Monday, October 24, 2016

Four Years Ago: Chapter One: The Great Circus of China

This is the first chapter—after the prologue—of my novel Sandstone.

Sunday October, 21, 2012.

The Great Circus of China

With his peripheral vision, Duncan Alastair Strand watched his doubled profile in the antique faceted mirror while he absentmindedly doodled a circle of rope on old company note paper for Strand Cordage Ltd., a circle of rope in the shape of a snake eating its tail, an image whose mythological name and spelling preoccupied his mind and clashed with the initial purpose of his sitting at the kitchen table on this Sunday afternoon, pen in hand, the preparatory requirement of his hunting and gathering: a grocery list.


Dust motes rose in the sun from a faux-fur slipper—his wife Amelia's sacrifice—which Hugh, their miniature dachshund, grappled with on the kitchen floor. Duncan paused to look upon Hugh who rested his nose in the slipper. They shared eye contact, blinking in unison.


Duncan tried to think of the other items they needed which had occurred to him only minutes ago, but his thoughts were scattered, elusive, skittish as subjective personal truths. Amelia would be greeting her new friend Jacqueline at about this moment, kissing each other on the cheek, admiring each others outfits, and entering a café for a little brunch and conversation; two translators from different factions exchanging stories of deadlines and authors—distant, unruly, recalcitrant.

Bananas, Cucumbers.

He wondered if there was a theme here.

Baguette. . . dish soap, capers, artichoke hearts. That was good enough to get him going he thought.

The radio played softly in the background, an eighties song, making him wonder if a musician from the band had become an executive of the radio conglomerate, for they were forever playing that specific song along the horizon of the airwaves like some kind of psychotropic drug, such that it made him feel like a subtopian redeemer embracing a pacifying tonic required by State.

He turned the radio off. 

He looked through the weekly flyers for grocery sales, and then rewarded himself with a few pages of the free arts paper where he noticed an advertisement for the latest Cirque du Soleil show. He closed his eyes as memories began to effervesce. What year was it? A winter month. He gathered the papers and carried them over to the small recycling bin, then stood at the back door thinking he'd been measuring out his life in weekly flyers and recycling pickups, conditioned to respond to bananas at fifty-seven cents a pound. What year was it? It had been quite cold he remembered. Late January or February. 1982? Yes, it must have been February 1982.

Through his pale simulacrum upon the glass, he could see his twenty-three year old self emerge from the Viau Metro station on a cold evening, uncertain, anxious, late. The convex roof of the Maurice Richard Arena hovered in the near distance like a dimly lit space craft. He searched for his neatly folded ticket to see the Great Circus of China, and upon opening the door to an empty foyer, heard the clashing, stridently exotic music of the East: gongs, cymbals, erhus. The show had already begun.

A disgruntled usher pointed the way with his flash light and left him in the dark to find his seat. 

In the ring, young women in silk outfits and exaggerated eye make-up, twirled glistening plates impossibly on multiple sticks, their dark eyes radiant with controlled emotion, their smiling lips demure. So different from the circuses of his youth, with their manure and popcorn odours, their parades of animals, clowns, trapeze artists, the hideous snap of the lion tamer's whip, and the anonymous man shot out of a canon for the deafening finale.

The usher had returned, a bobbing flashlight coming his way. Asked for his ticket, the attendant informed him that his seat was in the first row. A domino effect in motion, the usher made his way between the seats to talk to a young man in the front row while the dark outlines of two people in the aisle awaited their true placement. The women MC of the show looked imperiously their way wondering why there was a commotion. The attendant waved him forward, and he shared an exchange of looks with his imposter, but there was no animosity to be read, and feeling a tinge of guilt at having ousted him, said 'pardoner-moi' as they edged past each other like prisoners exchanged on a dark border. The residual warmth left by his phantom occupant added to his sense of complicity. He'd been quite content in the fifth row. He didn't like to draw attention to himself. Yet here he was, ushered into the light that splashed the ring's edge.

Two young women came out, placed themselves on their backs on raised, curved platforms, and began to juggle with their soft-slippered feet, an assortment of large items tossed to them from assistants: wooden chairs, large imitation Ming vases, boxes, and carpets. Their finely contoured legs and bums were slightly elevated by the platforms and at an angle to his seat. His heart rate and temperature rose, a blush came to his cheeks. At one moment as they twirled fine woven carpets in wavering circles like the gowns of spinning dervishes, the performer closest to him, looked sideways and caught his eye for a moment as if curious to see who'd been the focus of attention. Their eye contact brought him closer to the experience, overcoming the spectacle with the personal, overcoming their diverse cultures with an intense shared moment. She was not just a circus act, but a young woman behind the rouge and the lipstick, a young woman with a history, a young woman with desires and hopes, a young woman from Communist China possibly looking to . . . escape.

Returning to the frigid night and the dreary metro ride home had not diminished his sense of wonderment. The patterns of circularity and the human form had merged to create a symbolic representation of universal symmetry. There had been a hint of transcendence in the performances. It had all made sense to him. The answers had seemed clear. It was only later, however, sleepless in the dark, did he imagine himself befriending the circus performer, listening to her life story, discovering her desire to live in the west, helping her escape, and finding themselves chased by Chinese officials across the breadth of Canada like spies in a best-selling thriller.

Duncan stared through his indistinct reflection, then brought his hands up to his face and rubbed his eyes. Thirty years ago. Another life. The attractive young performer was likely long retired from the circus; married, probably with a son. The young man he'd supplanted was, he liked to believe, the man who was now worth almost three billion dollars. It was unlikely he would ever know for certain whether he was the future founder of the Cirque du Soleil. He could very well have been a bartender from Beloeil, but it was his personal myth, a type of cautionary tale, making him mindful of opportunity, even though, at the time, he wasn't a street performer finding influences from the East, but a young man trying to avoid a family business, a young man adrift from a relationship with a young woman newly arrived from Hong Kong, a young man looking for a way out, a way out of his own making.

© Ralph Mackay

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