Craig Boardman’s dad has joined the circus. Craig Boardman told my son all about it in the playground. My son came home in tears, apparently Craig had been boasting about it rather. “I thought you were friends with Craig,” I said, and my son sulked, and said, “Not any more,” and I’m not sure who he was most angry with, Craig Boardman, or me, for not understanding why.

I’d only met Craig Boardman’s dad once, after I picked up my son from Craig’s birthday party. He seemed all right, he worked in the city, he was a bit up himself, actually. I couldn’t imagine why he’d have thrown away a career like that to go and work in a circus. “He’s a clown,” said my son, as if that explained everything. “The clowns are the best.” He asked me whether I would go and work in a circus – preferably as a clown, but it was up to me, whatever suited. I explained I had a job already. I worked in a bank. My son said that wasn’t as much fun as working in a circus, and I thought about it for a while, and I said he was probably right.

My wife made us his favourite meal, and I let him play an extra hour on the X box, but my son refused to be cheered up. I admit, I thought it would soon blow over. Craig Boardman had always seemed like quite a nice kid whenever he’d popped round to play, he always spoke to me politely and ate with his mouth closed; to be honest, he always seemed a rather better catch than my own son; to be honest, taking into account all the sulkings and temper tantrums and refusals to go to bed, there were times I rather envied Craig Boardman’s dad. But it didn’t blow over. If anything, the situation got worse. My son came home with news that other schoolfriends’ parents had all followed Craig Boardman’s dad’s lead, and they’d all joined the circus too. Andy Wyman’s dad had become a clown, Rachel Pinnocker’s dad had become a lion tamer, and in year four Tommy Puce’s dad now every night took his life into his own hands and allowed himself to be fired out of a cannon. And their kids had all formed a gang, with Craig Boardman at its head, and they went around the place lording it over the other kids, and bullying those that got in their way. One day my son came home and there were Chinese burns all over his arms, and my wife and I agreed that this had to stop.

I went round to Craig Boardman’s dad’s house right away. I rang the doorbell. Craig Boardman answered. “Hello, Craig,” I said, “I’d like to speak to your father.” As I’ve said, I’d always got on quite well with Craig, he seemed to be a well-brought-up sort of boy, but now he smirked at me insolently, before going inside to fetch him. I suppose if you’re the son of a clown you don’t need to defer to anyone, but I think that’s rather a shame. And then Craig Boardman’s dad came to the doorstep. He was wearing a white face, and thick painted lips, and he had a red shining plastic nose that flashed every few seconds or so. I presumed he was on his way to work. I told him that my son and his son had had a bit of a falling out, and that I knew boys could be boys, and they’d be friends again soon – but would he speak to Craig about the Chinese burns, because that really wasn’t on. And Craig Boardman’s dad didn’t say a word. His painted lips curved downwards, dramatically, to show me he was sad. He rubbed away mimed tears with his fists. And he indicated I should smell the flower in his buttonhole. I thought it was a peace offering, so I leaned forward as bidden. He squirted water in my face. Then he laughed – but silently, it was a mimed laugh, which seemed all the merrier somehow – and he honked his nose, and he closed the door.

My son didn’t seem surprised when I returned home. “He’s a clown, Dad,” he said, “why would he talk to the likes of you?” And the worst of it was that my wife seemed disappointed in me too, disapproving even. That night in bed she put down her Mills and Boon and fixed me with a serious look. “I don’t see why you can’t join the circus,” she said. “It’s not as if there’s not part time work going as well.” My wife, who had always said she’d loved me for me, banker and all. I asked her whether she’d really rather I worked in a circus than in the third most solvent banking conglomerate in Western Europe, and she said, “If you won’t do it for your family, at least do it for yourself,” and I wasn’t sure what she meant by that. Our lovemaking seemed pointedly pedestrian, and I wondered whether my wearing a red plastic nose would have put a bit more life into her. I agreed to go to a circus audition. She smiled at last, made something approaching the right sort of sexual effort. And for my part, I rued the day we had let the council tear down the local library and erect that big top in its place.

