The flan hits the face again, perfect shot and then a pause,
Count 1 and 2
Tip of tongue, shocking pink against a moon white face and the clown licks at the custard covering his eyes and mouth and nose.
He begins a toilette, carefully removing the yellow glop.
The children giggle at the hopelessness of the task and then stiffen, cover their mouths with their fists, become quiet, watchful.
The big clown, completely absorbed in his task has completely failed to notice the two lesser clowns, creeping up behind him, their faces overshadowed by an insanely over-sized bucket.
They mime counting
And then they hurl the water over the oblivious clown.
He leaps into the air, face contorted with mock shock and then returns to earth, his bottom landing first and into the supposedly forgotten custard pie.
The children’s laughter almost drowns out the crump, crump of falling artillery.
And on the Kindertransport, the child’s mouth is a perfect O as she watches a clown bend and twist balloons to make a small pink and red bear. She clutches a stained and grubby stain ribbon, all that is left of her bear, dropped, left behind somewhere in the dark between trains, when the adults said that there was no time to go back to look.
The balloon bear completed, the clown leans forward and dedicatedly lifts the ribbon from her hand and wraps it around the balloon bear.
The child and clown smile carefully at each other.
The wooden boat clings to the shore and even then the movement is enough to make the children puke.
These Peters and Brigettes, sworn to liberate the Holy Land from the Infidel, wait for the journey to begins and while they wait, cold and wet and hungry, they watch the clowns, sea salt eroding the matt perfection of their clown faces, juggle elegantly with an impossible number of silk scarves.
The shack is dark, lit by one guttering candle, there are children everywhere, some almost old enough to work in the fields, others tiny, still reaching out for the mothers, but all eyes are intent on the 2 clowns performing in the least dusty corner.
It is so dark that the children are almost invisible, reduced to just gleaming teeth and glistening eye whites as they watch the clowns chase each other in tiny ever diminishing circles until they are forced to run amongst the children.
The biggest clown tries to hide, choosing the very smallest children to crouch down behind, so that he is absurdly visible, his tattered red trousers are the only patch of colour in the room.
This hiding and seeking game is unsettling some of the older children, reminding them of more deadly games played out in the cotton fields when one of the bucks, most likely a new African, turns rogue, tries to get away, get home.
The clowns notice, pull back and quickly produce an old favourite, the teeny tiny cycle.
They both clamber on, smallest clown on the shoulders of slightly less small clown and legs move madly, piston like as the bike careers into the crowds of children. The clowns clear a path, scooping up the very smallest children to take a turn at the red bicycle ride.
The room is almost silent, just the beep beep of the machines, the steady thrumm of cables and wires and at its centre, the child, still, almost invisible under the burden of leads and bags and drips.
The smallest clown sits at the foot of the bed, floppy hat flopping with the weight of pink plastic flowers.
This is no place for tomfoolery, for noise, for jolly japes.
Instead, the smallest clown, face in shadow, blowing iridescent soap bubbles.
One by one they float into the air and then, soft as a butterfly, one lands on the child’s wrist.
The clown pauses, but there is no reaction.
The clowns are processing, Russian doll figures made real, biggest, smaller, smallest.
They lope across the playground, clown shoes dip into last nights rain puddles.
They are playing kazoos but the sound is almost drowned by the screams and shouts of children as their skin burns and bubbles.
The clowns, undaunted, try to make more noise, reaching into pockets to pull out impossible instruments that cannot have been hidden in such baggy pants.
Drums, trombones, cymbals appear, the smallest clown tries to execute some business, catch the middle sized clowns’ ears between the two brass discs….but the children are weeping, reaching out for help.
The clown dog, small , brown, a little yellow ruff around his neck, trots from child to child, terrier face wrinkled in distress, a growl just held back.
The clowns regroup.
Take stock and then the biggest clown scoops up the little dog, musical instruments vanish back into hidden pockets and they walk away.
The child leans forward, her hair a curtain between her and the glowing screen, her lips move, reading the messages that ping and click into her inbox.
Her hand moves automatically to the family sized bag of crisps, nestled, half hidden on her lap.
Hand, mouth, bite, chew, hand…..old familiar pattern.
She stifles a giggle with a hand that is salty, malty with crumbs of crisps. His messages are so funny and then he can be so tender, so loving.
She knows that he is the one for her, it’s all perfect
They will run away together, start a new life, no more name calling, no more teachers staring at her with half disguised disinterest.
She loves him, cannot wait to be with him, has already packed a bag, written, in rough, the note she will leave.
She’s going to do it properly, her neatest handwriting, nice paper and everything.
She doesn’t hear the door open, doesn’t see the smallest clown tiptoe in, skirting the fluffy rug, the bundle of bears huddled at the foot of the bunk beds.
