Safety In Numbers

Entry by: Young Professor

5th August 2016
Jackie was the blood mopper when the Afghan worked his trick. On days the show moved, everyone pitched in and did what was needed, but when they were in town, and the day the old witch got hold of him, Jackie mopped blood.
He’d watched the Afghan work for months, between performances at the boxing tent. Jackie and the scores of same-looking boys that laboured across the circus were free to roam when the bosses had no use for them, invisible to the paying public.
Working Mr Fred’s tent allowed for a snatched handful of such breaks. Three shows a day, multiple fights per show. Two of the junior boxers would go at it in the first; then the locals. Some town champion always put his hand up to fight one of the traveling pros, or Billy Bligh, Mr Fred’s world-famous roo. They’d take a hiding in either case, usually a less permanent one if they chose the human opponent - Billy was a monster who took the whole crew to corral with any degree of safety. When no heroes were left it was the main event, five rounds, any two of the big names - Jimmy Knuckles, Furious Roy Fitzgerald, Black Harry. Thirteen of the country’s best tent boxers, rotating so you wouldn’t see the same fight twice if you came to every show. And Jackie, stealing in unnoticed around Mr Fred’s crowd-work, wiping the canvas clean for the next jaw-dropping chapter. Then out he’d dash, more often than not into the back of the Afghan’s show, to see punters hear their fortunes and buy rid of curses.
The entertainers paid no more attention to the working boys than the public did, which was only a little less than the odd stick or deafening dressing down they got from the bosses. So when Jackie heard his name, half his body already slipping out under the tent to sprint back to his mop for the hundredth time, it cracked like a firework.
Pulling his head in, he rose and joined the crowd looking up at the Afghan on his platform. ‘Jackie,’ the old man said again. ‘Come up here.’
The audience shuffled and looked around, not feeling Jackie shimmy between them. He was on the makeshift stage before he felt eyes on him.
The Afghan nodded toward a stool for Jackie to sit as he addressed the audience again. ‘Jackie, this boy, is one of the shadows. They build this magic empire, raising it like a lighthouse from the dirt while you sleep. You don’t see them. Jackie thinks I don’t see the shadows, but I do. I see him in here, among you, watching and working and learning. Today, I think the time has come, for Jackie to enter the light!’
On the word, the tent flashed bright and white and Jackie was blind. The air echoed with the hiss of a lit wick, and he felt hands on him, spinning him down and off his seat, then more hands, pushing and pulling as he stumbled to keep his footing.
A moment later he felt the sun on his skin, and the musk of the crowd was gone. His eyes came back after a few more seconds. He was alone, standing in a narrow dusty lane between exhibits.
Jackie could hear Mr Fred, shouting for latecomers for the afternoon show. He’d have to run to take his position, but he couldn’t move yet. Catching his breath, Jackie grasped each forearm with the opposite hand. He felt different, and dazed.
Gathering himself, he walked back toward his work, rolling around the Afghan’s words. It was true he and the other boys were a kind of shadow circus, pulsing below the surface. A handful like him worked for Mr Fred. Many more worked the animals, lugged the waxworks, dragged equipment for the magician or the lantern show or the musicians.
All of them, Jackie presumed, had joined with his same wish to improve their lot, to see a burgeoning country and to build a purse. Whether any lots had improved was a matter for consideration. Jackie had certainly seen vast stretches of outback, from the window of the caravan full of boys he traveled and slept in. Adventure, though often days that was making it dawn to dusk without a boss’s boot. And any fortune seemed some distance away. Though the oasis of tents they could call their own did shimmer, the wage at present was enough, almost exactly, to cover accommodation, board and transportation. And with beer available on tick, most of the boys’ big dream was breaking even.
Still reeling, Jackie entered the boxing tent just as Mr Fred took to the canvas to start the show, and instantly realized his error. Mr Fred began to bellow his introduction, but stared incredulously past the crowd at his tardy blood-boy. A spectacle, arriving at the main entrance, a workers no man’s land.
Jackie’s ear jerked to the side and he skipped after it lest it be torn off. Mr Fred’s son Frank had hold of him, dragging him out of view of the audience with some fury.
Thrown to the ground behind a stack of packing cases, Jackie curled inwards as Frank kicked at him. A couple glanced off and one landed, painfully, before he heard Mr Fred again.
‘Frankie, bring the lad out here will ya?’
Jackie was lifted to his feet and on out to the canvas, his feet grazing the ground twice as they covered the distance.
‘This is one of our workers,’ Mr Fred announced to the crowd. ‘Isn’t that right boy, tell em what you do around here.’
Jackie looked around at a hundred pairs of eyes. Gathering his response, he realised he was beaming back at them. ‘I’m Jackie. I mop up the blood,’ he said.
