Peter van Straten Art by Peter van Straten


Barton the clown stood at solemn attention in his tiny room, his back turned to his bed. For a minute or so he didn’t move, waiting for his room to look right – for all the ugly, modern things to go away.

When they finally had, he bent slowly forward at the waist, as if taking the deepest bow, and with a heart-felt sigh sank backwards into his ancient mattress.

For a while he simply sat there – exhausted but pleased at least with his room. Summoning his last scraps of energy, he swung one foot onto the brass bed-end and began untying his shoelace. The shoe was black, about two feet long and opened at the end in a comic mouth. Despite its age it was in beautiful condition – it had been polished every weekday morning for the past twenty years.

Barton held the shoe in his hand and it spoke, dolefully turning its six shoelace hole eyes up at him.

“You must return to your place of birth,” said the shoe, its voice nasal, and self – effacing, “your mother is crying”

The tired clown stared at the shoe, then shrugged, and flung it onto the floor. He heaved his other leg onto the bed-end, and removed the other shoe. But this one only echoed the first, as he knew from long experience it would.

“He’s right you know,” said the other shoe, “she is crying, your mother-.”

“Too bad,” replied Barton, flinging the shoe towards the other.

He pulled off his nose and his hair, and finally laid down his bald, exhausted head.

“I need to be asleep,” he mumbled at the shoes, and within a minute he was.

Barton was awoken some hours later by the fierce pounding of small fists on his door. Sitting up he was not surprised to find his shoes waiting neatly beside his bed, looking expectantly up at him with their twelve deceptively innocent little eyes.

“OK! OK!” he yelled as he swung his feet over the edge of the bed, shuffling into his shoes as he approached the door.

He opened the door.

On the landing stood the twins, the Landlady’s children. They were joined at the waist and shoulders. They had only one arm each and their gray clothes, his on one side, hers on the other, were joined up the middle by a row of very large leather buttons.

“Past?” asked the boy, “or future?” squeaked the girl as soon as Barton had opened the door.

“Oh bugger,” mumbled Barton, his mind still slow and irritable. “Whatever… past.”

The twins grinned simultaneously and from behind their communal back the girl pulled (very slowly, for dramatic effect) a gray rose, its petals made from burned newspaper, the tiny print still legible.

This beauty woke Barton properly and he took the rose with terrible gentleness. Strange that it was possible, he realized then, for a burned newspaper rose to be the most beautiful flower he had ever seen. He looked at the two faces, so full of expectation and so grateful for his gratitude. Turning his back on them he walked over to the tiny basin beneath the window and placed the rose carefully in his toothbrush cup.

He turned, very slowly, to face the twins. For a while he scrutinized them, then suddenly his shoes swung up towards the ceiling and he landed on his hands. Next, reaching up between his legs and grabbing onto his braces with one hand – so that only one hand remained to hold him – he made a great show of arching his back and by clinging onto his braces pulled himself upward until, with one last effort, he sat down on the soles of his shoes – which was impossible!

Barton stared at the twins. He stared at them, utterly absorbed in their twin essence, and the twins stared back, open-mouthed with amazement.

He let this “sinking in” continue until it was just about to break. Then he pulled one foot out from beneath his backside, and reaching out with the long black shoe, gave the door a nudge, so it swung slowly closed on the two adoring faces.

Beyond the door he heard their applause and grudgingly smiled, although he was glad that he didn’t have to witness the unnerving sight of their clapping.

He swung his other leg out from under himself and landed on his feet. He stood at attention and stared out of his tiny window over the city. Suddenly he yearned to be gone from his room.

“My mother, hey…?” But the shoes made no reply, their mouths being filled with his feet.

‘Mother indeed,’ thought Barton. He had never met his mother. He didn’t know who she was or where she lived. She wasn’t even a vacuum he could fill with anger or yearning or worse. She was No Mother, or Nother.

‘Just a Nother,’ thought Barton.

“Ok,” he said, glancing down with a sigh, “if you two think you know where she is, then lead on…”

Outside it was a clear and beautiful evening and since his shoes knew where to take him he could focus all his attention on the city’s little nooks and crannies, its whispers and hints, the secrets it kept from its inhabitants.

