by Clare Reddaway
I am waiting. I am standing in the garden facing the gates. The garden is formal: clipped box hedges loop around fountains, the gravel is raked and weedless, cypress trees march to the steps that lead up to the castle entrance
I know that I must look out of place in my baggy trousers, with my whitened face and my red nose. I rock backwards and forwards on my long floppy shoes. I can feel the gravel through the thin soles. I need a new pair. I have now been waiting for 105 minutes. They are late.
I mimic the pose of one of the Roman statues. He is throwing a spear. The guards at the gate do not laugh.
Through the gates I can see the glitter of sun on the waves in the bay. The sea is the blue of a kingfisher’s wing. I can see the yacht. It is gigantic. It has three swimming pools, two helipads and a cinema. It is too long to fit into the craggy harbour, it would get trapped. The guests are arriving in speedboats.
Sweat is breaking out under my makeup. The sun is full on my face. I am too old for this. I want to wipe my cheeks. I want to stand in the shade. I want to sit down.
The guards click to attention. They swing open the wrought iron gates with a flourish. The musicians start to play—a Russian folk tune that everyone knows—and the party enters. A waiter proffers a tray of vintage Krug champagne and vodka. I take out my bright juggling balls and throw two, four, more, into the air. I paint a rainbow in the sky above me. I add a plate. I turn and twist to catch the balls, I add a hooter and a baseball bat and as the party passes I lose control of all of the objects and they come clattering down at the feet of the guests.
It is very funny.
The little girl, perhaps she is six or seven, picks up the hooter and squeezes it, grinning. I bend down and smile at her. A camera crew are filming the children. They push me aside. They do not look at me. The musicians follow the party, playing. They are famous in Russia. They have told me that their presence has been specially requested. Well. So was mine.
As the party climb the steps to the castle, two flower girls sprinkle roses until the steps are coated with petals, deep as snowdrifts. Roses are not in season here in February and they have been imported from Chile. All the petals are the palest pink. The little girl likes pink.
As the group approaches the castle, long banners unfurl from the windows. Each banner has a oil painting of one of the visitors, like icons in Orthodox churches. There is Vasili Ivchenko. He is the owner of most of the silver and the gold, the coal and the oil, that flows through the veins of Russia. He is dark. He has hairy square hands and a large smile. He is very close friends with the President, so perhaps the smile is only for his lips. There is his mistress, Olga. It is her 40th birthday today. She is thin and blond and even in her portrait she looks anxious. Their two children are as pretty and as innocent as children tend to be. There is Ivchenko’s business associate, Sergei. He is fleshy and hunched. In the portrait he is not smiling. As he walks up to the castle he has his arms around two women. They look like teenagers. They are heroin thin. Their portraits do not unfurl from the castle windows.
No-one else will be coming to the birthday celebration.
It is February 2017. One hundred years since the twelve days of revolt in Petrograd that led to the overthrow of the Tsar. One hundred years since a shot from the yacht Aurora triggered the storming of the Winter Palace. One hundred years since the Russian Revolution.
I wonder whether Ivchenko’s yacht is called Aurora. I doubt it.
The group go into the castle. The medieval wooden door closes behind them.
I hurry round to the fairground that has been created in the west gardens. There is a carousel whose empty golden horses are rising and falling to the hurdy gurdy tune. There is a puppet theatre, the puppets sitting at ease, legs flung over the side of the stage, waiting. A steam railway has been built to take the guests on a perambulation of the grounds. A mask maker sits by his booth, paintbrushes ready. He creates the best, the most sought-after glittery feathered masterpieces for the Venice carnival. At the end of the garden, stamping and tossing their heads, are ten pure white horses. Their riders are wearing medieval costumes but they are as skilled as any Cossack, renowned throughout Europe. Later, they will perform a joust, and present the winning handkerchief to Olga, the oligarch’s mistress. Only the best, only the rarest, only the most expensive is good enough for Olga.
I myself am not the best clown in the world. Not even close. But the little girl once saw me dancing on a street corner. I had a hat in front of me with a few coins in it. I had been dancing for a long time and I was tired so I stumbled and tripped. She laughed and she laughed. She talks of it often, I am told. Perhaps she is a child who rarely laughs.
So I was brought to this castle as part of the celebration. I am being well paid, very well paid and I am told that the tips we receive keep many of the performers for a year if they are careful. And I can be very careful. I’ve had to be. We have rehearsed for many days. All must run smoothly in this celebration of the great love that Vasili Ivchenko has for his mistress Olga. He is a peacock displaying his tail. If that tail was made of freshly mined diamonds. Or bullets.
