The village was strange in the darkness. Despite the pale blue hue of the sky, the buildings appeared huddled in the shadows, unfamiliar and intimidating, whilst the cool wind caused an odd whistle from a nearby window. It wasn’t cold, per se, the summer prevented the night air from being too frigid yet the nerves fluttering about my stomach made it difficult to feel any warmth.
I knew that I must be mad. To even have been considering the idea- never mind agreeing to it- was pure idiocy in itself, yet as the day drew to a close and the clock had ticked on, I had found an unexpected excitement begin to bubble up inside me. I should have never agreed to meet him. It was nothing but pure recklessness badly disguised as a worthwhile act of rebellion.
Not long after we had returned to the house, my Father had drunken himself into a stupor in the study, the heavy snores emitting from the room the only indication that he had not injured himself in his fury. Mrs Buxton had left for the day not long after, her brief lecture on how I should have behaved nothing but a distant echo in my ears. Truthfully, I had found myself still unsettled after his rage. Even as I waited, my wrist still throbbed, the faint thrum of bruising a mild distraction from my tumultuous thoughts.
Just as I was about to admit to my folly and retreat back to the comfort of the house, I saw a figure approach and the uncomfortable tension in my shoulders settled.
Samuel beamed as he saw me, his voice breathy as he exhaled. “You came.”
“Yes,” I frowned. “That is not to say that I am unhappy- I am perfectly well, I am merely curious as to what you seem so eager to show me and to prove that I am perfectly content.”
The corner of his lips curled upwards, his amusement almost palpable. “Of course.” He offered a hand. “Shall we?”
After taking a deep breath, I took it.
For some strange reason, when he linked his arm with mine, I felt safe. The warmth of the night air seemed to seep back into my bones.
I cleared my throat carefully. “You mentioned earlier that you are a magician…”
“Is you entire family in the circus or…?”
He gave a soft smile, his eyes wandering down to our linked arms before his hand found mine, his fingers giving my own a small squeeze. “My father is the ringmaster of the circus. He was originally a magician himself before taking over from his predecessor. My uncle still is, he was the magician who performed the night you attended.”
My next step faltered as I recalled the performance. “That was your uncle.”
His smile grew, his dimples reappearing. “Yes, he is well known all across the country.”
Bemused, I drew my gaze back to the direction in which we were walking. In the distance, I could see the familiar white gauze of the circus tent, the bright lights surrounding it flickering and dancing as we approached. Laughter spilled out from the tent, the soft sound of music drifting over to us from inside, the light, cheerful tempo drawing me in, my grip on Samuel’s arm tightening.
He gave my hand a light squeeze, drawing my attention back. “Are you ready to really see the circus?”
Lost for words I gave a small nod, my heartbeat skipping with each beat of the music that met my ears. “I think that maybe I am.”
No matter how hard I tried to find a way to describe the allure of the circus, I found myself completely unable to define the majestic setting and the magic that seemed to shimmer with the glitter and confetti in the air.
Beneath the tent it was rather warm, the rush of hot air erupting from the nearby fire-breathers as men, impossibly graceful and agile, flew overhead. Samuel held my hand tightly as my eyes swivelled around, trying to take in the flood of sounds and sights.
On one side of the tent a slender woman stretched and flexed on a high platform, a precarious piece of rope strung from the edge towards another column, the sequins of her dress sparkling in the low glow of the light. A few yards away a juggler seemed to watch something unseen, his brow fixed in concentration as his hands, and the objects he was throwing, remained nothing but a blur.
Distantly, I could hear the call of an elephant accompany the whir of the juggler’s items as the cut through the air. The swish of dirt, cheers and loud exhalations from the fire-breather provided a fitting combination with the performance.
“Samuel!” Startled from my gawking, I turned to find the ringmaster approaching, his cheeks a glowing red as his arms were thrown wide. His voice was loud yet not overbearing as it seamlessly rose over through the din. “Where have you been?” Sharp eyes diverted towards me. “And who is this lovely young lady?”
I extended my hand and he took it easily, his large almost meaty hand almost concealing my pale skin. “My name is Anna, it is a pleasure to meet you properly, sir.”
A wide grin came over his face as he held onto my hand for a moment longer before his attention went back to his son. “Well, what do you know? My boy finally found someone- a sweet girl too.”
Flustered, my suddenly free hand found its way to my chest. “Oh, no, sir- I’m afraid-”
The ringmaster drowned out my voice. “Frank! Brother, our Samuel has brought a girl for us to meet!”
My eyes flitted to Samuel who shrugged a shoulder in turn, his expression slightly sheepish yet not quite enough to erase the blatant smile that he seemed to be trying to smother.
