The Department is located in Whitehall, approximately six floors below ground level, in a sprawling maze of corridors known as the Rabbit Warren. The exact location remains obscure, not only does The Department not officially exist, the corridors themselves have neither beginning nor end. A visit there is as disorientating as being spun round the Large Hadron Collider a few million times at just shy of the speed of light.
The man I met didn’t have a name, simply a position in the Department’s hierarchy, a hierarchy as obscure and sprawling as the offices it was located in.
“We need you to stop a terrorist attack,” he said. The absence of clutter in his approach was matched by the extreme tidiness of the room and the crisp, simple suit, collar and tie he wore. This was a man whose job was to get things done, no fuss, no flannel, no flather. He probably didn’t even know the meaning of the word ‘flather’.
“I’m listening,” I said. This was what I’d trained for, I had already proven myself to be one of their top operatives.
“There’s a gang of militant protestors we’ve had our eye on for some time. The Counter Clowns they’re called, a group of anti-capitalist agitators. On the surface they’re just a harmless bunch of hippies who dress up as clowns and pull silly stunts.”
He leant forward just a few millimetres to underscore the importance of his next few words. “However, we’ve had a tip-off that they’re secretly an Al Qaeda cell and are planning an atrocity next week. We need you to infiltrate the group, find out their plans and stop them.”
“How will I manage that?” I asked, “they’re hardly going to let a new member into their darkest secrets.”
“Normaly no,” said the man, and just by the way he missed an ‘l’ out of normally I could tell that he felt the interview was taking too long, “but they have a weak spot, their leader. Her name is March Hare, real name Ma Cherie. Our sources tell us that she’s recently single. If you can get inside her bed, we‘re hoping you can get inside her head.”
Okay. I nodded agreement, this was exactly my type of work. Women adore me: not just my 6 foot 3 frame, taut physique and blond hair, I have a certain charm. My previous job had involved becoming the lover of a militant communist suspected of heading up a Stalinist cell. I had recently ended the assignment when she was elected as a Lib Dem MP for South Dorset; it was thought improper to spy on a Government MP.
So I had been waiting impatiently for a new assignment.
“Just tell me where to go,” I said.
I phoned the number he gave me and spoke to March Hare herself. I said that I was a freelance IT analyst who wanted to overthrow the capitalist system through peaceful protest. “You can come along to our meeting on Monday,“ she said, “but it’s a clowns only meeting so you’ll have to get a costume. It’s a training session, so it will get a bit messy.”
The meeting was held in the back room of a church in Southwark. I was late, I’d underestimated the time it would take to get clowned up and how much the outsized shoes would slow me down. I walked into what can only be described as a custard pie war. Clowns of all colours were hurling yellow-filled paper plates into each other’s faces as if the very future of the Earth depended on it.
Eventually a clown emerged from the foray. “You must be Martin,” she said, “I’m March Hare, we spoke on the phone.”
She was young, early twenties, and under a layer of clown make-up you could still see a pretty face and a mischievous sparkle in her eyes; she was not remotely the frumpy leftie I’d been expecting. She was dressed in a purple costume, with short purple hair, purple lipstick and a big purple flower in her buttonhole.
“We’re just having a training session,” she said, “you can join in if you like. We‘ll call you Martin for now, but we‘ll have to think of a clown name for you.”
I was positioned in a group of three, a short woman with a big pink wig, who went by the name of Pinkie, and a man who spoke mainly in gestures, who went by the name of Wavy Davy. They taught me a number of pie-based routines, the straight in the face, the last second duck so that the pie goes in someone else’s face, and the quick return, catching your attacker unawares before they can finish pieing you. It was not at all what I imagined an Al Qaeda training camp to be like.
Afterwards a few of us went for drinks. I gathered that the Old Goat was their local, as nobody turned a hair at the arrival of a dozen custard covered clowns. I got talking to March Hare, but was interrupted by a sandy-haired clown known as Gubba.
“I can’t stop tonight,” he said, “give me a ring about Friday. I’ve got the equipment.”
“Friday?” I asked March, “what’s happening Friday.”
“That’s a secret demo we’ve been planning for months,” she said, “I don’t think you’re ready yet. It‘s very high profile.”
So it was true, these clowns really were planning something sinister. I upped the charm offensive.
“You know,” I said to her in bed later that night, “I’d really like to take part in Friday’s demo, I think it’ll be a good opportunity to show what I can do.”
She paused for a while, ruffling her face against my mound of chest hair, as if that were some test of my suitability. She eventually consented. “You’ll have to do some training first though, I’ll arrange for Wavy Davy to give you a lesson.”
