The main part of the performance was everything they had expected – and worse. Dull, childish stuff involving buckets of silver stuff pretending to be water, ‘amusing’ incidents with ladders and near misses with windows, pratfalls and slapstick comedy, brightly coloured, brightly lit and accompanied by noisy, raucous music.
As Alan pointed out, a ten or fifteen minute routine as part of a circus, with other kind of acts around it, wouldn’t be so bad. But after an hour and a half, they were all starting to get a little bored by it all.
The one moderately interesting bit was in the middle of the performance when, through the medium of mime they performed a sort of history of ‘the clown’, showing how those hundreds of clown faces they saw outside originated from five basic types – Harlequin, Pierrot, Columbine, Buffoon and Pantaloon, which in 18th century England were used to tell a story about Harlequin’s love for Columbine – the female clown – while Pantaloon tried to stop them. Luke and Maria found that quite intriguing, but it only filled about twenty minutes of the programme before they were back to the slapstick routines that the audience wanted to clap along to and laugh at.
Clyde seemed to find that bit even more disturbing than the rest. Every time the white faced harlequin clown looked in his direction he hid his face in his hands as if he didn’t want to be seen. He was relieved when they got back to red wigs and painted smiles and a chase around the ring in a miniature vintage car that fell apart little by little until the clowns were sitting on a bare chassis with a loose steering wheel gripped in the driver clown’s hand.
“No, please don’t ask them for an encore!” Maria pleaded under her breath as the clowns bowed theatrically and ran off to the side to rapturous applause. An encore was inevitable, though, and they ran back on from the wings to reprise a shorter, more comedic version of Harlequin and Columbine in which Columbine was clearly a short, fat man in a wig and ‘girly’ make up rather than a slender balletic woman.
But at least it was over then. The cheesy music continued as they made their way out of the marquee. It was twilight outside and the way to the car park illuminated with lanterns with clown faces on them that Clyde glared back at.
“So,” Sarah Jane said as they reached the car. “Are you still scared of clowns, Clyde?”
“No, I just hate them even more. Creepy, horrible, weirdos.”
“And you, Maria?”
“The history of the clowns was interesting. I was reading a bit about it in the programme. The characters come from an Italian theatre called commedia dell'arte. There was another one that you don’t see these days, called Il Dottore. He was a sort of loud know it all who was always interfering.” Clyde looked at Maria curiously and she explained, having taken Italian as one of her language options, that Il Dottore was ‘The Doctor’. Clyde laughed for the first time all evening and turned to share the joke with Luke.
“Luke?” He turned all the way around, looking for his friend. Sarah Jane and Alan both looked, too. Luke was not with them. They tried to remember when he had been with them last.
“When we were passing the egg head collection,” Maria said. “He was looking at them again. He seemed to be intrigued by the idea of the miniature clown faces.”
Clyde visibly shuddered. Fascinated wasn’t the word he would use.
Sarah Jane’s face was nearly as pale as the harlequin clown as mild concern turned to worry. Alan was the practical one who brought them back to the marquee entrance where most of the stalls and sideshows were closing now. The Pierrot and Auguste were packing the eggheads into special boxes where they nestled safely in layers. They jumped visibly as Alan approached. The Pierrot nearly dropped a tray of eggs and swore in a way he definitely shouldn’t have sworn in the presence of children.
“Sorry to bother you,” Alan said. “But my friend’s son is missing. We last saw him around here.”
“Son?” The Auguste clown’s real mouth twisted into a grimace of concern beneath the greasepaint. “A small child?”
“No,” Sarah Jane answered. “He’s fifteen. But… he’s sort of… special… He was interested in the eggs and I think he might have….”
Sarah Jane stopped. The two clowns obviously thought she meant that Luke was learning impaired or whatever politically correct euphemism was currently acceptable. In one sense, he was. He still had only two years of real experience of the world and its dangers. When something interested him he did have a tendency to forget details like the fact that the park was getting darker by the minute and that they were all waiting for him.
But where was he? And where had the Auguste clown gone? He was there one moment, and the next he seemed to have disappeared.
Just like Luke.
“I think we should call the police,” Alan said. And at that, the Pierrot looked horrified and said that he would fetch the circus manager and he was sure there was just a misunderstanding, and surely the boy would be found quickly enough.
