From childhood to motherhood, adventure through tragedy, writer Clover Stroud couldn’t have been closer to her fiercely unconventional sister Nell Gifford (who actually did run away to join the circus!). She reflects on the magical life of the sibling she adored.
When I was a little girl, lying in bed beside my sister Nell, I would whisper to her in the darkness, ‘Nell, tell me when you shut your eyes, so I can shut mine at the same time.’ If we both had our eyes shut, the darkness couldn’t scare me.
Nell died in December last year. She was 46, although I still struggle to think about her in the past tense. I do not like saying ‘my sister was 46’. I still feel she is 46. I still feel she is my sister. She was so very alive so recently and my heart doesn’t want to feel that my sister is dead. Sometimes, when I hear myself talking about her death, I’m suddenly like a child, holding my hands over my ears because I don’t want to hear it. But there are pictures on my phone of her funeral and sometimes, late at night, I flick through them, trying to remember if I was really there. My sister’s funeral. It was like a strange dream. Not a nightmare, because it was beautiful and spiritual, informed by the purest, strongest sense of a deep, powerful love, which is the opposite of a nightmare. But it was certainly disturbing, because how could it not be that? Everyone I love most was there, except the one person I wanted to see most.
Nell’s funeral, like her, was dramatic, slightly otherworldly and very rock and roll. She had a painted coffin, covered in her name and the words, ‘Into a land of pure magic’. All my family – my siblings, my father and stepmother – and some of her closest friends read poems for her or spoke about her. And as we carried her out of the cathedral, her horse was led in, to escort her onwards, to a massive round of spontaneous applause from more than 1,500 people who had filled Gloucester Cathedral to pay Nell their respects. It was extraordinary, but Nell was not really like most people; anyone who met Nell did not forget her.
She was tall and beautiful with dark flashing eyes and vivid blonde hair. In 46 years she lived a life that was brighter and more fiercely creative than that of many people who live twice as long. When she was in her 20s, she started her own circus – Giffords – and apart from her deep love for her twin son and daughter, Nell was happiest and most complete when in her circus. After she died, all the newspapers ran obituaries for her. It was such a strange shock to open a paper and see an image of her there, laughing into the camera in full circus make-up, on the back of a rearing horse. She is a circus legend but she is also my sister.
Nell is older than me by two years; we have two elder sisters, Emma and Sophy, and an elder brother, Tom. Although we’re all close, Nell was the sister I grew up with. When I sit quietly, I can take myself back to memories of being children together, running after Nell while she led the way.
We lived in Oxford until I was seven, our back garden surrounded by a red-brick wall that was vast in my child’s-eye memory. Den-making was our obsession. I might like to drag blankets to fashion into homes outside the kitchen window where mum could see us, but Nell would dare me to go further and out of mum’s sight. She’d make a camp at the far end, near the bonfire where we’d squash rose petals into enamel cups of water and try to crunch gravel between our little milk teeth.
Nell was born with a love of the circus; our shared bedroom was lined with toy monkeys and I was her first circus act: we balanced a bike upside down on the pavement outside our house and Nell spun the wheels, daring me to dance in front of a top hat. No one put any money in it but this first circus act made Nell happy. It was important to her that it was her act and that she was the director instructing me, the performer – of sorts. I grew up with a strong sense Nell was my elder sister, and that this mattered to her.
Nell was told off for taking me out on to the pavement and making me dance, something she’d probably have been defiant about and I wouldn’t have felt afraid either of the telling off or being out on the pavement, as long as she was with me. She was always daring me to be braver: when we climbed trees, she challenged me to jump from higher branches, not because she wanted to scare me but because it mattered to be the boldest version of ourselves we could.
As a little girl, I felt the edges between us were blurred. I see it now, in my two younger sons who are three and five. They sit close to one another on the sofa, the fuzzy blonde hair at the nape of their necks almost tangled together, legs entwined, like they are part of each another. Nell made me feel like this: that something inside us was the same, that we needed one another to feel complete. The heat of this intense love is matched by rage, though. Because in the same way I also sense a heat in my young sons’ relationship, at their ability to turn on one another, tear-stained and furious, as they rear up against some small injustice – a lost piece of Lego, a biscuit not shared. The imprint of sister anger was there between Nell and me, too. I am the youngest child of five, the one Mum held last, and longest, on her lap. Maybe that’s where some of Nell’s anger towards me found its first spark. I know that, in turn, I struggled with the injustice of her clear sense of superiority because of her age. ‘You think you’re so great just because you’re older than me?’ I thought it often; said it less.
