Anyway, here’s the deal: when I went up onto the roof earlier to find out what was happening, I noticed some music coming from one of the big grey vents. I popped my head in (No! Don’t do it!) to try to make out what it was but unfortunately (damn my deafness!) I must have stretched too far because I overbalanced and fell in. It was a bit like a flume, really, and I shot out and landed in a net. In a Big Top. Bugger me.
Anyway, there was no audience, but there *were* circus people standing around and my arrival had caused not a little commotion; it turns out I had nearly knocked one of the trapeze girls off balance while she was preparing a somersault and she was visibly shaken. But there was more to it than that; they just seemed stunned that I had appeared at all. The music stopped. As I clambered to the edge of the net, and carefully lowered myself off, the ringmaster exchanged words with a clown whom I recognised as the one I’d seen earlier on my office stairwell. Then the former came striding towards me and asked how I’d got there, so I explained.
Everyone then looked furiously at the clown, who actually turned and fled! Or at least tried to…he didn’t get fifteen metres in those silly oversized shoes before he was headed off by two very glamorous looking girls (pink rhinestones and bodystockings…it has a certain appeal in the right context, you know) astride a couple of earnest-looking elephants. And gradually the rest of the assembled throng were closing inexorably in. The poor bloke turned round to face behind him, quite obviously terrified out of his wits. I doubted whether the white face makeup would be strictly necessary any more. But why? I couldn’t understand it. Why so petrified?
"You see," I leapt out of my skin at the ringmaster’s voice, as he laid his hand gently on my shoulder. I hadn’t heard him come up behind me.
"You see," he said again, "We like to keep ourselves to ourselves."
His mellifluous tones reminded me rather of George Sanders. Or possibly Shere Khan? I’m not ashamed to admit I was starting to feel distinctly uneasy. He continued:
"We make a point of not drawing attention to ourselves. You and your ilk would not understand the way we live. It is of vital importance to us that we are not found."
"But your clown was coming down the stairs? What the hell did you expect people to do? Say – oh look! A clown! How mundane and tedious. Now I shall go about my day..."
He laughed, a stentorian sound, almost like an echo in molasses.
"We need to eat, my dear. We need to send out for supplies. It does not matter if one of our clowns is spotted on the streets of London. Who knows where he comes from then? Who cares? There are over one hundred and seventy major theatrical venues in the city, and a plethora of minor ones, all of which might employ a clown at any particular time. No, what matters is that no one discovers the doorway."
A shadow passed over his face.
"Unfortunately, you have. And that imbecile is to blame. There can be no place for him any more."
I wanted to argue with him, tell him he was talking nonsense, but before I could get a word out I saw him nod his head and then a terrible cry went up. I snapped my head around and saw the clown being manhandled by four acrobats. Suddenly some music struck up (where from?!!); the rest of the acrobats were forming a pyramid to the cheers of the other artistes. The ringmaster was in his element:
"Ladies and Gentlemen! We promised you all the thrills of the Big Top and here we will show you the biggest thrill of all! Ladies and Gentlemen! Gasp as you admire the acrobats’ skill and balance. Sit back in shock as you see the raw savagery of the lions!..."
Suddenly I noticed the centre of the ring was giving way: a lion pit. Jesus mother of God.
"Ladies and Gentlemen! I give you the Death Leap! The Death Leap, Ladies and Gentlemen! Never before has anyone survived this act! Admire the bravery of Balzac the Clown as he fearlessly makes his own attempt at a place in the history books!"
Fearlessly? The poor bastard was crying for his mother. This was a fucking madhouse. But how the hell was I going to get out? I stared forlornly at the end of the flume-like tube in the ceiling.
The ringmaster turned to me, "Why don’t you sit down, my dear? Enjoy the show..."
Feeling it unwise to demur, I sat down on a bench in the front row of the audience area. The clown was being hoisted up the pyramid; at the top he was held aloft by the highest acrobat. The music suddenly stopped, and the silence was broken only by pathetic clown whimpers.
Then, a drum roll.
"Ladies and Gentlemen...the Death Leap!"
With a roar from the assembled circus freaks and a scream from the poor victim, Balzac was thrown into the pit. For a split second as he fell, he caught my gaze. I’ll never forget it. It was a look of sheer unadulterated terror, and an intense, almost lonely regret. As if he wished he could take back every choice in life that had led him to this, or even just one of them. And as if he would gladly experience the fear of death if he could only rid himself of the fear of the pain that was to come. I shuddered but could not bring myself to avert my gaze.
The floor closed again over the top of the pit as Balzac’s tortured screams died away with him.
"The thing is," said the ringmaster chirpily, "we now need a new clown."
To cut a long story short, they said they’d never let me go unless I did their shopping for them. They shot me back through the tube using the human cannonball's cannon (ouch), and that was that. So here I am, loaded up with bags, and to be honest I’m not totally sure I trust them. But I have to go to work, so they’ll know where to find me if I don’t do it. Hopefully I’ll see you all at the weekend. If not...
Well, could somebody please tell my Mum that I ran away to join the circus?