An arrogant barrister is forced to reassess his belief in magic on a visit to a travelling carnival
Chapter Description: An arrogant barrister is forced to reassess his belief in magic on a visit to a travelling carnival
It used to be a real treat when a travelling carnival rolled into town. A little makeshift village would pop up overnight and people would throng the fairground. They’d buy candy floss, hook plastic ducks, catch a strongman performance. Then, as quickly as it came, the carnival would vanish, leaving nothing but a few food wrappers on the ground and divots where tent-poles had briefly stood.
These days, no-one’s really that bothered about the carnival. Crowds have been in decline for decades. They prefer to stay at home and have the entertainment come to them at a time of their choosing. Even more so as the Autumn evenings turn cold and damp.
Which how Charles Treadwell came to find himself in a nearly empty fairground one Halloween night. As he trudged through the soft turf, battling a bitterly cold drizzle, he reflected on how this wasn’t really his idea of fun. Even if the weather had been fine, this still wouldn’t have been his first choice for an evening’s entertainment. For a man more used to a meal in a fine restaurant followed, perhaps, by a challenging theatre piece, a night of hot dogs and sword swallowers felt a little tawdry and, frankly, beneath him.
Still, there really wasn’t anything else to do in this little town. He was staying there for a couple of days to represent a client in court and had quickly found there was very little to cater to his tastes. Not wanting to be stuck in the bed and breakfast all night, he went out for a walk and stumbled across the carnival, entering out of sheer desperation for any sort of intellectual stimulation.
He wasn’t wasn’t expecting much but found even less to impress. Unlike the small-town yokels. He wasn’t going to waste his hard-earned money on clearly rigged games. The food stands looked filthy so he’d just have to go hungry for now. He decided this was all a mistake and that, really, he should just get back to his room and get some sleep.
He turned to leave but nearly jumped out of his skin as he found himself face to face with a man who must have been standing directly behind him. As Charles quickly stepped back, he slipped slightly as he caught the back of his foot on a clump of earth and had to regain his composure.
“I’m terribly sorry, Sir, I didn’t mean to frighten you unduly.”
“That’s quite alright, my fault really.” Charles hated being put on the back foot like that. As a barrister, he was used to being a dominant presence. He got a real kick out of ripping witnesses to pieces from the moment they took the stand. It felt wrong to be caught off guard like that.
“Enjoying the carnival, are we?”
“Well, actually, I was just leaving.”
“Nonsense! There’s still so much for you to see.”
At that moment, Charles noticed how oddly the man was dressed. Battered top hat, a tailcoat with a couple of rips in the fabric, a waxed moustache. Charles quickly realised what he was dealing with. His heart sank.
“Oh, You’re a magician.”
“Most observant of you, Sir. Please allow me to introduce myself.” He reached behind his ear and pulled out a card, apparently out of thin air, before handing it to an obviously unimpressed Charles.
The card read: “Axel Paterno, Master Magician. Ego submittere magi ad dominum.”. Charles’ brow furrowed.
“Hmm, nothing like a little sprinkling of Latin for effect, eh? That’s a little trick I’ve been known to employ in my time. Helps people understand their place.” Paterno stared blankly for a few seconds before replying.
“Yes, words are very powerful, aren’t they? I strongly believe in the underlying magic hidden within words. The right combination of carefully chosen words can change the world, I think. Or, at least, someone’s world.”
Having established that this Paterno fellow was obviously deranged, Charles started to walk off. Paterno put a hand up to stop him.
“Well, hold on now. I’ve introduced myself but you haven’t even given me your name.”
“Fine, I’m Charles. Charles Treadwell.”
“Why, Charlie, dear boy, you mustn't leave. Stay a while longer. Why don’t you get yourself a little something to eat. Oh, and then you must come and see my show. I insist.” Before Charles had a chance to politely decline, Paterno grabbed his hand, gave it a shake and walked off, calling out, “It was lovely to meet you, Charlie!”
With no intention of hanging around to watch some silly little conjuring show, Charles headed for the exit. As he reached the threshold of the fairground, he was stopped in his tracks. He felt a sharp pang of hunger in his stomach. Charles remembered that there was a chip shop near his B&B and resolved to stop in on the way back.
