I was born on the 32nd of March. I do not know how it happened, but it did. People born on the 32nd of March never grow older, and we never grow tall. My mother was a clerk in the distillery. My father was a returned soldier, and he shot through.
I grew up in Bundaberg, by the river, but I didn’t grow. Oh, my head grew—my monstrous target skull—and my chest swelled like a sherry barrel, but my hands hung at my waist, and my legs were cut short like my arms.
I was my mother’s punishment. She fed me from a bowl, like a puppy, because I used to topple and she thought I’d never learn how to sit. My mother could have put me in an orphanage, but she kept me because she loved me. All my life I have lived off that love.
I went to the Catholic school, where the brothers were kind, but they expected me to die. We never get older, so we always die young. The brothers taught me that in ancient Egypt we were gods.
The other children shut me in cupboards and carried me in bags. I liked them to hide me and lock me away. It made me feel like treasure. The first time I went to a birthday party I was eight years old. I had never had a cake, or a present wrapped in coloured paper, because I born on the 32nd of March.
The boys were curious about my pee-pee. They used to take down my pants to see if it had grown. Sometimes after sport they would hang me naked from the shower heads, to stretch me.
That’s all I remember from school, except noun, verb, adjective; head, thorax, abdomen; amo, amas, amat. I left when I was fourteen to sit on a wall smoking cigarettes. I’d been waiting two years when Jeremiah Cain’s travelling show came with their trucks and tents and the big bass drum.
I watched them set up in the showground, because I liked to know everything that happened in my town. An old showie with sharpened teeth and a forked tongue asked if I could play the banjo. I said I wasn’t musical. He said, ‘I thought all you people knew the ukulele.’
Jeremiah Cain ran a boxing tent with fairground rides, a snake charmer and a stripper, but some of the boxers dressed up as lobsters, wobbling plastic claws behind steamed glass in the walk-in walk-out tent. Emperor Harry was the Pygmy King of the Dark Continent, who could burst a balloon with a blowpipe at twenty paces.
I remember the first time I saw Emperor Harry, striding towards me in the dust. He wore a waistcoat, a fob watch and a brown felt hat. He moved with great energy and strength, as if he were bursting through heavy air, and shook my hand so hard he pulled me off the wall.
‘What do they call you?’ asked Emperor Harry.
‘Cunthead,’ I said, wiping my knees.
Emperor Harry looked sad.
‘My name’s Gregory,’ I said.
‘Gregory the Great,’ said Emperor Harry, ‘the world’s smallest juggler.’
‘I can’t juggle,’ I told him.
‘Any mug can juggle,’ said Emperor Harry, ‘but it takes guts to be small.’ He asked how old I was.
‘I was born on the 32nd of March, of course.’
‘Then you’re old enough to join a show,’ said Emperor Harry.
Emperor Harry was a tent boxer by trade, but it was hard to find opponents in bush towns because of his weight. He suggested I fight him on the first night of the show. He promised to go easy on me and split the take.
‘But I can’t fight,’ I said.
‘Fighting’s like juggling,’ said Emperor Harry. ‘All you need is balls.’
He squeezed my crotch with a greengrocer’s fingers.
I decided not to tell my mother until I had the money in my hand. I knew she wouldn’t come to the show. She liked to stay at home in her chair and knit her dreams—jumpers for soldiers, blankets for a Korean winter.
I hurried down to the showground in a shearer’s singlet, floating through the smells of whipped sugar and spattering fat. Jeremiah Cain stood on the boards outside his tent, banging his drum, gathering a crowd with a showman’s lies. His own fighters were lined up alongside him, from the Canadian Cowboy, who had never been in Canada, to the Aboriginal Champion of the Outback, who was a black American ex-serviceman, to Emperor Harry, the shortest tent-boxer in Australia.
‘Who’ll take a glove?’ yelled Jeremiah Cain.
‘I will!’ I cried.
Jeremiah Cain saw me with his stormy electric eyes, but pretended to scan the crowd of cane-cutters and stockmen.
‘Who’s that?’ he asked. ‘The Bundaberg Bunyip?’
I pushed my way past the knees of country boys and camp cooks until I reached the ladder.
‘Give him a hand up!’ said Jeremiah Cain, but I kicked out at anyone who tried to help me, and climbed the rungs myself.
‘And who might you be, little fella?’ asked Jeremiah Cain, bending lower than he needed.
As I began to reply, he pulled away the megaphone. ‘This tiny titan here is Gregory the Great!’ bellowed Jeremiah Cain. ‘The abandoned son of the most famous midget wrestler of all time … the Great Gregory!’
