All original work © 2009 - 2017 Alexey Provolotsky

28 March 2012


The moment she thought about it, her heart sank. A heavy, unsettling plop in her chest, like she suddenly remembered that she hadn’t closed the door on her way out. This was no door, of course, – but perhaps in the long run something even more frightening.

And still there was a containing moment of doubt: did she or did she not?..

The point was, she most probably did not. For if she did, surely there would have long been a letter from him. A text message. A note. Something.

But – no, and the reason for his silence was most irritating: she’d forgotten to put a smiley at the end of the sentence. This tiny little piece of texted emotion that could point him in the right direction of her thoughts, feelings, intentions. As it was, the whole thing had that stale odour of cruelty.

Peppering your e-mails and text messages with smileys was such a natural thing that missing one this time was pure carelessness. Those thirty seconds queuing in her local grocery store, she must have been distracted by some angry customer or maybe a sudden noise from the checkout counter.    

Because, her trusty and sweaty iPhone in her hand, this was what she wrote:

luv u, dear. still, u were such a dirty bastard yesterday

Chilling, heartless atrocity. She would be offended. Hell, anyone would be offended.

And what about him? Well, from the moment she first held his hand he struck her as particularly vulnerable in that respect. Almost too sensitive. And here she was, telling him he was a dirty bastard (with a seemingly straight face!) when the only thing he did was give her their first goodbye kiss. On the porch of her house. Well, how about that? Surely he couldn’t see that she meant it in a most loving, gentle way.

She rewrote the message, just for the hell of it:

luv u, dear. still, u were such a dirty bastard yesterday:)

This was completely pointless of course, but somehow rewriting the message made her calm down a little. Though there was of course no question of sending him the altered version – this would be just plain mockery. No, that train was gone, and she was determined to wait for his reply. It looked like the only thing to do.

She’d read enough interviews in her life to know that innocent jokes have a wicked way of not translating into print. Celebrities lose their fans, murder their own careers, alienate other celebrities. Mainly because the newspapers and magazines are too smug and senseless to insert a smiley where necessary.

And now: did she blew it?

All the more bitter because she actually enjoyed the abrupt intensity of his kiss. More than anything else in the world she wanted to repeat that.

Finally it came, at around midnight. A shrill buzz knocked her out of the blank dream and revealed his message.

sorry, couldn’t write sooner. luv u 2. interesting slutty dress yesterday btw:)

Her initial relief badly crashed on that second part. She kept staring at that ‘slutty dress’ and couldn’t quite understand what to make of it. Yes, so there was that smiley at the end, but with the words like that was it perhaps hiding something? Some evil intention? Some perverted cheek? Some cruel nature?.. 

12 March 2012

Hospital farewell

In a suppressed, earnest, somewhat conspiratorial tone, aunt Jane asked the three of us to meet her behind the house, in the backyard. She said she had something important to tell us. As I saw Susie going downstairs, we exchanged glances: we knew what this was about. This was about uncle Matthew. Uncle Matthew was paralyzed, and we were about to go see him at the hospital. We knew all that, even Sam (though he probably was clueless as to what ‘paralyzed’ actually meant), so I was failing to see what aunt Jane was getting at. Preventive scolding? Pep talk?

- Your uncle is not going to make it, – aunt Jane said as we stood there in the already chilly August wind. Leaning against the barren, threadbare apple tree, Susie was shaking visibly, maybe deliberately, as if to let everyone know she wouldn’t mind getting back inside the house. However, the sad, humourless woman that aunt Jane was, she was of course determined to speak further.

- You’ve heard about the accident. You know uncle Matthew is very sick… He is paralyzed.

- What’s paralyzed, aunt Jane? – This was Sam, obviously. He was at the age when asking ridiculous questions felt like the best way of establishing good rapport with the outside world.

- Well, Sam, it’s when a person can’t move. The muscles in his body won’t respond. Your uncle is dying.

Thankfully, Sam fell silent. My right foot might have had something to do with that. If he asked what ‘dying’ meant, he knew there would be heavy beating afterwards. So he fell silent, and aunt Jane continued.

- Now I know what you think of your uncle. Particularly you, Philip, – she looked at me, and for the first time that day I paid attention to her oily cheeks, like something a particularly fastidious rain could do. Distant tears, they made the area around her eyes look like dimly shining fish scales. I thought that looked repulsive. Also, why me. Why not Susie. She had her reasons, too. – You really hate your uncle, don’t you?

- No, aunt Jane, I can assure you…

- Oh please, drop it. I’m talking to you here because I don’t want your parents to hear this. You know how they are. They will get upset. – She waited ten seconds, as if anticipating some challenge from me or from Susie. This time, however, we knew better. – Well, anyway, I guess I just wanted to tell you that you will probably see your uncle for the last time today. The very last time. He is not going to make it.

