Copyright Carolyn Horn 1994
All Rights Reserved
Farrell peered around the sparsely-peopled ringside seats and frowned at the various expressions of boredom. I'll soon fix that, he thought; give 'em the best clown act ever.
He proceeded to do just that. This is as easy as rolling in mud, he thought. What could be simpler than clowning; falling about, getting tangled up in the trolley, shoving squishy things in your partner's face? Oh yes, he thought as he tripped over his huge shoes, being a tiny bit tiddly was even an advantage. God, but I'm funny. He squinted around again at the audience and saw the shabby little girl, still solemnly sucking her lolly. Oh well, he shrugged, you can't please everybody.
She looked past him, a sudden look of interest on her face, and he turned around, slightly miffed. A line of geese had swaggered into the ring, miniature Stetsons on their heads and enormous tinsel spurs on their legs. They honked and jingled in synchronism. They converged on Farrell. Two minutes later a completely sober clown pelted around the ring, clutching his backside and yelling: "You didn't think to tell us about the geese at rehearsal, then, Haigho!"
The Ringmaster twirled fuzzily in the middle of the ring. "Terrific, aren't they? Amazing beak-action." He grinned and cracked his whip in the air. The round-eyed girl clapped her hands, jumping up and down in her seat with her lolly-stick jutting from her mouth.
Events moved onward as the Big Top revolved around Farrell. High above, on the trapeze platform, Ceredwen took a final swig from her re-filled pipes; she was developing a taste for Drew's rot-gut fuel. She slung them back over her shoulder, spat on her hands, and launched herself into the air. The trapeze took her full weight with a groan, and slung her towards Orangputeh's grasping hands just as the storm outside gave a deep grumble.
"Yahoo!" yelled the goddess, and then "Oh shit!"
Orangputeh had chosen this moment to become unbearably homesick. Home, he thought. Where we have real thunderstorms, better than this. Good wet rain. Warm. Ah, home... Try again. Go home. Oblivious to his key position in mid-air and Ceredwen's grasping hand, he blew a sweet note through his nose and disappeared.
Ceredwen made a spectacular and colourfully-worded descent to the sawdust.
The lolly-sucking girl cheered joyously. This was the best circus she'd ever seen; all sorts of wonderful things were going on, all at once, and she just wished she had ten sets of eyes. There was the woman with the squishy bagpipes who could fly; she'd just picked herself up only to be run over by those wonderful geese. And there, see the horse chasing the Prancing Pansies around the circle, his rider unbalanced from her fairy-like pose on tiptoe, clinging around his neck and swearing something wonderful. The clown in the wheelchair was just brilliant - he never missed when he threw those pies; although come to think of it, maybe he hadn't meant to spludge one right in that ringmaster's face. But the master's huge nose looked awful funny with yellow stuff dripping off it, and what wonderful things he did with that whip when he couldn't see! And ooh look, the elephants were crapping all over the place - lovely big, steaming stuff.
Yes, definitely the best circus. The girl didn't even notice when her lolly was finished; she just carried on chewing.
Orangputeh missed all this, which was a shame as he didn't actually manage to get home. A corner of Shearweird Forest, firmly snoozing beneath the flamboyant storm, was startled once more into wakefulness by a bout of curses and squawks.
As before, the warp in the Continua had drawn the monkey off-course and shoved him into a tree with Egrette. Humph, Orangputeh thought, must be the bloody bird. Same eagle. Psi-magnet. Different tree. Stupid chattering cat-tree. Pah!
The pussy-willow appeared to be a bit annoyed. "This disturbance, it simply is not good enough," it yowled and shook its branches. "My family; my beautiful, beautiful Arboriana; they all are made to sleep, maybe they die. And now, what would you? I become a - a way-station for all the Continua tramps. Well you can, as you say, piss off."
Orangputeh took the hint. He orientated himself towards his other psi-magnet in this tightening Continuum, blew a gentle note, and pissed off.
He appeared in the Big Top in exactly the spot which he'd left, grabbing for a trapeze - only this time Ceredwen's wasn't there. The goddess was cursing beneath a heap of manic geese. Oh bugger, Orangputeh thought as he plummeted to the ground. What do I do next? The air sang past his ears. Better make the male human move. Sort things out. the ground received him with a bang, spraying earth and elephant-dung everywhere. Ouch. Yuck. Shit.
