Friday, 24 November 2017
A Midsummer Night's Circus - short story
To bring some sunshine into the dark nights of winter, here's a heart-warming short story about a gang of young dreamers who decide to start a circus in the 1980s...
“A circus, eh?” With face and hands as red as raw meat, the burly butcher stared at Summer Day’s beautifully designed, hand-printed poster. “How many elephants ‘ave you got?”
“I’m afraid we don’t have any elephants.” Summer, a 20-year-old vegetarian, tried not to feel queasy amid the split carcasses hanging from every wall.
A mince-splattered transistor radio in the corner was quietly playing the summer’s big hit, There Must Be An Angel Playing With My Heart by the Eurythmics.
“Oh, that’s a shame.” The butcher’s sausage-like fingers were leaving bloodstained creases on the poster’s edges. “I love the elephants, when Smart’s come to town. Have you got any lions?”
“We don’t actually have any animals,” Summer admitted.
“No animals?” The shopkeeper’s meaty features shifted from disappointment to concern.
“It’s a different sort of circus.” Summer could feel her cheeks becoming as red as his. “A new sort of...”
“Any clowns...?” The butcher asked with little hope.
“Ahem.” Summer pointed two index fingers at herself.
She was wearing bib and brace overalls decorated with multi-coloured patches, a hooped t-shirt and Doc Martin boots spray-painted with metallic purple and silver swirls. Her top hat had a large plastic daffodil sticking out of the band.
The meat vendor looked her up and down and frowned.
“So where’s your red nose?”
Summer sighed as she left the shop. It had been the same story up and down the high street. Although most of the retailers had let her put a poster in their window, their reactions made her wonder why she was spending the holidays promoting a show that defied everyone’s expectations of what a circus should be.
The reason, of course, was Raphael, the dashing, raven-haired English Lit student she’d met at the university’s juggling club. The always inspired and contagiously inspiring Raphael, who had decided to combine his passion for Shakespeare with his new love of circus skills to stage Romeo and Juliet with stilt-walking, fire-eating, a tightrope and clowns.
“Can I be a clown?” she’d heard herself ask, and the moment Raphael’s dark eyes and warm smile turned her way, her fate was sealed.
Oh, Raphael, Raphael! Wherefore art thou, Raphael?
Just the thought of him melted her innards like a Curly-Wurly left in the sun, and brought the skip back to her step as she headed to the park where their tent, a former wedding marquee, stood bedecked with bunting in the sunshine.
Still, it was hours until show time, Summer consoled herself. She was sure an audience would come, because Raphael’s idea was such a brilliant one.
“Is Raphael around?” Summer asked, keen to tell him she’d placed all her posters. Maybe it would make him fall in love with her, she thought, giddily.
“Um, not sure.” Olly’s face was strained. Summer thought he sounded worried, but put it down to him trying to keep his balance.
She went into the tent and found it empty apart from its mismatched chairs, standing unevenly on the grass, and the plywood scenery that she’d spent so long carefully painting - picturing Raphael’s sublime features as she applied every stroke.
As well as directing the production, he was starring as Romeo, and Summer doubted that anyone had ever been better cast as Shakespeare’s most famous lover.
Blinking as she re-emerged into sunlight at the back of the tent, she saw the van and minibus that they’d borrowed from uni. The sliding side door of the ‘bus was open and the sound of giggles drew her to it.
At first, she thought there was no one inside. Then she saw a tangle of limbs writhing happily on the back seat. Raphael and Nicole, who played Juliet in the show, were doing a lot more than rehearsing their lines.
“Are you alright, Summer?” Olly asked.
She was sitting alone on a park bench, in the warm, still darkness at the end of the evening. The only light was a pale glow from a nearby streetlamp around which moths fluttered fruitlessly.
She was still wearing her bib and braces and holding her top hat with its plastic flower in her lap.
“Fine.” She looked away from him, her frizz of dark brown curls shading her smudged makeup, as Olly sat down beside her.
For what could she say? Neither Raphael nor Nicole had done anything wrong. There had never been anything between Raphael and Summer except a hope in her heart. But hope, she’d learned, was the most painful thing to lose.
“Beautiful show, wasn’t it?” Olly pulled the ring from a can with a ftt. “Shame no one turned up.”