A man wearing, what appeared to be, a dinner jacket appeared, his hair dark slicked back away from his face. A woman with long auburn hair also was quick to join him, her head slightly tilted. The man soon spoke. “What is it?”
The ringmaster’s chest puffed out with pride as though he were a wild bird attempting to display its plumage. “Our Samuel finally had someone catch his eye.”
Frank’s gaze swept over me before his stride quickened, seeming barely fazed by the dirt against the well-worn leather of his shoes. He came to a stop besides his brother, a sly grin on his face. “She is certainly a looker.”
Embarrassed, I clasped my hands together and rested them against my diaphragm, my eyes fixed pointedly to the floor. I was considering ways in which I might be able to leave and forget my foolishness in ever attending when I could soon hear the soft sound of tutting and the slither of a long skirt against the floor. “Boys wherever are your manners?” A gently spoken voice rested near my ear. “Please excuse them, dear, whenever they’re around each other they tend to regress to how they were when they were children.”
Risking a glimpse upwards, I saw the woman who had come to my rescue. A hand was placed against a cloth covered hip, the other rested against Samuel’s shoulder. Her green eyes were fixed pointedly in the direction of the two gentlemen. The ringmaster looked rather abashed. “Sorry, sweet.” Frank merely gave a coy smile. I couldn’t help but compare the gesture to that of Samuel’s and begin to suspect where certain behaviours came from.
“Sorry, Mother.” He grinned, appearing anything but apologetic. He looked at his father. “Anna is quite a fan of the circus so I thought that I would introduce her to what we do.”
Large bushy eyebrows rose towards the ringmaster’s receding hairline. “Is that so?”
I gave a small yet firm bob of my head. “Yes, sir.”
“Well then,” His arms stretched wide and, for a worrisome moment, I thought that he may embrace me before he lifted his chin, his wide stomach becoming more prominent. For a few seconds, he said nothing, the only sound present the whisper of the suspenders against the materiel of his shirt before, with a great gush of air, he projected his voice outwards. “Friends, my dear fellow performers, gather round, gather round, we have a guest.”
At his words, the other performers approached, forming a rough circle around our small gathering. I felt my shoulders hunch slightly under the new stares but kept my chin raised. The ringmaster continued. “I would like to introduce Anna a,” His eyes seemed to brighten as a small smirk quirked his lips. “Close friend of Samuel’s.”
At some unknown signal, sudden chatter began, the steady hum becoming louder as I found myself in the centre of a large cluster. Various pairs of hands, in texture both rough and smooth, clasped at my own. I found myself suddenly bombarded with questions, my name appearing as a kind of harmony amidst different accents and brogues. My mind struggled to keep track with the foray of enquiries and comments as they came from all directions. Each warm tone and tight hold of my hand providing a great feeling of warmth which began to settle in my chest, thawing out any residing tension that had been holding me captive.
After a few more minutes of freely offered names, compliments and an impulsive embrace or two, Samuel stepped forward, a familiar face in the blur of others. “Friends, I believe that you are overwhelming poor Anna,”
“Annie…” My voice was quiet yet seemed to have been heard as I found that I was, once again, the recipient of stares, including that of Samuel’s.
At my correction, an unreadable expression settled across Samuel’s face. He was smiling, his eyes seeming to appear gentle as they met my own. “Overwhelming, Annie.”
The ringmaster cleared his throat. “Yes, well, why not give Annie a bit of a show?”
More murmuring met his suggestion and I sort out his light eyes, the pair matching those of Samuel’s. Excitement brewed in my stomach, the sensation heady yet I smothered it down. “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly-”
His booming overtones drowned my words. “Nonsense, nonsense!” The chatter grew as his arms spread out. “Places everybody! Places!”
Feeling as though I should protest again, I was disrupted by a hand grasping mine. I looked down at the captured limb and followed the arm to see Samuel shaking his head, a wide grin across his face.
With the ringmaster’s words, the gathering began to disperse. Dancers flitted towards the entrance, jugglers and acrobats close behind. Frank gave a small bow, his waist bending in a graceful manner before he pulled himself upright and followed the other performers.
Samuel tugged me gently towards where the chairs were before helping me to climb a few steps. Feeling a seat press into the back of my knees, I gingerly sat down. Samuel still clasped my hand, his face indulgent as he held onto my fingers before placing a kiss on the back of my palm and hurrying down the steps. My chest seemed to clench.
The lighting of the tent dimmed. I turned to find that some of the performers were extinguishing the odd light causing a tranquil glow to descend. I rested my palms on my lap, my skin clammy in the humid air.
During my examination of the tent, the other performers seemed to have cleared leaving only the ringmaster in the centre of the floor. His eyes swept over the empty seats as I waited eagerly in the hushed air.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” His eye caught my gaze and he beamed. “Annie, may I present to you, the wonderful, the magnificent, the death defying trapeze twins, Marco and Louie!”
