Showtime

This is a story written in fallen sequins and scraps of dyed plumage on a sawdust floor . . .

Wind blustered outside the Chapel-in-the Sands when the Pilgrim told this tale. Shutters rattled and sand rose in piles against the flint walls. Inside, she lit candles in glasses of red and gold, then stood them in front of mirrors. The flames danced.

‘A Showoman told me this tale in her wagon on such a night as this,’ she said. ‘Reckoned it was one of her ancestors.’

The first time Sammy Fitch faked his death was truly spectacular. The ring mistress, Capt. Mariah Strangelove, assured him that crimson dye in the water was both necessary and harmless. It certainly added to the drama of his plunge into the shark tank.

So many oohs and aahs as he climbed to the top of the creaking ladders, so apparently ramshackle in the centre of the Big Top. So many breaths held and bowed heads turned away, unable to look as he walked to the end of the thin and bending board. His all but bare toes gripped the rough edge and the gaping crowd looked up; nervous, elated. Heat rose from scores of crammed benches and his heart rose with the grace of a balloon.

He held out his arms. Let them see his fine, glittering costume. Capt. Mariah’s method required such decoration. Make it grand, make it sensational. All above-board and normal – for Strangelove’s Circus of Characters and Curiosities.

His dive went exactly as planned: cued on the third stanza of quietly twinkling music, down as straight as a tern plunging for fish. The thrashing and sweeping of gunmetal fins through blood-red waters however was not quite to audience expectations.

Shrieks pierced the ornate tank with its dozen portholes – framed portraits of carnage. The horrified viewers did not observe the double layers of glass. They had no idea of the workings of such practical magic.

‘Shall we fish him out – or rather, whatever they’ve left of him?’ hollered the Capt. over the din. Sammy waited for the inevitable response. It came. Mariah waited till the benches fairly shook then attempted her miracle.

He rose on the fifth beat of her apparent disappointment, almost unharmed from the centre tank. He bowed and dripped, then showed off his scars beneath tight and artfully ripped leggings. The crowd’s whisting and stamping and applauding made even the guy ropes thrum in delight.

Later, over a stacked plate of chocolate bourbons, he and Mariah clinked china rims. ‘No better way to hide real magic than by using the artificial kind,’ she said. The tea in Sammy’s cup rippled.

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