A Perfect Illusion

 

You see the bright ribbon twirl round the dancer’s body as she skillfully turns it in a spiral again and again until your vision is filled with a flowing pink strip, curving its way flawlessly through the air. You then see the flashing lights as they appear and go, silently signaling the change of scene. You see a beautiful white horse, bred and trained in the magical expanses of Andalucian hills, cantering towards you, its mane floating lightly in the crackling air and its nostrils flaring with excitement. You smile in contentment, marveling at the beauty and perfection of such earthly beings.

 

On the surface, everything seems perfect, unparalleled: the smiling faces of the clown, the cheerful wave of the acrobat as he prepares for his final jump, the uncanny resemblance of the monkey to his master that makes even the most disheveled faces break into unsteady grins, and the broad arms and strong emotional embrace with which the circus performers greet their new audience. But take a proper look inside those animated eyes and uncharacteristic smiles and you will see the truth that is hidden so fiercely beneath the plastered make-up. You will see the hours of tireless effort, the pain of healing injuries, the heart-aches and personal loss. You will discern the stressful darts of the eyes towards the wings, where the technical staff bustle about with panicked glances towards the arena, making sure all is well. To the clueless eye of the crowd, we are just a bunch of enthusiastic lunatics, walking the tightrope with no guarantee of making it to the other side, flipping from beams and bars so seemingly effortlessly that no one ever knows the gymnast holds his breath every single time he does it. We are known for our wild stunts, swinging from the horse’s side at full gallop, ours eyes always filled with hunger to encompass and satisfy the expectant eyes of the audience. We lead the perilous daily lives of circus performers. It is what feeds us, gives us energy. It is what keeps our hopes high. Hopes that we can save a crying child from his horrible memories, or distract, if only for an hour or two, a devastated housewife who’s husband went missing a few days ago. We raise people’s hopes, and that within itself, is an achievement worth fighting for.

 

We are an ordinary circus troupe, touring the country from one small town to the next. We perform evening shows and spend the following morning driving  to our next destination, where we once again rig up the tent and wait quietly for the buzz of the audience to drag us out of our dreary gloom. Some of my mates play guitar. I have never struck a chord in my life. I prefer to occupy myself with the animals: feed them, replace the horses’ straw, go into town to buy the carnivores some fresh meat to present as a treat after the show. No one is there to set the arena and tent for us, and so we do it ourselves, benefitting from the extra exercise as we sweat and heave in the scathing summer heat or shiver and blow miniature puffs of clouds during the cold winter months. Most of us, we are eager beaver country kids, raised and taught on farms among cattle and sheep dogs, far away from the urban coastal areas where the rich and educated reside. We grew up as rural-bred kids, and I am grateful for the freedom of the secluded world I grew up in, the world the rich attribute as ignorant and ungraceful. The cultured but consumed world of the elite does not see past our simplicity and seemingly empty humour. But I know our experiences were worthwhile, for, as we matured, we became open-minded and independent individuals, eager to leave the home, where we were raised by loving parents, to explore and try out the wonders of the big world, excited at the prospect of new cultures, languages and possibilities.

 

I myself was born and grew up in a little religious town called Carpendale, in West Virginia. My name is Randy Burn, slightly ironic as I almost burnt down the primary school I attended in a clumsy science experiment, although that was many years ago and I can now probably coincide that with the fact that my lab partner was a ginger swashbuckler, never seizing to attempt a ridiculous prank on one of the less rowdier students. But back to me. My name is Randy and by no means am I here to make you sympathize with me and my circus friends petty lives, although you do have a right to do so as you go about reading just like you have a right to crumple this in your two hands and chuck it at the nearest bin. I would recommend you the former option. Reading this could not take more than five minutes of your precious life. Perhaps you have no time for such nonsense of mine, but perhaps you are one of those lonely people who have just lost your job and are praying for the first time in your life for a spark of inspiration to hit your worried little head. Well, I promise you this isn’t a fairytale, but I trust you already realize the world is not the sweetest smelling rose in the garden. Be it that or not, I am here to open your innocent eyes for the first time and point your glazed expression at a side you may never have seen before, because it hides so securely behind your loyal performers’ twinkling star-shaped eyes and broad, red-lipsticked smiles. I am here to tell my story.