I am in position when the little girl runs into the garden.
‘Bobo!’ she calls.
I wave a huge wave at her and I turn a somersault in the air. I land on my bottom! It is very funny. She claps her hands! The cameraman zooms in for a close-up of her smile. I feel an itch in my trousers, I scratch and twist and pull at my clothes, she is concerned and worried for me, I reach into my trousers and pull out – a dove! Dyed pink! A pretty pink dove for a pretty pink princess. I hold him out to her. She reaches a finger to stroke his head. The pink dove takes off and flies up and around the castle, coming to rest on the tip of a cypress tree. I take the little girl’s hand and we skip down the path towards the carousel.
My name is not Bobo. My name is Gregori. I am Russian too. But I own no mines or yachts. I have no mistresses or minders or portraits painted by icon artists. I come from a family of clowns, from generations of jesters. Clowns who played at the courts of the Tsars, jokers who ripped off their costumes and stood shoulder to shoulder with the workers in Petrograd, clowns who were summoned to make the comrades laugh.
My family were lucky. We did not all go to the gulag. Only my grandfather, the jester at the court of Comrade Stalin. A jester who told the wrong joke, to the wrong person. To be a jester is a dangerous profession.
Do they do know this about me? Maybe they don’t care.
After the little girl went back into the castle, I thought that my work for the day was done. There was a feast for the evening, and a concert with Olga’s favourite band, flown in from Los Angeles. I am in my room when a waiter knocks.
‘Bobo. Downstairs. Now. They want you.’
‘Me?’ I say, ‘Why?’
‘The little girl is crying.’
I like to perform at a feast. But I need props. I creak down the stairs to the kitchen.
‘Get out!’ screams Chef. He is sweating. The plates with the tiny varnished birds sitting in swirls of green sauce need a final flourish for perfection. Chef is busy.
‘Always you are here under my feet!’ He shrieks at me. I shrug.
‘Then tell me where they are,’ I say.
Chef points. My two custard pies. He screams, but he has been kind. These are perfect. I take my aerosol tube of cream and froth it onto the surfaces –
‘Not in my kitchen!’ squeals Chef.
I laugh. I like Chef. We have all been eating well as he has practised his dishes. We are not allowed to touch the caviar.
I hurry to the dining room. Olga is sitting at the table, next to her lover Ivchenko. On her other side is Sergei. One of his teenagers is next to him. He has his hand in her dress. He is playing with her nipple. Her face is blank.
The little girl is lying on the floor. She is still crying, her face slimy with snot and tears. As I come into the room, Olga half rises to go to her. Ivchenko leans over and pinches her arm. The mark is clear and red. Olga sinks back. Her eyes fill with tears.
I take big creeping steps towards the table. The little girl spots me. She gulps. I hold the two pies flat on my palms in front of me. I turn my hands upside down, the pies stick to them! She blinks. I start to dance with the pies – they try to run away from me! I pull them back! I juggle with the pies, nearly dropping them but always, at the last moment, catching them! Her tears have stopped, but she is not smiling. I run towards her and as I do so I throw one pie right up in the air, I stagger back and forth under it but I can’t catch it and splat! It lands full onto my face! The cream blobs off me, the pie drips into my costume, the custard runs off my nose – I give a great big lick. It is delicious! The little girl laughs and laughs.
It is very funny.
Olga does not smile.
A jester has a dangerous profession. He must walk a tightrope every day. He must always know when to stop.
I look at Ivchenko with his wide smile, the faint glitter of gold deep in his mouth. I look at Sergei nuzzling the neck of his teenage mistress. I have one more pie.
I dance a gig and I swirl the pie and I throw it and I catch it and the little girl is laughing and Ivchenko is not even looking when I take the pie and I slam it hard into his face. Behind that slam is the anger of millions of Russians oppressed by Tsars and Comrades and Dictators and Oligarchs, by liars and murderers and thieves, it is the slam of the little people, the splat of the powerless. We deserve some revenge.
Ivchenko is shocked. He does not move. The cream is caught in his moustache, the pastry cracks and falls off his ear onto the table, his mouth opens and gapes red against pale yellow of the custard that has stuck to his chin. Olga flings back her head and laughs and laughs and laughs.
It is very funny.
I turn, and clumsily, my long shoes flapping, I run out of the room.
Clare Reddaway writes plays and short stories. She likes blurring the line between written fiction and performance, enjoying taking words off the page into the ear. Clare’s stories have been published widely in print and on the web, and have won and been shortlisted for a number of national competitions. She has performed her work throughout the south-west where she lives, and runs a regular live literature event in Bath, called Story Fridays.