“…and I don’t even like circuses! Remind me again why I had to come?”
David’s irritable voice reverberated around the large, brightly coloured canvas tent and a hush fell over the audience. “Shhhh! David, for goodness sake!” Abigail hissed, hunching her shoulders as she looked around trying to see if anyone had noticed. “You’ll have us thrown out! Now just shut up, sit down and enjoy yourself! Or else.”
Going to the circus was not his idea of a fun night out but he had to hand it to Abigail for managing to convince him to come. She had somehow been able to persuade him to go into Hollowcroft with her ‘to get some provisions for the show next week’ and the next thing he knew, he was waiting in line for tickets to ‘Janelli’s Menagerie’ in one of the fields at the edge of the village. He sighed, crossed his arms and slouched in his seat, muttering to himself.
Suddenly, the lights dimmed and a single spotlight appeared in the middle of the sand covered arena. A tall, tanned, older man strode into the illuminated spot and bowed to the audience, shiny top hat in one hand and a long striped cane in the other. He wore a dark purple coat with tails, and a pair of red and gold striped breeches, all topped off with a pair of dark leather boots and a wonderfully old-fashioned looking moustache.
David rolled his eyes. Clichéd or what?
“Good evening ladies, gentlemen and children of all ages!” He held his arms out in a welcoming gesture and smiled. “…and welcome to Janelli’s Menagerie! Ze biggest, boldest and most spectacular of shows this side of Raba Niżna!”
“That’s in Poland” whispered Abigail knowledgeably.
“Whaaa?” David turned to her in surprise, eyebrows furrowed. “How did you know that? You’ve never even been to Poland!”
She shushed him and kept looking at the ringmaster, an odd sort of smile on her face. David shrugged and crossed his arms irritably. If she wanted to be cryptic then that was fine with him.
“…tonight you will witness magnificent acts; the like of which you have never before seen! Incredible acrobatics, majestic beasts and feats of such daring that your very souls will shake in wonder”
David snorted, breaking the dramatic silence that followed the ringmaster’s statement. Abigail closed her eyes and silently counted to ten while the ringmaster scanned the front row for the culprit. Eventually sighting the unruly spectator, he smiled and cocked his head to one side, the top hat now perched on the side of his forehead at a jaunty angle.
“You not fan of the circus, ah? Oh you will be, by end of night!” Turning to the entire audience he doffed his hat and raised his voice to a booming roar. “I am Mr Janelli and I hope you enjoy the show!” With that, he strode out of the ring, twirling his cane with every step and motioning to the brass band to play in the first act.
David winced as Abigail hit him over the head with her programme and scowled at him. He knew he deserved it, but it still hurt and he still didn’t like the circus! Finally resigned to his fate, he looked over to see what was coming on and groaned.
Clowns dressed as pirates.
It was going to be a long night.
Several very long, and in David’s view, unnecessary acts (including the ‘Unforgettable’ Singing Foxes and the ‘Wondrous Dancing Snails of Slovenia’ ) later, Mr Janelli reappeared at the end of the ‘Cat Conductor’ act to introduce the next performance.
By this time David had nearly fallen asleep and it was only strategic prods from Abigail’s rolled up programme that kept him awake. (if rather annoyed)
“…yes, yes, thank you, thank you! Now it is time for the final act and my most favourite of performance. My most prized of horses, the one, the only, the incredible Jaconelli and his fine-looking partner – Anya!”
The audience clapped to introduce them and David noted that Abigail was applauding with much more enthusiasm than in the other acts. He was about to ask her why when he saw for himself. A young woman with bright red hair and a costume bright enough to be confused with a bottle of washing up liquid walked into the ring, leading a horse behind her. David felt his jaw drop and Abigail smiled. He had seen appaloosa coloured horses before, but nothing quite that loud!
“Jaconelli!” Mr Janelli’s voice boomed “The horse of a thousand talents! See him jump, count, dance and perform!”
Anya gave the horse a pat and vaulted onto his back as Mr Janelli took up the lunge line. As soon as she had got her balance she clicked to him with her tongue and he leapt forward into a high stepping trot.
Dramatic choral music echoed from the tinny speakers at the sides of the stands and the acrobat began her routine, causing the audience to gasp at every opportunity.
The crowd cheered as Janelli unclipped the lunge line and, with the aid of another performer, set up a jump. Jaconelli cantered around the ring, ears pricked, and his polka-dotted coat seemed to shimmer under the lights. Finally the ringmaster gave the acrobat a signal and they turned for the jump. David gasped. Surely she wasn’t going to jump it like that?! It was [i]huge[/i] and the rider had nothing to hold onto!
Jaconelli picked up the pace and took off, Anya leaning back to stay in balance with one hand gently touching his quarters as he landed.
The audience cheered and the pair cantered around, eager to do it again. This time Anya somersaulted off before he landed; touching down perfectly next to the fence.
“How she manages it in those heels!” Abigail muttered, “It’s a miracle she hasn’t broken her ankles!”
They followed up with a display of Jaconelli’s mathematical genius. Anya held up a board with simple equations and he gave her the answers by stamping his foot the required number of times.
“One plus two, yes?” she asked, nodding once, twice, three times as Jaconelli stamped.
David noticed that she was always very slightly ahead of him, but for once he didn’t comment. The pair finished up with some traditional tricks – bowing, ‘dancing’ and a very impressive performance involving two matching Shetland ponies simultaneously jumping through hoops next to a rearing Jaconelli.
