When I was a little girl my father had a young secretary called Sue who used to play cat’s cradle with me whenever he brought me in to the office. She had big square, black rimmed spectacles, long, dark, center parted hair and slightly dumpy legs poking out of a short tunic dress, the kind worn with a sheer white blouse with a big floppy bow at the neck. Sue was married to a skinny man called Barry with spots on his cheeks and a sandy coloured brillo pad where his hair should have been. He wore grown-up versions of the grey, perma-crease trousers that schoolboys wore back then , and when we went round to their house for supper their sofa was covered in creaky, shiny plastic wrap.
Barry was very proud of their brand-new semi with its brand-new furniture, but even at six I knew that Sue did not belong in this prefab showroom hell.
My dad often spoke about how bright Sue was, what a shame she had not continued in her education and taken advantage of her intelligence – she could go so much further, he said. Sue may not literally have overheard him, but at the cosmic level she was obviously listening. She was destined for more excitement than shorthand and
The Generation Game on Saturday nights.
One afternoon Dad picked me up after school and drove me back to the office with him. I bounced up and down on the cracked vinyl back seat of our ancient Volvo, chattering excitedly about how much I was looking forward to seeing Sue.
He gently broke it to me that she would not be there that day.
Or the next day. Or for quite a bit, maybe forever.
I was gutted. Sue was the highlight of the office as far as I was concerned.
“But why?” I asked, “Where had she gone?”
It emerged that Sue had actually done what most of us only dream of. She had quite literally run off and joined the circus.
Sue had fallen in love with a knife-thrower and decided on impulse to leave her husband, her home, her job, upping sticks amid much shouting and drama in the middle of the night in order to be the lady who has daggers thrown about her shape. She also assisted her new lover in his other act by humping crocodiles onto a table so he could stick his head into their prised-open mouths.
I was incredibly impressed.
Although I would not previously have thought it possible to think more highly of Sue, at that moment she went up approximately 1,000,000% in my estimation.
Which one of us has not considered running away to join the (insert proverbial circus of your choice) at some point in our lives? I know I do it almost on a daily basis.
I’ve been finding it rather hard to achieve anything recently.
I am continually starting creative, exciting and life-changing projects with great enthusiasm, energy, hope and belief. Yet somehow, between the school runs, playdates, trips to the paediatrician/dentist/whatever, I seem to lose my impetus. Could I have mislaid it in the freezer section on my well-worn path around the supermarket? This is the one I do several times a week hoping for some kind of culinary miracle (God not obliging, churlishly). I seem to have sprung a sort of happiness leak due to my general tethering to the house in order to tend to the needs of children and facilitation of a desperately busy-at-work husband. I do try to keep topping up the optimism tank with new schemes and formerly fail-safe remedies but it’s just not staying full long enough to keep me going for more than the local chores.
There are so many things I want to do! I keep getting glimpses of them. I have great bursts of energy and thrills of ideas, and then the doors of domesticity seem to close in on me with garish primary coloured rocks on one side and hard to fathom places on the other.
It’s ironic, really. When I had all the time in the world and no obligations to anyone other than myself I would long to have a family to love and look after. I imagined myself indispensable and beloved and this would take me out of myself so that I would not suffer the existential angst that tortured me and prevented me from reaching my full potential. Now I have a family to love and look after and they do take me out of myself, making me indispensable and beloved except now I’m tortured and suffering from existential angst because I want to get back in and realise my full potential.
I am keenly aware that nothing can replace the swiftly disappearing tininess off Two and Five. Every time my boy learns to say a word in grown up speech his sister and I quickly train him back into baby talk which is shameful but we can’t bear the loss of ‘lellow’ and ‘hooway!’ He stayed home from nursery today with an ear infection and we sat together watching In the Night Garden, he insisting I keep my arms tightly wrapped about his warm little body . At moments like these I have an unambivalent sense of purpose; I am there to protect and care for my child and nothing is more important or sweeter than that.
But when Five is throwing a wobbly over seemingly nothing, Two is drawing on the wall with indelible ink, the cat sicks up on the carpet, Husband snaps at me, my hair is dirty, I have not opened my mail in three weeks and I find a bottle of milk leaking on to my looks-like-it’s-been-jumped-up-and-down-on bed which had been made up perfectly with clean sheets not an hour previously I find the thought of running off and joining the circus hugely attractive.
I am aware that this is all a matter of balance. If I worried less, if I managed my time well (how many of you that actually know me are on the floor in hysterics at this notion?), if I were better organised, if I just got on with it, if I could just be content with what I had, if I could find the OFF switch in my brain, if I could process emotionally what I know intellectually then everything would be fine.
And mostly, of course, it is. I am here, after all, not at the circus (although you could argue that point some bathtimes).
But that does not mean I don’t dream about it. Just as (Husband, are you listening?) I would dream of here if I were there.
After about a year Sue was back at her old job. The knife thrower had turned out to be grumpy in the morning and have terrible breath. Worse, his aim was alarmingly erratic. There were rumours of scarred arms and unpleasant encounters with undermedicated alligators. Nonetheless, how amazing to have done it, whatever the outcome. I still get goosebumps thinking about how ecstatic she must have been to cast off her tunic and pussycat bow and step into a spangly costume and a pair of satin high-heeled sandals after years of fetching coffee for the boss from the machine in the fluorescent-lit corridor. It can’t have been easy to go back to the ordinary routine after a breakout like that. I’m sure she did derive comfort from central heating, a fixed address and a steady paycheck though.
I also like to think there might have been some pleasure in regaling an awe-struck and worshipful six-year old with true tales of life with a traveling circus.
When I dream of the circus, I dream of Sue.
I see her casting off her dowdy secretarial mantle,
taking to the air in a sparkly costume of rash courage.
Dodging knives! Battling alligators in the spotlight!
Oh yes! When I dream of the circus I dream I am Sue.