Alf A. Betts and his Magical Troupe

Abe Seedy trudged wearily down the dusty road. His brightly patched pants were hot against his legs which, like his arms, were long and thin and tired.

He changed sleeping Baby Aby from one arm to the other when he heard a car behind him - but he hardly bothered to look around as he moved aside - so many had passed already, covering Baby with white dust but never stopping.

As he stepped to the very edge of the road he was astonished to hear the car slowing and a loud cheerful voice calling -

"Hey there, would you like a lift?"

Abe saw that the vehicle was a roomy old station-wagon covered with dust. It had dusty luggage tied on at every possible point, and pulled a large overloaded trailer. Several people seemed to be hanging out of the windows, smiling at him.

Abe smiled back and lifted his floppy blue hat.

"Thanks," he said. "Thanks a lot," as he climbed gratefully over more luggage and legs and squeezed himself into the last available space.

Baby Aby woke, his round head, and its stripy red and white cap, bobbing against Abe's shoulder. He looked with interest at all the new people and said, 'Ullo', which - with 'No', 'Me', 'Buh', and 'Bzz' - comprised most of his conversation.

In the driver's seat sat a bulky brown man with brown curly hair and brown eyes. His was the cheerful big voice that had offered a lift.

"I'm Jake Ellermen, and this is Effie Gee, our secretary." He waved a hand towards a very thin woman who smiled and nodded. She wore glasses, and a head scarf, and lots of teeth.

Squeezed in to the corner beside Effie was a dark, wrinkled, hunched-up little man who wore a huge Mexican hat - nobody seemed to mind that it quite inconvenienced Effie as he bobbed and smiled, and said with a slight accent -

"My name is Areste Uvi."

Beside Abe and Baby Aby sat a perfectly round smiling person with enormous ears.

He was dressed from head to foot in a bright orange suit. His deep voice had a happy bubble, as though he might laugh at any moment. He beamed at Baby Aby and said -

"Ullo to you too. I'm Oswald Peakew. And this here is Mr. W. Xavier Wisehead, who runs the business side of our troupe."

He pointed to a tall thin bald-headed man with big round spectacles, who nodded and said, 'Hi'.

"Behind you is Ai Chi and Little Ai Chi, her baby."

The little Chinese girl smiled sweetly at Abe and held up her tiny child to wave to Baby Aby.

"And behind the luggage," chuckled Oswald, "is Alf A. Betts - our magician and general director."

A twinkly little face peered over the bags and boxes and gave Abe an affable nod.

"Glad to know you," said Abe. "I'm Abe Seedy and this is Baby Aby."

For almost a second there was no sound in the car - a pin could almost have been heard to drop. Then William X. Wisehead gave a great shout,

"Well, that beats all! I've got to hand it to you Alf! I've got to hand it to you!

"Not at all," murmured Alf, bobbing up again from behind the luggage, his changing face looking more twinkly than ever. "Not at all. Being a magician helps you know - being a magician helps."

"He never fails," Oswald explained admiringly, turning to Abe. "Sometimes we doubt him but we shouldn't. No indeed."

Abe looked in a puzzled way from one friendly face to another.

"Don't think I understand really," he said.

"Buh!" Agreed Baby Aby.

"Of course you don't," said Mr. Wisehead. "You see whenever the troupe is in any difficulties, or needs to choose our way at a crossroads - if we follow Alf's directions, everything comes out right..."

"... Take today - here we were needing a new member for our troupe - there we were at a crossroads to choose a way - "down that way" says Alf - and there you were, down that way. Course we would have picked you up for a lift anyway - but now we know you're the man we want for the troupe. That's if you're free of course," he added, momentarily looking anxious.

Abe sat silent. He had sought work the length and breadth of the long dusty road. He had twenty-two cents left in his threadbare pocket and his last meal had been a very old, cold, sausage - hours before.

In his knapsack he carried a few meagre supplies for Baby Aby. His heart beat with hope as he said,

"Oh yes, I'm free. But how can you tell I'll do?"

Oswald gave his jolly laugh again.

"Of course you'll do," he said. "Your name's Abe Seedy."

Abe still looked puzzled.

"Don't forget I'm a magician," called Alf, bobbing up again like a jack-in-a-box, twinkling and winking and twisting his little face about at a great rate. "Don't you see - I'm Alf A. Betts, you're Abe Seedy, the troupe consists of Effie Gee, Ai Chi, Jake Ellermen, O. Peekew, Areste Uvi, and W. X. Wisehead!" He looked triumphantly at Abe.

"Bzz!" said Baby Aby in a satisfied way, and Abe's face shone with a great light.

