Woman on Wire

The travelling circus never loses its most ardent admirer...

It was the last night they would be in town. The last night of the muddy swamp fields, the humid heavy hanging air, the late nights with absinthe and Bordeaux and the locals with those thick accents that sounded like they were singing. Then the tent poles would be plucked from the earth, the big top silks loaded onto the train and they would be off; to Belgium, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Russia. She would be in her cabin alone, rocking against the train’s lullaby. And he would pop up wherever she would see him next.

His calling cards were growing in intensity. First it had been a look from far below. His top hat brim shaded the hoods of his eyes, still they burned like the devil, enough for her to pick them out among the crowd. Next stop Paris. Then the postcard left in her wagon. She had to turn it perpendicular, then clockwise to figure out which way round it went. She retaliated. She left him a fur at the box office, scented with her perfume. He came, he took it, he played with it in his gloved hands as he watched her. She almost fell off the wire.

At Orleans he left her silk panties. At Nantes she wore them and left them back. He left her a rounded and very purposefully shaped object. When they reached Strasbourg she had a photograph of herself developed in the dark carriage and left it for him in an envelope. He left her roses. She left him strawberries.

He sent her a handkerchief that smelled of his tobacco and soap. She blindfolded herself with it and walked the wire. Afterwards, her balance pole wavered as she saw him take out of his breast pocket a monacle, to get a better look.

It gave her an idea. The next day she left a box at the cloakroom, labelled with his name.

She waited in the wagon while the sun went down. The heat clung to her body and a fine film of moisture mingled with her cologne. She chose a skirt that reached below her knees, and three white petticoats. She knocked on the contortionist’s door and asked if she wouldn’t mind lacing her in. She pulled pale lemon stockings high up her legs and put on kidskin ballet shoes. She couldn’t bear anything at her throat in the heat but a thin string of pearls.

She saw him take his seat, right of centre. It distracted her, searching his lap for the little box, so she tried not to look. She took tinier steps than usual, no greater than the length of her twisted foot. When she reached the centre, confident she was out of the crowd’s range, she pointed her left toe and gracefully began to lift it from the wire. There were gasps at her daring, but not, she smiled to herself, for the true reason. The night air in the big top was close as close could be and it clung to her naked undercarriage sending a thrill up and down her. Brazened by liberation, she felt bold enough to look down. With a strange combination of triumph, pleasure and satisfaction she saw that the box was on his lap, open, the tissue paper strewn aside, and in his gloved hands, held tight to his face were a pair of gold and ivory opera glasses.