BY DANI BROWN
Delirious June 2009, too sick to know the date, but after the 21st.
I don’t care how sick you are, get out of bed and put on Sky News. That was an actual text I received when the news broke that childhood tormentor of my dreams had died. I didn’t know that until I dragged my feverish, aching body from the bed.
The text seemed important. It was from a journalism contact of mine. I was too sick to wonder if some sort of terrible event had been unfolding in the outside world. It wasn’t time for more medicine and whatever the strongest painkillers nursing mums are allowed to take (they didn’t work by the way, neither did the medicine).
I somehow found myself in front of a TV with a baby monitor in my shaky, feverish hands. I remember the baby monitor clearly. I brought that thing with me every time I left the bed. Being sick with a new born creates a very special mother/baby bond. I left my phone in the other room. It wasn’t as important as the baby monitor. I switched on the news.
Someone had died. Michael Jackson. I went back to bed until it was time to feed the baby. I’m not sure if I felt anything.
I used to be terrified of him as a child. As an adult, I still find him creepy. These days, if one of his songs comes on the radio or someone’s playlist (certainly not mine), I’m in a foul mood for the rest of the day. It doesn’t leave me diving under my Troll bedding for cover though (I miss that Troll bedding).
I don’t know what came first, the fear of some random popstar or the dislike of his screeching vocals and crouch grabbing. All I know is that at some point before I could remember, I started to fear Michael Jackson. As a kid, he was the monster under the bed.
I don’t think Michael Jackson has seeped into my writing or art in any way. One thing that has is The Wizard of Oz. Why, Grandma, why did you make me watch that? I have never read the book. I have no intention of doing so. It seems like something I would like, but I still have nightmares of the Lollipop Kids on PTS-free nights (although they have to share with the Cold War). The only time I’ve seen the entire film was that one time my American Grandmother put it on.
The set for Munchkin Land sticks out in my mind. It was awful and plastic and bright. All except the house falling on the witch and her feet curling up when the shoes were taken away. That was dark.
I went to a slumber party a few years after having the most horrifying film known to humanity inflicted upon me. Apparently, I was saying flying monkeys in my sleep. That’s when I knew it would never go away.
I’ve heard the beginning of The Wizard of Oz goes nicely with a joint and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon or The Wall. I can’t remember which as I was never able to try it due to the terror. It would be just my luck that while high on some super-strength hallucinogenic weed (that I don’t think existed way back in my teen years when I used to get high), the characters in The Wizard of Oz transform to have Michael Jackson’s face and dance moves, all set in the landscape of a nuclear holocaust from Cold War era propaganda that I can’t remember. With giant plastic flowers with Michael Jackson singing in them while dressed as Munchkins.
Lollipop Kids and Flying Monkeys have never crossed the threshold into my Cold War themed nightmares. I was born in 1984. I don’t have any vivid memories of anything Cold War related, but for whatever reason, this stuff has played out in my nightmares since childhood. I suck at history, even when it concerns stuff that people only a few years older than me would remember. I might take it in, in some way my conscious mind can’t recall but it gets distorted by my subconscious.
The first nightmare I recall that I put in the nuclear holocaust/Cold War category involved a bomb shelter with a bead curtain. Maybe the beads had some sort of special lead? I don’t think it would have protected against a nuke. It defied gravity though. The shelter in my dream was set into the floor with the bead curtain covering it. It was well-stocked with Doritos and my mother’s friends. This might actually be a reoccurring nightmare. As I type this more details come back, like the hard wood floors surrounding where it was set into the floor. And the metal shelves set onto the concrete of the shelter.
I don’t recall spending my early days scared of nuclear bombs and nuclear power. I probably had no clue what they were, until it came time for sleep. Daylight hours were consumed trying to avoid Michael Jackson, Lollipop Kids, Flying Monkeys and dinosaurs. Yes, dinosaurs. And playing with Sylvanian Families (my go-to toy until Trolls re-entered in the market).
The Land Before Time is not an innocent children’s film. There’s huge dinosaurs which could come back and step on my house. I woke up one-night screaming. My mother had to remove all the dinosaur toys (and anything that remotely resembled a Flying Monkey) from my bedroom, otherwise I wouldn’t sleep. The dinosaurs could have come out of the TV.