He took a step forward and the feeling in his stomach intensified. It was no good. He realised he was going to have to get some food now and turned back into the carnival. He would just have to hold his nose and try his luck at a nearby burger stand.
Charles took his greasy, cloying cheeseburger from the vacant looking from the vacant-looking vendor and went for a stroll among the tents. As he walked he saw lurid painted signs advertising all sorts of cheap, gaudy, entertainments. There was a painting of a fire eater surrounded by demonic figures, a strongman depicted as being twice the size of his crowd of delighted onlookers, a woman posing seductively with a snake draped over her shoulders.
Charles finished the last mouthful of his burger and stopped in front of another such sign. It was for Paterno’s magic show but the sign was strange. There were two figures depicted. One clearly resembled Paterno but the other, despite being the same size as Paterno, appeared to show a baby. It was dressed in a nappy, had a bonnet tied around its head and was shown sucking a dummy. Charles found the image weird, even unsettling.
A few moments passed and Charles realised he’d been staring at the sign a little too long. Embarrassed, he looked around and relieved to find that no-one had caught him. He wasn’t sure he could have quite explained to anyone why he couldn’t stop looking at that sign.
Charles decided he should probably head back to the B&B for the night, maybe do a little bit of work on his case for tomorrow before turning in. However, he found his feet wouldn’t move, no matter how much he willed himself to leave. Something was telling him to enter the tent.
He knew he was going to hate the show. Charles had nothing but disdain for magicians. He characterised anyone over the age of 12 who enjoyed magic tricks as a bit of gurgling simpleton. He was far too worldly to be taken in by any of that.
Despite all this, Charles felt drawn to go inside. Eventually, he couldn’t fight the urge and felt himself take slow, heavy steps through the opening in the canvas.
Inside Paterno’s tent, Charles took a moment to adjust his eyes to the dim light. His surroundings slowly became clear to Charles but his brain couldn’t comprehend the image his eyes were sending it.
He was in a small chamber made of plyboard that acted as a foyer for Paterno’s show. In front of him was a square wooden frame with a flat base with bars rising up a few feet on all sides, like an open-topped cage. It was what was inside, however, that truly horrified Charles and left him rooted to the spot.
A man sat inside the frame with his legs splayed in front of him, busily arranging stacks of small wooden blocks in front of him. Despite the cold evening, he was almost completely naked. Naked except, that is for his underwear, a thick, white garment made of some sort of soft, shiny plastic, and a white cotton bonnet tied under his chin in a big bow.
With a gasp, Charles realised the man was wearing a nappy. Just as the sign outside had promised, Paterno was sharing his tent with a baby. A man-sized baby.
The man-baby looked up from his blocks and Charles had a good look at his face, framed by the lace frill of his bonnet, for the first time. He was a young man, perhaps in his early 20s, clean shaven, with round, bright eyes and a soft button nose. His mouth was obscured by the large plastic shied of a dummy, which bobbed a little as his suckled contentedly on the teat.
Charles took the immediate impression he was well looked after. He was thin but clearly not malnourished and his skin had a healthy glow. There were no signs the young man was in any state of distress. Quite the opposite, in fact.
His face was relaxed, betraying not even a hint of embarrassment as he sat there in a nappy, sucking on a dummy, with a man gawping at his infantile appearance. He was totally oblivious, too, to the trail of drool tracing down his chin and onto his bare chest.
Charles felt his blood run cold. He was disgusted at the young man’s total lack of shame and dignity yet, simultaneously, he felt pity at the poor wretch’s apparently helpless state.
A couple walked into the tent behind Charles. They also stopped in front of the playpen, laughed derisively and pointed at the man-baby. He responded simply with a dopey grin. They moved through into the space where the main show was to be held and the boy turned his attention back to Charles, meeting his stare. He waved shyly at Charles, who was now sensing another presence in the room.
“Well, Charlie, aren’t you going to wave back?”
Charles jumped in fright as Paterno out of the shadows and stood behind him. Despite his better instincts. Charles weakly raised his right hand and waved at the young man, who beamed a huge smile around his dummy.
“There’s a good boy. Look, Junior, you’ve made a friend. His name is Charlie.”
