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Fiction -- December 1996

The Greatest Show on Earth

by Sheila Gordon



Circus Poster

When the father made his weekly trip to Pofadderkranz, he had sometimes taken the twins along for the drive. Now Mrs. Prinsloo went with him instead


ON Tuesdays the express train racing from Rhodesia to the Cape of Good Hope would tear through the silence of the hamlet. The engineer would sound the train whistle a mile away, its signal sending a forlorn note through the clear air of the sparsely inhabited semi-desert African landscape, and the two children would drop whatever they were doing to run out onto the red-dust road outside the hotel and watch.

The sun-baked countryside lay flat under the hot sky. In the distance the white pennant of smoke unfurling from the locomotive would become visible against the blue, the faint throb of wheels and pistons gaining in volume as the distance fell away. From a huddle of thatched mud huts at the edge of the hamlet a few ragged black children would emerge to wait, to watch. In the hotel kitchen the cook would look up from the vegetables she was peeling, expectant, pausing from her work until she had seen the train flash past her window. Hotel residents, hearing its approach, would become alert, anticipation lifting, for a moment, the blankness from their faces. Over at the dam-construction site the workmen would straighten up at the sound of the whistle, their hands shielding their eyes from the glare of the sun, to watch as the train wound its way over the barren terrain.

Suddenly it was there, ripping the stillness, gusting coal grit into their eyes, its rush of wind flattening the girl's dress against her thin body, thrusting locks of brown hair against her cheek, lifting the boy's tow-yellow hair. Their heads would turn a small arc as their eyes followed the train's fleeting passage. The black children would run alongside for a few yards with cupped palms out, yelling, "Penny penny penny!" Sometimes coins would be tossed from the windows, sometimes an orange, a brown-paper bag of stale sandwiches, buns; the black children would scramble to retrieve the booty. Then the train would be gone. Quiet would settle back in their ears, the girl's cotton dress hang limp again. The plume of smoke would remain suspended against the blue, leaving a sooty, metallic taste on their tongues as it dissolved. The cook would go back to her half-peeled potato, the men to their digging; vacancy would return to the faces of the people in the hotel rooms.


THE children were twins. Their mother had died, and they were sent for the winter school holidays from the city where they lived with two adult sisters and a black family retainer to their father, who ran a hotel in a remote corner of Cape Province. A thousand miles from nowhere, their father said of the place, just south of the Kalahari. The aching bareness of the region was a premonition of the encroachment of the dust, the aridity, the heat and glare -- the true desert. Extending farther than the eye could see around the hamlet, the dry, baked earth revealed stony outcroppings of the continent's substructure, lying like bones partly exposed. Scrubby brush, thornbush, humble in its need for existence, gripped the earth, breaking the undulating flatness.

Water lay far under the parched ground, and deep wells had to be sunk to bring the precious substance up from springs that arose in the cool dark netherworld. Pumps that kept the water trickling into storage tanks were powered by wind, which kept the silver blades of windmills turning lazily against the blue. The windmills drew the eye up to the blank sky in the way the church spires of Europe draw the eye heavenward.

The surface of the continent here, in its inhospitality, stored none of the sun's heat of day to warm the nights; when the burning red disk sank behind the unbroken line of the horizon, night descended, hard, bone-chilling. Kerosene stoves would be lit to warm the public rooms, hot-water bottles offered to take the chill off beds.


IN the silence after the train whistle had grown faint and disappeared, the black children would wander back into their kraal, the twins return to the shade of the hotel verandah or the courtyard, where thirteen rooms were built around a giant blue gum tree, which cast a mauve pool of shadow over the hard, dusty ground. There was no Room 13. The thirteenth room had been numbered 14, because guests declined to occupy a room with a thirteen on the door. Landing in such a forsaken place seemed sufficient misfortune without courting further ill luck.

The hamlet was called Doringkraal ("Thorny Place") Station, though it was not a real station -- merely a siding for a branch line of the railroad network that linked the vast subcontinent.

The silence would prevail unbroken until Thursday, when the Zambezi Express, firebox stoked red and high, would again shatter it briefly in a full-speed rush from the vineyards and whitewashed colonial mansions at the southernmost tip of Africa, where white settlers had first stepped ashore, northward to the heart of the continent, where the Victoria Falls thundered into the Zambezi River, where lions prowled in the sere grass and elephants browsed on branches wrenched off high trees. The twins and the black children would run out to see the train pass, shading their eyes from the glare until the last remnant of the pennant of steam fluttered to nothingness and merged with the empty landscape.


