Nick John’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: Finders Keepers
Is there one here tonight?
I need one.
I really do.
I scan the eager, laughing, candy apple smeared faces.
With the casual expertise of a lifetime’s practice it is possible to search even whilst squirting the gullible dwarf full in the face with my fake flower.
They always do.
Clinging to their Mummies and Daddies, they rock and jump, pointing and shouting at my antics, unaware of my scrutiny.
I watch for the eyes.
They always give it away.
Towards the end of the set, just as the tyres fall off the car and the wheel comes off in my hands, I spot him.
Under the stands, in the shadows, hidden from the barkers and roustabouts, I spot two unmistakable eyes; big, round and shiny, two full moons in eclipse. A mouse in the skirting, even though ready to bolt at any moment, the Boy’s eyes solemnly follow every nuance of the act.
For the blow off, I wave the bucket full of water hither and yon, teetering on the verge of a seemingly inevitable fall, yet impossibly maintaining an unsteady equilibrium. The front rows in the crowd flinch as I approach then laugh as the bucket swings away from them, gasping once more as I lurch back towards them.
Finally, I launch the water into the audience and the screams turn to laughter as the water is revealed as glitter and falls, a sparkling, gleaming shower of deceit, into their relieved laps.
As I take my bow, pausing to kick the bowing dwarf into an impromptu somersault, I produce a red, shiny ball from behind my ear, and flip it across the floor and into the shadows towards the Boy.
It rolls to him and, just as he reaches out a tentative hand to grasp it, it pops, transforming into a miniature replica of my car. His hand, frozen in shock as it changes, hovers above it, before squirreling it away into the pouch of his grubby, ill fitting dungarees. He goggles at me, eyes wide with a wonder I remember but have long since mislaid.
Sprinting across the sawdust ring, I kick my treble sized shoes into the wings and dash for the exit. I gasp as the cool night air sticks my costume to me like a damp second skin and the dew-wet grass chills my feet.
Skipping lightly over the wire taught guy ropes, I locate the dark patch of the Big Top, un-illuminated by the lamps at the entrance and wait. Almost immediately a hand appears under the edge of the canvas, closely followed by an arm, a shoulder, and, with an imagined pop, the Boy’s head. Like a snake sloughing off it’s skin, he sheds the tent. He scrambles up, bent double, hands on knees, gulping in air after his exertions.
I reach out and grab him by the scruff, hoisting him off the ground.
He flips and wriggles like a line caught trout.
I swing him round, bathing him in the flickering light of the nearest oil smoke torch.
“Well, look here, what have we caught?”
His wriggling turns to thrashing, but my arm, strengthened by years of carnie work, holds him firm.
“Where’s your ticket, Boy?”
His eyes roll.
“Well? Cat got your tongue, Boy?”
He shakes his head, quietening down a little, all except his eyes; they dart here and there, seeking an escape route.
“Don’t tell me, you must have dropped it, eh?”
“So, we’ve got a freeloader - as well as a thief.”
“I’m no thief!”
“No? Well how will you explain to the Constable how you came by that little red car in your pocket?”
“I what? Did your Mummy buy it for you? Shall we go and ask her?”
A veil drops over his eyes and he slumps, perfectly still for the first time. I watch as a single tear tracks slowly down his cheek.
“OK, not your Mummy then. I know. We’ll ask your Daddy. Someone in the Top must know who your Daddy is. What will your Daddy do about you stealing toys?”
The Boy seems to shrink in his clothes.
I know then.
This one is just what I am looking for.
Do I really want him?
Of course I do. I need him.
The others... well, it has been years since the last. If he’s not the one...
My sadness doesn’t show to him, my painted smile still shines, although the greasepaint is surely smeared in places, I know. I change to my cheery voice, the one all the children love.
“Of course, this could all be OK...”
“It could?” He sounds doubtful.
“Absolutely. It could be a finder’s fee for bringing me something I need.”
“What did I bring?”
“Why, yourself. I need a Boy.”
“Why?” His eyes narrow, calculating, suspicious.
I laugh, a bark that startles him. I’ve seen that look before on too many young faces.
“For the circus. All circuses are hungry for Boys. Didn’t you know that?
He shakes his head.
“Oh yes. Boys and circuses. They belong together. Like magnets and iron filings. A circus is what a Boy wants. A circus is travel, adventure, a family. And Boys are what a circus wants. A Boy is fresh, energetic, questing. That’s why circuses don’t stay in one place; because of the limited supply, you see.”
He doesn’t, I can see.
“But they must be the right kind of Boys. Boys like you maybe. Are you a circus Boy, Boy?”
I fix him with a stare.
“This is it, Boy. You decide. Stay and go back to... what? Your Daddy? This fly speck town? Or come with me, join the circus, fly away with us.”
I drop him and he slumps on the wet grass, like a string cut marionette.
I walk away, listening intently.
“Can I keep the toy?”
“Sure. Your finder’s fee. Like I said.”
Oversize farm boots shuffle and then a small grubby hand tugs at my hem. I look down.
I hold out a hand and his grips mine, hanging on like the offer might slip through his fingers.
As we walk together towards the caravans, I think for a moment of all the others and what they have become, and I smile – for the first time tonight.
“Why a circus Boy can be anything. Small ones start out as rigging monkeys, but they can grow into acrobats, or jugglers, or Lion tamers, or strongmen...”
“... or Clowns?”
“Yes, Boy. Some even become Clowns.”
I thrust my free hand deep into my pocket and find the familiar piece of wood that is always there - the smoothed, now shapeless remains of a toy car that a Clown had once given me.
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Despite his Mother telling him not to, Nick continues to make things up.