I put on my best suit, I went to the circus. There was a line outside. It was composed of nervous middle-aged men all trying to look entertaining, I recognised a lot of them from school Parents’ Evenings. We were auditioned in groups of six. The man in charge asked us one by one to explain what we thought we could offer a circus; I assumed he was the ringmaster, but he wasn’t wearing a red suit or a top hat, and his T-shirt was stained and he kept picking at it. I told him I wanted to be a clown to impress my son, and he said that, yeah, they got a lot of that.

He led us out into the circus ring. I gazed up at the seats all around, and imagined they were full of paying customers demanding to be amused, and at the thought butterflies started swirling round my stomach most unhelpfully. My feet sank deep into the sawdust, and I looked down, and saw that it was fake and plastic. “Let’s see what you can do,” the ringmaster said.

First, he had us juggling. I had never juggled before, I didn’t think I could. But it was easier than it looked, or maybe I had a natural proclivity for it, I don’t know – the three balls were soon dancing through the air, and I knew really that I was the one making it happen, I knew I was catching them and throwing them, but it seemed to me that it was all taking place independently of me, without any effort, the way I keep my heart beating or my lungs heaving without having to think about it, all I was doing was patting the balls on the back in friendly encouragement and sending them on their way. “More balls, more balls!” called the ringmaster, and then I was thrown a fourth ball, then a fifth, a sixth; then he threw in a glass of water, a plastic spoon, a brick – and still I could do it, still I could keep them all in the air, in one increasing circle, as if they were all cars on some invisible ferris wheel and my hands were the fulcrum, no, not so much science, as if it were magic. And I dared to believe that I was good at this, and I dared to believe that my son and my wife would be proud of me. I stole a glance at all the other dads. And they were juggling too. And they were juggling a dozen balls each, maybe two dozen even, it was hard to see because they were spinning through the air so fast, so much faster than mine, my balls now seemed to me to be meandering through the air as if stunted by arthritis and wheezing for breath. And some of the dads were juggling knives and chainsaws and burning torches, and was that a grenade, was the man next to me really juggling a grenade? They were better than me. They were all better than me. And I lost control, I admit it, I lost confidence, so did the balls, everything came crashing down. The ringmaster looked at me, frowned, didn’t say a word, and made a little mark upon his clipboard.

He made us try all sorts of things. Custard pies, collapsing cars, pratfalls – oh, I tell you, I pratted my very hardest, I tried to be the best prat I could be. And at the end of every test he would take out that clipboard, make more marks against it, and at the end of the final test he made the biggest marks on his clipboard of all. “Right,” he said, looking through the results, and then looking at us, through us, as if he could see our very clowning souls. “Right, I’ve reached my decision. You,” and he pointed at me, “yes, you, one pace forward.” And I couldn’t believe it, and I burned with pride, and I knew I would never go back to the bank again, and I knew this was what I had been born for, after all, to do stunts and japes, and make silly noises, to make people happy, to be spectacular. I began to thank him. “You can go home,” he said to me. “The rest of you, welcome aboard. Go through that door, you’ll find your barracks. You’re in the circus now.”

I begged the ringmaster to reconsider. And he listened to me, and his face softened, he seemed even quite kindly. But I knew he’d had men beg in front of him before. “It’s not your fault,” he said. “It’s your face. The whole point of comedy is that we can laugh at another’s suffering without feeling guilty about it. These other guys, life shits on them, and their faces puff out so amusingly, there’s nothing you can do but laugh! But you. There’s something tragic about you.” To illustrate his point he poured water down my trousers and hit me round the head with a frying pan. “You see?” he said. “The way you look now, so humiliated and pathetic, it makes me want to cry.” And indeed he wept then, tears rolled down his cheeks, and he asked me to leave.

