Featured Review on this writing by Robert Helliger


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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Realistic Fantasy
Spiritually fulfilled, she radiates an irresistible aura of compassion, and love.

Can the maestro still perform?

Or has she lost her gift?

Image of dummies in Claudia's Dressing Room by mairinha at pixabay

Submitted: August 08, 2019

A A A | A A A

Submitted: August 08, 2019




If you see her walking down the street don’t stare. Claudia Sardinella was born with a swollen head, stubby arms, stumpy legs. She stands barely four feet tall, but what Claudia lacks in stature she more than makes up for with heart. Spiritually fulfilled, she radiates an irresistible aura of compassion, and love.

Can the maestro still perform? Or has she lost her gift? I arrive outside her dressing room determined to find out.

‘Hey Claud! Can I come in?’ I say in my casual, friendly voice, ‘It’s me, Gianni’.

An unmistakeably soft dulcet tone rings out. ‘Wait a minute, I’m not decent.’

I glance at my watch: 5.30. Come on kid, show starts at 6! 

‘You can come in now.’

I walk into the room to find the curtains drawn. Her lair is dingy. Light bulbs dot round the mirror, petered out. The ornate gilt dressing table is spattered with dried-up face paint. Dirty clothes are strewn everywhere. There is a pervading smell of damp. The glorious heydays of the Circus of Wonder are long gone, like Claudia’s talent for performing miracles.

Her last miracle, the so-called wonder cure for Georgi’s incurable vanishing white matter disease, was eleven months ago. Since then doubts have surfaced, awkward questions from paparazzi, the inevitable disgusting tweets from disgruntled mothers. Was Georgi’s cure faked? I’ll never know. The kid died in a cliff-top car crash, days after meeting Adelphi. So, is Sardinella a fraud?

Engulfed in a tatty crimson velvet chair with chipped gilt arms, the maestro sits gazing into the mirror in black vest and briefs, slicing chunks off a fat banana into a bowl of bran. She isn’t wearing make-up on her olive face. Her hair is bushy, black-streaked-with-grey, tied back in an untidy whorl.

Claudia has an ugly, kind face, a loving face. Looks exhausted. Tell-tale smudges stain her bleary eyes. The burden of an awesome responsibility? Anyways, she seems relieved to see me. She has been brave, throughout her miserable life, through the suffering, not once feeling sorry for herself.

I’m all she has left in the world. Her only companion since I befriended her a week ago.

She looks into my face and smiles. ‘Gianni, it is good of you to come. Other men shower me with flowers, chocolates and token gifts but they don’t believe in me.’

What other men, Claudia? You’re deluded, kid. There are no other men, are there?

‘Try keeping me away!’ I laugh, lifting her off her feet, like an infant in my arms, embracing her with unbridled affection.

She squirms like mad. ‘Put me down!’ she shrieks, wriggling free. ‘I haven’t done my face yet.’

I set Claud on her throne, a baby queen on a chessboard. Her feet don’t touch the ground. I watch mesmerized as she does her face, wondering which masque she’ll wear tonight. She paints her sad, snow-white eyes. Glues her red plastic bobble nose. A cruel downturned slit of crimson splits her face ear to ear. She dons a frizzy orange wig.

Once she’s made-up, Claudia sticks out her strawberry tongue. Pulls a wicked smile. Springs to the floor. Hauls on her baggy chequered trousers, gives the braces a hefty tweak. Slips on an enormous patchwork-quilt jacket, a crooked top hat. The clown looks up into my eyes and nods. I bow my head. She kneels, clasping her twisted hands, closing her walnut eyes, and prays:

‘Dear Lord, I do not want to be a saint, some of them are so hard to live with. Give me the strength to create good in me today and to renew the health of those less fortunate.’

‘Amen to that, kid,’ I say.

The clown stomps round the arena. Squirting plumes of water from the squeezy tubes in her gigantic rubber wellies. I follow at a safe distance taking a seat ringside to watch.

