by Morgan Downey
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Albert felt the strong weight of work in his shoulders, a hot glow at the base of his back, tight up into his neck. It was not the career his mother might have planned – in the old country, Albert, a clerk is a fine thing to be – but a brief apprenticeship in book-keeping had at least been enough to get him here and here was so unexpected, so wonderful, that for Albert to be here was enough.
True, some might say that he started his day shovelling shit, but to Albert it was the quality of shit rather than the task that mattered. There were the fecund droppings of the horses, who had taken to him immediately as he worked among them, steaming from their blankets into the cold morning air, nuzzling at his pockets for grain, the prospect of food and he, pushing them away, feeling the strength of their muscle under his hands. This, for Albert, was the very sense of motion. Then the elephants and the hot exoticism of their dung. Who could have imagined that he, the young Albert, would grow to stand alongside these grey colossi? Albert could endure the prodding of a curious trunk just so that he was able to stand pressed to the flank of the animal and hear the huge heart beating distantly.
Albert left the lions until last. The lions had fascinated him from the first day, from the moment Eric the cat man had warned – stay away from him, kid, he’ll tear your arm off – with such sternness, such gravity, Albert thought that he was still in the ring. This was Caesar, who they sold as king of the beasts, Caesar who at Albert’s approach paced the cage, his purr a golden anticipation of the meat that swung in buckets from the young man’s arms. Eric the cat man had seen the affinity Albert had for the lions and they for him, but Albert did not take him up on his offer of training in the lion-tamers art. He preferred to watch Caesar at his feast, waiting until he had finished so that he could dig his fingers into the lion’s mane, scratch behind the ears, watch the yellow eyes narrow in pleasure. Eric the cat man could have used a partner in the act, but to have Albert there to keep the cats happy, to have an opportunity to speak the language of the homeland, was a return to another life, just out of reach.
From there, every second day, Albert made his way to The Great Singh. In return for a few favours the strongman had agreed that Albert could use some of his weights, that he would show him how to add muscle to his upper body. ‘But,’ Singhsaid, pinching Albert’s bicep between his fingers, ‘Only inside, only in the tent. You’re so small, it’s embarrassing.’ So Albert discovered India, Singh watching on as he struggled with the iron weights, telling Albert the story of the country he had left behind, the beauty of the mountains, the glory of Amritsar, the great voyage that had brought him to this place. Albert listened obsessively – the British, he asked, what are they like? To which The Great Singh had answered, the boot does not care the colour of the foot within when it stamps on the poor.
Under any other circumstances Boss Sarkissian would have insisted that Albert did more than just help with the animals and the other sundry tasks he found himself on a day-to-day basis. Times were hard and no one could expect more than plain board for sanitary work and the erection and dismantling of tents. Eric the cat man had already spoken to him on the subject more than once. Neither of them suggested the clowns. Albert was funny, it was true, and the clowns liked him, but they had their own codes.
Boss Sarkissian had approached Albert with the intention of having him work with the cats despite his expression of disinterest. At least that was how Boss Sarkissian saw it, in reality his method of suggestion was more instructive than persuasive. He found Albert reading a book.
Boss Sarkissian had been many things, none of which he would go so far as to actually admit to. In camp they suggested escape artist, tumbler, knife man, but none of these in front of him, and then beneath their breath, scalper, gouger, penny pincher. One thing that could be said for definite was that Boss Sarkissian liked book learning. It was not a time of great literacy and Boss Sarkissian’s trailer was lined with books in a half dozen different languages.
‘What’re you reading?’ he demanded.
Albert looked up. ‘Uh, mathematics, sir.’
Boss Sarkissian snatched the book from Albert’s hands. What surprised him was not the discovery of a reader, nor the subject of his reading, but Albert’s dense annotation of the text.
‘You can count?’ he said.
Albert smiled. ‘There’s a lot more than just counting there, sir.’
‘But you can count?’
‘I did some time as a book-keeper.’
Boss Sarkissian raised his eyebrows. ‘A book-keeper?’
