SPARE ROOM ETHICS - Helen Oyeyemi
Lola’s mouth is too broad for her face. It means that she smiles before she plans to. She has never seen a mouth as wide as hers on anyone else. If it hadn’t been for a particularly cruel comment from an ex-boyfriend, Lola would never have found her way to clown school and world would have lost a decent clown
Lola gets party bookings three, sometimes even four nights a week. The young children of celebrities are always having birthday parties, and at these parties staffed by watchful minders holding neon balloons, there has to be a guest who arrives specifically to fall down. Lola’s secret is that she keeps it traditional. She has watched videos of Americans doing a style of dance they call clowning, but what these kids are doing isn’t clowning. It’s clever, the way the way the dancers use their own limbs and each other’s to stutter and fold and flow, now imitating a clock with a drunken pendulum, now a crocodile whose tail disobeys. But there is nothing of the failed acrobats that belong to the true clown there. Lola is a graduate of a certain Czech clown school, the best of its kind. She spent her life savings on her training. At their first lesson, her class of seven were instructed to watch each other weep, to watch with the closest attention, from the first tear to the last shudder gathered between the shoulders. They were to watch each other seriously and with empathy. The task was near impossible. It took five hours to complete because the class had to go once more from the beginning every time someone laughed. Winter meant that it was dark at 6 pm, and after class Lola skidded through an avenue of grey statures to stare at the frozen river. Ice gripped the undersides of the bridge in smashed ripples, as if some power had screamed into the water. She looked up with the feeling of claws closing in, only to naked trees black the sky, that was all.
Aside from makeup, most of Lola’s other lesson were physical; turning perfect cartwheels, vaulting, mime, clean falls. In between there was reading and films about the history of clowning. Grimaldi was named in a whisper, or alluded to as J.G.
Lola and the six others in her class grew close, but of them all she lovely only Niccolo. Niccolo was dark haired and dapper, ponytailed. The green of his pupils stirred with sap and circuitry. He looked like a man who threw knives for a living, an almost-assassin. In the studio Lola and Niccolo disrupted each other’s stretching exercises with kisses drunk from each other’s mouths, and at home in their flat they couldn’t let each other move from room to room without attempting piggyback rides. Niccolo was able to waddle manfully up to a kitchen cupboard and open a packet of biscuits with Lola’s weight on his back, the legs wrapped around him. But when Niccolo climbed on Lola’s back, she fell to the ground without delay. She called him Niccolo Niccololo. It was in Prague that Lola and Niccolo learned that the wig and the red nose were only signifiers, that you could walk into a room barefaced, barefooted, wearing jeans, but still the clown came in with you. The clown was carried in the fixed and woeful gaze, in an elasticity to the bones.
Niccolo moved back to Italy after graduation. ‘Come with me. Live with me, he’d said to Lola. She couldn’t’ go. He was made for play, and she was not, she knew she was not. As the Tin Soldier, Niccolo turned a key in his spine and marched out to strike strange poses and fear into the hearts of children shopping with their parents in Market Square. As Fosco he charmed red parrots, then seemed to throttle them with silk handkerchiefs, then finally, through some practised mishap, botched his charm and was swarmed with beaks and wings, his skin turned to fine feathers.
After clown school Niccolo became famous. He ditched his Tin Soldier act and became Fosco alone, performing Hamlet and King Lear as one man shows to sold out stalls in Rome. Niccolo Camilleri’s physical comedy wrung laughter out of literature professors and teenagers alike, all the reviews said so. Lola keeps hearing things about Niccolo. She’s heard that he got married. She’s heard that he got divorced. She’s heard that he remarried the same woman he divorced, dismissing the divorce as the result of a temporary ill mood. She’s heard that Niccolo has opened a clown academy of his own in Marseilles, but there is also news that he’s just recovered from a nervous breakdown and is trying to find himself again through Punch and Judy puppeteering in Hong Kong. She’s heard that he took his son to the spice market at Khan el Khalili, left him in the care of a merchant’s wife and promised to return in seven years’ time to see what the boy had become.
