Mr and Mrs Winthrop, together with Mrs Winthrop’s business partner and secret lover Mr Oxslade and his unsuspecting wife Mrs Oxslade, were going to the circus for the evening. It was a very strange place for Mr Winthrop to go, but his sense of obligation to what seemed like his wife’s unusually close relationship with her business partner forced him to come. She had suggested it a few weeks before as an eccentric evening out, and it would have seemed rude for him to have said no.
‘Have you been to the circus much before?’ Mr Oxslade asked Mr Winthrop in an obvious, diplomatic voice in the car on the way there.
‘Well, no actually,’ said Mr Winthrop. ‘I don’t know if my wife told you but I haven’t been to the circus since I was five years old. Until I was five my father actually used to be a clown.’
‘Did he really?’ said Mr Oxslade, feigning surprised engagement when in fact he knew this information fully.
‘Yes, he did. It’s a rather strange place for me to go.’
Mr Winthrop drew up a slightly pained, austere face.
‘Yes. My father used to be a clown,’ he continued, slowly. ‘He quit very suddenly after fifteen years of it. To this day I don’t know why. Neither he nor my mother ever told me what happened. He was always incredibly secretive about it. In fact I once asked him why he quit – to become an accountant of all things!’
Mr Winthrop paused. Mr Oxslade, who was driving the car, said, ‘what did he say?’
‘He went all quiet, as if I’d said something offensive. Then, with his big, white face turned into a frown against me, he told me to never, ever ask him about his days as a clown. So I never asked him again.’
‘Did you ever ask your mother?’
‘Yes, and she gave me the same reaction. It was if there was a whole chapter in my parent’s history that had been erroneously deleted, some trauma that had never quite left them. Though what it was I could never imagine.’
‘Is your father still an accountant?’ asked Mrs Oxslade innocently from the back seat.
Mr Winthrop did not answer immediately. Mrs Winthrop leaned over to Mrs Oxslade and said quietly, ‘His father disappeared when he was nineteen.’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ flushed Mrs Oxslade. ‘Without a trace?’
‘Without a trace,’ said Mr Winthrop. Mr Oxslade pretended to look surprised and concerned at this news, though of course Mrs Winthrop had told him everything. He had even seen the newspaper clippings reporting the sudden disappearance of Stephen Pennywise Winthrop, formerly known by his stage name of Achille the Clown. Mr Winthrop continued to stare at the dark of night pressing in against the windows of the car.
Before long the big top of the circus became visible. It loomed as the steeple of a country church does out of the night, lit up and billowing like a great, grotesque flower bud in the swallowing dark. It was located in the middle of a large field surrounded by a wood outside the nearest town, from a distance appearing to absorb the space between the trees like a bulbous sore. Under the searching balm of the field lights, the Winthrops and the Oxslades parked the car and made their way across the grass to the gated circle around the big top. Mr Winthrop was uncertain how to feel, if not uncomfortable. Something about both the familiarity and the unfamiliarity of the scenery enlivened some faint echo inside him that he could not fully make out and yet could not silence. There was something alienating about being within the reach of the loud, harsh lights and seeing all these families swarming around like flocks of birds around a rubbish tip, all waving flashing toys and murderously consuming candyfloss and burgers and cups of mulled wine and coffee the people who ran the stalls were so desperate to sell. He felt like he knew them, though of course he didn’t. He looked at one girl, working behind the counter of a burger bar, and wondered if he’d met her before. He knew he couldn’t have, but an echo from the slight line of her cheekbones and the slim measurements of her wrists was familiar, and he shuddered at the thought that he recognised her.
Mrs Winthrop and Mr Oxslade, however, did not care too much for Mr Winthrop’s apparent discomfiture, however much he tried to hide it. They were too wrapped up in their little game of showing affection for each other without showing affection in the slightest. Both Mr Winthrop and Mrs Oxslade had been too distracted to notice the sudden, subtle grip of their respective spouse’s hands on each other’s just as they left the car, for example, and also that they were forever glancing at one another, and also that the business they ran was becoming larger and wealthier than any of them had at first anticipated. Secretly, they planned to run away and run the business together.
After everyone but Mr Winthrop had bought a cup of mulled wine, they entered the big top. Mr Winthrop felt a shock of nerves as the performance space opened out before them; it was large and terrifying, with the four supporting pillars around the circular central space entertaining a network of swings and wires for trapeze artists embalmed in a caustic red light. Mr Oxslade showed them to their seats, which were on the front row in the centre. He explained obtrusively that he had wanted to pay for the best seats in the house in celebration of the success of the business.
So the four of them took their seats and the show began. The lights brightened and music blared, and from the great curtain at the back of the performance space a small man entered, wearing a black tie suit and top hat and marching forward with a cane in his hand; in fact, he bore an incredible and deliberate resemblance to the monopoly man. To the sound of garish music the man entered the circular arena and stood still, gazing around him into the audience until all went quiet. Then, he waited until all the audience’s attention was focussed very powerfully on him. He twisted his top hat around, grinning foully as he sucked up the stage space. There was something rather dark in his demeanour, a blackened edge to his nicotine-stained teeth and untrustworthy eyes, and all four of the Winthrops and Oxslades, not to mention all the other members of the audience, all felt an anticipatory shiver across the space. With a dramatic raising of his hands, the Monopoly Man then spoke.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” he proclaimed in a booming voice that somehow seemed not to suit him. “Welcome, and good evening!”
