You’re none too impressed by the posters up all over the village. ‘Andrew Loving’s Circus of the Incuriously Drab’, they say, which you concede is certainly arresting. But there’s too much colour to them, the posters are too loud, too garish. You decide not to go to the circus. But when you see it set up on the village green you’re quite surprised – it looks smaller than you’d imagined. The big top is a subdued grey. And you find yourself buying a ticket at the little kiosk at the front.
The old woman who sells you the ticket does so quite vacantly. She asks you whether you want any popcorn, and doesn’t seem to care when you say no. An unsmiling clown tears your ticket and leads you into the circus ring, and to get to your seat you have to cross the sawdust floor, and it feels light and spongey beneath your shoes. You feel the urge to take off your shoes and walk in it barefoot, you think that would feel nice, you can imagine sinking deep in it and the sawdust coming up between your toes, you feel the urge to dance in it. You don’t. You take your seat. You can’t tell whether the unsmiling clown is unsmiling because the downward curve of his mouth has been painted on, or because he is genuinely unhappy; you ask him a simple question, something like, “How’s the show going?” or “Will it last long?” or “So, you’re a clown, then?”, not because you care, but just to get his mouth moving. But he doesn’t reply.
There is no one sitting next to you. There is no one sitting in front of you, and when you bother to check, you see there is no one sitting behind you either. The tent must seat five hundred people, maybe a thousand, maybe more, it is hard to see in the dark. You wonder whether you’re the only one in the audience. You wonder whether you should leave. You wonder what would be the most embarrassing thing to do, to stay and sit through the show quite alone, knowing that each and every one of the acts is directed at you exclusively and is only done to win your sole approval – or to leave, and have to walk back past the unsmiling clown and the vacant woman at the kiosk and let them know you’re rejecting them.
And then you see, the other side of the circus ring, with the whole stage between you, another figure in the audience. You squint at it. You try to make it out in the dim. It’s a woman. What is she doing? She seems to be leaning forward, there’s a strange expression on her face. You realise she’s squinting at you. Is that what you look like? You’d better stop.
At some point a ringmaster walks on. Is this Andrew Loving? It might be. Andrew Loving is wearing a red jacket and tails. He has a top hat, but he doesn’t bother to put it on his head, he carries it uselessly like it’s a bag of shopping. You sit up straight, you feel a rush of adrenalin, something is going to happen. And you’re excited, and you’re glad you stayed, and you’re a bit nervous, and wish you’d gone. The ringmaster walks out on to the sawdust, shoulders slumped, looking down at the ground. Then he stops, hesitates – and walks back off again, as if he’s forgotten what he was doing there. Not once does he look up at the audience.
You wish you had brought a book. There isn’t the light by which you could read a book. You wish there was more light, and that you’d brought a book to take full advantage of the light with.
You try not to look at the woman again, but sooner or later you just have to – and she catches your eye, and she smiles. You smile back, then quickly look away. You don’t dare look again for a minute or two, and when you do she’s still looking at you (or has she been looking away too and only just given you a second glance?), and still smiling (though, again, this might be another smile altogether, she might have taken a break between the two smiles, you weren’t looking at her to tell), and God, now she’s waving. She’s waving at you! Or she’s waving at someone else, maybe someone is behind you, and you turn around to see, but you know no one has come in, the unsmiling clown hasn’t been back with fresh audience.
You don’t know what to do. You smile. You think maybe that’ll be enough. It doesn’t seem enough, a smile hardly equals a wave, and in the moment of the action it feels a bit mean and unfriendly. You wave back, then, but try not to put too much effort into it.
