This is my second entry for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge, where my prompts were historical fiction, a circus tent and a doll’s head (creepy, right?).
When Operation Pied Piper sends forty little girls from their school in Manchester to Lyme Park in Cheshire, Lord and Lady Newton find themselves having to make some adjustments for their new wards. “Clara!” Lord Newton exclaimed as he walked into the room, two favourite dogs in tow. “What on Earth is this?”
Lady Newton spun around. “Oh, dear,” she laughed, a long-fingered hand flying to her chest. “You startled me.” She turned to survey her handiwork. “Wonderful, isn’t it?”
Lord Newton looked around the room slowly, and didn’t answer. He wasn’t sure precisely just what ‘it’ was.
“I asked Mr Adams to help; turns out the new man has a cousin in Manchester who ran away to join Blackpool Tower and with the war, they’ve shut down, so—”
She gestured at the room’s new decor with a magnificent flourish, eyes sparkling. Lord Newton looked up. Heavy loops of silken fabric billowed from the chandelier to anchor points on the wall, falling to puddle luxuriously on the Aubusson carpet. Lord Newton followed the lines of the fabric, turning slowly on the spot to absorb the changes, dumbstruck.
“Lady Newton!” He cut her off. “Why is there a circus tent in the State Dining Room of Lyme Park?”
She smiled placatingly, and walked over to him. His eyebrows had lowered menacingly in a look she knew all too well. “Now, George,” she said, warning in her voice, “you know we must all make changes now the girls are living here—”
“Changes?!” Lord Newton harrumphed, looking down at his dogs. “We know all about changes,” he said darkly. They grinned up at him, tails wagging frantically.
“Yes, well they can’t be helped. You have your study; the girls aren’t allowed there—”
“But the State Dining Room? It’s positively garish,” Lord Newton growled.
A small figure appeared in the doorway, apron askew and a headless doll dragging by her side. At her appearance both pointers started forward, and were recalled with a sharp word from Lord Newton.
“Bridget,” Lady Newton exclaimed, rushing over to the little girl. “What are you doing?”
Lord Newton eyed the decapitated doll distastefully, then cast a suspicious glance at his feet where the hounds sat quietly, their eyes riveted on the girl.
“Mrs Harrods said there was going to be a surprise,” Bridget replied, eyes wide at the sight of the candy-striped tent that had replaced the dining room. Lady Newton beamed at her. “Yes, there is. Do you like it?”
Bridget examined the room in much the same manner as Lord Newton. A small crease appeared between her brows. Her thumb crept towards her mouth, and Lady Newton gently pushed her arm down again.
Bridget’s elder sister, Kathleen, had come in search of her charge. “It’s a circus!” There was a clamouring of voices nearby and the machine-gun fire of thirty-eight pairs of little girl shoes on the grand central staircase. One of the dogs barked. Lord Newton’s eyes widened. Without another word, he beat a hasty retreat to the solitude of his study. A bevy of girls spilled into the room in the wake of his departure. As one, their eyes widened and mouths opened.
“It’s a circus,” Kathleen informed them, her smile spreading like a fever as the girls bounded forward in an unbridled horde of excitement. Lady Newton smiled indulgently; it was nearing Christmas and with the girls missing their homes, a distraction was all too welcome. Bridget clung to Lady Newton’s leg through her dress, fingers curled in the velvet. “My doll, Mama Clara,” she whimpered, shoving the headless creature towards the woman. Lady Newton smoothed a tender hand over the girl’s riot of dark curls and knelt to examine the doll, one eye trained on the amateur acrobats tumbling across the room. George would not approve.
“Bridie’s having nightmares again,” Kathleen said quietly, moving closer to her sister. Lady Newton’s mouth pulled down at the corners. “Again?” She cupped the little girl’s cheek with her spare hand. “What’s wrong, my little darling?” Bridget sniffled, but didn’t answer.
“It’s the bombs,” Kathleen supplied, voice subdued. “She’s scared they’ll come here.” She reached out to twist a tendril of her sister’s hair around one finger. Lady Newton looked between the two solemn little faces and forced a smile. “There will be no bad Germans here,” she declared to the children sternly, with a firm nod. “In fact,” she decided, standing and casting her eyes around the romping children, “we’ll hold our own special circus, just to show we’re not afraid.”
Her smile was dazzling; an answering one bloomed on Kathleen’s face. Bridget nodded solemnly.
Some time later, strains of Beethoven echoed through the house as Lord Newton opened his study door. A maid stopped on the servants’ stairs to listen dreamily. Nearby, a dog bayed.
Lord Newton stomped through the house, past the sweeping staircase and into what had been his State Dining Room. The dogs’ toenails clicked on the tiles as they scampered behind him. In the new Evacuees’ Circus, all the furniture had been dragged to the sides to create a circus ring. One of the older girls was exhibiting her lion taming skills by cracking an imaginary whip and commanding a number of her smaller compatriots to jump over obstacles. She was wearing what could only be the castoff clothes of the younger Lord Newton, who was currently fighting on the Western Front.
Lord Newton walked in, one hand holding aloft a bedraggled blue-eyed, golden-haired doll’s head. The dogs slunk forlornly behind him. There were clear teeth marks where it had been torn away from the grimy body Bridget was clutching.
“What in the blazes is this?”
Unfazed, his wife swept up to him and plucked the toy from his hand. “Thank you, dear,” she said and pressed a kiss to his cheek before turning back to her London castaways.
“Our first official spectator,” she cried, pressing her husband into a chair and scooping up Bridget’s doll with her other hand. She smiled at the girl. “We’ll fix her, don’t worry,” she whispered, then waved an imperious hand at her other charges.
“Carry on, Ringmaster!”