People laughed, but nobody really knew who my father was. I flexed my biceps and they whistled. I felt like the tallest man alive.
The boxing troupe had no gloves for me, so Emperor Harry offered to fight me bareknuckle. I said I’d fight him with one hand tied behind his back. I meant to say ‘my back’, but the drunks laughed and paid their money. Before we’d even stepped onto the boxing mat, I was imagining the scene when it was over, with the sawmillers carrying me on their shoulders, yelling, ‘He’s got a big heart for a little fella,’ and the whole town shouting ‘Cunthead! Cunthead!’
Boxing isn’t the way you’d choose to fight if you were born on the 32nd of March. We’re not naturally punchers. We don’t have the reach. Our legs are too short for the footwork. We don’t jab. It all got scrappy as soon as the bell rang, with me charging at Emperor Harry, and he batting me away with hands held just below his chin. The way I’d normally fight was to bite and butt, but the tent had rules and I respected them because I sensed this was my chance in life, and God help me if I wasn’t right.
Emperor Harry could move like an athlete, shifting his weight from side to side, throwing me off my rhythm with a diagonal step backwards or a feint that promised a lunge. But he stepped into my punches and sold them, flying sprawling onto the mat clutching his wide, flat nose. At the end of the third round, Jeremiah Cain got down on his knees to lift the winner’s arm into the air, and when I felt the tug on my wrist, I wanted to cry and laugh and sing all at once.
That night I was the hero of the town. They called me ‘the Beast of Bundy’. Emperor Harry found me under the war memorial the next morning, drinking sherry and shaping up to the statue. He said I’d better get myself straightened out because we were going to fight a grudge match that night, to decide which of us was the Midget Tent Boxing Champion of the World.
My second fight didn’t go as well as my first. Emperor Harry bashed me from one corner of the mat to the next and back again. He knocked me down three times in the first minute, but I kept getting back up for more. He blacked my eyes, loosened my teeth, even broke my nose, but the crowd was behind me and that was all I needed. Even after Jeremiah Cain had presented Emperor Harry with an engraved belt sanctioned by the World Midget Tent Boxing Association, people were saying, ‘Well done, Cunthead. Good fight.’
Emperor Harry asked if I wanted to travel with the troupe. He said we could fight each other every place we went. He’d be Jeremiah Cain’s champion, I’d be a challenger from an outstation, and we’d take turns in winning the midget world championship. He promised I’d meet sheilas and have mates. He said he’d never had the chance to box in the tent before. He was the last of a mob of a midget wrestlers who used to follow the show in their own truck, and set up a ring before the tent opened in the afternoon, to entertain the children. But the others had all drifted away, found women on the road or just disappeared. Wrestling was tough on their bodies, hard on their joints and, even if you weren’t born on the 32nd of March, it was a young man’s game.
My mother wept when I told her I was leaving, and I cried too. I said I’d only be gone for a season, as we pushed on north to the Gulf, then west into the Territory. She told me if I saw my father, I had to send him home.
The next two years were the best of my life, the best of anybody’s life. Me and Emperor Harry, we tore the outback down. We boxed and we wrestled, he taught me the ukulele, I juggled as he sang, and held the balloon for his blowpipe. We were pygmies, dwarfs, elves and hobbits, headhunters, cannibals, Siamese twins. We slept in the same swag.
The showies took me into their big dark family. Even though I wasn’t born to the life, they could see there was nothing else for me. I helped set up the fair and pull down the tents. Some of the best times were in the Aboriginal missions, where they had never seen a man who was born on the 32nd of March. Jeremiah Cain would roll me up in the boxing mat, then spill me out onto the gravel, and the blacks would scream and wave their hands about, laugh and run away. They thought I had magical powers, that I was more than a man, not less.
There were pockets of the fair only showmen knew, dark corners behind canvas curtains, secret hooch bars where the Two-Headed Woman drank homemade whisky with the Greatest Escapologist the World Has Ever Seen. In the first hours of the morning, when the mugs were in bed with their fat dowdy wives, the showmen put on acts for each other. There were dogfights that lasted until a torn jaw fluttered from the gums of a blind pit bull, cockfights with spurs, and razor matches between boys who walked away with scars like rivers running down their cheeks.
On party nights the strippers tore the pasties from their nipples and stepped out of their flesh-coloured underpants and fucked the trick-shooters and the whip crackers, their stockwhips and their rifles. Most of all, the showies liked to watch the girls with the Aboriginal Champion of the Outback, but if everyone was as pissed as blacks, and the negro was sated or sleeping, the snake charmer would encourage them to go with the dwarfs. One of the girls would always agree, after he’d hypnotised her with his yellow eyes. I loved her completely, and I know she loved me too. I could feel it inside her. She called herself Darlene, or Jeremiah Cain gave her that name. I don’t know.
