*

THE FAIR OF THE DOG

“I am finding it hard to keep the noise down.”

The speaker’s overalls were too thin to hide the sweat hollows. He had plunged what seemed to be his arm into a large cranking machine…as a handle or a lever or as lubrication.

I stared in disbelief at the spinning flywheels and the crossmeshing of heavy-duty cogs. But what he did appeared to work, since the crashing of the clashing gears abated. Then, with a wink and a halfsmile, he withdrew the jagged stump of his arm…

The rest of the Fair was comparatively humdrum compared to that demonstration and I had not even paid to witness such a performance by the ludicrously conscientious handyman who was in charge of the ferris-wheel engine in question.

One item that did catch my eye, however, was a medium-sized tent with an archetypal crowd-stirrer outside, standing on a beer-barrel and waving his arms about. There was a two-dimensional larger-than-life model of a dog beside him and, even if I couldn’t hear precisely what this cheerleader was promoting, I didn’t have to guess at the nature of the show. The model dog had two heads on one body. Evidently, a mongrel.

I relinquished twopence-halfpenny to the crone with the ticket roll in her charge. Excruciatingly slowly, she tore off one ticket, ensuring that the rough edge was as straight as possible. In the process, she accidentally unravelled the rest of the tickets which, I could see with amusement, she painstakingly rewound on to the spool, before serving the next customer.

Inside (and still sharing a giggle with myself), I found it was darker than I expected it to be from the first impression of the tent’s red-and-white canvas billows – and a bent old man whose face was hidden by the shadow of his nose proceeded to snatch the ticket from my hand so as to tear it in half.

I was therefore unsurprised to discover that the show had already started before I arrived in the hemispherical auditorium and there was still a huge log-jam of braying prospective onlookers behind me.

The sun cast one narrow shaft through the unman-made gap in the pinnacle which seemed to follow the animal act as it was led around the ring. It was not the two-headed dog because that was evidently to be the grand finale. The initial act, an elephant with three trunks, did not seem to be in the same class. Nothing to write home about.

Eventually, the complete crowd had all straggled in with their ticket stubs and settled noisily upon the tiered wooden benches. A few desultory acts were still being wheeled around. The only one (other than the unmemorable elephant) that I really recall was the bearded lady. Not only did did she have curlers in the beard, she also gave me a sweet smile. Or I took it that the smile was directed towards me and, indeed, that it was a sweet one.

I heard the distant cackle of a laughing policeman dummy. It must have been going on for a long time, but this was the first time that I had noticed it. And, while the bearded lady ambled towards the darkness of the tunnel leading out to the menagerie, the angle of a sunbeam shifted from the esoteric crosspoint of meaningful illumination and the ring was thrown into shuddering shadow.

The audience shushed each other, fingers pressed to mouths in demonstration. The shushing was somewhat louder than their normal hubbub, so that the announcement that emerged from a tinny tannoy was entirely lost on me. Then, as silence gradually emptied the arena of noise, I could hear faraway shrieks from the ghosthouse – far too insistent to be tokens of joyful excitement.

But only the ticket woman hobbled in. Could there be someone in the audience who had actually been smuggled in under the gaze of her scrutiny? For God’s sake, it appeared as if she were about to check everybody’s ticket half! Amidst moans and groans (and some squelches) – and amid some pretty unrepeatable insults, she began to make a systematic checking. Then she came to me…

I searched my pockets in near panic. At the best of times, I could never find my comb. I simply knew I had been issued with a ticket. But where the hell was it? It must be lost in the lining of my coat. One pocket had dreadfully jagged holes, leading to regions of my coat even I dared not plumb for fear of what I might find. In the end, with her beady eyes upon me, my hand took the plunge and…CHOMP!

The little beast thad somehow crept into my coat and, having lurked there, now scuttled into the ring. It wagged its tail, as one of its heads smirked and the other chewed. For a miniature it must have had extremely sharp teeth.

The onslaught of applause around me at the sight of this prize specimen of God’s Canine Creation in a now revived shaft of the singular sunbeam shamed me into clapping, too. Or as best as I could, in the circumstances.

I will not describe the chomp’s pain nor mention the mincemeat trail towards the Ferris Wheel.

.
We all lived on the outskirts of a wind-infested scrubland: more a child’s scatterered playbricks than a town, but we loved and hated each other sure well, because everyone was our parent and spouse and sibling and offspring all wrapped into one.

The heat felt as intense as that in the brick ovens where we tenderised the hairy cabbages and long carrots. Nobody hardly visited us to share the stews we created from next to nothing, but we never missed their company. It was too stuffy to talk, anyway – despite the winds.

Until the Fair of the Dog did come.

It always came in on us – an army of tents and caravans – across the brows of the sun-kissed hills. Banners and bugles met the desert sandstorms head on and hoisted their poles and guy-ropes, like another universe, around our humble hovels. We basked in a new-found shade and saw sights fit to shake us out of our petty self-dissatisfactions.

The clowns were sadder than those in my dreams. One particular talkative pierrot, in a harlequin’s hose, informed me that their sadness was an image they had consciously developed so that the punters would laugh the more at them. But this seemed to be an excuse in hindsight and, indeed, I cried to see their make-up petering down their cheeks.

The Fair’s animals were happier than the clowns, beasts of burden or domestic pets or feral creatures set loose to turn somersaults and make mock of those come to watch them. The ones in cages seemed to love their iron bars, as if they knew safety was in such confinement. Their bones, I somehow believed, were physical extensions of such restraints. Some, with many trunks, waved them about like creatures from the horror films, such films having been projected in the past by a travelling cinema upon the wall of my uncle’s house. Others had many heads that snorted and brayed with each dusk and dawn, until they were fed and, more importantly, had their parts massaged.