Luckily, I was older when Jurassic Park came out. I don’t care about DNA breaking down, I’ve convinced myself that it could happen and there’s probably some seedy scientist in an old lab with active small pox sitting on a dusty shelf messing around with dinosaur DNA. I’m too much of a wimp to google Jurassic Park 3D to see if that’s a real thing. I’m going to assume it is and then assume the makers of that will be bringing us The Wizard of Oz 3D and Michael Jackson holograms.
I’m not about to speculate on the reality of a nuclear war. Apart from that, rational, adult, waking me, understands the rest of the stuff can’t happen. There are three very real things that can and those are bees, wasps and hornets. I saw a wasp today. I know they’re real. I know I’m going to have nightmares about wasps tonight unless I fall asleep while listening to Ultravox’s Greatest Hits.
Melissophobia and Spheksophobia are very real. I remember when it started. I was camping with my mother and sister and stepfather (and possibly little brother) in Rhode Island. There were bees, according to my mother, killer bees. I saw the bees a few days before everyone else and told my mother, but she wasn’t listening (story of my life). I had nightmares about the bees until someone with more credibility than a child said there were bees and convinced my mother they were Africanised bees (I was never able to confirm if they were). My mother said to me, “why didn’t you tell me about the bees?”. I did tell her about the goddamn bees. By this point, I was waking up screaming in the night about bees. Every night. Michael Jackson, Munchkins, the Cold War and dinosaurs had nothing on them.
After that, we went back to England for a few weeks. Possibly the following summer, possibly not. I lived in Western Massachusetts, hot enough to need air conditioning in the summer months. We had the air conditioners that would hang out of windows. No one wanted to reinstall the air conditioners upon our return. Me and my sister had to share a room and we were forced to go to sleep in the middle of the afternoon upon our return. I couldn’t sleep. Wasps had built a nest close to the window. It was too hot to not have it open. There was a hole in the screen. They were coming in.
As my mother’s mental health declined, she used my fear of bees, wasps and hornets to manipulate me. It gradually became worse and started to incorporate hummingbirds (they’re hornets in reverse) and scorpions (I don’t know what they’re meant to be). It ended up at a point where I was scared to leave the house in the summer or open the windows. I’m not that bad now, but I won’t wear perfume in the summer and I keep my hair tied up (incase one gets caught in my hair). There’s a can of Raid within arm’s reach.
This is a fear that carried over from early childhood into adulthood. I still have nightmares about the other things, but they aren’t real. Bees, wasps and hornets are very real. I’m here alone. If I have a nightmare of the wasp I saw earlier, there’s no one to comfort me. She was there, on the wet pavement. I can’t even step on them because I’m that scared. I wish I did.
One day, I might be able to. I’m going to go listen to Ultravox now. Nuclear holocaust is the only way to ensure there won’t be a wasp.
Suitably labelled “The Queen of Filth”, extremist author Dani Brown’s style of dark and twisted writing and deeply disturbing stories has amassed a worrying sized cult following featuring horrifying tales such as “My Lovely Wife”, “Toenails” and the hugely popular “Night of the Penguins”. Merging eroticism with horror, torture and other areas that most authors wouldn’t dare, each of Dani’s titles will crawl under your skin, burrow inside you, and make you question why you are coming back for more.
Dani Brown’s latest book, and first self-published book, is out now.
Dani Brown's second person experimental piece you've been waiting years for. Witness first hand as a fiction author breaks the list of writing rules (or a list, there are many of these things). You wake up. Your day doesn't get much better after that. Dive into your mind as your body releases every bit of fluid it had and then more. When your mind is done with you, it is your body's turn. Is there any hope for you?
Tim Major’s time-travel psychological horror novel, You Don’t Belong Here, was published by Snowbooks in 2016. He has also released two novellas, Blighters (Abaddon, 2016) and Carus & Mitch (Omnium Gatherum, 2015) – the latter was shortlisted for a This Is Horror Award. His short stories have featured in Interzone, Not One of Us, the British Fantasy Society’s Horizons and lots of anthologies. Find out more at www.cosycatastrophes.wordpress.com
As the house-sitter of a remote Cumbrian mansion, he hopes to hide and experiment with the machine. But is the Manor being watched by locals, his twin brother or even himself?
