This moment of the day, my senses muffled and warm, finds me cocooned in a netherworld; I study the minuscule dust particles, tiny Tinkerbells dancing across a sunbeam. I’m reluctant to break away, ‘til I remember what today is. I’m joining the circus. Actually Mum is. I’m tagging along. Jacko lands on my legs. His ebony eyes hold mine as he trundles his way up the quilt. From my stomach he pounces, a determined air about him. Get up, his eyes say.
A beat-up suitcase lies open; waiting for the last minute rush to fill it with treasures too valuable to leave behind. Unexpectedly the memory of another morning departure and another suitcase returns, but this isn’t forever I remind myself. It doesn’t take long to dress, pack, and tidy my room. Being active helps, I don’t want to think about that day at my aunt’s house, not today.
A quick flick of my fingers on my way to the kitchen and the lid slams down on the suitcase. My brothers are stuffing their plates and mouths at the same time. How do they manage that? Mealtimes are no longer the sedate occasion of my first nine years; years spent living alone with my aunt. Someone has hung a sign over Mum’s kitchen door that reads ‘You snooze-you lose’. My guess, they’d been to eat here.
Ian’s coke bottle glasses make him look like Owl, in the ten acre wood, but when he smiles or laughs, he looks like Pooh without the belly. I’ve discovered hero-worship since moving in with Mum and my two brothers. I’d missed years because of my parents’ fighting, so I’m obsessive about doing things with them. It involves following my reluctant 17 year old brother, with the determination of a pit-bull, every moment I’m awake. I wish he was coming with us; I suspect he’s glad he’s staying home.
My watch silently pilfers time and when I look out the window a truck jerks over the kerb to occupy the sidewalk. The sun on its whiteness makes my eyes water. Dishes are thrown into the sink, teeth brushed, cases hauled to the front door and goodbyes begin. Hugging Neville, my substitute hero when Ian is not around, it hurts to loosen my fingers from his neck. Then Ian lifts me and my head finds the soft spot between his neck and shoulder.
“Okay kiddo,” Ian’s arms enclose me. I forget, breathing in his odour of soap and aftershave, to be insulted by the nickname that is an affront to my mature age of eleven. “Don’t forget to write. We’ll see you soon.” He’ll be taller in three months.
“Bye,” is all I can manage. Instructions are dashed off, I let go and the truck door slams shut. Mum lets me sit by the window, and the truck rocks as I watch our street sign disappear.
It takes a day to get to Swan Hill; a town on the border of N.S.W and Victoria. My nose is in its usual place, securely between the pages of a book until we leave the red brick houses and grey streets of the city. The air shimmers in the heat against the horizon, until large gum trees surround us and cicadas’ chant a cappella song of passage. We pass through an occasional town; there are always two pubs, minimum. Brown men in blue singlets, stubby shorts and steel toed boots lounge out the windows and against doors; some raise their beers as we pass. In between are long stretches of empty roads winding through bushland.
The bush comes complete with magic; the long white trees, the yellow and brown grasses soon seize my imagination. As the truck turns with the road, I can feel the sway of them, hear the bark crackle and the grass rustle as they swish past my ears, and smell the dry sweetness from their baking in the summer sun. Sometimes a cheeky kookaburra will broadcast he’s watching as we pass, but it’s the magpies circling, small jets dropping nose first out of the sky to find some hidden quarry amongst the grasses, that make me smile.
They remind me of Jacko. Neville and Ian bought him home one morning, tiny, black and white, loud, and mine. It took two days to build his cage; it’s never been used. He sleeps on the back of the chair in my room, hopping on my bed in the morning. He’s growing so fast, like the piece of my heart that’s just for him. It’s funny how your heart gets bigger so you can fit everybody in; I didn’t know it could do that before.
We reach the park at night, trucks, caravans, and people are all on the move. In the middle the big tent is going up under lights. The loudness is a shock after the peace of the drive; people, horses, dogs, elephants, and lions all trying to be heard.
The smells merge an aroma of sawdust, cooking, people, animals, canvas, and diesel. I like the chaos. A few “hey kiddo’s,” can just be heard while I wander amongst the disorder, I don’t mind; it reminds me of my brothers. I wander, in no hurry to find our van. It’s old and rounded, home for now. Mum’s inside, making beds, putting clothes away. I see Pandy lying with his head on a pillow, that’s where I’m sleeping I guess. These three months are to be our big adventure; she’s hoping to recover the years we lost, I’m not sure we can.
“I wondered where you were,” she says. “How ‘bout we get to bed, you’ll be up early tomorrow.” There’s noise everywhere while I try to sleep, but hushed like someone’s covered it with a blanket, the sounds all melded together.
It’s not raining, but it’s dull outside in the morning. Nothing shines or sparkles like when the performance is on. Jenny lets me help with the dogs. There are ten of them but Jock’s my favourite. When you talk to him one ear flops as he tilts his head. He listens better than anyone of the adults I know.
By five everyone is getting ready for tonight’s opening. Stalls and rides are ready, tents finished, and people disappear into vans. Monty’s caravan is old and looks like a box. He whistles when I knock, his way of saying come in. A bright suit is laid out on the bed; a wig hangs over a chair and the bench is covered with makeup. He’s carefully converting his mouth into a large red oval.
“Get the comb and make that wig look decent,” Monty waggles his finger in the direction of an orange blob. The hair is like plaited twine, it keeps me busy. We work in silence.
“Okay, give it,” he waggles his arm from the elbow. Pulling the orange monster into place Monty is transformed and a colourful looking stranger grabs my hand to go outside.
“Go find your Mum,” he says slapping me on the back.
Mum’s out the back of the main tent, her hand is soft and moist as I slide mine into it. She keeps it, and me, safe as we go inside to watch the performance. Small white horses with bright red feather necklaces dance to the music. Moving together; backwards, forwards, turning, they never miss a step. Monty runs between the seats, pulling out hankies to blow the kids noses on. loudly. Most kids laugh as parents encourage them, but some hide behind their Mums. The circus has found its glitter again; it’s a time where everything smiles back at you, including your reflection.
Pandy is ready for a hug when I get into bed. He never complains about getting his head wet during the night, and he never tells. When the lights are out, I think about the things I left behind. The paddock between my aunt’s house and school, where quail mothers hid their young and you had to sit quietly to see them come out. He listens and holds all my secrets inside him, his brown and black eyes shining at me.
There’s music dying out slowly next to the bed. Eyes closed, I can still see the tiny twirling ballerina slowing down with the music. I don’t need to turn the key to hear the tune; that’s the song my aunt used to sing me to sleep to. The music box was her going away gift to me.
The little ballerina watches while I sleep; so does Pandy. One on either side, both sides of my world, and me in the middle.
Published In Snorkel #13