Two slender young men ran through the entrance, waving enthusiastically before hurrying to their equipment.
I couldn’t help but marvel at how effortless they made it all seem. With each leap my heart stuttered, my breath catching in my throat before they caught the bars and I seemed to sink with relief. They seemed to fly, each leap impossibly graceful as they defied the elements- defied the very nature of human possibility with what appeared to be pure magic. I felt as though I may be able to fly with them.
A rather endearing clown followed the twins as well as the juggler that I had witnessed earlier. Act after act entered the small stage, each performance bringing some new thrill as they transported us from the realm of reality to some mystical place where all was right with the world. I could not help but sigh in longing as each one gave a small wave goodbye, my applause ringing out so very loud in the empty space.
Eventually, Frank came on, his stride confident and seemingly well-rehearsed as he performed. I found myself once more marvelling at each casual flick of the wrist and conjuring. Each transition seemed impeccably seamless as doves, flowers and a whole foray of other objects were summoned. A charge seemed to spark in the air, the building enthusiasm and anticipation of all the acts flowing through me like a current. I was becoming increasingly aware of each sound and sight of the circus, each sensation raking over sensitised nerves, the thrill of it all humming over my skin.
It was Samuel’s turn.
He didn’t have the same finesse as his Uncle. He was confident, to be sure, his gait sure and steady yet he still seemed to consider each motion. Clear joy seemed to radiate from his as he performed each trick methodically. In that moment, where all arrogant pretence seemed secondary and he seemed to truly be peace, I couldn’t help but ponder the man that he would one day be. I could not help but giggle at each light joke or smile as he presented his own concoctions, the familiar red roses striking something deep within me that I could not seem to put into words. There was something so indisputably Sam about his performance- some childlike glee in the magic or pride in everything that he did. Another little part of me softened.
Unfortunately, as Samuel drew his performance to a close, the show ended with him. As he took a low bow and I stood, clapping loudly, the others trickled in, each patting each other on the shoulder, a sense of merriment in the air.
Samuel jogged up the steps and, once again, capturing my hand led me down the stairs. “What did you think?”
“Oh, it was wonderful.” My face felt flushed, the excitement of the show filling me with an indescribable rush. “I absolutely adored it.”
An expression of glee, similar to that of when he was performing, returned to his face as he inclined his head towards the entrance. I accompanied him out into the night air.
The temperature was still rather warm, an unwelcome sheen of perspiration seeming to cling to the back of my neck as I took in the still evening, noise and cheer behind me.
Samuel was quiet for a moment as he seemed to savour the night himself before drawing in a lungful of air and speaking. “Meet with me again.”
“Samuel, you will be leaving in a few days perhaps it would be wise to…”
He exhaled noisily, his shoulders drooping with the gesture. “I know.” His voice lowered to a level so quiet that he was barely legible. “I know.”
A particularly loud yell drew our attention back to the tent to see some of the others encouraging the juggler. I smiled.
I could feel Samuel looking at me. “Annie… it suits you.”
“It is what my Mother always used to call me.” Tearing my eyes away from the celebrations and joy of the performers, I met his heavy gaze. “Samuel, if things were different who knows what could have happened yet I scarcely know you. Nothing can happen between us.”
“Do you not think I know that?” His brow was furrowed, his mouth receding into a thin line. “Do you not think that I knew that the moment that I first saw you standing there, looking as though you were waiting for someone to find you?” His features smoothed slightly and a small chuckle escaped him. “And you became flustered over that hat.”
“I was not flustered-“
“And when you started to argue with me over every little detail.” He chuckled once more. I closed my mouth. As his laughter came to a close, his expression sobered and he gave a small sigh. “I know that we do not know each other, but I would like to leave here knowing that I have made ‘Little Annie’ just that little bit happier.”
I barely supressed the urge to bristle at his teasing, fully aware that he was trying to prove his earlier point over my predisposition to disagree with him. He grasped my other hand. “Meet with me again, come back to the circus tomorrow night and enjoy yourself. Allow yourself to just be Annie again but do not do it for me- do it for yourself.”
I looked back towards the tent, at the bright white material lighting up the sky like a beacon calling me home. I looked at the stars twinkling above in the clear night air before, finally, meeting the light, impossibly wise eyes of Samuel as he held onto my hands, his tanned fingers encasing mine as though he was keeping me with him in the magic of it all.
I licked my lips, my pulse seeming to beat a staccato in my neck. “Yes.”
He gave a small nod, the relief clear across his features as he hooked my arm into his. “Let us tell the others the good news.”
Steeling my nerves, I straightened my spine and clung on tightly. “I cannot wait.”