A long, muscly white leg announced itself at John’s open doorway. He blinked hard but still it remained; the silver, sequined platform shoe pouring its presence proudly at the top of his wet metal stairs. The rainy night sparkling like a backdrop.
Still dressed in the bottom half of his red ringleader outfit – top hat and shirt on the tea-stained Formica table beside him – John settled his tea cup down quietly and edged back into the corner of his horseshoe shaped seat.
A momentary spasm of confusion flickered – where ‘ad that cup come from, he thought. But his fight mechanism quickly took over. One solid, rough, brown and hairy, paw-like hand held the table while another took hold of the sofa’s edge. His heavily layered eyelids narrowed into sharp slits of curiosity; his tongue licking his lips as the intruders white fishnets and pink satin bow enlisted a more sexual urge in his cat-like predator stance. Finally, he raised his greying stubble chin proud against the prowler in his den.
With his sagging leathery stomach taught and his big, square bare feet pulled back under, John felt himself tire quickly. Being short and stocky – not a midget, though, he’d hasten to add – his ageing body could only withstand a little tension these days. Out on the streets at a young age, he’d had to learn to fend for himself fast. And in doing so he’d taken some beatings, but the bigger he got, the more he gave and he soon learnt to beat the bullies himself. Until the circus folk found and formed his curiosity into fame; ‘show the short arse to tame ‘orses’ had been the command.
John had worked hard to prove himself worthy; to his new keepers and the audience. Trouble was his inner demon still demanded he destroy the cursed curiosity of his form. A monstrosity that writhed furiously unless subdued by smoke or a shot of that heavenly liquid, golden brown.
The stereo circled his ears with Johnny Cash’s seemingly never-ending ‘Ring of Fire’ track. The big top lights shined through a plastic window to his right; the rain tapping its bright red, yellow and greens as if in time to the music. Colours smudging around him, distorting his vision; hazy and clouded by the thick, grey green smoke that rose steadily from the roll-up at his fingers. It too dancing as it reached the window. A chilled, damp, earthy air spiralled through from the door and John sniffed at what he thought could be a touch of Patchouli. Even the misplaced, gaudy cuckoo clock seemed to be ticking faster than normal.
And yet nothing more from this leg except a twinkle.
“Ello,” he tried, a sense of unease drenching his usual growl.
He thought it must be Steve with his deal but he wasn’t expecting him for at least another hour. The circus tents were closed, he’d made sure of that. And it was unlikely someone off site could have made it past the other vans.
Brilliant yellows and oranges spiralled out from the wallpapered border surrounding him. The occasional gust of wind shook the van, stirring his head, twisting his sight, his stomach, his tongue still licking, a sticky dryness developing.
Again he blinked and the shoe seemed to wink.
John shook his head and sat up, grabbed for the cup, took a big gulp and re-placed his paws ready to pounce. A warmth rose from his belly; he slouched back in on himself. Again the air tickled his nostrils with its floral suggestion. The room started to envelop him in and out with his breath.
“Coo-ee, night worm,” chimed Steve in a deep south drawl, his protruded pink-rimmed lips and frizzy blonde wig lolling suggestively atop a white gloved hand that now rested on the leg.
The awareness clamped John’s slack jaw shut and he stared hard as Steve lifted himself elegantly into the van, shuffling his pair of shiny shoes across the bleach-stained brown carpet towards a wooden work top. There he draped himself dramatically, giant silver and blue eyelashes flickering as they dropped and then raised from the bare feet to the bald head of ‘Johnny The Brave’.
“Aww, deary,” he chimed, one arm hanging puppet-like from a bent elbow.
“You boys been gettin’ a little shaky without some Sally-Anne loving ain’t ya’ll.”
John pictured himself in the over-sized sapphire that hung from the silky white hand before him. Blood red dripped down his face, the wind beating overtones of the Psycho theme-tune.
He squeezed his eyes hard shut before opening them wide to the sensual frenzy glowing ever brighter around him. His brows furrowed deeper, their blackened roofs a welcome shield. He breathed deep.
“Just gimme the fookin’ gear, Steve, I can’t be doing with your pansy shite tonight.”
He sat back then, satisfied; his confidence returning. But the white gloved hands went up in mock fright. “Oh, Johnny,” Steve squealed. “Don’t be getting’ all angry with little ole Sally-Anne now. I jus’ come to help y’all out some time – you know that.”
John was leant forward now, the cup moved purposefully to one side – a tiger ready to pounce.
“I told ye, Stevey boy. You got no right comin’ playin’ games. Now give me the gear and fook off.”
‘A Boy Named Sue’ clicked into play and Steve squealed again with delight; the white gloves and sequined shoes bouncing in time, jumping, playfully, puppy-like. Clack, clack, clack, clack; the white gloves multiplying, circling around and towards him. Steve’s cackle repeated, echoing; the rain and wind attacking.
John squeezed his eyes hard. His head felt like a glitter-ball exploding with a mess of murderous thoughts, disco images and his prized show horses. The concoction screened through the lens of a kaleidoscopic framed film, complete with a Johnny Cash soundtrack.
At that he was up, swaying towards Steve, his own voice like a slowed-down version from his mind, released in cartoon captions; big, black and white blocks of lettering – his thoughts, framed; formed; changed. He stooped at the corner of the work-top and looked up at Steve who just stared down from behind butterfly eyes, a lamb curled over his head; crickets dancing at his feet.
The door knocked, shaking John awake.
He looked slowly around the plain, terracotta and yellow muted van. Leaves rustled in the wind outside, splatting rain drops against the window.
Again he jumped.
Again the door knocked.
John sat up and cleared his throat. “Who’s there?” he croaked.
The door swung open and Steve popped up the stairs.
“Cor blimey, mate, you’re looking a bit ropey. Best leave this door open for a while, aye.”
John licked his lips in memory, his eyes started back around the room.
“Stick the kettle on, shall I?”
Steve, in his usual work-boots and battered Levis took a few steps back towards the kitchen area, his red and white chequered boxers flashed back at John who winced at his own thoughts.
“So, you wanna tell me what you were up to in ‘ere, mate. Looks like you seen a ghost.”
He set about making tea; collecting the clanking cups from the cupboard; teasing a teaspoon from the drawer. So normal; so simple.
John’s mouth hung in miscomprehension, he tried to speak but a derisory stuttering emerged instead. He could tell from Steve’s own confused expression that he had no idea what had just happened. What John had just thought; dreamt; imagined. He relaxed into the sofa, happy that the sensory overload had subdued.
“I got some competition on the market now, ‘ave I?”
The kettle flicked; boiled and John jumped again, his eyes darting.
“Nice strong, sweet tea coming up, mate. You just relax there, aye.”
Tea, thought John. Sweet tea.
A memory of the catapult man emerged in his mind. They’d gone for drinks after the show. And then back to his – for tea. Special tea; his speciality, he’d said.
“Feck me, Steve, I think the catapult man might have spiked me.”