Despite the negative publicity, the Big Top heaves with wailing, screaming kids: swollen heads, stubby arms, stumpy legs. Designer babies, gone wrong. Painfully deformed kids. Grossly disfigured. Blind blonde-haired girls in pretty-pink bows, frilly-party frocks. Identical brown-eyed boys, resplendent in claret bowties, burgundy waistcoats.

Solitary women pining for their long-lost menfolk. Hoping for an impossible cure. Praying for a miracle they know will never happen.

I look around the tent. The ring is an empty void. No smell of freshly-shaven sawdust. No scattered straw, safety-net, high-flying trapeze. The Circus of Wonder complies with all health, safety, and moral obligations, it recognizes animal rights. But the arena itself is devoid of entertainment, fun and laughter.

There is an amateur pre-recorded announcement for the juvenile audience to enjoy.

‘Kids! The performance is about to begin! Switch your phones and tablets to flight mode. Flash photography, videos and selfies are not permitted inside the tent.’

Before the kids can boo, the speakers crackle and hiss into life and play pre-recorded brass band music. A wavy-haired boy sits opposite on his mother’s lap. He must be seven now: pale, scrawny, sad eyes, teak-mole on his left cheek, could do with a haircut, scruffy navy tee-shirt, grubby denims torn at the knees, dirty red and white baseball boots.

I feel sorry for him. The kid looks neglected. Mother, on the other hand, is a picture of health: well-tanned olivaceous skin, lush, long, burnt sienna hair. She looks rich, has expensive tastes in clothes: a peach silk crepe-de-chine blouse, its sleeves rolled up to reveal four solid silver bangles. Perfectly-pressed, figure-hugging, chalk-white jeans. Smart mustard suede espadrilles.

But there’s sadness in her smile. Despair in her eyes. Has she given up all hope? All that wealth won’t buy his health - or her happiness.

The clown cries clichés at the top of her voice. ‘Hello, boys and girls!’

‘Hello, Claud!’ The screaming deafens me.

She works her audience like a real pro. Egging them on. Craning her head, hand to ear. ‘What was that? I didn’t hear you?’

‘Hello, Claud!’ the kids cheer, louder and louder.

‘Would you like to watch with mother?’

‘Yes!’ they cry, on their feet now (those that can stand), roaring, fever pitch.

‘Would you like to meet Adelphi?’

The mob brings the house down.

‘And who shall rub the magic stone?’

The brunette seated five along from me goads her kid on, ‘Go on, Ash!’

‘Me! Please! Me!’ a blind boy in a wheelchair pleads. Propelling himself forward with the sensor in his mouth. His useless arms hang limply from his saggy shoulders. His legs dangle, loose as a ragdoll’s. Thankfully his eyes are sealed. The drug’s shocking side-effects sicken me to the stomach.

‘Hello!’ Claudia beams, ‘And what’s your name?’

The kid pushes his languid tongue to one side of his mouth and mumbles, ‘Asher.’

Claudia points out the culprit, the drug addict single mother, ‘Is that your mama, Asher?’

 Mama sheds a tear, waves back, proud of her bambino. The audience goes wild.

‘Yes,’ the kid wheezes.

My throat swells. This kid can’t be much older than two. Claudia weaves her magic spell, bewitching, beguiling him: ‘Would you like to rub the magic stone?’

‘Yes!’ he lisps, gulping air. Mama rushes to his side. ‘Let me!’ kid begs.

The lights go out, one by one. The arena is pitch black. Save for a spotlight on the clown. The kids gasp as Claudia draws out an ordinary-looking flat stone. Sort of stone you might find on any pebble beach. If you look hard enough. She holds the stone to the smarming kid’s palm. I wince, toe-cringe, can’t bear to watch.

‘Rub the stone, darling!’ The kid rubs the stone with his thumb.

Nothing happens! Claudia wilts, struggles to stay composed. The crowd hold their breath. I watch in stunned amazement as she slyly dips a hand into her jacket pocket and produces a new magic stone. Leans over the kid, swaps the stones, and mouths in his ear. I’m savvy, I can lip-read: ‘Try this one.’

