To celebrate National Storytelling Week, Standard Issue is running a short story each day. Grab a cuppa and fall in love with Tina Jackson’s circus-set tale of hard knocks and wonder.
Onstage or off, Pa wore a gold lame shirt to make sure the limelight shone wherever he was standing. He didn’t take prisoners, Pa, least of all himself. No downtime. No slacking. No sleeping on the job, even if it was one of those jobs that didn’t seem to make any kind of difference. Where other folks saw everyday life, Pa saw an endless procession of opportunities to make sure he never ended up back where he came from, sharing a mud floor with eight siblings in a Carpathian mahala where there was no running water and no way out, or at least not one that was signposted.
Pa was never going to be any old bicycle acrobat: he was going to be the one people remem-bered. ‘When they think they’re amazed, make sure the next thing you do astounds them,’ he’d say. ‘Takes the breath right out of their bodies so they don’t believe what they’re seeing.’
Pa said he had to work harder because where he came from meant he had more to prove and Ma had to work harder because he expected her to fall short, and us kids had to work harder because there were no half-and-half passengers in our family, but the truth was we all had to work harder because he was mean down to the smallest bone in his body. There are snakes less mean than Pa. Even the wasps knew they’d met their match in the meanness stakes, and they never once pestered him. He got the idea for my act from watching people trying to win goldfish on the Midway. Throwing hoops over the fishbowls. When I was eleven, the age for me to have my own role in the show, Pa trained me by throwing hoops over me.
When he aimed those hoops, they came fast. The first one cracked my cheekbone and when I ducked for the second, the third nearly scalped me. The fourth one I got inside but he’d thrown it with such force I was nearly strangled. By the fifth hoop it was war, and I wasn’t going to be beaten like my Ma. I got inside that darn hoop and I kept it going. And the next, and the one after that. He kept those hoops coming until the fire burned down and there was no more light to see where he was throwing.
I was Princess Hula Lei, all the way from Hawaii. I’d hook a single hoop with my toes, and get it started, and once that was going, round my ankles, I’d hook another, and get the first one travelling up as far as my knees. And then Pa would start aiming hoops at me so they landed over my head ‘til I was inside them all, which is when the ones going up would meet the ones going down, all the way up my body, and I’d reach inside then start spinning hoops at the end of each wrist. We got it up to nineteen. Not bad for a kid, but not good enough for Pa.
Nothing ever was. He wasn’t just a perfectionist. He drove me, and Jimmy, and Ma so hard that the other acts would all have gone to bed, lights out in their trailers, while he was still working us. ‘Radu, they’re kids, let them sleep,’ Ma would plead, but Pa would cut her short. ‘They can sleep when they’ve earned it,’ he would say, and if she persisted, he’d answer her back with his fist, though never in a place which wouldn’t be covered up by her costume when it was showtime.
He never said if you’d done good. ‘Tell your Ma to get your costume made up for tomorrow’s show,’ he growled once I’d added the twentieth hoop. I crawled up the trailer steps to find the bottle of witch hazel my Ma used. And like he always did, Pa swaggered into the dark where there was liquor, and the kind of dames who looked into his black eyes and saw romance, and not, like Ma, nothing but their own dead-eyed reflection.
Pa may not have shown that he liked it, but the audiences did. Little Princess Hula Lei, with her gutsy smile and her tough elastic body without any distracting women’s lumps and bumps, was well set to becoming an attraction in her own right. She was meant to be an interlude between Pa’s first set of tricks and his finale, but she got to be enough of a draw that Management started talking about giving her a spot of her own. Not that anyone said anything direct to me but it’s hard to keep secrets in a place where the only walls are tents and trailers. ‘Get the kid up on the bill,’ drawled High Lee the ringmaster. ‘Fresh blood brings new bites. Stops the old stuff feeling like the same old same old.’
You should have seen Pa’s face, but he never opened his mouth. He just set to, working on his own with that bike ‘til he was doing tricks with it that would have seemed impossible if you hadn’t seen it with your own eyes. Backwards backflips. Sideways spins. He got it up to racing speed, stood on the handlebars, did a triple somersault and landed in the saddle. He made it dance the polka.