"I see," he said. "But surely you didn't have another Abe Seedy before me?"

"No." said Jake. " His name was A. Becedy and he had to leave to help his mother in the shop. Her name is O. Becedy. She got a bit too plump to fit behind the counter. We were sorry to lose him, but his Mum's happy, and I think he was ready to settle down really."

Abe found it difficult to speak for a moment.

"I can't think of anything I'd like better than to be one of your troupe Mr. Betts," he said huskily at last.

"Me. Ullo. Bzz. Buh!" said Baby Aby.

"That's settled. Hooray!" said Mr. Betts, "and just call me Alf from now on."

Jake Ellermen started the car. As they drove along the other members of the troupe and Abe and Baby Aby, became better acquainted. Ai Chi took Baby Aby into the back to play with Little Ai Chi. She found a few biscuits and bananas for them to eat, and Little Ai Chi, though shy at first, soon began to mother Baby Aby, mopping his chin with her tiny handkerchief when he dribbled, and reading him a story when he began to look sleepy.

Alf Betts opened a large food hamper and began to pass forward packets of sandwiches and bottles of milk. By this time Abe was not even particularly surprised to find a meal already provided for him.

"What will I have to do?" he asked. "What will my duties be?" as he bit with pleasure into a huge piece of chocolate cake.

"No problem there," explained Oswald comfortably. "We all just do whatever there is to do. I'm sure you'll be invaluable," he added with his wide smile.

And with that, Abe had to be content until, as the sun began to go down behind a hill, they came to the outskirts of a pretty little town, and stopped by the side of a tree-lined river.

Everyone sprang gladly from the wagon and began to unpack - all but Baby Aby who was fast asleep, and Little Ai Chi who stayed to watch over him. Abe was amazed to see how many and varied were the innumerable things which the busy troupe produced from the baggage. First there were half a dozen small tents, each a different colour, which Abe willingly helped to pitch. Then a larger, striped in orange and green and last, an enormous one striped in red and blue.

Brightly coloured lanterns were soon strung around each tent, and the smallest of the tents furnished with bed rolls. One bright blue, and one pink. Into the blue bed Abe put Baby Aby and tucked him in with a sigh of thanksgiving. Little Ai Chi could not be persuaded to leave him. She popped in beside him with her doll and was soon fast asleep too.

Mama Ai Chi decided she would share this tent with the children and brought in her silken bundle of possessions. Then Abe was free to help the rest of the troupe. Some were gathering wood for the big camp fire, where Effie was preparing a meal. Others were putting up the gaily-coloured banners which read "ALF A. BETTS AND HIS MAGICAL TROUPE".

As the twilight deepened they sat around the fire and shared a delicious meal of thick soup with toast, followed by pancakes and some more of the chocolate cake.

"Do we put on a show tonight?" Abe asked.

"Of course," said Oswald happily. "Look down the road."

Abe looked between the gum trees and there, from the direction of the town, he could already see the light of swinging lanterns coming closer. When he listened, he could hear laughter and the eager voices of children. Suddenly he felt quite nervous.

"How did they know we were here?" he asked, "and what can I do? And how will I know - "

Mr. Wisehead interrupted him kindly.

"Don't worry Abe," he said, "tonight you need only take the money and show people where to sit. But if you wanted to entertain the children, you could - you'd know how to do it, just as the children knew we were here. Don't forget, we're a MAGICAL troupe."

Later, Abe was to find that all Mr. Wisehead said was true - but for that night he was content to watch the faces of the children as they laughed at Oswald's antics as he rolled about the ring - and their wonder as Ai Chi did her own kind of balancing magic on a high silver wire, armed only with her flowered Chinese umbrella.

Jake lifted the whole of the troupe on his powerful shoulders and carried them round the ring, juggling seven coloured balls as he went. Effie ran about helping everybody - handing balls to Jake, and her umbrella to Ai Chi.

Areste Uvi played haunting Gypsy music on a beautiful old fiddle. But best of all was the magic of Alf A. Betts. He looked magnificent in long many-coloured robes with wide sleeves and a tall hat, winking and shimmering with stars. In his hand he carried a jewelled wand which glittered with sparks of fire as he turned and twisted it about.

The children, and their parents too, not to mention Abe, were spellbound as he brought multi-coloured birds from his hat, made flowers spring up from the grass at their feet, and sent showers of coloured stars sparkling as they fell from the top of the marquee. A wave of his wand and the marquee shone with changing lights - pink and silver - gold and purple - and as a last gift, he promised every member of the audience a sound sleep and a beautiful dream when they reached home.

That night, as Abe Seedy fell asleep, he knew he had never been so happy in his whole life before.

Norah Boehme