The Strange Tale of Monty Rigamarole : The One-Legged Contortionist
The Strange Tale of Monty Rigamarole : The Incredible One-Legged Contortionist
He always had a supple way with his extremities did Monty Rigamarole.
At the tenderest age he easily slipped from his Mother's arms like a recalcitrant cat tired of the affection. He could even contrive to crawl through the bars of his previously inescapable cot.
But his Mother doted on him and his Father loved him too even though he thought he was a freak. "He's the fruit of your loins" she reminded him, "And with that twisted willie of yours is it any wonder?" So Monty grew up in a loving household and in the 1890's England he was luckier than many working class lads of his age.
He was a real handful but well looked after and his brothers and sisters looked out for him at school. The local bullies could never get hold of him for long but the sibling support was always a comfort.
His pliable talents evolved into ever more varied possibilities as he extended upwards through his school days into the age of the Edwardians. Delighting the girls with his heels over head and his passable impression of sausage and mash, of chickens and turkeys and impossible feats of kinetic art and mime.
The apalling great calling and falling of 1914
But his life changed forever in 1914 as he joined the great fight against aggression and tyranny finding himself in the muddy fields of France. A 500-pound bomb bid farewell to his left leg.
One of his comrades Billy Rashburn saved his life by stemming his sliced artery and carrying him back to the trenches with both of them awash with the blood. He received a 'Mention in Despatches' for his bravery under fire. Monty was angry that Billy didn't get a medal but he did his laundry for him as a gesture of thanks.
But for the moment Monty's life was in tatters as well as his trousers and his uniform was still stained and torn from the shrapnel he took.
He took it all the way back to the Saint Ampoule Field Hospital where a surgeon removed the pieces and threw them onto an ever growing pile on the floor. Monty asked if he could keep the largest piece as a souvenir but the Doctor explained there was a hefty finders fee beyond the wages of a mere Private.
However the souvenir shop was open from 9 till 4 if he wanted a little keepsake to take home for the mantlepiece. Monty mused that if wanted a memento of the great occasion of this Great War of 1914 he should have left the jagged metal in his left buttock and hope it would have worked its way out eventually.
Back then they didn't know how long the Great War of 1914 would last but at least in Monty's case it was all over by Christmas. Before he left he ventured gingerly down to the shop and saw that there were indeed lots of artefacts from bullets to bayonets, shell-casings, Prussian Army swords and French surrender packs.
Far beyond his purse as he expected and in fact it wasn't until the mass slaughter of the Somme and Paschendale that prices were driven down by over-stocked supplies and brought the eventual democratisation of the spoils of War.
The shop was finally put out of business in 1917 when the Americans came in. They knew how to beat the competition and even helped see off the Germans. But the store held no attractions for Monty as he would have preferred that metal shard that almost done for him;
"Sorry old chap, but that's German Imperial Army ordinance" explained Captain Jeremy Hingely-Square III,
"Property of Kaiser Wilhelm you see and as such comes under captured war materiel"
Full military honours
So he walked out of the store with empty hands and an empty trouser leg whilst beating the end of his crutch on the ground in frustration.
He tapped the rhythm of a military cadence as he marched to uplift his temporary wooden leg. They found his real leg in the midst of the battlefield.
His best mate Corporal Jimmy Cockerfield recognised the knobbly knee, one of a pair of course, that had won Monty a competition in the barracks back home in England. Monty confirmed it was his by the birthmark on the calf which had an uncanny resemblance to Queen Victoria in profile. He was born patriotic.
Jimmy also returned Monty's boot but as bad luck would have it Private Rigmarole had impulsively discarded its neighbour. He reckoned that he would have no use for it. Perhaps a lack of foresight but who could have known his leg would turn up.
It hadn't been difficult to find though. His foot had been stuck in the mud when the shrapnel sliced through his leg which remained planted there, upright and to attention.
They buried it with full military honours and a fresh woollen sock with even a salute of gunfire from his comrades.
The ceremony was held up as they awaited the firing party. There had a been a late run on executions that morning.
Left Right! Left Right! Limping back to Blighty
The leg was positioned toes first in the direction of Blighty like a subterranean compass point guiding Monty back home. His other leg followed suit and headed in that direction as he marched to the boat carrying a slight limp as his wooden leg was an inch too small.
They said it might expand during the summer but the Orthopaedic Doctor was a gifted salesman who could have made a fortune in business if he had decided to abandon the healing arts. In fact many Army Doctors did very well out of the scrap metal business during the Great War of 1914-18 which helped build flourishing private practices.
But Monty was not without that entrepreneurial spirit as he set forth and made the most of a seemingly desperate situation. He knew that his twisting of body and bending of limb could make him a decent living.
His double-jointed convolutions and exasperating body manipulations would surely attract an audience, he thought, as people craved a distraction from the horrors of War.
