Write a love story, they said, but don’t be afraid to be subversive. Oh, but do make sure it has a happy ending.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve written a lot of love stories: some have ended happily; others not so happily. This time, I wanted to challenge myself to do something I hadn’t done before, so I decided to set my story in a circus – a Victorian circus. These days, we’re all very aware of equal opportunities and accepting people’s differences, but the Victorians saw things quite differently. ‘Freak shows’ abounded in which anyone who didn’t quite fit society’s perception of ‘normal’ was branded an outsider – whether it was for being too tall, too short, too hairy, or having any kind of physical disability. In my story, the protagonist is the outsider by virtue of being the only person in the circus who isn’t considered a ‘freak’ by the rest of society. He despairs of ever finding love in a world where being ‘normal’ is seen in a negative light.
The characters in this story are based on real people who travelled with circuses in the 1800s. If you look past physical appearances, you realise we all share the same hopes and dreams and we’re all capable of love and/or jealousy. It’s all a matter of perspective.
This story is dedicated to all my family and friends who know what it’s like to be ‘different’ and to all the people who face challenges with a disability of their own. Not all disabilities are ones we can see: depression, anxiety, ASD, eating disorders and addiction are just some of the battles being fought on a daily basis. In the words of Christina Aguilera, ‘You are beautiful in every single way…’
The smell of sawdust assaults Arthur’s nostrils as he waits patiently for the high wire act to finish. His face is hot beneath the white greasepaint that hides his handsome face and his heart thumps wildly as he gazes upwards, One of the tightrope walkers stumbles and sways and the crowd gasps, holding its breath lest the diminutive man falls. He won’t, of course: Pippo is one of the most talented acrobats in the business. He may be small in stature, but his talent is gigantic. He is the brother of Lorenzo, the circus ringmaster, neither of them standing any higher than Arthur’s chest, and the husband of Venetia, the Bearded Lady. He is also Arthur’s father.
It’s not Pippo who sets Arthur’s pulse racing, however. He has seen his father perform this act many times. His eyes travel to the woman who waits at the other end of the tightrope: a beautiful creature with large, lustrous eyes and hair as long and as black as his mother’s beard. Sophia stands on her hands atop the tall platform that is his father’s destination. Her daring costume fits snugly over her hips, accentuating her curves, and her leg bends over her body, almost touching the surface in front of her. There is more perfection in that single leg than other women possess in two: firm, supple, and oh, so delicate! He longs to stroke that chiselled limb whilst gazing into Sophia’s dark, sensuous orbs. He has loved her hopelessly since the day she first joined his parents’ travelling circus, but he knows his feelings will not be requited for how can Sophia give her heart to a freak?
Before he was born, his parents had assumed he would take after one of them. When it became obvious that he had not inherited his father’s lack of height, they were still hopeful that he might have gigantism instead. Arthur would have been happy to please them, but try as he might, he was unable to grow taller than 5 feet 10 – and whilst this would have been seen as a respectable height had he possessed any other interesting features, his lack of excess body hair, unusual protuberances or misshapen limbs only serves to highlight how out of place he is in this collection of weird and wonderful characters that form the circo di mostri. In truth, he looks more like a member of the audience than a performer: he is a freak of normality in a diverse and vibrant band of misfits.
His father has reached the end of the tightrope. Slipping onto the platform, he nods to Sophia who marches forwards on her hands, retaining her balance perfectly as she traverses the high wire. When she reaches the identical platform at the opposite end, she gracefully arches her leg further over her body until it touches the floor, then rolls herself forward until she is standing upright. Just as the crowd begin to applaud, she executes a backflip, landing delicately on her five perfect toes. Cheering soars to the roof of the tent and Arthur’s heart swells with pride tinged with sadness. He will never be anything more than a clown, and Sophia will not stoop to marry a man whose only talent is to make people laugh.
