Phil Brown -  journalist . writer . poet


Phil Brown

journalist . writer . poet

articles . books . poems

PRIDE OF THE CIRCUS

Short Story by Phil Brown

 

Ginger Malone woke up in a cold sweat. His heart was thumping and the room was swimming. ‘Oh no, not again,’ he thought. He lay there and tried to breathe. The caravan felt like a coffin. He’d grown up living in tents and caravans but lately his cramped quarters felt like they were closing in on him.
He took a few deep breaths, tried to do what the doctor had recommended, to breathe and just let it pass. When he first started getting the symptoms he thought he was dying. But he didn’t die. It happened again and again and he was still alive.
He went to see a doctor in the west of Sydney when the circus rolled around the edges of the metropolis for a few weeks.
“You have been experiencing panic attacks,” the doctor told him.
“Panic attacks?”
“Yes, it’s nothing to be ashamed of,” the doctor had insisted.
“Doc, I’m a lion tamer for Christ’s sake. I can’t have panic attacks.”
He promised the doctor some free tickets to see his show, was prescribed anti-depressants and he did take them for a while. They stopped the panic attacks alright but they made him feel lethargic and disoriented, not good for a man in his line of work. Plus they had a negative effect on his libido.
He told his mate Jimmy, the head rigger, about it. Jimmy was the only person at the circus he felt he could really talk to. Jimmy’s wife had died a few years back and he’d had a hard life. He had suffered and for that reason, perhaps, he seemed to understand stuff.
“What, you mean you can’t get it up?” Jimmy had said when Ginger had explained the pills side effects.
“Keep your bloody voice down mate,” Ginger said, looking around. He whispered conspiratorially. “No I can’t. Not that it matters I suppose. I don’t have anyone to get it up for.”
“Well, maybe not mate, but every man’s got the right to a stiffy now and then,” Jimmy said. “It’s God-given. It’s in the constitution mate.”
“It’s not really in the constitution,” Ginger said. “Is it?”
“Maybe not but it bloody well should be,” Jimmy said and he laughed. “But I’d give them yippee beans the boot if I were you mate, if they’re killing off your old feller. You may just need him again sometime. You never know when your luck might change.”
So rather than listen to a man who had spent long years at university qualifying for his medical degree Ginger chose to follow the advice of a bloke who put up circus tents for a living. He had stopped taking his medication weeks ago.
Now he sat up on the edge of the bed as the attack subsided. He felt a bit dizzy and his pulse was still racing but the worst was over, until next time.
It was early and when he went outside not many of the others were up yet. They had done two shows yesterday and there’d been a bit of drinking after last night’s show. He’d had a few himself. In fact he wanted another now but settled for the offer of a cup of tea from Beryl who looked after the ticket stall. She had the caravan next to his and she shared it with her husband Bert, who had been with the circus for donkey’s years.
“There ya go Ginger, get that into you,” Beryl said passing him a tin mug full of her usual strong brew as he went outside.
“Thanks Bez,” he said and took a sip. “Jesus. Got a bit of a kick. Is it as good as Bushells?” She had added her usual nip of rum.
“That’ll put lead in your pencil luv,” Beryl said.
“Yeah, all I need is some paper to write on now.” She giggled and went back into her van.
Ginger sat on the stoop of his and sipped the tea. The rum warmed his blood but he still felt like shit. He had felt like that for a long time now. Maybe he was having a mid-life crisis? He was 49 after all and the doctor had told him that depression was a common problem for men his age.
Maybe he was just sick of the job.
But what else would he do? Go on the dole?
He had thought about it and imagined going into the dole office and signing on.
“Occupation?” some young twerp would ask
“Lion tamer,” he’d say and they’d give him a look of disbelief.
He never set out to be a lion tamer but he always wanted to be in the circus, it was all he had ever known. His folks had been circus people. His mum had been everything from a belly dancer to a bearded lady and his old man had started out as a tent boxer but ended up running the circus, for a while at least, until his boxing days caught up with him. By the time Ginger was 20 his father, Ron was, as his mother Pearl put it, “as silly as a two bob watch”. Ron was basically punch drunk. In his younger years he had taken a lot of hits to the head and they caught up with him eventually.
He looked like a fighter, his nose splayed out in the middle of his face, broken too many times to mention.
When he couldn’t function at the circus any more he still travelled with them although he became more and more of a problem. He would disappear into whatever town they were playing and Ginger and his mother would eventually track him down to some public bar where he’d be challenging people to fights. Eventually he lived in a world of his own, throwing punches at thin air, reliving old fights in the middle of a busy street, picking on traffic lights. It was almost a blessing when he died.
Ginger’s childhood was spent mostly touring New South Wales with occasional forays across the border into Queensland. It was a life lived on the peripheries of towns, belonging nowhere. Some wouldn’t have it any other way but there were times, when he was a boy, that he yearned for a proper home. They’d be in some provincial city somewhere and young Ginger would plead with his parents to stay. If they had put down roots he might have some friends, feel like he belonged.

