Mimi knew that she had to see the circus one last time…
In the peace of an autumnal Sunday in the 4th arrondissement, the crane with the wrecking ball stood ready.
Neighboured by already flattened lots, the four-towered Grand Cirque de Paris stoically awaited its fate when work recommenced on Monday.
Emerging from the Metro across the square, Mimi Duveaux leaned on her walking stick and held the small of her back as she straightened stiffly to take in the sight of the once proud edifice.
Where she remembered a neon sign and the giant wooden shapes of dancing bears and clowns, only twisted iron remained, sticking out of the stonework like scars.
At her care home in Provence they’d have kittens if they knew she’d made the journey alone, but when she learned of the demolition on the news, Mimi knew she had to see the 150-year-old circus building one last time.
No one noticed her slip through the barricade.
The door stood open, for there was nothing left inside to steal.
As she made her way up the steps, a blast of music and laughter rushed at her from the past. She turned, half expecting to see Alonso the clown, playing his trumpet to entertain the queue of patrons that snaked along the pavement to the foyer.
Yet nothing moved on the pavement except litter in the breeze, and as the snatch of music faded, Mimi realised it was the radio of a passing car.
In a foyer carpeted with pigeon droppings, a movement caught her still-sharp eye. An ancient lady, grey and stooped, stared at her from the shadows; her reflection, she realised, in the cracked, grimy window of the box office.
Mimi sighed. She’d heard it said that time seemed to move quicker as you got older, but for her it seemed to have stopped.
She felt as if she’d been old forever, her youth someone else’s life or a half-remembered story that she’d read.
An image from that other life flashed sharply back to her, however, as she grasped the brass knob of the door to the auditorium.
For a split second she was sixteen, tugging open the door for the first time and gazing in wonder at the circus in rehearsal.
The empty seats echoed with cries of “Hep!” – “Ready!” – “Go!” as tumblers somersaulted from a springboard onto each other’s shoulders, bounced on a trampoline and dangled from the roof on ropes and hoops.
The war was over, France was free.
The reopening of the circus felt like a new beginning for her war-ravaged country – and for Mimi.
A lifetime on, only silence and a puff of dust greeted her as the door opened. Yet the circular auditorium wasn’t dark as she expected.
Four spotlights sliced the musty air to illuminate the ring.
It can’t be, she thought, as she hurried to the edge of the circle, and of course, it wasn’t. As she twisted her stiff neck upwards, the “spotlights” became shafts of daylight from holes in the roof.
The domed ceiling mesmerised her. Shading her eyes, she searched for the lofty trapeze rigging. It was long gone, but as she gripped the ring fence with fingers like white claws, she could feel the swing and the sway and the rush of the wind past her svelte body.
Her breathing fell into time with the memory… back and forth, amid the chandeliers… then letting go, spinning in mid-air… weightless for an endless moment, she felt as if she could stay up there, suspended in nothing, forever.
Then, with a yank on her wrists, the catcher tugged her back into the world of gravity.
For a moment she was a pendulum on the end of the catcher’s steel-like arms. Then he tossed her back into the air.
It was the return leap that always scared her – pirouetting blindly, arms outstretched in the trust that the trapeze bar would be there, at the uppermost point of its swing, for her to grab hold of.
If it wasn’t… Mimi never got used to the occasional unplanned thirty-foot drop to the net.
Especially after what happened to her darling Eduardo.
Heart in mouth, she was back in the moment when he came out of the triple a split-second too late. The centimetre between his fingers and the catcher’s might as well have been a kilometre.
From the vertiginous trapeze platform, Mimi watched helpless as her fiancé plunged to the net and landed badly. The commiserative “Ohhh” from the audience turned to screams as Eduardo bounced from the net to the ground.
The sound of Eduardo’s fatal impact wasn’t in Mimi’s memory, it was behind her.
Heart racing, she spun around and realised the wind had blown shut the auditorium door.
After Eduardo’s death, the circus had lost its magic for Mimi. They’d planned to marry and move to America, to start a new life with the Ringling Brothers Circus – the Greatest Show on Earth – but, alone, there seemed no point.
She finished the season, then she walked into the rain of a Parisian winter.
She told no one where she was going, because she didn’t know herself.
Mimi made her way slowly around the ring to the artistes’ entrance. Once it had been framed with curtains of claret and gold, orchestra on a gilded balcony above, but now it was a square hole in the thick stone wall.
Backstage was lighter than she remembered. Part of the menagerie roof had collapsed, letting daylight and clean air into formerly dark, pungent corners where lionesses paced behind bars and elephants trampled straw-strewn flagstones.
The stalls in the stables stood empty where long ago grooms had dressed Appaloosa stallions in pink-plumed headdresses.
“It’s changed a lot, non?”
Mimi turned at the raspy voice of Georges, the lion trainer – but there was no one there.
Lion trainers don’t grow old, they just grow slower until one day, as was the fate of poor Georges, a lion moves too quickly for them.
This place is full of ghosts, thought Mimi.
As if waiting for her, the door to her old dressing room stood open; a cupboard-sized space, with a ceiling that sloped beneath the arena seats. The drawers of the dressing table hung open and empty as if someone had made a final search for valuables.
Mimi sat wearily on a dusty chair and gazed at the wizened face in a mirror framed with empty light sockets. She couldn’t remember the face of the beautiful young trapeze flyer who used to smile back.
Exhausted, she let her head hang forward and closed her eyes.
Stop!” yelled the foreman, frantically fanning the dust cloud. “There’s someone in the rubble!”
Covered in plaster, the figure wasn’t moving… but she was smiling.
Shouting and racing footsteps jolted her awake.
“Ah, Mimi, you’re here at last!” The ringmaster’s face was as red as his tunic.
“Everyone’s been waiting for you!” he yelled. “The parade’s about to begin!”
“Parade…?” Mimi began. “I can’t go on looking like…”
She turned to the mirror. The ancient woman was gone.
Framed by soft light-bulbs sat a radiant young beauty in a sequinned costume.
“Come on, Mimi!”
The ringmaster tugged her arm and she stumbled into a backstage heaving with noise and colour. Horses snorted and scraped the flagstones with impatient hooves. Acrobats and ballerinas jostled positions in the parade. Alonso the whiteface clown was there, and Georges the lion trainer.
At the head of the parade, half-turned towards her with an expectant grin, was her darling Eduardo in his flyer’s skins.
Mimi shrieked in delight and ran to him.
They just had time to embrace and kiss before the claret curtains swept open.
The orchestra sounded like a heavenly choir, it was a full house and the circus was about to begin…
We’re sharing another spooky short story from our archives every Monday and Thursday throughout October. Look out for the next one!