Nevertheless, he steps into the ring, falling over his feet as if to demonstrate how clumsy his two legs have made him. He would gladly amputate one of them if he thought it would make Sophia fall in love with him, but she’s said many times that people who alter their bodies deliberately are charlatans and not true artistes. He knows she was referring to Yanni, the Tattooed Man, when she said this – the rest of the company regard Yanni with suspicion at best – but he can’t help cursing his straight nose and matching limbs. Other Victorians might regard him as a perfect specimen of humanity, but their standards mean nothing in the world he inhabits.
All these thoughts whirl through his mind as he tumbles round the arena. He is head over heels in love with a girl who is completely out of his grasp. She tops the bill whilst he elicits laughs by sprawling on the ground.
The rumble of wheels announces the arrival of Luigi and his lions. Arthur drags himself to his feet and makes way for the one-armed lion tamer. It is his job to unlock the cage for Luigi before the moustachioed animal handler cracks his whip and puts the creatures through their paces. He is careful not to get too close to them: Luigi had two arms once, but he was careless one night and let down his defences. The lion ripped his arm to shreds so that bone and muscle parted company for good and the only solution was to let a sawbones complete what the beast had started.
He’s noticed Sophia looking at Luigi recently, her eyes skimming over his empty sleeve; and his gut twists when he thinks of the older man putting his arm around her. Luigi is thirty-eight to Sophia’s twenty-two, but she has far more in common with him than the boy with two arms and two legs who’s as out of place in this circus as the rest of them would be in the outside world.
The show ends and Arthur begins his nightly duties. Lorenzo and his Giantess wife, Grandina, are counting the night’s takings in their caravan. If the money is good, they will give everyone beer; if not, there will be nothing. Pippo pulls off his sparkly costume, spilling sequins on the ground as he does so and earning Venetia’s anger. She towers over her tiny husband physically, but whenever she shouts at him, he only needs to raise a finger for her to back down and apologise. She’s said many times that no one else had ever been man enough to stand up to her until Pippo came along.
Arthur checks that the ladders up to the tightrope are secure, then leaves the performance tent and heads for the smaller ones housing the members of the troupe who form the sideshow. The Tattooed Man has already returned to his caravan, the Monkey Boy is asleep on a pile of old sacks and only Wanda the Mermaid remains awake, her eyes glittering in the dark. She’s shivering slightly, so he sets down his lantern and wraps a blanket around her shoulders. “It’s too cold for you to be dressed like that,” he says.
Wanda is at least fifty, but there is nothing matronly about her attire. She wears a close fitting, flesh-coloured top that has two large scallop shells sewn in place to protect her modesty. In the dim light of the tent, her outfit suggests that she is wearing the shells and nothing more. Her legs, which have been fused together since birth, are encased in a shimmery sheath that ends in the shape of a fish tail, the blues and greens of the fabric echoing the colours of the sea. A long, blonde wig completes the ensemble. If Arthur squints, she looks almost convincing.
Pulling off her wig, Wanda scratches her head with a sigh of relief. “That’s better,” she says. “Now, tell me all the gossip. How was the show tonight?”
Arthur describes each act in minute detail, beginning with Lorenzo’s display of his riding abilities – always a crowd pleaser – and Grandina’s turn as the Human Nightingale (Lorenzo thinks that sounds better than the Singing Giantess), then describing Sophia’s acrobatics and his own father’s tightrope skills.
“Pippo’s always known how to put the fun in funambulism,” Wanda says, yawning. “He’s a talented man. The girl’s just a novelty act – if I could actually use this excuse for a leg, I’d show her a thing or two.”
Arthur’s surprised by the vehemence in her voice and wonders what Sophia could have done to earn the mermaid’s displeasure.
“Will you carry me outside, Arthur?” Wanda sounds suddenly vulnerable. “I sometimes feel as if I’m suffocating sitting around in this tent all day and all night.”
He bends to pick her up in his arms, her papery-thin skin rustling at his touch. “Can you take the lantern?” he asks, but she shakes her head.
“I like the dark. Besides, if the stars are out, they’re better than any lantern.”