THE twins' father worked hard and had little time to spare for them. They were called Sonny and Sissie, their given names all but forgotten with disuse. The girl did not enjoy having to spend school holidays at the hotel; she had nothing to do there. Her friends were all in the city; she was bored, lonely, imprisoned indoors by the brutal heat. She came for the reassurance of being near her father, and because she did not like to be separated from her brother. The boy loved the dry heat, the keen, clean smell of the air, the silence; he felt the pull of the desert.

Transient guests at the hotel were infrequent. The bar was the real reason for its existence. A few miles distant a vast irrigation dam was being constructed, and for the white workers housed in barracklike hostels on the construction site the bar was the only means of distraction from the bleakness that surrounded them, the crushing boredom, the loneliness. Here they would come in the evenings and on Saturdays, to booze heavily and steadily, play cards, get into brawls. The prevailing Calvinism, which forbade the purveying of alcohol on the Lord's day, kept the place shut on Sundays, and the sabbath was spent recovering from drunkenness.

An internment camp had been built in the district to house Nazi sympathizers among the Afrikaners. All their mail was read by two censors, who were installed at the hotel for the duration of the war. The local postmaster was a permanent resident, as were the stationmaster and his wife.

There was a small general store owned by Mr. Levy, a wealthy landowner, whose house lay at the edge of the hamlet. From distant kraals Africans would trudge for miles to the store to buy salt, soap, maize meal, and lengths of cotton fabric, paying with coins and crumpled bills counted out from small, tightly knotted squares of cloth.

There was nothing else, only the desert, undulating like a slack, shallow sea away to the horizon.

All the work at the hotel was done by a middle-aged black couple whose tin shanty lay a hundred yards behind the courtyard. The woman dusted surfaces that became layered again with fine dun powder just as soon as her rag had passed over. She made the beds, scrubbed the laundry on a washboard set in a zinc tub, cooked the hotel food: thick, salty vegetable soups, overdone roasts of mutton and beef, steamed puddings with floury custards -- menus originating in the damp and gloom of provincial English boardinghouses and hotels and brought to Africa in the memories of early British settlers. The manservant cleaned, swept, scrubbed floors, kept a high shine on the red-stone floor of the verandah with paste wax, chopped wood to start the fire in the black iron coal stove that blazed in the kitchen. At dawn, while the guests still slept, he polished the shoes they had lined up outside their bedroom doors before they retired for the night.

The couple's hours were long, the pay meager, the work unrelenting. They accepted their lot as they accepted the heat of the day, the swelter of the kitchen, the small tips thrown them by drunks in the bar, the cutting cold of the night that found its way through the chinks in their tin shanty. They were good-natured, kind to the motherless children.

The father, a handsome reserved man not much given to conversation or displays of feeling, spoiled the girl and used the boy as an extra set of hands, legs, muscles. The girl read, wrote letters to friends in the city, knitted at a lumpy piece of knitting, listened to programs on a crackling, static-filled radio powered by a car battery, sat by the window and stared out into the desert. The boy would be set to stacking and unpacking the boxes of liquor that were trundled off the goods train that stopped infrequently at the desolate siding. He would wash and dry glasses in the bar, fetch cool beer or milk or butter or sides of meat from the cold room. He would linger in the dim coolness of the chamber, the walls dark with layered coke pebbles held in place by wire mesh, listening to the drip, drip, drip of the water fed by the windmill pump to keep the porous, carboniferous pebbles damp, so that the evaporation chilled the room. On Friday and Saturday nights, when the tavern was boisterous with drinkers, he would have to serve as an extra bartender, though the drinking laws of the country prohibited children, along with women and blacks, from entering a bar. He would be sent with trays of drinks to serve women guests, who were permitted to drink only in the hotel lounge.

The censors from the internment camp complained to the father that he worked the boy too hard -- they and the postmaster needed Sonny for their game of rummy. But when the bar filled up, the father would call the boy to come and serve drinks. "Hy's net a kind -- laat hom speel 'n bietjie," the postmaster would grumble. "He's only a child -- let him play a little."

"It's busy in there -- I need him. Come along, Sonny."

"Ach -- at least let us finish this hand, then," one of the censors would protest.

