Mr. Aramate's Wonderous Emporium of the Soul: Part Two
Peter was eight. Which was an exceptionally important age, because all things are exceptionally important when you are eight. What you are eating for dinner, what colour your new shoes are going to be, and what is over the next hill. All pale into insignificance next to each other. The moment, that is what you live for.
But there is one thing far more exciting, other than the prospect of being nine, of course. And that is the end of the Neoschool term.
Summer at that age seems like a different land. An endless time of sun, fun, and the ability to run around screaming for extended periods of time without Mr. Macclesfield giving you detention. But in Halfcastle Forge, summer means something else - the faire.
It is an annual tradition that the county field, a disused pasture on the outskirts of the town, be given over to the festivities. There were market stalls with colourful awnings. Some selling mundane things like cheese or sausages. But other, far more interesting stalls for an eight year old selling sweets, fizzy drinks, and toys. There were carousels and puppet shows - though Peter considered he was getting slightly too old for the latter. And each year the council would book a central performance. Peter had seen seven of them, though in truth he could only remember two or three. Even so, the prospect of another alone was thrilling beyond all measure. Let alone what that performance would be.
Peter had never seen a circus. Neither had any of his friends. Or for that matter anyone in Halfcastle Forge for the last ninety years, aside from those who had moved there from elsewhere. They had been considered an ill omen, and banned on that account. For the children, this made them one of two things - either a prospect filled with fear and dread, or the promise of something truly out of this world.
Peter, being in the grasp of eight-year-oldness, fell into the latter.
“Do you think there’ll be fire breathers?” he asked his cousin, Mary, on their way home from the final day of school. “And magicians? What about a Noil tamer?”
“There’ll probably be all those and more besides,” the yellow Wocky answered. “Dad says this must be one of the biggest circuses in the Haunted Woods - they’ll be taking over most of the county field, not just the stage.”
Peter could barely contain himself at that. The little red Gelert practically bounced from one foot to the other. Mary was considerably less excited. She was nine, all trace of the eight-year-oldness that had once filled her veins had been jaded by the arrival of nine-year-oldity. She very firmly fell into the camp that didn’t much care for the idea of circuses.
“And there’ll be clowns, no doubt,” she added darkly.
“There's nothing bad about clowns, Mary,” Peter said. “They’re funny.”
“Sinister,” she said, using a word far too big for Peter. “There’s a reason why circuses were banned, Peter.”
“They weren't banned,” Peter replied. “Just people got scared of them is all - and my Mum always says if you are scared of something you have to stand up to it - you don't run away. Well all people have been doing is running away from things since... Forever.”
Ninety, of course, being close to if not identical to infinity. At least for one so very eight years old.
“Besides, it’s not like anyone’s even around from those days any more,” Peter added. “Aside from Old Annie. And no one listens to what she says.”
“Well maybe they should,” Mary said.
Old Annie, the town's oldest resident, had just turned one hundred and one. She was the only person around who could remember the last time a circus had come to town. She was privately considered quite mad - though very privately. Annie had been part of a large brood and both her and her children had large families, meaning that most if not all people in Halfcastle Forge were at least distantly related or aquainted with a relation of Old Annie. And mad as she was, you don't go insulting people’s family to their face.
Besides, she was a kind woman at heart, pleasantly mad rather than creepily so - most of the children in town went to her for free sweets and lemonade.
“My Dad says that Old Annie is just scared of clowns,” Peter said. “That there’s nothing to fear from circuses - he went to one on holiday in Meridell. Said it wasn’t scary at all.”
“Well if you’re so sure you can come with me and ask Old Annie all about it,” Mary said. “My Mum wants me to do her dusting. I’m sure, if she's just scared, you’ll be able to talk her out of it - or maybe, if you actually listen to her instead of your parents, you might think differently.”
Mary, with the skills granted to her in the extra year of life she had experienced, had just roped in Peter to halve the chores she had been given. But Peter, an innocent boy of eight years old, didn’t even notice.
