By the time Ruby was asleep on the train everything had changed at the Circus of Dreams. It had changed days earlier, while Ruby and her friends were planning Cha Cha’s rescue at the ‘bed and breakfast’ and the rest of the Circus of Dreams was making its way through winding roads towards the tip of England.
They had been driving, stuck behind a tractor for a while, when there was a screech and a sickening crunch. Everyone stopped suddenly and Don could hear shouting up ahead.
He knew what had happened before he reached the front of the convoy.
As he walked to his father’s van the world seemed to shrink away and he was a little boy again, ten maybe, or younger, six, yes, six, after Tara died. The newspapers had been full of the story. The queues at the Circus of Dreams were longer, but his father was annoyed by it. “People just want to see where a bear killed a pretty girl.” He was right. They scrambled to get front row seats, gossiping in hushed tones, comparing versions of the story. Don remembered the growing stacks of coins and notes on his father’s desk. The ringmaster had threatened to throw the money away; instead he slid it into an old top hat, pushing it under his narrow bed with his boot.
A few days later the ringmaster said he finally knew what to do with the money. He called them in one by one, animal trainers, horse handlers, bareback riders. By the afternoon the job was done, well almost, he had one trainer left to speak to. Don remembered it clearly. It was Gerald Wade, he’d always been a difficult one, no one liked him or his monkeys. He walked in head bowed, with his gangly legs telescoping their way into the caravan. His chimps, Don remembered, were called Charlie and Alan and they clung to their trainer, baring their teeth suspiciously at Don and his father. The trainer folded himself into a folding chair with Alan, the older chimp, sitting on his lap smoking a pipe and Charlie, who was much younger, perched on the trainer’s shoulder.
The ringmaster had stared at Alan, who crossed his legs and draped his right wrist over his knee, blowing blue smoke rings. “Are you sure he should be smoking?” he had asked tentatively.
Mr Wade had sniffed. “You try and stop him.”
Mr Wade spoke, his chin tilted up. “So, it’s true. You’re letting all the animal acts go?” Charlie, the little chimp, put his hands over his eyes and shook his head in horror.
Mr Unusually cleared his throat. “Yes, but I have money to see you through until you get another job, you can spend some time with your family and consider your options. There’ll be lots of ringmasters happy to take you on.”
“You never really liked us anyway.”
“I wouldn’t put it like that.”
Alan, the larger chimp, uncrossed his legs, burped and puffed another smoke ring in the ringmaster’s direction as the trainer spoke, “You felt you had to hire us, with the family connection and all. I understand. Only too glad to be rid of us I’m sure.”
“Come on now, Gerald, it was never like that.”
Charlie climbed on top of Mr Wade’s head and swayed backwards and forwards making “choo choo” noises. The trainer hardly seemed to notice.
The ringmaster coughed. “Look, I’m just doing what I have to do. I’ve seen too many animals suffering; I’ve seen too many injuries because something went wrong. Animals just aren’t meant to be travelling around in cages the whole time.”
“Well, my animals are fine. They’re not polar bears, they’re not lions, they like the circus life, they know no different.”
“I’m sorry, Gerald, but there’ll be no more animals at the Circus of Dreams.”
The trainer stood up suddenly, hitting Charlie’s head on the roof of the caravan as he stood. The little chimp moaned and fell to the floor clutching his temples.
Don’s father had stood up and took a wad of notes and a handful of coins from the top hat. The trainer grabbed the money, coins falling to the floor around his feet. Charlie and Alan scrambled around picking up the shiny discs and popping them into their mouths whilst Mr Wade bent over and tried to beat them to the stray pennies. “No! Charlie, Alan, that’s naughty! They’re Gerald’s coins!” The chimps sniggered and scampered out of the caravan ahead of their trainer.
Don and his father had stood on the top step of his caravan and watched them go, the colours of the circus pale in the bright sun. The ringmaster had ruffled his hair, “Well, we won’t need any beast wagons to carry the animals from place to place, or bunches of bananas for the chimps. They’ll be no more shedding fur or filing claws or horses to be shod.” Don remembered how quiet the place seemed, there were no swear words from the talking parrot and no-one was trying to find an escaped snake that would be discovered later wrapped round an old lady’s leg during the late show.
The ringmaster had wiped his forehead with a crumpled handkerchief. “I just couldn’t do it anymore, animals are too much trouble, trouble and money.” Don had looked at his father, as if he were mad, how could you run a circus without animals? His father just turned round to go back inside his caravan saying, “Animals aren’t suited to this life. And sometimes I’m not sure I am either.”
Don’s father unbuttoned his shirt and lay down on the bed, closing his eyes. Don thought he was going for a nap, so he started to leave, but the ringmaster spoke again. He said, “When I was about your age, we had a tigress, tigers too, but I remember her most of all. When she arrived, she’d been magnificent, a real beauty, made you catch your breath. She got to know me a little. We were travelling one day, it was a real scorcher. She was cooped up in a cage, lying on her side, coat all faded and patchy, tongue lolling out. I felt sorry for her, found a cup of water, slid it between the bars carefully. She knocked over the cup and licked at the puddle as best she could, then she looked at me, eyes so sad, so blank. She wanted more water, lots more, but my Pa shouted at me to get back in the wagon, that we were heading off again. When we got to where we were going, I went to see her, but she’d passed away. She didn’t last the journey.”
