Authors: Jack Lasenby
he inside of the tent stunk of horses, sawdust and canvas, and of something spooky. Like a mixture of Mum’s Johnson’s Baby Powder, stale beer, and something wild. A bit like the smell of the big wooden block in the butcher’s shop.
There were huge poles that held up the tent, ropes zigzagging this way and that, and a swing – what Mum called the high trapeze – right up near the roof. Around the ring, there was a little canvas wall only a couple of feet high.
“The lion could just step over that wall, no trouble,” Kate whispered. Jimmy and Betty gave a little jump and squeezed closer to Mum.
We wanted to sit in the top row of the seats, because we thought we might be safer from the lion up there, but Mum beat some kids for the last seats in the front. “Plenty of room here!” she shouted, and we had to sit with her. Billy Kemp and his family sat just along from us, and Mum looked at Billy and went “Ka! Ka! Ka!” at him, like a machine gun, and he pointed his finger and went “Ka! Ka! Ka!” back. Mrs Kemp hadn’t seen
Mum, but she saw Billy and cuffed him and said, “What on earth do you think you’re doing?”
“You wait!” Billy hissed at me, but just then two clowns rushed into the ring, tripping and squirting water at each other, and the Ringmaster strode in wearing a top hat, riding boots, and a big moustache. He yelled and cracked a whip as a white horse galloped round the ring with a beautiful lady standing on one foot on its back. Mum tutted at her dress which was tight, shiny, and glittering, and Kate told us she was wearing spangles.
Spotlights shone away up into the dark under the canvas roof and criss-crossed on a man and a girl
from ropes. I thought they looked like Lancaster bombers caught in German searchlights, and held my breath. The Ringmaster cracked his whip. “The
Macaronis, Father and Daughter! Defying Death on the High Trapeze Without a Safety Net! If They Fall, They Die!”
The crowd gasped, and the Amazing Macaronis put some powder on their hands and swooped, let go, turned somersaults in midair, and caught each other by their feet. Once, Mr Macaroni almost dropped his daughter and we screamed, “Ohhhhh!” but he caught her just in time, and they slid down ropes to the floor, smiled, and bowed, and we all clapped and yelled. Mum yelled loudest of all.
But the best were the clowns and a clever little dog that rushed in and played with them, tripping them
over, barking, and walking on his hind legs.
“That little dog’s got more brains than the pair of you put together!” Mum shouted. “Grown men behaving like that!”
The clowns dived through big paper hoops and landed in baths of water; they stood on rakes that sprang up and donged them on their long red noses; they hit each other with rubber hammers. Jimmy laughed so much, he said he was going to fart.
, none of the ladies heard him, or if they did they pretended not to, but I saw Mr Kemp give a grin.
We could hear Old Pomp tugging at the fence
, so Kate and I slipped out and filled his nosebag again. As the old woman on the door let us back in, she said, “Some kids try to crawl under the canvas walls, but I fix them!” She ran her wheelchair back and forth to show how. Kate grabbed my hand and towed me back to our seats, but I thought of Mum’s head, when she stuck it under the wall, and her yelp.
“Look!” said Jimmy and Betty. The white horse was pulling an iron cage into the middle of the ring. The Ringmaster took off his top hat, and a couple of men stood by with shiny steel spears. Something huge moved in the back of the cage. There was silence, then a booming cough and roar. Everybody looked up because the sound seemed to come from the top of the tent.
“Ladies and Gents!” said the Ringmaster. “This Dangerous Performance Has Never Ever Been Tried
Before in the Southern Hemisphere. At Immense
Risk to My Life, I am About to Enter the Savage Lion’s Cage – Bare-Handed and Unarmed!”
“I Shall Attempt to Control the Lion with Only My Hypnotic Stare!”
We gasped and wriggled. A drum rolled, and the clowns ran up and tried to talk the Ringmaster out of getting in with the lion. Everyone was silent, as they burst out crying real tears, and everybody in the tent heard Jimmy’s voice saying, “Please don’t go in there!” Everyone laughed, and the Ringmaster seemed angry.
