BY HAMISH HUTCHINSON
I fucking hate clowns.
Despite the stale air and suffocation, Michael spat out the words in the dark. His head was thumping and he needed a drink. Lying on his back, he fumbled in his inside jacket pocket and pulled out a lighter. A wry smile crossed his face.
And they say smoking kills.
He rummaged in the rest of his pockets but they were all empty. His hands shook as he sparked the Zippo into life. As he did so a jolt knocked him forward and he smacked his forehead off the felt-covered walls.
He stroked the back of his head and flinched as he reached blood and remembered the blow; an unsubtle invitation to his current predicament. He glanced around his cosy cell to be sure, but he knew where he was. The humming and continual grumble of tyres on tarmac gave it away.
They’ve locked me in the boot... clowns.
The boot was cramped – his legs were unable to make full stretch – and his feet were bare. Michael guessed they'd removed his shoes and socks to slow him down if he ever escaped. The only saving grace was that they hadn’t tied his arms and feet together.
As he shuffled on his side to face the rear of the car his head brushed against a plastic bag stuffed in the corner. He held up the lighter and twisted his body to get a better view.
The black bin bag was bulky. The top was bound by badly frayed rope. Michael tentatively stretched out his hand to feel the contents through the plastic.
What he felt was small, almost like firewood, but the texture was smoother. Then he came to something different – larger – and he froze.
A sickening thought crept into his mind. He arched his neck to get a better view and there, staring back at him though the plastic, were the hollow eye sockets of a skull.
Panic turned to dread and then the nausea hit. He retched. It was dry but it hurt. All at once his childhood nightmare of flesh-eating clowns felt far more real. Michael was riding shotgun in the boot with a bag of human bones.
It doesn’t make sense.
But then when did any of this make sense? He’d been kidnapped by grown men who still played with face-paints. He could see the headline now: ‘Journalist eaten by clowning cannibals.’ Not quite the epitaph he had in mind.
His face was soaked in sweat and tears. He rubbed his eyes and took a deep breath.
I need to get out of here, right fucking now.
Throughout Michael’s thirty years he had come across many clowns, be it those of the class or office variety, but it was clowns, real clowns, that he hated. His phobia was more common than he thought. Coulrophobia, doctors called it. He preferred to call it, ‘smiley bastard syndrome’.
It began when he was nine years old and accidentally walked in on his older sister, Karen, watching Stephen King’s IT on television. From that moment on, the image of killer clown Pennywise, all snake-eyes and sharpened teeth, was forever embedded in his mind.
Karen, like all good siblings, would tease her younger brother. So, when Michael woke drenched in sweat from a nightmare that night, she saw an opportunity.
Michael shuffled back to his bedroom having been on the receiving end of a scolding from his parents.
“It’s three in the morning for God’s sake. Go back to sleep,” was his father’s sympathetic response.
The room was shrouded in darkness – the bedside lamp, switched on in his waking panic, had been turned off. Michael took a few steps inside before a voice growled in the darkness and made him stutter to a stop.
“Michael. M-i-i-i-chael,” it hissed.
Fear held him. His gaze was transfixed on a toy clown whose head was bobbing up and down on the other side of his bed.
“I’m every nightmare you’ve ever had! I am your worst dream come true. Be afraid. You taste so much better when you're afraid!”
Suddenly, the gurning figurine hurtled itself towards him. The sight was more than Michael could handle and, as it smacked his face, he screamed.
When he stopped, all he could hear was laughter. Michael stomped over to his bed and found his sister lying on the floor in a fit of giggles. “That wasn't funny,” he shouted but she couldn’t stop herself. Very soon the laughter turned to coughing and finally wheezing. So it was, that the birth of Michael’s phobia was marked by his sister’s first asthma attack.
Michael was typing at his desk in the office of The Journal when an email announcing the return of death metal rockers, Carnival of Clowns, pinged into his inbox. It was briskly moved to the delete folder. An hour passed before he was called into his editor’s office.
