Jim Mountfield

The September Chosen Writer is Jim Mountfield

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by Jim Mountfield

Paul kissed her. Behind him, as if urging him on, a crowd of people clapped and cheered.

She lay on a bed with a chipped mahogany headboard. An eiderdown of faded scarlet covered her to her shoulders. Her silky black hair fanned across the pillow and her eyes were closed.

As their mouths made contact, he marveled at her cold lips. No breath came from her mouth or nostrils. Nonetheless, he tried to give his best kiss.

People still clapped and cheered when he raised his head, but he scarcely heard them. The face on the pillow was stirring. The eyelids rose and the eyes underneath were a beautiful, lustrous gold.

He saw them only for a moment. Then the eyelids sank again and the face became still. At the same time, the cheering and applause died and seemed to give way to disappointed silence.

If only I’d kissed her for longer, he thought. I’d have woken her completely.   


Earlier, while the sun set, Paul and Finlay stood at a junction. A sign there pointed in two directions, towards the town and towards a place called Lagg’s Head that they’d heard was further along the coast. Finlay swigged from a half-bottle of whisky and passed it to Paul. “Well, which way?”

Paul managed a sip of whisky, which left his eyes watering. “Lagg’s Head,” he said hoarsely.

“No much oot there, man.”

“Aye, there is. The circus.”

All week the town had been decorated with circus posters. On the day of their arrival, Paul had walked along the esplanade and seen somebody sticking one up. A low wall overlooked the beach and sitting on it were a line of teenagers talking in Glasgow accents. Several had barbed green-or-yellow hair and wore studded jackets and T-shirts emblazoned with band-names like the Sex Pistols and the Damned. Feeling intimidated, wanting to avoid eye contact with them, Paul looked the other way to the town-side of the esplanade. 

A man stood there dressed in dungarees that were red on one side and had red and white stripes on the other. He also wore a tapering white hat that ended in a red bauble and a cluster of red and white balloons were tied around his right shoulder. He was pasting a poster against a wooden fence that interrupted the row of seafront houses.  

Behind Paul, one of the punks shouted, “Hey, mister!” Then he chanted, “Red ‘n’ white, your clothes are shite!”

They laughed—until the clown turned towards them. A crescent-shaped, red-lipped mouth had been painted over his white face, much bigger than his real mouth and giving him a massive grin. Even the punks found that disturbing.

The poster advertised the circus’s residency at Lagg’s Head. Tonight was its final night and the evening performance was already underway. But the poster had promised a ‘dazzling arcade’ in addition to the show in the big top. Paul persuaded Finlay to come with him to Lagg’s Head rather than to the town—whose attractions he’d grown bored of during the week—so that they could check out the arcade.

They followed the road onto the coast. A strip of spiky marram grass and prickly gorse bushes descended from the roadside to the waves, which seethed and growled in the dusk.

At Lagg’s Head a promontory containing a few flat acres of ground stuck out into the sea. Now one half of the promontory was dominated by the circus’ big top, lit up inside like a giant lantern. Covering the other half was a clutter of smaller tents, whose points and ridges were barely visible above a line of lorries, vans and trailers that’d been parked between the site and the road.

A meshed-wire fence was erected along that line of circus-vehicles. A single gap interrupted the fence and vehicles and was guarded by a hut with a hatchway and counter. Inside sat a clown with huge fake lips drawn across his white face, similar to the clown Paul had seen in town.

This clown grinned silently across the counter until Finlay demanded, “Hey, shouldn’t ye be in the big tent? Ye ken, clowning?”

“There are too many clowns just now,” replied the hut’s occupant. “We have to do other things to keep busy.” His accent was strange, his words constricted. ‘Keep’ was pronounced as ‘keek’, ‘busy’ as ‘dizzy’.

Deciding this clown was a foreigner, Paul asked, “Where’s your circus from?”

“From nowhere. We just tour.” The clown leaned out of the hatchway and gestured seawards. “Last week, we were over there.”

“In Ireland?”

“Yes. Before that, in England and France. Next, we go to Scandinavia. I hope you haven’t come for the circus. The show’s almost finished.”

“No. We want tae see the arcade.”

The clown shunted a huge jar full of copper discs across the countertop. “Sure. But we go from country to country and the arcade machines can’t take one currency. You put tokens in them. So you change your money here.”

