'This richly imagined debut [is] ideal for fans of The Night Circus' Emma Stonex, author of Sunday Times bestseller The Lamplighters
This is the story of The Greatest Funambulist Who Ever Lived....
Born into a legendary circus family, our nameless star was unwanted and forgotten, abandoned to grow up in the shadows of the big top. Until a woman with flaming red hair arrives at the circus and teaches her how to perform on the wire. And thus a star is born...
Now an adult and the diamond of the New York cabaret scene, she is haunted by an incident in which a child was lost from the circus. Our narrator weaves together her spellbinding tales of circus legends, earthy magic and folklore, all in the hope of finding the child... But will her story be enough to bring the pair together again?
Beautiful and intoxicating, A Girl Made of Air brings the circus to life in all of its grime and glory; Marina, Manu, Serendipity Wilson, Fausto, Big Gen and Mouse will live long in the hearts of readers. As will this story of loss and reconciliation, of storytelling and truth.
Release date: September 3, 2020
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Print pages: 400
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A Girl Made of Air
World on a Wire: The Fallen Star
Ellie Macveigh, the New York Times
June 14, 1983 / Manhattan / 10.30 a.m. / Transcription: Tape 1 of 1
Can you tell me who you are?
I’ve been called the Greatest Funambulist Who Ever Lived.
You smile when you say it. Don’t you believe it?
Sorry, I don’t like being recorded very much. I’ve never been good at talking. I’d rather write things down. My voice is awful, isn’t it? I don’t recognize it sometimes. I never should’ve started smoking. I mean, once you’re hooked . . . It’s a lived-in voice, I suppose.
The recording’s only for me. No need to worry. And your voice is great.
Was I babbling? I’ll try to relax. You’re the first person I’ve spoken to publicly, or privately for that matter, since my, I don’t know what to call it, my retirement? That makes me sound old. Since my last performance. Yes, that’s a decent description. There’ve been offers of interviews, appearances and all kinds of things. To be honest, I couldn’t face them. But I’m ready now. You came along at the right time. It’s not that I care about being out of the public eye, you understand. I’m done with that. I’m babbling again, aren’t I? Sorry. Please, do go on.
What makes you the greatest, sometimes?
Fearlessness, I suppose. I’m not afraid.
It’s not the falling one must fear, it’s the landing.
Ah yes. And are you afraid of landing?
Never. I have protection. See?
You’re showing me a piece of jewellery. It’s lovely. Amber?
Thank you. I saw you looking at it as I came in. It’s okay, you can touch it, if you like.
Yes, it had caught my eye. It’s very bright. Unusually so.
It keeps me safe.
[Pause. A cigarette is lit. The crackle of burning paper. A deep exhale.]
I’ve never thought of it like that before. I suppose I must be. I mean, it’s a talisman, of sorts, like a rabbit’s foot.
Like, some actors wear certain clothes, you know, the ‘lucky socks’ or something, before going on stage. Is that how it works?
Honestly? I’m not sure. When I climb the wire, my fingers search my throat for the pendant. I admit, there’s a certain amount of theatre to it. I’m prone to the poetic, I’m afraid. But there’s comfort in it, too.
You say it’s amber. Was it a gift?
You asked if it was amber and I do refer to it as an amber pendant. Only it’s not. It’s a glass locket containing a snip of tightly bound orange hair. Probably worthless to anyone else, but priceless to me. It wasn’t really a gift either. I’m ashamed to say I took it, the hair I mean, not the pendant. I bought that.
It’s human hair?
I’ve always supposed so.
Extraordinary. Who did you take it from?
It was a long time ago.
I mean, there’s a story to it, if you’d like to hear it. It’s just hard to unpack. I don’t know where to start.
I’d love to hear it. Why don’t you start at the beginning? There’s no rush.
Okay, let’s see. I took the hair from Serendipity Wilson. But, that’s already much later in the story.
That’s a very unusual name. Who was she?
