When I Joined a Circus

Posted by Gene Head on January 18, 2020as ,



Just One Of My Many Jobs


I cut my teeth in life doing many jobs. I’d just left one in Brisbane (Mailroom Clerk) and rode out on a motorbike. I hoped to make it as an artist in Melbourne. It didn’t take long to fail and run out of money. The shit-show started right after that. This is my story of when I joined an Australian circus to stay afloat during that period. The names of the people I met have been changed along with the name of the family circus. The rest is true down to the detail. Enjoy.


Way back then it was December 2004 and I was only 22. I’d turned 22 with a lonely six pack of beer and no one to share with. I was riding out of Melbourne and I saw many people camped on the banks as I glanced over each connecting bridge. Rural Victoria was green and there were small rivers to cross and it was New Year’s Eve, again. It was early morning when I left the city. The ride would take only four hours, so I’d be able to do the countdown, I thought. I just didn’t know who I’d be doing it with. I was out of money. My last twopence went on a battery for the bike. Two days earlier I had held a ticket to Tasmania on the barge and the battery went flat an hour before I needed to be at port. I missed it. Now I was heading to Harley Brothers Circus in Lakes Entrance. I’d called the ticket line looking for work. They had interviewed me on the phone.

“Are you strong?”

“Will you stay for at least six months?”

“Do you have transport?”

“Yes! Yes! Yes!”

And then I was in the seafood capital, standing on the Showgrounds watching the tent blow in the breeze on a cricket pitch with two Australian flags flapping. I met Carroll first; she wasn’t the owner, she just happened to be behind the first caravan door I knocked on. She was pregnant.
“I’m Carroll. My husband’s the dog trainer. Mr. Harley is training the alpacas. Speak to his wife, the fat one with the kids.”
She gestured to a fat woman with kids. I walked past caravans ranked on the circumference of the grounds. At the boss’s home the fat woman was breast feeding. Two of her kids were juggling. One bowled a tennis ball sized sack at me. It was packed with rice. It hurt.
“Are you Gene?”
“Why are you joining a circus, love?”
“I got to Melbourne and ran outta money, and—”
“D’ya have police troubles?”
“The last roustabout we had left after two weeks. His girlfriend tracked him down. He’d knocked her up then run off. He was seventeen. We can’t be having boys leave us willy-nilly  because they’ve got stuff popping up.”
“Well, I don’t have any kids or pregnancies. I just want a job.”

She told me the pay was three hundred dollars a week, and I’d get one caravan to myself on account of being the only roustabout.
“You don’t pay any rent and you don’t pay electricity ‘cause we plug into the council grid. Do you want to start tomorrow, or now?”
I felt obliged.
“I’m right now, Miss, if you need me.”
“It’s Mrs.”
I threw my pack in the caravan they gave me and she introduced me to Bilky.
“This is Bilky. You just do whatever he tells you now, Okay?”
Bilky was half my height, portly, and reminded me of an inflatable Bop-Bag with the sand in the base. The ones with the face painted on them that you could punch over and they’d just wobble right back up again. He told me he had webbed toes and not to comment if I ever saw them.
“The others here think they’re webbed because I’m from Tasmania. Tasmanian’s have webbed toes. It helps us swim to the mainland.”
I laughed at him.
“That’s not funny, that’s why I told you not to comment!” Bilky was a sly combination of really friendly, in a girly way, and really irritable like a troll from under a bridge. He was laughing as he yelled at me, like friends do, which was odd because he struck me as a man that’d never known real friendship. An outcast. I liked him straight out of the gate. He showed me the wheelbarrow and where they kept the shovel. I shovelled the horse manure and took the wheelbarrow to the edge of the pitch where Bilky put a sign on it. FREE COMPOST.
“We have to dump the dung before we leave. Council won’t let us leave it on the pitch, so it’s better if townsfolk claim it. Better for you, anyway.”
“Why for me?”
“Because you’re the roustabout, Einstein. You’ve gotta do the dump runs.”

It was 7:30pm when the show started. They had thrown me in at the deep end. I learnt my role on the go. It was fast-paced. Backstage the ground was coated in sawdust. Performers streched their legs. There was a pony standing patiently. A horse. 3 alpacas. I watched the show through a split in the canvas. Someone would just pass me a glitter covered, wooden chair as we stood in the wings and say— “When the clown whistles, that’s when you run the prop to centre stage—oh and as you leave, he’s gonna kick you up the bum, just go along with it, the kids love that, O.K., Gene?”
The clown and I were a hit. Then there was the dog show. I ran a miniature baby pram out and watched a Chihuahua hop in while a Jack Russell pushed it 3 metres across on hind legs. They played Barbi Girl by Aqua and the crowd screamed. A dog walked across a tight rope 2 metres high and Carroll’s husband threw treats to the Shih-Tzus when they pulled off a back flip.

