The Tumbler

Peter was a tumbler. He’d been a juggler too until his hands started to shake. Had a circuit that covered all the market towns roundabout. Made a living of sorts. Now he was largely reduced to market days in his own town. The shakes had started a few years ago. When they were bad he could hardly hold a ball let alone keep it in the air with a few others. Now the coloured balls sat on a shelf in the cubbyhole the widow gave him in exchange for odd jobs round her house.
For a while he went out to other places when he wasn’t too trembly, but if you didn’t get it right they’d poke fun at you and sometimes they’d be cruel. In one town two burly fellows had grabbed him, tied him to the ducking stool and shoved him under the water until some boy had waded in and freed him. At least in your own place they’d just joke a bit or turn away.
Today the farmers were in early and the crowd from the town milled round. Familiar faces. Some of them smiled at him and he felt heartened. He straightened his coloured stripes and brushed off the worst of the dust. Moving to the centre of the market stalls, he started with a few handstands and somersaults. Thank God he still had his strength and balance. When there was a bit of an audience, he did backflips and stood on one hand. Their attention on him, he toppled into the cowpat he’d chosen, rising with one foot covered in shit, shaking it into the crowd as he got up. Once before he’d landed face first. That raised a bigger laugh but he wasn’t going to repeat it. While they were still snickering at him, he worked out a path from the stalls to the corner of the square and suddenly set off in cartwheels to the foot of the steps.
Meg was standing there beating the drum, Peter’s silly hat in the dust at her feet. Meg’s tongue lolled around in her mouth and she made strange noises but no words. Same old worsted dress and woven jacket. Peter was sure she filled out the folds of her dress more each time he saw her. He couldn’t work out where she scrounged so much food. He stood, raised his arms and announced himself while she beat on the drum. Everyone knew him and his tricks, but a bit of a crowd still gathered.
He did a few turns with Meg, waltzing her round and looking at her from between his legs. Then he put a coin in her mouth, shook her about, listened at her stomach and suddenly whacked her hard in the breadbasket. Sometimes Meg let out an almighty fart, which added to the effect. He raised her skirts and there the coin was. In the beginning he used to reach under her skirt and between her legs for the coin but the priest had come and told him it wasn’t right and he’d be arrested if he did it again.
She beat on her drum, he stood on his hands and hand-walked towards the steps up to the keep. With a twitch, he jumped onto the first step, waggling his feet in the air. Two beats on the drum. Boom BOOM. There were two dozen steps up to the first landing. He jumped another step. The drum again. It was hard this but he could still do it and he could feel their eyes watching each move. He lived for it really. It was some kind of recognition. He hopped up slowly, step by step, pretending to topple a few times to keep them interested. A few coins were thrown into his cap. Not much of course but usually enough for a feed when he’d finished.
Peter reached the top and looked around at the people below. He was breathing heavily now and took a moment to suck in air. He looped one end of the rope around the square stone pillar and left another loop sitting on the parapet wall. Then he crouched down behind the parapet and in a single bound jumped onto the narrow line of stone, hands out, knees bent, fighting for balance. There were some gasps from the children near Meg. One foot was in front of the other near the corner stone. He tied the free loop around his ankle, wobbling as his shaking fingers fumbled with the knot.
He leaned forward carefully and raised himself to stand on his hands on the parapet wall, then pivoted and showed his arse to the little crowd. Meg shook the cap for last coins from the group around her, walking the circle and holding it up to their faces. The locals all knew what he was going to do next. When there was enough of a jingle and Meg had shambled back to the drum, Peter straightened up, flicked his ankles back and dived off the wall headfirst.
The noise and flurry from the crowd stopped abruptly. Maybe the rope had stretched, maybe he’d got it wrong; nobody knew. Peter landed on the ground and when the crowd looked up, he was upside down like the hanged man in the gypsy’s cards, the rope still tied around one ankle, one leg hanging over the straight leg. But Peter’s head was at an odd angle in the dirt and there was blood coming out of his mouth and nose. The crowd peered silently then slunk away.
Only Meg went over to Peter, tears slowly welling in her eyes. She bent over to touch his face then stood again. Her fingers flicked the folds of her skirt and she turned her shoulders from side to side in some kind of strange involuntary movement. She stayed there standing by him making odd crooning noises. She looked down at the cap in her hands and sifted through the coins.