Once upon a time, there was a clown. His name was Hector. That he is a clown might suggests this will have a happy tone, doesn’t it?
You’ll be wrong, however. This story doesn’t have a happy tone. This story is about Hector’s power; it’s a dark, unusual, and frightening power.
Hector wasn’t wasn’t funny, but what clown is? Most clowns’ idea of “funny” is nothing more sophisticated than big shoes, water coming out from a fake flower, and riding round on a very small bike with two other clowns on their shoulders.
But the difference with Hector is that he knew he wasn’t funny. He didn’t particularly want to be either. He was angry; angry at life, at humanity, and the cruelty that was endemic amongst us. There was practically no-one he didn’t hate, although he could never hate his fellow clowns; the Brotherhood. They had given him a home when he had nowhere else to go.
He also exempted children from his hatred; they were innocents. His hatred of humanity only seemed to kick in as children reached puberty; he saw their innocence stripped away as their bodies began to change.
Hector wasn’t like normal clowns, despite being loyal to the Brotherhood. He had a power they lacked. It was in a niche all of its own within the already niche world of unexplained powers. Hector always used it correctly. Of course, his interpretation of the word “correctly” was quite different to … well, anyone else’s.
You see, Hector’s power was the power of the written word. He used it to protect the innocent – the children of humanity – to try and shield them from the horrors of adulthood that lay ahead.
I said Hector valued the innocence of children? I don’t think “value” was the right word, actually. I think “envied” is a better word.
As a child, it didn’t take Hector long to realise his power; the other children who enjoyed kiss-chase and knock-down ginger confused Hector, who couldn’t understand why they didn’t – or couldn’t – channel their energies into the strange, mysterious world of words. He could never get into this other world himself, this strange place he could sense but never touch, but he soon discovered that he could transport other people there.
He was alone in possessing this skill. All his friends – no, his acquaintances; he found it difficult making friends – laughed at him whenever he mentioned it and thought he was either dreaming or a liar. The confusion he felt soon turned to fear; it was a fear of being labelled “crazy” or “mad”, like both his parents had been many years before. After a time, this confusion turned to frustration and then to anger.
“Why me?” he often demanded in the privacy of his bedroom to no-one in particular. “Why do I have to be different?”
His anger began to further isolate him from his classmates, until he was almost permanently solitary and lonely. Lost in the loneliness of his bedroom, his mind began to warp and change. He became withdrawn and pale and obsessed with humanity. Specifically, he became obsessed with their humour.
I asked him this question when I visited him once – I was his only outside visitor, and could somehow get away with quizzing him in more detail than any of the army of psychologists that kept trying to understand him – and I think I’ll let Hector reply in his own words.
“Humour is a human condition,” he had said, sat across the table from me and looking odd without his clown makeup on. “We spend so much of our lives searching for ways to make ourselves laugh that, for at least half the time, we’re willing to sit through jokes and sketches that aren’t in the least bit funny in order to find that one nugget of side-splitting humour.”
It was early on that Hector began developing an obsession with clowns – who he saw as the epitome of that pursuit for humour.
“Clowns are not funny,” Hector told me on a different occasion. This time, he was sat opposite me via a Perspex screen; he had threatened a member of staff and, given his reason for being there in the first place, they were taking no chances with my visit. “They have never been funny. They live in an isolated, pathetic world of silly noses, prat falls, and being hit over the head with a ladder. They are not funny! They have never been funny! And yet people still go and watch them at circuses – and applaud them. They applaud them!”
It was at that point, as the perspex screen began to crack under his fists, I left him to be subdued.
Hector became a clown because he was captivated by this human need – no, this human desire – to laugh, to find humour in the darkest of corners and in the depths of sorrow. Clowns represented, to him, such a corner of the soul.
Hector once said to me, in a rare, unguarded moment; “What would you do, if you were given my power? How would you live your life differently to me?”
I hesitated in answering, because Hector always demanded the deepest thought before every reply. That comes, I think, from spending your life around the written word; it gives you time to craft your answer, a luxury people don’t always have when they talk off-the-cuff.
Hoping he’d drop it when I didn’t reply, I remained silent. Hector continued to push, however. “How would you use my powers?” he asked. “Tell me the truth!”
I had learnt early on that I should never lie to Hector; he was much too clever for that. However, I was also careful in what I told him. I knew him as well as anybody – perhaps even better, in a way, and hated him for it – and he seemed to almost enjoy my visits. Still, I couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t try and control me with his words. He always preferred to protect children, but I couldn’t guarantee I wouldn’t be the first adult he sent to the other realm.
“I … I don’t know,” I said. “I think I’d try and avoid using them at all.”
Hector laughed at my answer. “What makes you think you’d have any choice?” he demanded. “It’s a drug!”
