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Returns and Retraces

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The telephone rang just as Santa came back to the flat. She dropped the bags she’d been carrying onto the front table and reached for the extension. “Hello?”

“Yes, is that Santa Possit?”

“Speaking.” She wondered who the voice on the other end of the phone was. It sounded familiar – a woman, probably about her age, with a slight accent. German, maybe?

“Ah, good. Santa, it is Fritzi Schmidt. You remember me?”

“Fritzi, of course! It’s been… well, ages! How are you?” Santa was quite surprised to hear from Fritzi – they hadn’t spoken in years, not since the last time she’d been to see the circus that both Fritzi and Peter had been performing with at the time. But then Peter’d gone abroad to tour in Australia and New Zealand, and she hadn’t heard from Fritzi since – or from Peter, for that matter, apart from the occasional “Wish you were here! Love to Gus!” postcard, complete with the mandatory beach scene. She’d thought he might be coming back to England soon, but his plans had been, to put it mildly, vague.

“I am well, thank you. But I am calling with sad news.”

Santa’s heart dropped in her chest. Had something happened to Peter? An accident? “Whatever is the matter? Is Peter all right?”

“I haven’t heard from him in a while, but I am going to call to find him next, if I can. No, it’s Ben, Ben Willis.”

“Oh, dear. Has something happened to him?” Santa remembered the gentle old man well. He had always been very kind to her and Peter when they arrived, such little lost kiddies, at Cob’s Circus in search of their uncle. Despite the twenty years that had gone by, she certainly thought of the old man fondly. And it had been his expert tutelage that had enabled Peter to become one of the best equestrians of his generation (if she did say so herself, and she fancied she was quite qualified to judge).

“Yes, yes, he died this past Monday. Heart trouble.”

“Oh, I am sorry to hear it. He was such a nice man. Is there going to be a service?”

“That is why I am calling. When we heard, a group of us – I am tenting with Astley’s Circus this season. And many people there knew Ben. We decided we must arrange a special performance in his honor.”

“What a nice idea!” Santa exclaimed. She was very pleased at the thought. “When? Where?”

“In Brighton, at the next weekend. I was wondering whether you with us would perform.”

Her jaw dropped. “Me? Fritzi, I haven’t performed since… before the war. I couldn’t possibly.” It was out of the question. She’d been good once, but… life had taken her down a different path.

“Ah, that is too bad then. But yes, you would be out of practice.” That was the Fritzi she remembered. Always truthful, even if she come across as rude.

“I’d love to come anyway, if it’s all right.”

“Good. We will expect you on Friday evening. Gus, too, if he is able.”

“I’ll ask him. Thanks for calling, Fritzi.” Santa said her good-byes and hung up the receiver. She had a lot to do if she was to run down to Brighton in a few days. Starting with finding out if her uncle felt up to travelling. Performing would be out of the question, of course, with his health. He’d moved in with her, in her rather small flat, after the accident. It wasn’t a hardship; she’d never been one for solitude, and it was easy enough to do for two as one.

And she’d always tried to do what she could for Gus, after how he’d taken her and Peter in after their aunt’s death.

In the event, Santa ended up travelling without her uncle. She could tell he regretted missing the celebration for Ben, and he asked her to give greetings to the many, many friends and acquaintances he’d made in his years of circus performing.

Once off the train, she smiled to herself as she followed the green stars towards the circus. It had been years since she’d done that. She found it without difficulty and then asked a group of children hanging about doing flip-flaps the way to Fritzi’s caravan.

It felt like just yesterday she’d been their age, wanting nothing more than to learn a new trick and to show off the routines she’d worked up to an eager public. At the same time, it felt as if it had been very long ago.

Fritzi was outside her caravan, and Santa rushed up to hug her friend. “I’m so glad to see you!” she said. Fritzi squeezed her back happily.

They went inside the gaily-colored caravan to have a cup of tea. Santa asked Fritzi what had been on her mind since the phone call. “Did you happen to find Peter? Is he back in England?”

Fritzi nodded. “His boat is arriving at Southampton today. I have left a message that he should immediately here to Brighton proceed.”

Peter was back! And as no one would disobey a summons from the imperious Fritzi, he would undoubtedly be here – perhaps as soon as tonight! Santa couldn’t remember the last time she’d smiled so much. “Oh, I am glad to hear that! The performance is Sunday, yes? So he’ll have plenty of time to get here?”

Fritzi nodded. “There are many others coming, too. Fifi, you remember. She brings with her the dogs.” Santa remembered that Fifi had inherited her mother’s poodles during the war, but she hadn’t yet seen her act. She understood that it involved a lot of the clowning Fifi had learned from Mink.

“And Alexsis Petoff?”

“He is touring in West Germany. I do not think he will be able to come.”

