A lazy eucalyptus shimmies its leaves in half-hearted response to the faintest sigh of a hot and sluggish summer breeze. While stucco walls decay at pointless leisure, pantile roofs float in syrupy waves of shimmering heat, thick enough to ladle. Santa Catalina drowses. Apart from the occasional snore straying through slatted wooden blinds, barely so much as a squeak ruptures the calm. Nothing, barring a sizeable tectonic shift, could disturb the little pueblo from its daily siesta.
So quiet appears the ancient, Moorish quarter, it might have been abandoned. And none, but the keenest ear could detect the feeble sound of water sprinkling against baked flagstones in the old courtyard where Marlene keeps her gallery. Pausing from the labour of slaking her parched, potted plants’ thirsts, the Swiss gallerista straightens her back and groans softly. Raising her head, she glances about. Nothing stirs save for a listless kitten squeezing further out of a blistering sun into the miserly shadow afforded by an old urn. But Marlene is sure she heard something. Someone striving for breath. Her pale blue eyes scout the dimness at the foot of the staircase. In the slightly cooler, and precious shadow, she spots the bent silhouette of Old Miguel fusing into the rails. Placing her watering can down on the flagstones, she walks across to see if anything’s the matter.
“Are you all right?” she asks. The nonogenarian veteran of Franco’s civil war lifts his stick in greeting and smiles.
“It’s those stairs,” he wheezes. “At my age they’re getting too much for me.” Miguel inhabits a sizeable room on the top floor of the four-storey medieval building.
“Perhaps, you should move somewhere that doesn’t have so many stairs,” Marlene tells him.
“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” Miguel says, “I like the view too much. I’ve always been fond of heights.”
“Si, but there comes a day when we all have to realise our limitations.” Marlene takes his arm. “Come and sit down,” she says. She still feels guilty about the rusty old bike of his she donated to the town museum the previous Christmas. To her growing annoyance, it’d been cluttering up the courtyard for ages. She never thought he’d notice it gone. He hadn’t rode it for years. But he did, and she lied, saying it had been stolen.
“Did you know,” Miguel puffs, as he lowers himself carefully into a wicker chair, “Working with heights was part of my job once.”
“Was it, now? What did you do? Were you a scaffolder?”
“I was the high-wire act of a circus.”
“A tightrope walker?” Marlene says, almost aghast. “You?”
“I had to give it up.”
“But a tightrope walker in a circus?”
“I haven’t always been this old. Even I was young once, though it was an awful, long time ago.”
“Of course, you were.” Bending over, she puts a hand on his. “I’m sorry, but it isn’t every day one discovers one’s neighbour was anything so exotic as a tightrope walker. What made you give it up? Did it get too much for you?”
“There were several reasons, actually. I say, could you spare a glass of water?”
“Why, of course.”
“You don’t happen to have any wine?”
“I haven’t got any here, but I can fetch you a glass from Juani’s Bar.”
“Could you make that a small glass of brandy? I’ll tell you all about it when you get back.” Marlene hurries out of the courtyard.
Moments later she returns with a glass of brandy. Handing it to Miguel, he takes a large slug.
“You were in the middle of telling me about the circus,” she says.
“Ah, si. Where was I?”
“You were about to tell me what made you give it up.”
“That’s right, that’s right, I had to give it up. There were several reasons, actually. The civil war being one of them. Mostly it was on account of the accident.”
“You had an accident?”
“I fell into the ring.”
“How terrible! But you were saved by the net?”
“There wasn’t a net.”
“Oh my God! Why on earth not? Had they forgotten to put it up? It’s a wonder you weren’t killed.”
“If it hadn’t have been for the lion I certainly would’ve been.”
“The lion? You were saved from death by a lion? How?”
“Not saved exactly. At least, not in the sense you mean. We were playing in a small town near Toledo. I can’t remember the name. We were always moving to so many different places. We were a circus, after all. My act came on just before the lions. While the audience’s attention was drawn upwards by the limelights shining on me, a cage was erected round the ring. Nobody worked with safety nets in those days. People wouldn’t bother turning up unless there was a sense of real danger. The chance of someone getting hurt.”
“It’s unbelievable! How could people be so horrible!”
“We never thought about it like that. It was part of the job. It’s what people came to see. It wouldn’t have been the same without the possibility of seeing a few broken bones. The chance of a bit of blood being spilled. Watching a good mauling from one of the animals was well worth the price of a ticket. But it was the prospect of witnessing a mortality that really drew the crowds.”
