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Chapter 18- It's Lonely at the Big Top




“Pppppffaaaa” the exasperation came from Vadim.


In front of them, straight away at the end of the road was the Big Top. Three tent poles wide it looked massive. Nigel had never fully seen it from that angle as it always stood sideways on the property but here it was full-wide in front of them and it was gargantuan. It was a dramatic difference. Straight down the road you could see it. The aisle from the midway was right in front, much wider than ever before.


"He’d done it.”He thought The crusty old Major had taken Nigel’s advice. It was beautiful.

He turned to Vadim and screamed, “He did it! He took my idea!”.


Vadim retorted. “Ya he took your idea. Vil see how you veel about the credit later.”


Nigel ran full steam dragging trying to hold the satchel on his shoulder the Majors army jacket flying like a cape behind him. He ran through the gate with exuberance. On the left the freak show was where the Big Top used to be. Behind it the Roma Camp, of course he thought. The tent is gone there’s room for the Roma’s. Front and center were all the game booths behind them the food booths behind them the rides on the left the beer garden on the right.

“Unbelievable. Just unbelievable.” He brimmed.


Nigel ran for the back of the camp to where the Major’s caravan was. It was gone. Where it had stood was Ivan’s machine shop tent. He spun the other way to look behind where the Freak Show used to be nothing. Where the hell were all the caravans?


Just then the Major appeared from the Big Top.

“Major. You did it! You did what I said.” Nigel exclaimed.

“Get your ass over here, and shut up.” He barked, then coughed. “Listen before you celebrate. We need to see if this nonsense works?”

“Yes sir.” Nigel saluted.

“You are not in the Army. You do not get to salute me.” He snapped.

Nigel pulled out his conscription card at about the same time that Vadim caught up to the two. “But I have signed up for the Army.”

The Major looked at Vadim.

Vadim shook his head, “ He’s an idiot”.

“Where’s the caravans?” Nigel inquired.

“They’re all behind the big top now.” He shrugged. “They fit. You’re not the only one with ideas boy.”

“And the sewage?” Nigel asked.


“Well that was the dumbest thing you ever came up with. We are not elevating the shitters so the wind can blow clean under them. We’re not hosing troughs of shit every hours. What we did do was move ‘em far enough out where the Roma’s camp were. People will walk to get a beer and I bet they walk as far to get rid of one? Right? So we did dig a pit with the dozer and put’em on the boardwalk and cut some holes in it. Then we hung the boardwalk four feet over the pit. So now we got a shit’in pit. We tried it out. The bigger the line, the more weight on the boardwalk. We put fat E’Claire, The Strongman, the Siamese twins and Ivan and five of the midgets inside the stalls. You can’t flip it over with nobody on the boardwalk. So you’re no plumber and I’m still a better engineer. Now. Let’s see if we make some money. Aaright?”


It was the single best speech Nigel had ever heard in his life. Even if it was about sewage. He was heard. It was better than Churchill.

Nigel reached to give the Major his army field coat back. “Oh here, Sir. Your change and deposit slip is in the inside pocket.” The Major pulled the envelope out and removed the deposit slip and left the remaining bills and coins in it, handing it back to Nigel. “Well you followed the first order. You didn’t get shot. Back to work, gentlemen.”


Nigel gave himself a tour of the new layout feeling confident that the new arrangement would have the desired effect.


The next two weeks brought with it good business and challenges. Nigel did his jobs as usual and the grounds were busier than ever. There was grumbling by the workers because of changes and Nigel felt that there was some eyes on him for being party to those changes, but he didn’t care. By Friday night, after the first circus show he was ecstatic with himself because he had taken more tickets than ever before. Halfway through the show he went to touch base with the Major to brag.


He found him at the ticket booth bundling cash. “Sir, I think our volume is really up. The bleachers are packed. What do you think?’


The Major was not impressed. “What do I think? I think you haven’t been here long enough to make such an observation. Nigel. We are a short walk from a town that is three times the size of anyplace you’ve seen us set. We haven’t sold a single ticket more this year, than last year for Crewe. Same town. Same money. Same people. Same tickets. You got nothing to celebrate. In fact, I got angry workers that are confused and customers that can’t find anything. We’ve been here 15 years running and people are confused. Let’s collect some money before we count it.”