Daniel is terrified about what the future may hold but, as he discovers, there can be no going back.
‘2p,’ said the vendor, a large woman with a kindly round face and a pink shiny doorknob of a chin.
‘A bargain. It’s all there, see. Not a piece missing.’
I studied the coins in my hand, warm and sweaty. I could almost smell them. I mumbled an excuse and walked away. I did not know if I wanted a jigsaw depicting the Solar System.
I loved those jumble sales. A weekly ritual. A Saturday afternoon treat, almost an adventure, sandwiched between the waxy gloom of the confessional (‘Forgive me Father for I have sinned … I have lied, I thought bad thoughts …’ ) and Kendo Nagasaki versus Mick McManus on television. Or at least that’s how it feels now, as I peer into the shadows and corners of a suburban childhood that seemed as long and never-ending as the road from Forest Gate to Romford. But at least there was plenty to see on the Romford Road, especially from the top deck of the number 86. I never saw anything exciting from my bedroom window.
There were so many jumble sales back then, perhaps a dozen or so every weekend. They were listed in the local paper: I scanned the columns for events that sounded promising or venues I’d not visited before. Jumble sales seem to be a thing of the past, superseded, I suppose, by the entrepreneurial scrum of the car boot sale. (I have nothing against car boot sales. I went to one last week, perusing tables heaped with domestic detritus: viperish wires and cables, chipped crockery, naked dolls, phone chargers, hair tongs, souvenir postcards, elaborate steak knives and winded teddy bears. All of which looked like props from a horror film.)
Part of the pleasure of going to a jumble sale was visiting an unfamiliar street. There was a sense of anticipation as I walked past houses and churches I knew so well: the newsagent with a collage of scrawled postcards in the window; the clothes shop displaying its patterned cardigans and pleated skirts behind a sheet of amber film; an enemy school; and an unkempt, dreary house bearded with shadow, its garden overgrown, the weeds as tall as myself, perhaps the house of a murderer or madman, someone who would bring gory glamour to the neighbourhood. In my young mind (which did not think it would ever grow old or slow or sad), the suburbs seemed to stretch forever in every direction, an endless Sunday of terraced houses and parks smelling of mud and faeces; and yet I knew there was variation to be found in every step, on every corner. I never tired of walking those streets, for new thoughts and dreams bubbled up everywhere. Walking was a mode of thinking. And writing is a kind of walking.
I dreamed of unlikely discoveries at those jumble sales, unbelievable bargains: a 10p Atari console, the first issue of Roy of the Rovers, a signed Cup Final programme, a fossil or postage stamp worth a million pounds.
I look back at all this with what feels like fondness, or hope, as if trying to find a friend among the memories, a familiar face, and then I realise I am alone, still alive, still waiting, still writing.
Those venues. The draughty church halls, the rickety scout huts, the outhouses and annexes, forlorn community rooms of indeterminate use, often with grim gymnastic equipment – ropes, vaulting horses, stained and threadbare springboards - clustered at one end. The halls felt like places where bad things were supposed to happen, places of ghosts and weak tea.
You paid your money and entered. I could tell, almost immediately, whether a sale was good or bad, a carnival of bargains or a pile of tat. The smell of old clothes, a warm, knitted smell, as if the clothes were still alive and might rise off the tables, an army of unwanted shirts and jumpers looking for new owners – vampiric tank tops, parasitic slacks. Coffee and tea and sugary yellow cake. Floor polish, disinfectant, damp, sweat. A noticeboard, a curling poster, sometimes a portrait of the Queen, faded behind glass. I headed straight for the tables laden with comics, books, toys and games, the important stuff, while my mother negotiated tussocks of clothes.
How I remember those comics: Roy of the Rovers, Whizzer and Chips. Topper. Krazy. Shiver and Shake. I searched for annuals too. I built up quite a library.
