1: Fear of an Empty Fridge
A fear that lasts for forty years, has its very own scent. It usually appears out of nowhere and when I least expect it. Waiting at the fresh produce counter in the supermarket I suddenly smell it coming from the poor unsuspecting person standing behind me who is in desperate need of a bath. It’s a mixture of unwashed with a hint of stale whiskey, not the expensive kind, the cheap one you can buy in the plastic bottle. I can’t bring myself to look around as I know he will be staring at me with large round eyes that never blink behind thick black glasses held together with plasters. His hair will be grey with a greasy sheen, the lights from the ceiling dancing off it. He’ll be wearing a dirty white vest under an even dirtier white shirt with old suit trousers held up by a belt that isn’t put through the loops. I know he’s dead, my grandad, my rapist, but this stranger becomes him.
I want to be brave, I want to turn and shout and scream and fight. Forget being brave. I freeze, become invisible, and let myself be sucked into the ground. He’s been dead for forty years, yet I run, fast, my shopping trolley abandoned and rocking in the aisle. Past the checkout girl, the doors can’t open quick enough, the security guard left wondering in my wake if I am the phantom shoplifter he has heard about.
The fridge is empty again.
2: Fear Really Does Not Wash Off
When I think of fear, I think of hands. Not the kind of hands that should have waved at me when I was 9, drawing me to them for a big bear hug. Not hands that maybe clapped if I had giggled at something silly or put a jumper over my head because I was cold. Nor are they hands I wish had gently brushed the piece of blonde hair out of my eyes.
No, hands are dirty, they are a grimy yellow from years of smoking. They are magic hands, they find their way inside my little white knickers and roughly force their way into the place that I am not yet sure about. I put my small hand over his to stop it, but this just excites the yellow hand even more. I’m not Joan of Arc, I’m not going to be able to pull it away, so it stays there. And the magic hands move mine onto his thing, the yellow nicotine seeps through my skin, I can feel it run into the veins, and then as it races, swirling around my body, through my heart and down the other side, I change. I am an alien, veins are on the outside, skin sallow. I am stained inside and out as my hand moves under his and his thing spits onto my yellow hand.
Fear is like a tattoo; it can never be washed away.
3: The Fear That Sits on a Tree
I’m sitting in a tree with my purple and white chequered school dress hunched around my waist so it doesn’t tear. This little v, in its trunk feels like a safe haven from the cold room with the brown and yellow swirly carpet where in winter the hands performed their magic. The twigs that stick in my leg are a reminder that hurt is all around. I can feel him; I know he is there looking at me through the grubby net curtains that are blowing gently in the breeze from the living room window opposite. I imagine him standing aback, just watching, getting ready to slither under the door towards the tree, the silent predator about to make his fantasies real. Perhaps today he wasn’t there, alone with the wondering and waiting, was worse than the knowing. There are things that are real and can be named, like tree, house, sky, unlike why the thing has to go there.
Whoever wrote the Oxford Dictionary definition for fear should have spoken to me first, I breathe it.
4: The Fear of Summer
Summer is the front door opening, the yellow hands beckoning and me jumping from the tree and silently following grandad down the garden path. I like to picture myself skipping and holding hands with him, excited and happy. The reality is I don’t, I walk slowly as I know the ending and it isn’t a joyful one. Our destination, the ‘special place just for me’ he has built in the garden shed, in front of the open back door to the kitchen. The special place is a dirty bench at just the right height for him. With each step the fear builds because to get there I have to make it past Brandy.
He is Brandy, the dog. Living outside day and night, with a thick metal chain tied to his neck. Picture old discarded bones surrounding him, his eyes bulging as he strains against his noose, his throat making deep guttural growls as the metal cuts into his flesh. A mixture of every dog in the neighbourhood, he is the sum of all things vicious and he has the monopoly on anger. I am terrified of him. Trembling, I enter the shed and grandad gets to work. He fills my mouth with his thing and I feel like Brandy: eyes about to pop, neck straining, throat constricting as it tries to reach into my belly and rip out my soul, the after liquid like poison in my throat, dribbling down my chin. My mum and nan can see the shed from the kitchen where they sit drinking tea, but they choose not to look.
My fate is sealed.
