by Lynne Voyce
THE GREAT NELU—The World’s Funniest Clown—takes his tea milky, his cucumber sandwiches crustless like aristocrats do, and his ginger cake cut as thin as a biscuit. Sitting in his armchair by the window, tray on his lap, he looks out; on the horizon, the rain clouds merge with choppy sea, the colour of elephant hide. The world is drizzly and grey but it doesn’t make him melancholy. When he’d been travelling with the circus, he’d longed to watch the seasons from a fixed point.
Once, Nelu’s life was in colour: the red and white stripes of the big top, the peacock plume purples and greens of the trapeze artists’ costumes, the sawdust yellow of the circus ring. But this rainbow life made him sick: sick in the head. Like a shell-shocked soldier. When the wind picks up outside, he can still hear the riot of applause and the raucous laughter. He was funny: very, very funny.
He was a lover too. Elise, the flying bird of paradise, who conquered the big top sky in her sequinned leotard, night after night, conquered his heart. Ringside, he’d watch, awe-struck, as she’d tumble and twist mid-air, a net terrifyingly absent. Then she’d glide back down to earth on a single rope, one shapely fish-netted leg loosely hooked around it. And the look in her sea-green eyes told him she understood that beneath the white grease paint and red sponge nose, Nelu was a man of passion, a man of appetites.
But the danger she faced nightly made her fickle. Who can glance at the face of death so often and not live selfishly? That Nelu’s clown heart would be broken was inevitable. And the day she turned to the Mighty Atlas as her slippered foot landed on the sawdust, rather than to him, Nelu knew it was over.
Clowning was never the same after that. The children didn’t laugh as loud, the adults didn’t applaud with quite the same vigour. Of course, he’d loved again. There’d been the acrobat from Belfast, the bare back rider from Spain and the tiny tightrope walker with the big breasts from Portugal, but none of them enchanted him the way Elise had.
Sadness began to creep into his routines. The bucket of water his partner Allen threw at him nightly would sting as it hit. The crack of the slapstick was that much harder, making him ache. And the boats and birds and flowers Nelu fashioned from pretty paper to hand to little girls ringside, were creased and wilted. So, he’d taken his savings, bought a flat by the sea and left the circus behind. He misses the laughter and the applause, but at least alone here, his heart doesn’t hurt any more.
Allen is top of the bill now touring Eastern Europe with two graduates from Ecole Phillipe Gaulier. They are existential clowns, from the set of a Samuel Beckett play: clowns to make you think, not clowns to make you laugh. Nelu never wanted to be that—he thought too much of clowning to want to use it to torture souls.
A flock of seagulls sweeps across the pewter landscape forming a beautiful white wave, back and forth over the sea. It is only when the seagull cries subside that he hears the knocking at the door. Putting his tray aside, he gets up; he never has visitors. Expecting the shake of a charity box by some red-faced matron, to his surprise, Nelu is met by a shaven headed man with arms tattoos.
‘Is this your dog?’ he says.
Nelu looks at the scruffy mutt on the makeshift lead and shakes his head.
‘Well, I found him on your landing.’
‘It’s not my dog.’
‘I don’t want it.’ The man frees his hand from the cord.
‘Neither do I,’ says Nelu, but the man isn’t listening, and holds out the lead. And, just to be polite, Nelu takes it.
‘Ok, bye,’ and before Nelu has time to foist the dog back on him, the man turns on his heels and disappears.
For a moment Nelu is tempted to just let go of the lead, let the dog dash off to wander the landings until someone else finds him: it can be their problem then. But when he looks down to see the wide, brown dog-eyes staring back, he cannot bring himself to do it. So, he gently pulls the dog’s cord, and says, ‘Come in, then.’ Close up the animal stinks. Not unpleasantly so, but pungent like the circus green room after a performance.
Nelu goes into the kitchen to get the dog some water, Nelu finds it following him. Distracted, he slips on the mopped tiles, skidding along the floor, crashing into the cabinets. The dog gives a quick, sharp bark, wagging its tail.
‘Oh,’ he says, breathless, ‘you liked that did you? You like to see the falls.’
Nelu pushes himself off the cupboards, arms out stretched for balance; this time in control as he skates along in his socks, face deadpan. The dog lifts his front paws, bouncing up and down, barking in rhythm.
‘Silly,’ he says.
That night he makes a nest of towels in his bedroom.
‘Dog,’ he says tenderly, patting the makeshift bed, ‘Time for sleep.’ The dog hops in and curls up. Nelu runs his hand over the soft, greasy fur. ‘Tomorrow, we shall take you to the vets to see if you have one of those microchips under your skin that tell us where you’re from.’
Nelu climbs into bed and listens to the gentle breath of the animal in the darkness and falls asleep, content.
Nelu unclips the new lead from the shiny red collar and watches the dog trot into the centre of the Spartan living room.
It turns out there is no tiny biography under the dog’s fur. ‘You could take it to the dog’s home up the coast,’ the vet had said, ‘but if nobody claims it, it’ll be put down.’
‘No, I’d rather not,’ Nelu had replied, and took the dog to the pet shop to buy supplies instead.
