The Joker

by Sue Simpson

Chain Border

The joke shop opened that day beneath a riot of bunting and banners. From day one it was a roaring success. How many people actually frequent joke shops on a regular basis? Not many I bet, but this one was different.

The proprietor was christened Charles Wilkinson by his very stiff upper lip, British Bulldog type parents. He was born in the blitz, and life never seemed to alter much for him once the war was over. His world had only one hue and that was a washed out shade of grey.

He wasn't a child one could feel endearment towards. He was awkward with big ears and bottlebottomed glasses. The perfect Geek cliché. He joked to his customers, "When I was born I was so ugly the midwife didn't know which end to slap … So she slapped my mother instead!" As a young adult his awkwardness was only enhanced. He was so clumsy round girls that he should have carried a liability notice around his neck. Over time he became afflicted with a tendency to blush crimson and stammer if one of those exotic creatures so much as said "Good Morning" to him.

Charles was a grey man in a grey world of his own entrapment. His only escape was in the world of Laurel and Hardy, Norman wisdom, and George Formby. He knew every word of every film and could quote the scripts verbatim. His only joy in life was old black and white comedy.

One day Charles awoke with the remnants of a dream clinging to the seat of his striped, flannel pyjamas. An idea germinated over the course of that day until his dream became a vision and the vision become a dream of a different nature. Charles wanted to make people laugh. He was far too shy and awkward to ever be a comedian. But there were other ways to make people laugh. His dream had shown him a wonderland of shop front fun. He was going to make his dream live.

The first thing Charles did much to the absolute horror of his poor elderly parents, was to change his name by deed pole. On the 1st of April, that date was appropriate and he had waited patiently until then, Nineteen seventy two Charles Wilkinson died. He was murdered by a young man with a strange glint in his eye. The man's name was Jester McHumerous. After the deed was done he skipped down the steps of his solicitors office with an official deed clasped firmly in his hand. Charles Wilkinson was no more, but Jester McHumerous had been born and was very much ALIVE.

Jes worked long and hard to make his dream a reality. Saving every penny he could, even to the point of literally saving pennies in a glass jar for two years. Gradually the pennies grew up to become pounds and one day he had enough capital to be able to talk, beg and plead sensibly with his bank manager. Jes never stammered or stuttered once as he put his case before the sombre man behind the Brazilian rain forest sized desk. Over the half mile that separated them Jes laid out his plans and drawings, he enthused over how HIS shop would be different from all the other joke shops that had gone to the wall.

"You see," finished Jes. His cheeks were slightly pink with excitement and verve, without even the merest hint of the deep crimson blushes of his youth. "I am not merely going to work the shop. I am going to live it."

And that's exactly what he did. The shop became his life. From the minute he opened his doors at nine am until he closed them when the last customer of the day had left. Jes heard the satisfying chime of the till drawer opening and closing. It was so much work for one person. He really should have taken on some extra staff, but he owed it to his customers to always be there to make them laugh. After all he reasoned nobody else could possible share the passion that I have for the place. No; he decided after giving the idea scant consideration if I can't have a Hardy to my Laurel then I will continue alone like Chaplin.

The shop wasn't merely his life; it was also his hobby. It always had a theme; this would change usually monthly, sometimes weekly and occasionally if he had stuff in hand, daily. His themes became ever more elaborate. He learned carpentry and made his own sets. He developed quite a creative flair for painting and design. And every night after cashing up and locking the doors, he would retire after a modest meal to his workshop where he would work late into the night on his masterpieces. Each new theme was eagerly awaited by the townsfolk. Each was it's own exhibition with attention to exquisite detail and perfection guaranteed.

After a year he bought and extended into the shop next to his on the left and added a small, in fact extremely modest cinema. With seating round tables for about twenty people. The ingenuity of this cinema was that it was absolutely free. People said he was mad. The real local cinema tried to shut him down but he had his planning permission to run back to back comedy films daily and there was nothing anybody could do to stop him. It was a roaring success. Beverages and snacks were sold on the premises. He did a course on cake making and baked his own cakes, decorating them to tie in with the latest themes.

Offers came in thick and fast. The huge outlet village that had just been built pleaded with him to open a franchise in their prime location. He declined politely. The offer was almost too good to refuse. They tried to bribe him with free rent on the premises, waving off his business rates, anything to get him to open and draw in the crowds. Still he declined. He wasn't a greedy man and he was happy with his lot. Almost every blushing bride in the town wanted Jes to bake her wedding cake. Some even wanted him to arrange her wedding to a certain theme. After all Jester McHumerous was the best. He was sure to send each one a small novelty with his polite refusal.

