New Fiction: Death and the Clown by Stuart Snelson

 

Waiting to board his flight, assessing the massed ranks of the departure lounge, he could state one thing categorically: he had no desire to die with these people. Flying alone for the first time, his thoughts had drifted morbidly. Air travel seemed inextricably linked to death for him now. Did others share his terminal preoccupations?

As ever he weathered the wry recognition of fellow passengers, their nods and smiles. They had seen him on television, felt comfortable acknowledging his presence. He guessed in a sense he became talismanic, that they were reassured by his proximity, as though a plane was impervious to crashing whilst a low-level celebrity was on board. If challenged he could offer a roster of names to take the wind from beneath their wings.

In the glum huddle before boarding, he heard their purposeful murmurs. Peripherally he noticed sideways glances, phones held aloft to capture sneaky snapshots as they discreetly stole his soul. Such was the lot of the stand-up comedian. Constantly alert to new material, he noticed everything. Observation became a means to an end. Every circumstance sifted for skits. For once sombre, he forced a brittle rictus grin. He had no desire to embody the cliché: the sad clown. People looked to him for levity. Of late, he had found it hard to find laughter.

#

Onboard he watched flight attendants engage in the melancholy semaphore of the safety demonstration. At their synchronised inflations, he observed the observers. They were doubtless the sort of feckless flock who, upon landing, would applaud the pilot. As someone who worked nightly towards audience appreciation, this response seemed utterly wasted, the object of their gratitude ensconced elsewhere.

Anxious, he awaited take-off. He knew the statistics, was aware that he was safer airborne than on the roads, but flight offered more catastrophic climaxes.

As they tilted skywards, only the young seemed duly unconcerned, unaware of the gravity of the situation. Were awestruck children still shepherded into the cockpit? He doubted it.  Such scenarios seemed flashbacks to innocent times. Dangers were ever changing. He found it hard to shake atrocities, events systematically looped into the collective consciousness.

In the event of malevolent intervention, a violent surge towards the cockpit for example, he was likelier the type who would find himself at the back of a group urging others into acts of fatal altruism, bemoaning the lack of selfless volunteers whilst cowering timidly. Perhaps he would use his fame to assume command, distance himself from proceedings with authority. Heroics were behind him now, not that they had ever featured in his life in any notable abundance.

He had secured a window seat, but even scanning the land below had become a tainted experience. As they drifted over mountainous terrain, his thoughts would turn to crash landings. Unbidden, his mind would flood with fallacious images of starving survivors licking clean the bones of those wrenched from the wreckage. Did he value his own continued existence highly enough to succumb to circumstantial cannibalism? Would he have the stomach to eat a fellow passenger? He hoped not to be tested in this way. Perhaps he himself would be the main course at the arbitrary barbecue, to be forever remembered in the prayers of those who survived by devouring him. It was an immortality of sorts.

Crash-landing, becoming stranded, he knew that, for him, the primary horror would not be the negotiations as to which passenger would be the first to be eaten, but whether he had substantial reading materials. He would prefer, in the abstract, to run out of food before books. To this end, his hand luggage consisted solely of books, a mobile library with which he would fail to acquaint himself during the flight’s duration. Concentration compromised, their diversionary pleasures would elude him. Spines would remain uncracked. Of his fellow travellers, all he hoped for was their silent compliance. To this end, an open book would at least function as a barrier to their ingratiatory, intrusive bonhomie. He felt that some abused the confinement of air travel, attempted to expand social circles through entrapment. He had no desire to confide in strangers the reason for his trip.

Airside he had endured the endless debates about liquid allowances. How many unguents and lotions did people require? They seemed to take precautionary restrictions as a personal affront, considered terrorism to have overstepped the mark only when it threatened their skincare regime. In tightly clasped transparent bags, they shuttled what they could.

He had grown accustomed to the belittlements of checking in, belt removed and coiled, coins and keys deposited in a plastic tray: custodial procedures. His shoes he had removed to reveal holes in not one but two socks. With a slovenly slump, he tramped through the metal detecting gateway, a failure on its part to detect anything of interest. He had watched, bemused, as people hopped back into their shoes, irked flamingos making an awkward dance of their efforts.

Failing to read, he watched the other passengers engrossed, aglow, in backseat dramas, the mediocre mesmerism of cinematic reductions. Anything to eradicate thoughts of their precarious passage. Whilst he empathised with their attempts to block out the existence of the rest of the world, he would fail to be similarly seduced. He dared not watch anything, fearful that whatever he chose from the turbid selection could prove to be his final film. Others did not leave in-flight entertainment to chance, produced their own polished slabs, devices swollen with distractions.

