His daughter used to sit beside him when he put on make-up. It had been hard not to grab her hand when she reached for his face. If she smeared his make-up, he didn’t shout because he didn’t want to scare her. Now he wondered if he should have been a little sinister. Maybe she would have remained interested if she’d lingered at the bedroom door, awed with the sight of him, or if his wife pulled her away and said, “No, leave Daddy alone.”

“But it’s not Daddy,” his daughter might have said.

With the make-up, his name changed to Jean, after Jean Gerard Debaru, but his daughter kept calling him Daddy. Eventually, she’d gotten bored with his silence and routine until the boredom changed to something worse, which he tried not to think about. But it was hard when he heard his wife and daughter mumbling in the kitchen. There was an undercurrent of irritation in their low voices. He heard every movement because he was motionless at the dresser. His foundation was done and he was about to outline his mouth and eyes. Once he started doing that, their voices would blend into the background, and his reflection would become the most important thing. He had to concentrate so the lines around his eyebrows didn’t flow downwards and give him a mean look.

Twenty minutes later, he heard the run of water and knew the kettle was being put on. No-one asked if he wanted tea because that meant walking down the hall to the bedroom. For the last couple of weeks, they’d stayed away while he was getting ready.

His shoulder-length hair was pulled back by a hairband. He was going grey. His daughter was starting college.

“What will I tell people?” she’d said, and it had nearly broken his heart, but he’d smiled and said, “You can tell them that laughter is the shortest distance between two people.”

“Said the clown prince of Denmark.” His wife had spoken in her off-hand way that wasn’t off-hand at all.
His daughter groaned, “Please tell me there isn’t a clown prince.”

“Of course there is, your daddy.”
His daughter gave a little screech before storming out of the kitchen.

“You did say Denmark,” he’d said, “When have I ever been to Denmark?”
If laughter was the shortest distance between two people, he wondered what was the longest—a lack of?

He wore surgical gloves, and the material was strange on his hands, soft and malleable. Still, they helped him forget his age because his hands showed the years the most. The skin had gotten loose, but that was not why he wore the gloves.

He’d only started wearing them after he went to the International Clown Festival in Ballygaddy.

“Do you realize for some people that would be a nightmare?” his daughter said when he told her about it. “Could you imagine Liz there? She’d shit herself.”

“Watch your mouth.”

“Sorry Mom, but she really would. I’m not afraid of clowns, but I think I would too. There’s got to be something else there. They can’t have a festival with thousands of clowns. It’s insane.”

“No, that’s all there is, millions of us.” He’d loved his daughter’s wide-eyed stare that never stayed long.

His wife laughed. “Don’t listen to him. There’ll be jugglers and street performers and puppeteers. They’re what I’m going for.”
He’d felt the dart of his daughter’s gaze. It had been years since they’d watched him perform.

As it happened, his wife didn’t go because her mother fell and suffered a concussion and her father called to tell her to come home at once.

 

“Aren’t you done?”

His wife was leaning against the doorframe with a mug in her hands. She was a small woman with soft features. Yellow light from the hall spread around her and made her body look limp and tired.

“Je rêvasse.”

He didn’t know why he slipped into French so much now. Usually, he uttered single words that made his wife straighten, but now she nodded and said, “Daydreaming again.” He realized he’d said this frequently in the last few months. In front of his mirror, he liked to pretend he was in one of the mirrored classrooms of École de Mimodrame in Paris, or in one of the many student apartments he’d frequented, or the Geary Theatre where he was asked to appear. But all those places led back to the dark room with the curtains half-closed, the unmade bed and his make-up on the dresser, which had been moved from the bathroom two weeks ago because he took too much time and they only had one bathroom.

“Dad, come on,” his daughter had insisted from the bathroom door.

“Don’t call me Dad.” He’d said angrily. His daughter was taken aback. It was surprising how fast tears can come. She didn’t even blink. She was still standing there when he turned back to the mirror. He felt the strain come from her like a vibration.

“What should she bloody call you?” his wife said later. It was dark outside. His feet were sore and his stomach ached where the boy had run into him head-first. He wanted to say with make-up on he was Jean. He wanted to say that he was not a clown but an artist, but all he said was, “I was getting ready and in the zone.”

“What the fuck? In the zone? You scared her.”

“Ha.” It was more a burst of breath than a laugh, and his wife stared at him for a few seconds before rising from the kitchen table and leaving him alone.

 

“You look tired,” his wife said now and he sat straighter.

“I’m fine.”

“You hate birthday parties.”

“They’re alright.”

She gave a slight chuckle, and he refused to let his defenses down. “Last week, you said there must be birthday parties in hell.”
Last week, the child screamed when she saw him.

“We must suffer for our art,” he said.

“Must we make others suffer?”
He wanted her to go, but she was shuffling into the room, that’s what he would call it. She sat on the bed.

