Ireland - Summer 1950
Ireland smelt different. Gene had noticed it as soon as he had arrived. He could still detect it now, even over the smell of the cigarette dangling from his lips. It didn't smell nice. Even outside of the circus tents and the train carriages he was currently sitting in it smelled like cow shit. Gene had wondered what Ireland would be like, and after taking another long smelly breath, he decided that it was thoroughly underwhelming. He wished that he was home, in Italia, but that was a long way away now.
It wasn't that Ireland wasn't beautiful; it was. As he sat with his hands pressed against the floor, back hunched, feet swinging out of the door of the carriage, he could see its beauty. It looked like the whole country had been draped in a green patchwork blanket. The sky was both contrasting in its bright blue whilst also merging perfectly with the green sea below.
It had been so underwhelming to finally arrive in Ireland, Gene reasoned, because it had taken so long to get there. By the end of the journey, he had built Ireland up to be a paradise. Just to get here he had been on trains and ferries just about everywhere. Milan to Paris, Paris to London, London to Cork. And that was just the main cities, he had had to travel between them as well. He wished now, just the same as the day they had set off, that they had never begun the journey. He already missed Italia. From the moment they had crossed the border, he missed it. Italia. Historic, passionate, colourful Italia.
The words of Italia bounced around his brain in time with the distant sound of hammering he could hear. The noise was coming from the big top which was being set up for tonight, Gene couldn't see it but he knew it would look magnificent, the red standing out against the sky and the hills.
He tuned out from the noise; he couldn't let Italia start taking over his thoughts again. He had to remember how it had changed during the war, why his parents had wanted to leave in the first place. Its history had been written each day and most felt it wasn't a history to be proud of. There was passion, but it wasn't the same. It either got you killed or made you a killer. Even the colours seemed to dull, making the landscape seem as dreary as the spirits of the people. Gene guessed war did that to every place it touched.
Gene never really knew why the war had started; in fact, the news that it had even been declared was slow to reach the ears of everyone at the circus he and his parents had been travelling with at the time. They had been on a long, cross-country train journey when it was declared, leaving them a bit behind on the news. They found out the next day, June 11th 1940, just after he had turned seven. He didn't remember much of it, or really understand the magnitude of it. But he did remember his mother crying and the pain on his father's face – that was all he needed to know.
But it had come and it had gone like all things did and the Royal Italian Circus had travelled onto Ireland. Gene shook his head, flicking his cigarette butt to the ground before hopping down from the carriage. Life was funny.
Walking down the length of the train Gene pulled his braces back onto his shoulders, keeping an eye out for his parents. Not seeing them he hopped up into the carriage that housed the horses that his parents rode for their act. The carriage was dark and dirty and devoid of horses. His parents were probably training them. Gene had never taken to horses, finding himself always slightly on edge around them. It wasn't so much that he was scared, it was more like a respect he had for them and their ability to trample him to death.
Having not taken to the horses, Gene had had to learn something else in order to maintain an act. His grandfather, a circus man himself, had taught him to tap dance. It had been a hobby of his grandfather's but Gene had felt it consume him; it was his calling, his spirit knew that. Even when he danced now he could see his grandfather in his mind's eye, all smiles and grey hair with kind wrinkled eyes. He was always cheering Gene on.
It was a good job he could picture his grandfather cheering him on, at least someone was. Tap dancing was not something that got you noticed in a circus filled with wondrous things people have never seen before. His act, therefore, was very small. He would dance beneath the Trapeze as the miraculous artists above him would fly and spin and fall and catch each other. They took his breath away and he saw it every night. Hence, he realised that no one ever watched him dance, he was merely the background noise setting the tempo and tension with his feet on the ground. He didn't mind it, however, because he was doing what he loved.
Having walked back to the carriage he had originally been seated in, Gene hopped in and grabbed a pair of clean black and white shoes. They were polished and shining in the sun that had briefly popped up from behind the clouds. These shoes were Gene's most prized possession. His tap shoes had been gifted to him by his Mamma and Papa on his sixteenth birthday just last year. They hadn't been in the circus for a while, as they had wanted Gene to attend a real school and not his Mamma's homeschool. That was his last birthday in Italia and the Italian leather felt like home. Gene knew he wouldn't get a gift like them again, especially not for his next birthday in just a few weeks, but he didn't mind. He didn't need anything else.
