Fergus and Morag MacAskill lived in a large farmhouse some miles down the road from Inverness. They were eager to treat their grandson Callum on his fifth birthday and Callum’s parents knew that when they were of this mind, it was futile to try to place even the subtlest of constraints upon their generosity. The elder MacAskills duly rejoiced in the planning of the wee man’s birthday party. As many of Callum’s friends would be invited as the old folk had the energy to manage. There would be cake and balloons and a real clown.
Fergus had wanted the clown to be a surprise, but Morag was worried that the children might become frightened if the clown materialised in their presence without any warning. After all, there had been several stories in the Herald recently about practical jokers dressing as clowns and scaring members of the public.
So Callum was prepped. “He’s called Hutu the Clown. But he’s a nice clown,” Morag assured him. “You and your friends will have a lot of fun.”
Morag had taken it for granted that Hutu would be a nice clown. But when a battered van with HUTU emblazoned across its side trundled up outside the farmhouse, she realised that this conclusion might have been premature.
A stooped bald man climbed out, wrenching violently at a leash. “Git out, you!” he hissed. A russet-coloured dug with glassy eyes eventually stepped down from the van and it stood shaking in the road.
Hutu had a dirty, very devious face. Strangely, he had smeared the whole of his right hand in what looked like Vaseline and it glistened unnaturally, like a plastic limb glued on to a drab wooden doll.
“Hello Hutu!” Morag called weakly. “I hope it wasn’t too much trouble for you driving all the way out here.”
Her brother, Kenneth, shuffled to the door with his pipe and he hazarded a show of shy friendliness towards the newcomer. “I hear there’s been a load a clown bother in the news recently.”
Hutu said something which Kenneth couldn’t catch.
Hutu muttered again and Kenneth thought that he had heard the words, “it’s all me.” He turned to Morag and saw that his own perplexity was written like a single word across her face. They were suddenly both concerned that this clown would not be able to communicate his humour to such small children.
Inside, the party had ballooned to a hullaballoo. Tiny beings in pointed hats were racing around the rooms and tearing up the air every which way with blissful squeals. The clown slumped in and regarded the children with a baleful glare, silencing every man jack of them at once.
Hutu tried to settle inconspicuously on a sofa in the living room, but Fergus made him sit in front of everyone, on a high stool that he had brought in from the kitchen.
The adults rounded up all of the children and the children all seated themselves in rows with crossed legs before the clown. As Morag had feared, some of them looked apprehensive. Hutu had a heady body odour, which was like that of the juice which flows from the bottom of kitchen bins. The children sat transfixed, with all of their previous liveliness now reduced to the occasional interested wrinkle of a snub nose.
What Morag saw next shocked her down to her shoes. Grabbing his dug around the withers and rump, Hutu hoisted the beast whole into his lap. He then eased his lubricated hand into the dug’s interior and wrenched the dug back, so that it was sitting upright with its paws suspended in the air. The dug shivered, though it was evidently accustomed to this exploitation and it offered not a mew of protest.
“Hello boys and girls,” the clown gargled gruffly. “I’m Hutu the Clown…”
A ghastly castrato’s voice issued out of a squeak which had opened up in the air around the dug. “… and I’m the Wee Ginger Dug!” The impaled dog’s eyes shone sadly; it did not even flinch.
“Today boys and girls, the Wee Ginger Dug is very sad.”
“I’m very sad!” the dug echoed back dutifully.
“Because of what the Tories have done,” Hutu explained with a gross wink at the children. It was somehow worse, Morag thought, when this clown was trying to confide in the children than when he was openly irritated by them. “You see there are these wicked goblins called the Tories who live in the goblin kingdom. And they have introduced some nasty cuts!”
“Oh no children!” the dug wailed in turn.
“But don’t worry, because I know that you are all brave little Scottish boys and girls. And you’re going to all fight the Tories!”
The children looked uncertain at this news and then Hutu saw that one boy had his arm raised patiently in the air.
“What?” the clown snapped.
“I’m English,” the wee man said. “Am I allowed to play?”
The clown blinked for a moment and then the whole of the planet’s face had rolled on to this problematic child. He lowered the dug, though this was more due to the toll of lactic acid than to his intensifying displeasure.
“No you can’t play,” the clown bawled angrily. “You have to be Scottish to play this game!”
“But why can’t I fight the goblins?” the mite maintained in a disappointed voice.
“I’ve had it with debating with this frothing zoomer! You just can’t, okay, if you can get it into your thick skull. It serves no productive purpose to engage with these trolls. So I’m blocking you sweetie! Goodnight, bye!” The clown had raised his palm (the one that wasn’t in the dug) melodramatically in the little boy’s face. “You’re blocked!”
Morag felt that an adult should have intervened by now. “Mr Clown,” she said sternly. “It might be nicer if all of the children could play in your games!”
Yet Hutu wasn’t listening. The warble of “Flower of Scotland” was emanating from his body and he had ducked under his arm to answer his phone.
“Hutu the Clown. Yes?”
It was the fluty voice of a nice lady. “Hello, is that Hutu the Clown?”
“Aye, it’s Hutu.”
“We’d like to book you for a children’s party later in the week.”
“I’m sorry but I’ve got to take this,” Hutu mouthed back at the waiting rows of children over his shoulder. “How big?”
“Seventeen little ones. All between the ages of six and seven.”
