The Original Ambition Of Claude Bryce in Twelve Shticks, by Max Sydney Smith

Art: Omar Moreno


 Shtick One: Claude On Claude

Claude Bryce stands in the rain looking up at himself. He is on a billboard. On the billboard, he is wearing a baggy, yellow jumpsuit, large red shoes and a white wig. Heavy, black lines circle his eyes. He is struggling to push a ball that is the same size as him. Small pieces of paper resembling snowflakes spin past him. He is pushing against the wind, wearing an exaggerated expression of melancholy forbearance.

Claude Bryce is standing on an overpass on the thin strip of raised tarmac that constitutes the pedestrian walkway. He is looking across the four lanes of the dual carriageway at a billboard advertising The One and Only Claude Bryce Spectacular. The headlights of a passing car momentarily illuminate him.

Claude Bryce had wanted to be a clown since he was a boy. Many people suffer from coulrophobia, a fear of clowns. So perhaps you would say Claude Bryce suffered from coulrophilia, a love of clowns. He gave up everything to become a clown.

Tomorrow is the opening night of The One and Only Claude Bryce Spectacular, the show which will move from London to Dublin, and then Paris, Lille, Lisbon, Santiago, Berlin, Zurich, Vienna, Warsaw, Malmö, and on into towns whose names Claude Bryce cannot correctly pronounce.

He has seen the image before, outside the theatre after rehearsals and on the sides of buses. But he has stopped here, now, because he wants this sighting to symbolise his success.

Yes, Claude Bryce wants moments to have the capacity to be important. He wants to link these moments together into a story that means something, a story where he is the hero. But if Claude Bryce is the hero, we need to rethink what we mean by heroic. What is his most heroic quality? Well, he has always found it easy to make people laugh.

 

Shtick Two: An Exposition on the Parentage of Claude Bryce 

It was easy to make his mother laugh. Sometimes it seemed he could say anything. When she asked him how his day had been he would tell her stories. To begin with, the stories were true, but her laughter was addictive and he began to embellish things that had happened and invent things that had not.

He learnt that she loved stories about the naughty boys in his class and his impressions of teachers shouting at boys, boys talking about girls or girls swooning over teachers.

“Jimmy was trying to shoot elastic bands into the bin,” he said, “but he missed and it hit Mr Fischer.”

She gasped and splayed her hands over her face, as if she didn’t want to see what would happen to Jimmy.

“And Mr Fischer turned round and said -” (here, Claude knelt on his chair, leaning over the table the way Mr Fischer had towered over Jimmy and shaking his finger at his mother) “- if you do that again James Kelly, you’re going home in a body bag!”

She tilted her head to the side and laughed, a light, tinkling laugh of delight. Claude saw that his mother laughed for the same reason every time: because she was delighted by him. Sometimes, as her laugh subsided, she would look at his father as if she was trying to pour the joy she took in Claude out of her eyes and into his. But his eyes would invariably be narrowed in a scowl.

It was so easy to make his mother laugh, that her laughter became almost worthless. It was his father he wanted to make laugh.

 

Claude’s father rarely laughed at home. In fact, he rarely appeared to want to be at home at all. He was always the first to empty his plate, and would go into the lounge before the others had finished eating, leaving no trace of himself at the table.

Even at an age when Claude did not fully understand, he sensed that his father resented his mother and Claude for curtailing his freedom. If his mother was the coffin in which his father had buried the life that he wanted, Claude was a nail in that coffin, a final and unequivocal responsibility sealing him away from his desires.

The only way Claude could counteract this was to make his father laugh. If he laughed, it would be possible for Claude to imagine that his father wanted to be there, with them.

“You’re going home in a body bag!” he shouted, affecting Mr Fischer’s smoky, Glasgow growl.

“Claude!” His father looked up from his food, his face twisted in annoyance. “Not so loud!”

Claude sank back into his chair. His mother put her hand over his, silently. It did not help. Claude’s attention was directed at his father, who had returned to his food, the creases of his frown deeper than before.

How unspeakably sad and guilty this made Claude! He was only doing the impression to make his father laugh, to make him want to be there, but it seemed to be having the opposite effect. It was making him want to be there even less.

Children are so self-centred. They assume everything is about them. Claude did not understand that whether his father laughed or not depended on many things that were nothing to do with Claude. He was unable to imagine, for example, that there was any correlation between how much his father laughed at dinner and the length of skirt worn by the surgery receptionist. But of course, there was. (And it was not a simple linear correlation: sometimes its shortness inspired him with its possibility, sometimes it depressed him because it was a reminder of what he could no longer have.)