I got this tap on the shoulder. “Are you, Gene?”


“The juggler’s sick. I’m taking his place. I’ve decided to do my flaming quoits routine. Haven’t done it in years.”

He passed me a 2 metre length of thick brown rope with a metal quoit tied to each end. They were heavy. He showed me a tin bucket with kerosene in the base.

“When they’ve finished introducing me, you dip each quoit in the fuel, then Bilky will light them.”

He stood behind me and took my hands like he was showing me the correct way to hit a golfball. He motioned my arms side to side, swinging the quoits circular.

“Now they’ll be on fire, so you don’t want them touching anything but air. Swing ’em wide. You see?”

“I got it.”

Then it was time, and the guy was waddling onto stage to the sounds of an excited crowd. I dipped the quoits, Bilky lit them. I could feel the heat. It was no act. Real fire. Blazing at the ends. I swung them round and round and burst through the curtains and across the stage. That part was easy. Passing them over was the trick. The guy’s just got his hands out and knees bent and he’s telling me not to swing them so hard, and I’m circling the air just praying not to hit my legs with the rings and end up on fire myself. I reached my hands out and kinda dropped the rope into his. Success!

“At the end of the song, come back out and take it from me, mate.”

“O.K., Mister.”

So the flaming quoits were pretty popular. The act was short. The song ended and there I was again, on stage grabbing the rope and swinging it like mad at my sides while I tried to run, hiking my knees high like I was wearing lead boots and spinning circles of fire. It was awkward. I made it back stage. There was only sawdust.


“Drop ’em, drop ’em!”

Circles of fire. Performers ducking for cover. The Pony kicked, shat.

“In the sawdust? You sure?”

I couldn’t slow the spin without hitting myself. they became uneven. I just kinda let ’em go and watched the quoits tangle in the air and drop in a flaming heap.


I’d flung the rings of fire next to the tin bucket of fuel.

“Christ, Gene!”

“Sorry, sorry!”

“Kick dust on them! You wanna burn the bloody lot of us?”

Bilky dashed the bucket through the back entrance. I panicked; dived on the fire chest first. I rolled around in the wood chips pounding on ground like a chimp until I was covered in sawdust, oil residue and a touch pony shit. The fire was out.

“What’s wrong with that kid?”


At half-time they taught me to put up the lion cage. It had to be built in panels. The things were three and one half metres high made of wire and solid metal. Apparently, it was normal for six roustabouts to do the job but they were down five men and I was the only shit-kicker there so the male performers had to help. I quickly figured it was a task the artists thought was beneath them. They resented helping Bilky and I. The panels took two men to lift and the wire cut our fingers like razors. You’d have to balance the piece against your chest with arms spread as you hooked the joint with the one standing erect beside you. The weight made it bloody difficult. The panel swayed the wrong direction, and then you’d overcorrect and she’d sway the other wrong direction. Every direction was wrong but IN. It took a few goes each time, and it felt like the wire was making its way through my digits like they were bread dough. I waited for them to snip off and drop into the sawdust. Pretty soon the whole stage was hedged in by the cage and Bilky and I fastened the final bit. I was on the inside when it connected. Then the men walked off and left me in the cage and Bilky banged on the opening of the lions trailer. They roared through the wall. “Release the lions!” he said, and they laughed at me.

At 9:30 the show finished. “It’s a large town so we’re doing a show here tomorrow, too, which means we don’t pack down tonight, it’s an easy one,” said Bilky. I rolled up the trapeze net, swept the bleachers and we laced up the four entrances. The place was dark and the crowd had left. The Ring Master joined us by the tent wiping off his makeup. He was fat like Bilky but much taller and better looking. I’d observed him during the show. What a voice he had, a true professional. I recognised him from an old carwash commercial that played on weekend TV years beforehand. I wasn’t sure if becoming a circus presenter was a step up or a slide down for him.
“Well, you bloody queen, when were you going to introduce me to your new friend?” said Ring Master.
“He’s, Gene, aren’t you? Mr. Young and Tall.”
“Well, hello there, Mr. Young and Tall. I’m The Ring Master. Are you coming to watch our Phuket holiday video tonight?”
“What’s that?”
“It’s New Year’s tonight, darling. We celebrate every year by going to Thailand. The whole show shuts down while we go for two weeks. This year, though, the boss wanted us to work the holidays, so we’re left watching home movies of last years trip on tape, instead.”

