William Powell, son of the last lion tamer in Britain, is faced with a choice.
Does he remain on the road with his father, scraping a living to support his wife and two children? Or does he abandon his father, when owning a big cat circus is no longer the glamorous boast it was a decade ago?
Unfortunately, with a frustrated wife, an eccentric father, two lions and two children on the prowl, William may not have as long to make that choice as he thinks...
William scratched his beard and watched the way the Yorkshire wind whipped around the campsite, making the long grass between the tents look like water. The sun was clambering up the side of the big top, dousing it in crisp light, sending its cherry red stripes burning across the canvas’ pale flesh.
William and his father always arranged the circus the same way, with the big top in the centre. At only twenty meters in circumference it was less than half the size of a traditional big top, and didn’t really deserve the name, barely concealing the caravans William and his family lived in. Their old big top had been magnificent, forty-two meters across, with four king poles, topped with flags that could be seen for miles around, marking out the banners that swung on all sides, “Powell and Son’s: The Greatest Big Cat Show in Europe!”
The troupe and crew had fallen away in recent years, moving on to better things, starting families of their own, in one case, getting arrested. These days it was just William and his father running the show, and it hadn’t been an overnight adjustment. Before, the circus had run itself, with ten caravans, a mess tent, lion enclosures, stables, two ticket booths and an office. Now the whole operation was comprised of three caravans, the ‘tiny top’ and one beaten up ticket booth William had sat in every summer since he was a boy. The new tent had no banners, its stripes seemed slightly faded, and its ropes looked, to William, loose and lifeless.
He looked at the sign lying face down at his feet. He flipped it over with his foot. It read: Powell and Son’s: STILL The Greatest Big Cat Show in Europe!
One sunny afternoon Willow had daubed the words on a large wooden board, which William nailed to a piece of two by four. Since, it had stood along the path leading up to the circus wherever they performed. William picked it up, raised the beaten wooden mallet he’d brought with him and pounded the post back into the grass. Reading it again, as cars thundered along the road beside him, William had to admit being the “Greatest Cat Show in Europe” was no longer a bold claim. There weren’t many left.
The Powell’s were pitched just outside the town of Rufforth, near York, and had been for ten days. In that time they had sold seven tickets. They put a sign on the field’s gate saying they were experiencing “technical difficulties”. In reality, William had pointed out the ticket sales probably wouldn’t cover the cost of the steaks they’d feed the lions during the show. As he had tried to explain to his father on numerous occasions, at the recently tireless insistence of Willow, they were just three short years off a new millennium. The entertainment industry, hell, the world, was moving fast, and William was going to have to drag his father through it by his thinning hair.
As he walked back to the campsite he thought about Willow. How angry she’d been last night. How he’d tried to placate her. How there was now a toaster-sized hole in the wall between their bedroom and the kitchen. Throwing things was becoming a habit of Willow’s.
The wind pulling at his clothes felt like memories tugging him into the past. William pushed a hand into his pocket and fished out a metal badge slightly larger than a 50 pence-piece. With each step he flicked it into the air with his thumb. As it spun it caught the suns low rays, sending puddles of red light across his face, making the scratched lion in the centre seem to roar before it fell back into his palm.
He could remember the day he bought it clearly. As a child William had changed schools more often than he’d attended them. Two days after starting at his sixth new primary school the usual barrage of questions began bubbling through the halls. To put a stop to the whispers, on the way home that day he’d walked through town and bought the badge from a craft shop. The next day, with the badge pinned to the lapel of his blazer, nobody asked if he was really the son of a lion tamer.
Several years and nine secondary schools later, his father told him they were staying in Leeds for two years, to “give his O-Levels the attention they deserved…and needed.” He asked his best friend, Jimmy Blystra, to run the circus in his absence. Then he called the council and arranged a fee to pitch the caravans in St. George’s Field, a large swathe of public ground near the University. William had never been more excited in his life. By then the badge dangled from a strap on his battered rucksack.
His excitement about studying and remaining in one place dissipated. By the end of his first year at St. Michael’s college he longed to be back on the road with his father. He missed selling candy floss in the crowd, gawping at Earth’s most dangerous predator as stars blossomed in whichever patch of sky they were pitched beneath. He might have followed his heart and left St. Michael’s before taking his exams, had his heart not undergone a shift in interest when he met Willow. Now he thought about it, there was a certain irony in her new hobby of launching nearby projectiles at his head.