The freak of normality and the fifty-year-old mermaid leave the tent. The black velvet sky is studded with diamond stars. If only, Arthur thinks, it was Sophia in his arms… And then he looks down at Wanda and her wigless head, and he feels a rush of compassion for her almost naked scalp and the wisps of grey hair that cling to it like seaweed. What sort of life does she have as part of a static sideshow? Wanda will never walk on a highwire or prance around the ring on a horse; the most she can hope for is a handful of curious voyeurs, paying their pennies to gaze at her deformity. Instinctively, he touches his lips to her forehead. She smells of sequins and sawdust with a faint tinge of sadness.
He lowers her onto the grass and they sit in silence, wrapping the night around themselves like a cloak, each lost in a private world. Footsteps pass by them in the darkness and whispered voices carry on the midnight air: the giggle of a girl who thinks she’s in love, and the low rumble of a man old enough to be her father.
Beside him, Wanda stiffens. “Luigi,” she breathes, and Arthur tastes the pain and regret in that single word. He is not the only one suffering from hopeless, unrequited love.
The laughter continues and Arthur stands up. Eavesdropping on their lovemaking is more than he can bear. He scoops up Wanda before she has time to protest and carries her back to the grimy display tent, and then he goes back to his parents’ caravan and cries himself to sleep.
The lantern still glows where Arthur left it. When your heart is broken, you forget all about fire safety. Wanda shifts irritably on her battered chaise-longue, trying to get comfortable. She’s developed bedsores from being confined to this excuse for a bed. By day, sea shells are sprinkled around it and she lies on a turquoise satin sheet as if in the sea. At night time, the sea is tidied away and a coarse woollen blanket delineates the couch’s true purpose. Carefully, she reaches her arm behind the cushions and draws out a bottle of brandy. She’s existed for years on malice and eau de vie. I’m a pickled herring, she thinks drowsily.
JoJo the Monkey Boy stirs in his sleep, and Wanda is struck with a sudden urge to confide in someone. “Wake up, JoJo,” she calls. “I need to talk to you.”
JoJo blinks awake and stares at the pretty mermaid. He is short-sighted and the tent is kept mostly in shadow; when he looks at Wanda, he sees the girl she once was.
“I’ve lost my Luigi,” Wanda continues, her voice slurred by alcohol and despair. He has never been hers, but she ignores that small detail, sure that – were it not for Sophia – it would be only a matter of time before the lion tamer succumbs to her charms.
JoJo listens and nods, understanding only half of what she says. Someone has made the beautiful lady cry, and the sight makes JoJo’s heart hurt.
“It’s that one-legged trollop’s fault,” Wanda insists. “She’s dazzled him with her hand-walking and her sparkly costumes. One of these days, though, she’ll fall from the high wire and who’ll want her then when her bones are broken and her face is smashed to smithereens?”
JoJo listens intently, his mind trying to decipher his idol’s meaning. Does she want him to do something? If he slipped his chain, he could climb the tall ladder and push the bad lady off the tightrope. Yes, JoJo thinks: he will make Wanda laugh again. He goes back to sleep with a serene smile on his face.
When Arthur wakes the next morning, there is still a stone inside him where his heart used to be. Oh, Sophia! he thinks miserably. How can she let herself be swayed so easily by another’s missing limb? He is aware that were Luigi fully armed, the tightrope-walking goddess would not look at him twice.
Sophia, meanwhile, has problems of her own. Luigi has been courting her persistently for several weeks now, and while she admires his work – for how could anyone fail to be impressed by a man who treats lions like housecats? – she has to confess that his wooing of her feels… incomplete. She’s always dreamed of a man putting his arms around her and holding her close, and an awkward single-armed embrace just isn’t the same. She’s constantly looking at his empty sleeve and imagining how different life would be had the lion chewed off one of his legs instead.
I’m a terrible person, she thinks miserably, and the shine has gone out of her sequins as she pulls on her costume, ready for the night’s performance.
The moon is fat in the sky as JoJo slips his chain and heads for the circus tent. Sidling in and out of shadows, he reaches the canvas structure, marvelling at the way it towers over everything. It does not take long to slide under the tough material and creep towards the heavy, iron ladder that leads up to the tightrope.