 

Shtick Three: Claude Makes His Father Laugh

Claude remembers the first time he made his father laugh. He remembers, because it has happened so infrequently that each time remains something of an event. He was ten years old. They were driving to Brighton to see Claude’s uncle and aunt for Sunday lunch. Claude was in the back with his sister. That morning Claude’s mother had taken them both to church. Claude’s father never came to church because he was old enough to reason for himself that God did not exist.

‘I’m hungry!’ his sister complained at large.

His mother made a soothing noise, but absently and without turning round. She was staring at the green banks of grass and wild white flowers which rose up on either side of the road. The sun made everything bright and vivid. Even the few white rags of clouds were smeared in yellow light. Claude’s father did not respond. His eyes were fixed on the road ahead and he hummed and drummed his fingers on the wheel in time with the radio waltz.

‘Mum, I’m hungry!’ his little sister said again, louder this time.

His mother turned round briefly. ‘Ssh. We’re nearly there, sweetie.’

Claude saw his father frown in the rear view mirror. He looked at his sister and saw her preparing to shout again. Two things occurred to Claude at this moment. First, he sensed that if his sister shouted then the spell cast by the radio waltz and the sun would be broken and the day would be ruined. Second, he remembered that before they filed up for communion, the priest had knocked three times on the pulpit, glared at front pews of the congregation and said, ‘Have you eaten the word of the Lord?’ This is when Claude thought of the joke.

He leant forward as far as his seat belt would allow and said, ‘You know why she’s hungry. It’s because she hasn’t eaten the word of the Lord.’

His father looked at Claude in the rear view mirror, as if Claude had only just now come into existence, and laughed. He began laughing only with his eyes, but his mouth crumpled into a smile and then he was laughing from his belly, his arms shaking on the wheel.

“What?” His mother half-turned in her seat.

“He said she hasn’t eaten the word of the Lord!” his father said, jerking his thumb back at Claude, and his mother laughed too, the light, tinkling laugh that Claude knew so well.

Claude did not want that moment to end. He did not want to sit back in his seat and stare at the green banks of grass and wild white flowers. He wanted them to go on laughing. It could not be clearer, could it? Claude wanted to make his father laugh because he wanted to make his father love him, and the laughter was only a symptom, the joke only a tool.

 

Shtick Four: Claude Falls Out of Love with His Father and In Love with Fame 

When do we stop treating our parents like gods? Only when they are in the ground do we fully believe in their mortality, but I think the cracks begin to appear when we lose our sexual innocence. The moment Rachel Tyler let Claude worm his finger under her pink and white polka dot pants was the moment Claude began to fall out of love with his father.

One afternoon, several weeks after his fifteenth birthday, Claude was curled up on the couch flicking through the glossy pages of a Sunday newspaper lifestyle and entertainment supplement. His father was outside, pivoting the lawn mower and himself round the corners of their garden. He was a large man and it was a small space. He would never look comfortable in it.

Claude came across an article about Slava Polunin, the most famous clown in Europe. There was a photo of Slava: he had his hands in the air and was surrounded by a flurry of snowflakes that were really small pieces of paper.

“Look at that!” Claude said to himself.

He read the entire article and then went back and studied the image, his face wrinkled in concentration.

In that moment Claude wanted to be Slava Polunin. Because Slava was everything Claude was not. He was a man and Claude was a boy. Slava lived in Russia, that dramatic land of snow and high drama and Claude lived in a terraced house on the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells. Slava had long, mad hair and Claude’s hair was short and neat. (His mother took him to  expensive hairdressers every half-term, because, she said, it was important to look nice). Slava was known worldwide while even the teachers at school often forgot Claude’s name.

On the other side of the glass sliding doors, Claude’s father tripped on the lawn mower cable.

“Shitting little -” he muttered, hopping, trying to uncoil the orange wire from his shin.

Claude studiedly ignored him. The thing about Slava, he thought, is that he seems so certain. Slava said that the true art of clowning was to make people remember what they dreamt about as children and to bring them closer to it. At the end of his shows, he bore witness to the sublime transformation of adults into children, from experience into innocence. He saw grandmothers running ahead of children to catch balloons and army generals bouncing in their chairs. The meaning of life, Slava told the journalist, was to follow your dreams.

