Three days I’ve been here now and god knows how many more there are to come. I’ve prayed to him enough, not that I’ve ever believed in god, but if he does know, I wish he’d tell me. Perhaps it’s best that I don’t know. The claustrophobia is the worst bit, that and the agony of my arms, stretched out above my head, and my shoulders aching like you wouldn’t believe. They lower pain killers down to me on the end of a long cane every few hours. It’s a real job to get my mouth around them and somehow separate them with my tongue, trying to make sure I spit out the Blu Tak they have been stuck on with. Then they lower a wet sponge for me to suck on and draw enough liquid to swallow the bloody pills. This cricks my neck so that the pain is almost as bad as my shoulders.
It always seems to be Newbury bloody show. I’m sure the place is jinxed. OK, injuries are part of the job, but over the years there I’ve been concussed by a flying fire torch, had my big toe crushed by a pony and bounced out of a safety net and broken my ankle. It had to be pinned at bloody Newbury General. Six months spent on crutches and three more hobbling. No use to man or beast – apart from selling programmes and sweeping out the cages, getting paid peanuts and even then fewer than an elephant can fit up his trunk.
When I am finally fit to fly, the circus is back in bloody Newbury again. I should have known. Well – nine months of borderline inactivity when you’re a performer – you can’t expect to stay in peak condition, but I hadn’t realised just how many pounds I’d put on. So last Saturday, the night of my spectacular return, the big top is full, there’s a pretty good crowd cheering and then hushing as I wave before dropping myself into the cannon. Half way down, I get bloody stuck. 10 foot from the top of the barrel, 10 foot above the gunpowder. Stuck fast. Arms outstretched, boots dangling, I’m completely wedged in by my belly. I’m panicking now and a thousand thoughts flash through my head– what if they fire the cannon now? The foot disk will be travelling at god knows what speed when it hits my feet. It might force me out – but how far? Certainly not as far as the safety net across the ring, I’d imagine. Then it might smear my guts up the barrel firing blood and body parts into the air. Not great for the show really and anyway, I DON’T WANT TO DIE.
Thank god Sonja did her job and tapped the barrel three times: our signal to tell her I’m ready before firing. When I didn’t give the three knocks back, she climbed up the ladder, gracefully as a performer would, as if it’s part of the show for her to ascend and peer down into the barrel to see what’s wrong. Shining in stage makeup, and blocking most of the limited amount of light that can pass down the tube, she was a beautiful sight, even though we have long-fallen out after she said I dropped her on purpose in that trapeze show. That was Newbury too, of course. I don’t want to die in Newbury. I imagine all she can see looking in are my outstretched arms and gold helmet, and I can just about breathe in enough against the confines of the barrel to shout ‘Don’t fire – I’m alright; but I’m stuck!’ She must have signalled down to the ringmaster that something was wrong as I heard the band start up and saw the small circle of bright light above me change into a dark night sky as the cannon was pushed out of the tent.
The show must go on, and while I desperately tried to wriggle, failing to release myself, I heard the show carrying on. After the performance, they lowered a rope down, which I hung on to as long as I could – but my arms would have ripped off before I started to move. Some clown – I think it was CoCo, had the bright idea of pouring oil down the barrel to lubricate me. So they got one of the big cans of vegetable oil that they fry the burgers in. It ran down the barrel all over my arms, then face then all over my sequinned shoulders. It was horrible. If I ever get out of this I never want to smell vegetable oil again.
I was stuck and trying not to panic when the ringmaster’s head appeared at the top.
‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ he hissed.
‘Not a lot, really,’ I reply. I’m not sure sarcasm was my wisest move.
‘You fat bastard,’ he shouted. ‘Against my better judgement I let you stay after you go and break your ankle, and this is how you repay me.