“They’re going to close applications soon.”
He refused to say anything and moved his face closer to the mirror. He had a long face, but not thin so he looked substantial. It was a face hard to miss: a lengthy nose, wide eyes, full lips, thick hair. He could make out the side of her face: a turned up chin, a stream of blonde hair.

“You know Jane is going to college.” Her voice had risen in the way it did when she got impatient or upset. The tone got inside his skin. If she did it again, his hand would shake.

“Not now,” he said.

“Then when? You’ll be tired and angry later. Sunday you’ll be on the street.”
On the street, she knew where he was going. Why not legitimize it with a name? Did she really think of him on the street, like a beggar? Well, he’d prefer to beg than stand before twenty-odd bored children spouting French.

“It’s getting tough. Even if you had parties every weekend, we’d hardly make it.”
They’d been doing alright before the Celtic Tiger went scurrying into a corner to die and left the country in recession. He’d held frequent workshops and taught in schools, but his wife had forgotten that. She acted as if he had no chance of building the business up again.

“Are you wearing gloves?”

He’d forgotten about the gloves and fought the urge to hide them or yank them off. That would only make her curious and she’d ask what was wrong and why he never talked to her anymore. He was not in the mood for one of those conversations, so he said, “Yes, I’m wearing gloves.”

Denise had given him a pair. Or rather she’d hidden a pair in his bag. He’d been shocked when he found them while unpacking. It was Monday morning, and his wife was in the shower, but it could have been Sunday night when he took them out and his wife could have been with him, or she could have unpacked herself. Denise might have imagined his wife as the type to do his laundry, which she was, but he was not the type to let her. He would not chance missing socks on anyone.
The gloves had smelled of cinnamon and before he knew it, he was putting them on. The excitement was such that Denise might as well have been on the bed in front of him. He imagined her large breasts, the soft pillow of her belly, the wild bush of pubic hair and he’d kept the gloves on until he heard his wife’s steps.
He leaned towards the mirror and pretended to fix a mouth that was already set and powdered while his wife’s question why hung between them. Finally he said, “I don’t like the feel of make-up on my skin.”

“Since when?”

Since he’d stopped by Denise’s open hotel door and was caught by the mass of her dark hair and the strange perverseness of her gloved hands dipping into the white make-up.

“Since forever, I just never said.”

His wife stared at him.

“You won’t need to put on any more make-up. You’ll have weekends and summers off. We could go places and do things together for once, Alexander.”

“Please, I need to get ready,” he said.

“The only road to strength is through vulnerability,” he said, when he was standing behind Denise. He didn’t say he’d stolen the line from Stephan Nachmonovitch. Nor did he think of the first time he’d said this to his wife when she’d cried about her family’s strict Presbyterian rules and her fear of her father.
His hands moved down Denise’s arms and upward to her shoulder. She quivered and gripped his wrists. They stayed still for a long time watching each other in the mirror; the woman with her white painted face and the man free of make-up, until she stood and without a word closed the door.

He performed naked in her room with his face painted. His movements were slow and guarded. She told him she felt uncouth beside him. Her gestures were vulgar and obscene compared to his, and he said he was just a clown. She asked if Pierrot was just a clown, and he laughed and said, of course not. Pierrot was the tragic avatar struggling to find a place in the bourgeois world. She asked if he was struggling. He said, isn’t everyone, and lay beside her mound of soft flesh, so warm and sweet.

For the next two days, they hardly left the room. He painted his face and mimed routines he’d forgotten about for years. She refused to perform each time he asked. She said she would probably give up now that she’d seen him. Late into their second day, he asked if she felt pity when she watched him. He saw the confusion in her eyes, before she said, “Maybe a little.”
She said, “It’s hard to know exactly what I’m feeling, but there’s definitely something like that.”

So he relayed to her the story of his wife.

He said after knowing his wife a few weeks, he asked her to meet him on Grafton Street. It was the middle of summer and a bright day. The city was full of people. He put on his white outfit and his white make-up and got there an hour before his wife was due. By the time she arrived, a crowd had gathered. He was on his unicycle when he saw her stroll towards him. He paused, so Denise nudged him and said, “Okay, go on”.

He said he had a rose.

“Did you hold it for the whole performance?” Denise wanted to know. He waved her question away. It hardly mattered. What was important was the look on his wife’s face when he emerged from the crowd, splitting bodies to land at her feet. He bowed and handed her the rose. The crowd cheered. His wife went red and looked left and right as if seeking escape. He thought she would not take it, but she did. He didn’t say anything, but when she looked at him, he was sure she knew him. He’d always been a big man, an imposing figure. She lingered to watch him, but when he finished and looked for her, she was gone.

The hotel was a beehive of laughter and footsteps. Their bodies were sinking into the middle of the bed. He told Denise of his thrill when he saw the rose had been placed in a chipped mug in his wife’s student accommodation. His wife told him she’d been shocked to see the clown coming to her. She said it was peculiar, but sweet. She stayed to watch him, and he was really very good. For his size, he had such grace of movement.