For years he had thought of evening as “The Crying Time” because in the evenings – just before the sun sank into the sea and the earth lost its colour – all the tiny city sights, which in the day were so mundane, became almost frighteningly meaningful, and made him want to cry. It was the only time he could really, truly, love reality.

In the evenings he cried tears for The Terrible Sorrow that is the Beauty of Life.

Evening was the time of The Great Shadows. The time when shadows, after an entire afternoon of humble and secretive growth, finally became bigger than the objects they shadowed until they covered everything. And then, like deluded misers, they were doomed to share all they had hoarded with others (with the very night itself) only to be robbed again by dawn.

The shoes led on and Barton followed, obeying by habit their subtle nudges. He approached the centre of the silent city where the shadows had taken everything.

The city frightened him, and tears streamed down his cheeks as he walked. He became aware of footsteps behind him. Glancing back quickly he saw a shirtless youth in jeans with the head of a mule and tattoos of dolls’ heads on his arms.

His shoes walked faster, tasting his fear in the sweat between his toes. He heard more feet join those behind him and walked faster still. Out of a narrow side-street emerged a skinny girl with dreadlocks and large, emotionless eyes. She walked right up to him and took his hand without looking back at the people behind. They sped on and then the tiniest, most shriveled old woman he had ever seen stepped into the road up ahead. She waited until they were right by her and then she reached out a trembling hand… In his haste Barton nearly pulled her off her feet. He looked down then, left and right at his two companions (quite amazed they could keep up) and saw that their cheeks too were wet with tears, although their faces betrayed no emotion.

Judging by the sounds, they now had behind them a vast crowd of people and Barton couldn’t understand why they had not been slaughtered or trampled already. And then – strangest miracle of all! – the crowd behind them started singing. The old crone and the little girl looked up at him. He turned round and saw every conceivable type of villain he could imagine. Gangsters with chains wrapped around their fists. Huge bouncers with bald heads and dark-glasses like open, shouting mouths. Youths in ripped-up clothing, with toothed, singing wounds. Men in suits, looking ordinary except for the unreal cold of their scheming eyes, pupils opening and closing in song. They were all singing now and holding hands. Even the little girl and the old woman had started singing and their faces had developed a hopeful radiance in the gloom. Barton realized that for some reason he was in a musical, and suddenly felt himself saturated by relief. How much easier things were when one was in a musical!

Suddenly he stopped.

The singing stopped too, dying in an instant.

He was standing three feet from a large collection of flowers gathered in tin buckets at the base of an enormous concrete wall. In amongst all the flowers, almost totally hidden by petals and leaves sat the flower lady, who winked at the little girl with the dreadlocks and then turned her face up to look at him.

“Won’t you be buying a rose for the twins?” she asked, tilting her face to one side.

He nodded.

She selected a rose, its petals like folded blood, and held it out to him.

He let go the dreadlocked girl’s hand and with trembling fingers reached into his coat. He pulled out some notes but when he looked at the flower lady’s face again he saw that she had frozen solid, like stone, her hand with the rose still outstretched. He stared in horror and disbelief at a crack, no wider than a hair that ran right down the poor woman’s length – from the crown of her head to the hem of her dress. Entranced he pushed at her outstretched hand, and as he did so that side of her body swung open like a door, revealing – beyond her sheer, glassy innards – a long passage, such as you’d find in an old hotel.

Bewildered, and frightened that he may have done something wrong he looked back over his shoulder, only to discover that everyone else had also turned to stone, and no one was aware of him at all!

With great difficulty he prized his left hand from the stony grip of the little old woman – scared he might break off her fingers! – and placed the money on the pile of newspapers next to the open flower lady.

He tried to take the rose he had bought for the twins but discovered it was impossible to remove it from the flower seller’s fingers without breaking it off, so he left it where it was.

Barton turned and looked back through the forest of statues, impossibly dense in their frozen strangeness. Retreat was impossible. Turning back to the flower lady and bowing as low as he could, he crawled through her open body and onto the soft red carpet of the passage beyond.

