The Chief was dishing out tough advice. ‘I’m bored hearing about The Clown. Put an end to it, before I do you in.’
‘Put an end to it how?’
‘Just say ‘Is it yes or no. If it’s no, then f**k off, Coco.’’
‘He’s not called Coco,’ I grumble.
‘Mr Chuckles then, or whatever this total and utter d**k is called. Either get him or move on.’
‘He’s busy. He can’t just drop everything because I want to pin him down.’
‘Rubbish! What’s a clown got to be busy about?’
I shrugged. ‘Juggling.’
‘Then you need to ask if you can put up with a man who devotes so much time to playing with his balls.’
'I’m just worried,’ I told him ‘that he’ll pull out at the last minute.’
‘Why, he’s not Catholic is he?’
The Chief’s advice makes sense, but I’m too fragile to issue a gutsy ultimatum. I shriek at loud noises, I panic when the phone rings. I get breathless in a crowd. And I’m afraid of the power The Clown has. A rejection from him would break me, would snatch away the last bit of hope. So I do nothing.
After another harrowing day at work, I fight my way through the station and get onto the 5.29 train home. I find a seat, rest my head against the window and start reading my book. Someone’s carrier bag crackles against my shoulder. I look up. The train is full. Crammed full. People are pressing in. I feel a quick skip of panic in my chest. More people pile on. ‘Could you move up the carriage, please?’ People packed in tight. They stand over me. I’m small down on my seat. I want out. I need out. I try to stand but the train doors slide shut. I’m trapped. Calm down. I can’t breathe, though! I can’t breathe in here. We’re moving. Stopping and starting. Inching forward. I need out. I need out.
I force myself to look out the window. Focus on something. Cars. The bridge. The sky. Air, there’s air. You know there is. Just stop it. You can breathe. I look up and there is a forest of people packed in the aisles. Standing over me, pressing in tight. Lights on one carriage out so everyone packed in here.
The woman opposite me is reading The Metro. Nice face. I want to take her hand. I want to grab onto it. Say please, I’m sorry but please hold my hand. I can’t breathe. I look down at my book. That makes it worse. Burden of words. I try to put my iPod on. Too much. Wires and buttons. Volume. Too much. I need everything away. Everything away from me.
I shove my bag off my lap. I pull off my coat. I feel like a plughole in the sink and all the world is water, rushing in at me. All the world is racing into my chest and there is hot panic in every atom. The train slows. Queens Park. I push. I fight to the door. I almost fall out onto the platform. The train departs and I’m sprawled on a bench, my fingers gripping the lattice of the rails and I’m taking in cold, fresh air.
When I look up the station is empty. Reaction sets in and I start to shake. I text my sister that I’ve just had a panic attack. Out on Victoria Road I cry and don’t care people are looking.
I crawl into bed. I’m shivering uncontrollably even though my coat is still on. I beg for sleep to come. When the doorbell rings I gasp. I pull the covers over my head. The bell goes again. On my mobile, missed calls and texts from my sister, Jenben:
Are you OK? Where are you?
Julie, answer the phone.
We’re coming over.
Dad’s here. We’re coming over.
No, I think, please leave me alone. But the bell keeps ringing and I know that Jenben won’t be fooled into thinking I’m out. She knows I’m hiding in here. I’m shamed into answering the door.
‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘I was in the bath.’
They come in and don’t remark on the fact that there’s no steam or damp towels in the bathroom, and that I’m wearing my coat.
Dad starts on me immediately. ‘What’s going on? Panic attacks? What’ve you got to be panicking about?’
Jenben tuts. ‘It’s not as simple as that, Dad. She’s depressed.’
Dad laughs and tells Jenben to put the kettle on.
I’m actually glad of Dad’s attitude. He won’t permit any weeping or fretting. He marches into my living room and picks up the book on the arm of my chair. ‘Reading about The Moors Murders? No wonder you’re bloody depressed.’
Jenben brings in the tea and Dad starts telling a joke about a man buying an ice cream. ‘….and she goes, do you want Hundreds and Thousands, and he goes naw just a wee drop.’
I let Jenben and Dad talk. I feel better for having them here and some of the grime lifts from me. They tell stories and I join in and we compete to see who’s the funniest, loudest, best at telling them.
Dad cracks open a bottle of Southern Comfort and I feel better still. There’s blood in my veins now instead of dust.
I feel better. I go into the room and text the Clown. It’s a very plain, honest, simple text. No games, no hints. Just asking him yes or no. Are we on or are we off? Let’s settle it now.
I go back and tell more stories and could almost hug Dad and Jenben out of sheer gratitude for them coming to my flat on this cold night to pull me out of the terrible hole I’d fallen into.
Over the laughter and the storytelling I hear my phone go in the room. It’s the Clown’s ring tone. Well, he can wait.
Later that night, everyone gone, the glasses cleaned and the flat quiet again, I have a bath, I curl my hair. I feel soothed. I read The Clown’s text. I’ll be home on Thursday. Come to the flat and I’ll cook dinner for us.
Even though I know I should stay clear of this man, I say yes. I need to meet up with him one more time to see what he really is. Is he the evil, tormenting Clown of my wild imagination, or just a busy, exasperating man? Will this night make me love him, or will it free me?
If I could have one night with him and see him as he actually is then he’d lose his power. He wouldn’t be hidden behind tantalising texts and elusive emails and clown make-up and circus magic. If I could see pizza menus on his doormat, if I could see hardened streaks of toothpaste in his sink, if I could just see his mop and his fairy liquid (these are not euphemisms!) then my awesome Ginger Tormentor would vanish in a puff of smoke to be replaced with a normal guy.
If I could just attain the unattainable Clown…
But who am I kidding? He doesn’t mean it. He’ll come up with an excuse. I bet I don’t hear from him again for weeks.
Next morning, I’m putting my lipstick on when the phone goes. It’s him and then, suddenly, I know. I haven’t opened the text but I know: it’s going to happen. He means it this time. It’s actually going to happen.
My eyes spark up with tears and I have to tilt my head back so I won’t ruin my mascara.
It’s going to happen.
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