‘He mops up the blood!’ said Mr Frank. ‘Looks like he enjoys it too, have a look this grin! Should we see if he enjoys spilling some of his own?’
The crowd whooped and the tent buzzed with the feel of a special event. It was an atmosphere that took hold only sparingly, when bad blood had been brewing between the headline boxers, or when a local was particularly well fancied. .
‘Listen to that! Our audience must not be denied young Jackie,’ said Mr Frank. ‘Waltzing in like the champion of the world! Let’s see you back it up. Who wants to see him fight Furious Roy?’
The crowd bayed again, and Jackie scanned their faces, smile fixed.
Mr Frank backed away, leaving Jackie alone in the centre of the canvas. On queue, Furious Roy Fitzgerald stood over him, shirtless and hands wrapped with bandage. Jackie was still, the world spinning around him. All sound left the tent and his heart throbbed in his temple, electricity running from the ground up through his veins.
A bell rang and the roar returned to the room. Roy was on him, fist dropping from the ceiling in slow motion. Jackie moved forward under the punch and slipped around, now facing the man’s back. The noise moved up a decibel. Roy spun to find him and charged again.
Jackie stepped back, and back again, each time ducking under weighty swings.
Roy’s face was beetroot and Jackie felt the tent shift. He began to pick out shouted encouragement - ‘that’s it son!’ and ‘go on, hit the brute!’.
Jackie danced across the canvas as the minutes ticked over, moving toward and away from his opponent, circling as the crowd gathered behind him, willing him to avoid the blows.
The bell rang again to end the round. Mr Frank called him to the side and sat him down.
‘Alright lad, you’ve had your fun. Let one clip you and then stay down, for fuck’s sake.’
Jackie looked across at Furious Roy, slumped on his chair and sucking air, stood and stepped back on the canvas.
The break had time to run and as Roy caught his breath, Jackie turned slowly, taking in the scene. Back by the packing crates, crouched next to Frank, another boy held onto his mop, rooted with nothing to clean.
The second round began and Roy came at him, his intensity a little dimmer. Jackie slipped and skipped, letting the boxer chase him again. The crowd kept up their support and he gingerly started obliging their petitions. He’d move and find himself behind his opponent, take a half step in and jab at the man’s ribs. Slide and let Roy stumble, tapping at his head as he sprawled.
His punches had no effect on his sparring partner, but each one whipped the tent further into fever.
Soon he was sat again, Mr Frank in his ear. ‘OK, OK. They love you don’t they. Have a go then. Have a go.’
The final round began and Jackie floated around the canvas on the noise. Roy approached only half-heartedly now and Jackie was comfortably landing his harmless attacks.
Another bell, and Jackie felt his arm lifted toward the roof, shoulder straining at the socket.
‘And your winner, young Jackie!’
Mr Frank held him by the wrist for another few moments as the sound washed over him, then pulled him behind the crates and out of view again.
‘That was some bullshit son but you had ‘em eating out of your hands. You’re in the troupe now. You’ll still work with the other boys but I’m gonna put you in the ring too. You’ll get double the pay on days you fight. Now fuck off and do your job.’
Jackie watched his boss head back to the canvas and turned to take back his mop. He extended a hand to take it from the boy in his place, but his replacement turned away and maintained his grip.
Jackie took in the situation, then left the boy to it. He searched the wings of the tent to see what work needed doing. Finding nobody in need of help, he found a corner for the remainder of the show.
His fight had taken the place of the junior bout, so local chancers were up next. Jackie leaned against a tent post, laughing while a towering blonde was pummeled across the floor before being put down in the second round.
Mr Fred called for more volunteers, offering Billy Bligh up as the next foe. He presented the giant roo to the crowd. Billy was calm in the open space, held by two workers with ropes looped over his head and with more boys close by at the ready. He advanced on the audience, front paws hitting the mat and the back following, crossing the canvas in one motion. The front row yelped as one, and stepped back into the rows behind.
Nobody raised their hand to tussle with Billy, and Mr Fred waved for him to be taken out.
Jackie seized the chance to be of use and ran out with the other boys to put the animal away. Grabbing a rope, he flexed against the roo as it shuffled after them out of the tent.
Outside, a boy lifted the latch on the cage. Jackie backed in first to guide Billy in, and felt his rope strain tighter. Shuffling toward the back of the cage, he glanced up at the two boys who’d held it with him, still at the door, pushing Billy from behind.
Stepping sideways to look around the roo, Jackie saw all of the boys now, still outside, looking in. He was on his own. The latch clanked.
Jackie dropped the rope and stepped back, into the corner, raising his hands open toward Billy. The animal moved up on him, filling his view and engulfing him with its shadow.
A voice came from outside the cage.
‘Champion of the world!’
Billy Bligh leaned back on his tail, coiled his mighty feet, and began to kick.