She gets up. She gathers her things, and begins to move. Is she leaving? Has she had enough? Or, no, is she coming for you? You don’t want her sitting near you. You don’t know her. You don’t know what you’d say. And it’ll take a while for her to get to you, she’s got to walk a whole semi circumference before she’s with you. And you feel that if you got up right now, and begin walking in the opposite direction, then maybe you’d keep ahead, you could both keep circling the circus ring forever without needing to meet. But you think that she’d catch you up eventually, your leg is a bit sore, and you’re tired, you didn’t sleep so well last night. Your wife doesn’t seem happy any more, and during the day that doesn’t seem such a big deal and you can ignore it, but somehow in the still of the night it occurs to you it might be quite important, and you have the urge to nudge her awake and ask her if she’s all right, but you’re not sure how she’d like that, so instead you just lie there beside her and you close your eyes and try to sleep but thoughts keep churning around in your head. No, it’s best to stay put. You just hope the woman doesn’t sit right next to you. You hope she doesn’t try to start a conversation.
She reaches you. She sits right next to you. “Hello,” she says.
“Hello,” you reply.
“Do you like circuses?”
And at that she shrugs. She’s brought popcorn. She offers you some. You thank her, but refuse.
So she eats some popcorn. She eats it perfectly silently, the popcorn is soft and marshmallow, and she doesn’t even rustle the bag.
You feel bad for refusing her popcorn. You feel it might have seemed rude. You say, “Do you think it’s going to start soon?” And she doesn’t answer, and you think you must have offended her after all, and you look at her, really for the first time, and she looks at you, and her face breaks into the broadest smile, and she doesn’t seem particularly offended.
You try to work out whether you find her attractive or not. You decide you do.
She looks nice, she’s wearing lipstick, and her hair is done up in a nice cute bob, she might have just come out of the hairdresser’s, and she’s got on a pretty dress. You begin to wish you were wearing better clothes. You wish you’d sprayed deodorant under your armpits that morning.
The ringmaster shuffles on again, and he doesn’t make it far into the ring this time. He seems to think better of the venture and is about to leave once more, and the woman whispers to you, “Do you think he even knows we’re here?”, and you whisper, “I don’t know,” and she whispers, “I think we should let him know we’re here,” and you whisper, “Yes, we should,” and then you wait for her to call out to him, and she doesn’t, and the ringmaster has nearly disappeared now, he’s nearly left the ring and you’ll have lost him, so you say, quite loud, “Hey. Hey.” And your heart’s not really in it, you don’t want to be a nuisance.
The ringmaster stops, and turns around, and looks towards you, and shields his eyes from a bright light that isn’t there. “Sorry for the delay,” he says. “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. There’s been a delay.” And off he’s gone again.
“Thank you,” the woman says to you.
“That’s all right,” you reply.
She offers you some popcorn. This time you accept.
You don’t say anything for a while, and nor does she, but it’s not awkward, it’s very friendly. You wonder how the two of you look together, all alone in the big top. You suppose the ringmaster would have thought you were a couple. You wish you’d brought a book, but not because you’re bored, you just think it would be nice if you read a book beside her, and she was reading a book too, and that would be nice, and at the end of each chapter one of you would look up and smile at the other, it would just be so very nice.
You look at the sawdust. It really does look so soft and spongey and inviting.
The ringmaster returns. He still looks ashamed of the ring, and when he speaks he doesn’t quite look up at you, but at least there’s an announcement of some sort. “Sorry for the delay, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. We’ve had problems with the trapeze artist. The trapeze artist, ladies and gentlemen, has got a case of vertigo. The vertigo has shaken her up something chronic, boys and girls, it’s a terror to see. But we’re dealing with it. We know what to do. In the mean time, sorry for the delay.”
He leaves. You try to make conversation. “Do you have vertigo?” you ask the woman.
“Sometimes,” she says. “It depends upon how high up I am.”
“If I’m up too high, then I do. If it’s not high at all, then I’m all right.”
This seems to you very wise.
“Me too,” you tell her.
The bag of popcorn is finished. It’s all right, she’s bought another.
“I wish I’d brought a book,” she says.
