It was a warm spring evening in Phalscam, England. Anyone who had noticed the countless posters and flyers dotted along the dual carriageway and at roundabout turnoffs was now heading towards the grassy common. The circus was in town.
Kerry Grail was glad to be going. If the Marvel Circus hadn't been in town, she would have ended up going to bed early with one of her aunt's magazines. Why did her parents have to swan off to Greece during the half-term break?
"I wonder what they're doing now?" she wondered aloud.
"Knowing your mum, probably boozing it up with your dad and a Greek waiter called Spyros down one of the clubs," said Auntie Jo in response. They were in the living room pulling on their scarves and hats. "That was the main selling point in the brochure, the clubbing."
"But they're going for their anniversary. They'll probably be doing something romantic."
Auntie Jo sighed. "She never used to be so romantic. Before your parents got together, Cath and I spent many a Valentine's Day curled up on the sofa together, being grumpy and eating chocolate. Happy days."
If one wasn't used to being around Auntie Jo, she was quite something to behold. She favoured brightly coloured shawls (which she knitted herself), corduroy skirts or trousers and knee-length leather boots. Her curly black hair coiled around her face like snakes and she had the facial lines and yellowish complexion that came with a lifetime of smoking.
Kerry, by contrast, had brown hair that refused to shine or shimmer no matter how much conditioner she drowned it in, and her green eyes were nothing like the bright olive of her aunt's. But a small amount of jealousy aside, she liked Jo. She was fun.
"What are we going to see, exactly?" Auntie Jo asked on the way there.
The flyer was in Kerry's pocket, so she dug it out and read aloud: "THE MARVEL CIRCUS, COMING TO THE COMMON, PHALSCAM FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY. THE MOST AMAZING ACTS IN THE WORLD STRONGMEN, KNIFE-JUGGLERS, AERIALISTS AND ACROBATS! PLUS AN INCREDIBLE HEADLINE ACT THE AMAZING RANAJAY vs. THE DRILL OF DEATH!"
"Ooh," Auntie Jo grinned. "We're in for a good night."
"Have you got the sweets?"
"What? Oh, damn, they're at home. Do we have time to nip back? Never mind, let's press on. Maybe they'll have a stall there."
Kerry led the way to the Common, where others had trampled a path of deep mud all the way to the circus tent, a clear two minutes' walk away. The two of them were grateful for their wellies. First they went to the ticket office to pay, then pushed through the flapping canvas at the entrance. A man in a striped shirt pressed a few leaflets into Kerry's hand. They walked past a queue of long suffering parents being bullied into buying buckets of candyfloss by their children and found a good pair of seats in the centre. To Kerry's left was where they had come in, and to her right was an ominous metal scaffold, where a dangerous looking drill, the Drill of Death, had been placed.
"These chairs are a bit uncomfortable," Jo grumbled. "I bet I'll try to get up in an hour and my arse will be totally numb."
Kerry laughed. This was why she liked Jo.
For another five minutes, the crowd buzzed over the tiered seating. They settled down once the ringmaster strolled into view. He was dressed in red and carrying a whip for no reason that Kerry could see.
"Your traditional ringmaster get-up," Jo remarked. The lights dimmed. "Ooh, here we go."
The ringmaster drew himself up to his full height and yelled into a handy microphone, "Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to the Marvel Circus. Please ensure all mobile phones are switched off for your own convenience and please be aware that flash photography is not permitted in this venue. Now sit back, hold on tight, and let us entertain you!"
It was a promising introduction. The applause that followed these words was decent, and the three children sitting in front of Kerry and her aunt seemed to be clapping the hardest.
Slowly the applause died down as the audience realised that nothing was happening.
"Hmmm," Jo said.
A bit of music blared out of a speaker near the entrance. Above their heads, a glamorous-looking woman in a glittering leotard smiled and waved. Opposite was a man in a similar, if ill-fitting leotard. He pounced forward, catching the trapeze and whirling in midair. Kerry saw the kids in front point and shake their parents' shoulders.
