When the Circus Comes to Town
Just don't stop running. Dad always told me. Be fine, yes, we'll all be all right; but we don't stay still too long. The stillness gets to you.
Well, we're like family aren't we? Me, Dad, Simon, Jemima, Freddie, Eddie, Loca, Cal, Lindy, Marie. That's the core of us, the keystone. And as long we stay close we feel safe. We can be anywhere really, it doesn't matter – these trailers make for a home.
We take turns in whose place we go to, whose fire is lit, who breaks out the whiskey and fries up some eggs and chips. We play our music, we sing along. I lean against Dad, put my feet up on somebody's lean-to table. My reflection answers me from an amber glass. There's laughter. Always laughter. As loud as it needs to be.
And then we bundle on into town. Any old town.
I like to keep a souvenir of the ones I like. This mermaid here, coiled around a wine glass: some people think she's tacky, and she was cheap – I know – but I can see something more in her than that. There's something of the ocean in her eyes – yes, I know: painted blue, took a second, careless, in a factoy line. But it's still there. And all those years of living just blocks away from the salt sea – so yes, the ocean grew on her, her substance became her form. And anyway, I like the colours on her scales, I like that twinkling cut-glass cover of scales, encrusting her tail and then tapering off as they swim up her body, spiralling over her breasts.
This key-ring. This brooch. This set of egg-cups.
It's the first thing I do when we get to a town, go out to the second-hand stores, the garage sales, the car boots. Just lookng for anything or whatever.
“We don't have any room for those,” Dad keeps telling me, “not with your roses as well.”
“Hah! I love my roses.”
“And this tea-cup?”
“I love it too.” Or at least I love the old gabled houses, the weedy gardens and run-wild dandelions; the slender, glass-panelled apartment buildings shooting up out of the ground like spear-points, in and amongst the old cottages, starkly contrasting – a thing of their own. I loved seeing that in a village called Habershone. The silver-blue shade of the teacup reminds of that place.
I don't think we'll go back there. I don't think we'll ever loop that far.
“You and your suvenirs,” he says.
“Me and my souvenirs. You and your beers.”
“I love my beers.”
And they remind you, don't they, of the towns?
Because that's what he'd want to do, soon as we got into another town: head out at sunset to the closest tavern, choose the most obscure brew, ask for something local if they had it – a house brew if he could. That's his way of remembering.
And then we'll walk the streets, stopping at a chip shop, eating as we walk, pointing out all the little quirks, the pretty things, taking in the foibles of the people we see. When I was young he'd make up stories about them, sitting on some bridge or other, legs dangling over the edge. He'd point to some strangers, he'd weave some great tale about them, about the important things they'd do or were going to do.
“You don't know,” I told him once. “Not like Lindy would know.”
“So I dream instead.”
“Lindy could tell me the truth.” Young. Harsh. Knowing no better.
His arm around me: “I hope its not Lindy's path you take. I wouldn't wish that on anyone.”
My favourite town. I keep a bracelet from that one.
A town called Tomchester. And it seemed very ordinary, driving in. I think that's what struck me at first, how surburban, how homely; how the shops were thick-set stone, bright in their windows. Layers of brick houses, different coloured roofs, a few white blocks of flats, the segmented flower beds in town beneath the clock. This was the kind of small town where characters in books grow up – just small enough for everyone to know each other, not too small to miss out on the comforts of modern living: cinema over there, McDonalds that way; a few chain stores, a skating rink; the polytech just out of town (doing its part to keep the town young.)
There are days, too, wishing I could go back there.
And listen: when we come. They welcome us, don't they? People are still glad to see us, even with all the modern entertainments out there. Still they flock. Still we have them streaming between the tents, chattering excitedly. They forget about their X-boxs and their over-sized TVs. They leave their i-phones turned off.
We look over our shoulders.
Eddie monitors police radio. Loca reads the skies.
But still we perform.
Dad: he's the worst of us. When he's ready to go out there amongst them he's all about the show, nothing about the risk. “In my blood, I can't help it.”
I shake my head: “You're too full of souls.”
“They're bursting out of you.”
Laughing: “Becky, I've got this.”
“Only until you haven't.”
“Then they'll get their money's worth for a show.”
And we'll run. Desperate. Probably into the dark. And for our lives. Think about that.
But then we're out on some field, with the smells of sugar and hot-dogs, onions, incense; and we've got our music playing – a clicking and clattering, echoing and splashing, all these sounds that shouldn't come from voices and do. Jemima tosses her head back and sings in person, captivating
the whole town and leaving them guessing.
