The candy cane stripes twirled to the tent’s peak overhead. An opening there admitted a column of moonlight, shot down into the sand pit below. Hillary peered out from backstage, watching the crowd filter in and the excitement mount. It grew in her too, the compulsion to leap into the ring and get started as strong as when she had first begun, all those years ago.
When the tent flaps finally closed and the tiers of seating were packed, the noise and chatter swelled, and the air thickened with sugar of candyfloss and popcorn. Anticipation coated every corner and crany of the tent before exploding from that hole at the top of the tent like lava from a volcano, an irresistible call to the night and any who may be around to hear it… run away to the circus.
In the day, she stood in the ring as Hillary, greying, wrinkles just past the point one could call “laughter lines.” At night, in the cold spotlight of the moon, the heat of the artificial lights and the closely packed bodies, she became a different person, a freer person. A clown, a jester. She was Hiccups. Plastered in colours, orange, pink and blue, she demanded that all turn and look.
What Hiccups did then was near limitless - it only had to be funny. She danced and screamed and threw herself around the ring, sometimes she jumped the barrier and galumphed into the crowd. She balanced herself on top of a ball and rolled around the ring and when she fell the laughter only heightened. It rang and pealed like bells, and the faster she went the higher it rose, into a never-ending wave of shrill hilarity.
But the act had to end and then the laughter would die. Hiccups longed to give them more, even as she stood panting, with sweat melting off her make-up. The crowd adored her, and she adored them for it. And each day came a new crowd, a new place - the circus never stayed put for long. With almost 30 years spent travelling with the circus, the inconsistency fit familiarly, suiting Hillary just fine. Until there came a change Hillary was not prepared for.
One day Hillary applied her usual make-up, wrinkles brushed away under swathes of white paint and great, glittering pink stars over each eye. The brush in her hand was thick with red paint when the circus manger, Stephon, appeared beside her reflection. He was a tall man, dark-skinned and elaborately moustached. Ambition alone seemed to hold the ends of that moustache at its impossible peak, and ambition held Stephon himself upright too. Hillary paused, brush hovering over her lips, to watch him in the mirror but he didn’t say a word. Instead Stephon winked and, just as he did when introducing her act, held out one arm. A sense of something heavy settled in Hillary’s chest, lodging like a bad cough. And a man bounded into the reflection, each of his bouncing steps tousling his red hair. Then he bowed so
low that those curls were all Hillary saw of him. Back very straight, she turned slowly from the mirror to face the two men.
“This,” Stephon said, “is Henry. Your new partner.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said Henry. Hillary could not reply, only stare at Stephon. He read her expression, and dismissed it, “The public love you. If they love one clown, imagine how much they’ll love two!”
Hillary nodded and painted on a smile as she turned to Henry. His lips tugged up into a grin and Hillary’s lips twitched too, into something more genuine.
“Nice to meet you.”
“Hiya, partner,” he said.
“I have a whole new routine planned,” Stephon said. “I think you’ll love this new direction. Now, finish your makeup and we’ll get to work!”
Henry threw himself down in front of the mirror beside her and plastered his face with white paint before Hillary even remembered she was still holding a brush.
“We,” Henry said, painting his own smile with a dramatic sweep of red, “are going to have so much fun!”
At first, the new partnership worked well. Henry’s energy reinvigorated something in Hillary she hadn’t realised had begun to deflate. They seemed to match each other, meeting in the air and bouncing off of one another, higher than ever. Henry would stand on his tip toes on top of a rolling ball, pretending to wobble and fall, and Hillary would leap from her platform to land with perfect form on his head, one leg in the air, perfect balance. The crowd loved it. It was more than a performance, it was a work of art. But, night after night, city after city, Hillary felt a shift.
When she took her final bow, the crowd clapped, but when Henry took his they leapt to their feet and cheered. Their awe was not for her balancing on Henry’s head, but for him, doing nothing but holding her there.
Over a month had passed since Henry’s arrival. The reviews raved, and the crowds grew bigger and bigger, the applauds louder. Stephon had never been happier. Only Hillary felt unhappiness gnawing in her chest. Applause had once fuelled her, but now she dreaded them. No matter what, no matter how loud and exhilarating, a moment later Henry would bow, and Hillary was forgotten, dwarfed to insignificance.
It didn’t matter what she did, the audience only had eyes for Henry. They screamed with laughter as he danced among them, sitting himself down next to an older woman and bursting into his elaborate pantomime, flirting, fumbling. Hillary found herself alone in the ring, left in the dust his hilarity kicked up, left on the ground while Henry rose, up, up, on their cheers.
But tonight she planned to rise higher. Henry had his routine and he performed it masterfully, step by step, night after night. Hillary would do something new, something nobody would expect. She needed their laughter. The well of it stored inside her had run completely dry and her foundations were beginning to crack, leaking their emptiness into her. She would reclaim it.
There was no other option. So Hillary stood at the edge of the ring and took a deep, shuddering breath.
She ran. Her feet kicked up the dust of the ring. Ahead loomed a springboard, above it a hoop.
Hillary would arch through the air with a perfect twirl and pass right through the hoop. Then she would land, balanced only on her fingertips. After that, who knew? All she needed was their attention – once she had it she would not let go.
She saw it so clearly, almost as though it had already happened. But then she placed her foot wrong, one tiny mistake, and she slipped. The ground was hard, and cold. Blinding pain jarred through her hip and curled her up into herself, whimpering, unable to move. Nobody laughed, not even a cruel laugh at her failure – every face was still enchanted by Henry. Nobody even saw. Except Stephon.
Hillary was not good enough. She had passed her prime, and it was time to hand on the baton.
Hillary was no Henry. She lacked his energy, that unnatural, undying, racked up vivacity which animated his every movement. Hillary could never compare.
Stephon did not say these words; he didn’t have to. “Perhaps it’d be easier on you to take a little step back. Let Henry do the hard work. Take care of your health,” he said, as though doing her a kindness. As though his words weren’t tearing her soul from her. “How about we set you up selling tickets out front?” he said, the way you might hand a child a ball to keep him busy.
And the only option left to Hillary was to grab the toy and play along.
An endless stream of faces deposited their money on the tray around her neck, each coin heavier than the last. At first she smiled, made conversation, the odd joke, their laughter a small burst of energy in a grey sea. But as the nights stretched on Hillary stopped seeing them.
She just stared ahead, into the gathering night. The moths and gnats fluttered, drawn by the lights and the thick sugar in the air. They fluttered among the stars, battered Hillary’s painted face. When the tent closed behind the last guest neither she nor the pests could get in, and the roar of laughter became, blissfully, muted.
A gnat landed on her hand, the one that gripped the tray. It fed, and, once done, it lifted heavily into the air, flying away. A tear, the first she had allowed herself, fell from her nose and bounced off the tray. Her make-up had stained it red as the pinprick of blood on her hand.
And then Hillary eased the tray from around her neck and let it fall to the dewy grass. A cool wind blew, and the tent flap fluttered behind her, releasing a final cry of laughter into the night.
Hillary didn’t hear.
Some years ago she had run away to the circus.
Now it was time she ran away from it.
(c) Alex Bestwick