“You seen this?” asked Alison Robertson, sliding a printout of a press release, over her desk towards Michael. “Carnival of Clowns?”
Alison had been shipped in from the nationals to turn the local newspaper’s falling circulation around. In her forty years in the business, she had built a reputation on sensationalism. She loved sleaze and scandal and now, it seemed, clowns.
Michael shook his head.
“They were big business years ago, not my cup of tea. They’ve announced a comeback, if you want to call it that. They’re reforming for one night only, and it’s here in the city. I want you to go out and interview them. They’re in The Carvery."
“I thought The Carvery’s closed,” replied Michael.
“It is but that’s where they want the interview.”
“I'm pretty snowed under, can someone else do it?” lied Michael.
Alison leaned back in her chair and folded her arms. Her expression was as stoney as her ginger bob. “Michael, I know what you're working on.”
The next course of action was obvious for Michael – try and pass the buck.
“What about John?”
“He's got court this afternoon.”
“No, she can't.”
“Because I want you to do it. Besides, they said they’d only speak to a male reporter.”
She held out the printout. “Here.”
Michael hesitated before taking the piece of paper.
“And I want photos.”
Michael nodded and trudged back to his desk. He slumped in his chair and stared at his computer screen.
This is not going to be my day.
Michael didn’t know much about Carnival of Clowns. He was more of an indie boy, brought up on Oasis, Pulp, lads’ mags and lager. It took only a few clicks on the internet to find out all he needed to know.
English three-piece, Carnival of Clowns, garnered a reputation in the early 1990s for not only their killer death metal but an infamous live set. Be it pissing, vomiting or even defecating on stage, nothing was too depraved. They also had a penchant for mock religious sacrifices – asking fans to donate their pets for the ‘slaughter’. Of course, the goldfish, hamsters and dogs paraded on stage were never really killed – it was all just an act. But as the years passed, and their popularity waned, things took a sinister turn as the line between fact and fiction blurred.
Their antics finally caught up with them in 1998 after an incident involving a gerbil, masking tape and a firework. That led to an almost all-out performing ban in Europe and marked the beginning of the end for the Carnival. Two years later, their drummer Pete, affectionately known as Dragon Piss, hanged himself in his New York apartment. They split soon after and the surviving members quickly disappeared into obscurity.
Their track record didn't warm Michael to the interview. He looked at the clock – four hours till clown time. He tried to keep his mind off it, knocking out golden weddings and gala days – the staple of local newspapers – and it seemed to work. When he next looked at the clock, it was quarter to four.
Michael hesitantly stood up and slowly put on his black jacket hanging on the back of his chair. He then headed for the door.
“Good luck,” called out Alison.
“Thanks,” Michael forced a smile.
Michael glanced at his watch – he was ten minutes late. He reached the brow of the hill just as thunder cracked overhead and torrential rain followed. He lightly jogged to The Carvery. The pub had changed owners so many times that a ‘For Sale’ sign above the door had become something of a permanent feature.
Michael shook as much rain out of his thick black hair as he could and slowly pushed the door open. The first thing that hit him was the smell – fusty. Like finding an old damp sock at the bottom of a wash basket. The second was the lack of electric light. Daylight fought through gaps in the boarded-up windows while candles did the rest. What had once been a thriving student hang-out was now eerily quiet – stacks of tables and chairs were the only regulars left.
“Hello!” called out Michael.
He crept over to the staircase leading up to the function suite.
“Up here!” growled a voice from above.
Michael’s heart sank. As he grudgingly climbed the stairs, he glanced up and saw the silhouette of Dog, Carnival’s lead guitarist. Dog was so named because of his apparent diet of lager and dog food, although you couldn't tell it from his size. He was, to all intents and purposes, a mass of blubber. What little neck he once had in his younger days had long since merged with his torso.
