The Laughing Man

“Pull back the veil on life, love and the future my dearies… just a penny and I shall gaze into the great beyond.”

Shrieks of giddy joy permeated through the thick tendrils of incense, interspersed with the rush of wheels on wooden tracks. Subdued candlelight picked out tarot cards, a collection of crystals and glinted along the edges of silver charms. In the many years that she had been working in the Big Dipper’s shadow, Sarah had seen it all. Newly weds, young girls full of hope and broken mothers, hollowed out by the Great War. Yet in all her time she had never seen a man so repugnant as the one which graced her parlour now.

A long life had whet her wit, not needing cards nor his palm to read the malice in his demeanour. In short he sat, a grin feigning pleasantness but displaying all teeth.

“I’ll gi’e thee tuppence if thee can tell me ‘oo wins the 2 o’ clock.”

The laughter took anchor in her gut and dredged bile into her mouth. A hundred before him had made similar jokes, yet none had made the room seem so small. Instead she took his hand, tracing out his evil ways, line by line.

“I sense you have caused great hurt.”

Yet every despicable act she laid upon him roused only more mirth, until the walls resounded with his mocking hoots. At last she relented and waited for silence to fall.

“Aye, thee sees me through and through.”

Perhaps his shame was too great a hope, but Sarah knew then if she did nothing his wicked ways would continue without reprieve. What powers she had, if powers indeed, she focused and forged with hatred into a curse.

“As I have seen, so others shall. Each time you laugh at loss and pain, the less of you will remain.”

Oppressive silence cloaked their rigid frames, at last his contempt brought to pause.

“I’ve never heard such codswallop.”

Despite his words, the man then stood, a little sweat upon his brow. Perhaps he too had felt the subtle lurch of something other in the room. 

“I’m paying thee nowt.”

Relief was payment enough, she thought, as his shadow loomed away through the smoke.

At first it was a knuckle, then a finger and then a hand. Joints seized, more movement lost with each passing day. Some called it rheumatism and old age, yet  the man possessed not a single silver hair. By the time it reached his shoulders the weight had caused his back to hunch, but still he could not help but laugh. When it reached his hips he was forced to sit. Flesh was cold, as though no longer flesh. With time it consumed him more and more and even he could not stop. Until the night he laughed no more. The last to go was his throat and with one final wheeze he laughed his last.

What remained of the man… was not a man at all. 

It took a week to hollow him out, to install a record player in place of lungs. Instead of bones a steel frame held him up as he lurched to and fro, driven on by cogs and wheels and springs.

90 years later he dwells there still, encased in glass. As kids we dared each other to stand beside him or ran as fast as we could to pass him. Even then we could hear just enough of the scream beneath the laugh to know to our very core that there was nothing funny about the Pleasure Beach’s “Laughing Man.”

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