He paused. The passage was suffused by a dim glow as if it were being lit by old electricity. Electricity that had come unstuck in time but worked nonetheless. Bits of the wall broke off at irregular intervals like blobs in a lava lamp and drifted across the passage before him and behind him, to be reabsorbed by the wall on the opposite side.

The passage made him nervous and he walked carefully forward, keeping an eye on the walls. After about twenty paces he came to a photograph and stopped to look at it. The sepia image was hard to make out behind its dirty glass but seemed to show about a hundred very old people, as happy as children and all naked, some holding hands, and all jumping on an enormous trampoline in the middle of which there was a vortex, bottomless and smooth, where the trampolines fabric stretched steeply down into darkness like water sucked into a whirlpool.

He walked on and after another twenty paces came to the next photograph, showing precisely the same scene as before but taken from a slightly different angle. So engrossed was he in the photograph that when a dog barked just behind him the fright made his heart feel like a fist punching inside his chest, and spinning around he found a collie dog jumping up and trying to bite blobs of wall as they came unstuck and barking angrily at them as they were reabsorbed. The dog paid no attention to him and he slowly backed away, putting more and more distance between himself and the collie, every twenty paces or so passing the same old people on their trampoline. He grew increasingly grew curious about what might be under the hole in the trampoline, and since the dog was a good distance away he started paying closer attention to the photos he passed, rubbing with his coat sleeve at the glass, until at last he discovered one that had been taken from directly above the dark hole, looking straight down into the vortex. He was looking very closely at the hole, his nose almost touching the glass, trying to see past his own reflection when the electricity reconnected with the present, flooding the passage with brilliance. He spun to his left in time to see that a naked woman – covered in wrinkles and screaming with fear and delight – was falling towards him. He fell to the floor as she flew over his head, closely followed by the collie who with furious barking followed her into the void. He jumped up, and was staring into the darkness after them, when a shrill “weeeee-oooo” made him fall flat on his face again. This time he didn’t look up to watch the faller disappear, but instead started crawling frantically forward. He crawled in blind panic along the endless passage as old people, one after the other, fell past him, screaming gleefully into infinity. He crawled until his hands, shoulders, and knees began to ache. He crawled until suddenly, with indescribable relief he realized that there was no wall to his left. He flung himself away from the passage and lay panting with his cheek against the soft red carpet. Staying right where he was, he twisted his head towards the passage from which he had escaped, expecting to see the next geriatric fall past. But nothing happened. The passage was still. He turned his head in the opposite direction, expecting to see a new passage ahead of him, but instead, not ten feet from where he lay, he saw a door. It was wooden, and had a large, and excessively well-polished brass doorknob half way up its right hand side. For a moment he stared at his tiny, limp reflection in the doorknob high above, then exhausted, fell asleep.

He was woken by the loud and urgent murmur of many voices, and the sound seemed to be coming from behind the door. Barton stood, stretched himself, and turned the cold doorknob.

Stepping quietly through the doorway he found himself at once on a tiny balcony, overlooking a large hall. He took another step and was immediately confronted by a thousand solemn faces – all looking up at him! When his audience saw him peer over the edge of the balcony, the crowd rose to its feet as one person.

He was staring in bewilderment at the crowd – their respectful, uncompromising gaze – when suddenly they started to sing. As if struck, he hunched down behind the little wall of his balcony, his heart slamming in his chest. The song had all the stolid pomp of a national anthem and was accompanied by a brass band. He wondered whether he was still in a musical. After a minute the noise stopped with the same breathtaking suddenness with which it had begun.

He listened, but heard no one sit, and he became increasingly uneasy. Still kneeling, he twisted around and tried the doorknob, but it wouldn’t turn. Confounded, and incapable of fighting off the growing sense of expectation all about him, he slowly stood, and only once he was fully erect did everybody else sit.

It looked to him as if all the people in the hall were Chinese, and all of them wore dark brown uniforms, topped by dark brown caps. On each cap there was a bright red star.

Trying to look as friendly and relaxed as possible, Barton cleared his throat. He wondered what on earth he was going to say. He knew almost nothing about China, and nothing about communist doctrine. His own opinions on the subject – he realized in a moment of sobering awareness – would just have to do.

