It was going to be a break from boredom, and yet no one saw what was coming.
Word count 1746
The town appeared deserted as the guy drove slowly down Main Street. The hottest time of the day assured most sensible folk were in the shade, either asleep or resting. His vehicle progressed down the dusty road until it stopped outside the town hall.
Stepping from the vehicle, the man, wearing a sweat-stained denim shirt, jeans and Acubra hat, hefted a hessian sack, holding posters and glue. He stuck signs on every lamppost or tree the length of the deserted street. Flies swarmed around his face, eager to get a taste of his salty sweat. Stepping back into his truck, he left the townsfolk to read the flyers when they awoke from their Siesta.
“The Circus Is Coming!”
The news soon spread. Nothing of any interest ever happened in Newman, beside the occasional fight at the Newman Arms after too many pints of grog. Going troppo was what the locals called this time of the year. After months of buildup to the wet season, each day heavy clouds would gather, threatening rain, heat rising, tempers growing thin until either the storm would break or an explosion of built up emotion would overflow. The news the circus would soon arrive was exciting. Not only for the children, but as a relief valve for the whole of the population of this outback mining town. As everyone agreed, “Nothing ever happens here.”
A week after the flyers went up, a convoy of trucks entered from the solitary road from the desert. The excitement this caused was almost too much for everyone as they watched the dozen or more heavily laden trucks make their way to a dusty patch of waste ground about a mile out of the town centre.
Soon a crowd of onlookers stood watching in awe as a small tent city appeared before their eyes. A few mongrel dogs prowled their new environment. The carnies wheeled cages holding exotic animals under the shade of the straggly trees. There were hungry looking tigers and lanky leopards. A dozen or so monkeys screeched at the bars of their enclosures, which soon had a crowd of children copying their actions, laughing at their antics. The thing which caught most of the attention was the elephant, tied up with rope, bound by one rear leg to a truck. Folks could hear her bellowing across town as she swayed back and forth.
A few days after their arrival the crew raised the vast tent from the ground until at last a full-sized circus big top was ready to put on the Greatest Show on Earth. Or that was what it said in large red letters across its massive roof.
The night before they were due to open, the carnival troop members were having a general meeting around the campfire. As they discussed the agenda of the next few days, a dozen or so kids, whose life existed of travelling with the circus, raced around on their bikes stirring up the dry desert dust.
“Okay, everyone, nothing’s changed. The order of appearance is still the same.” Mother Mary, as everyone called her, was speaking. She was the mainstay of the troop. For the last few years since her husband died from an accident with the lions, she’d taken over as ringmaster. Her imposing size and strong singing voice made the public forget that the ringmaster was usually a man.
“We should get a full house for the three night we’re here. These people are starved for entertainment, so let’s give them our best.” She gave her usual pep talk. “We’ve set everything up for tomorrow night, first night’s a sellout.” Her dimpled face gave a frown. “The only thing we have to worry about is the weather. There’s a cyclone warning. Hopefully, it will bypass Newman, but we need to keep a sharp eye on the forecast.” There was a murmur around the campfire as they discussed the weather outlook.
“Elsa is very restless. I think she knows there’s foul weather on the horizon.” Raja, the elephant handler, cast his eye over the gigantic animal, who was constantly swaying. Her eyes showed up white in the firelight, her trunk lifted as if to test the air.
“You must keep her calm, you know if she starts her trumpeting it unsettles the lion and tigers.” Mary warned. Raja nodded, his eyes observed his beloved elephant as she pulled her back leg against her restraints. He rose from his fold up chair and went over to Elsa, whispering in her massive ear, and the gentle giant relaxed as she listened to her master’s voice.
The excitement in the small town was palpable as the day of the opening performance drew near. But the population were also listening to the news of the weather. Cyclone Ruby was bearing down, gaining strength. The forecast was for it to cross the coast long before it reached Newman, but the town was used to false alarms. However, nothing was going to keep them from attending a live event in their town. The supermarket, that morning, had done a roaring trade as the townsfolk stocked up with supplies in the eventuality the Cyclone struck Newman.
