What’s your favourite phobia? Spiders? Heights? How about a human being in big shoes with a red nose and an unceasing capacity to fall over and laugh uproariously? If you’re feeling nervous already, you’re not alone. Fear of clowns, or coulrophobia to give its official name, is very common – more common, even, than fear of heights.
I was being shown round an office recently and for reasons unknown there was a small puppet clown on a filing cabinet who would shriek hysterically whenever someone passed by. It was truly horrible (and don’t get me started on how creepy puppets are – ventriloquists’ dummies might be my number one phobia). The office manager barely noticed this little monster’s existence and continued to sit at her desk looking bored while the gentleman in charge of the tour seemed to be at pains to point out how it worked. He even ran off to get more batteries. I stood very still and tried to ignore the creature’s staring eyes and manic grin, jittery that it might cackle and jump up at any moment. I remain unconvinced about my reasons for being there (a freelance job that didn’t work out, I’ll blame the clown) and haven’t set foot in it since.
Surely it’s all just a bit of fun? Laughter is the best medicine, after all, but science has a lot to say about this. Researchers at the University of South Wales asked hundreds of people to fill in a questionnaire about this odd fear and came up with several identifying factors. It turns out that clowns’ exaggerated movements are unpredictable, so we feel unnerved in their presence. Then there’s the makeup. It masks emotional cues and makes them look slightly inhuman – the ‘uncanny valley’ fear response when something is almost, but not quite, human. A classic case of fear-inducement if you ask me. And the big shoes and overly demonstrative acting and terrible jokes? Fearful in another way. Just stop it. It’s all a bit much.
Stephen King was onto something with his seminal work ‘It’. Clowns are terrifying and are probably lying in wait in the sewers to pounce on unsuspecting passersby. If anyone needs me I’ll be in the corner, avoiding all carnivals and children’s parties.
I had a really funny conversation the other day with my friend Colin who had always wanted to own a Jaguar E-Type. No matter how many years passed, his hopes of ownership stayed strong. Then as middle age was starting to approach he finally treated himself to a test drive in the dream machine. Trying to bend down to fit into the front seat was the first sign that all was not going to go well. The steering wheel was pressing against his legs, he couldn’t see out the (tiny) windscreen and the gears were impossible to use. The drive went by in a blur of tension and discomfort, and the noise was unbearable. He finally came to a shaky stop and extracted himself from the small space and shook his head. The dream was dead.
The story rang a bell. Harvey the campervan was our dream travel vehicle for years. He was so cute, blue and bumbling and adorable, and we were so pleased to finally own one of these iconic beauties. But despite the happy smiles and waves from strangers as we trundled along, all too often the journey was pretty fraught. The engine was temperamental, the seats were uncomfortable and when the wind picked up, it was quite honestly terrifying. One fateful day on the motorway a gust of wind actually lifted Harvey up and set him back down again (thankfully in the right lane) but we were terrified. Not long after that we started to look out for a more solid and reliable van – and Hans came into our lives. The wind doesn’t bother him at all and Chris can even stand up straight in the back.
There’s something about dreams and reality – they don’t tend to match up. We close our eyes and sigh wistfully, but if the real world crashes into the picture it ruins everything. This is quite common, and it probably keeps us safe from disappointment. So why bother even trying to make dreams come true?
But sometimes stepping out of the dream and onto the path can bring incredible reward. Most of you know that five years ago Chris and I fulfilled a lifelong dream to run away in a van for a whole year. Hans carried us safely over hill and dale for sixteen thousand miles to see seventeen countries. And it was amazing. Yes, there were challenges, and it was hard to get going, but in the end I’m so glad we did it. No regrets.
Naysayers be gone, sometimes you can reach for the moon and it stays still long enough for you to hold onto it and bask in its light. What’s your dream?
I lost my favourite scarf last month. I’d spent days looking everywhere for it: under the bed, in the campervan, in the shed, but it had just vanished. And as the days grew colder I missed it even more. It’s just the right size (one size does not fit all, not really) and the colours always cheer me up. It’s also been all around the world with me in our Big Year Out in the van so I’m emotionally attached to the thing. I was just getting to the point of letting it go when, you’ve guessed it, there it was. I visited an old family cottage in the north coast as a birthday treat and it was languishing (attractively) on the chaise longue by the window. I found it when I wasn’t even looking for it.