Lola has to scale back her clowning to two nights a week because clowning puts Niccolo too much on her mind, and when Niccolo is on her mind she thinks, falsely, that she is dying of loneliness. Red and white lights are fixed around her bathroom mirror, and Lola spends too long standing on cold tiles, looking at her clown mouth. After some time, flicker, the bathroom starts to look like a morgue, flicker, or a television crime scene, flicker, flicker.
To make money Lola responds to a succinctly worded advertisement in the London Review of Books and takes a job minding David morrow, the son of a philosophy professor at UCL. David is a tall nine year old and seems taller every time Lola sees him. No matter what work his mother has the tailor do, David’s trousers defiantly hike up around this ankles. He doesn’t look like his parents, who are lily pale. David has Mediterranean gold in his hair and skin. And he won’t be seen without a pair of red cat’s eye sunglasses on. The only evidence that David’s eyes are normal is the school photograph in which he has been persuaded to stare sardonically over the tops of his shades. Lola like David, not just because she thinks Niccolo would like him, but because there is a sympathy between them. Lola walks David home from school, and she listens to him singing along to his ipod: I believe I can fly… I believe I can touch the sky. She doesn’t make fun of him, even though she is often sorely tempted to.
David and Lola are both children of the spare room; so unwanted that no one needs to inform them of their status. If you were wanted your bed wouldn’t be in a room full of the things that no one likes enough to have on display in the main house. At more than one childhood mealtime, Lola sat down at her aunt’s dinner table and very timidly began eating her rice with her hands, unable to see the cutlery laid beside her plate because she hadn’t expected to see it there. And the panic never lessened. Should her aunt’s house have downscaled itself to its bare necessities, Lola would have gone. Lola and the room with the boxed lamps, the ugly cushion covers, the broken rowing machine to be fixed in some forever deferred future, the entire kingdom of the spare room would collapsed into the scratches in the wooden floors. The rugs covered those.
Lola has seen where David sleeps, so she lets him sing.
But there is something else to David, something quite apart from being a child of the spare room. The other children in his class are subdued by his presence. Whenever Lola arrives to pick him up from school he is sat as some distance from his classmates, but somehow their bodies are turned in the direction furthest from him and their heads are tilted in his direction, watching him. It is almost balletic. Lola walks David out of the gate and hallway down the road. She looks back to see that the other children have relaxed. Once this after-school scene has played itself out eleven times without variation, Lola recognises a lankhaired boy at the corner shop as one of David’s classmates, and she confronts the boy as he is paying for his Twix bar in penny coins.
‘Hello,’ she says.
‘Alright,’ the boy mumbles, troubled because he is unable to talk and count money at the same time. Bronze tumbles through his fingers.
‘Do you recognise me?’
‘Who am I?’
‘You pick David up from school, innit.’
‘On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, Lola reminds him.
‘Tell me something,’ Lola says, paying for the boy’s chocolate and handing him the change from a pound. ‘Why are you scared of David Morrow?’
The boy puts eight years of bravado into a scowl and offers it to her unadorned. ‘Who says I’m scared of David Morrow?’
Lola follows him out of the shop. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean you personally. I can tell you’re a hard nut. When I said “you” I meant generally; your class.’
‘Oh.’ The boy is hesitant. Lola shakes a chocolate coin out of her sleeve and into his palm. His fingers close around it reflexively. He looks awed.
‘Plenty more where that came from,’ she says, and makes another pass at the air. This time a black pebble comes down and she winces and stares sadly off to the side while he laughs and lets it fall.
‘Shame! Shame!’ he chants.
He walks a little way down the road with her. ‘He’s got this box,’ the boy says, finally.
‘What sort of box?’