“He’d better be,” Alan said in a voice that had more than a hint of warning in it. He turned to Sarah Jane and put a comforting hand on her shoulder. “It’s all right. Luke isn’t daft. He’s going to be all right.”
“But where is he?” Sarah Jane asked him. “Why would he just wander off like this? Somebody has taken him…”
“The clowns,” Clyde murmured and shuddered at the thought, mixed up with his own memory of his childhood experience of clowns.
“But then why would he just let them grab him?” Maria pointed out. “He would scream. He just… wasn’t with us suddenly.”
The ‘manager’ of the clown circus arrived, accompanied by the Pierrot and Auguste. Nobody was especially impressed by the fact that it was the small, fat man still wearing the Columbine costume and make up, or by his claim that the marquee and surrounding area was now being searched.
They certainly weren’t impressed by his apology for the inconvenience or the offer of free tickets to tomorrow’s performance.
“I want my son back,” Sarah Jane answered him with a hard edge to her voice. “If he isn’t here, safe and well in ten minutes then I am calling the police. And if they can’t find him, I’m calling U.N.I.T. They will tear this field apart, including your tent.”
“Call Torchwood,” Maria said. “They’ll sort this creepy place out.”
“I might just do that, too,” Sarah Jane told her. And she meant it, because she noticed something when Maria said that word. The Pierrot, Auguste, and the short, fat Columbine all flinched and their real eyes, beneath the paint, flickered as if that word meant something to them.
And Maria had looked it up extensively on the internet. She knew very well that Torchwood was a word known only to a few people in that context. Most references were to an aromatic plant that mainly grows in Florida. So anyone who did know that Torchwood was a secret organisation that monitored alien activity on Earth was probably somebody Torchwood ought to be investigating.
Somebody Sarah Jane should look into, with K9 and Mr Smith to help. But Sarah Jane was too worried about Luke to think about that at the moment.
Then there was a shout. Everyone turned as a Harlequin and Buffoon clown came running and behind them another Harlequin type clown in a different style of outfit was helping Luke to walk along. He was limping and there was mud on his clothes as if he might have fallen, and when Sarah Jane ran to him he looked dazed.
“What happened?” she asked him. “Where were you?”
“I don’t know,” he answered. “I can’t remember. One minute I was… looking at the eggs… the next… I don’t remember. I remember…. I think there was…. There was a clown… and then… then… I woke up in the dark. There was another clown… looking at me… My head hurts…”
Then he fainted. Alan caught him.
“He must have wandered off in the dark and tripped over,” said the Columbine clown manager. “But he’s all right now….”
“He’s not all right,” Sarah Jane responded. “I’m taking him to the hospital, and if his injuries are anything other than caused by a fall, then the police WILL be called. So just you lot be warned.”
Alan nodded. He carried Luke to his car and Sarah Jane and Maria sat in the back with him while Clyde took the passenger seat. Luke did begin to come around as they drove off the car park, leaving Sarah Jane’s car behind for now. But even so, both adults agreed they should go to out-patients.
“Clowns!” Clyde muttered. “Creepy.”
In a small tent beside the large marquee that was obviously used as a dressing room for the clowns, the small fat manager in his Columbine costume watched the last of the egg boxes being carefully put away by the Auguste, the Harlequin and the Pierrot. They were all nervous about the prospect of the police turning up at any moment.
“I told you to make sure they were fed straight away,” the Columbine said. “We can’t have them snatching kids. People make a fuss about kids. You should have found a couple of stray dogs.”
“There weren’t any,” the Auguste answered. “There’s a dog warden in this area. They round up strays.”
“Cats then,” Columbine snapped. “Something. That was a close thing. If the kid remembers anything….”
“Even if he does, nobody will believe him,” the Pierrot said. “They’ll put it down to nightmares, overwrought imagination. Probably send him to therapy for clown phobia.”
“Sometimes…” the Auguste said in a quiet, sad voice. “Sometimes I wish somebody would find out. Somebody who could free us of this curse…”
“Nobody can free us,” replied the Columbine with an even sadder tone.
The Pierrot said nothing. He turned and sat at a table in front of a mirror and began to remove the stage make up.
Beneath the make up his own real face was white as chalk with black-rimmed eyes, black triangles on his cheeks and black lips. His real face, in short, was a pierrot face.
A large, sad tear rolled down his cheek.
To Be Continued...