Sawdust and Glitter
When the main structures were up and everyone was pottering around the site, Julia decided it was time to go into town. The ute rattled over the track until the dirt joined the bitumen. The smell of dust lingered. She found what looked like the main street, cut the engine in front of a tattered cinema and let the sounds of the new place fill her ears.
She took her inspection slowly, strolling up one side of the street and down the other, smiling at people. She took in the kinds of shops and the size of the supermarket, then the details: old people arguing good-naturedly at the café; the pensiveness of a mother with two little girls and lots of shopping bags; the middle aged man with a kelpie, an akubra, and a purposeful walk; a little corner shop.
Its two aisles were crowded with tinned vegetables and instant soup, sanitary pads and shampoo, paracetamol and condoms.
There were posters on the spare wall, mostly ads for international phone cards, but also the odd promo for a gig at the pub. She took a Paddlepop from the freezer. The guy behind the counter had been following her progress and she could see him trying to work out how to start a conversation. Usually she enjoyed watching these small-town types squirm but today she relented.
'How you going?' She put her ice cream and some coins on the counter.
'Good. You?' He slid the coins into his hand and rang up the cash register.
'Good, thanks. We just arrived in town this morning. We're doing shows all weekend.'
‘You’re the circus? What kind of stuff do you do?'
'All sorts of stuff.’ She grinned. ‘We'll be in town later this arv with a teaser, probably on Donnell Street. That's the main street, right?'
'Yeah. What time do you reckon?'
'About four, so we can get the after-school crowd.'
'Cool. What's that?' He pointed to the roll of paper under her arm.
'Oh. I almost forgot.' She really had. 'Posters for the show. Could I put a couple up in here?'
She handed over two posters and a stack of postcard flyers for the counter.
‘You should come have a beer with me and my mates after your thing.'
'Yeah sure.' She felt a twinge. Oh God, is this towny asking me out?
'Bring your friends too.'
She relaxed. Just drinks with a bunch of people. 'Sure. Where do you drink around here?'
'There's only the one place, the pub on Donnell. I'm Kai by the way.'
'Julia. See you then.'
Late that afternoon, about ten minutes into the teaser performance, Julia saw the guy from the shop melt into the side of the crowd. A smile fluttered behind her eyes but balancing upside-down on Emma's shoulders was taking too much concentration for a facial expression to make it any further.
Led by the beat of Jerome's drum, three pairs of women moved in unison.
One-two-three-four. As Emma straightened her legs to stand, Julia and the other flyers pointed their toes and slowly brought their legs out into full splits. A cymbal at the full extension.
One-two-three-four. Emma bobbed down and on the cymbal clash, sprang up and catapulted Julia up and forward.
Pivoting around her centre of balance, Julia arced through the air to land facing Emma. As soon as her feet hit the ground, she folded backwards from her waist to arch onto her hands, knowing the other two flyers were doing the same just out of her periphery. Their faces met in the centre. Another cymbal and they kicked up into handstands, pointed toes forming a suspended circle for four beats.
Then back down went their feet; fast walkovers to their bases, then her thighs around Emma's neck.
Emma with her arms out spinning faster and faster to Jerome's drumming until the final cymbal. Julia released her grip on Emma just before she stopped spinning and her body shot away, hands onto the asphalt and into a double backflip and landing between Jamie and Michaela.
The little crowd clapped and between bows she gave Kai a little wave.
Inside the pub was warm and maybe a little stuffy, but it was comfortable with the twilight coming down and sweat cooling on her skin. Only Michaela and Jerome had come along, but a few of the others had said they might come back later. Her stomach curled a little, walking into an unknown pub in a strange town looking for a guy she'd just met.
But there he was, with three quarters of a pint and a pool cue. His smile as he saluted her with his glass was a little hesitant. She grinned back, amused and suddenly full of confidence, and strode to his pool table trailing her friends.
'Hey. Cool show before.'
'You should see the real thing.'
