The lights were bright and electric and she shielded her eyes as she got out of the car. The younger grandchildren ran ahead of her, their excitement tangible but the older ones hung back to help her, a considerate hand under her elbow, another at the small of her back. She could see the tent in front of her and she was shocked at how small and cheaply made it looked. She wondered how anything of that size could hold all the magic of the circus and she had serious doubts that it would.
“Come on Gram,” Sammy, the baby, tugged her hand, “we’ll miss the start.”
She hastened her step, legs stiff and sore from arthritis. Time was that she used to be able to walk miles without pain but now it was hard to walk even a few steps and it frustrated her. She forced a smile and Sammy rushed up ahead again, his chubby figure disappearing through the tent flap and into the big top. As she followed him the familiar scent of sawdust and paint hit her nostrils and she breathed in, eyes closing momentarily, the past rushing to meet the present in the strangest of ways.
A young man in a grubby red overall showed her to her seat; he was obviously one of the performers, his biceps bulging, pan makeup caked on his face. She couldn’t help but smile at him as he pointed to the uncomfortable looking seat near the front of the ring. It was hardly what you could call a Big Top with its grubby paintwork and gaudy cartoons of clowns. She sighed and fiddled in her purse for her glasses. Her eyesight, like everything else, was fading but she wanted to see this, needed to see it, needed it to live in her memory.
The show started late; there was no parade of performers and no big orchestra. The music was played on some sort of modern sound device and it was tinny and disconnected. The acts were short and more like a vaudeville show than a circus. The tumblers were perfunctory, the clowns badly made up and more than a little frightening. There were no animals and no magic act and she felt the loss almost painfully, her hands folded in her lap as she watched.
The finale was the trapeze; it wasn’t very high and there was a net beneath it. She shuddered as she wondered what Mickey would say, how he would tell them that the net took away the enchantment, the wonder and the real sense of danger. The lights danced like diamonds in her damp eyes and she wiped at them angrily not wanting her grandkids to know she had been crying.
Afterwards they walked back to the car; Sammy had bought a balloon which bobbed jauntily on a red ribbon and he danced around with it pretending to be a clown. Beside her her granddaughter made sure she was ok, chatting casually about what they had just seen explaining that she personally thought it was lame. As they rounded the corner she saw it, an old abandoned booth standing wrecked and broken against the blackness of the night sky. The paintings on it were far more elaborate than those she had seen inside and it was easy to see the two figures standing toe to toe, boxing gloves touching as they stared threateningly into each other’s eyes. It wasn’t the booth of course, it couldn’t be but it made her stomach turn and her throat close and, this time, she couldn’t hold back the tears that had been long threatening to fall.
“Gram,” Lydia was beside her in moments, “are you ok?”
“I’m fine,” she let her hand play over the wormy wood of the booth, “it…,” she swallowed, “this stupid old wreck just bought back memories that’s all.”
“Really,” Lydia smiled and handed her a clean handkerchief, “did you used to go to the circus a lot?”
She wiped her face and stared at the booth for a moment; she could hear, as clear as day, the chants of the crowd, the noise of leather hitting flesh. She could see him now, wild hair tied back from his face, eyes sharp with concentration. How she had loved to see him fight, the excitement of it, the smile on his face when he put one of his challengers on the canvas.
“I should have told you years ago,” she heard her own voice waver, the lump in her throat making it hard to speak, “but it didn’t seem relevant then,” she sighed, “have you got time to come home with me Lydia, I’ve got something to show you…”
The box was where she had left it, tucked at the back of the bookshelf, battered and old, the cardboard wearing thin, holes appearing in the sides. She lifted it down with a groan and flopped onto the couch where Lydia perched next to her. Her granddaughter’s eyes were deep and brown and, for a moment, she looked so like her grandfather that it made everything hurt, the pain of loss burning bright in her gut.
Lydia took out the photographs; sepia brown and faded. She stared at them for a long time, her fingers playing over the girl in the sparkling costume, feathers in her curly blonde hair, glitter smoothed around her eyes.
“Is this you?” She asked; voice laced with wonder.
“Yes,” she could see the glint in her granddaughter’s eyes. That’s what had been missing tonight, that astonishment; that allure.
“You never said,” Lydia was flicking through the photographs now, pausing now and again to look at the elephants, the shots of the lions, of the Bengal tigers, Mickey in his ringmaster’s costume, the clowns.
“It was a lifetime ago,” her heart was full and her mind was beginning to wander, “they were real then, the circus’s, full of splendour,” she bit her lip, “do you want to know more?”
“Are you going to tell me?” Lydia settled beside her, “I’ve got all night.”
“Alright then,” she took the photos in her hand and smiled, her fingers playing over them, the past closer now than ever, “it’s 1920 and the war long over…people were in need of entertainment and most of them chose the circus…it was different then, so different and I was part of the biggest in the business. It belonged to Mickey Fury and everyone wanted a ticket…they came from far and wide to see us and it seemed as if we could rule the entire world.”
“Tell me Gram,” Lydia breathed out, her voice awed and quiet, “please tell me…”
“It started with a long walk,” she closed her eyes and breathed in slowly, “a very long walk…”