The South, three months earlier
A young woman stood before the tall, fortified oak doors of a castle-like public hall. She tugged at her miniskirt as if to try and hide the tops of her fishnet stockinged thighs, and checked her Mickey Mouse watch. One minute before nine. Light Saturday morning traffic trundled along the street behind her. She angled the brow of her pork-pie hat down an inch to shield her eyes, and put her hand on the long brass door handle. She didn’t go in. Instead, she scrutinised the poster taped to the door in front of her.
A grimacing clown face, with red and blue painted star eyes seemed to leer out at her. Above the face appeared the words ‘Excavate Your Inner Buffoon.’ The event, run by world famous German clown Klaus Rimmer, promised the key to ‘unlocking the playful child from the cold dungeon of adulthood’. The young woman pushed the heavy door open just a foot and drafted into the cool, airy interior.
Behind the grey stone Gothic hall, three men maneuvered their large white van into a space in the carpark. They wore heavy boots and work shorts, with packs of cigarettes stowed in the sleeves of their grease-stained t-shirts, and looked like they had come to fix the boiler. They flung the doors of the van shut and swaggered around to the front of the hall and went through the big front doors
Two young men entered after the plumber-types. Hal and Peter were talking about snails, and whether it was OK to step on them. Their conversation unraveled as they both noticed a bald man on a large green cushion at the back of the hall. Dressed in tight-fitting tye-dyes, he sat with his legs crossed and eyes closed.
The taller of the two men, Hal, nudged his friend, Peter.
“Behold… Klaus Rimmer, alias Dodo the Clown. The funniest man in Germany since Josef Goebbels!”
They both tried not to look at each other as they stifled their giggles.
Hal and Peter joined all the workshoppers and discipled themselves at Klaus’ feet.
The clown inhaled sharply, then exhaled loud and long, as though surfacing from unfathomable spiritual depths. The pitch and tone of his breathing changed up a gear into something more like a puppy pant. Finally, Klaus Rimmer opened his eyes, coming to life in what reminded Hal of a creepy Victorian clockwork toy. Klaus smiled, clapped his hands together and sprang to his bare feet.
“Get up,” he shouted. “Come on, get up and run! Twenty laps around the room. Everyone now! Come on, run!” Taken by surprise, Hal and Peter grinned ‘Is he serious?’ faces at each other, but did as they were told and set off jogging along with the rest of the workshoppers. Klaus clapped and shouted encouragement.
“Is this fun? Are you laughing yet?”
Everyone half-heartedly jogged their laps and sat down again on the wooden floor. Klaus paced up and down along the front of the room. “You came here for laughs? Laughs? OK. Laugh then.” He stopped pacing and looked at everyone. “I said, laugh! Do it, come on!” He clapped his hands to accentuate everything he said. A few of the workshoppers chuckled nervously and he kicked the soles of one of the horizontal plumber’s Doc Martin boots. “Come on laugh, (clap) out (clap) loud (clap). Come on! (clap clap).”
Everyone did as they were told and soon fake laughter ricocheted around the cold walls. After a while Hal found himself laughing for real, although he didn’t have any idea why.
“OK, OK, good, good,” said Klaus. “Very funny, hmmm? Well, the first thing you need to know about this job is, it is very serious. The training is very, very serious.” He made a serious face to prove it. “You think clowning is all fun and games? It is not. You must eat clown, drink clown, walk clown, talk clown. Even when you are defecating, you should think about how your clown would do it. 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You must even clown in your sleep. You must dedicate your life to the work. Only then might you find your true inner buffoon.” He smiled benevolently at all the trainee clowns in front of him. Hal wasn’t sure whether to smile back or not. He looked at Peter, who seemed to be smirking to himself.
“You see,” continued Klaus, “You might seek and seek, but not actually discover your inner clown until you are seventy or even eighty years old. Bummer, hey? There are no guarantees. Some of you may say to me now, ‘Come on Klaus, all this serious talk. We came here because we want to learn how to be funny.’ OK. Anyone thinks this? I am happy to talk about this with them outside right now. I will give them back their monies and they can go away. Just piss off, OK? Anyone wants to talk about this now?”
