Freak Show

 

No-one leaves the walled city.

You might say that I live a double life; even that I have secret identity. By day—I mean to say during the summer months—I live in Clacton-on-Sea. I am a mild mannered electrician and general handyman, employed by Sir Billy Butlin to repair broken slot machines, replace missing light bulbs, and tighten up cogs on the fairground rides.  I am a small cog in the machine which dispenses pleasure to the English working-classes on wet bank-holiday Mondays. Little children pass their formative years in red and blue fibreglass space ships with peeling paint; rotting away their precious little teeth with spun pink candy-flosses almost as big as they are. Old couples spend their last summers shuffling waltzes to out of date dance records, and getting excited about the donkey derby. Do you know, there is a barbed wire fence around the holiday camp? I suppose it's really to make sure that no-one smuggles themselves in to partake of the hi-de-hi-jinks without paying for it; but it gives the great British holiday a very threatening feel. You signed on for the week; you've got no chance of buying yourself out; you might as well just give in and have a good time.

So that's the summer. And in the winter, I'm a lap-dancer in Las Vegas.

I'm part of a troupe of gentlemen's entertainers who do a sophisticated act which involves putting on elaborate cowboy costumes, checked shirts, spurs, Stetsons, and fake over-sized six-guns, and then…taking them off again. You might say I substituted one kind of camp for another.

It's a funny thing. I've always been that way inclined; always knew that I was good-looking and always took an inordinate interest in other boys bums in the swimming pool changing rooms; but I never did anything about it; as if I'd come out to everybody in the world apart from myself. So far as I know, since I was a kid, I've never let another bloke see me naked; yet here I am, dancing around and bobbing up and down on the stage; and then going back to a not-so-seedy motel for half an hour of fee-paying tumbling with some stranger.

I like doing the bikers best: it's like I'm punishing them, stripping off all that fake macho and showing them that they are no different from any other faggot being fucked up the arse by an English poof. I despise them, but I like despising them. They make me feel like a real man. Christ knows what Raphael would say.

Ah, Raphael. Odd sort of a guy; Norwegian at guess; with a tattoo of a cat's eye just above his lip. He turned up one day at the Crazy Horse wild west theme pub in Clacton and offered to "take me away from all this" and "show me the world". God knows what I might have been getting myself into–lots of travel, free money, need to be fit and broad-minded and able to dance–he might as well have said "Hello, I'm white slaver," and had done with it.  But he's not like that at all; he made it very clear what the work involved although he insisted on saying "exotic dancer". He pays well enough and he seems to square the legal side of it; passports and permits, we've never once so-much as seen a cop. The only time he lost it with me was once in the early days when I used the word "pimp" in his hearing, I don't know what came into my head. He hit me across the face; cut me with his ring. Don't use dirty words, he kept saying; I took you out of your boring life, you want to go back there, to that  shabby little town, then don't call me dirty names. But the next day he was practically tearful, said he was sorry, that he'd been drunk, that he thought of everyone one of as his little children. Made me feel quite sick. 

I found I loved it: loved humiliating myself on the stage; loved doing unspeakable things with sad guys in hotels; loved having money to burn in casinos and night-clubs. I thought that the experience would change my life; I expected to get off the plane back home, having lost various kinds of virginity and accept my true identity and come out properly. In fact, of course, I slipped straight back into my shell and spent July and August sweeping chalets and mending Space Invaders machines. Vegas was like a dream which had never happened; but come September, I got a card from Raphael asking if he could engage me for the Christmas season. That went on for three years. Would probably still be going on now, if not for the boy.

Essex and Nevada. Dressed up queer and closet straight. It's not such a long journey, anyway: there's a Las Vegas penny arcade on Clacton Pier. Las Vegas is like Clacton on acid, or maybe Clacton is like Vegas on valium; just one big shabby vulgar out of control theme park. The stakes are higher; the slot machines are newer and Lady Luck incarnates herself on the keno board, rather than on the bingo cards. The smiling Cleopatara outside Ceasars Palace is more glamorous than the smiling clown outside Butlins, but she is just as fake.

Facades.

 

So; last winter; I've gone to visit a client in the Circus Circus casino on the Strip. Strictly speaking, we aren't supposed to moonlight in clients hotel rooms, but we all do it; and the old man must know. His only comments are more in sorrow than in anger, it wounds him that one of his sophisticated gentleman's entertainers should be behaving like no more than a filfthy little rent boy and anyway if one of us got into trouble he could never forgive himself etc etc.

Circus-Circus is one of the respectable hotel-resorts catering for families; rather different from the down-town joints where I expose myself.  I go up in the elevator after paying off the bell-man, check the room number and open the door. I say "Hello, stud" in my un-convincing Texan accent, (I'm nothing if not original) and then stop short.

"I'm sorry. I must have come to the wrong place."

Standing on the other side of the room, looking out of the plate glass window with his back to me, dressed in some sort of shiny green boxers which look slightly too large for him, is a child. A little boy. A kid of about eight, maybe less.