 

After the inevitable – all though many would argue with me on the matter – Wall Street Crash of 1929, my parents, having lost most of their savings and belief in the better America, moved out of the crowded city and strutted about aimlessly, living no more than a month in each small town, until, that is, they realized my Mum was pregnant with me. I will not bore you with the story of their only child bravely volunteering and dying in the Pacific during the First World War, just like I will not purposefully stretch the joy it brought them to learn they had conceived another child, the prospect at which their loving hearts fluttered and soared. Of course, they would have given anything for a second chance at raising a child.

 

Carpendale seemed like the obvious choice, and so they settled at last. Small town, Christian school. Quiet neighbourhood with people keeping to themselves, minding their own business. Oh, yes, my parents would take pleasure in raising me the way they had always wanted to raise Joe. I was to eat healthily, study notoriously, and, when the time came to start pondering over my near future, there was no uncertainty. I was to graduate from my Christian school and apply to become a pastor.

 

Ha. It must have come as a vicious blow when I walked into that church, the same one I was baptized in, called for Father Michael…and ripped the signed application papers in half before throwing them into the astonished man’s face and walking out just as determinedly as I had entered. You see, religion requires your constant, unconditional love and attention. Drilled into my head from the day I could coherently speak and believed my parents were the sole and rightful main characters in my story. I was sick of it. Beyond sick. I was tired and angry of having people dictate my life, even if it had raised me as a good, respectable man. That same night I packed my bags before my parents returned home from work, ate a perfectly reddened apple from the tree outside my window – the only perfect thing I remembered for a long time after that – and walked out the door.

 

I bumped into my neighbour as I walked out onto the street. He was Dad’s friend from church. No doubt he had already heard about the incident from some perk of a witness that had been silently praying to God or Jesus or whoever it was I didn’t care anymore when I had caused the commotion, and so was here to lecture me on my newly acquired sins. You see, even in little towns that appear to be so quiet and respectful, gossip spreads like hushed whispers inside a cathedral’s walls.

 

My neighbour scrutinized me, contemplating whether to physically bar my way or try to reason some sense into me. Then he nodded curtly. I nodded back. And that was the last conversation I had in the little town of West Virginia.

 

I cannot remember how exactly – 36 years have passed and I am an older man now – that I got to New York, and from there boarded the first shop sailing out of the port. It was a heavy, container loaded, metal red beast, heading to England. Build in the 1940s, it was not a new ship, and creaked and groaned constantly, pleading for a call that would finally signal its right to redundancy. I snuck onto the massive thing and allowed, each time someone inquired, for a little harmless white lie to spread. I pretended, as I had dreamt so many times through childhood, that I was one of the caregivers for the animals. I had always found a distinct fancy to the cat, though I had never been fortunate enough to look after the marvellous creature. In fact, the only contact I had ever had with one was when, one sunny summer afternoon, I noticed something orange cowering and shuffling around in the shade of a bush by our property. What I picked up and carried into the house back then seemed some sort of a ginger blob of fur and sparkling green eyes. I let the stray curl inside my warm jacket for the rest of the late summer month and I marvelled at its beauty whenever I came back from church school. The little furry ball would always be waiting for me at the doorstep, mewling for a bit of attention, which he always received perhaps even in larger doses than was healthy. Those were the happiest days of my life, but only two weeks after I had acquired this precious little being, my parents heard his meowing one Saturday evening and kicked the poor thing out. I never heard the end of it for six years. And the little ginger cat never came back.

 

The containers held three large cats: a lion, lioness, and a half-grown yellow cub that often stared at me with his luminous crystal blue eyes. The other animal caregivers distanced themselves from his cage and never made eye contact with the lovely creature, wary of his ever lasting presence in the damp oceanic atmosphere. On those rare occasions that they had to feed him while I was sleeping or mopping the deck on the far side of the ship, they would carefully kneel down, shove the meat through the narrow space between two bars and hurry off, pointedly staring ahead as if they were teribly late for another job. Indeed, everyone, even the captain’s crew that visited us on a daily basis, always walked past the cub’s cage, their gazes firmly trained forward, seemingly oblivious to the young persona staring up at them intently through the bars of his confinement.