“Charles, actually.” He said, trying to regain the initiative. “Look, Mr. Paterno, I really don’t approve of whatever freak show it is you’re running here.”
“Oh, Charlie, my boy! Junior may be a little simple but he’s no freak. He’s just a good boy who likes to help out with my show.” Paterno was adopting a sing-song tone to his voice now. “He’s been in the carnival with us for a long time now and we all love him dearly. Like a son. Charlie, wouldn’t you like to feel loved like that, even just for a little while?”
Charles didn’t answer. He didn’t want to answer. His wife had left him a few months ago. It’d been tough getting used to living on his own again. He often felt lonely as he travelled around the country for work. Instead, he turned his gaze back to Junior.
“Seriously, though, is this what you wanted from your life, young man? Humiliating yourself on behalf of a third-rate magician? Is there nothing else you’d rather be doing?”
Paterno leant theatrically into the playpen with his hand to his ear, as though expecting a response. Charles rolled his eyes.
“What’s that? Ah, I see.” Paterno turned back to Charles. “He says that, when he grows up, he wishes to become a published author.” Charles shook his head and chuckled at the grim, incongruous humour.
“Well, Charlie, I’d better be moving. I’ve a show to perform, after all. Why don’t you step inside and enjoy the show.”
Charles entered the main room and unenthusiastically took his place among the thin crowd. A smattering of applause broke as Paterno strode into the middle of the floor. He had a slick, insincere grin fixed to his face.
The show began to unfold and Charles was resolutely, perhaps deliberately, unmoved. He saw nothing he wasn’t expecting and certainly nothing that impressed him. Paterno seemed to be going through the motions, pulling a bunch of flowers from his sleeve, retrieving a variety of objects from inside his top hat, employing clunky sleight of hand to pull of a trick with some playing cards. Charles decided he’d seen enough. This seemed a good time to slip back out of the tent.
“And, for my next illusion, I require two volunteers. Junior, be a good boy and come and help me, please.”
Just as Charles was turning to leave, he realised that Junior was stood, slightly bow-legged, right behind him. His hands gripped the front of his nappy and he wore a big, dumb smile on his face. Eagerly, he waddled up to where Paterno was standing, his nappied bottom swaying with every unsteady step. The crowd bristled with delight and disdain.
“There’s a good lad, Junior.” He said, giving the boy a pat on the back. “Now, I need one more helper. How about… you?” He was pointing straight at Charles.
“No. Absolutely not! I will not lower myself to this nonsense.”
A big laugh went up from the audience. Charles looked around, confused. He realised that, even as he barked his refusal, his feet were marching him right up to where Paterno and Junior were. He was mortified as the crowd mocked him. Paterno feigned a surprised delight.
“Charlie! How wonderful, I’m so glad you’ve come out to play.” Charles blushed bright red. “Now, you shall all marvel as I demonstrate my powers of transportation!”
As he spoke, Junior was wheeling two wooden cabinets, painted black with silver stars. closer to the audience, one on each side of the performance space. They were on castors with clear space between the bottom of the cabinets and the floor to demonstrate that nothing could slip unnoticed through the floor. Paterno spun each cabinet around, proving they were of solid construction.
“I’d like my two helpers to each step inside one of the cabinets.”
Charles sighed bitterly as he clambered into one of the boxes. Paterno closed the door behind him and clipped a latch shut. Charles was now in total darkness. He could hear another door and latch not far from him as Junior toddled into his cabinet.
“I shall now speak a few words. Words which contain, buried within them, mystical power. It is this power I shall use to effect transportation. Boys, when I next open the doors to your cabinets, you will have changed places!”
Charles figured that a hidden assistant was going to sneak him out of the box somehow but the box really was solid. There was no way for him to get out other than through the front door.
Paterno started chanting ominously in what sounded to Charles like a parody of Latin. When the chanting stopped, Charles felt the cabinet being spun three times. In concert with the dark enclosed space, this movement made Charles feel a little dizzy. He felt himself go a little weak at the knees. He could faintly hear the low rumble of the other cabinet performing the same manoeuvre.
“And, behold, you now see that my two boys have traded places!”
