A short story written a few years ago, and which first appeared on www.theharrow.com in 2009.
Billy Davis hates clowns. He always has. He thinks they’re weird; strange crossovers from a bygone era, before TV meant there was more interesting stuff to watch. Who gets excited about going to the circus now? Adults painting themselves in freaky make-up and acting like idiots isn’t funny. Maybe it was once. It’s not now, though.
That’s what Billy Davis thinks. And he should know. Because he met one that could do things. Amazing things.
More scary than funny.
He can still remember the details. He told me about it after a heavy night on the beers one Friday.
We work in the City, in the AV department of an investment bank. Two guys with dreams of Hollywood who were waking up to the idea that what it would take wasn’t worth giving. We spent our days plugging money advisors into microphones and setting up conference calls. Our minds were always elsewhere. But it wasn’t a job where you needed your mind. Just a thick skin.
Every Friday, a group of us would head to a boozer close to the office, not far from Moorgate Station. It was accessed by a door at street level but was actually down in the basement. A dark, mock Victorian place where they spread sawdust on the floor to give it an old-world feel. Maybe for the tourists. Not that any ever seemed to be there. It was a place for the suits to hang out and crow over the numbers that week. Anyway, it worked for us too; you could always find space at a table or the bar. Some of the guys stay for one drink. Some of them stay all night. It depends.
On this particular Friday, it was nearing eleven and most of the guys had gone, leaving me and Billy propping up the bar. My girlfriend was on a night out with her mates and Billy, well, Billy lives alone. He’s a nice guy, Billy. Quiet and good at his job. He likes a drink but is pretty shy. Of all the blokes at work, he’s the one I like best. I trust him. Got no reason not to.
I’d just got us a couple of pints and a whisky chaser each when Billy suggested we move to one of the tables. His legs were aching. We necked the whisky and stumbled across.
I’m not sure how it started, but the conversation up to then had been much like any other at that time of the night. The kind you embark on half seriously, your mind working overtime to escape from the monotony of the week, expecting a joke with a punch line. But this one didn’t seem to have a punch line. And I can remember it more clearly than any joke.
Maybe I made some reference to clowns. Maybe he did. But I remember a sudden pause in our banter. The rest of the pub conversations suddenly seemed very loud.
When Billy started speaking again, his voice had changed. He spoke slowly, as if he were in a little daze, but he wasn’t slurring his words. I can recall his eyes clearing, and he leaned forward over the table. I remember feeling surprised. Five minutes before, he’d hardly been able to stand without leaning against the polished wooden bar. I sat back as he spoke, enjoying the warmth of the place and the prospect of the pint of beer that sat in front of me.
And this is what he told me.
I think I was nine, when it happened. Seems ages ago, now. I guess it was.
I was generally a happy kid, brought up on an estate on the edge of a small town up north. Nothing special. Probably a dump now, but back then it was good. Back then it was my world. There were four of us: me, Michael, Jack, and little Bobby Wright. Inseparable, we were. The world was our oyster. No fear back then. Why would there be? The news was for adults, only on TV a couple of times a day, delivering bad tidings when we were at school or after we’d gone to bed. Not like now. On all the bloody time.
Just a couple of streets from my house, the buildings opened up into countryside, and the fields stretched away to where the river wound between them, bordering a wood. That wood was where we spent endless days in summer, losing ourselves beneath the shady green canopies. I can still remember the way the smell of cut grass from all the lawns gave way to an earthy scent as you approached the trees, less cultivated, somehow; more raw. It was the first sign we were leaving our normal lives behind and could be anything we wanted: pirates, knights, Robin Hood and his gang. Or just ourselves; young kids with all the time in the world.
We found a clearing some way into the wood, where the leaves created a kind of dim green light no matter how bright and sunny it was outside. We chose this as our designated place, our territory, and we pledged to guard it with our lives. At first, we used to go and hang around there all day, playing whatever games we did in those days. We pretended we were in the jungle, surrounded by wild animals. We pretended we were on an overgrown island, surrounded by a great sea. No-one could find us. No one could tell us what to do. It was our playground and we loved it.
Then Bobby found a pile of wooden fence panels someone had dumped at the edge of the wood. They were in pretty good condition, so we thought we could use them to make a good fort. It took us the best part of a week, dragging them through the undergrowth. There were five in all, and it took us about three hours to carry each of them back to our clearing. We did one a day.
Michael designated himself the one in charge of building. If there was ever one of us in charge, it was Michael. He wasn’t the eldest, but he was bigger than the rest of us, and stronger, so we were happy with that.