And then there are lights! And drums! And out comes the ringmaster again, except this time he is walking tall, and the top hat on his head makes him look like a giant, and he strides to the exact centre of the ring and flings his arms out wide. “Ladies and gentlemen!” he calls out to the empty rows facing you, to the empty rows to your right, to the empty rows on your left, to you. “Boys and girls! Mesdames, messieurs! Les enfants , peu importe ce que le sexe! We take great pleasure in presenting for your especial delight, La Trapezette, the queen of the trapeze!” And he applauds, and the woman next to you applauds, and you join in.
The trapeze artist is young and pretty, and her dress is sparkly, her teeth white. She strikes a pose to the whole ring, and in doing so turns her back to you mostly, but you clap just the same. She takes out a piece of rope, unrolls it, lays it upon the ground straight. She stands at one end. A drum roll begins. She takes a deep breath. And then she walks across the rope, her arms stretched out to keep her balance, and she does it so painstakingly, so slow, you can really feel the tension, and once or twice she wobbles. But she’s reached the far end, and you applaud once more, because had the tightrope been suspended fifty feet in the air she would almost certainly have survived.
And then the drum roll gets heavier, more omninous, and she produces a blindfold. And the woman next to you gasps, and clutches on to your arm. And it’s the first time you’ve touched, and it feels good. For the remainder of La Trapezette’s death-defying return across the tightrope, with nothing but her own innate skill to guide her across, the woman holds on to you – and La Trapezette certainly makes a meal of it, she keeps on having to stop and steady herself and sways side from side as she finds new courage, she drags out that return journey across a line in the dust last ten full minutes – and you can’t complain, you’re giving some comfort to the woman beside you, she feels better for your company, you could have wished the act had lasted even longer.
At the end of the act your new friend gives the trapeze artist a standing ovation, and you don’t think it quite deserves all that, but you hate being the only person left sitting in a theatre. So you get to your feet too, and you both applaud, long and hard, and the trapeze artist beams and takes four full curtain calls before you are rid of her.
The ringmaster seems to suck up your applause, he stands proud and his chest puffs out. But as soon as you stop, he starts to wilt again, even his smile sort of collapses in on itself, and he mumbles whilst looking at the ground: “And now there’ll be a delay. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, yes, a delay. We’re sorry. We’re sorry.” And he shuffles out of the ring, the trapeze artist following, now shuffling too, her arms gangling and awkward and her sparkly dress refusing to sparkle.
Since there’s a delay, you wonder if you should leave the ring for a while, get some air, stretch your legs. Would the woman come with you? Could you ask her, “Fancy a stroll?” – what would she make of that? You turn to her, and she turns to you too, and she’s smiling, she’s perfectly happy, oh, she’s happy where she is.
It’s at least another hour before the ringmaster comes back.
You think you should say something to your companion. You should ask her name. Ask her what she does for a living. Ask her if she likes her job, finds it challenging, or fulfilling, whether she regards the colleagues she sees each day as actual friends or just people she has to make the best of. Ask her whether it’s a job she’d chosen, something she always wanted to do as a child, or whether those child ambitions are still out of reach, and what she is doing now is just something temporary to make ends meet and that somehow ‘temporary’ has stretched its definition already to fifteen years and counting. Ask whether she’s good at her job, in spite of her lack of enthusiasm, and ask whether her proficiency at it offers any real compensation for the nagging fear that she’s sold out her hopes and dreams. You should ask whether she has a cat. You like cats.
Instead, she’s the one to speak, and she asks, “Are you enjoying yourself?”
You say, “Yes.” And you mean it, and that’s good.
Andrew Loving is back with another presentation of the incuriously drab. He looks defeated. His announcement is apologetic, but not too apologetic, it’s all gone beyond a simple sorry now, if he let loose his profound regrets he’d burst into tears, it’s better that he keeps his composure blank and his voice numbed. “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. We present for you the menagerie de Loving. We do not present them proudly. We are not proud. They were damaged in transit. Enjoy.” And then he does a flourish anyway, as grand as you like, and he rolls his top hat up his arm and on to his head, and that deserves a little applause in itself – and the lights in the ring get brighter, there’s a drum roll, and the music starts. You’re not sure what it is, it might be Dido. And on traipse the animals. Lions limping on sore paws and wincing with every step. Tigers with broken tails, some jutting out at sharp angles, some drilling straight down into the sawdust floor so that the tigers don not so much walk but drag. Elephants with their trunks bandaged, elephants with eyepatches, elephants with entire legs in slings. Depressed bears.