#

Following the thankless dispatch and consumption of tin-coffined meals, lowered lights signalled bedtime. By well meaning friends, he had been handed all manner of remedies, a jangle bag of tinctures and vials to persuade him into sleep, an attempt to lull his neuroses. Medicinally he operated in the opposite direction, sought stimulants to keep him awake. He had no desire to wake into terror, would rather have a head start in emergencies. As the plane nosedived, and passenger’s yawns elongated into screams he would be first in line at the emergency exits, mobile before the women and children had even stirred. Single-handedly he would mark the demise of chivalry as he palmed off the disorientated and panic-stricken. In truth, this was a new excuse for an old problem: he dreaded falling asleep in front of others. It felt too intimate an act to be engaged in publicly. Notions of communal relaxation, of unguarded exposures, unnerved him. At the domino tumble of reclining seats, as the optimistic wriggled fitfully, bodies’ pretzelled into awkward configurations in search of elusive, unattainable comfort, he would accept as inevitable the ergonomic disappointments of his seat and unsettle himself into a lasting wakefulness.

He declined the drinks trolley’s rattling enticements. His reasons for not drinking were twofold: to avoid both its soporific qualities and unnecessary nocturnal bathroom visits. He had no wish for a nagging bladder to enforce unwelcome tactility, awkward negotiations, with a neighbour unshiftably adrift in sleep. Regarding the aisle blocker, he realised that his generosity of flesh wouldn’t allow easy passage, no squeezing past the slumbering behemoth. Paranoid, he envisaged in advance his neighbour’s disgruntled manner that would greet both his departure and return, his aggressive response to being jabbed conscious. With this in mind, this antagonistic territoriality of his own conjecture, he decided to brave the toilet, a pre-emptive evacuative visit, lest he be reduced to urinating discreetly in an empty cup, a stifled trickle in the night.

Shuffling slowly forward in the bathroom conga, he surveyed the cabin. Those haloed by reading lights would turn pages deep into the night, but the majority endeavoured to sleep. Blindfolded, complimentary eye masks assiduously fidgeted into place, they looked unbearably vulnerable. Beneath seats unshod toes wiggled unashamedly. How did everyone relax with such ease? Sufficiently enshrouded, they carelessly littered his escape routes with their blanket’s discarded plastic wrappers. They seemed unsuitably attired for chaos, dressed more for an airborne slumber party than imminent disaster. Did they wish to plunge to oblivion in their nightwear? He wasn’t a nervous flyer just a realistic one, he had always insisted, whilst wondering how his wife had endured his relentless pessimism. He just liked to be prepared for unseen circumstances. Though he was on the centennial side of fifty he had never flown alone, had always had a companion to temper his preoccupations. The empty seat beside his served as yet another reminder of his wife’s absence. She refused to align with his peculiarities. Gone was the voice of reason.

With the snap of a lock, his turn was announced. A woman emerged face masked, peachily fragrant and pyjamaed. Did everyone but him feel instantly at ease in the company of strangers? He entered the fug of her perfumed ablutions.

Lavatorally confined, his mind turned to the mile high club. He did not begrudge them their upright ruts, just wondered how they mustered enthusiasm within this chemical cell. It was an arousal beyond him. For himself it was of no immediate concern, seemed unlikely he would find himself insinuated into claustrophobic aerobics with a game stewardess. It required a brazenness best left to squalid opportunists. Maybe it never happened, was purely the domain of micro-budget porn scenarists. If these cramped enclosures leant themselves to anything surely it was mile high suicide, a passage into the next life as vexed leg crossers rattled the handle. How many people had killed themselves on flights?

As he flushed, he considered the waste’s destiny, the folkloric shards of urine that were rumoured to be jettisoned from planes. Was there any truth to those urban myths detailing passing unfortunates skewered by frozen javelins of piss? He thought it unlikely.

Fresh from the bathroom, his selfish desire to retake his seat was met with grunting disapproval from the man spilling over the legitimate limits of his own. Surely, he was of sufficient intelligence to equate his departure with the possibility of return? Where had he expected him to go? To curl foetally elsewhere so as not to disturb him?

Reacquainted with the safety of his window seat, he battled sleep. Wide eyed he watched the fitful slumber of his cumbersome neighbour. Taking in the glistening sheen of his beslobbered chin, the gummy mumble of his sleeping incantations, the writhing mime of physically manifested dreams, he smugly congratulated himself on not being reduced to unseemly public displays. As he reluctantly settled himself to his companion’s toxic proximity, the drift of his recycled air, watched the frothy baubles that spawned upon his lips, he felt a reduction in the moral qualms he would have tucking into a fellow passenger. In the event of a crash, his restless bedfellow would be a welcome gift to any impromptu barbecue.

