Death of a Clown

After a disasterous attempt to run a schizophrenic restaurant, 
 by day one thing, by night another,
 which saw me consuming bottles of Champagne and Blue Bombay Gin with alacrity and some considerable dexterity,  I  hosted  a Millennium Ball that would put a roman orgy and the worst displays of Caligula in the hapenny place - it  began with a drunken priest skidding on a vol au vent and bringing  an 8ft mirror filled with  canapés down  on top of himself and ended in a shirtless brawl in the Bullring - 

Can someone pick up the Priest?

I put my head in my hands and surveyed the  bulging black bag of invoices and reconsidered.  
I had already tried coffee shop, wine bar, music venue, intimate bistro, fine dining and ultimately, pot luck.  With hindsight, it would have been easier to dispense with the middle man and just throw the money over the quay.
 I may as well have been nailing jelly to a tree.
I put the white on the window and repaired to an adjacent hotel with the Crosaire and an espresso, to contemplate my next career choice, when my phone rang.
Can you join a ship this evening as a chef?  says a man.
Begob and I can, says I.
This was when I still used to say yes to life. 
Nowadays, I am more likely to respond Hell, no - or not in these heels. 
I packed an overnight bag and a book, and took a train to the Harbour.
 In the breeze blocked hallway of the Irish Ferries offices, I follow the suited man down a warren of carpeted hallways as he hands me out sets of whites and checks. We thought you were a man says he, as he hands me the giant XXL jackets and pants. I am  loving the neckerchiefs and aprons, the shoes - not so much.
They are white and steel capped and size 9.
I can get into a 3 if I have to. 
“You can swap onboard”   says he with a hopeful smile. 
 I believed him. 
These shoes do not fit

 He leads me aboard like a lamb to the slaughter. A man in a high- viz shouting into a walkie -talkie nods me over to the lift, and I can smell petrol and metal and feel the power of the sea beneath me, the giant ship rocking and suckling at the quay wall.   I arrive out into the passenger entrance on deck 7 and a curious steward takes me to my cabin and tells me to come back downstairs when I am “boxed off
 I am on nights.
I stare around the cabin. Twin pink bunks, pink blankets, pink sheets. It is 2001 but this is not a space odyssey. I put on the clothes. I am in a  lather from rolling up things and from pulling down things.  The sleeves, the legs  - the sleeves. The shoes are massive. There is no way on Gods little green appled  earth they will stay on. I undress  again, re-dress in mufti and march around the ship looking for the duty free shop to buy socks.  £15 sterling on my visa later I have purchased and donned 3 pairs of Guinness socks, the ones only ever purchased by second generation septic tanks wearing mustard leisure suits. They were beside the Shillelaghs and cans of Irish air. I pressed a few hundred pens that played When Irish eyes are smiling just for fun. The blonde at the desk looks at me in disbelief. She thinks I am a passenger who has not disembarked, or a maniac, or both.  
“Just think what Toucan do” I proclaim and scooch the shoes on over them and limp up the stairs.
 At reception I am  handed  a giant white  hat that makes me look like the Pilsbury dough boy and I try to restrain my blonde curls under it. I look like the bastard love child of  Bette Davis and the Michelin Man.
Ships are bizarre demented  places. 
 They are like floating hotels that serve  gypsy weddings all day every day. 
They are crewed by wildly disparate people who are used to packing a bag and heading to Africa following a phone call. One joined the ship on a horse at Dublin Port and slapped its arse and sent it off, one had an arm wrenched off in a collision with a jinxy bow door. They are hard as nails and unshockable. They shave each other’s eyebrows off when they are jarred and lock each other in with sweeping brushes when they are on watch.  
If 1000 people drive on board they are with you all day, and demand to be fed and watered and entertained. They can’t just wander off and have a walk or a bag of chips and come back for a nap.  You are either turned in or turned to. Turned in being turned to the wall for a kip and turned to being shoulders to the wheel. There is never a time when you can march down a crew alley, one nicknamed Sherrif Street for the amount of contraband that passed in one gangway and down another, without being told to whisht a thousand times. Big Mick is turned in, they will roar at you. Bernard is on splits. Paddy is on watch, Ronnie is on the wheel. The only time the whole ships company is present and correct, from the old man to the galley boy’s cat and the ship’s Mary, is when there is a fire drill happening.
I walked in on it.
State of your one though

