Authors: Tanya Landman
When Peepo crossed Irena’s path, she stopped and wrinkled her nose as if she’d smelt something unpleasant. I’ve never seen anyone exude so much obvious distaste. She didn’t shout or swear at him; she didn’t even give him a withering look: it was worse than that. When Peepo said something to her – we were too far away to catch his words – she simply behaved as if he was invisible. He spoke again, looking at her pleadingly. If she’d turned away, it might have been kinder. But no – as far as she was concerned he simply wasn’t there. It might have looked childish, like a silly playground tiff, if she hadn’t had such a strong personality. You could feel the force of her rejection blasting across the grass like a small nuclear explosion.
Peepo didn’t try again. His shoulders dropped and he seemed to shrink under the weight of her dislike. He moved out of her way, his limp more pronounced as he came towards us, as if she’d physically wounded him. I felt a stab of anger towards Irena.
The contrast in her behaviour two seconds later must have been devastating for Peepo. Alonzo, naked from the waist up, stepped out of his caravan. Like Irena, he paused on the top of the steps for a moment. Hands on hips, he puffed out his chest so we could all admire how well-thatched it was. The smile that Irena threw him would have knocked a lesser man off his feet, but Alonzo caught it and sent it hurtling back – it was as if they were locked together in a lightning storm of mutual adoration.
Which was extremely interesting, I thought. Because the more Irena and Alonzo smiled at each other, their faces illuminated with happiness, the more the rest of the circus people glowered. The Bouncing Bellinis – three men and a woman – were stomping about near the big top with a surprising lack of acrobatic grace. Carlotta suddenly looked as though she would happily strangle Irena with her hula hoop. And Brady Sparkles was wearing an expression that my mum would have said could curdle milk.
At last, Peepo reached his group of eager pupils. He didn’t bother introducing himself and didn’t ask for any of our names, he simply took our money without a word and then, without any visible trace of enthusiasm, handed us each a ball.
“Only one?” queried Graham. “I thought we were going to learn juggling.”
“You begin with one,” growled Peepo in a thick Russian accent. “When you get that right, we move on to two balls, then three. Throw it from hand to hand, like this.” He demonstrated. “Throw it the same height every time. And catch it here, keeping your hand low, at the waist. Do not grab for the ball. Practise.”
It should have been a simple enough task but I was completely useless, mainly because my attention was elsewhere.
“No!” snapped Peepo, snatching the ball out of my hand. “See? Like this. The ball goes up and down in an arc, not forward and back. You do not throw it away from your body and then grab it! Listen to me. Do as I tell you.”
They must have finished getting the big top ready, because out of the corner of my eye I could see one of the Bouncing Bellinis sitting on the grass playing with a small child of about two or three. As I watched, she was joined by another member of the troupe. She said something to him and they both glanced over at Peepo with expressions that I couldn’t quite read. Suspicion? Dislike? Sympathy? Perhaps all three. I was dying to hear what they were saying.
There was nothing for it. Despite Peepo’s instructions, I threw my ball hard and high and made a deliberately ham-fisted attempt to catch it. I fumbled and accidentally-on-purpose whacked it in the direction of the acrobats. My aim was brilliant: it rolled under a caravan and I had to run after it and then crawl underneath. While I was retrieving it, I got to hear some of their conversation.
You’d have thought the Bellinis were Italian – they certainly looked it. But they sounded like they’d just walked off the set of
“Does Irena know what happened to the posters, Marco? Has she seen them?” asked the woman.
“Yes, she knows. Carlotta made sure of that.”
“Weird! Did Peepo do it?”
“He says he didn’t,” replied Marco.
“Wasn’t he the one who gave them out this time?”
“Yeah, but you know what it’s like, Francesca – they’re all rolled up. You don’t bother to undo them, do you?” He chewed his lip. “More likely to be Brady, I’d have thought. That kind of trick would be more his style.”
“He wouldn’t hurt her, though, would he?” asked Francesca.
“I don’t know. Irena’s really riled him. I’ve never seen him so angry. If he can’t hang on to her legally, I don’t know what he’ll do. He certainly doesn’t want her to leave.”