She was a performer. My teacher, and closest friend. I suppose she still is, in a way. Some people have a lasting effect. They stay with you. If you know what I mean?
Indeed, I do. How did you meet her?
I was in my mother’s womb when Serendipity Wilson joined the circus. That didn’t mean her arrival was lost on me. Even now, if I close my eyes, I see her, walking into the circus encampment, her head a shining orange beacon, her heart full of hope.
Are you sure we’ve time for this? I mean, I know how far-fetched it sounds, and it doesn’t get any less like a fairy story as it goes on.
Go on. Please. I love fairy stories.
I thought you might, somehow.
[A cough and clearing of the throat.]
Let me see then. Oh, yes: the light from Serendipity Wilson’s hair shone with such ferocity it flooded the circus encampment. It burrowed through the thick skin of my mother’s belly, bathing me, womb-bound as I was, in its glow. Most circus folk have seen many improbable things in their time. So, a human flame, in the shape of a skinny girl with overly large feet, merely confirmed that such curiosities still had the power to impress. A spark of excitement shot through the encampment as soon as she arrived, growing in wildfire whispers, until everyone came to the big top to see the fabulous young thing whose gift might save their circus.
To be clear, you weren’t there, this was before you were born?
I was there in a manner of speaking, in utero. My mother was there.
But you speak as though you remember her arrival first-hand?
This is difficult to explain, and you might think me mad, but I do. It’s a question of belief, I suppose. Can you believe that Serendipity Wilson’s hair shone so brightly it cast a light upon my darkened nest? Of course, this could all be hokum. The ramblings of someone who lives alone and is out of the habit of talking to people. I can’t make you believe the story. My performances on the wire have all been stories, really. Each one with its own narrative and world. Its own truth. I suppose I’ve always been a storyteller.
Do you want me to believe you?
Oh yes. You have such a sparkle in your eye. I bet you believed in fairy stories as a kid? I did. I mean, yes. Everyone wants to be believed, right?
Well, I’d love to hear more of your memories.
I’m not entirely sure where my memory begins. Truth is, even though I’ve kept quiet about my past, I’ve always wanted to tell these stories, but only to the right person.
I think lots of people would enjoy them. Let’s tease out the important bits, then. Get your stories out there. When and where were you born?
Can’t say for sure. I know that when I emerged, I was unremarkable. My mother showed no interest in me. I was, at best, an inconvenience.
[Pause. The crunching out of a cigarette in an ashtray, the lighting of another. A window is opened. The hum of traffic mingles with the inhalation of smoke into lungs.]
As I grew up, I took to hiding in dark places. I was far too dull and quiet a child to be enveloped in the perpetual cacophony of a circus, with its trumpet blowers, painted faces, glittering ladies, roaring animals, the whooshing of derring-do, the never-ending drone of a distant accordion and the constant yell of all-encompassing egos. That was the landscape of my young life. And all snug beneath the blue-and-white stripes of an ominously joyful big top. I’d walk around the encampment, eyes closed, fingers shoved in my ears, longing for a grey calm to match my grey spirit.
Grey? Yet you were the darling of the New York cabaret scene. One article called you ‘a kaleidoscope of colour in a dull world’. So where and when did you find your colour?
I suppose I learned it. By quietly watching, by taking notes. And maybe I inherited it, from my mother. They do say these things are in the blood. I believe in bloodlines.
Your mother. Was she a circus performer?
Oh yes. My mother was a great beauty, the first big star of our show. She swam around a glass tank, waved, smiled, and sparkled for the crowds. She was an artist of the finest degree. Her name was Marina. Or rather, that’s what she called herself. Her costumes were hand-sewn with tiny gold and silver patches that caught the light and glistened like the scales of a trout, and she wore a tight-fitting hat, tied neatly under her chin. The men in the crowd whistled as she swam around her tank, but the ladies scowled. Then the ladies’ scorn turned to fear, then to sheer admiration, when the crocodiles slid in.
An exciting act!
