Josie sees the circus poster walking home from school. The poster contains a photograph of her mother. Her mother was once in the circus. In the poster, she hangs upside-down, holding herself between two plumes of white silk, her arms bulging like two socks filled with tennis balls. Below, a lion stretches its front legs upwards towards her, its mouth a red yawn. The poster says REVIVAL OF THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH EVER IN HISTORY REPEATED FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY PLEASE COME GREATEST YES THEY SAID GREATEST.
Josie leans very close to the poster. Her mouth salivates. She likes seeing her mother as a young strong person who left the house. Her mother is now a small person with very visible bones. She likes locks and dislikes people. She has long grey hair that strokes the floor. She used to tell stories about the circus, how magical it all was, how risky, but she does not talk so much now. Josie runs the rest of her way home. She is excited, she wants to hear the stories retold. When she gets to her doorstep and performs the special knock, she cries, Mum! Mum! You’re on the circus posters in town! Her mother unclicks the dozen locks and swings the door open. She pulls her into the house and closes the door slowly, scanning the street.
Don’t say anything, says her mother. Sit down and listen to me.
At the kitchen table, her mother grabs a piece of paper and starts to make a list. The list is in fact two lists, divided by a line her mother draws down the centre, a line that leans slightly to the left. The left side of the paper says REAL at the top. The right side of the paper says NOT REal, the last two letters small and clutching each other where her mother runs out of space on the line.
On the REAL side, her mother writes, mum. She hands the pen to Josie. Josie writes Josie. Her mother tells her to write more. Josie thinks of real things. She writes: house. She writes: school. She writes: books. She writes: milk.
Her mother looks at the list. Then she crosses everything out except Josie.
You need to learn suspiciousness! Her mother says.
Sus-picios-nee-sh, Josie tries to say. Her mother rolls her eyes and sticks the list on the fridge with a J-shaped magnet.
Let me check your nails, her mother says.
Josie puts out her hands and her mother gets very close and examines her nails. Then Josie takes off her school shoes so her mother can check her feet. She likes when her mother checks her feet for signs of outside contamination. Josie’s mother is very scared that the school or her friends will give something to her that she cannot give back, like a bad birthday present. Josie has promised to be careful because she is scared her mother will get too scared and lock Josie inside too. Her mother touches her feet very gently. Her mother always tells her she has feet fit for trapeze. Josie’s arches spring up like a cat’s back when she points her toes, and her toes are long, as long as her little fingers.
While her mother checks her feet, Josie thinks of other things she would add to the REAL list. She writes CAT in her mind. Cats are definitely real! she thinks. Cats and milk are her two favourite things in the world. She also knows cats like milk because she has read it in a book at school. She can search on her screen for all the books in the world that contain cats and she reads them all day long. Her favourite books have a naughty black cat with a red tongue. She wants a little black cat very badly. Lots of kids at school have their own pet animals. Some are very expensive and can do all sorts of tricks, but she does not want anything so special. She wants a cat who will love her and who she can love back very hard. She imagines her and this cat will have tea parties together where they will both drink milk out of tiny china teacups, and at these times, she will be very happy.
Josie’s mother holds her feet. Josie does not want to look at her mother’s quick-moving eyes. She closes her eyes and sees the word CAT written on the list instead. The word’s letters twist and thicken, turn into the shape of a cat itself. The cat stretches to the edges of her brain and licks the underside of her skull. Cats show love through licking, she knows, and the cat in her mind loves her by caring for her cleanliness.
Later, her mother sits on the edge of her bathtub while Josie lies beneath in the pale grey water. This is how her mother cares for her. This is the love Josie knows. Her mother’s shadow spreads across her to pour a jug of water onto the crown of her head. Josie gets goosebumps as the water cascades down her skull. Her mother sticks cotton buds in Josie’s ears and pulls them out coated in toffee-wax. She times Josie brushing her teeth and then drags a finger across the front ones to check for a squeak. She combs her hair, separating the strands to check for bugs.
Josie is real, Josie is real, Josie is real, her mother sings. Josie joins in. Mum is real, mum is real, mum is real! she shouts.