He reaches across her and with a gentle finger pushes the off button on the lap top and then bows to the child with a flourish and pulls the pink paper flower from the brow of his hat.
She can’t help her smile, forgets to cover her mouth and the beam lights up her face.
As the clown leaves, he pulls back the curtains and lets the sun shine stream in.
The boys are sitting, their backs against what remains of the walls of the last house on the dusty Main Street.
Dogz and Little Man have found some battered cassette tapes, they are carefully unwinding the black plastic tape and wrapping the flapping spool around each others arms to make bracelets or armour or just something that looks fine, catches the midday sun, sets them apart.
Spider sits, legs splayed, rubbing the butt of his AK47 with a tiny bottle of palm oil, the metal gleams and he bows his head to concentrate.
The others are watching him carefully, they know he has some Kif in his jacket pocket, maybe even some weed. In the absence of the Sergeant, he is the man, the dan.
They quietly move closer to him, make sure that they are in his sights.
Nobody wants to miss out on anything good.
Newboy and the boy so new he doesn’t even have a nickname, are sitting away from the others.
No name boy has been crying, the tears have left an almost clean path down his dirt encrusted face.
The others can all remember the tears, they make sure that they don’t make eye contact, nobody wants to remember back then, back when they first came.
It is Newboy who sees them first, a dot in the landscape,that becomes distant figures, that slowly resolves into 3 figures, biggest, smaller, smallest.
The clowns are back in town.
The crew stiffen, hands reach out for guns, bats, sticks, they all stand, even New Boy, even no name boy, group together, wait to see what will happen.
The clowns stop at the edge of the deserted town, they eyeball the boys and the boys eyeball them and then with a whoop and a shriek, the clowns launch the selves.
And the dog runs alongside, tongue flapping, mouth smiling.
The boys turn to Spider, looking for guidance, but he shrugs, trying to be the man, but wanting to see what’s going to happen, feeling a smile tugging at his mouth.
He makes a decision, places his gun on the floor and slowly slides himself to the ground, his jeans are too short now, bony, adolescent ankles stick out, before his boots, the boots, the man boots, 2 sizes too big, but, in them he walks like a man, so he ignores the blisters, has pushed to the back of his mind, the actual getting of the boots.
In them he walks tall.
The other boys, slide cautiously to the ground, form a rough semi circle and become an audience of children, mouths open, weapons forgotten, they lean into each other, a tangle of legs and arms.
The clowns go through the routines, custard pies, the kicks and pratfalls, the teeny tiny cycle and then, the smallest clown begins to march, miming the carrying of a huge military drum, it trips him up, catches his behind, threatens to swallow him and all the time, the other clowns are marching, mad goose step marching, legs so high they almost reach their heads.
With a flourish, the biggest clown produces a giant water pistol and starts to fire jets of water at the others, they fall back, legs kick in the air and the boy soldiers laugh and laugh as the clowns lie twitching in the dust.
The road is full of people, as far as the eye can see, heads down, laden with bags and boxes and prams and trolleys and baskets balanced on heads.
They walk, trudge, one foot, another foot, walking towards the horizon.
There are no young men, just women and children and old men, all becoming more silent as the days go on.
The children have stopped playing, stopped darting ahead, stopped suddenly dropping to the ground to examine a brightly coloured stone, a tiny lizard.
They walk and carry and if they are too small to carry, they are entrusted with even smaller children, one each side, held tight, dragged on legs that have to trot to keep up.
At the very back of the line are the clowns,
And on each of their shoulders is a child, head drooping, face brushing against the soft pompoms on the pointed clown hats.
The clowns walk, slowly, doggedly, behind the lines of all the lost.
The child, lopes down the street, easy movement, box fresh trainers eating up the distance, pumped with righteous rage and just a tiny bit of fear.
Proud to be chosen, proud to be trusted, his chance to show that he can do this thing and afterwards, he knows that it will always be with him, his rep will be secure.
In LE2, he will be a legend, a man.
The man, the man who torched the house, sent a message, this is our place, this is our LE2,innit.
He’s carrying a Primark bag, nobody ever notices a Primark bag, just knows that it’s full of cheap shit clothes that will fall apart 2 days after you buy it.
He doesn’t buy his clothes there, got swagger, knows his labels, hangs his shirts, his jeans up carefully in the bedroom he shares with 3 smaller brothers, little dogz.
This bag is heavy with what he needs to do the job, just him on his own, walking past the mosque, behind the park, towards the address he’s stored in his phone.
The street is confusing, the numbers don’t make sense, he checks his phone, face twisted in concentration…
Fuck it, this must be the one.
The street is empty, no lights, he’s glad of the can of Red Bull he swigged down on the way, stoops, places the carrier bag on the floor and reaches in to pull out the little can of petrol, the rags, the lighter.
