Introduction: Herewith the opening pages of The Shenanigans [Scottish Version], which is a failed enterprise. I'm currently writing an English version of the book that is entirely different to the Scottish one; apart from the title they have absolutely nothing in common. If I complete the English version and publish it, it will require a different title because, confusingly, a book of short fiction of mine, also entitled The Shenanigans, though it has nothing at all to do with either the Scottish Shenanigans or the English one, is due to be published this autumn by Grand Iota. I hope that’s clear.
What will become of the flea circus now that Professor Pappalardi has gone? The live fleas are bereft, especially those who eschewed Bowser the cat and suckled daily of Pappalardi’s blood. As for the dead ones – most of the troupe, in other words, for despite appearances to the contrary ours is largely a necro-circus – they remain, as ever, stoical.
Pappalardi has fled his creditors, though one would have thought that a man who’d run up debt in just about every country in the world would have nowhere left to hide ... except perhaps on the far side of the moon or at the bottom of the deep blue sea.
But no-one in his right mind could take seriously the bundle of distressed clothes he left at the foot of the Space Shuttle in 2011 (causing a significant delay in lift-off), and yesterday, rather less dramatically, on the beach at John O’Groats. In the case of O’Groats: his third-best ringmaster suit, a frayed and faded shirt, holy socks, piss-stained underwear – items anchored against the fierce wind and needle-sharp rain by a pair of brogues high on their uppers. Into the right shoe his empty wallet had been stuffed; the left contained his passport (one of several passports, all of them fake). Tide-worn beach stones had been used as ballast.
There was, it seems, no suicide note, unless it had blown away.
The sum of these elements was pathos, or at least an attempt to evoke it: Pappalardi the incorrigible showman, cruelly oppressed, driven to take his own life, a victim of circumstance and unreasonable creditors.
Not that the police were fooled, not for one minute.
As for Zelda, the most recent of Pappalardi’s many glamorous assistants, she was in deep denial.
During the interview with Constables McCriven and Drake I could barely suppress a titter, for Pappalardi had tried this trick many times before, in New Zealand, France, Italy, Brazil, South Africa and, as mentioned above, the USA, and like most of his tricks it wasn’t wholly convincing. Niggling doubts always remained. But because he thought his subterfuge convinced even hardened sceptics, he did what he did again and again. Despite my best efforts I couldn’t dissuade him.
What’s worrying me is this: since his latest suicide, Pappalardi hasn’t been in touch. Not a peep. Not a whisper. Seventy-two hours have elapsed since the police folded their notebooks, sighed (in that exaggerated way which indicates dissatisfaction), pocketed their leaky biros and departed. They ran to the shelter of their car – not a squad car, I noticed, but an elderly Nissan Micra, its once red paintwork now lustreless, faded to pink – through drawn light and a downpour so heavy it resembled a waterfall. They’re Scots, it’s winter, the weather is guaranteed to be terrible, how could they be so ill-prepared? In the absence of an umbrella, surely they could have taken a blanket from the boot of their car – the special blanket they drape over murderers, child molesters and the like, to protect them from the invasive lenses of the paparazzi – and made a canopy of it to shelter under. Perhaps that wouldn’t have been, or seemed, seemly.
Today the light is still meagre and the rain hasn’t let up. It rarely does. Scotland in winter (and Wick, so it seems, in particular) is sodden, godforsaken, its bleakness providing the perfect backdrop for a fake suicide – and for many a real one, no doubt.
I’d been expecting a brief text message or a furtive (voice muffled by handkerchief) cellphone call. Neither materialised. Because, breaking with tradition, no prior arrangement had been made for Pappalardi to rendezvous with me in a far-flung place where his name and notoriety were unlikely to be known, where, as before, we’d rebuild Professor Pappalardi’s Rude Mechanicals from scratch with fleas both live and dead, a new host cat and a new, ever glamorous, locally sourced Zelda, I’m at a loss to know what to do.
With Pappalardi AWOL, feeding the fleas is a bit of a problem. I’m reluctant to let them feed on me, their bites itch and fester, but some of the pulex irritans are fussy eaters, refusing to suckle from Bowser the cat, deigning to consume nothing but human blood. Squeamish Zelda refuses point blank to bare her arms for piercing and sucking, and I don’t blame her. Luckily, most of the troupe’s mature performers are ctenocephalides felis, who dive hungrily into Bowser’s thinning fur and leave Zelda and me well alone.
I’ve allowed the ctenocephalides to live a while longer, though Bowser, anaemic, listless and bitten half to death, would surely wish them dispatched to the everlasting torments of Hell, if such a concept exists for cats.
The fussy eaters I drowned in a dish of soapy water.
In the end all of us will die, each in our own way. Except perhaps for Pappalardi, who has committed suicide three times in the last decade alone and seven times or more during his long showbiz career. He dies then lives again – and again – and again. But who knows what will happen this time.
