Ruby ran back to the circus, burrowing against the stream of people who accidentally pushed her back or knocked her aside. The fairground was closing down, lights buzzed as they were unplugged, a few noisy men argued over prizes at the rifle range. The big top loomed in front of her, dark and scary. Uncertain, she stood just inside the mouth of the tent. Thrusting her hands into her pockets she felt something there, and held it up to the moonlight. It was the crumpled ticket Mary’s mother had given her. She smoothed it out and could just make out the block letters in grainy black on red card, ‘Admit One’.
The ring was empty and the wooden benches looked lonely. Ruby shivered then whizzed around as she heard something behind her, but it was only the tent canvas flapping. She was about to walk out when she saw a sliver of light at the back of the ring, peeking out between the two curtains. As she walked across the glossy floor, the voices became more distinct. Peeping through the slit in the curtain she saw the two knife throwers arguing, both sitting at a table covered with smeary mirrors and make-up sticks, wiping their make-up away with cotton wool, while the acrobats sat on folded chairs eating bread and drinking small glasses of amber liquid. One of the acrobats balanced a ball on his forehead then stopped to rub his neck. Ruby thought about turning back, but instead she parted the curtain and walked through, her stomach somersaulting. Still no one noticed her. She panicked, having no idea who to talk to or what to say.
She squeezed her eyelids shut and shouted, “I wanna be in the circus.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth she felt stupid and embarrassed. When she opened her eyes, they were all gazing at her in silence. She said, “My name is Ruby Collins. I’ll do anything, I don’t care, I’ll clean your shoes, whatever you want. But I have to...” Her words fizzled out into nothing.
One of the acrobats was wearing stilts; he picked his way towards her carefully with his daddy-long-leg limbs. “Wait a minute,” he said, with a strong French accent, “Did you say you were Ruby Collins?” Ruby nodded. “Was your mother Tara? Tara Collins?” Ruby nodded again. He looked round at the silent crowd of acrobats. “Hey, it’s Tara’s little baby. Ruby, baby Ruby, you remember!” Turning back to Ruby he mumbled, “Mon Dieu, you look just like her. It’s wonderful to meet you, I’m Albert.” He held out his hand and she shook it. Of course, thought Ruby, this is the way it has to be. This was her mother’s circus. That was why the ringmaster had seemed familiar. He was the man in the background of the photograph in Julia’s loft. The photograph of her mother holding her as a baby.
There was a murmur among the circus folk and they all began to edge closer to talk to her. Albert clucked and stooped down to hold her cheeks in his hands, saying how grown up she was. He had a board silver stripe in his black hair a bit like a badger’s coat with laughter lines all around his eyes and a big handsome face.
Then one of the knife throwing girls said that their grandmother had loved Tara very much, still talked about her all the time. Everyone was laughing and remembering things about her mother. Relief washed over Ruby, being there at that moment was like stepping into a deep bath, full to the brim with warm water.
Albert, still wearing stilts, was shouting out of the back tent flap, into the night, “Hey, everyone it’s Tara’s little girl, come see!”
The small backstage space was soon crammed with people, some Ruby knew from the show, others were fairground stallholders. Faces peered and smiled, people shook her hand and introduced themselves, chatting to her, chatting to each other, patting and hugging her. Suddenly a man’s voice interrupted everything. “What’s all this then?” She couldn’t see him above the heads of the crowd around her but she recognised the voice, it was the ringmaster, the man from the photograph. Albert said, “Come see, it’s Tara’s little baby, all grown up.”
“What?” he said, his voice instantly soft. The crowd parted for him as he strode through. He seemed larger now that she was close to him, tall and broad but gentle too. As he walked towards her she noticed how much older he looked without his top hat, his pale, wispy hair springing up curiously, his tired eyes and his washed out face. He grabbed Ruby’s shoulders and shook her gently, pulling her closer to the lamp to see her more closely. At his touch, Ruby felt an odd prickle. “Are you sure? Are you really Ruby? Ruby Collins?”
“Yes,” said Ruby, quietly.
“I don’t believe it!” he said and he pulled her in towards him, clasping her close. She smelt the musty staleness of his jacket, “I haven’t seen you for years, ten years.”
One of the acrobats, Louie, lifted Ruby onto his shoulders and danced around, she smiled and waved like royalty and everyone clapped and cheered. Then one of the knife throwers dragged out a battered gramophone and wound it up. It was jazz music, the type that Aunt Julia hated. Someone lifted Ruby down and one of the knife throwers took her by the hand, spinning and twirling her round.
Albert, started to do a dance in his stilts, bending at the knees in a funny way, jerking his head like a chicken and flapping his elbows. Others started to join in and soon enough everyone backstage was dancing the silly chicken dance while Ruby twirled and spun around with the two knife throwers and the other acrobats. Ruby saw the trapeze boy, Don, sitting in a corner, watching. She caught his eye and he smiled then looked away and walked out.
When the dancing was finished they all slumped in chairs or on the floor giggling and trying to catch their breath. Ruby was on the floor with the knife throwing twins, their faces flushed and smiling. Mr Unusually came over and pulled her up, “I suppose you had better be going home, back to your aunty.”
“No, I’m staying here, if you’ll have me, I’ll do anything, I’m a quick learner, I’ll do whatever you want me to.”
“Not sure your mother would have wanted that, girl,” Mr Unusually replied.
“She worked in the circus her whole life; she’d want me to do the same. She loved it, I know she did.”
“I knew your mother very well, Ruby, she wanted the best for you. And I’m not sure this is the best.” He gestured for her to look around. She took in the piles of costumes, the stubby sticks of greasepaint, their paper wrappers torn and hanging in snaking straggles and the people, half-dressed, make-up smudged. It was a mess, but it was a glorious mess. This was where she was meant to be.
Ruby turned and looked him in the eye, “Mr Unusually, I never felt I had a home, but here are all these people who knew my mum.”
Mr Unusually’s eyes darted over her face. Then Ruby saw him look around, and she wondered what he saw. He didn’t look very proud of his circus. Maybe all he saw were the bad things, the muddy floor, the frayed costumes, the mouldy canvas and rusty poles. At last he said, “Listen, I know what dreams are, and I don’t want to ruin anyone’s, but is this really what you want?”
One of the knife throwers was standing just behind Ruby, she put her hands on her shoulders and said to Mr Unusually, “She can stay in our tent, we’ll look after her, you don’t need to worry.” Suddenly Ruby’s chest tightened at the thought of leaving her aunt. For all Julia’s faults they had found a way to rub along together. Ruby wondered whether her aunty would miss her, perhaps deep down somewhere she would.
Then he said, “Alright, you can stay, but you’ll need to work hard, this ain’t no storybook. Any trouble and you’ll go right back to Julia, I can only do so much, the rest is up to you.”