The boy would lay down his cards, push back his chair, apologize to the cardplayers, and follow his father to the bar. His shoulders level with the top of the counter, he would have to raise his arms high to pour out the tots of brandy, glasses of wine.

Every Saturday, as soon as dark fell, a large, shaggy man, his brown hair and beard unkempt, his khaki shirt and trousers faded to a brassy green, the coarse leather of his velskoen boots caked with the dust of the miles of desert he had trudged, would push open the door of the bar, sit down at a table, and place his hat on the floor. A German who spoke not a word of English or Afrikaans, he would nod at the father, who would bring him a double brandy and a tankard of beer. After a couple of hours of solitary drinking the German would stand up, lumber over to the small upright piano in the corner of the room, and accompany himself singing mournful lieder and rowdy drinking songs until closing time. To the patrons he was as much a feature of the tavern as the shelves of dark, gleaming liquor bottles and the smell of the kerosene stove.

"Where does he live?" the boy asked his father.

"Somewhere out there" -- the father jerked his head toward the window -- "in the desert."

"What does he do?"

The father shrugged. "He's crazy -- a hermit or something. They say he lives somewhere in a hut with a kaffir woman."

At ten o'clock the hotel lights would be dimmed for a few moments to warn the patrons that the electricity generator was to be switched off in exactly fifteen minutes. Last drinks were served, drunks pushed out, tables cleared, ashtrays emptied. Outside, laughter could be heard, arguments, sometimes fistfights. Car engines would splutter up, the noise receding as the customers headed through the dark back to the irrigation scheme. The German would bang the piano shut, rise unsteadily, and clap his stained broad-brimmed felt hat onto his head. Without a word he would stumble out, cross the road, and shamble off into the darkness. Hotel residents would hasten to wash and undress before the lights were put out. The twins would be in their beds, in the room they shared, by the time the throb of the generator was cut off and black night obliterated the hotel.

From the servants' shack the red glow of the coal brazier would fall through the cracks between the sheets of corrugated tin, casting thin molten bars along the cold dark ground. Tired out, the boy would fall asleep at once, frequently dreaming that his mother, alive and well, opened the door and stepped into the room. The girl would lie awake, listening to her brother's breathing, thinking of school, friends, clothes, the book she was reading, deliberately evading the longing, the sense of abandonment, the knowledge -- newly acquired and confirmed by the darkness -- that the world was a place without safety or tenderness. Falling asleep at last, she would be awakened before dawn by the ringing of the ax as the manservant split logs into kindling to feed the cookstove, the rattle of iron as he shook last night's cold ashes out of the grate. Warm and drowsy, she could more easily fall into a second sleep.


AN occasional commercial traveler stayed overnight, or a family moving across country from one small, desolate town to another in hope of something better. The stationmaster's wife, a brittle, birdlike woman, kept to her room most of the day, reading magazines, painting her nails, experimenting over the sink with different shades of hair coloring, crocheting elaborate blouses for herself in pink, magenta, violet. She would appear three times a day in the dining room for her meals, and sit upright in the lounge at night, chatting to whoever was there, sipping beer, contemplating her reflection in the speckled mirror over the dark-oak sideboard. Very rarely she would emerge from her room in a white straw hat and go walking the few hundred yards along the dusty road to the stationmaster's office to visit her husband.


THE postmaster, a great fair-haired bull of a man, silent, surly, sat alone all day in the shed that was his postal depot, drank beer all evening, slept heavily all night. Once, on a long weekend, he appeared with a woman in tow. For the entire three days they kept to his room, drinking, the woman never once emerging, he sobering up from time to time to fetch plates of sandwiches or steak and eggs, coffee, and bottles of brandy from the bar. On Tuesday morning the woman was gone, and the postmaster, bathed and combed and shaved, was behind the counter, his usual self, sparing of words and of grace. That was the year the postmaster brought that woman here, the locals used to say afterward.


A MIXED goods train came through occasionally, one or two passenger coaches coupled to the freight cars, with faces gazing dully from the windows. Passengers seldom alighted. There was no platform, only gravel strewn on either side of the train tracks. The train would stop for ten minutes, give a toot, and chug away from Doringkraal into the barren veld, growing small and faint until it disappeared on the endless plain.