A round of applause met his welcome. He waited for a second after it had died away to begin speaking again. Cold silence surrounded his words.
“Tonight, my friends, I will show you the inside of absurdity. I will show you the workings of the human mind – I will show you courage – I will show you fear – I will show you the meaning of wonder. I will reach out and pluck the thing before you where previously you had thought there was only empty space. There shall be horror…” He twisted his tooth-ridden smile around the audience, who were listening with taught and apprehensive tension. “The mind shall collapse… the boundaries of perception shall be deceived… and you shall be breath-taken…” He paused, and then flung his voice and arms outwards as if he were throwing a kite into the night sky.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome! – to the Circus of the Absurd!”
The audience applauded and the Monopoly Man turned and strode swiftly back through the backstage entrance, with the swell of music hard on his heels. Mrs Winthrop glanced at Mr Oxslade, who felt the look of his lover’s eyes on his cheek and smirked, whilst Mr Winthrop gripped fiercely the armrest of his seat.
The first act was an acrobat. He was a young boy who could not possibly have been more than eighteen years old, and he drew in the audience’s attention like a magnet. A stagehand wheeled out a wheelbarrow full of large polystyrene bricks, and the acrobat quickly and skilfully constructed a few of these into a small tower about the height of his waist. Then, with a rousing wave to the crowd to encourage their attentions, the boy climbed atop the tower and, with one hand placed upon the top, he slowly levered himself up until he was fully upside-down, supporting himself with just the one arm on the precarious tower of bricks. After five seconds of this the audience applauded, and the boy jumped down and took yet more bricks from the wheelbarrow. With a startling speed and accuracy he made the tower much taller and wider, until he had used up all the bricks, though with the last few he made himself a small platform, like a set of steps. It was now as tall as his head. The boy stepped back, then ran and sprang from the platform up into the air. There was an audible intake of breath as he jumped, and his jump seemed unnaturally high. He turned round in the air, and magnificently, as if by magic, landed with again just one hand planted on the top of the tower, in the same position he had previously been in. The audience gasped and applauded voraciously, and then shook their heads in disbelief as the boy began to slowly bend his arm so his head neared the top of the tower. Inch – by – inch he lowered himself, every eye scrutinising the disappearing gap between his head and the bricks, until suddenly he released his hand and then – to the amazement of everyone within the big top – he managed to hold a headstand atop the precarious tower of bricks. The big top exploded with rapture, and after ten seconds the acrobat flipped off the top and landed perfectly on both feet. With a broad smile and a bow, he took his tower apart and disappeared into backstage.
‘How impressive!’ exclaimed Mr Oxslade. ‘How can a person ever learn to do that!’
‘You can learn to do all kinds of things if you’re patient,’ said Mrs Winthrop.
The next act was a roller-skating couple, who performed acrobatic tricks around a small skating bowl that was brought out for them, and after them came a team of jugglers who threw their juggling balls in amazing patterns all around the central arena. All throughout this the audience was fixated and amazed, and even Mr Winthrop himself was quite enraptured by the spectacle. He sat forward with his face cradled in his hands, watching the show as a little boy would.
After many further acts, each more outstanding and spectacular than the last, the lights dimmed, and when they came on again the Monopoly Man was back onstage. This time, however, he was not alone: to either side of him stood two clowns. The excitement of the audience was once again suspended into tension. Mrs Winthrop and Mr Oxslade glanced at each other.
‘Ladies and gentleman,’ began the Monopoly Man with an avuncular spreading of his arms, gazing at the blackness behind the lights all around him with an unnerving smile. ‘I hope sincerely that you have enjoyed this evening’s entertainment thus far. Has it not been a wonderful time?’
After a moment the audience responded with applause, and the Monopoly Man continued to smile his seedy smile. The clowns, their hands clasped behind their backs, also looked around them with rock-still, unsmiling faces, as if they were searching the audience for something. Mr Winthrop could not take his eyes off them. Having them there, in their full costume and makeup, unrecognisable as human beings, awakened something within him that froze his heart like an iceberg.
‘I’m so glad to hear it,’ said the Monopoly Man. He stepped forward and, like a true dramatist, turned as he spoke to address all corners of the space, his arms suggesting a certain condescension, as an uncle would speak to his niece. ‘But now, ladies and gentlemen, it is time for the – qu’est-ce que c’est? – pièce de resistance.’
From the curtain at the back of the stage, two stage-hands emerged wheeling on what appeared to be a large, black coffin, standing vertically on the platform. The stagehands wheeled it until they reached the centre of the arena, and from there the clowns, with their dark, severe faces, began to dismount it from the trailer and nail it down to the ground.