We used three of the panels to make the walls, fixing them between two large trees, leaving one side open, facing the clearing. We used big stones to anchor them, piling them along the bases inside and out. We managed to hoist another panel up to make a roof, resting it on the other three. Michael nabbed a hammer and some nails from his dad’s shed and he banged these into the corners, fixing the panels together. Lastly, we used the fifth panel to slide onto the floor to make a solid base that wouldn’t get sodden when it rained.
We stood back and admired our handiwork and then we sat inside it and shared out some food we’d brought. It was perfect, and the four of us discussed the possibility of running away together to this very spot. It couldn’t have been more than half a mile from our homes, but that didn’t matter; it seemed like a different world to us.
That day we waited later than usual to go home. I remember being nervous of what Mum would say, but I didn’t want to look like an idiot in front of the others, so I kept quiet. It was dusk when we made a move. I remember turning to look at our new fort and seeing it shrouded by the half-light. We were going to have good times there. I just knew it.
The next few weeks were hot. I can’t remember another summer as hot as that. Every day was perfect and each one rolled into the next and then the next. One long, endless day. We were never away from the clearing and the new fort we’d built. We planned our futures within its walls; you know, bank robberies, journeys across oceans, trips to the moon, that kind of thing. Bobby got a radio for his birthday and sometimes he’d bring it along and we’d listen to it. But mostly we listened to the silence of the wood, of the wind in the trees.
When it got too hot, we stripped off and headed for the river to cool down. I can still feel the cold mud on the riverbank between my toes and the rush, when you first jumped in, of the icy dark water closing over your head and the brief moments you were held beneath before rushing up to the baking heat once more. We were all pretty good swimmers, but I guess Michael was the best. He used to hold himself under for ages. Once I thought he might have drowned and started getting those butterflies in my stomach. Horrible feeling. But then he surfaced way down, laughing and waving.
When we got back to the camp that afternoon, we lay in our various places within the panelled den. Michael told us about a book his older brother had read about a bunch of boys marooned on an island, of how they fought to be leader and then started killing each other and stuff. We liked to think of ourselves like that, liked to pretend there was an element of danger in what we were doing. We didn’t want to be just kids, playing. We wanted more than that. But we were kids. Just kids.
That was the last day things were normal. After that it changed.
Next morning, Bobby and Michael rang the doorbell as usual and I ran out, shouting to Mum I’d see her later. We ran the three doors to Jack’s and picked him up. There were a few clouds in the sky, the first I’d seen for weeks. But they were big and harmless-looking. Fresh white pillows, fluffed up against a duvet of blue.
Just as we got to the wood, one of them passed in front of the sun, and I remember the four of us stopping to look up. It was strange to be outside and not have our skin kissed by the sun’s rays. We watched the cloud shift slowly without saying a word. A chill breeze came at us across the fields and passed into the trees behind, rustling the leaves to announce the coming of something. Something different. I took a moment to glance at my friends. For some reason my heart was beating harder than usual, and I could see that they, too, were uneasy.
Seconds passed, turning into minutes as the cloud continued its slow parade. It was not to be rushed that day. When, eventually, the sun came out, the four of us relaxed and let the warm light wash over us. Within moments we were on our way once more, running through the bushes under a canopy of green.
Michael reached the clearing first and was about to burst into it when he pulled up short, waited for a moment, and then hurled himself down onto the mulchy soil. Out of instinct, the rest of us followed our unofficial leader and threw ourselves to the ground. We waited until he waved us forward and then inched along on our bellies until we lay in a line, our bodies interspersed between bushes and ferns.
He was there, in the middle of the space, standing with his back to the fort opening.
And he was juggling.
He was dressed in baggy, once-colourful clothes that were now faded and ragged. Covered in the diamond pattern of a Harlequin, the colours were dirty browns and greens instead of bright blues, reds, and yellows. At his wrists, frilly, ornate cuffs hung from the sleeves, torn and shredded. Pieces of cotton trailed from them like strands of cobweb, twirling and twisting as his hands moved to catch and throw the four balls effortlessly. His shoes were large and misshapen and reminded me of the leathery feet of traditional Norwegian trolls. They looked as though they should have claws. There were patches of dried earth at his knees and the skin on his hands was dark and dirty, as though he had spent time crawling through mud.