One day the train door opened and a woman stepped off, carrying a small suitcase. Not young, she was dark-haired, pretty, slender in a dress of pale-blue flowered cotton. She asked the stationmaster which way the hotel lay, stepped onto the red-dust road, and set off in her high-heeled shoes, while he watched the way her small rounded buttocks moved up and down under the fabric of her dress.

At the hotel she signed her name in the register: Mrs. Hettie Prinsloo. The servant was called to carry her luggage to her room. There was no explanation for her presence in the remote hamlet, though much speculation. She made friends with the stationmaster's wife, who lent her magazines and showed her crochet patterns. In the evenings she joked and chatted with the men, who would bring their drinks out of the bar to sit with her in the lounge, and she accepted the brandies they bought for her. Most surprising to the twins, she seemed to penetrate their father's taciturnity and reserve. They would come upon him in conversation with her in the dim stillness of the afternoon lounge. Flies droned against the windowpanes or buzzed, frantic, entrapped by the gummed flypaper that dangled from the ceiling, until, exhausted by the struggle, they gave up and expired, the desiccating corpses swaying as currents of air moved sluggishly in the room.

The girl, coming in and finding her father smiling and unwontedly amiable, would lean against his knee as they talked, admiring Mrs. Prinsloo's black curls, her round, rouged cheeks, her well-shaped calves in silk stockings. "Why did you come here, Mrs. Prinsloo?" she asked once.

"I just liked the look of the place when I saw it out the train window, Sissie. So I decided to get off and spend a while here." Then she and the father both laughed, their amusement perplexing the girl. "Don't call me Mrs. Prinsloo," she went on. "You and Sonny can call me Auntie Hettie if you want."

But they continued to call her Mrs. Prinsloo. When the father made his weekly trip to Pofadderkranz, a small town fifty miles away, he had sometimes taken the twins along for the drive. Now Mrs. Prinsloo went with him instead. "It makes a nice change of scene," she said, tying a sky-blue chiffon scarf over her curls. Once, she brought back slabs of milk chocolate for the twins; the chocolate had melted from the heat in the car, and they had to eat it by licking it out of the silver foil wrapping.

Her presence remained a mystery; none of the hotel residents or the drinkers in the bar could elicit any history from her, or any connection with a future. Only the present sustained her. The days of the school holidays moved by, one day replacing the next under the unchanging blue sky. Mrs. Prinsloo stayed on.


ONE morning their father told the twins that they could come with him to Pofadderkranz on his weekly trip. Mrs. Prinsloo had not yet emerged from her room, her breakfast having been sent to her on a tray. The father drove in silence. The children played word games, argued about the rules, watched the desert stream unchanging past the window as though the car stood still and a painted canvas strip spun steadily round, over and over again, with the same scene depicted on it.

While their father attended to his business at the bank and the suppliers of provisions, they walked along the main street, looking in shop windows, watching farmers from outlying districts loading bags of grain, cartons of canned goods, agricultural implements, onto their trucks. "Give us money for ice cream, Pa," the girl had asked when they got out of the car. He had gazed absently at the handful of change he took from his pocket, stirring the coins with his finger, before placing the small silver three-penny bits in each child's hand.

In the window of the café run by a Greek immigrant they saw a large red-and-yellow poster. Their tongues scooping up the ice cream rapidly melting in their cones, the twins studied the poster with interest. Beneath a picture of a powerfully built man dressed in leopard-skin trunks, his muscles bulging as a great iron chain around his chest burst apart under the force of his brute strength, was printed in large black letters THE REX IRONSTONE SHOW. "The world-famous strong man and his international company of talented performers," they read. "Only appearance this season of the World-Famous Body-Building Show." A list of places and dates of performances followed.

"Look -- he'll be at Doringkraal Station next Saturday afternoon," the boy said to his sister.

"Let's ask Pa for money for tickets," she said, impatient for excitement.

"I wonder if he'll let us go," the boy said, doubtful, transfixed by the breadth of the strong man's shoulders and the narrowness of his waist.

As soon as they were back in the car for the journey home, the girl blurted out, "Pa -- the Rex Ironstone Show is coming to Doringkraal next Saturday. Can we go, Pa? Can we? Tickets are only a shilling."

The father drove through the arid landscape, sunk in his own preoccupations. The girl persisted. "Can we, Pa? Can we?"

"Shillings don't grow on trees," the father said. "Have you got any shillings?"

They shook their heads.