He was excited and emboldened. He grasped her hands, but when he was about to tell her that he was the clown, she sighed in a way that stopped him from speaking and said there was something sad and needy in the way he kept glancing at her. It made her uncomfortable. She said she couldn’t help feeling sorry for him.
Alexander finished, and Denise’s silence stunned him. He’d expected disdain and disbelief; for her to ask what was wrong with his wife. How could she not see the difference between the performance and the performer? He’d expected Denise to understand that his wife’s sorrow had nothing to do with him, at least not in the way she saw it. The sorrow may have come from the place he’d reached, but it was entirely hers.

Denise asked, “What did you do?”

A peal of laughter came from the room upstairs. It sounded as if someone was running on the spot. Alexander’s grandiose body allowed no slipping away, his mood no gradual disentanglement. He pushed Denise off, and her upper body flopped onto the bed. She might have been surprised, maybe a little wounded, but he refused to look. He pulled his sweatpants on and said he was hungry. The restaurants were packed so they bought bread, cheese and luncheon meat from the supermarket and a bottle of whiskey for Alexander, for Denise a bottle of gin. These forays for food and drink were the only times they saw the festivities. Until the final day, his phone stayed in his room two doors down. Denise would don a t-shirt and stand in the hall any time her mobile rang. Her bathroom was too quiet she said. At least there was one advantage to the people running around at all hours. He didn’t think of checking his phone until the day he was leaving, and when he did, he’d felt like he’d swallowed a rock. He imagined his wife had called ten, twelve, thirteen times, ‘where are you, please call we’re so worried,’ but she’d called only twice, and left a message to say she hoped he was having fun, and things were strained as usual.

He told himself that Denise didn’t want to hear of his wife, just as he didn’t want to hear of her shy husband, and that kept him from finishing the story, though the threads of it hung between them. His wife remained in the room with them. She whispered. “I felt sorry for him.”

Years ago, it had made him angry. “Do you feel sorry for me?” he’d said. He saw his wife’s confusion, and a blast of something else in her eyes that he refused to dwell on. She’d said, “No, of course not.”

“Well I feel sorry for you,” he’d said, and he’d said some cruel things about the simplicity of her thought; how it was easy to see how her father could control her, a little puppet with no ideas of her own and no tools to see the realities of the world and the beauty that lay beyond it. She’d been shocked into silence.

So many years after the fact, the memory made him sullen, because no matter what he said, his wife never forgot the pity she’d felt. It had clung to her and knowledge of it meant the ease he and Denise enjoyed their first night and day, when they were able to watch each other through the mirror or lie entangled on the bed without need of distraction, could not be resurrected—so they drank too much. Of Saturday night, Alexander remembered little. A fumble under the covers that ended up with one of them on the floor, or maybe both, he couldn’t be sure, and a quick dart to the bathroom to get sick. They were hungover when they said goodbye. He didn’t know if he should kiss her and decided by her stiff smile it was best not to. He stepped out of her room and thought when she closed the door that maybe he should have left before then. But he decided not to dwell on that final goodbye or Denise’s discomfort when he returned form the bathroom seconds before he left her. He knew she’d taken the opportunity to put the gloves into his bag then.

The birthday party was in a well-to-do area. Steep steps led to the front door. The windows, of which there were eight, were tall. It was a large house, looming was the word he would use. The squeals of children reached him when he got out of the car.

His daughter’s childhood birthday celebrations had taken place in Sligo, a small village by the sea, with her cousins, two boys and a girl from the older sister, and two girls from the younger, a stepladder of ages with Jane in the middle. There’d been dinner and cake, but no mention of entertainment, certainly not of Alexander supplying it. Alexander had been thankful though. In his father-in-law’s presence, Alexander felt he was always performing with his constant pussy-footing around in an attempt to look smaller and blend into the background. He’d been surprised by the smallness of his father-in-law, but there was a fierceness in his gaze that made Alexander think the man was where he was precisely because of his size and the fight in him.

“Bonjour,” he said to the slender woman walking towards him now. After twenty years, his English was perfect and had sprinkles of Dub in it, but French had an effect on women. They were less inclined to judge

“Jean?” she asked, as if some other white-faced man might have gone to her house without an appointment.

“Oui,” he said.

Her hand was soft and her fingers so long he could feel them wrap around him like snakes. She smiled. There was the fleeting look over his face where signs of age protruded like cracks on the paint. His hair was pulled back but there was a patch of grey at the front that he could do nothing about. The woman disengaged herself. She had grave eyes and a haughty chin. “I thought you’d be younger,” she said with no hint of embarrassment. Rather, she seemed accusatory. He shrugged, and thought he should feel angry, but he couldn’t be bothered.

“Those photos were taken when I first came here,” he said, “It’s hard to take them down.”