"Nice-looking bloke," was Jo's verdict, watching him fling his partner wildly out behind him.
While the trapeze artists did their thing, a scantily clad woman skipped around the ring before approaching a length of suspended fabric. As she climbed, the music shifted from farting trumpets into trembling flutes, and Kerry watched in amazement as she curled and spiralled around the silks from a great height.
"I can do that, only better," Jo muttered.
A beam of green light followed the woman as she rolled safely back down to the ground, and the audience cheered.
"Thank you very much!" bellowed the ringmaster, striding back into view. "Still to come, our extremely talented and reasonably handsome knife-juggler, Olaf, and of course our headline act, the Amazing Ranajay, who must race against time to undo the shackles that bind him before the Drill of Death pierces his body!"
The kids in front started clapping enthusiastically at this last comment.
"I think they might be on to something there," Auntie Jo murmured to Kerry. "Kids love to be grossed out anything with blood or slime, and you've got yourself a money-maker."
"But first! Replacing our strongman this evening, ladies and gentleman, allow me to present the finest clowns in the country, the wonderful duo that is Flap and Doodle!"
At the ringmaster's gesture, the two clowns Flap and Doodle appeared. Flap jogged ahead, trying to kick his knees up as high as possible, and Doodle shuffled behind.
All at once, Kerry felt peculiar. This was the first time she'd been to a circus, and it also happened to be the first time she'd seen a clown up close. But they were just a pair of goons in ridiculous clothing, so why was her stomach bouncing off every other organ in her ribcage?
"They didn't say there'd be clowns," she moaned.
"Kerry? You all right?"
Kerry nodded vigorously. "Yeah."
Flap and Doodle were now having a face pulling contest, each mugging the other to an increasing level of grotesquery that made quite a few children laugh.
One look at their painted faces, stretching and squashing to the music, and Kerry's guts started churning again.
"Kerry? What's the matter?"
Doodle let out a mad giggle and Kerry decided she'd had enough. Gripping Auntie Jo's hand, she wobbled unsteadily to the end of the row of seats, down the stairs and out into the open air.
"Are you scared of clowns?"
Kerry gritted her teeth and shuddered in revulsion. "Oh my God," she said. "That was horrible."
A few feet away, a dark-haired man was watching them. His clothes were black and shimmering. He was obviously a performer. Jo poked her head round the canvas flap, checking for the coat and bag she'd left behind, and then pulled Kerry into a hug.
"Sorry about that, kiddo," she cooed. "Look, we'll stay out here until they've finished capering... I think I've got some tic-tacs on me. Ah, here we go. I can see why you wanted to bolt, that wasn't even funny."
The performer spoke up. "Are you both OK?"
Jo answered. "We're OK, yeah. We're just experiencing some slight clown-induced nausea. Hey, you're a performer, aren't you? What's your act?"
"Drill of Death."
Kerry blinked. This was the Amazing Ranajay. He was what she might have called slim, though his arms and shoulders looked strong. As he took a step nearer, she could see his eyes, which were the colour of dirty dishwater not brown, as she'd expected.
"So you're... er, what's your name, mate?"
"Ranajay," he said, shaking Jo's bony hand.
"Delighted. I'm Joanna. Jo for short. Been in the circus long?"
Kerry shuffled awkwardly, doing her best to blend into the canvas. Ranajay glanced inside, then nodded.
"You haven't got a cigarette I could nick, have you? I've got a couple of rollies, but they're in my bag."
Ranajay half smiled. "I don't smoke, sorry."
"Ah, bugger. Never mind, must soldier on somehow. Lovely costume, by the way, sweetheart. Reminds me of my first scuba diving course. Ha ha! I'm joking, of course, it really is very nice."
There was a bit of an awkward silence.
"Well," Auntie Jo said brightly. "Can't stand around chatting all the ruddy day. I think they've finished now... Good luck, Ran, break a leg."