"Well -- how can you go, then?"

They rode the rest of the way in silence.

In the night, when the twins were lying in their beds, the girl said, "I think Pa was only teasing about not letting us go to the Rex Ironstone Show."

Her brother didn't answer.

"Don't you? Don't you think he was only teasing?"

"I don't know," the boy said.

Outside, the generator's throb silenced for the night; the brazier in the servants' shack burned down to gray ash.


AT dawn on Saturday morning the Rex Ironstone Show arrived in the hamlet. When the twins awoke, two large pantechnicons and several cars were already parked opposite the hotel on a piece of land owned by Mr. Levy. The sounds of equipment being unloaded, hammering, voices shouting instructions, gave an air of festive excitement to the freshly unfolding day.

In the dining room the members of the Viennese Light Classical Trio were already eating when the children came in to breakfast. The three traveled with the Rex Ironstone Show and were all refugees from the war in Europe -- the violinist, an elderly, rotund man with a shock of frizzed white hair; his wife, the cellist, equally rotund, with ginger hair and high color, her pudgy fingers embedded with rings; and the clarinetist, a tall, lanky, depressed-looking man, bald except for a fringe of dead black hair hanging below his collar. The violinist and his wife sweated profusely, mopping their faces with their napkins as they attacked plates of maize-meal porridge, kippers and eggs, toast and marmalade, pouring cup after cup of tea from a large brown teapot. The clarinetist read from a book propped up against a flowerless vase while he ate, never raising his eyes from the page, his fork jabbing blindly at the salt cellar, the milk jug, the tablecloth, until, encountering food, it conveyed a morsel up to his mouth.

Watching them, the twins were overcome by fits of uncontrollable giggles, laughing, spluttering, and choking over their food.

After breakfast they raced across the road to the field. Grandstands were being hefted into position by a work force of local black men. Rex Ironstone himself lumbered about, his massive form ungainly in clothes -- a Goliath uneasy in huge khaki shirt and broad trousers. A sweat stain already spreading across his back, he harried the blacks, yelling and swearing at them in Afrikaans. "Ja, baas; ja, baas," they mumbled, hammering pegs into the hard ground, raising striped canvas screens backstage to make dressing rooms for the performers, laughing and making jeering remarks to one another in their own tongue about the giant of a baas. At the edge of the field a group of half-naked black children clustered, their bony rib cages furrowed above their swollen bellies. A girl no older than eight jiggled absently from time to time to quiet the fretting of an infant swaddled to her back in a strip of gray blanket. The baby's nose ran. Flies kept settling on its face, and it moved its small wool-peppered head about in irritation.

The twins went all over the field, curious and excited, the tension and activity mounting as the sun reached its zenith in the burning sky, infecting them with optimism.

"I'm sure Pa will let us come to the show. Let's go and ask him for the money now, so that we can get our tickets early," Sissie said.

They ran back across the road to the hotel. In the lobby the door to the public telephone stood wide open, a commotion of irate yelling in English and Afrikaans issuing from it. They heard a ringing clang as the phone was hurled at the wall, and a man came bursting out of the cubicle and stormed up to the reception desk, where their father was talking with Mrs. Prinsloo. A commercial traveler from Kimberley, a regular at the hotel always referred to by their father as "the Scotchman," he had been trying all morning to get through to his wife, who was expecting a baby. "What kind of a telephone exchange is it you have in this Godforsaken hole of a place?" he said in a broad Scots accent, his rs rolling, his face scarlet, his fists clenched in rage. "Since early this morning I've been trying to make a simple trunk call, and those eejits on the line canna' make the connection for me! Does a body have to be half-witted in order to qualify for a job with the telephone service in these parts?"

The twins, stifling their giggles, watched as their father placated the Scotchman and urged him back to the booth, where the phone dangled from its cord. Their father smiled his reluctant smile and gave them a conspiratorial wink. Mrs. Prinsloo, not smiling, walked out onto the verandah without looking at them.

"Pa," Sissie said, "the show will be starting soon. Give us the money now, so that we can go and buy our tickets before lunch."

"What have you done to deserve it?" he asked, teasing.

"Come on, Pa."

"Run away now -- don't bother me." He looked out the window onto the verandah where Mrs. Prinsloo was leaning against one of the upright wooden posts that supported the tin roof. "I've got all these invoices to check through before lunch." He ignored them, licking his finger and riffling through a pile of papers on the desk.

