The Juggler was first to arrive at the dining tent. He took a seat at the table and practiced card tricks under the grey canvas as he waited. He was halfway through a particularly difficult shuffle when the Magician walked in.
‘And what are you doing?’ the Magician asked, laying his tailcoat over the back of the chair opposite and smoothing out the creases.
‘Nothing.’ The Juggler shoved the cards in his glittering jacket pocket and picked up his cutlery.
‘It did not appear to be nothing.’
‘What’s it to you?’
‘Card tricks are not for you.’ The Magician straightened his purple tie and sat, keeping himself calm and in check. ‘They are my domain.’
‘If you say so.’ The Juggler tossed his cutlery in the air, flipping them between his hands in effortless movements.
‘Do not be getting any ideas,’ the Magician said. He leaned forward and stroked his moustache. ‘I do not juggle, do I?’
‘Could if you wanted.’
‘And why would I wish to learn a trite skill like that?’ The Magician shook his head gently so as not to dislodge his hat. ‘My work is an art, yours is just basic coordination.’
‘Keep your wig on.’
The Magician sighed and leaned back into his chair. He flexed his fingers, feeling the ache of the day’s performance.
The tent doors swept open as the Clown marched in, purposeful and solemn.
‘Wotcha,’ the Juggler said, cutlery still circling in the air before him.
‘No one else here?’ the Clown asked.
‘Yes,’ the Magician said without looking up. ‘I just made them all disappear.’
‘Cos that’s always funny,’ the Juggler said.
The Magician fixed him with a dagger stare.
‘Alright jossers,’ the Clown said, adjusting his wide belt and sitting down. ‘That was a tough one today. My back’s killing me.’
The Juggler tossed his knife higher than usual, caught the fork and spoon, then snatched the knife from the air and laid all three back around the plate where they had sat before. ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘It seems you never want to talk about anything,’ the Magician said.
The Juggler sneered at him.
‘How much longer are we here for?’ the Clown asked, stretching his huge feet out beneath the table.
‘Another three days,’ the Magician said. ‘Or so I am told.’
‘Great.’ The Juggler cracked his knuckles. ‘I hate stick and rag towns like this.’
‘You know what they say,’ the Clown said. ‘Lots of bakeries around here.’
‘And why, pray tell, is that?’ The Magician sighed.
‘Because they’re all into bread.’ The Clown laughed. ‘Get it? Interbred! Lots of bakeries.’
No one else laughed.
‘Do you mean inbred?’ the Magician said.
‘Same thing. Anyways, they better not take too long,’ the Clown said. ‘I’m hungry.’
‘As am I.’ The Magician finally took off his hat and laid it beside him on the table.
‘Hey.’ The Clown pointed at his red nose. ‘Have I got something on my face?’
‘That is usually funnier after eating,’ the Magician said. ‘At least, it was the first time.’
They sat in silence for a few moments, avoiding eye contact with each other, until the Acrobat arrived.
‘You lot look miserable,’ she said. ‘Someone die?’
‘Not yet,’ the Juggler mumbled, his fingers straying over the blade of his knife.
‘What jarry we got tonight then?’ The Acrobat put her leg over the back of a chair, stretching out her muscles.
‘My best guess would be stew,’ the Magician said. ‘From the smell.’
‘Can’t smell anything.’ The Juggler lifted the knife, span it upright on the tip of his finger.
‘That’s probably them fire sticks you throw about,’ the Clown said. ‘Burnt all the hairs out of your nose.’
‘You do not need hairs to smell,’ the Magician said.
‘You’re proof of that.’ The Acrobat switched legs. ‘Do you ever wash?’
‘Do you ever stop exhibiting your tilt?’ The Magician looked at her with disdain.
‘I’m wearing a leotard, aren’t I?’ she said.
‘Only just, my dear.’ The Magician turned back to his hands, working the muscles in his palms.
‘You don’t have to, you know.’ The Clown tilted his head to the side to get a better view. ‘Naked is good.’
‘I’m half your age,’ the Acrobat said.
‘That’s fine too.’
She tutted and sat, her posture upright and her hands planted firmly on her sequined knees.