I get out there and I dance. My roses feel it. Back in the trailer they dance along with me.
Dad, when it's his turn: contorting himself into extra-ordinary shapes: a box; a star; a fan. There's really no twist or turn his limbs can't make, not when he's dosed up like that. He's glowing – and they put it down to lighting. It's like his arms and legs have no bones, like his spine is nothing more than elastic.
On my better days I float. I let the dancing win me over, let it take me from swooping and pirhouetting on the ground to launching myself into the air; feeling that air weave around me and hold me, letting me pose, somersault – I get reckless, and I won't subsribe to limits.
Then Cal comes on, him with his fires.
It's not subtle is it? So it isn't any wonder really that they track us sooner or later.
“Wouldn't matter,” Dad tells me, “they'd still find us.”
“We make it easy for them.”
“Ah, Becky,” and he'll sweep his arms around to encompass this nice, settled, normal world - houses and cars and homes and communities: “This isn't for us. It can't be. Even if it could, we'd be miserable.”
And I think about all these people, living these real lives: still young, I think: well, they don't look that miserable.
But there's rarely any time to think about it. Loca's going to see some signs in the sky; and Freddie's going to help Eddie do a search online. Sure enough, they'll pick something up. There might be some thread of a warning on police radio. Or there might not. Doesn't matter: they're coming for us. We have to go.
It doesn't take long to pack it all up. I comfort my roses as best I can. I have to pack them tight and dark, and I know they don't want that. They're craving the air and sunlight, and I tell them not to worry, as soon as we get there, as soon as we're safe again. I'll feel their trembling, and I'll try to harden my heart: soon, real soon, real soon.
And on the road. Out of town within hours - day or night. Sailing over the hill and leaving another town's bright lights behind us.
“So long such-and-such a town.”
“I liked that one,” I'd say at times, younger.
And Dad: “I know, love. But there'll always be others.”
“But what if we just stayed somewhere, stayed quiet?”
“Quiet? You'd want that?”
“I don't... know.” Head hanging, feeling like I just betrayed some drop of my bloodline.
“They'd still find us, love. It's not fair, but it's fact. It might take longer, but they would track us down.”
“How much longer?”
“Not long enough.”
Well, isn't that relative? I didn't know then – though I guessed, I sensed – that he was talking possibly years.
“We could be quiet. Really quiet. We wouldn't make a ripple at all.”
“No, no, we always ripple. We're brighter inside. Us: we're not the kind who can put down roots.
But there was that time when I almost did.
It's a favourite for a reason. Not just the homeliness, the sense of being a town where everyone feels like they should have grown up – the oddly picturesque ordinariness. There was also Liam.
Ah, now you're catching on. This was me thinking with something other than my head.
But Liam. He was something else. And I'm not saying that I was in love with him – although I'm sure as shit not saying that I wasn't – just that he was a great guy. He was the kind of guy you just feel like you can trust with your life, with your heart, your secrets.
I didn't tell the secrets. You can't. You just don't. But I was relaxed around him, I felt as if it wouldn't be that big a deal if our secrets did all come spilling out. He'd cope. He'd gape a bit, and try to rationalise. But then: he'd be my rock again. I just knew it.
We met at one of our shows. He'd been amongst the audience when I'd been absolutely high with enthusiasm, quickly converting the dance from ground to air, levitating boldly: head tossed back, arms outstretched, toes pointed. And then I swung myself around from the hips, dipping into spirals, and coiling into a tiny, rolling ball. My heart full of roses that day.
When I landed, he followed me. “Liam. Liam Grifford. I was amazed.”
“How did you do that?”
“Sure. Of course. But I just wanted to say....that is... to express my admiration. I do just think you're the most amazing thing I've ever seen.”
“Glad you liked it.”
“I did. Like it. Like you. That is... oh, screw it: can I see you?”
I was a little bit cruel: “Are your eyes open?”
“What I mean: can I date you? Can I take you out to dinner?”
All of their voices, a dull, steady, rainfall-persistant hum in my background. But: “Sure. Let's give that a try.”
“I've never met a girl like you before. How do I impress you?”
Over my shoulder, walking away: “I like roses.”
It was Dad who told me it was time to end that.
I didn't want to know. I'd found this little micro-cosm of happiness, and I wanted to cling to it for all I was worth. I loved my days with Liam, our dates, his shy charm. I loved to hear his stories about his family. I would tell him – carefully – a few about my own.
