Send in the Clouds
Photograph by Rhiannon Adam, Story by Tim Craig
In my defence, it was a bad line. When the hotel receptionist asked if I was coming for the ‘Cloud Convention’ in town that weekend, it conjured up an image of genial, bearded meteorologists in tank tops, quaffing tankards of real ale and sharing photos of rare cumulonimbi.
I said no - it was just a mini break for my wife and me and joked that, not to worry, we would be bringing our own clouds with us, as usual. With hindsight, I understand why she ignored the remark.
‘I’ve only got the one double left,’ she said, briskly. ‘It’s at the back of the hotel, so at least you’ll be away from the noise of the parade.’
‘Great,’ I said, adding to my bizarre mental picture of the Cloud Convention a phalanx of marching weathermen. ‘I’ll take it.’
A month later, on a bracing Lakeland Saturday morning, it was the giant bunch of balloons tied to the ‘Welcome to Penrith’ sign which aroused in me the first suspicion that I may have fatally misheard what the receptionist had said.
As we drove slowly into the main square, the sight of several groups of men and women wearing over-sized shoes and baggy pants, and sporting wigs of lime-green, pink and blue, revealed the full extent of my error.
‘You did this on purpose,’ Tamsin hissed at me from the passenger seat. ‘I bloody know you did.’
COULROPHOBIA, noun. A persistent, irrational fear of clowns, suffered by an estimated 7.8% of the population, including my wife.
‘I didn’t… Really, I didn’t.’
Our planned weekend of Truth and Reconciliation - following a period in our marriage characterised by a significant build-up of dark and menacing storm clouds – was in tatters before it had even begun.
My horror was compounded by the discovery that all the other guests staying in the hotel were there for the convention. We were joined in the lift by a pair of large clowns whose gaily coloured attire seemed strangely at odds with their lugubrious Wolverhampton accents. Tamsin cowered in the corner by the emergency button as we ascended to the second floor.
I smiled at the two men.
‘She doesn’t like lifts,’ I offered by way of explanation.
One of the clowns nodded. ‘I’m not a fan of them myself,’ he said, mournfully. ‘But the stairs are murder in these shoes.’
I looked down and stared at his twenty-two-inch long checked boots. Before I could think of an appropriate reply, the lift doors pinged open and we followed the waddling pair out onto the landing.
‘See you at the parade later?’ the larger of the two men said.
‘You bet,’ I said, rubbing at my underarm, where my loving wife had just given it a sharp pinch.
Once in the room, Tamsin immediately climbed under the pink, frilly bedcovers and rolled over onto her side, in a way that left me in no doubt that, whatever amorous Truth and Reconciliation activities I might have planned for the afternoon, they would now have to go ahead without her participation.
‘I might head out for a little wander round town,’ I said.
‘Have a mooch around the shops.’
‘I’ll see if I can find you a nice wig,’ I said.
I was already out of the room when the shoe hit the door.
Down in the main street, the crowds were beginning to gather. Stalls were doing a roaring trade in hand-buzzers and squirty flowers, while an open-topped clown car did laps around the cobbles, backfiring noisily and belching red smoke.
A husband and wife in full make-up, and sharing the same giant pair of pants, asked me to take a photo of them in front of the clock tower. ‘We haven’t missed a convention since 1993,’ they told me. ‘It’s the highlight of our year.’ I looked at their matching red noses, and the way they stood with their big white gloves clasped around each other’s waists. I believed them.
‘Say cheese,’ I said.
They stared at me blankly from behind fixed greasepaint smiles.
I took the photo and handed the camera back.
‘I thought it was going to spray you with water,’ I joked, but they were already shuffling off in the direction of the beer tent.
It was my bladder which eventually forced me to return to the hotel: four ‘pots-of-tea-for-one’ in various of the town’s quaint tea shops had taken their inevitable toll. When I got back to the room Tamsin was still in bed, but the row of empty wine miniatures on the table beside her told me she’d found the minibar.
‘Are you coming to the parade later?’ I asked her, after I’d finished in the bathroom. ‘You never know, it could be good aversion therapy.’
‘For my aversion to clowns or to you?’ she said, slurring a little.
At least she was talking to me.
At around 9pm, emboldened by the last of the Pinot Grigios in the fridge, she was finally persuaded to accompany me down to the main square.
We arrived to a good-natured, multi-coloured riot, and the aroma of hotdogs and beer. After only a few minutes, we bumped into the two men we’d met in the lift earlier; they greeted us like old comrades and pulled us with them into the procession. The crowd grew thicker as we approached the clock tower, jostling us this way and that. I felt a hand brush against my back pocket, but when I spun round, all I could see was the crowd of identical, grinning faces. I reached behind me and found my wallet had gone.
I’ve been pickpocketed’ I shouted in Tamsin’s ear.
She nodded vaguely, as if this merely confirmed something she already knew.
‘I’ve been mugged,’ I repeated, ‘by a bloody clown.’
She linked arms with one of the Wolverhamptonites and the two of them began a drunken jig. As the clouds of dancing clowns pressed in, Tamsin’s eyes briefly met mine. She smiled.
Tim Craig is a writer of short fiction. In 2018, he won the Bridport Prize for Flash Fiction, judged by Monica Ali. The same year, he placed third in the Bath Flash Fiction Award. His stories have also appeared in the Best Microfiction Anthology 2019 (ed Dan Chaon), the New Flash Fiction Review and in the 2019 BIFFY50 (the annual list of the top 50 British and Irish Flash Fictions).
Rhiannon Adam was born in Co. Cork, Ireland and was educated at Central Saint Martins college of Art and Design (London), and at the University of Cambridge. She is currently based in London. Her work is heavily influenced by her nomadic childhood spent at sea, sailing around the world with her parents. Her long-term projects straddle art photography and social documentary and has been exhibited internationally as well as being widely featured in the press. You can discover more about her and her work here - www.rhiannonadam.com