Disconsolate, they went out and sat on the edge of the polished red-stone verandah. Mrs. Prinsloo moved away and sat down on a bench made of dried bent branches. The twins looked out at Mr. Levy's field, watching as cars drove in from distant farmsteads and families spilled out, queuing up for tickets, filling the front rows of the grandstand, and settling down to picnics out of large baskets.

When the servant struck the gong for lunch, Mrs. Prinsloo stood up. "Ach -- this heat is making my head ache. I'm going to lie down in my room." She went indoors. The father looked up from his invoices, but she went past him without speaking and through the baking courtyard to her room.

The dining room was already crowded with workers who had come down early from the dam to see the show. The girl ate a slice of bread and butter, declining the thick, steaming soup, the cold mutton with boiled vegetables, the tinned guavas. The boy ate a little from each course.

"What's the matter, kindjies? Why don't you eat?" the black man asked, removing plates of food.

"We're not hungry," the boy told him.

In the lobby the phone rang, and the Scotchman could be heard arguing excitedly with the operator. The children did not smile now, or look at each other.

After lunch they sat on a hard horsehair sofa in the lounge, looking through outdated magazines they knew by heart. Mrs. Prinsloo came in and sat down with a piece of crochet. She took up the hook in one hand, but the work lay limp in her lap.

"The heat in this place is beginning to get me down," she said.

"Aren't you going to see the show, Mrs. Prinsloo?" the boy asked.

She shook her head.

At ten minutes before two the father looked in. Mrs. Prinsloo jabbed her hook into her work and busied herself with an intricacy of the pattern.

"I thought you two wanted to go to the show," he said. "What are you hanging about in here for?"

They waited, sitting on the hard sofa, not trusting him.

"You'll be late if you don't get a move on." He reached into his pocket and took out two shillings.

They jumped up, took the money, and ran out, calling, "Thanks, Pa."

The father sat down on the couch beside Mrs. Prinsloo. She stood up as if to leave, and the father caught her wrist, restraining it lightly between his finger and thumb. Above the murmur of their conversation rose the sounds of the servants clattering dishes in the kitchen, the Scotchman yelling into the phone in accented Afrikaans. Mrs. Prinsloo sat down again, the father's fingers retaining their light hold on her wrist.


THE grandstand was three-quarters filled, the audience mostly male, the best seats taken. The twins scrambled into a vacant space high up, eyes fixed on the stage.
The Viennese Light Classical Trio -- the men in black ties and shabby tailcoats, the woman in a tight-fitting long black gown -- sat on small folding chairs under the hot African sun. They were well into the overture to William Tell, the music cantering away at a brisk pace across the desert. Then the clarinetist, doubling as a tympanist, beat out a rolling flourish on the kettle drum, and Rex Ironstone, in leopard-skin trunks and wrestler's boots, came striding forth from one of the canvas dressing booths and stood center stage, hands on hips, displaying his physique.

The audience was ready for him. They cheered, whistled, clapped. Small children gazed wide-eyed at the monstrously overdeveloped giant. He accepted their homage, each individual muscle seeming to possess a life and an identity of its own as it rippled and slid and snaked under his taut bronzed skin. His weights were already onstage. He flexed his biceps, inhaled a great volume of air into the enormous sacs of his lungs, and then, trembling, sweating, groaning, proceeded to lift a series of progressively heavier dumbbells above his head and to rupture iron chains asunder. Each feat was climaxed by vigorous bursts of Die Meistersinger from the Viennese Trio. The desert air echoed with wild applause.

His act was followed by a magician with an Irish accent whose sleight of hand with rabbits and top hats and silk handkerchiefs seemed not to impress the crowd. Sporadic jeering and hooting broke out among the irrigation-dam workers, many of them already the worse for drink.

Miss Ivy Viljoen, an acrobatic artist who was more to their taste, received a standing ovation. Her sequined leotard glittered in the harsh sunlight as she tied herself in knots and peered out at the grandstand from unlikely angles and unexpected parts of her anatomy.

The heat was intense, the day so still that the silver blades of the windmills stood motionless against the solid blue of the sky. Side by side, high up in the grandstand, the twins sat, straining forward, transfixed, captivated, everything transformed for them, everything mutable now, unbounded, charged with possibility.