He clambered out of his newly-formed crater and looked around at the chaos of careering horses and lumbering elephants, orchestrated by the yells of a confused-looking Haigho. There, near the entrance, was Farrell's backpack - the besotted man never went far from it, and right now he was staggering towards it across the ring.
Orangputeh bounded ahead of the man, grabbed the bag, and zipped out of the tent. "OY!" Farrell yelled, and pelted after the monkey, just as the first frantic Pansy pranced through the exit. A stream of performers found its way out into the rain, closely followed by the audience which had cheered up considerably and wasn't about to miss anything.
The thunderstorm had been getting pretty annoyed; its clouds were darkening still further as they hung over the circus. What is the point of putting on a grand display, it muttered to itself, if everyone was too self-absorbed to notice? "grumble grumble ka-BOOM," it said. At this point, a monkey ran out of the Big Top, followed by a flood of animals and gesticulating people; now was the storm's chance. It gathered itself together for a massive effort. "KWADDA-FTOOM!"
A superb streak of lightning shot out of the sky, hit the tent, and coruscated down its side.
The ancient Big Top appeared to consider the situation for a moment. Then, with majestic slowness, it gave up its decades-long fight with gravity and collapsed to the ground, billowing out as it went. It made a spirited attempt to catch fire, but the flames couldn't get a foothold in all the rain and they fizzled out.
Everyone stood around the floodlit field, getting wet. The only person who seemed happy about it was Natterjak.
That's better, thought the storm. It collected itself and wandered off, hurling a few thunderbolts around as it went.
From beneath the soggy mound of scorched canvas a muffled "Help!" sounded. It was Haigho, sobered and stuck.
Several enthusiastic drunks piled under the mess, including Farrell, his purloined backpack momentarily forgotten. The little girl looked on, her cheeks unusually pink and her eyes wide with excitement.
Holly and Ceredwen leaned against each other and watched the tunnelling mounds of people with interest, taking turns to suck warming swigs from the bagpipes.
"D'you think they'll find him?" Asked Holly.
Ceredwen shrugged. "I'm a goddess," she said with a grand wave which nearly unbalanced her. "I don't think; I know everything. Here, are you going to gimme that? It's my turn."
A thirst-quenching silence ensued, broken only by the burrowers' rustlings. Occasionally one of the humps would emit a lost-sounding cry, reminiscent of a defective fog-horn. It was unfortunate, thought Holly, that the would-be rescuers' enthusiasm was not matched by their sense of direction. She squinted at the mound that was Farrell and listened to his latest series of curses. She was impressed. She didn't think his command of language could be better. She was wrong.
"Hey," he yelled suddenly, "who's that, tweaking my- Help, get this goose away from me- Aaaaargh!" The air around him suddenly became very colourful indeed.
"Whew, look at him move!" Holly was even more impressed.
At this moment she became aware of someone breathing heavily on the back of her neck. She gave a slight scream and whirled around. Leo blew gentle halitosis in her face, and she gagged. "Hey, pals," she yelled, "I think we'd better round up the animals." The scene became one of earnest activity, the field full of bounding legs, waving arms and little banshee cries of encouragement. Many of the animals sat immovable like sacks of wet river-mud, and watched the entertainment. This, they appeared to think, was the best fun they'd had in years.
Holly stopped for a breath and a slurp at Ceredwen's pipes. The burrowers in the Big Top were still calling out to each other, all except one who was snoring loudly.
The little girl came up to Holly and pulled at her sleeve; the woman looked down into a pair of wide brown eyes, set in a pinched little face. The girl presented her with a soggy, much-chewed lolly-stick to hold, and darted under the canvas.
Half an hour later, the girl had led Haigho to freedom, plus all six of the rescue team and one irritated goose.
Haigho scrambled to his feet and flung his arms wide. "Freedom!" He said. He took a few deep breaths, coughed, and caught sight of Holly. "Is that booze you've got there?"
