I was the best. Not ‘one of the best’. The. Best. The Best Jest. What am I saying? Was. Am. I am The Best Jest. It says so on the curtains. The curtains I’m currently hidden behind. The huge red velvet drapes conceal me from my audience. The tension is starting to bubble. I can almost taste it. Like candyfloss. There for a moment on your tongue then gone. The sweetness. I need more of it. So, I put on shows every night. And then when I retire to my quarters I go to sleep with the echo of applause ringing in my ears. I live for this.
My life is making people laugh.
We are not ‘fools’. We are entertainers. We act silly to make you feel smart. But I’m not simple. I have a brain. There’s a difference between laughing with me and at me. The laughter I receive from my performances fills my heart like warm, steaming broth. I don’t like the way people laugh at me on the streets. It makes my palms sweat and my throat go dry. And when that sickly laughter came from the sharp tongue of my beloved, I saw red. Then it happened again that day Mr. Burgess laughed at me when I asked for a pay rise. I make jokes. I am not a joke, Mr. Burgess. I am the Best Jest. I always will be.
I look to the clock on the wall. Almost time. I run to my mirror to check my motley. Mine is red and black, but my collar, cuffs and gloves are white. I test my bells by shaking my head and I smile at the tinkling noise that reminds me of Christmas, when it used to be a jolly time.
My act is different every week. I like to keep things fresh for my loyal audience.
I press the button so my audio playback fills the auditorium.
“Ladies and Gentleman! It’s showtime!”
The crowd roars.
It’s my voice over the loud speaker but I dropped an octave so it sounds like someone else.
“Please put your hands together for… the Best Jest of all the West!”
I pull the rope and the curtains swoosh open.
The crowd goes wild for me and I wave silently as I step into the spotlight. The sequence this week is all mime so I don’t say a word for an hour. But even with my lack of jokes, the crowd loves me as I pretend to be trapped in a box. My audio plays above me every so often, narrating the scenarios I find myself stuck in and asking the audience for suggestions. I do some sleight of hand card tricks and completely amaze a woman in the front row when I change the back of her two of hearts from red to black.
Then I make a crown out of balloons and place it delicately on the head of the smiling young girl before me. Her eyes are pale and glassy, and I silently force down the lump in my throat at all the memories that flood my mind, threatening to send me spiralling.
I need to focus. Focus on my act.
Swatting away the flies that keep bothering me, I turn to open my chest of goodies. But then I’m jolted when the double doors at the back of the auditorium fly open and I am rudely interrupted by a swarm of police. They have the gall to leap onto my stage and manhandle me. I stay in character as I am handcuffed, acting like this is all part of the plan. I shrug, bashful, as I am being escorted off the premises. The policeman shoving me towards the doors is spitting dreadful things in my ear, talking down to me as if I am scum. But I am not scum. I am the Best Jest. He just doesn’t appreciate my art, like Karen. Karen… who turned our little Libby against me.
I am unceremoniously thrown into the back of the police car. Clearly these people are unaware of my celebrity status. Then I’m ignored as officers go into the building. They all come out with gurneys. One after another, after another. My audience. My loyal audience. They’re taking them away. Everything I have. They’re taking them away!
On one of the gurneys, the black bag is open and a pale arm drops out. I recognise the charm bracelet hanging off the delicate wrist and I close my eyes.
They didn’t understand me. She was going to take her away. But I know what I am. The Best Jest. If they had just watched me perform, they’d have understood. That’s all I wanted. That’s all I was trying to do. But now it’s all ruined and I’m stuck back here and they’re taking them away!
I smash my head against the caging before me and bite back a scream.
I am the Best Jest of all the West. I am the Best Jest of all the West. I am…
…I am sorry, Libby.
(c) Shelley Crowley