Then I was showered, and I found Bilky’s caravan easily. Then there was Charlotte. Charlotte was a cute 19-year-old acrobat and she was inside along with Bilky, Ring Master and Derrick (another acrobat). Derrick was really the LEADER of the acrobats. He was the guy that swung on the opposite side of the tent, dangling from his knees that were wrapped around his swing, and he’d catch the trapeze artists as they’d fly across the air to him, then hurl them back again to complete the trick. The guy was extremely strong and lean. He was about 35, and I thought that was very old and I knew straight away he was banging Charlotte. However, she seemed to like me quite a lot. We chatted over a drink next to the caravan’s kitchenette and she told me they homeschooled her in the circus and she’d been doing trapeze her whole life. Derrick didn’t take his eyes off us. I lit a cigarette and Charlotte sneezed in the smoke.
“Oh shit, I’m sorry about that.” I put my cigarette out.
Derrick slapped his drink on the bench and stepped between us.
“Yeah, yeah, we’re all really impressed how nice you are, new guy, and that you’re looking out for Charlotte. What a gentleman. Gene’s a bloody good bloke, isn’t he Charlotte? Good on ya, Gene, ya hero.”
Charlotte giggled. I stepped aside. He led her by the arm out the door with their drinks.
“Bye,” said Charlotte.
“Oh, fuck off! Don’t say bye to him!”
He lectured her as they walked across the pitch.
“Don’t worry about that bloody little slut, Gene. She’s been ridden by the whole trapeze troop. That useless, vagina,” said Ring Master. Bilky laughed at him.
It was Bilky, Ring Master and myself—that’s all that was left. The other twenty members of the show had gone into town to run amuck in the small-town pubs. I sat on a little pink couch and both of them sat either side of me. We watched a VHS taped episode of Kath & Kim first. I’d never seen the show. Then the men played Kylie on CD.
“Oh my God, Kylie’s just gorgeous,” they’d say, getting up now and then mixing a massively alcoholic drink for me. I don’t know what time it was when they played the Phuket video. A home video of their adventures in a Thailand nightclub with a ladyboy cabaret show. Those Asian guys really looked like the real deal. As an inexperienced young man, I’d laid down some fairly average girls, but these ladyboys made them look like hogs. I thought about how I’d feel if I was a woman outdone by a bloody dude with a breast job.
“God, it’s just lucky we didn’t go to Phuket this year.”
“Don’t you watch the news, honey? A Tsunami killed four thousand of them on Boxing Day. Just five days ago. We’d normally have been on the beach sipping cocktails.”
“God, all those beautiful boys. So sad.”
I had been on the road most of that week, I hadn’t seen the news.
“Have you ever tried Rush, Gene?”
“What’s, Rush?”
“Nope. I don’t even bloody know what that is.”
Ring Master took the cap off a tiny brown glass bottle and held it under one of my nostrils. Bilky, whom was on my other side, closed my opposite nostril with his index finger.
“Don’t fret, darling, take it in.”
“Take a whiff of the magic.”
I sniffed it.
“More than that. Take a breath, you’ll love this.”
I filled a lung. It burned my nose. Then—ecstasy. The chill moved through, then the warm moved through, then the laughing. I just laughed and laughed and Ring Master and Bilky laughed at me and then with me and then we watched more of their video. I got a headache only moments later. The whole euphoria wore off in only twenty seconds.
“What was that stuff?”
“Makes your sphincter loose, honey.”
Bilky laughed at Ring Master. It was clear he looked up to him. The Master had a charm that Bilky lacked. He was smooth like Elvis. Bilky was a little rough around the edges, and God he was ugly.
“Prepares you, Gene. Gets you feeling wonderful and you feel the vibes— the Kylie vibes.”
“I think I liked it.”
“You ever been hugged by a bear, Gene?”
“He’s from the country, Bilky. He doesn’t know about bears, yet.”
“Fags, Gene, big ones, with big bear arms to give big hugs with.”
I laughed, but this time because of the drinks, then I slid off the couch and crumpled on the floor. The green chartreuse they’d been feeding me had completely caught up at that point. Ring Master got upset at Bilky.
“Did you have to use that word?”
“Oh, fuck off, Gregory! That’s what they called us at school in the eighties. We may as well be what we are and show them it doesn’t hurt.”
“I’ve told you many times, I’m so offended by that word. You sound like my father, Bilky. Call me a poofter while you’re at it.”
I was getting my bearings on the floor while they fought.
“I’m a loud and proud poof. You hear me world? Loud and proud and swinging it around!” said Bilky.
“You? You couldn’t swing that little stump if you tried.”
“Yes, I could, you bitch.”
“Well, go on then.”
“I bloody will if you’re not careful.”
“Oh, God please don’t, honey. I couldn’t bare seeing that bush, again.”
I wasn’t familiar with their banter. I decided it was playful and felt at ease. Ring Master helped me up.
“I’m going to sleep.”
“Stay, Gene, more Kath & Kim coming up.”
I stumbled out the door, thanking them for the drinks. I think I thanked them. I fell on the foam mattress in my caravan. I missed the countdown for the third year running. And then it was 2005 and I was shovelling horse shit again.

Entire story ©Gene Head 2020

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