Updated: Jul 13, 2022
CHAPTER ONE - It's Dark Inside
The shed door was slightly ajar. It creaked back and forth on the English afternoon breeze. Nigel approached to fasten it, as surely he would be blamed for being the one who left it open again. As he reached for the latch, a movement inside caught his eye. It took a moment for his brain to process the pair of work boots, attached to legs drifting.
He looked up to meet his Father’s eyes open, dangling by the neck, an electrical cord secured to the single rafter above.
Nigel grabbed for the legs and attempted to drive the feet back onto the small stepladder his face smashed into the dirty denim dungarees, the smell of oil and sawdust would imprint themselves forever.
He could feel the last vestiges of his Father’s life leave his body and enter his chest as the last trace of warmth left him and went into Nigel. The corpse would gain no foothold.
Tears filled his eyes, as his own legs collapsed and he fell back on his bottom. He tried to wipe them away as he looked up to see the glazed eyes of disappointment.
His entire past hung in the rafters.
Four years later, he sat in the headmaster’s office. Now fourteen years-old, he saw those same eyes again. The Headmaster staring down, a wooden yardstick in his hand, snapping to punctuate every sentence. “Nigel, there is no option for you. You can do math. Maybe geometry, but not much more. You have not read one book ,as far as I can tell. You can’t spell. You can’t write a cohesive paragraph. You can’t pay attention, but to be mischievous.”
What he said was true. Every word of it. Nigel hated school. He hated teachers. He hated his classmates. He hated everything about it. Books were painful and he couldn’t get through two pages before falling asleep or finding a more interesting distraction. Writing was a misery. His future was certainly no brighter than his past. He wasn’t even average.
“Nigel, are you listening to me?” The Headmaster raised his voice. Nigel’s attention fell outside the window to the peak of the circus tent peering over the rooftops in the distance. “Nigel!” The shout came with and accompanying whip of the Headmaster’s yardstick across his left cheek. The blow landed with a sting. Nigel could feel a welt rising.
He looked back at the Headmaster whose eyes had shifted from disappointment to rage. “If you come back in the fall. You will repeat this year. You will not move on with your class.”
Humiliation filled him. He thought perhaps his father’s destiny should be his as well. Nobody would miss one fourteen year-old boy. His future would no doubt be that of a stable-hand anyways. “I’ve met many a boy like you before, defiant, stubborn and opportunist. Fellows like you have two choices, prison or the military.” The Headmaster continued. Nigel replied, “Why do I have to pick? Perhaps I can do both.” The Headmaster’s anger turned to calculation, “Get out. Don’t come back for the last week of the session. Consider yourself expelled.” The Headmaster turned and walked around his desk, taking his seat. Sensing Nigel's presence, he snapped, “I said go.”
Nigel stood and looked at the Headmaster with daggers in his own eyes, fighting back tears, “I won’t be back”.
A life of crime seemed like as good a choice as any, after all he was too young for the military.
Saturday came and the circus was opening.
His plan was simple for his coming caper. He would wait for a crowd, perhaps a family, to make it to the ticket booth at the gate. When the old man selling tickets was engaged and distracted, he would slip around the back of the gate and squeeze through the narrow passage between the booth and the makeshift fence.
As he approached, he saw the Old Man catch him out of the corner of his eye. Nigel stopped and looked about, as if he was looking for his imaginary family to catch up.
Soon enough, two families approached together. As soon as the first father pulled his wallet out, Nigel drafted right up to the side of the booth to one side where he was sure to be out of the Old Man’s peripheral vision.
A burst of sound crackled on the other side of the one-man ticket hut. Popcorn! The eruption of the distraction was perfect timing. Like a garden snake, Nigel slithered right over to the gap in the barrier. He slid through and disappeared into the crowd past the food tents and beer garden. Crime was exhilarating.
He set his next target on the Big Top on the left side of the carnival grounds. A week ago this land was simply a farmer’s field. It was a perfect set-up for the carnival every year, as the field backed into a quarry ledge, an 80-foot sheer drop that couldn’t be scaled from below. This next challenge would be invigorating. Nigel’s heart raced while his body slowed to carry a cool demeanor.
The next step was to utilize a technique he had occasionally used to sneak into the local cinema matinee. He was practiced at this one, but did have a shameful failure on one afternoon which resulted in a banning from the theatre manager for several months. However today, his confidence was never higher. He walked right up to the tent and, hearing the intensity of the performance hitting its crescendo inside, he stood instantly to the right of the tent opening where the crowd would soon emerge. He casually faced out looking back toward the midway.
He side-stepped a bit to be out of the path and into the white stripe of the tent, hoping his white shirt and pasty complexion would casually camouflage his existence. A hay bale in front of him, nearly the same color as his khaki trouser, made him feel like a true chameleon.
He waited for his moment, loitering next to the tent exit as the matinee ended. The band played its soaring finale as the tent curtain swept open covering him in the heaving fabric. As he struggled to recover his glasses, nearly knocked off his wiry frame, he was pushed into the manure laded mud. He crawled from under the heavy canvas and struggled to his feet. Undeterred, he quickly stood ridged, as if nothing had happened and he belonged there.
He wiped the mud from his chin and took a calming breath. The celebratory parade of animals, riders, show girls, high wire artists, and clowns, broke beyond the muddy foyer at the opening of the tent. The parade continuing its purposeful journey, headed down through the midway full of carnies. Behind the collection of acts and animals the crowd exited the tent and followed in tow.
He observed that this rehearsed route was certainly designed to lure the crowd into this processional which would, no doubt, end in the midway. The ultimate goal, the separation of folks and more of their hard-earned money.
Nigel had no money and envied the rich spoiled fat children as they walked by. He recognized several from school. He watched as the rats scurried to satisfy their appetites.
The midway itself was a true carnival of choices, a bevy of games, rides, foods and the freak show. These sideshows were complimented by snacks of sugar, fried pies and onion drenched hamburgers. The lifeblood of the carnival. Nigel imagined how this would keep the masses fed for the evening and keep them on site as long as possible, until every penny was spent. The beer garden was filled first with a hundred patrons swilling away with a chorus of live Oom Pah Pah music to chug foamy cheap draught.
As the tail of the crowd worked their way from the Big Top, Nigel’s found his opportunity to execute his plan. As the last of the herd squeezed through the 20-foot-wide opening, Nigel fought his way from the wings to the center of the pressing stampede. He stood fast, as he faced the same direction as the crowd. He walked with them at first, then halted and placed himself in full-reverse while still facing forward. It was a trick he had seen in an old movie with Buster Keaton. Or was it, Harold Lloyd?
Using the occasional break in pressure and leaning his wimpy frame backwards, he pushed himself upstream. As he fought his way through the slippery clay saturated with rain, animal urine, spilled soda and beer as it gave way under his foot and he tumbled backwards.