Some would class me as a benefits cheat but I've always said a system only exists in order to be exploited. I've been playing the therapy game for a good couple of years now, merrily progressing from one NHS funded consultation to another at the taxpayers' expense. I've become so embroiled in my acquisition of phobias and subtle delineation of syndromes that I am no longer quite sure which I truly experienced and which were indulgent fantasy. As long as the couch hopping can continue, Truth the Absolute doesn't matter.
I like my new shrink, Mr Simmons. If you say his name over and over it starts to sound like "Mr Sigmund"; and he fits the part, too, with his glasses, neatly trimmed beard, sharp creased trousers and tweed waistcoat. Last week he'd started to coach me in coping mechanisms to deal with all my irrational, perhaps imaginary, fears. Breathing techniques. Focusing strategies -
"What's bothering you this week, Mr Phelps?"
I stroke my own beard - which is scratchy, not far beyond stubble - and say, "I have a name for my problem. It's coulrophobia."
"Fear of clowns," he agrees. "Not entirely uncommon. Do please elaborate."
Maybe his dentures are ill-fitting, dislodged by over-zealous chewing of minty gum but I think I can hear a whistling… no, more like a pipe tune somewhere close by. Ignore it for now. I have my spiel ready so I press on regardless:
"This coulrophobia that's manifesting itself within me - what exactly is it? It can't simply be the worry that they're going to make me the butt of their capers - that's a risk anybody takes on entering the circus. The fear is traditionally: that behind the jolly façade lurk evil and evil-doing men and, like anyone disguised, you can't always tell their real intentions. Smile in your face but really they want to stab you in the back. With a bendy or floppy rubber knife. Maybe the real fear is that they're so imprinted on you that you become just like them, that you find it funny to push the custard pie in the face, to tip water over the head, to wear massive clacking shoes and trousers that don't fit, supported by oversize braces. Once you're the clown, there's no going back to normal society: these are your people now, this is your place in the pecking order."
"And you fear becoming a clown, Mr Phelps?"
"Would it really be so bad?"
"What? Listen up, Doc - when Brian Clough described that Polish goalkeeper as a clown he wasn't saying the guy had him in stitches with laughter."
"But who was the real clown in that scenario, Mr Phelps, eh? Who ended up with egg - or dare I say custard pie - on their face that infamous night?"
"I suppose you're right, Doctor Simmons. Oh to have such insight."
"I think, Mr Phelps, that you are much smarter and better functioning than you've been letting on…"
Time to skedaddle.
They say that clothes make the man. There are suits that control your actions, that determine your behaviour when wearing them. Slow and steady stomps that famous marathon runner in the old-fashioned, heavyweight diving suit.
Costumes remove layers of inhibitions even if they also impose their own straitjacketing. Remember how you behaved at Kenny's fancy dress party? Can you fairly blame it all on that caveman outfit and thus absolve yourself of any acquired guilt?
"Raus, raus!" my flatmate calls from his room.
His far too pretty girlfriend Gemma is taking him to task yet again: "Honestly, Charles, since you started wearing that storm trooper outfit, you have been simply unbearable. Nothing but orders and commands delivered in a clipped tone and with an accent that died out in Allemagna half a century ago."
Some men spend their whole lives avoiding a wedding suit. Others express their discomfort at having to wear unrelaxing work suits, preferring the familiarity of faded jeans and an unironed T-shirt.
The bars of the prison are formed by the pinstripe.
Italian cut. Double breasted. Flared at the hips.
Or else, motley. Reminding us of the Pied Piper. Definitely: beware the jolly suit.
Simmons interrupts my lucid reverie to declare, "My professional opinion is that there's nothing wrong with you. However, have you heard the phrase 'Poacher turned gamekeeper'?" I nod. He continues: "Mr Phelps, you should be in the armchair not on the couch. It's clear that you are well-read and highly educated, so I'm suggesting that you come and join us. For a starter, I want you to attend this lecture I'm delivering tomorrow."
Ah, unmasked! My subterfuge penetrated. I look at the leaflet he's handed me. It declares:
An Introduction to the Psychotherapeutic Benefits of Disguise
- All Will Be Revealed
Who could resist such a tagline?
As I leave his plush office, I catch a further smattering of that beguiling music and decide to follow it or track it down at source. There are other matters I should be attending to but… My only fault is that I sometimes allow myself to get distracted. My only fault? Yes, I know, perfection is the province of the old Roman gods not humankind. Big heads don't pass easily through open doorways.
Then, of course, there's the deck that comprises the suits of cards. Our main frames of reference are the familiar Hearts, Spades, Clubs and Diamonds of the regular pack or else its antecedent, the Tarot. But in which suit shall we sit The Joker?
