The old man scratched at his beard as he walked. He looked through the bars of the cage, past the old lion, watching the sun going down on the horizon.
“Hey there, Leo old lad,” he said, softly. He billed himself as the gipsy lion tamer, of vaguely eastern European extraction, from a town no longer in the same country as his birth, no longer able to remember the language he spoke as a child yet still retaining a vague accent. The reality of an old man from west Yorkshire who decided one day to join a circus based on a Monty Python sketch wouldn’t, he’d decided, sell many tickets.
He sat down next to the cage, cross legged, and pulled the tobacco pouch out from his pocket. The lion shifted across the cage, and rubbed his ears against the bars. Rolling a cigarette with one hand, he idly scratched behind the lion’s ear with the other.
“Can you believe tomorrow night will be our last show boy?”
The lion made grumbling growls of pleasure at the scratching.
“They’re banning us, lad. Say it’s cruel.”
The old man licked the cigarette paper and rolled it on his thigh with one hand. He popped the cigarette into his mouth and lit it, puffing before continuing.
“You’ve never complained though, have you, eh?” He turned to look at the lion, puffing on the rollup as he did. In the background, the crew banged and hammered, getting everything ready for the morning. They were specialists, now. It hadn’t been that way in the old days – everybody had something to do. Now it was all health and safety, qualifications and all that.
“Evening Bernard,” said a voice.
“Evening, Mr Mould,” said the old man. “I’m just here having a little chat with the old boy. Pep talk, if you like.”
“May I join you?”
“It’s a free country, as far as I know.”
The man sat down on the ground by the old man. He stayed conspicuously away from the lion, who watched them both with a lazy eye.
“It’s the end of the road for you, isn’t it, after this one?”
“Aye,” the old man said, finishing the roll up and pinching the last stub with his fingers.
“It’s sad,” Mould continued. “Traditions like this, being snuffed out.”
The lion tamer nodded.
“There used to be more,” he said. “I used to do the show with half a dozen. Sometimes with a hyena or a tiger thrown in, to make it interesting like. But not now. Nobody wants it now.”
“But it’s amazing, really” Mould went on. “What you do. How long did it take to train them, originally?”
“Ah.” the tamer tapped the side of his nose with one nicotine-stained finger. “Some take longer than others. He’s special, this one. Been with him a long long time. He seems to know it’s a show, knows the routine. Never growls or roars, except as when it’s part of the act, like. Always lunges at me the same every night – always to the right, then I put the chair up, then to me left, and I turns a bit, then to the right again, then I cracks me whip over at the side like and he goes back to his podium. Sometimes we drag that out if the crowd are liking it, and he’ll play at that as long as I like. But the moment I crack the whip, that’s his cue and he goes back to his podium.”
“And finally, the head in the mouth?” The old man shook his head. “I don’t trust any other one, not like this lad. It’s like old Leo knows it’s all a show and he plays it like it were Shakespeare and he were Laurence Olivier, like he were born to it.”
Mould closed his eyes, nodded sagely, as though the old man had revealed the great truths of the universe to him.
“Have you got something sorted?” Mould asked. “For you?”
“There’s a park that says they’ll take him.” The old man shrugged. “It’s not what he knows, but I guess he’ll get used to it.”
That isn’t the first time he’s avoided answering that question, Mould thought. He sighed. He’d tried, he really had. But the old man was stubborn, that’s all. He reached over and patted him on the shoulder.
“You know where I am,” he said. “If you need me. And the company will be happy to assist you, if you ask.”
The old man looked him in the eye. The expression was blank, like a statue. “Aye,” he said, and turned back to look at the lion.
Mould got up and walked off. The old man did not watch, but remained, petting the lion for a few more moments.
“Come on lad,” he finally said as the sun went down. “Let’s get some sleep. I’ll see thee in the morning for the first show.”
The show the next morning went without a hitch, the lion act taking the usual ten minutes. One of the two lionesses was less than cooperative, not wanting to do anything.
“Lions is bloody lazy,” said the old man, taking off his red coat. He turned and saw his old boy, walking patiently back through the tunnel to the cage. “Well, some of ‘em, anyway.”
The house was disappointing. But the evening should be better; that was the one that had been billed as the last show. The day before the new rules kicked in. “Last chance to see.” For the first time in years, the lions were closing the show.
Bernard yawned, watching the show. An hour later than usual. And he was getting old. Maybe it really was time he retired, after all.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” shouted the ringmaster, fat and sweating under all the lights, two shirts underneath his red coat to keep him dry. “For the final time – the last time – we present the Gypsy Genius, the Savant of the Savannah, the Lord of the Lions – Besnik The Great!”
The old man coughed. If they only knew I put that name together from me sister and me brother – Bess and Nick. Not that that would matter any more, of course, after tonight.
The crowd roared. The spotlights focused on the cages, and the three lions came in. The lioness looked grumpy again.
The lions prowled round the cage, waiting for the trainer in his red coat. He came to the cage door, with his chair and whip. He cracked the whip in the air, and the old lion and one of the lionesses went to their podiums. The other lioness continued to prowl.
The whip cracked again. She continued to prowl. He opened the cage door, and cracked the whip in front of her. The lioness snarled, furious, and slashed.
Everything happened quickly after that.
The old man staggered, his costume rent. Blood started to pour from the gashes on his chest.
Leo snarled and jumped from the podium. He cannoned into the side of the lioness, smashing her into the bars of the cage. She roared angrily, and tried to turn to face him, but too late. The old lion sank his teeth into her throat and tore. Blood spurted from the hole in her throat and she gurgled and sank down at the side of the cage.
The trainer gasped, fighting for air, desperate to breathe. A small foam of blood started to form at the corner of his mouth. His knees sagged, and he slumped backwards onto the sawdust floor.
The audience were screaming now. None of it mattered to the lion. Leo lay down, next to the man who had fed him and cared for him as a cub.
They blamed Leo’s death on heart failure. Maybe caused by sudden exertion he wasn’t used to, the vet said. The press only talked about the death of the trainer, but if you look in the local papers around the time, you’ll find a letter from a Mr Mould. He thinks that Leo died of a broken heart.
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