 

It was not long before I realized the reason behind those silent blue eyes. Tommy, as I had temporarily christened him, not once looked up when I rattled the cage lock to supply his daily meals; he did not stumble awake when a burst out in laughter from the crew would have woken even the heavily asleep cat in the captain’s cabin on the other side of the ship. A week into my new routine, I revealed in a great dismay of certainty that the cub was, in fact, deaf. He never growled, only stared silently at passersby, as if contemplating on his being, or perhaps simply enjoying what little company the crew could muster. At first, this fathoming knowledge struck me as a shock of sympathy and helplessness, turning to fear as to the likely inadequacy of the cub if this trip was ever to result in a commotion. Soon, however, I knew in ascertainment and without a single speck of doubt that this youngster would not hurt a soul if he could help it. I saw the outmost gentleness and generosity that a large cat could ever show with which he took his food from my hands, the way he delicately ate and then licked his paws, aware of several other animals’ eyes on him, testing. We both felt secure and strong in our new-found bond, and basked in the happy few days of this unlikely friendship.

 

A few days before our arrival to Southampton, England, I began picking the puzzling pieces of what little chunks of information I had about these animals and placing them in chronology. I quickly learnt from the head caregiver that an old bloke on the outskirts of London was setting up a little circus and that he had been able to acquire more than sufficient funds from rich colleagues and friends. The man had a reputation of a ‘bag of wind’, as people used to say in my hometown. He was known as an avid spokesperson, though rarely carried his projects through to the end. He famously bragged of the fantastic life he was so fortunate to lead under the steady eyes of God, and of his wonderful career and philanthropy. All of this was, of course, a fat bag of tell-tales. The man had nothing to stand behind his charming charisma. Or at least that is what I was told. Interestingly, despite the negative relationship the ship crew seemed to experience with him, British towns were buzzing with sheer excitement, impatiently waiting to pour over his new development. People desperately needed – and always will need – encouragement from bright flying banners fanning over the round arena of cheerful red smiles beaming up at their audience as if they have the power to take away all the worries in the world.

 

A circus is many things: a glitter party, a well-choreographed performance, an electric charge of energetic current running through both the crowd and performers, an impeccable vision to experience for two hours. But, for many, it is simply a world of foolish happiness, into which all ages would gladly submerge for eternity if it was enough to erase their hopeless lives. Those two hours of enjoyment and pleasure in a relieving and relaxing atmosphere are a hiding place from the ever-crowded lives we lead; it is an oasis in the empty desert of people’s tired minds; it is a rewarding escape for those in need. And even when the music dies, the audience is left with a feeling of self fulfilment, of power, as if they themselves had just performed a triple salto in front of a roaring crowd and had been shot out of the blue cannon as a finishing act to land with all the elegance in the world on the upper level platform of the circus tent. The energy of the performers is transferred through a magical combination of colours and flight to the happy, marvelling eyes of the audience, so that they in turn are able to feel agility and speed. So that they are able to believe… Unconsciously, the ordinary member of the crowd suddenly becomes a young and once again robust teenager, ready to spring into battle.

 

I hitched a cheap ride to London from the port as soon as I was off the ship. Charlie, a ginger kid, and two years my junior, offered to take me to wherever it was that I was going. As it turned out, he was heading for the same place, having heard that the owner was in the process of hiring staff and performers for his new ‘development’. He didn’t blink an eye-lid when I confessed in an array of tired emotions that I had no skills needed for this type of job. Apart from having a friend teach me how to juggle three round oranges some five years ago, I was as close to offering my services as an acrobat or juggler as I was to flying a plane.  So to speak, I knew nothing whatsoever about circus procedures.