‘You see, ladies and gentlemen, here at the Circus of the Absurd we like to finish with a flourish – with something that will leave you gasping, flabbergasted, amazed. We will show you the inside of out, the right side of wrong, and the space in your mind where previously there had been no thought. Tonight we will give you a very, very special treat indeed. Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you about the Black Coffin.’
The clowns finished nailing the box down and stood on either side of it, continuing to survey the crowd with their foul faces.
‘The origins of the Black Coffin are lost in the depths of time,’ said the Monopoly Man. ‘We cannot say who discovered it, nor where it came from, nor indeed exactly how it works. This much, however, I can tell you: it was brought to the attention of the owner of this circus some one-hundred-and-eighty years ago – my great-great-great-grandfather in fact. It was discovered by him in the far-flung depths of Eastern Siberia, in a small village which has long ceased to exist and even longer ceased to have a name.
‘The reason for my descendant’s travelling in this part of the world was that he was searching for new tricks for his circus, which at the time was encountering some trouble. That is not to say it had been unsuccessful – oh no, no, no, it had been successful, certainly, but it needed something fresh, something new – something spectacular. And it was in just this village in the East of Russia that he discovered just what he was looking for. The Headman of the village welcomed him in, and when he enquired about local secrets and magic tricks, the village elders decided to show him something rather remarkable.
‘He was escorted to a large field, in the middle of which appeared to be a large, empty coffin, sticking vertically from the frozen ground. A prisoner was produced – what his crime had been my ancestor could not be sure, but he was certainly a criminal nonetheless – and was carried, bound and gagged, to the box. The entire village had heard the news and had come out to see the event. With much struggle, the prisoner was placed within the coffin, and the door sealed firmly on him. My ancestor, of course, assumed that this was no magic trick at all, but that it was merely a slow and particularly cruel form of execution; but after just a few seconds, the door was removed, and the prisoner – had vanished.’
The Monopoly Man paused and grinned at the crowd.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, we have a very special treat for you tonight – a very special treat indeed. For the coffin that you see before you now is that very same coffin that my great-great-great grandfather brought back with him from Siberia, bargained with and taken from the villagers. And to demonstrate how it works, we are going to require a volunteer.’
Instantly, as soon as the Monopoly Man said the word ‘volunteer’, Mr Winthrop knew it would be him. Equally, he knew that there was nothing he could do about it. The two clowns had moved to the outer edge of the arena, starting at opposite sides and working their way towards the centre, peering out into the audience to see if they could find their man. Mr Winthrop, Mrs Winthrop, Mr Oxslade and Mrs Oxslade all watched, transfixed, as the clowns came closer and closer to their seats, until finally one of them stood directly before Mr Winthrop. They stared at each other. The clown was large and threatening, frowning foully beneath the absurd makeup, his face as white as death and his lips and hair redder than blood. He extended his hand, and Mr Winthrop, helplessly, took it. He stood up and the clown led him into the centre of the ring.
Mr Winthrop could feel all the eyes of the audience watching him. There was an unearthly silence within the big top – no one spoke, not even the Monopoly Man, who was watching with intense and greedy eyes as the two clowns escorted Mr Winthrop up to the coffin. For a moment Mr Winthrop paused before the box and stared into it, all at once petrified and accepting of the incredible black within, like the heart of an immense darkness. Then the clowns turned him around so he was facing outwards, and pushed him forcefully back so he was standing within the coffin. From here he could just about see his wife, and Mr Oxslade, and Mrs Oxslade, all appearing to sit cold and emotionless in the dim half-light of the edge of the arena. Then the clowns brought the lid forward, and as they made to close the coffin, Mr Winthrop stared at the clown who had chosen him. He stared and he stared and he stared at the clown, and the clown’s face seemed to dominate him, defeat him, eat him and destroy him. For a moment, he thought, it was almost as if the clown had recognised him – but then recognition did occur. He recognised him! The clown! He recognised the clown! But from where? A daydream, a nightmare? A distant echo of a childhood memory? But before he had the chance to say anything, the lid of the coffin was closed on him, and when a few moments later it was removed, Mr Winthrop had disappeared.
In the applause and uproar that followed, Mr Oxslade and Mrs Winthrop left, leaving Mrs Oxslade fainted in her seat, and never to see either of them again.
What is that? A sound? Was that an echo? I cannot hear, nor see… Such darkness…
Black, so black… Where am I? Is this a life or a death I am entering?
“Son, you are home.”
Home? What is home?
“Son, I am here.’
But what is here? Who is speaking to me?
“Son, walk forwards…”
I seem to have walked into the heart of an immense darkness.
“You have returned to it.”
Who are you?
“Look into the mirror, son.”
Father? Or an echo, a blighted misery of a memory I cannot forget nor remember so fully that I truly know it… Am I a trick, a wraith, a palsy of the moonlight? Am I someone else’s memory, like a haunting voice in the night, recurrent at the buzz of lightlessness? Am I stultified, lost, forgotten, a child in the darkness looking for his parents, a teardrop on the face of humanity…
Am I a clown?