Don’s voice was tight with tears, “But Dad, it’s the animals that bring in the kids.”
The ringmaster kept his eyes shut. “If it doesn’t work, we’ll find some new animals. We did everything right with Lillian, but it wasn’t enough.”
“But we’ll have no one left soon, it’ll just be you and me and Frankie. That’s not a circus, Dad.”
His father sighed, “I promise, I’ll find another act, a good one. One day I’ll start a circus school, a ‘Centre of Excellence for the Circus Arts’ to teach everything I know to the next generation. You can help me, son.” That was the first time, he’d heard his father talking about his dream.
Don was still walking to the front of the convoy, there was a strange quiet amongst the people who had got there before him. He didn’t need to see, he knew what had happened. He felt cold all over as if his blood had turned to ice.
The ambulance men told Don that the crash itself may not have killed his father. But he’d been thrown through his windscreen, his head rammed against the back of a tractor’s trailer. Don didn’t want to know the details, he didn’t want to remember his father like that, but the picture of his dad’s body all crumpled, would not go away.
The body was taken to a local hospital, and from then on everything for Don seemed to happen as if in a dream, a dream in which you are desperate to get somewhere but your body is moving through treacle. He had no idea what to do, or what needed doing. If Albert was here he would have guided him through, speaking softly and calmly, but everyone around him seemed as shocked and confused as he was. Don walked out of the hospital in a daze. He had to concentrate to put one foot in front of the other. He wanted to appear in control.
The Circus of Dreams drove and drove, stopping for meals, and camping over for a night, when the driving got too much. Don’s mind felt full of spinning plates, whizzing around, so many decisions, so many things his father would have done which Don knew nothing about. He slept uncomfortably; his thoughts wouldn’t leave him alone. Was it madness to be driving to the ends of the earth in search of a permanent home? Don wanted to stick to his father’s plan. He would make it a success. But he would need help.
The next morning they drove on through Dorset and Devon, passing bleak Bodmin Moor then down the feet, into the toes of England. The drive seemed endless, their progress across the map deathly slow. The roads became narrower and bumpier, until finally they turned off the main road and there it was laid out before them, Sennen Cove. Rounded mounds of green fell into broad arms of wet sand, welcoming the sea. It felt like a gateway to something bigger and better than them. The feathery dove-grey sky stretched out over the glassy water. Waves rolled in, line after line, dashing against the beach in clouds of froth. The sunlight was soft and white, as if they were in heaven.
Don could see high green fields, good clear land, with purple heather and wild grasses and rabbits with almond eyes set in almond faces. The cliffs were not far, huge piles of rocks like stone giants. The gulls hovered in midair, riding the wind for minutes without having to flap a single wing. ‘This is the place,’ thought Don. His uncle would never follow them there; it was too beautiful, too pure for Mortimer.
After they had set up the big top, Ganesh and Don took Rani down to the beach, she was so happy to be gambolling around in the bubbling waves after the long drive. Ganesh caught her happiness and jumped in with her, splashing and playing, riding her in and out of the water and getting thoroughly wet and coated in sand. A small crowd of people came to watch, amazed to see an elephant bathing in Sennen Cove, laughing and asking Ganesh questions about trunks, tusks and ears. Don left the group and walked along the beach alone. When the sand ran out he sat on the rocks taking in the vast sea.
Ruby, Albert and Cha Cha were due in later that day, if all had gone to plan. It was a rather long and complicated train journey with two or three changes, then they would have to catch the bus to the Cove. He wondered whether they would manage it. Bo and Min would take longer to return as they were visiting their Mum and Grandma in London for a few days. Don left a message for them all at the local Post Office, opposite the harbour. He wrote a note, drawing a little map of where they were camped, though no-one could miss the big top, visible for miles around, up on the hill. Don hoped all had gone well overnight and that they would return with Cha Cha, he wanted to see him, though he dreaded it too, unsure how to tell them all about the accident.
That evening Don saw five figures approaching the site. As they came closer, he went to hug Ruby, Cha Cha and Albert and was introduced to Leo and Harry. Albert said, “They have decided to leave Mortimer and join us. He has treated them terribly.” Don shook their hands warmly and welcomed them to the Circus of Dreams.
“Interesting outfits,” said Don to Albert. Albert shrugged.
Cha Cha looked around. “But where is your father?”
Suddenly Don’s throat felt so tight he could hardly speak. His words came slowly, thin and hoarse. “There was an accident while we were driving here, a tractor. He’s gone. Dead.”
Ruby’s hand came up to cover her mouth. Albert frowned, his brow wrinkling deeply. Cha Cha was silent. He shook his head slightly and put his arm around Don. Don felt silent tears spill over, running down his cheeks, he could not control them.
Ruby put an arm around his waist, her eyes soft and huge by the light of the fire.