“Oh,” she said, “Do you still do workshops?”
Was there a hint of humor in her tone? She’d spoken softly, but without effort. Her head tilted a little as if she’d caught him in a lie.

“Mostly during the summer,” he said.

She smiled and asked him to follow her. He reminded her that he needed to set up and she told him that could wait for a minute. It was not unusual for the hosts to want to show him the area before he took everything out of the car so he wasn’t surprised, though he expected her to bring him around the back garden instead of towards the front steps. His forty-five minutes must have started by now or at least were close to starting. As if she’d read his thoughts, she told him that the children started a game of Rounder’s, or rather, her husband and brother-in-law started a half hour ago. It was in full swing, and she was loath to finish it too soon. If he wouldn’t mind waiting inside just for a bit, they’d pay him for his time. He could add another forty-five minutes onto their bill, though she assured him that it won’t take that long,

She paused at the front door and he was thinking ‘loath’, he was thinking ‘or rather’ and wanted to shove her forty minutes up her arse, but he needed the money, and he had no more appointments. He said he had a party after this so he could wait twenty minutes tops.

“Great.”

The house echoed. There was a smell of lemon. The hall was wide and the ceiling so high he couldn’t resist looking up. The floor was black and white tiles, and the curving staircase sparkled. He spied a kitchen opposite the front door with an Island messy with dishes. A window with a view of the garden took up the back wall. He saw the green leaves of trees, but they were too high to see the action. She led him to the right and opened a solid wooden door. With one step inside the room, she paused and seemed taken aback. “I didn’t know you were here.”
There was no answer, and he imagined a drunken relative sprawled on the couch or a stern mother-in-law watching the game with arms crossed. He took the woman’s glance and smile as an apology, so he was surprised to see a young girl of around ten by the window. She’d pulled a stool to the sill and her chin was resting on her hand. Her gaze was caught on the game outside, though she was sitting with a stiffness that told him she was not seeing what was going on. She was dressed in jeans and a black sweater, which didn’t fit with the elegance of the surroundings. There was little space in the room, but it was not small as much as crowded, with footstools, little corner tables, magazine racks, a coffee table and armchairs, and a couch in the middle of it all. He had to step gently to the fireplace where a fire was burning low. The carpet and three-piece suit were white.
He declined her offer of a drink or a snack.

“I won’t keep you waiting long,” the woman said. She didn’t introduce him to the girl, nor did she glance at the girl or say anything to her before leaving them alone.
The second the door shut, the girl looked at him and he saw she’d been crying. Her eyes were red, and her nose was running slightly. He smiled, and waved with a gloved hand. He thought of the woman’s long fingers and looked to the girls hand on the sill for resemblance. There was none in the face. The girl had a rounder face and eyes that were wide apart. Her hair was brown instead of black like the woman’s. A yell from outside followed by another shout caught the girl’s attention. It could have been some accident; a child out there was probably crying but the girl’s expression had not changed. He thought he’d never seen anything sadder. She was cocooned in her sorrow. He wondered what her story was. A child from a first marriage perhaps, a child unloved by the stepmother and forced to watch instead of being allowed participate. Or maybe her sorrow was a constant heavy burden that the mother couldn’t cope with anymore. “If you must be miserable, be miserable inside.”

He didn’t think that was it because her sadness seemed bigger than her. He cleared his throat. She looked at him again, and this time he bowed. Her face showed no curiosity when he was upright again. There was little place for his large body. He had an urge to fall over, to drip over the footstool, to flounder across the table, but her seriousness kept that urge back as did the fear of embarrassment if she continued to look at him without a trace of humor.

He brought one arm up towards his head. The hand was flat as if he was holding a tray. He smiled and lifted his legs high. He walked on the spot and looked like he was treading water. He was the waiter holding the plate high in his hands. His body went this way and that as if in avoidance of obstacles. He looked towards his left, became still and smiled. He’d found his table. He put the plate gently down and moved to the unseen table and bent his knees. He was sitting with his invisible knife and fork, and grimaced as he tried to cut the food. He frowned and looked at the girl. She could have been a painting. He pretended to attack his food with a sledge and hammer. He jumped back alarmed and looked all around him as the plate went flying and he was pulled by an invisible hand. He fell forward and stumbled downward as if he was falling through the sky and there was no floor under his feet. Once landed and steady, he felt his head to make sure he was all in one piece. He looked around him before he opened an imaginary curtain and peered through.

He lost the girl. There was cheering outside, and she turned away from him. He was breathless and hot, and it took a while for his heart to settle. His mouth was dry, but it was hardly important when all he wanted was to see the girl smile. The clock above the mantle ticked loudly, and he thought of his daughter staring out the kitchen window when he was leaving. He wondered if she was still there, and if she would look at him when he came back. Another cheer and he decided he’d wait only a few more moments for the girl to glance at him.