I never saw it. At least, that’s what I was always told. Apparently, she was too far gone by the time I was born, too full of gin and self-pity. I know it by heart, though. An act like that is nothing short of legendary. She seemed to belong in the water. There were even claims she was an actual mermaid, found by the ringmaster on a jaunt to the seaside, captured and taught to do tricks by an animal trainer.
The wonderful fantasy world of the circus.
Absolutely. The world was at war. The human race needed to believe in another reality, and circus people have vivid imaginations, it’s their stock-in-trade. By the way, the animal tamer was Manu, my father.
Not an English name.
French. Manu grew up on his family’s farm in rural Brittany. He was brought to England through poverty, fear and – fuelled by a childhood fixation with Sherlock Holmes – a thirst for adventure. This was not quenched by selling onions in London street markets to rude old men who called him a filthy Frog and spat at him. So, Manu became an ardent and adventurous lover.
The French lover. A nice cliché.
Yes. One he enthusiastically propagated. His dark eyes and Celtic charm, along with his tight muscles from pushing ancient ploughs through hard Breton ground, made him an instant hit with the giggling English girls. Still, he wanted more from life. So, when a circus came to town, he threw himself on the mercy of the Italian ringmaster.
This is real storybook stuff.
I’ve never spoken about my childhood. I hope I don’t sound too eccentric. I know that’s how I come across sometimes. Most journalists would want to hear about the New York club scene, my wild escapades as a nightclub darling, before moving on to my retreat from public life. You seem different though. You’ve got soft edges.
Soft edges? I’m not sure what that means, but thank you. Honestly, I don’t care about the sensationalist stuff. I’m interested in where you came from and how you ended up living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Please, go on. The Italian ringmaster?
[Pause as she pulls on her cigarette.]
Fausto Flavio was a miserly one-time lion tamer, whose circus, bulging waistline and ageing figure had all seen better days. He was looking for an apprentice and a bargain, just as Manu fetched up. He put my father on contract – on half wages, of course, due to the unfortunate situation of his being French.
It’s quite a jump, from onion seller to lion tamer.
Fortunately, Manu found he was as gifted with the circus animals as he was with women. Using his carefully honed skills in the art of romance, he wooed wild beasts into compliance, putting aside the animal trainer’s whip, coaxing them with a soft voice and outstretched hands. He turned great lions into cavorting kittens, forced tigers to lie down at his feet as obedient as any lap-dog; over time he became more compelling than ever. It was a well-known fact that women wept when the circus left town. Then he met Marina.
The story of Marina and Manu’s first joining became circus legend. Show people love to make legends of their stars. There was no escaping the stories of my mother and father’s love-making.
Every child’s idea of a horror story.
There are many horrors to be had, yet. This one’s not so bad, really.
Would you mind telling it now?
Happy to. It’s a love story, after all. Everyone loves to love.
[Cigarette. Heavy exhale.]
Marina was like no other creature. Everyone saw how her beauty and grace left Manu troubled. For the first time in his life, when confronted with a possible conquest, my father’s palms began to sweat, his mouth went dry. In the confusion, he couldn’t remember the English words to entice her, clumsily substituting them with his own language. He needn’t have worried. At their first meeting, in the shadows of tent poles and flags, Marina felt a fierce heat rush through her frozen veins. She took his hands and brought them up to her face, kissed the ends of his fingers, then, closing her eyes, placed them under her clothes. Manu didn’t stand a chance. He felt her breathing, a fluttering of tiny birds beneath hot liquid flesh, the cage of her ribs, bone-brittle under his hands. It is all for you, she said, as they slid under a trailer, discarding their damp clothes, writhing together in the dirt.
You say you’re not used to talking about it, yet you rattled that off as if you’d told it a thousand times. You certainly know all the details.
Everyone in the circus knew.
It’s great. There’s more?
On their wedding day, Manu gave Marina the greatest gift: two juvenile crocodiles. He taught her to train and tame them. She learned to stroke and coo at them so that they looked up at her with the tenderness of children in their dreadful eyes. In turn, she loved and cared for the animals. You’d think she’d actually given birth to them. They were the ultimate proof of Manu’s love, and they made her a sensation.