‘Look, dog,’ he shakes his arm energetically, ‘Look!’ From the cuff of his jacket a crimson cylinder of rubber emerges—an artificial sausage. The dog’s eyes are fixed: ‘Woof.’ It turns in a tight circle, then stares again. Nelu continues to pull. There’s a short length of twine, then another sausage, then another and another until a string of sausages dangle in his hand. They swing back and forth, just above the dog’s nose. ‘Woof, woof.’ The dog rears up, but Nelu pulls them higher. Up and down, Nelu teases, keeping the toy just out of reach, until the dog leaps almost to waist height, grabbing the bottom sausage in its teeth. Nelu laughs, louder than he’s ever laughed. And the dog takes off around the room, trailing the sausages behind: between the coffee table and chair, behind the sideboard where the brandy is kept, weaving around the dining table where Nelu eats on Sundays. The clown tries to foil the dog’s victory lap by stomping on a sausage but he isn’t quick enough to stop the dog disappearing into the bedroom, where he hides under the bed to chew on the pinky-red rubber until lunch time.
After a lunch of chops—two for him, one for the dog—Nelu makes the dog sit still for a photograph, canine mouth smiling. Then they walk to the library to print out thirty images, before trailing the streets, along the promenade and up and down the apartment block landings, taping them to lampposts and noticeboards. Across the dog in big black letters, is the word FOUND, with Nelu’s address written neatly beneath.
Back at the flat, Nelu listens to the horse racing on the radio before dozing in the chair, the dog at his feet. When he wakes, the sky is inky black and a trail of moonlight reaches across the sea to the shore. Tonight, he will have a brandy and perhaps a cigar to celebrate, though what he is celebrating he doesn’t really know. He pours the brandy into a crystal glass he bought from a charity shop on the high street then takes a cigar from a box in the side-board. Next to it is a small, cellophane packet of orange balloons; he’d found them in the pocket of his clowning coat before he’d thrown it away. Nelu pulls out three balloons and breathes life into them, tying the rubber nozzle tight at the end.
The dog is already up, tail switching, eyes bright. Nelu pushes a balloon into the air, then a second, then the last: juggling them in a perfect circle. Swiping when they drift, pushing them under his leg or behind his back for variety, utterly in control of the captured air. ‘Woof! Woof!’ The dog darts towards one balloon then another. They are dancing together!
They carry on until Nelu finally collapses into the chair, laughing breathlessly. Then he drinks his brandy, smokes his cigar and looks for the secret stars that only appear when you stare into the night with hope.
The next morning, Nelu is up before the dog, preparing a feast of butcher’s scraps for his new companion. When he’s finished, he takes his toast and tea to the chair, opens a side window to let in some air, and settles down to look at the bright sky and pond-calm sea. Spring is coming, he thinks. He wipes his buttery fingers on his shirt and takes the centre page from The Racing Times and begins to fold. He makes a boat to sail on the sea, a seagull to ride the wind, and lastly, a tulip with a paper straw for a stem. He puts the flower in the vase on the dining table.
The dog pads across the room, lead in its mouth. ‘You want a morning walk, fella?’ Nelu asks, clipping the lead to its collar.
But a knock halts them. Another visitor, how unusual. This time it’s a dark haired woman in a yellow Macintosh, smiling politely but clearly anxious.
‘I think you have my dog,’ she says, before looking down to see the mutt, ‘Xander!’ Body swinging with excitement, the dog lurches forward, and she falls to her knees.
‘Thank God! I’ve missed you so much.’ There are tears in her eyes.
When she finally stands, Nelu hands her the lead, silently. She has an amiable face and there is a gentleness about her that reassures him that the dog will be well cared for. But still, what’s left of his clown heart is aching like never before. Not even Elise’s betrayal hurt him as keenly.
‘I cannot thank you enough,’ she says, ‘I’ve just moved in down the hall and Xander slipped out while I was unpacking. He’s a rescue dog and he isn’t micro-chipped yet.’ About to turn, her eyes alight on the newspaper flower in the vase: ‘Oh what a beautiful flower. Did you make it?’
‘Yes,’ Nelu plucks it from the vase, suddenly grateful that the dog had reminded him of the wonders of clowning, ‘Would you like it?’
‘Oh, yes.’ Her smile broadens.
‘I’m going to miss him,’ Nelu says, ‘He’s such a good dog.’
‘I walk him every afternoon; maybe I could knock on the door tomorrow and you could join me.’
‘I would like that.’
‘Thank you again. Let’s get you home,’ she says to the dog.
Nelu closes the door. Among the furniture polish and cooking, he can still detect the doggy stink. It makes him sentimental. Never mind, he’ll see them both tomorrow. And suddenly, the soft breeze through the open window sounds like a ripple of welcome applause.
Lynne Voyce is a fiction writer and teacher who lives in Birmingham with her family. She has published over fifty individual short stories and won a number of literary competitions. Her collection, Kirigami was published in 2015. She has spoken at the Birmingham Book Festival, Wolverhampton Literature Festival and The National Writer’s Conference. Lynne is also an alumni of Writing West Midlands’ Teachers 204. She has recently been focussing on long form fiction. In 2019 Lynne’s memoir piece A brief History of Industrial Action was published in Common People: An Anthology of Working Class Writers, (ed. Kit de Waal).
Twitter @Lynne Voyce.