In the royal courts and in a Shakespeare lesson such as "King Lear", one could make a realistic claim that the Fool is, indeed, the most important figure.
Charles, and Gemma (oh gorgeous Gemma, too good for the guy), come and play a quick game of Happy Families with me. I love the old-fashioned separation of occupations that take us back to a mythical view of semi-rural England. I bet you've got Mr Bun the Baker. I'm after the set known as The Jollies. Mr and Mrs Janet and John Jolly. Plus Jill and Jim, their alliterative offspring.
"I hope I get The Jollies," I chortle, hiding my hand in order to beggar my neighbours.
Even now in the Space Age, futuristic, long-wished for, interconnected twenty-first century it's the men in suits who make all the political and economic decisions that will shape our daily lives in both the macro and the micro.
Don't be fooled by Google casual or by Apple laidback fashions. The bankers, the ministers, the executives, and the board of directors - they're all suited and booted just like they have been since Victorian times. Even those not wearing a suit that you can perceive are wearing a suit in their head, in their approach…
A billionaire comes along and buys your favourite football league club with dreams of winning the Champions League in five years time. But he wants to change the colour of the shirts, the club's nickname, the price of seats, the kick-off times, the availability of tickets…
Then he wants to move the team closer to an airport so his billionaire mates can jet in and out for home games.
You organise protests and thousands join in but the media dismisses your rightful objections as just the expelled foul air of scruffy ne'er-do-wells in tatty trousers and last year's away strip.
Maybe they'd take you more seriously if you marched wearing Armani or Hugo Boss.
I go to the lecture against my better instincts (Better instincts? There's no gradation, all my instincts are first class). The gathered audience is mostly male - which surprises me - arrayed in the usual motley of jeans, sweatshirts, pullovers and the like. My phone battery is dead so I've brought along a mini pack of cards to play a game of Solitaire if I get bored.
Simmons spends most of his day listening. This time he is letting out all that bottled up verbosity and indulges in some theorising. The crowd becomes restless. I'm used to sedate lecture halls where the apparent students behave with a degree of decorum and dignity. Today is different.
At first it's simply paper aeroplanes. Then there is a subtle neo-technological change that occurs to the airborne projectiles as they become brightly coloured balls or hoops or juggling skittles. The noise level is rising. There is movement in the tiered seating.
One young man stands up, coughs expectorantly, and rips the rubber mask up and over his head, thus revealing his "true" identity - stars painted on both whitened cheeks, a big red bow of lips, fake tears tumbling from his left eye.
"I am the imperial jester Ilya Pagliacci," he announces, "and I question your Bolshevik logic."
Simmons barely breaks oratorical stride. "I thought I might see you here," he comments; adding, "there's nothing like knowing all of your enemy's plans, oh yes there is."
"Oh no there isn't!" a chorus comes back.
As I look on, momentarily aghast, the rest of the audience begins to disrobe. Not knowing enough about clown clannishness I'm initially uncertain of where to go, what to do.
"He's behind you!" someone yells and this is the signal for the situation to descend into a farce of laughable proportions with punches thrown and missed, cream pies thrown and hitting, banana skins stepped and skidded on, ineptitude ruling the roost… Paper flowers and spotted hankies are produced from behind the ear or from thin air. Many members of the erstwhile audience spend the next few minutes changing costumes really badly; deliberately unable to divest themselves of their workaday disguises and reveal their true identities as clowns, jokers, jesters… it's all part of the show. The smell of hastily applied white greasepaint threatens to bring on my dormant rhinitis.
Someone calls the peelers and they arrive in a three-wheeled cart that spills them catastrophically across the stage, taking out most of the combatants by default in their inept tidal wave.
I create that inner calm, project an impenetrable aura around myself as I default to the strategies I've learned that will help me cope with what could have become a debilitating range of phobias. The clowns will not get me. I will move through their madding crowd and then away from their slapstick clamour.
Somehow I escape out of the building. The noise behind me is, briefly, tremendous but overriding and soon supplanting it all is a beautiful tune played on a tiny wooden flute, maybe even a penny whistle. The enchanting air takes me out of the door, down the lane. Past the town hall, over the rickety-rackety river bridge and then on a steep ascent through the bourgeois outskirts leading upwards to the mountain that overlook our pretty little town.
I seem to have been walking for apparent hours. It's getting dark now. The music's still playing and I must follow on. I wonder when and where we might rest for the night.
A while ago I believe that I caught a glimpse of the likely musician. A mottle of red and yellow. Or maybe it was just the leaves.