Yes, of course, the crocodiles.
Two years after they married, Marina was a huge star of the circus. Pictures of her shimmering beautifully with her reptilious beasts, rippling in their underwater tank, appeared on the cover of magazines. Manu devoted himself to her, creating ever more impressive routines.
Routines? Were they dangerous?
All routines are dangerous. You must master them. For example, Manu taught the crocodiles to retrieve peaches and other soft-skinned fruits from the hand of a smiling Marina, who stood, magnificent, on the bottom of the water tank. The crocodiles held the fruit gently in their mouths, crawled out of the water to slink their way down the side of the tank and place the fruit, intact and unblemished, on the dry ground, in a gruesome game of fetch. Manu then replaced the fruit with larger objects such as baby dolls and teddy bears, giving the crocodiles the macabre aspect of monstrous children. Eventually those objects were also replaced, by Marina herself. The final routine was breathtaking.
You never actually saw it, though.
I’m told that’s the case; yet, I have memories. I can’t explain it. I believe I was there, that I watched my mother swim with her crocodiles. The circus folk insisted that Marina refused to continue after I was born. That I was the cause of her descent into oblivion. I’m not entirely sure what’s true and what’s not. When I was born, the axis had to shift. I was nothing. No, I was less than nothing. I was invisible. And yet, my birth changed everything, forever. All I can tell you are the basics, the story as it was told to me, and if I can, I will embellish it with my own memories. I have an excellent memory.
So it seems. I’m all ears.
At the very pinnacle of her art and fame, or so legend would have it, Marina realized she was pregnant. The constant vomiting made it impossible for her to continue her act without the risk of disgracing herself. She took to shouting at the other circus people, furious with her body for letting her down in such an abhorrent way. Manu tried to comfort her. Having his constant attention seemed to ease her distress, a bit. But as her belly grew fat and full of me, my mother would scream out in despair at her hideous disfigurement. Everyone, it seems, went to my parents’ caravan during the days of my mother’s self-confinement, so worried were they for their dear Marina. They brought gifts of cakes and biscuits made with parental care. Cutting the sugary treats into crocodile shapes, feeding them to her with tumblers of homemade lemonade, laced with gin, for the pain. Meanwhile, the show had to go on, whether my mother liked it or not. In the absence of The Great Marina, the circus was forced to look for a new main attraction, a temporary necessity. Luckily, only days before Marina found out the terrible news of her condition – or so the story goes – a young girl with freakishly luminous orange hair was brought to the circus by her father.
Yes! She was a most unusual-looking person. Long-limbed so that she looked somehow stretched, entirely flat-chested, green eyes like those of a cat rather than a person, large feet and an elegant pointy nose. And with a gentleness of spirit that shone almost as much as her astonishing mane. She wanted to be an artist, to twist and glide and spin. Fausto, overlord of the circus, decided that Serendipity Wilson, with her head full of fire and strong, thin young body, would become the circus’s first female funambulist. In her excitement, Serendipity Wilson forgot to mention she suffered from a terrible fear of heights.
Oh dear, a problem indeed. I can’t help but notice that every time you mention Serendipity Wilson you touch your pendant. As if the act of saying her name causes you to check it’s still there. It’s a link to her, right? Would you like to tell me about it?
Or are you reluctant to tell that tale?
I don’t mean to be. I want to be open with you. But it’s difficult to find words for things you’ve spent a lifetime trying to . . . not forget exactly – we can never do that – but live with. Plus, it’s a difficult tale to spin. I’m not sure where to begin, other than at the very beginning. But then that feels like we’re going backwards.
Okay. Let’s go back. You were born in England, in a circus . . .
