic, onions and black olives for five pounds while in the shop next door you could buy exactly the same fish cooked in your favourite way with batter and chips for just sixpence, what would you say?'
'I'd say they were barmy in the Frenchy one.'
'But grown-ups do things like that. They aren't buying just fish, they are buying the dream of France and the excitement and adventure of the French food. Just for that little while they aren't sitting in a cafe in England, they are high in the Alps gazing out over snow-clad mountains or are sitting at a pavement cafe beneath the Eiffel Tower or at the edge of the blue Mediterranean Sea. They're not buying a meal, they are buying a dream.
Grown-ups need dreams even more than children.'
I nodded, not really understanding what he meant.
'But what's it got to do with curing our Billy,' I asked.
'I'm trying to explain that this elixir is more likely to work on adults than it is on children.'
'But you said that the native women took the girl to the fountain and cured her. Why can't it cure Billy, he's not that much younger than the beautiful missionary girl?'
The man just stared open mouthed at me, then looked despairingly towards the lady.
'The trouble is, lad,' she said, 'that when it’s taken from the fountain the elixir loses some of its power.'
'Yes, that's it,' The Top Hat Man said quickly, 'But that's a big secret between you and me. You see, when we take it from the fountain what power we lose we have to replace with hopes and dreams.'
'How do you do that?' I asked.
'Why, by telling them the story. Without the story the elixir is no-where near so good. Don't you see, they want to believe the elixir will cure all their ills, so they lose themselves in the dream and the dream is the story. They know the fountain of Angelina can cure them if they are positive and determined and believe in the dream. And sometimes that's enough to cure anything.'
'Could it cure Billy?'
He looked at my brother and touched his leg. I held my breath.
'Does he dream of being able to walk?'
'We both do,' I said.
'Then with both of you dreaming it, nothing on earth should stop him walking.'
I couldn't believe my ears. 'Then you'll sell us some Miraculous Elixir.'
'Yes,' he said. The lady gasped and said 'No, Harold!'
'Quiet,' he spat at her. He reached to the table, took a bottle from a box and handed it to me. 'That will cost you one penny.'
'But...' I started to say, prepared as I was to pay the whole of the ten pence we still had. 'One penny,' he repeated and held out his hand to receive it.
I fished it out of my pocket and we exchanged my penny for the precious liquid.
'Now, you must listen very carefully.' He stood and placed the tall black hat on his head. I looked up at him and he seemed to tower up to the very top of the tent, his face taking on new contours in the shadow of the wide brim. The gentle man of a few moments before changed into the magician who had held us all spellbound in the fairground.
He spoke very slowly and I knew it was important that I remember every word; 'You must never drink this elixir. Its purpose from this moment on is to help Billy to walk and to this end you will take one tiny drop each night and drop it onto a different part of his leg. You will then rub the tiny drop of miraculous liquid into his limb for at least five minutes. You must do this every night. Afterwards he must stand and put weight on his leg and, leaning on you, he must try to walk, just a step or two at first but a little more each day as the elixir takes effect. Then comes the most important part. Every night before he goes to sleep you must tell Billy the story of how the elixir was found, how Angelina was cured and how it has helped me to live for nearly one hundred years. You must keep the dream alive for him. It may not always be easy, but dreams are like that; the more important they are the harder it is to sustain them. Can you do that?'
'I will Mister, I promise.'
'Remember, one tiny drop is enough each night. It won’t mend Billy's wasted leg completely but he will walk and that's the important thing. That one bottle will last for as long as you will need it. It will last for as long as you need the dream.'
Suddenly I felt very grown up myself. I felt that Billy's future was in my hands and I was determined I would not let him down. The Top Hat Man held out his hand and I automatically took it and solemnly shook hands with him as though we were sealing a bargain.
It was getting quite dark when he carried Billy out of the tent and put him on his cart. He stood on the platform and waved each time we looked back, his arm disappearing high in the roof of the tent. My final sight of him was a long dark shadow, featureless and dim, as I turned the corner that blocked his tent from my sight. I headed home as fast as I could pull the cart. It was nearly time for bed, time to start Billy's cure, time to start dreaming.