In the kitchen, fresh and warm in her pyjamas, Josie drinks her nighttime hot milk. She thinks of the poster.
I think you should do something in the circus, she says. I think you should Perform in the Greatest Show On Earth.
Her mother leans back in her chair, twisting back and forth on the two rear legs. She lifts her arms into the air but somehow doesn’t fall. She jiggles, deep in thought. Her mother can sometimes still do magic things like this. Josie’s heart stretches like an accordion pulled taut. She imagines her mother, her muscled mother, twisting through the air on a trapeze. Her mother’s grey hair flaps by her sides like elephant ears.
No, says her mother, the chair slamming back onto four legs. She points her two hands in finger guns at the fridge. The circus is no longer real, she says. Put it on the list.
Josie puts her head on the table.
What do you want from me, little girl? says her mother. She clicks her fingers on the top of Josie’s head, then softly strokes the line of her parting.
I want a Cat, says Josie. She sits up. Just a little cat. One little cat. It is all I want. A little black cat with a small red tongue. Please. Get me a cat and then I will love you forever.
Her mother rolls her eyes. A real cat? She asks.
Of course, says Josie.
You will be disappointed with a real cat, says her mother. A real cat will run away and want to be outside. Sometimes it will not want to be stroked. When you pick it up it will raise its claws and scratch you hard. Is that what you want?
I won’t mind, says Josie, and she doesn’t, because she does not truly believe this will happen. Her cat will be like the cat inside her mind; licking, licking.
The next day at school she talks to all the kids in her class about their Animals. Rosie tells her about her Labrador who wakes her up each morning by giving her a hug and Sujata tells her about her parrot who sings her lullabies at night to go to sleep. Jamie tells her about his brand-new pet zebra, who, he says, talks too much but is very fast to ride. When the register is taken at the end of the day, Josie starts to hear a neighing outside of the window. The neighing sounds like, I love you! I love you! The whole class hears it. Everyone laughs and Jamie blushes. Everyone knows it’s his new zebra. But when she gets to the gate herself and sees how the zebra lowers his soft black nose to Jamie’s cheek, how the zebra’s wet-black eyes stare across the playground, how the zebra lowers his front hoofs to allow Jamie to hop onto his magnificent back, she feels like spitting with jealousy. She wants to spit out gasoline and light it on fire. Her mother will not even let her get one little cat to love her. She runs home. She does not do the special knock her mother requires, but hammers up and down the door with both fists as though she is trying to knock the door down. She sees her mother’s eye peer through the letterbox. Her mother opens the door and grabs her by the neck to pull her inside. Once inside, her mother sinks down the wall, her knees raised, her breath hard and fast like it has got trapped inside her and is trying to escape. Josie stands above her, her little shadow pouring over her little mother like the water from the bathtub jug.
She says: Jamie has a zebra who tells him he loves him all the time and you will not let me get one little cat to be my best friend and love me all the time. You are a mean mother and you won’t do anything I ask. I do not like you.
Her mother’s breath finds its way out in a wheeze. She smiles at Josie. That night, the bathwater is too hot, but her mother does not seem to notice and Josie does not say.
The next day when Josie comes home from school, her mother answers the door with her hair undone and branches sticking out of it at odd angles. Her arms and face are covered in scratches. She swings her arms towards the kitchen like a magician announcing: Ta-dah! Josie looks. On the kitchen table is a very broken cat. Its fur has fallen out in patches. It has muscular legs and when it sees Josie it stands up on these legs and hisses at her.
No, no! Screams Josie. You got a broken cat! Why did you get a broken cat? That’s not a cat! What’s wrong with you?
Her mother picks a branch from her hair.
Can it even talk? Says Josie. Where did you get it?
She thinks of the tea parties. As if in answer, the cat turns and knocks a coffee mug off the table, where it splinters neatly away from its handle. Her mother chuckles.
This is a real cat, her mother says. This is our cat. Would you like to name him? I quite like Milk.
Josie sees Milk added to the REAL list on the fridge underneath all the crossed-out parts.
Her mother lets her long hair fall across her face. The broken cat leans towards her mother’s knuckles, and Josie sees the tip of a grey-coloured tongue swim between them.
