memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

The Circus comes to town

Little Natasha skipped down the Rue de Marais as fast as her eight-year-old legs could carry her and turned into the gate of No. 18 nearly knocking into the cook, Madame Boulanger, in her hurry and excitement.

–          Madame Boulanger, Madame Boulanger! Have you heard the news? A circus is coming next week to our quartier … imagine, with real lions and tigers and clowns and things … could you please, please talk to Maman and ask her for you to take me! I‘ve never been to a real circus; Papa promised to take me to one but he keeps putting it off because he’s so busy … it’s called Le Cirque Du Soleil.

Later Madame Boulanger took a tray upstairs to Mme. Ostrakova.

–     Thank you, Madame Boulanger; what was little Natasha talking about?

–    Natushka was mentioning the circus that’s arriving next week in the quartier, Madame; she’s very anxious to go and see them.

         Well obviously I can’t take her and my husband is rather busy at the office at the moment … Madame Boulanger, I wonder if you could possibly take her yourself? I would be so grateful; life here in Paris must still be a little strange for her after Petersburg.

       It would be a pleasure to take the little mite, Madame.

So little Natasha finally got to go to the circus.

Meanwhile, about seven hundred kilometres to the south, a slow winding convoy of trucks were heading out of Marseille towards Angouleme; it was the circus. On the sides of every truck there was painted the legend, Cirque Du Soleil in front a big yellow sun. From Angouleme the convoy would pick up the Autoroute du Sud straight to Paris. This journey of normally only a few hours, would take the cumbersome convoy the best part of a day, with its frequent stops to water and tend to the animals. These animals, the horses and the dogs, the elephant and the monkey, the lions and the tigers were, on the whole, calm and sedated – only the pair of tigers prowled restlessly round their cages, their yellow burning eyes glaring furiously at the keepers.

In the second truck of the convoy, Vladimir, the part owner of the circus, was seated beside his seventeen-year-old daughter, Mia who was one of the trapeze artists. They sat in silence, mile after mile, Vladimir baffled and annoyed at the stubborn attitude of his teenage daughter. Mia stared unseeing out of the window as the beautiful country-side of central France rolled past. She saw only Anton’s face with his funny crooked smile, reaching out to grab her hands, his feet hooked on the swinging bar.

–   Look Mia, I just think that you’re too young to be thinking of getting married. I’ve known Anton since the old days, back in Canada and while he has pleasant, winning ways, he has a bit of a reputation … And besides he’s quite a lot older than you …

–   Listen Dad, he’s told me all about the other women; we’re in love …! And anyway in a few weeks’ time I’ll be eighteen and then you won’t be able to stop us!

The convoy rolled on towards Paris.

I was in the last truck. I am the Clown. My name is Gustav Kohl. I was born in Hamburg and when I was ten years old the family emigrated to Montreal, Canada, where they still live to this day. I grew up shy and introverted and looked like a skinny little shrimp. To avoid being bullied at school I turned into a joker, at first for survival and then out of habit. After leaving school I joined my father in his shop, serving the customers and still cracking one-liners:

–          Here you are Mrs. Fowler! Sure I can’t interest you in something for the weekend? something for your husband, perhaps … know what I mean … nudge nudge wink wink … as the actress said the Bishop …

In my thirties I got to hear about a circus up in Quebec which was creating a bit of a stir. Apparently they would hire anyone regardless of race, gender or age, as long as he or she had something to contribute to their philosophy which was to spread around more joy in the world. I went up and signed on as a Clown.

Things went wrong in Paris from the start. The tigers were still fractious; one of the horses went lame; the owner was hardly speaking to his daughter and that rogue Anton went around the place looking like the cat who had eaten the cream.

As the audience was filing into the big top, I nipped round the back of the tent for a quick smoke and overheard the following exchange:

 –   Listen Mia, is everything set for tonight?

–   I’m not sure honey, supposing my father calls the Police when he finds out we’re gone?

–  We’ll be well away by then! I’ve got a friend in Montmartre who can hide us for few days ‘till      the hunt dies down …

–  Oh, I don’t know, I really don’t know …

Later back in the big top little Natasha was having the time of her life; she kept tugging at Mme. Boulanger’s hand to point everything out. Then the lights dimmed and a spot-light came on and picked out the Clown, with his antics and comic capers being chased around the ring by a small dog, much to the delight of the children. Natushka was quite breathless with excitement. Exit the Clown, in confusion – applause from the crowd – then a hush of anticipation – everyone looked up into the darkness.

Suddenly two spot-lights stab upwards and play on the two trapeze acrobats standing on their bars, balancing effortlessly high above the ring.

The Master Of Ceremonies announces:

–          Ladies and Gentlemen! The Cirque Du Soleil is proud to present on the trapeze, Anton and Mia! Mia will be attempting the world famous triple somersault through the air and will be caught by Anton!!

Each on their different trapezes start to swing through the air with Anton locking his legs around the bar and Mia bracing to launch herself into space; just at the point of no return, Mia, as she starts her jump, notices that Anton has slightly mistimed his swing; she arches through the air, her body rolling and spinning out of the triple jump, her arms are outstretched to Anton … who isn’t there to receive her.

And Mia falls.

Mia falls down and down, as the crowd gasps, then bounces into the safety net managing to recover her posture and bowing to the now applauding audience, while I scampered in front of the children with my red painted smile on my white painted face. The children, thinking that it is all part of the act, laugh and cheer.

Later, on their way home, Natasha, still bubbling with excitement, skipped alongside Mme. Boulanger; she couldn’t wait to tell Maman all about it!

As a result of the accident Mia broke up with Anton. She had spotted a basic flaw in his character – he wasn’t reliable, he could not be trusted.

She later met a nice-steady-young-man whom she eventually, with her father’s approval, married. They now have two kids, four dogs, a cat and a goldfish and live in a suburb of Quebec.

I, the clown, soldier on at the circus.

The children’s joy is my joy.

Natasha is now in her third year at the Sorbonne and is causing her parents some anxiety although at heart they are very proud of her.

As for the tigers, they still prowl restlessly round their cages, their fierce spirits roaming eternally through the forests of the night.

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