Short Story Saturday

Short Story Saturday #1 – Coloured Balloons

Welcome to the inaugural Short Story Saturday, where I practice my skills in writing shorter fiction pieces. My aim is to get myself out of the habit of overthinking the prompts I’m given, and to instead just start writing.These pieces will likely not be polished or proofread, they will instead be posted “as is”, almost like flash fiction, though in many cases, a bit longer than the average flashfic.

This first story was inspired by the picture prompt in this creative writing exercise on WriteToDone.com, which I recently discovered by accident, and which has some really helpful posts, including writing exercises. I’m not going to lie, as I was writing the following piece, my brain was alternating between Peter Allen’s “Don’t Cry Out Loud” and “Nellie the Elephant”. You’ll see why as you read on. Thanks to the books I’ve been reading, I’ve had circuses on the brain this week, so that also inspired this one. It’s a little disjointed, I was adding things in as I went along, but for the first new short story I’ve written in months, I think it turned out all right.
“I’m leaving, Joe.”

Aggie leans on the door frame of the caravan she has spent so much time in. She made the declaration without any preamble, so that she didn’t have time to change her mind. Joe hadn’t even been aware she was there, but he puts down his book and clambers into a sitting position on the bed when he hears her.

“What?”

She shrugs. “I can’t do this anymore. I’m tired. I can’t keep smiling all the time and pretending everything is fine. For you or for anyone.”

Joe nods slowly, then eases himself off the bed and closes the space between them. He is two heads taller than her at least, so she stared at his chest. She could meet his eyes at a distance, but not this close.

“So what will you do instead?” he asks the top of her head. “Go home?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. I’ll think of something.”

“Find a job as a maid or a teacher? Spend your whole life in one place? Have people scrutinise the work you do and judge you for it every day?”

“Joe…” She placs her hands on his chest, trying to calm him. She risks a look up at his face. His expression is stormy. “Joe, you were born here. It’s different for you. This is your life. But it’s not mine. Not forever.” She gives him a small, sad smile. “I guess I always knew that.”

He takes her hands in his, grasping them tighter than he realises. “You’ll come back,” he said. “Just watch.”

Aggie bites her lip and gently twists her hands out of his grip. She wants to kiss him one last time, but she knows it will weaken all her resolve if she does. She steps down onto the first of the stairs leading to the ground and then looks back.

“Goodbye, Joe.”

He closes the door without replying.

Aggie knows he won’t really miss her.

*

She wanted Joe to be the first to know and now that he does, she has to make it formal. She has to tell Pietro. He’s the ringmaster inside and outside the circus tent. His caravan is bigger than most; it acts as an office as well as a bedroom. She knocks on the door and waits until he calls for her to enter.

He takes one look at her face and she doesn’t even have to speak. “The time has come, hasn’t it?”

Aggie nods. “You were right.”

“I’m always right.”

Pietro had warned her when she had first joined them that this was a job just like any other, that the romance of running away to join the circus soon wore off. That the drudgery of constant care for animals and equipment and the fatigue of performing every night and of being always on the move soon took over. If you hadn’t been born into it, you eventually left.

At the time, Aggie had acknowledged this in an absent sort of way, but she had been too focused on the chance to leave her own small town behind to believe him. Plus her hand had been in Joe’s and even after only knowing him a week, they way he looked at her made her feel sure that she would stay with him forever.

Joe might not have wanted to admit it, but she could tell that he had lost interest in her as time went on. He got impatient with her, became secretive, and when she joined the show, sharing performance space with her seemed to be an inconvenience. She knew that for someone that had grown up in the circus, who had seen the entire country by the age of ten, her naivete was obvious and her performance skills were lacking. In the first days of their romance, they hadn’t had to think about that, but as the days on the road went on, Aggie came to understand more and more that they weren’t as made for each other as they first believed.

“There’s a traditional farewell we have for every cast member who leaves us,” Pietro says. “How long do we have to plan it for you?”

“I’ll see out the run here,” Aggie says. “Then I’ll take the train south. Don’t take it personally, Pietro, but I think I need to put as much distance between me and the circus as I can.”

Pietro nods. The understanding expression makes Aggie think she isn’t the first one to say these words.

“Sunday afternoon, then. Wait backstage after the show.”

Aggie nods and leaves the office.

*

Sunday afternoon finally comes. As with the last few nights’ performances, Aggie spends her time wondering whether she had made the right decision. The thrill of performance has never faded. There is still a rush whenever she steps onto the stage, knowing the lights are hitting the sequins on her leotard and making her appear larger than life.

But then she fumbles a move and Joe glares at her and remembers why she’s going. She doesn’t belong here.

Over the past few days, word filtered out to the rest of the cast that she planned to leave. Like Pietro, the old-hands, others like Joe who had been there all their lives, didn’t seem surprised. Some of the others who had joined at a later point expressed their empathy, and joked about how life with a circus isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

After the show, Aggie waits backstage as instructed. Everyone else disappears, but then slowly they return one by one. They’re each carrying a balloon the same colour as their costume. They stand in a circle around Aggie. Some look at her, but others look around the tent, though it looks no different to how it looks any other time. She wants to break the silence but doesn’t know what to say, and nobody else does either, it seems.

Joe comes in with a dark purple balloon that matches his frock coat. He definitely doesn’t look at her. In spite of everything, she wishes he would, just once more.

“It’s a bit of a silly tradition,” says Pietro as he returns after everybody else and takes his place in the circle. “But we do it for everyone. Send you off with an armful of balloons. A farewell gift for a departing friend as ephemeral as a circus passing through.”

His voice is wistful and Aggie wonders how many times he has led this little ceremony before. He steps forward and hands Aggie the red balloon in his hand. Then he kisses her on the cheek and steps back, and the next person steps forward.

That night as she packs the last of her things, the balloons bob to and fro against the ceiling of her caravan.

*

The next morning, as tents are packed up behind her and animals are herded back into their cages, as caravans are hitched up for the next leg of the trip, Aggie picks up her suitcase and the balloons and begins to walk away.

Friends and colleagues wave as she makes her way towards the gate. She acknowledges them with a wave of the hand that holds all the balloon strings.

She sees Joe watching her from behind a wagon. She nodsto him. He nods back. The storm in his eyes is finally gone. Perhaps he’s realised that this is for the best, too.

*

The train is late. She was supposed to be gone before the circus moved out, but she ends up watching the company move off into the distance. She’s surprised she doesn’t miss it at all, now that she is separated from it.

The train finally rolls into the station and the porter loads her bags. She takes her seat. The carriage is empty. It’s been a long time since she has been in a space this quiet. She closes her eyes as the train starts to speed away from the station, on towards the next town. There would be no more circuses, but there was plenty of time to seek out other adventures.

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