“A shame.” She had come to admire the Russian acrobat very much, and one of the routines she had been most proud of was one she had performed with him. But his abilities had vastly outstripped hers, and he had moved on to working almost exclusively on the flying trapeze, which she had never liked.

They talked more of mutual friends from Santa’s days with the circus, and the afternoon shadows lengthened into evening. She kept expecting at any moment to hear a knock at the door, although logically she knew Peter would be unlikely to arrive before tomorrow. Still, the knowledge that her brother, whom she had so very much missed these last three years, was not only in England but would be shortly here, had her practically bouncing on the edge of her seat.

Eventually, Fritzi excused herself to go see to her animals. Santa declined her invitation to tag along, preferring to wait at the caravan (surely that was where Peter would go first).

She began tidying up the dishes from their tea, marvelling anew at the order of a circus caravan. Everything fit just perfectly in its place, no mess, no wasted space.

And then – her heart leapt in her chest at the sound – there came a knock at the door. “Hullo? Anyone there? Fritzi!”

She flew to the door and threw it open. “Peter! You’re here!”

It was her big brother standing on the step, still slightly taller than she but looking much tanner than the last time she’d seen him – all that antipodean sun. He looked down at her for a minute, then exclaimed, “Santa!” and pulled her into a tight hug.

“Come in, come in,” she urged.

As Peter entered, she saw that another man was standing just behind him. “Who’s this, then?” she asked.

“Ah, Santa, this is my friend James. My partner. That is, we do an act together.” Peter seemed a bit uneasy, which she thought was odd, but nonetheless, beaming at the other man, she motioned for his friend to come in also.

“I’m so delighted you’re back, Peter, you have no idea, and it’s very nice to meet you, James.” She offered the two men a cup of tea, or some biscuits, both of which they accepted.

“It’s been a long trip,” James said. “The steamer got into Southampton this morning, and then when Peter got Fritzi’s message, well, we had to arrange for the horses to be put up and then travel to Brighton – we’re both quite done in.” He looked weary, dark circles under his eyes, but there was a friendliness to his smile that Santa couldn’t help but like. He was a bit shorter than Peter, slender, with wavy dark hair and twinkling brown eyes, very handsome.

“Tell me everything! I want to hear all about Australia!” she begged her brother. Then she remembered their long journey. “Or, no, of course, you must want to get to sleep! I’m sure Fritzi’s arranged everything, but you see, she only left one bunk for the two of you, I hope you don’t mind sharing.”

To her surprise, Peter laughed at that. “We’ll manage, I’m sure.”

She showed them where they were to sleep and wished them a good night. Since she wasn’t sleepy, she decided to go see the animals after all. She’d never been as fond of them as Peter (especially not of horses), but she did always like to see the Schmidt’s sea lions. And perhaps Fifi was here with the poodles?

It was several more hours before she was done visiting with people around the menagerie. She headed back to Fritzi’s caravan and opened the door gently so as not to wake Peter and his friend. It was dark inside, the only light coming from the small windows. She heard soft sounds from the direction of their bunk and, wondering if they were awake after all, whispered, “Peter? Are you still up?”

“Santa, yes. Just a minute, let’s go outside.”

They sat together on the steps of the caravan. “Is your friend asleep?”

“Yes, poor fellow. He spent most of the day scrounging up arrangements for the horses while I took a nap, I’m afraid.”

“He seems very nice.”

Peter had an almost wistful look on his face. “He is. I’m… glad you like him, Santa.”

She felt there was something she should say, but wasn’t quite sure what it was. Instead, she said, “I’m afraid Gus couldn’t come. Not feeling well enough.”

“Poor old chap. It’s good he’s got you looking after him.”

She sighed. “He’ll be sad to have missed you.” Peter patted her hand, comfortingly. It was nice that some things never changed, even if it had been nearly three years since Peter had left England – he still always did try to make her feel better.

“How are things at work?” he asked her.

“Oh, you know. Same as ever. Not much to say.” There was in fact, much she couldn’t say about her work, involving as it did classified operations. She’d never regretted leaving the circus to help out with the war effort, or the path that had led her to the intelligence service, and she knew her work now was vital to the nation. But she did miss sometimes being able to share with her brother or her uncle exactly what she did all day. “Tell me about Australia.”

Peter told her stories about his time with circuses down under, and she laughed at his descriptions of the many funny people he’d met and the scrapes they’d get into. She was also proud to read between the lines and hear how well respected he and his talents were by everyone.

She also noticed that James figured prominently in almost all of his stories – he said “we” and “us” much more often than he ever said “I.”

“I’m glad you’ve found such a good friend, Peter,” she said softly. “I… worry about you.”

He blushed and confirmed her suspicions. “Me too, Santa. James is… special.”

“He must be. I am glad, Peter.”

“Well, I suppose we should turn in. There’s bound to be a lot to do tomorrow – practice and the like.”

