Bewildering Stories

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by Toby Wallis

There was a jester on the underground, but his presence seemed to be bothering no one. They were all too busy looking at their shoes, or at the posters on the sides above the windows, or being certain only to make eye contact with friends. The bells on his hat and sleeves jangled as the train banked and dipped along the tunnel of the northern line. He was watching them, arcing his head gently from person to person, watching them read and stare and wait. He noticed things, the way a hand gripped a rail, or the way someone shifted weight from one leg to another to account for the shifting train. He noticed brands of shoes and titles of magazines. His eyes were thin, peering out from behind ragged mascara.

A hiss appeared over the hidden speakers, declaring the rapid approach of Camden Town station, and that to reach Edgware or Mill Hill East a change here would be necessary.

Most of the people crowded out through the sliding doors and followed exit signs and climbed stairs like rats in a tube, tickets ready to pass through the gates. The jester moved slowly with deliberate steps. People hurried past him, curving around and hunching shoulders to get by. They eyed his peppermint coloured costume with suspicion and amusement.

The people emerged from the network of tunnels and dispersed into the sunlight joining the crowds on the high street and becoming absorbed into them. The jester sauntered out, unhurried, looking about him with slow turns of the head which surrounded him with the delicate sounds of the bells.

He emerged from the stale darkness onto the high street, sunlight glaring from shop windows, he thinned his eyes further. Saturday on Camden high street, it was littered with black leather and eyeliner, Mohawks and fishnets. His skin-tight costume of white and green diamonds, which flared at the sleeves and ankles, looked almost at home here. Hats much like his own were on sale in some of the shops.

A man approached him, topless and sunburnt he walked with a drunk stagger. “Hey,” he said. The jester stopped and turned to face him. The man smelt of hot whiskey. “Have you got some money? I got burnt and need to buy some cream or something.” The man turned away from him, revealing a blistered scald on the back of his neck.

“Some bastard threw hot water at me.” The man said, struggling to articulate himself through his own apparent drunkenness. The burn was slick and glinted in the sunlight, which beat down upon it heavily, causing it to rend and cook further. The man turned back to the jester. “I need some cream.”

The jester looked at his face, unshaven, bruised in places. He stared directly into his eyes and when the man looked back into his he seemed to sober, he stopped swaying, stood perfectly still.

The jester’s mouth turned upwards slightly at the corners as the sensation of burning appeared on his neck. He could feel the water landing, searing the skin and boiling the flesh The mans face fell into a blank and after a few moments the jester looked away and continued walking down the high street. The man turned to watch him go and staggered slightly as though his drunkenness had returned to him in an instant. The sun beat down once more onto his burn and he winced in pain. He reached his hand around and seemed surprised to feel the bubbled, open wound.

Further down the high street the jester had stopped and was standing still. The path was thick with people. He began to move, the motion causing the bells to ring in a slow, demented rhythm. Slowly he danced, his arms flowing around him, his feet stepping and turning and lifting. The people turned to watch him as they walked past. He flicked his wrists and ankles to ring the bells as he danced, his movements were slow and graceful and perfectly in time with the sound he was creating. Some people stopped to watch, a few dropped coins, and he modified his dance to allow the sound of the coins hitting the ground to become a part of the rhythm.

As he danced he looked around at the people, looking directly into their eyes. He turned his attention from person to person. The rhythm of the bells increased its speed and his dance became more complicated, more exotic as he spun and weaved his body in ever more dramatic steps. The crowd had grown, all stood watching the jester with unblinking eyes, mouths agape.

As he danced he could feel something rising within him. With smooth arcs of the head he looked at the people, locking eyes and then turning to another, allowing his body to move in majestic swathes around his gaze. At first he felt thirsty, a desire to drink. And then something else, lust, bubbling beneath the surface of his thoughts. He felt a nicotine addiction, a sense of urgency, of lateness. He felt relaxed and angry and anxious and happy simultaneously. He felt alcohol surging in his bloodstream, the pain of a new tattoo, a memory of a television program and of a sexual encounter.

The people stood motionless watching, a blur of white and green mixed smoothly with the gentle sound of the bells, which slowed down as they stared. Gradually the jester decreased his movements, lessened the grandeur of his dance and extinguished the rhythm until he also was standing still. He took one last look at the people, turning his head carefully, causing no sound. He took one last moment of the feelings that floated in his mind and his nerves before snapping his eyes away and walking back towards the train station.

The crowd stood silent for a moment, no thoughts going through their minds, no feelings in their nerves. And one by one the desires and needs and emotions returned to them, leaving with a sense of surprise as they experienced these things as if for the first time, but leaving no memory at all of the jester, or his peppermint costume.

Copyright © 2003 by Toby Wallis

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