Kai smiled and nodded towards his friends. 'This is Dave and Eric. This is Julia.'
'And this is Michaela and Jerome.' Julia didn't want uncomfortable silences of any length just now, so 'Drinks, guys?'
When they got back from the bar, fully provisioned, the six of them soon fell into a round robin of pool in teams of two—one towny and one carny in each.
They spent a few hours there, not drinking too much because of the show the next day and the work to do beforehand. The guys were funny and once the ice was broken it was easy to hang out with them. They seemed young to Julia but it sounded like they'd finished school a year before she had.
They all worked here in town; Dave and Eric were apprentice carpenters, Kai worked in the shop Tuesday to Saturday. Maybe their seeming youth had to do with their school boy haircuts, their closely shaven faces, their lack of future aspirations. She wondered if they had already achieved the lives they imagined for themselves.
At one point she found herself leaning against the adjacent pool table with Michaela.
'That boy's got the hots for you.' Michaela nodded at Kai.
'You dick.' Michaela elbowed her. 'Gonna do anything about it?'
'Dunno.' Julia considered Kai. He was laughing at something as he bent to take his shot. He was OK to look at: straight black hair, fair skin with oddly rosy cheeks, big smile full of large, not quite straight teeth.
He straightened up, not happy with his shot, curled his hand around the cue. Fine, long-boned fingers, sinewy and strong looking. She thought of them against the bare skin of her waist. She wouldn't mind getting to know those hands better.
'When are we here 'til?' she wondered out loud. Michaela laughed and Julia shoved her.
'And what's today?'
She got one for Kai as well and joined the conversation around the table. He asked her again about the show and her part in it.
'How is it different from the thing today?'
'For starters, there's equipment. Props.'
'Hula hoops, batons.'
'We have a trapeze, just one swing. Then of course there are the horses.'
His head swivelled towards her in surprise. She always enjoyed the effect that information had on people.
'You have horses?'
'Yep. I'm one of the main ones who works with them.'
'That's pretty cool. What do you do with them?'
She gave a one-shouldered shrug. 'You'll have to come check it out.'
He grinned and she saw a dimple she hadn't noticed before.
He came to the show the next night. His friends from the pub came with him too. Julia didn't know they were there until after the show Jerome came to tell her she had some groupies waiting. Her stomach fluttered. She finished washing the sticky glitter from her arms. Pulling jeans on over her leotard, she hoped she looked a bit more normal, but still a bit exciting, the exotic travelling acrobat.
Kai and his mates were slouched over barrels and tent poles when she slipped through the side flap of the main tent.
'Hey,' she grinned. They sprang upright.
'Hey.' Kai smiled, happy to see her. 'You were great tonight. That was awesome.'
'Thanks. Hi guys.' She smiled at Dave and Eric.
'What are you up to now?' Kai wanted to spend time with her. She tried not to smile too broadly.
'Some of the others are having beers out the back. Did you guys want to come?' Their faces lit up; they were going backstage. People are so funny about performers, Julia thought with an inner chuckle. It didn't matter how small-time they were.
People were still milling around, cleaning up, taking care of the animals, but a couple of fires had been lit and a few people sat on chairs and logs drawn into the circles of warmth. Julia spotted Michaela and pulled her aside.
'Can you look after Ash for me? I have... guests.' Julia tried to wink, but her eyelids were the only uncoordinated part of her.
‘I'm fucking exhausted, what the hell?' She saw the guests. 'Oh. Well, you know I always say it's morally wrong to get in the way of your friends getting laid.'
'I just met him!'
'What's your point?'
Having rummaged through an esky for stubbies, Julia settled on a log beside Kai. The guys were curious about the show and her training, about the company and how they lived. Julia's colleagues gradually finished up and joined them with beers and glasses of wine or juice. A couple of bags of chips appeared.
And it was so easy to talk to Kai. As they talked, Julia felt the thoughts and ideas flow between them, turned over and looked at in new ways, new thoughts springing from their conversation to be passed back and forth between them again.