Paul and Finn handed over some notes, received two piles of tokens and walked through the gap. 

The first tent they came to contained old one-armed-bandit machines, lined up like hulking robots in a science fiction story. “They still working?” Finlay asked a clown who lurked by the tent’s tied-back flap.

Another white face, red-lipped grin and constricted voice: “Everything works.”

Loud cheers and applause came from the big top but only a few people wandered amid the arcade—mostly other teenagers who considered themselves too grown-up for the circus-show. Every tent contained machines. They saw more fruit machines with side-handles and newer ones with buttons to press. They saw shooting machines with guns fastened at the front and racing ones with seats and steering wheels. They saw pinball machines, fortune-telling machines and machines with glass cases containing puppets or models that came to life when a token was inserted – a barber shop quartet who’d sing, a bear that’d dance, a miniature Ferris Wheel that’d turn. 

In one tent they found some video-game machines that’d recently arrived from Japan and they played on those for a time. Paul manoeuvred a laser-cannon below four barriers at the screen’s bottom while waves of squid-like aliens scuttled down from above. “What’s this game called?” he shouted over the zaps and explosions.

“Space invaders.”

Later, they passed a tent containing jukeboxes with curvaceous 1950s-style facades and rainbow-like colors. They saw a clown approach one and put in a token and then somebody with a mellifluous American voice began singing, “Kiss me quick…”

“Elvis,” said Finlay. “My ma hasnae got over him dying yet.  Still cries about him.”

“Mine too.”

They arrived at a final tent, a marquee that housed the oldest arcade machines they’d seen. There were ones with crank-handles and binocular-style eyepieces, which invited you to see ‘what the butler saw’ or look ‘into the sheik’s harem’ or enjoy ‘Tom Mix’s latest cowboy adventure’. More puppets stood inside glass cases, ready to move—gypsy fiddle-players, Cossack dancers, an Egyptian mummy that emerged from a sarcophagus—but these were ravaged with age. Paint flaked off their faces, giving them the look of decayed corpses.

“This stuff’s ancient,” Paul marveled.

Finlay wandered between them. “Some ay these auld contraptions must pre-date electricity,” he said. “Wish I kent how they worked.” He was fascinated by machinery and wanted to become a mechanic, though as he was an only child and lived on a farm, he would more likely end up a farmer like his dad.

In a corner of the marquee’s they discovered a platform built from several timber palettes, supporting a bed with a battered headboard and scarlet eiderdown. Wires ran from under the bed, over the platform’s edge and into the base of a metal cylinder. Higher up the cylinder was a gauge that had a needle and was divided into different-colored segments.

“Now what happens,” asked Finlay, “wi this gizmo?”

A voice said, “You kiss it.” They looked round and saw a man rise from a chair on the platform’s far side. He shuffled forward on arthritic old legs, though his white make-up and painted grin hid his face’s wrinkles. “You kiss Sleeping Beauty and the kiss-o-meter…” He patted the top of the cylinder. “…measures the strength of your kiss.” Then he pointed to a slot below the gauge. “It needs a token, of course.”

Paul felt hands against his back, pushing him towards the bed. “Well,” laughed Finlay, “here’s the man for ye. Scotland’s kissing champion. A famous lady-killer. He’ll blow your machine off the scale!”

In truth, during his seventeen years, Paul had never kissed a girl.

That was how he ended up on the platform, placing his lips against the cold metal ones of the bed’s occupant.


When Paul stepped down from the platform, Finlay and the old clown were arguing.

“Ye’re saying,” said Finlay, “this thing’s priceless? This piece ay junk, which I could rig together one morning in my da’s work-shed, is priceless?”

“No.” The clown smacked his hand again on the cylinder with the gauge. “This, I admit, is junk. A showman made it fifty years ago when he found her and had the idea for the kiss-o-meter.” He swung his arm towards the bed. “She’s priceless.”

Finlay snorted. “Her? But she’s just a doll.”

Hearing her described as that, Paul felt indignant. When the clown spoke again, his voice was indignant too. “She is not a doll. Do not call her that. She belonged to a sultan in the 18th century. Rumors say he hired Henri Maillardet to construct her. You know who Henri Maillardet was?”

Finlay didn’t know, but pretended he did. “Oh aye. Henri. The French fellah.”

