Thursday, January 7, 2010

Chapter 11 [a fragment]

Two figures had made themselves at home on the doorstep. One carried a thin briefcase of elegant design, while the other clutched one of those squat capacious bags popular with doctors. Ed looked at their clothes and steeled himself against the visitors offering him religious pamphlets, canvassing for his vote in an election, or trying to sell him a second-hand car.

“Do I have the honour of addressing Edward N’Bro?” The taller one’s voice was more suitable for addressing a public meeting.

“Ed I am, of the Senegalese branch of the Clan N’Bro. Who might you be?”

“You see before you two itinerant, peripatetic members of the thespian profession.”

“We act,” explained his shorter associate, in the kind of voice you seldom hear at a public meeting, unless you have asked too many annoying questions and the large angry people have turned up from nowhere and dragged you roughly away to the back of the building. “We move about. One step ahead.”

“My name is Patella; my abbreviated and less-well-spoken colleague glories in the sobriquet of Astragalus. Like birds of passage, like gypsy moths, we wander from town to town, performing pieces from our humble repertoire, seeking little in the way of a venue, such as will assuage the humdrum lives of the local populace and bring unfamiliar joy to their hearts.”

“And lingering pain to their kidneys,” came the interjection from Astragalus.

“Like the wandering minstrel Nanki-Poo, we are but kings of shreds and patches…”

“…And the occasional organ transplant.”

“We understand that you are mulling over the idea of staging dramaturgic productions here; to revive this building’s proud theatrical tradition, harking back to a nobler era.”

Ed tried to gauge his visitors’ expressions. Both wore sunglasses, of the mirror-lens style that is worn to hide the eyes and not really for sun protection, any more than the clothes in expensive tramping stores are bought with any intention of actually tramping in them. “I have indeed been considering that possibility. How did you know?” He chose his words carefully, unwilling to say the wrong thing and commit himself to a contract that only the visitors could see.

“We heard it through the grapefruit,” croaked the shorter of the two.

“A little birdie told us,” said the taller one.

“After some persuasion!”

“Be that as it may,” Patella continued, “and it may very well be, I’m glad you asked that question. Instead of anything as crass as answer it, we would like to show you a script.” He waved his briefcase in the air as an inducement, as one dangles a donkey behind a carrot.

Ed sighed. “If you are going to carry on interrupting each other like that, all the looking up and down will put my neck out. You had better come in, where Mr Astragalus can perch on a bar-stool. And I’ve had enough of standing here holding the door open.”

With Ed behind the bar where he felt more secure, Patella unlocked his briefcase. First he had to uncover the lock by sliding aside a hidden panel, revealing a miniature calculator digit-pad, where he typed a series of numbers with all the care of a heart surgeon defusing a bomb.

“Of course we are well-versed in a wide range of dramaturgic creations,” he explained. “But one particular script is crying out for performance at your venue.” He slid a thick folder across the bar. “It is original, and of our own authorship.”

A faint pall of dust hung around the folder’s brittle time-yellowed pages. Ed accepted it cautiously, in case it contained someone’s collection of pressed mummies. “1st Clown: What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?” he read. He licked his fingertip to moisten it before turning over the leaf. “Alas! poor Yorick! – I knew him, Horatio…” More dust puffed out when he flapped the folder back to the bar-top. “Isn’t this identical to Act V from Hamlet?”

“There is certainly some degree of overlap,” Patella conceded, scoring a point for Ed in a game he was judging, chalking an imaginary mark with his finger on an imaginary blackboard. “The first part of our play does follow the same story as Hamlet, but as seen from the perspective of one of the other characters, so in this version, Hamlet himself plays only a minor part. He appears briefly in this scene along with Laertes, the brother of Ophelia.”

Which other character’s perspective?”

“The court jester. Yorick.”

Astragalus twirled his moustaches as if screwing them back into his lip. “Or rather – since Yorick was buried several decades earlier – his skull.”

“In this version,” Patella explained helpfully, “the two Gravedigger-Clowns are crucial characters rather than incidental ones. They first show up in an opening scene where they unearth the skull, while rummaging around in the outskirts of the cemetery, excavating a final resting place for the body of Ophelia.”

Ed opened the script again and skimmed his finger down the page. “Central characters, both of them?” he wondered. “I don’t see many lines for 2nd Clown. So far 1st Clown does most of the talking.”

