(written today and first published here)
Robert Elesco had been stationed in the Gallery – just around the corner from the city’s White Chapel – and, as if he were one of the wardens who usually sit in the corner of each room to guard the paintings, he now watched the desultory groups of art-goers as they came and went. It was a Show loosely depicting clowns and circuses through the ages. Robert had been hired for the day complete with his clown outfit to wander from room to room – thus to grant some Big Top atmosphere to proceedings. However, he was tired and had filched a warden’s chair so as to give his legs a rest. Toulouse-Lautrec faced him and he studied the original painting as if it were the painter himself. He held imaginary conversations with him – only rarely interrupted by a new supply of art-goers in ones and twos who wandered through having wondered why Robert was tucked away in this room instead of greeting people at the main door. His baggy white tunic’s black rosettes and even his red nose sunk back into the shadows.
But then came three visitors who stayed longer than welcome – at least from Robert’s point of view. These visitors evidently didn’t know each other, having arrived in this part of the Gallery by chance. They stared singly at each painting, returning time and time again to one particular painting which Robert couldn’t see from where he was sitting in the gloom. He hadn’t bothered to inspect each painting in the room before deciding to plump down in the fortuitously vacant chair. He had not even wondered to where the room’s warden had vanished. They were supposed to relieve each other. He didn’t get on with the wardens. They probably thought that Robert’s role was a waste of time. A mere gimmick, bringing the show into tacky disgrace.
He turned his attention to the three art-sticklers in the room. He took unconscious pride in fathoming people by just looking at them. Indeed, unknown to himself, he had a tiny creature inside - separate from his brain but seeing through his eyes. This creature could dig deeper and more seriously into reality than the outward slapstick of Robert’s job as a clown could ever otherwise promise to deliver.
One was Julius Barton (Digger) aged 41, Civil Servant, lover of Oscar Wilde’s wit, obsessed with tidiness, lover of Amateur Dramatics – who said “Mmm, Nice” as he approached each painting. The second was Ella Solomon, age 46, unemployed, with a West Country accent even before she spoke aloud ... but she did say something eventually with a “I’m sooooo tired!” to herself. The third was Daisy Winters, age 27, Administrator at a 6th Form College, someone who complained a lot, cynical about love or romance, and said, for no apparent reason, into the empty air : “I have never been drunk.” She had, by saying this, merely spoken aloud the title on one of the labels next to a painting depicting a clown who was apparently the only sober person centrally among many ordinarily dressed people who were riotously drunk. The clown, acting clownishly, also appeared drunk, but was acting the part of being drunk. One would need a lot of empathy to gather exactly the moral of the painting or its wider interpretation. For example, was the clown drunk, and were the others acting drunk?
Taken up by these hidden considerations, Robert and even his inner creature had forgotten to continue fathoming the characters of the three visitors to the room, visitors who now seemed to have pitched their metaphorical tents for the duration, not one of them yet, however, communicating with the others, let alone with Robert himself. They did gradually and more consistently gravitate towards one particular painting that Robert could now see in his mind’s eye even if he could not see it for real from where he sat. He pictured a portrait of himself sitting in the corner of the room. A poignant image of a sad clown or jester. But why did the three visitors not therefore visibly compare the painting to his presence in the corner. Surely they had spotted the resemblance and marvelled at the coincidence. He felt their gaze penetrate his baggy costume even as far as the distinguishing marks of his sunken chest and strawberry birthmark on his back. It was as if the painting was him and he was otherwise nowhere to be seen. He was urged to get up and start clowning about. Unlike most clowns, Robert could perform alone, so it would not be difficult to ad lib within the rarefied space he inhabited. After all, that was what he was being paid for – to give an atmosphere of the circus and its clowns.
But why should he? These were chance, unconnected visitors, each with their own agenda, each with their separate paths to the Gallery and, later, away from it. He could tell at least that from their very chance names, their chance jobs, and their chance ill-chosen words. Let them make what they could of the unmakeable. Of the unremarkable.
He’d give them no pleasure of synchronicity or serendipity. That wasn’t his job. He was there merely as a clown in a vacuum jar. Or just another frozen exhibit on the wall. But it was wishful thinking to imagine that he had no role to play other than simply to be there.
He saw sinewy tendrils winding slowly in the air between the three visitors, a communication system of which they were evidently unaware. But which of them would break the silence first and to whom and why? The question remained in the air as they finally struck camp and left the Gallery almost together for the outside world.
The chair’s warden now returned to the room and gave Robert a piece of his mind - to get going, circulate, make a brouhaha of welcome, get out on the street, rustle up a few more paying customers for the Gallery... A clown among disguised clowns.
Not to be rushed, Robert sluggishly left the chair to its rightful owner and, before finally leaving the room, he walked over (his eyes custard-pying the inward tears of curdled sleep) to discover half-heartedly what painting the three visitors had earlier gravitated towards. It was a meticulously detailed painting of a tiny prematurely dead foetal creature of inner as well as outer ugliness that the vague background shape of a huge circus beast had painfully jettisoned rather than deliver it alive to the captivity of the outside world.
The character of Robert Elesco was first 'built' here: http://www.ligotti.net/showthread.php?t=2615