 

“We’re all in the same boat, man,” was all he said, shifting gears as we rounded the last corner and headed down a gravel path towards what seemed to be a double-chimney house with an adjoined shed full of cages from the container ship that had probably arrived a few hours earlier. Six or seven of these cages were stacked carelessly on top of each other in a mess of lions, horses and chimpanzees, while the other three were placed at random angles in the corner of the shed as if someone had simply put them down and left.

 

An acrid smell filled the air before my nostrils as we got out of the car and approached the heavily panelled wooden door. I longed to comfort the wild cats and soothe the hairs on the little chimpanzees’ necks, and then replace their dirty bedding with fresh sweet straw, but Charlie had already pounded his fist on the brown oak. This guy seemed to like his protection. And who wouldn’t? After all, even back then, we lived in a world full of secrecy and deception, with seemingly lovely and cultured individuals waiting for just the perfect moment to trip us up on our path. Who was I to say I knew better? Did I not single-handedly destroy what connection I had with something I always related to as home? Only two weeks ago, I had been comfortably sitting beside my fellow Sunday school attendees, so engrossed in Father Michael’s powerful sermon, that no one could have ever predicted my life would take such an abrupt turn as to fling me all the way across half the world to end up in a smelly yard of some wannabe millionaire, who knew nothing about the circus, or wild animals for that matter, that is, if I was to judge by the smelly crates so carelessly piled in the poorly lit shed.

 

“May I help you?”

 

The person that appeared on the doorstep was as close to the man I had painted a thorough picture of in the back of my mind as a lion was to a zebra. He had slick black hair; in fact, so slick, that I doubted it stood out of place even when he was sleeping. His eyes sparkled unpleasantly, making me want to return to my original idea of tending to the animals first. The menace in them reminded me of a vicious dog I once encountered coming home from school. Its eyes had been enough to send me racing back the way I had come from. I remember waiting till nightfall before poking my noise out of hiding and skitterishly heading home, aware of every single pebble that crunched under my shoes as I walked along the deserted road. The man himself seemed to be well-mannered and welcomed us appropriately once we had announced out interest – no matter how inexperienced – in his circus. Strangely, I still cannot shake off the crooked smile he bestowed upon us throughout the following few months as we began settling into our daily jobs, but neither I nor Charlie dared to speak a single word of his lacking dentine fitness. He had, after all, given us a job.

 

It is now 1988, the height of the rock era, and you may think that with all the evolution of new music genres and teenagers that could not care less about fluffy toys and silly birthday clowns waving bright balloons in their faces, but would rather waste time on dirt bikes and chains, that the public has lost all regard for the circus. Well, let me assure you of no such thing. With the comings of new technology, interests may have developed beyond the simple joy of upbeat march music and walloping monkeys, but I am now fifty-four, and have seen not one show where the stands surrounding our little arena were not packed to the top. Indeed, people may diverse into groups of common interests and leisure pursuits, but there is not one person out there who could truthfully tell you they have no love for the circus, for its bright colours and flashing lights, its smiling acrobats and magical tone.

 

The Duglas Circus, as it was called back then, was set up not long after I was hired. I took care of the animals, while Charlie was in charge of grooming the country in search of talented young performers searching for an escape, a somewhat stable yet relatively spontaneous environment among friends although with no real attachments. He picked out farmers’ kids, school drop-outs and class clowns, from time to time mixing in an elite couple of gymnasts to help the nightly shows flow smoothly. The circus is like any European country, really, holding within itself a comfortable clash of different cultures, creatures and emotions, where all these sides manage to coexist in a semi-perfect harmony. Of course there are the odd hassles and squabbles, but most would find that we circus freaks actually have a whole deal more in common with you than any other type of entertainers. We are a family, perhaps slightly larger than one would expect, but a family nevertheless. Believe me, were we not as close as to be able to practically read each other’s thoughts, I, for one, would not still be here. And neither would the acrobats, jugglers, the ever-cheerful clowns, and the grim ringmasters. In a circus, we are a microcosm of the world, as well as a fragment of a puzzle, without which the world would simply not be the same.

