Photo by Nathan King (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Nathan King (copied from Flickr)

When Rhonda Blakely ran away with the circus just a week shy of her seventieth birthday everyone had an opinion. Mrs Fairweather from number 4 said it had something to do with the alignment of the planets – everyone had been a bit off that night.

Mr Coles from number 12 said not to worry; his wife had had an equally hair-brain idea October last year, when the door to door travel salesman had almost talked her into a trip to Antarctica, until Mr Coles reminded her of the frostbite she’d got two winters back trying to dig the Wilson’s cat out of their snowed in wood shed.

The paper boy and the milkman agreed it was likely Mrs Blakely had been kidnapped by the ringmaster of the circus, who rumour had it was some kind of cult leader.

But among themselves they all agreed it was a surprise Bill Blakely had held onto her this long. Flighty they called her. Not the settling down type. Not at all.

As for Bill Blakely, he just went about his daily routines, including preparations for his wife’s birthday dinner; same as every year, a roast wattle seed loaf with wild mushroom sauce. Her favourite. Bill was determined not to be perturbed. After all she’d left a note hadn’t she?

Dear B.B,
you know I wanted to join the circus when I was a little girl? Well I read in the paper they were after a relief nurse to fill in for a week. I know you’ll understand as always, be back in time for my birthday.
Love Ronnie

And anyway ‘runaway’ wasn’t technically correct as the circus was still in town, wasn’t going anywhere for the week. So in fact he could visit her any time he wanted. Only he wouldn’t, because he trusted his wife and because they’d always said they’d support each other’s dreams even if they might not always understand them. Hadn’t she been behind him when he decided to concrete in the back yard and put in a mini golf course?

Bill was confident his wife would return at the end of the week and that they’d pick up where they left off. Carry on. Ronnie had asked him once What would you do B.B? If I left? And hadn’t he said that’s just what he’d do – carry on until she came back? You can take the boy out of England but … Just you make sure you leave a note he’d instructed. And she’d promised.

They were childhood sweethearts after all, he was a ten pound pom and she was the sheila who had eased and teased him into Australian culture. Whose persistent kisses eventually unstiffened his upper lip. They knew each other better than they knew themselves. Neither of them much on words but then hadn’t they always said words were overrated? Hadn’t they always been happy to let their bodies do the talking? These days less actively but no less meaningfully – a suggestive stroke here a teasing pet there, sometimes the whole ten yards, though admittedly Bill couldn’t remember the last time.

And sure enough just as Bill was lighting the two candles – a seven and a zero – there she was walking in through the front door like she’d done every day for the past fifty one years.

As Rhonda set her small suitcase down in the hallway and hung up her coat, Bill began singing, walking toward her – always willing to meet her half way. She blew out the candles in two delicate puffs, one puff for each candle. They fed each other cake they way the used to when they were courting and Ronnie was leading him down the vegetarian path, showing him a meatless diet could still be pleasurable.

Over the next few weeks Bill heard about Mac the ballet dancer turned dodgem car operator who had taught his wife how to pirouette like a spinning top. About the all-seeing Sylvia, who had passed on tonics purported to cure all manner of ills, from a stale libido to vertigo. And about countless other colourful characters, each with something weird and wonderful to share with his wife.

The circus had left town, moved on to greener pastures and it was true their life had become even sweeter. Ronnie had a youthfulness about her now that Bill found hard to keep up with during the day. She said he didn’t need to keep up, that he should just relax and come along for the ride. So that’s what he did. While he played a few rounds of mini golf she practised walking along the top of their boundary fence. During his afternoon naps she sewed new sequinstudded dresses for herself. It couldn’t be denied she’d introduced a little of circus life into their days, but she was still his Ronnie and all he had to do was sit back and enjoy the show.

Nights were a different story. Before the circus their lovemaking had virtually ceased. Now each night regular as clockwork, after a generous tonic he felt like a young man again and she matched him with each rediscovered move. No wonder they slept like babies.

The night of the upset stomach, of tipping the tonic into the pot plant when Ronnie was in the bathroom was the night everything changed. It started with Ronnie slipping into bed beside him as usual, only this time when they turned to each other and began kissing he suddenly felt exhausted and without the boost from the tonic a little defeated; but Ronnie didn’t seem expectant. Good old Ronnie. She just held his hand as he rolled over and drifted off to sleep.

He woke in a cold sweat soon after, heart racing – reminiscent of the night frights he’d had as a kid before he met Ronnie and she lured them back into their caves. Maybe he shouldn’t have tipped out the tonic, maybe it wasn’t something you could give up cold turkey. He’d go and pour himself another one, confess in the morning. They could never keep anything from each other for very long and he was wrong to think she’d be offended about tipping out the tonic – an upset stomach was an upset stomach and she’d want to put it right like she’d always done. Bill eased himself out of bed careful not to disturb his wife, then turning to check, saw she wasn’t there.

As he reached for the kitchen light switch, he caught the blur and whirl of Rhonda’s latest home-made dress; purple satin spinning round and round faster and faster, the perpetual wink of the silver sequinned hem making him giddy and slightly nauseated. He watched, powerless, as she spun out of focus then disappeared altogether.

He called her name a couple of times, searched the house and checked for a note in the usual place before returning to the kitchen. He needed to calm down. Stick to routine. Carry on. It was more than an upset stomach. A tonic, that’s what he needed. Hadn’t Ronnie said there was a tonic for everything? He knew she kept her old nursing bag locked away, in case any of the neighbour’s children visited she said, which they never did. But here it was, open on the kitchen bench, one half-empty bottle out, as if it had just been used. Pirouette the gold label read, and he didn’t bother with the small print. Inside the bag he found the rest; several brightly coloured glass bottles, all with detailed labels. He was only interested in one. He had to know. Instinctively he lifted out the blue one. Turning the bottle gingerly in one hand, he felt the beginning of dread like a cold pebble settling in the pit of his stomach. Dream Lover.

Half the night he sat in the corner of the kitchen floor hugging his knees to his chest, not daring to move or take his eyes from the spot on the worn square of linoleum where he’d last seen his wife.

Hours passed before he detected a flicker in the air, a flash of colour then a whirlwind moving backwards, becoming slower until there she was again. She didn’t even look his way, oblivious to his presence, still partly gone, perhaps, as she headed out of the kitchen toward the shower, leaving behind the unmistakable aroma of popcorn and peanuts.

Jane Williams

About Jane Williams

Jane Williams is an Australian writer based in Tasmania. Her most recent book is 'Days Like These - new and selected poems'. Samples of her writing can be found at https://www.janewilliams.wordpress.com

Jane Williams is an Australian writer based in Tasmania. Her most recent book is 'Days Like These - new and selected poems'. Samples of her writing can be found at https://www.janewilliams.wordpress.com

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