400 eyes saw me framed at the top of the stairs looking like a miniature Krusty the Klown via Popeye, my oversize jacket rolled up, the legs of the navy checks folded up a thousand times, at half mast, the giant white clown shoes , the toucans on the socks.  
There was a split second of silence and then a wave of laughter. 
The man who is lecturing about the Marine Evacuation System  stops talking about inflating systems and pressure gauges and looks up at me. I could not be more purple. The irony of this is that it would be me, despite having no sea survival cert or an ability to swim, who would inflate the MES for the board of trade and be the first one down it. There is so much blood rushing around my body I feel faint and can hear a roaring in my ears. The crew are motley and varied and from all corners of the world but the humour here is ALL Dublin. 
It is savage.
Oh, Mrs your hair is only bleedin’ massive, shouts up a chef the same size as me, but from the safety  of a uniform that fits. 
There is nothing uniform about me.
 An hour later we are sailing away from the quay wall into the teeth of a gale that the captain calls a bit of weather. I am skidding around the galley trying to remember which hot box is mine, and how I keep a tsunami of 600 eggs from slipping out of a fryer built like a coffin when she rolls again. 
The shoes are a distinct hindrance. I am the only female in the Galley. I survive the seasickness by eating tiny cubes of chilled melon.
In the morning I crawled into the small pink bunk and slept. In the night, I did it again. I stayed on board for a week and had to take a ship to shore call from home as nobody knew where I was, I only knew where I was by looking out the porthole, the Bailey, or the Stack, the Heads or the Tuskar. After a number of months, I changed watch, trips, block, the colour of my hair and titles. 
I worked in every area of the ship.
 I loaded stores  and learned about Man United from the store man flying around the bowels of the ship on a trolley, drank strong coffee in the engine room with the beardy boys, signed articles to consent to be transported and given enough fruit not to get rickets,  carted linen to  cabins, brought steaks to tables of toothless Welsh truck drivers, poured pints for travelers at wakes and then hid behind the grating as the bottles flew, cleaned skidmarks off the backs of jacks , pulled tomato skins out of sinks, floated and noted,  and stood  like a relic of  aul decency in the Captains mess, awaiting instruction, my hands folded behind my back, my waistcoat buttoned.  
I watched a Maitre’d so drunk he waited a table in his underpants with his trousers folded across his arm like a tea towel.
I shaved a mans head  to fix the mess the boys had inflicted on him after he  came aboard to say hello to his brother and was passed out at the wrong lighthouse when we docked.
I lived in fear of a baby built like a tank who wore only a heavy gold chain and a  heavier nappy and ran amok in the duty free, smashing perfume and eating toblerones twice a month.  
I held hands with a stranger as we lost power in a perfect storm, as the waves broke over the bridge, and the tug chains snapped.

They've changed the duvets

It is because of this and my baptism of fire onboard that I could spot a new man at a thousand paces.
He had a head like Holyhead, and as long as a wet weekend in a caravan at Carnesore.
He had the face of the man from “One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, as long as a Kardashian at a mirror, with 2 tufts of hair at the side. The only thing missing from his cartoon face  was a punchline. He stood   6ft 6” at the desk and signed in with the crew. I saw the tips of giant white shoes sticking out the top of his tartan hold-all.
 It was ironic that he was the Clown.
He had the saddest face I ever saw.
Every day he dressed in his cabin and made his features different with make- up and lipstick, drawing on a smile, presenting himself to the world and the children he was paid to please. He blew up balloons and fell over and took pies in the face and all the time when I passed him I could feel it, the palpable sense of otherness from him,  the loneliness, a feeling of being  cut adrift, loosened, all at sea.  
 All at sea. 
 I watched him sit alone at the table staring out at the gunmetal  waves while his meal cooled in front of him. He was polite, with a refined accent, and a mild stoic air. I tried to include him or engage, but I was too busy drawing on my own face and presenting myself to the world.  Chuck Palahniuk  once said , when somebody’s blood  is lapping at your feet, you WILL step back.

This is NOT the Clown but it could be

We only noticed he was missing when the children went berserk and ran riot and someone had to be paged to hoover up the popcorn and wipe down the bulkheads. I was on Cabin accommodation that week, which meant I could wear a T shirt and not have to deal with the general nonsense of the general public, hiding below stairs, if you will.
That bleedin’ Clown is missing and the place is in a jocker below” says the small chef when I walk through the crew galley dragging a gash bag after soojeying a cabin.
 I knew where the bleedin’ clown  was. 
He had a laminate hanging on the door saying please do not disturb or he would have been woken everytime we passed a lighthouse, which was a lot.
 I walked to his cabin and knocked.
 No answer. 
I knocked louder.
Then called out but the only sound was the roar of the engines and the sea.
 I took out my pass key and opened the door.
The cabin was pink.
The entire cabin was pink. 
Even though I was trying to process what I was looking at, I was simultaneously trying to write it in my head. My eyes scanned the small space, the intrusion, the violation as he laid there. His clothes strewn around, wallet and papers on the deck, vulnerable and laid bare, the minutae of this solitary mans life displayed around the room, I entered his space and stepped through the pink substances, and walked to where he lay on his back and cradled his giant head in my hands. 
Beside me at the bedside was a glass of water with pink jelly gunk  in it,  
his teeth on the locker with pink gloop clinging to the shiny white enamel,  
and across one of his giant white clown shoes,  a trail of mottled crimson slime.  

Actually, I'm full, thanks

 It looked like a giant hand had upended a strawberry trifle all over the kip.  
There was a scream from the door,a flurry of faces,  then the sound of pounding feet as they ran to get the Master At Arms and the Purser. 
 I wondered if he felt the blood roaring in his ears as he bled out.
 I wondered if he felt his heartbeat in his throat.  
I wondered how his family would react coming to a port to collect the body of their son.  
He was going, then gone, but I stayed there, frozen in the moment, frozen in time. The next time I looked up the Chief Purser is standing framed in the door with a face like thunder on him.
Madam” - says he  - what have I told you before about the gloves?”

MDM July 2015


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