This week's theme was 'Gothic' or Jes' interpretation of what he thought goth was anyway. The shop was adorned with rich black and purple crushed velvets. Lace in silver and gold hung in sheer curtains; paper-thin gossamer webs stroked the faces of customers as they entered. The novelty parrot that hung on a perch above the counter and repeated everything that was said was dressed in purple and black fishnet and had a huge pewter cross hanging from his neck. The shop itself was done out like a medieval village complete with apocathary shop and stone circle and the effect with glittering wind chimes and masses of crystals was mesmerising.

"I say, I say, I say." Said Jes in customary fashion to a middle aged lady who had come to check out fancy dress clothing for a weekend party. "What's brown and sticky?"

"I don't know Mr. McHumerous." said the lady playing along "What IS brown and sticky?"

"Why my dear lady." Replied Jes chuckling "A stick of course."

"Oh Mr. McH, you get worse as you get older." admonished the lady with a rather effected giggle.

She chose a predictable flapper girl outfit and left. Jes would have lain money on it being either that or the Mother Superior costume. He had developed a feel for knowing what people would choose. "Pity" He thought to himself, "It would have been far more funny if she'd taken the 'Jane' outfit."

Later a rather robust lady with a very generous posterior was bending over the 'naughty novelties' barrel. "What was it with middle aged ladies today? They all seemed to have become very frivolous all of a sudden." He tried to resist. Really he did. He bent his head over his invoices and tried to avoid looking at the enormous target directly in his line of vision. It was no good. His first thought was to activate Robbie the Robot who conveniently happened to be just to her left, to give her a swift push into the barrel. But after all that was assault wasn't it? The lady might not take kindly to being stuck headfirst into a barrel of penis bar-bells, "for exercising those flabby dicks" the blurb said, and willy warmers. Still he almost laughed out loud at the thought of her stubby legs dangling helplessly in mid air. With not a little disappointment he settled for the safer option. Very quietly he opened a packet of Crackerjacks. Those tiny packages of gunpowder that explode loudly when struck against a fairly solid object. Well that looked like one hell of a solid object to him.

He took careful aim, drew back his forearm, and let fly with his miniature missile. "BULLSEYE!" He couldn't resist shouting as the loud crack sent the lady flying three foot into the air, she spun on her heels to see where the attack was coming from, and how immediate the danger was. Unfortunately for her the lid flew off the jar she was holding and a large paper penis uncoiled on a lengthy spring and hit her in the face. Her screams could be heard from breakfast to dinnertime and she ran out of the shop yelling about policemen and arrests. "Oh well," thought Jester smirking "You can't please all of the people all of the time." He winked exaggeratedly at the three teenage lads who were doubled over in hysterics; even the mechanical parrot joined in the fun cackling in time with the youngsters.

The shop had been closed and all its shutters down for the past week and a half. Everybody commented round town that it was very unusual for Mr. McHumerous to take a holiday. "Oooohh," Said Mrs. Grimes from the newsagents, "I've been here ten years and I've never known it." Comments were passed on the closed shop, from the fishmongers right down to the supermarket by the roundabout. But although it was unusual for the shop to be closed, nobody really thought much about it, after the act of passing comment was out of the way. Nobody thought to knock on the door of his flat alongside the shop to see if he was all right. Nobody really CARED.

It was almost three weeks before the police broke the door down. They had an inkling as to what they would find inside. Flies had begun to congregate on the windowpanes. Somehow Sergeant Collins didn't think the flies were there to buy fake dog crap. A strange smell was wafting its way from under the door. It had only come on that morning. Probably on account of the rise in temperatures with the nice weather, Collins thought.

Although they were prepared for what to expect, none of the police, nor the crowds that had gathered to push and shove for prime position, were prepared for what they SAW.

A large, black seething mass hung in front of the counter. As the breeze and four burley police officers broke into the shop the flies rose in a buzzing cloud of wings and caused confusion and pandemonium for several seconds. Three of the officers scrambled hastily in their pockets for handkerchiefs. But Jones had no hankie, he never carried one and had been known to wipe his nose on his uniform sleeve. He had nothing to muffle the stench and that smell was indescribable. He wretched loudly into the bucket of naughty novelties that the fat lady had almost upended into a month before.

The body hung from the rafters. A macabre Jester complete with Harlequin suit and three pointed hat with bells on. His face was made up with grease paint and the false 'joke' teeth grimaced down upon his final audience.

The suicide note said it all … "Ha Ha Ha it's all a bloody joke, but nobody ever bothered to make me laugh."

The parrot made puking noises in the gloomy gothic crypt.

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