On the following morning Don went back to London. He took the train this time, it would be a little quicker and he would have time to plan and think. He liked to look out of the train windows and see life gliding past, the bits that you weren’t meant to see, the muddy back yards, the overflowing bins, the weeds growing impossibly out of the mortar between the brickwork, a woman grasping a struggling chicken firmly by its legs, ready to be slaughtered.
Halfway back to London he stopped in the town nearest to the hospital where his father’s body was. Time seemed to stretch and stall strangely. Suddenly he couldn’t remember how long he’d been sitting there in the undertaker’s sombre office, trying to answer questions, so many stupid questions.
“Don’t you want to attend the cremation, sir?” The man behind the desk blinked through thick glasses which made his eyes look very small and very far away.
“No, I can’t. If you could send the ashes on to us when everything’s settled, care of the post office at Sennen Cove. We’ll arrange our own ceremony, a proper circus send-off. He’d like that.”
“Sounds very suitable, sir. Would sir care to choose a coffin and flower arrangements for the cremation?”
“I’ll leave it all to you. I just can’t think right now.”
“And how will sir be funding the cremation and the other sundry expenses.”
“Just send me the bill, but keep it simple, he wouldn’t want a lot of fuss.”
Don walked back to the train station, filling the time before his train with cups of tea and toasted currant buns in the deserted station cafe. He tried to stay calm, controlling his breath as he did before a trapeze trick. He had to tell Frankie their dad was dead. If he saw Mortimer he’d have to tell him too. After all that had happened with Cha Cha, the fire and the move to Cornwall, he couldn’t believe he might have to face his uncle again when everything they had been doing was meant to put space between them. How should he tell Frankie about their dad’s death? There was probably a good way to tell people these things, but he wasn’t sure what it was. He rehearsed the words in his head. Nothing sounded right.
It had been just one week since Frankie had left, vanishing into the night with Mortimer. So much had happened since then, Don felt like a different person. He was still annoyed that Frankie had helped Mr Mortimer steal Cha Cha away, but at least Cha Cha was safe now.
It took him the whole day to get to London and by then it was getting dark and the city was shrouded in smog. He found a small hotel near Paddington station and ate a rather strange supper. Every dish seemed to be slop of one sort or another, to be told apart only by its shade of grey. Don slept a long, heavy sleep and in the morning he took the underground to Chalk Farm and walked to Mortimer’s circus. He tried to distract himself from what he was about to do by reading the billboards. Their bright colours struggling through the veil of fog, ghostly messages looming out and ordering him to, “Drink more milk”, “Eat more fruit”, and “Don’t get tired – Drink Bovril”. Don felt exhausted. A man walked towards him, coming out of the fog, it looked like his father. No, he was younger and a little slimmer than his father and anyway, his dad was gone.
He hadn’t been to Mortimer’s circus in years and had forgotten how huge and solid it was compared to the tented circuses he had grown up in. It was an imposing, unforgiving building, blackened with soot from the nearby railway lines. On the wall outside he found a printed poster of Frankie on the tightrope, it looked as though they had been put up recently. Frankie would be pleased, making his mark at last. One corner of the poster curled up and down in the wind, furling and unfurling, a beckoning hand.
The large front doors were locked, but one of the stage hands was sitting outside, selling tickets. He recognised Don and opened up the performers’ door for him. Inside was immediately black and cavernous after the street. The smell hit him hard, acrid and pungent, the farmyard smell of animals and sawdust, but with a wilder, muskier taint.
When Don walked through to the ring a handful of people approached him, some slapping him on the back and asking how he was after the accident and whether he was still planning on doing the triple. After a few minutes there was quite a crowd around him. Then he saw Frankie, coming into the ring to see what all the fuss was about. Don noticed his little brother’s face tighten and flush as he saw who it was. Don walked through the small crowd to talk to him, but Frankie spoke first, “How’s the arm?”
“Not bad, getting better,” Don felt awkward, he knew Frankie would be suspicious that he was there. “What about you? How are things?”
“Fine,” he mumbled, “You got Cha Cha back then?”
“Yes, he’s fine.”
The crowd that Don had drawn was breaking up now. A rigger came to say goodbye, putting his hand on Don’s shoulder and saying, “Hope you’re back on that trapeze soon son, and say hello to your dad for me,” he looked around briefly, “Oh, and we’re all really glad Cha Cha got out. Send him our best.”
“Will do,” said Don.
Frankie snorted, “Even here you draw a bigger crowd than I do.”
“You do good work, you know you do, besides, Mortimer could have anyone, but he chose you.” Someone started banging scenery around, so they both had to raise their voices. Don was working hard to resist making any snide remarks about the night of the fire or asking how Frankie could work with Mortimer.