Stop that, she says to the cat. Stop licking!
The cat and her mother ignore her. She runs upstairs to her room.
More and more circus posters are posted around town. The kids in her class ask if her mother is performing. Josie has often boasted about her mother’s circus past. She says her mother is away on business. The kids ask her where her father is. She forgot about fathers. He is away on business, also, she says. Liar! screeches Jamie. Your mother’s a freak now, not a respected circus performer! Josie pinches his nose. Shut up, zebra-boy, she says, but inside she worries. She thinks of making her own list for her own fridge and feels afraid that she would not know what to write.
Did they ask you to do anything in the circus? Josie asks her mother at home. Did you even try?
Her mother smiles at her.
I don’t have to ask them anything, says her mother. I’ll put on my own show.
Josie winces. She looks at the list. The Comeback Show has been added beneath the Real side. The cat claws her knee and she swipes at it.
On the day of the circus her mother wears a red sequined leotard over black fishnet tights. On top she wears a long beige trench coat and a low-brimmed black hat that hides her face. She twirls her grey hair into a tight bun beneath the hat and wears large, dark sunglasses. She carries Milk in her arms. Milk is gentle around her mother. He sits on her chest when she sleeps, and when he bops her with his paws he keeps his claws half-in so the scratches only graze the skin and do not draw blood.
He won’t be allowed in, says Josie, who hates the cat.
Of course he will, says her mother. They let all animals in.
They walk down the road to the park. Her mother walks very slow and straight, Milk held out in front of her like a shield. Josie feels like she will go crazy walking so slowly. She runs around her mother in a little circle and jumps between the paving stones. She grabs a branch of a passing tree and shakes it so her mother is cloaked in a quick burst of blossom. Her mother continues to walk at the exact same pace, as though Josie and the world around her do not exist. Just as Josie considers screaming, Mrs. Jones walks by, arm-in-arm with her Bear. They raise a hand and a paw.
So nice to see you out and about! cries Mrs. Jones.
Nice- out and about! calls her Bear.
Her mother seems to wake up. She cannot wave back because she is holding Milk, but she lifts him up in offering. Milk hisses. Mrs. Jones flushes and quickly overtakes them.
Milk is not a real Animal, hisses Josie once they have passed. You’ve got a crazy old cat from someplace because you’re crazy.
Ha-ha-ha, says her mother. Have you got the list?
No, of course I haven’t, says Josie. Please stop being so weird.
Ha-ha-ha, says her mother. You’ll see.
The whole town is waiting outside of the tent, queuing up for the body scanners. Josie sees Jamie arrive on his zebra. People move out of his way as he trots through security to a steady, safe beeping. Jamie pauses on the other side, making the crowd laugh when his zebra offers a hoof to shake a security guard’s hand. Josie’s mother hunches under her hat. While the crowd watches Jamie, her mother pulls Josie to the side of the tent, holds up a silken side, and beckons Josie through it. They cram onto a backbench next to a blonde family of six, each with their own personal peacock that sits at their feet, their tails fanning out boastfully and poking Josie in the eye. Milk hisses and the peacocks bristle. Josie blushes, embarrassed by her ugly cat next to the pretty peacocks. She holds Milk by the neck on the bench beside her, between her and her mother. She looks up towards the roof of the tent, which billows out blackly, lit beneath by a thousand thrown-up stars. The trapezes hang limply, and she sees the shells of the silk-ropes curled up tight at the height of the roof, ready to drop.
A clown saunters into the centre of the sandy ring below, a snare drum strapped to his chest. The town takes a simultaneous breath. The clown starts to bang the drum. Josie looks up at her mother. The single sound of the drum in the silence is like hearing her own heartbeat amplified. Her mother looks down at her. She leans over and kisses Josie on the centre of her head. I love you, says her mother.