Hal thought for a moment about asking for a discount, but thought the better of it. Klaus glared at the learner clowns, and wiped a tear from his eye. What a sorry bunch of recruits. He pointed at a middle-aged woman, and motioned for her to stand up. She had showed up in full clown costume. A bright, billowing green and blue satin Pierrot clown outfit. She had agitated her hair into cutesy pigtails, and painted her face white. She had also drawn a tiny tear under each eye. She looked embarrassed standing up there on her own, tugging at the hem of her costume like a little girl who had wet her pants. Hal began to feel sorry for her. Klaus asked her what her name was.
“My clown name? Or my real name?”
“Your real name! You are not a clown yet. Putting on funny clothes, make-up and red nose does not make someone funny.”
“My name is Sherry,” said the woman.
But Klaus didn’t hear her say her real name.
“If you put on a soldier’s uniform and hold a gun, are you ready to go to war? Put on a surgeon’s gown and start cutting real people to bitty pieces that you can’t put back together again? Go away and come back without that ridiculous outfit!”
“I’m sorry Doodoo,” she choked, real tears upstaging her make-up ones.
Klaus scowled. “’I’m sorry Dodo.’ Not Doodoo. Anyway, call me by my real name, Klaus. Do I look like a clown to you right now?”
Sherry ran to the toilets, her sobs trailing after her.
“What a prick,” Peter whispered into Hal’s ear.
Klaus closed his eyes, inhaled deeply, and slowly exhaled, like a smoker. He opened his eyes, ready to begin the workshop again.
‘Now,’ he said. “Shall I set you loose and let you play for laughs? Are you ready to play with fire? OK then. This game is called ‘Do as I Say’. It’s like ‘Simon Says’, only with more art.”
After explaining how it worked, he called for volunteers to go first. Hal raised his hand, but Klaus singled out two of the grubby plumber-looking guys. They came up with a routine where they pretended to be fixing drain connectors and pipes. They had to stop after a short while because they were both laughing so much. Klaus Rimmer clapped his hands twice to wrap up the exercise.
“Stop, stop, that’s enough, sit down. Let’s do another one. God, why is it so cold in here?” He picked another volunteer to help demonstrate the next exercise.
Hal’s mind had wandered on to thoughts of lunch, but his eyes had settled like a magician’s doves on the young woman Klaus had chosen. When he woke up to what his eyes were looking at, he found himself gazing at the face of a pretty young red-haired woman as she stepped self-consciously forward from the group.
“What’s your name?”
“Angie,” said the girl.
“Lie down Angie,” Klaus ordered. Angie looked at Klaus, then the parquet floor, then back to her teacher. She knelt down and dusted a space on the floor with her hand and lay down on her back. Klaus squatted by her side and said something that no one but she could hear. He carefully lowered himself on top of her body. He closed his eyes and moved himself slowly over her in a way that reminded Hal of a knife spreading icing on a cake. He moaned in what Hal thought to be a very un-icing sort of way and his breathing became shorter, into a kind of puffing. Hal felt his face flush.
“Leave her alone.”
Hal turned to see a muscular man nearby with a moustache and a dark blue paisley bandana wrapped around his head.
“It’s OK, Stefan,” said the horizontal Angie. “It’s just an exercise.”
Smiling and wiping a foamy line of saliva from his chin, Klaus looked up and tried to see which of the trainees was Stefan. He unpeeled himself from the girl and sat up. He clapped his hands.
“Now your turn!”
The clown trainees weren’t quite ready to get so frictional with one another, and for a start they bumped around each other like polite crocodiles. Klaus moved things along by draping people over each other until they were in a large heap. Soon people got the hang of slithering, with Klaus shouting encouragement.
“Come on snakes. Shed those icky old skins and find the beautiful clowns underneath!”