He took a long pull at the pipes, and sighed in deep satisfaction. Then he peered through the twilight at the activity in the field. He sucked his teeth disapprovingly and wandered over to the nearest gesticulating Traveller - a red-faced and perspiring Drew. "Dear, dear. You'll never catch anything that way. Oh dear me, no."
Drew zipped his wheels around and snarled at him. He'd had enough of being sneered at by a decrepit lion and a couple of moulting vultures. "All right - you try it! They're your bloody animals."
Haigho grinned, rolled up his sleeves, and put his fingers in his mouth. He gave a long, piercing whistle, and all activity stopped. Then the sound changed to a haunting rendition of an ice-cream seller's tune, and the animals surged towards him. Five seconds later, he disappeared under a pile of eager fur and feathers.
"Lucky for you that the elephants were slow," said Holly as she and Drew dug him out and dusted him off. "You do live dangerously, don't you?"
He smiled at her weakly. "They've always been in their cages whenever I've announced feeding-time like that before."
When the animals had been fed and most of the humans had fallen into exhausted heaps, a thin, contented little girl slid into the concealed tiger's cage and curled up next to Beauty's cub. She'd made up her mind to join the circus. It was all so bright and exciting, and she wanted to see everything.
She seemed to see things so clearly now, since - well, since a funny bell-like voice in her head told her to wake up. It sounded ever so motherly, though it wasn't really a bit like Mummy's voice. Mummy was a VR addict, who hung around outside the Arcade and was no fun at all. This was much better.
That lolly-sweet had been lovely, too. She knew she shouldn't accept gifts from strangers, but she'd never been told why and she'd been so very hungry. Anyway, it didn't matter after all. She knew something about self-defence; she'd kicked the stranger in the goolies when he'd tried doing things to her. Nasty dirty man.
Images of the performance wandered through her drowsy mind. Fantastic, she thought. Even that stupid clown had been quite good in the end. He was one of the few who wasn't asleep yet - she lifted her head and listened. Yes, that was his voice in the distance, still begging and pleading with that amazing floppy-nosed monkey to return his bag. The sound ebbed and flowed, lulling her to a relaxed doze.
The girl's last thought before sleep overtook her now was of how strange tiger's milk tasted.
Dawn arose, fresh and dewy, and caught the crumpled Big Top in its pink light. It played across the caravans and cages, and lingered over faces which began to twitch into wakefulness. The Travellers pulled themselves to their feet and staggered to Drew's van for his remedy, clutching their heads. A normal day had begun.
After breakfast, they gathered around Haigho, who stood gazing at his canvas-bound dreams as they lay crumpled at his feet. "C'mon, pal," said Holly. We can fix it - hey, can't we, gang?"
Farrell had his doubts, but he nodded. He had decided to go on to Fallekin Astow straight after this, because his need to find the real Vinny had grown urgent again - last night had shown him just how easy it could be to lose a disc. He was lucky to have got it back. Damn that monkey, he thought as he piled all his energies into the soggy heap of canvas.
Two hours later, Holly stood back with her head on one side and looked at the charred, misshapen monster which they had resurrected. She wrinkled her forehead. "It doesn't look quite right, does it?" she said in hopeful tones.
Haigho's head was in his hands and he sobbed gently.
She chattered on. "We could have done with a manual- " At that moment, a sleek limousine appeared at the edge of town and made its way toward them. "Hey, who's that?"
Haigho looked up and his face turned grey. "Quick! Get away from here - It's Sir Liam Hang! If he sees you..." He fluttered his hands at the Travellers, trying to herd them back to their vans. He grabbed Holly by the arm and tugged.
"Ouch! Let go, pal," she said; "I'm off anyway - I'm not hanging about to speak to any bloody Toff. Can't stand 'em." She had got halfway to her van by the time the car purred to a halt beside the Big Top.
Sir Liam stood and swept his cold gaze over the scene and past the hurrying Travellers. He glanced down at the shaking Haigho. "Well?" he said.
"Yes, Sir," Haigho ignored the mess beside him and bowed the Great Man into the shabby little office van. He handed his boss the money-box. To his dismay, he felt a persistent tic start to twitch on his right eyelid. "The takings haven't been very good recently, I'm afraid- "
Sir Liam looked into the box, and his expression sharpened. He picked out a small handful of coins and one trouser-button. "I was told that there were several present at last night's performance."