So Albert became Boss Sarkissian’s book-keeper, the one who was finally able to order the scrawled chaos of the show’s ledgers into something like legibility, if not legality. Boss Sarkissian liked records but couldn’t keep them. It wasn’t that he was drunk, even if the flow of bourbon past his lips was a constant, just that figures on the page eluded him, tricksy and unsubstantiated in a way that words were not. Albert continued to work with the animals but spent a portion of the day on the books, totting up cash, paying the employees, ensuring there was enough money for feed and to keep food in their mouths. He had a sharp eye. Boss Sarkissian trusted him. Enough to actually pay him regularly but not enough to lose the desire that Albert should be doing more of what he termed ‘proper circus work’.
‘You should work with the cats,’ he suggested, friendly enough now that it really was just a suggestion, even if the frequency of the suggestion might border on insistence.
‘No thanks, boss,’ said Albert. ‘I like working with them, Caesar and all, but I just don’t see myself in the lion-taming game.’
‘So what then?’ asked Boss Sarkissian. ‘Singh can’t use you. I don’t need you for any other sort of animal work.’
‘The bar act,’ said Albert. ‘I’d like to do the bar act.’
‘You’re too small,’ said Boss Sarkissian.
‘I saw Leitzel.’ Albert blurted out the name, the uncrowned queen of the aerialists. ‘I saw Leitzel. She’s smaller than me. But I saw her, up there. And then …’
Boss Sarkissian allowed himself a smile. ‘You ran away to the circus.’
Boss Sarkissian had been many things. They said he’d had three wives and each one died after the other. They said he killed a man with a tent spike during a card game. They said he drank so that he wouldn’t remember those other lives before. Whatever, he was a romantic when it came to the circus. At least if there was no money involved.
‘Okay kid,’ he said. ‘Talk to them. But Cravat first. Not Lang. Stay away from him. Speak to Cravat.’
To get Cravat alone was a task in itself. The pair never seemed to be separate so Albert waited, watched at a distance. He knew little about them. Like himself, they had come from the East, but unlike Albert they had travelled as a pair, friends since childhood with all the unspoken ties that bond brings.
Cravat was smaller, dark haired. He had a quick temper, a mood equally quick to subside into laughter. When he wasn’t working or practising he favoured wearing a suit, white shirt, no tie. He owned two suits, one brown, one blue. He had small feet, was fastidious about his shoes. Cravat was a conversationalist, a wisecracker, always fast on the joke even if he had to be the butt of it as a means to allay Lang’s temper.
Lang was taller, a good head and more than Cravat. His hair was a dirty blonde, curly, unkempt. It flapped across his forehead and Albert could never figure if Lang had dyed it. He was casual in his dress, much more so than Cravat, liked to be seen in whites, a neat trick in itself on a travelling show, and would often step out as if he was about to set sail on a yacht, right down to the deck shoes and no socks. Like Cravat, Lang had a temper, but his was titanic, a thunderhead of rage that left split lips and broken furniture in its wake.
Unlike Cravat, Lang kept his own counsel, held himself aloof, shoulders thrown back as if for him the show never stopped, as if he was always performing, on display. At the end of the day he would have a drink, sure, but there was always that distance. The clowns didn’t trust him.
The pair of them were free with their fists, a required skill in the day-to-day life of the show, especially with the clowns, and would often be seen returning from visits to small towns torn, bloodied but smiling. Once, it was said, it had taken five men to subdue Cravat. Despite this they were charming. When with the public they had a constant retinue of small children. Cravat could lift them four at a time, two on his back and one on each arm. They would take the time to share a cigar and a drink with the male customers, assure them that the bar act was not such a big deal, that these farmers, share croppers and clerks could do exactly the same if only they had the same training as Lang and Cravat. And Lang, Lang was one for the ladies, regardless of age or looks, a glint in his eye whether hewas with some wall-eyed country girl or taking the arm of an old widow woman with all the charm and courtesy of a southern gentleman.
Finally, Albert found Cravat alone, inspecting and coiling rope.
‘Lang not here?’ he asked.
