The circus is due to start at four, and here we were, at ten to, standing at the foot of a roadside Jesus with bees flying out of his loins.
‘It’s a miracle.’
‘It looks like they’ve made a nest.’
‘Is that what they do, make nests? I thought they made honey.’
‘Yeah but first they swarm, and then they build a hive, and then they make honey.’
‘They’re going to struggle up there.’
She’s right. Jesus’ back is arched and his legs crooked-up, but still there’s not a lot of room between him and the column. We stand there looking up at the roadside shrine, the bees zipping in and out.
‘I think they’ll wait till they’ve got enough – you know – personnel, and then move on.’
The bees make Jesus’ suffering seem even worse, but if he feels it, he doesn’t let on, looking out across the golden French countryside with the same, mournful expression.
‘I think it’s up here,’ says Simon, tapping the map.
‘It says the conservatoire. Does that lead to the conservatoire? ‘
‘I think it leads to the cemetery.’
‘You wouldn’t have a circus in a cemetery. Would you?’
‘Depends on the circus.’
He folds the map and we head up the steep road anyway, the houses on either side shuttered up, no-one about.
‘Maybe that’s where they’ve gone. To the circus.’
‘If they are, it’s a long way off.’
It’s true. You’d think a circus would make a lot of noise. As it is, there’s an unbroken silence all around.
When we reach the crest of the road it divides into two, smaller tracks. One leads down to a little walled cemetery that overlooks the valley on that side; the other bends sharply right and round, into a hedged field that must belong to the school across the way. It’s only when we take this track that we start to hear something – a muffled PA, a dog barking, a small generator.
Snatches of red and yellow through the hedge, cars parked up on the verge, and as the track takes us further round, a stand of circus vans and trucks, each with the same peeling decal on the side: Le Petit Cirque, and busting through the lettering, a smiling clown. The tent is just exactly the kind you would come up with if someone asked you to sketch one: round at the sides, pointed at the top, with red and yellow stripes and guy ropes radiating from the centre. I guess it can only hold about thirty people, max, not allowing for the performers. The plastic of it looks worn and battered, like it’s travelled a great distance, all weathers.
‘Here we are! Come on!’ says Simon, striding ahead.
There are two performers standing outside the tent waiting to go on, a young woman in black spandex , and a short but muscular guy in an open necked shirt and flared trousers. Both of them are wearing make-up so thick it looks as if they applied it to each other with their eyes closed, for a bet. Simon goes straight up to them, and for a second I have a horror that we’ll end up going on with them and having to improvise a show. But I can relax: Simon gets all six of us in for a handful of euros; the tent flap opens and we duck inside.
It’s surprisingly humid, despite the coolness of the weather. There’s a rich smell of trampled grass, audience, animal, the sweetly spotted haze of unpacked canvas. A tiny, D-shaped arena picked out with red sleepers, with a stepped-auditorium of plain boards on three sides. There are four or five families waiting for the show. As soon as we’ve taken our seats, a middle-aged woman steps out onto the stage holding a microphone. She immediately launches into her introduction, whipping the tail of the mic behind her, distributing her professional, four o’clock enthusiasm about the place. I don’t speak French, so I try to follow what she’s saying through body language and inflection. It’s difficult, though, and I’m pretty lost. She seems tired to me. After a scattering of fantastiques and incroyables and Le celebre jongleur mondialement – Daa-viid! I fully expect her to unplug the mic and go back behind the screen for a lie-down.
Daa-viid! turns out to be the guy in the open-necked shirt who sold us the tickets and let us in. It’s immediately apparent he has lost all the fingers on his right hand, and I can’t help wondering if that was from juggling knives. He’s good though – amazing, actually, considering how difficult it must be to catch things when you’ve pretty much only a palm on one hand. He moves efficiently from balls to clubs to rings, whilst the sound system blasts out The Windmills of your mind on a loop. We applaud loudly to make up for the lack of numbers. He bows deeply, gives a little skip, and then runs out back through the flap the woman holds open.