Back at uni, Summer stopped going to the juggling club, and could offer no real reason when Olly asked her why. Luckily, she, Raphael and Nicole were reading different subjects, so she didn’t have to hang around and watch their relationship unfold. But it still brought her up short, like a punch to the heart, whenever she turned a corner on campus and unexpectedly saw them laughing together or talking closely, so clearly a couple.
For a while, she went out with a boy called Aide, but like a moth she found herself drawn back into Raphael’s orbit.
At a graduation party in a noisy pub, she was surprised to hear Nicole regaling her friends with her plans for a gap year in India - apparently without her Romeo.
“So what have you got planned?” Olly asked Raphael, who was looking distinctly sidelined.
Raphael shuffled his stylish winkle-pickers and looked up shyly from under his black fringe as he said, “I’m thinking of giving the circus a proper go.”
“You’re kidding me?” Olly had a job lined up with a city bank, his juggling days behind him.
“No, I’m serious.” Raphael stood straighter, his chin level. “If I can get a tour of arts festivals I think it could work.”
“Course it will,” said Summer, daring to move closer. “Shakespeare and circus is a brilliant idea.”
He turned, smiling gratefully, as if he hadn’t seen her for a long time. With an inward sigh, Summer wished she hadn’t that very morning accepted a job in Spain, teaching art to primary school children.
With memories of juggling balls bouncing out of her past, she headed towards the small group of longhaired young people struggling with their ropes and poles.
Her heart quickened when she saw a single-decker bus painted like a rainbow, with the words Shakespeare’s Circus emblazoned like graffiti on the side. Then a raven-haired man straightened up from tying a rope, to wipe his glistening brow.
“Raphael!” Summer exclaimed.
Tanned and broad-shouldered from working outdoors, he glanced her way and did a double take.
“Summer!” His beaming face radiated health. “Long time, no see!”
He hugged her, and his muscular manliness left her light-headed.
“How’s it going?” she asked.
“Hand to mouth,” he admitted. “Still get ten people a day ask where the elephants are, but we’re getting there.”
“Need any clowns?” Summer asked.
“Got too many!” Raphael laughed.
At that moment, two men and a pole fell to the grass and the far side of the tent collapsed.
Raphael grinned at her and said, “I could use a good designer, though.”
“Summer, can you take over the barbeque a moment?” Raphael called.
“Sure.” But when she reached the smoking grill, the sizzling fat turned her stomach.
“’Scuse me!” Hand over her mouth, Summer dashed for the Portaloos.
“Summer...?” Raphael stared after her.
“So when are you and Summer going to tie the knot?” asked Olly, when the burger queue had died down.
“You can’t keep a woman waiting forever.” Nicole fluttered her hand to show off Olly’s ring.
“It’s alright for you two,” Raphael joked. “You’re both loaded.”
“If only!” Olly laughed, but everyone knew he was making a mint in the city. Nicole, meanwhile, was a successful TV producer.
The previous year, Nicole had made a documentary about Raphael using circus tricks to make Shakespeare accessible to underprivileged communities that wouldn’t normally experience the bard.
Raphael sighed and said, quietly, “Between you and me, we’ve been going through a rough patch. It might be time to call it a day.”
Nicole looked at him curiously, remembering how mildly he’d taken it when they broke up at uni. They’d both been young and flighty then, but she’d come to think he and Summer were much more serious about each other.
“Ah, here comes Summer now,” Olly cut in, too brightly.
Stunned and pale, Summer looked at the three troubled faces.
“Feeling better?” Raphael asked, nervously.
“Fine,” she said, quietly. “I better get changed for the show.”
The next morning, as the cast were taking down the tent, Raphael came up behind Summer and wrapped his arms around her.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked.
Summer wriggled free.
“I’m just tired, okay?”
“Aren’t we all?” Raphael huffed.
“I have to get something from the shops,” Summer said, without looking at him.
“Whatever.” Raphael headed back to help the others.
As Summer walked into town, her mind replayed for the thousandth time what she’d overheard Raphael tell the others about calling it a day.
He was right, they had lost the magic. They’d been preoccupied, trying to get the grant or sponsorship that would let them give up their part time jobs as supply teachers and run the circus full time. There hadn’t been much time for each other.