I got home, and my son was so excited; he was bouncing around the room, singing, “My Daddy’s joined the circus, my Daddy’s joined the circus!” My wife looked excited too. And I had come up with all sorts of excuses why I hadn’t got the job, racism, sexism, flat feet – but when it came to it, I just told them the truth. “I wasn’t good enough,” I said. And I thought my son would throw one of his tantrums, but he didn’t; he looked at me soberly, even touched my shoulder, and said, “That’s all right, Dad.” And I saw that a certain light had gone from his eyes. He went to his room. My wife said, “Oh, for Heaven’s sake,” and put on her coat. I asked her where she was going, but she didn’t reply. About an hour later she was back; “There!” she said, rather smugly really, and dropped a sequined dress upon the kitchen table. She’d got herself a job as a trapeze artist, and I must admit I was surprised – my wife had never been what you’d call svelte, not even when we’d first met, and that was years and years ago.

The next Saturday I took my son to see his mother perform at the circus. I hadn’t seen a circus show since I was small, and I felt very excited in spite of myself. I bought us some tickets, and some hot dogs, and we took our seats. There wasn’t much of an audience, just little patches of sad looking men like me sitting with their kids, and I was disappointed, I thought the circus would have been more popular than this. Then the lights on the ring went up, and on to the fake sawdust bounded every one of our friends and neighbours. Near us, all alone, sat Craig Boardman. He looked rather lost. My son told me he didn’t think Craig Boardman’s dad had much time for Craig Boardman any more. I asked my son whether we should invite Craig to sit with us, and my son shrugged, said why not? Craig seemed pleased, and said thank you very politely. I gave him a hot dog, and he ate every last bit of it with his mouth closed.

The ringmaster looked so much more impressive with a hat on his head and a whip in his hand. He brought out the first act. It was the clowns. Craig Boardman’s dad was the chief clown, and he was ribticklingly funny. He was also very good when he came back later to lift weights, and he rode a horse standing upright, and he spun plates on sticks, I must admit I began to fall a little in love with Craig Boardman’s dad. “Do you see your mother?” I asked, and my son said he did, and pointed – and there she was, at the very top of the tent, climbing on to a swing, squeezed tight into that sequined dress so that all her bits were bulging. We applauded her. She looked so graceful up there, and my heart swelled large and proud. She leaped from the swing, arms stretched out, aiming herself right where Craig Boardman’s dad was waiting to catch her, and she missed, and she plummeted to her death fifty feet below.

They said afterwards she wouldn’t have felt much, it must have been very quick – though I’m not sure, that fake sawdust was awfully sharp, and it impaled her body in a thousand different places. But at that moment I’m afraid I leaped to my feet. And I cried out, and even to me the cry didn’t sound quite human, it was so full of grief, I think, or maybe it was just shock. To think that at one moment my wife had been in the circus, and the next she was lying flat on the ground before us like a squashed jam doughnut. I cried out against the world. I cried so hard. And they turned the lights on me. And everybody began to laugh. The audience, the performers, even my son, even Craig Boardman, even Craig Boardman’s dad. Because somehow, in that epiphany of suffering, I had accidentally pulled the right face. A face for comedy, a face everyone could laugh at guilt-free. And I saw the ringmaster, and he was clapping me, and nodding, as if to say, “Fair play, sir, fair play.”

That night I made my son his favourite dinner. He helped me, quietly, in the kitchen. I wondered whether he felt ashamed that his mania for the circus had pushed his mother to her death. He said he didn’t. He said he felt a certain ennui. He recognised that at some point in any child’s life one has to accept the fallibility of one’s parents. With me, it was my failure to get a job at the circus, with his mother, it was when she so ineptly made a pig’s ear of an elementary trapeze act. “But,” he said to me, “with you, at least you tried. But Mum? I’m sorry, but she didn’t just miss Craig Boardman’s dad, she was nowhere even near.” He did seem more adult, and I asked him if he was all right, and he said he was, and I think he was lying, but that’s the adult thing to do. I was proud of him, but I didn’t say. And we sat down to eat.