And then to top it all off I wandered into a secondhand bookshop and there on a shelf was a literature book I recognised from my university days. Smiling, I picked it up and opened the front flap, thinking I’d jog my memory about what was inside. Reader, it was my VERY OWN COPY. There in teenaged handwriting was my name. I last opened those pages in 1994. It had obviously been upset to be given away and had relentlessly tracked me down ever since. I held it to my chest and whispered sorry. Needless to say I bought it and have added it to my library once more. Another lost item that I found without even trying.
I think I try too hard for all sorts of things. Trying to make a success of writing, trying to find a healthy life balance, trying to foster good friendships. But so often life just falls into place when you least expect it. Some things flourish when they’re left alone a bit (plants do this too, for some reason I still cannot fathom, I definitely try too hard to keep the damn things alive) so I’m trying to hold life more gently. After all, if I grasp onto it too hard, there’s a chance I’ll choke it, so I’m letting life breathe around me. I’ll walk among trees, I’ll notice more, I’ll stroke my cat’s soft face and not seek anything else in that moment. Oh and I’ll wrap my scarf around me and hold onto my books, knowing that even if I lose them again, they’ll find their way back to me in the end.
Penny the cat has been going through a phase of getting stuck on the roof. She clambers up a tree, jumps on top of the car port and then spends the next few hours (or an entire day on one memorable occasion) crying out for help.
Every time I look out the window and see her, I can’t believe she’s done it again. The last rescue attempt was fraught for all involved, even our neighbours were anxious – four-year-old Toby stood underneath with eyes closed and arms open. And people asked later if ‘the wee cat was okay’. She was fine (my arms, on the other hand, were bruised and bleeding).
So why does the little cat keep going up there? Has she forgotten how awful it is? Does she not realise what she’s doing until it’s too late? Or does she simply love danger? There’s no way to find out. I’ve tried to instil some wisdom (while holding onto her as we wobble down the ladder) but she refuses to listen. Cats.
And when Penny realises she can’t get down on her own, she admits that she needs help. So she cries (it’s heartbreaking, ask little Toby). Being a cat, though, she recoils in horror when I reach out to help.
To be honest I recognise the same behaviour patterns in myself. I repeat mistakes all the time: taking on too much work, bowing to anxious thoughts, avoiding exercise. And even though the outcomes aren’t good, it’s as if my brain overrides this knowledge until it’s too late. I even struggle to accept help. Like Penny I’ll cry out from the rooftop when I finally realise I’m stuck, but would still rather sort out my own problems. I don’t know why I’m like this but it’s probably a mixture of pride and a need to remain in control.
So I’m learning to check my behavioural choices now and then, and to accept help when I need it. The rescue ladder is off to the side, but it’s there. Life lessons, as ever, from a furry friend.
A while ago I sent off a piece of fiction to Books Ireland for consideration in their flash fiction anthology. It’s a teeny, tiny story called ‘Touching Freckles’ and I’m very fond of it. So it was a marvellous surprise to get the email saying it would be published on their website for the flash fiction series this year. I don’t know where it came from (or why I chose something a little sad) but I like the characters so much that I might let them live longer in another format some day. Meantime here it is – telling a love story in 250 words.
“Okay, sheepskin? Or velvet? Oh, pressing your fingers down hard onto a hedgehog!” There’s a snigger.
“Where would I even get a hedgehog who’d let me do that? Seriously, you’re shit at this!”
She’s frowning now, I can always tell. I can feel those knitted brows as if I’m holding onto her pretty face, spreading my fingers along her forehead, like old times. Know what I miss most of all? Her freckles. My clumsy fingers stroke and press but - nothing. She sighs, leans into me. “Sam,” she says.
Disease is fast, until it’s slow. Falling over is funny, until it’s not. Sally is no longer frowning, I know this, like I know my heart still beats. Her freckles. A sky full of stars, I said once, and we fell about laughing. “Stars!” Sally shrieked.
We saw our long future up ahead, the path clear and lined with flowers. Not for us, the thorns that would prick, the darkness that would swallow.
What did we know?
“Blind as a bat?”, I asked. The doctor frowned (they never laugh, do they?) We held hands the whole way home. What else is there? Darkness descended, slow and heavy and soundless. I live in the dark. But the light is fuzzy around the edges.
Those freckles. Stars.