“Should the door refuse to open, sing sweetly into the lock,” counselled Pappalardi one morning, in response to Zelda’s mumbled, hungover request to pass the sugar. “But ... but Professor, what should I sing?” she wailed, ever the literalist but gushingly eager to please, as rather too many of our Zeldas have been. This Zelda, a striking, flame-haired, freckle-faced Glaswegian of charm but little substance, came from a family who’d made a rubber fortune in Kerala during the first half of the 20th century. She’d recently ‘graduated’ from Cheltenham Ladies College and spoke like one of the Windsors but with a faint Mockney twang. No trace of a Scottish accent. Neither had Pappalardi, for that matter. His accent was almost as hard to pin down as he was. Even I, his boon companion for the last eight years, knew nothing of his origins other than what he chose to invent, to placate and shut me up. Was he really of Sicilian stock, as he claimed, born and raised in Palermo? Given the way he spoke Italian, in a stilted, almost comical sing-song manner, the way non-Italians in general and English actors in particular think it ought to sound, I doubt it. Pappalardi was obviously an adopted name, as good as any.
All I know is that to cultivate the punters, to stun them into submission with grand rhetorical gestures and lure them irresistibly into the tiny beating heart of our circus, Pappalardi had created a persona that was a much exaggerated version of himself. He reminded me most, in his puffed-up carny barker guise, of Benito Mussolini, to whom he bore a strong physical resemblance. He stood out from the whey-faced, anonymous mortals who crowded round and often towered over him, relishing his every word. They recognised in him something that was sorely lacking in themselves, something of inestimable value, but rather than resent him for it, as one might expect, human nature being what it is, they were (and I think there’s no better word for it) awed. Frankly, they worshiped him – the Zeldas most of all. Usually it was love at first sight. On occasion it took a week or two for the victim to succumb, but it always came to pass. Men also came under his spell – the only exceptions being policemen, revenue officials, his creditors, court-appointed bailiffs, and his fleas, for whom love has no meaning.
Pappalardi’s oratorical skills were such that, even when offstage, he favoured subtle metaphor and playful circumlocutions over simple, direct speech. He would never say, bluntly, “Pass the sugar,” as Zelda just did, forgetting to append a “please”. His words were like swifts, effortlessly acrobatic, unselfconsciously graceful, and the remark about singing sweetly into the lock was merely his typically gentle way of requesting politeness.
When Zelda finally caught on and offered a shame-faced apology, he handed her the bowl, acknowledging her act of contrition with a Mona Lisa smile.
On the back of an envelope containing an unpaid bill from the local fishmonger, Pappalardi scrawled two little words: woe begone. This he folded tightly, one way then the other, until it formed a pellet no bigger than a finger joint. He inserted it at eye height (his own, though perhaps not yours) into the knothole of a bent and twisted oak, which stood alone of its kind on a grassy verge, not far from the beach on which his cast-off clothes had been discovered. The buffness of the envelope blended surprisingly well with the wood of the tree. It was unlikely to be discovered, as well he knew, except by someone with the nous to look for it.
That someone was his assistant and protégé, Giles Lavall, whom you heard from a little earlier.
Yet Lavall never found it. Pappalardi had trained him well, but perhaps not well enough.
In spring of the following year a blackbird gathering nesting material carried the pellet off and put it to constructive use. Four chicks hatched, fledged and flew the nest, never to return. The RSPB, who’ve been consulted on this matter, though somewhat bemused by my enquiry, think it unlikely that Pappalardi’s message influenced the birds in any way.
A fortnight has passed since Pappalardi disappeared and still no word from him. I can’t think why he’d want to abandon me, but perhaps, given his history of disappearances, he has. Zelda, the little fool, is beside herself. I find her moping in dark corners, clutching a sodden handkerchief, always on the verge of shedding fresh tears. I’m sure she believes she’s madly in love with Pappalardi and Pappalardi with her.
It’s an all-too-familiar tale.
Any day now, despite our mutual reticence and polite hostility, she’ll blurt out that she’s carrying his child, for Pappalardi is perhaps the most fertile man that ever lived. He claims that he merely has to sit too close to a woman for her to become pregnant, though sometimes those pregnancies are of the phantom variety and the women are actually as barren as the moon. But whatever the truth of it, the world is peppered with lusty little Pappalardis, and if they breed as fast and furiously as their father, within half a millennium there will be no-one alive who is not a Pappalardi, by DNA if not by name.
Women attending our shows are usually safe, as their contact with Pappalardi is brief, but because the Zeldas have to work in close proximity with him for hours at a stretch they’re highly susceptible. Of the Zeldas we’ve employed in the last decade, nine have fallen pregnant and all nine have been abandoned. Paternity suits dog Pappalardi from country to city and town to village. Private investigators, hired by irate parents and sometimes the Zeldas themselves, sniff at our heels.
Likewise our creditors, who are legion.
But Pappalardi, the sly old fox, always manages to keep one step ahead of them, suicide being the ultimate step. “Let the buggers cast their invoices, final demands, liens, suits and summonses as rose petals upon a pauper’s cardboard coffin deep in the bowels of an open grave,” he’s said (and variations thereof) on many occasions.
Which assumes, of course, that a body has been found and a funeral is required.
That hasn’t happened yet, and perhaps it never will.
Brian Marley has published books of poetry, music criticism and fiction. His novel, Apropos Jimmy Inkling [Grand Iota, 2019], revealed that when gangsterism meets showbiz the possibilities are limitless and all bets are off. A palimpsest novel, Crime, My Destiny, set largely in Soho, will follow in due course.