Written by Malachy O’Neill
This man is a clown. Not in a derogatory sense. Not an idiot or a fool but an actual bona fide, fully qualified clown. During his formative years at Clown College he dreamt of entertaining the masses with juggling tricks, squirting daisies and hijinks. He was top of his class. He contributed regularly to all the popular clown periodicals and magazines of the day, his views gaining the respect of fans, aficionados and members of the industry alike. One particularly erudite article named Myths and Anti-Myths of Coulrophobia (Or The Intense Fear of Clowns) is now highly regarded in the realm of psychological research and criticism.
He was lauded as the greatest thing to happen to clowning since Charlie Chaplin. A tour de force in tomfoolery, bringing new found zeal and relevance to the art of japery. But that was such a long time ago.
“One more hour to go,“ Ruben said to himself.
His gangly arms hung languid by his sides like lengths of rope, knotted at the joints.
“One more hour of jumping and flopping and falling and rolling and laughing and slapping and tricks and rubber balloons,“ he sighed, “and…“
He lit one cigarette off another, his soft drooping eyes, red and pinched from the night before, concentrated on the burning amber of the tobacco. He found it difficult to focus in the razor sharp clarity of the day. His hair stood in tufts because he tugged and pulled at it in frustration. In the deep set pockets of his chequered pantaloons he held a cold drinking flask. It was all he had left of her. His closest companion was a steel hip-flask. Slouching down against a wall, covered by a thin sliver of shade, at the side of a beaten mud path on a quiet Sunday afternoon, Ruben gathered his thoughts.
“How did it come to this?“ he asked. No one replied. “What have I done to deserve this?“
“What’s the matter, Mr. Clown?“ asked a timid voice from behind the wall.
Ruben jumped to his feet. A little girl stood watching him from the sunlight, her hand shielding her eyes, her face scrunched.
“Nothing’s the matter, little girl,“ Ruben said, fixing on his curly red wig, patting down the crumples in his outfit, dropping his cigarette and twisting it into the ground with the bulbous end of his oversized shoe.
“What’s your name, Mr. Clown?“ she asked.
“Ruben is my name and clowning is my game,“ Ruben replied, robotically honking the horn attached to his waistcoat. “Do you want to see a trick?“
“You don’t look like a happy clown, Mr. Clown,“ the girl stated, ignoring his performance, as she sat on the edge of the low wall. “You look like the saddest clown I’ve ever seen.“
Ruben felt like the saddest clown anyone had ever seen. He was a fraud and a phony, so much so that even the little girl in the scruffy pink party dress could see it. He slumped back into the shade, hunching his legs up to his chest.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Clown. Everything will be alright,” the little girl said confidently.
“How do you know?”
Ruben searched his pockets to grasp the hip-flask. Its solidity comforted him. Its soothing contents assured him. He closed his eyes, unable to bear the sweet innocence of the little girl’s face any longer; her uncontaminated gaze unsettled him. He rubbed the scar behind his ear. It throbbed when he was uncomfortable.
“That’s what my Mother used to say to me,” said the little girl.
“And what makes you so sure she was right?”
“I don’t know. Well, she’s been gone for a year now and I feel alright,” she said looking down at the ground.
“Where did she go?” asked Ruben, immediately realising the stupidity of his question. “Do you want to see the magic trick?”
The little girl shook her head.
“I don’t like magic tricks, Mr. Clown.” The small features on her face were pushed together, holding back emotion, as she played with her hands as a distraction.
“I know what will cheer you up. What’s your favourite animal?”
“Hmmm, I like monkeys.”
“Well isn’t that a co-ink-y-dink, I like monkeys as well.”
Ruben stood to attention. The opportunity of a performance transformed him from a slouching, sallow faced misery to a long limbed primate, skipping and jumping and rolling around the patch of grass. Ruben scratched his head, pulled a funny face, then scratched the young girls, screeched and leapt, ran back and forth until the girl was laughing hysterically. In a flash he produced some balloons from his pocket and was twisting them and turning them, making hilarious faces all the while. A few moments later he handed the little girl a balloon monkey, hanging from a balloon branch.
“There you go. A balloon monkey for … ” Ruben’s voice trailed off, waiting for the girl to reveal her name. She ignored him again. Now intently studying her balloon monkey she stood up quickly and walked off. Ruben could hear the sharp shrieks of children’s voices coming from the party.
“Are you not joining the party, little girl?”
The girl shook her head.
“I live over there,” she said, pointing to a house over the road. “You looked sad, Mr. Ruben.”
Ruben watched her amble across the empty road into a ramshackle house. She studied the balloon creation in her hands the entire way. In the shadowed doorway of the rundown house she turned and waved. From this distance he wasn’t sure if she was smiling or not. Ruben waved back but she had already gone, disappearing into the dark entrance, the door slamming violently behind her. He sat down on the low wall and raised his face directly into the sunlight, enjoying its heat. His bony fingers rested on the hip-flask.
“I take it you’re the clown we booked,” boomed a thick voice from the front door of the house. “Ruben the clown?”
Malachy O’Neill is currently studying English at MMU, reading pretentious literature and writing stories while living in constant fear about the insects that live under his skin.