Clowns and Crosses

The Tattooed Man, having just fallen backwards into the river, floats gently downstream. Blood gushes from an open wound in his chest. Somebody is running away.

Back at the Big Tent it’s clown hour. Children watch in terror as the painted ghouls run around throwing cream pies at each other and laughing dementedly. A small boy in the front row is the victim of a water flower assault and subsequently wets himself. Next up is the Lion Man.

Lion Man is basically a lion tamer with face paint and a stuck on tail. He used to be an actor but he hasn’t been able to get any work for the past few years, so now he spends every night growling and putting his head in a large frightening animal’s mouth. He doesn’t get nervous, but that probably has less to do with bravery than with the seven whiskeys he knocks back before every performance.

The Tattooed Man is sinking now, further and further beneath the surface of the water. A few hundred yards away, somebody is burying a dwarf.

The Lion Man takes a bow, then lurches off to his caravan to take off his make up and open another bottle of whiskey. He pulls off his tail and throws it across the back of his chair, then sits down and begins removing his leonine face with a wet wipe. He is aware of the sound of running water and wonders if it’s raining. Then he realises the sound is inside; he must have left the shower running. Only he hasn’t used the shower tonight.

He stands up, somewhat unsteadily, and walks over to the shower cubicle. It only takes hims three steps.

‘You bastard!’ he shouts, pulling back the curtain. ‘This is my…’ He stops, shocked into silence. Then he vomits all over the face of the dead clown, whose body is slumped awkwardly on the floor of the shower. A string of brightly coloured handkerchiefs is wrapped tightly around his neck.

Lion Man lurches backward, whimpering. He doesn’t hear the door of the caravan open behind him. Something heavy is brought down onto the top of his head and he collapses in an untidy heap on the floor. When he opens his eyes again he sees metal bars and hears growling. Then he feels a tearing pain in his legs. He tries to scream but his mouth is gagged. Somewhere between indescribable agony and unconsciousness, he tries to remember when he last fed the lions.

The lion taming act is cancelled, but the clowns continue, until they are found at the end of the week underneath a trampoline. Their heads are found in a bin some fifty yards away.

Comic Test James is called in to fill in the time left empty by the departed acts. No one likes Comic Test James. He comes on every night dressed as a comic book character and sits in front of a picture of Gotham City or wherever. And that’s it. He just sits there. He’s like the Test Card Girl, only less entertaining. One by one, the acts are done away with, leaving only James and the ringmaster. They have an audience of one by the end of the month, a homeless man who comes in to sleep.

The Big Tent finally closes, now a crime scene. The police wander round making terrible jokes (‘How do you kill a circus?’ ‘Go for the juggler.’) and taking turns on the unicycle. The ringmaster sits in a corner, weeping softly and rocking back and forth. Comic Test James is taken in for questioning,

Meanwhile, in a house about a mile down the road, a man sits in his bedroom cutting out newspaper clippings. A voice calls from downstairs.

‘Come on John, we’re going to be late.’

‘Just coming.’

He sticks the final newspaper clipping in his file and pushes it under the bed. Then he combs his dull hair, puts on his boring glasses and makes his way downstairs. His wife is watching the news.

‘Oh, hello dear. You look…well. Yes. Have you seen all this stuff about the circus? I was going to take the kids in the school holidays.’

‘Yes, that is a tragedy. How very sad. Anyway, switch that off. We’ll be late.’

He turns off the television and they go out to the car. As John gets in his foot bumps  something. He reaches down and picks up a Magic 8 Ball.

‘Where did that come from?’

‘I don’t know. It must belong to one of the kids. I’ve told them not to mess around in the car.’

‘They sell those in that toy shop near the school. You know, the one that got closed down. It was awful what happened there. I wonder if’ its connected to what’s happened at the circus. The woman who worked there sold them a lot of their props and apparently once worked there as a contortionist or a tight rope walker or something.’

‘You shouldn’t believe everything you hear on the news. Come on, we’d better get going.’

He throws the 8 Ball into the glove compartment and starts the car. Inside the boot a woman is curled up perfectly still, with her legs wrapped around her shoulders, and blood seeping out of her head. The wound is deep, but she is still breathing. She keeps perfectly still, and she waits.

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