Hal surfaced from the people pile for air. He looked at the writhing workshoppers all around him. He saw a trainer-shod foot protruding from the tangle of bodies that he thought may have belonged to his friend Peter. Over the far side of the heap, he saw Angie, the red-haired girl lying by herself with her eyes closed and her hands clasped lightly on her belly. He watched her for a while, before paddling over the bodies towards her by way of a rudimentary breaststroke. But the moving mound of flesh carried him in a different direction. He fought against the current but soon found himself submerged beneath a pudgy plumber in a sweat-stained t-shirt and khaki shorts. When he surfaced, gasping, he couldn’t see Angie anymore, he guessed she was somewhere under the jungle of limbs. He dove back under but Klaus called a halt to the game, and everyone untangled themselves from each other.
“You know,” he said, “that game worked a lot better when everyone had no clothes on. But I guess it’s not the 1970s anymore.”
Peter said something in Hal’s ear. Hal giggled.
“Who was that? Who laughed?” said Klaus, his eyes search-lighting around the room. Peter surreptitiously pointed at Hal. Klaus walked over to him. “It was you, was it?”
“I’m sorry,” said Hal. “I was just – I don’t know. It just slipped out.”
“That was really funny though, wasn’t it? So funny!” said Klaus, smiling and laughing suddenly, causing Hal to flinch.
“See?” he said looking around at all the clown trainees. “I can laugh too.”
Sherry, the woman who had been sent out earlier, had now returned wearing an Indian sari which might have been one of the curtains from the kitchen. Caught in a shaft of light beaming down from one of the arched windows high above her, she stared up at Klaus, shushing someone who leaned over and asked her if she was alright.
“OK,” said Klaus. “For the next exercise we are going to become different animals from humans. You see, finding your clown persona is a lot about finding your creature nature, or what we call your ‘totem animal’. You have to listen very hard to the inner nature spirit deep within. Close your eyes. Come on. Close your eyes. No peeking.”
The room was quiet at first. Someone woofed self-consciously. There was more silence before someone else howled. Inspired, more people began to bay. Soon the room was full of wolf sounds. Klaus stopped the exercise.
“Stop, stop, shut up, stop.” Someone snarled, not having heard the clown master.
“Fucking shut up, OK? It’s not possible for everyone to be wolves, alright?” He shook his head, walked amongst the members of the group dealing out to each person their inner animal.
“Bat… elk…eagle… mountain lion… snake…” He looked at Hal. “Mollusk…”
After a while all the clowns were moving about the room exploring their totem animals; barking, hissing, bleating, flapping and mewling. The sound was almost deafening as it bounced off the bare white walls. Hal was keeping very still. Every now and then he emitted a shrill bleeping noise, a sound he decided mollusks might as well be making under water. He noticed Angie, she was away from the rest of the group, growling like some kind of wildcat. Watching her, Hal completely forgot about being a shellfish. The animals petered out after a while. Klaus sighed.
“You know, there’s not much difference between sanity and insanity. Sometimes I’m not so sure which is which.” Klaus clasped his hands together and closed his eyes for a moment. “The clown persona, you see, must be forged through pain and mental anguish. So let’s see what the dark side can teach us about uncovering the funny side. This building we are in today used to be a mental asylum. You know that? That means there’s some real craziness burned into these walls. And that can help us here today. Think about what it might have been like to be locked in this place.” The workshoppers murmured to each other in nervous excitement. Klaus clapped his hands and they all became mad clowns.
Angie screamed, gnashed her teeth, howled and scratched at the walls. Sherry, the woman in the Pierrot costume-changed-into-the-curtain/sari hunched herself into a foetal position, rocking and whimpering. Hal laughed as maniacally as he could. Peter was struggling to imagine what mad people do. He pulled his trousers down and slapped his backside, over and over again. “That’s pretty mad,” he said to himself.
In all the noise and feigned madness, Hal alone noticed a frail little woman enter the hall. He watched her as she made her way slowly around the large space, she seemed unaware of anyone else in the room. She gazed thoughtfully at the walls through thick spectacles, as if taking in the pictures in an art gallery. Klaus clapped his hands together to signal the end of the exercise.