His daughter used to sit beside him when he put on make-up. It had been hard not to grab her hand when she reached for his face. If she smeared his make-up, he didn’t shout because he didn’t want to scare her. Now he wondered if he should have been a little sinister. Maybe she would have remained interested if she’d lingered at the bedroom door, awed with the sight of him, or if his wife pulled her away and said, “No, leave Daddy alone.”

“But it’s not Daddy,” his daughter might have said.

With the make-up, his name changed to Jean, after Jean Gerard Debaru, but his daughter kept calling him Daddy. Eventually, she’d gotten bored with his silence and routine until the boredom changed to something worse, which he tried not to think about. But it was hard when he heard his wife and daughter mumbling in the kitchen. There was an undercurrent of irritation in their low voices. He heard every movement because he was motionless at the dresser. His foundation was done and he was about to outline his mouth and eyes. Once he started doing that, their voices would blend into the background, and his reflection would become the most important thing. He had to concentrate so the lines around his eyebrows didn’t flow downwards and give him a mean look.

Twenty minutes later, he heard the run of water and knew the kettle was being put on. No-one asked if he wanted tea because that meant walking down the hall to the bedroom. For the last couple of weeks, they’d stayed away while he was getting ready.

His shoulder-length hair was pulled back by a hairband. He was going grey. His daughter was starting college.

“What will I tell people?” she’d said, and it had nearly broken his heart, but he’d smiled and said, “You can tell them that laughter is the shortest distance between two people.”

“Said the clown prince of Denmark.” His wife had spoken in her off-hand way that wasn’t off-hand at all.

His daughter groaned, “Please tell me there isn’t a clown prince.”

“Of course there is, your daddy.”
His daughter gave a little screech before storming out of the kitchen.

“You did say Denmark,” he’d said, “When have I ever been to Denmark?”
If laughter was the shortest distance between two people, he wondered what was the longest—a lack of?

He wore surgical gloves, and the material was strange on his hands, soft and malleable. Still, they helped him forget his age because his hands showed the years the most. The skin had gotten loose, but that was not why he wore the gloves. He’d only started wearing them after he went to the International Clown Festival in Ballygaddy.

“Do you realize for some people that would be a nightmare?” his daughter said when he told her about it. “Could you imagine Liz there? She’d shit herself.”

“Watch your mouth.”

“Sorry Mom, but she really would. I’m not afraid of clowns, but I think I would too. There’s got to be something else there. They can’t have a festival with thousands of clowns. It’s insane.”

“No, that’s all there is, millions of us.” He’d loved his daughter’s wide-eyed stare that never stayed long.

His wife laughed. “Don’t listen to him. There’ll be jugglers and street performers and puppeteers. They’re what I’m going for.”

He’d felt the dart of his daughter’s gaze. It had been years since they’d watched him perform.

As it happened, his wife didn’t go because her mother fell and suffered concussion and her father called to tell her to come home at once.

“Aren’t you done?”

His wife was leaning against the doorframe with a mug in her hands. She was a small woman with soft features. Yellow light from the hall spread around her and made her body look limp and tired.

“Je rêvasse.”

He didn’t know why he slipped into French so much now. Usually he uttered single words that made his wife straighten, but now she nodded and said, “Daydreaming again.” He realized he’d said this frequently in the last few months. In front of his mirror, he liked to pretend he was in one of the mirrored classrooms of École de Mimodrame in Paris, or in one of the many student apartments he’d frequented, or the Geary Theatre where he was asked to appear. But all those places led back to the dark room with the curtains half-closed, the unmade bed and his make-up on the dresser, which had been moved from the bathroom two weeks ago because he took too much time and they only had one bathroom.

“Dad, come on,” his daughter had insisted from the bathroom door.

“Don’t call me Dad.” He’d said angrily. His daughter was taken aback. It was surprising how fast tears can come. She didn’t even blink. She was still standing there when he turned back to the mirror. He felt the strain come from her like a vibration.

“What should she bloody call you?” his wife said later. It was dark outside. His feet were sore and his stomach ached where the boy had run into him head-first. He wanted to say with make-up on he was Jean. He wanted to say that he was not a clown but an artist, but all he said was, “I was getting ready and in the zone.”

“What the fuck? In the zone? You scared her.”

“Ha.” It was more a burst of breath than a laugh, and his wife stared at him for a few seconds before rising from the kitchen table and leaving him alone.

 

“You look tired,” his wife said now and he sat straighter.

“I’m fine.”

“You hate birthday parties.”

“They’re alright.”

She gave a slight chuckle, and he refused to let his defenses down. “Last week, you said there must be birthday parties in hell.”

Last week, the child screamed when she saw him.

“We must suffer for our art,” he said.

“Must we make others suffer?”

He wanted her to go, but she was shuffling into the room, that’s what he would call it. She sat on the bed.

“They’re going to close applications soon.”

