Short Stories

Story Index

The Circus

The man sat alone; a gaunt, thin man, starkly lit by a single candle that hissed and burned on the table before him. A knife-blade thin scar snaked from the corner of his thin-lipped mouth to a thin, sideburn. A glass of still cider, scarcely touched, cast odd reflections. Smoke from a hand rolled cigarette curled and twisted into the shadows. He stared at the burning end of his cigarette, then at the dark spaces.
    On the wall beside him an old, torn copy of an eighteenth century poster advertised the imminent arrival of the circus. Next to the poster were three stiff, plastic heads; clown's heads. The mouths and eyes of the clowns seemed to come alive in the flicker of the candle, then die again.
    He drained his glass with sudden haste, gripping the glass tightly between his thin-fingered hands. He stood and walked to the bar. A few heartbeats of nothing passed, during which he stared blankly at his reflection in the stained mirror. As his eyes focussed on himself, he realised that the barman was ignoring him.
    "Hey, barman," he shouted, "how about another drink here?" The barman came across to serve him, apologising as he did so. "Sorry, sir. I didn't notice you there."
    "How the fuck did you manage that? It's not exactly crowded in here, is it?"
    "I'm sorry. I just didn't see you."
    He could see only one other customer in the bar. The man regarded the customer coldly, said "Good evening." The customer shifted on his stool, nodded in reply, but said nothing; just stared back at him. No fear, no antagonism, no friendliness. The customer just reflected a cold, empty stare. Just an acknowledgement of each other's existence; nothing more. Little was said these days.
    The man looked away, returned to his seat in the corner. As he sat down, he banged a clenched fist on the table. He felt tense. The candle flame guttered, and went out. He struck a match, which flared uncertainly, and touched it to the wick. The candle gently, softly, flickered to life again. He stared at the dancing flame. A sharp pain stabbed into his finger; he dropped the still burning match. It died in the wet rings on the table. He leaned back in his chair, sighed, stared into the dark, empty spaces.
    "Thank you," said a quiet voice.
    "For what?" asked the man, still staring ahead, entranced by the hypnotic shadows.
    "For the light," replied the voice.
    "That's alright," the man said indifferently.
    He turned towards the voice. One of the clown's heads looked at him, a slight smile on its lips.
    "No matter; let me say again: thankyou. Not many bring us out of the dark.The candle flame flickers and dies, and who ever was there is gone when the candle is next lit."
    "Who usually lights the candles?"
    "The barman. We talk to him, but he ignores us."
    The head spoke again, with a whisper of confidentiality. "I think he thinks we're stupid. But we know who's really stupid." The clown looked around with exaggerated furtiveness, then smiled and said: "How long have you been here?"
    "About long enough to drink a pint of cider.You should know; you've been here all the time."
    "Oh no I haven't," said the clown.
    "Yes you have," said the man.
    "Oh no I haven't."
    "Oh yes you have."
    "Oh no I haven't."
    "Stop these silly children's games. You're plastic. And you've been here all the time."
    "No we haven't," and the clown turned to the orange haired mannequin beside him, "have we Rico?"
    Rico turned and said: "No. Certainly not. Let me also thank you for the light. It gets very cold and lonely here. It's nice to have someone to talk to."
    The man smiled and sipped his cider. "Does your other brother speak?" Both clowns turned to look at the third clown. "He hasn't been here for long," explained Rico, "and still finds the position ignoble, rather than humorous, and... well... rather grand." He smiled conceitedly.
    "What is your name?" asked the clown who had spoken first. The man frowned.
    "My name?"
    "Yes. Your name," both clowns replied together.
    Silence. Candles flickered. Light chased darkness in and out of the corners. The man warmed his hand over the candle.
    "My name. . ." Silent time passed. The clowns, eyes closed, smiled like Buddha. Until flesh burned. The man inhaled sharply. "My name is... London." Both clowns looked out of eyes that shone bright yellow from deep within them.
    "And I," announced the clown who had spoken first, "am Coco."
    "Aren't you all?" smiled Rico, and added, "I am, as you already know, Rico."
    "What about your other friend?"
    "Well, he's still too upset to talk, and hasn't condescended to tell us his name."
