I always loved this time of year. My parents could never afford to take us to theme parks, so the best roller-coaster I ever went on was the bone-shaker that was the pride of the travelling circus. My dad was always nervous when I rode it. I didn’t understand at the time, but I do now. The whole thing was put up in a day and a few days later was dismantled and shipped to the next town. I’d swear he was more nervous watching me than I was riding it.
In the summer of 1986 the circus came to town and I remembered crying when my beloved bone-shaker was missing. That year there were no rides at all. I was devastated. I was confused with the smile that grew on my dad’s face when he confirmed it wasn’t there. I thought he was laughing at me.
“Is it really not here?” my friend Stuart said, he was as upset as me, but he didn’t let my dad see it on his face.
Dad knelt down next to me and said, “Why don’t we go watch the magician instead?”
“I like magic,” Stuart said, just happy to be there.
I sulked. It wasn’t my dad’s fault, but I’d been looking forward to it for weeks and it wasn’t there. It wouldn’t be for a long time.
We sat in the overly hot bigtop. The wobbly wooden chair swayed underneath me as I fidgeted, waiting for the show to start. A clown made his way onto the stage. He pulled handkerchiefs out of his sleeve by the dozen. The younger children giggled, though I put my head on the empty seat in front of me and sighed. All I could think about was soaring through the air on that mini rollercoaster.
A man on stilts wore long red and white stripped trousers and paraded around the stage, a black top-hat rose from his head. He held a microphone and waited for the clown to stop his terrible act before announcing, “are there any volunteers?”
“Put your hand up, son,” my dad offered.
I shook my head, still upset we had to see this childish act. Stuart did though, and he stood as well.
The man pointed to him, and he excitedly ran onto the stage, along with at least another ten kids.
The clown corralled the children into a small area on the stage, and from the roof, brought down a cage. It gently came to rest around them.
“I bet you adults wish it was that easy,” he said as he bowed and the parents laughed.
“Would you like to be invisible?” he asked one of the kids.
They nodded in excitement while a younger girl cried.
“There’s always one,” the top-hatted man said, to another round of laughter.
The clown brought a hand to his mouth, as if thinking of what to do next. His finger went up in the air, signalling he had an idea. He pressed a button on the side of the cage and black curtains unfurled, covering the children. The one girl continued her sobbing from within.
In the blink of an eye, fireworks went off and the curtain fell to the floor, revealing an empty cage. The little girl could no longer be heard.
The crowd stood and clapped. I was genuinely impressed. I sat up straight.
“See, son, this isn’t so bad,” my dad said as he continued to clap.
I was jealous now that I hadn’t put up my hand. My misery was short lived when I saw a pair of lions brought onto the stage. I was in awe. The tricks they did were amazing. I couldn’t even get my dog to roll over. By the end, I had forgotten all about the bone-shaker, and Stuart.
When we left the bigtop, the sun was on its way down.
“Did you enjoy that?” my dad asked.
“Yes,” I said, nodding my head vigourously.
“Would you like some candy floss?”
“Sure,” I replied.
It wasn’t until we got back to the car, in the large grass car park that I asked, “where’s Stuart?”
“Stuart, who?” my dad said.
Confused I said, “my best friend, Stuart.”
“I cannot remember you ever mentioning a Stuart.”
“He came with us today.” As I said those words, even I was not sure. But the memory of him going up on stage was still fresh in my mind.
“He was made to disappear by the clown.”
“I can’t remember that,” my dad said, getting into the car.
“We can’t leave without him,” I replied, not getting in the car.
“Son, we have to leave, mum is waiting for us.”
“But Stuart!” I slammed my foot down.
“Eric, we’ve had a nice day today, you don’t want it to end badly, do you?”
I thought about what he said and maybe he was right. Maybe I made it up. I tried to remember, but it felt like a dream and the more I thought about it, the more the memory felt wrong. Reluctantly I got in the car.
Mum greeted us back at the house.
“Did you enjoy it?” she asked.
“The bone-shaker wasn’t there,” I said with a pout.
“You enjoyed the lions though, didn’t you,” he said.
“You got to see lions, wow. That must have been fun.”
“Yeah. Stuart didn’t come home with us though. They made him disappear.”
My mother took a step back.
“Who’s Stuart?” she asked my dad.
He shrugged his shoulders, “beats me.”
I left the door open when I went to bed, expecting the phone to ring, as it always did when a friend stayed over, the other parents checking on them before bed. Though it never happened.
In class, the seat next to me was empty and I wondered if everything I thought had happened didn’t. As the lesson ended, I waited behind for everyone to leave.
“Eric, it’s lunch time, you can go,” the tacher said, looking up from her desk.
“Where’s Stuart today?” I asked.
A confused look gathered on her face, “we don’t have a Stuart in this class.”
I didn’t speak about him after that day. Something lingered though, but I put it down to my imagination. I haven’t thought about that time in my life for thirty-two years. Wow, has it been that long?
The circus came to town this week. My daughter begged me to take her. Something wanted me to tell her no. She said all her friends were going, and she pleaded in that way that only kids can. I relented.
It was when we paid the entry fee and walked past the rigged games and food stalls and saw the bone-shaker, that those memories from years ago flooded back.
“Say, Jessica, would you like to go on the rollercoaster?”
“No, thank you,” she said, and I was mildly relieved. That thing must have been over forty years old now and it shook and creaked as the small four-seater train raced along, “I’d like to see the magician.”
“Sure, honey,” I said, and we queued for entry.
“£5.50,” a man said to me.
I took out my wallet and gave him the exact change.
“Good man,” he said, and our gazes met.
“Eric?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said confused.
“It’s Stuart. You have to help me.”
I feigned a smile, and anxiety rose in my stomach.
“Daddy, Sarah and I want to go in.”
“Save me a seat, I’ll be in in a minute.”
He pulled me to one side.
“Don’t you remember me?”
I shook my head. The memories from my childhood swirled around, but I didn’t remember him.
“Hey, there are people waiting,” a gruff muscular man shouted.
The man looked back at me, panic fluttering between his eyes.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know you.”
Slightly put out, I pushed past him to see my daughter and her friend, and I waved. At least I think Jessica’s friend came with us. I’m not sure now. The show was amazing. No lions this time, sign of the times I guess. But the magic show was brilliant.
I was worried when I got home that I forgot to bring Jessica’s friend back with us. But my wife insisted she went with me alone this afternoon. My daughter did mention Sarah, I could swear she did, but I don’t think she has a friend by that name.