Yes. My birth was unspectacular. Marina squatted naked in the caravan. Manu sat behind her, holding her up by wrapping his knees around her hips and crossing his arms over her breasts. Marina yelped and barked, swore revenge on the gods of pain who racked her beautiful body with such evil. I was brought to my mother by one of the dancing girls, a faceless, makeshift midwife who, hearing Marina’s screams, had rushed in at the last minute to help. Soft, squashy and new, my eyes blinking in the strange light and a belly still full of my mother’s bile, I cried for flesh and warmth. Marina leaned forwards, stunned sweat running down her face, breathless and uncompromising. Yes, it’s a baby, she said, and fell back, exhausted, onto the bed.
Your birth became another circus legend, then? No one can remember their own birth, so I guess this was told to you, as a child?
My memory doesn’t seem to work like other people’s. Sometimes I fill in the gaps, but there’s always an echo of truth in there. It’s the only way I can find the words: by seeing the whole picture, the whole truth.
All right. I can go with that. Please, carry on.
Manu stroked Marina’s head and soothed her as best he could. My unwilling nurse put me into a wooden-crate cot and tiptoed away. I lay kicking my legs, arms groping the alien air. There was no one to pick up my tiny frame. No comfort on this cold new earth. So yes, there we have it, another legendary beginning: the heroic, beautiful mother, the desperate father and me, the wretched child.
And, I soon learned crying didn’t bring me love, or food. Any attempt to gain my parents’ admiration or attention fell on deaf ears and blind eyes. So, I was a silent child, standing in the shadows of my glorious parents, the pocket audience for the lives of my progenitors. As I grew, I became withdrawn from the physical world. I locked myself deep inside the confines of my mind, where I could pretend to be a spirit, a girl made of air and clouds. If anyone touched me, even accidentally brushed against me as they passed by, I’d shrink away, whimpering like a wounded dog. People were amazed that the snivelling infant who cowered in corners came from Marina’s magnificent body.
You had a home, a family. You weren’t completely abandoned?
The circus was my family and my home, but I was more like a pet than a beloved child. My parents couldn’t spare me love, attention, or time. So, I would roam the encampment. Some of the other artistes would feed me every now and then, teach me my numbers or tell me stories, and generally be good Samaritans to a poor unloved thing. They’d stroke me, look at me with big watery eyes like I was a friendly feral cat, then send me on my way to play in the dirt under the trailers. When it wasn’t possible to squeeze my little life into our caravan at the end of the day, I’d sleep where I could, in the beds of other people’s children or, on warm nights, in the place I liked best: with the animals.
No one took care of you?
The circus people were kind enough, but I was quiet, easily forgotten. For most of my early childhood I was invisible. I was even thought to be a halfwit. Then, when I was around six years old, everything changed. That was the day Serendipity Wilson took my hand, kissed me on the forehead, and pushed me up a ladder. That was the day I became a funambulist.
And another story begins.
And another and another. All the way up to the crashing end of my career, and me sitting here today.
It’s been extraordinary meeting you. I wish we had more time. This will be great in print. I’m sure all your stories are equally fascinating.
That depends on who’s reading them, I suppose.
[End of tape.]
This is not the beginning.
I’ve already written two pages. They lie crumpled in the raffia basket under my desk, a sarcophagus bought expressly for this purpose.
I hope you don’t think it odd, to receive this correspondence. Perhaps you’ll think me half mad? Perhaps I am. Since our meeting I’ve not been able to banish you from my thoughts. Your questioning had a marvellous effect on me, and although my introspections are sometimes a torture, I feel I must write them down, share them with you. I could see you wanted to know more. You said as much yourself. Our meeting was too brief. My mind has been on fire since our conversation. You found me at the right time.
There was a thread of understanding between us. I believe you felt it, the strength of our connection? It’s something I’ve rarely experienced. Certainly, never with someone introducing themselves as a stranger. Still, I realize this letter is a presumption, and one I hope you will forgive. I fear it’s more than a mere missive, so I urge you to settle down, be comfortable, be warm and at ease as you read on.
This is my life; my search.
