In the round of the arena, black pumps settled on a dusty floor and a face turned toward a canvas sky. He was on the front row in his usual spot and in his usual state; transfixed by the trapeze rehearsals. Despite his constant gaze upwards, neck strain was never a problem for Pierrot. Sometimes he brought a sketchbook and graphite. Clothed in his loose costume, it was the only way his fellow performers recognised him, the Clown. The white makeup given a rest when not on duty.
“Have you nothing better to do, Pierrot?” Artem asked him from above. Pierrot ignored the man, gave no sign he had even heard the question.
This was the only thing for him to do. There was nothing else. Other than being clean. Bathing was Pierrot’s first love. It had been too long since the last time. The folds in his flesh were littered with a rash. Dusting powder no longer enough to stave away the damp, or the smell. He’d begged the boss to organise something for him at the next town. The next town was this one. He should go and check again. After the rehearsal that is exactly what he would do.
Below the trapezes, stagehands began setting up the spinning ring. The ring was a huge draw for the attendees of the circus. One of a kind; a metal frame that spun on the ellipse and was mounted on a support frame at either end. Tracks on the frame enabled the chair performers, whilst plenty of bars and joints supported the aerial silk team. A feat of mechanical engineering.
Pierrot sighed as the trapeze practice came to an end. Boris and Artem leapt down, they always made it look so easy. He watched them carefully. Another heated debate. These were happening increasingly often. Artem wandered off but Boris came toward the clown. Pierrot sat up a little straighter and placed a smile on his face. Don’t come too close, my sweet. I don’t want you to catch a whiff of the aroma I carry around.
Boris stopped as if he’d heard Pierrot’s thoughts.
“Are you okay? You look a little strained today, is something bothering you?”
“I’m alright. Thank you for asking though.”
Boris nodded in acknowledgement and continued past him and outside.
Right then, nothing left but to remind the boss about his dire need. He rose slowly from the seat, the faster he moved the more smell he’d give off. Even his gowns had started to yellow, especially around the crotch and armpit areas. He was alternating three of the costumes but they all needed a deep clean. Some of the knees and elbows were grubby and he didn’t know what else to do.
His place in the hierarchy of the circus was low. Very low. He needed permission for everything. Onward to the boss’s office. To Pierrot’s surprise the boss was expecting him.
Gemini Bathhouse; someone would be waiting for him there. He was to bring all his clothes for laundering. Everything. Excitement filled Pierrot’s bones as he packed his costumes into a bag. The boss said there were steam rooms, an exfoliating treatment, and a massage he could look forward to. Pierrot became aroused thinking about the touch he longed for. The pressure of palms on his body. He was overdue this treatment and the boss knew it. That would explain why it seemed so indulgent this time.
Pierrot left his caravan, making sure he had the map within one of his pockets. This time the circus was set up on a wasteland outside a greying town. He wore his only set of civilian clothing. The boss didn’t like townies making connections to the performers, Pierrot hated these clothes.
“Going somewhere nice, P?” Artem shouted from the backstage area that grew outside at every town. The performers’ caravans formed layers of concentric circles around a bonfire. Most would bring out camping tables and chairs to sit and chat between performances. Pierrot never joined them.
“I’m off on an errand,” he shouted back to nosy Artem.
Pierrot quickened his pace and found himself within the grey town sooner than he’d expected. He looked down at the map his boss had given him. He was close, the bathhouse was on this side of town.
Today is my day, everything is going my way.
He had five hours before the performance later that night. Plenty of time to get himself back up to scratch. He was going to enjoy himself. As if on cue, it was there again: the excitement clutching at him, and that feeling deep inside his pelvis.
The place was two streets away. The town was quiet, only laborers milled about getting food from street vendors. The shops and restaurants must be on the opposite side of town, he thought. The land is always cheaper to rent on the rougher edges, it was the same everywhere.
He arrived. Hardly able to contain himself he reached to ring the bell, but a voice stopped him.
“Pierrot, wait. You don’t have to do this.”
He turned to see Boris a few steps behind.
“What? Why? You followed…?” Pierrot felt confused, but flattered. What was Boris doing?
“You don’t have to do this. I’m sorry for following you, but I can’t stand back and watch this again.”
So that’s what the arguments were about with Artem. He’s losing it, not cut out for a life on the road.
The civilian clothes enhanced the acrobat’s beauty rather than diminished it; Boris couldn’t even pretend to be normal.
“Boris, I’m overdue some TLC that’s all this is. Nothing else.” He congratulated himself for not stumbling over his words. A truck trundled down the grey street, its inhabitant leaning out to get a better view of Boris. Pierrot wasn’t like other men, not like that anyway.
