Sunday, November 28, 2021

Flash fiction: Class clown

I wrote this story a few years back for an assignment at university, but it's still a piece that I like to look back on. I thought I'd revisit it and share it with you. I hope you enjoy!

It was only when he went home after his shift that Will remembered how very lonely he was. The same one-bedroom flat, same hum of the fridge that greeted him as he walked through the door. The same sigh he let out as he dumped his holdall on the floor and wandered through to the kitchen.

But today wasn't just any day; it was the day he helped children all over the city celebrate. The reason he had a job. And yet, his own celebrations were limited, to say the least. No surprise party thrown by friends and family. No hired entertainer performing silly tricks. Just a stale, leftover cupcake from the party he'd been working at - a single candle poking out through a mountain of buttercream. 

"Happy birthday to me..." he mumbled, elbows resting on the counter as he watched the flame flicker.

He'd checked his postbox on the way up - nothing. Just a pizza menu and a charity leaflet. Without thinking, he checked his phone. No missed calls. No new messages.

When he told his parents all those years ago that he wanted to be a clown, it was the first time that laughter made his heart sink. It was a cackling sound - a condescending splutter exploding between lips like fireworks. He wasn't sure what made him think this year might be different. He hadn't spoken to them since he'd moved away, but there was a sliver of hope in his chest that maybe, just maybe, this year they'd get in touch. Or better still, they'd turn up at his door with tears in their eyes and murmured apologies, throwing their arms around him.

Still, nothing.

On the loneliest nights, he would sit on his couch with heavy eyelids - the only light in the room being the flicker of the TV while some police chase played in the background. And every time, his eyes would drift past the screen to the photos on the bookcase, wondering where he could ever fit into such a perfect family.

The photograph of his parents had started to fade now, from a wedding they went to when he was just a child. But he still imagined them to look that way now - the same slope to their shoulders, same rosiness to their cheeks. 

In the frame next to his parents was the photo of his brother, with his wife and two daughters, all sporting the same wide grin. The girls would be grown up now, probably in their late teens or early twenties, he thought. 

And any sane person would wonder why he even bothered to keep the photos up, proudly displayed in their solid wooden frames between the barely-used recipe books and the stacks of dusty novels. But when you're as lonely as Will, you take anything you can, and sometimes a photo of your smiling family is all the company you have. 

It was in these moments of quiet - a glass of whiskey in hand - that he thought...maybe his parents were right. Maybe swapping dentistry for comedy was a stupid thing to do. After all, if he'd have stuck it out at medical school, then he might be in the photos on the bookcase, proud grins on either side of him. 

He longed for a house and a family of his own, but instead here he was - still rattling around in a hollow apartment, the only smile on his face the one that he painted on before work.

He sighed, and a droplet of blue wax slid down the candle in the cake that he was still holding. He held the cupcake close to his chin, feeling the warmth of the flame as he squeezed his eyes shut.





It was when he hung up his polkadot overalls and slipped into a cold bed that he really felt it. The emptiness. No face paint to hide behind, no jokes to fill the void. Just creaky floorboards and wind pressing at the windows.

He picked up the dog-eared joke book from his bedside table and grumbled. He'd had it since he was little; he saved enough money for it after selling balloon animals to his classmates. He'd stay up until the rosy hours, long after his parents poked their head around the door to say goodnight, long after their whispers of concern on the landing, reading the book from cover to cover beneath the duvet. Humour was all that he had - was all that he'd ever had. And now, here he was - a fully-grown man, telling the same jokes from the same book, but with slightly less light in his eyes.

Maybe it was for the best that his parents didn't show. If they didn't see him then their imagination could think up any kind of life for him. A swanky apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows, a career selling out children's parties all over the city, a family to come home to. He enjoyed the thought himself, letting his mind run wild with the life of his alternate self. But then the ache of reality crept in, and he buried himself beneath the duvet with a sigh.

. . .

The first time he saw her was at a sixth birthday party. He knew from the minute he stepped through the door that it was going to be a long night. Paper streamers littered the floor, and a swarm of little pirates were screaming and running circles around the parents, waving their plastic swords. 

