Death of a Clown
By Jon Gresham
My father believed laughter was the factor that drove civilisation forward. He believed it was the promise of laughter that lured people from dank, dark caves into brighter, communal places. For him there was no greater purpose in life than to cheer people up and make them laugh. With laughter people can rise above any challenge. This is what he told my mother anyway before he left us.
When I was little he sat at nighttime on the end of my bed, told jokes and explained elaborate pie-throwing routines. He had a large forehead and magnificent eyebrows. The last prayer before sleep was a request for more grace and giggling in performance. On the morning of my first day of school, he bent down and spoke close to my nose, "In my genes is the ability to be funny. I pass these genes to you. It's your turn now. Go son. Deliver laughter to the world."
I had no idea what he was talking about. My mother hugged me. As I walked to school I heard cackles recede behind me.
He was Clown No. 1 at Tai Than Kew Circus. He made people laugh; really, really laugh. He cracked them up. They didn't just chuckle. They shook all over, bent double, unable to speak. They were overwhelmed; saliva dripped from the chin, guts twisted up. They laughed with every sinew and cell. They found in him an effortless release from all their worries. He gave them joy. And they laughed like they were falling in love and running, hand in hand, over a cliff without a care in the world.
Finally, one day he left home to lead them. I remember standing at the bedroom door watching him drag a suitcase from under the bed and toss in wigs, packets of noodles, large men's trousers, fur handcuffs, shiny red noses, a variety of squirting plastic flowers and Tabasco sauce. He told my mother it was only for the summer while the show toured Sandakan, Ceylon and Hawaii. We stood at the door as he waved goodbye. He kept rubbing his eyes. But he wasn't crying. He had tiny specks of white face powder left in his eyelashes long after the previous evening's entertainment ended. He didn't make eye contact with mother. He was smiling too much and looked ever so happy.
That warm, elegant lady, my mother had no choice but to let him go. She knew he wasn't coming back. Her health deteriorated. She died of a torn up, trodden on heart. I survived by forgetting his clowns and everything about him.
After he finished the circus tour he performed in a Teochew troupe, wrote the South-east Asian edition of Clowning for Dummies and established a Bouffon-inspired Clown School in Outram Park. He created a movement … a hilarious new form of spirituality. His followers were everywhere. He was their funny little man, their showman extraordinaire, mime artiste, guffawing guru and genius clown - their Papa. Pity he wasn't mine. He was a right bastard. I may have his genes but I never ever had a father. What little time we spent together I'd rather forget. And if I could not forget I'd kill him.
At least I tried to forget. I changed my name. I was not very funny at all. I grew a moustache and trimmed my facial hair. I became a Chartered Accountant and worked in a large global consulting firm specialising in the audits of Singapore-listed Chinese manufacturers. I fell in love, married and moved into a flat on the 37th storey of a cosmopolitan urban condominium in Tanjong Pagar.
Recently however his followers returned to haunt me. They lurked in the darker corners of building sites masquerading as foreign construction workers. As I passed looming edifices of unfinished concrete and steel I heard them giggling. I had this sense I was being watched. I am almost certain someone followed me armed with a custard cream pie. The other day, I stopped and turned around abruptly in the middle of a crowded underpass. Amidst the flurry of movement I am sure I caught a glimpse of orange curly hair and a red blur on someone's face. Those clowns are at it again.
I began to receive strange invitations to children's parties and balloon bending workshops. E-mails appeared in my inbox pleading with me to remember my father, run away and join the circus. My spam filter wasn't working and I could not delete them.
I tried to forget. But he spoiled things. He telephoned me out of the blue saying he was going to die. Pardon me if I failed to take such truisms completely serious. At first rather peculiarly he didn't recognise my voice at the end of the line. It had been a long time. I held back abuse and spoke as though explaining to a child how to cross a busy road.
"Hello father. What do you want?"
"I'm dying and I need someone."
In a clear voice I said, "Well. It happens to the best of us at one time or another."
"I'm dying … and soon."
"I can help you die if you'd like."
"Who are you?"
"What type of question is that? You called me. I'm your son."
"I don't know. I don't remember a son. You're lying. Don't play tricks on old people. I just want someone to visit me. Are you coming?"
Such an odd phone call. Who calls another without knowing whom they've called? I had to see him. I had a macabre sense that this would be the appropriate time to kill him. He didn't know who I was. I had to deal with the clown. I required vengeance for the death of my mother. I planned to take moon cakes wrapped in a duvet of tender snow skin and laced with an untraceable rat poison at their chocolate core. We'd reminisce about days tripping on banana peels, talk about mother, laugh … then I'd say goodbye and promise to come back soon. I'd leave the moon cakes on his bedside table next to a glass of milk to aid digestion.