‘Such a buffer.’ The Clown returned to his slouch.
‘Today seemed more difficult than yesterday,’ the Acrobat said. ‘That crowd wasn’t very responsive.’
‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ the Juggler said.
‘You never want to talk.’
‘I’ll talk with you,’ the Clown said. ‘Dirty talk.’
The Acrobat ignored him and kept her attention on the Juggler. ‘Why don’t you like talking?’
‘Just don’t.’ The Juggler flipped the knife and caught it, feigning throwing it at the Magician, who flinched.
‘You are trying my patience,’ the Magician said.
The tent doors flew open and the Shill stepped in, hands on hips and head aloft. The Knife Thrower followed, a little meek in comparison to his wife.
‘An amazing show from us, as always,’ the Shill said. ‘We are wasted here.’
The rest of the troupe ignored her.
‘Well?’ she said. ‘Is no one going to congratulate my husband on his performance?’
‘He managed to get it up, then?’ the Clown said.
The Juggler smirked.
‘You were very good,’ the Magician said, ignoring the Clown’s remark. ‘Come, sit. I saved you seats.’ He gestured to the chairs either side of him.
The Knife Thrower smiled and stepped towards the Magician but stopped when he felt the Shill’s hand on his shoulder.
‘We’ll sit over here,’ she said. ‘If it’s all the same to you, of course?’
‘Of course.’ The Magician faked a smile for as long as he could manage.
The Shill and her husband sat beside the Acrobat, who shuffled slightly to the side. The Clown watched, amused. The Juggler span the knife on his finger again.
‘I hope you’re not planning on juggling with that?’ the Shill asked, adjusting the frills around her neck.
The Juggler didn’t answer.
‘I said, I hope you’re not planning on juggling with that? Not at the table?’
‘I caught him doing card tricks earlier,’ the Magician said.
‘You what?’ The Clown chuckled to himself, then turned to the Juggler. ‘Why would you do that? You’ve got a job.’
The Juggler shrugged.
‘Well?’ The Shill slammed her hand onto the table.
The Juggler looked up. Everyone was watching him, he had to say something.
‘I just, well, I don’t like juggling.’
They all laughed.
‘Don’t like juggling?’ the Magician said. ‘Don’t like juggling? What kind of juggler doesn’t like juggling?’
‘I just want to try something new is all,’ the Juggler said. ‘Don’t have to be a mush.’
‘You can have my job if you like,’ the Contortionist’s voice said. ‘I always fancied juggling.’
They all looked around, but he was not to be seen.
‘Where are you?’ the Shill asked.
‘Down here,’ the Contortionist replied.
They peered under the table and there he was, wrapped around the legs and hanging just above their knees.
‘How long have you been there?’ the Magician asked.
‘Since before you lot arrived,’ he said. ‘It’s been an education.’
‘Are we all here?’ The Ringmaster shook the wallings of the tent as she walked inside, booming.
They sat up and the Contortionist climbed into a chair. The Ringmaster went to the head of the table and stood, cane still in her hand.
‘We’re mostly here,’ the Clown said. ‘What’s new, gaffer?’
‘Today,’ the Ringmaster said, ‘did not go to plan.’ She sat, perching on the edge of the seat. ‘But why, that is a different matter.’
The Juggler shook his head.
‘Last night a boy went missing,’ the Ringmaster continued. ‘That’s why our numbers were down, why no one laughed. This town is dead to us. Tomorrow we scarper before first light.’
The Clown sighed, the Shill tutted. The Contortionist rolled his eyes.
‘Not again,’ the Acrobat said softly to herself.
‘What about the tickets?’ the Knife Thrower asked.
‘We shush what we’ve sold.’ The Ringmaster took off her hat and put it on her cane, leaning the two against the table. ‘We’ll burn the lot, pull down and be gone before they wake.’
‘What about the boy?’ the Clown said. ‘What happened there?’
The Ringmaster breathed deeply. She turned to the Magician. ‘Care to explain?’
‘It wasn’t me,’ the Magician said. ‘Not this time.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Of course I’m sure!’
‘Because you know what we said would happen if you ever did that again.’
‘I did not,’ the Magician said. ‘I promise you.’
