Circus Home Challenge

In this segment from the novel A Freak’s Journey, six-year old runaway James Stockley is taken in by a new mother who keeps the circus owner from sending him back to the Borough of Islington.

Circus Home

“Mona, come here quick,” the boss canvas-man called out in a loud whisper as he stuck his head into his friend’s caravan. “Come quick, Mona. I don’t know what in the bloody ‘ell to do.”

Mona, at 31, had one of the better caravans due to her position as the lead horse trainer and equestrian performer for the circus. She was as slim and attractive standing on the back of a trotting white Andalusian as she had been 10 years before when she was hired by Mel Singer, the circus owner. Mona pushed her long, dark-blonde hair back over her shoulders, set down her cup of tea, and stepped down two steps, following her friend around to the rear area where three rigger caravans were parked.

“Julius, what can be so damn important?” Mona asked. “If Singer catches you taking a break from raising the tents you’ll be in a…”

They walked around the last caravan to one of the green storage boxes that hung at the back. Julius was holding open the lid of a big wooden box covered with dirt from the journey as Mona squinted to see into the dusty shadows. She let out a short, smothered shriek and held her hand over her mouth, looking down in disbelief.

“Jesus, Julius, what have you found?” Mona asked.

There, under the layers of dust and dirt, she could see what looked like a small, dirty face. Curled into the corner of the box using a heavy coil of rope for warmth was the motionless body of a small boy. Julius picked up the rope and Mona bent down into the box. She lifted the child and fell slowly to her knees, cradling the child in her lap. She attempted to brush the dirt from his face.

“He’s beautiful,” she said softly, her brown eyes sparkling. She looked toward the gray and white sky with tears rolling down her cheeks. Mona had forgotten how thrilling it was to hold a child. She had longed to hold a child of her own. Mona had forced herself to forget what this moment would be like after an earlier miscarriage and the termination of her relationship with the father.

“Thank you, blessed and merciful God,” Mona said, crying and holding the child to her chest. “I accept this gift as the child you promised.”

“How can you tell he’s beautiful?” Julius asked. “He’s covered in dirt.” Mona gave a quick stabbing stare to her friend.

“Just shut the hell up, Julius,” she whispered. “Let’s get him back to my cabin.” Mona’s look made it clear to Julius that she wanted no help carrying the new arrival. She held the boy tightly in her arms while Julius rushed to open the door of Mona’s caravan. Mona lay the boy down on her cot, wet a towel and cleaned the dirt from around his mouth before she attempted to pour in sips of tepid tea. Mona had been having her afternoon tea, a short respite from the pressures of the rough circus life, when Julius had called out. The child didn’t respond and the tea ran over his face onto the cot. A moment later he opened his eyes and woke up coughing and gagging. He turned his head with a frightened look in his eyes and looked at Julius, Mona, and the room.

“Hang on a minute,” Jimmy said, his hair standing up on the back of his neck. “Who’re you and where’s me mum?” Jimmy asked, his eyes tearing up with fright despite trying to be brave.

Instinctively, he reached for the small pouch of coins he wore around his waist and under his shirt.

“Blimey, where’s me money pouch and who took me pants?” Jimmy demanded, sitting up.

“I’m afraid you took a pee in your trousers and I’ve got them drying on the line outside,” Mona said. “Here’s your money pouch.” Jimmy opened the pouch and looked inside.

“I’m Mona and this is Julius, the man who found you,” Mona said, trying not to laugh. “It’s a good thing he opened that box today rather than tomorrow. As for where you are, we are part of the Singer Circus Spectacular and we’re just setting up for a fortnight of performances in three towns located here in Essex.”

“Can I see the elephants?” Jimmy asked, coughing again and falling back on the cot.

“Well, we only have one elephant at the moment and his name is Dudley. You can see him later, after you’ve got some food in you and you’ve recovered a bit. You’re a skinny lad and your time in the box didn’t help that any. You’ll have to take it slow for a day or two. What’s your name?” Mona asked.

“Ji… James.”

“Well James, nice to meet you,” Mona said. “The early evening meal will be ready in an hour and I’ll bring something back for you.” The boy closed his eyes and fell asleep.

“What are you going to do with him?” Julius asked, walking with Mona and Sydney, one of the other lead equestrians, on their way to the dinner tent later that day.