Patella followed Ed’s finger where it formed a Post-It© note on the page. “Ah, but he sent 2nd Clown off to the pub, back in Scene 2. Then Hamlet and Laertes have their moment on the stage – they quarrel, make public fools of themselves, and somehow contrive to fall into an open grave.”

Ed smiled, revealing a veritable graveyard of teeth, each one tattooed with a miniature epitaph. “If you need extra actors for these rôles, I can suggest a suitable pair.”

“Once those two are off-stage,” Patella continued, “2nd Clown returns with a jug of soothing brown fluid, to assuage the dryness of their throats, parched by honest labour. Allow me to emphasise this ‘returned with a jug’ aspect. It is good advertising for your core activity of serving beer. This is one reason why I bring this particular script to your consideration, and also vice versa. Then the two of them swap amusing anecdotes about bodies they have buried, or unintentionally unearthed, in various amusing states of decay. They also grumble about Prince Hamlet and the rest of his aristocratic family being as inbred as a colony of white lab mice, though less useful.”

Ed flipped more leaves with a moistened fingertip.

Patella looked over at Astragalus; Astragalus looked back. They removed their sunglasses and blinked rapidly, as if they were sending coded messages back and forth. If they were, the conversation would go something like this:

Astragalus: What the frock? This isn’t good.

Patella: It’s as if he’s immune to the drug. He should be a mindless zombie by now; he’s licked his fingertip often enough.

Astragalus: Skirt. Now what?

Patella: Now we go to Plan B.

Astragalus: Plan B! We always go to Plan B! Just for once I’d like to start with Plan B, and then switch to Plan A if it doesn’t work. I don’t know what Plan B is, but I hate it already.

They replaced their glasses and turned back to Ed as he read a few lines aloud:

“[1st Clown: Holds skull, supporting lower jaw with one hand]. 2nd Clown [to skull]: What do you think of it so far? 1st Clown [waggling lower jaw to pretend that skull is replying]: Ruggish!”

Ed looked up from the script, frowning, “Skull ventriloquism? A ventriloquy?”

“Audiences love it,” Patella claimed defensively.

“It’s better than Hamlet droning on and on about ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” Astragalus pointed out.

“Is it the business with ping-pong balls in the eye-sockets that worries you?” asked Patella. “A good playwright must be prepared to push the envelope of good taste.”

“And pull the postcard of plagiarism,” muttered Astragalus in an undertone.

“Your version of Hamlet seems to have mutated from heart-wrenching emotional intensity, to knockabout comedy!” Ed waved the script as he spoke, in case anyone was under the impression that he was talking about some other play entirely. He picked out a few more stage directions. “1st Clown: [raps on skull]. 2nd Clown: Who’s there? 1st Clown [through skull]: Ed. 2nd Clown: Ed who? 1st Clown: Ed in arcadia ego.”

“It would become monotonous if they spent all their time of stage coining profound insights ­–”

“Aperçus, apophthegms, drolleries, witticisms,” suggested Astragalus.

“– into the nature of the human condition. More important, we are constrained by the canonical version of Hamlet, where the cast-list clearly specifies these characters as clowns.”

“Clowns who’ve drunk a few pints of the soothing brown fluid,” Astragalus pointed out, in a voice that could itself do with some soothing.

A Saharan storm of dust swirled around as Ed waved the script at imaginary flies. “So you two plan to play these clown characters? Red rubber noses and big flappy clown shoes?”

Patella permitted himself the luxury of a gentle smile of condescending superiority. “Red noses… big shoes… Really, Mr N’Bro, times have moved on in the world of clowning. Where have you been for the last 25 years?

“Gutters, mainly,” Ed admitted with his usual honesty.

“Clownishness is not something you can acquire by donning a pair of baggy striped trousers with red braces; it is a spiritual quality. It is a philosophy; an outlook on life.” Patella had performed this speech frequently if his fluent delivery was any guide. To emphasise its rhythmic cadences, Astragalus accompanied the speech with an inaudible soundtrack – lots of crescendos and glissandi – which he played on a keyboard he imagined on the bar-top in front of him, while swivelling from side to side on his stool. “Outwardly one is all hilarity and unpredictable antics and pratfalls; inwardly one is bowed down with a melancholic sense of futility. Such is the essence of clownishness.” Meanwhile Astragalus tossed back his head to flick the non-existent hair out of his eyes in a gesture intended to conjure up images of the temperamental young Beethoven performing his compositions, though he looked more like a grumpy cockatoo. He brought his fingers crashing down on the bar in a mighty (though silent) chord. Patella concluded: “The tears of a clown, Mr N’Bro… they are the saddest in the world.” He bowed.

