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By Sarah Hapgood

The rival clowns from the Cabaret of Horrors were still alive, and what was worse, had telegraphed to Magnolia Cove to say that they would indeed come to the Festival of Clowning (or the Festival of Horror, as Bengo quietly re-named it).

This unwelcome news cast Bardin into deepest anxiety and gloom, as did the full scale of organising such a big event. To try and alleviate his stress-load, Rumble suggested that Bengo be put in charge of overseeing the auditions. Bardin was appalled by this idea.

“He’ll give everybody a bloody job!” he cried “We’ll be awash with mediocrity, saturated with it!”

“Well if it was left to you no one would get a job!” said Rumble “No one matches up to your exacting standards. Better to have too many performers than too few”.

Bardin gave in. The simple fact was that he also had to be in on Ransey’s plans to get into the house in Temple Street. The Festival of Clowning was in fact serving as a major distraction in the town to cover all the subterfuge that was going on. Leaving the auditions to Bengo would save Bardin a lot of time.

Bengo was professional in his dealings with the hordes of clowns who descended on Magnolia Cove in the pathetic hope of being invited to take part in the festival of slapstick and humiliation. But it did prove as Bardin had prediction: he turned no one away. Word got round on the showbiz grapevine even more, and clowns were now packing into the foyer of the local theatre, like a cast of thousands in a historical epic.

When Bardin visited the theatre one afternoon and marched through them they all meekly went through overtures of comedy to try and get noticed by him.

“I said I didn’t want this to happen!” Bardin shouted at Bengo in the auditorium “We’re going to have five clowns to each member of the audience at this rate!”

“Be fair, Bardy”, said Bengo “Some of them haven’t worked in years!”

“I’m not bloody surprised!” said Bardin.

“If you want to break this damn world record at the end we’re gonna need all the help we can get”, said Bengo “And I’ve got an idea of my own”.

“What is it?” Bardin barked.

“I’m not telling you just yet”, said Bengo “You’ll only rubbish it. I’m still formulating it in my head”.

“I can hardly contain myself!” said Bardin.

“You want this show to be the big event of the year?” Bengo persisted “You want it to out-shine that pathetic travesty in Krindei? Well in that case, the bigger the better. That’s the only way we’re gonna wow them. We’re not gonna do with just Farnol playing the spoons and making disgusting balloon toys are we!”

Bardin grudgingly saw the sense in this.

“We need to work on our routine too”, he grunted.

Bengo gave a distinctly non-committal response to this. He regarded Bardins’ ideas when he was in this mood as more of a threat than anything else.

“Can I do my routine now?” said a clown who had been standing plaintively on the stage whilst this conversation had been going on.

“Yes o.k”, Bengo sighed.

He stared significantly at Bardin, determined not to let the auditions begin until he had taken his cactus tongue and left the auditorium.

“I’m not going to know what’s in this show until the opening night at this rate!” said Bardin, flouncing along the row of seats towards the exit.

“That’s the idea”, Bengo muttered.

“Where are they going to get all the mixture from for the finale?” said Lonts, currently sitting on the forward deck with Joby “Are they going to use real custard?”

“I don’t know and I’m not asking”, said Joby, was peeling what felt like a mountain of potatoes “I think everybody should give the whole thing as wide a berth as possible! I think all the clowns should be locked up for being a bleedin’ public menace!”

“You’re just grumpy because you’re missing Bengo”, said Lonts.

“I don’t even see why he needs to be there!” said Joby “As far as I can gather he automatically hires anyone who turns up, so what’s the point of him being there to audition anyone?!”

“It’s very kind of him really isn’t it?” said Lonts.

“It proves how soft-headed he really is!” said Joby.

But it was true, Joby was missing Bengo. Life in the galley seemed flat without him there. It lacked the usual buzz.

“It’s at times like this that I wonder if life is really worth living”, said Joby, gloomily tossing another skinned potato into the bucket.

“Don’t be silly, Joby”, said Lonts.

“Yes, don’t be silly, Joby!” said Kieran, coming up behind them “What have I told you before abut making false claims of despair?”

“Who says it’s false!” said Joby.

“Well when the show finally gets put on”, said Kieran “I’ll take you to see it”.

“I’m not going anywhere near that place, thank you very much!” said Joby “We’d all need danger money!”

And with that he picked up the bucket and stamped back to the galley.