He was safely away from the aisle at least, set back from the approach of admirers, gladhanders keen to press flesh. The human obstacle might yet serve a purpose. No one was getting past him in a hurry. Wherever he went people forced routines upon him, were eager to share anecdotes, or at least stories that they had misinterpreted as such. He had developed a fear of contained spaces, life’s exitless interludes, the attention bereft free to ensnare him indefinitely. His eyes glancing over the cabin, he envisioned the stuff of nightmares, all three hundred passengers queuing to regale him with closing time echoes of half-remembered jokes, meandering moments from their lives, deemed comic by themselves alone, thrust upon him. You can use that one, he would be assured in confidence. At such thoughts, a plunge into the sea may yet prove the favourable option.

People expected a turn, for him to adopt his television personae, regale them with stories or rip them to pieces. Deadpan, he was well known as a heckler shredder. They would wait in vain. On previous flights, he had dealt with unsettled memento seekers. Having shifted digitally, they still sought autographs but didn’t have the means to obtain them. Ever the improviser, with his own pen he had inscribed his signature upon sick bags.

In the tabloid argot, he was TV’s funny man. Or one of them at least. Their ranks swelled exponentially year-on-year. Everybody seemed to want to be a stand-up these days. The plane was probably chock with comics, twitching tweeters, bon mots saved for landing: what was the deal with airline peanuts? He had yet to succumb to a flight routine, but looking round it was evident that the material wrote itself. Concerning air travel, he had seen countless comedians stretch sketches interminably.

Since his own initiation, comedy had delved into previously forbidden territories: whimsy ditched for darker domains, evenings passed laughing at the last taboos. Nothing untouchable, they were all equal opportunity assassins now. This, he knew, was how it should be. Yet he felt squeamish when he considered past material, sickness pitched to disinterested titters, tragedies mined for laughter. After recent events, he saw his ghoulish flights in a new light.

Increasingly dour, of late his sets had taken on an existential hue, digressive stints that rounded on mortality. As topics went, death, the great leveller, was the ultimate universal, the one certainty towards which everyone disobligingly shuffled. He dismissed the slick patter of his peers, avoided their easy reach material, life changes recalibrated for cheap laughter: relationships, marriage, parenthood, divorce. Their observational schtick left him beat.

#

It was some hours into the flight before their transit mimicked a big dipper. As alarms pinged, each turbulent disturbance saw deathbed defections. Silent prayers upon the lips of the lapsed, the hedged bets of the secular, as white-knuckled armrest clutchers experienced the untrammelled terror of a situation that offered only divine intervention as a possible solution. He himself felt a disconcerting serenity at the prospect of dying. Perhaps it was the air pressure, an altitudinous delirium. His position would almost certainly change during a treacherous plummet earthwards.

For all his fatal preoccupation, he had never, in his many years of air travel, experienced anything out of the ordinary: no pilot heart attacks or stricken passengers, no early births or emergency landings. He was uncertain if this fared well statistically.

Ceaselessly, death stalked his thoughts. Through life, the Grim Reaper was his co-pilot. Grounded, feeling similarly disconsolate, he would seek ambulatory solace. It was an option denied him here. He knew that feverishly pacing the aisles would attract hostile attention. Where were the night flight’s sleepwalking hordes? The voodoo raised corpses prowling the aisles and terrifying the hostesses? Did they strap themselves in to defy nocturnal urges?

For all his gloomy thoughts, he was not the archetypal sad clown, melancholy descending as he left the stage. People searching for demons were left disappointed. Perhaps he should have been sadder. His life had been no fretless glide. Traumas met him at every turn. But he persevered, knew that comedy was the only thing keeping him sane. Good humour saw him through.

#

Placing his hand upon his heart, he detected the outline of his eulogy. He was too anxious to revisit its finer points. It was the first time he had undertaken such a mournful journey, had boarded a plane dreading his final destination. Upon collection by heartbroken friends, talk would turn almost immediately to death. How many others were travelling to unpleasant ends? He imagined he was the single harbinger of doom amid the jubilant.

His suit, freshly dry cleaned, lay cold in the hold. Would similarly bleak occasions be the only opportunities he had to fill it now? Dusted down, not for weddings but for funerals? He had approached the age where this would become commonplace, the gradual internment of contemporaries. Reluctantly they would queue for the grave. He had witnessed his parents bury their friends as they succumbed to life’s none negotiable conclusion. Theirs had been a social circle of ever decreasing diameter, before they too took their place beneath the earth. What remained of their circle gathered to say their farewells.

