THE FIVE-DOLLAR CIRCUS
- A SHORT STORY -
I love writing short stories, and here is one to remind us of what is important. Maybe, it will bring back some fond memories of a time when people were more important than money ... and mobile phones.
I must have been no more than six-years-of-age when my father took me to my first circus. Times were tough in those days, money was scarce, and jobs even harder to find. Luckily, my father had a reasonable job, but he had big commitments as well. At least we owned a car, albeit an old but reliable vehicle. There were five kids in our family, plus Nan, who’d lived with us since Pop had died.
Living in a rural community was fabulous, with so many different things to do; rolling in the hay, riding our pushbike for miles, trying to catch wild birds, and fishing in dams for yabbies. However, other than the local movie theatre, there wasn’t much in the way of formal entertainment that ever graced our small town.
The Agricultural Show was the only social highlight for children. It was the one event where every kid could enter some contest. The first year I entered the best pet contest, I won it. That was amazing. I entered Nan’s favourite rooster. Most mothers and grandmothers entered the cooking and preserves competitions, but there were things for the men as well. When Pop was alive, he used to win heaps of prizes for his vegies, and Dad always entered the woodchop.
Regular dances were held in the Mechanics Hall, but we considered them to be grown-ups entertainment anyway. While our parents chatted and danced, all of us ran amok, waiting for food to be served. Supper at those dances was fantastic, especially when Mrs Gamble brought her pancakes, or old Mrs Stone made one of her special sponges. It seemed like a long wait for supper, but it was worth it when we saw all the food laid out on long trestles.
When news came to hand that a live circus would be in town, every child hoped and prayed that their parents could take them. If people couldn’t afford the live performance, they could at least walk amongst the animals and soak up the atmosphere. To see wild animals from far away places like Africa, and view the lifestyle of itinerant people who lived in caravans and travelled the countryside was enchanting. Our small farming community was fairly isolated, so a circus was a big deal in those days. The nearest city was a good hundred miles away, only visited for specialist medical treatment or some other important reason.
Being the eldest child, my father had promised to take me to the upcoming circus as a treat, and I vividly recall feeling really special when he pulled me aside and told me. Looking back, I think it was Dad’s way of spending quality time with his eldest son. Nowadays they’d probably call it secret men’s business or some other politically correct term.
The hairs rose on the back of my neck every time I saw one of the circus posters pasted to a billboard, or nailed to a power pole. It was a strange feeling, like the feeling you get just before your birthday, or on Christmas Eve when you go to bed full of expectations but can’t sleep from excitement.
Finally, the big day arrived. Dad had planned to attend the afternoon session, wanting to go early so we could observe the exotic animals at leisure. He’d always loved tigers. Maybe that's why he supported the Tigers Rugby Team. I can remember more than one photograph of tigers in our family home as a child. The biggest one hung above our fireplace in the living room and took pride of place. He used to look at it and make a growling sound that came from deep in his throat.
‘Grrr,’ he’d say, then wink at us. We don’t know how he managed to do it, but we all loved to hear that noise. It sounded so real.
Happily, we strolled to the local recreation oval and spotted others with similar aspirations. Two of my best mates could not afford to attend, but they wished me well as we passed their house. They’d already been to see the animals, but I’d deliberately held off so I could savour it with Dad. That wasn’t an easy decision to make, but I hung out and waited, convinced it would make our circus visit all that much more enjoyable. I was right. Dad was as excited as I was and, on the way, he told me he’d never been to a live circus performance. Sure, he’d seen circus animals before, but he’d never had sufficient funds to enter the Big Top and watch the live performances.
We finally arrived, and what a sight it was. I’d never seen such a big tent, and we must have spent a good hour just strolling around, admiring animals that sat peacefully chewing their cud. However, the lions paced up and down their cage as if they wanted to get out and eat us alive. My father was enthralled by the large cats, but I was scared stiff. I kept glancing at the door of the lion cage to ensure that the padlock had been snibbed properly. Unlike Dad, I preferred the camels and small ponies. Those camels were amazing beasts, and I kept staring at their humps, wondering how they could travel for so long in a desert without water.
Eventually it was time to line up to venture inside and watch trapeze artists, lion tamers, the antics of clowns, and other exciting acts. There was quite a crowd. Folks had come from far and wide; many I’d never seen before, and standing in front of us was a new family who’d just moved into the district. Mum had spoken of them weeks before so I knew they had three children. They’d arrived in town at the commencement of the school holidays, but I’d not seen any of their kids nor taken much interest in their arrival. They were renting the run-down old Hamilton home on the edge of town, and not much was known of them.