Cravat shook his head.
‘Is he coming back?’
Cravat shrugged, nodding his head towards a shuttered trailer. ‘He’s having a visit with the equestriennes.’
Albert relaxed. ‘Can I talk to you for a minute?’
‘I, uh, my name’s Albert.’
Cravat smiled. ‘I know who you are.’
‘Well I was wondering … I was wondering if I could help, maybe learn some of your act.’
Cravat stopped coiling the rope. ‘Did the boss put you up to this?’
‘He said I should talk to you.’
‘The boss wants you in the bar act?’
Albert shook his head. ‘He wants me to do more in the show. He wants me to work with the cats but me, I want ...’ Albert looked upwards. ‘I want to do this.’
‘Okay,’ said Cravat slowly.
‘And he said to talk to you.’
Cravat grinned. ‘Probably good advice.’
He dropped the rope, pitched himself forward into an easy handstand, walked forward on his hands before flipping back up onto his feet. ‘Can you do that?’
Albert shook his head.
‘Then you’re no good to us. People think the bar act is just a dumb act, all muscle and training, but they’re wrong. It’s all in the balance, the timing, two things at the same time.’ He looked Albert up and down. ‘Which is good because you don’t look strong. You are small and light so that’s a start at least.’
He looked at the rope. ‘You know how to coil a rope.’
Albert shrugged. ‘I think so, at least I think I can learn.’
Cravat laughed, clapping him on the shoulder. ‘Yeah, you need to learn a lot. We’ll start with the rope and rigging and after that we’ll work on the rest.’
‘Sure,’ said Albert.
‘Don’t look disappointed.’ Cravat held out the rope. ‘This is trust. Only the rope holds you up. If you want a man to trust you he has to trust your rigging.’
‘Thanks,’ said Albert, brighter.
‘No problem,’ Cravat extended his hand. ‘Nick. Nick Cuccia.’
‘Nah. I just liked the name.’
‘That’s not his name either. Now let’s see your handstand.’
They worked for the rest of the morning until interrupted by the sound of a flurry of female voices, the slamming of a trailer door, and suddenly Lang was in the tent, flushed, eyes flashing. He looked at Cravat, then Albert, standing in front of a pile of immaculately coiled rope. Mud and sawdust in his hair.
‘The kid wants to learn the act.’
Lang glared at Cravat for a long moment before turning to Albert, leaning down into his face, until Albert could smell the scent of the equestriennes.
‘I won’t work with no boss’s man,’ he hissed and strode away.
Albert continued to work with the ropes. He needed no tutoring in coiling, a skill at which Cravat declared he was a natural. Rigging was more complicated but Albert soon began to suggest small improvements, additional support for areas of identified stress, clever lines in order not to deflect the paying public’s eyes. He scribbled notes in his notebook, made diagrams, showed them to Cravat, who viewed them suspiciously.
‘It’s only trigonometry,’ said Albert.
‘It’s numbers,’ said Cravat. ‘How can you trust something you can’t hold in your hands?’
Mostly, however, Albert’s ideas proved correct and Cravat was won over. Learning new physical skills was a different matter. His hands became calloused, blisters bled upon blisters. Simple tasks such as a dismount from the bar caused him endless frustration. Cravat’s voice goaded him. ‘Stop thinking about what you’re doing and just do it.’
Until, suddenly, , he could drop from the bar and land on his feet. Albert knew he was nowhere near performing but the idea that he could perform the action, could repeat it and do so like he meant it, swelled his chest with pride. Cravat was more grudging in his praise. ‘Even shit has to land.’
Albert was surprised at the pain. His joints were in a constant state of hurt, his shoulders and neck ached despite the liberal application of a stinking substance of murky provenance that Cravat would only refer to as ‘the liniment’. His nails were torn, caked with talc, sometimes his fingers shook so badly he could not hold a pencil.
Cravat caught him rubbing disinfectant into his damaged, seeping skin and snatched it away.
‘The liniment,’ he said, thrusting the bottle at Albert. ‘Nothing can live in this.’