His soldier buddies had marvelled at how he could curl up and sleep in the smallest of places in the confines of the trenches. And they were astonished how he could effortlessly work his way through the tangled mesh of barbed-wire barricades as they charged the German positions.
The local French girls were enormously enamoured by his natural talents and even his favourite 'Fille de Joie' gave it for free. She decided that money wasn't absolutely everything in this world. He conclusively disproved the anthropological myth of the redundancy of the human toe.
Back down to earth in Old Albion's shores
But back in the hard-bitten and cynical world of London showbusines it was a different story. They were less impressed by the potential. The wistful appreciation of the romantic Continental was missing among the more practically-minded with an eye on the profit margins;
"A one-legged contortionist?" asked Archie Sandblaster, an incredulous Booking Agent, "What bleedin good is that?"
"It's an angle" replied Monty, "You've got to have an angle"
"Well I can certainly see you've got your fair share of them young man" said Archie, "It would bring tears to me eyes",
"And I've got a lot more"
"I'm sure you have Sonny Jim" Archie agreed, "But maybe not for a family audience",
"Just give me a chance Guv" Monty pleaded,
"But a one-legged contortionist?" insisted the Agent, "If it were a one-legged unicyclist or a one legged exotic dancer you might have something. Come to think of it even a two-legged exotic dancer"
"Where's your bloody family audience now" Monty snapped.
Nevertheless times were hard and acts were few as many of the industry's various acrobats, jugglers, clowns and all sorts of unique performers were being blown to smithereens on the muddy fields of France and bold little Belgium. So they gave Monty Rigamarole, the one-legged contortionist, the chance to be a star of stage and circus.
The struggling artiste
The path to stardom however proved precarious from the start.
Unfortunately, as he was warned by his agent, his act struggled to take off.
Once people got past the mild novelty of his speciality the murmurs of discontent and cynical sneer grew louder;
"What's the big deal?" it was asked,
"He's got more space to play with hasn't he?" they reasoned,
"If his other leg was in the way he wouldn't be able to do half the things he does" others hastily concluded.
It was a cruel and ill-deserved reception to a great talent and gradually the work began to dry up. Monty became desperate and sought a solution. No help for the disabled in the Great Britain of 1915 during the Great War of 1914-18, so he had to fend for himself and make his own way;
"Why don't you pretend you've got two legs after all" asked Archie helpfully. Although a pragmatic man of straightforward words and forthright actions he wasn't devoid of the occasional flash of lateral thinking,
"Don't be daft!" replied Monty as he tapped on his wooden appendage, "How the bloody hell am I suppose to bend this table leg around me head"
"Mmm! I suppose not" admitted Archie, "Even the Northern audiences wouldn't fall for that"
"No! And I've suffered enough ridicule" said Monty,
"But not if it was made out of a willow tree or something" suggested Archie after another brainwave.
His agents knowledge of arboriculture and the properties of wood was extremely limited and perhaps non-existent for all practical purposes. But unbeknownst to him he had ignited the spark of a plan in Monty's fertile mind;
"Do you know what?" Monty exclaimed, "I'm going to try it?"
The project begins
Employing the services of his old Uncle George who was a keen gardener and chairman of the local Allotment Committee, Monty set out on his daring but fraudulent scheme to re-launch his theatrical career.
They toiled for countless hours over many days learning though trial and error, sweat and labour as they fashioned a new leg for Monty. Uncle George proved invaluable with his knowledge of tree branches and always readily offered some good advice and sound opinions;
"You bleedin idiot!" he roared,
"What have I done now?" asked Monty,
"I told you not to use the big 'uns" replied Uncle George, "They're too thick, a bit like yerself"
"But I thought...."
"Don't bleedin think! Just do as you're told. Use the little 'uns and mesh 'em together"
It was good advice indeed as Monty in his impatience had been trying to rush things through. He knew his Uncle was right and heeded his advice diligently after that. Of course it made sense as the large branches of willow were harder to control.
If he caught his leg in the ground the reflex tension might give him strange looks in public. People might think he was having a convulsive fit or suffering the acute stages of St Vitus Dance.
"Now take your time son" said Uncle George, "Sculpt it carefully, do it lovingly like a work of art. Shape it like a piece of precious alabaster and then mould it into the perfect embodiment of your long lost leg which feeds the flowers on them far-off foreign fields of France"
George had a wonderful turn of phrase albeit a trifle alliterative which made the work longer but educational for young Monty. Consequently the job took over a week of painstaking attention as they threaded every branch and bent every corner as the project took on the form of a human leg.
It took much thought and effort with high exclamation and avuncular rage as Monty's impatience returned to endanger the task. But finish they did and an impressive construction it proved to be. It had a fluidity of movement and an unnatural pliancy that filled Monty with hope and expectation.