How this thrilled Claude! He could feel the hairs prickle the back of his neck. Because he had no certainties. He did not even have the confidence to put his hand up in class. Ever since Claude was old enough to reason for himself that God did not exist (the age of thirteen), he believed in nothing. He thought of himself as a nihilist and had a few friends at school who thought the same. They went round together and said clever, corrosive things that they thought were great satirical truths.

Claude fell in love with Slava, but of course, the glossy image of Slava could not love him back. It was only paper. When we love the image of a famous person, it is a one-way street. What can we do about this? We can stamp out our love, but this is repressive. We can stalk the famous person and try to make them love us back, but this is creepy. Or, we can supplant the desire to be loved by the image of the famous person with the desire to be in its place. The only way for our love to be requited is to get to the other end of fame’s one-way street, to be famous ourselves. Then, it follows, although we will not be loved by the initial object of our affection, we will be loved in turn by people like ourselves.

Claude Bryce sat on the sofa, listening to the ebb and gutter of the lawn mower’s hum as it turned and turned in ever smaller circles. He dreamt of standing at the centre of a vast stage, a numberless crowd mounting in the darkness beyond the glare of the spotlight. He dreamt of being looked at and loved by hundreds of people. He dreamt that other people would want to be him the way he wanted to be Slava Polunin.

There was a crash outside and the sound of the lawn mower stopped.

“Fucking fuck-fuck!”

Claude looked up, but did not move. The lawn mower cable had caught on the larger of his father’s two garden gnomes and, as his father turned, had knocked it off the wall so it fell on the small patio and broke into pieces.

“Don’t just sit there, Claude! For god’s sake! Bring that newspaper!”

 

Shtick Five: The Originality of Claude’s Ambition 

The world tells us to earn money. Earning enough money to enjoy the good life is the default ambition. The world says the good life is a lover, children, family, friends, good health and comfortable living. What can be more important than all this?

When Claude’s family asked him what he wanted to do when he finished school, Claude began to answer: “I want to be a clown.” He could not remember the first time he said it, but he liked saying it and the more he said it the more he believed it.

“How wonderful!” his mother said, smiling down at him.

“Very admirable,” his uncle nodded.

His father slapped Claude on the back and laughed nervously.

Perhaps you, too, think this is admirable. Perhaps, like Slava, you believe that the meaning of life is to follow your dreams. And how easy it is to believe this, when nothing has yet been given up.

None of them saw how unflinching Claude was, the hardness in his eyes. It was only years later that they came to understand how much he was prepared to lose. It is harder to admire someone who follows their dreams at the cost of the good life.

“He has left home to become a clown?” his uncle will exclaim.

“He has split up with his girlfriend to join the circus,” his mother will whisper.

“He is living in squalor,” his father will spit, “So he can spend more time on his juggling!”

And the final, heavy question will spring on all their lips: “Is he mad?”

It seems that the moment the good life is compromised, any original ambitions are fiercely interrogated. Common sense is suddenly called for and under its hostile light, someone who is choosing the meaning of their own life is suddenly transformed into a psychological deviant.

Well, let us turn off this light! Let us assert something uncommon and nonsensical, something clownish: it is possible to choose our life’s meaning!

In this story, I present you with a man who will dismantle the good life for the sake of his original ambition, who will give up his family, his lover, his future children, his friends, his health and his comfort. I present you with the one and only Claude Bryce.

 

Shtick Six: Claude Gives Up His Family

Claude was sitting on his bedroom floor, trying to lift his left leg over the back of his head. He had been practising for months. Every night he came a little closer, and now he was almost there. His foot shook above the top of his ear. He slipped and his foot hit the floor with a thud. He began again. It is the weather, he thought. Muscles and ligaments were less flexible in the cold.

There was a quiet knock on the door.

“Yes,” he said.

Claude was nineteen years old but he still lived with his parents. This was the year the credit default-swap jugglers dropped the money and the masks were peeled off the mortgage lenders and none of the young could afford to move out.

The door opened. It was his mother. Her eyes were puffy with sleep and she was wearing white pyjamas.

“Claude. It’s quite late.”

He looked at her stonily.

“And there’s a lot of banging. On the floor.”

“I am trying to put my leg behind the back of my neck.”

She nodded. She picked at a splinter in the wood of the door frame. “Claude,” she said, “We’re all having to make a lot of adjustments for your clowning and your father and I wondered if you might make some adjustments too.”

“What do you mean?” Claude stretched his leg a little further, so the arch of his left foot was now lining the curve of his scalp.