It was at one of those jumble sales that I bought an evil book. Ghost Special Number 2. A sordid, frightening tome. I forget how much I paid for this Mephistophelian text. A collection of cartoons, puzzles, quizzes, true stories, photographs, film reviews. None of it was very scary. The cartoons were entirely whimsical, with ghosts that looked like deflated speech balloons. There was an article on a haughty ghost called something like the Grey Lady, which I found dull and unthreatening, and a piece on a headless horseman, another mediocre specimen, and rather ridiculous, too. (I wasn’t likely to see a headless horsemen clip-clopping down Ilford High Road, and if I did, I’d probably welcome him as an entertaining and wholesome alternative to the little bearded ranter with his Bibles and apocalyptic predictions.)
But there was a malevolent force at the heart of this book. A factual article on Borley Rectory, the ‘Spookiest House in England’. I had never heard of the place. It was in Essex, my county, and this only increased my fear and fascination. The photographs showed a melancholy, rambling red brick mansion, a classic haunted house. I remember blotchy photographs of supposed ghosts, as formless as smears or stains – shadows from hell or some other grim place. The longer I stared at the them the more I found, the deeper I went. A sorrowful face, a bleak frown. The murky, indeterminate nature of these photographs only served to increase my fear. I saw demons and death in the shallows and hollows of each black and white image. I read about objects thrown by unseen hands – violent upheavals and scrapings, things being smashed in the dark. I read about threats and messages appearing on the walls. There were mournful nuns glimpsed on landings. Black figures hovering on the stairs. It was old house full of ornate, sulking terror, a kind of angry melancholy. In every alcove or vestibule, in every airless corridor, on every squeaking stair, behind every door, there lurked some cruel, satanic entity. The old house was suffused with a sense of threat, danger, imminent madness. All this seeped from the pages. I was appalled. I was terrified. I was drunk with fear. But I could not stop reading. I soaked up the details, filled my head with the sickness. I needed this knowledge. I needed to know more about this minatory world peopled with unhappy, hostile souls, a world which seemed to exist alongside or inside the world of buses and school and homework. This other realm might roll like a wave through the night and claim me.
These things terrified adults as much as children. I sucked in this secret knowledge, the black truth. I savoured the ghosts and violence, the sadness, the malevolence. But there was another feeling accompanying my terror. Shame. Guilt. I felt soiled by what I read. Sullied. I had done wrong in bringing this knowledge into my house, into my very bedroom. What if the book was somehow cursed? What if the evil of Borley Rectory leaked out and filled the family home? This was a very real fear. That night I could not sleep. I thought of Borley Rectory. I thought of death. I lay in the dark, attuned to the slightest movement, fearing the jigsaws and games on top of the cupboard would be thrown across the room, that the heavy wardrobe at the end of the bed would fall and crush me, that the crucifix on the wall would come flying at me. I would see ghosts and hear screams. Cold hands would grip my neck and squeeze. The house would burn down.
In the morning, I decided to put the book away. I hid it in the cupboard, under a pile of football magazines. Out of sight, out of mind. But later, when I went to bed, Borley Rectory came back to me. Another long night of sweat and guilt. The fear, the panic. It burned into me, this squalid knowledge.
I could not get rid of it.
So the next day I got rid of the book.
I did more than get rid of the book, I destroyed it. I ripped the pages into tiny pieces, a laborious but necessary process. The covers were more difficult to wreck. In the back garden I set fire to the remains. I doused the ashes in bleach. I then deposited what was left, a blackened mush, in the bin. I wasn’t going to have Borley Rectory and all its types of foulness in the house ever again. What was left of the damned book would rot on a landfill site in some obscure part of the borough.
I promised my gods that I would never dabble in the black arts again.
That night I went to bed and waited for the terror to arrive.
But it did not arrive. The exorcism, with flame and bleach, had worked. I was free. I was cured.
The memory of that book has stayed with me. Ghost Special Number 2 was, I think, my first encounter with the horror genre. But I have not sought it out in bookshops. I have a fondness for those two nights of terror and shame. Perhaps I have falsified them. Perhaps the passage of time has warped my recollection.