Before they went back to their seats, Kerry saw another man loitering in the distance, just under a tree. She could only make out a dark silhouette at first, but then a bright coloured light flashed from within the tent and lit up one of his eyes. It glinted red. He was looking at her.
Kerry shuddered, thinking of clowns, and jogged after her aunt.
"Hiya, sonny," said the ringmaster with what was probably supposed to be a roguish grin. He zeroed in on a little boy in the front row as the knife juggler left the stage. "What's your name then?"
"Roy! Say, I had an Uncle Roy once. One day he was walking to work, and a butcher came running past with a meat cleaver and cut his ear off. Of course he apologised, but I don't think my uncle heard him."
Almost everyone in the house laughed. Kerry spotted Roy turning worriedly to his mother, covering his ears. Meanwhile, the drill and the scaffolding holding it in the air had been prepared. The Amazing Ranajay strode onstage. Kerry wondered if he'd pick them out of the audience, but on reflection she thought he'd probably have to concentrate on his act.
"And now, to round off this evening of entertainment, please allow me to introduce the Amazing Ranajay!"
Some polite clapping ensued.
Ranajay climbed the ladder up the scaffolding. A mysterious blue spotlight followed him up, the dust and smoke in the air caught in its beam. Once he made it up there, Kerry saw an assistant in scanty panties tied up his wrists and ankles. A blindfold was slid over his eyes, and the assistant went to stand away from the sharp end of the drill, which was pointing at the small of Ranajay's back.
Below him, a second assistant walked up to the ringmaster. She held an oversized clock in both hands, and held it up for everyone to see. The ringmaster gave her a lecherous glance that nobody missed and then peered up to Ranajay.
"The drill is now warming up," announced the ringmaster, and indeed the drill had started to whirr. "As soon as I give the word, Ranajay will have two minutes to free himself. A word of warning this trick has gone wrong before. It is very dangerous and must not be tried at home."
As if anyone was going to go to the trouble of putting up a massive drill in their living room.
"Once again, everyone... Roy..." he added, much to the crowd's amusement, "do not try this at home." The haunting music faded in. "Ranajay, you have two minutes. Your time... starts... now!"
Ranajay turned his head to the right, and appeared to be feeling for the end of the rope binding his hands. Kerry squinted, trying to get a look at him. Maybe it was her imagination, but there seemed to be some shaking going on.
Well, it is cold, she reasoned.
The rope securing Ranajay's left hand came free and he waved down to the audience. Behind him, the drill was closing in fast. She could hear the whirring, metal scraping metal, as he worked on freeing his other hand.
That rope fell away too.
It was all getting very close. The drill was getting nearer, getting louder.
Ranajay yanked off the blindfold and looked behind him. The whirring filled Kerry's ears, drowning out whatever comment Jo had made, and the light was beginning to burn around her peripheral vision. With a look of desperation on his face, the Amazing Ranajay struggled with the ropes that bound his ankles.
Something went CLUNK.
The drill rushed forward, whining as it forced its way messily through his body.
Kerry's heart punched loudly in her throat. Ranajay's eyes widened in shock and he stopped moving.
Almost immediately, Kerry's head snapped to Auntie Jo for an opinion, a reaction, anything but Jo could only gaze, wide-eyed at the limp form of Ranajay... which had started dripping blood.
Then there were anguished screams and yells. The assistant dropped her clock. Children clung to their parents. The clowns, she saw, were gaping in shock. The mere sight of this made Kerry's stomach turn all over again. She was going to be sick...
Hang on. The screaming had stopped.
Her eyes flicked back to the top of the scaffolding. Ranajay was moving. He was looking down over the tip of the drill, with some difficulty, but he was alive.
No. It couldn't be.
The crowd was astonished. They watched the metal monstrosity return to its original position before Ranajay somehow removed himself from the end (from behind a red cloth, so Kerry couldn't see how it was done). The cloth fluttered to the floor. Ranajay kicked away the ropes around his ankles and took a bow. The applause was incredible.
"Amazing," Kerry heard from beside her. "Bloody amazing."