Albert shook his head. ‘My hands just aren’t tough enough.’
‘So rub them with vinegar,’ suggested Cravat. ‘Or piss on them.’ He grinned. ‘It can’t make you smell any worse.’
Lang offered no support, spoke to Albert only when he could not possibly avoid it and most often in the form of demands – he wanted this, he wanted that, he wanted Albert to leave. He refused to practise if Albert was in sight, wouldn’t touch a piece of equipment Albert had rigged unless he obviously and painstakingly checked it first.
Albert expressed as much to Boss Sarkissian.
‘Lang!’ the boss exclaimed. ‘Talking to Lang is like talking to a statue. There’s nothing in that stubborn head except rock.’ Boss Sarkissian sighed. ‘If it’s too tough you could always work with the cats.’
Albert picked at the rough skin on his fingers. ‘I can take it.’
As the weeks passed Albert began to take long walks to ease the stiffness out of his body and mull over the problems of his newly acquired skills in his head. He visualised himself moving with the grace of Lang or Cravat, the carefree movement through the air, but he could not lose the inevitable tug of gravity and, in his imagination as in practice, he came crashing down. He began to spend more time in the small towns in which they performed, diverting himself from the despair the lack of progress, the failure. He spent time with store owners, sat on steps with strangers, listening to their stories, savouring the new accents and insights. Increasingly he found himself longing for each new town, the tiny individualities that would reveal themselves to him, an array of possibilities, fresh faces, open doors.
So he found himself wandering down the dusty dusk-lit street of a town whose name he would later be unable to recall. A few lights glowed in the windows, he could hear the faint sound of radios, a dog barking. Spring cold pushed his hands deeper into his pockets.
A man gestured from a doorway.
‘Hey you,’ he questioned. ‘Are you a working man?’
Albert looked up, stopped. ‘A working man? I suppose I must be. I work for a living, I think.’ He smiled. ‘Most of the time.’
‘Yeah,’ said the man. ‘Work for a living or to put food in your mouth. I bet the bosses got you right where they want you. A young man like you should know his rights. A young man like you should know the solidarity of the brotherhood of workers. A young man like you should be organised.’
The man held the door open. ‘I can offer you coffee and conversation.’
‘Since you put it that way,’ said Albert.
He found himself in a tiny hall so closely packed with men, smoke and voices he could hardly see from one wall to the other. Someone pressed a steaming mug of coffee into his hand. Albert looked round to see if the man who had invited him in was there but he was gone. Other hands pushed him down into a seat.
If it was a meeting it was like no other he had been to. There appeared to be no speaker, only a series of voices intersecting with one another, punctuated with shouts of affirmation, applause or anger. Albert looked around. The men were of all ages, from lumbering farmer types, their denims still splattered with mud, to raw-eyed office men, ink-stained cuffs resting nervous on their knees. Albert felt himself swayed with a restless energy, frayed, insubstantial.
They talked of oppression, of the hand of the profiteer in the very pocket of the working man, stealing the food from his mouth, from the mouths of his family, his children hungry, wailing. They talked of the dignity of labour, the need for a man to be able to walk unfettered, his thoughts free to be his own. They talked of a place called Centralia, a place Albert had never heard of, of gunfire and dead in the street, of a man named Kyle Everett lynched, shot and mutilated, his murderers unpunished. The men’s voices raised in a useless angry roar and Albert felt himself adrift when suddenly he realised Lang was sitting not two chairs away, tense as a fist, his knuckles white. Lang saw Albert almost immediately, jerked his head in the direction of the door and the two spilled out into the street.
Lang strode ahead, jaw clenched. ‘I believe in the rights of the working man,’ he said eventually. Albert did not reply, realised that Lang did not expect an answer, had not spoken to him but was in some conversation that Albert was not party to.
‘I believe a man should be free,’ continued Lang. ‘He should not be bound by the men who make money off his back, no matter who he is, where he comes from.’
He fell silent, then turned to Albert. ‘I just can’t have any truck with Americans killing Americans, see. No matter what their differences. I just can’t get past it.’