That’s it, I thought, she has gone full circle.

- I want you to be nice to him. He deserves it. – She gave me a hard look, her voice quivering. – He will not be able to move, but he will hear you. Say something nice. He will see you. He will understand.

- Okay, – Susie said. – Okay, aunt Jane. Of course. We get it. Can we go now? I’m cold.

Aunt Jane nodded, her desperate ‘I give up’ gesture. I was in awe of Susie’s seemingly boundless cynicism and felt like a child, bewildered schoolboy, hopeless neophyte at moments like that. I could not go that far, I was bound to choke on something. Like a nasty fishbone, a bad dream would come, a feeling. Feeling!.. Sometimes Susie’s attitude seemed so relentless, so disgustingly overwhelming that I wanted her to shut up. However, I could not kick her ankle. Susie was not Sam. She was 16. She was two years older than me.

Hated him? Sure we did. However, not before both of them started regularly coming to our house for summer. At first neither Susie nor I could see any reason for that (after all, they had a perfectly normal house themselves), but it was not like we could do anything about that. The first time they came, we disregarded the two bulky suitcases and thought this would be a short-lived hello-goodbye sort of thing. A matter of two days. But – no. Like bad habits, like painful memories, like your worst splinters, they had to stay.

While they both seemed like a nasty, unwelcome contrast to my parents (who suddenly revealed themselves as two flimsy, invisible, listless entities whose authority could only extend to Sam, and even that could be questioned), we still thought that for all her fussiness aunt Jane was okay.

- It is just that she doesn’t have kids of her own, – Susie said once. Interesting how she excluded uncle Matthew from that thought. And then she would always add: – I bet they never even had sex.

Sex was where you could trust Susie. Judging from her own stories, she could have been pregnant numerous times. If all those names of her male classmates and her peculiar size gradation were anything to go by.

But with uncle Matthew it was different. There was hate, yes, but part of it came from fear. Fear that one day he would tell everyone, fear that he has already done that. However, I didn’t see why aunt Jane had to include Sam in all that. Sam didn’t mind uncle Matthew. Sam didn’t mind anyone. Sam wouldn’t have minded the end of the world if he was still allowed to drink milk-shakes and play shooter games. Susie and me, though, we certainly had our reasons. I still shiver from the memory of him entering the kitchen right when my hand was under her summer frock and in the delicate process of rolling her panties down her legs. I imagine my father standing there. No, he wouldn’t have said sorry – he would have probably frowned, blushed and made the kind of disgusted face that could send us both muttering lame excuses… Uncle Matthew, though, made a scene of it, and didn’t let us go away until he told me I could grow up a pervert and (he did say it, though I still find it hard to believe) a pedophile. He then asked us what we thought would become of our parents (or, indeed, Sam) if they saw us. Also, we had to make a half-hearted promise to never do that again. Only then he let us go. We felt slighted, embarrassed, ashamed. The thing was, you could not challenge that depressing, dwarfish man. You could challenge aunt Jane on just about anything, but you could never challenge uncle Matthew even on watering the goddamn flowers.

Of course we did that again, numerous times, but this would always be accompanied by an edgy sense of frustration. Susie would never let me touch her as often as before, and I myself would only do that if time was right and the door was locked. Lest uncle Matthew should feel like entering the room.

It was odd, but it appeared that he never told anyone. Though strategically that must have been the clever thing to do. This was something we always had to be aware of, and when he told me to go outside help him wash his car, I did exactly that. As for Susie, I remember one instance when one look on his face made her change her skirt next time she went to a party.

- He just wants to get laid, believe me, – Susie told me afterwards. – It’s not you who’s a pervert.

- Yes, – I said. – But do you think he might have told someone?

Though speaking of ‘tell’, it no longer seemed so desperate after that car accident. Of course, there was no way he could tell now, but the day Susie got into what she called her first the relationship, the whole thing stopped. She never said anything, but from now on I had to think of a damn good excuse to even enter her room…

So what could we tell him as he was lying there paralyzed in his hospital bed, unable to speak or move a muscle? “Something nice”, – aunt Jane suggested. “Nice”, – I thought. Sorry about the accident. Love you, uncle Matthew. Won’t do that again, uncle Matthew. God, I could hardly say any of that.

- Susie, – I knocked on my sister’s door. It was time to go.

- What? – she called out. – I’m going, I’m going.

- Susie, please don’t put on that purple skirt of yours. Just please don’t do that.

- What?!? – she exclaimed, blowing the door open, hitting me on the shoulder and almost knocking me off my feet. – Are you out of your fucking mind?