“Comrades!” he said, and nearly suffered a heart attack when a loud, sharp voice from somewhere below him, called out something in Chinese. Then there was silence.

“I salute you,” he cried, trying to regain his composure. Again he was echoed by the voice below, the tone urgent, formal, severe. Barton the clown had a translator!

He raised one hand to feel if his wig was on straight.

“Today,” he continued, “we look back on the glorious years behind us,” the crowd seemed irritated by this, so he quickly added: “and think about the glorious years ahead.”

“Communism is a beautiful idea, but it is very difficult to implement successfully. Because it is so far in advance of the human psyche, at the place in its evolution that we find it today.”

“Maybe one day,” he continued, staring out over the solemn, upturned faces and feeling increasingly detached from his own voice, “when individuals have truly lost their greed for personal status, wealth or power; when the ego, through a process of perpetual spiritual evolution, has shed its baser needs, communism may lift us all onto a higher plain of shared existence. For now, however, we need to consider more practical paradigms of governance, that are built upon the foundation of man as he is, not man as we wish him to be.”

He was surprised by his sudden eloquence but he was becoming aware that his translator was starting to sound surly, leaving longer and longer gaps between translations. Suddenly he had an idea that he might not be in the year he had assumed he was in.

“I ask you comrades, what year is it?”

“Jjsgfksghdfkh?” boomed his translator

But the crowd was silent.

“Come,” tried Barton desperately, “speak freely.”

He waited.

“hjgfkjsgfkh” called out a man in the front row.

“Nineteeh fifty too!” yelled his interpreter.

Barton went pale, and clutched at the end of his box.

His heart was beating unpleasantly fast.

“Comrades!” he gasped, “get me down from here and I’ll show you something.” He would make a dash for it, once he was near an exit.

But even after his translator’s echo no one made a move, so he started to climb over the wall of the balcony. Down below people started to move away, creating an open space beneath him.

“You must make a ladder for me,” called Barton looking down between his feet, which, because of his long shoes, had to be pushed flush against the suspended wall, only barely clinging to the tiny ornamental ridge that framed it. Barton thought he was going to fall when mercifully (noticing his need to descend) one of the men below got onto another’s shoulders, and a third – assisted by others – climbed onto the second one’s back. A fourth man started climbing the wobbly human tower, until he was able to reach the balcony. The tottering tower looked very unsafe to Barton, but nonetheless he stepped gingerly onto the shoulders of the man on top. But as he started to move into a squatting position, the second man suddenly tipped forward and fell off the shoulders of the first, and Barton, as well as the man beneath him, fell head first to the floor.

For a few seconds after impact everything was hard black. Then Barton felt himself being shaken, and someone was shouting far away: “Yew mussnot move heem! Yew mussnot move heem!”

When he opened his eyes he was looking at a frilly black panty (that someone had on.) He moved his eyes slightly, and discovered that someone in a mini dress was squatting next to his head, shaking him by the shoulders. His mouth tasted strongly of metal.

With extreme and painful effort he turned his head away from the mini dress, and looked into the eyes of a poodle, sitting beside a swimming pool, its eyes full of playful curiosity. Then he looked straight up.

Up there was a woman, older than himself, with lots of make-up on her face. The make up was smudged and smeared and the woman was crying, her tears falling into his eyes and mouth.

“Oh Barty, oh my God not again!” Her mouth was twisted into an ugly trembling grimace. She bent down lower and he peered deep, deep into her, through the watery, wobbly surfaces of her eyes.

“I’ve called Doctor baby. Doctor’s coming.”

In the background he thought he could hear someone dancing, their feet shuffling this way and that.

“Whuh haffen?” he croaked, his jaws not meeting quite as well as they used to.

“You fell off the balcony, you fell-” the woman’s voice disintegrated into shaking, gasping sobs.

“Who um I ?” he managed.

Her eyes almost shut, she shook her head from side to side.

“Oh God Barty,” she half sang. “Oh God baby, don’t do this to me again.”

She held his head in her hands. He felt the cold pressure of her rings against his cheeks, his face was wet with her tears.

And then he smiled a funny, crooked, broken smile, because he realized he had found her.

“Mother,” he said.

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