“More’s the pity!” sighed Francesca. “We’d be better off without her.”
“Not if she takes Alonzo with her, we won’t,” said Marco.
“I can’t believe he’d do that to us. Doesn’t family mean anything to him?”
“He’s in love. He’ll come round eventually. When she moves on to the next bloke he’ll see what she’s really like. She’s bound to leave him sooner or later.”
Francesca said quietly, “What if she drops him the way she dropped Misha?”
“Carlotta would take him back, you know she would.”
Francesca seemed close to tears. “He’d be wrecked. Oh Marco, if he really goes through with it, how will we manage without him?”
“We’ll manage, the way we always have,” soothed Marco. The toddler beside him raised its arms, asking to be picked up. He kissed the child on the head. “And Paolo here will be ready to join us before we know it, won’t you, my lad? The Bellinis will have a new star with or without Alonzo.”
Francesca smiled. “Who knows?” she said brightly. “Maybe their wonderful new act will be a flop. We’ve only got Irena’s word for it that they’re any good.”
“That’s true.” Then Marco added something that made me shiver with apprehension. Leaning towards Francesca he said in a low voice, “One way or another, by this time tomorrow it will all be over.”
the time we’d finished our first ever juggling workshop, four of us had mastered the basic three-ball technique. Three others, including Graham, had progressed to throwing two balls, chucking one up in the air with the right hand, waiting until it peaked and then, with the left hand, throwing the other one up and under the first. I, meanwhile, was stuck with a single ball, trying and failing to throw it in a perfect arc while secretly observing the circus people’s goings-on. When our hour was up Peepo dismissed us, barely concealing his irritation at my apparent uselessness.
“He doesn’t seem to like kids much, does he?” I said to Graham when we left Circus Territory.
“No, he doesn’t,” agreed Graham thoughtfully. “And I wouldn’t have said he displays much passion for teaching.”
“I wonder why he’s running the workshops, then?”
It was a question that neither of us could answer.
The following morning I got up bright and early. Graham and I had arranged to meet at the park gates so we could buy tickets for the afternoon performance before our second juggling lesson began at 11 a.m.
By the time I arrived, a queue had already begun to build up at the box office. The prospect of Irena’s fatal accident in her debut performance was obviously a crowd-puller.
I grabbed Graham by the arm and practically dragged him across the park. “Why didn’t you get in line?” I demanded.
“Because you said to meet at the gates,” he protested.
We overtook one middle-aged lady, two toddlers on tricycles and a geriatric Labrador, skidding into the queue behind an old woman wearing a headscarf and neck brace.
“I love the circus!” she told us in a husky, foreign-sounding voice. She then proceeded to ramble on about nothing in particular, but I didn’t hear more than one word in a hundred because I was too busy trying to catch a glimpse of Irena.
The box office was actually a long, wooden trailer hitched to the back of a lorry. It had once been gaudily decorated in the old-fashioned circus style, but now the paint was chipped and peeling and there were bulbs missing from the illuminated sign. The shutters had been thrown up when it opened for business and wooden steps had been strategically placed in the grass so the punters could climb up and hand over their cash. There were two people serving behind the twin counters – Francesca, whose conversation I’d listened in on yesterday, and a wrinkly old man whose name, Yuri, was spelt out across his jacket in gold sequins. The lady in front of us bought her ticket from Francesca, but we went further along to where Yuri was serving.
“Two children for the matinee, please,” I said, pushing cash over the counter. “Front row if possible. And can we have a programme, too?”
Yuri didn’t bother to answer. He didn’t even look up but just ripped the tickets from the book in front of him. Or at least he tried to. It took him ages, because he was so ancient that his hands were shaking and he couldn’t quite get hold of the paper. Eventually he thrust them and the programme towards me with an offhand grunt.
“He needs to work on his people skills as well,” I told Graham as we moved away.
We still had half an hour before our juggling workshop, so we took ourselves off to the nearest shop and bought a Coke and a bag of crisps each to fend off imminent starvation. We carried our emergency rations to the park’s play area.
Graham began to flip through the programme. “That doesn’t bode well for the quality of this afternoon’s performance,” he said gloomily, pointing at a photograph.