They got a standing ovation and when Mr Janelli walked on to finish the show, David could see that he had tears in his eyes as he spoke.
“Thank you, thank you! That is truely the end of the show…forever and …always.” The crowd quietened down to let him speak. “Janelli’s Menagerie has been in my family since 1869 but now is our last performance.” He held up a white gloved hand to hush the now riotous crowd and continued. “It is not what we want, but times are hard and circus is not popular anymore.” Next to him, David could see Abigail’s face fall. She looked devastated.
“It has been a pleasure to perform for you and we bid you farewell!” He bowed and in one sweeping motion, took off his top hat and held it by his side as the entire cast of performers walked into the ring. Some were crying and others were trying to keep a straight face. After several rounds of applause, one of the stewards came out and started ushering people outside as the performers left through their own flap in the tent.
Abigail sighed and got out of her chair but walked not towards the exit, but to Mr Janelli.
“You’re shutting down?!” she cried at last, when everyone else had left. “But why didn’t you tell me?”
The ringmaster sighed and patted Jaconelli’s mottled muzzle gently. “I didn’t want to upset you – besides, it would have spoiled the final performance”
David stared. How did Abigail know him?
Remembering that she hadn’t come on her own, Abigail hastily introduced David.
“Oh, sorry, Jarek, this is David. He works at my yard and I thought he needed a bit of entertainment”
David held out a hand and Mr Janelli shook it, his eyes twinkling and with a roguish grin on his face.
“The one who doesn’t like the circus, ah? You enjoyed it in the end though, eh?”
David smiled sheepishly. “I suppose so – Jaconelli here definitely made it worthwhile”
Mr Janelli smiled and Abigail beamed. “See!” she whispered. “I told you you’d enjoy it!” David rolled his eyes. “So anyway, why are you shutting down?”
The ringmaster shrugged. “Circus is not popular anymore, that is it. No one wants to pay to see people and animals perform when they can just switch on TV.”
“But you’ve been going for so long!” moaned Abigail. “You’ve lasted this long, can’t you hold out a bit longer?”
He shook his head sadly. “When we first came to Hollowcroft, people were suspicious of us and said that we would steal from them but then you came along and changed everything.”
David looked at Abigail curiously. Just what was going on?
“Oh that was nothing Jarek, I’ve told you!”
He smiled and turned to David. “Back in 1950’s…err…[i]1970’s[/i]” he said, swiftly changing the date at a glare from Abigail
“We arrived in village and performed. At first, no one came – they all thought bad things of us and didn’t want to ‘encourage’ us, but after a while we became a popular attraction – especially among the children of the village.”
He grinned and Abigail continued.
“I was quite young at the time, perhaps seven or eight years old and after an argument with my mother in town I decided to run away from home and join the circus.”
David snorted. “You? Join the circus? You’ve got to be kidding me!”
She frowned at him and he shut up.
“ANYWAY, I marched up to the ringmaster at the time and demanded to be given a job. He humoured me by asking what qualifications I had and showed me around and introduced me to all the animals and things while he sent Jarek off into Hollowcroft to track down my mother”
Jarek chuckled. “She was furious with her but thought great deal of the menagerie now that her daughter had been returned safe and sound.”
Abigail laughed. “Yes, they got on very well after that and I was even allowed to take part in some of the performances! I used to help out with the horses every summer in the holidays as well as making posters to advertise their next visit. It was one of the most important things in my childhood.”
“That is why we are giving Jaconelli to you, as a thank you for all that you have done over the years.” Jarek said solemnly. Abigail looked stunned. “But..but, why? I mean…I haven’t done anything, not really!”
Jarek laughed and motioned for Anya to take off the horse’s harness.
“You and your mother showed everyone that we were trustworthy and not the dirty, thieving circus folk that the rest of the village assumed we were.”
Abigail shrugged. “It was nothing really, there’s no need to do this...” Jarek held up his hand and silenced her. “Jac is spitting image of that little mare you used to like, remember?”
“We always said that if she had a foal, we would give it to you but with one thing and another, she never did” He patted Jaconelli fondly and ruffled his messy forelock. “We were looking for new stock at polish horse fair and found him. The seller said that he was an ugly beast and wasn’t worth anything because of his deformity.” He pointed to Jac’s mouth and David could see that it looked much different to what it should.
“To be honest, I hadn’t noticed it” Jarek continued. “He had great spirit and a temperament most excellent so I bought him…and for considerably lower price than the seller wanted!” he said with a cheeky grin. “He was perfect for the show – flashy colour and very easily trainable. The fact that he couldn’t be bitted mattered not”
He gave him a gentle slap on the neck and clicked to him with his tongue, sending him off around the track at a brisk trot.
“All the other animals have found new homes already but we wanted to give him a special place to live. Somewhere we knew he would be loved as much as he is here.”
Abigail’s eyes filled with tears and she flung her arms around the ringmaster. “Thank you so much, he will have a home for life and you know that you and everyone in the troupe are welcome at any time!”
He nodded and pulled a camera from the pocket of his coat. “I just want couple of pictures to remember him by”
Jaconelli stopped at the sound of the shutter and his ears pricked when the flash went off.
“One more thing!” Jarek said, pulling one of the large laminated wooden banners over to the horse. “I’d like one of him with the name of the circus. That way, we will never be forgotten”
“Don’t worry” said Abigail gently. “No one will ever forget Janelli’s Menagerie – not as long as I’m around!”