“Ah, that’s just for you performers. I fully intend to enjoy my day at the sea.” She hadn’t taken a proper day off work in ages, and she was glad of the break, even as she was sad about Ben.

“Of course. Maybe… James and I could join you? Stroll about a bit, when we’re not working?”

“I’d like that, very much.” She gave her brother’s hand a final squeeze, then stood up. “Good night, Peter.”

“Good night,” he replied.

The next day dawned clear and bright (everything she could have pictured for a day by the sea), and she was glad she didn’t have to be up early to tend to anything. She spent the day wandering about, sunbathing a little, even reading a novel, and towards mid-afternoon, Peter and James did join her. She was pleased to find out that James was as nice as she’d thought at first, and it was delightful to watch them together. Her brother deserved to find a little happiness beyond riding horses.

It reminded her of Hans, although of course she tried not to think of him. Not since—the war. Sometimes it was hard, though, not to remember.

The following day was the time for the big performance, and as Santa watched from the stands, delighted at the amazing skills so many circus people were displaying to honor Ben’s memory, she found herself overwhelmed, clapping and being carried off by the magic as she hadn’t since perhaps that very first time she and Peter had watched a circus, rather like this one, with Alexsis Petoff sitting by them.

Since the performance was in honor of Ben, the equestrian acts were the main feature. They were all very good, although if she were being truthful, she would have had to admit that they weren’t her favorite; that was the acrobats (a bit of the old professional pride).

But then Peter came on, doing haute école, with his partner James. Santa’s jaw actually dropped as she watched her brother perform. He’d always been good, but this—it was as though he and James and the horses were all one, every movement perfectly timed and as effortless as floating. They told a story together with just their bodies, in the way they turned and the way they looked at each other.

When they executed a simultaneous capriole, their horses jumping in the air together and kicking all four legs out as they sailed towards each other, flying, she rose to her feet with the rest of the audience, clapping and crying out her appreciation.

After the show, she ran up to James and Peter and hugged them both, saying, “I’ve never seen a better performance, ever.”

James blushed prettily and her brother looked quite pleased at the compliment. Then Fritzi and Fifi came up to her as well, and she hugged her other friends too. After much mutual congratulating and celebrating, she found herself alone with Peter again at last. “Ben would be so pleased with all of you,” she said.

“As though he wouldn’t be proud of you?” asked Peter. “Miss Super Spy?”

She looked at him in shock. “Whatever do you mean? I’m a… government secretary. Part of the civil service. A spy? The idea.” It was even sort of true – she wasn’t a spy, merely one of the many cogs in the government intelligence wheel.

He looked at her with narrowed eyes. “Pull the other one, love, it’s got bells on it.” And all this time she’d thought he had no idea what she did!

“I… well. Yes. I work for the government.”

He nodded as if she’d confirmed all of his suspicions. “So that’s all right, then. Ben would understand your leaving the circus.”

“Would he?” She’d not thought about in so long, but somehow – it really mattered to her, what people might have thought. “I just thought it wasn’t the best place for me. Anymore. I wasn’t born to be an acrobat. Not like you with horses.”

“Ben would’ve wanted you to be happy, Santa.”

She sighed. Happiness was complicated. “I’m doing something important. In my job in the civil service. And there’s Gus.”

“And you? I… oh, I know, it’s obnoxious, but when I think about how happy I am, you know, with James and all, it makes me want everyone to be just as happy.”

“I’m so pleased for you, I think I said.”

“You did. But, you, Santa?”

“Not now,” she answered. “It’s still… too soon.” Hans, again. She didn’t say his name, but she didn’t have to; Peter understood.

“When you’re ready then.”

“But in the meantime, don’t you be running back off to Australia! Stay in England for a bit, will you?”

Peter smiled at her. “I think we will. James and I, we have plans. Horse plans.”

“Oh?”

“I don’t know if you’ve heard, but you know how Ben retired and has been maintaining a farm these past 10 years?”

She vaguely recalled someone mentioning something of the sort. “I suppose, yes?”

“Well… it seems he left the farm – and all the horses – to me.”

She gasped. “Really? Peter, that’s amazing.”

“So, we’ve been talking, and James and I want to start a riding school. Teach basic riding, of course, dressage – and haute école if we can. We’ll be right on your doorstep, in fact.”

She was smiling so much, her cheeks hurt with the happiness of it. “Oh, Peter! I think that’s the best news I’ve gotten in ages.”

He smiled back at her. “I’ve missed you, Santa. And I’ll be glad for you to come see us, as often as you can.”

She wasn’t surprised that Ben was still reaching out to guide and help Peter along, but she was awfully happy about it. Somehow it seemed, despite all the people she and her brother had lost along the way – their parents, Aunt Rebecca, Hans, Ben – that there were still so many people blessing their lives that she could not imagine a better life than this one.

She did a little flip-flap, right there in her nice skirt and sweater, just for the sheer joy of it.