The Tent

Jacob_van_Ruisdael_-_Rough_Sea_at_a_Jetty_-_Google_Art_Project

The wind was getting up. From the clifftop Ben watched whitecaps scud across a sea of tarnished pewter while breakers crashed at the foot of the lighthouse below. The landscape was the color of an old sepia print, shadows brownish-black. Lightning cracked the sky into fissures that froze for an instant, then vanished in the leaden gloom. He felt the first cold spatter of rain.

He turned, and saw figures running across the hummocky grass. He knew they were shouting, but the wind snatched the words away. He recognized Stefan, the manager of the circus, by his baggy overalls. He was gesticulating in the direction of the tent. Ben saw the sides swelling.

They had arrived the previous night, grinding up the hill on a road that ended as a gravel track. The trucks parked in a semicircle on the cliff, the last pulling in at two in the morning. Ben, wedged in a sleeping bag between aluminum boxes on the floor of one of the vans, heard the knock of its diesel engine and the hiss of air brakes. Then all was quiet, except for the slow wash of the sea. Through a window in the door the beam of the lighthouse swept past with tireless regularity. He slept, until a fist banged on the side of the van.

A smell of frying bacon hung on the damp air. In the half-light muffled figures sipped mugs of tea at trailer doors. When they saw Ben’s Nikon some turned away. Others stared. This is who we are and how we live. We do things you could never imagine. Take photographs or fuck off, it makes no difference. You will never get close to us.

The children were too pinched and ragged to be pretty, though some had a wild beauty. Even the youngest already showed a determined set to the mouth. To see it in the face of one child would have been striking; seeing it in half a dozen was eerie. It put him in mind of a horror movie whose name he couldn’t remember. The Stepford Wives? None of them went to school. Instead, they lived on the road and learned balance and strength and courage.

A dark, wiry girl of about six or seven with a nose stud and rubies in her ears sat on the steps of a trailer and peeled potatoes from a tin bowl in her lap. When he took her picture she looked into his eyes and spat.

The eastern sky was vermilion, with streaks of gold amid the purplish-grey.

“Red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning,” Tanya said. She, too, was dark and wiry; most of the circus people were, except Maximilian, who pulled cars with a rope between his teeth. Beneath the torn grey tracksuit her body was taut as steel cable. Without makeup she looked old, her hair a steel wool frizz from years of peroxide. But she had a dancer’s posture and on the trapeze, with a rose between her teeth, she was a princess.

“Will you put the tent up?” Ben asked. She scooped another forkful of egg and fried bread from a chipped plate. When she finished she wiped the back of a hand across her mouth and said,

“A day with no tent is a day with no money. Monty wouldn’t like that. Neither would we. But if the tent blows away …” She shrugged, and gave a hard smile.

Monty was the owner of the circus, short and thickset in a grimy striped shirt and a pair of baggy pinstripe trousers held up with red suspenders. Coarse grey hair sprouted from his ears and nostrils. He and Stefan and a roustabout called Giorgio were looking at the sky. Giorgio had a shaved head and two earrings. When he glanced round and saw he was being photographed he scowled and drew a finger across his throat.

Ben didn’t see how the decision was communicated but suddenly everyone was in motion. Stefan swung up onto one of the trucks and began to loosen ropes. Others started unloading crates and trunks and boxes. Again, he was struck by how much their unkempt appearance belied the discipline with which they worked.

He dropped to one knee and photographed a small boy rolling a drum case along the ground. The case was bigger than the boy, who turned to grin at the camera and tripped over a tussock of grass. The drum case picked up speed as it rolled away down an incline. Somebody shouted, and the boy sprang up and raced after it. Before he reached it a tall, hard-muscled man in a dirty singlet and trousers that had once been part of a suit appeared out of nowhere. He stopped the drum case with one hand and waited. Then he slapped the boy’s face.

A sputtering donkey engine coughed black smoke and raised the poles which were secured with ropes attached to large, flat-bladed pegs. When the framework was in place the canvas was raised like a sail and pegged down with iron stakes. The morning was cold, but the faces of the men hauling on the ropes were streaked with sweat, gold teeth glinting in the grime and stubble. They worked quickly, without speech or wasted movement.

Maximilian moved swiftly from one place to another, light as a ghost despite his bulk. Ben followed, fascinated by the way he grimaced as he hauled on the ropes. His face was red as a shepherd’s warning except for a pallid scar below one ear; brows that came down like shutters hid his eyes.