It was a long drive across the Second Link over the straits and then through Johor to reach his nursing home. During the journey I remembered when I was little tricycling up and down the concrete verandah outside our flat weaving between pot plants and shoes. Inside the flat they were fighting. He yelled at mother, screaming in her face. "Why must you always hold me back? Why? Can't you see what I'm capable of? I'm the lead in the show. I have to go away."
As I drove nearer to the nursing home I left the expressway and the scenery changed and gave way to the discord of deforested jungle. Single stripped back leafless stumps of varying heights jutted out the ground. The sky seemed too large and the light crisp and screaming clean. When I was young my father chose to be so funny he forgot us. Even the clouds laughed at him. He chose to be so very funny he left us behind. I didn't understand why over the phone he hadn't known who I was. I found this very strange but awfully comforting in the context of killing him. I wanted to feed him moon cakes and as his face turned purple and his eyes bulged scream in his face, "Who's funny now, father?"
But when I was little and before my father forgot us I remember how much in love my parents were. Early one morning, I stood at the open door of my parent's bedroom and watched them sleeping. They were spooned together. She had her back to him and he held her in his arms from behind. I watched their breathing. He snored and nuzzled into her.
When I finally arrived at the hospice a nurse greeted me. She smiled when I introduced myself, shook her head with a sigh and led me to him. As she padded along the corridors of the palliative care unit she told me how much they loved and laughed at him and how blessed they felt to be with him during his last days. The place was all muted pastels, dust in corners and a smell of antiseptic and urine.
My father's room was simple and sparse. There was a window framed by delicate lace curtains through which he had a view of a few trees and the sky. There were two pictures on the wall above his bed: Monarch of the Glen and The Ka'aba. There were no pictures of family or friendly clowns because as I found out later strange faces that are supposed to be familiar freaked him out. A plastic golden Maneki Neko sat on a table beside an inhaler, a pill dispenser and a tin of Danish butter cookies. A small white clock radio sat on the floor showing the incorrect time. Beside the bed built into the wall was an array of switches, lights, plugs, a small shiny oxygen tap and a large bright red button inscribed 'For Emergency Use Only'.
He was plopped in a large fluffy armchair his head and his body small and round. He held a little red pocket book in his hands. He wore blue polka dot pyjama trousers and a white string singlet with a red silk handkerchief tied around his neck. He did not look good. He was pale and pallid. He looked like a pale chicken drumstick just taken from the freezer, still covered in plastic wrap and left out to thaw: his body slumped and sliding towards the ground. The chair barely supported him.
He turned towards me; all old and brutalised. He frowned. I smiled. His hand trembled and his lip curled. He scraped his fingernails against the soft flowery fabric of the armchair. The nurse said, "I expect you've got a lot of catching up to do." She left us alone together.
My father scowled, "Who the hell are you?"
I didn't say anything. I sat down on the chair opposite him with my brown paper bag of moon cakes nestled comfortably in my lap. I just stared at his face for a while. I didn't understand how he could not know who I was. I remember those moments when he told me to close my eyes for a surprise. He bent down and made me laugh by sucking on my left ear lobe. I remember when he sat at the end of my bed and said there's no God, no Santa Claus but plenty of weapons of mass destruction buried beneath the sand.
He smiled and I wanted to hit him over the head with the biscuit tin and stuff pillowy soft snow skin moon cakes down his throat.
"Well, what do you want? The nurses tell me you're a surprise visitor." I examined his face. His eyebrows twitched. He didn't recognize me. He looked at me searching for a response.
"I can't remember who you are. I've got a few memories. I remember extremely long shoes, mutton soup and a slender lady in white face powder pinning a purple plastic flower to my suit. But I can't remember what it all means."
He looked at me for any trace of a familiar feature, pleading for the past. I realized he had forgotten. He had lost his mind much the same way he lost my mother: slowly and surely with bugger all chance of redemption. He had forgotten us. How I wanted to hurt him.
He paused and held up a small, dog-eared pocket book with a faded red leather cover. "I don't know you. I think I called you didn't I? It's just a game I play. I open a page somewhere in the middle of this old address book. The names mean nothing to me anymore. I just pick a name and call a number at random. I called you didn't I?"
I smiled. Of all the numbers he could have called he called mine. What a clown.
"My memory doesn't work. I know I was something funny but I can't remember the punchline. I can nearly remember you. I can almost smell it, touch what you may have been to me. But when I get close: it slips away. I just can't … remember."
After he left us and became famous my father was especially popular with women of a certain style, karaoke girls and primary school teachers, recalcitrant arm pit shavers, shy listeners to Joni Mitchell, readers of e.e. cummings and Catherine Lim, tofu eaters who did not normally visit a circus let alone laugh. There was something in his performance that left them smiling, breathless and dreamy. He helped them combat the crap of every day. Far be it from me to remind him how much he meant to other people; how much he meant to us.
After he left there wasn't any money and it was a struggle and mother hit the bottle and I had to chop up the credit cards and collect cardboard. He was too busy touring to remember us. Even before he left home he was forever writing, rehearsing, painting his face and trying on different costumes. And sometimes he demo tested things on mother, tied her to a chair and threw cream custard pies in her face.