In the first school term of ‘91, having thought about her all summer, he found himself staring at her from across the room. Mr Bingham had almost finished the register when William pulled a poster for that weekends show from his bag, folded it into a neat plane, wrote, “Want to come?” on the wing and attempted to launch it over Willow’s shoulder, onto her desk. It hit her in the side of the face. Pulling it out of her hair and opening it she had smiled, pushed the tip of her tongue through her teeth, and nodded at him vigorously.
Willow realised she was pregnant before they received their hotly anticipated (though on paper, rather tepid) O-Level results. Two months later they were married, a small affair in the ring of the old big top. Six months more and they found themselves proud parents of a baby boy and girl: Harvey and Birch.
The first time he’d cradled the pink putty of their tiny new bodies, his father said something that, five years on, continued to roll around William’s head as he dropped the badge back in his pocket.
“Stick with me kid. You’ll be fine.”
“You’re…ready?” said William, from the entrance to the big top.
Leo Powell’s pacing over the last few days had almost completely flattened all the grass in the aisles between the tents raised seating. It was a good way to tell if he was frustrated. Upon entering the tent it had taken William a moment to spot his father, not pacing as expected, but stood facing away in the centre of the ring, resplendent in a red coat and tails.
Leo turned to face him, silver hair slicked back off his glitteringly excited face. “Thank you.”
William wasn’t sure his father’s name actually was Leo. Then again, with ten generations of animal circus owners in his blood it was far from impossible. William was named after his great, great grandfather, William “Whiskers” Powell. Only Willow called him Whiskers, usually when she was worried about him, occasionally when she wanted to murder him.
William approached the bars of the cage that enclosed a ring of weathered AstroTurf. It had been a sad day when they’d cut it down to its now, in William’s opinion, rather pitiful circumference. He pushed his sleeveless arms through the bars.
“It wasn’t a compliment,” said William. “More of a question. Why do you look ready for a show?”
Leo leapt up onto one of Patroclus and Achilles’ four pedestals, arranged in a square inside the ring a few feet apart. William watched as Leo evaluated the distance to the next pedestal before thinking better of it. Bounding five feet between raised platforms was a breeze for an adult lion; rather more challenging for a man of 63. William still marveled at his father’s remarkable energy and agility. It was essential to his job, and his survival. Regularly putting himself within reach of maned reapers seemed to have distracted him from less immediate dangers, like ageing.
Leo spread his arms wide and turned in a circle on the pedestal, addressing a non-existent audience. “We’re spreading the word.”
William frowned, shooting his father a creased expression. There were three problems with this. One, it seemed to directly implicate William in whatever he had planned. Two, if he meant going into the city to drum up business, that wasn’t how his father did things; and, perhaps most importantly, Willow would be awake soon. If she caught him indulging in his father’s positive attitude instead of trying to anchor him he was in trouble.
“Willow got the twins? You got your keys?”
“Yes, yes,” said William.
“Good,” said Leo. “Let’s go.”
William drummed the fingers of his right hand on the door of his Jeep as he drove them both into town. Over the last few weeks he had come to know the twists and turns of the route into York well, but his father still insisted on interpreting every road sign for his benefit.
“Left,” he said.
“Yeah, I know,” said William. “I know where I’m going.”
Leo grunted, turning to William. “We never know where we’re going, son.”
He noted this was the third time in a week his father had tried to impart some pithy piece of advice, usually slung under a sentence like a rockets fuselage, falling away to explode after he completed his sentence.
Preferably out of earshot, thought William. He guessed it was an insurance policy against dying without imparting some final council or jibe, like Spike Milligan, or William’s great, great grandfather, whose immortal final words were uttered as he unlocked the door of his prize tiger’s cage: “Did any remember to feed Titus?”
“This is new,” said William, drumming his fingers on the roof for a few beats before hanging his arm back out of the window. He was referring to the two signs arranged in a triangle on the roof of his Jeep.
His father had disappeared back to his caravan after they’d walked out of the big top and returned with the signs, which he’d no doubt made before William had even opened his eyes that morning. They were hinged at the top, and he swiftly had them attached to the roof of the car with a few deft stretches of a bungee cord. They read: “Powell and Son’s Big Cat Circus! Tonight Only: Half Price Tickets, Kids Go FREE!” The number to pre-book tickets and directions followed.
“We need bums on seats lad!” Said Leo, clapping his hands and turning to face William, a grin on his face. William had inherited his father’s tombstone-like teeth, affording them their wide smiles. Leo said it was something to be proud of, passed down the Powell family tree thanks to generations of beaming out at an enthralled audience.
“The best show ever, then we’ll hit the road. Leave folks that didn’t come wishing they had! Besides, I get the feeling you and Willow are eager to move on?”
William squirmed, trying to focus on the road as splinters of yesterday evening’s conversation with Willow needled his brain. “Not exactly…”
“Whiskers, it’s not enough to support our family anymore.”