His breathing was low and heavy. Michael didn’t think he was trying to intimidate him – more likely, he was just out of shape. When Michael reached the top of the stairs, he saw the clown in all his garish glory.
Dog was dressed in a loose fitted black tracksuit and his features were caked in make-up. White paint covered his unshaven pitted face; green encircled his eyes and swollen lips. His dyed purple hair was badly receding.
He pointed at a small round pine table and stools in the middle of the empty room.
“Sit there,” he muttered. His words floated in the air on a wave of halitosis.
As Michael moved to the table, Dog waddled over to a door in the far corner of the room and exited.
A lamp on the table cast the only light in the darkness. Michael sat down and removed a notepad and pen from his jacket. The silence in the room made him uneasy.
The door in the far corner opened and Dog walked out, followed by Dutch, Carnival’s frontman, wearing his trademarked ripped jeans and tatty yellow-stained t-shirt.
What Dog had in podge; Dutch matched in muscle. He too had his clown-face on. His blood red smile carried up both cheeks to his ears, while his eyes were Goth black. None of which did anything for his comical orange frizz.
Michael had read that when people asked the singer why he was called Dutch he’d reply that it was because his mother was a Netherlander. That was a lie. The truth lay with his love of eighties’ Schwarzenegger flick, Predator. The word ‘chopper’ tattooed above his scrotum revealed his real obsession, but then only a privileged few ever ‘got’ to it.
He grinned at Michael, which exposed his teeth, each filed to a point.
“I’m Michael, from The Journal.”
Dutch stuck out his hand and the journalist shook it to his immediate regret. A sharp pain shot through Michael’s hand and he recoiled. He looked down as blood poured from a puncture wound on his palm.
“Sorry,” apologised Dutch in gravel tones. “Forgot I had that on.”
He removed a ring from his finger which was connected to a pin-like attachment that sat in his palm. “It’s my pin gag,” he said and passed it to Dog who left them alone. Dutch walked over to the table and sat down while Michael held his blooded hand.
“Here, take my handkerchief,” offered Dutch as he held out a small green cloth.
Michael hesitated for a moment, as if preparing for another ‘gag’.
“It’s just a handkerchief, nothing more.”
The journalist nodded and wrapped it around his wound.
“Shall we start?” asked Dutch nonchalantly.
Michael wanted to say no but he didn’t feel like returning to the office with nothing, and having to explain his phobia to his editor’s less than sympathetic ears. Instead, he sat down on the stool and picked up his notepad, cradling it in his injured palm.
“When did you decide to reform?” croaked Michael, and cleared his throat.
“The timing felt right. Like the stars and planets had aligned,” Dutch beamed, though it could have been a sneer. “Do you love your job?”
“It has its moments,” sighed Michael, though this wasn’t one of them.
“Imagine those moments in front of millions who consider you a god – that’s my job. Now ask me again why we're back.”
“OK, why did you reform?” obeyed Michael, and rolled his eyes.
Dutch leaned in and whispered, “Because I fucking love it.”
He leaned back and put his hands behind his head. The movement raised his t-shirt sleeve just enough to reveal a tattoo on his arm. Michael saw it as an opportunity to change the subject.
“What language is that?” he asked, pointing at three words inked into his bicep.
Dutch’s expression changed – the smile remained but the eyes turned darker. It was a subtle shift and reminded Michael of an expression his grandmother used to say, “The Devil doesn’t steal your soul, he invites it in with a handshake and a smile.”
“It's Latin,” replied Dutch. “ad vitam aeternam.”
“What does it mean?”
“To everlasting life.”
Dutch’s eyes fixed on Michael. He surveyed his reaction like a lion eyeing his prey. Michael flinched and swiftly looked down at his notepad and scribbled something, anything, to avoid eye contact.
“Who’s your drummer?” asked Michael.
Dutch tilted his head.
“I thought Pete was dead?”
“He is, but then what is dead? I see death like the Sun. It’s never truly gone and if you wait long enough, it’ll rise again.”