His father told him he belonged to the family of the greatest show on earth and that should be enough for anyone. So he went into the family business anyway and they’d trained him up as assistant to Magnus the Magnificent, one of the old whip and chair experts.

Magnus was as mad as a meataxe. He dubbed his offsider Tito because he was a Yugoslav and had fought against the Nazis with Marshall Tito’s partisans in World War Two. Magnus bored Ginger with long raves about his war years when he was in his cups and when he died suddenly one day, halfway through his act, Ginger was relieved. He had just coaxed a lion onto a large plinth when he fell to the sawdust in a crumpled heap.
Two clowns had run on with a canvas stretcher and taken him out of the ring while someone called the paramedics. Some of the people in the crowd thought it was part of the show, laughed and started clapping. Ginger remembered just looking at them and thinking that people really were stupid.

In his younger years in the circus Ginger had been a bit of a dogsbody but for the past 18 he had been Tito the lion tamer, and had wrangled a small pride of ragged beasts, day in, day out, doing the same lame tricks for dwindling audiences. There was very little danger involved nowadays - the lions were unwell and had few teeth left while their claws had either fallen out or were about to from sheer neglect. So if they felt the urge to bite or maul someone they probably wouldn’t be up to it, even if one of them worked up enough energy to get nasty.

Ginger finished his cuppa and went out back of the big top to see his charges. Together, he and his lions were referred to as The Pride of The Circus by the ringmaster when he introduced them. Lately that made Ginger shake his head slightly.

The lion’s cages were on a patch of grass out behind the big tent. In a carriage nearby were two monkeys that also performed in the show and also the dogs who usually stole the show. ‘Those bloody performing dogs get more applause than I do’, thought Ginger and he resented them. There were also a couple of llamas and two very old Shetland ponies too, cranky little buggers. One of them had bitten Ginger once and he had given it the biggest kick up the arse. Ginger didn’t mind the monkeys though and always got a laugh when they rode the ponies around the ring, wearing their tiny red fezzes. For some reason that had always amused him.

He had some cheap steak for the lions and he poked it through the bars and changed their water, sliding their dishes back through a small hole cut for that purpose.
He watched them chew for a little while then left them to it.

The circus was erected on the same plot of ground they had used for years, every time they came to Brisbane - between a main road, a railway line and the Royal Brisbane Hospital.

People who came to the show often made jokes about how handy it was to the hospital should anyone fall from the high wire or drop during the trapeze act but the circus folk themselves never made such jokes because they were as superstitious as sailors.

Back in his caravan Ginger pushed himself through the motions of his normal day, though everything seemed more difficult than it used to. Just moving around was like swimming in molasses at times. It was Sunday and there were another two shows today, one at 2pm and another in the early evening and he didn’t relish the prospect. He laid out his costume, if you could call it that – some filthy jodhpurs and a spangly vest that he bulged out of. When he was young, lean and mean, his biceps were like rocks under his skin but now his arms were flabby, like an old woman’s and there was even a bit of  underhang.

He spread the clothes out on the bench in his caravan, propped his boots beside them – they would need a bit of a scrub later - then laid out his whip. Then he put a shirt on over his blue singlet, discarded his thongs, put on some battered runners and went back outside.
More circus folk were up and about now, Jimmy nearby folding some lengths of rope.

“G’Day Ginger,” he called. “Ready for another exciting day in Brizzie. You know, I think I spent a month here one day.”
“It’s a stinking hot dump is all I know,” Ginger said.
“You look a bit worse for wear,” Jimmy said.
“Had a few sherbets last night.”
“Fancy a hair of the dog mate?”
“Well I just had one of Beryl’s special cuppas.”
“No, I mean a real drink,” Jimmy said and he looked at his watch. “They’re open. We’ve got time for a couple of quick ones.”

The two men walked into nearby Fortitude Valley and propped themselves at the bar of the Shamrock Hotel, one of those pubs where most of the patrons looked like they were on their last legs, mainly because they were. They sipped their beer and looked around. Some of the faces – beaten, weathered and vacant - reminded Jimmy of his father.
The beer cooled Ginger’s throat and had the effect of a mild sedative but didn’t lift his mood. After several drinks, the last one downed quickly, the two men made the 15 minute trudge back to where the circus had set up.

