Don Unusually was reading on the narrow bed in his caravan. He heard his father rumbling around next door, probably trying to work out whether the circus had made any money that month. Don knew his dad’s caravan well, having grown up with those piles of cardboard boxes filled with blunt pencils and ticket stubs. Despite the spikes and paperweights meant to keep things in order, his father’s tiny desk was covered in crumpled pages with scribbled scrawls and inky sums. Hooks, nails and noticeboards were attached to every patch of wall, heavy with the weight of bills and demands for payment.
The ringmaster’s son had been re-reading the same paragraph for a while; he couldn’t concentrate with the noises coming from next door; the familiar patter and whirr of his father’s adding machine, figures banged in and printed out. He clapped the book shut and lay back, listening. There was some stomping around, a long silence, heavy sighs and a fist banged down on something, then, finally, his dad’s flimsy caravan door swinging open. Don got up and peeked out of the window. His father was wrestling his jacket on in the door frame of the caravan opposite, a storm of slips swirling around him. He slammed the door shut and walked off across the fairground, heading to the nearest pub to drink himself into a bleary state. Doing sums was just about the only thing that drove Don’s father to drink. When his mother had been alive, he hadn’t resorted to the pub; she knew what to say to soothe the ringmaster back into a good mood.
Don splashed his face in the tepid water left in his bucket and rubbed his freckly skin with a towel, peering at himself in a tiny mirror on the wall. Was he handsome? People said so but he wasn’t sure. Did it matter? He was too shy to ask a girl out. Besides, the circus was always moving around and he didn’t need the distraction. He liked Bo, one of the twins, part of an oriental knife throwing act. She was lovely, but she was eighteen. They’d grown up together and she probably thought of him as a younger brother, not someone to kiss. Don sighed; he looked tired, as usual. He messed around with his dark blonde hair but it would never lie straight and slicked, however much pomade he tried.
He sat on the bed, opened the chest next to it, and found the bundle he kept at the bottom. On top was a yellowing newspaper. The sight of it still made his heart pound but he couldn’t bring himself to throw it away. It was the newspaper he had found in the telephone box on the night of Tara’s death, ten years ago.
Under the newspaper he found what he was looking for, a poster with a smudgy photograph of his mother on the trapeze, blurred and smiling, her long hair flowing behind her, her legs pointed upwards diagonally across the photograph. She oozed joy and charm. In black print were the words ‘Maria Unusually – Angel of the Air’. That’s what his dad had called her, ‘my angel’, and as she cut through the air on the trapeze she had looked like one. The poster was crisp, with tiny black damp spots and crown-shaped splashes in places.
It was when Maria was at the height of her fame that the triple somersault took her life away, leaving his father with two sons to look after. Don had sat for hours in the years after his mother’s death, staring hard at her picture. Since then he only looked at it occasionally, when he really needed it.
People said it was impossible. To take off from a trapeze bar, spin head over heels three times, then reach out to clasp the hands of the catcher who was swinging upside down from another bar. The triple had been done before but not regularly. It was often unplanned, an accident. An American clown did it, but he died as a result. It also happened to a trapeze artist called Dutton, who was never seen in a circus again. People said he’d seen death face to face and didn’t like what he saw.
When your body spins through the air at seventy miles per hour, it feels like you are dreaming. Memory is fuzzy and sight blurs; you can no longer make decisions. Don’s mother was attempting a triple when she spun out of control, landing outside the nets. His mother had always said that the triple could be part of a regular act as much as a double somersault. Don wanted to do the triple for himself, yes, but he also wanted to do it for her. He had to prove that she was right to try it.
Don put the bundle of papers on the lid of the chest and snuggled down under the bedclothes. He wanted to practise, but Michael, his catcher on the trapeze, was off visiting his family today. Michael had been a stretcher bearer in the war, trudging miles through muddy fields hauling wounded soldiers to the nearest Regimental Aid Post. Don had heard him talking about it, once or twice, no more. Despite the hell he had suffered, Michael could still catch as cleanly as he had done before the war. They’d heard of many who couldn’t. He was still the safest pair of hands in the business.
Don closed his eyes, his muscles aching from all the exercises he’d done that morning. There were no shows on a Sunday, so he could rest.
