The circus with the yellow clown - 1967 - Marc Chagall
This post was inspired by Tess Kincaid's Magpie No. 118
The fact that I have two eyes is due in no small measure to my decision, at fifteen and a half, not to run away to the circus. It was my long-haired Dachshund Seppl whose routine daily afternoon walk took me the short distance from the flat where mum and dad and I lived - that is, if indeed they were my mum and dad, which, in spite of the large nose dad and I shared, I still doubted very much at that time; too often they declared themselves shocked by my outrageous behaviour for me to be able to own them as my parents - via a tree-lined double avenue to Sproedental Platz, a large open area, where after the war the town's rubble had been deposited, now long cleared away. During Advent, tree fellers brought christmas trees for sale, but most of the time the Platz was empty. Twice a year, for three days, the Kirmes came, with its roundabouts and dodgems and Karussels and pickled herring, fried fish and sausage and potato cake stalls. The aroma of the food could make you faint with longing and if your money lasted until you had squealed in delighted horror at the mermaid, the fattest woman in the world or taken a ride through the cob-webby, smelly, dimly lit, cavernous chamber of horrors, happiness was complete. For anybody with a boyfriend the big wheel was an ideal trysting vehicle; when you were stuck at the top - and every one of the gondolas was for a short time - a brave boy would squeeze your hand and plant a wet kiss somewhere near your mouth. It rarely happened to me, boys were always put off by the gagging noises as I fought off nausea induced by acrophobia. Besides, kissing was sex, and sex was something we giggled over nervously; things were different in those days, we believed that necking could get you pregnant and French kissing was the absolute depth of depravity. Everything was different then, the long summer holidays lasted for an eternity, until school was no more than a fading memory, French and Swedish films were our extra-curricular education, an ice cream for two cost 50 Pfennigs, blue jeans had only just become acceptable wear, and parents never got down with the kids.
In spite of the wonderful life to be had with the Kirmes I never felt the slightest desire to elope with any of the boys who jumped on to the back of the dodgem cars to take our money for the ride.
The circus was entirely different, it came to town just once a year. Placards appeared on advertising columns weeks before and two days before the big top went up, riders on horseback, and a few tumblers and clowns paraded through the streets on their way to Sproedental Platz, where these foot soldiers soon got to work preparing the ground for the rest of the caravans, the animals and the performers and artistes, who, after the final bow after the last performance in the previous town themselves got busy dismantling and loading the big top. The Great Orlando told me that everybody at the circus could and would turn their hand to any and all jobs, even the stars of the show, the trapeze artists, the knife thrower and lion tamer, the high-wire dancers, the white faced clown as well as the ring-master were expected to muck in.
When I arrived with Seppl on the day the circus came to town, the Platz, normally empty, had become an exotic wonderland, caravans were neatly lined up, vans were being unloaded, animals exercised and fed; there were people carrying water and bales of straw, muscular men were heaving long poles about and uncoiling vast rolls of rope; I had the impression that here was a body of work being done that had been done hundreds, perhaps thousands of times before, the organisation was perfect, as if everybody was a cog in a well-oiled machine. As I slowly walked by, people briefly looked up and smiled, saying Guten Tag, before they carried on with what they were doing.
I noticed The Great Orlando right away, he seemed remote from this controlled ballet of activity. Sitting on the steps of a white caravan he had a large, flat box on his knees, out of which he lifted a number of knives, rubbing each one down with a rag until the blades shimmered like polished silver. I stopped to watch. Looking up, he smiled, like the others, and said Guten Tag. "What are you doing?" I asked. "Ich bin der Messerwerfer," I am the knife thrower," he said, "I am taking care of my knives."
I was talking to The Great Orlando himself, I knew it must be him because I had seen his picture on many of the placards. He took pity on me. "Is that your dog, he is very handsome," he said, "what's his name?" I was in at the birth of the circus, in the company of the knife thrower and the man wanted to talk about my dog? Where was the romance in that? I realised he was quite old, at least 30, and that I would have to take the initiative and ask questions. "Yes," he said, "I ride a horse round and round the ring and throw knives at a target. And then I get off the horse and throw knives at a target disc with a target girl pinned to it; at the end of my act the disc with the girl spins round and I throw knives all around the body of my partner." I was envious of the girl already. "Do you ever miss", I asked hopefully. He laughed. "I hope you will come to the show, and find out", he said. Ah, yes, that would be a problem. I wasn't allowed to go out at night and I didn't have enough money to pay for a ticket anyway. "I have to work now", he said, "but come back tomorrow and we'll see what can be done." Wild horses wouldn't have kept me away even in the ordinary course of events but having been invited to return by The Great Orlando practically made me a member of the troupe.