"Well, yes, but they were helping me - they were Travellers, paying for their camping permission with work."
"You - gave - permission? Camping on my land? I thought I'd made it quite clear that such things were not to be allowed. Especially at this time of year, when every vagabond in the country homes in on this area. I'd have those Stones at Fallekin Barrows uprooted at once if I could only overturn the Heritage Ministry's preservation order. Listed building, indeed!" He remembered Haigho's presence, and shook his head. "But these are matters of state business, of course."
Haigho felt sweat drip cold from his forehead; he wiped his eyes. The tic stopped briefly. "Sir, their horses were exhausted- "
"My good man, animals don't vote. And their masters are vagrants, not voters. You will remember, such creatures are not welcome on my land. Also, it would appear that they have damaged my property; typical vagrant behaviour." Sir Liam nodded toward the Big Top which sagged at them through the open doorway.
Haigho began to understand Holly's dislike of Toffs. He tried to protest the Travellers' innocence, but his superior's attention had switched to the accounting books before him.
Sir Liam shook his head and stood, an air of decision about him. "I will now inspect the animals. I trust you haven't been overspending; there seems to be an excessive consumption of soya protein."
Haigho trailed unhappily behind Sir Liam as the latter strode between the cages and glared at the animals. Thank heaven those travelling vans have all gone, the caretaker thought. At that moment a gentle growl sounded from the hidden cage, and Haigho felt what happiness was left to him crumble. Sir Liam discovered Beauty and her cub.
Haigho waited miserably to be fired for his disobedience, but instead the Great Man looked thoughtful. At last he nodded. "Well," he said, "It's a good thing I decided to drop in on my way to the sleas-house, after all. At first I did think that these animals would be more use to me there - satisfying certain specialised tastes - but most of them are too old and ugly. This, however - this is perfect." He indicated the cub. He looked back at Haigho, and his voice became brisk. "The circus is finished. Take the oldest of these wrecks to the slaughter-house; we'll get something out of them as tinned meat for the poor. We'll distribute it for free just before the next election," a spasm crossed his features, "or rather, we'll have to charge enough to cover costs of course. But it'll be cheap. Plenty of good publicity, too. But as for this cub, he can be the beginning of a new project. We'll breed animals and start the new True Reality Hunt with them. Advertise that, too; something like `Get True thrills - see a Real death...'"
Haigho felt trapped. His brain scurried around in his skull and tried to deny reality. He longed to free the animals, let them find their own lives; but how could they survive? Perhaps the slaughterhouse would be a cleaner death.
He wanted to be sick. He must have looked that way, because Sir Liam put a hand on his shoulder and went on: "You will have continued employment; you have worked reasonably well. You may be in charge of the breeding programme."
Haigho was sick. All over the Great Man's shoes.
After the two men had left, the scarred one with the big nose apologising like mad and the po-faced one looking like a disgusted camel, the solemn little girl slid out of the concealing bushes. She was furious. Just as she'd made up her mind to join the circus, that horrid man, the one who looked as though he was sucking lemons all the time, decided to take it away from her. And he was going to do beastly things to her lovely tiger. Well, she nodded to herself, I won't let him. She slipped to the side of the office, and saw the nasty man drive off; the other one shut himself away and groaned.
Then she flitted from cage to cage, opening the doors and urging the restless, grumbling animals out.
Shortly afterwards, Haigho was disturbed in a bit of serious sorrow-drowning by a knock on the office door. When he opened it, a scene of activity greeted his amazed eyes; there were animals everywhere. Even - he blinked in disbelief - Beauty and her cub. He rubbed his eyes and looked at the half-empty bottle in his hand accusingly. This must be the DT's; he knew that tigers never rode on the backs of elephants. It just wasn't done. He took another swig at his bottle, and squinted down at what appeared to be a little girl tugging at his sleeve. "Well, Mister," the apparition said, "are you coming or not? They don't want to go without you."
"Young lady," said Haigho with slurred dignity, "You are a figment of my ima- imagination. You don't exist."
She sighed. "Yes I do. I'm Natasha, and I've come to join the circus. Come on."
Haigho shrugged, and stepped forward to freedom.