He wore the make-up of traditional clowns, but it wasn’t fresh, it was old and worn and cracked. The white of his face had dry lines running through it, between which dirt and what looked like moss had congealed. On his left cheek, a small square of white make-up had broken away completely, revealing lined and ancient skin. The wide, red line surrounding his mouth was etched in permanent smile but looked mostly black, and his teeth were dark. A black cross was painted over each eye, but one was more faded than the other and gave him a strange sort of lop-sided look. Scraggy tufts of thin, pale hair sprouted wildly from his dry and balding head. From behind one ear a long feather protruded, brown and speckled with white dots. At his feet lay a straw hat, battered but intact. It was turned up as if he were waiting for any passers-by to throw in some coins in thanks for his tricks.
His tongue stuck out with concentration.
The four of us stared in silence. I didn’t know what to make of him, but I knew that the butterflies were back in my stomach. As we watched, he began juggling faster and faster until the balls moved in a blur, almost invisible. At one point he reached into his pocket for another, tossing it into the pattern without the speed of the balls slowing. As we watched, small, shimmering lights began to spray from them, just like a sparkler, lighting up the clearing brightly. It was beautiful, the five balls moving in seamless motion, the little dancing sparks of light swaying slowly to the ground like burning feathers.
All the while, the decrepit clown stared into the air in front of him, his tongue moving slowly across his lips but never back into his mouth.
I don’t know how long we watched him, but I think it might have been hours.
Eventually he stopped, catching the balls in one smooth snatch of his hands. He slowly put them behind his back and lowered his eyes until his grotesque mask faced us and his swollen, broken smile grinned at us.
He knew we were there.
Without speaking, we jumped up and ran from the clearing, back to the fields, back to the sunlight, keeping as low as we possibly could. Only when we reached the streets where we lived did we stop running, but nobody said anything. I think Michael muttered something about meeting up as usual in the morning. He seemed embarrassed. We all nodded and moved away.
I couldn’t get the clown out of my head that night. I could see his smiling, cracked face whenever I shut my eyes, whenever I blinked. I turned my mind to the blur of juggled balls and the sparkling lights. No matter about his appearance; what he had done was magical, and I would dearly loved to have seen more. But why had we run? No-one who could juggle like that could be bad. And he was a clown, after all. Weren’t we supposed to love them and find them funny? I was confused and slept badly.
But I knew I wanted more. We all wanted more.
The next morning was bright but a little chilly. The morning had brought with it the promise of new adventure and, as we walked, we planned to build a rope swing over the river. No-one mentioned the clown, and I wondered if it was just me who couldn’t stop thinking about him. I don’t think it was, though.
Whether any of us expected to see him again I couldn’t tell you, but as we approached the clearing, we could see he was still there.
He had decorated the fort with tattered bunting, faded blue-and-white triangles of cloth on a string that hung limply from the fence panels. They’d been driven in with rusty nails.
The clown was sitting in front of the fort by a small fire. Above it, something was cooking on a spit. It looked like a pigeon, or maybe a rat. The skin was bubbling, and fatty bits were dropping into the flames, causing them to leap about. He looked up as we entered the clearing.
His make-up told us he was smiling, but I’m not sure he was.
The four of us watched him, no-one wanting to get too close. He stared back at us before turning to a filthy drawstring sack on the floor at his side. He rummaged around in it for a moment before pulling something out.
It was a gun.
He pointed it at us and we froze. The clearing was silent apart from the wind in the trees. Not even the usual sound of birds could be heard.
Slowly, the clown moved the gun, pointing it at first one, then another of us. I think he had begun to smile. I heard Bobby sniff and saw him run the back of his hand across his face. The gun’s barrel flicked to him and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I felt queasy.
After several minutes, slowly, very slowly, the clown turned the gun and lifted it toward his own head, holding his hand so that the barrel was a few inches from his temple. None of us dared breathe as his eyes ran over us, watching us to see who would break. But no-one made a sound.
Then he pulled the trigger.
A little flag shot out of the barrel and unfurled and we saw the word BANG! written on it. A brief silence followed and then the clown burst into laughter. It wasn’t nice, jolly laughter, but a strange cackling that chilled me to the bone. There was cruelty in it.
Michael was the first to laugh along with him. I think he wanted to show us it was okay, but he didn’t look sure. None of us wanted to look stupid, though, so soon we were all trying to laugh. The best I could do was raise a smile.
Bobby’s eyes were wet.
The clown beckoned us forward. We looked at each other before we moved. Who was going to be the sissy and say no? We sat in a line on the opposite side of the fire, a bit of a distance back. His eyes didn’t leave us but kept twitching from one of us to the next and then the next. I didn’t like it when he looked at me, so I stared at the floor. But I knew when his eyes were on me. I could feel them.
