I watched the coal smoking in the fireplace and tried to relax. My breathing slowly calmed, despite the occasional wet belch of a whoopee cushion as I sank lower into the overstuffed red leather chair.
The master of the house – a man whose idea of hospitality this was – my protector – watched me closely, as if I was some circus freak. Ironically, I suppose I was. He leaned forward. In the weak light of the gas lamps, I only then noticed the black lines around his wide eyes.
I shuddered again, remembering those distorted, pale, masklike faces – their hoots and taunts as they saw how out of place I was and moved to attack. The flopping of their terrifyingly large shoes as they pursued me down street after street. I needed help to get to where my equipment was hidden and escape.
So when a – relatively – normal face appeared offering sanctuary… I had not planned to reveal my secret so easily, but I had told him everything.
“Is it true?” he said now, “Have you really come from the past?”
“The past! When the world was organised! When people talked to each other! You see,” he said, as if sharing a dark secret, “I have studied the past. I have so many questions! What are Pokestops? What is ‘Britain’? Why are they so important?”
I tried to explain. Throughout our conversation he never seemed quite clear when events had happened or where my time fit in. At one point he asked if I knew “King Solomon, the strong, wise leader who cut a baby in half”. But he was adamant that whatever past I came from must have been perfectly blissful and harmonious. I tried to tell him we had our own wars and suffering. It made no difference.
And when the moment was right, I asked him how the world had come to this. He frowned, and distractedly used the flower in his lapel to squirt more soda into his drink. And then he told me.
It seems it had all started with “the elites”. I wasn’t quite sure who he meant. He would say it with a wave of one hand, as if the elites were up-over-there – somewhere on the other side of the wall beside which his butler waited patiently.
“You see, these elites,” he said (with a wave), “claimed to be governing in everyone’s interest, but really they themselves benefitted most. And they would say that was for the best and there was no alternative. But they didn’t like it when reality disagreed, so… I read once that ‘expert’ used to be a word for a person whose job it was to know what was actually happening?”
“Of course. What does it mean now?”
“Just a general insult. Calling someone foolish. Means much the same as ‘thoughtful’. Anyway, they started encouraging people not to trust ‘experts’.”
“And what happened?”
“People stopped trusting experts.”
It seemed that instead of expertise people now used something called ‘common sense’ which I understood to be the same thing as ‘prejudice’ and, from what he told me, mostly equivalent to ‘hate’.
“And after a time,” he continued, “things that needed, well, ‘experts’ to run them stopped working. First international institutions – there are ‘refugees’ in your time? Hah, good lord! ‘Human rights’? – then local politics and social systems, then basic infrastructure. Hence all this…” He gestured vaguely at the wall.
“Well that’s a strong word but, looking back on it, perhaps justified. It may be what happened next was a judgment on us.”
And as the fire burned to ashes, he told me that even while the political schemers had congratulated themselves for reinventing politics – for discovering they could use carefully-tested soothing or aggravating noises (not actions, policies, or facts) to win elections – there was an ancient force, waiting and ready, that had understood this for millenia. I thought of fascism – he just laughed. Fascist demagogues would at least have the restriction of a plan. He leaned toward me and whispered:
In the long silence his eyes shone with terrible sincerity.
“But…” I stammered, “But clowns want… laughter.”
“Oh! Oh yes, yes! I’ve heard about that! Clowns seek the out whatever makes laughter and return it back to their audience,” – it was if he was reciting from a history textbook – “without regard for sense, entirely without shame, not caring about consequences, acting like idiots – being idiots – seeking only to amplify the laughter. Yes?”
I had no idea. It sounded right. I nodded.
“Well our clowns want to win elections. Laughter didn’t work very well. So they do much the same thing, but with hate and fear. Also funny noises and pratfalls, but mostly hate and fear.”
“That sounds like a terrible idea.”
“Oh but it worked brilliantly. I’d join them if I could. But I’m of the old school… I’m stuck with the idea a leader should have some idea what to do if they win. I even knew a politician once who even stood by the world her rhetoric helped create. They downed her in a vat of banana custard. It was… hilarious.”
You will guess the rest of the story. Win or lose, the forces these buffoons rode to power were legitimised. Those with long-suppressed clownish impulses felt free to run riot. Some saw this as the alternative they had been waiting for and joined in. Cream pies waited for innocent faces around every street corner. Unsuspecting skulls were broken by buckets of whitewash left balanced on half-open doors. And now it was the non-clowns driven into the shadows, hiding from the particoloured gangs who jingled and honked fear through the streets.
It was all too terrible.
“I… I don’t believe you.”
“Ah,” he said smiling, “You mean you don’t want it to be true, so you don’t accept it.”
I considered this, and admitted he was correct.
“There, you see? You’re getting the hang of things already. We’ll have you joining everyone outside in no time.”
“I want to go now, thank you.”
It might be that they would kill me out there. With the horrible knowledge I now bore – the pallid leering face of my beloved world’s future – it would be a mercy.
By the door, there was a dressing table and mirror. He reached into a drawer and pulled out a jar.
“You had better put some of this on.”
I smeared the white face paint over my skin, hoping yet not hoping those outside would take me for one of their own.
For a moment I thought I saw, through the glass of the door, one of them waiting for me. But it was my own face, reflected in the darkness.