“However, they make the best martinis,” added Astragalus. This reminded him of something. He squared up his medical bag on the bar and opened it, straining at the handles as if fighting the force of internal springs. When the mouth of the bag finally gaped open, he looked carefully inside – lining up his hand to grab a thermos flash which occupied most of its interior. His lunge was as fast as the strike of a snake, but even so it was barely fast enough, for the hands of the bag slammed together again like the jaws of a gin-trap. He poured himself a glass of ice-cold, pre-mixed clowns-tear cocktail.

Ed browsed further into the script. By now he was well into the second half. “This sounds a lot like the climax of The Revenger’s Tragedy,” he noted. “Where Vindici and Hippolito smear poison on the skull of Gloriana and then trick the evil Duke into kissing it.”

Patella nodded his enthusiasm. “Oh yes, Act II is The Revenger’s Tragedy – but again, from the perspective of the skull. This way we get to skip over all the tedious intrigues leading up to the confrontation with the Duke, because the skull was not always in a position to observe them. But the page you’re on is only the prelude. Skip to the important scenes of Act II, once everyone has been stabbed or poisoned… ‘shuffled off this mortal coil’, as the Bard so beautifully puts it.”

Astragalus thought it had been too long since his last interruption. “Shuffled? More like pole-vaulted!” He waved his cocktail glass in a suitable pole-vaulty gesture, spilling a few drops in the process, some of them splashing as far as the birdcage. The smell of embalming fluid scented the air. The bird glared and stood up stiffly as high as its legs and the cage would permit, with all the dignity of the front end of a pantomime horse.

Ed shook his head in scepticism. “My customers are broadminded, but I don’t know how much interest they will take in a play where much of the action in the second half consists of dead bodies lying on stage; or how much this will aggravate their thirsts.”

“Allow me to allay your concerns’” said Patella allayingly. “Two palace gardeners arrive on the stage to clear up the mess, trundling wheelbarrows of manure, which come in handy for carting away the carnage. They exchange philosophical asides about the occupations and ages of different people, and how this affects their quality as fertiliser. Then they run the wheelbarrows over each other’s toes.”

“Any more subliminal messages to encourage drinking?”

“The messages are more about gardening,” came Patella’s reluctant admission. “The script was customised to the venue where we last performed the play, which was a garden supply nursery. They paid us in liquid compost.”

“Tasted disgusting,” complained Astragalus, the memory wrinkling up his face in an expression like an elephant’s bum.

Ed read out a few lines of stage direction. “Holding ladder under arm, 2nd Gardener turns round in search of 1st Gardener. As ladder sweeps around, one end catches 1st Gardener from behind and knocks him into the trench. Hearing 1st Gardener shout, 2nd Gardener turns round the other way to look for him. Other end of ladder swings around, strikes bucket of paint, knocks it into the trench on top of 1st Gardener.”

“They bring along the bucket of paint so they can paint the roses black in mourning,” Astragalus explained helpfully.

“Indeed?” Ed wondered with imperfect sincerity. “Do they also carry rakes? Do hi-jinks and hilarity ensue when 2nd Gardener steps on the tines of a rake so that the handle pivots up and whangs him on the nose?”

“We can write a rake scene if you like,” offered Patella, though Astragalus showed less enthusiasm for the thought. “Allow me to say that the suggestion does credit to your natural grasp of the rhythms and conventions of physical comedy.”

“I assume that you play these two rôles as well.”

Patella bowed his head modestly. “We garden, in our own way. We keep planting…”

“None of them ever sprout!” growled Astragalus, sounding like a train wreck.

“The shadow of a cloud of a suspicion of a doubt crosses my mind that you are not really actors at all,” Ed announced.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Act iii could be the story of The Phantom (but told from the perspective of the Skull Cave?

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

This is clearly over 140 characters!

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Patella... astralagus... Skull Cave... hey, where's the Thursday Skull Post?

I don't wanna haveta post any Misfits' songs, now!

mikey said...

All the while a large black bird sat at the crest of the roof, head cocked as he studied them with unblinking eyes.

SCREE!! he cried out. SCREE!!

Smut Clyde said...

hey, where's the Thursday Skull Post?

I have subcontracted them to my grown-up sister.