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The girl in harem pants stopped just in front of the painting, blocking my view. As I craned to see my favourite Chagall in the Musée Rath, I noticed the silver crown tucked into her hair, the long plait twisting down her back. She turned to look at me. Her eyes were green.
‘Do you like the circus?’ she asked, gravely, not smiling. She spoke in English, with a trace of an accent – French? Italian? Then she stepped sideways so that I could stand next to her.
‘The artist walked from Russia to Paris,’ she said. ‘I think he understood how people might dance in the air.’
In the centre of the blue ring a ballerina pirouetted on the back of a yellow horse. She also wore a crown. The ringmaster smiled and raised his hands, as if he were waving. Acrobats in conical hats leapt across the canvas; an enormous orange sun glowed, inside the Big Top. I think a trapeze artist was supposed to be balancing on a wire, but the painted line had missed his feet. Was he falling? Chagall’s work leaves a lot to the imagination.
‘Dance in the air?’ I asked.
She laughed. ‘I am called Federica. If you are interested in walking on air, I can teach you.’ Then she shook my hand, as if we were making some kind of a deal.
‘My name is Ruby,’ I said.
‘Ruby. Like a glass of red wine held up to the sun.’ She didn’t let go of my hand. My fingers tingled, as if I’d plunged them into ice water.
‘We could go for a coffee,’ I said, shyly. Apart from an unholy encounter with a Spanish waiter called Jesus, I hadn’t made any friends since I moved to Geneva.
Federica grinned and squeezed my hand, pulling me out of the door and down the stone steps of the museum. As we followed the chestnut-lined path to the lakeside, belligerent signs snapped at our ankles:
Keep to the pathway
Do not walk on the grass
Do not paddle
Do not feed the ducks
We sat on the quay and dangled our feet over the water. Federica was wearing purple ballet pumps with supple leather soles.
‘So,’ she said. ‘Walking on air.’
Every day that summer I temped for a financial corporation, typing up reports. Each evening at dusk Federica and I practised balancing along the straight lines of the city. Trams clanged their bells as we traced their tracks and drivers shouted:
‘Fous le camp, imbéciles!’
We teetered along flat metal railings at dusk, chased by the park keepers who were securing the gates with solemn locks. Geneva, city of bankers and diplomats, straddles the tip of Lac Leman, between the Jura Mountains and the Alps. The valley is criss-crossed by hundreds of lines – tram tracks, trolley bus cables, telegraph wires and the taut ropes of the cable car. This web is held in place by neat black and white signs in three languages. Grey-suited officials bustle between buildings on their way to important committee meetings, while taciturn men in blue overalls polish the notices:
Cross the road only at designated crossings
Only qualified cleaners may use a broom
Do not drop eggs from high buildings
The maximum of three persons may sit on a bench at any one time
Do not abuse wet weather by jumping into puddles
‘Have you ever seen the Bureaucrat?’ Federica asked one warm evening.
We’d graduated onto the trolley bus cables – easier in a way, because the drivers could not see us, although we were more conspicuous to anyone in the street who looked upwards. Few did.
‘The Bureaucrat? He’s just made up to scare children, surely.’
‘No, he exists. You sometimes catch a glimpse of him at Official Openings. He’s the guy cutting the ribbon. Have you never wondered why the Circus doesn’t come to town anymore?’
‘Don’t they prefer village greens?’
‘Not always – the Circus used to set up its tents in the city park. Then the Bureaucrat went along with his shears. No one dares to speak of that day.’
A trolleybus hurtled along the wires towards us, sending up whiskery sparks. Federica put her fingers around my waist, and we jumped as the rungs of the vehicle passed underfoot.
‘What does he look like?’ I asked when I’d regained my balance.
‘No one knows. He wears a suit like all the others.’ Federica wrinkled her nose. Today she was wearing a spotted yellow and mauve tutu, like an aerial plant in the rainforest canopy. I giggled, imagining the sign:
Do not look exotic while balancing on trolley bus cables.
‘Hold your arms out straight, to the side, like this,’ she told me. ‘It reduces angular velocity. Tomorrow we’ll try the Téléphérique at sunset.’
Sturdy red cable cars went up and down Mont Saleve, in time with each other. The sign at the bottom read:
Wait for the glass doors to open before passing through them
We scrambled up the hillside and jumped onto the flat top of the Téléphérique station. From under its concrete canopy, thick ropes stretched up the mountainside.
‘Can we do that? Wire-walk at such a sharp angle?’ I asked.
Federica smiled and took my hand. Beneath us I could hear tourists babbling as they jostled for seats. As the cable car lurched out into space, we leapt onto its roof. I held onto the metal ladder attached to the cables, while she stretched out her arms, sideways.
‘Balance!’ she said.