Albert said nothing.
‘So why were you there?’ asked Lang eventually.
‘Some guy asked me,’ said Albert. ‘And it was cold. And, I don’t know, sometimes you need to go to a place to see where it gets you.’
Lang brightened. ‘That’s right.’ He clapped his hand on Albert’s shoulder. ‘I had you wrong, Albert. I thought you were a pen pusher, a boss’s man and nothing more. Sometimes I’m too quick. It’s a flaw in me. I see that. I hope you can accept my apology.’
He held out his hand and Albert took it, wincing in his grip. Lang noticed at once.
‘Your hands hurt?’
Albert held out his hands. Lang frowned. ‘Your joints are swollen. Are you afraid of heights?’
‘No,’ said Albert.
‘So why’re you so afraid of falling? You’re holding on too tight to the bar. It hurts the joints. How often do you fall?’
Albert’s head dropped ‘A lot.’
Lang’s teeth flashed white. ‘It’s because you don’t believe in the air, you think only the ground can hold you up.’
‘That’s a false kind of thinking,’ said Lang. ‘You been copying Nick?’
‘I try,’ said Albert.
Lang laughed. ‘Another mistake. Nick’s tougher than you and me put together and twice as strong. I’ve seen you with your book. You’re a thinker. You need to find a way to think yourself into the air.’
‘I’ve been trying to do just that,’ protested Albert.
Lang tapped the side of his head. ‘Imagination, see. Thought without imagination is nothing at all.’
‘Okay,’ said Albert. ‘I’ll try to dream myself into the air.’
‘You do that,’ said Lang. ‘Starting tomorrow. You’ll work with me. I’m going to get to know you better, Albert. We’re going to have ourselves a conversation.’
‘Thanks, Lang,’ said Albert.
‘It’s Lancaster,’ said Lang. ‘Lang for short. My name is Burt Lancaster.’
‘Cravat and Lang. It works better than Cuccia and Lancaster.’
‘It slips off the tongue,’ said Lang. ‘But it’s Lang and Cravat. Always. Nick understands this. I have to be first. I have to be in the spotlight, the centre of the audience’s imagination.’
He paused. ‘Albert, I think I hear the sound of women’s laughter. Do you hear that?’
Albert shook his head.
‘Then that’s another way we’re different. I’d offer to take you with me to find those ladies, Albert, but in affairs of the heart I must always go alone. I shall see you tomorrow. Don’t be late.’
And Lang disappeared into the darkness. Whistling.
Lang was a talker. Where Cravat would demand Albert repeat and repeat a trick until he could hardly stand, Lang would approach the move through conversation. He might be sitting on a bench shooting the breeze then suddenly say, ‘Hey Albert, can you walk along this bench on your hands?’
‘Sure,’ Albert would reply, standing up, ready to prove it. Then Lang would stop him, brow furrowed as if the thought had just occurred to him.
‘Do you think you could do a flip in the middle of that?’
Albert felt certain he could, measured the theory of it, calculated the rotational speed of his body, was still more than halfway convinced it should have been possible as Cravat applied tincture to the split in his forehead.
‘You don’t look where you’re going,’ said Cravat.
‘You only look where you are,’ agreed Lang.
‘What should I do?’ said Albert trying to blink away the blood.
‘The head leads the body,’ said Lang. ‘There’s no point in looking back to where you’ve been any more than looking where you are. All that matters is where you’re going to be. Your body already knows that. You need to move the head and the body will follow.’
‘Move the head and the body will follow,’ repeated Cravat.
‘You remember that?’ asked Cravat.
‘How could I forget?’
‘Remember what?’ asked Albert.
‘When me and him were kids,’ said Cravat. ‘A guy called Curly Brent taught us tumbling, bar work, acrobatics.’
‘Union Settlement House,’ said Lang.
‘That’s right,’ said Cravat. ‘We needed settling down, some guidance, some discipline.’ He looked pointedly at Lang. ‘Especially him. The number of times Curly smacked him round his stupid head – move the head and the body will follow.’