‘Not sure. It’s like a music box or something. Crystal. It moves by itself. And there’s something inside, but you can’t see it properly. All you can see is that it’s blurry and black.’
Lola urges him to say more, but the boy shakes his head, at a loss for words.
Lola looks for the box the next time David interrupts a chess game in his room to go downstairs for snacks. Mrs Morrow is an interior designer, so David’s books, trainers and board games are jumbled up with cane-backed chairs and plump piles of mismatched curtains. Lola finds the box under David’s bed, rolled under the right had corner as if he has been playing football with it. It has the shape of a skull, or a sharpened heart. Lola lies on the floor and looks at the music box without touching it. She does not want the box to move. She can see the dark gas inside the crystal, and it cannot be music. She gets up from the floor when she hears David coming upstairs. He takes his seat opposite her, looks at the chess board, then turns his face towards her. It is like looking at a blank computer screen. ‘You didn’t even make a move,’ David says.
‘Sorry.’ Lola takes David’s knight with her queen, just the way she’d planned to before he left the room. David smiles.
‘You could have cheated,’ he says. ‘But you didn’t.’
When Mrs Morrow gets in and it’s time for Lola to go, Lola asks David about the box. She doesn’t let him know that she’s seen it, only that she’s heard about it form a boy in his class.
David sighs. ‘Who told you that?’
‘Alright. There is no music box.’
Lola wears her white calico skirt to pick David up from school. They are halfway home when David says: ‘Er…Lola.’ His voice is subdued, shy. She looks at him. His head is lowered. He is looking at her feet, no, at her skirt, which has become a red bell, or a dew-wet tulip, a terrifyingly even burgundy from waist to hem. She supposes she must be bleeding, but she can’t feel where the blood is coming from.
‘What’s this? Are you dying?’ David says.
Lola bites the inside of her cheek. ‘Race you home.’
Lola and David sit side by side on the Morrow’s sofa, watching a film. David keeps asking what the film is called, but Lola doesn’t want to tell him until the end. David’s head is on Lola’s shoulder. She’s worried that her jumper is smudging his perfect lenses, but he doesn’t seem to care. She rubs his neck and he burbles quietly, happily. She asks him about the box again. He looks up at her. Or may at the ceiling.
‘The music box is something they’re making up, the others at school.’ He sounds upset. ‘Don’t listen to them.’
Lola asks David why he thinks the children at school are scared of him. David reaches around the side of the sofa, lifts a can of ginger ale out of the ice bucket and opens it. He takes a long sip, as if fortifying himself.
‘It’s probably because of my dad’s experiment.’
Lola is confused because Dr Morrow is an ethicist.
‘Experiment?’ she says.
David says enough to make Lola understand that when he was born, Dr Morrow had forced Mrs Morrow into a pact never to discipline their son. David was not to be given any moral instruction. He was not to be told what he could do and what he could not do. David’s early life was to be an investigation into the nature of conscience. The experiment ended eight weeks ago.
‘What did you do? Were you really bad?’
David rubs the side of his nose. His forehead rumples pensively. ‘Not really. I just didn’t really feel like doing anything. All it is is that I’m used to watching as much telly as I want and going to bed whenever I want. Dad stopped the experiment because one day I was bored and I had run out of things to do. So I got a couple of pillowcases and made a fat noose.’
Lola doesn’t say anything, but she listens hard for more. She knows David is watching her.
‘My dad caught me,’ David says. ‘Yeah, it was a Saturday.’
‘He came into the spare room and said, “Do you propose to hang yourself, son?” I was standing on my desk and I had the noose around one of the light fittings and I was pulling to see if it would break. “Do you propose to hang yourself, son…” I said “Why? Do you say no?” And he took a very long time to reply. He was sweating like mad, Lola. His face was shining. I could the sweat in his beard. He said, “Son, I’m not telling you to do anything either way.” So I put the noose around my neck. And then he looked at me and he started crying and saying “David, please.” And I said “Please what, Dad? Please what?” He asked me if I couldn’t see that what I was doing was wrong. I asked him how was it wrong, and he said that I must know it inside myself. He was properly begging me to say that I knew inside myself that it was wrong. But all I knew was that there was nothing else to do. I wasn’t even lying. So finally he said, “David, do not do this. I am making a rule, you are not allowed to do this thing. It is wrong.” I said “Why?” and he said, “Because I say so.” And then I was like, good, because finally I was getting told off like everyone else.’