‘Let me stay?’ I thought to myself, ‘That’s rich – I break my ankle in YOUR show, then you get my services for almost nothing and I don’t even sue you, when I’m sure there are a hundred Health and Safety regulations your bloody circus contravenes. And animal welfare. And Human Rights. But of course I don’t say this – much as I’d like to. We are all scared of him, but can’t leave – where would we go? Who’d want an ex-human cannonball?
‘You’ve let the circus down. What’s more you’ve let the team down, yourself down and the audiences down. But most of all – you’ve let me down, and I only ever let that happen once.’
‘What you going to do? Fire me?!’ I regretted my words as they left my mouth. He glared down the tube at me and I thought he might go and fire the bloody cannon with me stuck in it.
‘Hmm. It looks like you’re going to give me the time to think about it,’ he said, climbing down and his face disappeared from my view.
‘Mr Bainbridge,’ I called after him, ‘I’m…I’m sorry and in pain. Please get them to call the fire brigade to free me, and I’ll work very hard and lose these couple of pounds really quick.’
‘I will do no such thing,’ he said. ‘You can stay there losing weight, thinking hard about what I’ve said until you are in a position to be shot out of that prison of your own gluttony.’
He left. I called out after him, but there was no response.
Tony, the pony man, appeared into view.
‘Tony, you can get me out of here?’
‘No chance, Mate. You heard what old Bainbridge said.’
‘But I’m dying in here.’
‘Can’t do it. I’ll come down every few hours, unless its show time or night time of course, and lower you in a drink and diet food.’
‘That’s big of you. Can’t you just get me out of here.’
‘What? And us both lose our jobs? No chance.’
And so here I am. Totally fed up. When I need to have a piss, or do something worse, I just have to go where I am. It must be pretty revolting down below me for sure, but then I’m in too much pain to care. When I’ve thinned enough to move I’ve got to get pulled out before I slide down into the, well, you can imagine what’s waiting below me. I feel as though I can breathe a bit more than I could, so I must be getting thinner, but I’m still wedged.
I awake with a strange sensation. It’s dark. Must be the middle of the night, and it’s happening at last. I call out for someone to lower in a rope again, but at this hour no one’s there. I can feel myself starting to slide down the tube, inch by inch.
The hole above me, my lifeline, gets smaller and smaller as I gradually descend the tube. After about an hour I reach the base, standing in my own, well, excrement. There’s a tiny bit of wriggle room around I me at last, and I am so excited about leaving this hell. I call and call, but to no avail.
Eventually Pony Tony looks in and I excitedly tell him that I’ve lost the inches and can be pulled out at last. Off he dashes to get the ringmaster.
Five minutes later, Bainbridge is there looking in. He recoils at the smell that is presumably escaping upwards through the small spaces that must now exist around me.
‘I’ve done it,’ I say, ‘I’m thin! Pull me out.’
‘Pull you out? That’s no way for a human cannonball to talk. I’m going to fire you out in a shower of glory.’
‘Shower of gory more like,’ I say. ‘It’s full of god knows what down here and I promise, you won’t want that sprayed in your tent.’
‘That’s why I’m going to shoot you into a lake.’
I can’t believe it. Can he mean it? I’m so desperate to be free, but feel my arms will snap off after days of constriction if he does.
‘Please, Mr Bainbridge. I beg you. Please just lower in a rope and pull me out. I’ll do anything you say. And anyway, all this oil and piss will have spoiled the gunpowder. It won’t fire.’
‘Maybe it will, maybe it won’t,’ he said, then he gets the troupe to push the cannon to what I presume is the water’s edge.
‘No, Mr Bainbridge. Please don’t fire!’
‘I’m a fair man. If the gunpowder is still live, you will be free in no time and all of your shit washed off you in just a few seconds. If it doesn’t go off, I will get a rope lowered in and have you hauled out in your juices.’
‘You can’t do this! You bastard!’
This time there was no knocking on the side to make sure I was ready. Above my panicked shouting, I hear Bainbridge give the order…
‘Three, two, one…FIRE!’