The pet name hadn’t softened the blow. In many ways he agreed with her. Not only were they broke, they were surrounded on all sides by books, toys, clothes, crockery, costumes and everything else a budding family of four owned. It was so chaotic, one winter evening William had lost track of Harvey and rushed around the campsite for an hour, searching frantically, only to find him under an enormous pile of laundry.
William was grateful the twins were now both too big to hide anywhere; for Willow this was just another problem.
“I know things have been a bit slow recently, and that the twins are getting bigger,” said William.
Willow wiped a smirk from the corners of her mouth before chirruping what astute observations they were.
“We can’t do this anymore.”
“We can’t!” Toaster.
“We can’t leave now.”
William faltered. He’d been so busy defending his father’s love of the circus he hadn’t given over any time to examining his own. He certainly hadn’t tried to explain it to Willow. Becoming a lion tamer didn’t just feel like something he had to do, he wanted it. Every time he stepped into the cage to feed Patroclus and Achilles he felt alive.
He took a deep breath. “Okay. I’ll tell my dad tomorrow that we’ll finish the tour of Yorkshire, then we’ll leave.”
Willow smiled, pushing her tongue between her teeth. “And we’ll live by the sea?”
William crossed the room and looped a loving arm around her waist. “If it will shut you up.”
William and his father drove around the city for five hours before Leo was satisfied “the message had been heard.” On the way back William prayed that he would be able to get the signs off the roof before Willow saw them.
Sure enough though, when they pulled into the field and drove up to the caravans she was crouched behind the big top, fiddling with a generator.
Leo leaned out of the window and crowed, banging on the side of the car.
Willow looked up, first narrowing her eyes at Leo, then shifting her attention to William through the windshield. The car stopped and Willow stood.
“He seems chirpy,” she said.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Said Leo. “We’re back in business!”
“Is that so?” Asked Willow, looking at William and arching her left eyebrow so high it almost disappeared into her cloud of blonde hair.
William turned to the source of the cry, grateful for the distraction. Harvey and Birch burst out of the big top and raced towards him. Each had their mother’s thick blonde hair. As they ran, Harvey’s bounced up and down over his eyes and Birch’s streamed behind her in a long ponytail. They crashed into William at the same time, jumping and talking at the same time in a confusing babble.
“Daddy, you’ve been gone all morning!”
“Where have you been?”
“You missed breakfast.”
“What’s on your car?”
William placed a hand on the back of each of his children’s heads and pulled them in to his waist, looking up to meet Willow’s dull gaze.
Luckily for him his father, as ever, was more than happy to be the centre of attention.
“We’ve been spreading the word!”
William rolled his eyes. “He keeps saying that.” He scooped the twins into his arms and turned to see his father was standing on once again standing on something. This time it was the generator.
“Dad, get down,” said William.
“Grandad, you’re silly,” squealed Birch.
“Children, grandchildren,” he gestured vaguely towards the lion enclosure, “felines. Lend me your ears. Tonight could be our finest hour, or our coup de grâce.” He looked down at the twins. “Do you know what that means?”
Harvey and Birch looked at their father, who shook his head.
“No,” they chorused.
“Then I’ll tell you,” said Leo, lowering his voice. “It means this is make or break. Sink or swim. Eat or be eaten!” He gnashed his teeth at the twins who squeaked and giggled.
“But I have a good feeling about tonight,” Leo continued, straightening his back as much as he was able before smoothing back his hair. “Tonight, is going to be the performance of a lifetime.”
William had to hand it to his father, his plan worked.
After Leo had climbed down from the generator he’d headed straight to his office and sat by the phone, which rang non-stop for the rest of the day. By seven o’clock they’d sold over 400 tickets, Willow took charge of the phones and Leo and William set about preparing for the show.
After feeding the twins and putting them to bed William met his father by the lion enclosure. He was leaning against the bars, still dressed in his red coat, wearing a black top hat and holding a long rod, at the end of which hung a menacing looking whip with the last six inches tied in a loose loop.
Patroclus was reclining on the far side of the enclosure, meeting Leo’s eyes with a determined glare. He was a much sandier colour than his son, Achilles, who was pacing back and forth, sniffing the ground. He had a crumpled face, though his eyes looked crueler and keener than his counterpart.
The first thing Leo drummed into William at a young age was how forging a relationship with a lion was akin to another circus act: walking a tightrope. The key to dealing with lions was respect. You had to be tough or the animals considered you weak. Be weak, and it wouldn’t take a lion long to figure out it is much stronger than you.
The way Patroclus was returning Leo’s stare was making William nervous.
