By Rob Nisbet

Rob says: I have retired to Peacehaven near Brighton where I write anything from romance to horror. I also write audio drama, having adapted work by Philip K Dick for radio, and having had several scripts produced by Big Finish for their Doctor Who range.

I suppose we must have been asleep, the young Nadia and me. Gradually we become conscious until we think we are awake, but we don’t open our eyes – that is too much effort.

We are lulled by suffocating warmth, too tired to move, too tired to wonder where we are.  Even our breathing – softly in, softly out – is an effort; we just want to lie here, undisturbed, never get up.

We assume, without the need to think, that we are in our bedroom, the young Nadia and me. But there are other people here too. They talk in whispers as if keeping secrets from us.

I don’t recognise their voices and I am far too weary to work out what they are saying.

After a while we manage to open our eyes. There are the shapes of two people looming over us. A bedside light glimmers, but the main light is off. It is a strain to see them. They are as shadowy and indistinct as their whispers. The curtains are drawn to preserve a reverent gloom; we are not sure that it is night outside.

“Back with us, Mum?” A young man leans into the light. His teeth smile at us, but not his eyes. “The doctor says you should be …” he pauses, still smiling, blinks those sad eyes, “ . . . comfortable.”

Well, we’re not comfortable. My breathing is stifled; the room is stuffy and dark. And I am so very tired. I want this man to pull back the curtains, open the window, let in some air. Who are these people? The young Nadia has a better memory than I do, but they are strangers to her too, even the one who calls us Mum. We follow them with our eyes. We do not trust them and say nothing.

With his great wings spread, a clown flies down through the ceiling, unnoticed by the two intruders.

* * *

We see the clown, the old Nadia and me. The old Nadia is unphased by his arrival. Her mind no longer questions, merely observes, with a confused acceptance. But for me there is a stirring of recollection. The clown has wild orange hair, a bulbous red nose, and an outlandish painted grin: a ridiculous but genuine smile that shines from his eyes. His great white wings fold into place at his back, and his too-baggy trousers wobble on their braces as he crosses to the window. He pulls back the curtains. He opens the window to the welcome, cool scent of the fields. It is night, after all.

And we are outside. The old Nadia is slow and fragile, but she draws a little strength from me. I help her shuffle up the slope and we disappear quietly into the night before the strangers in our room notice.

The track is dark and pitted, but at each corner a clown flutters down, wings glowing, to guide us. From deep within her wrinkles, the old Nadia blinks at the clowns with innocent wonder. But I feel the old memories stir within her, and for once we both know where we are going: The Top Field, at the crest of the hill, where Domino will be waiting for us.

Margaret and Charlotte are there too, of course. Someone had told the old Nadia that they’d died, years ago, Domino too. I sympathise. I don’t want to become the old Nadia, when her friends are gone. Perhaps that’s why she finds it hard to remember, because secretly she wants to forget. My memory is stronger. I am Nadia at nineteen; Margaret and Charlotte are in their early twenties. We are inseparable. We call Domino, the old Nadia and me, our voice almost lost in the vast night. But she hears us and trots over the crest, a black shadow against the slightly brighter sky flecked with stars. We feed her soft lips a carrot from our pocket.

We lead her to the circle of hay bales. Charlotte hauls one bale aside and we guide Domino into our home-made circus ring. The old Nadia hasn’t remembered Domino for years, and I feel her delight. I guide her hands and we pat her dark flanks, spotted with white as if draped in constellations. Margaret points to the sky, tracing a line from the Plough to find the North Star: the Pole Star. From our point of view, she says, the whole universe revolves around this point. We imagine a pole extending down from this star, skewering the Earth so that it spins like a bead on a wire. The old Nadia and me aren’t really interested; we feed Domino another carrot. Charlotte is more enthusiastic, “Where’s Pegasus?” she asks.

And Margaret swings round to point at a square of stars. “A pterippus,” she says. “A winged horse.” Charlotte and I roll our eyes; only Margaret would know a word like that.

We clamber onto a bale, the old Nadia and me, while Margaret and Charlotte watch by starlight. Then we are up and onto Domino’s back. No saddle. We trot around the circle, bouncing into Domino’s step. The old Nadia clings nervously in the darkness, but I remind her how to ride, relax her hands and we pick up speed.

Charlotte whoops and sings, her blonde curls bobbing in the breeze. She is always the audience, and the band, applauding as we circle faster and faster.

Margaret, naturally, is the Ringmaster. She stands dark and serious in the centre, waving a stick, conducting the show.

The old Nadia delights in the night-time ride. She depends on me; I feel her cling to my memories; firmer than the fleeting blur I see through her eyes. We remember our circus plans, how we dreamt of performing in a costume of star-spangles, the crowd would cheer and gasp as we and Domino juggled, balanced on barrels and leapt through hoops of fire.

We slow Domino to a trot, carefully draw up our legs to kneel on her back and circle our hay-bale ring a few times. Then we stand, arms stretched wide for balance. The audience roars like a thousand lions. We raise one leg behind us, lean into Domino’s rhythm for a whole circuit. The old Nadia’s memories can’t see the fall coming. The ground is uneven and hard. We jar – tumble like an acrobat.

The pain in our arm is sharp. We know it is broken. The audience shrieks its dismay; the Ringmaster is more practical. We end up in hospital, a heavy plaster cast, no riding for at least two months.

* * *

My dreams summersault around that point. I feel my life pivot, and a skein of memory drifts from the young Nadia, through the intervening years, till it brushes me, light as a cobweb. No more tricks on Domino, though she remained our closest companion. Our fantasy of circus life shifts to a more mundane performance. We grow, we work, we marry, we have a child, we age, we decline.  Domino lives another 20 years, Margaret and Charlotte 20 more. And we open our eyes in our stuffy bedroom to a doctor, and our son with that unhappy smile.

We try to smile back, the young Nadia and me. But even that is too much for us. The men by our bed become strangers again, and like a sigh, our twist of memory unravels like our ridiculous, impractical circus dreams.

The clown by the window catches our eyes, tugs back the curtains. And we long for the cool darkness; to be accepted in the embrace of night.

Wwe are back in the big Top Field. Our costume glitters like the stars. The folded sky is draped over the circus ring, anchored in place to a pole through the Earth. Pegasus shines spotlights onto us as we stand on Domino’s back, arms stretched wide for balance. The audience roars above the music, and we recognise them, every one: Margaret, Charlotte, our husband, our son. And, somewhere in my past, the young Nadia settles back where she belongs. A thousand voices cheer for us. We raise one leg behind us, lean forward into Domino’s rhythm for a whole circuit. Domino’s progress is smooth, unfolding wings that we hadn’t noticed before. The clowns flutter up around us, and we sparkle into the starry sky.