“Interesting philosophy,” said Michael. “Like reincarnation?”
“In reincarnation, the soul is born again in a new being. I'm not talking about reincarnation.” Dutch stared. “Do you believe in God?”
Looking at the fanged grotesque sitting opposite him, Michael didn’t know about God but the Devil seemed a safe bet.
“I would say, I believe in something,” he replied, diplomatically.
“Maybe you should start,” grinned Dutch. “No-one knows how long we have left.”
At those words Michael’s stomach turned. Saliva oozed into his mouth and he swallowed hard to quell the rising acid inside.
Dog re-entered the room and grunted three words. Michael thought he caught a hint of glee in the monosyllabic delivery.
“It's a match.”
Dutch nodded and smirked.
“Any other questions, Michael?”
Before the journalist could answer, he felt a blow to the back of his head. All at once, Michael’s world blurred and he stumbled forward off the stool and collapsed onto the floor. He rolled onto his side and through his haze saw Dog clasping a beer bottle.
“What the fuck are you doing?” shrieked Dutch. “We need him unharmed.”
Dog grunted and shrugged. Michael tried to push off the floor with his hands as the world pirouetted around him.
“You got the chloroform?” yelled Dutch.
“Then use it.” Dog lumbered over to Michael and stuffed a yellow rag into his face. It took only a few seconds before everything went dark.
Michael punched out in frustration, pounding on the roof.
How could I have been so stupid?
The unlikely sound of Euro pop suddenly blared from within the car.
If I’m going to meet my demise, please don’t let it be to the sounds of the Venga Boys.
Michael wasn’t going to wait for death to come. He scrambled and jostled to remove his jacket and drew his hands along the floor of the boot until he came to a fabric handle to access the spare-tyre below. He needed anything that he could use for a weapon.
Michael adjusted his position, with his back against the rear of the car, and pulled the handle. The floor rose slightly and he squeezed his right hand through the gap but it was too small for his fat fingers.
He tried a few more times, adjusting his body to allow more of the floor to lift, but nothing worked. His right arm throbbed when he finally gave up.
Michael sparked the lighter and saw his white shirt sleeve soaked through with blood.
He undid the button on his cuff and rolled it back, grimacing as he did so. His eyes widened as he realised the source of his pain. There, neatly carved into the top of his forearm, were three words: ad vitam aeternam. To everlasting life.
Every word cut deeper than the blunt carving knife they’d used as a writing implement. Michael’s eyes subconsciously moved up to the bin bag of bones, as the pieces of this horrific jigsaw puzzle slotted into place.
Life. Death. Sacrifice. Resurrection. Michael. Pete.
Do you believe in God?
The words of Dutch echoed in his mind. The car braked violently. Michael’s face connected with the back of the seats and he dropped the lighter.
A sudden sense of clarity formed in his mind. If there was any hope of escape, he needed a plan. He felt for the lighter and sparked it up, ripped open the bag of bones and yanked out the longest one he could find. Instantly, he retched again.
The car rocked as its doors slammed shut.
Michael slid the handkerchief off his hand and tied it round the end of the bone. He pulled apart the Zippo and dabbed the cloth with what little lighter fluid he could get out.
He heard footsteps on cobbled stone. The voices grew louder with every step.
Michael reassembled the lighter and held it against the handkerchief. His hands shook as he pushed down on the flint wheel to ignite it, but it didn’t spark.
Do you believe in God?
He tried again. Nothing.
The voices reached the boot.
And again. Nothing.
The boot locking mechanism clicked, signalling its release.
Do you believe in God?
The lighter sparked into life.
© Carnival Ride, 2023, Hamish Hutchinson
Hamish Hutchinson is a communications professional, playwright, filmmaker, former journalist, and author of children’s book series, Three Friends and Crumbs. He lives in Stirling with three bundles of fun who inspire him daily. You can find him and his work at www.hamishhutchinson.com