She gives aother speech, exactly the same as the opener, except this one mentions hula hoops. The young woman who’d been standing outside the tent with David comes on, with about fifteen hoops on either shoulder. Over the next ten minutes she spins the hoops on her hips, arms, legs, finishing with all the hoops at once, gyrating dangerously like a great, clacking, whirlwind of plastic. She lets the hoops fall to the ground, steps out of them, takes the applause and the hoops and jogs back through the flap – then almost immediately comes out again with an elderly man dressed in white shirt and corduroy trousers. Together they assemble a little platform in the middle of the ring, and stack a half dozen chairs to the side. Whilst they’re doing this, the woman – who I’m guessing is the old man’s daughter and the hula-hoop girl’s mum – gives us another monologue about something world-beating, world-class, giving the mic lead a flip every now and again, to re-energise her smile and move things along. When finally the stage is set she throws her right arm out to the side, shouts Daaa-viiid!, takes a step back, and David runs in again, dressed this time in a lycra one-piece made up to look like a suit. His demeanour is changed, too. He’s more urbane, the kind of insouciant smile and knowing wink that seems to promise that yes, he’s about to do something amazing and no, we shouldn’t try this at home. He puts one of the chairs on the platform, puts his damaged hand on the back of it, his good hand on the seat, and flips himself up into a handstand, holding it there for the applause. Once he’s back down, he puts another chair on top of the first, and repeats the trick. And so it goes on, the stack of chairs growing in height, the arrangement increasingly precarious, the woman – who I’m guessing is his wife – coming on half-way through to help him get on and off. Daaa-viiid! she cries at the end. We clap. The old man comes on to help pack away. Another announcement, and then the old guy comes on with a goat.
I feel sorry for all of them, but especially the goat.
It’s a cute, pygmy variety, black and white, with fierce silver eyes and neat horns that curve left and right. It’s on a lead. The old guy is shouting stuff out, flicking a whip, making the goat climb up on a star-patterned platform, kneeling, or rising up on its back legs. We all clap, but I feel uncomfortable. It’s one thing, struggling to make a living as a jongleur, a hula-hoopeur – but at least they have a choice. The only way I can find any comfort is to think that the goat – and then the llama, and birds, and even performing cats that make their way onto the little D-shaped stage for our entertainment – is that at least they have a better quality of life than many of the animals we farm for food back in the UK.
But I’m relieved when the animals are done and we’re back to the woman and her announcement – the
world-famous clown, apparently – Daaa-viiid!
He waddles on dressed in an orange and red check suit, a red nose screwed into the middle of his face, some dabs of white and black on his face. There’s some schtick between him and the woman, which I can’t begin to understand, until Simon leans in and says that ‘there’s been a clown strike / he’s refusing to go on.’ In his place he gets three children out of the audience, but that’s as far as the strike routine goes. He makes some balloon glasses for one kid, a balloon crown for another, and a balloon giraffe for the kid that cries and runs back to into the auditorium.
The woman then has a turn at performing. She gives a short magic show, at one point parading an empty cylinder round the stage, presenting it for our inspection with a worryingly intense smile, like she’s fully prepared to hit us with it if we reach out to look more closely. She pulls flowers and flags out of the cylinder, and then turns to the bird in the cage her daughter has just brought on. After some finger-to-mouth expressions of wonder and alarm, she suddenly claps the cage flat, opens it again, and drags out a rabbit – an extraordinary animal, its fur so clumped-up at first I think it’s just a hat.
David makes one final appearance, to do some balancing on variations of plank and cylinder.
The children buy pennants the hula-hoop girl brings out. Then the show is over and we all file outside, saying thank you to David, his wife, daughter and father, lined up to wish us bon voyage. After watching the animals grazing in the field outside, we head back down the lane, towards home.
I don’t know what’s more depressing – thinking about the goat, dropping down to its knees at the flick of the old man’s whip, or the family striking the tent each evening, packing it all away, counting up the few euros they made that day, wondering how much longer they can go on.
When we reach the statue of Jesus at the crossroads, I notice that the bees have all gone. Jesus’ head seems a little lower than I remembered. Maybe he’s relieved the bees have found somewhere else, although it might just be an optical illusion, the effect of the sun, much further down now, almost completely obscured by the hills on the far side of the valley.