Top Hat

Clive Higgins attended one day of school in his life. His mum was careful to drop him off ceremoniously for his first day of kindergarden, and less careful to pick him up. He decided to wander home once the streetlights came on, and was eventually brought in by a police officer to the arms of his unfazed, if embarrassed, mother, Sydney.

Sydney’s actions should not be misconstrued. She loved her son very much, and made frequent, weak attempts to care about the things most parents did, but she just couldn’t understand the excitement of taking her poor boy to sit bored at a desk and while away his finest hours. She remembered to take him to school that once, but from then on, school just didn’t enter her mind. She had checked that duty off of her list.

Clive was never neglected.

Sydney, a tattooed pin-up model whose wild streak had held over from her own childhood, did not have a 9 to 5 work schedule, and, in fact rarely had commitments she couldn’t attend to with her son in tow.

Clive spent many an exciting day watching his mother as her hair was combed and coloured, her skin painted and accented with glitter in just the right places. He would watch grown men shape and reshape objects in the set, flick coloured gels in front of his eyes or watch workers slip them onto lights high up on metal trees. He watched as wind was created indoors, as glistening jewels of water were added to his mother’s face to make her cry, as his mothers body was shaped and reshaped to just the right angle, her head re-cocked, her smile tilted just so.

It was a magical, slow-moving live performance, watching lasting art created before his eyes.

On the days between shoots, Sydney loved to take walks with Clive at the zoo, where the whole family had season passes. Sidney liked the bird-house best, in spite of its smell. For Clive, nothing could beat the crazy, screeching excitement of the monkey house…nothing, perhaps, except for the tense prowl of a lioness in an enclosure just large enough to pace.

When he could come, Clive’s father, Hank, would not allow them to leave without a quick trip through the fish tunnel, where, he said, if you were lucky, you could witness dazzling tricks of acrobatics never possible on land or air. When he was old enough, he would protest that an acrobat, by definition, performs in air—these fish, then, must be aquabats—but when he was young, he was content to gaze in wonderment at brightly coloured fish, and disquietingly colourless sharks.

Although he was frequently out of town, Hank was a dedicated family man. He and his wife were a couple with a fresh outlook. They got out together, they had fun, and they tacitly agreed never to properly learn how to be adults.

For his part, Hank made his living playing games. A professional contact juggler, Hank spent most of his days surrounded by swarms of children, each and every one of them amazed at his ability to move crystal balls around each other and his body with the sensual ease of a ballet dancer. Hanks skills were not limited to contact juggling. He was quite apt at traditional juggling, and could keep 5 objects of varying shapes and weights in the air, including fire.

He was a skilled fire dancer, could perform amazing feats with poi or burning nun-chucks, or flaming hulahoops, or burning whips. When Clive was lucky, Hank would come home from a juggling exhibition in some remote location, and snatch Clive and Sydney away to a clearing in the woods, where they would camp out for a day or two, and the family would sing and dance, roast marshmallows and chant around their campfire.

There was something special and primal about these times near the campfire that would always stay with Clive, some secret, primal decision that the Higgins family made, to tap into their savage selves.

Clive understood on some level that his life was distant from ordinary. He felt privileged, as if he had been let in on some secret truth about the way of things, what mattered, what didn’t, and what to do with that information.

But he also knew that, though his life was special, it was not unique. When Hank’s travels allowed it, he would take the entire Higgins family on to his exhibitions, where Clive was able to spend time on his own, watching things happen that were even stranger than his own life, or, when he felt like it, spend time with kids his age, mainly carnie kids, who never had to run away to join the circus.

When the money was there, the Higgins family would make the circuit attending international festivals, where thousands of beautiful freaks would convene together and make beautiful things happen that wouldn’t be appreciated elsewhere.
England had some great three-day festivals where Clive could drink hot cider in the rain, have his body covered in intricate henna patterns, sit in a drum circle, even run around buck-bare naked, if that’s what he chose to do.

These festivals were colourful, unforgettable experiences in human freedom. All laws of nature, belief, and even propriety were defied. For the short span of the festivals, anything became possible.

Clive would watch his mother Sydney as she climbed and intertwined with a rope. All at once, she would let go, and the rope and her body would twist and churn in the air as she fel through space until the startling moment when the rope caught her, breaking her fall just feet from the un-padded ground.

Just after sundown, as with the sky still blazing fierce orange, Clive would watch his father and the other fire-dancers as they pranced their way around a roasting bonfire, moving lightly, playfully, like impious pixies.

It was from festival to festival that Clive measured his time, the same way that most kids counted Christmases. In the time that his family had hit four big festivals, a year would have passed.

And so Clive grew up, schooled at fairs and festivals to be a gymnast, an artist, a magician.

The best festival of every year was in August when the Higgins would make their trek to Burning Man, to spend 9 days battling the desert elements in the heat of summer. This was the biggest festival that they attended, with almost 100,000 people setting up camp, creating a temporary city that glowed implausibly in the desert night.

The best and brightest of the festival crowd made their way to this party, and the festivities here were so beautiful and complete and grand.

Each year, Clive waited in anticipation for the culmination of the festival, when a huge wooden man would come down in crackling flames.

But this year was different.

If Hank or Sydney had listened to the news and radio, they might have known about the worries about the virus. But they never had interest in using trite objects for entertainment when they could do so well on their own.

When they arrived at Burning Man, the virus had only infected a few thousand people in the world. But one of this few thousand was at the festival. And with 100,000 people all living and actively playing in the same 5 mile radius….100,000 people running around to see everything and everyone that they can possibly manage….100,000 people who loyally trust strangers, who share food and water and hugs and kisses with every soul they meet….

The virus hit the festival with a deafening boom. By the time of the burn at the end of the week there were bodies to burn in the wooden pire.

Hank and Sydney were well enough to leave the festival, to handle the day-long plane-ride home, to cover themselves in glitter and colourful clothing to be brightly decorated from the end.

When his parents died, Clive interrupted the world with a shrieking scream like the terrifying roar of a lioness without her cubs.

He had lost his family. He had lost the sanctity of his happy memories. And he had lost control.

But Clive would not yield control so easily. He was rapidly reshaping his experiences into a way to change the world. But first, he would have to change himself.

Putting on the top hat his father had occasionally used for performances, Clive walked out the door, and closed it gently behind him.