Old Annie lived in a cottage towards the county field, where the faire would happen. It looked in a reasonable state of repair considering that most of the gardening and housework was done by the old woman's legion of relatives. Shopping was done for her twice weekly, and should anything inside break, one of her boys was always round the following morning to set things right. Annie herself rarely left her front room during the day - where she sat in a moth eaten old armchair, positioned to give herself a good view of both her neovision set and the street outside.
The old Cybunny saw them coming up the garden path and when Mary rang the doorbell they heard her kindly voice from inside.
“Come in, Mary dear, it’s open. Nice to see you, too, Peter - my, how you’ve grown!”
Peter was already imagining the sloppy wet kiss she'd plant on her cheek as she always did.
“Hello Annie!” Mary said. “My mum sent me to do your dusting, and Peter volunteered to help.”
Only then, as the trap was sprung, did Peter realise what had happened. But it was too late, he could only nod glumly.
“You’re good children,” Annie said. “And I’d wager there’ll be a bag of humbugs in it for you if you get into all the corners. There's a duster underneath the sink, and you remember where the stool is to get on top of the cabinets.”
Mary nodded. This was not her first time.
Annie was a plump old lady, but time had taken its toll on her face, which sagged under the weight of both years and wrinkles. She had a pair of thick glasses which magnified her eyes - and despite the rest of her, those eyes looked startlingly alert.
The pair got to work quickly, and it was a few minutes until Mary broached the subject of the circus.
“Have you heard about the plans for the faire?” she asked.
Peter couldn’t be sure, but he thought there was a sudden twinge of sadness in her eyes at the mention of it.
“Yes,” she answered. “Yes, I have. Can't say I’m impressed with Hector Fastbelly, I’ll say that much. I wrote him a stern letter as soon as I found out - haven't had a reply. No doubt that wife of his threw it in the fire before he even read it. If my legs were still what they were, I’d march down there myself have give him a piece of my mind in person - history isn’t something you just throw aside.”
“It’s alright to be scared of clowns, Annie,” Peter said.
Annie gave a deep laugh at that.
“You’ve been listening to your father, haven’t you?” she said. “Oh, I know what he says about me. I know what they all say. That I’ve lost half my marbles and threw away the other half. That I’m full of bluster and nonsense. But I'm not, my boy. Mark my words. I’ve still got my wits about me. Mary, dear, you’ve missed one of the shelves.”
Peter could believe her. It was easy to forget when you weren't around Old Annie - but when you were in her presence those eyes seemed to bore into you.
“Well if it isn’t that you’re scared of clowns, what is it?” Peter asked.
“You think the town would ban all circuses because of a little girl’s nightmares?” Annie cackled. “No. No, it was something far more important than that. I was only eleven. The year... the year they came. It was the most brilliant and fantastical circus anyone had ever seen - the big top alone was taller than the town hall. And there was everything you might dream of inside. I had a brother, back then. Charlie. He was only six. We all went and watched the show. I’d never seen him so caught up in wonder... And I never saw him again.”
“Did something happen to him?” Mary asked.
“Him, and more besides,” Annie said. “We watched the show and went home. Our families tucked us all up in bed, and then, when we woke, half of the children in Halfcastle Forge had suddenly disappeared. And the circus, that had disappeared just as suddenly. It didn't take a genius to figure out what happened.”
“They didn't look for them?” Peter asked.
“Oh, I was a young thing - I hardly understood what was going on,” Annie said. “Though in the years since I've considered that they might have been whisked away to the Lost Desert. They say there are places in the deep sands where slavery is still legal. Makes no difference where, in any case. They disappeared, and no one ever hear a whisper of that circus ever again, as if they had been wiped from the very face of Neopia. The adults did the only thing they could think of - they banned circuses, so it could never happen again.”
It was a chilling story, and Mary had stopped dusting while she thought about it. But Peter was eight years old. It takes more than that to stop such a boy in his tracks.
“But that was ninety years ago, Annie,” he said. “There’s no way that circus is still running, and even if it was there’s hundreds of circuses across Neopia. The chances of the same one returning are... Well, really small, I bet.”
“Maybe they are, maybe they are,” Annie said. “But you asked for a story and I gave you it. Now, back to the dusting with you.”
To be continued…