Shit! Nothing happens!

‘Try again.’

Fuck! Nothing! Mama clenches, unclenches her fists, fills up with rage. Kid’s frightened, starts crying. Mama spins the wheelchair round, glowers at Claudia who turns sheet white under his make-up. My heart goes out to the kid.

Claudia stutters a heartfelt apology. Mama makes her feelings expletively clear before exiting Circus stage right, her tragic, bawling, kid in tow.

Once the aggrieved party has left the misnamed Circus of Wonder I hear accusations. All eyes turn on hapless Claud. Her mascara runs. Tears of a Clown plays in the background. Lights come on.

She cries her eyes out, screams at the kids. ‘Hello!’

‘Hello, Claud!’ they yell in unison. 

‘Would you like to watch with mother?’


Well I’ll be damned! They’re on their feet again, baying for her.

‘Would you like to meet Adelphi?’


‘And who shall rub the magic stone?’ the clown asks, sniffing.

The audience fall silent, parting like waves as the wavy-haired boy leaves his seat with his mama. Shuffles down the aisle. Enters the ring. I watch the kid sidle up to the clown and stare at his feet.

I share his mother’s anguish. Her guilt. She took the fertility drug, Neutrazine, in good faith. Nine months later, she gave birth. To this mute cripple.

‘Hello, Roberto, Danni. It’s been a long time, hasn’t it’ Claudia says, her voice hushed.

Danni looks guilty. ‘I’m sorry we drifted apart,’ she says, ‘I’ll never lose you again.’

The lights go out one by one. The arena is pitch black, save for one spotlight. The kids gasp as Claudia draws a fresh stone, places it in the kid’s palm. Okay, I admit it, I look the other way.

‘Rub the stone, Roberto!’

The boy rubs the magic stone. Nothing happens at first. The stone starts to glow, an eerie luminous blue. The clown chants his magic spell. Oh, my God!

Claudia becomes Adelphi!

Claudia condenses, morphs into a holographic entity with a diamond-encrusted top hat, sequinned tails, and fancy gold booties. I see her change with my own eyes! Watch him spin on her revolving shiny silver podium, conducting with a black wand like a demented sorcerer’s apprentice!

An announcement follows: ‘Clowns! Lions! Acrobats! Trapeze!’

I gawp as the boy claps his hands! Oh, joy! His crooked hands unravel! Thanks be to God! Adelphi smiles down benignly at him, snapping his white-bone fingers.

The next spell…

The clowns appear, rollicking around the arena, tumbling, blowing rude raspberries. As the mute chuckles with delight!

Next come the lions. Running freely across the celestial savannah. Rearing on their haunches. Roaring like fury. The kids tremble at the fetid smell of freshly-torn zebra on the beasts’ hot breaths.

Thirteen acrobats cartwheel into the arena, whirling dervishes, startling us.

Way up high in the apex, three little men with wiry moustaches, skinny leotards rock and swing and soar through the air, catching each other.

Roberto blinks as if waking from a deep sleep. Hope lights his eyes. Joy is written on his face. His arms and legs straighten! He reaches for us.

I watch astounded as the crowd applaud as one. The crippled walk! The blind can see! The deaf hear!

We marvel as Adelphi rises serenely above us!

‘Blessed are those who heal the sick and forgive those who sin against them,’ he cries, ‘Go to your son, go to your wife, Gianni!’

‘My son! My son!’

I burst into tears. I hug my reborn child. Danni turns to me; her face radiates happiness. She looks plaintively into my eyes. Her shoulders heave. Salt tears wash her blushing face. I hold her close. I love her, cherish her. I’ll never let her go again.

The mothers wail with joy as their kids play in the ring. Danni and I can’t stop hugging our son. He speaks! He looks up at his father’s crying face and says:

‘Now do you believe in miracles, Papa?’

© Copyright 2019 HJFURL. All rights reserved.

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