Nigel shrunk back into his skin properly scolded. “Didn’t this guy appreciate his creativity and the success it would surely bring?” It made Nigel so frustrated to not get the praise he knew he deserved. “My boss is a jerk”, he thought.

He reached the front door of the Big Top and plopped down on a bale of straw, fuming. He looked up to see the green eyed girl, Vadim’s granddaughter looking back smiling in an alluring way and he thought. “Nope, not taking the bait.” He was becoming a man.


As he sat there. Lost in thoughts of anger, feeling sorry for himself. Suddenly he felt a person sit next to him.


“What your name?” It was the girl who stacked chairs and poured tea.

“I had no idea you spoke English.” He replied

“I had no idea you spoke English either. Too bad you don’t know your name. Parents no love you?” She was witty. Not what he felt he needed at the moment.

In an attempt to put her in her place, he looked her dead in the eye. “Well my Mother loves me, but my Father is dead.”

“Oh that crazy. Both my parents dead. Maybe dey know each other.” She did not miss a beat.

A smirk broke on his face. ”My name is Nigel.”

“Oh, they didn’t love you. That’s a horrible name.” She was relentless.

“I’m afraid to ask, why is that a horrible name?”

“It’s like medicine. Like old people put on muscle. When they go to bed. It stink. Night gel.”

“Not night gel. It’s one word. Nigel.”

“Still terrible. I’ll call you Shorty.”

“Oh, That’s great, just what I hoped for. And what is your name?”,Nigel inquired.

“Okay call me Lilly.”

“Because you are pretty like a delicate Asian flower?”

“No. Because my name Lilly, jerk.”

“Will you make me tea?” He thought if she could dish it out she should take a little.

“You got to buy ticket like everybody else. Dat my job. I talk to you for free though.”


They laughed. Who knew that a girl that stacked chairs into the sky and could pour tea with her feet could be a friend. A girl to talk with would be a change. It reminded him he needed to visit his Mother.


The two weeks passed and everything seemed to go off as usual. There were shortages of food and beer at times but every time he brought it up to the Major he was summarily reminded that the population was larger and this was completely normal for Crewe. In fact, the closer they got to London the more this would happen. Nigel stopped having the conversations about increased sales with the Major because it seemed fruitless and he was getting more aggravated and tired as the weeks wore on. He had to remind himself that his boss was a crusty old commander not a young lieutenant.


The run wrapped as usual. Sunday night came and Nigel grew nervous because he had not heard from the Major about going to London again. The circus performance and freak show schedule had shifted as Nigel suggested. The circus was wrapped by 7:30 on both Saturday and Sunday. Every night the Midway was jammed with drinking, eating, gaming and riding rides while the guests waited their turn to see the freaks. Nigel went to make a pass at cleaning the funhouse mirrors in the Freak Show at 8 that night. They’d open it at six while the circus was going on but the line was down the center of the widened Midway.


As he walked through the past few nights he noticed the performers were not as happy as they seemed, not that you could be in that job. In particular, they were not overtly friendly to Nigel and had started calling him “Boss”. At first he thought it was respectful, but now it started to sound a tinge spiteful.

He cleaned the mirrors and walked through.

“Hey Claire!’ he smiled.

“Hey Boss.” She said.

“Claire. Why have you started calling me boss?”

“Because that’s what you are Nigel. You’re the boss now.”

“I’m not the boss. Why would you say that?” Nigel asked.

“You make the schedule. You’re the boss. Everybody knows it. You’re the next master on the plantation.” An audible “ooooow” came from the rest of the stalls.

“You made the schedule. We used to be done at seven. Now we start at six and sit here till ten, eleven, midnight. These people are drunker and meaner than ever. But… You’re the boss.”

Nigel had no words. He didn’t even know. He hadn’t thought this through apparently.

“Let me see if I can fix this Claire.”

Claire was resolute, “Doesn’t matter Nigel. We’re just freaks. We know our place.”


The words were devastating. Nigel was capable of being naughty but this was the first time anybody had ever accused him of being evil. He heard her and he knew that he had done it. He hadn’t intended to do any harm. Yet as he walked out he heard the words, hers and the publics. They were drunker. They were more vile. They were meaner. It was his fault.


Nigel promptly left and headed to the Major’s caravan trying to come up with a solution as he went. Nothing was coming. He arrived to find the Major and Vadim enjoy their tobacco. They both saw him coming like the train through the trees, smokestack fuming.


