I’m turning into a clown. When I see Charlie Chaplin on the internet I see myself; a fumbling man struggling against his own inadequacies.
My inadequacies are many and there was a time they used to overwhelm me. When I was a child my failures were a forest, and I was lost inside. But as I grow old it’s different. Catastrophes happen. I still make mistakes. But at 69-years-old, it’s easier to laugh. The clown in me is what I see in the mirror.
My mother used to fling the same old question at me all the time: “Can you do nothing right?”
At the kitchen sink I am by her side holding the dishcloth and suddenly a plate slips from my hands. And it is always her good plate. She leans over to pick up the pieces, and her face is red as she flings the rhetorical axe at my shoulder blades: “Can you do nothing right?”
She was only nudging me lovingly to do better, but I took the question to heart.
“Can you do nothing right?” the teachers asked.
Can I do nothing right? I asked myself, day in and day out for years afterwards. It was a refrain to all my failures, the trigger of all my melancholy.
A clown is someone who can do nothing right, but yet always manages to survive
But while middle age can be tragic, old age is always comic.
Last week I was heading for Dublin and decided to drive as far as Mullingar and then pick up the train. I arrived early to find a parking space but I needed an app on the phone in order to pay. I couldn’t figure out how to download it. I was sitting in the car pressing the keyboard on the phone frantically when I accidentally hit the button on the dashboard that opens the petrol tank. Then I successfully downloaded the app, paid for the ticket, rushed for the train and forgot about the open cap on the tank.
There I was staring out the window at Enfield and Maynooth whizzing by, while a voice in my head tormented me: “What kind of an idiot would walk away from a car leaving the cap for the fuel wide open for someone to throw a match in?”
On the train two young men sat opposite me talking about college life. One of them had curly hair and kept the back of his hand to his mouth when he spoke. The other spoke declaratively as if I wasn’t there at all. I guessed the latter was the Alpha male and the other lad was suffering from the same negative voices that had haunted my youth.
At Connolly Station I moved quickly and was off down the platform with my little rucksack on my back when I felt someone tugging at my coat. It was the Alpha male. “You forgot your hat,” he said.
In the carriage window I saw the reflection of an old man with a woollen hat down about his ears; a man who slips on banana skins, and walks into doors and almost gets run over by cars
The old woollen hat was something I got from a bin basket in a supermarket for €3 and it was no tragedy to lose it, but it cheered me up that the young man would bother to fetch it.
I had a coffee in a cafe on Dawson Street to calm me down, because I was meeting Síle Seoige later to be a guest on her podcast. I suppose I was fretting too much about how the recording might go. When she texted to say she was at the studio I leapt up from my coffee and rushed away down the street. The waitress ran after me shouting that I had forgotten my rucksack.
Being a guest on Síle’s podcast was pure joy for 50 minutes, but afterwards as I descended the stairs from the studio I realised I had forgotten something. This time it was the hat again.
And there was worse to come. That evening I got on the wrong train. The fast train left from platform two just after 5pm, but like an idiot who has not read the notice board, I sauntered on to the slow train that left almost at the same time from platform four.
In the carriage window I saw the reflection of an old man with a woollen hat down about his ears; a man who slips on banana skins, and walks into doors and almost gets run over by cars.
I had abandoned my car with the petrol cap open, lost my hat twice, and almost lost a laptop and rucksack. The day had almost been a disaster. But not quite. Because a clown is someone who can do nothing right, but yet always manages to survive.