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Thursday, 01 March 2018

The Show Must Go On: Working on the Australian Circus Circuit

Written by Sal Bolton
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My eyes snapped open as I laid still on my back staring forwards, listening attentively to the bellowing voices in the dark which have disturbed my slumber. At first alarmed, I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized it was Marcus shouting to a group of people laughing loudly into the night somewhere within the showground, disrupting his sleep and demanding they shut the 'bloody hell up' - a word I found Australian's like to use as part of their vocabulary to just about describe or address anything. Even if you look on the back of a beer bottle you will find yourself blinking twice in bewilderment to read 'Bloody cold' under the 'serving suggestion'. I was feeling exactly that as I rolled over fidgeting uncomfortably cocooned in my rolled out canvas mattress sleeping bag; my 'swag' as the Aussie's would call it, but frankly sounds more like something you'd say to someone to insult them. I found my left arm and released it out to sluggishly check my watch for what hour it could possibly be.


Two am. The dead of night. The now serene silence allowed you to anticipate hearing a pin drop. No wonder Marcus was furious, he always had a big day running the circus ahead of him and for a very laid back Aussie, he didn't like his sleep disrupted. I heard him come back muttering in annoyance and settle back down to continue his rest as the world grew silent again.


I turned back and sighed, staring ahead, my heavy misty eyes examining the shape of the light bulbs at the apex; the red and white stripes and the metal frame work like a skeleton, distinguished in the darkness of the biggest tent I've ever slept in - the circus big top. I rolled over on the stage - my bed where I was 'roughing it' during my stint working for a traveling petting zoo on the Australian carnival circuit and laid motionless blinking my bleary eyes, surveying the spectator stands which by day burst with extravagant color and flamboyant energy and by night stood lonely and empty wallowing in rejection.


It gave the big top such a ghostly atmosphere, making me shudder in my swag. I hate paranormal stuff, really gives me the creeps. But I began to convince myself of the big tops' warmth and homely feel and the fact I was seriously spoilt for space as a 'pommie backpacker' (a term Aussie's like to affectionately call us English) and should appreciate this eerie silence that would come to an untimely end as yet another dawning of a brand new day rose on the carnival scene.


I imagined the roar of the crowd, the laughter, the adrenaline of suspense from their gasps and giggles and the overwhelming sweet smell of popcorn and candyfloss. The scent of cheerful fun and novelty lingered and would yet again soon come alive in several hours time as it did everyday. I had become encapsulated in the showman world of Australia, by accident really and thinking of everyday as a new episode, a new adventure of surprises. I drifted back into a dreamy haze whilst the repetitive tune of circus music that blared from the speakers every night danced along in my head. Never going away.

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The next morning, still dressed in my pajamas, I unfolded a chair outside the big top and sat myself down, when I heard the creaking of a caravan door swinging open. Looking up, out stumbled a red haired tubby man dressed in denim jeans, blue shirt and a black baseball cap, gingerly rubbing the morning sleet out of his eyes.


'Ahhh G'day Sal, howzit goin?' my boss John murmured, trailing off into a huge bellowing yawn. I nodded to him in acknowledgement as he slammed its screen door, which pointlessly just bounced back open again, grabbing his luxury black fold up chair and unfolded next to me, sighing with contentment as he pulled the handles to recline it. Closing his eyes, John relished in another moments peace for himself amongst the hectic craziness of his world devoted to the animal zoo.


Jono?, hey John, you want an egg *sanga?' called McCaffey to his son from inside his caravan.


'Nah, nah, you're alright mate!' shouted John, his eyes still closed leant back in his chair. His big grubby pale bare feet sticking up. 'On a diet, none of that rubbish' he added.


Weird calling your own dad 'mate'. I can't ever imagine doing that.


I then a heard screeching noises coming from the direction of the animal shed. The ensemble of grunting, mooing, squealing, chirping, squawking, clucking built up as one animal prompted the other, singing in a muddled melody. The wake up call, to top it off, was the high piercing cockle of the cockerel.