I looked at it. Yuri – the man who’d just sold us our tickets – was glaring fiercely at the camera, a pistol in each hand. “Oh dear,” I said. “So Shaking Man is the sharpshooter. Better make sure we’re not sitting anywhere near his target.”
Once we’d finished our snack, it was time to juggle. A whole load more kids had come along, what with it being a Saturday. Peepo pocketed everyone’s money and then said more or less the same as the day before.
“Everyone can juggle,” he announced. Then his eyes fell on me and he added, “Well … nearly everyone. Some, of course, have no talent.”
I bristled at that and was determined to prove him wrong. As soon as he handed me my ball I devoted all my attention to it, and after about ten minutes he grunted and let me progress to two. It was pretty much chaos all around, with balls flying and being dropped and rolling across the grass. There was a lot of laughing and giggling and everyone seemed happy, until a scream suddenly cut through the air and reduced us to silence.
It was a scream of fury, not terror. We heard raised voices from inside one of the caravans, and a second later Irena came storming out, followed by Brady Sparkles.
She was holding a piece of paper – a letter, I thought; something official. She strode across the grass.
“Irena, stop!” ordered the ringmaster.
To my surprise she did. She didn’t look like the sort of person who’d obey orders, but when she turned to face Brady I saw she wore an expression of withering contempt. Very slowly and very deliberately she held up the piece of paper and tore it in two. Letting both halves fall to the ground, she trod them into the grass beneath her rhinestone-studded pumps.
“That is what I think of your contract,” she spat in a heavy Russian accent. “Talent cannot be dictated to by words on paper. Irena goes where she wishes. She is free as the wind. No one can command her!”
She turned once more and walked away, head held high. For a moment she looked as graceful and delicate as a porcelain ballerina. Brady Sparkles was left standing with his mouth wide open, unable to think of a suitable reply. When he mounted the steps back into his caravan, he threw a glance in Irena’s direction – and it wasn’t a pleasant one. If I’d had to write a list of people who would be happy for Irena to suffer the fate promised by the posters, Brady Sparkles would have been right at the top.
it was almost time for the performance to begin, Graham and I joined the throng of people pushing and shoving their way into the big top. It became quite stressful, because even though we’d already paid for our tickets and programme, every single performer seemed determined to sell us something extra before we sat down. Carlotta was pushing candyfloss; Francesca, glow sticks; Marco, helium balloons; Alonzo, popcorn. Brady Sparkles held a small Shetland pony by the scruff of the neck and offered rides around the ring to anyone who could afford the high price.
“Five pounds for ten seconds?” Graham said incredulously. “Metre for metre that probably makes it nearly as expensive as a trip to the moon.”
Graham and I refused everything and eventually ended up – slightly hot and bothered – in the front row right next to the old lady who’d been ahead of us in the queue.
“I hope this is going to be good,” I said crossly as the lights dimmed.
First on was the Dashing Blade and his glamorous assistant, Ruby. He was extremely rotund – in fact he looked as if he’d actually stuffed a pillow into his trousers – and the lenses of his glasses were as worryingly thick as they’d looked in the photo. After a loud fanfare and a drum roll Ruby stood in front of a painted board, and according to Brady Sparkles’s commentary we had to admire her out-standing courage as she faced a hail of knives. But the Dashing Blade stood so close to his target that he didn’t so much hurl his weapons as push them in around her like drawing-pins.
And that was just the beginning. Some of the acts, like Zippo, the roller-skating juggler, and Carlotta, with her multitudinous hula hoops, were frankly bizarre.
“I don’t get it,” I whispered to Graham as we watched the gyrating Carlotta add another hoop to the twenty already whizzing around her waist.
“Don’t get what?”
“Well, what happened? Did she just wake up one morning with a desperate desire to twirl dayglo rings around her middle?”
“I suppose she must consider it preferable to a life of office work,” said Graham. “But I agree that it seems like an odd choice of career.”
When Carlotta finished, we had to endure Whizzbang, an old and slightly creaky magician who displayed no sleight of hand whatsoever. He pulled flowers out of walking-sticks and rabbits out of hats, but each trick was pitifully easy to see through.