The following day Adam decided to take some of the others along to the festival site at Magnolia Cove to see how all the great preparations were coming along. He, Lonts and Tamaz got there in the middle of the afternoon and found Bengo having a rare break from the auditions. He was standing at the side of the main theatre building having a bottle of beer, and watching Farnol expertly juggling with some batons nearby.

“Oh I’m so pleased you could come!” Bengo exclaimed “I am missing everyone at home. I feel like I’ve been doing this forever”.

“I can’t see Bardin around anywhere”, said Adam “Is he nearby?”

“As far away as possible I hope!” said Bengo “Everytime he appears we get stymied. He keeps chucking out everybody’s ideas. He’s nothing but a bloody menace! If he keeps this up we’ll see clowns weeping all over the place! Didn’t Joby want to come and see us?”

“He’s sulking”, said Adam “So as a punishment I’ve left him at home with Julian”.

“He’s missing you, Bengo”, Lonts boomed from nearby.

“Oh I’ll be glad when it’s all over too”, said Bengo “The clowns from the Village of Stairs are due to arrive at any moment now, and I’m absolutely dreading it. There’s a rumour going round that they’ve got their youth back too. It’s not possible is it? Kieran wouldn’t do that to us?”

“Unfortunately I have a feeling he might”, said Adam.

“He’s as big a troublemaker as Angel”, said Tamaz “Joby’s always saying so”.

“He’s a different kind of trouble … mischief-maker to Angel”, said Adam “Patsy isn’t malicious … he just sort of likes a bit of entertainment”.

“Leave that alone!” Bardin could be heard shouting at some unfortunate wretch from the other side of the door, and he blew his whistle for good measure.

“Oh God, here he comes!” Bengo sighed.

Bardin emerged from the building looking hot and flustered and with his cap on the back of his head. He seemed annoyed to find the others there.

“The show hasn’t started yet”, he said “You won’t be seeing anything in it’s finished state”.

“They’ll be seeing you in a state though!” said Bengo “Well folks I’d better get back in there. I’ve got loads more to see this afternoon”.

“And whose fault is that!” said Bardin “And we still haven’t gone through our routine together”.

Bengo pushed him backwards out of the door and slammed it behind him. Bardin stood facing the others, looking miserable and helpless, clasping his whistle in his hand.

“Well I’m pleased to see you’re really enjoying all this, Bardin”, Adam sighed “Now I guess we’d better be getting home”.

Bardin had lunch with Ransey (who had got his old job back) in town, and they talk dutifully of the building in Temple Street, but neither of them could work up much enthusiasm about his dismal subject. Bardin, because his thoughts were on the Festival, and Ransey, because he had happily settled back into the routine of domesticity, and wanted to leave the evil to stew in its own juice.

After lunch Bardin returned to the theatre with a sinking feeling in his stomach. He was annoyed by Farnol beating a diplomatic retreat as soon as he got in there, and he soon saw why. The clowns from the Cabaret of Horrors had arrived, and were sitting arrayed at the back of the auditorium, like the dead people at the porn show in ‘An American Werewolf In London’.

“You coward!” Bardin shouted after Farnol.

Hal had his youth back but it didn’t make him any lovelier. To Bardin’s unspeakable horror Hal got up and came over to him, and hugged him and kissed him on both cheeks. Bardin froze in terror.

“There’s no smoking in here”, he eventually forced the words out.

Hal obediently ground out the stub of his cigar on the red carpet. By now Bardin was getting very nervous about all this affable cordiality, particularly as it seemed to have permeated to the other clowns as well. Bardin got the impression they were all touchingly grateful to have their youth back. Bardin hoped they’d put a brake on the gratitude forthwith, and go and enjoy it all somewhere else, preferably back where they had come from.

“Bardy!” Bengo shouted, sprinting up the aisle towards them “How was lunch with Ransey I hope you kept your promise and stayed off the booze”.

At that moment Bardin could have happily choked the life out of his lifelong friend and partner.

“Got a bit of a problem with the old booze, Bardin?” said Hal, with a disturbing show of sympathy “I know how it is”.

“I do not have a drink problem!” Bardin shouted at him, and then turned to Bengo “You go backstage at once, I want to talk to you, immediately!”

“He doesn’t change does he?” Hal chuckled to his comrades, and they all chuckled in return.

“Just what the hell is going on?” said Bardin, when he joined Bengo backstage.

“I don’t know what you mean”, said Bengo.

“Hal and the other clowns are being nice to me!” Bardin exclaimed.

“Would you rather they were their usual shitty selves then?” said Bengo.

“At least that’s not so damn spooky!” said Bardin “WHY are they being nice?”