The music plays on.. And the animals walk around the perimeter of the ring, in single file, again and again and again and again.
She’s touching your arm. “I like that elephant!” she says. “It has a face just like my old geography teacher!”
You point out a lion. “And that’s just like my postman.”
“That tiger looks like the woman in the sweet shop.”
“That bear looks like my wife!” You wish you hadn’t mentioned the wife.
At one point a tiger just keels over to the floor. It might be asleep, or sick, or dead. The bear is right behind it, and stares down at it impassively. Then it seems to roll its eyes, ever world weary, and sidestep the body, and continue the march. The lion behind the bear isn’t so forward thinking; maybe it isn’t good at contingency strategy, maybe it’s just not concentrating hard; it tries to climb over the slumped tiger, staggers, falls. The elephant behind the lion has no chance, it’s hard to slow an elephant in parade mode, and it slams right into the back of the lion, and then the lion into the tiger – and after that the traffic just starts to pile up, some animals crashing into each other when they brake too suddenly, others having to crawl to a snail’s pace and get stuck in the ensuing jam. By the time the bear makes it all the way around the ring there’s no way it can continue its journey; it looks thoroughly pissed off by this, and sits down upon the ground, and sighs.
It takes ages to get all the animals off, and you’re still not sure whether that tiger is dead or not. The ringmaster leads the applause. “Give it up for the Andrew Loving menagerie!” Delighted, the woman jumps to her feet, and her clapping is fast and loud. You stand up beside her, try to match her for speed and volume. You wish you could ever be as happy as she is now.
“Delay,” then says the ringmaster. He can’t even be bothered to make it part of a sentence any more. “Delay,” he says again, he’s off, that’s good enough.
You’re on your own with her again.
You think you should say something. You should ask her name. Ask her whether she likes her name. Asks her whether, when she looks into the mirror, she really believes she’s called x when she sees herself as a y. Ask whether she has any siblings – whether she’s an only child (like you, before you were eight), or has brothers and sisters (like you, after you were eight). Ask whether she has a favourite aunt or uncle. Ask whether any of her grandparents are still alive. Ask whether she has a lover. Ask whether her lover loves her back. Ask whether she’s straight, or gay, or partnered, or single, and if she’s straight and single whether she’d like to go to the circus with you again some day, and if she’s straight and partnered whether she’d like to go to the circus and keep it as a secret, and if she’s gay whether she’s properly gay or whether she could be turned. Because that can happen sometimes, apparently.
Instead, she offers you some popcorn. She’s got a third bag. You take a handful. Some of it is sweet, some of it is salted. “When I mentioned my wife earlier,” you say – and then you don’t know what to add. She’s very close to you, her leg is brushing your leg, you can smell her and you’re not sure whether that’s perfume or just that she naturally has a faint whiff of flowers about her.
There are more acts. A fire breather with a sore throat. A mime who prefers to work with the real glass boxes and struggle against real gusts of wind. Each time the woman gives them a standing ovation, and there is nothing ironic about it, she’s celebrating them as they are, warts and all, and it’s forgiving and kind and beautiful. For the next act you jump up to clap even before she does, and you think she smiles at you approvingly. It’s not such a bad act anyway; he’s a juggler who tells you he can juggle seventeen balls, but only one at a time.
And in the silences you think you should say something. You should ask her name. Just her name. Nothing else. That’d be enough.
You find out her name soon enough.
The ringmaster looks more embarrassed than ever. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says. He cannot even bring himself to appeal to the boys and girls who might wander it, he wants to protect the innocent. “The next act… I’m sorry. It’s shit. It’s just such shit.” He opens his mouth to say more, to explain, to beg forgiveness maybe, but then he closes it again, shakes his head, what’s the point? He shouts out the name of the next performer. It’s a woman’s name. The woman next to you rises from her seat.