“Well, the noise Claude,” she rubbed sleep from her eyes. “It’s one thirty in the morning.”

Claude did not speak but rolled his weight onto his right buttock in preparation for the final phase of the move.

“Perhaps you could practise more in the day?”

“In the day!” said Claude, “I practise in the day and in the night. It is not one or the other. Do you think Marcel Callow practised only in the day? Do you think he was born being able to touch the small of his back with his big toe?”

“No, -” his mother said. She could not refute it.

 

In truth, Claude practised part of the day and part of the night, because he needed to earn enough money to eat and he needed to sleep. Claude earned money by working as a baker. Why a baker? He was already several steps ahead of us: he worked as a baker so that when people asked – “What do you do?” – he would say – “My passion is clowning but I work as a baker to put bread on the table.” Claude was not building his jokes around his life; he was building his life around his jokes.

Every month, Claude would put aside a few hundred pounds. He was saving for a Foundation Degree at the best clown school in the country. But Claude knew that only one in three applications were successful and so he began to practise. He practised every day he was not seeing his friends or his girlfriend Rosie, which is to say, almost every day. He learnt how to do forwards and backwards rolls, cartwheels and bridges, somersaults, handsprings and flicks. He learnt how to stand and walk on his hands. He learnt how to paint masks that looked cruel and sad, masks grotesque, animal and innocent. He paced between his mirror and desk, practising, refining, naming and cataloguing forty-one different facial expressions. He learnt how to juggle three, five, seven balls in front and behind him, low and high, and he did the same with skittles, saucepans and knives. It is hard to live with someone who is doing all this in the early hours of the morning. His parents tried. For nine months, they tried. But people cannot give without return for long.

 

There was the sound of heavy feet on the stairs and Claude’s father appeared in the dark of the hallway behind his mother, blinking, adjusting his spectacles.

“What’s he saying?”

Claude watched his mother put her hand lightly on his father’s chest.

“Leave it. I’m talking to him,” she said.

His father brushed her away and came to stand in the doorway beside her. “Claude. What on earth are you doing?”

His father noticed with disgust Claude’s spidery body, the bulge of his genitalia against the fabric of the leotard. Claude did not answer.

“Look at him,” his father muttered.

“Don’t,” his mother said, softly.

“It’s one thirty in the morning,” his father hissed. “This is not the time to be prancing around in a leotard. Untangle yourself for god’s sake.”

He had hoped his son would study medicine at university as he had done, and sleep with lots of women as he had failed to do.

“No,” Claude said, “I’m practising.”

“This is my house, Claude,” his father said, “And I’m telling you to stop.”

“No.”

His father turned off the lights. Claude made a long, loud animal noise. If he had been sitting he would have stood, but he was unable to move any part of his body except his right arm, so he smacked his palm on the floor in exclamation.

“I am leaving!”

“Good,” his father’s voice came out of the dark.

Claude heard him turn and go down the stairs, leaving only his mother, a ghostly shape in the doorframe.

“Claude -”

Her love is so easy, it is worthless, Claude thought, absently. His attention was still directed at his father.

“I will live with Rosie,” he said, “We are in love.”

Claude loved his mother, but he hurt her now because he was unable to punish his father. He was trying to leverage her love for him against his father, to make her blame his father for the loss of her son.

She left, silently. He heard her go slowly down the stairs.

At this moment, Claude succeeded in wedging his foot against the back of his neck. Alone, in the dark, he smiled. I will need to check into a hostel, he thought, and call Rosie. It will work out. It is my parents, not I, who are impossible to live with. 

 

Shtick Seven: Claude Gives Up His Girl (or, His Girl Gives Up Him)

“You’re impossible to live with,” Rosie said.

She was sitting in front of the TV, the remote in her hands, but it was off. Claude had just come home from clown school.

“How long have you been looking at the TV?” he said.

She turned to him. “What?”

He saw her eyes were filled with water and her cheeks were red and swollen. He gestured to the TV but did not say it again. The answer no longer seemed important.

Someone put a flyer through the letterbox. It shuttered on the floor.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

He realised his bag was heavy and put it down. He pinched the bridge of his nose.

“I don’t know,” he said.

She sighed impatiently.

“I can’t live like this.” She wiped her eyes with the back of her left hand, the hand that was not holding the remote, and said again, stronger this time, as if she was more certain of it, “I can’t.”

She stood and brushed past him. He heard the bathroom door slam shut. He wondered how he had ever made her laugh, how she had ever adored him.