My session with Wavy Davy wasn’t the lesson in weapons training or handling semtex that I’d expected; it involved a master class in mime. Maybe I was to be the front, one of the genuine protestors. I asked Wavy where the protest was being held, but the only answer I received was a series of meaningless gestures.
I had more success with March later that night. Yet again she let her guard down in the bedroom and I found out that the site of the demo was a local air base. I made a call to The Department. “Well done,” said the man, “there’ll be 2,000 special unit troops standing by.”
I have never seen so many clowns in my life. Not even if you combine the clowns from all the circuses I’ve seen over my lifetime (admittedly only two). March reckoned there were over 300 altogether, a joint-protest between all the clown protest groups in the UK.
We met at the perimeter fence. “Just do what I do,” she said, and she and I and 298 other clowns all stood behind the fence miming standing behind a fence. For three hours.
“That was brilliant,” March said at the end of an exhausting day, “You did really well for a first time. It really looked like you were standing behind a fence.”
“Thanks,” I said, somewhat disillusioned. Maybe they were just clowns after all.
“It’s really good training for you. You must come to our Bank of England protest next week.”
Ah, so that was it. As soon as I could get away from the other clowns I changed clothes and went to see the man. He wasn’t happy. “Two thousand troops, standing waiting. If you could just have got them to cross the perimeter we could have shot them, but they just stood there, immobile clown after immobile clown.
“It wasn’t the terrorist attack,” I explained, somewhat unnecessarily, “that’s happening next week at the Bank of England. This was a joint event, with genuine clown groups, next week is their own plan.”
“It makes sense,” said the man, “all this anti-banking nonsense. Leave it to me, we’ll make sure that the Bank of England is as safe as,” he paused, trying to think of an original simile “well, as safe as the Bank of England.”
I had thought it would be inappropriate to wear my clown suit to The Department, so imagine my surprise when, as I was leaving, I saw two clowns walking into another room. I recognised them from the counter clowns: Funny Man Geoff and Mr Tickles. Mr Tickles was the one with the tickling stick.
At first I thought they’d been arrested, but then I realised the truth. I wasn’t the only undercover clown in the outfit.
So I wasn’t surprised when I arrived at March’s flat that night to find an emergency clown conference in progress. “We’ve got a mole in the outfit,” she explained. Behind her I could see Funny Man and Mr Tickles sitting on her sofa. Were they about to be tried for their crime? Would they give me away?
“It’s Pinkie and Wavy Davy. I’ve been tipped off that they’re working for the government. From now on we’ve got to keep all our protests secret from them.”
Puzzling, or perhaps she’d been led deliberately on a false trail. At least it confirmed that the group had something to hide.
There were somewhere in the region of 4,000 undercover police and security people around Threadneedle Street when we arrived on that sunny Saturday morning. Gubba opened his suitcase. “This is it,” I thought, “out come the grenades.” But I was wrong. Out came the balloons. It was a balloon animal protest. Over the course of the next three years I became something of an expert at balloon animals, which is why I became known as Mr Giraffe.
Three years. The expected plot never transpired, but it was clear they were up to no good so I kept my cover. The group neither grew, nor contracted, consisting of the same six clowns I had first met. The exclusion of Pinkie and Wavy Davy proved temporary, though I continued to view them with suspicion.
As the years passed the man at The Department was becoming less and less tolerant. “It’s no use,” he said finally, “we can’t sit waiting for Bin Laden to launch the attack. We’ll have to hurry things along.” He leant forward, in exactly the same way he had in the sixth paragraph. “There’s another undercover agent in your group,” he whispered.
“The clown you know as Gubba is really agent 242434343. He’ll be bringing the explosives to the annual Bank of England protest. This time we’ll catch the clowns in a genuine terrorist operation.”
I tried to persuade the group not to go down the terrorism route, but they were all mad keen on the idea, saying that years of clowning had achieved nothing. Gubba, Wavy, Pinkie, Funny Man and Tickles voted that we should become bad clowns. And they persuaded my poor March Hare to go along with it. Only I knew the full truth, that Ma Cherie was the only genuine clown amongst them. Amongst us.
In bed, the night before the attack, I decided to come clean. I couldn’t let her be held responsible, even if it meant admitting our three year relationship, the longest in my life, had been a sham.
She lay there in tears after I told her. I too was lost for words, what do you say when you’ve just confessed to a betrayal on that scale. Eventually she spoke, her voice quaking with emotion. “But I’m with The Department too,” she said, “I thought you were the terrorist.”
“You know what this means,” I said, “There isn’t a genuine clown amongst us.”
She started to cry again and I hugged her naked body to me. We lay together for a while, embraced in a joint realisation that our fake relationship, three years of falsehood and treachery, had all been for nothing.