Maria, Luke and Clyde sat at the back of the school theatre, trying not to look a) bored and b) disgusted with just about everyone else in their class who were lapping up what they thought was pretty dull entertainment.
“I hate clowns,” Maria whispered, wondering why all the other girls, perfectly normal, fifteen year olds who usually cared about nothing but chart music, lipstick and older boys were clapping so enthusiastically for a bunch of people in garish costumes and make up who were performing a series of mime, slapstick, pratfalls and general nonsense accompanied by some cheesy music on a piano.
“They’re creepy,” Clyde said and actually shuddered.
“I don’t understand,” Luke answered him. “They are brightly coloured and doing amusing things. Why are they creepy?”
“They just are,” Clyde replied. “Don’t you think so?”
“Yes,” Luke said. “But I do not know why. It is curious. They make me feel…”
“Creeped out,” Maria added.
“You three, be quiet or you’ll be in detention,” said the deputy headmistress, Miss Johnston, as she stood at the back of the theatre as if she was some sort of entertainment guard.
“You can’t give us detention,” Clyde protested. “It’s not term time. This is a holiday club activity.”
“You’re on detention first day of term, for answering back, Clyde Langer,” said Miss Johnston. “Now be quiet or you will be put out of the theatre.”
“Oh, please, do!” Maria whispered sarcastically, but she was further away in her seat and Miss Johnston missed her comment. They had to endure another half hour of the performance before they were allowed out of the theatre. As they passed out into the sunshine that made them blink after being indoors, a man in a traditional harlequin clown costume with white face and costume in quarters of red, black and white, gave out glossy looking leaflets. They included a half price ticket to the Clown Circus that was performing for three nights only in a marquee erected on the park.
“Well, I’m not going,” Clyde said as they crossed the playground together, heading for the school gate. “They can’t make me. And I’m not doing that detention, either. They can’t MAKE me like clowns.”
“You weren’t given detention for not liking clowns,” Luke pointed out. “You were given it for talking while the clowns were… clowning.”
Clyde conceded the point and they reached the gate in silence.
“I still hate clowns,” Maria said out of the blue.
“Me too,” Clyde agreed.
“Why?” Luke asked. “I don’t like them, either. But I don’t know why. Why do you two not like them?”
“When I was about three, my mum and dad took me to a fairground,” Maria said. “At night. The way in was through this huge lit up clown face – through its big grinning mouth. I was convinced it was eating us and screamed and screamed and I didn’t enjoy the fair at all. And ever since, I have just hated clowns. I know it makes no sense, but I just don’t.”
Luke considered that and then turned to look at Clyde.
“They’re just creepy. You can’t see who they are underneath the paint.”
But both Luke and Maria had a feeling there was something more. Clyde didn’t want to talk about it at first. But they looked at him silently and slowly he gave in.
“All right,” he admitted. “Look, when I was seven, a guy dressed in a clown costume grabbed me.”
“Grabbed you?” Luke was puzzled. “But…”
“What?” Maria understood what he meant. “You mean…. Oh….”
“Yeah, this weirdo dressed as a clown to get near kids in the park… I screamed like mad and people noticed. He ran off… the police came… My mum… A whole bunch of fuss. I sat with a police artist for ages. But he was painted up. What do you do? Put out an APB on Krusty the Clown? My parents tried not to talk about it near me. But I heard them talking when I should have been in bed. It was on the news that they caught him trying it again in another park.”
“That was dumb of him,” Luke said. “He should have waited for a bit or got a different costume.”
“Yeah,” Maria pointed out. “I think that sort of person doesn’t think as logically as you, Luke. Besides, I don’t think Clyde wants to keep thinking about it.”
“Clowns are creepy,” Clyde said as a final word on the subject for now. He was relieved to see Sarah Jane’s pale green car pulling up. As he and Maria settled in the back seat, though, Luke, always curious and sometimes forgetting about that little thing called tact, asked Sarah Jane if she liked clowns and then gave her a digest of their conversation. She expressed mild amusement at Maria’s childhood trauma and shock at Clyde’s, before adding her own personal opinion. Like Clyde, she disliked the fact that you couldn’t see the real face under the greasepaint.
“People who wear masks usually have something to hide,” she said. “And in my experience, it’s usually nothing good. All the same… Maybe…. I don’t know… You two have both had experiences in childhood that have given you a phobia about clowns. But… if there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the years, it’s that confronting your fears is better than hiding from them.”