He refused to say anything and moved his face closer to the mirror. He had a long face, but not thin so he looked substantial. It was a face hard to miss: a lengthy nose, wide eyes, full lips, thick hair. He could make out the side of her face: a turned up chin, a stream of blonde hair.

“You know Jane is going to college.” Her voice had risen in the way it did when she got impatient or upset. The tone got inside his skin. If she did it again, his hand would shake.

“Not now,” he said.

“Then when? You’ll be tired and angry later. Sunday you’ll be on the street.”
On the street, she knew where he was going. Why not legitimize it with a name?

Did she really think of him on the street, like a beggar? Well, he’d prefer to beg than stand before twenty-odd bored children spouting French.

“It’s getting tough. Even if you had parties every weekend, we’d hardly make it.”
They’d been doing alright before the Celtic Tiger went scurrying into a corner to die and left the country in recession. He’d held frequent workshops and taught in schools, but his wife had forgotten that. She acted as if he had no chance of building the business up again.

“Are you wearing gloves?”

He’d forgotten about the gloves and fought the urge to hide them or yank them off. That would only make her curious and she’d ask what was wrong and why he never talked to her anymore. He was not in the mood for one of those conversations, so he said, “Yes, I’m wearing gloves.”

Denise had given him a pair. Or rather she’d hidden a pair in his bag. He’d been shocked when he found them while unpacking. It was Monday morning, and his wife was in the shower, but it could have been Sunday night when he took them out and his wife could have been with him, or she could have unpacked herself. Denise might have imagined his wife as the type to do his laundry, which she was, but he was not the type to let her. He would not chance missing socks on anyone.
The gloves had smelled of cinnamon and before he knew it, he was putting them on. The excitement was such that Denise might as well have been on the bed in front of him. He imagined her large breasts, the soft pillow of her belly, the wild bush of pubic hair and he’d kept the gloves on until he heard his wife’s steps.
He leaned towards the mirror and pretended to fix a mouth that was already set and powdered while his wife’s question why hung between them. Finally he said, “I don’t like the feel of make-up on my skin.”

“Since when?”

Since he’d stopped by Denise’s open hotel door and was caught by the mass of her dark hair and the strange perverseness of her gloved hands dipping into the white make-up.

“Since forever, I just never said.”
His wife stared at him.

“You won’t need to put on any more make-up. You’ll have weekends and summers off. We could go places and do things together for once, Alexander.”
“Please, I need to get ready,” he said.

“The only road to strength is through vulnerability,” he said, when he was standing behind Denise. He didn’t say he’d stolen the line from Stephan Nachmonovitch. Nor did he think of the first time he’d said this to his wife when she’d cried about her family’s strict Presbyterian rules and her fear of her father.

His hands moved down Denise’s arms and upward to her shoulder. She quivered and gripped his wrists. They stayed still for a long time watching each other in the mirror; the woman with her white painted face and the man free of make-up, until she stood and without a word closed the door.

He performed naked in her room with his face painted. His movements were slow and guarded. She told him she felt uncouth beside him. Her gestures were vulgar and obscene compared to his, and he said he was just a clown. She asked if Pierrot was just a clown, and he laughed and said, of course not. Pierrot was the tragic avatar struggling to find a place in the bourgeois world. She asked if he was struggling. He said, isn’t everyone, and lay beside her mound of soft flesh, so warm and sweet.

For the next two days, they hardly left the room. He painted his face and mimed routines he’d forgotten about for years. She refused to perform each time he asked. She said she would probably give up now that she’d seen him. Late into their second day, he asked if she felt pity when she watched him. He saw the confusion in her eyes, before she said, “Maybe a little.”
She said, “It’s hard to know exactly what I’m feeling, but there’s definitely something like that.”

So he relayed to her the story of his wife.

He said after knowing his wife a few weeks, he asked her to meet him on Grafton Street. It was the middle of summer and a bright day. The city was full of people. He put on his white outfit and his white make-up and got there an hour before his wife was due. By the time she arrived, a crowd had gathered. He was on his unicycle when he saw her stroll towards him. He paused, so Denise nudged him and said, “Okay, go on”.
He said he had a rose.

“Did you hold it for the whole performance?” Denise wanted to know. He waved her question away. It hardly mattered. What was important was the look on his wife’s face when he emerged from the crowd, splitting bodies to land at her feet. He bowed and handed her the rose. The crowd cheered. His wife went red and looked left and right as if seeking escape. He thought she would not take it, but she did. He didn’t say anything, but when she looked at him, he was sure she knew him. He’d always been a big man, an imposing figure. She lingered to watch him, but when he finished and looked for her, she was gone.

The hotel was a beehive of laughter and footsteps. Their bodies were sinking into the middle of the bed. He told Denise of his thrill when he saw the rose had been placed in a chipped mug in his wife’s student accommodation. His wife told him she’d been shocked to see the clown coming to her. She said it was peculiar, but sweet. She stayed to watch him, and he was really very good. For his size, he had such grace of movement.