The internet is a kind of jumble sale. Every perversion and idiocy, every footling thought and dark lust is there for us to enjoy. I log on. I search for Ghost Special Number 2. And there it is, the article on Borley Rectory. Someone has scanned the pages.
I read the text. It is a rather bald catalogue of supernatural happenings. I can see how I was terrified. The prose is bland, matter-of-fact. And there’s the photographs. The only one that really strikes at my heart shows a pile of Borley rubble, mostly red brick. I remember studying this photograph. I do not know what I was looking for.
I come away from the computer. That Madeline wasn’t very tasty.
I did not watch horror films as a child, although I knew of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, werewolves, zombies, and all the other characters who lurked in graveyards and nightmares. I remember reading Peter Haining’s short story anthology, The Ghost’s Companion. I still have the book. It has a marvellous cover featuring a skull and a black cat and other symbols of the macabre. How old was I when I read book? I’m not sure. The Red Lodge by HR Wakefield petrified me. Some of the other stories left me bored or baffled. But The Red Lodge, like Borley Rectory, oozed an atmosphere of foul intent, of almost unbearable dread. A kind of soft terror, inescapable and insinuating, a mist of fear. For some reason, however, Wakefield’s story, although frightening, did not induce in me the kind of nausea inspired by the spookiest house in England. I did not have to get out the bleach.
At school, there were rumours of Ouija boards and of terrible happenings at the local mental hospital. A little older, I found some copies of Fangoria at a jumble sale. Now this was potent stuff, full of gouged eyeballs and sloppy innards, fangs and talons, busty women in blood-splattered gowns. I had to hide these magazines from my parents. Fangoria, despite its gore, did not scare me. The pictures were too explicit, too clear, too literal: they did not thrill or provoke my imagination. I simply grew bored of the slippery magazines and threw them away.
As an adult I began to watch horror films. I enjoyed them. Some more than others. But they’ve never engendered in me the fear I felt on reading about Borley Rectory in Ghost Special Number 2. Of course, adulthood brings new terrors. The evening news is a dark pageant of corruption, torture, murder, lies, corporate violence and sexual depravity. Children are murdered. Old people are abused and forced to pay for the privilege. Workers are cheated out of their pensions. The real horror is all around us. We vote for fools and liars who keep us in chains. The world is cesspit, a vast factory of enslavement and starvation. We are all guilty. The ghosts of Borley Rectory are quaint in comparison.
Do I exaggerate?
True horror lies, I think, in the crevices of the mind, in the ordinary, in the chat and shadows of everyday life, the weird and the eerie. My story ‘A Short History of Tedium’ in Dan Coxon’s anthology Shadow Booth is set mostly in an office. The jargon, the meetings, the other people. Life in an office is ritualistic, a kind of dull ceremony. Each day is the same as the last. Here I am at the photocopier, printing off slices of my soul. This is not really horror, it is not even particularly terrible. I think of that wonderful line in A Matter of Life and Death: ‘Some people would think it heaven to be a clerk’.
I don’t know where horror begins. Or where it ends. Perhaps it begins in the dark, in the black depths of night. But I find solace in sleep, in that temporary death with its outlandish dreams: the night is to welcomed, despite whatever lurks under the bed, for when we open our eyes we cannot escape the light and all its information.
- Shortlisted for the 2017 Observer/Anthony Burgess prize for Arts Journalism
- Runner-up 2016 Irish Post Short Story Competition
His short stories have been published in a number of places, including Black Static, Structo and Popshot magazines, the Irish Post, and on the LossLit website. His non-fiction has appeared on Litro.co.uk (including a well-received article on the joys of secondhand bookshops).
He has recently finished a novel.
