The wind blew gently enough still, but it was beginning to bite. You could begin to smell the cold on the air. Taste the ozone and anticipate the air, thick with gunsmoke, as it would be in a month or so. A hoof idly circled at the grass, the greenery subjugated by the sky. Overcast. A few dots of blue where the sun burns through.
Four horses grazed. Chewing grass. Trotting. Beautiful, all of them the colour of a rich man’s coat. Uniform circles of cream on their backs. Their nostrils flared and one rubbed its head against another in a way that could be perceived as loving. As it was by George Barnes, who sat watching them. He sat on the grass eating penny chews instead of the non-existent breakfast no one had prepared for him. Annie was meant to make sure he was fed and walked into school, but Annie had gone off to the woods with Steve Parsons so they could kiss and he could touch her boobs. She had given him 50p to get something to eat and made him promise to get there on time on his own, but he didn’t care. He hated his sister and he hated Steve Parsons and everyone called him Steve Parsnips and said he had a Parsnip dick. But never to his face. He was an ugly boy with red hair and boils on his back. You could see them where his shirt collar ended and his freckled skin began. White and red and looking like they would burst. But he was big and angrier than his skin and would punch other boys and that’s why Annie liked him.
He wondered at first if it would mean that people would leave him alone, but Parsnip’s interest in his sister hadn’t extended to her kith and kin. Or probably even her face.
George put a UFO in his mouth and waited for the sherbet to seep through the rice paper sludge. It made him smile as he wondered if the horses were really as happy as they seemed. Even behind the wire fence. He wondered what it would be like to be a horse and what ‘Palomino’ meant and read the word over and over out loud from the giant sign.
George looked at the funfair under construction. At all the static roller coasters and dead ghost trains and at all the men milling about, lifting and carrying and screwing and bolting. He always thought that circuses would be exciting, run by clowns and bearded women and big fat men and knife throwers. But instead it was just men in caps and tracksuits and with denim jackets with the sleeves cut off and with hair all long at the back, smoking cigarettes even though it was only 8.30am.
They shouted to each other and it sounded like Irish and London and northern and a complete other language. They laughed and cackled and shouted and George couldn’t tell if they liked each other or not. One man seemed to be shouting the most, pointing at the others and telling them where to go. Even from far away, he could see that the man had arms like the trunks of trees. He was either wearing a loud shirt or was heavily tattooed. George smiled as he thought he had finally seen a real-life circus man at last. A real tattooed man. He reached into his bag and groped around at the bottom, hoping he hadn’t left his detective kit at home. Among pencil shavings, bits of tissue and furry boiled sweets he found a three year old diary (with attached pencil) and a pair of opera glasses (property of the Royal Opera House he had bought for 25p in a jumble sale.
George looked through an attempted to find the man, to see if his tattoos were real. At first, looking through the glasses was wobbly and out of focus, like when his eyes would water on a cold day. His vision swung and he felt a little bit sick, so he lay flat to try and steady his vision.
Tower of death.
The man flicked a cigarette butt and then put his thumb to one nostril, sending an ark of mucus out of the other. George tried to see his arms, but couldn’t hold steady enough.
He could see other men, heads turning quickly. It looked like a commotion. Suddenly people began running towards what looked like a tilt-o-whirl. George tried keeping track of the tattoo man, wishing his hands were steadier and he had a real pair of binoculars.
He could see someone trying to get over the rear fence, into the main part of the park. Clambering up with only one foot hanging, he was nearly at the top. One of the circus men ran and leapt, grabbing onto his shoe and pulled him to the floor.
The scruffy man fell, but did not cry out, not that George could have heard. He was far too far away and could barely make out much more than blurs. The scruffy man didn’t look like he was in pain. As more men came closer, he didn’t hurry to move or try and scrabble away. But it didn’t look like he’d been injured. He scarcely looked like he even knew he had fallen. George could just about make out the tattoo man shoving his way to the front, to where the scruffy man lay. He followed his red bandanna and his blue and green arms through the crowd. The tattoo man leaned forward and disappeared behind a sea of thuggery and vicious movement. He raised again. George tried to focus, but the intense concentration made his eyes water. He thought he saw the top of the scruffy man’s head, lolling among the crowd. He thought he saw something else. He thought he saw blood.
His watch beeped. It was 9. Assembly had started.
George wiped the tears from his eyes and looked back up again. He had lost his position. Disorientated, he veered from side-to-side of the circus, trying to find the men, wondering if he had imagined it all. But he could see no signs of life, other than the horses who had returned to grazing. Oblivious and uncaring.
There was nothing there.
After waiting a few more minutes, he packed away his spy kit and began the slow trudge to school. He picked at a stale iced bun and dragged his feet along the grit on the pavement that surrounded the common.