Through my terrible carelessness, a child was lost from the circus. It’s been a heavy burden to carry. I denied someone her true name and heritage, denied her the love of her mother. A lifetime has tumbled by since I first vowed to get her back. I admit I’ve sometimes been lazy, even turned away from my search. Yet I’ve lived in hope and do so again. Which brings me to you.
Above everything, this correspondence is a cry for help. You seemed so alive to my stories. Even if you can’t publish everything I write here, even if it’s a long shot, will you help me?
I’ve little to offer in return, only the story of my life, and the promise of truth.
Let’s begin with hope, then. My words are a labyrinth into which we can wander. As I write these tales, I can follow each path, each fallen leaf, in the hope they might take me to the person I seek. I’m grateful to have a companion, again.
Many of these stories were jotted down in notebooks over the course of my lifetime. I will copy them out for you, as best I can, onto clean sheets of white paper. Some are diary entries, or snippets, some remembrances from faded photographs which have lain forgotten for decades, their images bleaching into yellowing pages. Others are letters or taken from notes secreted in pockets and bags over the years. Some are just memories. I came late to the world of words, but once it was shown to me, I learned quickly. Hardly a moment went by when I couldn’t be seen scribbling away.
It was (unsurprisingly) Serendipity Wilson who taught me how to shape letters and read the words on the posters around our encampment. Big Gen, the circus bookkeeper and one of the last stars of the English sideshow circuit, was a hoarder. Her trailer was said to be like a museum; full of cabinets bursting with knick-knacks and moth-eaten stuffed creatures with bulging glass eyes. Amongst her precious treasure, she kept a book. Big Gen wasn’t ungenerous. She didn’t mind sharing her book with us. It was full of old photographs depicting people the book called living curiosities. I thought it was a storybook, about a mysterious island called Coney, where the curiosities lived. Coney’s the old English word for rabbit, Serendipity Wilson told me. I imagined a desert island inhabited by bearded ladies, four-legged women, and millions of bunny rabbits.
If we lived there, could I have one, as a pet? I asked.
A bunny rabbit?
My goodness, Mouse. If we lived there, you could have anything you wanted. That’s why they call it Dreamland.
At bedtime I’d climb in beside Serendipity Wilson, her hair loose over her shoulders, shedding orange light onto the pages, and we’d sit up, late into the night. She would point at words, making me say them out loud, and help me to copy them out with a pencil. The first word I learned to write was dipygus. I have a lot to thank Serendipity Wilson for.
I want you to picture me here, as I write. This is a new place for me. Another rented room. I haven’t been here long. There’s a bed against the wall. It’s large but single; the sheets covering it are red velvet. They are my own. The furniture isn’t. There’s a heavy, ancient-looking oak wardrobe in the corner. It holds a handful of my costumes. They’re a feast for moths. My everyday clothes lie neatly folded in a brown leather suitcase under the bed, which I cannot see from where I sit.
The room is the smallest in the building. I didn’t want anything fancy, though I could afford it. I’m done with fancy. On the wall above my bed is a print of a rather beautifully painted portrait. The sitter perches on the edge of a glass water tank. She wears a golden swimsuit with matching swim hat, her legs long and waxy. She is unbelievably glamorous. My mother twinkles at the painter as crocodiles swim behind her, contained by the tank and the water in a smudge of green – a clever imitation of movement. Her head is thrown back. She is smiling, radiating a warmth I only ever saw her give to others, as a halo of lights proclaim her greatness. It’s just one of my old circus posters, well painted, albeit with an over-sentimental hand, as was the style of the time. It’s carefully preserved and elegantly framed. The frame is silver and polished. I polish it regularly. I’m not a sloven. Other than this the walls are bare. Eggshell, I think they call it. It’s clean, like a hospital. There’s a large window by the desk, behind which the sound of traffic rises to meet me. Even at this hour, people are living out their dreams, or pretending to do so. Their costumes are amazing. This is undeniably Manhattan and I am undeniably a person in exile. But it’s the same wherever I go. Everyone is the star of their own show, performing for the pass. . .
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