So perhaps a tiny part of Nell did want to see me stumble as I jumped out of that tree. And the heights Nell dared me to could be painful, too: ‘Hold this bee on the back of your hand’, ‘Have you ever wanted to see what vinegar tastes like?’, ‘See if you can pick a nettle with your bare hands’. Exciting games to play as a sister, but if anyone else had asked me to do the same Nell would have been enraged, jumping to my defence like a soldier into action. An older boy at school once called me a cry-baby and she slapped him in the face. After that no one bullied me again.
My memories of her come into bright focus, like a film changing from grainy black and white to brilliant colour, when I was six and we moved from Oxford to a village in Wiltshire. Our parents brought ponies into our lives and I have no doubt that those scruffy, muddy ponies defined something incalculably valuable for Nell and me. We rode all the time; without saddles in summer, wearing just shorts and T-shirts to jump hay bales. This was not a smart, horsey-set life; there were no show jumps or big lorries or grooms, but the ponies made us tough and independent. They allowed us to ride away together beyond the control of our parents and imprinted into our shared DNA an appetite for adventure and risk-taking.
As teenagers we rode our ponies to the gravel pits to meet boys, to swim naked and smoke first cigarettes. It seems so luxurious now, as if time stretched before us unending, like coloured satin ribbons blowing in the wind, a life in which Nell and I were together and Mum was there too, all safe in the past.
That safe, beautiful place ended overnight when I was called out of an A-level lesson. Nell was there in the corridor, her face stained, because Mum had had a riding accident and we had to go quickly to hospital to see her. Mum was in a coma for three months and sustained intense brain damage. She didn’t recover and never returned although she didn’t die. She was left severely mentally and physically altered and couldn’t look after herself, talk or communicate in any way until her death 22 years later in 2013.
It’s Nell I think of when I remember the years after Mum’s accident. We looked after Mum at home for two years, sometimes with carers, but often just Nell and me in the big house that had been the happiest family home. It was a weird gothic nightmare but sometimes it was exhilarating too, like stepping into the ultimate teenage fantasy of a life of pretend independence. We were 16 and 18, teenagers cut adrift from our parents as our dad was in London all week, working to support the home. Family life in its old order was over, replaced by a kind of freedom teenagers dream of. We could do anything now. If I didn’t go to school, no one knew. We could smoke in the kitchen, caning through packets of Marlboro Reds while drinking red wine with our friends in a strange imitation of adult fun. Nell took me to my first rave and that relief of escaping from whatever fresh nightmare Mum’s new life was demanding of us to a repetitive beat was dizzying. And Nell and I were in it together.
When I was 18, after I had left school, we all stopped pretending Mum would recover and she was moved into a care home. There was no family to create a home for any more so the house was sold, my dad returned to London full time, Nell went to university and I went to Ireland, living with horse-drawn travellers. Since then, I have often dreamed of houses that look like our home but are different, the doors wide open or windows broken. Losing our home and the life it contained cracked a fault-line into Nell and me, leaving us both with a sense of yearning that never went away. Was this what drove us, in our 20s and 30s, to live lives that took us to a dangerous edge, where we felt most alive? Was Mum’s accident the fire that has made the colour in our lives so much brighter and sharper than it might have been without it? It’s an impossible question to answer, although I hope the answer is yes. I hope that something creative and powerful has come from this sadness.
After she left university, Nell bought a van and joined a circus, making popcorn, riding horses, graduating to ring-mistress but all the while grafting so hard, intent on learning about this glamorous, hard-bitten world that had beguiled her since she was a child. Later, I’d go to stay in a caravan on Liverpool docks with her where she was performing in a show. Backstage I felt special because I was her sister and there was a dangerous glamour to her new world which dissolved into the night as we drank vodka from jewel-coloured shot glasses and I fell into bed with a trick rider, though Nell was cross about this in the morning. Living on the edge, on the outside of comfortable, suited us.