Part of me was bewildered, another part relieved. She was standing there in front of me in that dress mom had given her for her birthday two or three years ago. The one she was supposed to feed to the moths. I wondered whether she was taking the piss.

However, nothing about the look on her face could help me detect any falsehood.

- Susie, – I said as we were about to get inside the car. – What should we say to him?

- Just say goodbye, – she whispered blankly. – That’s the only thing to say, really.

Oh okay, I thought, pushing Sam to the other end of the car seat. Now it looked like we were all ready to go.

2 March 2012

I don't like the clown

You see, I don’t have any particular claims here. Nothing. I don’t own the place. I wasn’t around back when it first appeared. Hell, I don’t even love it all that much. I only have my working hours to declare, and it has recently dawned on me that I have 36 years of those. No small thing.

Where do I work? Circus. And I don’t say that in any indirect, conspiratorial way. I do mean ‘circus’, the very one: kids, clowns, cotton candies. I’m an illusionist, and have been all my life. I can make your watch disappear and be suddenly found around the wrist of an old lady sitting at the opposite end of the circus. I can take up to sixteen eggs out of my mouth and then break them in front of your very eyes. I can do it with cards, rabbits, hats, anything. I can do it with anything. I can do anything. But that’s onstage. 

Offstage there’s this clown.

Coulrophobia, ever heard about that one? It means fear of clowns, and apparently many people have it. Mostly kids. In fact, up to some point I strongly believed it was only kids. But I was wrong. The moment he came to our circus, everything changed. Like I say, I’ve worked here for 36 years, so I can’t fuck anything up onstage, not anymore, but in a way and after thirty it’s the heavy pull of the offstage that gets you. Offstage hits me like a cold ocean wave. Coulrophobia. We all have it. We are all afraid of the clown.

It somehow pains me to admit it now, 6 years later, but I think I felt it from the start. When he swept past me on his way to our director's office just two days after Mitford’s heart attack – I felt mocked and humiliated. His erratic hair, his sickly breath – we would all have to get used to it, and act as if it was all right. What else would have to be all right? Well, many things: his lewd jokes, his misogyny, his fingernails.

As a kid I loved circus because of clowns. I adored them. The loose motley trousers, the stuck-on noses, the silly jokes – it really couldn’t and shouldn’t have worked. It had to fall apart and be written off as one vulgar and ridiculous non-sequitur. And it did fall apart, of course, but in a most weird and transfixing way. I was amazed. Oh it worked so well that my father had to resort to bribery and intimidation trying to dissuade me from becoming a clown. I was born a family of illusionists, you see, so I had to become one. I had to give in and follow the tradition. For the record, I have never really regretted it. Because you don’t want to be a clown. You can admire him, love him, be amused by him, but you don’t want to be like him. That said, I could always establish a good relationship with a clown. Mitford used to be a good friend of mine. There was this rapport. He would teach me a clumsy, hilarious gesture, and I could always teach him a card trick or two. But that was before the terror began. 

Terror is not in the actions or what your eyes do. Terror is in the presence. Terror is abstract, it has to be rationally inexplicable. We all had classmates whose occasional absence could spark a sedate feeling of calmness and joy. With them around, raising hand, smoking outside, mocking teachers, – it was edgy and strained. Why? You don’t know; it just was.

Offstage – it’s him, the clown, who’s the illusionist. He can say something stupid, nonsensical, and still make you fear for your life. He can put on a freak show, effortlessly. Really bizarre stuff: like a giant bloody hole in his forehead, razor-sharp teeth tearing through his cheeks, multiple nostrils. I could never understand just how he does all that, but it surely has a sickening effect on my senses. You feel desperate, nauseous. And it’s not only me he feels this way. I’ve talked to everyone, in hushed whispers, after work. We are grown up men, but that’s the only way you feel safe mentioning those sinister wigs, that childish gait. For when the clown is about, you just get splashed flat against the wall, prison style, and feel eager to do anything he might ask you to do. Yesterday I brought him a glass of water. He took it without even looking at me. Which makes me think: I shouldn’t have spared the spit.

If he needs it, the clown can have the circus ring all to himself (he usually performs alone). Doing his juggling, dragging his pants down. And the thing is, he is a really crappy clown.

So yes, I hate him. I despise him, I wish him dead. But it seems like there’s nothing we can do. We don't have any claims. You see, when you’re in a circus, you are entangled in this odd camaraderie. You’re one team, you fake bonhomie. Onstage, offstage, on tours. You’re in it together, you’re all alike: animal tamers, clowns, jugglers, illusionists, acrobats... I should know: I work with mirrors.