And I loved his house – the worn beams, the mismatched paint, the rugged little tiles running across the roof - moss and lichen speckling them. His garden had freakin' rose bushes in it.
“Let me try,” I 'd protested.
“Away from your family?”
“Can't I try?”
He'd taken me out to a park where there were statues in the water fountain. A man and a woman, dressed for the road, looking half up at the sky, half at each other. Posed for eternity in this purposeful way. He only tossed his eyes at them.
“Perhaps they're happy.”
“I hope so. They can't change their minds.”
I felt sick for a moment. And angry. It was a low blow bringing that up. But I couldn't help staring at that couple, deep-slowed into metal and stone, a beautiful, tragic artistry. All my words - about true love and how it would be different for me, for me and Liam, how we'd beat the odds, beat the curse, beat life itself – dissolved in an older memory. I wanted to slap Dad and hug him all in one.
Tears on his cheeks. Both of us looking away.
“All right. I'll take care of it.”
Liam: “I wish you could stay.”
Me: “I know. I wish it too.”
“You're not a kid. Just because your Dad says-”
“No, hush.” I put a finger on his lips. “You don't know my family. You don't know us inside out. I couldn't live away from them. Even for you.”
“Will you write?”
“I don't know.”
I planted the rose bush in the garden, by the first step up to the verandah. It was one of my favourites: a yellow, with traces of sunset, petals red-crested, golden mottling. I could tell it had doubts about this – being left behind as it was – but I whispered into it my assurances, my promise. Liam's worth it. Liam understands. And I said to him: “Just take care of this. As long as its yours there's still some connection between us.”
“And you then, take this.” And that was where my bracelet came from – all silver balls and tiny depictions of dolphins. Graceful. Musical. I've never taken it off my wrist, not from that day until this.
We've talked about it. Or the elders have. That includes Dad these days.
I listen. I stir some soup in the pot, tie my hair back out of my face, listen quietly.
“We need to go deeper in.”
“Has it really come to that?”
“I think so.”
“We've been safe enough.”
“We've been lucky.”
“We've earned our luck. We've safeguarded it.”
“We ask too much of it.”
Old Tuluca leans forward – sort of one of us, sort of not, floating between the clans. She says: “We've probably waited too long already.”
Dad doesn't. “We haven't even had any close calls, not in years.”
“And so,” Tuluca murmurs, “the next time will come like a wave. We've brought too much attention on ourselves.”
He's trying to protect me, I know, my youth, my connections in the world such as I know it. He doesn't want me to have to give up roadside cafes, movie theatres, street signs and cellphones. He says: “Not yet.”
I visited my mother's grave once.
That was a sad, haunting, gut-wrenching time.
“We can't stay long,” he warned me.
I knelt beside her. She was beautiful. Not, of course, as I remembered, and not as our few photographs depicted her. But there was a still an ocean-beauty in her stone stillness, kneeling amongst roses, bent over, with her hair trailing down into the earth. She had a delicate face, even captured in bronze, soft lips, her eyes set deep into her face, forehead raised high. She had the quality about her as if she might come to life at any moment.
“Roses,” I said to Dad.
“We don't know.”
So I said my piece to the sky, to the birds and the blades of grass growing around her toes. I lay my hands on her feet, willing whatever warmth I had into her. You'll never, ever tell me why. You'll never tell him either. That's really hard for us, but I have forgiven you. I have. With all my heart. And I love you. And I won't forget.
We drive into some little border town, and I can't help but notice the roses. They're different here. The ones I set my eyes on are all curly, their branches twisting like spiral-permed hair. The flowers are delicate, a kind of purplish shade, light on the petals, gently whiskered. Pretty.
“Would you like another rose bush?” Dad asks me.
“I always want more roses.”
“We'll get you one before we leave.”
Because we'll still leave. We'll always leave.
And these border folk, they're a little bit different, they have a different way of walking, and some of them are uncommonly tall. “Descended from giants,” says Loca.
I sit with Dad in the trailer, eating satay mushrooms. I say, “But you found Mum. I mean, for the time that you had her. She followed you, and the rest of them let her stay. That's how I'm here, and how come we're still out here doing our thing.”
“True,” he leans back against the cushions.
I lean next to him. “What if I want a son or daughter one day?”
“There's very much time.”
“Yes, there is. But still. Is it going to happen?”
His arm around me: “Yes. I promise. You'll know him when you see him, and he'll follow you anywhere.”