“How would you like to be fed to the lion?” he hissed at Jimmy, who hid behind Kate.
The drum beat louder. The men opened the door, and the Ringmaster climbed inside the cage. We could see a huge shape in the back of the cage. Another angry roar came from somewhere above our heads again.
A moment later, I opened my eyes, peeped between my fingers, and saw the Ringmaster leap out, and the clowns slam the door shut. Just in time, because the lion rushed and shook the bars with its claws and would have eaten him, the Ringmaster said in his loud voice. They started dragging the cage outside again.
“That’s not a lion,” Mum said in a loud voice. “It’s somebody dressed up in a piece of old carpet!” We tried to hold her back, but she climbed into the ring. “I’m going to get into the lion’s cage!” she said. “I want to put my head in his mouth.”
But the Ringmaster cracked his whip at Mum’s feet, the horse dragged the cage out the door into the
, the drum beat, a trumpet blew, the trapeze artists swung above our heads, and the clowns tripped Mum and sooled the little dog on to her.
As she climbed back over the low wall, the
cracked his whip and announced that the lion had told him he was scared Mum was going to tell him to put his head into her mouth, and everybody laughed.
Kate got the giggles. Jimmy and Betty hung on to Mum’s hands and looked proud of her, but I felt a bit embarrassed till I saw Billy Kemp staring at her, and knew he was thinking she was pretty brave, so I felt better then.
There was a Grand Parade with all the clowns and the Ringmaster, and the old woman in the wheelchair, and the Amazing Macaronis, and some kids younger than Jimmy and Betty, and a zebra who looked like Old Pomp painted with black and white stripes. And then, best of all, there was a funny, squeaky, trumpety noise.
One minute the big door was empty; the next, an elephant swayed there. It must have tip-toed in, but it didn’t have proper toes, just big round feet like drums. It had tusks, though Mum reckoned they were false ones strapped on with a harness, but you couldn’t see because he wore hangings “like big tablecloths” as Jimmy said.
On top of the elephant’s head rode a dark-skinned
boy about my age. He wore a turban with a huge red stone in it that Mum said was a ruby. His teeth shone white, he carried a gold staff that had a spear and a hook at one end, and he prodded the elephant so it curled up its trunk and trumpeted right in front of where we were sitting.
It lumbered around the ring, its backside covered with loose skin like grey pyjamas miles too big. It trumpeted once more, and swayed into the dark.
“That made up for the mangey old lion!” Mum exclaimed.
Then, suddenly, the circus was over, and the
was telling everyone they could go and look around the wild animals’ cages, “Children sixpence, grownups a shilling.”
“They must think that money grows on trees,” Mum said, but she gave us sixpence each to have a look, and it wasn’t much, you couldn’t see the lion properly, though his cage stunk like the men’s dunny round the back of the hall.
Most people stood around the elephant, where she was chained by her stubby feet to a couple of big stakes, and they bought stale buns for threepence each. The elephant waved her trunk around, picked the buns off people’s hands with a bit like a finger at the end, and put them into her mouth.
“I felt her touch my hand!” somebody shrieked. And Jimmy nudged me and asked, “Why don’t elephants have any chin?”
Music played, a brass band it sounded like, but we couldn’t see anyone blowing the instruments, then we were harnessing Old Pomp into the shafts again, and trotting home, our carbide lamps lighting the telegraph posts coming towards us out of the dark, Mum trumpeting like the elephant, and saying she’d have bitten the head off the lion if they’d let her into his cage.
Halfway home, Billy Kemp came galloping up behind us. “Ka! Ka! Ka!” he went, pointing at Mum.
“Ka! Ka! Ka!” she fired back. He circled our buggy, going “Whahhh-rowwww!” which meant he was the captured Spitfire banking. And Mum sprayed the belly of his plane with bullets, “Ka! Ka! Ka!” as he turned to peel off and shoot us down.
“I gotcha!” Mum shouted. She stood up and shouted, “I gotcha through the tank with a tracer. Ya goin’ down on fire, Billy Kemp, and ya gonna explode!”