By then the place was alive and people were slowly gearing up for the matinee. Everyone pitched in, cleaning up, setting up the dowdy little sideshow alley with its sad, open mouthed clowns and its array of lame challenges – quoits, air rifles and the like, all of which were designed, if you could call it that, to fleece the punters. Occasionally some sucker was given a fluffy toy just to shut the kids up.

Ginger offered to help the popcorn girl set up. Her name was Cindy and she was a bit of alright, he thought. He didn’t have to help her but there was something about her and that attracted him. She was rough but there seemed to be a soft interior somewhere beneath her tattoos.

“Ginger, you haven’t been drinking have you?” Cindy asked as he assisted her.
“Just a couple of cleansing ales for an early lunch,” Ginger replied.
“Mate, you should take more care of yourself,” she said. “And what are you doing on the grog before the show anyway?  That’s not right.”
“What, are they going to arrest me for? Being drunk in charge of a lions? There ain’t no such crime.”
“I think you should go and have a shower and wake yourself up a bit, luv.”
“Yeah, no worries Cin, I’ll do just that. It’ll be fine.”
“Well you don’t look fine. Go on, the punters will be pouring in here soon so get a wriggle on.”
“I haven’t seen the punters pouring in for quite a while. But I’ll go and have me shower.
It’s time for me to get ready anyhow.”
“Got to get in the zone, right?” Cindy said and she smiled. He walked away and turned and waved.

‘Get in the fucken zone,’ he thought. ‘Yeah, right. The fucken zombie zone.’

As he walked back to his caravan the ringmaster, a drop-kick named Neil, saw him and called out.
“Hey Ginger, let’s give ‘em a good one this arvo,” he said.
“I always give ‘em a good one,” Ginger called back, a little angrily.
‘I’ll give you a good one too one day, right in the fucken head’, he thought.
Neil was a prick who should have been working in the public service, not in a circus. He was a clock-watching, penny-pinching, conceited twerp. He knew, like everyone knew, that Ginger had problems but he couldn’t give a shit. Most of his co-performers were sympathetic though and thought he’d get through his bad patch. But he knew Neil was looking to shaft him, though he was getting to the point where he didn’t care, he really didn’t.

He had a fantasy of locking Neil in the cage with the lions and watching them maul him to death. But the lions weren’t up to it and even if they had been they’d probably pass on Neil. Even lions had standards regarding the quality of their tucker.

Back in his caravan Ginger lay on his bed in the humid heat and stared at the ceiling. The effects of the alcohol were beginning to wear off and he felt an inexplicable exhaustion. The doctor had clearly explained that this was just part of his depression and that it would pass eventually, with help from the medication but the last pills he’d had dispensed  remained in the drawer, the packet unopened.

“You will push through this Ginger,” the doctor had said. “Take the pills and let some time pass. And just remember that no matter how bad you feel, feelings aren’t facts.”

But Ginger hadn’t taken the doctor’s advice, had forgotten all that and was now surrendering to his feelings of hopelessness. As he lay there in a mire of despondency he got the call.

“One hour, Ginger.” Then he was on. He didn’t relish the idea or having to smile and go through the bullshit act of looking scared when one of the lions, on cue, turned on him halfway through his segment. One more hour until he had to go through the tortuous 20 minute charade that he had been going through every day – sometimes twice a day - for years.

Ginger sat up and looked out the small, dusty window. He could see cars arriving in the distance, parking in the adjacent field. Punters were already streaming in, more than he imagined. ‘Things must be a bit slow in old Brisbane town,’ he thought. ‘If people have got nothing better to do than come to this second rate fleabag circus and watch a bunch of unemployable idiots like me pretend that it is still exciting and worth coming to.’

He raised himself and washed a bit and started to get dressed. He was just going through the motions now. When he was dressed he opened a packet of peanuts and ate them, washing them down with a cup of instant coffee. That perked him up a bit and he went outside and made his way to the back of the tent.

He went to check on the lions and the animal wrangler, Ben, son of ringmaster Neil, was attending to them. The Shetland ponies and the monkeys were being kitted out in their finery - spangled saddles and headpieces for the ponies, little waistcoats and fezzes for the monkeys. But the lions would appear in their birthday suits, of course. The king of the jungle could not be belittled by such shenanigans to titillate the paying public.

Soon the music swelled inside the big top and a hundred or so people were sitting in the hot interior watching the clown’s inane warm up. Ginger peeked through a flap in the back of then tent.

“Not a bad crowd Ginger,” Ben said. He was a good kid despite his old man.
“Not a bad crowd as far as bad crowds go,’ Ginger replied.
“Oh well, they all love a lion tamer but,” Ben said.