Back on the boards again
Since he had only played the theatres around London and the Southern Coast, Monty travelled up North where no-one would know him for his uni-ped show. There was a demand for a two-legged contortionist although a little disquiet that he continually wore his trousers on-stage. Some in the audience suspected that he had something to hide. If only they knew.
But his act was so breathtaking in its daring and strength that no-one seemed to mind or even wonder why he wasn't fighting the Germans on those fields of France. With his war wounds and battlefield disablement you would have expected that the Gods of Fate would have smiled kindly on Monty Rigamarole. But then perhaps chicanery and falsehood deserve their eventual exposure.
Back down to earth again
And so it befell our Monty one night in Northampton at the Aberton Theatre.
During a double fold-over with twist he unexpectedly collapsed in front of a packed house.
Not through a feverish ailment or an emotional breakdown but by a structural failure of his artificial prop.
A loud crack was heard as high as the Upper Circle. But after the initial shock of the fall they marvelled at his bravery as his stunned look of bewilderment betrayed no pain.
"Is there a Doctor in the house" cried the Stage Manager,
"Better make it a Tree Surgeon" Monty muttered to himself with the dark expectation of another farewell peformance,
"Flippin 'eck!!" shouted the conductor, "His leg is made of sticks!!"
The conductor, Marvin Deschamp, had recently acquired an intimate knowledge of wooden substances.
That very day at the Matinee the lead violinist Dominic O'Heraghty had smashed Deschamp over the head with his beloved instrument.
The violinist had accused the conductor of deliberately poking him in the eye with his baton.
The conductor contended that it was merely over-exuberance that caused an accident.
He blamed it largely on the confines of the orchestra pit which was by far the smallest in the Midlands. But O'Heraghty was having none of it.
Perhaps it was the tension of endless days performing in close quarters or the excitement engendered by Beethoven's Ninth that led to the embedding of fragments of maple in Deschamp's skull.
A promising career reduced to splinters
But this is digression from the story of our protagonist for Monty lay desolate and lonely in front of the gasps of the audience. They carried him off to the wings where the Theatre Manager awaited;
"You bloody crook, you fake, you charlatan, you're sacked!!" he screamed as the backstage carpenter mended the leg,
"Imagine putting a splint on a wooden leg" mused the carpenter, "You wouldn't give it credence"
The worthy tradesman reckoned the wood had been weakened by black canker or perhaps a powdery mildew fungus. He advised complete bed rest and a new choice of career for Monty.
And that was the end of his contortionist days for no more would he tread the oak-timbered boards of the theatres of Great Britain for the rest of that Great War of 1914-18 or beyond.
There were still many towns and several big cities that had never witnessed his spectacular act. But such an event and such a rare scandal was the talk of the business from Carlisle to Gravesend. He knew it was over.
Or so it would seem until fortune revisited in the darkness of night.
A miracle of nature grows forth
One fresh, spring morning in 1923 outside the town of Ambrington-Leigh he awoke in a field with his head the clear evidence of an evening's carousing. He had no idea how he got there or where he had been but he suddenly realised his trousers had an unnatural bulge.
That hadn't happened for a while since he started drinking so heavily.
Looking down in trepidation he noticed his left leg was twice its normal size. For during the hours of that early morning his leg had become enshrouded with hundreds of bright, green leaves. They poured out over his waistband and sprouted through his sock.
But how could this be? Deadwood had germinated.
Leaves had grown. It was truly a miracle and once more Monty's life turned to the good.
Word spread far and wide as Archie Sandblaster knew a golden opportunity for fortune and fame.
A good agent could go a long way with such a supernatural phenomenon.
The Press were informed and Monty's face was on the front page of The Times. Other newspapers queued for an interview to find out his story while Archie collected the cheques.
The local Bishop was delirious with excitement as it was the first genuine miracle in his neck of the woods. He would finally have one-up on the Bishop of Gloucester with whom he had been engaged in a bitter rivalry for many years.
Even the Pope was impressed and he had seen plenty of miracle claims over the years. But Pius XI held off the clamour and waited until the euphoria had died down. "Let's wait and see what happens next Spring, then give me a call" he advised cautiously. Even Sandblaster thought he was a hard guy to sell a deal to.
But nevertheless, despite the lukewarm reception from the Holy See, Monty quickly amassed a loyal collection of devoted followers. And so they built a shrine in his honour of willow and stone adorned with flowers and articles of a theatrical nature.
They came in their hundreds, then their thousands to worship and march through the village of Ambrington-Leigh. Archie Sandblaster gave up the Theatre business and took over the marketing and souvenir sales full-time.
Monty had finally arrived as a star and found his audience and the sight of endless lines of willow held aloft was enough for him. It brought a swelling of pride in his heart.
But he made a few bob too. He had a large Fan Club and branches were sprouting up all over the place.
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