The trapezists danced amid the high rigging of the Big Top, some rarely coming down, others just dying up there and a few becoming part and parcel of the texture of the red-and-white canvas. The safety-net below them was more a cobweb than a trawling device for dead fliers and, I was sure, one day, I caught a glimpse of a giant spider, more angular than a giraffe, lurking in the net’s trammels.

My family and I visited the Fair of the Dog every night during its stay. The ringmaster called himself Armless, but why, I shall never know. He claimed that whatever he said would happen, would happen, however far-fetched. And he was right, I think.

Which brings me to why I’m telling all this. I’m not Armless but as coincidence had it my surname was Handless. A name like things you put on machines to turn them such as bent levers do, or like things of yourself that you put in machines to make them oilier and slip over each part with other parts the easier.

The night in question was to be starless, as could happen in our climes when the days’s dust is still heavy with air. The heat had been fiercer than I could ever recall, the winds stronger, the town’s torpor like an over-feasted snake resting and extruding its last five meals. The first sign of night was the sun dipping early behind the hills, silting the haze with baked blood. The sky became streaked with the searchlights of the Fair, criss-crossing across the perfect backcloth of blackness with the twirling sword-blades of a space adventure film.

The whole township – together with hermits from the hills – flocked, with blazing stinking tussock-torches, along the valley towards the central ring of the circus site. The band had already taken up a riotous version of “Oklahoma!” The tumblers, acrobats, jugglers and fire-eaters were erecting themselves into towers of interlocking limbs (some of which limbs supposedly separate from their owner bodies and others flaming at both ends). Armless, with the tallest top hat he had so far worn, stood on his dais, conducting the whole affair with his whip.

I had only just sat down along with others of the Handless family, when Armless beckoned to me with each of his fingers in turn.

As if hypnotised (though I wasn’t), I stood up and entered the limelight of the Big Top. The beasts squeaked and honked and barked and bleated around me, but I seemed to slide between them as if by magic. Soon, two clowns had me by my hand and they sobbed bitterly. This time I did not laugh or cry.

Up face to face, Armless was uglier than anything my immediate parents had taught me about sin. He was creased with pain, but a pain he seemed to enjoy.

The words he saw fit to utter were strange, but understandable in the even stranger context. But they became heavy with innuendo, far beyond the means of my immature mind to grasp, like the dialogue in some of those Fellini films so beloved of my uncle. I can still repeat, by rote, however, syllable for syllable, the words he lovingly plucked from the air and to which he gave branding-iron meaning all of his own:

“As you know fair well, dear boy, I’m Armless. My eyes have been on you at every performance, for my circus needs stars to keep it turning. If you join our world, I have one who can be your simpering bride, one for you to love and be loved more than you can ever otherwise hope to love or be loved. One to love you more than you will ever deserve. And, for this gift of gifts, all you need do is leave the rest of your body here and promise me your soul at the end of time, which is further off than a boy like you can ever imagine. A sweet tractable bargain you will agree.”

I shook my head silently. Turning to the clowns, my eyes yearned for something they evidently could not give. They stared straight in front of them like manikins, like dummies with no hope of ever retrieving the aid of the One Great Ventriloquist in the skies.

A huge lion had padded near and, from its roaring mouth, there stepped a lady dressed in heavy frills and flounces. But her face was bearded, as if she’d sat in the dark for centuries.

We were to be married before the circus left town.

.
On the day of the wedding, my immediate mother taught me how I could kiss my bride without choking on her beard and how – when I finally delved beneath her thousand lace layers, revolving hoops, bustles, interlocking corsets and so forth – I could gauge for myself which way further to go. There could be no hard and fast rules until I saw how the land laid. I must expect anything … and everything.

As I shivered in my bed (for the nights turned colder, the days hotter), I wondered why all this had come to pass. It was like being part of something that was not part of me.

I could hear the safety-net spider clucking in its sleep, even at this distance from the Fair’s Big Top, and my dreams felt dizzy as if I’d just alighted from the playground roundabout. Sometimes I dreamed of my intended with her beard in curlers.

Nobody could help me now, not even my family the town. I could only try to help myself, but I inevitably thought that even if I could escape from the confines of my own body, leaving only independent mysteries to consummate…

Unbroken sleep intervened.

The wedding itself is still a blur. Chimney-hatted Armless was, of course, Master of Ceremonies. The pierrot clown was my best man and the animals were seated on my side of the congregation beneath the shining undulations of the mighty canvas. This was because there was no hide nor hair of my brothers, sisters, cousins, parents, ancestors. I was on my own and not even that…

The bride had silk ribbons decking her beard, I do remember. She slipped a ring on each of my only hand’s fingers in turn and then christened me with a wet bristly kiss.

I first became the official keeper of the trapezists, bringing them down in droves from the Big Top’s banner flypapers, taking others up there for a short life of flight…

Part of me, at least, knew that all was for the best. The other part I’d grown used to ignoring.

Armless often tells me that life is happiest when you ask no, answer no questions, when you tell no, accept no lies.

My own tenet is that life is saddest when happiness is simply a purpose rather than a reflex.

The endemic winds still abound and my sweetheart often has cottonballs ludicrously caught in her beard. One day, I’ve been promised, we’re to be filmed to show others our wondrous magic reality. But is Armless as harmless as he makes out? And the Fair of the Dog, is it really part of God’s Canine Creation? Or the Devil’s? Something in names gives many games away. Clowns and creatures alike.

I strike up the hand. I am now ringmaster designate of the Fair. Many faces in the audience but I don’t really care if your applause is silent. As silent now as the Ferris Wheel engine.

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