The audiences loved it. Pa took their breath away.
But they loved Princess Hula Lei even more.
So after every show, Pa needed to take it out on someone. He took it out on Jimmy by never saying a word to him beyond get this and fetch that. And every morning Ma’s eyes showed that he’d found a new way to take it out on her.
He took it out on me by working me harder and harder. ‘Even if you get it up to twenty-five, you’re just another hoop act,’ he said, sneering like I was something he’d found on his shoe. But then he came up with the trick that would make seeing into not-quite-believing.
Once I’d got twenty hoops going, a wire was lowered from the rigging, and I gripped on to it with my teeth. Then, with all twenty hoops a-spinning, I got pulled right up towards the apex of the big top. It was only when I looked like a tiny doll suspended all that way over the saw-dust that Pa would let me stop hooping, so that golden circles fell onto the sawdust from a great height, and the audience nearly turned themselves inside out with cheering.
When that happened, Pa didn’t need to say anything. I’d lived up to his expectations. Everyone knew it and everyone knew that it was all down to him that I’d done it. Management got new posters printed with The Spinning Maximoffs right at the top of the bill, and wheels and hoops all the way down the sides. There was a while when he didn’t take anything out on anyone. He even got to smiling at Ma once or twice.
We lived like that for several weeks, and the show kept moving on.
Then came the matinee when Ma messed up Pa’s finale. It involved a set-up and it had to be precise: four raised platforms positioned by Ma where Pa would flip the bike backwards into a roll before moving on seamlessly to the next one. On a good night, which was every night, round and round he’d go, a golden blur of man and machine. But Ma slipped up that afternoon when she misplaced one of the platforms and instead of that bike twisting and turning round the ring, the front wheel missed its mark and the bike tumbled to the ground with Pa beneath it.
Pa picked himself off the ground, got back on the bike. And tried again.
And fell again.
Four times Pa got back on the bike, and it didn’t feel like a family day out under that big top. It felt like someone was on trial for his life. When he finally made the complete turning circle and left the ring, everyone let out their breath and wiped their foreheads. But no one clapped, and High Lee sent in the clowns an act early.
Ma wore make up the next day to cover the bruises, though they still showed through. But she laid Pa’s breakfast in front of him without saying a word, and I knew from way down inside me that she never would. I knew there would never be a time when she’d stop paying for something she didn’t even know was a mistake ‘til it was too late.
She saw me looking and her eyes told me to be silent. I bit my tongue. But later, when Pa was gone, she said one thing to me.
‘I chose this. That doesn’t mean it has to be this way for you. And I don’t want it to be. But you have to make it happen.’
I looked at her. Ma was soft. I loved her, so much it hurt, but I was different from her.
That night it was business as usual. Pa’s routine went off without a hitch ‘til the midpoint, which is when Princess Hula Lei came on. I got those hoops spinning just like I always did, taking particular care because I wanted to remember the look on Pa’s face as he landed each one over me. Except there wasn’t a look. Pa was like a machine, shooting hoops at his daughter like we were on a construction line.
When the wire came down, he went to clip the safety onto me and I shrugged him off.
‘This time it’s not for show. It’s for real,’ I told him, just before the roustabouts starting hauling me up to the apex of that big top with all those hoops still turning and turning. And for a split second, before I flew into the air, I saw a look in his eyes that told me I’d earned his respect. That I was my father’s daughter.
I got as far as the wire would go and I kept right on going. When the wire ran out I span on and on, shooting onwards and upwards through the hole in the top of the tent in a blazing blur of brightness. I wasn’t Princess Hula Lei any more. I was a shooting star.
The next day, there were reports of a meteor that travelled across the sky, pulsing with a golden glow as it passed over the big top, over the tents and trailers, and then traveled on its way to who knows where.
It wasn’t a meteor. But if you look up on a dark night, perhaps when the circus comes to town, there’s a chance – a rare one, mind – that you might see me. I’m not saying you’ll believe what’s before your eyes, but I haven’t yet let a single hoop fall to the ground.
Tina Jackson is a Leeds-based writer and journalist with a parallel existence as a dancer and variety performer.