The Major hollered as he hacked, ”Boy, you look angry!”

“I’m not angry, I’m upset. We’ve made a mistake.” Nigel, let it out with some pressure.


“Before we count our mistakes. Sit down. We’re counting our blessings” The Major smiled in the flicker of a small fire lighting his face. The sun had just gone down and the fiery summer sky stretched up behind him making him mostly a silhouette.


“Nigel. Our ticket count the first day was the same the first weekend. But apparently word got out todays ticket count is up 35%. We’ve run out of every provision we had. Twice. Tickets are up 35% this weekend. Food, beverage, beer, rides and games up 50%. Do you know what that means?”


“Yes. We make more money. Obviously.” Nigel cooled. “Was he about to be the recipient of an actual compliment?” He wondered. The staff could wait five more minutes for this moment to happen.


Vidam piped in…”You making 50% more money, I making 100% more money.”

“Are you guys serious?” Even Nigel was surprised.


The Major laughed, “Did Hitler die in a fiery pit of petrol? Yes, we’re serious.”

Nigel sat on an adjacent stump near the fire. “So that’s…”

Vadim finished the sentence. “A lot of money.”

“You’re going to 500 a week.” The Major announced.

“500 hundred…” It hit him, “five hundred pounds?” He said it way too loud and was immediately shushed by the other two. “That’s three months wages?”.

The Major corrected him. “It’s actually five months from where you started.”

Nigel’s mind went to the first place he could think and he blurted. “I need to visit my Mother.”


“You’ll move the camp tomorrow. We’re going to London. You can visit your mother Wednesday. She’s only one hour by train now, here.” The Major handed Nigel an envelope. “There’s a thousand pounds in there. Go to town while they are packing up and get yourself your own truck and a caravan.”

“For me?” Nigel puzzled.


“Yes. You can’t sleep in my truck forever. Get a caravan. But don’t get one nicer than mine, get a used one. Get a truck to pull it.” The Major clearly was not kidding.


Nigel objected. “But I don’t know how to drive?”

Vadim spoke up “Take Lilly, she’s good with truck and caravan.”

Nigel wondered how they could have thought Lilly would be a good choice.

Vidam finished the thought. “Nigel, No secrets in carnival. Take Lilly.”


He turned and walked away. Astonished. Befuddled. Happy. Gratified. Fulfilled. Then he looked up to see the line at the freak show. He was filled with shame. Had he just sold his soul? He would rectify this somehow but at that moment he didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth.


It rained hard that night. The pelting of the huge droplets on the top of the cab stuck like a snare drum which afforded Nigel sleep only after three or four hours and complete exhaustion set in. That meant about four hours sleep, if that. He heard the Major’s door slam as he left in the morning but chose not to endure the drenching that a proper bon voyage would give. He pulled his canvas bag over his head to shade his eyes from the grey breaking light.


He drifted off for how long he did not know, when the sharp knock came on the window. A hand appeared in the window wiping the tears of rain away and was soon replaced a face. He couldn’t make it out. He unbuttoned the lock to get out but before he could regain his balance fully upright the door swung open and shut and Lilly was sitting on his legs in the driver’s seat. “Move your feet” She demanded. She drips with rain and Nigel hated having wet socks. Perhaps there was no romance to be had here. As attentive as Lilly was, she was also painfully annoying.


“You nee to get up. It’s seven thirty. We got stuff to do.” Lilly budged his feet out from under her and she settled into the seat. She reached above the drivers visor and produced a set of keys inserting one into the ignition. “Where are we going, it is only seven thirty?” He attempted to slow her progress.

“We go to diner in town. Get good, English breakfast. Sick of porridge.” That did sound delightful Nigel thought. Fresh eggs, sausage, beans, tomato slices…oh and crispy toast fried in the fat of bacon, dripping with fresh jam. Nigel hadn’t had a proper breakfast in as long as he could remember. The porridge and stale bread that was the staple of the beer garden had lost its charm some time back. “Then we get you to chemist shop. You need a soap, a toothpace and a brush teeth. You need comb too. You look to messy all time… smelly too.”