After changing into his tap shoes, he hauled a wide, thin wooden board from the inside wall of the carriage, heaving it to the edge and letting it fall out. He jumped down after it, landing with a click as the metal on the bottom of his shoes collided with the wood. Not being bothered to move it anymore, Gene let the wood rest where it was, slightly crooked in front of the carriage. Really, it was too big to move alone but there was no one around to help as they were all busy either rehearsing or setting up the tents for tonight.
He did a quick toe-heel to test the sound, hearing again the gentle tap of metal on wood. The sound was slightly dull here on the practice board, but he knew once he was on the polished floor of the Big Top his feet would echo through the entire tent.
Closing his eyes, he placed his hands in his pockets and filled his mind. He filled it with every problem, every woe, every sadness. Most people Gene knew would empty their mind before dancing or performing anything, citing the need to concentrate solely on the performance as their reason. Gene didn't find this to be the case. He found that when he danced, his feet knew what they were doing and he didn't need to focus on them at all. When he danced, he could sift through all his thoughts much better than when he was still. He found thoughts to get stale if you sat and thought about them too much, but when he danced they were moving, fresh and easy to sort.
Slowly at first, he gathered a rhythm with his feet, no music, just him and the tapping. He always kept his eyes closed in this build up, letting his feet fall where they thought they should go, creating a confidence in themselves. He began moving around the board, hands still in pockets, pace still slow, but now with his eyes open. It seemed rather fitting, moving around after the first period of calm, just like the moving he had done to Ireland.
And there it was, the thing that had been bugging him the most, shoved suddenly to the front of his head. Italia.
His pace quickened. His arms joined in. He thought about Italia.
He missed the golden colour its edges seemed to have. Cincinnati.
He wondered if he would ever go back. Time step.
He wondered if his parents would feel better here. Riff.
Safer here. Heel stand.
Happier here. Chug.
His feet moved quicker and quicker and quicker and quicker.
Breath out. Hold the moment.
As quickly as he had stopped his feet began to move again matching, if not exceeding the fast tempo that he had built up previously. He was spinning and clapping and jumping and tapping all of it screaming, "Italia, Italia, Italia."
The sudden ring of his name in the air dizzyingly pulled Gene out of the dance and left him a little unbalanced as he stopped mid-motion. He wobbled slightly and looked around him to try and see who had called him. Not seeing anyone nearby he realised that it must have been coming from the other side of the carriages and he jumped into the one in front of him and walked straight through to the other side, his feet tapping as he went. Reaching the other side, he looked out to try and see if his Mamma or Papa were there. They were the only ones who ever called him by his real name, rather than English stage name. Looking from left to right he could see the village that spread out on this side of the rail track, the view of it completely different from that of the rolling hills on the other side. Then he saw his Mamma, a few carriages down, making her way closer to him.
She looked up and saw him hanging out of the carriage and smiled. "Oh, there you are!" she called, her Florentine accent still as strong as the day they had arrived.
Gene smiled as Mamma bustled up to him in her usual way. As he grew older, he noticed her looking older, too, as the crow's feet around her eyes became a little more prominent each day. She was still beautiful, though. Gene always felt safe around her, no matter what was happening.
"We just finished with the horse and I thought I would come and find you. I didn't mean to interrupt."
"È. Non fossi davvero immersi in esso comunque." Gene hopped down from the carriage as he spoke and wrapped an arm around his Mamma's shoulder and planted a kiss on her temple.
"English, Eugenio." Her tone was warning but not angry. His parents had decided once they got to Ireland to only speak English. Gene didn't like it; it felt like erasing who they were. "I was just talking with your Papa -"
Gene held up his hand to cut her off as he had spotted the Ringmaster a few carriages down. He was a large man and could be quite scary and imposing if you got on the wrong side of him, but in the ring, his smile shone and dazzled as much as the fire that surrounded the ring at various points. He truly was a showman and Gene looked up to him in a strange sort of way. But it was not the Ringmaster that Gene had noticed. It was the boy, around his age, who Gene knew was not part of the circus. He was too clean, too put together and Gene had never seen him before. Gene looked over at his Mamma, noticing that she was also looking at the scene with a frown.
"Let's go up," Gene said, his curiosity getting the better of him. It was a trait that he had inherited from his Mamma, wanting to know everything straight away; his Papa was much more patient.