“Leave it to me,” Mona said. She turned, talking to Sydney about their planned performance in the Big Top that evening.

“Morning, Mel,” Mona said two mornings later, as she entered the circus owner’s caravan after breakfast. “I heard you wanted to talk to me.”

“Morning,” Malcolm Singer said, pushing back his straight, sandy-colored hair with the fingers of his left hand. The middle-aged Singer, a tall thin man with a straw mustache, had a commanding voice and stature for his part as a ringmaster. He was holding a ledger in his lap and leaning back in his desk chair. The desk was clear except for Mouser, a fluffy, caramel and white colored cat with a menacing black face, asleep on the right corner. Mouser had gained weight each of his 11 years, so he spread out like a furry pancake when he lay down. For several years Mouser had performed as the Flying Poof Ball due to his ability to spread out and fly when thrown between clowns. In those days he sported long, enhanced orange whiskers and golden slippers. Mouser was retired now and his main responsibilities were insuring that loose objects were swept off the owner’s desk and, on occasion, catching an equally senile rodent.

“I understand you found a young boy in our gear earlier this week,” Mel said. His eyes narrowed as he leaned forward over the desk staring at Mona. “I’m sure his mother must be very concerned about his safety and whereabouts.” Mouser stretched his legs straight out and yawned, showing a mouth full of brown, stained daggers.

“The boy is skin and bone, Mel, and his clothes, what there is of them, are filled with holes. Besides that, best I can tell he’s most likely got a broken rib, a bruised shoulder and a case of lice. He says he’s been kicked out by his mother.”

“Mona, that’s the claim of all young circus runaways. We still need to give him over to the Essex authorities so they can find his family. I wanted you to know I’ve called the constable to take the boy and he’ll be here early this afternoon. We won’t get a permit to come back to these three towns if we hide a runaway child.”

“Mel, I’m not going to send this broken child back to be broken even more,” Mona said, staring down at the circus owner who happened to be her former lover. Mona had lived in Singer’s caravan on the road for three years, but she broke it off after her miscarriage. Mel had made it clear he wasn’t interested in a more permanent arrangement.

“Look Mel, we had a baby you and me and we lost it. Don’t you see, this is the child God promised and took from me halfway through my pregnancy three years back? This child has real fear in his eyes when I ask about his past. You can’t ask me to send him back.”

“Mona, you’re forgetting the feelings as well as the rights of his real mother,” Mel said.
“To hell with his so-called real mother, Mel. How real can she be?” Mona asked standing and looking out the small window. “You should see the shape he’s in, all bony and hanging his head as if he’s your age. I’ll tell you what, if his so-called mother shows up in a week or a year in a flowing pink dress with a ripe fruit basket on top of her head, I’ll give him back. Until then I’m going to rescue this boy. Tell the constable you were mistaken about the boy or tell him the runaway ran away again.”

“Mona, we can’t just…”

“…feed every gypsy that comes down the road. I know the rule of the circus, Mel, and I know your rules. He’ll earn his keep in due time. I’ll start him out as a Junior Clown for now while I think of something he can learn.”

Mona let the door slam behind her. She would give the boy a home, one with the care and love obviously missing from life with his so-called mother.

Malcolm’s Singer Circus Spectacular had been known over the years for its skilled equestrian riders and trained horses. It was a mid-sized traveling circus with as many as 61 working ‘gypsies’ on its payroll. Other than eight riggers, two cooks and an administrative clerk, all members had at least one job “working in front of the curtain.” With the exception of the lion tamer and the lead horse handler, performers worked two or more acts as well as handling equipment and rigging tasks. The clowns also trained dogs and donkeys; the bear handler, an Indian man named Baghman, acted as an untrained vet for the animals and sometimes attended to ill crew members. Two of the high wire walkers changed their uniforms after each performance to assist with the robes for the group of flying acrobats. Performances took place in one ring, customary for traveling circuses of the day.

At the age of 19, Mel had been abruptly left in charge of the shattered remains of his family’s small, struggling circus. His grandfather died falling from a horse a month after his father ran off with the mayor’s wife up in Newcastle. Mel was left with a circus consisting of a ragtag group of performers, 12 horses, two Shetland ponies and four clowns, all performing without a tent. Four of the riggers, acting as the band, provided entertainment and a heartbeat for the show. The circus performed in open fields with patrons standing along the edges of the ring. A year later Mel purchased a used tent and some raised benches. In those early years Mel dreamed of the day when he could afford the best performers, exotic animals like camels and llamas, and a larger tent that would hold more than one act at a time.

