The Scrimstone Circus Gospel :: part one

To read more about this piece, have a look at the previous post, which has links to all manner of things about it, and the book of which it is part… The illustration at the head of the page is a detail from Rima‘s accompanying pencil drawings, to which the previous post also has links.

Вся время губит и вся покрывает

Вся тлит время и в конец превращает

Едину истину аки свое племя

Хранит блюдет и открывает время.

Time destroys and covers up all;

All is decomposed and brought to end by time.

Only truth and its offspring

Are conserved, protected and revealed by time.

from Иѳіка ієрополітіка (1712)

Part One: The Outlaw’s Life (and A Death)

Listen to me. I wasn’t born for birthday parties and scented candles in the twilight bath or string quartets on the lawn. I wasn’t made for clean handkerchiefs and your mother’s approval at the dinner table. Oh no. I was born for rock’n’roll, sea shanties and the smell of diesel on the harbour walls at dawn. I was made for bear claws on bark, for fires in the wasteland where desperate men in greasy overcoats swig vodka in the sparse snow and cold so tight and empty you can barely see a flame in it or the shape of hope in the dark. I was born for broken glass and imperfect love and riding the rusty trains home when the last-ditch grail-quest has failed and all the knights have spent their blood and wine on wrong questions asked of nobody in the three-penny hours of darkness. I was born to live wild under the hill, in the belly of the alembic, in the sperm of the whale and the heart of the gold. I staggered into the world breathing fire and ferocious dreams of the Inferno – when I awoke, I was a child. I don’t know how it happened. All the grit and grease and the tugboat diesel fury was washed off me in a church font and I had to begin again, quickly forgetting who I’d been and why. Ha. I thought I was a child, born mortal and fearing. Some trick they pulled on me there, my friend.

It was good to be young. It felt like morning, like waking up without the desperate life-long love-sick depression of a million years on the breadline. Like a silver and blue morning, clean and possible. A ripple of a morning on a day-blue lake. I pointed at pigeons in the sky and they became swans and doves. My dreams were all of butterflies and swallows and dragons that scarcely weighed an ounce. You could have taken a year of my dreams and scattered them in the wind: they’d still be floating like dandelion dust in the air. I flew kites. Me! Kites without razor blades or ground glass, without fire or drunken madness or drugs in the sand-dunes and kites left to sail into forgetting. Face paints and grasshoppers; spinning tops and a face sticky with jam.

My mother made us a world of dancing and wonder and Christmases where Father Christmas wasn’t drunk or stealing the silver, where the snowmen didn’t melt or suffer strokes in the deep midwinter night. She did her best. I couldn’t bring myself to break the spell by whispering to her bosom, ‘Lady, I think you got the wrong child here.’ I shut up and sucked tit and all the world was a glory of mother and child. To her, I was Jesus Christ incarnate, gullible enough in her motherhood to believe that her baby boy wouldn’t play with guns or swear.

Not so my father, a sailor and a drunkard with other ideas. When he came home at last and saw this snow-white, surprising fruit of his loins, he didn’t see the wonder of it all. He saw a host of possibilities and a pile of gold coins as tall as a house, an accomplice for his Various and Terrible Confidence Tricks… My mother tried to dissuade him, but he was too intent and I was remembering the smell of brimstone and whisky. I took quickly to the new agenda and my mother’s heart withered like pale skin around a burn.

I remember my christening gown, white as a goose and about as yellow in places too. If I’d been the priest, I’d have stayed at home that day – as it was, I was christened somehow and they say the water didn’t boil…
My father wore me at his side like scrimshaw or a gewgaw, a dangling fancy for delighting ladies. The side benefit: I could pick pockets and steal watches as quick as a copper-haired monkey or a jackdaw. Fast as a knife in a bad brawl; fast as a secret told and regretted. Fast as a fall.

My father was a kingfisher fellow and I almost never saw the man himself but in quick passing flashes of grandeur and eloquence. Mostly he wore a continual self of masks and cunning disguises made from the catalogue of mythic thieves and scoundrels. He was a jack of hearts, a knave, a fool, a winner of smiles from women and gold in gambling dens into which fools and only fools tread. He trod in and still somehow trod back out again, pockets hefting gold and jewels fit for a sultan or at least the pretty whores he charmed and was charmed by in return. (An aside: my mother died in squalor and filth and gin. Not wreathed in gold and jewels and my father’s kisses. Am I bitter?)

When does a rascal become a scoundrel? When does charisma change from being the oil that smooths all entrances and exits and becomes a sickly syrup whose odour spoils all things? Not a question to ask yourself in the mirror of a tenth-whisky bar as the shutters come down and you reel off into the skirts of a drunken dock-whore or the empty arms of night. But in better moments of more refined meditation, it has occurred to me to wonder.

My father’s misdemeanours and sleights-of-hand did not win him universal admiration. When he took another wife, perhaps having forgotten temporarily that he was already married at least once, to my mother, even the dimmest ear could hear the pitter-patter of Trouble ’s horse on the horizon. Something fatal this way comes…

Drunk on the winnings of his latest gambling escapade and the first flush of marriage, my father threw a party for his band of merry men, those twisted creatures that hovered about him like lies. Such a party . . . I dimly remember can-can girls, cocaine, an Ethiopian dwarf in a leopard suit. Certainly, there was an excess of alcohol in the small port town in which we were camped and party-goers from all across this benighted country, eager to capitalise on the drink, the women and the opportunities for both abandon and mischief. It was mayhem. The townspeople fled to the hills. I saw naked men staggering in the street, knifing invisible foes and making bestial grabs at stray dogs.

I kept my wits about me. A word here, a nod there, a plan or two long-germinating and now, here in Hell’s fragrant armpit, coming to fruition. I did not raise a hand against him, your honour, I swear. But I did, perhaps, lead a horse or two to water.

In the midst of the celebrations, a drunken man (with little in the way of name or, apparently, story) shot and killed my father. They say he died happy, but I am less certain. I never saw it happen, though, for I was long-gone with a two-thirds share of his savings in my bag. They say he was buried in a fine suit. It cannot have been his own.

I rode for five days before I counted the money and another two before I stopped and realised I was rich. So it was: I came into my inheritance as a thief and a renegade. I stood beneath that full-mooned sky and howled with delight and terror.

What does time bequeath us? A handful of storylines and a bag of money if we ’re lucky. One self of us sleeps and another awakes; flip the pages forward fifteen years and they exchange again. Who are we? I don’t know. I just don’t know.

My most flawed and earthly father had been a showman, a street artist of thievery. His tricks and games had been practised and perfected in the squalid lanes and grand boulevards of cities the world over; his highwayman devices were old. A sleight-of-hand here, a blusterous patter there, a blade slipped quietly between the ribs and ah… He was an old-school master of old-school tricks, but he left little but memories and the story of his death. I determined quickly that my own legacy should be more substantial and less average entirely.

My father had been an amateur at all he did: I would surpass him. He was a quarter-eyed king in the kingdom of blind sleepers: I arrived with one full eye open and the other winking to destiny. I pulled up a stool at the long bar of my life, put my gun on the polished wood and the barman passed me the bottle without saying a word. I drank deep. I didn’t stop drinking until the bottle was empty and everyone in the bar was dead.

The Scrimstone Circus Gospel (1) - (c) Rima Staines
The Scrimstone Circus Gospel (1) by Rima Staines

4 thoughts on “The Scrimstone Circus Gospel :: part one

  1. Just read it and re-read it and re-read it. This is great! The father and son – beautifully dysfunctional characters. I want to know what follows now that everyone in the bar was dead. Now, where is part two?

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