“Yeah, my dad used to say that,” Clyde said. “He once said he’d take me to some doctor who knew about these things.”
“Well I know ONE Doctor who would agree,” Sarah Jane ventured, and got the usual groan from the three adolescents. “No, seriously, I think we all ought to go along to this Clown Circus and confront your fears head on. Maria, would your dad like to join us, do you think? Clyde, what about your mum?”
Maria said her dad would probably come, but Clyde reported that his mum was working. She was a nurse, of course. And her shifts often included evenings.
“Well, then,” Sarah Jane said. “You might as well come and watch some clowns with us.”
Clyde sighed resignedly.
“How about some thoroughly unhealthy fast food for a treat before it?” Sarah Jane added, knowing the teenage mind much better than somebody who became a parent only a little over two years ago had a right to know.
“Not MacDonalds,” Maria said. “That’s one clown we don’t have to endure!”
That made Clyde laugh and the plan for the evening was agreed. Sarah Jane called Maria’s dad and told him of their arrangements. He was happy to join them for the performance which started at eight, but said he would have to meet them there as he had an emergency job on.
“When he worked for the council repairs department they had strict hours, 8am to 3pm with an hour lunch and cigarette breaks,” Maria noted. “He would always be home in the evening. Now he works for himself, he gets jobs at all sorts of times.”
Sarah Jane sympathised. Between her and Clyde, she very often was a mother of three in the evenings. Making a living shouldn’t get in the way of parenthood in her opinion and she was sad that it did for Maria’s dad and Clyde’s mum. Though, of course, it did give her a chance to spend time with them all, and she enjoyed that more than she had once thought she would, when she was the ‘madwoman’ of Bannerman Road who so rarely talked to anyone and went around in her car doing a job nobody knew anything about.
They enjoyed their indulgence meal at one of Macdonald’s clown-free rivals and arrived at the park by seven-thirty, half an hour before the performance began. Sarah Jane was generous to them at the popcorn and huge cartons of coke stands but none of them wanted to buy clown memorabilia and they definitely didn’t want to get their faces painted at the ‘be a clown’ face painting stand. Luke was intrigued, though, by something that went on alongside the face painting. Each clown face had an accompanying egg – a hard boiled egg – with the identical face painted on it that was added to a huge collection of clown face eggs on display. Maria and Clyde didn’t want to get involved, but his curiosity overruled his vague uneasiness and he asked the red-haired clown with square shaped eye make up and turned up smile mouth – a traditional ‘Auguste clown’ - about the eggs.
“Every clown in the world has a unique face,” said the clown in a voice that had the bored tone of one who had said his spiel to a hundred kids already. “To prevent copying, each face is painted on an egg and it belongs to that clown.”
“You mean it’s a form of copyrighting,” Luke answered, understanding at once. “But what’s to stop two eggs being the same? I mean, somebody could paint a clown face on an egg here in London, and somebody could be putting the same face on an egg in… I don’t know, Sheffield or Berlin or Hackensack, New Jersey….”
“But the eggs would know,” the clown answered. “They would not permit it. The imposter would be a bad egg. The other eggs would cast it out.”
“You know we’re Year Eleven, and the top stream,” Clyde said, plucking up the courage to speak. “I don’t really think eggs can have arguments about copyright.”
“Don’t mock the eggs, boy,” said the clown. “There’s stranger things on this Earth than you know.”
“Yeah, we’ve met most of them,” Clyde replied archly. “Bring it on!”
But when the clown turned his painted gaze on him, Clyde felt his courage fail him. He glanced again at the stall full of painted clown faces. Some of them were obviously kids ideas of clowns in bright, primary colours. But a lot of them were professionally painted faces, like miniature sculptures. Some looked very lifelike.
And some had faces that were FAR from friendly.
“My dad’s here,” Maria said, turning to the familiar shout as Alan hurried from the car park. “Let’s get on inside. I just hope this is more interesting than what they showed us in school.”
The three friends joined Sarah Jane and Alan and headed into the marquee with their coke and popcorn. The Auguste clown watched them go then turned back to the eggs. His real eyes almost hidden in the make up, focussed on one egg among the hundreds that were there. An egg with his own clown face on. His real mouth, under the painted smile, was anything but happy.
“Leave them alone,” he whispered. “They’re just kids.”
To Be Continued...