“Do you think I followed you here to stop you from having a wash? Don’t you see, Pierrot, it’s more than that, what they do here… in these places…”
“I’ve never been to this town before, I’m pretty sure you haven’t either…”
“It’s a set up, I know the boss’s scams. How long have you been in this circus?”
Pierott paused, his finger still above the doorbell, “Longer than you,” he pushed down. The bell reverberated into the walls beyond. The siren call of the bathhouse overwhelmed him. The thought of a clean body, face, feet, costume all too delectable. A buzzer sounded and Pierrot pushed the door open. He looked over his shoulder at Boris. “I’ll be fine, see you tonight. I’ll be looking up for you.”
“I’m sorry. I should’ve told you sooner, I wanted to—”
The pleading faded as Pierott made his way into the building. He followed the signs pointing downstairs. The humid air hit him along the staircase. The smell of tea tree, lavender, then camphor filled his nostrils. He began to perspire, the itch, the folds of his skin covered with sores, screamed at him. He hoped the staff here could help. He hoped he wouldn’t disgust them.
“How are you doing today?” A man dressed in blue cotton at a desk at the bottom of the stairs asked Pierrot.
“I’m okay, excited to be here,” the clown replied. “My boss arranged for me to attend today, I am Pierrot.”
“Yes, we have you here on the schedule. Welcome!”
The corners of Pierrot’s mouth turned upward as his shoulders relaxed. He left his laundry at the desk and followed the man to the changing area.
“Someone will come and collect you shortly. Put one of these on.” The man pulled a white waffle cotton robe from a shelf where they were folded on top of one another. Pierrot wanted to touch them. They were so white, so perfect; so clean. The man left Pierrot alone, leaving behind a fresh, grassy aroma. The clown made a mental note to ask for its name on the way out, he’d love to smell like that every day. If it were sold somewhere nearby he could go home via the perfumery.
The changing room was all terrazzo. Four cubicles on one side and a long row of benches opposite with mirrors above. He didn’t bother with a cubicle, being here alone, there was no point. He tugged at his civilian clothes and shoes and placed them on the bench.
Standing straight, he examined himself in the mirror; his beastly skin marbled with the pinky-red rash. A wave of worry washed over him; what if the treatments here stung, what if they made his skin worse? He couldn’t bear the reflection any longer and grabbed the robe. As he put it on he realised it was far too small for him. He went back to the shelf near the door to try and find one in a bigger size. He felt sick. This should be an enjoyable experience. There was a knock at the door.
“I’m not quite ready yet,” Pierrot said as he rifled through the robes. He took one that seemed bigger and put it on. It was still on the small side, but at least this overlapped and covered him up. Opening the door, he found the therapist waiting for him.
“Sorry about that, I had some issues with the robe.”
“No problem, you aren’t wearing it for long so there are no problems.” The therapist had an accent he didn’t recognise. They walked down the corridor and then directed Pierrot into a shadowy, small room.
“We start with massage.” The therapist explained. “You strip, lie face down on the treatment table. Put your face through this hole. This towel is for your modesty but I’ll be moving it around as I work on your body.”
“Thank you,” was all Pierrot managed to say. The therapist left the room. Pierrot trembled as he hung the robe up and climbed onto the table, following the instructions exactly. He lay there grateful for being on his front, the anticipation was almost too much to bear.
The warm room made him sweat, the itchy crevices of his skin pleading for attention. He gazed at the floor below the table, his features squashed into the face cradle. A knock at the door and the therapist reentered.
“You are here to relax, I will help you.”
“Thank you.” Saliva dropped out of his mouth onto the tiles below as he tried to speak.
“You don’t need to talk.”
He felt a pair of hot, damp towels on his neck. They pushed along his spine and down to his buttocks. It gave him goosebumps, his skin felt alive where they’d passed over. Then again, this time from the tops of his shoulders down his torso, over his ribcage and to his waist.
He flinched. “Sorry, I’m a little ticklish there.”
“No worries. We need to loosen you up.” The therapist ran the cloths over him more delicately this time. Then collected fresh ones for cleaning his arms and legs.
“Now we start the massage. We fix this rash for you.”
The kneading began. Around his neck at first, then across his shoulders. There were lots of knots, lots of clicking. The borders between pain and pleasure blurred. He felt the therapist’s elbow under his shoulder blades loosening things up.
The therapist brushed down his arms and legs with a steaming body brush. He couldn’t tell if his skin was stinging anymore, everything felt on fire.
“Now we do your facial. Roll over, please.”
Pierrot did as instructed. He covered his enlarged groin with the towel and closed his eyes, waiting for the more precise work on his face. It was then he felt a needle in his neck, his eyes sprang open and he tried to get up.
