I used to love going to the circus when I was younger. Not so pro using animals nowadays but this also isn’t anti-circus propaganda. I think I’ve just watched too much American Horror Story… I would ultimately love to do a piece for every act & animal but kept to a select four for now!
The tigers are tired. They lope around the arena, with sore toes and a resilient bout of mange thinning their furling tails. The circus used to employ a vet, you see, but that part of the budget was first to go. They’re sturdy animals, the director insisted. In reality, they were hardly sturdy, having been flown in from all over the world. An Ostrich in York, shivering against the Autumn breeze. Three elephants in Hertfordshire, braced together against the first snowfall. The streak of tigers , who managed to catch a particularly nasty bout of cat flu from some Somerset moggies, four of which consequently now adorn the Enchantress’ cabin, as a ragged bunch of pelts. Even if the animals can’t take the climate, the director stokes them on, jabbing his fists and flogging any mammal who dare refuse his command. (Three quarters of the once stocked menagerie have now either been immortalised in the form of taxidermy, or lie below ground). The Strongman is by far a cheaper method of dealing with the sickly, and those who don’t do as they are told . Not just physically robust, he’s also the only one not to flinch when they drag out the diseased and ailing and give them a swift bullet through the head. No, but the tigers are tired. They want to lie down, to stretch, and feel the unforgiving sun beating down on their stripes. They know the taste of the whip, if they do falter, pause, even refuse to hurl their weight through one of the flaming hoops. An almost balanced choice of pain, between lurching into the hot flames and the bite of the whip. Not that they weigh much, in this day and age. The tiger who came to tea should be fed on succulent meats; fat steaks and fresh blood. A can of putrid sardines has become the likely dinner. A sorry streak of tigers, absent is the dynamism which once propelled them through the flames. Now, they hesitate and waver. They choose between the lash of the whip, and the lick of the flames, and gamble as to the lesser pain.
(A group of tigers is indeed called a streak of tigers. Gaggle of geese. Streak of tigers. Who knew.)
2. circus master
All eyes on the circus master. He takes centre stage, spotlights amplifying his position. He needs the amplification, really. He’s a small man. Barely reaches five-foot-five, even in the scuffed tap shoes, which bless him with that very necessary extra half inch. Boy does he need it. He used to tower over his performers; maybe not in height, but certainly in stature. Holding that gleaming club in one hand, he had the tigers and the trapeze artists eating out of his palms – quite literally, in the case of the latter. Less so now. Murmurs of dissent run amongst the performers, meows of disapproval from the big-cats. Someone must be responsible for the leaking caravans, for the threadbare costumes, empty seats. Someone must be held responsible for the deserted ticket booths, the empty wage envelopes. They’re starting to starve, the performers. They jostle and leer at the circus master – he still has the largest caravan on site, after all. Needs a lick of paint and new upholstery, but otherwise it’s the most in shape of all the make-do scrap in which the others find shelter. They’re starving, you see. They make joke about eating up the little circus master, a cannibalistic outlet of the rage they feel in their hungry bellies. Well, jokes – they say – but someone has already anonymously carved up one of the emus, roasted it on a spit and left the plumage round the back.
3. animal keeper/costumier
But oh, now, for the animal keeper. Or the costume maker? Oh but of course, the funding to have two such roles ran out almost a decade prior, so the two very different jobs have now been amalgamated into one. A stout little man, he himself flounces around in an old purple brocade that hasn’t been washed since the seventies. He hardly has time to feed the penguins, and make sure the final, left over elephant has something more substantial to eat than hedge trimmings. He’s told his second in command – his chef de partie– of the animal world time and time again that no, the elephant most certainly isn’t going to be eating roasted road kill. In any case, the last sorry carcass he picked up looked awfully like a rat, and aren’t elephants terrified of mice? The last thing he needs is for the sorry looking great hunk of a beast to be throwing any temper tantrums. The circus once had a flurry of pretty pretty girls, who flung themselves up on to the back of the great, lumbering elephant. They sold tickets, with their tight curls and cherry-red lacquered lips. And their costumes, oh to think of the costumeshe once made. Tutus studded with tiny jewels, and tight corsets made of the finest goose down. What he would do to be back amongst his old fabrics, tracing dainty fingers through velvets and silks. His fingers are calloused now. A residual layer of dirt seems to stick below his nails, no matter how hard he scrubs. There’s no money for costumes, and no performers to dress. It’s a good thing he and the elephant get on so well, as he spends far more time caring for the great brute than designing clothes for non-existent acrobats.
4. tarot reader
A smattering of hairballs, as she has a sorry tendency to pull out her own during states of crystal-ball-reading induced psychosis, tired and stained corsets strewn across the floor. Remnants of meals shared with the ill-tempered street cat are growing mould on most available countertops. She’s lived in the same caravan for the past 17 years. It’s not a case of attachment; circus wages hardly afford bespoke wheels and embroidery. If she had it her way, she’d have her customers enter into one of those fancy hand painted affairs, with her name in loping cursive on treated wood. Instead, she must entertain them on the front ‘porch’ (as much as one can be said to have a porch without house). One of the younger construction boys – not much to look at, even given her tendency to let her eyes wander onto the strapping young lads who hoist and heave with the tent poles, and master even the wildest of horses – had a tarpaulin sheet pinned down from the caravan, covering the two seats and table from at least the worst of the elements. It isn’t however wholly waterproof, the odd drip just adds to the ominous atmosphere she tries to create when reading of tall dark strangers and twists in the road ahead. Admittedly, she shouldn’t have let her stained and wrinkled fingers grope their way under the table upon which the crystal rests (the boys almost didn’t notice, too entranced with the orb, and the promises of pretty wives and a poker’s fortune). She might have gained herself a little reputation, here and there. She pretends she can’t hear their catcalls when she goes to dinner. Slinks into the communal tent. Grabs her soup and stale crust, and hunches over one of the empty benches in the corner. She only had her tarots read once; for all a lifetime of pawing out cards and glossing over the future, she doesn’t believe much in knowing what lies ahead before you should. Or, having been told her days would be filled with disappointment, she knows that the cards can cut a little too close to home.