The Circus of Dreams felt empty without Mr Unusually; there was an overwhelming feeling of being left behind. Ruby knew she should feel something, but what? Sadness certainly. She’d only known the ringmaster for a few months yet he meant so much to her. He could be frustrating but he also meant freedom and trust and he was the closest thing she’d had to a father.
As the summer came to an end, the sun grew paler and the sky was full of smoky pink clouds. Even the big top seemed lonely, with no fairground rides or stalls alongside it, flapping restlessly in the wind blowing in from the sea.
Ruby was surprised to see Frankie arriving with Don. Two of the acrobats were a little unfriendly, refusing to shake Frankie’s hand and walking off when he asked them to do anything, but within a few days things were less awkward. The loss of Mr Unusually made Frankie’s mistake seem small, to Ruby and to everyone. It was far more important to stick together now.
The nights were getting shorter and each day Ruby saw fewer families on the beach. Don and Frankie didn’t think it was worth opening for shows on these last few days of the summer so they hunkered down instead, recovering, planning and practising. A daily routine took shape. The mornings were spent rehearsing. In the afternoons, Ruby, Ganesh and Rani walked down to the tiny harbour then along to the beach where they all paddled and splashed, bathing Rani, then walking back up the steep footpath, looking jealously into the tiny windows of the cosy cottages. Sometimes Rani attracted a crowd of bemused onlookers but soon enough everyone in the Cove got used to the sight of an elephant playing on the beach, or waiting patiently outside the post office whilst Ganesh and Ruby picked up any letters and parcels for the circus people.
Some afternoons a small group of them would walk to Land’s End, enjoying the power of the waves smashing and churning against the rocks, sitting with cups of tea in ‘The First and Last Cafe’. Ruby drank hers outside with Ganesh and Rani, watching the honeymoon couples, standing at the viewing point, chasing after their hats when the wind whipped them off, beautifully smooth hair turning into a frenzy of snakes.
In the evenings, Cha Cha showed everyone what he’d been working on that day. The new recruits from Mr Mortimer’s circus, Harry and Leo, had joined the clown to produce a three man act. It was a good combination of characters, Cha Cha’s clown was sweet and cheeky; Leo was more of a ‘straight man’, grumpy and school masterly; Harry’s clown was sad and sorry-for-himself. The three characters seemed to fit together, with lots of comic possibilities. Ruby loved to watch Cha Cha work, he was so open and free, trying out one crazy idea after another, not put off by anything. Ruby admired how he rehearsed so hard to make everything seem completely natural and unrehearsed. In performance, he could make an act much funnier with a slight change of expression here, a longer pause there; he showed them all that a small change often made a big difference.
Bo and Min arrived back at the end of the first week at the Cove. Ruby was very pleased to see them, it had been a little lonely sleeping in the tent without them. Ruby introduced Bo and Min to Leo and Harry.
When Min asked the question they were all dreading, Don said, “There was an accident.” Ruby heard his voice crack, she felt sorry for him, it always seemed to fall to him to tell people about Mr Unusually’s death and she could see how hard he found it. Bo was standing next to Don and she looked up at him. Ruby saw her hand reach out to him, and he grasped it, their fingers entwined.
That evening around the crackling fire, the old circus stories were told. Ruby felt part of a long ribbon of dreams flowing back to the past and forward to the future. She felt comforted by the old, well worn tales, everyone did. There were some lovely ones. It was a friendly competition, each of the circus folk trying to outdo the previous story, one story leading on to the next. They weren’t all inspiring; some were scary or disturbing, tales of sad clowns and great artists dying in poverty.
Albert’s rich accent soothed Ruby as he told his tale, “There is a story about a bitter rivalry between two travelling circuses that happened to follow the same railway route year after year, stopping off in different towns along the way. These circuses, try as they might, could not live without each other; they were fascinated by each other. When they did try different routes, they were desperate to know what had happened to their old rivals, so they came back, to the old route, back to the old familiar stops. The two ringmasters almost drove each other mad with jealousy and fear, worrying which ran the better circus, which had the better acts. The rivalry became so strong that one night, after the first circus had passed over a railway bridge on their way to the next town, the ringmaster stopped the train and burnt down the bridge they had crossed. When the next circus drove through on their train, the driver did not see the bridge had gone until it was too late and the train plummeted into the river, killing everyone in it. The first ringmaster owned up to burning the bridge, but no one ever knew why he did it, did he just want to stop the other circus from following them, or did he want to kill them all?”
Ruby asked, “Did he go to prison?”
“No,” said Albert, “I don’t think so, he went mad, tormented by his own decision. Even he didn’t know why he’d done it. The circus was disbanded, they all said that without the rival circus it wasn’t worth it anymore.”
Then Harry offered a new story, about Annie Oakley, a circus gun shooter in America. “Annie’s family were poor, really poor, she had learnt how to shoot as a small girl. At ten years old, your age, Ruby, she was so good with a gun she could shoot enough food everyday to feed her widowed mother and her brothers and sisters. Any extra meat she had, she sold it for money. By the time she was fifteen she’d managed to pay off the money her mother owed on their farm house, so that her family would never again have to worry about being homeless.” Don passed around mugs of steaming cocoa whilst Harry continued, “Now Annie entered a shooting contest against a professional gun shooter. But while the contest was going on, with each shot Annie realised she was falling in love with the gun shooter, and he realised he was falling in love with her. She won the contest and the next day she left her home town to become his assistant. He knew she was a better shot than he was and decided to be her assistant instead.” Harry slurped at his drink, “Annie was such a good shot she’d hit a coin held between a man’s finger and thumb from thirty feet away. She was so good, when she performed for Queen Victoria and a German Kaiser, he asked her to shoot the ash off his cigarette and she did it, just like that.” He snapped his fingers.
Ruby often thought of Annie Oakley after that, helping out her family so that they could own their own home, falling in love over a shooting contest, shooting the ash off a German Kaiser’s cigarette. Circus stories don’t come much better than that.