Hutu licked his lips. “Sounds good. You’re paying all the travel expenses? And I also get food?”
“Indeed, if you don’t mind travelling so far?”
“Oh I tour all over the country. This month I’m doing Oban, Dundee, Isle of Skye…”
“Well, we’re down in Durham.”
The lady waited but nothing came next. There was a terrible pause.
“I don’t do that,” Hutu croaked at last, in a voice as small and hard as a pebble.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
“I don’t do shows down there.”
“Excuse me Mr Hutu, but I don’t understand.”
“I just don’t, okay. I don’t do shows down there.”
“I suppose there has been some mistake,” the lady hastened to assure him. “Is it the money? We’ll pay for all of your travel expenses.”
“I don’t. I’m not doing it.”
In her bewilderment, the lady kept pressing. “Mr Hutu, please could you explain. I simply cannot get it. All of the children here speak English.”
“And they are exactly the same as children in Scotland.”
“And they like Peppa Pig and In The Night Garden, just as children in Scotland do.”
“Perhaps I am very slow, but I cannot understand why such a successful and famous clown would not sell his services in the single market, to the millions of…”
Only when he lost his temper did this clown ever feel that he was really standing upright, with his chest bared and his body filled with power. Now the flames danced in his eyes.
“Are you implying that I am an ethnic nationalist? That is potentially defamatory. I would happily perform for your children if they came to Scotland and became Scottish, so it’s you who is being an apologist for the racist British state, it’s you whose hysterical attempts to degenerate my celebration of diversity are blowing up in your face.”
He could still hear her calling in confusion, “I don’t understand…”
“Well frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn. You’re blocked darling.” Hutu raised his hand to the phone. “Ta-ta, don’t let the door slap your arse on the way out! Enjoy being blocked!”
The clown hung up and turned back to the party. He opened his mouth to speak but he instead heard Fergus talking. “Mr Hutu,” the grandfather said mildly, “I think that this party would be much more fun for everyone if you stopped mentioning the English.”
Hutu was poised on the cusp of yet another witty rejoinder until the sight of them all staring at him caused him to pause. There were Fergus and Morag MacAskill, with Kenneth tamping his pipe, and all of the wee bairns watching him from the floor. Fergus was gazing at him calmly, with a weird, awesome glitter in his eye, and then Hutu had sensed that something dire was going to happen. In his sudden fear, the clown had whitened to his very lips.
“You see, we’re English.”
The clown’s mind was flooded with a kind of immobilising pain, as when you bark your shin or catch your elbow, and he could only stand and listen helplessly as Fergus continued.
“Aye, all of ma family moved down to Milton Keynes in 2008 and settled there. We come up to the farmhouse at this time of year with the bairns, for a couple of weeks, just to get away, but it’s our second home. We all live and work in England.”
They had seemed so normal, so familiar. Nonetheless, for all of the time that Hutu had been relaxing in the family’s company, they had kept this secret under their skin, like the lover who quietly knows that they are harbouring a hideous transmittable disease within their genitals.
Hutu had the feeling that it was somehow strangely his fault, but it couldn’t be. It could only be their fault. He bolted to his regular comfort zone of outraged anger and his face dived to a murderous crimson. His hands trembled with rage.
“GET OUT OF MY HOUSE!”
Fergus and Kenneth had sized Hutu up and they did not altogether fancy their chances. “Come on children,” they called quickly. “Outside! Dinnae bother about your shoes.”
The entire family trooped out into the garden, where they stood assembled on the lawn. There was nothing for them to do but watch the house. “I don’t understand this game,” Callum complained.
“I expect that the clown will leave when he gets bored,” Morag sang lightly. She had no idea what to do.
Inside, Hutu roamed around the rooms of the house. He snarled as the pictures and bookcases passed. Why it looked like a normal house, the sort of house that he and all of his friends had.
He traipsed wearily up the stairs and found an airing cupboard on the landing. There were towels arranged in even piles around the shiny crinkled dome of a heater. Hutu climbed inside but before he closed the door, he took a marker pen from his clown trousers and wrote on the outside: “YOU’RE ALL BLOCKED.”
He opened the door again to let a little light back in. The Wee Ginger Dug stood across his lap, stiff and still. Why could this damned dug never sit down?
Then a happy idea came to Hutu. He would converse with the fleas. This never failed to cheer him up.
The Wee Ginger Dug was absolutely hopping with fleas. Hutu turned over a fold of the dug’s coat and countless tiny voices could be distinguished crying faintly on the air.
“Great work Hutu, as always. Stunning show!” exclaimed Jack Collatin.
“An interesting and informed, humorous show as ever,” enthused Iona.
“Forget them and their grudge du jour. Folk like that will have another lined up for tomorrow and another for the day after that. They are completely ideologically opposed to an independent Scotland and any manufactured (and I do mean manufactured), grudge will do in order to have a dig,” urged Macart.
“You must be getting it right, to get up the nose of these plankists,” added Keith Parry.
The monotonous grovelling continued, with one craven whimper after the next. They were trained fleas and they had long learned that even the minutest of quibbles would not be tolerated. “Oh I love you fleas,” Hutu laughed. “Let’s sing ‘We Are The Champions.’”
The fleas took up the old song and it rose to slowly pound within the airing cupboard, with a dragging, funereal rhythm…