He was excited and emboldened. He grasped her hands, but when he was about to tell her that he was the clown, she sighed in a way that stopped him from speaking and said there was something sad and needy in the way he kept glancing at her. It made her uncomfortable. She said she couldn’t help feeling sorry for him.
Alexander finished, and Denise’s silence stunned him. He’d expected disdain and disbelief; for her to ask what was wrong with his wife. How could she not see the difference between the performance and the performer? He’d expected Denise to understand that his wife’s sorrow had nothing to do with him, at least not in the way she saw it. The sorrow may have come from the place he’d reached, but it was entirely hers.

Denise asked, “What did you do?”

A peal of laughter came from the room upstairs. It sounded as if someone was running on the spot. Alexander’s grandiose body allowed no slipping away, his mood no gradual disentanglement. He pushed Denise off, and her upper body flopped onto the bed. She might have been surprised, maybe a little wounded, but he refused to look. He pulled his sweatpants on and said he was hungry. The restaurants were packed so they bought bread, cheese and luncheon meat from the supermarket and a bottle of whiskey for Alexander, for Denise a bottle of gin. These forays for food and drink were the only times they saw the festivities. Until the final day, his phone stayed in his room two doors down. Denise would don a t-shirt and stand in the hall any time her mobile rang. Her bathroom was too quiet she said. At least there was one advantage to the people running around at all hours. He didn’t think of checking his phone until the day he was leaving, and when he did, he’d felt like he’d swallowed a rock. He imagined his wife had called ten, twelve, thirteen times, ‘where are you, please call we’re so worried,’ but she’d called only twice, and left a message to say she hoped he was having fun, and things were strained as usual.

He told himself that Denise didn’t want to hear of his wife, just as he didn’t want to hear of her shy husband, and that kept him from finishing the story, though the threads of it hung between them. His wife remained in the room with them. She whispered. “I felt sorry for him.”

Years ago, it had made him angry. “Do you feel sorry for me?” he’d said. He saw his wife’s confusion, and a blast of something else in her eyes that he refused to dwell on. She’d said, “No, of course not.”

“Well I feel sorry for you,” he’d said, and he’d said some cruel things about the simplicity of her thought; how it was easy to see how her father could control her, a little puppet with no ideas of her own and no tools to see the realities of the world and the beauty that lay beyond it. She’d been shocked into silence.

So many years after the fact, the memory made him sullen, because no matter what he said, his wife never forgot the pity she’d felt. It had clung to her and knowledge of it meant the ease he and Denise enjoyed their first night and day, when they were able to watch each other through the mirror or lie entangled on the bed without need of distraction, could not be resurrected—so they drank too much. Of Saturday night, Alexander remembered little. A fumble under the covers that ended up with one of them on the floor, or maybe both, he couldn’t be sure, and a quick dart to the bathroom to get sick. They were hungover when they said goodbye. He didn’t know if he should kiss her and decided by her stiff smile it was best not to. He stepped out of her room and thought when she closed the door that maybe he should have left before then. But he decided not to dwell on that final goodbye or Denise’s discomfort when he returned form the bathroom seconds before he left her. He knew she’d taken the opportunity to put the gloves into his bag then.

The birthday party was in a well-to-do area. Steep steps led to the front door. The windows, of which there were eight, were tall. It was a large house, looming was the word he would use. The squeals of children reached him when he got out of the car.

His daughter’s childhood birthday celebrations had taken place in Sligo, a small village by the sea, with her cousins, two boys and a girl from the older sister, and two girls from the younger, a stepladder of ages with Jane in the middle. There’d been dinner and cake, but no mention of entertainment, certainly not of Alexander supplying it. Alexander had been thankful though. In his father-in-law’s presence, Alexander felt he was always performing with his constant pussy-footing around in an attempt to look smaller and blend into the background. He’d been surprised by the smallness of his father-in-law, but there was a fierceness in his gaze that made Alexander think the man was where he was precisely because of his size and the fight in him.

“Bonjour,” he said to the slender woman walking towards him now. After twenty years, his English was perfect and had sprinkles of Dub in it, but French had an effect on women. They were less inclined to judge

“Jean?” she asked, as if some other white-faced man might have gone to her house without an appointment.

“Oui,” he said.

Her hand was soft and her fingers so long he could feel them wrap around him like snakes. She smiled. There was the fleeting look over his face where signs of age protruded like cracks on the paint. His hair was pulled back but there was a patch of grey at the front that he could do nothing about. The woman disengaged herself. She had grave eyes and a haughty chin. “I thought you’d be younger,” she said with no hint of embarrassment. Rather, she seemed accusatory. He shrugged, and thought he should feel angry, but he couldn’t be bothered.
“Those photos were taken when I first came here,” he said, “It’s hard to take them down.”

