I first discovered fear when I was about eleven years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I’d had the usual childhood in which I was frightened by scary stories at bedtime, imagined monsters under the bed and once a particularly thrilling piece in Enid Blyton’s Five go to Finniston Farm. The scene which scared the pants off me was a mysterious face at the window at night. Truth be told, that idea can still give me the willies. And as a codicil, that particular expression, the give one the willies, comes from the Willow tree, often associated with sadness, graveyards and fear. There, I never knew that either until I wrote that line and had to go and google it, for it looked so strange on paper.
But true fear happened when my younger brother and I visited family friends one summer. The other family were holidaying about an hour outside of Dublin and my parents were invited to visit for the day. The other family had a boy who was a year or two older than me, and he had a number of covert magazines. These magazines, he had purchased with his own money, were hidden under his mattress but he allowed me to view them. Now before you begin to worry, they were not pornographic magazines, but scary ones. Magazines I had never seen the like of before. There were monsters, murders, dark lanes, bodies and all sorts of horrible tales. They were very life like, for all that the pages were inhabited by Frankenstein-like creatures. It was very believable and there was no woodcutter to save little Red Riding Hood.
Going home that night, as my father drove in the darkness, I remember being curled up in the back of the car. Normally, a late drive home, often a factor when we were in the country, was an occasion for sleeping, tired after our day’s activities. Normally I would have slept, as indeed my brother was doing beside me. But I had seen horrors in those pages, creatures that could not be beaten and evil that throbbed in the night. I remember looking through the two front seats and watching the arc of light from the headlights frame the trees growing either side of the road. A perfect circle of light as the car powered forward. Once, I would have been content and happy, but now I knew there might very well be a monster, a giant, just outside the catch of the headlights, perhaps standing twice as high as the trees and possessing hands and a maw that could snatch up the car and destroy us all. That was the first night that I knew my parents could not save me from that monster and my safe world pierced forever.
I discovered courage as I left childhood behind. The things we do as a child are based on inquisitiveness and curiosity and energy. There is little self-awareness to hold us back. If we want something we ask, if we see a dog we must stroke we do so, if we want to say hello to another child, we do. Gradually, we grow and that confidence fades. We have to gird up our loins to do the things we want. As our lack of inhibition falls away, so too does our ability to be brave and seek what we desire anyway. We still step up to the mark, sit exams, make new friends, attend new schools and learn new tasks, but it takes effort. When do we know we have courage? At what point can we call it that. Unless we go to war, life throws smaller hurdles at us and we typically don’t have that going over the top challenge. I remember once reading of a captain in World War One who brought a football to the trenches. He aim was to kick the ball over and follow when the whistles gave the command to attack. The poor fellow kicked the ball, followed on over the top and was killed moments later. How tragic his sum of courage.
I have a few moments to call my own, my football episodes but with happier outcomes, but the one I recall the most vividly happened on my honeymoon. No, it was not the courage to marry a man I would later divorce, or is that foolishness, but to go scuba diving. And it was not the scuba diving in itself but the manner. First let me explain that due to a normal Irish childhood for people of my generation I could not really swim. I could do the breaststoke but with my face out of the water – not to protect any makeup or hair – but to keep the water off my face. To this day, when I shower I hate my head to be directly under the water flow. In fact, there is, or perhaps was, a famous swimming instructor in France. He would take his non-swimming adults and for their first couple of lessons they practiced putting their heads into bowls of water placed on tables. Only when they could successfully submerge their faces on dry land, did he continue to the pool itself. Of course, maybe I should have spent more time bobbing apples at Halloween as a kid.
So, on honeymoon in Fiji, we had lessons in the pool. Two in total lasting about twenty minutes each. The Fijians are a very relaxed race. Then on the third day we rose at dawn and were driven to the beach. We boarded a motor boat no longer than ten feet long with our two guides. We suited up. We motored out to the reef. It was a grey morning, early enough for the sky to be still white and the sea a shimmering grey. There were very little waves but as we chugged out there were more, indicating the presence of the reef below, far below. It was then that our guide said we had to fall backwards into the water off the edge of the boat. The horrors that came on me. I could not and still cannot jump into water when I can see what I am doing, We were far out on a grey sea, that was choppy now over the reef. I could not see the shoreline. I just knew we were on the ocean. My ex went first and exploded into the water. I was left. I had minutes to think. If I did not do something soon, then it was over. I pulled the courage from the bottom of my very sick stomach, took a breath through the awkward breathing apparatus and fell backwards into the water. For a moment it was all water and noise and my turning over in the water. Then I steadied myself and I was fine. We went to forty foot deep that day and I will never forget it. Darned if I can remember what we saw, just what I felt. When we returned to our hotel, still early about nine in the morning, we both had steak for breakfast. It seemed fitting. I’d already lived three lives, four days and ten mini heart attacks in that short dive!
So, I am not sure what means but I would like to finish with the immortal words of my favourite writer Spike Milligan:
Things that go bump in the night
Should not really give one a fright
It’s the hole in the ear that let’s in the fear
That and the absence of light!
Be brave my friends!