Say that word, 'Bazaar', to most people and it will evoke a particular image. An exotic Eastern marketplace, perhaps, replete with exotic spices and plush furnishings. A heady bustling place of commerce and mystery.
Not me though. That’s not the Bazaar in my head.
When I was a small boy, growing up in Sligo town, I was brought to the Bazaar in the Gilooley Hall every year, right before Christmas time. It was, basically (and not to put too fine a point on it) the Most Exciting Thing in the Entire World Ever.
I wonder how many other towns in Ireland had similar Bazaars? Quite a few, I’d reckon. I wonder if any still do them? Not many, I’d say.
The world has moved on.
But what was it, this West of Ireland Bazaar? This extraordinarily exciting thing?
Carnival wheels, that’s what it was, a large hall full of them. The best thing ever. I’ve stopped writing now to search for the right word for these things. What the hell were they called? ‘Wheels of Fortune’? ‘Raffle Wheels’? I can’t remember. You remember them though, right? Big wheels mounted on a stand, numbered from one to ninety nine. You bought raffle tickets and the wheel was spun vigorously and if your number came up, you won.
This hall must have had ten or twelve of these wheels. A barrier set up around each one to keep the punters away from the treasure trove of prizes that surrounded them. There were tins of USA Assorted biscuits and boxes of Milk Tray chocolates and… well, that was mostly it, actually. Biscuits and sweets, sweets and biscuits.
Mum and Dad would bring us to this magic place on a weeknight evening when we were small. The Bazaar would run from Tuesday to Sunday and each night it would be swamped with people, moving from stand to stand, buying raffle tickets for the next spin, anxiously watching as the big wheel slowed to their number.
We always seemed to come away with something. This seemed unlikely, given the amount of people and the odds on each spin but that’s how it was. I can never remember coming home from the Bazaar without something sweet tucked tightly under my arm.
It was one of those things that changed utterly as soon as I became a teenager. Suddenly too old to go with my parents, I was allowed to hit the Bazaar with my pals and schoolmates. In a moment, I seemed to see it for what it was, a small town fund raiser populated by a herd of tiring, slightly irritable people, slowly becoming desperate for a biscuit win.
As teens, we tended to snub the wheels and, instead, opt for sitting on the steaming radiators and pouring acne-ridden disdain on the milling punters. To play would be to deny a moving-on from the childhood days which had painted this place as magical.
But I couldn’t resist the draw of the wheel. I might have become a teen and the aura of the room may have paled considerable but something remained. A nostalgia, perhaps, for the excitement of the wheel winding down to a stop, the possibility of the win.
So I would slip away from the teen crew and wheedle my way through the mob to the front of the stand and I would buy a ticket and then, once again, unbeknownst to my friends, I would play.
On one such excursion into a wheel, my number came up. This was fine with me. My peers might cast fun at me for being the ‘child’ or the ‘old fogey’ who had to play but I would have the compensation of the sweets or the biscuits. I might even open them on the way home for all of us to share. If that didn’t buy me back some kudos, nothing would.
I was about to wave my ticket, to indicate my win in that understated ‘auction room’ bid manner favoured by Bazaar punters when I was stopped in my tracks.
The prize. The prize was being help aloft by the stand MC and it was not biscuits and neither was it chocolates. It was a bright yellow toy JCB digger. A sturdy, impressive-looking, thing that some child would have loved.
But I was no child, not any more. I was thirteen, touching on twenty five, and I would not return to my steaming pals on the radiators with this yellow monstrosity under my arm. I would never hear the end of it.
So, while the MC called the winning ticket over and over and over again, I clutched the pink rectangle of paper in my sweaty little paw and I kept my mouth firmly shut.
He wouldn’t let it go, that MC. The winner had to be out there somewhere in the hoard and so he called and called the number until the room became hostile around him.
“Let it go,” a voice muttered.
“Move on,” another chimed in. It was getting ugly, I could tell.
The man next to me eyed me suspiciously. “Do you have that ticket?” he actually asked me and I replied ‘No’, feeling for all the world like Peter denying Jesus.
Finally, after an eternity, the quest for the missing winner was called off and the wheel was spun again. I returned to my friends.
Any break from the routine was worthy of discussion and everybody had enjoyed the ‘missing ticket’ event. We were in the middle of analysing it and laughing about it when my friend, Tommy, emerged beaming for the throng. Under his arm he guarded the bright yellow toy digger.
“I won it second time around,” he beamed, “isn’t it cool?”
And all my friends agreed it was indeed cool. Very cool indeed.
For months after, while mooching around in my back garden, I would eye up the sand pit in the corner and I couldn’t help imagining some of the fun I might have had, digging in there with that toy.
My teens had apparently not arrived as completely as I had thought.