Charles heard the latch on his box unclip. The door suddenly swung open and the light, though dim, still dazzled his eyes. As his eyes readjusted, he peered out of the box.
He was in exactly the same place as he’d started. He craned his head around to the side of the cabinet and saw its opposite number across the stage, unmoved from his starting position.
The trick had failed. Paterno had failed. For the first time all evening, a big grin spread across Charles’s face. Must to his surprise, though, a round of applause came up from the crowd. Charles could have sworn he even heard someone cheer. What did they think they were doing? The trick had been a complete disaster.
Charles started to step out of his box but his legs felt as though they were going to buckle under him. Gingerly, he put his feet down onto the ground below. The grass felt cold and damp between his toes.
He let out a small yelp as he looked down and found he was barefoot. He had no idea how he’d managed to lose his shoes in that box. He tried to turn around to see where he’d left them but his movement had become awkward. He became aware of a thick bulk between his legs, pushing them apart. As if for confirmation, he reached down and, with both hands, grabbed the front of nappy.
Slowly, Charles became more aware of his body and of the cold night air passing across his almost naked frame. The hairs on his arms stood on end as the truth of what had happened dawned on him. He had taken Junior’s place. He had been turned into a baby. In his panic, all Charles could do was suckle on his dummy for comfort.
Paterno unclipped the latch on the other cabinet and swung the door open with a flourish. Charles expected to see his own body step out but was bewildered when a completely different man, whom he had never seen before, emerged from the box. He was well-dressed, wearing a tailored coat, smart trousers and polished leather shoes. He also wore a look of relief and delight.
The small crowd roared their approval at this twist to the trick. Paterno thanked the man for his help and he took up a place at the back of the audience. Charles could only look on helplessly as the man slowly edged backwards, then dashed off into the night.
Watching his best hope of, if not help then at least an explanation, escape out of view, Charles felt his stomach drop. The mocking, piteous eyes of the crowd burned into his bare flesh. His breathing became shallow, his thoughts cloudy, pins and needles rushed through his hands.
Just when Charles thought this unfamiliar body was going to collapse under itself, Paterno stepped closer to him, placed an arm over his shoulder and, with his other hand, gently rubbed Charles’ back in a circular motion. He whispered in Charles’ ear.
“There, there, Junior. There’s a good boy. You’re doing very well. That feels good, right?”
Charles had to admit, something about Paterno’s presence felt comforting right now. The warmth of the physical contact and the soft back rub were helping his anxiety to just drift away. His physical situation felt improved, too. He was adjusting to his new proportions and becoming more sure of the ground he stood on.
“And you love being in front of all these nice people, don’t you? You love being my helper, too.”
Paterno released his grip. Where just before, Charles had felt acute shame at standing, almost naked, before these people, his only clothing relegating him to the status of infant in their eyes. His self-consciousness was slipping away. He no longer cared if anyone thought him a little simple. He was comfortable there, barely even aware that he was the centre of attention.
“Would you like to help me with another trick, Junior?” His words were addressed to Charles but spoken for the benefit of the audience. Charlie responded with enthusiastic, exaggerated nods much to the crowd’s amusement. “How wonderful! In that case, it’s feeding time for Junior!”
Charles turned around and saw Paterno wheeling another piece of equipment towards the front of the stage. It was immediately recognisable to him as a highchair, only scaled up to enormous size. His eyes widened like saucers at the thought of being put into that.
“That’s right, little fella, it’s your highchair. Why don’t you hop up into the seat for me?”
There was still a small part of Charles’ mind that was telling him not to sit in the chair, that this was all a bad idea. It was only a small part, though, and was diminishing.
Instead, he did what Paterno told him to, toddling unsteadily to the highchair. He placed a foot up on the step and, with help from Paterno who placed a hand on his nappied bottom and gave him a push up, hauled himself into the seat. He wriggled himself into position, facing the front.
Paterno stepped onto a footstool next to the highchair and reached in. He pulled a couple of straps over Charlie’s bare shoulders and clipped them across his chest, before bringing the final strap up from underneath the chair and buckling that, too. Charlie started squirming in his seat, finding that he was now firmly restrained in his highchair.