“The Swiss fellow. He was the greatest builder of automatons in his time. He made one that could draw pictures and write poems. Today it’s on show in the Philadelphia Science Museum.”

“But,” Paul interrupted, “if she’s priceless, if she wis built for a sultan…how come she’s here?”

The clown sighed. “Hard times. People fall on them and objects do too. Even beautiful objects like her.”

The conversation ended then. The cheering and clapping Paul had heard while he was on the platform came from the big top, where the evening’s performance had reached its climax. Now, released from the top, children and parents flooded into the marquee and crowded the aisles between the machines. The spell of the metal woman, Sleeping Beauty, Henri Maillardet’s automaton, was broken. 

Paul said, “Maybe we should dander back?”

Finlay noticed something about the cylinder. He laughed and pointed to its gauge. Each of the gauge’s segments had a comment written on it. A few were disparaging – Ice cold! You kiss like a fish! Ugh! Others were more encouraging. Paul saw that the needle indicated a segment saying, Hot stuff! Let’s go again!

Finlay handed Paul the half-bottle for a celebratory swig. “Ye see that?” he chuckled. “Ye’re hot stuff!”

Paul took a bigger mouthful of whisky than he intended and nearly choked.


By the time they returned to the caravan park the bottle was empty. Finlay talked in a slurred voice about the incident in the marque. “Hot stuff! It said ye were hot stuff!” Then he started singing a song by Robert Burns that they used to sing in primary school every January 25th, the date of Burns’ birthday:

“Ae fond kiss,
And then we sever,
Ae farewell,
Alas, forever!”

From a dark-windowed caravan a man bellowed, “Hey, bampot! Shut your gob!” Finlay tried to throw the bottle at the caravan, but Paul seized him and dragged him up the field to where their own caravan was. 

Paul took a torch from his pocket before they clambered through the caravan-door. Inside, the torch-beam showed them the kitchen area—the sink, draining board and gas rings buried under mangled beer-cans, empty bottles, plates crusted with dried sauce and pans packed with white grease—and then the caravan’s central aisle, where the strip of floor was littered with more beer cans, empty cigarette packets and squashed cigarette butts. Meanwhile, a smell like that of a very old, damp towel lurked everywhere.

Left and right of the aisle, beds had been folded down from the sidewalls. “Good night,” murmured Finlay and promptly toppled onto the empty half of one bed.

Paul and Finlay hadn’t had the resources to rent the caravan by themselves. It’d taken six of them to pool their money and pay for this seaside holiday. Sharing the caravan with them were Tommy, Dougie, Hector and Joe. The bed Finlay had fallen onto also contained a figure in a sleeping bag with a tangle of ginger hair protruding at one end – which identified the figure as Hector. Two more people in sleeping bags occupied the other bed, one broad and heavy, obviously Joe, the other either Tommy or Dougie. Loud, rasping snores filled the caravan.

A door at the end of the aisle led into a compartment with one more bed. Paul assumed half of that would be unoccupied and went to the door. He was about to turn its handle when nearby a voice hissed, “Hey! Dinnae go in there, man!”

His torch revealed Tommy’s face sticking out of another sleeping bag. “Dougie,” he explained, “came back wi a woman.”

“What? Dougie’s got a girl in there?” Paul leaned against the door. Sure enough, beyond it, he heard people grunting and a bed creaking.

“No,” said Tommy mysteriously. “A woman. He wis way too drunk tae notice the difference.” 

“Where am I supposed tae sleep?”

Tommy’s head retreated inside his sleeping bag and his voice became muffled. “Guess ye’ll have tae kip on the floor.”

Cursing, Paul made a space on the floor by kicking aside some of the litter. Then he unrolled his own sleeping bag it and wriggled inside it without bothering to undress. The floor felt rock-hard and reeked of detergent, a smell as unpleasant as the old wet-towel one that permeated the caravan generally. 

For a time he lay on his back and stared up into the darkness. The caravan park was on a hill overlooking the town and from their caravan’s seaward windows they could gaze down across the roofs to the esplanade, whose most prominent feature was a pier jutting out into the waves. At night, two red lights burned at the pier’s end as a warning to passing boats. Now the rays from those distant lights found their way through the windows and formed two red smears under the caravan’s roof. But were the lights really red? As Paul stared at them, they seemed to change color and become gold…

Her eyes had been gold. He felt they were suspended above him, watching him.