“Nowadays, perhaps. People forget the circus has its roots in the old Roman amphitheatre. It has traditions. The risk of injury and death has always played a major part in the attraction.”
“So what happened?”
“Where was I?”
“You were telling me you were saved by a lion.”
“So I was. There isn’t a drop more of this brandy left, by any chance, is there? Helps clear my throat.”
“I’ll go and get some.” Taking his glass Marelene hurries back to Juani’s Bar. This time she returns with half a bottle.
“So there I was, in this little town north of Granada.”
“I thought you said it was north of Toledo?”
“So I did. Those little towns, they all look so alike. Where was I?”
“In a small town north of Toledo.”
“I meant, where was I in the story?”
“I think you were saying something about the Romans.”
“No, no, that wasn’t it. Ah, si, I remember, it was the lions. There I was in a small town north of Toledo, halfway across the wire, in the middle of my act. By the way, you haven’t seen that old bike of mine, have you? Kept it over there.” He pointed to a corner. “I used to use it in my act. Took the tyres off so the wheel rims fitted onto the cable. Back then I was the only act that could ride across the wire, without holding the handlebars. I’d twirl a paper Chinese parasol in one hand whilst juggling a pair of Indian clubs in the other. Had a stick in my mouth with a rubber ball balanced on it at the same time to boot. Hard to believe, isn’t it? You haven’t seen it have you?”
A look of guilt flashes across Marlene’s face.
“The stick? Or the paper Chinese parasol? Or do you mean the rubber ball?”
“No, the bike.”
“Someone left an umbrella once, but I don’t remember a bike,” she says, putting a finger to her fibbing lips. “Go on with the story you were telling me. It’s fascinating. Tell me more.”
“Dark green it was, with a black leather saddle. Kept it over there, under the awning.”
“The story, I mean, what happened in the story, you were telling me?”
“Where was I?”
“In the middle of your act, halfway across the tightrope in a small town north of Toledo.”
“That’s right. By God, you’ve got a good memory. You weren’t there by any chance, were you?”
“I hardly think so, I’m barely past thirty-five,” Marlene fibs a second time.
“Of course, you weren’t. North of Granada, we were.”
“Ah, si, Toledo. Halfway across the wire, I was. Right in the middle of the act. That’s the bit where I would balance one leg of a chair on the wire, and climb to the top. Then I’d flip over to do a handstand with one hand on the chair rail, and the other holding a glass of water. From there I’d proceed to drink from the glass, upside down. It was the climax. I couldn’t always attempt it. For it to be successful, I required absolute silence. Usually, I could hear a pin drop. But on this occasion, I had just put the glass to my upper lip when I suddenly heard a huge roar. Glancing down, I saw some fool had let the lions out early. In that second, I lost my balance and fell fifteen metres down into the ring. Head first. Straight into the gaping jaws of a lion.”
“Oh my God!” Marlene exclaims, covering her mouth with her hands. “You’re lucky to be alive! What did the lion do?”
“As you can imagine, it came as much of a shock to him, as it did to me. It wasn’t used to humans raining from heaven, straight into its mouth, and liked it far less than it might’ve supposed. For as well as breaking my fall, the lion’s jaw was broken. Lucky for me.
“At the sight of a fresh pair of human legs sticking out of its mouth, while it sported a glass on one ear, and had a chair sprouting from its back, all the other lions began running amok. Fearful of what else might come tumbling out of the sky, they tried escaping through the iron bars of the cage. Clambering on top of one another’s backs, they started roaring fiercely, and making a terrible din of a racket in general. Little wonder the spectators thought they were trying to get at them. The bars were rattling like crazy. A panic ensued, as they all got up from their seats in a rush to get out of the Big Top. Four small children were trampled to death that night in the pandemonium. It was the moment I vowed never to breathe the air of the ring again.”
“Poor little children! That’s one of the most terrible stories I ever heard. But you survived.”
“I wouldn’t be here telling you the story if I hadn’t, would I? Took half the Jerez fire brigade to pull me out.”
“Toledo,” Marlene corrects.
“You said Jerez Fire Brigade, but you were in a town north of Toledo.”
“When was that?”
“In the circus. In your story.”
“So it was. They rushed me to hospital. Spent four days there.”
“Only four? It’s incredible. And that’s when you left the circus?”