“Don’t worry, this is normal. You’ll be fine in a moment. You won’t feel a thing.”
The therapist held him down, he was losing any power he’d had. He couldn’t feel his hands, nor could he tell if he was even breathing. The numbness travelled quickly through his body. He tried wiggling his toes and then he was out.
A second therapist came in dressed in similar clinical scrubs. They wheeled in a tray of surgical tools and a large bin.
“Is he slackened?” They prodded Pierrot’s abdomen.
“Yes, very loose now. It shouldn’t be a problem removing this one.”
“Good work, this a hide replacement only, they want him to keep everything else.”
“We still remove some memories though, right?”
“Yes, yes of course. Let’s begin.”They worked with a skill that came from repetition. The therapists sliced into Pierrot and removed his skin. Every part of his epidermis was peeled away, revealing a milky, near transparent flesh. Underneath was a steely mechanical structure: Pierrot’s skeleton.
“The silicone is starting to rupture.”
“That explains the rash, we should seal that. We’ll have to add it to the bill.”They set about their work, Pierrot’s old skin was thrown in the bin and its replacement wheeled in.
Later, Pierrot woke up on a lounger. The robe around him, fitted him like it had been made to measure. He must have dozed off. He felt groggy, but oh so clean. The therapist came in, smiling this time.
“I was about to come and wake you. It’s time you were getting back to the circus, there’s sure to be a queue forming.”
“Thanks. Yes, I was wondering what time it was.”
“Your things have are all laundered and are waiting for you in the changing rooms. We cleaned everything you brought with you.”
“Wonderful, thanks for everything.”
At least he wouldn’t smell anymore. He was ashamed for letting it get as bad as it had. He dressed in the clean, civilian clothing and packed away the costumes. He headed back to the circus site, consulting the map more than he’d care to admit.
Artem spotted him arriving back into the camp and came straight over.
“Have you seen Boris? He’s not come back yet.”
“Come back from where?” Pierrot said.
“Didn’t he leave with you earlier?”
“No, I haven’t seen him since this morning when you two were arguing.”
“Yes, of course. You’re feeling much better now? You look it.”
“I am like a new man.” Pierrot said as Artem turned away. “Are you worried about Boris? Does the boss know he’s missing?”
“Yes, and no. I’d better go and tell him.”
Pierrot got back to his caravan and put his bag on the table inside. He went to the mirror and pulled off the T-shirt. His skin was beautiful, so smooth, there was no sign of the rash, nor the odor from before. The bathhouse had performed a miracle. Something did smell though, the caravan needed a clean. He hung the costumes up and opened the windows wide. There was an hour before the performance time.
As dusk fell the music of the circus boomed through the speaker system for the waiting guests. Pierrot put on one of his laundered costumes. It no longer irritated his skin. The caravan was clean and his face painted back to its chalky Clown White. Everything felt right again. Sitting back down at his dressing table he started to attach the ruff around his neck and heard a tap at the door.
“It’s open,” he called out, as he fiddled with the fasteners. The small door to the caravan swung open and in stepped Boris.
“Good evening, Pierrot.”
“They found you then?”
“I don’t know what you mean. I’ve not been anywhere.” He sat down and put his head in his hands.
“That’s exactly what I said. Artem tried to tell me you’d come with me to the Baths.” Pierott finally fastened up the ruff at the back of his neck and looked up at Boris through the mirror. He looked beautiful; covered in gold sequins with scarlet feathers entwined in his black curls. Was he crying?
“I’m scared, Pierrot. My head feels strange, I thought you might have some painkillers here.” He lifted his head off his hands and swooned, then his chin began to judder. He tried to speak but it was gibberish. Pierrot turned on his chair as Boris’s nose began to bleed. His body slid off the small cushioned caravan settee and began convulsing. He banged his head on a cupboard on the way down to the floor, scraping the side of his face up to the ear.
Pierrot jumped off his chair and tried to lift him onto the seat again. The acrobat’s head lolled around on his neck. Pierott called out for help while Boris convulsed in his arms and the gold sequins flew everywhere, covering the inside of the caravan. Then Pierott saw the scrape had caused the ear to be severed from Boris’s head. He stopped convulsing. Pierott knew no one was coming. No one had heard him over the loudspeakers. He placed Boris’s body on the settee and stood. Blood covered the front of his costume and the sequins clung to the red like stars in a claret sky.
Since 2010, Susan Earlam has written for a wide variety of media outlets. But, the call of the strange and unusual has grown irresistible. Now, she mixes words like potions at her laptop in South Manchester. Currently, looking for an agent for her first novel, she procrastinates by writing shorter, and weirder, stuff.
Photo by Alexander Shustov on Unsplash