Finally, his own eyes shut and he fell asleep. 

He was woken sometime later by the creak of a door. This was followed by several meandering footsteps and then a clatter and cry as someone stepped and slipped on an empty beer-can. A moment later a body landed on top of him.

In the darkness just above his head, a woman’s voice asked, “Dougie? Are ye there, Dougie? I’m trying tae find the toilet.” Breath acrid from booze and cigarettes wafted over him and a hand with sharp-trimmed fingernails touched his cheek. “Och, it is you, Dougie,” blabbed the voice. “Where have ye been hiding? Here, laddie, gie us a snog.”

A mouth clamped onto his and a sour-tasting tongue pushed between his lips. At the same instant, the caravan blazed with light – someone had turned on a big portable lamp Finlay had swiped from his dad’s work-shed before coming on holiday. “What the fuck’s the noise about?” complained a new voice – Hector’s. “Folk are trying tae sleep here!”   

Paul sat up and a woman recoiled from him until she banged against the edge of the bed behind her. “Here,” she squawked, “ye’re no Dougie! Where’s Dougie?” Her face was slathered in make-up, though a few obstinate wrinkles stayed visible. Paul wondered how her bouffant hair could be so bright and blonde until he realised it was dyed. She wore only underpants and a tee-shirt with a picture of a cartoon mermaid and her eyes had a wild, swivelling look of someone who was extremely drunk.

Tommy was awake too. He said, “Dougie’s in there, missus,” and pointed through the doorway into the end compartment. Soft wheezing snores could be heard inside, the only snores in the caravan now. “Sounds like ye wore the poor guy out. Still. Ye’ve obviously found a replacement!”

Paul realised Tommy, Hector, Joe and Finlay were all leaning forward from their beds, enjoying the spectacle of him and the woman on the floor. “Aye,” hooted Finlay, “ye cannae beat young Paul. He’s hot stuff. I’ve seen him in action!”

The woman’s lower face sagged and her mouth looked shapeless and sunken. She raised a hand to it and lamented, “Och, no! Help! Where’s my teeth? They must ay come oot when I fell!” 

The laughter in the caravan was deafening.

“Doon there, missus!” Tommy managed to say, between his guffaws, and pointed to a corner of the floor. The woman scooped up two things and stuffed them into her mouth. Her face was firmer when she looked at Paul again, but her newly-acquired teeth seemed as bright and unnatural as her bouffant. “Oh,” she said in relief, “that’s better! Now, which way’s the bog?”

The four youths on the beds were in such convulsions of laughter that they hardly noticed when Paul scrambled out of his sleeping bag, snatched his shoes off the floor and vanished through the caravan door.


Outside, Paul leant against a fence and waited for the rage and embarrassment in him to subside. He grew aware of the night-time view before him—the criss-crossing lines of street-lights below the hill, the necklace of colored lights along the esplanade and the two warning lights at the distant corners of the pier. He stared at those two furthest-away lights until their color seemed to change from red to gold. He fancied they were eyes, returning his gaze…

He knew he had to see her again.

He walked back to Lagg’s Head and found a scene different from the one earlier that evening. The fence had come down and the line of lorries, vans and trailers had dispersed. Many of the vehicles were now parked across the site, headlights piercing through the darkness, suspensions sinking low as things were loaded onto them. The big top’s conical summit had disappeared and the canvas was being stripped from its sides. Some of the arcade tents were in the process of being dismantled and the rest had already gone. 

Then he spotted a grove of poles that’d supported a marque-tent and realized they marked the place where she had lain.    

Paul entered the site. He wondered if he’d be accosted and accused of trespassing but the circus people were too busy to notice he wasn’t one of them. Next to the frame of the marque he found a parked lorry and he walked alongside it to the back-end of its trailer. A ramp slanted to the ground there, formed by a lowered tail-flap.

In the dark vault within the lorry, he made out the outline of something low and broad but not quite flat—a bed containing a body. He climbed the ramp, entered the lorry and went to the bed. 

The rest of the interior was empty. Even the cylinder with the kiss-o-meter gauge had been removed. The lorry served as her transport alone.