Lola gapes. David drinks more ginger ale.
‘Dad told mum she was allowed to tell me off and boss me about and all that stuff, and then he wrote about the noose thing. Lots of people read it, Dad said so. He got all these letters, and all these people wanting to talk to him. And then the kids at school…this idea got down to them that I don’t know right from wrong and that one day I’m going to do something bad and so they should stay away from me. So they’re always watching me. And that’s why they’re scared of me. But I don’t even do anything. I don’t feel like doing anything. Wait. I quite like sleeping. Other than that, not much.’
David opens another can of ginger ale and passes it to Lola. As she takes the can, their hands touch, clammy with condensation.
‘I’ve fallen in love with you,’ David tells her.
Thick matter drops from somewhere in Lola’s brain and forms a cloud on her tongue. She thinks: don’t swallow; you will literally lose your mind. She allows a few seconds to pass, but David does not elaborate on what he has just said. Neither does he seem embarrassed about it. He lays his head on her shoulder again.
‘David,’ Lola says. I’m very flattered, but I don’t think you’re really in love with me.’
‘You can’t tell me that,’ David argues softly. ‘You don’t…you can’t…what I mean is, you’re not me. You can’t tell me that unless you’re me.’
‘Look,’ Lola says, pointing at the TV screen. ‘Someone just got their thumb chopped off.’ She skips the film back a scene so that David can see it again. This is what nine year old boys are supposed to be interested in.
‘Lola. I’m telling you that I love you.’
His kiss misses her mouth. One of his front teeth is loose. She feels it bend against her chin.
‘Okay David,’ Lola says, sternly. ‘Time for bed.’
David lies beneath the duvet looking defeated from limb to limb, mashed potato boy, his hair on the pillow as heavy as butter.
‘So you refuse?’ he asks. She looks him straight in the sunglasses.
It takes everything she has not to roll her eyes.
‘You will regret this.’
He sounds so serious that Lola knows she has to defuse the situation somehow. On her way out she is careful to trip over a pair of David’s trainers, fall onto her elbows, then crawl away, yowling with pain. David doesn’t laugh.
At home Lola takes a shower, then wraps herself in her shower curtain and tunelessly serenades the crescent of five clear glass pips notched into the top of her otherwise frosted bathroom window. Hot water, red light, white light, Niccolo Niccololo, her body soft with soap suds. She should have gone with him. Who told her she was wrong for him? She must have been told, otherwise she would not have thought she knew. Lola stares at the window. One by one the glass pips are blotted out. Then the light comes back. Eclipse, then the light comes back. No flickering this time. The darkness holds. She just came in from the night and she knows it is not as black as this. Someone is standing there.
She thinks for a moment, then lets the shower curtain drop. She walks out of the bath and gently, gently across the floor. There is scarlet on the side of the sink. She feels faint, but it’s only plastic. She touches it. Cat’s eye sunglasses. The lenses are steamed up. Her nerves twirl like skipping ropes and force her to jump in time with them. David’s eyes are sea-familiar, and the music box wheezes rustily, like a man of tin.
Helen Oyeyemi was born in Nigeria in 1984 and has lived in London for most of her life. She wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, while she was still at school, her second novel, The Opposite House, was published in 2007, her third, White is for Witching, in 2009 and her fourth, Mr Fox, in 2011. Her plays include Juniper’s Whitening and Victimese, both of which were performed by fellow students while she was studying at Cambridge University.