The trainees all stopped being mad and went and sat down.
“Listen to me now. I want to tell you a little bit about how I found the way to the truth of the clown through the lies and the craziness of the world around me.” He looked around the room and saw that many of the group members were staring at the little woman. Klaus stopped talking and watched her for a while.
Finally he asked her, “Can I help you?”
At first the woman didn’t realise Klaus was talking to her. She apologised and came forward to speak to him. She moved in strange little bird-like hops and she spoke in quick spurts at the end of each step.
“I remember this room very well,” she said. “This was where we were taken for our exercise. I wet myself just there.” She pointed to an area near where Stefan, the big muscled guy stood, arms folded.
“I wasn’t allowed to change for about four hours. I was in this place for thirty-two years. I remember it all.” The room had become very quiet. “What is it you are doing here?”
Klaus looked stumped for words. He threw a multi-coloured juggling ball at the woman and sat down in the ‘mountain’ yoga pose. The group waited for Klaus to carry on with the workshop, but he remained motionless. Hal felt a little bad about the way Klaus had treated her; he and one of the other novice clowns led the bewildered woman into the kitchen and made her a cup of tea. After that, they showed her back out into the street and locked the door after her.
Meanwhile Klaus remained in his seated position, his eyes closed and smiling slightly. He had begun to sway, almost imperceptibly, as though contacting disembodied spirit entities. After all the clowns were settled again, he opened his eyes.
“The clown is the mirror of society, and whatever is happening in the world, whether it is hysteria, boredom, lasciviousness, or violence – it is bound to come out in the clown. You understand? The clown is the barometer of your society. He is hunky-dory, everyone is hunky-dory. He is just so-so, the society is OK. He is fucked up, we are all fucked up. Let’s see what this means.” Klaus rose slowly to his feet. “Pair up now. Choose someone you haven’t worked with yet. This game is called ‘Mirror mirror, you fucking liar’. OK. Now you stand in front of one another.” He grabbed a thin woman by the arms and anchored her in front of himself.
“One of you is the person, the other is the reflection of the person. Clear? Look into one another’s eyes and the person who is the mirror mimics the other’s movements. Move!” he shouted at the woman, who immediately began a twitchy hula dance. Klaus turned and faced the other workshoppers.
“Now – the exercise should be conducted with neutral facial expressions. Absolutely no funnies, OK? Now go… find your mirrors.”
There was an awkward scramble for partners. One of the plumbers snared Peter. Hal flinched as he found himself standing before Angie, the girl he had been watching all day. She pulled at a loose thread on her top. When Klaus shouted “Begin!” Angie straightened up, tossed her head to get her hair out of her eyes, and sniffed once. She sized up Hal from the safety of her peripheral vision, and began to move, slowly and silkily. Hal watched her closely; so transfixed he forgot to mirror her movements and his own arms hung at his sides. Only his eyes moved as they tracked her. Klaus clapped his hands to signal the end of the exercise, and Angie stabbed a glance into Hal’s eyes before moving to her next partner. Hal wanted to follow after her and do the next exercise with her as well, but he suspected it would be breaking one of Klaus’ rules so he stayed where he was.
The workshop stopped for lunch. Hal watched Angie as she collected her things. He tried to think of an excuse to go up and speak to her. She dragged a cardigan across her shoulders and moved languidly towards the exit. Hal fell in behind her, waiting for an opportunity to get into step alongside as they passed through the double doors. But just as he was about to make his move, Stefan, the giant moustache man, cut in front of him and draped a huge arm around her shoulder, steering her away from Hal and the other exiting workshoppers. Hal stood in the doorway and watched them go.
It was sunny outside, so Hal decided to practice riding Peter’s unicycle on the small triangular lawn of the workshop venue. He noticed Angie sitting on a low wooden bench nearby, with no Stefan. He pretended she wasn’t there as he practiced his sharp turns on the unicycle. She watched him out of the corner of her eye. After a while Hal stepped off the cycle and looked directly at Angie. “Want to try?” She shook her head quickly. “Come on.” He held the unicycle for her to climb on. She rolled her eyes and smiled in capitulation, but before she could get up, Peter bounced out of the back doors of the rehearsal rooms and over to his friend.