Every so often someone would hand them new beers or feed the fire. They talked about the fire and how to build a good one, about Kai's life in the town and how much he liked living in the place he grew up, with friends he had known all his life, about their families. About Julia's life half in the city, half in a tent, about her deferred degree she wasn't sure she would ever finish.
When Kai's friends said they were going Julia realised two things: all her people had gone to bed already and she was cold.
'I'll see you guys tomorrow.' Kai was staying behind. Julia relaxed.
Dave and Eric wandered off towards town, replaced by silence. It wasn't uncomfortable, but it wasn't entirely comfortable either. Julia could feel the potential in the air now that they had admitted to being some sort of pair. Now that they were alone.
She put some wood on the fire, settled back next to him, sipped her beer.
'This has been a fun night,' Kai said to the fire.
'Yeah. I'm glad you came.' she smiled into his eyes and her stomach curled when he returned the favour. Stubble had begun to darken his cheeks. She brushed it with her fingertips, the line of his jaw with her thumb. She kissed him lightly, unlingeringly, drew away just enough to give him space to react.
He kissed her. With soft lips cooled by beer. He smelled of the pine wood smoke caught in his hair, aftershave, and himself. She pulled away, kept a hand on his face. They grinned at each other, pleased with themselves.
They kissed, just kissed. Their foreheads pressed together. They breathed each other in.
'I have to get some sleep.' She wished it wasn't true.
'Me too. I have to be at work in a few hours.'
She didn't want to let go of him but curling up in her sleeping bag was also pretty appealing.
‘How will you get home?' she asked against his lips.
'Isn't it pretty far?'
'Yeah. We walk a lot in this town though. No taxis.'
She grinned. 'I guess so.'
She walked him out to the track that led towards town and they kissed good-bye. She watched him walk into the dark.
She thought of him while she checked the fire and found a bottle of water to take to bed, while she settled into her sleeping bag, while her body relaxed and moulded into the mattress. She remembered every movement of his hands, his lips and tongue. She slept softly, deeply.
She woke to the soft sounds of Michaela's and Emma's breathing and to thoughts of Kai.
Outside the morning was bright and fresh, cool enough for jeans but not cold. She went to say hello to the horses in their canvas stalls and fed them each a carrot to make up for neglecting them the night before.
In the shower that hung from a tree outside the circle of caravans, she scrubbed her skin free of most of the glitter and sweat from the night before, and thought of Kai. The water was only lukewarm so she moved quickly. It was siphoned up from a bucket to spray unevenly from a shower nozzle stuck to the end of the tube with electrical tape. She even washed her hair, grown out a bit now from the blade four buzz cut of a few months earlier. She would have to trim around the back soon or it would start looking like a mullet.
Julia walked back through the campsite in her towel and waved good morning to Jerome who was stirring porridge over the fire. She threw on clean jeans and a T-shirt and went out to breakfast with the others.
She wanted to see Kai again and she knew he was at work. After porridge and coffee she slipped a halter on Ash and trotted bareback into town. They made a stir riding down Donnell Street in the middle of the morning. She watched people notice and turn to each other to say that must be one of those circus people. She smiled at anyone who made eye contact. They smiled back and some waved.
She tied Ash to the railing in the shade outside Kai's shop. It was cool inside and her eyes took a moment to adjust after the brightness of the morning. He was serving someone else, a short little nugget of a man. Julia grinned at Kai over his customer's battered hat and watched him flush, trying to concentrate.
The man left and Kai came out from behind the counter, came to take the hand she held out.
'Hi.' He smiled, was so excited to see her. A palm on his face, she stepped in to kiss him. His hand went to her waist and she remembered she had wanted to feel that the first night they had met.
They stood kissing in the middle of the little shop until she remembered where they were and pulled away. 'I wouldn't want to ruin your reputation.'
'This is excellent for my reputation.'
