“Have you heard?” The boss’ secretary looked up at her from behind her computer, her eyes avid. “It’s happened again, last night.”
She paused, the printouts dangling from her fingers. “It? What do you mean?”
“It. You know.” The woman seemed surprised that she didn’t know what she was talking about. “Someone was killed again. Last night.”
“Oh?” She felt a faint stirring of interest. “It was in the morning papers, I suppose? I haven’t had time for the news.” She hadn’t had time for anything for long now, what with her problems at work and elsewhere. She barely had time to breathe, she thought sometimes.
The secretary was young and pretty, far prettier than she had a right to be. “Yes, well. They found another body. The same injuries and marks as before.”
“That makes...” she thought a moment. “The fifth, is it? The sixth?”
“My word, you have been out of it, haven’t you?” The secretary’s over-made-up eyes looked like glittering wet stones. “It’s at least the eleventh.” She held up the fingers of both hands, and then one more. “The police say there may be more that they haven’t yet discovered.”
“The same injuries and marks as before, huh?” She ignored the insinuation in the younger woman’s voice. It was always good policy to keep the boss’ secretary on one’s side, because you never knew when you might need some inside information. “As you said, I’ve been under a rock. Just tell me the details. So I can, you know, refresh my memory.”
“Young women,” the secretary said with relish. “He always kills young women at night. Like, you know, our age.” She looked the other woman up and down doubtfully, as though it would require stretching the word young. “And he always cuts their throats.”
“Cuts their throats,” she repeated, her own throat going dry. “I think I remember reading about that. Anything else?”
“No...well, except the clown, of course. Nobody saw him this time, but he must have been there again, mustn’t he?”
“Clown? What clown?”
“Oh, don’t you know? They’re calling him the Killer Clown, because witnesses saw a clown near a couple of the killings. I tell you, I’m scared to go out at night now. He might be anywhere.”
“Killer Clown. Sounds like something from a B movie. One of those horror flicks that make you laugh.” She and her boyfriend had loved those movies, sitting on the couch with a couple of bottles of beer and a bowl of peanuts, laughing until they cried at the predictable formulas and the gratuitous nudity and violence. She hadn’t watched one of those movies in years now, and probably never would again. “What sort of killer would dress up as a clown? That’s ridiculous.”
“Won’t be so ridiculous if he came after you, would he, with his knife? Of course,” the secretary added, “you’re probably a bit too old for him. He likes young women.”
“Yeah, thanks, that’s reassuring.” She looked around the secretary’s office, at the potted plants below the large window and the holographic print on the wall, of leaping dolphins. The secretary had a much better office than her own, and probably got paid twice as much as well. She fought down a surge of hatred for the pretty young woman. Sweetie, she thought, not that long ago, I was better-looking than you, even without the makeup. Time will do its number on you, too. Just wait a couple of years. Her fingers clenched around the printouts, crumpling them. “Well, I must be getting back to work.”
She could feel the secretary’s eyes on her back as she left the office, and she knew the younger woman was grinning.
That evening she bought a paper on her way home, from the stand at the bottom of the escalator leading up from the Underground platform. It had been a while since she’d bought a newspaper, and she had to dig at the bottom of her purse for change. It was a tabloid, with headlines in 72 point type taking up more than half the front page: CLOWN KILLER STRIKES AGAIN. The rest of the page bore a picture of a clown in full make-up, eyes leering between a curly wig and a red rubber nose.
She lived on the outskirts of the city, in the big old house that had belonged to her parents, the house she had grown up in and had moved back to once what her mother had called the “thing” with her boyfriend had ended. Her mother was gone now, of course, her father having died much earlier. They were all gone, even her boyfriend. She leaned her head against the bus window and clenched her eyes shut. She had no desire to think of her boyfriend, hadn’t thought of him for years, yet apparently today she kept on being reminded of him.
Back home, after changing and making herself a cup of coffee, she looked at the paper. The clown picture on the front page leered at her, almost alive, the light glinting off his eyes and lips. She found it difficult to imagine that this make-up was meant to entertain kids, for god’s sake.
She had first seen a clown back when she was a child and the circus had come around. Back then the ground at the bottom of the street had still been an open field and not built up into a stadium with locked gates which was almost never used for anything. The circus had set up its Big Top there, and though she hadn’t really wanted to go, all the other children were going, so her parents had taken her too.
Even then, she hadn’t found any of it funny. The antics of the clowns, in their big shoes and baggy pants, had seemed either stupid or threatening. She’d cringed when one of them had aimed a bucketful of confetti in her direction. For nights afterwards she’d dreamt of being buried under scraps of coloured paper while a grinning face gibbered nonsense in the background.
She left the story for until she’d finished making supper, which she ate straight out of the frying pan, standing at the oven, because that saved pointless washing-up. She was exhausted, and had a creeping headache, something that had been happening more and more frequently these last months. She knew it would last a day or two until it went away...if it did. Some traces of it seemed to be hovering around always, inside the back of her head.
From the uncurtained kitchen window, she could see the topmost floors of her old school, two streets away but visible from here, the faint moonlight shining on its concrete walls. She had hated every moment she’d spent in that school, hated being the one who was picked on by the teachers and bullied by the bigger girls, but each time she’d begged for a transfer her parents, reluctant to lose the convenience of a school within easy walking distance, had told her it was “only a phase”.
It hadn’t been “only a phase.” Even now, when she had to pass by the school grounds with the sheds at the end of the playing fields, she averted her eyes, remembering how she’d been harassed every day there during the break periods, because she’d been slow and fat then, humiliated at every turn by the bigger and more athletic girls. So she’d taken to hiding in the toilets until class time. She could still see the rows of stalls with the smell of disinfectant overlying the excreta. That had lasted until they’d found her in the toilet, and after that she hadn’t been able to hide there any longer, either.