But if things were that bad, why hadn’t he said anything? Or was he just plotting his escape, the way that sneaky Miguel had in Spain?
Summer recalled the first time she and Raphael had fallen into each other’s arms, one scented summer night after a show. They hadn’t discussed the future, because it felt so right she’d taken that for granted. Now she wondered whether, to Raphael, their relationship had been just a convenience all along.
At the local chemist, her fingers trembled as she bought a pregnancy test. She knew it was more than a stomach bug that had put her out of sorts for the past week.
Sitting on the edge of a fountain in the town square, not wanting to go back to the circus to face her fate, she wondered what she would do if all her suspicions were correct.
“What’s the occasion?” she asked, nervously.
“Take a seat,” Raphael said solemnly. “I need to talk to you.”
Feeling faint, Summer was glad to take the weight off legs that had suddenly gone weak. Her stomach tightened as he sat opposite, his smile tense.
Was this it, then? she wondered. The big break-up speech?
“I know things haven’t been so smooth between us lately,” he began. “And it’s probably my fault. We’ve been so busy trying to get funding...”
Her chest tight, Summer wondered if she should get her news in first. Would knowing she was pregnant change what he was about to say? Knowing Raphael, she reckoned it would. But she didn’t want to live a lie. If he was tired of her, she wanted to know.
“But this isn’t about the circus,” Raphael was saying. “It’s something I’ve been meaning to say for a while. Nicole made me realise I can’t put it off any longer.”
He reached out and took her hand. “Summer, my darling, will you marry me?”
“Marry you?” she spluttered. “I thought you were going to split up with me.”
“Why on earth would I want to do that?”
Tears sprang from Summer’s eyes. “I heard you tell Olly things were rough... you wanted to call it a day.”
“You heard...? I meant the circus!” Raphael protested. “I love what we’re doing, especially taking Shakespeare into schools. But unless we can get proper funding... I don’t want the way we’ve been struggling to come between us.”
“Nothing could ever come between us.” Summer tearfully squeezed his hand in both of hers. “I love the circus as much as you do.”
“Is that a yes, then...?” he grinned, hopefully.
“Of course it’s a yes!” Summer laughed. “And by the way, I have some news, too...”
Before she could finish, their chunky mobile phone rang.
“Hold on a moment... Oh, hi, Olly.” Raphael listened with an increasing look of disbelief, then clicked off the phone and beamed at her.
“Olly’s finally talked his bank into sponsoring us! We can do the circus full time, on a scale like never before!”
For a long time, Raphael talked excitedly about his plans for their next show. Summer watched him happily, full of the admiration and love she’d felt when he first had the idea of staging Shakespeare with circus.
She loved the way it had never been just about him or making money. His motivation had always been finding ways to help other people enjoy and understand the bard’s timeless beauty as much as he did.
Recently, he’d been so down, because it had seemed they’d taken their mission as far as it could go, but suddenly it was like a weight had been taken off his back and he was flying again.
Summer’s heart soared with him.
Eventually, Raphael said, “So what were you about to say?”
Summer blushed and said coyly, “Only that if we’re going to get married, perhaps we should do it sooner rather than later.”
Perplexed, his eyes flicked from her face to the hand on her belly, then the penny dropped.
She nodded, smiling.
Raphael raised his eyes and spread his arms to the heavens as he declared, “Oh, the news just gets better!”
They both stood and she melted into his arms as he kissed her passionately.
“This calls for a toast!” Raphael pulled a champagne bottle from the fridge and popped the cork off the caravan’s ceiling. “To you! And to us!”
“And to Olly,” Summer reminded him.
“And to Olly, of course. It’s good of him to remember his old friends isn’t it?”
“It’s not just the sponsorship,” Summer grinned. “Didn’t he ever tell you? He only took me along to the juggling club in the first place in the hope that I’d distract you from Nicole!”
Raphael laughed and raised his glass. “In that case, here’s to Olly! And here’s to Shakespeare’s Circus!”
A Midsummer Night's Circus first appeared in the popular women's magazine My Weekly. If you've ever fancied writing for the women's magazine market, try my ebook How To Write and Sell Fiction to Magazines. Click here to buy it from Amazon.
If you're in the mood for another circus story, click here to read Murder at the Circus.