'Jesus, those animals are making quite a racket!' complained McCaffey, a tall elderly man wearing a wide brimmed white Akruba hat slouching against the doorway of his caravan, clutching a brown beer bottle.


In his youth, he'd traveled all over Australia in the hotel trade and then converted to the animal and showman business, once earning a living working as a stockman or *'ringer' riding horses on cattle stations in Queensland. The fact was though, McCaffey had worked hard all his life in the bubble of the Australian showman business and was now just tagging along the circuit to remain close to it all. I didn't blame him, where else would he be happy now? He was now an integral part of the tapestry.


'Y'wanna a *stubby from the *Esky?' he asked us, holding the bottle up.


John, even more laid back than his father, quickly sat up and winced at him.


'Strewth, bit early for *grog mate, you've been flogging the wagon too much recently' he responded, curling his lip disapprovingly.


* stubby - a 375ml bottle of beer

* esky - cool box

* grog - alcohol

* sanga - sandwich


Now the translation of the conversation that I just heard in Australian English to British English was as followed... I was asked if I wanted a bottle of beer from the cool box, then understanding it was too early to be having a drink, then McCaffey being told by John he's been drinking too much recently.


I liken it to the dialect of the working class cockney in London, except they use cockney rhyming slang - a much more lyrical and poetic play on the English language. The 'true blue' Aussie skipped this time wasting nonsense, preferring to say something as quick as they could, sometimes without even breathing in between --


*Howzitgowinng?. Australian.


How are you?. Queens English.


Maybe it is backwards, but not to fault any lack of drama or unpredictability in this big sunburnt island tucked away 'Down Under' from the rest of the world.


'How about seein' to those animals Sal?, they'll be escaping the shed if they don't get some brekkie soon' requested John, raising his eyebrows as he jiggled his black baseball cap up and down on his head.


As I was about to get up out of my chair, he reached down and plucked a little yellow flower out of the ground. Holding it delicately between his thumb and his middle finger, he leant over and dropped it on the top of my head.

'Too easy, Princess' giving me a wink and a warm crooked smile.


John was as cool an Aussie you could get, cool as the beer McCaffey got from the esky. My kind of boss to work for. He never raised his voice ever and spoke with such calmness and stillness. He also trusted me, which is always a major compliment especially being an 'outsider' to this exclusive showman world. Apparently it takes a long time to be accepted by 'showman folk', and being fresh blood to it all and a 'pommie' one at that, made me feel extremely lucky to be welcomed and accepted; even if momentarily to work for the animal zoo - the most popular exhibit in the show.

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I nodded to John and then turning away, clenched my mouth like a closed fist, hiding my irritation reaction to him saying 'too easy'. I don't know, it's just something that annoyingly grinds on me, it's like someone running their nails down a blackboard. Just one of those things.


I leapt out of my chair and headed to the back of the big top when I saw out of the corner of my eye John spontaneously sit down in my empty chair and cry out suddenly as it tipped back, propelling his bulky body backwards with his bare feet pointing sky high on the chairs frail frame. I let out a cackle of laughter and McCaffey stumbled out of his caravan to scold John who was trying to tip himself out of the chair onto the grass.


'Quite a father and son' I thought as I shook my head, still sniggering with laughter walking back through the flap into the back of the big top.


The rich smell of the tents canvas smothered my senses hard and then 'thwack' - a searing pain hit my toe as I stubbed it on the miniature bicycle used in the circus show lying behind the stage curtain. Cursing, I jumped through the curtain and onto the stage, the thudding of my footsteps echoing in the silence along with the painful throbbing of my toe.


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I suddenly remembered Marcus might still be sleeping too and that I could be disturbing him as well. Clutching my rolled up swag, I ducked away from the stage and approached the side curtain, tentatively pulling it back with my fingertips to reveal what was behind it.


No swag. No Marcus. Just a panel of plywood on the ground where he'd set him self up for the night. Of course being owner of Rawlings Circus, I didn't think that even though he'd had his sleep disturbed in the night, he would have failed to get up early, alive and kicking for a brand new day.