“Oh,” she said, “Do you still do workshops?”

Was there a hint of humor in her tone? She’d spoken softly, but without effort. Her head tilted a little as if she’d caught him in a lie.

“Mostly during the summer,” he said.

She smiled and asked him to follow her. He reminded her that he needed to set up and she told him that could wait for a minute. It was not unusual for the hosts to want to show him the area before he took everything out of the car so he wasn’t surprised, though he expected her to bring him around the back garden instead of towards the front steps. His forty-five minutes must have started by now or at least were close to starting. As if she’d read his thoughts, she told him that the children started a game of Rounder’s, or rather, her husband and brother-in-law started a half hour ago. It was in full swing, and she was loath to finish it too soon. If he wouldn’t mind waiting inside just for a bit, they’d pay him for his time. He could add another forty-five minutes onto their bill, though she assured him that it won’t take that long,

She paused at the front door and he was thinking ‘loath’, he was thinking ‘or rather’ and wanted to shove her forty minutes up her arse, but he needed the money, and he had no more appointments. He said he had a party after this so he could wait twenty minutes tops.
“Great.”

The house echoed. There was a smell of lemon. The hall was wide and the ceiling so high he couldn’t resist looking up. The floor was black and white tiles, and the curving staircase sparkled. He spied a kitchen opposite the front door with an Island messy with dishes. A window with a view of the garden took up the back wall. He saw the green leaves of trees, but they were too high to see the action. She led him to the right and opened a solid wooden door. With one step inside the room, she paused and seemed taken aback. “I didn’t know you were here.”
There was no answer, and he imagined a drunken relative sprawled on the couch or a stern mother-in-law watching the game with arms crossed. He took the woman’s glance and smile as an apology, so he was surprised to see a young girl of around ten by the window. She’d pulled a stool to the sill and her chin was resting on her hand. Her gaze was caught on the game outside, though she was sitting with a stiffness that told him she was not seeing what was going on. She was dressed in jeans and a black sweater, which didn’t fit with the elegance of the surroundings. There was little space in the room, but it was not small as much as crowded, with footstools, little corner tables, magazine racks, a coffee table and armchairs, and a couch in the middle of it all. He had to step gently to the fireplace where a fire was burning low. The carpet and three-piece suit were white.
He declined her offer of a drink or a snack.

“I won’t keep you waiting long,” the woman said. She didn’t introduce him to the girl, nor did she glance at the girl or say anything to her before leaving them alone.
The second the door shut, the girl looked at him and he saw she’d been crying. Her eyes were red, and her nose was running slightly. He smiled, and waved with a gloved hand. He thought of the woman’s long fingers and looked to the girls hand on the sill for resemblance. There was none in the face. The girl had a rounder face and eyes that were wide apart. Her hair was brown instead of black like the woman’s. A yell from outside followed by another shout caught the girl’s attention.

It could have been some accident; a child out there was probably crying but the girl’s expression had not changed. He thought he’d never seen anything sadder. She was cocooned in her sorrow. He wondered what her story was. A child from a first marriage perhaps, a child unloved by the stepmother and forced to watch instead of being allowed participate. Or maybe her sorrow was a constant heavy burden that the mother couldn’t cope with anymore. “If you must be miserable, be miserable inside.”

He didn’t think that was it because her sadness seemed bigger than her. He cleared his throat. She looked at him again, and this time he bowed. Her face showed no curiosity when he was upright again. There was little place for his large body. He had an urge to fall over, to drip over the footstool, to flounder across the table, but her seriousness kept that urge back as did the fear of embarrassment if she continued to look at him without a trace of humor.

He brought one arm up towards his head. The hand was flat as if he was holding a tray. He smiled and lifted his legs high. He walked on the spot and looked like he was treading water. He was the waiter holding the plate high in his hands. His body went this way and that as if in avoidance of obstacles. He looked towards his left, became still and smiled. He’d found his table. He put the plate gently down and moved to the unseen table and bent his knees. He was sitting with his invisible knife and fork, and grimaced as he tried to cut the food. He frowned and looked at the girl. She could have been a painting. He pretended to attack his food with a sledge and hammer. He jumped back alarmed and looked all around him as the plate went flying and he was pulled by an invisible hand. He fell forward and stumbled downward as if he was falling through the sky and there was no floor under his feet. Once landed and steady, he felt his head to make sure he was all in one piece. He looked around him before he opened an imaginary curtain and peered through.

He lost the girl. There was cheering outside, and she turned away from him. He was breathless and hot, and it took a while for his heart to settle. His mouth was dry, but it was hardly important when all he wanted was to see the girl smile. The clock above the mantle ticked loudly, and he thought of his daughter staring out the kitchen window when he was leaving. He wondered if she was still there, and if she would look at him when he came back. Another cheer and he decided he’d wait only a few more moments for the girl to glance at him.