When the show started, they watched with blank faces and he laughed nervously after each joke to fill the silence. 

That was how he came to notice her.

She was sitting at a table in the corner with the other supervisors, but she was the only one with her eyes on him. At first he thought maybe his wig was crooked, or his face paint was smudged, but it seemed like she was one of the only people in the room laughing. Really laughing. And somehow, that was enough.

He told all of his jokes like she was the only person in the room, and when it came to the plate-spinning act, he focused on her. The gentle shudder of her shoulders and the way she dipped her head when she smiled, the unfamiliar comfort he felt when she-

And that's when the plate smashed.

She jumped from her seat with wide eyes, face crumpled with concern. His eyes held hers and it was only when the other parents and supervisors frowned at her that she slowly sank back down into her chair.

He cleared his throat, tearing his gaze away from her. "And that...brings me to my next act. Who here likes balloon animals?"

The answering silence had his heart thumping in his ears, until she raised her hand with a nervous smile and of course it was her.

He moulded the balloon with practiced precision, twisting and knotting it into the shape of a swan. She watched his every movement, her fingers brushing gently against his when she took it from him with a quiet thank you.

And when he performed the final trick of the evening, he was looking at her. And when she clapped her hand over her mouth, he wished that she hadn't, and that he could watch the laughter blossom on her lips.

But there was something about her. Something about the fear in her eyes when he tripped over his shoe and everyone else laughed, the way she softened with sympathy instead of bubbling with amusement when his jokes didn't go down well.

And when the night drew to a close and their eyes met in the darkness, she looked at him in a way that he'd never been looked at before.

He was towards the back of the stage, cleaning the remnants from the plate-smashing incident. The room was quiet, save the distant scrape of chairs being stacked away, and the pounding in his ears when he heard her voice.


Before he could react she was making her way towards him.

"Are you coming, Jess?" one of the supervisors called from the doorway.

She glanced towards them. "Yeah, just a sec. I'll - I'll catch you up."

She waited for the last few guests to melt away and grabbed a spare dustpan and brush from the side, smiling warmly as she crouched beside him. He resisted the urge to pick a paper streamer from her hair.

"You don't have to," he said, waving his hand.

"No, please. Let me help."

They swept in silence, neither of them making eye contact.

"Thank you for the balloon," she murmured eventually.

He smirked at the tiny white shards that he'd collected into a neat little pile. "You already said that."

"Well I thought I'd say it again."

He nodded at that, glancing up at her. 

That's when she placed a hand on his arm and thanked him for coming, and he held a breath, because she wasn't looking at his rainbow-coloured wig, or his red nose, or his yellow bowtie. She was looking at him.

He swallowed, turning his attention back to the cleaning. "Y-you liked it then?"

She finished sweeping and tilted her head, considering the question. "I think you're the worst clown I've ever seen," and for a minute his face fell, until he heard the sound of her laugh that he'd grown so fond of. 

"But I loved it," she smiled.

A moment's silence, a parting glance, and she was going to walk away now, he was sure of it. She was going to slip through the door just as quickly as she appeared, and he'd be left alone on the stage with his red nose in hand, watching the pink streamer flutter in her ponytail. But then -

"My nephew."

He stared at her. "I'm sorry?"

She laughed breathlessly, wiping her hands on her skirt as she stood. "My nephew, he...uh...turns eight next month. I'm throwing him a party. I was wondering...just on the off chance, that'd like to..."

He stood too, raising an eyebrow. "You want the worst clown you've ever seen to perform at your nephew's birthday party?"

"That's a no then?"

He watched her for a moment, waiting for the twist. It didn't come.

"I'd love to," he said, and he meant it.

Her eyes lit up. "Great! So I' in touch then?"

"I look forward to it."

She grinned as she backed away, sending a wave in his direction, and for the first time since he could remember, the red-painted smile on his face was nothing compared to the one that he felt underneath. 

Thank you so much for reading!


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