When Nell met her husband they forged Giffords Circus, building wagons, putting acts together and creating a show. Nell was always the one I went to when I was looking for home, especially in my 20s, and so the circus became that place, too. I married one of Nell’s oldest friends who became Giffords’ first musical director, singing Irish ballads with a can of Red Stripe permanently in his hand. When our marriage fell apart just three years later, I bundled my toddler Jimmy and baby Dolly into a caravan and ran away to Nell and the circus to run a backstage café.
I spent weekends with Nell when Jimmy and Dolly were small, often leaving them with her if my work as a journalist took me away. She loved being with them and in some ways she took on some of the burden of mothering for me. We bought two Dartmoor ponies together and made picnics for Jimmy and Dolly in the fields near her house. It was like being children ourselves again.
We were still competitive and still fought, anger sometimes flaring up from nowhere as only it can among sisters. Something in us I think wanted to be ‘seen’ by the other more than anyone else alive. But she was also the person I could return to the past with: when we talked about the old days, about the house we grew up in, being children together, I felt as if some kind of spell was working itself over me. I didn’t have to explain anything to Nell because she had been there. She had lived it with me and she knew all the truths the past held in a way that no one else ever will again.
Nell’s marriage was splitting up by the time she was diagnosed with advanced cancer in 2015. As the cancer moved through her body, Nell turned to face life – and death – straight on with a clear-eyed courage that was breathtaking for everyone around her. Nell had her darkness; that trauma we carried could not be escaped but an incurable cancer diagnosis made her more alive than ever, not less.
She adored her children more than anything and there was the circus, of course – her passion – but her creativity crackled like something hot, burning fast and hard at the end of her life. Nell was an artist and writer as well as circus boss, but she started creating huge embroideries, and was always painting and drawing. On holiday in the summer, we lay on the salt marshes together as she sketched all seven of our children as they fished for crabs. She was always turning life into art.
Nell was with me in those years of being a single mother, but as her cancer became more advanced, I supported her. I was with her on the day of a very bleak prognosis in 2017, which Nell reacted to by going to a jeweller and buying herself a huge gold ring. I was with her again a year later when we were told she had secondary cancer. Death had stepped into the room with us now, a third figure in our relationship as sisters, but there was light, too. On the day of her secondary diagnosis we went to one of the meadows near where we grew up. We lay among fritillaries and bluebells, unable to find words to explain what was happening. Instead we laughed, looking back at our childhood, the times that had made us. I slept in Nell’s bed that night, and again at the end of last summer, when more results showed that the cancer had spread again. ‘I love the days of bad test results because you always come to stay,’ she said, then we both fell asleep under eiderdowns we’d slept beneath as children.
Sometimes, in my life, I have felt like a cut-price version of Nell. I am smaller, my voice less deep, my hair less bright blonde. Nell liked to buy very expensive clothes and could easily drop a lot of money at Gucci, while I like a bargain in a second-hand shop. In the last few years of her life Nell started to look almost otherworldly. She wore circus costumes all summer but off-duty she sometimes looked like a hip-hop star wearing gold jewellery, extravagant floor-length furs, outrageous trainers and massive shades. Once, when we were skirting around the issue of death, she said, ‘Wrap my children in your love and look after you, but Clo, you don’t have to worry about me at all. I am going to be a legend. A dead legend.’
She was right. It’s almost a consolation, when the pain of missing her becomes too acute, to remember the way she laughed right in the face of death. She died very suddenly and her death was powerful, beautiful, profound and dramatic – just like her. She is a legend, although she’s my sister first. I am learning to be less scared of the darkness without her.
Clover’s memoir, My Wild and Sleepless Nights, is published by Doubleday, price £16.99. To order a copy for £10.99, go to whsmith.co.uk and enter the code YOUWILD at the checkout. Catch Giffords Circus this summer for ‘The Feast’, a unique dining experience, while adhering to social distancing, in the circus Nell created and loved; visit giffordscircus.com. Follow Clover on Instagram @clover.stroud. Book number: 9780857525901. Offer valid until 23 August. Full terms and conditions: whsmith.co.uk/terms.