‘We’ll have to see about that.’ The Ringmaster banged her fist twice against the table. ‘Bring it in,’ she shouted.
They all turned and watched the tent doors peel back. They saw the Strongman push in the Magician’s wardrobe, the wheels squeaking through the dirt. The Magician sat frozen.
‘Open it up,’ the Ringmaster said.
The Strongman pulled on the doors, straining the lock until it snapped and opened, but the wardrobe was empty.
‘See?’ the Magician said. ‘It wasn’t me.’
The Ringmaster looked at the Juggler and nodded. The Juggler put the knife down and stood, slowly, and walked to the side of the wardrobe. He reached back and pulled a small lever hidden beneath a false flap on the back. The inside of the wardrobe opened up.
The Magician’s mouth fell, his eyes wide and staring, as from within his machine a boy tumbled onto the dirt. He was barely ten years old, his face glazed and grey in a death stare.
‘That wasn’t me!’ the Magician said. ‘I didn’t! Not this time!’
The Contortionist had him, arms wrapped about the Magician’s neck. The Strongman picked them both up and the Magician couldn’t move.
‘Hang on,’ the Shill said. ‘Are we sure it was him?’
‘It’s his machine,’ the Ringmaster said, pointing to the wardrobe.
The Strongman carried the Magician still bound by the Contortionist outside. The rest of the troupe could hear his pleas over the growls until all was silenced by the thud of the belly box closing. The Strongman and the Contortionist returned without the Magician.
‘Where’d you put him?’ the Acrobat asked.
‘Under the lions,’ the Contortionist replied. ‘Stashed him in the box. He’ll keep them fed for weeks, bit at a time.’
‘Hold on.’ The Knife Thrower looked at the Juggler, who was picking up the child’s body from in front of the wardrobe. ‘How did you know how to open that?’
‘I’ve been watching him for months,’ the Juggler said. ‘Like I said, I don’t like juggling.’
‘I suppose you’ll be our new magician, then?’
‘Suppose so.’ The Juggler passed the body to the Strongman, who took it out of the tent.
‘Is that for the lions too?’ the Shill asked.
The Strongman grunted.
‘Guess so,’ the Clown said.
‘Now all that is concluded,’ the Ringmaster said, ‘we should eat.’ She put her hat back on. ‘Cook?’
The Cook stuck his head through the other doorway. ‘Yep?’
‘Bring out the stew and some bevvies,’ the Ringmaster said.
‘Right.’ The Cook ducked out then returned with bowls and mugs of various shades of brown.
The Juggler sat down amongst them, knowing it would be the last night he would be called that. They ate and drank, silent and in a strange mood.
‘I wonder,’ the Contortionist said to the Juggler after a while. ‘Is magic anything like juggling?’
‘Kind of,’ the Juggler said. ‘You have two things in the air and one in your hand. The trick is when you switch them.’ He threw up his cutlery, juggling it. ‘You think I’m holding the fork, and the knife and spoon are in the air. But I’m not. This is your fork, mine’s on my plate.’
Everybody looked and saw.
‘That’s a good switch,’ the Acrobat said. ‘Could you switch two people?’
‘Don’t need to,’ the Juggler said. ‘Just move one somewhere they’re not expected.’
‘Like a box?’
‘Or a coffin?’ the Knife Thrower asked.
‘Or a wardrobe?’ the Shill said.
‘A fine illusion.’ The Ringmaster stood. ‘We have a new role to toast!’ She raised her glass and, after a short pause, so did the rest. ‘To our new Magician, who proved his merit today with a vanishing, reappearing boy, and disappeared his predecessor.’ She looked at the Juggler. ‘Congratulations, you did better than I expected.’ She held her glass aloft. ‘To the new Magician!’
They agreed, drank, and the Ringmaster began to clap. One by one they joined in, each becoming part of the ovation, each accepting the new Magician.
As they applauded, the tent doors parted and in walked the Fortune Teller. She looked at the empty wardrobe, then at the troupe.
‘What did I miss?’ she asked.
‘Shouldn’t you know?’ the Clown replied with a smile.
Buy on Amazon
© 2018 Seb Reilly
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.