The cabin swayed over the void. I let go of the support and spread my arms. With a whirring sound the pulleys engaged and we moved upwards. Far above us, a matching red box began its descent along parallel black lines. As we rose, the beeches gave way to conifers that swished as we grazed their tips. Each time we clicked past a supporting pylon Federica shouted:
Geneva shrank away behind us – the banks, the embassies, the department stores all reduced to specks of glitter, reflecting the light of the setting sun. Alpine swifts flashed white throats and the crimson sail of a hang glider spiralled towards the lake. The second cable car was almost on top of us before I noticed it.
Before I noticed him. A featureless face, next to all the others that pressed up against the glass. A man in his early fifties, upon whom the tides of time had left no stain; no traces of joy, no pain, pleasure nor sadness marked the surface of his face. He stared through the glass without colour in his eyes. Cold penetrated me. The cable car slid past us, down towards the valley. Federica caught my gaze.
‘Yes, that was the Bureaucrat,’ she said, answering the question I had not asked. ‘It has begun.’
When the cable car docked the passengers spilt out, streaming like ants towards the restaurant on the ridge. We climbed down a ladder at the side of the station and Federica skipped off towards the precipice, along an overgrown path zigzagging down the rock face.
‘We’ve only just got here,’ I said. ‘Let’s stay awhile.’ On mountain tops, you can almost touch the sketches of cloud shading the sky.
‘It’ll be dark soon.’
‘We could spend the night. Sleep under the stars.’
Federica clambered down the path away from me, her plait swinging behind her. She just expected me to follow her like a trained monkey! I folded my arms and watched her go. A few metres below me, she stopped, reached behind a large boulder and pulled out two long canes, curved at both ends. She placed one of them against the rock and glanced up at me.
‘Yes, I’m still here,’ I shouted. ‘You’re really planning on walking down the cliff holding a piece of bamboo? Crampons would be more like it!’
It was then that I saw a fine wire stretching out from beneath the boulder, reaching across space towards – what? A mountain on the opposite side of the lake? I crouched on the edge of the overhang and followed it with my eyes. Out there in open space the air glistened, as if the lone strand had spread out to form a net. Federica grasped her cane and set out along the wire. One foot in front of the other, knees bent slightly. Night rose from the valley; her figure grew dim as she moved away. I scrambled down the path and grabbed hold of the cane that she’d left for me.
‘Balance!’ I said, though I didn’t want her to think I was calling her.
‘Balance, alance, lance…,’ the crags mocked me.
The cane felt like a part of my body and the wire guided my feet. Soon I could tell that I was wobbling along a single filament of an enormous web stretching right across the lake. And beyond. From different points of the compass I could see other figures approaching the centre, like me. Some of the sky walkers were very young – a small Chinese girl twirling ribbons, an Indian boy in a bejewelled turban. There were adults too – waving and calling to each other. I heard a voice below me and leaned over to see another web extending about ten metres beneath the one I was walking across. And under that, another web. Trapeze ladders connected the layers to each other – people were climbing up and down between them.
I felt two hands touching my shoulders.
‘Balance,’ Federica whispered in my ear. We were in the heart of the web, where the wires crisscrossed to form a mesh. She ran the tip of her finger down the side of my face. I could still feel her touch prickling on my skin when she took her hand away.
‘Ruby, remember what I told you? It has begun.’
‘What, what has begun? What’s happening?’ I put my hand up to her cheek. Then I kissed her mouth. She twisted away from me and climbed quickly down a ladder towards the next layer of web.
But she was climbing downwards, downwards, down the spidery ladders through the luminous darkening air. It was hard to keep up with her. I dropped my cane and it tumbled in parabolas towards the lake. As I watched it fall I noticed trails of lights moving in caravans along the shore. Snatches of hurdy-gurdy music drifted upwards and I remembered the signs:
No fairground attractions
A harlequin was waving me down the ladder. I could see rafts decked with lanterns drifting on the indigo waters of the lake. A firework hummed past my ear and exploded in petals of light. Carnival! It had begun. But where was Federica?
The trapeze dropped me onto a floating platform manned by circus folk in pointed hats. I recognised them from somewhere. A ringmaster beckoned and a dancer lit a fuse.
‘Could you pass the Catherine Wheels?’ a Pierrot asked me.
Then I saw Federica across the water on the quayside, talking to a jester. He held up a sign that read:
No tightrope walking.
Federica was laughing.
‘Catherine Wheels please, Miss,’ said the Pierrot.
I grabbed a box.
‘Here you are.’
‘Those are Jumping Jacks.’
Federica linked arms with the jester. He jingled. I stood on the edge of the raft, wondering whether I should dive in and swim to shore. The current is strong where the river pulls away from the lake. With a thud, the harlequin landed beside me on the platform. His eyes glittered through the slits in his mask. A rocket burst above our heads, silvering the air. The harlequin bowed.
‘If you are interested in walking on water, I can teach you.’
Federica was moving away from the quayside. I shook my head and looked around for a firework.
‘Give me a match,’ I said to the dancer, ‘and I’ll help you paint the sky.’
- Jac Cattaneo has a BA from Central St Martins and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Chichester; she teaches Fine Art degree students. Her award-winning short stories and poems have been published in a range of journals and anthologies. Jac is currently working on a novel set in London.