The child leans forward, her hair a curtain between her and the glowing screen, her lips move, reading the messages that ping and click into her inbox.
Her hand moves automatically to the family sized bag of crisps, nestled, half hidden on her lap.
Hand, mouth, bite, chew, hand…..old familiar pattern.
She stifles a giggle with a hand that is salty, malty with crumbs of crisps. His messages are so funny and then he can be so tender, so loving.
She knows that he is the one for her, it’s all perfect
They will run away together, start a new life, no more name calling, no more teachers staring at her with half disguised disinterest.
She loves him, cannot wait to be with him, has already packed a bag, written, in rough, the note she will leave.
She’s going to do it properly, her neatest handwriting, nice paper and everything.
She doesn’t hear the door open, doesn’t see the smallest clown tiptoe in, skirting the fluffy rug, the bundle of bears huddled at the foot of the bunk beds.
He reaches across her and with a gentle finger pushes the off button on the lap top and then bows to the child with a flourish and pulls the pink paper flower from the brow of his hat.
She can’t help her smile, forgets to cover her mouth and the beam lights up her face.
As the clown leaves, he pulls back the curtains and lets the sun shine stream in.
The boys are sitting, their backs against what remains of the walls of the last house on the dusty Main Street.
Dogz and Little Man have found some battered cassette tapes, they are carefully unwinding the black plastic tape and wrapping the flapping spool around each others arms to make bracelets or armour or just something that looks fine, catches the midday sun, sets them apart.
Spider sits, legs splayed, rubbing the butt of his AK47 with a tiny bottle of palm oil, the metal gleams and he bows his head to concentrate.
The others are watching him carefully, they know he has some Kif in his jacket pocket, maybe even some weed. In the absence of the Sergeant, he is the man, the dan.
They quietly move closer to him, make sure that they are in his sights.
Nobody wants to miss out on anything good.
Newboy and the boy so new he doesn’t even have a nickname, are sitting away from the others.
No name boy has been crying, the tears have left an almost clean path down his dirt encrusted face.
The others can all remember the tears, they make sure that they don’t make eye contact, nobody wants to remember back then, back when they first came.
It is Newboy who sees them first, a dot in the landscape,that becomes distant figures, that slowly resolves into 3 figures, biggest, smaller, smallest.
The clowns are back in town.
The crew stiffen, hands reach out for guns, bats, sticks, they all stand, even New Boy, even no name boy, group together, wait to see what will happen.
The clowns stop at the edge of the deserted town, they eyeball the boys and the boys eyeball them and then with a whoop and a shriek, the clowns launch the selves.
And the dog runs alongside, tongue flapping, mouth smiling.
The boys turn to Spider, looking for guidance, but he shrugs, trying to be the man, but wanting to see what’s going to happen, feeling a smile tugging at his mouth.
He makes a decision, places his gun on the floor and slowly slides himself to the ground, his jeans are too short now, bony, adolescent ankles stick out, before his boots, the boots, the man boots, 2 sizes too big, but, in them he walks like a man, so he ignores the blisters, has pushed to the back of his mind, the actual getting of the boots.
In them he walks tall.
The other boys, slide cautiously to the ground, form a rough semi circle and become an audience of children, mouths open, weapons forgotten, they lean into each other, a tangle of legs and arms.
The clowns go through the routines, custard pies, the kicks and pratfalls, the teeny tiny cycle and then, the smallest clown begins to march, miming the carrying of a huge military drum, it trips him up, catches his behind, threatens to swallow him and all the time, the other clowns are marching, mad goose step marching, legs so high they almost reach their heads.
With a flourish, the biggest clown produces a giant water pistol and starts to fire jets of water at the others, they fall back, legs kick in the air and the boy soldiers laugh and laugh as the clowns lie twitching in the dust.
The road is full of people, as far as the eye can see, heads down, laden with bags and boxes and prams and trolleys and baskets balanced on heads.
They walk, trudge, one foot, another foot, walking towards the horizon.
There are no young men, just women and children and old men, all becoming more silent as the days go on.
The children have stopped playing, stopped darting ahead, stopped suddenly dropping to the ground to examine a brightly coloured stone, a tiny lizard.
They walk and carry and if they are too small to carry, they are entrusted with even smaller children, one each side, held tight, dragged on legs that have to trot to keep up.
At the very back of the line are the clowns,
And on each of their shoulders is a child, head drooping, face brushing against the soft pompoms on the pointed clown hats.
The clowns walk, slowly, doggedly, behind the lines of all the lost.