Darkness On The Edge Of Clown

I've been blackmailing myself for years. I haven't got a penny left. "If you dare even admit to it, I'll ruin you. Finish you for good!" I tell myself.

A new life is supposed to be just that. Clean and fresh and untroubled. That was the plan, anyway. The hope. My pointless prayer for myself.

But it hasn't left me.

The memories still pursue me, calliope-music choreographed and sawdust-scented. The stench of the mangy animals let loose from their cages clings to me, night and day; with every move I make, they pad heavily behind me. The dreams I race through in my sweat-soaked bed inevitably leave my pillow greasepaint-smeared every morning; yet I haven't put the make-up on for years. Years, now. But not long enough, it seems.

From the top deck of the bus each morning, the department store windows reflect back the bright-faced loon in the seat where I am sitting.

On the stairs at work, I trip incessantly over giant invisible shoes. My colleagues burst out laughing before a brief, unconvincing show of mock concern. Am I OK? I nod dumbly, an unseen hat several sizes too big waggling back and forth on my head.

Sometimes I see the elephants performing in the park across the street from my house. The first time was early one Tuesday morning as I pulled open the bedroom curtains. There they were, Bella and Zion, doing their funny dance, the one that always delighted the children. I was so sure they were real that I dressed quickly and dashed out to them, looking around for Sonya, their trainer. But there was nothing except the frost on the grass and a few sparrows.

In a bid to destroy the circus inside me, I had even taken the box with my old costume and paints out into the garden one Sunday afternoon. I smiled as the greasepaint pots cracked in the heat, chuckling even when my neighbour complained about the smoke and threatened to call the fire brigade. If I'd been wearing my revolving dickie bow, I'd have had it going round like a demented windmill trying to take off.

Nothing could wipe the smile off my face that afternoon as I watched the flames take my past, just as they should have done five years before.

But that night the faces still bled out of the darkness, seeping into my dreams to poison my sleep and destroy my rest. The bearded lady joyfully, desperately copulated with the headless ringmaster as my fellow performers stood around them, flames streaming from their gaping mouths. The animals processed around the edge of the ring, turning this way and that to show me their wounds.

The invitation was clear. So was the condemnation.

Every morning I look for answers smeared in the greasepaint on my pillow. But there never are any. By the time I get to the bathroom mirror the gaudy colours have faded from my skin, evaporating in the stale air of the stairway, worming their way into the worn carpet.

I'm standing back in the field now, just outside town. First time I've been back in five years. It's not hot tonight but I can feel the flames from back then. That night when the circus died.

When Flaming Frederic literally exploded with his own talent. The straw catching so quickly; the terrified punters running; the beasts screaming as they cooked in their cages; the high-wire snapping in the heat, decapitating the ringmaster as it fell ...

Rosa's facial hair shrivelling up in the heat as she screamed in outrage and horror at seeing her lover's fate.

Escaping people tripping over the guy ropes, pulling them free in their panic, bringing the burning big top down on everyone inside, trapping them, burning them. Blazing sails, huge and bright as they moved against the stillness of the dark above them.

Only me left. And two wailing children. And the 'geek', aching for his whisky, all boiled away in the heat. And a baby elephant, so badly burned that it died two days later.

The police and the ambulance crew looked at me with their prosecution witness eyes, as if I were to blame for it all. "And how did you escape?"

"But I haven't escaped." That was the truth. That's what I should have told them. And then squirted my joke flower right in their eyes.

Mark Howard Jones