“They’re happy they’ve got their youth back”, said Bengo “And they know it’s down to Kieran, and they know that it’s because you invited them to appear in the show”.

“I did not invite them to appear in the show!” Bardin squawked “Left up to me they wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the show!”

“Neither would anyone else!” said Bengo “If you want me to rehearse with you this afternoon, Bardy, you’d better behave yourself, is that understood?”

“O.K”, Bardin mumbled.

Bengo went into the wings where a trestle table had been set up for light refreshments. It currently looked as though a plague of locusts had attacked it. Bengo selected a stale egg sandwich from the end which had miraculously escaped capture. He wolfed it down hungrily.

“Is that all you’re having?” said Bardin.

“Well we can’t all get taken out to lunch by the chief cashier at the bank can we!” said Bengo “Anyway, curly sandwiches backstage, it’s making me feel quite nostalgic!”

“It’s not good enough”, said Bardin “I’m going to insist they make you some more”.

“They’ll want paying for them”, said Bengo “And we haven’t got any money”.

“I’ll nip round and ask Ransey if we can have a small advance on his wages”, said Bardin.

“He won’t like that, Bardy”, said Bengo “He likes to give it all straight to Adam as soon as he gets paid”.

“We have to eat as well as that lot at home!” said Bardin “And I bet they’re not working anywhere near as hard as we are! Or are under anywhere near as much stress!”

Bossing the catering staff around at least helped to alleviate some of Bardin’s aggression, and so he was almost tamed by the time he came to practice his routine with Bengo. This was fortunate as it involved a lot of acrobatic work, a total co-operation was needed totally minimise the risk of injury.

As they were leaving the stage afterwards though they came upon Hal having an earnest discussion with Mutton Broth about how creative people (such as they) were prone to being more sensitive than anyone else, and so were more bruised by the world, and inevitably, as a consequence often turned to Drink.

Bengo managed to drag Bardin away before a fight ensued.

“If you keep on that you haven’t got a drink problem, Bardy”, said Bengo, when they had reached the relative safety of the auditorium “Everyone’ll assume that’s exactly what you’ve got!”

A clown in full clown’s motley and slap was standing on a podium nearby playing the trumpet.

“He’s quite good isn’t he, Bardy?” said Bengo.

“Not bad”, said Bardin, which considering the mood he was in was fulsome praise indeed.

“I thought he could have a little solo spot”, said Bengo “Just a few minutes as a sort of mellow moment, in the midst of all the anarchy”.

“O.K”, said Bardin.

“The sad-faced clown bit always goes down quite well”, said Bengo.

“I could play that myself!” Bardin snapped.

“I think you should play a gentle clown”, said Bengo “A helpless one”.

Bardin’s little round brown eyes narrowed.

“No”, he said, simply.

“You’d get all the sympathy from the audience”, said Bengo “That’s what you always told me anyway. You probably didn’t really believe it then either!”

“I think this is coming together just fine”, said Rumble, sitting at the back of the auditorium with Bardin the next day, and going over the provisional running-order of the show “I thought Bengo might have put in too many ‘mellow moments’, but no it’s quite varied. Oh lighten up for God’s sake, anyone would think we were planning a mass cremation not a festival of clowning, the way you’re carrying on!”

“The whole responsibility rests with me”, said Bardin “I am both the producer and the director of this show”.

“We all know that!” said Rumble “But you’ve got nothing to worry about. Farnol was saying that a lot of the kids have been asking him when it’s all going to start. I wish you’d try and enjoy it more. It was your idea after all”.

“I find it hard to relax and let go after everything that’s happened these past few months”, Bardin confessed “I’m too aware that we’re not done yet”.

“But we might never be done!” said Rumble “Even Kieran has said that. There will never be no decisive victory, no end as it were. And so there’s no point you spending the rest of eternity in this state. You should try and be all cool about it, like Ransey is, not faffing around in a state like Codlik”.

Bardin, like any of them, didn’t take too kindly to being compared to Codlik.

“I think I’ll go and have a walk round”, he said, getting out of his chair.

“Good idea!” said Rumble “I’ll come with you keep you out of any fights!”

They went over the road to where the Big Top was being erected. Most of the show (apart from the publicity parades through the streets) were to take place here. The theatre was only being used for auditions and rehearsals. At the side of the grounds, against a backdrop of crashing tent-poles, Bengo was talking to a small camera crew.

“What’s that?” Bardin asked, waving his hand in their direction as though to signify an odorous mess that had been made.