Arthur stands beneath the high wire, gazing up at the woman he has lost. She has never looked more beautiful than she does tonight, her dark hair caught up in coils above her ears, her snug costume gleaming like moonlight.
She has reached the centre of the rope. She balances on one hand and raises the other to wave at the audience. The crowd cheers wildly. Then, out of nowhere, a shadowy, simian shape appears at the foot of the ladder, scampering up the rungs in pursuit of Sophia. Leaping from the ladder, the figure closes its fist around the tightrope and begins to swing itself towards the balancing acrobat. Time stills; Sophia’s pose trembles.
As if in a dream, Arthur watches her slip, her hands scrabbling wildly at the vibrating rope. She falls in slow motion, an endless movement frozen in eternity, and then the spell is broken as the ground begins to rush to meet her, and Arthur finds his two strong legs carrying him with a speed he hadn’t known he possessed so that he’s ready and waiting to catch her in his arms before she hits the sawdust.
From his vantage point on the high wire, JoJo sees the failure of his plan and lets out a howl of fury. He is not the only disappointed one: incensed to see his lover in another’s arms, Luigi lashes out in frustration, inadvertently disturbing the equilibrium of the ladder. When JoJo leaps back onto it, the force of his weight causes the ladder to topple. Down it plummets, moving far more quickly than Sophia’s gentle descent. The crowd screams as the weight of several tons threatens to fall on several of Lorenzo’s best acts.
Pushing Sophia to safety, Arthur tries to calculate the ladder’s trajectory. Realising that if it falls on the lion cage, it could release several ravenous beasts into the audience, he sprints for the cage, thinking to roll it out of the way.
“Move your lions!” he yells at Luigi.
The older man stares at him stupidly, not seeming to understand.
Arthur tries again. “The cage – it’s going to be flattened.”
Galvanised into action, Luigi put his shoulder to the cage and begins to push. Arthur joins him, shoving with both hands as hard as he can, and the wheeled enclosure trundles out of the way seconds before the ladder lands on Arthur, grinding the bones of his right leg to powder.
Arthur opens his eyes slowly. He is lying on his bunk in his parents’ caravan, a fiery pain in his head and an ache in his ribs. His left leg hurts and his right leg feels… numb.
“How do you feel?” his mother asks softly. Her beard is stained with tears.
“Sore.” His eyes search the room. “Is Sophia unhurt?”
“You caught her just in time,” Pippo says. “In another life, you could have been a trapeze artist.”
His father has never praised him like this before. He’d always claimed that Arthur was too tall, too ungainly for the high wire.
“Perhaps I should try,” Arthur says. “When my bruises heal.”
His parents exchange worried looks.
“My left leg hurts a bit,” Arthur continues, “but there’s no pain in my right one.”
Venetia takes hold of her son’s hand and gently guides it to the space where his leg used to be. “There was nothing for the doctor to save,” she says. Tears flood her eyes. “I’m so sorry, my brave, darling boy.”
The room spins. Arthur does not know whether he feels joy or shock. “Find Sophia,” he says, and then he faints away.
When he regains consciousness, Sophia is smiling down at him. “My hero,” she says, bending to kiss his forehead.
He remembers doing the same to Wanda: it’s the gesture of someone who feels compassion, not love. No matter how many limbs he loses, he will never gain her heart.
“Thank you,” Sophia says, “for saving me.”
He lies there in silence, still feeling her in his arms as he stands on his two strong legs. How can he protect her now when he is only half the man he used to be?
“You get used to it with time,” she says suddenly. “I was eight years old when I lost my leg and at first, I thought I would never adjust. But I did.”
As he stares at her, she produces something wrapped in white tissue paper. “You need something to live for,” she says.
His fingers are trembling as he tears the paper away from a sequinned costume.
“Join me on the high wire,” she says. “Two one-legged acrobats – what could be a bigger crowd-pleaser?”
He trembles momentarily on the tightrope between past and present, friends and lovers. If he should fall…
“You caught my heart when you caught me in your arms,” she says; and then she kisses him on the mouth and stars fill the caravan.