She stayed and talked to him between customers and rediscovered how easy and fun it was, how funny he could be, how interesting it was to compare ideas with someone so different from her.
'When do you finish work today?' she asked.
'Pretty soon, actually. Saturday's a short day.'
She felt her face light up. 'Want to come for a ride when you're done?'
'A ride on what?'
'Ash. I came in on my horse.''
'The horse from the show? That's so cool. Definitely.'
Twenty minutes later Kai was trying to balance behind her as they trotted out of town. He hadn’t been on a horse since he was a kid, he said. He showed her the way to a path through the bush. It was quiet, the kind of quiet filled with sounds—bird calls, small animals in the leaf litter, leaves in a breeze. It all melded with the feel of Kai fitted behind her, her back against his chest, their thighs touching as their legs hung down Ash's flanks.
On their left the bush thinned and opened out to a little clearing on the bank of a creek. They slipped to the ground and Julia removed the reins from Ash's halter so the horse could graze.
Kai sat down in the sun and kicked his shoes off, put his arm around her when she joined him. She watched the fast flow of the water while she felt her body hum being close to him. He told her how he and his friends used to hang out here when they were younger, but they didn't anymore. Now they had their own houses they didn't need to find places of their own outside. No one seemed to come here much anymore, he said. The kids at school now had different places. Dapples of sun and shadow played on their bare feet.
Julia was glad no one came here much because it meant she could lean over and kiss him. His arms were around here and there was nothing else to do but wrap herself around him.
Her hands slid up his back, tracing his torso. He explored her outlines and she wanted him to know them all. She breathed him in, sweet and sour and salt.
They headed back into town when the air cooled. Julia and Ash dropped Kai out the front of his house. It was weatherboard and cosy. Before he slid to the ground, she twisted around to kiss him good-bye with lips now familiar.
During the show that night, Julia felt amazing. She was connected with the other performers—horses and people—and her reflexes were flawless. Landing in the final formation, elation glowed.
Guzzling water in the wings, she thought of Kai. She wondered if she should go into town to see him, if it was too late at night, if it was too soon since the afternoon.
'Jules,’ Jerome yelled. ‘You got a groupie.'
She couldn't help it; she swept out of the tent, straight to Kai and kissed him right there in the middle of everyone working away. There was a wolf whistle from Michaela and some giggles, but she didn't care. It was kind of fun.
She couldn't leave Ash to someone else two nights in a row, so Kai went with her to look after the horse. It was nice to be doing something together.
'Is everyone hanging out out the back like last night?' Kai asked as he cleaned horse hair out of the brushes.
'Yeah.' She hung up the freshly cleaned bejewelled bridle and put a few bits and pieces away in their boxes. 'You want to head over?'
It was nice to sit with Kai among her friends and see what they made of each other. She watched his face move as he talked and laughed. It was interesting how much his ideas about the world challenged the received wisdom of the group, and how different people reacted.
Suddenly Julia was tired of the group and wanted to be off and alone with Kai. She looked out past the circle of firelight to the line of trees that bordered the field they had made into a showground. The night air was fresh and inviting.
She leaned into Kai and slid her hand in his. 'Want to go for a walk?' He nodded and kissed the tip of her nose. Oh, she thought, this one is delicious.
'We're going to go for a wander.' There were winks and nudges. She shrugged. Nothing she could do about what other people thought.
Away from the fire, the night wasn't as dark as she had thought. Once they got to the tree line, she could even see into the bush. Night scents were everywhere; grass, sap, rotting leaves, clean dirt. They walked hand in hand in the quiet, comfortably silent. Kai stopped. He let go of her hand to stroke her hair, guide her face to his and kiss her. Starting slow and staying there, as if they had all night to stand in a paddock and kiss. Julia slid her hands inside his jacket, feeling her way.
Then it wasn't enough and she wanted more. She wanted his skin on hers, his mouth exploring her, his body inside hers.