Billy disappeared into the dark, his engine
, roaring, and coughing. We listened and heard an explosion as he crashed, then silence. “Sit down,” said Kate, “or you’ll have us over,” and she held Old Pomp in. We heard the crunch of wheels rolling along the metalled road, looked back and saw gig lamps.
“Somebody’s coming!” Kate shook the reins, and Old Pomp trotted. He didn’t like being passed either.
The rest of the way, we kept a lookout for Billy Kemp, but he must have gone down with his plane.
Jimmy and Betty went to sleep, but woke as we
them inside and wanted Mum to roar for them again, so she gave a couple of groans and trumpeted as well. It was corker fun, the Saturday night we went to the circus! I’ve never forgotten the stink.
here’s the ring.” From Old Pomp’s back, we stared down at the worn grass where the white horse had galloped, and the clowns had chased Mum. There was no sign of the elephant’s footprints. Where the wild animals’ cages had stood there were patches of yellow grass and wheel tracks.
“Why’s the grass dead?” asked Betty.
“No sun,” Jimmy told her.
“The wild animals peed on it,” said Kate. Old Pomp snorted and backed away, so we had to hang on. “Steady!” Kate leaned forward and patted his neck. “He’s smelling the lion,” she told us.
There wasn’t much else to show that the circus had been there: a couple of empty beer bottles in the drain, some tickets in the grass, and a few flies hanging around a heap of dung.
“That’s not horse poop,” said Jimmy. “It’s
“It must be the zebra’s,” said Betty. “See, it’s got straw in it. What’s that stuff?”
“They must have had a bear,” said Jimmy. “Did any of you see it?” We all shook our heads, and he said, “Bear poo. Poo bear!”
“Pooh Bear!” Betty squawked, and they laughed as if they’d never heard it before.
“When I grow up, I’m going to run away and join the circus,” said Jimmy, and Betty said she’d go with him.
“You sound like Mum.” Kate giddupped Old Pomp, and we rode along Ward Street to the gate into the school horse paddock.
“We saw your mother,” all the other kids said. “Playing with the clowns at the circus.” And a little girl whispered, “Our mother said your mother would have shown that old lion. She said your mother would have bitten its head clean off!”
“That’s why they wouldn’t let her get into the cage!” Wiki Peters shouted.
“That’s what Mum reckons, too,” we said and felt proud of her.
Billy Kemp kept away from us all the way home that afternoon. Only, when we were closing the gate, he galloped by going, “Ka! Ka! Ka!” and swung Hiccup away: “Whahhh-meeowrowwww!” which meant he was doing an Immelmann Turn.
“Ka! Ka! Ka!” went our tail gunner, but the
half-rolled at the top of its loop, and was galloping out of range in the opposite direction. Our tail gunner swung her turret round, but he was already
disappearing behind the lawsonianas at the church corner.
“Why didn’t you let me have a go? I’d have got him.”
“Never mind,” Kate told Betty. “You can shoot him down tomorrow morning.”
“You’d think he’d come off his pony,” I said. “That was an Immelmann Turn!”
I could feel Kate nod. “He’s not bad,” she admitted. “Look! What’s she up to now?”
Mum was cantering Trixie around and around the house paddock. She must have been doing it quite a while because the grass was worn in a circle.
She stopped and walked Trixie towards us,
to be interested in a patch of ragwort, but Kate said, “So that’s her next cranky idea.”
“She wants to join the circus and wear spangled tights.”
“Nonsense! Can you see me in tights?” Mum said when Jimmy asked her. “Joining the circus is the last thing on my mind.” But we knew she was thinking of something; she had that look on her face.
“Anyway,” she said, “while you were wasting my money looking at the wild animals after the circus on Saturday night, I had a talk to the man who owns it.”
“What about, Mum?”
“I asked if he wanted to buy four fat children,” said Mum. Jimmy and Betty stared at her. Kate didn’t look
worried, so I wasn’t worried either. “He said they weren’t interested in buying children any longer. He said they’re closing the circus.”