Twenty years later Mel gave a brief speech in the dining hall at the start of the season. He loved to tell the stories of how he survived those early days and his vision for the future of the circus. Veteran crew members managed to be busy working or rehearsing after dinner to avoid the stories they had heard many times. New members of the crew and the two cooks, however, were a captive audience.

“Competition on the road in the 1870’s was stiff,” Mel would say. “Nearly all of the traveling circuses had more animals, performers and caravans than we did. Some even had unfortunate malformed individuals performing in side show acts. Each one of us tried to find ways to attract more customers and otherwise outdo our competitors. One circus company even burned the bridge they had just crossed up in Scotland to delay those following them.” That story always got a laugh out of the newer members of the crew. “The greatest rivalries in those days,” Mel continued, waving his walking stick in the air, “were between Phineas Barnum’s circus and the Grand International Allied Shows owned by James Bailey and two partners. Now they are an even stronger competitor since they combined companies.

“I’ve bought and sold acts and animals over the years from Barnum,” Mel said. “Phineas and I became friendly rivals even though his operations were much bigger than mine. He had built a reputation as a great showman during his tours here and in the U.S. with a variety of unusual acts, or freak attractions, as we have come to call them. Barnum had giants, midgets, including the internationally known Tom Thumb, a hugely popular elephant named Jumbo, and industrious fleas. Something for everybody, I guess.”

“The larger circuses travel now by train and unload the animals into caravan cages, which they pull through the town in a parade on the way to the circus pitch. A brass band leads the parade down the high street followed by 20 or so brightly painted caravans pulled by teams of horses, camels, llamas and donkeys. Excitement is heightened by the endless stream of performers in full costume and clowns tumbling and tossing candy into the crowds lining the parade route.

“My family has dreamed of traveling by train and one day we will,” Mel stated confidently, concluding his orientation speech. “For now we are small and we play the smaller towns where the likes of Barnum and Bailey don’t bother. We just need to be more alive, daring and colorful and we can compete and grow. Stick with the Singer Circus and you will live to see it happen.”

Singer was committed to the value of skilled performers and carefully trained animals, so he generally opposed efforts to add what he referred to as “genetic mistakes.” Nonetheless, Singer had recently purchased two small tents where he hoped to eventually increase revenue by offering side shows. These tents were still folded in their boxes awaiting the owner’s decision on suitable side show attractions. He was determined to favor unusual skills in his side shows rather than infirmities of man or beast.

“The Romans made light of killing thousands of animals and hundreds of slaves, criminals, and the sickly in an afternoon,” he said. “The circus has come a long way from those days and I’m going to fight to keep it from back tracking into exploiting the infirm.”

“When are you going to finally start the side show?” Mona asked privately. “There’s a chance to take on the Shetland pony act that’s available in that little Nottingham circus,” she said. “Besides, we need new wheel carriages on half these old rickety caravans.”

“I’m well aware of the need for increasing revenues but I want to do it my way,” Mel said. “Some of the genetic mistakes these companies are putting on display are disgusting and shouldn’t be allowed.”

“I thought you said we all had to be good freaks in some way to earn our keep,” Mona said.
“I’m not against all freaks. The freak business is divided into three categories: foreign malformed naturally and bred, domestic skilled, and fake,” Mel said. “By exploiting the foreign malformed, those guys are encouraging such places as India and Malay, which are known to be breeding grounds for the genetic mistakes, and selling the results to us. There are thriving Bombay businesses dealing in the mysterious achondroplastic dwarfs and Singapore is another trading hub for freaks.”

“I didn’t mean you should push in that direction,” Mona said.

“I’ll take my time and we’ll get a side show going. Just don’t push me,” Singer said, walking back to his dilapidated caravan.

Singer’s other dream was to be able to afford spending at least the winter months in a fixed structure built for circuses. Lord Howe’s Circus performed at the Alhambra Hall in London for months at a time, and the Royal Circus on Black Friars Road performed at the Old Surrey Hall just outside London all year.

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