I lost my boyhood to Darlene, in front of the snake charmer, Emperor Harry and Jeremiah Cain. But Darlene let the negro move into her trailer, and the others gathered outside just to listen to the noises they made together. I drank around the campfire with Emperor Harry, stoking the embers with a stick.
When we found Darlene was pregnant to the negro, it wasn’t a big thing. Most of the show was black or part-black. She had to stop working as a stripper, but she still collected tickets for the rides. I carried her things when I could. She went into labour in McKinlay and the baby was born in Cloncurry. He wasn’t black but he was very small. It was the 32nd of March.
The negro left the camp the next day.
The fortune teller looked at my beautiful son and said he was Darlene’s punishment. I held him in my arms and my heart sang. We named him Charlie—I think that was my father’s name—and Darlene fed him from her breast. She changed him on her knee and wore him in a sling, like an Indian. They talked together in the trailer at night. I listened to them outside. She didn’t like me to spend too much time with him, in case that kept him small. The fortune teller gave her potions to make him grow.
Jeremiah Cain picked up a new fighter in Boulia. I didn’t like him because I could see Darlene did. By the time we reached Birdsville he had taken the negro’s place in her trailer. He was useful in the ring, but he liked to hurt the mugs, and Jeremiah Cain had to warn him to go easy. It was just a show.
Darlene was smiling again, because she had Boulia. She always said she needed a big man to take care of her. Boulia was hard and proud, but he never touched another woman, and some nights I heard him play the guitar and sing to my son. But he wasn’t the type to live on the road. He looked too far ahead, could see it went nowhere. Now he had found his woman, he wanted to go back to the farm and raise a family. Darlene asked Jeremiah Cain for permission to leave the show. He said she should stay, because Charlie belonged to all of us.
The fortune-teller predicted Boulia would drag Darlene down. ‘Lower than this?’ asked Darlene. ‘Lower than an unmarried stripper in a tent-boxing show?’
I never knew she felt she was low. I thought we were living the high life. I loved the tents and the hotdogs, the spruiking and the gee-ups, the trucks, the mud and the dust.
‘A fucking slut,’ said Darlene, ‘with a cunt-headed baby dwarf?’
The next morning they were gone, and they left my son in a bucket of water, a small bucket of warm water, filled to the brim. There was no need for that. I would have taken him. I would have loved him. I would have taught him how to grow, from the inside.
The showies buried Charlie beside the track, beneath a shaky timber cross and a garland of gold leaf, the livery of the stalls. The fortune teller told me he’d come back as a giant. Jeremiah Cain offered to hunt down Darlene and Boulia. Emperor Harry said we should go after the cowboy, just him and me, and show him what we were worth, we men born on the 32nd of March. But Boulia already knew what we were worth, and it wasn’t the cowboy who’d done it, it was Darlene.
I couldn’t fight in the tent after I lost Charlie. I could only drink. When I was full of beer or moonshine I’d take on any mug who said something smart, but I’d do it at the rifle range or the laughing clowns, have a proper blue in front of the families, and I wouldn’t stop when it was over. If a ringer called me ‘Shorty’, I’d bite his fucking nose off.
Emperor Harry begged me to stop, but I couldn’t and he couldn’t make me. I was maybe ten years younger than him, fitter, faster and toughened up. I nearly killed a bloke in Charleville—just a little fella; they were always the ones who started something—and Jeremiah Cain asked me to leave the troupe. He said I could come back when I was fixed, but I said, ‘Fuck you to hell.’
They left me in the hotel in Roma with $100, and I spent it on whores. I hitch-hiked back to Bundaberg. My mother asked if I’d met my father on the road. I told her I had, and he said he was never coming back. She shut herself in her room, and I locked myself in mine. When the show came around, neither of us left the house. I drank cough medicine and shoe polish remover. I saw lions and tigers, dragons and serpents. I spoke to the walls.
One night I was lying in bed when I heard a tap at the window. It was Emperor Harry. I told him to fuck off, called him every name I’d ever been called, but he refused to leave because he was my mate. He sat at my bedside and we talked about the old days, the good times in Ingham and Innisfail and Tully.
Oh God, I’d missed Emperor Harry. I’d missed him so much. He unrolled his swag on my bedroom floor. Inside was Charlie, with golden hair and blue eyes, all grown up but never grown old. I reached out for my son, to hug him to my sherry-barrel chest, and I felt my spirit drift away.
I looked back at the calendar on my bedroom wall. It was the 32nd of March.
© Mark Dapin