‘No more than you,’ protested Lang.
‘Okay, maybe one or two times more.’
‘Didn’t take you long to learn,’ said Albert.
‘We were just kids,’ said Cravat. ‘We could learn anything.’
‘And you ain’t no kid,’ said Lang.
Albert looked at him. ‘I’m not much younger than you.’
‘You’re too old,’ said Lang. ‘The older you get the more time slips away from you. It makes everything harder.’
Albert stuck at it. That much at least, Lang said, he could respect. He fell. He fell again. Sometimes he fell hard enough he needed to rest up. He sat at the side of the ring watching, watching, scribbling in his notebook, trying to make it make sense.
‘What is that?’ asked Lang looking over his shoulder.
‘I’m drawing what you and Nick were doing just now.’
Lang looked doubtful. ‘It’s not much of a picture.’
Albert smiled. ‘I’m describing a curve. This is the arc you travel through. These are the vectors of force. Gravity’s a problem, but maybe more for me than you.’
Lang sighed. ‘This isn’t a curve.’ He pointed upwards. ‘The curve is up there, where you need to be. Not man, not air but both at the same time, flying, weightless. Do you know what the saut perilleux is?’
Albert shook his head
‘The bar act, the trapeze, all that,’ said Lang. ‘All of it was invented by the Frenchies. They named it all. The saut perilleux is like any time you let go of the bar. It’s the leap into the unknown, a leap of faith, to know you can make the catch on the other side.’
He tapped Albert’s book. ‘Maybe you think you can write it down but you can’t, it’s not the same. And until you realise that, whatever else you might be, you’ll never be a performer.’
Lang’s words echoed in Albert and as days became weeks the feeling of time lost, time escaping, slipped between his fingers as easily as he did from the bar. Both Lang and Cravat noticed a dip in his mood but said nothing. Albert fell more, smiled less. He did not show any anger or frustration as he hauled himself up to try again, as if the constant battering of his body would transform it into something different, something new.
Even Boss Sarkissian was not unaware.
‘Hey Albert,’ he said one day, as Albert pored over the books. ‘You hear about Leitzel?’
‘What about her?’
‘Died in a fall.’
‘That’s a shame,’ said Albert.
Boss Sarkissian frowned. ‘Things still not going so good?’
‘I keep falling,’ said Albert.
Boss Sarkissian frowned. ‘I need an act, Albert. I need something, even if it’s just a gimmick. I saw a guy doing the bar act once turn a somersault while playing a trumpet. You need to show me something.’
This time there was no mention of cats. Boss Sarkissian spoke to Lang. Lang spoke to Albert.
‘Albert,’ he said. ‘The boss needs an act.’
‘He’s got an act,’ replied Albert.
‘True,’ said Lang. ‘And a good one. But he wants an act with you in it.’
‘I can’t perform in front of the public.’
‘That’s true,’ said Lang. ‘But here’s the way it’s going to be, see. You’ll perform for the rest of us. It’s been a long season. The boss figures we should let off a little steam. People want to see you, Albert, they like you, you owe them. Even the clowns are coming.’
‘How long have I got?’
The clowns were coming. Their leader, the great Paracelsus, accosted Albert at chow the following morning, thrusting a hand full of greasy bills into his face.
‘All of this,’ he said. ‘All of this says you’re going to take a fall.’ He looked around furtively. ‘Take a good fall, lose a bit of blood, break a small bone, you know, something to make the womenfolk squeal and I’ll cut you in for twenty-five per cent.’
Albert reeled at the stink of the clown’s breath. ‘You don’t think I can do it?’
Paracelsus laughed. ‘No offence, kid, but no one here thinks you can do it.’ He gestured the bills again. ‘Easy money. You’d only be doing what comes naturally.’
‘Some bar work,’ said Lang. ‘You can do that. And then to finish, a catch. Me and Nick’ll do all the work and you don’t have to worry.’
‘A catch?’ questioned Albert.
‘Sure,’ said Lang. ‘Nick’ll be the caster, I’ll do the catch and all you have to do is make it in between.’