In the spotlight you can now see she’s old, and plump, and plain. No one bothers giving her a drum roll.
She kicks off her shoes. Her feet look big and calloused, before they sink beneath the sawdust surface.
At first you think she’s just fidgeting. Maybe she has an itch? She’s swaying from side to side, once in every while she’ll shuffle her feet a bit. And then it dawns on you she’s dancing.
There’s no music. Music might help. She doesn’t seem bothered by the silence, she opens her arms to you, and she claps. She wants you to join in. She wants you to set the rhythm. So you do. You clap out a beat, she shuffles some more. And then after a while you just sort of stop, because it doesn’t matter, she can’t even keep time with that – and when you try to vary the pace to help her, go faster, go slower, anything, her gyrating body seems to slip away from whatever new rhythm you establish and chase after something bizarre and random of her own.
And when you stop clapping she just closes her eyes, and she’s dancing to the music she hears in her head, and she’s smiling so hard now, she’s so proud.
It seems to go on for bloody ever. But, at last, it’s over. It’s really over, it’s not just one of those mad pauses she takes, she’s actually stopped moving, the dance is done, and she stands tall awaiting the audience response.
You clap, of course you do, and you try not to sound sarcastic. She bows. Then she curtseys. She’s really milking it.
You wonder how long you have to go on with this for.
You feel a sudden wave of love for her, all alone down there, a bit faded, a bit ugly, but enjoying her moment, as Godforsaken and benighted a moment as it is.
She waits for the standing ovation.
And you’d really like to give her one, but there has got to be a limit.
You look at the sawdust, and you think how good it’d be to put your bare feet in it, and just dance.
She leaves the ring eventually. You stop clapping altogether. There’s silence. Still, she waits. Still, she looks proud. And there’s silence for ages, great yawning minutes of embarrassment. The spotlight fades. The ringmaster enters the ring, tries to usher her off. Still, for a while, she is expectant. She believes in you.
And then, quite suddenly, she just turns and marches off.
She doesn’t come back to join you in the audience.
You sit there in silence for a few minutes. You wonder if the show is over. You wonder if that was the grand finale. You hesitate. You don’t want to miss anything. Even now, you think, something good might be on the way.
The woman’s things are under her seat. A cardigan, a handbag, five more boxes of popcorn. You wonder whether you should take them with you, but then think, no, best leave well alone.
You leave. Just as soon as you’re through the exit, and the unsmiling clown has given you a blunt nod, and the woman at the kiosk has stared you down with utter disinterest – just as you leave, you hear the drum roll is starting up again. Bugger.
Your wife says to you, “Where were you this evening?”
“Andrew Loving’s Circus of the Incuriously Drab.”
She thinks about this. She says, “Will you take me to the circus?”
“No, I don’t think that’s a very good idea.”
That night, before she turns off the lights, she actually tells you what’s wrong. She doesn’t say anything you weren’t expecting. Really, you agree with her. Really, you’d understand completely if this is the last time you will ever share a bed, a house, a conversation.
“We’ll talk about it more in the morning,” she says.
You lie there, wide awake, try to think of things you want to say. The promises she wants to hear, the ones you might be able to keep, or at least, the ones she might believe you can keep. Clever things that will win back her love. You practise arguments, you mouth them softly in the dark. You tell her it’s easy to be good at something, where’s the challenge in that? What’s hard is being mediocre, and getting on with it anyway. Getting on with life in spite of all.
You think you sound so smart and persuasive, but know that it doesn’t matter, by the time she’s awake you’ll have forgotten it all.
You get up, go downstairs to the kitchen. From the fridge you take out all the eggs. You’ll give juggling a try. That’ll be easy. Especially if you do them one at a time. It’s harder than it looks, and you create quite a mess for your wife to clean up in the morning.