 

In the four years since they moved in together, something had changed. At some point after starting clown school, Claude realised that the only asset worth measuring was time. More time was more time for clowning and money was just time that he had spent. He cut down his hours at the bakery to the minimum he needed to live. He stopped drinking because he reasoned that every drink was half an hour of work thrown away on top of the time it takes to drink it plus the time it takes to recover from it. He no longer watched TV or films or read books or newspapers or listened to music or to the radio, unless the subject was clowning. And because he did not do these things, he gave up the world itself. He could talk about nothing but clowning.

How boring it was for Rosie! And how patient she was! He talked about the shticks he had written and the shticks he was hoping to write. He talked about the difficulty and the beauty of reinventing Beckett and Bausch for the brutal democracy of the street performance. He talked about which shticks worked on young and old people, rich and poor people, kind and cruel people and which hecklers to ignore, which to argue with and which to clasp in a silent embrace. He wanted to become a clown and he did, but he became nothing else but a clown.

 

Claude went into the kitchen to prepare his packed lunch. He could hear Rosie brushing her teeth. She went into the bedroom. He packed his bag with his face paints, hair net, white wig, yellow jumpsuit and two-foot-long red shoes. He heard the click of the switch as she turned off the lights and the creak of the mattress as she climbed into bed. He brushed his teeth quietly and crept into the bedroom. He took off his clothes, put on the old t-shirt he slept in and sat on the edge of the bed. He could hear her breathing. Gingerly, he reached out to hold her. She pushed him away and curled up tighter. It hurt in his stomach. He realised she had more power over him than anyone in the world. He lay on his back unable to sleep, his hands clasped over his chest, as if he were dead.

 

Shtick Eight: Claude Gives Up His Friends

“You must feel so alive!” Stephen said, “To be doing what you want to be doing.”

Before Claude could stop him, Stephen raised a glass and looked around the dining room table. Everyone fell silent: his wife Laura, Paul and Marie, a couple Marie knew, and Claude.

“Claude here has made the bravest choice of all,” Stephen said. “I am full of admiration and, to be honest, a little envious. Claude has joined the circus.”

Everyone beamed at him. They made the sound people make when a firework goes off. Claude smiled weakly. The men were still in their suits from work, although they had removed their ties and loosened their collars. The women were a shine of chiffon and a dazzle of jewels.

Claude’s gums hurt. His diet was shot. After graduating from clown school, he had started an unpaid apprenticeship at Circus Rêvelle in Leyton. He ate the same, cheapest foods and rarely went out.

In the mornings, he worked at the bakery, resenting every hour. He was surly with the delivery drivers, lippy with the pastry chef and he bickered with the cashiers. In the afternoons, he sanded and repainted the boards at Circus Rêvelle and made endless cups of tea for the stage director. In the evenings he worked on his act: The One and Only Claude Bryce Spectacular. He did not know how many cups of tea he would have to make before it would be appropriate to ask the stage director for an audition. He only knew that when his moment came, he needed to be ready.

But it was hard. There was so little room for error. He had moved out of his flat and into a self-storage unit in Leyton which cost twelve pounds a week to rent. There was no light and, now that summer was ending, it was incredibly cold. If Circus Rêvelle didn’t take him on when it went to Blackpool for the Christmas season, Claude didn’t know what he was going to do in winter.

“It really is incredible,” said Stephen, turning back to him. Stephen had a reasonably well-paid job that he moderately disliked. “What you want. That’s what’s important. Screw everything else.”

He threw back his head and drained his glass, pleased with his analysis.

“You know?” Stephen said when Claude did not respond.

“Absolutely,” Claude said.

He wondered if it was appropriate to do a routine, perhaps one where he tripped on a chair and fell flat on his face. He chastised himself. He knew he was being adolescent. But what do I want, he thought, if not to perform for them?

How can something said with the best will in the world produce such confused pain? Claude’s friends are well-meaning people. They do not want money to be a divisive issue. It is Claude who has made it one by not having any.