5: A Fear of Numbers
10 and 1: I’m ten and his thing goes into orifice number one, which as he tells me, is where it is supposed to go. My knickers hang precariously off one foot, roughly swaying with each in and out and me hanging on to the bench in the shed, chanting in my head please don’t let them fall on the floor. It hurts, how it hurts.
11 and 2: I’m eleven and he calls it his cock as he forces it into orifice number two. A mistake by wearing a swimming costume under the uniform and angrily dumped onto the lawnmower catcher, back against the wall, body trying to morph into its layers of wood. I become another grain, a crazy pattern in the wall, but the thing makes it to the mouth and breathing becomes a fight for survival.
12 and 3: I’m now twelve and his cock desperately wants orifice number three. Having been forced over the bench, cheek pressed into the dirt, cobwebs and nails, my eyes watch the dust particles do their little dance in front of my face, each time my breath comes out in short panicky gasps. The sound of spitting and saliva being rubbed roughly, it doesn’t work. You’ve seen the butcher trying to force that lump of meat into the grinder machine, never does it fit without some brute force. I will tear. Some more spitting. Imagine old engine oil that has been too many years on the go. Anger begins to grow on him, I feel it, he’s pushing and pushing, until finally I am cut in half. I am left with a shell of a girl and the first of many selves, each one desperately trying her best to stay alive over the years. Pain and fear cannot be measured I have surmised.
13: I’m thirteen and the number of the orifice no longer matters. I am a smorgasbord of choices and he likes to try them all, in no particular order, one after the other.
The dirty grubby copper coins that he gives me for being a good girl, burn my hands.
14: I’m fourteen and thankfully he dies. I had convinced myself I was a brave and heroic girl, who fought back and stopped him. I wasn’t, only his own diseased heart managed it.
6: The Fear of Enjoyment
My nan walked into the living room, just the once. She looked, picked up the paper and walked out without a word or second glance, to be with my mum. I waited for the shout, to be dragged by the collar for being bad. But nothing. It was a green light for him to do his worst and a red light for me that I would never be saved. I would sit side by side with my mum in the car. My face bright red, wanting to cry but never did, hurting, smelling, squirming, but nothing. I would be angry and disgusted with myself for enjoying those accidental fleeting moments of a nice feeling. The belief of which was enough to kill me on its own. Only to learn years later, that it was just my body reacting to a stimulus out of my control. She never turned to me, she would look ahead and stay quiet. I had made a silent vow that my secrets would die with me. So had she, she knew.
7: The Fear that Wouldn’t Drown
I’m in the swimming pool toilet. Mum always brings me here after the assaults in the shed. I stand barefoot looking at the tiles on the floor. They have pimples that collect all the dirt. Dirt follows me or maybe I am the dirty one. My dirt, I imagine is now trapped for eternity in those little pimples. The paper machine only allows one piece at a time. The texture like greaseproof. Granddad’s DNA on me and inside me and the stupid fucking paper sliding and spreading it further. Mum is shouting angrily for me to hurry up and train. Sanctuary is the pool, I can just sink to the bottom. Submerged in the water is the only place I can scream and no one will hear.
8: Hiding is the Only Escape From Fear
I became paranoid and imagined the other kids at school knew, the smell of him on me, the shame and worthlessness oozing like pus from my body, with a ‘look at what I did last night’ neon flashing sign lighting up my head. I was an expert at hiding. I hid in the coats at school, walked the 7 miles home instead of catching the bus to avoid them. This fear had unknown quantities, of course they didn’t know, but I convinced myself they did and wanted to disappear forever. By the time I was fourteen I’d found solace in alcohol. The older teenagers at swimming club would quite happily ply us youngsters with the stuff, sometimes it would require a payment in return. I was an expert at that; my supply was regular. At sixteen, having failed all my exams, I attended a school to re-take them, where I was introduced to drugs. I could hide behind the person these gorgeous escapes allowed me to become: loud, funny. It was a different kind of hiding. I was so very lonely, I needed to be fixed, but I didn’t know how.
This fear had a fierce grip, its tentacles wrapped firmly around my whole being, I was always in a constant state of alert, it was a fear of life itself. Forty years after, I still look for imaginary monsters under the bed, behind the wardrobe. I am on a treasure hunt, except forget sparkly jewellery as the prize, just the realization that the monsters are real, but only in my head now. I don’t know how to beat them.