‘A straight catch,’ said Albert.
‘More or less,’ said Lang.
‘He hasn’t mentioned the somersault,’ said Cravat and they both laughed.
Albert paled. ‘I can’t do it. A catch is bad enough, but a somersault?’
Lang caught him by the arm, suddenly serious. ‘It’s a performance. You can either be the dead weight that Nick tosses to me or you can be something else. The choice is up to you.’
As it turned out the somersault was not all that Lang hadn’t told Albert about.
‘Tights,’ said Albert.
‘It’s a performance,’ laughed Cravat.
‘I can’t wear these in public,’ said Albert. ‘And no shirt?’
Lang put his arm around Albert’s shoulders. ‘Albert, what is it you think people come to see when they watch us? Do you think they all have notebooks so that they can scribble their observations on the mechanics of the bar? Do you think they’re here to marvel at human dexterity? Those women out there, they want to see what you’ve got and you’re going to show it to them. And the men, well if the women are in the mood, they’ll maybe even thank you for it later.’
Albert felt naked but talc’d his hands and tried not to show it. Outside he could hear Boss Sarkissian doing the introduction, catcalls from the other performers. The three of them stood behind the curtain at the ring entrance.
‘What you’ve all been waiting for,’ boomed Boss Sarkissian. ‘You know him, you’ve all been waiting to see what all that time and all that practice have done for him. For one night only, with your friends and mine, Lang and Cravat – Albert!’
The curtain pulled open. The equestriennes pointed, shrieked and pretended to swoon.
‘Hey Lang,’ Albert heard Paracelsus shout. ‘What’s that with you, a chicken?’ And raucous laughter from the clowns.
Albert glanced at Lang but Lang had his performance face on, was oblivious to anything except the spotlight.
‘You couldn’t have thought of a stage name?’ whispered Boss Sarkissian as he passed.
Lang and Cravat walked alongside Albert to the centre of the ring, hoisted him up to shoulder height and up onto the bar. The clowns clapped ironically but were quickly shushed by the other performers. Cravat stayed on the ground while Lang shimmied up alongside Albert.
They had agreed to start on the horizontal bar.
‘Just do what feels comfortable,’ said Lang. ‘I’ll follow.’
‘I’ll catch you,’ said Cravat.
Albert let the bar sink into his fingers, the weight of his body suspended below like a pendulum. He tensed across his shoulders, pulled in across his abdomen, extended his legs and started to swing. He barely noticed the bar flex with the heavier weight as Lang started to do the same.
Albert watched his slippered feet up into the darkness of the tent. The electric glare of the lights dazzled him. He had never been on the bar at night before. He relaxed, concentrated on his breathing, his first turn over the bar, his body swinging round, up and over until he was back where he started, as if he were meeting himself again.
He let his momentum continue, felt himself start to accelerate, the centrifugal force pulling him away from the bar, released his left hand, held his arm against his side while he continued to rotate with his right. Albert felt the moment recede, felt himself vanishing into the motion. He balanced on his hands at the top of the bar, reversed direction, followed a split second later by Lang.
He heard the harsh sound of Lang’s breathing, glanced out of the corner of his eye and saw Lang’s crooked armed, appearing to labour..He’s making me look good, thought Albert hearing Lang’s voice echo in his head. It’s a performance, it’s a performance.
Albert released, over-rotated, and stumbled slightly into his landing. Cravat stepped forward but did not touch him. There was applause. Cravat smiled. Now all three made it upwards onto the bars. Albert stood by while Lang and Cravat went through the symmetry of their act, identical cast-offs, turns in mid air. Albert noticed Cravat’s eyes half closed, as if he was in a day dream. Lang was all flourish, moves exaggerated for effect, drawing the light in to him, blonde hair, white teeth, the centre of attention, the audience rapt, attentive to each exhalation, the slap of skin at each catch.
Panting, Cravat climbed back beside Albert. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Like we talked about. I hang, you drop. You swing, I release.’