“Shall we do this a bit-?”
“Shh,” said Leo.
The old man and lion were locked in what appeared to be a visual grappling match. Just as William was about to take his father’s arm and attempt to lead him away Patroclus yawned, displaying his curved, yellow canines, his rough tongue lolling to one side, breaking the tension.
Leo turned to William, the same manic grin from earlier smeared across his face. “Let’s give these people a show.”
It was the biggest audience Powell and Son’s had performed to in years.
The queue had stretched halfway across the field for half an hour while William, Willow and Leo ticked off a list of names and ushered the spectators inside.
William was stood on the outside of the ring, wearing a white shirt and a blue, sequined vest, fingers clasped behind his back. A spotlight hung above the centre of the ring and the muffled buzz of an excited crowd crackled in the dark. He strained to see Willow sitting at the sound and lighting desk and could just make out the outline of her angelic hair.
On cue, the spotlight widened, Entry of the Gladiators began pouring out of speakers around the tent and Leo Powell stepped into the spotlight to resounding applause.
Leo winked at his son, spread his arms and addressed his audience.
“Ladies and gentleman, what you are about to witness is the act of man taming nature’s deadliest marvel.” More lights above Leo brightened, bathing the ring in colour and revealing the mesh tunnel that led into the arena. He walked in a tight circle, chin tilted upwards, his voice echoing round every tent pole and vibrating up every spine.
“Please, without further ado, give a very warm welcome to the stars of our show this evening, weighing in at just under 400kg with 60 teeth and 40 claws between them, our beautiful African lions, Patroclus and Achilles!”
Upon hearing their names the lions exploded into the ring, roars ripping through the air. William saw and heard several of the audience jump.
They circled Leo, pawing at the air while he shook the whip loop above their heads. Gasps went up from the crowd, followed by cheering and applause.
William moved around the outside of the ring, keeping an eye on his father’s back, ensuring if it was ever turned there was someone watching the lions.
His father carried out his usual routine, introducing Patroclus first and performing tricks only seasoned circus lions master in their lifetimes. One of the most dangerous involved Leo turning his back on Patroclus as he crept along the floor. When Leo turned around he would freeze in his tracks, staring back. William kept a particularly close eye on this part of the routine.
An hour flew past. Occasionally he had to remind himself to keep moving and look out for his father, whose presence in the ring demanded the attention of everyone present, laughing as the lions circled him, leapt over one another, stood on their hind legs and occasionally raised their top lips, snarling.
The show was drawing to a close and the crowd’s applause sounded slightly worn and dutiful.
“Ladies and gentlemen, have we had a good time this evening?”
Children in the audience screamed their delight and sat further forward in their seats. Parents discretely checked their watches and nodded. William watched Leo as he tapped Patroclus and Achilles on the flank, encouraging them to step up onto their pedestals.
“Now, before I send these two to bed, who’d like to see something special?”
More sounds of approval from all around and Leo smiled. This was the second most dangerous trick in the show and always performed at the end. Placing one’s head between the jaws of a lion was deserving of it’s spot at the top of the bill.
“I hope Achilles remembered to brush his teeth this morning!”
Sat on his haunches atop his pedestal Achilles looked even larger than usual as Leo stood before him.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, thank you so much for coming out this evening, don’t forget to tell your friends and family. I’ve been Leo Powell, you’ve been wonderful and this has been dangerous! Goodnight!”
Leo turned to face Achilles; smiling broadly. Catching William’s eye for a moment he winked and tilted his head, basking in the glory of both his excellent performance and plan.
Then the tent was plunged into total darkness.
For a while everyone thought it was deliberate, this was part of the show, the lights were about to come back on and the lions were going to be standing on top of each other or something. Only three people in the room appreciated the terrible silence that accompanied the arrival of the dark. Not only had the lights died, the music had too, betraying the generators silent guilt.
William felt frozen to the floor. As soon as the lights blinked off he had taken an automatic step towards the cage, but couldn’t see anything. This would not be true of Patroclus or Achilles, who would be able to see every face around in perfect detail. He knew he should run to the generator, try and return power to the show, but he couldn’t move, holding his breath to hear what was going on inside the ring over the excitable murmurings of the crowd.
William thought he heard paws touch the ground.
“Dad,” whispered William. “Get out.”
He couldn’t tell if his father had heard him. All he could hear were deliberate padded footsteps somewhere from in front of him.
“Dad…?” William called. The audience’s excitement evolved into a tense exchange of whispered conjecture followed by gritty silence.
Over the deafening roars of lions and the following stampede of people groping blindly in the dark, Leo Powell’s screams went largely unheard.