LION TAMER BLUES

A recently retired lion tamer struggles to come to terms with his quiet new life in Stuart Snelson's short story. Illustrated by Vidhya Nagarajan.

Retired, no longer required, the lion tamer hung up his whip.

Post-retirement, the circus buzz lulled. It was hard to explain such thrills to those who had never experienced them; his head ventured tentatively into the lion’s yawning jaws, his skull teasing puncturing curvatures of teeth; the actions of a death-wish dentist. He excelled in quelling roars, reducing wild beasts to controlled ferociousness. Now, his life on the road had reached a terminus. Within the dread embrace of a caravan’s carapace, he shrunk from the world. In a Formica furnished corridor, alone, he would watch his movements slow, experience his memories disintegrate. His life hadn’t prepared him for such dulled eventualities.

Permanently parked, his home sinking slowly into the earth, he faced the eternity of twilight years. Afternoons, into which previously he had struggled to squeeze tasks, now expanded exasperatingly. Fellow entertainers faded, became strangers. Life kept them moving, eternally unpacking their lives in provincial towns, every week deposited in some new circle of suburbia. Beyond their doors each day, new horizons. His own yielded nothing but his own dismal future. How, after a lifetime’s exhilarations, could he settle into torpidity?

With lions, the walls of his caravan were rampant. Memorabilia was everywhere – paintings, figurines – a pride of silent likenesses.

Each evening, serenity unsettled him. He missed the least likely of things: children’s screams, the backbreaking rehearsals, even the unsavoury smells. But more than anything, his majestic subjects. As show time approached, time slowed to a crawl. He was not ready for this early death. Regular retirement, he suspected, was not so hard-hitting, comprising as it did relocated boredoms. His own situation was one of too great a disparity, a seismic shift. Time previously lost in preparation was now simply lost: unoccupied days became swollen with unused hours. In his armchair, slumped, the thrills of his existence slipped from him.

Initially he had maintained rigorous standards; his moustache, waxed, parodic; his hair brilliantined to a mirrored sheen. Acknowledging show time, he would slip into his old costume and watch the one video he had of his old routine. Inside the machine, the tape wore down; looped viewings wore history thin.

His miniaturised life now consisted of scaled down dramas. As a retirement present, they had bought him a cat. This seemed to him a cruel joke, a diminutive echo. They developed a strange relationship. Quizzically it regarded his master’s efforts towards control, the thrust of a proffered stool. Sensing madness it would disappear through the cat flap, seeking the company of the relatively sane before he needed to eat again.

In his caravan, he felt imprisoned, captive, away from his natural habitat. His days were sprinkled with sawdust memories, the travelling carnival of their parade, their distractions unpacked to the delight of thousands.

In the local pub, bar-propped, he would regale regulars with his exploits. His figure would kick the drink to stand firm. Slobbering, jaw-dropped sops hung on his every word. Commanding roaring drunks was now the extent of his mastery. At the night’s end, he would return to his boxed life, a memory rush of adrenaline with no outlet.

That he should find himself alone at this juncture of his life came as no great surprise. For a living, he thrust his head into the mouths of lions. The opportunity to meet women seldom arose, his life providing excitements of the wrong variety. On occasion, there had been ill-advised liaisons, work romances uniting incompatible mavericks – flings with acrobats, high jinks with tightrope walkers – but thanks to the family like camaraderie, these had felt vaguely incestuous. No wife by his side, no offspring provided, his dangerous footsteps would remain unfollowed. Sometimes he had dreamt of an heir apparent. Toddling beneath a top hat, coattails trailing, a toothless smile beneath a felt-tip moustache: sweet, adorable, edible. But then which mother would watch her first-born fed to lions?

Within a cramped wardrobe: three red tailcoats ironed to perfection. At the drop of a top hat, he would once more be ready for the call. But no leonine logo beamed into the night sky would seek his re-emergence. He would protect his finery not from lions, but from moths.

He refused to resign himself to lapsed highs. Still reverberating, he heard the barrel organ pomp that fanfared his actions. Let the office drones shuffle from the coil in continued drudgery, he sought thrills. He doubted that he was alone in this scenario. He pictured a daredevil retirement home, a gathering of adrenaline casualties – stuntmen, fighter pilots, skydivers – pensioned off pleasure seekers refusing to leave wildness behind them. In rest homes, restless residents, unwilling to settle beneath tartan blankets completing jigsaws of the outside world. He visualized adventure centres for those of advanced years, activities for intrepid septuagenarians; nobody pursued the grey pound with such vigour. In insurers’ eyes: brittle skittles succumbing to tumbles. Why, as it neared, should they shrink from death defiance? He would not let ballroom dancing prove his weekly peak.

Whilst he acclimatised to confinement, the circus rolled into town. Upon abandoned shop fronts came hastily pasted posters. Queuing, he joined expectant spectators; through mud trundled tentwards. On opening night, beneath patched canvas, he endured pratfalls and acrobatics as he awaited nervously his main attraction. Watching another man tame lions, every inch of him twitched in his seat. The past made a marionette of him. He missed the stage-managed madness, the safety netted jeopardy.

Seeking continuity for his enthusiasms, he had anticipated a warm welcome at zoos and sanctuaries – a privileged insider, an honorary guest – direct access to his beloved breed. This proved not to be the case.