As the show begins, Josie’s mouth hangs further and further open. A little drool collects in the corner of her mouth and starts to dribble down. She does not wipe it. She has no time to wipe it. Her eyes are too busy. There is more magnificence before her than she could ever imagine. The circus begins with the Big Bang. A burning hot sun twirls into the centre of the ring, spins a hundred pirouettes, then explodes. Acrobats, startling and comet-like, somersault out of the centre of the ball of fire and land on the trapeze, the cascading silks, a stretched tight-rope below the starred roof. They sparkle and twist, then raise their hands round their lips to roar. As if in answer, like called dogs, gigantic dinosaurs scatter into the ring. Pterodactyls sweep over the audience, and below in the ring Josie watches two Tyrannosaurus Rex fight, baring their long teeth, slapping at each other with silly, short arms. Seconds later, the dinosaurs disappear as though dissolved. Clowns dressed up in dinosaur costumes run into the ring instead, roaring and play fighting, so silly after the real thing that they are the funniest thing Josie has ever seen. She laughs so hard it hurts. Then the dinosaur clowns stop fighting and all look up to the roof. Josie feels a tilt in the air as the whole town looks up too. There, in the centre of the highest tightrope, the ropewalker holds above his head a giant ball of ice, three times the size of himself. The ice-ball gleams from the light of the thousand fake stars and throws rainbows all across the sandy ring and the audience. Josie holds her breath as he lets go of the giant ice ball and it trundles terrifyingly towards the dinosaur clowns who run around in fake-terror, screaming like little girls. Halfway down towards the ground, the ball divides, melts into an icy waterfall that evaporates just before hitting the ring, and instead of a giant splash, a beautiful curtain of mist floats over the dinosaur clowns and out over the audience. Josie sticks out her tongue and tastes the pure clean water. The dinosaur clowns all lie down pretending to be dead. Dark water starts to rise in the ring. The clowns disappear beneath it.
Josie is not worried for them. She has no time to be worried for them, for floating on the surface of the rising water is a little dirty white boat and driving the boat is her mother. Josie turns to the empty bench beside her, where her mother’s trench coat and hat lie bundled. She feels the quick lack of her mother’s closeness like the sudden loss of a limb. She stares at her mother crossing the lake. Her red sequin dress is too big and her skin looks pearly and translucent under the bright lights. Her hair is loose and flaps around her. The boat has an engine stuck on its back and it makes an awkward juddering sound as it pushes on towards the centre of the lake. The acrobats and trapeze artists hang awkwardly from their places, their toes unpointed, their arms relaxed, their eyes fluttering towards each other. Josie watches as her mother pulls at the boat’s motor with one hand. In the other, she holds a long orange rope that seems endless, unfurling behind her across the water. The plastic rope is dusty and ordinary looking and Josie has become so used to the splendour that she cannot recognise it. It is only when her mother reaches the centre of the ring that she realises it is an extension cord, the kind they use at her home to plug in their screens and their fridge. Around her mother in the water, the dinosaur clowns start to bob up, their make-up running down their faces. The crowd starts to murmur in the quiet.
What’s she meant to be? asks the little girl beside Josie. Was there an Important Lady in the ice age?
An alarm starts ringing somewhere, a low-strung alarm, like a whisper. Josie hears sirens travelling closer, loud and slow. Men dressed in black appear in the aisles, one so close to Josie she can feel his breath. The whole town watches her mother. The clowns splash towards the boat. The first one to reach it grabs the edge of the boat, raises one gloved hand to swipe at her mother’s foot. Her mother kicks at the hand with one of her low black heels. She raises the extension cord above her head. Josie stands up on the bench and opens her mouth to scream as the clown grabs at one side of her mother’s long hair and pulls. But the scream does not escape her. As her mother slithers towards the water, she pulls the rope in her hands apart, the plug popping quietly from the socket and the world fizzing to black.
Josie cannot see the little boat or the stage or her mother, and she cannot feel the presence of the bench beneath her or the family beside her or the ripple of the wall of the tent behind her. She cannot even feel the sides of herself. She puts her hands before her in the dark and waits for her eyes to adjust so that she can see their outlines grow out of the dark like they have always done. Somewhere close, she hears Milk begin to hiss. Further away, she recognises the sound of her mother. I told you! I told you! she calls. Her voice sounds like a sad song. Josie does not want to hear it. She waits one second for her hands to appear. She will wait for this, and then she will find her mother and run. She waits one more second. And then another.