I was 15 when I took my sister along to the circus. It was there that we first saw the clowns, including Hector.
My sister had been pestering me to take her ever since we first saw the posters being stuck to office windows, post boxes, phone boxes; almost everywhere there was a flat surface. I didn’t need much convincing – I liked the circus – and we went to watch the show one summer’s evening. Many teenagers would hate to be seen out with their nine-year-old sister, but I didn’t mind – she and I had always been close, and it kept us out of the hair of our constantly-arguing parents.
During the show, Hector came on the stage and immediately captivated everyone’s attention. He was very tall, bean-pole lanky, had a vaguely depressed air, and possessed a penetrating gaze that seemed to cut through to your very soul. He brought with him onto the stage a blank piece of card, almost half as tall as him. His piercing green eyes scanned the audience until they rested on my sister. He motioned her to come down from the raked seating and onto the stage.
He asked her name and wrote it on the card in large, copperplate writing – Elizabeth – then drew a tiny figure of her underneath. I watched Hector interact with my sister and beamed with pride. She handled herself extremely well, and went along with the tricks, even when I suspect she knew how they were done. By the time he had finished, I – and the rest of the audience – had forgotten about the card with Elizabeth’s name on.
At the time, it didn’t seem relevant.
It was me that discovered she had gone missing; I went in to wake her up in the morning, and her bed was cold and empty. The next few hours – and days and weeks – were lost in a flurry of police, tears, and endless cups of half-drunk cups of tea.
The police were at a loss; they simply weren’t able to find any clues. Elizabeth’s room had no secrets to give up; it had been exactly as it had been the previous evening. A half-remembered – and quickly fading – smell of ink was a soon-forgotten memory in my mind and, when I was older, I hated myself for forgetting this fact. It wouldn’t have made much difference, of course; I didn’t know then what I know now, but I still beat myself up about it, and always will.
Elizabeth was never found. A little part of me died the day she vanished; I was never the same again. We had been close. I had lost one of my best friends.
It was fifteen years before anything happened. I never forgot my sister; I never allowed myself to, but I also knew that I had to try and live my life somehow. I heard occasional rumours of missing children up and down the country, but I never paid too much attention – all it ended up doing was opening up old wounds.
After a while, however, whispers started; they were merely rumours upon rumours, but they were there nonetheless. The children that disappeared always do so when the circus was in town, and it always followed the same pattern – their bedrooms were always left just as they had been the night before.
It was this that had finally attracted my attention. The police had no hard evidence, but I suspected they were watching the circus residents closely as they finally came back into my home town after fifteen years.
I went to watch it; I had to. I needed answers, and I knew – no, I felt in my gut – that the circus was the place to get them. I had grown up, but I suddenly felt 15 again as I took my seat in the stalls. I ignored the surge of nostalgic emotion that flooded through me as I looked at the empty seat to my right.
That’s where Elizabeth would have sat, I thought.
I was distracted by the start of the show; the clowns were coming on. My breath caught in my throat when I saw Hector, still in the circus even after all these years – and looking exactly the same as he had done all those years before.
“You haven’t aged a day,” I muttered.
Somehow, down on the stage, Hector heard me; his eyes swivelled their sockets and fixed on mine. A rictus grin appeared on his face, as he paused in his creation of a balloon animal. I don’t remember what animal it was – I don’t suppose it’s all that important – but I remember loving those balloon animals as a kid. I even tried learning how to do it once, and went through a whole packet of balloons in the space of a morning.
The look in Hector’s eyes was one I will never forget; it was a mixture of fascination and curiosity – and it was entirely focused on me. I knew he remembered me: I could just tell. A cold shiver ran down my spine; it was automatic. All of a sudden, I was positive that this clown knew where my sister was – and the suddenly feral look in his eyes told me that he had realised what I knew. His grin grew wider, and then he licked his lips.
I don’t remember much of the next few minutes: I think a primal part of me took over. The next thing I remember was being held down by three or four clowns, restraining my madly-flailing fists and legs.
What an irony, to be held down by the supposed funny-men of the circus; right at that moment, they weren’t finding the situation very funny. I managed to twist my neck round and catch sight of Hector, watching transfixed at the tragic-comic clowns protecting their comrade. He really did belong to the Brotherhood, he could see that now.
I spent the night in the cells; the circus had gone by the time I was released the following morning, but that wasn’t the end of my relationship with Hector. He became my obsession – my life’s work. I was determined to find out what had happened to Elizabeth, and to have the man responsible for her disappearance so close to me – and then gone again in the blink of an eye – after fifteen years was too much for me to bear.