The rows of seats were full to capacity. A buzz of expectancy filled the big-top as the show was about to begin. Every child, it seemed, held some sort of souvenir, candy floss or toy, won on the outside sideshow stalls. Loud music made it almost impossible to hear oneself speak. As families entered the tent they gazed in awe at the size of the big top. The trapeze bars, swinging high, gave a tantalising glimpse of the entertainment to come. The atmosphere became charged with electricity.
At last, the introductory music began. All eyes were focused on the sawdust-covered arena. A troop of sequin-clad girls on horseback, galloped into the ring. The riders gave a breathtaking display of horsemanship as they stood high and proud on the backs of the ponies as they raced around. Suddenly, Mother Mary appeared, attired in her red jacket, trousers, black top hat and high leather boots. She expertly cracked a whip in one hand as the horses and riders left the arena.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” she bellowed, “welcome to the Greatest Show On Earth.” She sang “The Greatest Showman.” Her wonderful voice carried around the arena, building even more excitement.
The show was going famously, everything running like clockwork. After an hour of breathtaking acts, the last being heart-stopping aerial acrobatics from Bill and Brenda, the trapeze artists, came time for the intermission. People traipsed outside from their seats to buy ice creams for the children and to queue up at the beer tent. The wind was strengthening, but these hardened folk had seen much worse, and they hadn't yet seen the animal acts.
“Will the man get eaten by the lion?” Six-year-old Fergus tugged at his dad’s hand. He looked worried.
“No son, he’s just going to get them to do tricks.”
“Can I have a ride on the elephant, Dad?” He pointed to where Elsa was swaying. She was wearing a Howdah, ready to take children for rides after the show.
“We’ll see how long the queue is Fergie. This wind is getting stronger, we might need to get on home as soon as the show finishes.”
Soon the bell rang to let everyone know the second half was starting in five minutes. The music began to play and Mary’s voice came over the loudspeaker encouraging everyone to take their seats.
“The show is about to recommence. Please take your seats, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls.”
During the intermission, the lion cage had been placed in the centre of the arena. The two lions were pacing, looking ferocious and wild. Out came the trainer, wearing black jodhpurs and top hat. He carried a whip, cracking it loudly as he sauntered around the cage. As if he was preparing himself before he opened the door, he breathed deeply before stepping in, closing the cage door behind him. He started his act. The lions snarled as he cracked his whip, and everyone gave an intake of breath when Leo launched himself at the trainer. The trainer shouted a warning, his voice nearly drowned out by the sound of the rapidly escalating sound of the wind. But all eyes were on the scene, half wanting Leo to take a bite.
Fergus held his father’s hand tight, his eyes squeezed tight shut. “Has the lion eaten the man?” He whispered. His father assured him that no one would get eaten.
About thirty minutes into the second half the audience were laughing uproariously at the clowns who were surrounded by monkeys dressed in tiny suits and hats, some even riding little bikes. The laughter almost covered the sound of the storm outside.
It was then they heard the first sound of canvas ripping. The sides of the big top flapped madly as tent pegs ripped from the ground. The rows of chairs trembled and people wondered what was happening, some getting up from their chairs to leave. This led to more people doing the same until there was a rush for the exit. Fergus and his father were among the ones heading for the way out, people rushed past them as if they were rocks in their stream. Then suddenly the mighty roof collapsed, trapping hundreds under the heavy, rain soaked canvas. The internal steel support columns bent as they came down, smashing lighting and bring down the trapeze equipment. The sounds of panicked horses and the screams of the audience became interchangeable as eventually the tent was flattened to the ground.
Outside, men and women rushed to assist as some of the injured crawled from the wreckage. Elsa, the elephant, broke her chain in the panic and ran through the crowd. People, already in shock, attempted to get out of her way as she rampaged wildly until she ran off into the rain and wind, disappearing into the darkness.
There were some miraculous escapes, as Fergus can relate to. He and his father got home safely, but over fifty others were not so lucky. It took several days to find the escaped lion and Elsa had a week of freedom before a relieved Raja found her again, wandering contentedly in the bush. Cyclone Ruby wreaked her havoc before moving on. It was said she was the worst cyclone the district had endured for over fifty years.
Eventually the circus left town after dealing with their injuries and damage to equipment. All that remains of that terrible night is a commemorative plaque placed on the site. It tells of the night the circus and Cyclone Ruby came to town.