 

As we toured the country, and even visited Charlie’s hometown, Dublin, in Ireland, the lion cub, or Tommy, as he kept going by, and I built a more trust-bound friendship and learnt to treasure and respect our unique bond. It frightened my friends to often see me curled up fast asleep beside the snoring cub, and months took it up in their steady pace to eventually convince them there was no one in the world the cub loved more, and that this connection was mutual. But years go by, do they not? And soon – if ten years can really fly by like an insignificant fraction of one’s life – I was stood before the grave of my best friend. My one true loyal follower and partner, someone who I could put the trust of the world into, lay before my feet and there was not one word of consolation I could utter to make up for this loss, not one syllable worth of compensation.

 

Well, a story always has to come to a close, at some point it is going to happen, but I do not wish to leave you in baffled silence, for I long for the whole world to once more share conversations of flying banners and the sound of galloping hooves on sand like a sign of serenity among chaos, a brought back memory of a long-forgotten holiday on the coast of Spain or Australia. I want the world to once again be consumed in talk about us circus freaks, and how Natasha does the triple salto every night without a single flaw in technique. It is as simple as sipping lemonade on a hot summer’s afternoon, while the rest of the troupe busies themselves with rigging up the tent for the night’s performance, not that I have ever experienced the luxurious pleasure of such relaxation. It is simple, it is not enough for me to see the glowing eyes of the crowd every night. My heart swells in pride when we stand shoulder to shoulder for the final bow while Katrina flies like a soaring eagle from one beam to the next and lands in a graceful somersault in Ben’s outstretched arms. However, the lingering feeling of the foul breath that is reality, behind our never fading stage smiles, denies me a restful sleep every night. The irony of pleasing the audience when our own lives are in tatters has gone beyond the selfish will for change. Not a single person, man or child, notices the hurried stitches on the red pants of the juggling clown, or the sweat beneath the thick coat of make-up that so securely hides our true side. Humans see what they want to see, what they come here to see: glowing costumes, bright banners…without noticing the cheap tag at the back. The circus is really all one big illusion, but such a realistic one that we are able to fool even the sceptics into a world of happiness and joy, and let their eyes swim with images of beauty and perfection. The audience also innocently misses the fear behind the older performers’ red smiles. The life of any actor is short. And when that realization creeps in at the weakest of moments: an injury, a sickness, emotional strain, there is no turning back and your life seems to plummet faster towards the dark end than you ever imagined it capable. Yes, the circus is a true illusion, a pretty picture to the mind, holding light promises on the wind, and then with a twinkle and a flash, it is all gone and people have to return to their normal lives. It is like a gold medal a kid gets awarded for his first ever win at a talent show. The side you see is gold and shiny, projecting youthful energy and an open, ambitious heart, but no one in the audience ever sees the other side, the cheap, ugly grey of the plastic that the two-faced medal really is.

 

I only ask now for the younger generation, who are presented as open-minded and innovative saviours of the twentieth century, to continue the dynasty – if it can possibly be called that – of what we do. It is not much to ask for. After all, we are just a bunch of drop-outs or renegades, simply seeking a fulfilment in our daily motions.

 

So when you next see a circus tent erected on the field by your school or in the neighbourhood, busy yourself in attending the one show we offer in each town. We do not provide the luxurious stage set of Las Vegas theatres and we cannot afford the exorbitant decorations and silk costumes of Cirque de Soleil, just like we cannot hire infamous Russian acrobats, but what we do create is an atmosphere filled with love, regard and static energy. We let out music and colours flare and sound in the ears of the audience like the music of a cagebird flying free for the first time. We amaze with our energetic swoops from the very top platforms of the tent and the gentleness with which we guide the clumsy bear cub to his blue box at centre stage.

 

It may be a numbing routine or an unnecessary risk to many, but it is our job. Perhaps lacking in pay. Perhaps dangerous and heart breaking, but it only takes a second to see the spotlights run freely over the joyful smiles of the crowd and you forget all of that. The risk is what it takes to see the gleam in an orphan’s eyes or a smile appear on a widower’s tear-stained face. Then, the distraught and darkness of life behind the curtains does not matter at all.

Comments

What an insightful  piece of writing!  I loved it.   I want to read more of your work.