Ever since she was very young, Tess had a voice in her head. She had a voice in her head that would never stop speaking, all day long, until the only time that Tess ever got any rest, was when she was in bed, asleep and snoring.
The voice in Tess’s head would change during the day. Sometimes it would be her own voice, sometimes it would be her mother’s voice, sometimes it would be her uncles' or her aunts' or her friends' or anyone else who had made an impact on her.
For many years, Tess believed that the voice in her head was who she was. It would speak to her and attack her and sometimes scare her with what it was talking about.
“Why don’t you ever do anything good with your life?” her mother would say to her. “Why aren’t you doing anything good?”
Tess would try to do good, and no matter how much good she did, the voice in her head would still morph into the sound of her mother’s, and it would still tell her that she wasn’t ever good enough.
Tess used to cry at night. The voice in her head would be so noisy, so upsetting, that she felt as if life had become one long misery. There was no release, no escape, until she met her secret clown.
It was when Tess was ten. Her father had died two years before. She loved her father. She always had memories of him laughing and smiling and joking and enjoying, always with her mother in the background, in the corners of her mind, mumbling and groaning and sniggering to herself with a big black cloak drawn over her shoulders.
Tess was alone, at the age of ten, standing on a hill in Tasmania, where she lived. The hills were so tall and the land was so clear, she felt like she was living in a film, or living inside a book that children would read and think about at night time.
For a while, she was wondering what it would be like to jump over the edge of the hill, at its steepest part, where she would tumble and fall and break bones and maybe even die. She thought she might at least be able to meet with her father, the parent that she always got on so well with, and perhaps she would be able to escape those long evenings with her mother who used to make her watch television with her and eat pork sandwiches.
Tess walked up to the edge of the hill and looked down. It was more like a cliff, a green grassy cliff that was treacherous and high and harsh, and as she looked over the edge, she gasped and lost her breath, and she felt her legs shake as she stepped backwards to safety. But as she stepped back, she slipped, and suddenly she realised that she didn’t want to die at all, she very much wanted to stay alive, and as she slipped she also stumbled and fell, and she was starting to slip and slide over the edge of the cliff, and she was scrambling and clambering at the grass to try to get back to her feet.
But it felt as if the whole world was moving away from her. Nothing stuck, her hands could not dig in, her feet felt slippery and she knew she was going to fall. She screamed out “Help!” as she started to fall further, and as she left the cliff and started to fall through the air, something grabbed her hand and pulled her back up to the top.
She screeched and looked at who had saved her, and it was big blue-haired clown, with a red nose and big feet. He wore overalls that were spotted with red blotches, and he had a long nose that got longer when he smiled at her.
“Hello. I’m Bertie,” the clown said. Tess got to her feet and ran away. She ran so fast she felt as if her legs would burst off of her hips, and she ran back home to her mother who was watching the television, eating a pork sandwich and rocking on her rocking chair.
Then the clown burst in behind her.
“Wait!” the clown said,
“Mum!” Tess cried.
“What?” her mum yelled, with a mouthful of pork sandwich.
“Get the clown away!”
“Oh, shut up dear, there is no clown.”
Tess ran up the stairs to her room, and she looked behind her as she ran and saw Bertie the clown smiling at her and following her up the stairs. She screamed and ran up into her bedroom and slammed the door shut behind her, and then as she looked at her bed, there was Bertie, sitting on it, with one leg crossed across the other.
“You can’t get away from me,” Bertie said. “I’m in your head. I’m the thing that keeps you up at night. I’m the one that thinks your thoughts, keeps your memories and uses them to abuse you when you are alone. I am that frustration you feel when things go wrong. I’m that pain in your heart when no one else is around. I’m that voice in your head that speaks to you and pokes at you and tells you all the terrible things about the world so that you can engage with me and feed me. I am your broken mind.”
“No. No you’re not. No you’re not.” Tess closed her eyes and put her hands over her ears. She squeezed her eyes so tightly that her eyelids and her eyebrows were pressing into her eyeballs. She expected to wake up now and no longer be in the same room as a nasty clown.
She opened her eyes, and he was still there, smiling.
“I saved you,” the clown said. “You need me. I stopped you falling off the cliff. If it wasn’t for me you…”
“But you made me fall off the cliff!” Tess shouted. “You are the one that made me want to get close to the edge and jump.”
The clown disappeared for a moment, then he reappeared on the bed again.
“No!” Bertie yelled. He stood up and grew taller and wider and looked down on Tess as he walked up to her. “No Tess no! I saved you.”
“You aren’t even real!” Tess said to the clown. She looked up at him and smiled.
“Yes I am,” the clown said. “Yes I am!”
“No,” she giggled. “You aren’t. If you aren’t real then you can’t hurt me.”
The clown disappeared. For longer this time. Then he appeared again but he was smaller now, and crying.
“Don’t do this to me, Tess,” the clown said, crying even more. “I just want to be your friend.”
“Who are you?” she said, looking at him and starting to laugh.
“But you’re funny. You’re a clown! Even clowns aren’t real, they wear makeup and strange clothes and…”
“Shut up, Tess!”
“So if you are just in my head, then it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do. I don’t need you anymore.”
“Tess…” the clown got down on his knees and held his hands out in front of himself like he was praying.
“Let’s just be friends. Give me another chance, I won’t be mean to you anymore. I won’t pretend to be your mother in your head, or your bullies from your past, or your worries for your future. I’ll be good, I’ll be good.”
“I don’t even believe you!” Tess said, laughing again. “I can’t believe I ever believed in you or all those things you did in my head.”
Tess sat down and laughed again at the clown, and then with a sad look on his face, Bertie flashed into a look of fury and terror, his mouth opened, his teeth got bigger and he leapt at Tess, and Tess blew at him like he was some candles on a cake, and Bertie disappeared, forever.
Since that day, Tess still had a voice in her head, but she could hear it. She knew it wasn’t who she was. It was useful for things, when she spoke or when she wrote or when she drew in the evenings, but it was only ever an aid. All her decisions were spontaneous, they didn’t even need a voice in her head anymore, she always just knew, somehow, what to do. A feeling in her body would announce itself, and guide her in her next step.
She started to realise that everyone had their own version of Bertie in their heads, a mind that would play and terrorise and pretend to do all kinds of strange things, rehearse and repeat and remember and predict, and become so torturous that sometimes people would try to kill themselves, just to get rid of their own mental phantoms.
But Tess had realised, from early on, that none of them were ever real.