“Hey Hal,” he said. “Let’s do some baton juggling. First one to drop three times buys lunch.”
Hal ignored him and looked at Angie. Peter stared at Hal, and then followed his gaze. He shrugged his shoulders and walked off with his juggling batons tucked under his arms. Angie rose from the bench and approached Hal, who tilted the unicycle towards her and she put her hand on the seat. She gave him a quick sideways glance as she climbed on. Hal steadied the cycle for her and she tensed as he laid his hand on her shoulder. She took a deep breath, lurched forward and immediately fell off, landing flat on her backside. She picked herself up, and kicked the unicycle. They looked at each other, the comedy of the moment dawning on them at the same instant, and they laughed.
“What’s so funny?” Stefan leaned against a tree on the lawn, two hotdogs held in one enormous hand. He walked over, picked up the unicycle and seated his huge frame on it, all the while looking at Angie. As he pedaled backwards and forwards in front of his girlfriend and Hal, he juggled the two hotdogs and bit hunks from one of them as it went up and down, round and round. Hal and Angie watched him feed and juggle.
When he had eaten all his hotdog, he tossed the remaining one to Angie and dismounted the unicycle, throwing it aside and towing the girl kite-like back into the workshop room.
“Are we OK? Nice lunch? Are we still wanting to be clowns?” asked Klaus Rimmer. “Anyone feel like they are in the wrong workshop? Ha. Well that’s too bad because it’s too fucking late. You are now going to stand before me and your fellow trainee clowns and you are going to be very funny. I want to see you use all the things you have learned today, and turn them into fantastic clown routines. You can use any props you can find, there are no rules and you have one hour to create your masterpieces of slapstickery.”
He divided the trainee clowns into groups.
“This is the moment when you will discover if you have any funniness in your bones, or if you just have plain old bones,” said Klaus, reclining on his green cushion with his hands clasped behind his head. After less than an hour and before anyone was ready, Klaus selected one of the groups and told them they were to get up on to the stage to perform their piece. “Make me laugh,” he said, clapping his hands for them to begin.
This was Hal and Peter’s group. The clowns gathered their props and gave each other last minute instructions and had final disagreements with one another, before going off to the side of the stage area in readiness to start.
“OK,” said Klaus. “What have we got?”
Hal stepped forward, with a cowboy hat clasped in front of him.
“It’s a kind of clown showdown,” stammered Hal. “It’s inspired by the movie, Gunfight at the OK Corral. If you’ve seen the movie, Gunfight at the OK Coral. It’s a movie, about a gunfight... at the OK…”
“OK, OK,” said Klaus. “Get on with it.”
Hal tried to catch Angie’s eye as he walked off stage, but she was whispering something to Stefan. After a brief moment, he and Peter bow-legged their way to the centre of the stage, followed by two other jittery-looking cowboys. Once they were all a handful of metres apart, they stopped. They eyed each other with what they imagined to be gunslinger menace. They spat on the ground a lot, unsure what else dueling cowboys do before they start shooting. At a secret cue, the cowboys simultaneously drew their weapons. These turned out to be bananas. There was a Mexican standoff, with the yellow fruit pointing in all directions. Somewhere in the middle of it all someone juggled some eggs.
Cowboy clowns slipped on banana skins. Eggs were thrown. Elaborate dying took place. Someone pretended they were a tax inspector, for some unknown reason. Most of the other trainee clowns watching were thinking about their own performances to come, so they weren’t really paying much attention to the cowboy skit. Which meant the clown showdown at the OK Corral was performed without an actual working audience. Klaus didn’t seem to be watching either. He had his face in his hands. After the last egg had hit the floor and the last trainee clown had completely finished his death twitches, he looked up. He surveyed the stage area and its mess of smashed eggs and squashed bananas.
The four performers stood back up, took their bows, and trooped off the stage to sporadic clapping, taking their places on the floor beside the other trainees. After a long while, Klaus spoke.