“It’s always important to look after baby’s safety.” Paterno shouted to the crowd with a wink. He slid a wooden tray into place in front of Charlie. “Now, let’s get the baby his num-nums, shall we?”
Paterno reached behind the chair and produced a bib. He held it up to the crowd, so they could read the words embroidered onto it: “Daddy’s Little Assistant”. He tied it around Charlie’s neck, then made a small bowl appear from inside his top hat. Charlie, having previously seen there was nothing in the hat did a double-take.
“Oh dear, the bowl’s empty. How am I supposed to feed this growing lad now?” Charlie instinctively made a pouting face, getting another laugh from the crowd. “Not to worry, I’ve got an idea!”
Paterno set the bowl down on the tray in front of Charlie and fed a cloth out of one of his sleeves. He placed the cloth over the bowl and spoke some more complicated words Charlie didn’t understand. Suddenly, he whipped the cloth away and showed the crowd that bowl was now filled with mashed-up baby food. Charlie became wide-eyed with wonderment at the magic he’d just witnessed.
As a finish to the trick, Paterno fed spoonfuls of the food to Charlie, making sure to smear some around his mouth for laughs. Even though Charlie knew this was part of a show, he couldn’t help but enjoy the attention being lavished upon him by Paterno. For the first time in a long time, he felt cared for.
Once Paterno had milked the crowd’s reaction for all it was worth, he put the bowl down and wiped Charlie’s face clean.
“Thank you, Junior, you’ve been a very good boy tonight.” Charlie beamed with pride as the praise. “But it’s past your bedtime, isn’t it? It’s been such a long day and you feel very sleepy. In fact, why don’t you take a little nap right now?”
Charlie was confused. He didn’t feel tired at all. It’s just that his body felt a little heavy was all. So heavy that he couldn’t stop his head from tipping forward.
And, then, nothing.
When Charlie opened his eyes, the tent was empty. The noise outside the tent had died down, too. He was still in the highchair but the show must have been over for some time. He felt groggy and stretched his arms and legs. It was then that he noticed something felt different.
His nappy felt thicker than before. It was cold and uncomfortable. He couldn’t believe it; he’d actually wet himself in sleep just like any other little baby. Not knowing what else to do, he started crying. Alerted by the noise, Paterno rushed over him, genuine concern showing on his face.
“Ooh dear, what’s the matter you, young man. Oh, I see. We need to get you changed, don’t we? But first, I think someone needs a cuddle, yes?”
Paterno unclipped the harness, reached in and gave Charlie a big hug. Charlie could feel a wave of love washing over him and sniffed back the last of his tears.
“You did really well today, Charlie. A very impressive debut if I may say.” Charlie looked up, startled, as Paterno used his real name. “Yes, I think you’re going to really enjoy being Junior. For however long I decide to keep you. Right, come on now, Daddy’s going to get you changed into a nice, dry nappy.”
* * *
“It’s pathetic, really. Have you no shame, sitting there dribbling all down yourself in public?” Charlie looked up at the curt stranger and grinned, cooing gently to himself. “You should have paid more attention in school and, maybe, you wouldn’t have to degrade yourself in a tawdry little dump like this.”
Paterno leant theatrically into the playpen with his hand to his ear, as though expecting a response. The well-dressed stranger rolled his eyes.
“He says that, when he grows up he’s grows up, he’s going to practise law.” The stranger simply snorted and shook his head, dismissively.
Charlie was as glad to see this man as I had been to see him. It meant his time as Junior was coming to an end. He didn’t yet grasp that you nearly truly get released from Axel Paterno’s spell.
Even now, years on, I still occasionally hear his voice and the call of the carnival distantly in a dark corner of my mind. I still feel the compulsion to do as he bids.
Paterno is a great believer in the power of words. That they contain unseeable, unknowable powers and that he can harness those powers. He knew I was a writer and I think that drew him to me.
When I started to set this story down, I heard his voice again. He gave me certain instructions. Certain words.
Ego submittere magi ad dominum.
Ever since you read those words on the card Paterno handed to Charles, he’s been there with you. Getting inside your head. Making you his.
Next time the carnival rolls into your town, you will pay a visit. You will submit to Axel Paterno, the master magician.