When the clowns were finished some acrobats went through their paces as the small band that played live with the show thrashed out the off-key accompanying music. Ginger could smell that sawdust that was being kicked up by the tumblers and it made him think about his parents and his early days in the circus. A circus was exciting then, it was something different, and it was a real boon to people in the country who didn’t have theatres and such. Nowadays with television, the movies, video games and all the other sort of entertainment around a circus seemed like something from another century and it was, really.

People still came but Ginger, looking through the flap, watched a fat man and his two equally fat children in the front row lapping it up. They had popcorn, ice cream and soft drinks and they seemed to be imbibing all three at once as the acrobatic show wound up.

Then Neil stepped forward to announce the next act, in which a hairy little Greek fellow called Spiros was shot from a cannon, across the audience, and onto a huge mat in the middle of the ring.

That was Ginger’s cue to ready himself, to transform into Tito, master of the beasts, a man in control of one of the fiercest man eating creatures in the world.

Young Ben had set up the passageway through which the lions would pass into the big top. Inside, beneath the big top, the clowns wandered in the audience annoying people as the large circular cage in which Tito performed was set up. Soon a drum roll signified that it was time to get on with the show. Ginger was now Tito and he came into the tent triumphantly – at least he was supposed to look triumphant. Meanwhile the lions took their places on various plinths around the cage. The lion tamer’s shiny vest sparkled as the spotlight hit him and he smiled thinly at the audience. Applause rippled through the tent as Ginger held his teeth together and opened his mouth in a cheesy, mocking smile. He took in the crowd and his eyes were drawn again to the fat man in front who was busy trying to take a picture with his mobile phone. The children next to him stuffed their faces with popcorn as ringmaster Neil introduced Tito and his charges, “pride of the circus!”

“Ladies and gentleman, this is dangerous work and I’ll ask you all to remain in your seats throughout the act,” the ringmaster spruiked. “These magnificent beasts have travelled here all the way from the Dark Continent where one of them is once reputed to have eaten and entire village. But Tito the magnificent has unique power over them and soothes the savage beast. But be warned, they are still dangerous and there’s only one man who can go near them with impunity. I give you Tito!”

The ringmaster gestured towards him.

‘Look at that shit-eating grin,’ Ginger thought as he waved and bowed. “I’d like to ram this whip down his throat.’

Ginger stopped smiling then and went about his work. There was no dialogue in his act, no words necessary to explain how dangerous it all was. There was just the occasional “Hup!” as he coaxed one of the lion’s down and then back onto their plinths. He coaxed a roar or two from Simba, the oldest of the motley mammals and that seemed to impress everyone.

But to Ginger it was all routine. He was just going through the motions but even though he’d done it all a thousand times before, today it was pushing shit uphill. And it seemed to be getting harder by the second. As he struggled with the familiar, choreographed show, his brain seemed to get foggy and he felt a bit light headed.
And then his pulse began to race, ever so slightly at first and then faster and faster.

‘No, he thought, not now, this can’t be happening now.’ Sweat broke out on his upper lips and then on his forehead and his movements slowed. The crowd was oblivious and kept applauding each inane gesture, the raise of a lion paw, the growl of an aggravated beast. Ginger felt the blood pumping through him now and his mind was clouded with panic. The thumping became a pounding and then the dizziness set in. He looked around and the top of the tent seemed to be closing in on him while the lions just sat, confused on their plinths.

Neil, the ringmaster noticed something was wrong and started his patter again, giving Ginger a pause.

“Tito will now perform his finale,” he said and there was a drum roll but Ginger didn’t hear it. His world was closing down, his vision narrowing. He had to get to his caravan and lie down, he had to get out of the lights, and he had to get out of the stultifying heat under the big top. And in his panic, before anyone could react, he had opened the big side gate of the cage and stepped out, staggering, kicking ups sawdust as he went.

There was applause at first because the audience figured this was part of the act, that everything was part of the act.

Minutes later two hospital orderlies, Simon Graves and John Gardiner, who had gone for a stroll and a smoke, noticed people streaming out of the nearby circus tent.

“Shows over,” Simon said.
“What’s everyone running for?’ John asked.
“Mustn’t have been a very good show.”
“What the fuck is that?” John said then, pointing.
“What?” Simon asked, straining to see
“That. Something’s chasing them.” John said
“Get out of here,” Simon said. “Oh, shit, what is that?
“A lion?”  John said, disbelieving.
“A fucking lion?” Simon replied. “And there’s another one behind it.” Simon said. The two men watched, their mouths open, cigarettes burning to butts between their fingers.

Under the big top Ginger Malone lay sprawled in the sawdust. He hadn’t got far before his heart had given away completely. But when he fell he was still conscious enough to feel paws, padding gently across his back. It felt like some oriental masseuse checking for tension. But there was no tension, just a feeling of relief as he inky blackness enveloped him.

by Phil Brown

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