9: A Fear of Growing into a Bad Person
The problem with believing you are bad is that it makes you bad. As I grew older, I chose men, it didn’t matter who, so long as they could cause me pain like grandad. I was good, I wore masks like I was in a Chinese Opera, and could lure them into my charade. I chose well, they were all more than willing to do exactly what I wanted, which was to hurt me. And if not, there was always my one constant friend, a ten-inch Maglite torch that could cause serious damage. By the age of twenty-three, I had been in the Army as a policewoman for four years and had spent a year hitch hiking solo around Australia. I was on a mission to escape these fears, but soon understood they were stalking me the whole time. I was out of control, until one day after a heavy night of too much drinking and too much of the happy stuff I woke up with a large man I barely knew inside me, his biceps bulging from hours in the gym. I was in a parallel universe, I knew this, I’d been here before. Trapped, watch and wait, it will finish. Too afraid to fight, too fucking weak to fight. It will finish. Another vow of silence.
10. The Fear of Sex That Hurts More Than the Body
The moment he touches me, instead of tingles of lust I feel the sickening feeling of pure fear and horror, the brutality of what grandad did is forever present. I watch the romantic movies, those mind blowing shower scenes. Sex is supposed to be when two become one in a moment, or perhaps a few moments of perfect harmony and church choirs sing hallelujah. Taking pleasure in each other’s bodies, relishing them. But not me. It doesn’t mean to say I don’t want to have sex, I do. I want to feel ecstasy, to be able to caress someone back. Instead I shut my eyes, screaming please no, please no, as a silent mantra and instantly disappear from my body. I leave, yet perform as I have always done. The difficulty is telling my husband of twenty-nine years that I am not the person he thought he knew, without hurting us both.
11: Walls That Keep the Fear Alive
The beauty of building walls that are so impenetrable is that they keep the monsters and fear out. Well that is the theory. I have tried to out run them, drown them, bury them, lose them, but after forty years I have finally been shown that my walls have kept them in, not out. I have been their loyal keeper and given them a place to thrive. I was never going to win.
12: Swimming Away from The Fear
It’s been a long, tough journey, and underneath my successful life, I’ve been paddling away furiously trying to stay afloat, my vow of silence safe. But even good swimmers get tired and want to shut their eyes and let the water finally take them. Two years ago I was offered a lift by a neighbour, who I barely knew at the time, to attend her yoga classes. As we travelled down the highway together, cutting through the desert where we live, she gave me the beautiful gift of her trust in such a way that I had no option but to allow the words that would stick in my throat, clawing their way back down to the dark depths to finally make the sounds for her to hear. It took huge amounts of courage for her to give me never ending love, compassion, support and non stop cheering from the side as I opened up to her and bared my soul. She can’t swim and hates the water but is prepared to jump in without a life vest and save me. She’s taught me that the numbers have real grown up words and it’s important to say them: Vaginal, oral and anal rape, incest. That behind these walls there is someone beautiful and worth knowing. The bricks can be brought down, one by one, slowly, each one letting in more light so the nightmares and fears can gradually lessen. That the monsters can be beaten. She has shown me that there is no need for silence in my life anymore.
13: The Fear of Family
I used to wonder if it was possible to break something that was already broken. I stopped 6 months ago on the day I finally confronted my mum over the phone. I imagine her on the other end, me in my grief and her in a lifetime of denial. She knew who and what he was, but did nothing. My mum. Her only reply to my desperate questions is silence and then ‘how is my grandson’. Yes, you can break a heart that is already broken.
14: Goodbye to Fear
In 2017 I was lucky enough to climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro with two beautiful friends. Hugging them on the summit was the closest I would ever be physically to the sky. I owned only one picture of me as a little girl; She was aged eleven and stood on the winning rostrum after a swimming race. She should have been smiling, happy but her head was hanging down and her eyes were dark, empty, lost. The picture had been taken after she had endured another afternoon of abuse in the shed and I’ve kept it tucked in my purse for a long time, as though trying to look after her and keep her safe, but was too late.
I burnt the picture before we started the journey and carried the ashes in my pocket so she was with me when I touched the sky. It was the perfect place to let her go and through my tears I promised her that she was safe and I would live my life without fear and with an open heart. I laid the ashes down on the Roof of Africa, said goodbye and set us both free.
Truly beautiful and brave writing!