To support this wonderful Kickstarter click here for the full details
ENTER THE SHADOW BOOTH: AN INTERVIEW WITH STEPHEN HARGADON
FACE THE STRANGE: A CASE FOR THE WEIRD AND THE EERIE BY DAN COXON
ENTER THE SHADOW BOOTH: AN INTERVIEW WITH JOSEPH SALE
ENTER THE SHADOW BOOTH: AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID HARTLEY
ENTER THE SHADOW BOOOTH: AN INTERVIEW WITH ANNIE NEUGEBAUER
ENTER THE SHADOW BOOTH: AN INTERVIEW WITH SARAH READ
CHILDHOOD FEARS: LEX JONES RETURNS TO HIS PAST
FACING THE FEAR: RETURN TO OZ BY PENNY JONES
That’s not to say I was a confident little atheist who always dismissed such thoughts with a wave of his hand. If I’d just watched a horror film, probably one far too old for me that I’d managed to sneak a VHS of from a friend, then yes, chances are my childhood sleep pattern would be interrupted for a few days. I remember some specific examples of keeping my head under the covers and being frightened of the shadows on the walls. There was a lamppost not far from my bedroom window, and when cars would pass by, the long thin shadow of that lamppost would travel from the left side of my room around the walls like a proto-Slenderman figure. On most nights this wouldn’t bother me in the slightest, but on a night when my nerves were on edge from having watched, or just as likely read, something scary, then this simple shadow casting became a source of fear. But this isn’t quite the sort of thing I’d describe as a childhood fear. I wasn’t constantly afraid of it, refusing to go into my bedroom in case the lamppost shadow would get me. It was an infrequent response to the heightened nerves brought about by frightening external stimulus. I know some adults who are still like this after watching a scary film. Hell, I live with one. And yes I do wind her up when the occasion arises. I’m that kind of an arsehole. All this taken in mind, I don’t really feel that these experiences can be classed as a genuine childhood fear.
There’s other examples of this sort of feeling, the random ‘one-off’ moments where I felt that creeping dread of the supernatural, but I wouldn’t really class them as being part of some bigger overall fear. I was never scared of ghosts, or monsters or anything like that, because I never believed in them. I think I disappointed my niece when she asked me recently if I ever believed in Father Christmas, and I said that I didn’t. Because it’s true, I don’t recall ever accepting it. It was always too nonsensical. Not the flying reindeer and all that, I could buy into that. I was no anthropologist, what did I know about the varied species of reindeer and how fast they might be able to fly? No, what never sat right with me was the presents themselves. I’d see my parents buying them, hoping my young eyes would be too distracted by Christmas lights and music to notice the bloody great Bat-Cave poking out of the Debenhams bag my Mum was carrying. I wasn’t. I even remember finding my presents in the loft on more than one occasion. Now, I wasn’t looking for them, I was never that type of child. I just happened across them when helping to get the festive decorations down or something. And yet, I wasn’t shocked or saddened by this. Even when my Mum tried the old ‘we send them to Santa and he sends them back’ explanation, I wasn’t buying it. What the Hell was the point in that? I may have been six, Mum, but I wasn’t convinced you’d be wasting that amount of postage at peak parcel delivery season. No, I never believed in Father Christmas, or anything that required a belief in the supernatural. That included all the Jesus stuff we were force-fed at school, but that’s another topic.
Despite my lack of fear of the mystical and such, my thoughts on the topic of childhood fear dug up a deeper, perhaps not quite as light-hearted fear which stays with me to this day. I suppose the best place to start it is with one very specific memory of laying in my bed after watching Hook at the cinema. Now, I loved that film, I still do. The story of a man who’s forgotten what it was that made him so happy is all the more poignant with the tragic suicide of its star, Robin Williams. But nevertheless it remains a fun family film, and I loved it the first time I ever saw it at the cinema when I was six years old. However, there was one scene which I remember being rather frightening, and that’s quite near the beginning, when Hook comes into the house at night, scratching his namesake along the walls as he goes, and then enters the children’s bedroom and takes them away from their family.
How he gets them back to Neverland, I never quite figured out. Does his pirate ship fly? Maybe it does. He’d probably struggle to get some kidnapped children onto a passenger jet unnoticed, and how many of them actually charter flights to Neverland anyway? Ryanair probably does, but you’d have to pay extra for that imaginary food. But I digress. That scene, followed shortly afterwards by the parents’ horror at what’s just happened, stayed with me. And even after the joy of the rest of the film, the colour and the adventure, that part stuck in my head. It frightened me and wouldn’t let go. That night, I lay in bed with my covers brought up tight to my face, peeking out over the top and watching the doorknob. I actually swapped the end of the bed I usually slept in, just so I could clearly see that doorknob. At any moment it would turn, and Hook might come and take me away. I have no idea how long I stayed awake, but I daren’t do anything else. And then, the doorknob turned. I didn’t imagine it, it really did. And I screamed. Actually screamed, the only time I remember doing this as a child (apparently I was rather nonchalant as a little boy, which hasn’t really changed that much.)
