Five things that have scared me
Following on from my last post, I’ve been trying to think and write about fear.
I started with a list of times I have been scared – obviously I’ve been scared a great many more than five times, but I was after a fear that I remembered almost physically, that even now, when I think about the event, still pulls at something in the pit of my stomach.
Here’s my list and where it went.
1) Camping with a girlfriend, and waking in the middle of the night to the sound of the zipper on our tent opening and then closing.
2) Accidentally swimming too far out near a sand bank, and trying to put my feet down only to find cold deep water.
3) Being followed by a man through the suburbs of Sydney on a very dark night on a street with no streetlights. He wasn’t making any effort to pretend he wasn’t following me or to pretend that he was friendly or sane.
4) Waking up in Thailand with a large spider or cockroach or something not good drinking out of my mouth.
5) A couple of years ago my parents planned a trip to France, leaving from the Isle of Wight where they were staying in a small caravan on some woodland they own. So as not to upset the dog’s holiday (because why would you?) they asked me to come down and look after the dogs while they were away. It was August, and I spent the first day reading in the sun, imagining late nights star-gazing and drinking wine, reading by gaslight, enjoying being completely alone for the first time in years. But as the sun went down, the woods, which I know intimately, which I used to feel quite at home in as a child after dark, started to change. The feeling changed, it was like there was something that wanted me to look hard into the woods at a spot just beyond my range of sight. By dusk I’d gone inside to read by torchlight instead.
By the time it was fully dark, I had both dogs on the bed with me, with their ears pricked and their noses pressed against the window. I was wide-awake, listening also. The wind picked up and the dogs became more and more restless, making that quiet low growl that threatens to turn much louder, as something – a fox, I hoped – walked around the caravan.
At dawn on the second day of not sleeping, I decided the rest of the week would be filled with walking and reading, the nights would be sensible and calm. I was an adult and for gods sake how often do you get the chance to be really alone? I opened the door onto the worst weather of the whole year, with no break in the clouds and no sun. For the next 6 days gale-force winds tilted the caravan from side to side, while I sat in it eating Ritz crackers and apples. I had to try and wear the dogs out a bit, otherwise they noodled about waiting to hear bad things to shout at in the night.
I took them in slanted rain for long walks up on the downs and through Parkhurst Forest. On one outing I took them down to a beach where there we found warnings posted in the car park – Portuguese man o’ war (men o’war?) had washed up in the storms. My mobile phone died because it got too wet sitting in my pocket on one of these walks. If I wanted to call someone I had to drive fifteen minutes down to the nearest shop, and then I had to think of something to say, other than, ‘I’m a bit crept’ because the most scary thing for some reason would be to admit that I was scared.
Back at the caravan, a tree fell down flattening the fence that separated the woods I was staying in from a field of sheep, and the sheep flooded in, getting stuck in the blackberries and baaahing deep into the night. The dogs stopped shouting at things in the dark and instead curled up on my bed, eyes wide open, spooked, and shivering. During the day if I ventured outside, I’d get that feeling of being watched, the tingle on the back of my hands, the tightening of the skin on my scalp, and if I looked hard into the woods, more often than not, I’d find a sheep standing still and looking at me intently, covered in goose grass and brambles, mad-eyed like they always are.
The thing that really stays with me from my time in the woods, is that decision you have to make to leave. This means you have weighed up the evidence – the trees scraping the roof of the van, the wind howling and rattling the doorframe, the sheep in the dark, the scream of owls, foxes and other things that you know are all part of being alone and being in the woods, and you have decided there is something else there too, conducting them. That moment when everything becomes a bit more urgent, and, if you decide in the middle of the night that you are in fact leaving, how will you make up the distance between where you are and the car in the dark, how will you carry the things you need, how will you not run and make yourself feel like you’re being chased? How will you deal with opening the gate so that you can leave?
I would never have left the caravan unlocked, the gate open. I would not have left my dogs if they had run off into the woods or my camera or my books. I would not have gone without disconnecting the gas or putting the cover back on the barbeque, because if I failed to complete any of these tasks before I left, it would be called flight and to be fleeing something means there is something after you, and that is a jump too far for me. Besides which, my parents would have killed me.
I’m off back to the caravan this weekend. I’m sure it’ll be good for me.