And he used to yell at me too. Stooping down, eyebrows in my face, he said "Fuck spelt backwards is 'kcuf' you round the ear." And then he hit me. This too shall pass, mother said.
He looked at me, "Tell me who was I? What did I do? How will they remember me?"
I clutched my bag of moon cakes, "I'm your son."
He seemed to ignore this and he started to speak hurriedly.
"You know, it's not hard getting up in the morning. That's fine; I have to go to the toilet and piss and shit and ablute my dreams. That's not hard. You know what's hard? Getting off the toilet seat after I've moved my bowels. Sometimes I just stay there. Stare down at my toes with my jimmy jams around my ankles. I don't want to leave. But they hammer on the door …"
He paused, "Was I a wonderful father?"
"No. Everyone else thought you were wonderful. Raise an eyebrow, waft a hand in the air and you had them in stitches. But you were a shit father."
As I spoke he scratched away at the skin on the back of his hand. "You were lying, distant, selfish. You were never there. And when you were, you were always impatient, frustrated and grumpy. You had this vacant look in your eyes thinking about gags, the next bit of slapstick, the next bit of slap and tickle. Not really listening. You never took me fishing or to football or to get an ice cream." He looked at me and scowled, "So what do you want now? A hug for all the sadness in the world?"
I wanted to remind him that he left home with a head shaped like a cabbage, loose wild hair and a large snub nose like a squashed plum. I wanted to remind him how he cavorted with nonchalant carefree trapeze artists. That his laughter was like speaking in tongues. That he was perpetually stressed and striving and battering his way through life up against the mess of things. That he was the most selfish individual in the universe.
"Well. I'm going to die. What do I care? I've got no regrets … because I can't remember a thing."
I did not understand why my father left us. I was cute, little and smart … or so my mother said. My mother that elegant, soft lady. Well, for him she was just a cushion: something to cuddle and occasionally prick.
"You know. I actually wouldn't mind dying. Some kind of release from this blank past, this boredom, this overwhelming sense of loss."
I really wanted to kill him. Watch blood drip from his mouth, his eyes bulge from his head like squeezed dumplings. But if I killed him I'd be doing him a favour. And I didn't want that did I?
"Well. I'm sorry I wasn't a good father. But that's not the worst crime in the world is it?"
I clutched the bag of moon cakes so tightly that my knuckles tensed and whitened. I really wanted to kill him but I knew it would be crueler to let him live.
"They tell me I was a clown. They tell me I was not just average funny but I was extremely, very, very funny. But now I don't feel funny at all." My father looked upward. "I look at ceiling fans and try to track the passage of the blades as they go round and round and round."
"Can't you remember anything?" I really wanted to remind him how shamelessly he'd treated mother and me.
"I remember a flickering fluorescent tube in a lift that annoyed me, standing in a queue for Su Lu Niang, feeling disgusted at a soft, moist, used tissue stuffed in a taxi door handle, a shiny red plastic seat in a hawker centre, a girl cupping her breast in her hand and licking her left nipple. I remember her giggling and raising her right leg in the air and wiggling it about like a frog's leg."
My father reached towards me, he shuffled forward and took my hands, turned them over so my palms were facing upwards. He said, "Let me feel you. Let me look at the patterns in the swirling lines on your fingertips. Is that really from me? Are you really my son? I'm sorry I can't remember you." He held my wrists in his palms and pressed his thumbs hard into my veins searching for something of him in me. I pulled away from him and my bag of moon cakes fell to the floor.
His synapses were closing down leaving only fragments of the past without context or meaning. Death was taking its time, lurking about, dousing candles and switching off the lights. Killing him would be a release for both of us. He was going to die soon anyway. I'd be putting him out of his misery.
My father asked, "What's in the brown paper bag?"
Afterwards, I sit in the car for a while without turning on the ignition. I look at my face in the rear view mirror and I imagine myself old with a scrambled egg nose, liverworts and a third nipple on a hairless chest.
I imagine the redemptive happy departure where he says, "Thanks, Son. Thanks for coming. I'm sorry I can't remember you but I'm so happy we have this time together now. I'm sorry I left you and your mother. I'm sorry I treated you both so badly. Do you have anyone you really, really love? I hope you love them more than you tell me I loved you. Come back please and tell me all about them. Come again soon."
I imagine telling my children about him. What will I tell them of their grandfather? His singing, dancing eyes and massive hands with veins like caterpillars. He was a clown and died by moon cake. But will they hate me as much as I hated him? What will they say after I leave home? If you touch and rub too hard the skin will peel off and out will seep a yellow, green weeping pus leaving a pink remainder behind. What will they say when I forget? When everything washes away?
Overwhelmed, I start the car, head back to the island and on the way back try to laugh.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 2 Apr 2012