When I returned the next morning the big top was up and all was ready for the afternoon's show, die Kindervorstellung - the reduced show for children. I wandered about; the smell of wild animals reached me from one end of the camp, following the scent I saw an elephant lifting a beautiful young girl, sitting on his trunk, high up in the air. The lion tamer was feeding his animals large chunks of red meat and two boys were grooming horses. A boy and a girl were working with a group of monkeys. The lion tamer waved me away. "The animals need to be quiet, they don't like strangers coming close", he said in a gruff voice. "You'll find Harry in the tent." Harry? who was Harry?
I entered the big top and The Great Orlando waved me over. "You can call me Harry," he said, "what's your name?" "I'm Eva," I said, " and I want to join the circus." Harry smiled, he had the most wonderful way of crinkling up his eyes as he did so. I had seriously fallen in love with him overnight.
"What would your parents have to say to that?"
"My parents wouldn't care, they just don' understand me and I can never get anything right for them anyway."
"Still, you'd have to have their permission. Unless you are eighteen?"
Darling, wonderful Harry, who thought I might already be eighteen!
Harry decided that I should go home again and think about joining the circus very carefully. To help me make up my mind he invited me to the afternoon show and allowed me to wander about at will, so long as I kept away from the lion tamer, who, according to Harry, was a grumpy old man and not very fond of Harry, because he liked to be jolly and have a drink after work. The others wouldn't mind me being around, provided I didn't get in the way.
The afternoon show was dominated by clowns, Pierrot and August being the main characters, surrounded by tumblers and jongleurs, children on horseback and on the high wire as well as a few trapeze acts. The Great Orlando rode his horse and threw knives at the large disc and I saw the pretty girl riding on the trunk of her elephant. It was a fun show but disappointing too, I had seen most of these acts about the camp during the day. The ringmaster in costume, cracking a very long whip, was still the jovial, slightly avuncular, slightly potbellied man he was out of costume; the show needed the romantic shadows of evening and the brilliance of artificial lights to bring the glitter and glamour to life. Afterwards, I found Harry's caravan, knocked on the door and, when he opened it, I told him so. Harry had a glass in his hand. The sparkly costume made his face look tired.
The circus was in town for the whole week, Saturday evening being the final show of the run, a gala performance. I spent every spare minute at the camp; even the lion tamer got used to me. He took me aside once and said "Be careful, Eva, Harry is not a suitable companion for you, you are far too young and you are not the first girl to hang around and you won't be the last." I shrugged my shoulders. This was exactly the same sort of talk I got from my parents, these adults were all out to spoil my fun. Harry had been very kind and friendly, not at all threatening. The more I saw of him and the artistes and the more I was allowed to see of their daily routines, the more I realised how hard they worked, how little romance there was behind the glittering façade. I still wanted to join the circus, be part of the wonderful companionship and camaraderie born out of a need to rely on each other; each member of the troupe being 100% dependent on every other. But perhaps it would be better if I waited a little, finished school first, as Harry suggested. The children and young people I saw had all been born into the life, had been raised to perform and trained almost from the day they took their first step. Harry gave me an address which would always reach him and promised to reply to any letter I cared to send.
When Saturday came I was very sad, Harry and the others would be on their way to the next venue a day later and Sproedental Platz would be cleared as if the big top had never stood there. Harry had a wonderful surprise for me. He had a ticket for the Saturday Gala for me, front row, the best seat in the house, opposite the entrance to the ring, within foot shuffling distance of the sawdust. I begged and pleaded with my parents, who finally gave in and allowed me to go, threatening all sorts of retribution if I didn't get home within ten minutes of the end of the performance. I sat in my seat of honour and all the performers, who could do so without interrupting their act, played to me for seconds, the clowns did a little set right in front of me, the elephant dipped its trunk and the girl winked, the tumblers pretended to fall over the railings and land on me, and the ringmaster cracked his whip almost in my face. Harry's prancing horse did a curtsey and he bowed from the saddle, lifting his hat to me. I loved them all.
Harry and I did indeed exchange a few letters. He sent me colourful postcards from places abroad, places I could only dream of; holidays for the masses were still a thing of the future. Gaps between cards became longer and one day I saw a small paragraph in the paper: In Milano, Italy, during a performance, a great tragedy had occurred. The Great Orlando, famous among circus folk all over Europe, had misjudged a throw and accidentally blinded his partner, the girl on the spinning disc, in one eye. If I remember rightly, I sent a letter telling him how very sorry I was. I never heard from Harry again.
PS: there have been comments asking if this is a true story. It is.