"I do hope not." He turns around. Younger than eight. Indian—mixed race, half caste, whatever. "You are Sheriff Sex, Wild Untamed Stud hung like a horse fifty dollars an hour good time guaranteed lasso and bullwhip extra very discreet, yes?"

"I don't care, whatever, I'm out of here."

"Please, no. I have the money. I have made money on games of chance and I would like to blow it away on a night of passion although I am uncertain of precisely what you do with the bullwhip."

"No way, absolutely no way, is this a sting? Is there someone watching? I absolutely draw the line. No kids, no way. I'm a gay S&M prostitute, not a fucking pervert."

"You are misled by my relatively diminutive stature. I am in fact close to forty years old. There is documentation to verify this in the possession of my employer, the illustrious proprietor of Ali-Ba-Ba's Arabian Circus, currently performing twice nightly in the circus ring downstairs. Very sophisticated. Tom Thumb famous midget at your service. Do you yourself juggle?"

"No," I heard myself say. "I dance a little, and do simply tricks with the lasoo. But people aren't there to see tricks, they are there to see my prick ."

"We have that in common then. We are both very high-class entertainers. Myself, a circus freak. You, a whore."

"Don't call me that. And don't call yourself that. You're just handicapped. Disabled. Whatever."

"I come from a family of freaks," said Tom Thumb. "My father was a giant, and my mother was a pair of Siamese twins, joined at the waist. The left half was more talkative, and was mainly responsible for my upbringing. But sometimes, during family rows, the right half would take my part against my father and left hand mother.  Dad had six fingers on his right hand, but the extra one never participated in family disagreements. I wasn't their natural child."

And then he told me about the city.

 

I grew up in the walled city. You won't have heard of it; it doesn't appear on any map. (True places never do: you have read Melville, I assume). It doesn't really exist, which is appropriate  because it is populated entirely by people who don't exist; or at any rate, by people who other people would rather did not exist. Two headed women and six fingered giants. Men with breasts and women with penises; children brought up by chimpanzees who would rather not turn into members of the English nobility 'and the cannibals who each other eat, the anthropophagi and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders'. Ah yes; and men of forty with the bodies of eight-year- olds. 

You, of course, come from a tolerant society, where Siamese twins are sliced in half by merciful surgeons, the broken half dropped into a waste bucket, and the crippled half allowed to live, though its spends its whole life screaming for its lost sister. You have read Plato? Or else they are locked away in hospitals or killed before they are born, or simply left to sit under bridges with begging bowls, having shouted conversations with people who are not there. But in the past; and still today in some of the less humane societies, they simply disappear. Someone–the men in black, the freak fairy–spirits them away, and leaves a normal person in their cradle, and they live out their days in the walled city.

It is a happy place. There is little work to do; it felt as if we were on holiday all the time; a sort of mutant cavalcade. When I was very small, if I may use that expression, people were suspicious of me; I seemed too perfect—what had the giant and the two-headed witch done to get such a normal looking baby. But at the age of six or seven I stopped growing—stopped aging, they said—and then everyone accepted me. They treated me as a perpetual child; I went to school every day for thirty years–to what passed for a school; an old wine cellar where we sat on upturned barrels and an elderly lycanthrope read stories to us. I heard him read every book in that small and eclectic library. From time to time, I'd try to assert myself; insisting that I was grown-up and should be treated as such. Both of my mothers told me not to be foolish; and my father threatened to send me to bed early. I started to believe that I would be a child forever and that when Mr Wolf died, I'd take over his school and read to a new intake of aberrations.

One day I was sitting at a pavement café. The proprietor, a Mr Joseph Merrick had just brought me a tray of mint tea and honey. A man with three eyes sat down next to me. He asked me if I wanted to leave the city.

I said that so far as I knew, no-one had ever left the walled city.

He said that that wasn't true: he knew the secret path. It was a long journey, true, through the desert, but your could eventually reach the world outside; a sad, grey place where everyone was the same: the same shape, the same size, the same colour, the same number of eyes. (This made me shudder a little, as I'm sure you will understand.) 'How do they tell each other apart?' I asked him.

'They don't' said the Three-Eyed Man. 'They disappear into crowds, and ignore everyone except their closest friends and sometimes even them, and spend hours each day dressing and painting their faces.'

'In order to look different?'

'In order to look the same as everybody else. Sometimes, they even forget who they are. But when someone comes along who is really different, they think that he is very special; and will travel miles to see him, and pay huge sums of money. That is why I have come all the way back, looking for very special children, to tour the world of grey people and become very rich by entertaining them.'

I told my parents that I was leaving; going on a journey; but that I would soon come back having made my fortune. My left-hand mother said that I was talking foolishness, and my father said that if he heard anymore wickedness, then big as I was he would smack me. But my right-hand mother said that they were the foolish, wicked ones; and that I was old enough to go on a journey, and that it would be good for me and perhaps good for the city to see something beyond the walls. They always let her have her own way on important matters; I think they were afraid of her sharp tongue.