Claude ate in silence as the conversation sparkled around him. Occasionally he saw the opportunity for a joke, but he felt no inclination to make it. There was a voice inside him urging him to make it, to close the distance that had sprung up between him and his old friends. For some years after they left school, they would joke the way they used to. But something changed. Perhaps money or age or the tender, iterative struggle of moving in with their partners had changed them, had made them serious. Or perhaps it was Claude who had changed. Because the voice urging him to make the joke was the small voice of a version of himself that had been all but replaced by the One and Only Claude Bryce. And the One and Only Claude Bryce was not interested in laughter for laughter’s sake. When he honed his act in the early hours of the morning, he was not aiming for the loudest or the longest laugh. He wanted the joke that was honest, that said something true about the world. But it was hard to fit such jokes into the conversation, between the courses and cutlery. Yes, there was not room for the One and Only Claude Bryce at the dinner table.

He left early, without saying goodbye. He would not see them again. Losing friends is not like losing a lover. They go, not with tears and shouts, but quietly. Perhaps this is because they are not close enough to challenge you. But perhaps it is also because the loss is one-sided: you are just one of many to them, even though, collectively, they are everything to you.

 

Shtick Nine: The Last Rehearsal 

The One and Only Claude Bryce Spectacular bore little relation to the shtick Claude performed for the stage director of Circus Rêvelle eight years ago. It had grown. He had a two minute shtick when he performed for the first time in Blackpool, but audiences liked it, and over the next nine months it grew so that when they returned to London he was doing four shticks of three minutes each and was mentioned in promotional materials. The night before they were to leave for Blackpool again, a well-dressed man approached Claude in the bar after the show and offered him more money and larger audiences as part of a circus that toured cities across Europe. Claude did not hesitate. He worked for the well-dressed proprietor for six years. After two years, it was Claude’s picture on the billboards, his name in the strapline. After four years, it was he who the journalists called to interview before the show and he who the children asked to sign their programs after. He was famous. He liked touring, and for the first time in his life, he was earning more money than he could easily spend. But he began to dream about his own show. He did not know when the idea was first seeded, but it became an obsession. He talked about it to anyone who would listen. It would be his great work, he said. The proprietor got wind of this, marched into his dressing room and shouted at Claude for ten minutes. Claude wiped the spittle off his cheek and walked out. He moved back to London and set to work on his dream.

The evening before the show’s opening night, Claude sat in the front stalls of the Royal Festival Hall, making small alterations to the lighting instructions as the performers filed past him. He had handpicked them from circus schools across Europe and worked with them late into the night for many long months.

“Who in the audience will care about juggling skittles?” he would say. “No one! And yet are they not all jugglers! They try to juggle the love of their families, their lovers, their friends! They juggle their dreams and ambitions!”

The other performers laughed at him when his back was turned, but in some small part of themselves, they believed in him. They though he was ridiculous and sublime; they resented and worshipped him.

“Have a good night,” they said, as they passed “See you tomorrow!”

Claude ignored them. He was frowning, his pen poised over the paper. The noise of their many conversations annoyed him. Abruptly he looked up.

“Leave quietly. Please!”

The way he enunciated ‘please’ was not polite. It was instantly silent. A handsome skittle juggler, who had almost reached the exit, sniggered.

Fools! Claude thought. They do not understand. I am trying to give them something more than themselves, to raise them up. I am trying to give their lives meaning!

The last of the performers left. A caretaker came in. He moved around the left side stalls, collecting the empty plastic bottles and health snack wrappers the performers had left. Claude did not notice.

But are they grateful? Are they aware? No, they are dumb children, excited to be going home!

He was scribbling furiously in the margins of the paper now. The caretaker, who had not seen the man bent over his papers in the front stalls, turned off the lights and left. Claude stood and looked around, furious. But the caretaker was already gone. Alone, in the dark, he threw the lighting directions to the floor and sank back in his chair.

Claude had not been happy for a long time. He was angry with the performers because he was envious of them. They were going home to their families, lovers and friends. He would go home to no one. He thought of his mother and father, Rosie, his old friends: how lightly he had cast them all away! And how heavily he felt them in his belly now. Yes, the weight of what he had given up finally came to rest on his original ambition, and his ambition struggled to bear it.

For many months, the joy in his work had been so pale he can hardly make it out. He had been aware of this, but vaguely, the way you are aware of the darkening of the sky when watching television. But it became more and more obvious and now, it was suddenly clear. If he no longer enjoyed clowning, why was he doing it? He could not answer. The meaning of his life was suddenly illegible. His ambition to become a clown, he realised, was arbitrary. It was no more than a line he has drawn in the sand, a test of his own tenacity. It was absurd.

This is what Claude Bryce realised, on the eve of his show, within a circus lion’s whisker of greatness: there was no point in going on.