By midday the tent was up and the first tiers of wooden benches in position. Tanya rigged the trapeze and began to swing to and fro. Ben lay on his back in the center of the ring and shot upward at the figure soaring above him. Stefan, passing with a bench in his hands, grinned. “Watch out, lying there. She doesn’t use a safety net. You might get hurt.”

He’d been shooting for five hours, afraid of missing the picture that would make some editor pause  and grunt approval. He knew he might not see it himself until he saw it on his laptop. That was part of the magic, finding what you didn’t know you had. And the more you shot, the more chance you would capture a striking image. How many exposures did National Geographic shooters make for a story? Ten thousand? Twenty?

“If enough monkeys abuse enough typewriters for enough time they will produce a limerick about a young lady called Hunt,” his mentor Stanton had said. “That’s how the pros work. The shotgun approach.” But the pros had contracts and all expenses paid.

Ben scrambled to his feet. Outside, the light had dulled. He walked to the edge of the cliff and gazed at the darkening sky. Container ships, receding into the distance, vanished in the murk. The wind snatched up flurries of spray and flung them like handfuls of seed.

Now, looking back, he saw the tent billow and shake and remembered pictures of the crash of the Hindenberg, a curtain of flame sliding down the sky. The tent was not burning. But one corner was no longer pinned to the ground and flapped like a whale thrashing its tail. It would subside with lulls in the wind, then curl and snap and throw itself about with renewed fury. More pegs came loose. When the wind made the canvas tighten and strain they were jerked into the air, bearing clods of chalky earth.

The rain, harder now, changed to flurries of hail, blasts of ice chips that stung Ben’s face and made him cover his eyes. He pulled up the collar of his jacket and ran toward the tent.The wind seemed to blow from all directions at once.

Maximilian grabbed a rope so the others could hammer its peg back in. But he had no way to steady himself. The next gust dragged him forward and yanked out another spike. When the wind dropped he toppled back. The spike, swinging through the air on its rope, whipped his face and its flattened head, hammered into rusty ionic curls at the edges, caught his cheek and gouged out a collop of flesh. Maximilian touched the gash and looked at the blood on his fingers. He seemed more puzzled than hurt, a bleeding giant dwarfed by the billowing immensity of the canvas.

There was another gust of wind, more violent than ever. The poles started to lean over and the whole tent began to sag. The wind filled one end like a sail. More pegs flew out. Stefan shouted, “Fuck, we can’t hold it! Get clear! Everybody get clear!”

The poles collapsed with a creaking, wrenching sound like teeth being pulled from the earth. The tent sank slowly, covering a tangle of ropes and fractured spars. The outline of the benches took shape under the canvas as it settled, as if they had been covered with a dustsheet.

Another gust tore the tent free of all its moorings. It flapped across the cliff, rising and falling like a monstrous earthbound kite. Trailing ropes and spikes, it came to rest in a gully. Then–against all expectation, for the wind was coming off the sea, not toward it–a treacherous back eddy in the air snatched it away from the land and flung it toward the water. It settled on the sea and floated just below the surface, an enormous misshapen jellyfish the color of prison laundry.

Stefan and the others stared after it. Tanya had hailstones in her hair, a tiara of melting diamonds. Maximilian was still on all fours, bearlike. Nobody spoke. Ben huddled with his back to the rain, trying to keep the camera dry while his numbed fingers fumbled to insert a new card. When he glanced up his eye caught Giorgio’s. What gives you the right to stick your fucking camera in other people’s trouble?

“To succeed in this game you need the religion,” Stanton had said. “The unshakable heartfelt belief that taking photographs is ipso facto a benefit to mankind. Don’t wrestle with your finer feelings. Just do it.”

Ben raised the camera again. Tanya wiped her face on the sleeve of her sweatshirt and he wondered whether she was wiping away rain or tears. Giorgio was still staring. Without taking his eyes from Ben’s, he spat. The spittle never reached the ground; it, too, was snatched away by the wind. Then he turned and walked toward the trailers.

Tanya’s hair, plastered down by the rain, showed dark roots. Her face was rigid with the pride of the circus people and their contempt for safety and comfort and dry houses.

“What will you do now?” Ben asked.

Her smile was a scrim of defiance, gaiety thrown over despair.

“Find another way to die with a rose between my teeth.”

*****

%d bloggers like this: