Inspired by the following Decamot items: brass band, serial killer, absinthe, at the edge of a cliff, buttercup, fracking, mathematician, wrecking ball, circus tent, jelly babies
The Moscow State Circus was once the gold standard that all circuses tried to emulate. A trip to the Russian capital during the Soviet era was not complete without taking your family to experience the sights and sounds of dancing bears, Cossack horsemanship, flying trapeze artists, multiple clowns and all manner of eclectic thrill-a-minute acts who pushed health and safety boundaries to the limit in search of spectacular feats of daring. Nothing was off limits even if, at times, the performers were genuinely putting their lives at risk.
To Freddie Browne, the circus tent was like a huge laboratory in which he could indulge his passion for inventing new routines designed to wow fresh audiences; a place to experiment. His family had been involved in circus for five generations, but it was difficult to see a future beyond the present. The truth was that the circus genre was in slow but inexorable terminal decline. Audiences were transferring their allegiances to other forms of entertainment.
Freddie thought the Disney Corporation had commandeered family entertainment by sanitising it, making it risk-free; and in the UK especially, Christmas pantomimes had syphoned off the best cheap gags which had once been the exclusive preserve of professional circus clowns.
Above all else the so-called “animal rights” movement had made it politically incorrect to exploit animals for entertainment. Freddie felt he was fighting a losing battle even though he believed his four-legged co performers were often treated better than their human counterparts. If he had had his way he would make them all fully paid up members of the actor’s union. Imagine Roy Rogers horse Trigger with an equine equity card in place of a pony club rosette!
Now “animal rights” was just one more wrecking ball; yet another very real threat to a unique way of life.
These thoughts were ever present as he sat on the trapeze looking down at the arena 50 feet below to the serried ranks of empty seats; still in his full clown makeup, Freddie felt the tears welling up in his eyes as he recalled those magic moments over the years when he could reduce 5000 people to helpless laughter or move them to take a sharp but audible intake of collective breath as he attempted a death defying triple summersault in front of their very eyes.
Now the adrenaline rush that made all his acrobatic feats worth the hours of practice was but a distant memory. Last night had been his very last performance. Tomorrow was his 80th birthday and Anna, his wife of over sixty years, had promised him a special birthday treat to celebrate his retirement. She had persuaded him to sell up and get out whilst there was still some mortgageable value left in the circus business and someone willing to pay something for their famous trading name.
He ought to be happy, but the truth was he felt as if he was standing at the edge of a cliff whilst someone was fracking for oil under his very feet.
As he began to swing gently to and fro, he thought he heard the mellifluous tones of a distant brass band playing in the nearby Town Square, so he slowly but surely moved his weight backwards and forwards in time with the music, leaning ever further back as the trapeze moved forward to gain more momentum until he was creating an impressive parabola in the sky.
“I can still do it!” he shouted to himself “Pour me another absinthe!”
As he continued his mental meandering down memory lane, still swinging suspended fifty feet in the air, each successive arc was accompanied by bitter sweet recollection of times past as he tried to come to terms with his predicament.
His marriage to Anna Polakous ended 50 years of family rivalry between two competing circus families to create one viable, exciting, Big Top entertainment colossus; the equal of any Wall Street city merger.
Freddie’s father had been born in Mexico and was well known for his musical comedy act. In his hilarious routine he played multiple musical instruments including bells, bottles, pans, and even an upside-down xylophone which he played standing on his head. His three aunts all took part with a very fast paced unicycle act whilst accompanying their brother on the saxophone. Their combined family act always concluded by showering the front rows with hundreds of jelly babies.
Anna’s family traditions were mainly clowns – her uncle was the world-renowned Coco the Clown who became the advisor to McDonald's and created the costume and makeup for Ronald McDonald, much to the chagrin of traditional circus families. “Selling your soul to the devil” was how many circus performers saw it but there was no denying the commercial success of the Ronald McDonald character.
But, as Freddie and Anna knew only too well, you had to continually innovate to grow the business otherwise kids would think McDonalds was where they needed to go to meet a clown and not through the main entrance to a visiting circus.
Freddie laughed to himself as he recalled one whacky idea which Anna promptly rejected almost before he uttered the thought. To ensure a fresh generation of kids came to the circus, he floated the idea of issuing a free ticket to every single child born in the United States in the year 1966.
“Yes, but what if the ticket holder turned out to be a paedophile or a serial killer?” was Anna’s less than impeccable logic as Freddie feigned disappointment with a clown’s quivery lower lip.
She continued to be the financial brains behind Browne Coco Enterprises Inc. but was content to let Freddie be the artistic driving force; but when their daughter Kala married out of the circus family circle, she knew it would only be a matter of time before their precarious peripatetic life style would come to an end. Their new son-in-law Bruno was a mathematician by training who became a high-flying computer programmer with Nintendo.
“About as far away from a circus performer as it is possible to be” sighed Freddie ruefully as he fast approached the point in his routine where he normally dismounted via a triple somersault into a VAT of red wine leaving the first two rows soaked in Shiraz. It was his private homage to his late father’s jelly baby finish.
Suddenly his reverie was shattered by a scream from the front row of the stalls far below
“Granddad! Stop it!” yelled a small ten-year-old boy frightened rigid at the sight of his beloved grandparent swinging in mid-air. The eardrum-piercing noise was enough to jolt Freddie out of his routine. He lost his grip and fell backwards to find himself hurtling towards the sawdust strewn floor below.
“Oh no!!! Help!!! Help!!!” screamed little Bruno junior. He covered his eyes not wanting to witness the fatal finale.
One minute later, Freddie put his arm on his grandson’s shoulder and comforted him with some soothing words which took him right back to the day his daughter had given birth to his only grandson. The infant baby had been rushed to hospital suffering from jaundice.
“Now now little Buttercup – don’t waste those tears – save them for another day and another performance” Bruno junior looked up with reddened eyes, relief etched on his face. Freddie’s fall had been broken by the safety net.
“But granddad what were you doing up there?”
“I was working on a new routine, but it will keep for another day and another performer”
“Nanna won’t be pleased, will she?”
“Nanna needn’t know – lets make it our little secret – OK?”
Bruno junior looked up through misty eyes and said
“OK granddad it’s a deal”
The birthday celebrations involved streams of people crowding into Bruno’s spacious apartment as Anna and Freddie held court. Amid much merriment, the couple were entertained royally by various branches of their extended family, each trying to outdo the other with comedy tricks frequently accompanied by homemade music – everything from an old accordion to a penny whistle and a tin drum.
Finally, Anna rose to her feet; raising her hand to call for silence she turned to her husband of 60 years and said through faltering words: “Darling Freddie – follow me – I have the surprise I promised you.” She took his hand and they made their way through to the back of the apartment to Bruno’s games room which was stacked with all manner of high tech equipment – his stock in trade. There, seated in front of a huge console was Bruno Junior grinning like a Cheshire cat.
“Ok Freddie … now little Bruno here is going to demonstrate the latest Nintendo 3DS games console which has been developed especially for them by his Dad with just a little help from yours truly”. Freddie Browne sat back in his chair and looked on in amazement as the opening credits to Circus Boy appeared on the screen. Bruno junior was busily working all the levers and explaining how a player started by riding a stallion round a circular arena at speed but had to perform various disciplines – head stands, back flips and somersaults without falling off before moving to the next level.
“I’ve only managed to get to the third level Granddad, but there are ten altogether! It's brilliant fun I can’t wait to see you in action!”
Freddie could not believe the lifelike animation. Circus Boy was a three-dimensional character who looked exactly like a 20-year-old Freddie Browne in his trademark clown’s makeup and costume. But it was the accreditation running along the bottom of the screen that really caught his eye. It said: “Made under license from Browne Coco Enterprises Inc.”.
“You kept that a secret little Buttercup” he said, as a fresh set of tears formed in his eyes. He squeezed Anna’s hand, grateful that the Circus would continue to entertain the next generation.