REX Ironstone emerged again, to introduce the next performer. "One of my most successful students," he announced. "Miss Trixie van Tonder! Miss van Tonder, after taking only one, three-month correspondence course in the Rex Ironstone Body-Building Technique, has had her whole life changed. Before enrolling in my course Trixie was a weak and sickly young woman, unable to hold a job or enjoy life. Now" -- there was a roll on the kettle drum -- "not only is she running the four-thousand-acre farm of her father, who has been stricken with illness, but she is also able to lift a bale of hay with one hand" (the crowd roared its pleasure), "handle a team of oxen" (whistles, cheers), "and only last month showed her strength by pushing an overturned tractor upright, single-handed!" Feet stamped enthusiastically on the wooden boards of the grandstand. "Ladies and gentlemen, I am very proud to present to you -- Miss Trixie van Tonder!"

The trio burst into "One Fine Day" from Madam Butterfly, and from one of the canvas booths emerged Miss Trixie van Tonder, a broad, thuglike young person with the loose-swinging movements of an orangutan. She was dressed in a black leotard, one of her muscular shoulders bare. Black ringlets cascaded onto her shoulders, and her small, baleful eyes were heavily mascaraed. The irrigation-dam men went wild, flung hats in the air, smashed beer bottles, whistled shrilly through their fingers.

She bowed gravely and shook hands with Rex Ironstone, who then retired into one of the changing booths. In a gruff basso voice, interrupted by frequent cheering, she told of her transformation from sickly weakling to strong woman, assuring the audience that the most feeble and underdeveloped of them had the potential to become as she was, simply by enrolling in the Rex Ironstone Body-Building Course, results guaranteed. She did a few warm-up exercises, accompanied by cries of encouragement mixed with coarse suggestions from the dam workers. Then, signaling to the trio, who flung themselves into "The Ride of the Valkyries," she ripped a burlap bag to shreds with her bare hands, crushed a couple of large tin cans with her fingers, and proceeded to lift weights. The crowd's enthusiasm intensified with each feat.

Across the road at the hotel, the lobby and lounge were deserted. The courtyard with the rooms surrounding it contained the heat like an oven, a meager patch of shade huddling beside the trunk of the blue gum tree. Of the father and Mrs. Prinsloo no sign could be seen. The Scotchman, still waiting for his trunk call to come through, watched what he could of the show from the shade of the verandah.

Now Miss Trixie van Tonder announced that by special request she would sing for them -- just one song. Solemn, unsmiling, she folded her arms across her chest, signaled to the trio to start up the accompaniment, and, strutting across the stage, began to sing "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man." Center stage she stopped, legs planted firmly apart, held up her arms, and flexed her biceps.

"I'm Popeye the Sailor Man.
I'm strong to the finish,
'Cause I eats me spinach -- "
At that moment a guy rope securing one of the changing booths snapped. The canvas screen fluttered wildly and came down, collapsing onto the stage, revealing Miss Ivy Viljoen, the acrobatic artist, clad only in a short white singlet that ended just above her navel. Close to her Rex Ironstone towered in his leopard-skin trunks. Miss Ivy Viljoen looked up in astonishment at the massed faces watching her, looked at Rex Ironstone, looked around like a trapped, desperate creature, and, seeing only the bare expanse of the flat desert, gave vent to a series of penetrating screams that ripped through the trio's music and Trixie van Tonder's song. Screeching lustily, she tugged at the hem of her singlet, ineffectually trying to remedy its scantiness. Rex Ironstone, befuddled, stood by paralyzed, a useless hulk.

In their delight the audience bellowed their unbridled excitement like a herd of wild beasts massed under the afternoon sun. Onstage Miss Trixie van Tonder glanced over her shoulder. Perceiving the nature of the crisis, she signaled to the trio for more volume. Valiantly she strutted across the stage, proclaiming with all the power and resonance of her broad chest that she was Popeye the Sailor Man.

At the hotel the Scotchman had just got through to his wife, whose voice was obliterated by the surging roar from the crowd across the road. Cursing, he dropped the phone, leaving it to bang and rattle in his wife's ear, and stormed out onto the verandah, where the servants were trying to make out what the clamor was about. His face suffused with rage, he jumped up and down, shaking his fist at the empty sky and calling damnation down on "all those Boer bastards." The servants grinned broadly, enjoying the lunacy of the whites.

