by Jay Merill
I hit out. I yell. Kid came too close. With his swaying body, his drunk’s unsteady feet. My head blanked; I punched him to the ground. There’s a solid screen inside my head behind which another me exists. My screened-off self is darker; can easily reach the raw. Now I see I have to get out of the city. I’m going on the tramp. No more sleeping in that rank-damp Camden doorway feeling like a loser every night. This is the end of all that.
I’m making good progress despite my back-pack’s weight, have already got as far as Archway. But a little way up Highgate Hill I stop. London is there below me. I sit on a wall outside this pub and light up my last spare rollie. A flashback has hit me so hard I just can’t move. Think it might be the sight of the Whittington Cat in that cage on the pavement there that’s set me off – cat’s only made of cast-iron so no cause for alarm. I feel as though I’m on this tightrope. I wobble, could easily fall. A dithering moment – which you shouldn’t ever have when you’re on one. It’s always dangerous to waver. Ask me how I know: I used to be a tightrope walker.
I’m from Pleven in Bulgaria where I started off doing acrobatics, later joining a travelling circus as a quiet stay-at-home life didn’t suit my restless nature. In the circus days I spent quite a bit of time observing the big-cats before I started rehearsing in the afternoons. They fascinated me and I began to understand where it was they were coming from. There they’d sit all docile and serene with eyes glistening quietly as they stared at some point in front of them. They did not fool me. I knew this quietness wasn’t really them, or not their most basic part. There was this fury deep inside them that could burst out in a flash over nothing or nothing very much. Because I have to face the fact there’s something similar inside myself.
So, does a lion tamer mean a tamer lion? Realistically – don’t make me laugh. At a show one night in Macedonia I was juggling on the high-wire when I heard a rumpus from below. It was a double-act kind of thing. Me up there, and down on the ground, each on a little pedestal, were the circus lions. One of them had leapt off its perch and was attacking the trainer. The audience were screaming and jumping out of their seats. I was frozen up there on the high-wire and the team leader had to come later and talk me down. I’d gone dizzy and faint.
The lion-tamer didn’t die but he lost an arm, which was bad enough. As for me I never could face doing tightrope walking ever again from that day on. Later I gave up juggling on a whim. I know I have this streak of unpredictability, which can take me over. No-one can ever be entirely certain what I’m about to do next, not even me. As I’m sitting outside the pub on Highgate Hill a policeman comes up to me and moves me on. My anger surges up at once. I lift up my load from the ground and stomp away. Then I turn back as I hear the cop call out to me.
‘Here mate.’ He hands me a two-pound coin. ‘Get a cuppa tea,’ he says.
I stop. I smile, feel the screen lift suddenly, the darker me dissolving as the light gets in. That dense furry brownness in my head is fizzling away to nothing. Perhaps I’ve been too hasty; feel I’m ready for a change of heart. You can be locked tight into one mindset but you needn’t be. I begin unthinking the lion-like part of myself. There’s a wider picture if you’re up for it. That’s the magic. Examining all the aspects of a thing can set you free. And even if you’re a loser in the world’s terms how much does that matter if you’re going forward inside yourself? On Highgate Hill bell sound hits the air. I stop, look back. See the city there below all gold in twilight; feel a sense of hope.
I turn round, head back the way I’d come. Decide to give London another go. Cat seems to wink at me; bells chime on.
Jay Merill has periodically written new stories about homeless characters since 2014. These have been published in such literary journals as Bunbury Magazine, The Nottingham Review and The Pygmy Giant, and in the US by SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf and elsewhere. A further story was performed as part of the Grit Festival at the Royal Court Theatre in 2015. This was subsequently published by Ginosko Literary Journal in San Francisco and yet another story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Jay has now brought many of the characters together in a novel, ‘The Memoirs of Damien Dell,’ the first chapter of which was published in Trafika Europe in January 2017. Jay’s story, ‘As Birds Fly’ won the Salt Short Story Prize and is included in the Salt Anthology of New Writing, 2013.’ She is the author of two short story collections – God of the Pigeons, and Astral Bodies, (both Salt) and has been nominated for the Frank O’Connor Award and Edge Hill Prize. Jay is Writer in Residence at Women in Publishing.