The turner of the doorknob was my Mum, who’d come into my bedroom with my sister. I don’t really remember why. There was a reason, and what little I can tear from my memory tells me it was a nice one. Something like a surprise announcement that we were going on holiday, or something of that nature. I really don’t know, but I do remember their happy faces on entering my bedroom turning to shock and worry given my unexpected vocal reaction. I don’t remember spending any more nights watching that doorknob. I think my Mum was able to calm away my irrational fears (which she is still able to do now, which for an adult like me who suffers with anxiety is an absolute joy). But thinking about this topic made me prod a bit further; why had that scene scared me so much that I actually lay awake like that? Why do I remember that so well, and not specific incidents where the shadow of that lamppost might have caused me to hide beneath the covers?
I think the answer is my Dad. No, no, we’re not going into anything bad or sensitive here, get that out of your head. My Dad is a wonderful and kind human being who’s simultaneously the most and least Yorkshire person you could meet. He has that no-nonsense, matter of fact Northern charm to him, but he doesn’t have the old fashioned set-in-your-ways side that many a Yorkshireman does. Neither did his dad, my Grandad with whom I was very close. Both of them loved, and in my Dad’s case still does love, progress, advancements in technology and the continuing betterment of society. Neither were of the belief that ‘things were better in the old days’. That aside, I think my primary fears as a child centred on my Dad, specifically the thought of losing him. Or of my being taken away from him and my Mum.
This was the 1980’s, not an easy time for the North of England. The assumed (and fairly accurate) North/South divide when it came to the attention given to the economy by the government was never more apparent than under She Who Shall Not Be Named. As a result, and a desire to keep his family in comfort and with a decent roof over their heads, my Dad made the decision to work down in London, commuting back home every two weeks. So for long weeks at a time, my Mum, sister and myself wouldn’t see him. That’s not the end of the world, I know. And I also know there are people with fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, sons or daughters in the armed forces who suffer greater periods of absence and far greater worry than this all the time. But there was something else.
My Dad was in London, at a time when the news….to which I did pay attention even as a child…was constantly full of stories about the IRA. I didn’t know who they were, what they wanted, or how valid or not their cause might be. All I knew then was that a group of men liked to set bombs off in London, the very place where my Dad was working away from us. Bombs, but not like the big round ones you’d see cartoon characters hold before they became covered in black soot. No, these were the loud, horrible kind of bombs that led to mass panic, to screaming and fear and death. I have never experienced the last one, for which I am very fortunate, but the first two I have, as a child. I was with my family visiting my Dad in London, and the tube station we were on was evacuated because of a bomb scare. The fear, the grown adults running up those stairs in panic, my Mum gripping mine and my sister’s hands so tight she probably cut off the blood flow….that was all I knew of the IRA. And this was on just one day, when we’d come to visit. To my mind, this must surely happen every day, and my Dad was in the middle of it. Nothing happened at that tube station, of course. Nothing went off, it might even have been a prank call. From what I gather there were as many people pricking about pretending to be the IRA as there were genuine calls of such a nature. But that didn’t matter, it was just further evidence to support the vague fear I had now decided I would carry with me.
It’s important to make clear that I didn’t go about each and every day anxious and worrying that my parents would be taken from me, or I from them. It wasn’t a constant overpowering fear. But it was there, and in my more troubled moments, it would affect my sleep. Perhaps that’s one reason that monsters and ghosts never really had much power to scare me. A vampire or a man wrapped in bandages never seemed that scary when placed next to a human being in a balaclava that might take away all you loved in a loud, terrifying instant. But still, rather than a constant thought that was with me, it just sort of settled into the background of my young, overthinking mind. I remember having a very vivid nightmare of being sat in a cinema with my family when a bomb went off just in front of the screen. I don’t remember much more of it than that, and nor do I want to.