 

Shtick Ten: Claude Lucid

So now, Claude Bryce stands in the rain looking up at a billboard advertising The One and Only Claude Bryce Spectacular. He is standing on an overpass, on the thin strip of raised tarmac that constitutes the pedestrian walkway. He is looking across the four lanes of the dual carriageway at the billboard. And he is shaking.

He has come here, now, because he wants to give himself one last chance to consider his success. He wants to say to himself: Look! Look at what you have achieved! But there is nothing: it is like trying to wring water from a towel that is already dry. And this is why he is shaking.

He turns away from the dual carriageway. There is a gap in the wire netting, where two sheets which had been stapled together have been torn apart. He steps through them. Behind the netting is a waist-high crash barrier. He places his palms on the concrete. It is cold and wet. He looks down at the tarmac. It is not far, but he is confident in his ability to land on his head.

He climbs carefully over the crash barrier and stands on the rim of the overpass, the drop behind him. His weight rests on the balls of his feet, his heels rest on air. He wavers in the wind. He grips the crash barrier and looks up, one last time, at the billboard.

He is a splinter of a second away from jumping when a lorry stops in front of him.

He has seen me, Claude thinks. Panic flickers in his chest. He does not want to deal with the driver, or anyone, right now. He wants to jump alone. But then he glances to his right and realises there is no way the driver can have seen him. A large sign obstructs his view of oncoming traffic, and, conversely, the traffic’s view of him.

But why, then, has the lorry stopped? Claude looks left and right along the road. There is nothing. Claude will never know why the lorry stopped. But, staring at the dirty white side of the lorry, Claude forgets his own question. It is eclipsed by five thoughts that occur to him in such rapid succession, they feel simultaneous.

One: Claude realises he can no longer see the billboard advertising The One and Only Claude Bryce Spectacular.

Two: the billboard is still there, only he cannot see it, because the lorry has hidden it.

Three: his joylessness has always been there, only he could not feel it, because his ambition to become a clown had hidden it.

Four: if he jumps now, his joylessness will still be there, only he will not feel it, because his death will hide it. Yes, staring at the dirty white side of the lorry, Claude realises that if he jumps, the life he could have lived will still be there, wet with anticipation of being lived, of being drained to the bitter end.

Five: the instant the lorry stopped, the will to jump had guttered and died in his stomach. He felt it immediately, but his mind only now catches up.

Claude flicks his hands up as if each part of each thought is a tiny piece of paper and he is throwing them – hundreds of them – up into the air. In this moment he is utterly lucid and he laughs, a soft laugh that is beyond words.

 

Shtick Eleven: The Grand Finale of Claude Bryce

The stage goes dark and a ramp and a giant ball are hurried into the ring. The audience waits, hushed and expectant. There are excited children, condescending parents, innocent grandparents and bemused lovers. They crowd the rows of seats, their hands sticky with candyfloss, smelling of popcorn. Some of the children are holding plastic windmills which shine with red, blue and green light. They wait for Claude Bryce.

They saw the other performers. They saw the topless man who stood on his hands, his feet in the air, and moved his body with the taut, rippling motion of a slinky. They saw the skittle jugglers dressed as Morris dancers and the man who juggled five footballs while standing on a sixth. They saw three roller skaters swivel and twirl, in pinstripe suits and bright skirts, like a pack of liquorice all sorts in a salad spinner. They saw the man with the whip crack pompoms from the elbows of his beautiful assistant, crack the clothes from her body. They saw five male trapeze artists dressed like angels and three female trapeze artists dressed like geishas hang and leap from the swinging bars. They saw seven men dressed like toy soldiers with rictus smiles catapult themselves from a Russian swing, to somersault once, twice, three times in the air, before landing on a mattress and executing a crisp military salute.

 

Claude Bryce stands in the darkness at the edge of the ring, waiting for the audience to quiet. There is a two sided ramp across the stage. It rises out of the stage door, is at its highest point a few metres into the ring and then slopes down to the audience at the other side.

Claude crawls up the ramp and the lights come on. He is pushing a ball ahead of him. The ball is as tall as a man. He is wearing a baggy, yellow jumpsuit, large red shoes and a white wig. There is a small plateau at the peak of the ramp on which the ball might feasibly rest. Claude makes out that the ball is far heavier than it is, as if pushing it is a strenuous effort.