“That was shit,” he said. “You know, I feel very sad. It really hurts me so much, right here.” He thumped his chest, hard. “It pains me so much to see food thrown around by performers. It is wrong to laugh about wasted food. People are starved all over the world. And you are laughing. You thinks it’s all so funny, don’t you?”
He wiped tears from his eyes and went over to the stage area. He looked down at the food mess around him. He fell to his hands and knees and dog-like, began to lap up all the squashed bananas and broken eggs. When he had finished Klaus stood up, eyes closed and head bowed. He raised his head and opened his eyes. Raw egg and banana ringed his mouth and covered his front.
“We must hug,” he said.
He opened his arms out wide. The members of the group looked at each other. Hal thought for a moment about going ahead and giving him a big squelchy hug, in the hope it might impress this Angie girl. But he really wasn’t too sure about Klaus. After an uncomfortable while, one of the housewife clowns stood up and slowly approached the beaming master clown and embraced him. No one else moved.
Klaus broke away from the woman, bowed solemnly to all the trainees and left the building through the tall main doors.
Some of the workshoppers looked at each other, unsure whether Klaus was coming back.
“Was that it?” Hal asked Peter, who replied with a ‘search me’ shrug. People began to gather their things, some stood around in little muttering huddles, disappointed that they hadn’t been able to do their final performances.
Hal felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned to find the giant mustachioed Stefan grimacing down on him, his girlfriend partially eclipsed behind him. Hal felt himself redden. Had his is desire for this girl been so transparent?
“Follow us,” he said. Hal then saw that there were two others who had been press-ganged by Stefan, and now all five trailed after him as he went through the exit doors. They passed Klaus, who sat on the wide steps of the hall. He had been cornered by the three plumbers.
“Broken boiler?” Klaus was saying. “Why would I know where the broken boiler is?”
Stefan led the workshoppers to a small French-style café next door.
Installed on wrought-iron seats at round tables and surrounded by reproduction Art Nouveau posters, they all appeared slightly dazed; a little like people who have been in a minor car accident together, and who are still re-adjusting to the normal, less ferocious laws of gravity. Over cups of herbal tea and coffee, the clown trainees began to talk about the workshop.
“I don’t think I managed to excavate my inner buffoon,” the young woman in a pork pie hat was saying. “But I don’t think I’ll be asking Klaus for my money back.”
She was sitting next to Peter and a wood-paneled wall. Across from her was a young man called Raymond.
“Klaus is probably a deeply spiritual person,” said Peter. “But I wish he was a bit funnier.”
“I wanted to learn about squirty lapel buttons,” said Raymond, “and how to do that thing with the thing that goes, Brrraaaacccck!”
Stefan fingered brown sugar lumps from a little bowl as he listened to the conversation. “You want to learn more about clowning?” Stefan said after a while, in an accent that chopped his vowels into firewood. “Forget these workshops.”
“So what were you doing at the workshop if they’re no use?” Hal asked.
“I was there on a mission.” He eyed each person at the table in turn. “I was looking for clowns. Good ones.” Peter stifled a laugh, which Stefan clocked.
“How about us?” asked Raymond. “We’re pretty good clowns.”
Stefan stared at Raymond as though deciding whether he should live or die. He looked down, speaking directly into his coffee cup.
“The Festival of Fools’ is a big gathering of clowns that happens once every two years up north,” said Stefan. “It’s a kind of Clown Olympics. There are lots of shows going on in theatres, on the streets, all over the place. There’s a grand parade with hundreds of clowns marching down the street. It’s fucking fantastic. The Goon Squad is taking a show to the festival this year.”
“What’s the Goon Squad?” asked Raymond.
“The Goon Squad is a clown collective.”
“What’s the show?” asked Brigit.
“It’s classified at the moment.” Stefan looked like he was good at keeping secrets so no one asked him any more about it.
“Do we need to audition?” asked Raymond.
“You already have. Now you just need to meet Tom,” said Stefan.