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Authors: Terry Dowling

Clowns At Midnight

BOOK: Clowns At Midnight
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Acknowledgements

For many reasons, this book is close to the author’s heart. For their part in bringing it to fruition, I would like to thank Brian Attebery, Leigh Blackmore, Pete Crowther, Katherine Cummings, Ellen Datlow, Nicole Dhamala, Marie Dowling, Alan C. Elms, Nick Gevers, Kerrie Hanlon-Delas, Sheridan Hay, Robert Hood, Van Ikin, Marjory Ikin, Kohan Ikin, Kerri Larkin, John Larkin, Sylvia Larkin, Keira McKenzie, Danel Olson, Jesse C. Polhemus, Silvio Rivier, Zoran Šarabaća, Cat Sparks, Nick Stathopoulos, Grant Stone, Jonathan Strahan and Bradley Wynne.

For Van Ikin and Jesse Polhemus

En To Pan

 

‘Pity is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer. Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause. 
– James Joyce,
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

‘There is nothing more frightening than a clown after midnight.’

– Lon Chaney

PART ONE

‘And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them.’ 

—William Shakespeare, 
Hamlet
, Act III, Sc II

CHAPTER 1

 

D
AY 5 AND
I
WAS STARTING TO BELIEVE IT AT LAST.
Five days after New Year, five whole days since starting my nine-month stay at Starbreak Fell and I was starting to believe it was possible. I was safe from clowns.

Everything Jack had said about house-minding for the Rankins seemed to be coming true. I shut down the laptop and pushed back from the kitchen table, stretched and glanced at the clock on the wall. It was 5:45 on a glorious Friday afternoon. The land beyond the kitchen windows was washed with golden summer light, though the forested hillside thirty metres from the back door was already well in shadow as the sun sank beyond the crest.

It had been a relentlessly hot morning and noon. Now a promised southerly was pushing over that hilltop, rushing in the trees and cooling everything down. After what had seemed an age of blazing stillness filled with the far-off drone of cicadas, the bush was now wonderfully alive, shivering with the life of the wind.

What I hadn’t done yet was explore that forested crest. I’d walked past its southern edge on my way down to the mailbox. I’d driven past it on my way into Kyogle, Casino and Lismore, exploring the layout of the region. Several times I’d even crossed the low embankment facing the Rankins’ back terrace, headed up through the small, well-kept bonsai garden and stood at the white strand of the electric cattle fence, wondering whether to slip under it and continue. But the days had been so hot that the idea just hadn’t appealed. Everything had been too new, too different.

Now, with the southerly blowing, was the ideal time. I’d go watch the sunset, have my first glimpse of what had to be breathtaking views to the south and west. It would be my reward for three good pages on the novel and a version of the new lyric for Shock Salamander’s July-release CD that I was really pleased with.

And rather than scrabbling through the scrub and densely packed regrowth behind the house, today I’d walk the road to its highest point, then cut up to the crest from there.

I grabbed my camera, locked the back door and set off. Eight minutes later I was at the road’s high point, stopping to take in the view and catch my breath before striking up into the forest itself.

I stood shaking my head, marvelling at it again. David Leeton, 41-year-old writer, part-time lyricist, one-time teacher from far-off Sydney standing here on a forested hilltop almost at the northern border of New South Wales, fifty-five k’s in from the coast amid the wide grasslands that flanked the Summerland Way. Who would have thought? Behind me, down around the curve of the hill, the Rankins’ modern brick home sat behind its long front veranda with most of the property’s eighteen hectares sweeping out towards the Richmond River. Ten rooms, a striking hillside vantage, one of the best in the shire, spectacular all points views except directly west. Laid out before that veranda to the east, beyond the double line of trees that marked the river, between the Summerland Way and the distant ranges, was the railway line between Brisbane and Sydney, a reminder of how far I was from home. Every morning around ten, the XPT made its way south, a rushing silver needle; then the line was empty for most of the day, with only the occasional goods train stretching its boxcars, containers and flats, toy-train fashion, across the horizon.

All things considered, it was a very good place to be. And, most importantly, there were no statues, no lawn gnomes, no overlooked figurines that might trigger a chance episode (you have to love that word). No dolls. Jack, his colleague Dr Constantiou and the Rankins had been very careful about such things. For a confirmed coulrophobe, someone with a pathological fear of clowns, it meant everything.

I started heading towards the forest and was barely inside its welcome shade when I noticed the fence posts that marked the property divide. Many were leaning or fallen, their strands of barbed wire sagging on the ground or curling off into the scrub.