However, I knew that would change in time as locals made it their business to find out all they could about them. Rural townships were always like that. I wasn’t all that curious about the new folks in town. I’d been too busy helping my father with odd jobs, often going to work with him, or trying to tease those Swooper Magpies down near our school with my two best mates; not to mention our yabby enterprise at Swenson’s dam.
Slowly the line edged forward and, as we patiently waited, I looked at the family in front of us. They seemed to be decent people, but they looked poor. There were two girls and a boy and their clothes were frayed, probably wearing ‘hand-me-downs’ which was common in those days. The young boy wore shoes that had certainly seen better days, but at least they were highly polished. Having polished shoes was something Dad always instilled in us.
I recall feeling shy and uncomfortable when one of the girls often glanced at me. I tried to look unaffected by her cute smiles, but I’m sure I must have blushed. She was around my age and sure was pretty, with beautiful blonde hair and the bluest eyes. Every now and then I managed to catch an occasional sly glimpse of her when she wasn’t looking. God, she was pretty.
When we finally made it closer to the ticket office, something happened that I never forgot. We could hear every word that was said. The man in front of us must have miscalculated the cost of the tickets, and Dad and I watched as he stood and re-counted his money a second time. He had insufficient funds to cover the entrance fee. I looked away and felt so sorry for him; even sadder for his children who waited patiently, no doubt hoping and praying that their father would solve the problem.
I soon felt an arm on my shoulder and looked up to find Dad smiling at me. In his hand was the five-dollar note he’d saved for our trip to the circus. Dad didn’t say a word, but when he winked at me and grinned, I read his thoughts and smiled proudly. Seconds later, Dad bent down and pretended to pick up something.
‘Excuse me, matey. You must have dropped this five-dollar note on the ground,’ said Dad, offering our five-dollar bill to the man who stared at my father with a look of bewilderment.
‘I … I don’t think so,’ he replied.
Dad was so sharp in those situations. He quickly thrust the money at the man. ‘Yeah, sure. I saw it drop … here.’ The man looked blankly at his wife and his children, then he shook my dad’s hand with a knowing look; the type of look that requires no explanation.
The family paid their entry fee, but we were left standing at the ticket office with no money.
Thinking quickly, I grabbed Dad’s hand. ‘Come on, Dad. Let’s have a real good look at those tigers again.’ My father grinned and patted me on the head.
As we slowly strolled to the tiger’s cage, I looked back at the Big Top and saw the man staring at us. His beautiful daughter was waving to me, wearing a grateful smile. To be honest, I wasn’t all that upset. No, I was just glad to be with my father. Sadly, he’d still not managed to enter the Big Top. I so wanted him to see the performances, but we had a great time together, and we must have spent ages observing those wild animals.
The next day was Sunday. Around lunch time, there was a loud knock at the door. I was closest so naturally I opened it; stunned to see the young girl I’d seen at the circus. She was standing alongside her father. In his hands were a large bunch of flowers and a bag of potatoes. Sitting at his feet was a wooden crate full of vegetables, and the young girl was holding a homemade pie that smelled delicious. Fortunately my father appeared on the scene, and thank God he did. I was starting to feel shy and uncomfortable in the presence of the girl.
Dad opened the fly-wire door, smiled and greeted them. ‘Hello.’
‘G’day. Bill Timmins is me name. This is me daughter Kim. We … we just wanted to express our gratitude for yesterday. Don’t have much, but thought you might like some fresh produce.’
My father didn’t hesitate and shook the man’s hand firmly. ‘Gosh. Thanks … good to meet you. I’m Jack … Jack Smothers,’ said Dad. ‘Jessie!’ he hollered down the hallway, and Mum soon arrived, wiping flour-covered hands on her apron. My parents then did something that didn’t surprise me. They invited the family to stay for lunch.
That was a fabulous Sunday roast, and the apple pie was sensational. While the adults talked about grown-up things, I enjoyed listening to Kim Timmins as she told me what had happened under the Big Top. I was curious, but I also wanted to tell Dad what he’d missed out on. Kim was not only pretty. She was also smart. She knew what my father had done. I guess that’s why she gave him a big hug when they left.
Dad reckoned it was the best five-dollars he’d ever spent, and I agreed with him.
Clancy's comment: I love reading this. Hey, Merry Christmas to you all. Let's spare a thought for all those who have died from Covid 19, and the nurses and doctors who took care of them.