    "You confuse me because you speak," said London. "Are you mechanical?"
    The two clowns shook their heads. "I thought not." For a moment the scar writhed nervously.
    "To be honest," Coco said, "You confuse us."
    "And your kind," added Rico.
    "After all," Coco continued, "it isn't us who starts wars. It is not the fools who live in fear. Fear is war. War is fear. You seem to wage a perpetual war. But not us. Even with the abyss before us, we do not fear. Because there is... there is always a bright-winged butterfly to make us smile."
    Coco smiled. "I see one now."
    "Have you ever stroked the velvet smoothness of a butterfly's wings, London?" Rico asked.
    London asked instead: "What would happen if you did fall into the abyss?"
    "We would survive," Rico replied. "We must. Also, it would be fun to float through the air for such a long time. Weightless. We do not fear the drop, and so... " Rico performed the best approximation of a shrug he could manage in his wall bound situation.
    "And how is it beyond these particular walls?" asked Rico.
    "How is it out there?" the man asked incredulously.
    "How is it out there?" mimicked the clowns. The man fingered the scar on his face. "How is it out there," London said quietly.
    "He likes melodrama, this one," laughed Coco.
    "Do you want to know what it's like out there? Do you? Then let me tell you. Stop distracting me."
    "Men are easily distracted, we find," said Coco. "A part of our art is distraction," added Rico.
    "Listen then. No more distractions. Outside is this: plastic mannequins like yourselves fused together. Broken and lacerated people. I saw... I saw... a man, impaled on a sliver of glass, hanging alive from a telegraph pole. People on their hands and knees, limbs broken, covered in bloody sores, skin cracked and peeling. They looked more like lizards than humans. Their skin hung down in strips and dragged on the dusty roads.There are smashed cars. Broken buildings. Mangled bodies. Everything is tumbledown. Everything is broken. "
    "And why aren't you?"
    "I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
    "Hmm. That sounds complicated," mused Coco.
    "I think I understand," Rico said. "You wish you had died?"
    "I get it, I get it too." said Coco eagerly, and looked at Rico with a twinkle in his eye.
    "He wants to die," they said in unison and began to laugh. London looked towards the bar. Surely the barman could hear the clowns? Did the clowns talk often? Was there nothing special about this? "Why are you laughing?" Both clowns immediately stopped laughing, and looked serious. Coco said: "Ooops. Sorry. We do realise the gravity of your situation, and I apologise most humbly for that little outburst."
    "You sincerely want to die?" Rico asked. "I don't . . . I don't know. . ." London fingered his glass, rolled it between the palms of his hands. Suddenly, Coco laughed again. "Oh, oh, to be guilty about living. You do feel guilty don't you, London?"
    "I don't know."
    Both clowns squealed with delight. London's face grew tense. He stared at the candle flame. His neck muscles moved in spasms. The muscles in his wrists hardened. Suddenly, glass cracked, bit deep into his hands. Sharp edges cut through flesh, severed tendons and veins. "Stop!" he screamed at the laughing clowns; small shards of glass glinted in the palms of his hands. "Stop!" he shouted; cider dripped from the table into his lap. "Stop laughing," he pleaded; blood ran down his arms, stained his shirt sleeves, dripped into the pools of cider, soaked into his jeans.
    "You don't know. you can't know. You can't know how horrible it is out there. You come across people by the roadside, who are just staring at nothing. There's nothing to stare at. You go through towns that are levelled, just ruins, with maybe black stumps of tower blocks visible, but nothing else, no bird song, no children, no traffic. People just sit and scream. How many corpes have I seen? I don't know. I can't remember if I was proud to be human, to be part of a culture... Yet still there are people out there, out in that dark, sitty world, trying to be proud in all of this, trying to act like they used to, and even now planning their revenge on the enemy." London laughed. "The enemy. What fucking enemy? Who did this? Does anybody know?"
    "The proud; it's them what did it." Rico murmured.
    "Now all that's left of my proud visions are corpses, rotten bodies, the sick, and a mind-numbing state of collapse. Even people like me who, for whatever reason, remain unharmed, are suffering. Suffering shock, and fear, and shame, and guilt. But we're good animals. We survive. I survive. We still fight to live. Even though we all know we will die before our time."
