We caught the first ferry that was going to France. Mum got chatting with a pair of students who were going to brush up their French. Over squashed Marmite sandwiches and warm lemonade we invited ourselves along, and landed a lift in their tomato soup coloured Vauxhall Chevette, all the way to their campsite in Concarneau.
Days were spent on the beach, jumping in and out of the water and feasting on hunks of deliciously fresh, crusty bread and chunks of cheese that looked – and tasted – nothing like the yellow brick of Cheddar in the fridge at home.
Cuddled up to Mum at night, I would watch the stars through the open tent flap, and will myself to stay awake to make the holiday last as long as possible. Every morning as I woke, hungry and a little stiff, I was disappointed not to have seen the sun rise.
One morning, when we woke and headed for the showers, there was a buzz in the air. Something was happening. Leaving the campsite for the boulangerie in town, we rounded the corner and there it was, faded canvas in shades of cream and gold, pitched just on the edge of the dunes. The Big Top. Le Cirque was in town! I spent the day sat on the sand, watching the wiry boys setting up the little wooden benches, laying out coconut mats as a makeshift floor and rigging up the high wire and the trapeze. As the sun began to set, I raced back to the tent and hauled Mum along, determined to get a ringside seat.
The show was simply magical.
The dancing girls with their shining smiles and long glossy hair, the tiny acrobats spinning through the air like butterflies, and the surly ringmaster, bellowing in French and then smoking silently between acts.
A toy circus made flesh, just for me. That night I fell asleep instantly, with the tinkling of the band still in my ears, dreaming of the tumbling acrobats turning somersault after somersault in the cool night air. In the morning, I knew I had to see it again.
For five nights I kept my place in the front row, until one morning I woke up knowing it was our last. After a quick breakfast, we packed up the tent and got ready to return to London, but not before I took one last look at the circus tent, damp with dew and leaning slightly, like a paddling pool left out all night.
That summer was meant to be an escape from the city heat, but it turned out to be so much more. I came home with legs covered in mosquito bites and a lifelong love for life under canvas. I’ve not run away to join the circus yet, but there’s still time.