Gaining access to other people’s lions proved impossible. Nevertheless, trips to the zoo became more frequent, loitering around the lion enclosure, silently stirring. His pension, such as it was, found itself fractioned off into admittance fees, his life lived through turnstiles. Beyond perimeter fences – brooding, skulking – they proved too far removed. He wished to feel their warm breath upon his face; spur their unnerving purrs. It pained him to see them compounded. He observed their doleful circuits, sad-eyed and sluggish, the motions that space allowed, sullen skulks around film set jungles, patchwork habitats. Wrenched from sun-drenched savannahs to perform in this plangent pageant, did those born in captivity have any notion of their heritage? They seemed no more convinced by their surroundings than the public. He foresaw an evolutionary emergence, resplendent coats dulling over generations, blending with drab habitats, adhering to the municipal concrete greys of a captive palette. At least under his watch they were offered variety, he thought. Prowling listlessly, he mirrored their caged demeanour. Amidst children, licked lips hinted at wicked intent. Security staff were on hand to misunderstand. It was politely requested that he limit his attendance.

The drinks inched their way into daylight hours. Swilled whisky instilled a delicious heat that kept boredom momentarily at bay.

Plaguing hazy afternoons, this thought: he had trained his usurper. As the years advanced, an apprentice was found within the ranks: the son of acrobats. Forever off balance, he brought shame upon the family name. From conception he had been destined to swing on rings, was the first step towards a generational pyramid. But he didn’t walk until he was two. His prolonged toddling they took as a personal affront. He found himself more adept at the tame arts. Under his adopted mentor, he was trained towards betrayal.

Nursing the first of the day’s drinks, as the afternoon bloomed dark thoughts, he wished that he had instilled his charges with more sinister intent. At his signal, jaws clamped tight: a messy beheading for his successor. He was not alone, he imagined, among ousted retirees, in wishing his replacement ill. Patiently he awaited big top bulletins, anticipated the grapevine’s twitch, tales told of a savaged apprentice, lions having turned in the absence of their master. But there would be no bloodied communiqués.

Between performances, their caged menagerie had haunted grey roads. Travelling between towns, their spectacle speeding down motorways, he would lose himself in fatalistic reveries. What would happen if they crashed? He imagined jack-knifed lorries, impromptu cocktail shakers releasing angry, bewildered beasts: lions ranging the hard shoulder, puzzled tigers thrown by the unimpeded stampede of traffic, further pile-ups as rubbernecking motorists caught sight of their activities. Blaze raging, a fleet of tiny cars to the rescue, a conga of clowns dispensed to douse the flames with soda siphons.

Options limited, he considered other extremes. He had read about the illegal sales of dangerous pets, shadily traded black market beasts. Thus far, he had failed to stumble upon such backroom deals, exotic stock from the back of a lorry. Such hapless adoptions seemed rifer overseas. Like everything else, they could be sourced online no doubt, but it wasn’t just the logistics of acquisition that posed a problem. Where would the beast live? His caravan’s cat swinging dimensions were restrictive as they were. If he could persuade it to adapt to such a tin-canned life how would he conceal or clean it? A pre-dawn raid on the shower block to hose it down, to rinse its dirt-dreadlocked mane? His situation, he conceded, was not suitably accommodating.

Unexercised, he fattened, filled his home’s constrictions, struggled further with the condensed obstacles of his living space. About him, lion figurines shouldered dust. Oftentimes, unwilling to negotiate the convolutions of his bedroom’s canopy door – a squeeze at the best of times, but an acrobatic feat when full of the drink – he would awake on the floor having slunk drunkenly from the sofa. His alarm call: the lapping tongue of a tabby cat.

He no longer had the appetite to look after himself. Scooped from a tin though they were, his cat now ate more elaborate meals than he did. No longer did he sit at trestle tables, nestled between clowns and acrobats; his memories: deleted Fellini scenes. With the drooping antennae of his unwaxed moustache, forlorn, he made for a down-and-out Dali.

Confined, his mind turned to past events, a rush of candyfloss flashbacks. On a two-seater sofa, slumped, he summoned himself in all his pomp. Drink mired, he entered disorientating states, slipped addled between the past and present, reacted to roars that weren’t there. A rage surged through him. His caravan became a site of disarray, its floor a mosaic of smashed crockery and whipped figurines. His cat, fearful of being swung, departed.


*

 

Boarding a bus, he headed towards an out of town zoo, a place where he remained unknown. Through the turnstiles, familiar roars beckoned him. Half-heartedly he had conjured his plan. Evading security staff, he displayed a late grace and agility in gaining access to the lion’s enclosure. With what flourish he could muster, he whipped off his tired overcoat. Unconcealed he revealed his red coattails, donned a black top hat and slipped his whip from a deep pocket. Scrambling issues prevented further accoutrements: he would face his foe chairless.

An alien in this ersatz jungle, once more he drew a crowd. Panicked security guards, uncertain what to do, led the charge; tinny transmissions from walkie-talkies alerted visitors. Coaxing him from the enclosure – his imagined ring – would prove difficult. Such invasions did not tend to end well. Playing dead, perversely, would be his best hope of getting out alive. But he was in no mood to lie down.

Between Do Not Feed the Animal signs, spectators peered. As he approached the first lion, padded tentatively towards reasserting his dominion, the gathered crowd watched open-jawed. This would be his last hurrah, a final administering of his whip-cracking mastery. The lion roared. Behind a chain-linked fence, dumbstruck punters raised their phones to the spectacle. Zooming in, a hundred screens flooded red.



'Lion Tamer Blues' was published in Popshot's 10th issue, The Wild Issue, which has now sold out. To ensure that you never miss a future issue of the print magazine, subscribe from just £10 a year.