“Well, not quite.” Miguel eyes his empty glass. “I couldn’t leave exactly then.” Picking the bottle up from the flagstones, Marlene fills it for him. “My neck had been broken in the fall, and I’d dislocated a shoulder. There were teeth and claw marks all over my chest.” He puts a hand to his waistcoat buttons. “I can show you the scars if you like.” Marlene places a restraining hand on his.
“Really, there’s no need,” she says, and Miguel continues.
“After being discharged from hospital, I had to wait for my wounds to heal. The next few weeks were spent lying on my back in my wagon, unable to move. All the time racking my brains, thinking of what to do next. Despite my vow, I was extremely reluctant to leave the circus completely. By that time the sawdust was in my veins. You have to remember, I was a young man from a small fishing community, and the circus was seen as something rather glamorous in those days.”
“So you decided to do something less dangerous, like become a clown, for instance?”
“Oh, God, no! I wouldn’t have wanted to be a clown, heaven forbid! Besides, it would’ve entailed entering the ring I had vowed not to. It would’ve been unseemly.
“The unwritten rules of the circus are far stricter than any trade union’s. They’re based on the ancient caste system of India. The high-wire walker is the most feared and respected member of the circus, higher even than the trapeze artist. For a tightrope walker to become a clown would be like a Brahmin deciding to become an untouchable. Unthinkable.
“Clowns are just one step above circus animals. Some would say they’re one step below. That the lowest circus animal is higher than the highest clown. They’d say clowns live in unimaginable filth and practise rituals of a perverse nature I wouldn’t stoop to describe in front of a woman, let alone a lady such as yourself. If you’d been a circus performer and suggested such a thing, I would be obliged to kill you on the spot. It would be demanded to preserve the honour of high wire walkers everywhere. But you are unaware of the laws of the circus, so I can forgive you.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know it was so strict.”
“That’s all right, we circus performers learn to live with the ways of ordinary folk, we have to. As I was saying, in the heat of the moment, I had vowed never to step into the ring again. And once a circus performer has made a vow, the vow can never be broken. Unless he’s a clown, of course. Clowns are a law unto themselves, and if ever a clown makes a vow he would consider it his duty to break it.”
“I never realised circus life was so complicated, and that clowns were, were… well, were so very evil.”
“Clowns have been making fools of us for years,” Miguel sighs.
“But there are other jobs in the circus, aren’t there? Jobs without danger, like hosing down the elephants and feeding the monkeys.”
“Danger didn’t come into it. Despite the accident, I was too young and foolish to think of death. The close shave I had with it only served to reinforce my youthful delusions of immortality.” He begins toying with his glass, miraculously empty again. Unsure of whether she had replenished it, Marlene pours him another.
“And then there was talk of civil war floating about,” Miguel goes on, “it wasn’t even certain the circus would be allowed to travel on much longer. It might’ve had to shut down completely. Having lain in my caravan for almost a month, turning these things over in my mind, I realised if war did break out, sooner or later, the call to arms would follow. And as my vow committed me to never being able to step into the ring again – as to do so would involve breathing its air – I was left with little choice. I certainly didn’t want to spend the rest of my life cleaning dung out of cages, so I made the decision to leave the circus forever and go to war.”
“Just like that?”
“Certainly. As soon as I was fit enough, I packed my bags and left. I had no idea what the war was about, of course. Politics meant nothing to me. War was war, as far as my young brain was concerned, and by that time I was itching to fight. Being so young and hot-blooded, I desperately wanted to take revenge on the world for my misfortune. So I went straight to the nearest army recruitment office and signed up.”
At the sight of Pedro entering the courtyard, old Miguel knocks back his brandy hurriedly. “Which happened to be Republican,” he adds. “Or was it Nationalist?” With that he hauls himself to his feet. Planting his stick firmly to the ground, he raises his beret. “Good day to you, Señora. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. It’s a rare moment to find someone who will take the time to listen to an old warrior like me these days, let alone a beautiful lady. Buenas tardes, Pedro.”
“The pleasure has been all mine,” Marlene says. And old Miguel ambles out of the courtyard with a slightly jaunty air.
Pedro casts a practised eye at the empty glass and bottle.
“What’s he been telling you?” he asks.
“About his days in the circus,” Marlene says. “Very interesting it was too. Did you know he was once a tightrope walker?”
“How many glasses did it take?” Pedro asks.
“What do you mean? How many glasses did it take?”
“How many glasses of brandy?”
Marlene looks puzzled, before glancing down to see the empty bottle.
Click onto The Ideal Woman for another Missive from Santa Catalina
Copyright © 2013, 2o14 Bryan Hemming