Admittedly, my little travelling show isn’t what it once was. We’ve been on the road for a long, long time. But I like to think that for the discerning customer, we still provide value for money. An experience you can’t get from the computer screen–the modern freakshow–despite all its tricks and special effects…
by Michelle Ann King
Audiences have so little respect, these days.
Admittedly, my little travelling show isn’t what it once was. We’ve
been on the road for a long, long time. But I like to think that for
the discerning customer, we still provide value for money. An
experience you can’t get from the computer screen–the modern
freakshow–despite all its tricks and special effects.
Of course, it’s a different world from the one we started out in. You
can’t just blow into town, set out your stall and start yelling ‘roll
up, roll up.’ There are rules, now. Regulations. Local councils, who
want risk assessments and reviews and background checks. Public
liability insurance, for fuck’s sake.
Time was, I’d parade the streets with Sweetie as a Sumatran tiger
padding at my side and grinning at all the fine ladies until they
swooned themselves into hysterics. We’d dance with bears and go
pickpocketing with monkeys, and everybody oohed and aahed and couldn’t
throw down their money fast enough. Couldn’t wait to see what other
wonders I had in store for them.
But those days are gone, now. Instead of wild animals I have beetles
and cockroaches and corn snakes. And Sweetie, of course. I still have
We don’t parade the High Street now, or line people up outside a huge,
gaudy tent. We travel in a Transit van and squat temporarily in vacant
outlets sandwiched between charity shops and Poundstretchers, and hide
from Community Support Officers on the lookout for unlicensed traders.
But for all that so much has changed, some things–some people–never do.
It’s not the kids–they’re fine. I like the kids. They’re excited,
wide-eyed, thrilled to get up close. They love Sweetie, even when
they’re pretending to be scared, and she loves them right back. Lets
them stroke her back, her legs, with shivering fingertips.
‘She won’t hurt you,’ I tell them, and they usually grin and nod and
pose proudly for mum or dad to take a video with a smartphone. But
they’re still ever so careful with her. They respect her. Because deep
down they know–I can see it in their eyes–that I might be lying. And
that’s good. That’s a worthwhile lesson for them to learn.
So no, it’s not the kids. It’s the ones who think they’re adults, big
men, tough guys. The ones who think that because they’ve seen the
world on a screen, they know how it works. The ones who think that if
there’s anything to be scared of, it’s them.
Bless their hearts. Bless their deluded, juicy little hearts.
‘No,’ I tell this particular one. ‘I wouldn’t recommend that.’
He blinks at me. We’re in a seaside town this time, for some reason a
place that attracts these roaming hordes of young men, sloshing around
in clouds of alcohol fumes and testosterone. Time was, they’d have
ended their nights out by being press ganged into service on a Navy
warship. These days they tend to get swept out of disreputable
nightclubs in the cold hours with the rest of the rubbish. But either
way, the middle of the spree has to be filled with fun. Specific
definitions of that word might have evolved over the years, but the
general translation of ‘trouble for someone else’ hasn’t changed much.
‘Fuck you,’ he says, this little pumped-up runt. ‘I want to hold the
I give him a considering look, making a show of it. ‘I’m not sure,’ I
murmur. ‘The tarantula experience can be a little intense. Perhaps I
He follows my gaze to the glass case of stick insects, and his eyes
bulge almost as much as his biceps. His companions snigger. Do people
still die of apoplexy, in this age? I hope not. It would be wasteful.
‘Are you kidding me?’ he says.
I attempt to assure him that I am not, that I am thinking only of his
safety and welfare. It doesn’t seem to soothe his ire.
He looks at the poster on the wall, a blown-up photograph of Sweetie
sitting on the outstretched palm of a previous customer.
‘That kid is about six years old,’ he says. ‘Are you saying
six-year-olds can handle it and I can’t?’
One of his friends slaps the back of a hand against his upper arm.
‘Fuck it, Chris, let’s go.’
‘No,’ he says, and points at me. His fingers are square and chunky,
yellowish staining on the underside. I would have blamed nicotine,
once, but I suspect it’s more likely a tanning solution. ‘I want the
spider. It’s the only reason we came in here in the first place. You
said people can hold it, so I’m going to.’