“Closing the circus!” we all said.
“Because of the war,” Mum nodded. “They can’t get the benzine to travel around New Zealand, and the shipping’s getting harder, crossing the Tasman. The circus comes from Australia, you know.” We said we didn’t know that, and Jimmy and Betty got much chirpier, now they knew they weren’t going to be sold to feed the wild animals.
“I wouldn’t have minded being in the circus,” said Jimmy, and Betty said, “I want to wear spangles and stand on one foot and ride the horse.”
“That’s because you’re a girl, and girls are
,” Jimmy told her. “I’d be the lion tamer.”
“Why do you have to fight all the time?” Mum sighed. “They’ve got a few more shows: Te Aroha, Paeroa, and Thames, then Morrinsville on the way back, then they get on the train, go up to Auckland, do a week there, and go back to Sydney. And over there, they put the tent into storage; and the elephant, and the wild animals, and the clowns and their little dog are all going to the zoo till the war’s over.”
“Why are they putting the clowns in the zoo?”
“The owner said they’re very savage. Well, you saw the way they chased me.”
“And there won’t be any more circuses till the war’s over?”
Mum shook her head.
“That old Hitler,” said Jimmy. “I’d like to biff him one!”
“Musso, too,” said Betty. “And Tojo!”
“Yeah, them, too. Still, it was fun, the circus.”
“You bet!” we all told Mum, and Kate said, “We thought you were training Trixie to gallop in circles, so you could run away from us and join the circus and ride around the ring in tights and spangles.”
“Don’t you try to be smart with me, young lady!” Mum told her. Then she grinned and said, “I did offer to look after the circus for them.”
“I said we could run the wild animals up the back of the farm. We’d sell the lambs, and shift the steers down to the front paddocks.”
“What about the lion? Wouldn’t he eat the steers?”
“The owner said he’s quite tame. He can only eat porridge because his teeth have all fallen out. That roaring we heard was a gramophone recording they played over a loudspeaker up in the roof of the tent.”
“What about the elephant?”
“I told them we had a barn we don’t use now,” Mum said. “I thought the elephant would be handy for the heavy jobs round the farm. But it was no use, they’re going to the zoo in Sydney, and that’s it.”
“We could have had a circus every Saturday,” said Jimmy. “People would have come from all over the
Waikato. It would have been more fun than milking old Rosie every night and morning. We could have ridden the elephant to school instead of Old Pomp!”
“And I could have taken the lion to school on Lamb and Calf Day,” said Betty, “and led him in the Grand Parade.”
Mum said she was sorry, but that’s the way it was going to be; they were all going to the zoo. “I learned a few tips,” she told us, “watching that shameless hussy riding the white horse round the ring the other night.”
“So you were practising riding Trixie in circles!”
“Not what you think!” Mum shook her head. “I thought if I went up the back, mobbed up the steers, and galloped her round and round them, they’d get giddy watching us. That should make them really easy to shift from one paddock to another. You don’t feel like chasing anyone, if you’re feeling all dizzy.”
“I don’t know about that, Mum,” said Kate. “I wouldn’t go trying it on the steers.
“Why not? What’s wrong?”
“Think!” Kate said to her. “What if you got giddy yourself and fell off Trixie? One of the steers chased Jimmy when he fell off.”
“You didn’t tell me,” said Mum. “Anyway, Blue would look after me.”
“Still,” Kate shook her head, “I don’t think you should do it. You know how you get excited. You’d probably stand up on Trixie’s back and try to balance
on one foot. You could come an awful cropper.”
“What did I tell you about being a killjoy, Kate? Whenever there’s a chance of some fun, you always have to go and spoil it for me.”
But we were pleased Kate had said it. Mum was so excited when she got one of her crazy ideas, we never knew what was going to happen next. The last thing we wanted was for her to go hurting herself, falling off Trixie, and getting trampled by the steers.
Still, we were all sorry we weren’t going to have the circus at our place. It sure would have fixed Billy Kemp’s Messerschmitt and his Immelmann Turn, us riding to school on an elephant the size of a Lancaster.