‘Show’s over’ her mother whispers to her as the bright lights fade to black.
The little girl keeps staring ahead of her, unmoving and unblinking, although she can’t see through the darkness.
She can hear people shuffling their feet, gathering their children and their belongings, getting ready to get up and leave the way they came. Her mother is doing the same, putting her drink bottle back in the bag, folding empty paper plates and cups that she would throw on the way out.
The little girl can’t move, though. There is only darkness but her eyes are bright with memories of the fantastical lights and theatrics of the performance. It is like a movie reel, playing over and over in her head. She is transfixed. Enchanted. Overwhelmed.
Right from the start, the colours of the stage and the performance jumped out at her. Brighter than usual. The heavy drapes of the luscious blood-red curtain parted and rose at the same time, hooking themselves as if by magic to the sides of the stage. The lights blinded her momentarily but then she saw more clearly than she had ever done before. Every detail, every movement, every expression – nothing escaped her.
She remembered the giants, stalking around the ring in their stilts. They frightened and fascinated her simultaneously, causing her to slip her hand into her mother’s and hold on tight. The clowns with their manic fake smiles doing seemingly impossible things, making people laugh. She laughed a little, but she thought their eyes were sad. The ringmaster thrilled her with his larger-than-life presence. The whip he kept cracking as he strode the ring may as well have been a livewire – she felt a physical shock each time she heard that electric sound. At one point, he met her wide eyes and gave the merest wink that no one but herself saw. She felt so involved, so out of control, so intensely caught up. Without knowing it, she was at the edge of her seat, clutching the doll she’d won earlier that day to her chest, leaning forward, trying to drink everything in.
The trapeze artists were her favourites though. They seemed to defy gravity with the way they swung through the air, twisting, turning, free falling until they were caught by another. The rhythm of their movements as they went sailing back and forth made her sway with them. She gazed on, mouth open in wonder as she watched them spin and dance on their own – it was as if they were flying. She had never seen so much strength, grace and skill. She saw their muscular bodies flex under the tight silver costume, the concentration behind their bright smiles, the white of their knuckles each time they caught hold of each other. As if they couldn’t survive without the other person. As if they would die if they let go. As if they knew that they were only this free and this beautiful because of the other who caught them before they fell. One time one of them did fall into the net below. She felt that moment drag forever and she heard herself gasp collectively with the audience and stood up, heart in her mouth, madly ready to rush to their aid if needed. The performer was supremely confident – she fell onto the trampoline like net and bounced right back up to deftly catch her partner’s strong grip. The little girl sat back down, relieved and feeling slightly foolish, and marvelled at that confidence. The woman who fell knew that she had someone to hold onto. Someone who would catch a hold of her once she was back up there again. Someone waiting for her.
She didn’t want it to end. As the suspended curtain drapes began their slow, torturous descent, she wanted to cry out ‘Wait!’. She bit her lip to bite back the word, irritated as she felt her mother’s gentle fussing beside her. It couldn’t be over. Not yet.
The curtain kissed the stage silently and the lights dimmed first and then went out. She shook her head in the dark, desperately unhappy that she would have to leave.
Lights. Again, she was almost blinded and had to shield her face as if it was turned towards the naked sun. She struggled to regain visibility, her heart singing that it wasn’t over yet. She knew it wasn’t! It was just too good to be over – it had accosted every one of her senses and she wasn’t ready to let it go. Her head was still full of the sights, her ears still ringing with the music… There had never been anything like it and there would never be again. She wasn’t ready to let it go.
One by one, the performers danced their way onto the stage. Humans of all shapes and sizes in costumes of every conceivable colour and animals in all their majestic glory soon filled the stage in fantastic formation around their ring master, who stood stock still except to fire his whip every now and then. Music burst forth and filled the little girl’s ears and her eyes were wide with happiness and wonder.
Her smile faded as the performers started leaving the stage. The pomp and ceremony was still there, the crowds were cheering wildly but she was speechless. There was something wrong. Where were they going?
Again the curtain came down, the lights dimmed and she looked around her confusedly as she saw people getting up and moving out of their seats. The doors were flung open and harsh sunlight flooded in, assaulting her eyes, unwelcome and ugly.
‘Show’s over’ repeated her mother gently and hoisted her unwilling child to her feet. Her mother took her hand and walked ahead, making sure to hold tight. The little girl’s feet dragged as she followed her mother into the outside world.
She looked behind her the whole time, at the empty stage, refusing to say goodbye.