Submerged in clouds, he grappled with his conscience, wrestled with death.

He hadn’t seen his friend for years, had not witnessed, first hand, his painful diminishment. Upon diagnosis a rapid decline, a cancer that swept through him. He was a fighter, as his friends would attest, but this was no fair fight. He became cadaverous the wrong side of the grave.

On boarding, he experienced guilt’s twinges, ashamed that only in death had he found time to visit. He had relied a little too readily upon distance as an excuse, air miles alleviating his conscience. Cowardice rather than inconvenience had kept him from his deathbed, a fear of being confronted with the possible horrors of his own end. Excusing himself from the final hours, he had acquired no tainted reminisce. He wished to remember him the way he was, didn’t want his memories tarnished, to watch the final measured steps of his fatal fragility, skin sunk close to the bone.

On landing, he anticipated an assessment of his own shortcomings. Culpable he summoned his own trial, a long, silent car ride from the airport, an exchange of accusatory glances. Where were you? His family, by all accounts, had surrounded him towards the end.

Who would be with him at the end? Of his own globally dispersed offspring, who would trouble their passports to sit anxiously by his deathbed?

Although he had not physically seen him, he had been in constant communication and in this way had experienced his demise as a series of small deaths. Opening, clicking upon, photographs of his husk of a friend, his tendencies to levity faltered, his smile slipped at images of his frittered physicality. If death hadn’t taken him he would likely have shrunk to nothing. Phone calls became problematic as his voice had surrendered, a croakiness that could not contend with the crackling, time delayed, reception. Through cables, he received exasperated emails, resentful reflections upon healthier times. Before life left him, it left his stories, anecdotes bereft of the warmth and humanity with which they had previously radiated. Eventually, as his energy levels slumped, his daughter relayed his condition. This in itself was a sign that improvement seemed unlikely; each mail opened conceivably disclosing news of his death.

It was not an end he would wish for himself, but what then was the ideal? He knew many posited dying painlessly in their sleep as the most favourable of outcomes, but this terrified him almost as much as the protracted, painful death. To fall asleep never to wake up, denied opportunity to make amends with the world. How could people reconcile themselves so fervently to such a fate? He felt too young to begin these dismal negotiations.

The eulogy’s composition proved no straightforward thing, although the strictures of formal entertainment were not beyond him. More than once, he had stood upon hearing the words: prey silence please for your best man. This though was a darker proposition. Well accustomed to reconfiguring life towards laughter, sundry drafted passages seemed to take the wrong tack. He struggled with the tone of it, juggled bleak and cheerful contrasts. Renowned for his black humour, he had no desire to desecrate a grave. Mawkishness haunted his words. He knew that people would look to him to ease their grief, to send their beloved warmly to the grave. Within the time allowed, he had rewritten endlessly. In death, he would not let his friend down. He would provide the requisite tears of laughter.

Against expectations, he eventually found comfort preparing the eulogy; its delivery would be another matter. He had been forced to plunder a shared past of some four decades. How quickly they had gone. In trawling memories, shaking photographs from shoeboxes, he revisited a life lived in tandem with his own. Their friendship developed, with increasing clarity, through a history of photography: from sepia snapshots to digital printouts. They had seen so much change in their time. In the final forwarded images, he barely detected his friend. The carefree smile that illuminated earlier photographs was, justifiably, absent. Through his eulogy, he felt he had returned life to his friend, fleshed out the skeletal approximation of which he consisted in his final photographs. He conjured the reverberations of the booming laughter he would never hear again. Lamentably, he had failed to hold his friend’s cold, fragile fingers in his own before he breathed his last.

As passengers slept, he wept. Only an inopportunely passing attendant noticed, made placatory enquiries. Perhaps he would have a drink after all.

#

It was with no small relief that he detected the judder of the plane’s descent. Angled steeply towards blazing configurations of light, they would once more be of the earth. As the plane skittered down upon the runway, he found himself doing something he had never done before, as hands that seemed not his own joined pointless applause.

Obligingly, he stood to attention at the clarion call of the remove seatbelts sign. He patted his pocket, collected his bag and, after inhaling deeply, prepared to disembark.

Copyright © Stuart Snelson, 2015.

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Stuart Snelson lives in London where he is currently working on his second novel. His stories have appeared in 3:AM, Ambit, Bare Fiction, HOAX, Lighthouse, Popshot and Structo, among others, and have been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. Links to previous stories are available at stuartsnelson.wordpress.com. He can be found on twitter @stuartsnelson

 

Image: from ‘Human Traces’ Copyright © Constantinos Andronis, 2015.