“The local t.v company wanted to do an interview about it all”, said Rumble “Brilliant publicity don’t you think?”

“Why wasn’t I told?” Bardin exclaimed “This is important, why wasn’t I told? Why is being left to Bengo?”

“He said he thought it was best if somebody cheerful did it”, said Rumble “He’s done a lot to get people interested. He got us a radio spot yesterday”.

“Am I being told ANYTHING about what is going around here?” said Bardin.

“Well you’ve been too busy brooding about evil to show any interest!” said Rumble “I mean, if you think that’s more important than this, well there’s not much to say is there!”

The live t.v interview was coming to a close. Just before the interviewer signed off, three clowns came over armed with custard pies and attacked the reporter with them. The reporter did a very professional job of continuing to sign off to camera. Rumble thought this was an inspired moment. Bardin had other views.

“So much for showing the whole wide range of clowning!” he snapped at Bengo, when the t.v crew had departed “Now everyone’s going to think like Tamaz and assume that’s all we do!”

“It’s what people expect of clowns, Bardy”, said Bengo “And anyway, it was your idea to have the pie fight as the big finale, so what better way of promoting it? I thought he was a real pro about it, and I apologised to him afterwards. He laughed and said it was the last time he was going to come and work from a circus-site! I thought he was a good sport myself. You’re the only one who’s complaining, and it didn’t even happen to you!”

“If Bardin had his way”, said Rumble “We’d advertise this with a string quartet and a spot of tasteful flower-arranging!”

“I know”, said Bengo “I think he’s turning into Toppy!”

A big man with a clipboard strolled over.

“Your cement mixers have arrived”, he said to Bengo.

“Cement-mixers?” said Bardin “What bloody cement-mixers?”

“We need something big to make the mixture in for the finale”, said Bengo “Rumble suggested having a row of cement-mixers operating continuously from the sidelines. You remember, we did it once that way before a gala event in the Village of Stairs”.

“Bardin’s long-term memory’s going now as well!” said Rumble.

“Is one of your gonna sign for ‘em?” said the big man, holding out the clipboard and pen.

“I’ll do that”, said Bardin, taking the clipboard.

“No you won’t”, said Bengo, snatching it from him “It was my order, I’ll sign for them. If you want to do something useful go and rustle up some tea!”

Bardin shuffled away, looking disconsolate. He had barely left the scene, along with clipboard man, when Bengo was delighted to see Joby walking warily towards him, accompanied by one of the goats on a leash.

“You came!” Bengo bounded towards him and kissed him on both cheeks “Oh I’d been hoping you would!”

“Much against my better judgement”, said Joby “It’s like walking through a minefield around here. You have to have eyes in the back of your head!”

“Oh I wouldn’t let them do anything to you”, said Bengo.

“Tell that to the reporter I saw leaving”, said Joby “All covered in gunk he was!”

“That was a publicity stunt”, said Bengo “He didn’t mind really. Bardy’s making some tea, come and see him as well”.

Bengo virtually tugged him (and the goat) towards a tin-shed that was being used as a tea-making area. Bardin was in the dimly-lit space inside making tea, and mopping up his tear-stained face at the same time.

“Bardy!” said Bengo “Look who’s here!”

“He’s just come to give me another filthy look I expect!” Bardin wailed “That’s all I’ve been getting from him lately!”

“Why would I put myself to all this trouble just to do that?” said Joby “I could wait til you got home!”

“Yes, don’t be silly, Bardy”, said Bengo.

“Stop getting at me”, said Bardin “That’s all you’re doing at the moment!”

“Hey c’mon, pack it in, you two!” said Joby “I thought comedy was sposed to make people feel better, not make ‘em fall out! Haven’t we had enough heaviness these past few months?”

“Sorry”, Bardin mumbled, blowing his nose.

“Yes I am too”, said Bengo “We get carried away when we’re doing a show you see. It’s too easy to get too emotional. You should’ve seen what we were like when we were kids”.

“From everything I’ve heard I’m glad I didn’t!” said Joby.

A cry went up outside of “Uncle Farnol! Uncle Farnol!” They went out to see Farnol receive the adulation of his young fans. He was standing in the midst of them, in full motley and slap, handing out sweets.

“They really like him”, said Bengo “So do the old people”.

“It’s reassuring in a way”, said Bardin “If we can’t get them in any other way, we can bribe them with sweets to come in!”

“Don’t worry, it’ll be alright on the night”, said Joby.

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