‘I want to do it reverse,’ said Albert.
‘Backwards,’ exclaimed Cravat.
‘Saut perilleux,’ said Albert.
‘Okay,’ said Cravat. ‘If that’s what you want. Either way you make the turn Lang’ll catch you. But he’ll be surprised.’ Cravat winked.
Albert’s wrists felt secure as concrete in Cravat’s grip. Somewhere at the back of him he knew Lang would be glaring at Cravat. Even in practice, as they tossed him one to the other like a sack of rice, they had never done a backward somersault. The other performers assumed it was all part of the act. Boss Sarkissian lolled in a chair sipping from his hip flask. This time there was no one to break a fall if anything went wrong. Albert began the swing. He could make the trick, had seen it all before in theory, traced the way his body released, turned under its own momentum. All of it theory. He forced himself into the swing. He cleared his mind. Cravat released.
It was the moment of verticality he would remember, facing straight down, arms outstretched. Pure showmanship, Lang would say. I learned it all from you, Albert would reply. It seemed in that instant he already knew that conversation. Albert found himself suspended in space, not falling, outwith time, weightless as a sigh. He did not look back to Cravat as he swung away, nor did he look down. He knew exactly where he was, exactly where he was going to be. He saw Lang’s face briefly as he folded over himself, felt the grace of it, put his arms up and fell into the grip of Lang’s hands.
Time accelerated back into his eyes. The audience erupted. Above him Lang was shouting something noiselessly. Albert dropped to the ground, felt the sawdust between his fingers, the dirt beneath. He looked around, saw the expressions on the faces of the audiences, mouths open and soundless, felt the slap of Boss Sarkissian’s hand on his back. And then Lang and Cravat shaking his hand. Lang’s voice.
‘You did it, Albert. You did it. A proper aerialist.’
‘That was some leap you did last night,’ said Boss Sarkissian the following morning. ‘You ever do that before?’
‘No, sir,’ said Albert.
‘I thought not. Listen, I need you to go to the railroad station later.’
‘Sure, what for?’
‘I got a new act coming. Aerialists. Female. One of them’s the daughter of Ora Loretta. You know, the Loretta twins?’
Albert shook his head.
‘The world’s greatest lady performers on the horizontal bar.’
‘They should be fine,’ said Albert.
Boss Sarkissian looked at him. ‘You know what I’m telling you here, Albert.’
‘Last night, last night was great and you’ve done the show a great service these last months, but you’re not an act. You’re not an act, Albert. You’re done.’
Lang accompanied Albert to the station. Cravat refused to go with them, said he didn’t like goodbyes, stayed shut in his trailer.
‘So where will you go?’ asked Lang.
‘I don’t know,’ said Albert. ‘The boss has been square with me for money. And it turns out old Paracelsus made more on me making that stunt than not so he gave me some too. I’m thinking about California.’
‘California?’ said Lang. ‘What’s there?’
‘Oranges, mostly,’ said Albert. ‘And the motion-picture business. I think I might like to see that, make light, tell stories.’
‘You going to write all that down or are you going to get involved?’
Albert patted his bag. ‘You never know, I might have a thing or two to say about light. What about you?’
Albert pointed at Lang’s shoulder. Lang had his arm in a sling, had damaged the joint while practising with the new female aerialists.
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I like these new girls but I think my shoulder’s done. Me and Nick are thinking about going back East to make some stake money. You never know, we might come out to California to visit. You think there’s a place in the motionpicture business for me?’
Albert smiled. ‘It’s a performance.’
Lang took his hand. ‘You take care, Einstein.’
‘You too, Lancaster.’
Albert did not look back as he sat on the train. He let himself drift until he found himself back in the ring. He saw his arms flung wide, his eyes almost closed, half in one world, half in another. Curved space. Indescribable.
Morgan Downie is a visual artist who also writes short stories and poetry. He is a keen collaborationist and cross disciplinary practitioner and this underpins many of the themes of translocation in his practice. His published work includes stone and sea and distances, a Romanian-English photopoetry collection. http://morgandownie.com/