Picture by markhillary: Chalfont and Latimer
“Is it winter yet?” the children of Little Chalfont ask when the leaves turn brown.
“Not yet,” their parents say, and the children go back to playing in the street. Their favourite game is Elephant and Clown, though it takes them five minutes of dibbing every time to choose the elephant.
“Is it winter now?” the children ask again, when the leaves begin to collect in gutters. They wrap themselves in too many coats, as if they can call down the new season by pretending that it’s already arrived.
“Not yet,” their parents say, “and take that coat off.”
“Is it winter yet?” they ask once more as the leaves pile knee-deep, coats off this time despite the late autumn wind: if they’re shivering, surely it must be time?
“Nearly,” their parents say. “And put a coat on.”
The Betram Mills Circus arrives at night, cars and caravans rolling through the village. Six-year-olds wake abruptly and run, blanket-tangled, to the window; their older brothers and sisters sneak out to get a closer look. The animals arrive the next day, by train, and the railroad tracks are lined with spectators.
It’s been eight months since they left, the magicians and acrobats, the dogs that play football and dance, the jugglers, the strongmen, the clowns that play football and fall over, the tigers that play football and growl. For them, it’s the off-season now, a chance for a break; but the village has been waiting.
The youngest children climb trees to peer over the walls of the old Mills house, desperate for a glance of the elephants (which also play football). For the older children, it’s more serious. Violet and Sebastian turn cartwheels on the village green whenever Frederico, the Man with the Iron Jaw! walks past to the tobacconist. John pulls Ruffles onto his hind legs to dance while Kelly the American Clown! and Karniga the Fakir! walk back from the bakery. Susannah sneaks her mother’s wedding dress from the closet one night, and stands outside the front gate of the Mills house, pale in the dark and the wind, an upside-down salad bowl standing in for a crystal ball.
Adele can’t turn cartwheels, she isn’t allowed to have a dog, and her hair and her nose are all wrong for fortune-telling. Instead she reads Enid Blyton really, really hard, and choreographs trapeze routines in her head. When that doesn’t work, she builds a giant automaton and drives it to the gates of Mills House.
“I don’t know,” Bertram Mills says. “We’re not really an automaton kind of circus. What happened to the young lady with the salad bowl?”
“She died of pneumonia,” Adele lies.
Mills frowns and scratches his nose, then steps backward to look the automaton up and down. “Can it tell the future?”
“No,” Adele says, and pulls a lever; the automaton rocks from side to side and lifts one clunketing leg. “But it can play football.” Susannah, crouched inside the automaton suit and trying to breathe quietly, probably doesn’t know the rules; but Adele is pretty sure that the elephants don’t either.