Lilly did not hold back. As much as it hurt Nigel’s feelings to get the critique he felt, somehow cared for. These were things his Mother might have said when he was small but never really did anymore. Mother, he needed to go see her, give her some money. He promised to write and he hadn’t done it once. It was probably good he hadn’t sent a postcard from London, that may have been the death of her. The engine turned over and the truck shuddered to life.


They went to a caff in town and enjoyed a full English breakfast with all the accoutrement a starving young lad could want. Lilly had no problem keeping pace with Nigel’s ability to gorge himself. After the meal she took him to the druggists to tend to her shopping list for him and she made him purchase new socks, undershorts and two white gentlemen’s shirts and a new work shirt that was a durable dungaree material and two new pair of trousers. She convinced him that he had grown over the summer and his clothes didn’t really fit. She pointed out that his dungarees were climbing up his ankles. He hadn’t noticed but it made sense, his father’s boots were a snug fit now.


After she took him to the edge of town on a country road and spent a full two hours teaching him how to drive a truck with “three on the tree” or as Lily called it, tree on a tree. There was some anxiety and a few moments of yelling but he was amazingly competent as a first time driver.


They went to a car lot to look for another truck and a caravan. They found a nice caravan but Nigel was afraid it was too nice for the directions he was given. The trucks were all junk and He thought better to make no purchase than a poor one. Back to the grounds and the bustling of packing.


They made it back before noon and the camp was in full work mode as Nigel serpentined his way through all of the pathways now littered with people and gear. The rain had relented and the workers were doing their very best to pack the saturated gear. He did his best to drive slow as not to splash mud on anyone which caused a little clutch burning smell. It did not go unnoticed by the troupe that Nigel seemed to be squiring Lilly about in the Major’s truck.


When they arrived back at the caravan it seemed wise to let Lilly take over and she easily backed up the truck and Nigel was soon trained on the attachment of trailer hitches and lighting. For a tiny person, she was very adept at handling the rigs. It was impressive. She drove and Nigel was the passenger as they pulled into their spot in line near the back of the convoy.


There was never any direction of location given, yet again after two hours they pulled off into the next field and the next set-up.

The Major and Vadim returned the following afternoon as anticipated and resumed their roles as lords over their domains. Nigel brought minor suggestions here and there. They were always heard, not always taken.


Eventually Nigel did purchase a caravan and small Hino Briska truck, both were slightly nicer than the Major’s but his was four-years old. He couldn’t find anything that run down that was livable. The Major never said a word about it. It had a bathroom. His own sink, shower and toilet, a small bed in the back and a settee and table in the front. It was comfortable.


He made a day trip on the next available Monday while the Major and Vadim were in London to go visit his Mother. She didn’t seem to care that he was not returning to school when he handed her five one hundred pound notes. It was more money than she had ever held. She chided him a bit but soon forgave him and they sat and spoke for a few hours before he drove her to the hospital to start her shift. He made a commitment to see her more and the season would be over in a couple of months and he’d return, he promised.


The following month was identical to the previous. The days began to slow as the pattern became more routine for Nigel. He found no solutions for the Freak Show and felt his place in the hierarchy solidify. Some people loved him, others hated him. Some hated him but pretended to like him. That was the worst he thought, people who you felt hated you pretending not to out of fear or obligation. It was the one part of leadership he struggled with…silent dislike.


One Saturday in early fall, during the second performance, Nigel made his usual trip back to see the Major and Vadim. They had already concluded their banking and were sitting together Vadim poking at the fire drinking coffee from a tin cup, the Major having a spot of Scotch from a thick heavy glass. It was unusual to see him drink at camp. He was looking frail.


“My boy, sit down.” Nigel sat on footstool size rock that nature had left behind as the Major asked. They stared at each other, the Major smiled with a twinkle in his eye. The pause confused Nigel, “What? What?”.


*54) Don’t celebrate victories until the money is counted.

*55) Take criticism with class. They are probably right and your humility will be deal breaking.

*56)Never steal the pennies from your client or company.

*56) Running out of product is a good indicator of success. Have a plan for more provisions. That means a line of credit. Get it when you don't need it.

*57) Your staff is your lifeblood, if they start calling you boss, you are the problem.

*58) Don’t rain on parades with your problems. You will figure it out. Never bring up failures at a success meeting. It is demoralizing and can hurt you.

*59) There are no secrets in the office when it comes to relationships.

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