When he was flying, Don felt closer to his mother. He lived for the leap into the immense emptiness, the long swing, the air whooshing over his ears. He loved feeling his body turn as one unit, drifting in space as though a giant were juggling with him. Even his dreams were full of flying, the beautiful space above the ring calling to him to fill it, and fill it beautifully.
Much later Don was woken by the sound of his father stumbling into the next door caravan, flopping down on his bed and snoring heavily. Don imagined a cloud of receipts settling gently over him, a rustling blanket of figures. The moon was bright, shining in through the small caravan window onto the photograph of his mother on the chest beside his bed. She was lit by a moonbeam and smiled out at Don. What would she think about the arguments with his father? At sixteen Don was certainly old enough to start taking over some of the running of the circus, but he just couldn’t conjure up any interest in planning routes and hiring fields; in tickets, takings and receipts.
The next morning, Don was practising with Michael when he saw his father pacing below them. Mr Unusually shouted up, “I need to talk to you, it’s important.”
Don ignored him; he hated being interrupted during practice. The triple occupied every waking moment; he wrestled with his body, hating its sluggishness, constantly thinking about height and speed, momentum and acceleration. Just holding onto the bar and swinging is harder than it looks. Your weight and gravity want to wrench your arms out of their sockets. He made it look easy, but it wasn’t.
Mr Unusually carried on pacing, calling up again after a few minutes. Don refused to come. His father shouted up, “Any fool can do the trapeze, all it takes is practice; but not everyone can run a circus, not everyone has the chance. What’ll you do when you’re too old to fly? Then you’ll come running back. But I’ll have given it all to Frankie."
Don didn’t really care. It was about time his dad gave him a bit of peace and quiet to concentrate and gave his younger brother a break. The triple was a conundrum. He couldn’t solve it with his father yelling at him from down below. At those speeds even a small mistake in a simple move could be deadly.
He tried a single turn to get his focus back, but he missed Michael’s hands, falling into the nets, close to where the ringmaster was standing. Don was furious for messing up such a simple move. “Look Dad, if this is all such a big mistake, just leave me alone and let me get on with making it.” Mr Unusually muttered something and walked off, back to his caravan.
Seething, Don climbed up the ladder to the trapeze platform. He called across to Michael, “Doesn’t he see how much I want this?”
Michael swung over to Don’s platform. “He’s forgotten what it’s like, that’s all.” Don took a swig, then handed Michael the flask of water. Don admired Michael’s steadiness. No flyer can jump into nothing without completely trusting their catcher. Catchers needed perfect timing and judgement. It was not a glamorous job, but Michael was good at it.
Don sat down on the platform, still fuming. “I just don’t understand. Doesn’t he want me to be the best? To do what I love? I just couldn’t do anything else.”
Michael picked up a towel and wiped the sweat from his face. “I don’t think I could do much else either.” He hung the towel around his neck and sat down next to Don, his steely arms folded around his knees, his dark brown hair shiny with sweat. “During the war, carrying those stretchers. There just aren’t the words to explain how it was... But now, catching feels like the right thing to do. It’s saving someone and it’s having someone trust you,” he grinned cheekily and scratched one of his ‘jug handle’ ears. “Besides, you’re better looking upside down!” He nudged Don with his shoulder, trying to break his bad temper. Don smiled and relaxed. Michael could always get him back on track.
They started to practise again. How could you turn three times and be there at the right moment, in the right place for the catcher to pluck you out of the air? Don had to turn very quickly, curled tight as a ball, and to be swinging fast and high before he let go of the bar. His blistered palms were so ripped they became bloody and Michael pleaded with him to stop.
Later that evening, Don felt guilty and knocked at the door of his father’s caravan hoping for a friendly chat. But the conversation was stilted and tripped into an argument. Don said, “I thought you of all people would understand. You’ve lived your whole life in the circus, and you still don’t know what it’s all about.”
His father scowled, “I know a damn sight more than you think, boy.”
“I don’t care about the business. I don’t care about money. No one here is doing this for the money. They’re doing it because it gets so you can’t do anything else. It’s about doing the impossible, doing something no one else can.”
Mr Unusually paused, his voice becoming quiet and hoarse, “I know all that, it’s just... I lost my angel, your mother, because of the ruddy triple...and I don’t want to lose you an’ all.”