I immersed myself in the world of clowns, of sad humour, and nothing there made any sense. Hector was not a normal clown: he was a thinker, a deep one, and seemed detached from his surroundings - hence his apparent surprise that the rest of the clowns had protected him from me.
Clowns may have a pathetic nature, but they have a code of honour. Clown protects clown.
I took a different tactic, trying to find out anything that could help the police. I was convinced there was something missing, some clue as to how he had done what he had done. Was my sister still out there somewhere or was she … Even now, I can’t bring myself to say the word.
It was with that in mind I found myself in the middle of a field, at 3 o’clock in the morning, sneaking into the big top. They were packing up to leave. A lot of the equipment was piled up on the stage, ready to be shifted out at first light, and I had to move carefully to make sure I didn’t hit anything or make any noise.
Furtively, carefully, I began my search, my torchlight moving from one item to the next, unable to see anything that would give me any clues … until I finally found it; a piece of 8 by 4 white card, with copperplate writing that had just one word on it; JOANNA. I reached out and my fingers grazed one corner of the card. Instantly, my mind was filled with a high-pitched scream; it was a young, female voice – and I felt terror course through me.
I fell backwards in shock, as if I had been electrocuted; my torch fell to the floor and smashed. I sat there for a moment in the darkness, breathing heavily, as the scream echoed through me.
“You touched the card.”
I jumped at the voice. It was a rich, deep baritone, and its owner was eloquent and well-spoken.
“You touched the card?” Hector said again. “I do not like to repeat myself.”
I scrambled to my feet and nodded dumbly. As my eyes adjusted to the surrounding darkness, I was able to make out more of the man who was facing me. Hector’s eyes, surrounded still by the traditional makeup of a Dark Clown, shone bright in the darkness. I could see them looking me up and down.
“You heard her voice?” he asked in a sudden whisper. “Did you hear her scream?”
I didn’t immediately answer – the scream was still running through my mind – and my continued hesitation was fatal. A pen suddenly appeared in Hector’s right hand, and he motioned across thin air; it looked like he was writing my name.
I felt a sensation of pressure against me, pulling me towards the air where the pen had moved.
“You took my sister!” I exclaimed, more in shock than anything else. “So you want to complete the set or something?”
The pressure suddenly stopped, and I dropped to my knees. I looked up to see that Hector’s hand had frozen in mid-air, the pen no longer writing. He was staring into the middle distance. His mouth moved silently for a minute, then he whispered; “You hate me.”
“Of course I hate you!” I snarled. I forced myself to my feet. “You took my sister! Did you kill her?”
Hector came out of his reverie and took a step backwards at the ferocity of my words.
“You need to tell me!” I shouted. “Why my sister? Why all these other children? Why did you kill them!”
“I didn’t kill them!” Hector said in protest, a slight tremor in his voice. It was the most human I’d heard him so far. “I’ve kept them safe! I’ve put them where they can’t be killed!”
The demonic edge that I had witnessed earlier had crumbled away as he spoke. A glimmer of true sadness – no, loneliness – seemed to shine through, and I was amazed that he was showing a more human side. My hatred still festered inside my stomach, but I held it at bay; I needed to learn more.
“I didn’t want them to suffer like I suffered,” he whispered.
“Where are they?” I demanded.
Hector shook his head. “They’re somewhere else. My writing … it’s a portal to another place. They’re safe there.”
He didn’t reply to any more questions, but he didn’t resist me either. Some of his strength had ebbed away after he had spoken. I wondered if he had ever been truthful with anyone about it before. To finally admit to someone – even someone like me, who hated him for ripping my sister away from her family – must have felt like such a release.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out my mobile phone. He opened his mouth to say something, but then closed it again. He seemed defeated. When the police car arrived, he still didn’t resist, and nor did he speak. He finally broke his silence two days later, and that was only to ask for me.
After that, I became a kind of confessional priest to this strange clown with a unique talent. I had been the one who managed to break him, the one he had been able to admit his secret to, so he felt able to talk to me.
During our talks, his personality veered between the pathetic, the child-like, and the angry. I found his anger difficult to deal with, but the child-like state was the worst for me. It reminded me in a way of my sister’s lost innocence, forever locked away wherever this other place was.
He was never, of course, allowed any writing materials, although I often wondered what would have happened if that directive changed. Could I go through and rescue my sister?
I would often spend hours watching him through the one-way glass, wondering how and why his childhood – and condition – had warped him so much.
I know I’ve been vague with his talent – this ability to write others through into a different realm – but to tell the truth, that’s all I know. I suspect my sister is still alive, somewhere beyond the veil, but how to contact her, I just don’t know. I sometimes wonder if Hector himself knows.
But I’ll be there, waiting. And one day, when the guards at the hospital aren’t looking, I might even sneak him a pencil.
I need to know.