This story was inspired by a clown with a golden voice.
I wasn’t particularly bright at school. Maths confused me, sport was not my forte, my class mates laughed at my accent, but they did laugh. Speaking little English it was hard to settle, and every day was a trial. My life changed the day A.J. and his cronies corned me in the playground and although I was handy with my fists there were five of them, so I knew I was in for a beating.
Instead of showing how scared I was, I whipped off their caps, juggled and did acrobatics until the rest of the class came to see what was happening. Fortunately for me A.J. found my act amusing and from then on life was easier. As long as I played the clown I was popular and accepted by my school mates.
At sixteen the couple who fostered me were killed in a car crash and I was on my own. I went from one dead end job to another, moving constantly when I was unable to afford the rent for the one-room flea pits, and ended up on the streets. My home became the dingy, narrow alley behind a run-down theatre, but at least the overhang from the back door provided some shelter and the rats didn’t object when I shared their dustbins.
‘Hey! Who’s there? Come out now if you know what’s good for you.’
Disturbed from a fretful sleep it took me a while to register the giant of a man standing in the open doorway. My stomach growled as the smell of pizza wafted past him when I stood up to face him.
‘I wasn’t doing no wrong. Honest, mister.’
‘Come into the light where I can see you.’
Trembling from cold and fear I remembered the bullies but this time no amount of playing the fool would prove a distraction.
‘There’s nothing of you. What are you doing out here? Haven’t you got a home to go to?’
‘No, sir. Just keeping out of the rain.’
‘Have you eaten?’
‘You’d better come in for a bit. Wipe your feet.’
I followed him into the warmth and light of backstage as he led me to a small room, part kitchen, part dressing room, overflowing with props and costumes.
‘Help yourself. Want a hot drink?’
‘Yes, please,’ I answered as I attacked the food lying on a table. He watched as I devoured two large slices before stopping, realising I was being greedy.
‘Want a job?’ he asked in his gruff manner as my hands closed around the steaming mug of hot chocolate.
‘Yes,’ I answered immediately without asking what it entailed.
‘I need a night watchman to live in and help out with errands during the day. Can you cook? Nothing fancy, just breakfast. And you’d need to do some cleaning. Mucky lot these performers. Can’t pay much but you’d have your own room and meals. Interested?’
That was the start of it. Harry was as good as his word and although some of the artistes were divas I loved the life. The shows were varied and attracted some well-known international acts. One night, a warm-up performer slipped during rehearsals and was carted off to hospital with a broken leg. I found Harry in his office an hour before we were due to open looking glum.
‘What you going to do, Harry?’ I asked. ‘Can you get a replacement?’
‘I’ve tried but it’s too short notice. Don’t suppose you can juggle, can you?’
‘Actually, I can, although I’ve never performed on stage. Want me to give it a go?’
I was so nervous when I started I dropped everything, but instinct took over and I turned it into a clown routine. For a moment there was silence, then someone laughed and I was swept away by the applause as I finished my act and went to face Harry.
‘Looks like I need a new runner,’ he said. My face fell. After all he had done for me I had let him down and was out of a job. ‘But don’t think I’m paying you performer’s wages all the time. Normal rates but with a bonus when you fill in. OK?’
‘I’ll have to check with my agent,’ I joked. ‘Thanks, Harry. Even when I’m rich and famous I’ll never forget what you’ve done for me.’
Over the next few years I carried on living in the theatre, although after clearing out two of the larger store rooms I now had my own self-contained apartment. The extra money from my intermittent performances paid for new furniture and smart clothes, and Harry began to look on me as more of an assistant than a cleaner. He implemented some of my ideas, the theatre flourished and life was good.
I was due to perform on the night he was taken ill. He had been off-colour with chest pains for a few days, and shortly before we were due to open I insisted on calling an ambulance. It shows how serious it was that he agreed, although he insisted I do the show rather than accompany him to the hospital.
I had adopted full clown regalia for my act but was so worried my heart wasn’t in it; I was losing my audience. After some desultory clapping I pulled a chair onto the stage, signalled to the technician to dim the lights and had the musicians play the intro to ‘Send in the Clowns.’
That night I sang my heart out. The emotion poured through me as I remembered my early life, how I had hit rock bottom and was rescued by the man who had become like a father to me. He had restored my self-respect and I prayed to God for his recovery. The applause was deafening as I finished but I had no time for the man saying he had a proposition for me as I threw off my costume and dashed away to visit Harry.
It was a minor heart attack but he made a full recovery. I took over the running of the theatre while he recovered, and the impresario I had snubbed on that fateful night returned to offer me a contract.
Now, ten years later, I’m standing in the wings of the Teatro Opera House, waiting to perform in front of thousands of people. I’m rich, famous and wearing the finest tuxedo money can buy, but it will be replaced for the finale by a tattered and torn clown’s costume in tribute to the man who turned my life around.
© Voinks June 2018