It was grazing country, Jack had told me, but clearly no-one minded if cattle wandered between properties here. Nor had anyone bothered to cut back the regrowth in a long time. I stood among apple-box, grey-gums and forest red gums, other species of eucalypt I couldn’t name, and peered off through a cool, sun-streaked gloaming filled with saplings, fallen branches and bracken. Cicadas kept up a steady droning all around, and while the wind ruffled the treetops under the hot summer sky, here at ground level it was quiet and wonderfully cool.

I was half tempted to return to the road and head further along it for a while. It would mean a steeper climb eventually, but the forest didn’t start till well up the western side and the going would be easier.

Yet somehow retracing my steps didn’t appeal just then, and it couldn’t be far. Keeping an eye out for snakes, I stepped over the token boundary fence and continued towards the crest.

Sure enough, closer to the summit the scrub thinned considerably. Now the wind rushed in the treetops, drowning the cicada song altogether. Now when I looked ahead through the staggered lines of trees, I saw where the forest ended and the hill began its long gentle fall down to the front gate and the road into Kyogle and Casino.

No, I was mistaken. It wasn’t the forest edge at all. Not yet. Part of the crest had been cleared and something built in the clearing there, something tall. A silo, it looked like, or a water-tower. Certainly it was too large for a memorial cairn or a trig point.

I hurried on and soon reached the edge of the clearing.

It was a tower, sure enough, about twenty-five metres tall, at least seven in diameter at the base, tapering inwards slightly like a lighthouse. And not brick or concrete; rather dark, hard-won granite, left rough-hewn, taking the light. Possibly three or four storeys in all, though without windows it was hard to tell. A stout wooden door faced me on its shadow side.

The structure stood at the southern edge of the small glade, with the great mass of the forest on three sides, making it completely invisible from Summerland Way, and with enough of a screen of trees to the west to hide it from Edenville Road.

A metre or so to the left of the door, well out from it, was what looked like a cross: a sturdy pole set in the earth, as tall as I was, with a short cross-tree nailed and lashed to it with twine. I didn’t for a moment take it as a Christian cross; rather it triggered the first true rush of clown-fear I’d had since reaching Starbreak Fell.

This was what I called a Scarecrow Cross. Like the unadorned smiley face, it was another minimalist clownform, what you started with when you wanted to build a scarecrow. It was easy to imagine a shirt or jacket on the crossbar, a stuffed head and an old hat, possibly stuffed pants for legs. But, my special quirks aside,
not
a Christian cross. Somehow I was sure of it.

The clearing was deserted. The wind reached in under the trees to stir the grass; the treetops rushed and tossed above. There were birds squabbling somewhere and cicadas trying to make their song, but all far off. Here in the clearing it was quiet, set apart from all that, as if separate from the rest of the day. Mad thoughts, possibly just hypersensitivity from the scarecrow frisson, or perhaps a more wholesome response to the striking vitality of the afternoon.

I moved towards the heavy door, keeping an eye on the cruciform shape every step of the way, as if fearing a transformation. All it would take would be a scrap of fabric catching on the crossbar, a hint of a shirt to confirm the dreaded suspicion. Anxiety to outright terror, quarter-clown to half, maybe even full. How it always was: the smaller things taking you unawares.

Instead of a door knob there was a heavy brass ring set in a plate of the same dull metal, with a keyhole underneath. Not a padlock in a bolt. A keyhole. A lovely Gothic touch and so tantalising. The guys in the band would love it. Give us a lyric about a tower in a forest, oh wise and greying master, Mick would say. Something Celtic and fey, full of Herne the Hunter and druids, maybe with a sunfire cross for good measure.

I smiled thinking of Mick and our usual exchanges. At 41 I was officially too old for the line-up, but good enough to help with their songs. A Celtic tower and a sunfire cross it could well be. Maybe a set of quasi-medieval lyrics like the one I’d finished earlier today. Give the album a theme, like back in the seventies. I’d have to speak to Mick.

Business always helped, treasured bits of the ordinary workaday world filled with paying bills, remembering birthdays and meeting deadlines.

Clown-fear deflected, I grabbed the ring and tried pulling at the door. It barely moved in its frame. Dust fell from the timbers. I brought the ring down on the plate several times, heard muffled echoes within, quickly stolen away, then nothing.

I started circling the structure. There were no windows at all, not even at the summit. Was it for storage then? An old silo? It didn’t seem likely; it was too inaccessible. But why else have a blind tower hidden behind trees on a secluded hilltop?