And at that point, from the alley between the terraced houses that snake down the hill to the park, steps the biggest clown and there is a pause…….
The boy, the man, the man/boy is like
WTF, eyes on stalks and they both stand, in front of the white, UPVC front door, as if, at any second, they will knock the door and somebody will come and let them in and offer over sweet chai and chocolate biscuits and then the clown, slowly, carefully, bends down and picks up the petrol can, unscrews the lid and pours the petrol into the gutter.
The child, all 6’2 of legs and headphones and anger that has no words, just innit and safe and bro and bloodz just stands and stares and then the clown reaches across and wraps his arms around this child and it should feel bare gay, but it doesn’t.
It feels safe, proper safe and the child rests his head on the biggest clowns shoulder and then they turn and walk down the hill, towards the park and from nowhere the clown dog appears, trots at their heels and when, without words, they pass into the park, through the metal gates, he runs ahead, scuffingly in the early autumn leaves as they make their way towards the little kids play area.
They sit, clown and boy on the wooden roundabout, the wood splintered, covered in layer upon layer of tagging.
Somewhere, amongst the layers, the boy knows that his tag is part of this almost art work,from back in the day, when he was 12 or 13, somewhere if you look carefully, you can see his name.
They sit, waiting for the sun to come up, for the night to end.
And then, across the grass, come the other two clowns.
The clown dog sees them, hurls himself towards them and the biggest clown stands,nods and gently, lovingly, gives the roundabout one last push.
The clowns process.
And at their side, the clown dog, mouth opened in a joyous bark to greet the morning.
Out of sight of the children, away from the crowd, the curious onlookers, the clowns’ shoulders slump, the clown dog paws at the legs of the biggest clown, cocks his head and finally, pulling out the biggest crowd pleaser, sits and begs, waiting to be picked up and carried back to the buff coloured bell tent. The tent is dusty, leaning into another broken wall,another ruined space.
The smallest clown stretches to his full height, his upturned palms almost, but not quite reaching to the biggest clowns shoulders and then drops his arms, lets his palms hit the floor outside the tent.
Today, the ground is dusty, dry, a few yellow rocks, yesterday, they walked, trudged up to their knees in deep clay mud, the day before that, on feet that felt every mile of their journey, the stepped over poppies and the remainder of long ignored wheat fields.
Inside the tent, there are 3 steamer trunks, faded blue leather, scuffed brass clasps,
The 3 clowns move in economic unison, balletic exhaustion and each sits on his steamer trunk, while the clown dog jumps or falls to the ground and lies, belly to the air, panting quietly to himself.
There is nothing to say, just the ritual of putting away, packing the tent and moving on.
The biggest clown opens his trunk, removes a tiny jar of cold cream, the packaging worn, letters faded,
P…..something ….D and begins to rub the white cream into his face.
The smaller clown leans down and pulls at his bright red clown shoes, the feet that come out are small, prehensile toes, suddenly released, scratching into the dust at his feet.
The shoes, abandoned, lie next to him, waiting to jump and swoop and cartwheel again……later.
The smallest clown, the junior clown, bustles around the space, still in his stage persona, a little irritating, a little too busy, a little too much.
He pulls off his clown nose, gives his clown bow tie a gentle spin,checks the bulb of the water spraying rose and then is still, finally quiet.
The biggest clown delves into the trunk and pulls out a once gaudy scrap of fabric, the hint of what is left of an over used silk scarf, demoted from juggling to neckerchief and now finally, a rag to remove cold cream.
As he rubs, his own skin, greying, tired begins to appear from behind the white greasepaint, his less than impressive eyebrows, sandy rather than the definition of those painted on with thick black lines, emerge and his nose, surprisingly retroussé under the bright red bulbous nose, is a daily surprise even to himself.
The smaller clown is more careful, more precise, he uses a small mirror, dabs cream onto his face in neat blobs, blends them together, ghost skin, paler even then the moon white, lead white clown finish.
The smallest clown, spits onto the hem on his shirt, notices a little more fraying, a little more fading and then uses the almost damp shirt to rub, rub hard against his skin,feels the pull of the fabric against his nearly beard and spits on the hem again.
The three clowns group together
And stare into the tiny, chipped mirror, their faces distorted by dust and decades of wear and tear on the glass.
Their reflections stare back at them, faces cleaned, almost cleaned of clown makeup, except of course for the row of tears, roughly drawn in thick black line, tracing a path from eye to chin.
The clowns have long since given up trying to remove these tears, in truth they hardly notice them anymore.
And then, with an economy of movement based on long, long practise, they pack away the tent and walk away, down the ruined road.
And a clown dog snapping at their heels.