The Queens Are Dead
Entering Cement Town from the Noise Town road, we spot a circus tent pitched up near the docks. Two camels are tethered to a stake and a bulky water buffalo – an ungulate from the East (see ‘Such Ungulates!’ Ryder, F., The Modern Ungulate, vol XVI, 1953) – is masticating scorched scrub. Beneath some faded awnings is a flat-bed truck carrying four metal cages. Each cage is as big as the single bedroom in a British seaside B&B. Peering into the gloom we can make out dark shapes spread across the cage floors. As our eyes grow accustomed, big cats take shape. Three are asleep, one is pacing – three paces each way. We speculate on what sort of cat we are looking at.
“Are they leopards?”
“They can’t be tigers, no stripes.”
“Will they be cruel to them?”
“It’s cruel already – they shouldn’t keep them in cages.”
“I don’t want to see them if they’re going to be cruel.”
“Maybe you should see them, you’ll never get the chance at home.”
“I don’t want the chance.”
“I want to see them. There are other things as well. There are clowns.”
Eight hours later. The tickets are being sold by two tough young women in stage makeup. The tickets themselves are worn and spindled, recycled after every show and collected tonight at the tent entrance by a man in a blue teeshirt and worn black trousers with gold ribbon side-seam trim. Thirty three people scattered across a 250 seater tent gaze at a rusting cage that fills the raised circular stage. There is no roof to the cage.
“What if they jump over the top? Would they eat us?”
“They might. They might be scared though.”
“Would they go to the beach?”
“They might like to run up and down.”
A fat guy in a stained tuxedo and pencil moustache enters carrying a whip. In the background bored youths are prodding lionesses in the tunnel connecting their home cage to the stage cage.
The cats wander about to scattered applause. The tamer cracks his whip and shouts things. The lionesses jump up onto stands. They barely bother to look around. Their coats are dull and worn, their eyes sad and slow. The tamer goes up to one as if to kiss it – she puts her huge paw on his shoulder and half-heartedly chews it. This shows how close he is to them and how they trust him and how he can’t be being cruel.
The audience is quiet, concentrated. This does not show that they like the act. I think it shows that they are not used to the idea of wild animals on drugs that are beyond resignation, beyond despair. It shows that a man can do this to them. Probably a woman if she wanted.
The tamer gets a plank and attempts to link two platforms so that the cats can walk across it. He has to keep hold of the whip and this makes it difficult. Smiling fixedly he gets the plank over his shoulder then struggles to push it up onto the platform lip without it slipping off at the other end. The lionesses watch their master listlessly. He has his back to them. A youth behind the cage fingers his big stick distractedly.
Go, Xena! Go, Carla! Jump now, Kristina! Sink those feline canines into the side of his neck. Puncture him. Snap him. You can do it. It’s like swimming or riding a bicycle – it comes back to you, you never lose it. If you like, eat him. I can’t see a rifle and I don’t think they could afford the bullets.
If you did it, the attraction would be gone. All that would be left is the 14 year old girl balancing on a log with a short plank decorated on the front side only with pinned-on gift-wrapping paper while her mother mutters beside her as the girl wobbles and smiles; or the dentally dashing young man who throws knives into an old board against which his indifferent fishnetted and satin-topped assistant unblinkingly stands; or this assistant repurposed as a contortionist in holed tights who can get her arse over her head while her chest is on the ground and her head through her legs backwards and smile at you with her spine in an O; or the ticket-selling women in hot pants who keep large numbers of plates twirling on wobbly sticks then at the end one of them whips them off and throws them to her colleague who drops a couple which smash and she smiles and gazes seawards without longing.
Then nobody would come. And this family of artistes would slowly starve. Their skills, honed every day in car parks and docksides, dreamed about in tiny, flaking caravans, would fade until they acquired the same intensity as the detachment of the audiences who haven’t exactly seen it all before on television because television doesn’t show juggling and balancing much these days but would still prefer a car chase.
“This is the interval. Let’s go.”
“It’s really bad.”
“It’s not, it’s good, it’s sad.”
“What about the goat?”
“It’ll just run round and round.”