    "Ashes to ashes," said Coco.
    "Dust to dust, " added Rico.
    "Clay to clay."
    "The better to mould us back again."
    "The next time God moulds clay and breathes life into its nostrils, best to mould us all as clowns."
    "Shut up," moaned London, who seemed to be retreating into himself, whose skin seemed to be drying out, becoming brittle, ready to be shed. His body began to shake. "Here is the contradiction. Puzzle this as best you can, riddlers. I'm frightened of dying. But I'm ready to die. What's more, I should already be dead. I feel guilty about living. I should be dead." London started to bang his fist on the table, began crying. "I should be dead ..." he sobbed.
    "Do you think," Coco asked Rico, "that he's trying to tell us something?"
    Rico giggled. London breathed harshly, slowly, painstakingly pulled shards of glass from his torn and tattered, bloody hands. His eyes bright in the candle-light, he stared at the broken glass. Slowly, he began to speak again. "It's hard to come to terms with all this. Everyone has died. My family, my friends, my wife. And yet, just because I happened to be ..."
    "Happened? " squealed Coco. " Don't you realise yet?"
    "I think it will dawn on him," Rico said.
    "I should have died. Everyone else has. Why should I survive?"
    "Repetitive, isn't he?" Rico asked.
    "Life is absurd, isn't it?" Coco said.
    "Rather a big joke," Rico concurred.
    "Why not stop complaining?" suggested Coco. "Live for the day. And anyway, you're not the last surviving member of the human race, are you? There are two more around the corner. They're not dead, are they?"
    "They will be," said London absently.
    "Mind you," added Rico sourly, "all they do is complain. All this complaining. The world is nearly dead and all you do is sit around and complain. It's all part of the fear you fear, I fear."
    London dipped his finger into some of his blood. He smeared it onto his cheeks. The red blotches stood out on his pasty skin.
    "Ah, the bloom of youth," noted Rico.
    "What can I do?" asked London pathetically.
    "On with the motley," said Rico.
    "The world is a game, you know. A game," observed Coco.
    London's wrists still bled, his palms bled, his fingers bled. Grimacing, he pulled a long, thin sliver of glass from beneath his fingernail. "What am I going to do?" London asked pathetically. He dipped his finger into the hot wax on top of the candle.
    "Cauterise your wounds," Coco said gently. London smeared the wax around the red on his cheeks.
    "On with the motley," Coco said.
    "What else can I do?" London smeared blood around his lips.
    "Come and join us," suggested Rico.
    "Join you? Why?"
    "We need more clowns. The world needs more clowns. It needs laughter. The world is waiting for you."
    "Come," breathed Coco. "Dispose of your life if you wish. But in doing so, prepare yourself and the world for a good laugh. Help make this a fearless world of pratfalls and bad jokes. Join us!"
    London looked around him. The world that now existed was a crushing, inescapable fact. He picked up a sliver of glass and made a final, decisive cut across his already lacerated wrists. He lurched up, staggered towards the wall. He could feel himself slipping in the blood and pools of cider. He could see a distant blackness. Pain throbbed at his wrist, the blood thudded heavily in his ears. A table crashed somewhere. Crazy red patterns danced before his eyes. His lungs and chest heaved, sucked, his eyelids felt heavy, very heavy, he felt a solid wall before him, and pushed his body hard against it. Blood dripped from his fingers to the floor, his muscles ached, and all the time the slow, steady loss of conciousness, a loss of reality, a steady dissolution of solidity, a mingling and melting, the loss of a body, the gaining of three friends, one silent.

When the barman came to clear away the glasses, he noticed the smashed glass, the blood, the overturned table, the scattered chairs. He did not notice the extra mannequin.

Through the black night,
through the burned, blackened,
battered remains of bodies,
broken trees and buildings,
through dripping, rotting flesh,
around the carrion crows, melted dummies,
through the broken windows of
crushed and blackened tenements and trains,
about the sick survivors, the mad wanderers,
through bloody streets, the burnt out shells of houses,
across worm eaten infants, the dying, the infirm,
along the streets and above the houses
Comes the cry:

"Here is the circus."