She broke the kiss to lead him a few steps into the bush then they were together again, over balancing on their way to the ground and laughing, kissing mouths and throats and chests, buttons and zips being undone, a condom appearing from a pocket and the pause to roll it on.
Then more kissing and stroking and clenching fingers, sliding together and the sighgasp that they both made, a rock hurting her knee, his face against her breasts, his shoulder blades moving under her hands, and too many sticks on the ground. They managed to get some clothes back on before they fell asleep on Kai's jacket.
Julia woke slowly. She was cold and tried to burrow into Kai for warmth. It didn't work and she opened her eyes. It was still full dark, but she thought there were more animal noises. She was too cold to stay still.
'Hey,' Kai mumbled. 'I'm freaking freezing.'
They walked all the way back to Kai's holding each other for warmth and stopping every hundred metres or so to kiss. The sky was just lightening when the crept through Kai's house and curled up together under his quilt. Julia fell asleep like a candle blown out.
She inched her way from sleep. The first thing she was aware of was Kai's belly under her palm. She moved her hand around it lazily, feeling where the skin was smooth, where there was hair, its bumps and planes. Then they were moving together again, hands exploring, lips on necks and chests. They made love slowly and silently, mindful of the boys in the other rooms.
It was Sunday and she was leaving. Tonight she would sleep in another town. She moved away from a sleeping Kai and slowly pulled on her clothes. She found the bathroom and tried to clean herself up a bit, washing her face and slicking her hair back.
He was awake when she got back to the room. 'You leave today, don't you.'
'Yes.' What else was there to say? 'But I had a great time with you.'
'Me too.' He smiled and she had to kiss him.
'I should get back and help pack up.'
'OK. I'll drive you.'
They were both quiet as they rattled to the showground in Kai's old car. She stroked his thigh sometimes and he squeezed her hand between gear changes.
The campground was buzzing with people moving back and forth between tents and vans and cars. The horses' canvas stalls were already down and Ash and Smoke were grazing out of the way of the action. Kai's car rolled to a standstill. They looked at each other but neither of them knew what to say.
Suddenly Julia knew that she wouldn't say good-bye to him, not in the middle of packing up, in a car, on the side of a road. 'I'll come say good-bye before we go.' He smiled and the pressure was off the moment. 'Will you be at home in a few hours?'
'I'll see you there a bit later on then.'
They kissed, maybe a little lingeringly.
She did only the absolutely essential jobs, bundling her clothes unfolded into her backpack, sealing the horse feed in plastic boxes, raking soiled straw into rubbish bags and jamming them into the dumpster, rolling sleeping bags, collecting tent pegs, packing away bridles and bits.
She found Michaela organising cooking utensils. 'I've got to go into town.' Julia wasn't sure what was showing on her face but Michaela just nodded, no hint of a smirk. 'OK. Don't be too long.'
Ash was glad to see her. She hoped the horse was ready for a bit of a run. Using the mane, Julia vaulted astride her mare and slapped her into a fast canter towards the town.
Kai came out on the verandah as they trotted up. She hadn't brought anything to tie up Ash, so she stayed with a hand tangled in mane. Kai came to her and they hugged for a long moment.
She pulled back to kiss him another long moment. Her arms twined around his neck, his hands around her back. Their foreheads pressed together and they said good-bye.
'I had a great time with you.' She couldn't think of anything else to say.
'So I've heard.' They chuckled softly. 'I'll miss you.'
'You too. You're the coolest towny I've found so far.'
There was nothing for it but a clean break. Julia pulled away a little, looked at him, making sure she remembered his face and how he looked at her. She kissed him a last kiss. 'Bye.'
In one movement, she pulled away and swept up onto Ash. They turned back towards the showground.
About the Author: Sarah Jansen is an Australian writer from Logan City in Queensland, Australia. As well as writing fiction, she runs the Melbourne Literary Salon and has worked with literary and culture festivals for the past 15 years. She has lived in Melbourne since 2011.