Frantic, the Viennese Trio played on, prestissimo, molto vivace, but the music was drowned out by the cheering, the thumping, the ribald laughter.

The twins, by now helpless with mirth, were doubled over, so that the boy had to grab hold of his sister's dress to prevent her from slipping and falling into the space beneath the grandstand.

Gallantly the violinist tore off his tailcoat and tossed it to Rex Ironstone, who gazed stupidly at it for a few moments before flinging it around the hysterical, half-naked girl. Someone yelled out an order, and a gang of black men came forward to pull up the ropes; the concealing screen was raised once again, cutting the pair off from view.

The irrigation men booed. The trio started up a set of Strauss waltzes, which tinkled thinly, barely audible against the roar that continued unabated from the audience. Miss Trixie van Tonder retreated. The disorder faded slowly, the remainder of the show feeble entertainment after such a peak. But the euphoria of the crowd was not affected. People went back to their cars and drove away still smiling, regaling one another with shouts of laughter and animated miming.

In the evening, in the lounge, the irrigation men kept plying Mrs. Prinsloo with brandies. "Where were you, Mrs. Prinsloo?" they asked. "You should have been there -- you missed the greatest show on earth." From the bar coarse jokes and bawdy stories sent gusts of laughter swelling out. "Ach -- I had a bit of a headache this afternoon, but it's better now," she said, touching her dark curls with the palm of her hand, turning her head to glance across the lounge into the bar at the father busy behind the counter, accepting a brandy from the chief engineer, another from one of the censors.

There was a great thirst in the hotel all evening. The German played noisy drinking songs, his baritone voice increasing in volume with his drunkenness. The boy worked alongside his father, serving drinks until closing time.


ALL day Sunday, Mrs. Prinsloo remained in her room. On Monday morning the girl, looking up from the book she was reading beside the open window of her room, saw Mrs. Prinsloo crossing the courtyard with a suitcase in her hand. The boy, on his way to the cold room to fetch a can of milk, saw her walking along the red-dust road toward the station. In her high-heeled white shoes, her pale-blue flowered dress, she walked straight ahead, not turning to wave or to look back. At the station she sat down on a wooden bench outside the office shed, her silk-stockinged calves pressed neatly together, her shoes side by side on the gravel. The stationmaster, curious, came out to talk to her.

"Where is Mrs. Prinsloo going today?" he asked. "Where do you want a ticket to?"

"I've got my ticket right here," she said, patting her white-straw handbag and staring out across the tracks, ignoring him, so that he went back into his small office.

When the mixed goods train pulled in, she stepped into one of the two passenger cars, and the locomotive took her away in the direction it had been heading when she had first alighted. The stationmaster stood watching until the train was out of sight. Then he took off his cap and dabbed the damp red crease on his forehead with a handkerchief before going back into his shed.

That was the year Mrs. Prinsloo was here, the locals would say afterward.

The blades of the windmill barely moved. The boy lugged the cool, dewy milk can across the yard toward the kitchen. She had asked them to call her Auntie Hettie, he recalled. A few days before, he had risen early to go and inspect some kittens the cat had given birth to under the wooden floor of the verandah that lined the courtyard. The first daylight was still pale in the sky over the desert. He had come upon Mrs. Prinsloo walking along the verandah toward her room. She was wearing a dressing gown of shiny apple-green; it cast up onto her face an unpleasant reflection that made her appear old and not as pretty as she was in the daytime. It was so early that the shoes the manservant had taken away to polish had not yet been replaced outside the guests' rooms. She had smiled at him, touching his shoulder. "Everyone nice and warm in their beds except for Sonny and Auntie Hettie?" she had murmured. "Where are you off to at the crack of dawn?" He had not answered, slipping his shoulder from under her hand and jumping down off the verandah to crouch and peer into the dawn-slatted darkness beneath the floorboards where the mother cat lay suckling her scrawny kittens. He heard Mrs. Prinsloo's high-heeled backless slippers clip-clopping away back to her room, her door softly closing.

He put the milk can down to rest his arms for a moment. She had wanted them to call her Auntie Hettie, but they always called her Mrs. Prinsloo; and now she was gone. In the quiet after the train had left, the slow drip, drip, drip of water in the cooler was the only sound to be heard.

Illustration by Wilson McLean


Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December, 1996; The Greatest Show on Earth; Volume 278, No. 6; pages 70 - 84.

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