The fact that terror attacks seem to happen with greater frequency now, even if the perpetrators sing a different cause, is not lost on me. My opinion of them remains the same. They’re wrong. Whatever their cause, they’re wrong. It’s that simple. Some harm may have been done to your country or religion or culture by successive governments, as the IRA believed, and you want to make them aware of it in a way they can’t ignore. OK, if I stretch my tolerance to the limit I can accept that. But you know what? The perceived harm done wasn’t caused by people just going to work in their office building. It wasn’t caused by people relaxing on a beach. It wasn’t caused by teenagers and children attending a concert in Manchester. There is no power on this fucking earth or beyond it that will make me see these things happen and still be willing to listen to your point. Whatever it may have been, it no longer matters. You’re just wrong.
Bombs weren’t the only thing that sparked this childhood fear, though, and nor were they the last thing to do it. I was allowed to play out alone as a child, something increasingly lost on successive generations, but I was always armed with warnings about talking to strangers, getting into cars, accepting sweets and such. I was sensible enough to pay heed to all of this, but the fact I needed to be aware of it served to create the view that there must be many such people out there ready to take me away. Frankly I’m pretty sure they’d have brought me back. But there was something else that threatened to rob me of those I loved most.
My mum was taken into hospital the first time when I was about 9 years old. I wasn’t told why. My sister, three years older than me, was probably aware. But for a nine year old boy, particularly one who worried and overthought as much as me, there are some words you don’t want to say. She was fine, it all went well, and she came back right as rain. I did find it odd that shortly before this stay in hospital began, my Dad took me to Toys R Us at my Mum’s instruction to buy me anything I wanted, because ‘she might not be able to for a while’. I remember being very worried about that comment. If I’d been told the reason she was in there, that would have been even worse. I’d have broken the toys I bought that day and refused to play with them.
That wasn’t the last time the C word (not the rude one) would haunt my Mum either. About seven years ago she found a lump on her neck, and the process began again. It was worse this time. I was a grown adult in my late twenties, there was no hiding from what the cause was. People still seemed unwilling to use the word, as though saying it might give it more power. I still hate that word. The toll it took on my Mum was worse this time too. My memories of that time as a child are patchy, but if it had wracked her body the way it did this second time, I’d remember. She says now that she came close to giving up that second time. I never saw that in her. She wouldn’t show that to us, that’s not who she is. My Mum’s half German, and half Yorkshire. That combination means showing such moments of weakness is doubly difficult, and often unnecessary given the strength that she has. Naturally my childhood fear came back at this time; losing one of my parents. The other one, this time. Not from angry men with loud bombs, but from a disease. A horrible, cruel disease that strikes a teetotal healthy person like my Mum as readily as it does a chain smoking alcoholic. It’s arguably the worst thing that exists in our world.
But fears can be overcome. They almost always are, in fact. We may sit and talk about them, dwell on them, remembering that time we were scared out of our minds, rationally or otherwise. But we’re still here. We endured whatever it was that scared us, be it the clown under the bed or the angry men in balaclavas. And my Mum endured too. Two weeks ago she went to the doctors for her check up at the Oncology ward. She’s been having to go there less and less frequently since she recovered, which is a good sign. But this appointment was different. This time the doctors told her that she doesn’t need to go anymore. That she’d been in full remission for enough years now, with no trace whatsoever of that dreaded word still in her body, and that it was no longer necessary for her to go back there. She’d won.
Both of my parents are nearing retirement age now. My Dad is spending less and less time in London now too. The fear of being without them is still there, of course. It always will be, even if it no longer takes the form of Captain Hook (no offence to Dustin Hoffman, but I’m pretty sure I could take him in a fight these days). And of course there are still angry men with bombs, but they’re not as concentrated in London as they were back then. You might think this would make me afraid of everywhere the way it made me afraid of London, but strangely it doesn’t. Rather it makes me resolved to go where I want when I want. If I let them stop me, they’ve won. If my Mum wasn’t letting a biological version of cancer stop her living her life, then I’m not letting the human version stop me living mine. Fear is fear. It goes away. Life doesn’t.
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