He is within arms’ length of the peak of the ramp when a storm of snowflakes descends from the darkness above the scaffold. He stops crawling as if he can go no further. He pushes only with his arm, his head dropped. The ball nears the plateau but rolls back. Claude pushes with his arm again, leaning forward. The ball comes to the lip of the plateau but again rolls back. Claude pushes a third time, leaning forward and splaying his fingers and the ball crests the lip and comes to rest on the plateau.

But Claude does not see this. He is looking to the floor. He reaches out again and when his arm meets no resistance, Claude pretends to lose control. He pushes his arm forward faster and topples forward onto his belly (onto his face!) and as he does so he looks up. He looks up just in time to see himself touch the ball with his finger tip. It is the lightest of touches but the ball moves. It rolls away from him, down the other side of the ramp. Laughter.

Claude yelps and jumps upright. He runs after the ball, overtaking it, reaching the other end of the ramp, and turning to ready himself for its impact. It hits him and he falls over. A ripple of laughter.

            He stands and dusts himself off. He peers round one side of the ball, up the ramp, and then peers round the other side, up the ramp, and sighs. His sigh is so long, it visibly deflates him. Smattering of laughter.

The audience understands he is going to try to return the ball to the plateau. But why? For the same reason that Claude wants to be a clown: for no reason at all! What is more absurd than a shtick about a ball and a ramp? Nothing! In trying to push the ball up the ramp, Claude Bryce is giving them no less than the story of himself.

So Claude Bryce begins to push the ball up the ramp again. After several steps, he stops and leans on the ball. It rolls away from him, up the ramp, and he loses his balance and staggers. The ball begins to roll back. Claude looks startled. He turns, runs, stops, turns and faces the ball. It hits him. He falls back and the ball comes to rest on top of him. There is a moment of stillness. All you can see are Claude Bryce’s hands and feet forming four corners of a square around the circumference of the ball. Cackle of laughter.

Again he pushes the ball up the ramp. He is angry this time: he takes three steps and then shoves the ball. But then he freezes. The ball pauses, almost to the top, and begins to roll back. Claude readies himself, his legs and arms apart like a goalkeeper awaiting a penalty. But he looks afraid. He makes a small, guttural noise like an animal in pain. The ball hits him, he embraces it and allows it to roll on, over him, so he goes under and up the other side of the ball and over it so he lands back on his feet at the very edge of the stage. He teeters back, into the audience. There are squeals and screams from the seats behind him and, from the rows above, laughter.

For a final time, Claude pushes the ball up the ramp. He goes slowly, doggedly, step by step. When he is a third of the way he turns and pushes with his back for several steps. When he is two-thirds of the way, he gets on his hands and knees. He is within arms’ length of the peak of the ramp when a storm of snowflakes descends from the darkness above the scaffold. He stops crawling as if he can go no further. He pushes only with his arm, his head dropped. The ball nears the plateau but rolls back. Claude pushes with his arm again, leaning forward. The ball comes to the lip of the plateau but again rolls back. Claude pushes a third time, leaning forward and splaying his fingers and the ball crests the lip and comes to rest on the plateau.

But Claude does not see this. He is looking to the floor. He reaches out again and when his arm meets no resistance, Claude pretends to lose control. He pushes his arm forward faster and topples forward onto his belly (onto his face!) and as he does so he looks up. He looks up just in time to see himself touch the ball with his finger tip. It is the lightest of touches but the ball moves. It rolls away from him, down the other side of the ramp. There is a swell of forlorn laughter.

Claude yelps and jumps upright. He runs after the ball, off the stage.

 

Shtick Twelve: Epilogue on the Many Different Kinds of Laughter

Light, tinkling laughter of delight or surprise. Generous laughter at a child’s joke to make them feel loved. Concealed, private laughter, like light glancing on water. Laughter that comes from the deliciousness of being flattered by someone you like. The ring and thrum of flirtatious laughter. Laughter that goes hand in hand with discovering someone. Laughter with no discernible bottom that is really love with no discernible end. Full, deep laughter that blooms from the belly into something more than itself. Thin, awkward laughter, papering over anxiety. Laughter at people who are not like us. ‘Look at us having a good time!’ laughter. Laughter just to be seen to be laughing. Laughter that is only in the eyes and laughter that does not reach the eyes. Last laugh laughter when something is won and sad laughter when something is lost. Laughter at the absurdity of the world. Tears laughter. Laughter that is about no less than the human condition. Laughter beyond words.


Max Sydney Smith graduated with an MA in Creative and Life Writing from Goldsmiths University last year. His work has appeared in the literary magazines Structo, Open Pen, Shooter, and Noon.

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