Nobody said anything for a while, and we just listened to the fire’s crackle and hiss.
“So what d’ya want to see next, my loves?” asked the clown in a voice like gravel. He had a strange accent.
When nobody answered, he flashed a smiled.
It didn’t help.
“Come on, now, no need to be shy, my dears,” he added.
He sighed theatrically and pulled a soiled pack of playing cards from his bag.
“How’s about a little card trick?” he grated, beginning to shuffle them.
Never have I seen shuffling like it.
He flipped and flicked them, hurled and tossed them, fanned and split them. I swear that at one point all fifty-two were in the air at once, tumbling and falling like leaves, but never out of control. His filthy hands moved gracefully, encrusted with grime but with the lightest of touches.
We were all entranced.
He started with card tricks, simple ones at first, pulling our secretly selected cards from the middle of the pack. But then he did the impossible, climbing the surrounding trees to yank cards from the very bark of them before dropping to the ground and digging with his hands in the dirt to pull our chosen cards from the worm-choked earth. He drew them from the fire and conjured them from the air. He made buildings from them, impossibly high, and we saw kings and queens and jacks come to life and parade through the clearing, leading armies of soldiers into battle.
The clearing had become his circus tent; a stage for his illusions. The canopy above was the striped big-top, and the mulch beneath, the sand of the ring.
After the card tricks, he created life from fire. The flames of the camp-fire danced and twitched at his command and from them came our very dreams — huge pirate galleons coasting on heaving seas while dragons sailed above our heads, their great wings causing the trees to toss and sway. Our little fort became a towering castle, upon the battlements of which archers fired volleys of arrows at the gigantic flying lizards.
We whooped and yelled, we jumped for joy and we chased the images, wanting to be part of their legends. All the while, the clown watched us with a satisfied smile.
I admit I was completely overwhelmed with what I was seeing, but all the while I was growing more uneasy, and I glanced at my friends. Their faces were full of rapture and they laughed. I could see the clown watching me; he knew I was worried. But he kept smiling. Don’t get me wrong; it was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. But I couldn’t be happy while his eyes were on me. They seemed to drain something from my very soul each brief moment they rested on me. But I didn’t want him to know. I couldn’t let him know.
When he finished, the clearing became dull and green once more. We were desperate but knew not to ask for more.
He tore a limb from the thing on the spit and offered it to us. I shook my head but was surprised when Michael took it and nibbled on it. He made a face and seemed to chew for ages, but he had our respect for trying it. The clown chuckled and tore himself a lump of meat, not stopping at the heat of it. He slurped it and licked his filthy fingers, sucking loudly on each one.
“So, my loves,” he hissed afterward. “Now we must discuss payment.”
The four of us looked at one another. Payment? What did he mean by that? He sneered at our blank faces and scratched at his cheek impatiently. A piece of make-up broke off beneath his fingernail.
“For the entertainment, my little ones,” he said sharply. “I’ve performed for kings and queens, lords and ladies. I’m the finest conjuror that ever lived. You don’t get this kind of performance for free, oh no.”
As if to prove his point, he leapt up and begun tumbling around the clearing like a demented gymnast, flipping himself over and over on his hands in whirling somersaults that left us breathless. He vaulted over both us and the fire and landed cross-legged on the floor where he’d started, as light as a feather. Jack and Michael cheered and clapped when he was finished. I did too, but only so they didn’t notice I was worried.
The clown watched us expectantly.
“What do you want, then?” asked Michael.
The clown giggled.
“That’s more like it, my love,” he said, clapping his hands together excitedly. “That’s so much more like it.”
Michael smiled and shook his head, looking at the rest of us. He clearly thought this was a joke. Maybe the start of another trick.
“So?” he asked again. “What do you want us to pay you?”
The clown stopped giggling and looked sad.
“Oh no, my little ones. That’s not for me to say. I’m the entertainer. It’s down to you to make me an offer. Oh yes, my loves, that’s the way. That’s the only way.”
He stopped speaking and the clearing fell quiet. We knew then he was serious. He wanted something for his efforts. The four of us looked at one another nervously and begun rummaging in our pockets as his eyes flicked between us. We lay our possessions on the ground. When all was done, we had a half pack of chewing gum, a fifty pence coin, a pocketknife, a handkerchief and a cigarette lighter.
The clown’s eyes ran over them greedily. But he looked up with mock disappointment on his face, tutting and shaking his head.
“Oh dear, my loves. Oh deary, deary me. This is not fit to pay the wages of one such as myself, of one as gifted as I. I played the courts of Russia, to the families of tsars, you know. I put the sun in sunshine, my dears. I put the man in the moon.”