I met the three eyed man at the city gate. He'd picked a few other people to go with him; a girl with a tail and a hermaphrodite. When it was dark, we set out on our long journey to the real world.

So, for seven years, I've travelled with his circus; and for seven years, I've done tricks; climbed up on tables and juggled and palmed cards and talked with great wit and erudition considering that I am only eight years old. They give me money, and I give it to the Three-Eyed Man, and he is very proud of me. He says he thinks of me as the little boy he never had.

No-one believes that I'm a real man. Sometimes, when someone gives me more than the usual money, I say "Will you allow me the pleasure of purchasing a drink for you?" and he either thinks that I am cute, or else he becomes uneasy and embarrassed. In your world, it is often thought freakish to think a man beautiful.  So when the bearded lady sings her to my mind slightly vulgar aria, I sit at the edge of the circus ring and look at the tall, handsome men in the audience, strong, confident, fully grown. Oh, god, how I desire them, but they draw back from me.

The Three-Eyed man lied. They do not think that I am special; they think that I am strange. They loath me, but they enjoy loathing me. I make them feel big.

So in the end, we reached the biggest and walled-est city in the whole world; everything that is America only bigger and better and louder and worse; plastic pyramids and coloured lighting, and a pretend pirate ship; a real never-never land for Peter Pan.

 

He poured me another Jack Daniels miniature from the mini-bar. "I saw your picture on the hoarding outside the night-club. They would not let me in. Your act is too sophisticated for anyone under twenty one years old. I felt that the Three-Eyed-Man might be reluctant to provide proof of my age; it would be like revealing a trade secret and might subsequently reduce the artistic verisimilitude of my performances; besides which he might not approve of my attending a disreputable theatrical presentation. I stood and looked at your picture for three nights. "Sheriff Sex and his posse of red-hot deputies go all the way for you." The circus pays quite well, and I am reasonably adept at these games of chance. So I gave some money to one of the uniformed gentlemen at the door, and persuaded him to take my card to your dressing room, or should I say your undressing room, and you have come. But you too, it seems, regard me as freak. I am sorry to have wasted your time."

"I don't think you're a freak," I said, "Size doesn't matter all that much, does it?"

"Oh", said Tom Thumb ,"I hope in all sincerity hope that you are wrong."

He let the boxers drop. I undressed, and went to his bed; as if he was the seducer, not the customer. Naked, in that big hotel room, I felt very innocent, very child-like; waiting for me in the big bed he seemed very wise, very learned, very mature. It wasn't like the bikers. He was the one stripping me; punishing me: teaching me, initiating me, making me feel for the first time, like a full-grown man.

That's how we were when Raphael came into the room.

 

Raphael, more in sorrow than in anger; Raphael, weeping real tears from his tattoo eye. Oh, my prize piece of merchandise, my favourite cowboy. Downstairs in the circus ring, the little children are laughing at acrobats, and the bearded lady is singing her long sad song; and it is time for Tom Thumb to take the stage; and no-one knows where he is. "So I come up to his room, to see if he is ill or asleep; and I find, I find that you have done this thing to him. I treated you so well, and you have violated--abused--my precious little freak."

Tom Thumb winced at the word. Raphael sat on the bed, tears in all three of his eyes. He stroked his hair. "We'll leave this place," he said "We'll take the circus to some other town, and forget this ruffian ever touched you."

"I wanted him to touch me," said Tom Thumb, "And I do not want you to do so. Your circus is just one more little bit of the city that broke away and is floating around the world; it still has walls, even though they are made of canvass. I think that you are very strange; I think that the people who pay money to see me are even stranger."

He pulled some clothes on; normal, human clothes; levis, a tee-shirt, trainers. He looked like any other child on earth; could vanish into a crowd in any fairground or theme-park. "I have seen enough strange people, I think; and enough strange people have seen me. It is time to see some normal people again. It is time for me to go home."

As he went, he said "There is money in the drawer; thank you for treating me the same as anyone else. To night meant a great deal to me."

I told him that I didn't want money and asked him not to go; all I heard was the elevator doors shutting at the end of the corridor.

 

It's the summer. "Gaity Theatre", Butlins, Clacton-on-Sea. The camp is still surrounded by barbed wire. I'm trying to fix an ancient movie projector. It's pouring with rain; the theatre is full of kids; and the bulb blew half way through some ancient Tom and Jerry cartoon. I rather doubt that I'll be getting a card this autumn. Every time I see a room full of kids, I wonder if he found his way back to his city; or if maybe there are some sun-bleached midget bones waiting to be found in the desert that encircles Vegas. Or maybe he just got on a plane and one of these summers one of the happy campers is going is to recognise me. After I've got the film rolling again, I look along the rows of kids just in case. They're somewhere between wide-eyed excitement and street-wise boredom.

We are all freaks, one way or another. No-one leaves the walled city.

 

 

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