Another vehicle’s headlights flashed past and momentarily he saw her features: her fan of hair, her closed eyes, her slightly-parted lips that emitted no breath. Paul leaned over her and lowered his head. Again he was disconcerted when he felt her metallic coldness. But he was determined. This would be his best kiss.

While he kissed her, he sensed her stirring again—not just the eyelids rising, revealing the strange golden orbs underneath, but her body moving too under the decrepit eiderdown. He felt her arms emerge from the eiderdown’s sides, searching for him, wanting to embrace him. He felt her mouth widen and reconfigure in an O-shape that matched the shape of his own. He felt her tongue probe between his lips.   

The tongue had a similarly cold, metallic taste. Once it was inside his mouth, it sprouted.  Half-a-dozen tiny hooks sprang from holes on the tongue’s surface and embedded themselves in the tissue behind his lips. And immediately after that, almost before he felt pain, the metal tongue retreated. The hooks dragged his lips back into the woman’s mouth, which had transformed again and become a wide gash across her face. 

In agony now, Paul tried to wrench himself off her, not caring if the hooks tore bloody pieces from his lips. But her arms—robotic, solid, strong—had clamped themselves around his back and pinned him there.

He screamed. His lips had been dragged past the edges of her now-huge, now-terrifying mouth, so that the scream went down into her mechanical innards and nowhere else.

Then a blade behind her mouth guillotined down and Paul’s lips were sundered from the front of his face. Her arms sprang open. Released, he sprawled across the bed, blood splattering from his ruined mouth and making fresh patches of colour on the faded scarlet eiderdown.


Later, he found himself lying on the trailer-floor beside the bed in a circle of light. The light came from a lantern, held by one of a half-dozen men who huddled around him.

Pain encased the lower part of his face.  It was as if somebody had taken an iron bridle, heated it till it was red-hot and fastened it around him. He tried to speak but the sounds from his mutilated mouth were incoherent: “Eeeuuh!  Eeeuuh!  Eeeuuh!”

“Yes,” said one of the men. “It’s difficult. But you’ll learn to speak again, without them.” His voice had the now-familiar mispronunciations – ‘difficult’ as ‘dithicult’, ‘speak’ as ‘steek’, ‘them’ as ‘then.’

Their white faces seemed luminous in the lantern-light. Another voice, which perhaps belonged to the old clown who’d been in the marquee, said, “You have to come with us. You can’t stay here. Not looking the way you look now.” A sympathetic note was just about audible in his contorted voice. “It isn’t so bad. The circus people leave us alone. We travel with them, taking our arcade where they take their big top, but they aren’t curious, they don’t interfere. You see new places, new countries. And of course…” The note of sympathy gave way to a note of longing. “You’re always with her.”

Another clown mused, “The Sultan’s daughter was said to be the most beautiful woman in the world…”

“That’s why,” said the old clown, “she was built. As a replica. As a trap. For the many foolish young men who wanted to creep into his daughter’s bed-chamber, to kiss her, to defile her.”

The lantern was placed on the floor and another clown – the one in the half-red, half-striped dungarees he’d seen at the esplanade – squatted down in the light. He held a tray. “Don’t worry,” the clown told him. “I’ll soon fix you.”

Paul stared at the clown and realized how thick the layer of white make-up was on his face. Its thickness helped conceal the fact that the face was missing a crucial feature. He also understood that the huge, red-edged crescent painted there, creating a fake smile, was meant to be a distraction. It distracted attention from the real mouth inside the fake smile, which was itself unnaturally wide and smiling.

Then he studied the clown’s tray. It bore a bottle of disinfectant, balls of cotton wool, a pin cushion with three long needles sticking from it and a spool of white thread.

The clown looked up at the surrounding figures and added with pride: “I’ve fixed all of them.” 

Jim Mountfield was born in Northern Ireland, was educated in Scotland and currently lives in Sri Lanka.  His work has appeared, sometimes under pseudonyms, in Aphelion, Blood Moon Rising, Death’s Head Grin, The Dream Zone, Flashes in the Dark, Hellfire Crossroads, Hungur, Legend, Roadworks, Sorcerous Signals and others. 

He has written about Japan and Ethiopia for editions of the Fodor’s and Footprint travel guidebooks. He has authored two non-fiction books about his local football teams in Scotland, and he blogs regularly at www.bloodandporridge.co.uk.