The dull hum of the dull voices that travelled around England with extraordinary pets and curious children resonated round the tents, while I relaxed in my caravan. Suzie’s feet pattered on the wet grass just outside. She was strolling towards the main tent with some black lace up shoes, kicking at the puddles along the way. The main tent was otherwise known as the big top for its terrifyingly large size. Having to hammer down pegs this morning I was well aware of that fact. The red and white stripes that covered the entire thing always made my eyes go fuzzy if I stared too long, but the fairy lights really spiced it up this year. They hung around the edges of the tent then flared on the floor away from the entrance, close to where Suzie was hanging about.
A thud came from the big top and Suzie seemed to stop to listen then ran past the fairy lights and went through its opening. I put my pint down on the side table, grabbed my jacket and followed her inside, a few feet behind. I stayed stood at the opening. On the floor, clutching her ankle was Esme. She was the best tightrope walker I had seen go through this circus in a long time. Except for the elephants she was probably the most popular part of the show and definitely the reason why the teenage boys came by. “These damn shoes are so torn up now I slipped right off, Hank!” she shouted across to the circus’ owner, Hank, on the other side of the tent, while throwing her shoes towards him. They didn’t make it past a few feet and he didn’t take much notice of her complaints anyway. Hank was a tough old man who, from the stories, seemed to have been an animal tamer in a circus when he was younger but then his ambition led him to buy this one. He wore an old suede jacket and had a bushy beard lined with straggles of grey hair. Suzie ran to Esme with the new shoes in hand but dropped them before she got there and embraced her.
“Oh sweetie, it’s ok. I’m fine it was just one of the practise ones,” she said to Suzie. She kissed her forehead and then stood up, struggling slightly, with a smile on her face so as to not alarm the young girl. She held Suzie’s hand as she went to pick up the new shoes off the dusty ground. Suzie looked the splitting image of her mother except for her golden curls. Esme had strikingly beautiful red hair. When I think of them now, they remind me of the fairy lights that were pinned outside the tent. Since they joined us they didn’t leave; they didn’t even go outside of the tent’s area much when we situated in a place for a while.
I sat down on one of the benches at the front moving a couple of things to the side so I could stretch my legs. Esme must have heard me because she looked up and smiled at me. I waved back and watched as Suzie got up on one of the tightropes. It was only a few feet high but she was seven years old at the time so I was always impressed by the poise she held on the rope. Esme sat on the floor and after putting her new shoes on she applauded Suzie’s cartwheel on the tightrope, pretending to holler and cheer like a real audience.
A few of the acrobats turned their heads and most of the children in the big top had come over and sat down near them on the floor. Esme was quite a favourite to the other children that travelled with us. She got up and joined Suzie, counting her in before they started doing a little routine. Hank looked over, a little impressed, at the duo. Suzie was too young to do any acts live or on the high wire but she was enthusiastic enough to get anyone going. They were spinning and twirling around each other. Esme and Suzie were so in sync together. They always seemed to know where each other were without looking to check. They held hands and kicked their legs high into the air, laughing as they did so. Esme was even somersaulting along the rope. We all knew then that it would be nothing compared to what her show later that night would be like, but it was still compelling to watch. Esme had a way of absorbing those around her into the act. You almost forgot the rope was there sometimes and just saw her floating about, bending nature to her whim.
Some of the children got quite excited and one of the boys started to practise his juggling while another little girl cartwheeled around him. Some of the very young ones were clapping Esme and Suzie, while the others watched or played cards. They stopped for a moment and Esme caught my eye then whispered something in Suzie’s ear and she looked around in her playful manner and grinned when she found my face. “Charlie! Can we go see Maggie today?” Suzie said while running towards me.
“Maybe not today Suzie, she’s probably already asleep ‘cause it’s opening night tomorrow for them,” I told her. The elephants were Suzie’s favourite; especially Maggie, as she was only a few weeks old then and I think Suzie was hoping to ride her when she got a bit taller. We had had a few days of travelling so she hadn’t been able to play with them properly for that time. Her face stayed lit though and she jumped about telling me what snacks she was going to bring for them the next day.