She remembered how they had peeked over the stall door, and then popped their heads over the side walls, pointing down at her and laughing. One of them – she could no longer remember the girl’s name, but she could still see her face, oh yes, every feature of that delicately pretty doll’s-face was clear in her memory, so much like the boss’ secretary this morning – had begin pelting her with pellets of toilet paper, and then they had all done it. They had laughed and hooted and thrown toilet paper, and she hadn’t been able to avoid noticing that some of that paper had been used.
She had never visited the toilet block again. It had been torn down long ago, but she knew exactly where it had been, and when she passed the school she always looked away.
Angrily, she turned away from the window and poured herself a glass of wine. She rarely drank any longer, but kept a bottle of port for moments like this, when she needed chemical help to relax. The headache pounded away, drumming inside her skull, and though she was exhausted she knew she couldn’t sleep. Not yet.
Sitting in the chair in front of the TV which she never turned on nowadays, she sipped at the wine and wondered what was happening to her life. She had no lover, no friends, no relatives. As for her job, she knew quite well that she wouldn’t get any further than she had – her career graph had flattened out, and she was only marking time, watching younger and less capable people climb past her into the rarefied heights of the executive boardrooms.
Maybe she should look for another job, but she didn’t really want to. She had no drive any more, none of the fire that had burned so long ago that even the embers were cold. She wasn’t even middle-aged yet but she felt like an old woman. She was surprised that her face wasn’t wrinkled yet, her hair not gone white.
With a surge of remembered anger, she thought of the secretary’s insinuation that she was past it, that she was too old for even the killer clown to take any interest in her. Perhaps the killer clown – if such a person really existed – would pay the silly little bitch a visit, and teach her a lesson. Or maybe he was behind her now, behind her shoulder, knife in hand, reaching –
With a shiver, she fought down the urge to look behind her, and turned to the paper. The actual news was scanty, just the details of the woman killed. A jogger, it appeared, who’d been in the habit of going for a run in the pre-dawn darkness and had been found dragged into an alley, her throat cut and her breasts slashed across. It wasn’t even all that far from this house, apparently. The paper said the victims had all been young and pretty, and that the police were asking for witnesses, especially if anyone had seen a clown around. It appeared that the police, at least, were taking the clown idea seriously. She swallowed the last of the wine and dropped the tabloid on the floor. The hell with all of this, she thought, for tonight, at the least.
Later, she lay in bed, in her oldest T shirt and shorts, looking up at the street lights reflected faintly on the ceiling. The headache, as she’d known it would, had settled down into a steady ache which spread across her forehead and the back of her eyes. The wine had helped, but not enough. Lately, nothing was helping.
Her bedroom seemed alien at this hour, as if the darkness had changed it, turned the corners into dark forbidden recesses, where anything might be lurking, things with sharp grinning teeth. She watched the light reflected through the window on the mirror of her wardrobe, as though it was a point of stability in a world which was melting and changing. The mirror was an anchor at this hour, just as it was something she avoided in the daylight, not wanting to see her own exhausted eyes and remembering what used to be.
Little by little, she settled into a doze, and then she dreamed.
She stood in the middle of the playing field of the school, alone. The field stretched out around her, stretching to the horizon. There was no colour anywhere; the sky, the grass, her own hand when she held it up before her face, everything was in shades of grey. When she looked down at herself, she noticed with a sense of inevitability that she was naked.
When she looked up, far away on one side of the field, she saw a long, low building. She knew, of course, what it was – the toilet block from her childhood, long since demolished, but back in her dream just as it had always been.
Between her and the toilet block, something moved, a black figure covered by a hooded robe. It was walking away from her, very slowly, the robe trailing down to its feet and dragging on the grass. It looked over its shoulder at her, and she saw the face, the white cheeks and the black eyes and nose, the wide red slash of the painted mouth. It watched her for a moment, expressionlessly, and then moved on. Her feet followed, taking her behind it, stepping through the grass. She was walking with exactly the same pace as it was, neither slower nor faster, through the field. She knew she was dreaming; she wasn’t scared at all, even though she knew what it was, even though she could see the knife in one of its hands, the blade glinting white in all the shades of grey. Every so often it would glance back to make sure she was following, but otherwise it made no effort to hurry its pace.
It reached the toilet block before she did, slipping in through the side door she knew so well, the one she’d used herself. Her feet carried her through the door, expecting to find it waiting, knife raised, and she was willing to raise her head and expose her throat to the blade. But all she found was the robe on the floor, a crumpled mass. Gingerly, she picked it up and slung it over her arm.
Step by step, her feet took her down the passage between the rows of stalls, the lights overhead glaring down on the tiled floor, sparkling on little puddles of water. She already knew where she would have to go – the third stall from the end on the right, the one which she’d hidden in that day when the girls had found her. The other stalls’ doors were open, but this one was closed. She saw her hand rising, the fingers closing around the knob, turning it.
The thing sat on the toilet, looking up at her. She couldn’t tell if it were smiling, or if it was only the red paint of its grin. She couldn’t tell if it was blood on the blade that it held before her eyes, and if the blood was her own.
She woke, her heart thudding, gasping for breath. She was standing in the middle of her dark bedroom, in front of the wardrobe, dressed in something dark. Her hands were covered in something else, also dark, and sticky. She didn’t want to think about what it was, but she was certain she knew.
Slowly, she raised her eyes to the mirror. The black paint around her eyes had smeared over her white cheeks, but the red slash of the painted mouth was still smiling.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011