“I’m just one of his tightrope walkers, nothing special. The rest of the time he orders me around. I think he was just trying to get at Dad.”
“Well, come back then, we could really use you. You don’t belong here.”
The banging stopped and there was silence. Frankie looked pained. Then he shook his head. “You don’t understand, I’ve got to find my own way. Otherwise, who am I but your little brother, Dad’s son. But here, I’m on the poster up on the board, got my name on the billing and no one can say that’s because I’m the owner’s son.”
“They can’t say that anymore whatever.”
“At the Circus of Dreams I’ll always be in your shadow, or Dad’s. Always.” He lowered his voice, “I’ve tried my best to help you, even here, I know Mortimer’s a nasty piece of work. That night when Albert and Ruby were getting Cha Cha out, I didn’t run after them, I let them go and it was me that let the lion out to distract Mortimer, so tell Dad not to be too disappointed in me. I’m not the villain you all think I am.”
“We don’t think you’re a villain.”
“I bet Dad does.”
“Dad’s gone.” Don found he was unable to say anymore. Tears welled up, which he willed away by clenching and unclenching his jaw. When he caught his breath, he said, “He’s dead. We’re on our own.” At that moment Don felt more angry with his dad than he ever had when he was alive. He was supposed to be there, parents are supposed to be there; two of them, smiling and supportive.
Frankie looked up, searching Don’s face to see if it was true. “I don’t believe you.”
Don laughed a little. “Don’t believe it myself yet, but I wanted to tell you properly. I wish it wasn’t true. He was driving the van...then... well. He never really got the hang of driving, did he?” Don made himself smile but the waves of anger and sadness just kept coming. How could his father abandon them? It wasn’t fair.
Frankie looked at his feet, shifting the sawdust around with the toe of his right ropewalking shoe. They were both silent for a very long time. Around them, trunks were being shunted; voices called up to the lighting rig, acrobats began to limber up. Don and Frankie moved towards the seating around the ring.
Frankie said, “What’s going to happen to the circus?” He sat down, taking off his ropewalking slippers and putting on his shoes.
“Look, Frankie, I need you. I can’t do this on my own. Just getting through today and yesterday was bad enough. But you and me, we could do it, we could run it together. Dad would have loved that.” Frankie looked up at his brother, eyes darting around his face. Don sighed and sat down next to him. “All I want is that triple and I’m never going to get it if I’m running a whole circus on my own.”
“Are you sure? You’re not going to change your mind tomorrow?”
“I trust you, more than anyone else. We’d be partners.”
Frankie looked at Don again, scrutinising his expression. “You’re crazy, giving it all away for the triple. The whole circus is yours by right, you’re the eldest son.”
“Yep, but we both know I’d make a pig’s ear of it on my own.”
Frankie thought for a moment. “You mean it? Partners? Equals?”
“There’s people will say, we’re too young. But we’ve got help, Albert and Cha Cha and Michael. Besides, Dad would want his boys in charge.” They both smiled shyly at each other.
Then Frankie’s face fell. “There’s something you don’t know. I’m not supposed to know either.”
“I overheard Cha Cha saying it once, talking to Dad. He said something about Tara not wanting people to know Ruby was an Unusually. So she’d have a choice what to do with her life. That’s why he never told anyone, not even Ruby.”
“What? When was this?”
“A few weeks before I left to come here. I think he meant that Ruby was Dad’s daughter.”
Don paused. “Ruby is... our sister?” He looked at Frankie closely, thinking it all through. That would explain a lot, Tara’s closeness to their father and his immediate interest in Ruby, his fondness for her and, of course, Frankie’s jealousy. “So, is that why you left?”
“I don’t know, maybe I thought Dad wouldn’t have enough time for all three of us. But it wasn’t just that. I just wanted a bit of glory for myself. A bit of space.”
Don understood. Mr Unusually had not always been the best father. It often seemed as though he forgot he had children, he treated them like circus acts, sounding boards, business partners. He couldn’t remember having a conversation with him that wasn’t about the circus. Don said, “We’ll have to tell her, and when she’s old enough she can help us too.”
“The last time I looked she was already running the place.” They both smiled, Ruby had a quiet determination that wasn’t always so quiet. Frankie looked at Don and said, “I can’t believe he’s gone.” They stood up and Don put his arm around his brother’s shoulders. Frankie looked down and a smile flickered across his face.
“So Frankie, are you coming?”
“Go on then, get your stuff.”
“I never brought anything in the first place. Maybe I didn’t think I’d be staying very long.” They strode straight out onto the pavement and disappeared into the fog, heading towards the Underground station at Chalk Farm. As they came closer, the dark red tiles of the station broke through the smog and the two brothers walked into the station’s rumbling heart.