Wednesday, August 25, 2010



We all lived on the outskirts of a wind-infested scrubland: more a child's scatterered playbricks than a town, but we loved and hated each other sure well, because everyone was our parent and spouse and sibling and offspring all wrapped into one.

The heat felt as intense as that in the brick ovens where we tenderised the hairy cabbages and long carrots. Nobody hardly visited us to share the stews we created from next to nothing, but we never missed their company. It was too stuffy to talk, anyway - despite the winds.

Until the circus came.

It came in on us - an army of tents and caravans - across the brows of the sun-kissed hills. Banners and bugles met the desert sandstorms head on and foisted their poles and guy-ropes, like another universe, around our humble hovels. We basked in a new-found shade and saw sights fit to shake us out of our petty self-dissatisfactions.

The clowns were sadder than those in my dreams. One particular talkative pierrot, in a harlequin's hose, informed me that their sadness was an image they had consciously developed so that the punters would laugh the more at them. But this seemed to be an excuse in hindsight and, indeed, I cried to see their make-up petering down their cheeks.

The circus animals were happier than the clowns, beasts of burden set loose to turn somersaults and make mock of those come to watch them. The ones in cages seemed to love their iron bars, as if they knew safety was in such confinement. Their bones, I somehow believed, were physical extensions of such restraints. Some, with trunks, waved them about like creatures from the horror films, such films having been projected in the past by a travelling cinema upon the wall of my uncle's house. Others snorted and brayed with each dusk and dawn, until they were fed and, more importantly, had their huge parts massaged.

The trapezists danced amid the high rigging of the Big Top, some rarely coming down, others just dying up there and a few becoming part and parcel of the texture of the canvas. The safety-net below them was more a cobweb than a trawling device for dead fliers and, I was sure, one day, I caught a glimpse of a giant spider, more angular than a giraffe, lurking in the net's trammels.

My family and I visited the circus every night during its stay. The ringmaster called himself Weirdmonger, but why, I shall never know. He claimed that whatever he said would happen, would happen, however far-fetched. And he was right, I think.

Which brings me to why I'm telling all this.

The night in question was to be starless, as could happen in our climes when the days's dust is still heavy with air. The heat had been fiercer than I could ever recall, the winds stronger, the town's torpor like an over-feasted snake resting and extruding its last five meals. The first sign of night was the sun dipping early behind the hills, silting the haze with baked blood. The sky became streaked with the searchlights of the circus, criss-crossing across the perfect backcloth of blackness with the twirling sword-blades of a space adventure film.

The whole township - together with hermits from the hills - flocked, with blazing stinking tussock-torches, along the valley towards the central ring of the circus site. The band had already taken up a riotous version of "Oklahoma!" The tumblers, acrobats, jugglers and fire-eaters were erecting themselves into towers of interlocking limbs (some of which limbs supposedly separate from their owner bodies and others flaming at both ends). Weirdmonger, with the tallest top hat he had so far worn, stood on his dais, conducting the whole affair with his whip.

I had only just sat down amid my immediate family, when Weirdmonger beckoned to me with each of his fingers in turn.

As if hypnotised (though I wasn't), I stood up and entered the limelight of the Big Top. The beasts careered and honked around me, but I seemed to slide between them as if by magic. Soon, two clowns had me by the hands and they sobbed bitterly. This time I did not laugh or cry.

Up face to face, Weirdmonger was uglier than anything my immediate parents had taught me about sin. He was creased with pain, but a pain he seemed to enjoy.

The words he saw fit to utter were strange, but understandable in the even stranger context. But they became heavy with innuendo, far beyond the means of my immature mind to grasp, like the dialogue in some of those Fellini films so beloved of my uncle. I can still repeat, by rote, however, syllable for syllable, the words he lovingly plucked from the air and to which he gave branding-iron meaning all of his own:

"As you know fair well, dear boy, I'm Weirdmonger. My eyes have been on you at every performance, for my circus needs stars to keep it turning. If you join our world, I have one who can be your simpering bride, one for you to love and be loved more than you can ever otherwise hope to love or be loved. One to love you more than you will ever deserve. And, for this gift of gifts, all you need do is leave your body here and promise me your soul at the end of time, which is further off than a boy like you can ever imagine. A sweet tractable bargain you will agree."

I shook my head silently. Turning to the clowns, my eyes yearned for something they evidently could not give. They stared straight in front of them like manikins, like dummies with no hope of ever retrieving the aid of the One Great Ventriloquist in the skies.

A huge lion had padded near and, from its roaring mouth, there stepped a lady dressed in heavy frills and flounces. But her face was bearded, as if she'd sat in the dark for centuries.

We were to be married before the circus left town.

On the day of the wedding, my immediate mother taught me how I could kiss my bride without choking on her beard and how - when I finally delved beneath her thousand lace layers, revolving hoops, bustles, interlocking corsets and so forth - I could gauge for myself which way further to go. There could be no hard and fast rules until I saw how the land laid. I must expect anything ... and everything.

As I shivered in my bed (for the nights turned colder, the days hotter), I wondered why all this had come to pass. It was like being part of something that was not part of me.

I could hear the safety-net spider clucking in its sleep, even at this distance from the Big Top, and my dreams felt dizzy as if I'd just alighted from the playground roundabout. Sometimes I dreamed of my intended with her beard in curlers.

Nobody could help me now, not even my family the town. I could only try to help myself, but I inevitably thought that even if I could escape the confines of my own body, leaving only independent mysteries to consummate...

Unbroken sleep intervened.

The wedding itself is still a blur. Chimney-hatted Weirdmonger was, of course, Master of Ceremonies. The pierrot clown was my best man and the animals were seated on my side of the congregation beneath the shining undulations of the mighty canvas. This was because there was no hide nor hair of my brothers, sisters, cousins, parents, ancestors. I was on my own and not even that...

The bride had silk ribbons decking her beard, I do remember. She slipped a ring on each of my fingers in turn and then christened me with a wet bristly kiss.

I am now the official keeper of the trapezists, bringing them down in droves from the Big Top's banner flypapers, taking others up there for a short life of flight...

Part of me, at least, knows that all was for the best. The other part I've grown used to ignoring.

Weirdmonger often tells me that life is happiest when you ask no, answer no questions, when you tell no, accept no lies.

My own tenet is that life is saddest when happiness is simply a purpose rather than a reflex.

The endemic winds still abound and my sweetheart often has cottonballs ludicrously caught in her beard. One day, I've been promised, we're to be filmed to show others our wondrous magic reality.

First Published in 'The Standing Stone', 1991

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