I Am Juggling Fire

An excerpt from Adam Ouston’s Waypoints

This is an edited excerpt from Adam Ouston’s Waypoints, published by Splice on March 18 and available for pre-order now.

I know it sounds bizarre to say, but it was welcome news, even though “welcome” is not quite the right word; in any case, it got me out of the house, out from in front of my computer, out of my seemingly interminable death scrolls, and back to work as a fire performer in Cripp’s Circus, which had been touring Australia (and at one point the world) since 1931 — my father, Arthur Keith Cripp, was a WWII orphan who’d been sent to the circus at the age of seven, in 1949, and had become successful at sleight of hand and wrangling big cats before taking over the enterprise when his adoptive parents retired in 1966, whereafter he married the clairvoyant Marigold Hobsbawm and continued touring the country eleven months of every year as owner and proprietor — but was now on the brink of collapse, as it had been at the advent of television (an event that sent my father’s adoptive parents into retirement but only made him more focused on success), the only difference being that now my father was no longer as capable of reinventing the show as he had been then — back then, he’d made the acts more and more daring, more death-defying, figuring as he did that the difference between Cripp’s Circus and the TV was the proximity of death, for the closer we come to death, the more thrilling the spectacle (this was also, I would later learn, a principle that Harry Houdini held close to his heart: the best thing to get bums on seats is the whiff of death): “We need to give them something they can’t get on the damn television!” my father was fond of saying. It was up to me to do what he’d done once before, only now we had much more than TV with which to contend, facing as we did an invasion of innumerable television-like enterprises vying for the same timeslot — and if it wasn’t for the diminutive but mighty Vazo, the whole thing would’ve collapsed completely in my absence — but I was in no fit state to reinvent or reimagine or revivify anything much, yet I knew, in my fog I could still see this clearly, that something needed to be done to keep it going, to keep it all alive, if for no other reason than it was the only thing I had left, for I was becoming the orphan my father once was, my existence, the Earth, the æther was coming back around again, fate was performing its own Immelmann turn, and here I was with no family apart from my slowly vanishing father, while the only home I’d known since my birth was likewise disappearing before my very eyes, and so the least I could do, day after day, night after night, for the next eleven months, was march out into that ring with a smile upon my face and, looking to all the world as though I was in total command of all around and inside me, set myself on fire. And, to be honest, those moments in the ring were a real sanctuary, for self-immolation requires complete concentration and focus as well as solid preparation — these days I wear two layers of wet heat shield material, one layer made of polybenzimidazole (also wet), a fire-retardant suit (for some reason they are always flesh-coloured and make me look like a mummy), on top of which I have my silver reflective firesuit, the costume that the audience sees, which has been covered completely with fire block gel (along with my face and hair) before I’m doused in kerosene, set alight, and on I go; the trick is to keep moving forward so that the fire remains behind you, otherwise you risk very quickly becoming overwhelmed and asphyxiated — fire is a great oxygen thief — even if it’s just a slow walk, it’s imperative to keep the air flowing, which is the first of two rules to bear in mind, the other being to remember always that fire burns upwards — ie. make sure you are where the flames aren’t; simple self-preservation, really — and once I’m on fire and moving into the ring, it isn’t simply a matter of wandering around and waving to the crowd before heading offstage again, nothing so simple, for there’s a show to put on, it’s what we’re here for, it’s what the audience wants to see — my father always said that you have to build on what’s already happening, always ask what else could be included, there’s always an opportunity to create a sense of wonder! — and so while I move about the ring I am also juggling fire, spinning fire, twirling fire, swallowing and spitting and breathing fire, like the sun and its solar flares, like the burning bush, flames growling in my ears, the gasping crowd, the feeling that I am creating those feelings of awe and wonder, a feeling that, rather than diminish through repetition over the years, has only become stronger because of the fact, and it is a fact, that awe and wonder have become increasingly rare, or we are now so advanced that everything creates these feelings and we’re immune to them — even a simple love-heart text you send to someone sitting right next to you goes up into space first! — despite everything I’m not so jaded as to deny how full of wonder our world is, or should be — it is awe and wonder that I trade in, or did, it is all I have ever known, having been born into a circusing family, my entire purpose has always been to inspire those feelings in others, it was bred into me by my father and mother, great purveyors of wonder themselves, the tingle of pure joy, and not just for children but for everyone, everyone is capable of feeling it, of being there, transported, and thanks to Vazo the Terrible, who stood on the upper rungs of a ladder to douse me in kerro before I went out, that’s what I did; with flames pouring off me I shot wonder into people’s hearts while carrying inside of me the frozen egg of grief. It was an unlikely venue to start the tour, but from Melbourne we travelled west, bypassing Adelaide and out across the Nullarbor — a journey my grandparents had made when that great highway was a dirt track — into Western Australia and a town called Coolgardie and not, as Vasily had thought, Kalgoorlie, a far larger town than Coolgardie and a far more appropriate place to set up a circus than a former goldmining town now considered a ghost town despite its population of around 850, most of whom, thanks to the gold having dried up early last century, now survived on tourism, an industry that had sprung up in more recent decades as large numbers of people developed a taste for visiting former goldmines and exploring the ruins, which included museums and old hotels, former magistrates’ courts and banks and exhibitions of antiquated objects used in the daily lives of pioneers and prospectors — owing to Vasily’s geographical error, I managed to see all Coolgardie had to offer while we tried to co-ordinate a quick move to nearby, and far more populous, Kalgoorlie — but, after months crisscrossing the country’s barren inland, what became clear to me was that what was most valuable to the tourist trade was not the seen but the unseen, what wasn’t there as opposed to what was — an old pub in the middle of nowhere, of which only the entranceway remained standing, a lone chimney, exposed foundations, a pile of tin sheeting, fading echoes of an ancient world, or as ancient as colonised Australia could get — these were the places that carried the most gravitas, where you had to wait for an opportunity to take a photograph, where you had to bide your time to be alone with nothingness, to be surrounded by almost unlimited empty space, the awesome sprawl of inland Australia, and then be confronted with sudden nothingness, the oblivion of what was, that was the goal, that was what got tourists excited, got me excited (though excited is not the right word), experiences for which I had my dear friend, the troublemaker Vazo the Terrible, to thank, for not only did he get his outback towns mixed up, but the day after our first performance in Coolgardie — to which, it must be said, most of the town turned up, leaving us with the prospect of empty seats for the next two weeks — I woke in my caravan to his incessant fist pummelling the door and his booming voice telling me we had places to be, or rather he had places to be but I needed to do the driving, and although he managed to coax me outside with the idea that we had to get to Kalgoorlie ASAP in order to find a park or oval to which we might relocate, we did not head for Kalgoorlie, at least not straightaway; instead, holding a map to the dashboard, he directed me around the town and its outskirts, something I was, at first, completely uninterested in, I had little or no energy, my body felt as if it had turned to wet sand, and I often felt like crying, and did, tears coming to my eyes seemingly without any direct inspiration, and so roaming aimlessly about an all-but-abandoned mining town in outback Australia was the last thing I wanted to be doing —

About Adam Ouston

Adam Ouston is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, and the recipient of the 2014 Erica Bell Literary Award as well as the manuscript prize at the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Awards in 2017. He holds a PhD and has worked as a copywriter, editor and bookseller. As a musician he performs as Costume. He lives in Hobart, Tasmania.