Draped over a solitary chair, was my showman uniform. Exactly the same as John's, the McCaffey Animal Farm blue shirt and a black baseball cap. After wiping the wet grass stems off my feet with my socks. I slipped on my favorite and most vital part of my showman Wellington Boots or by Aussie correctness my 'Gum Boots' - the best shoes for all occasions.


I wore my waterproof long footed companions constantly throughout my travels in Australia and had endured the sniggers, strange looks and mocking comments from gawping eyes who failed to see my choice of foot wear's practicality and style. Now I had a justifiable reason to wear them for the perfect use, going into the animal shed - I didn't want to be wearing anything else.


I had let the calls of the animals go too far now as I could hear the whinnying of the pony and the donkey probably saying untoward things in their impatience if they could speak words. But animals are like us, they get hungry, they'll complain.


'Alright, alright, I'm coming!' I mumbled, the repetitive animal sounds continuing as I stormed out of the big top, strutting over the grass trudging my gum boots towards the core hub of noise amplifying out of the animal shed some fifty meters away.


As I neared, Mabel, the white pony splotched with brown markings, paced up and down in her outdoor pen, whinnying even louder at the sight of me. She craned her neck to nuzzle my outstretched hand over the steel railing as I patted her soft nose reassuringly. Her donkey friend, more subdued, cast its droopy eyes up at me in acknowledgment or maybe it was an 'about bloody time' look intended to make me feel guilty.


I marched into the animal shed, flicking back the entrance flaps of the hanging canvas and was hit by the overwhelming high pitched orchestra of animal noises, the distinguishing fusty smell of soiled straw and sawdust which was laden all over ground. Everywhere I looked, animals, animals, animals, crying out at me - the three piglets ramming their noises up against their pen squealing fanatically, the guinea pigs squeaking, the llama and cow mooing simultaneously, the puppies yapping, eagerly springing up bounding with energy as they playfully chased each other around tripping in the straw.


My heart skipped a beat suddenly when I was startled by the baby goat's insistent bleating, prancing around the main pen at me. The birds were abundant in our attraction; amongst our feathered characters we boasted a goose, turkey, ducks, an intriguing variety of chicken breeds and our plump mother hen 'Henny Penny' who liked to nurture the baby chicks, making our aviary quite an impressive display.


Snapping into pro activeness, I hastily started to rummage behind the drape in the corner which separated the food storage area of food bowls and water bottles to the impatient animal vocals drumming in my head. Every morning the same, every morning was the same frenetic routine.


But this morning, I felt something was different.


I stood still for a second and looked out onto the yard, listening hard, trying to match the animal noises to an animals face, as if I was doing a pre-school exercise.


Something was missing.


MOOO! BAAA! CHEEP! the noises continued to drum at me.



I looked over to the bird pen and it dawned on me.


The ducklings were no where to be seen.


Cursing, I dropped the food bowls, letting them clatter to the ground and bolted out of the animal shed back towards the big top. John was sitting and laughing with Marcus, the circus owner, having been talked into having a beer and a *'yarn'. A look of surprise crossed both their faces as they saw me jogging towards them covered in saw dust.


'The ducklings have got out, they're not there' I panted, my breath hitching as I hunched over, hands on my knees.


'Ah strewth, you sure? they must have squeezed out, must be a gap in the pen somewhere' John replied looking puzzled.


'No worries, when one duckling goes, the rest follow as a brood' assured Marcus, tipping the neck of his beer bottle towards me.


'They can't have gone far, we'll just round them up and lead them back' presumed John, rising from his seat and placing his beer bottle down on the grass next to him.


'Ha ha, 'round them up', like they're cattle or something' I scoffed at the absurd comedy that the situation could carry.


'Can't have gone far, we'll find them' he repeated, waving his hand as a gesture for me to follow as he started to walk away. The optimistic Aussie attitude illuminating from him as we set off on our search for the ducklings.


The show must go on.

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* yarn - Australian slang for 'having a conversation'



©Sal Bolton

Last modified on Thursday, 01 March 2018