Then I heard something. It came from the glade’s western edge, from beyond the final screen of trees and out on the sunny windswept hillside that fell away to the road and the Rankins’ front gate.

I stopped to listen. Sure enough, there it was—there and gone, there and gone—the softest fluting wail, ebbing and flowing, strange counterpoint to the southerly. Perhaps it was just the wind in the trees or maybe some random aeolian harp effect in the fence wires.

It took only moments to push through the last of the scrub and reach the hillside. And there, catching the light, were three odd structures set a dozen metres apart across the slope. Bottle-trees; there was no other name for them. Each consisted of a two-metre tall star picket with dozens of empty bottles wired so their bases sat firmly against the shaft, their mouths turned out into the wind, signpost fashion. They were like Scarecrow Crosses in a way, but instead of crossbars at various heights, there were these tapering chambers of bottle glass: green, brown, most as clear and bright as diamond.

Another time I might have seen it as a kid’s creation or a local grazier’s whimsy, some kind of New Age totem field, but with the granite tower back there in the glade they had some other significance. These weren’t just bottles casually fitted to the ends of sticks; they’d been carefully wired in place, were meant to be much more permanent.

It was all so odd. Why go to the trouble of hiding a tower then set up these things to attract attention? Surely locals using Edenville Road would see glints and glitters, even catch bits of their hooting song. And what of the risk of grass fire from sunlight through the bottle glass? It was reckless, so unlikely.

Paranoia took over as well. The Rankins had to be involved, had known what they were bringing me into! Dr Constantiou, Jack Carlyle, Nellie, all of them. They were tricking me, testing me!

Careful, Davey
.
You’re losing it!

I worked those thoughts back, made myself choose among the bits of flooding reality for the best and simplest truth. Occam’s Razor: any phobic personality’s defence. What could I be sure of?

The bottles looked clean and new. They had no spider lace with dried-out insect husks, no trapped leaves or seeds, none of the usual detritus of time. The grass around them looked trampled, as if they had only recently been put there, perhaps even as recently as this very afternoon. As recently as the southerly blowing across the top of the hill and me working on the novel.

They weren’t on the Rankin property either. I had no reason to object.

But coincidence?

I glanced back at the shifting line of the forest, sunlit on its edges, shadowy underneath. There was a feeling of being watched now, inevitable with the tower and the cross outside its door. But it was the bottle-trees that drew my attention.

At first there had been too many rudimentary bottle arms to trigger clown-fear. Now, with their frantic pointing—
look here, look there, no, over here!
—they were fairly bursting with quarter-clown, each one like that many-armed giant in Greek mythology. Who was it, Briareus of the Hundred Arms? I couldn’t remember.

Quarter-clown is still serviceable territory for me, a flight or fight wariness stage. I can operate well enough, though always with a close, no doubt staring eye on what has triggered the response in case it becomes more. I was able to approach the nearest bottle-tree, reach out and touch one long green wine bottle. The glass was smooth and warm. They had been well cleaned. No labels, no clues, except in the bottles themselves, enough shapes repeated to suggest someone’s favourite tipple, a preferred drink.

As well as firewall protections like Occam’s Razor, Arthur Conan Doyle was right there. My clown-fear called to mind the famous maxim given to his arch-sleuth, Sherlock Holmes: look for the simplest and most obvious answer.

The Rankins had interesting neighbours. Whoever owned the tower, whoever had set up the Scarecrow Cross and now these things, had habits, systems, routines. As intriguing and unexpected as it was, there was purpose here, intentions fulfilled.
Being
fulfilled.

I had to get back to the house. It was impossible to enjoy the view now. The tower and the bottle-trees had triggered clown-fear, which meant shortness of breath, the adrenalin rush, aching eyes and a headache moving in from the back of the skull. The golden vistas could wait.

I didn’t return to the glade and the tower, didn’t dare go into shadow again. I walked around the hillside and down the slope. The boundary fence was more intact out in the open, but there were enough sagging strands to pose no barrier.

Once I’d reached the access road, I continued down to the mailbox, an old black plastic drum nailed to one of the gateposts facing the long dusty stretch of Edenville Road. Checking for mail was another of those everyday acts that put you back in the world. It helped trivialise the tower and the bottle-trees, made them just some ‘fancy that’ oddities found on the way to doing something else. It helped with the quarter-clown damage right then.

BOOK: Clowns At Midnight
12.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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