He leaned forward and gritted his teeth in a terrible smile. His dark, blackened teeth were all I could see. I could smell his bitter breath.
“But that’s all we have,” said Jack.
The clown turned to him and grimaced before letting out a high-pitched screech.
“WELL, IT’S NOT GOOD ENOUGH IS IT, MY DEAR?”
Jack jumped and shrank back. The rest of us were silent. We were all scared now. Not just me. The clown glared at us and then sat back.
Then he smiled.
“There is another way, my loves,” he whispered quietly, his fingers stroking the earth by his side.
No-one spoke now, not even Michael. We were terrified.
“One of you must stay with me, so that I may practice my tricks on him for a while.”
We were rooted to the spot. I heard Bobby sniff again. He was the youngest of us, and it was too much for him.
“For how long?” a voice spoke up. I was surprised to hear that it was my own.
I watched the clown as he turned his gaze upon me. A smile twitched at his mouth and his eyes sparked with energy.
“A while, my love,” he whispered.
“Can’t you practice on all of us?”
“Just one, my dear,” he grated, holding up a dirt-encrusted finger. “Only one.”
We looked at one another, Bobby sniffling and wiping his eyes, Michael quiet now, and Jack in shock. The clown stared at the fire, waiting for an answer. None of us wanted to speak.
Or maybe we couldn’t.
“If none of you will offer yourselves, I will have to choose myself,” he whispered. When no-one responded, he continued. “Very well, my dears, if I must.”
His eyes ran across us and his fingers twitched excitedly. His breathing had quickened.
I tried to make myself as small and inconspicuous as possible, hardly daring to breathe. I closed my eyes in an attempt to take myself from that place. I’d rather have died than spend a minute with the clown on my own.
The clearing grew cold and the smell of damp earth was strong. Twilight hovered in the air.
At last the clown let out a squeal.
I heard a sob and opened my eyes to see him pointing at Bobby, who was cowering with his hands around his knees.
The clown turned to the rest of us, his eyes in slits.
“You can all go, my little ones,” he croaked. “And remember what you have witnessed today. I am the very greatest, my dears. But I think you know that.”
He smiled his dark smile, and Michael, Jack, and I stood up. We didn’t want to leave Bobby with him, but what could we do? It was only for a bit, I remember telling myself at the time. But selfishly I was relieved. We moved to the edge of the clearing slowly, as if walking through a darkened dreamscape. Bobby sat quietly; he didn’t move.
I could hear him crying.
When I looked back, the clown was flipping the cards in front of my friend, moving and hurling them with abandon. His tongue was running over his lips.
Bobby didn’t so much as look at us.
When we turned our backs on the clearing, the cackling laughter of the clown followed us through the trees.
Back in the pub, Billy Davis sat for a moment, lost in some memory before reaching for his glass and tilting it back, draining the contents in one go. The barman was clearing up, shooting questioning glances in our direction. We were the last left now.
“And?” I asked, my own drink forgotten.
He turned his eyes to me.
“And what?” he asked.
“What happened? When you next saw Bobby? What did he say? What did the clown want?”
Billy looked at me strangely.
“I didn’t,” he muttered quietly.
“You didn’t what?”
Billy swallowed before answering. I think there were tears in his eyes.
“I didn’t see Bobby.”
“Until the next day?”
Billy smiled ruefully.
“Ever,” he said quietly. “He never made it back home. His mum called mine late that night, going out of her mind with worry. Our parents got us to show them where we played, where we’d last seen him. We didn’t want to go back, but seeing as we were with our parents and the police, it seemed a bit safer.
“There was no sign of Bobby or the clown. The bunting had gone and where the fire had been there was no sign of it. Not even scorched earth. It was just the clearing as usual, and our fort.”
“What happened when you told the police about the clown? Surely it would have been easy to find a freak like that?” I argued, uneasy at the thought of young Bobby’s disappearance.
“We didn’t tell them,” answered Billy quietly. “We couldn’t. None of us. We just couldn’t. It was like we knew he’d come back if we ever did, come back and find us. Stupid, really. I’ve tried, over the years, to go to the police and tell them. Thought that maybe they should at least know the truth. You never know, maybe they could still find him. The clown I mean, not Bobby. Bobby’s gone.”
I stared at my friend with a strange feeling in my stomach. I had no words for him.
Eventually the landlord cleared his throat loudly, and the two of us picked up our coats and bags without speaking and headed out into the night.
Text Copyright© 2009 N. J. Poulton