Knowing that his mother would agree, he began walking ahead of her slightly, but she quickly caught up with him. As they approached the Ringmaster saw them, he turned and he smiled.
"Ah, Elda, Gene!" he called to them, his booming voice seemingly glad to see them. "I was just talking with...what was your name?"
"O'Connor, sir. Finian O'Connor."
"I was just talking with Finian here and he wants to join the circus." His tone was laced with such mockery Gene was sure it slapped Finian in the face. Gene snorted slightly, finding the whole situation amusing. As if it was easy to be in the circus as if a clean-cut boy like him could just sign up. Mamma squeezed his arm in warning.
"You have an act?" she asked Finian.
"Yes, yes. My father taught me to dance, he is a... professional performer."
Gene heard the heavy strain on the word 'professional' and knew its connotation. This boy clearly thought the circus was some kind of joke.
"Well, why don't you go home and dance with your father and put on a family show?" the Ringmaster snapped, the word clearly grinding on his nerves too.
"I have no family now." He seemed to be in pain, like this was the first time he had admitted that to anyone, including himself.
"Let him dance," Gene's mamma chimed again, always willing to give people a chance.
The Ringmaster just nodded. Gene knew he would give him the chance to dance, but it was unlikely that he would hire him; the show was full of acts anyway. There just wasn't the room for another. After getting the confirmation from the Ringmaster the boy reached down to the only bag he was carrying, his blonde hair catching the light. He pulled out a pair of tap shoes. Gene raised his eyebrows. Was this boy after his job?
The answer was clearly yes as they let him change his shoes and took him to the piece of wood Gene had been practising on just minutes before. No one looked very convinced; even the Ringmaster slightly smirked with his arms crossed over his chest. Gene's mamma was trying her best to look encouraging but Gene could see the uncertainty in her face – it was just like that time Gene had tried to ride and had failed miserably. Gene was sure his face was similar to that of the Ringmaster; he didn't owe this boy any encouragement. He looked far too prim and proper to dance with any soul anyway. You needed passion in the circus.
The boy seemed nervous as he tied his shoes. Gene noticed his fingers shaking, struggling to tie a bow. Finally, he got into a start position and let out a shaky breath.
And he danced. The nerves seemed to flush out of him as soon as he began to tap. Gene didn't even follow the steps in his head, he became so mesmerized by the performance. It took his breath away. It was neat and clean and precise and Gene couldn't fathom how it was different steps and not one solid movement. And it was filled with so much soul that Gene felt it slipping out of the dance and into the air around them. Each jump was perfect, fluid and balanced. Each clap sent a shot through the air. Gene knew he danced with more passion, but this boy danced with such grace it didn't matter, it contained everything the boy had.
When he stopped dancing, everyone was silent. The only sound the filled the air was the sharp and fast breathing of the boy who stood before them. Gene began to move towards the boy, but the Ringmaster also moved, stopping Gene where he stood.
"You are good," the Ringmaster told him, understating it a little. "We just don't have room for another act," he added, not looking half as sorry as he should have.
"Please, sir, this is my only option. I can also play the piano"
"Sorry, kid." The Ringmaster had already begun to turn away.
Gene didn't know what came over him, but he couldn't let this talent slip out of the circus. He suddenly felt the need to help this boy who looked so dejected and sad. Maybe some of his soul had touched Gene's.
"He can be part of my act!" Gene blurted out, not able to contain it.
The Ringmaster now turned to him, slight shock registering on his face. "Really?"
"I think he will be good for it. He's talented. No one watches my act anyway."
"You really want to give up a solo act?"
"Fine." The Ringmaster turned back to the boy. "If you make one wrong step, you're out."
The Ringmaster sauntered off, shaking his head in what appeared to be disbelief. Gene's mamma looked just as shocked but smiled at Gene before also turning to leave, letting him know that he had done the right thing. Suddenly he was alone with the boy who looked incredibly relieved. Gene noted that up close he was very well dressed and he guessed the boy from a rich background. He couldn't help but wonder why he wanted to join a circus.
"Thank you," the boy breathed out.
Gene smiled and reached out his dirty hand to shake his clean one. "What was your name again?
"Gene. You're going to need a stage name because Finian isn't very catchy. Do you have a nickname?"
He hesitated for a moment as if unsure whether to reveal the information. "Fionn."
"Well, Fionn, welcome to the circus."