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New fiction

The world is a “Circus” in Claire Battershill’s debut short story collection

We first learned of Claire Battershill in 2008 when she won the CBC Short Story Prize for her tale of the granddaughter of a man-wrestling circus bear. We were immediately struck by her talent, her sense of humour, and her age (she was one of our youngest winners at 24).

As part of her prize, “Circus” appeared that year in an issue of Air Canada’s enRoute magazine. And it was on one of the airline's flights that an editor at McClelland & Stewart first read her story—which is now the title story of Claire’s debut collection, out this April from M&S.

Here is an excerpt from her award-winning story.

“Circus” by Claire Battershill

Susan hasn’t often fashioned improvisational tightropes out of laundry lines laid out on her carpet so she can practise walking across, as she is doing right now. She hasn’t always needed to walk in a straight line. But she’s changed jobs recently and she feels compelled to leap up onto a concrete ledge beside a flowerbed on Queen Street West on her new walk to work. There’s a sidewalk next to the ledge, sure, but the ledge is just the right height, just near enough to some slightly sad geraniums planted in gravel, to be irresistible. Plus, now that she’s started doing it, she can’t break the habit. Only she’s missed her step a couple of times and it’s bad form to arrive at work in a shiny Toronto office building with ladders in her stockings. She keeps a bottle of clear nail polish in her purse in case the domestic tightrope training doesn’t actually help improve her balance. Susan has a bit of a problem with perseverance, and already she knows the tightrope phase won’t last long enough to make her an expert ledge-walker. She keeps souvenirs from all her momentary and vehement obsessions in shoeboxes (from the shoebox phase) under her bed. A felting phase, a woodcarving phase, a guitar phase (too big for a shoebox, but she keeps the picks), a drawing phase, a Latin phase, a cooking phase (hundreds of recipe cards), a crack-cocaine phase, and a button phase are all from the last six months. She did a neurotic spring-clean last April and killed two birds that way, by storing the rags and cleaning products in the box from her boyfriend’s basketball shoes. Susan is already thinking of how to coil up the tightrope so it will fit where her sandals used to.

When her mother talks about her circus days, it is with a kind of dutiful resignation. “Yes,” she says, “it was difficult being brought up a bear cub. Harder than you can really imagine, you of a regular human childhood.”

Her mother was twelve years old and preparing for a life as a contortionist when Susan’s grandfather ceased to be a bear. After they left the circus, however, her father was distraught, and wanted no reminders of his former vocation. So Susan’s mother was forced to walk on her feet instead of her hands, and to keep her back in a shape more like a human back than like a snail shell. This was a painful and incomplete adjustment, and from time to time, at boring parties or while Susan’s father was at work, she would yawn with her whole body - nonchalantly flipping her back over until her head appeared between her legs. It wasn’t about showing off, it was just the way it happened sometimes, and Susan never really blamed her for not being like other mothers. One of Susan’s own phases had been contortion. She found that she had none of her mother’s natural gift, and sprained her neck, though she refused to get one of those foam things to hold her chin up. Instead she got an empty shoebox, labelled it Contortion, stuck it under her bed, and walked around for a few weeks with her head lolling a little to the left.

Leon is Susan’s boyfriend. He comes home every day at exactly the right time, even though this is a different time almost every day. Sometimes Susan is already home and sometimes she isn’t, but he has a way of opening the door, or of sitting on the sofa in front of the TV, that seems freakishly coincidental. If Susan needs a long bath and some time to herself, he comes home late. If she wants to play cards or make dinner, he’s there right at five. Susan’s favourite arrival, though, is when they both approach their apartment building at the same time, from different directions, and avoid eye contact as they walk towards the entrance. Then, without speaking, they get in the elevator, cough awkwardly as they ascend, and walk down the hall. When they arrive at their common destination, he presses her up against the door, her head right next to the brass 1216, and they make out as though they are strangers who have just met in an elevator and discovered that they live in the same apartment.

Leon is a marketing executive for a company that makes organic chocolate products. Their apartment is full of tins and wrappers, all dark brown with gold lettering and bars of colour at the edges to indicate flavour. The brown was Leon’s idea: “The colour of chocolate,” he said at the interview, and so they hired him. Leon mostly ignores Susan’s quirks, which is comforting and necessary. When Susan says things that don’t make sense, or when she makes sock monkeys for days and days without doing anything else, Leon just rolls his eyes and carries on reading, or shaving, or doing whatever it is he’s doing at the time. He does intervene when necessary: he bought a bed skirt to conceal the shoeboxes for when company comes over, and had a gentle word about the crack-cocaine phase before it got too out of hand. Yesterday, he tried to come to her rescue by buying a new pair of loafers and leaving the box suggestively beside the laundry line on the carpet. But Susan is not ready, not yet, to give up on the tightrope.

Battershill, Claire cr Emma Gorst.jpg
Excerpted from Circus. Copyright © 2014 Claire Battershill. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, which is a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

Photo credit: Emma Gorst


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