It was getting dark and there was a crispness to the wind, which took me back to my caravan to get a warmer jacket. On getting one I quickly gulped the last of my drink and strolled back out. A sudden concern for the elephants came upon me and I headed to the animals’ tent. I couldn’t remember if I had covered them for the night as it was colder than I had expected it to be. When I got in there, I could feel that Maggie’s skin was far too cold. The blankets were bundled together in a few trunks near the big cats’ cages. By the time I had got back to the elephants, they must have woken up because they were huddled together. They looked like a big mess of grey; Livy’s trunk hung over George and their two calves were in balls against his chest. It seemed like they could be crushed at any moment, they were so tightly wound. In the morning they wouldn’t be so idle when they got a whiff of the fresh fruit I bought in town, that afternoon, for them. It would be a welcomed change from the oats I had to give to them on the road.
Maggie had resided next to them but barely touching; she was prone to fidget in her sleep much more than the others on nights like these. I wondered whether animals dreamt too and if so then what about? Was it about nuts and berries or the opening night? Whilst tucking them in, I worried for them. I worried that every twitch was a hopeless thought or a terrible walkthrough of what tomorrow could be like. ‘No, they are unable to have nightmares’ I concluded. They dream of the stars.
I went back to the trunk to put the extra blankets back but stopped before going through the gates. A few feet in front there was a hunched over figure facing away from me. The person seemed to be at one of the big cats’ cages. He was rattling on the bars with what looked like a stick. It wasn’t uncommon for arrogant teenagers to sneak in and try to show off by agitating the lions, so I prepared myself to scare them off when I saw that it wasn’t a stick but the handle of a whip. ‘David’s visiting his girl tonight’ I thought. He was the only lion tamer and honestly no one else really went that close to them. I waited for a bit to see what he would do but he just stood there mumbling some things to himself and rattling those cages. Boy, I would have thought ol’ Gracey would have scratched his arm up by now but she seemed fairly happy watching the whip go back and forth along the bars.
After some deliberation, I decided to walk in. I locked the gate behind me, which must have startled him because he dropped the whip and turned round pretty quickly. “Oh it’s you! I was wondering who was hanging around here this late.” I exclaimed.
“Um, hi Charlie.”
“I was just checking up on the elephants. They were a bit cold you see.” I said as I gestured to the blankets. “They should be well rested for tomorrow, though. I bet everyone is pretty excited. Esme was practising earlier and it looked like it’ll be another show stopper.” I realised I had started to ramble so stopped as Hank didn’t look too interested.
“Good. Yes, very good.” His voice was trembling a little when he said this. He was looking out of the corner of his eye at the lioness, as though he wanted me to leave.
I bent down to open the trunk and placed the blankets in there. He was right next to the gate when I looked up from the trunk. He looked a lot calmer now but was acting jittery. “So… were you checking up on the animals too?”
“Yeah. Anyway I’ve got to go back to my caravan now. Lots of work to do.”
“Oh I can imagine. The circus won’t run itself!” I chuckled, and off Hank went.
The next day Suzie arrived just on time and was already jumping about to see Maggie. She had brought some peanuts for the elephants, which seemed to go down a treat. The little ones sat by themselves, away from us, trying to get a few peanut shells open. They had not quite conquered the skill as well as their parents, who hovered over nervously watching their attempts. We all have our acts to practise. Suzie held out some peanuts to Maggie, her hand flat and outstretched just like I taught her. She looked as if she was about to go for them but then very tenderly twisted her trunk around Suzie’s, exchanging greetings, as it were. Suzie stared at her, dropping the peanuts. They stood like this for a few moments until Maggie moved away and sat down directly in front of the peanuts watching them. Suzie picked them up and sat down too. She started opening them with her new friend and offered them back to Maggie but, uninterested, Maggie felt about Suzie with her trunk playfully patting her feet. Enjoying the attention, Suzie ate them herself and continued to sit with Maggie for the next hour or so.