I compose my expression into reluctance and take a typed disclaimer
out of a plastic tray on the side. He slaps it out of my hand and it
drifts to the floor. Perhaps that’s just as well: it’s a prop, like
the fake bamboo in the cases, and makes no sense whatsoever. Although
I’m not sure he would realise that even if he read every word.
‘I won’t sue you,’ Chris says, the words barely getting out through
clenched teeth. ‘I might nut you one if you don’t stop fucking me
about, but I won’t sue you. All right?’
‘Fuck’s sake,’ says the other young man. He looks jittery, pulling on
the collar of his shirt. There are sweat stains spreading out from
under the arms. ‘Can’t we just leave it?’
Maybe it’s chemical, this edginess–maybe he just wants to rush off
towards the next fix of his regular poison. But there’s something in
his eyes that reminds me of those sensible children who knew when to
be scared. Maybe this one really does understand something of the
world, after all.
The rest ignore him. I get the impression that Chris usually puts on a
good show, and they don’t want to miss anything. Good for them.
Sweetie currently lives in a five-gallon aquarium, the bottom layered
with a few inches of soil and peat. She has a shallow water dish and a
cave in the form of a small clay flower pot. I remove the lid and lift
The men fall into a semicircle and lean in closer. There’s a very
small noise, little more than a vibration, but it almost sounds like
an ‘ooh.’ A warm rush of nostalgia sweeps through me.
‘What do you feed it?’ one of the chorus asks.
‘Crickets,’ I lie.
Sweetie sits on my palm, unmoving. You could imagine she was just a
model, a toy. Maybe a corpse. She plays dead extremely well.
‘Hold out your hand,’ I tell Chris.
For a heartbeat or two he hesitates. Vestigial survival instinct,
perhaps. But if so, it’s easily overridden. He won’t back out now, not
after so much fuss. In this modern world, social embarrassment is a
far greater fear.
He pushes back the sleeve of his shirt and offers me his hand. I bring
mine next to it until our fingers brush. His flesh is cold, but he
still jumps, minutely. Perhaps mine is colder.
I tilt my hand and Sweetie tumbles fluidly from my palm to his. He
stiffens, the muscles in his arms and his jaw visibly rigid. Another
whisper of sound; the complementing ‘aah.’
We all wait.
She moves a foreleg, taps it gently on his skin. ‘She’s reading your
palm,’ I say. ‘Telling your future.’
They all smile, as if I’ve said something funny. Chris breathes out
for the first time in at least thirty seconds, then frowns.
‘Is it supposed to do that?’ he says, because Sweetie’s changing her
colouration. Amber bands are appearing on her legs, reminiscent of the
Mexican Red-Knee–probably because that’s the classic image so often
used in illustrations and films. Say ‘tarantula’ to most people and
that’s what they’ll think of.
‘She likes you,’ I tell him.
I don’t always lie.
He raises his hand, brings her up to eye level. ‘You’re not so scary,’ he says.
The blond boy in the stained shirt winces and closes his eyes, and I
know that he’s seeing Sweetie jump, legs extended and fangs bared.
Fangs that make no sense for a creature that size. He’ll be seeing
these things in his dreams for a long, long time.
But at least he’ll wake up, afterwards. He has that advantage over his friend.
Sweetie and Chris are still eye-to-eye. The others are getting
restless; it doesn’t look like there’s much more fun to be had here.
‘Are we going?’ one of them says.
‘Yeah,’ Chris says, but he doesn’t move.
‘Catch us up, then, yeah?’ They’re drifting towards the door now,
listening to a different siren song. The blond is the first one out,
his face ashen and his chest heaving as he gulps polluted street air
as if it tastes sweeter. The others laugh, thump him on the back, call
‘Yeah,’ Chris says again, but they’ve all gone.
We have to go too, now. They’ll come back for him, eventually. Or
they’ll remember that he was here, at least–that this was the last
place they saw him.
I pack everything up quickly and neatly, leaving nothing but dust and
whispers. I still miss the romance of the covered wagon, but it has to
be said that the van is a far more efficient method of transport.
I slam the back doors on Sweetie and her new friend. I think Chris
would be screaming if he was still capable, but he’ll settle soon
enough. We’ll head out to Eastern Europe for a while, I think,
somewhere that hasn’t entirely sacrificed awe and wonder for
regulations and small print. He should be ready, by then, to take his
place as the star attraction of my little travelling show. Sweetie
doesn’t mind sharing the limelight, sometimes. She’s good like that.