Once there was a boy who was very excited about bonfire night; his dad had bought a lot of fireworks for a big party they were organising on the 5th November. “You’re not to touch these, Son” his dad told him, before putting them all in a big, black box on a high shelf the boy couldn’t reach. The boy looked up at that box every day, itching to take out one of the fireworks – just one – and light it. He’d seen his dad do it many times before, he knew how to do it without getting hurt, that you had to light it and then walk far away… if he could just climb on top of the kitchen surface and take one out, he’d be able to watch it soar into the air and burst into a thousand multi-coloured splinters with a satisfyingly loud bang…
Long story short, the boy did light one of the fireworks and it blew up in his face. He didn’t die but he got badly burnt and went blind in one eye.
I have no idea if that story is true – I hope not, poor little guy. It was a cautionary tale told to us in infant school assembly to make sure we didn’t play with matches or go too near the bonfire on fireworks night. It succeeded, at least in my case. I think primary school headteachers are discouraged from telling kids stories that will give them nightmares nowadays, but it was a regular occurrence when I was younger. The tale of the girl who got her face bitten off by a dog meant it was years before I wasn’t terrified of our canine friends. I’m not sure now if my headteacher was so shallow that all her morality tales ended with facial disfigurement as the worst possible consequence of misbehaviour, or if my own vanity means that these are the only ones I still remember. In any case, since the age of six I have been very wary of fireworks and, truthfully, I don’t much like them. On the few occasions I’ve attended a fireworks party, each time a firework has been set off, I have stared for ages afterwards at the place on the ground where it started, unable to trust that it really was harmless and that the danger has passed, as the bang echoes in my ears.
It is now July 4th 2009; I’m packing a suitcase and outside there are fireworks (we live near a US military base). I draw the curtains on them, but I can’t pretend not to hear them and they’re bothering me more than usual, perhaps because they mirror what’s happening in my head at the moment. For a while now, disturbing ideas have been erupting in my mind. Like fireworks, they’re impossible to ignore and I can never trust that they pose no threat so they never quite burn out.
It started a few months ago; a friend and I were talking about moving to Australia together. She was doing lots of research and speaking with great enthusiasm and I, while more laid back and happy to let her take the lead, was looking forward to it. I’d been there on holiday with my dad and loved it and had secretly entertained fantasies of moving to Ramsay Street and marrying an Australian since I could remember. Then one day, when I was thinking about what it would be like sharing a flat with Sasha and living in a hot city by the sea, it hit me: I was going to die. Not in 40 or 50 or 60 years time, but imminently. I had cancer – cervical probably – and it was already fatal. I couldn’t move to Australia now because if I did, I would never see my family again. Every night I wondered if I would wake up the next day and I cried myself to sleep – the guilt of knowing I was going to die and not telling anyone was awful. I lived day to day and refused even to make plans for more than a month in the future. I eventually told Sasha this and she dismissed my fears as ‘nerves’ and told me to go to the doctor to assuage them.
A cervical smear test and a blood test both came back with no alarming results and I was reassured for a day or so until I realised that I had a brain tumour. After that I was HIV positive; then I almost certainly had lymphoma. The HIV test came back negative and my GP didn’t think my glands were remotely swollen or that it was worth sending me for a brain scan when I had no obvious symptoms of a tumour, but still the idea smouldered away – I was dying of something.
Next I became worried about my dad – despite having very low cholesterol, the blood pressure of a 20 year old and being able to run a lot further than most people half his age, he was definitely about to have a heart attack. I just knew it. I would worry endlessly about the pressure he was under at work and every time he did something nice I cried with grief as if he had already died. I wanted to move out of home but I couldn’t because I wouldn’t be there for his final moments.
Then one weekend when I was going through my bookshelf, deciding what to give to a charity shop, another awful (and, frankly, bizarre) possibility occurred to me: someone might write to my mum anonymously and tell her all about my sex history. Before I’d had the chance to catch myself up and point out that nobody I knew had any motive to do such a thing, the idea had crashed over me a thousand times, like a giant wave over a rubber dinghy, and I was cringing with shame and embarrassment. In a panic, I inspected all the books on the bookshelf to make sure there wasn’t already a letter to her in one of them. For weeks I felt sick with anxiety as I checked the mail for suspicious-looking letters to her and watched her cautiously for any signs of distress or anger. I even wrote her a letter of apology, ready to send after she had read all about my “sordid” past, begging for forgiveness. That my parents were open minded where sex was concerned and that, in all honesty, my bedroom exploits had never been something out of a Jackie Collins novel, made no difference whatsoever to the power this idea had over me. It was going to happen and they would be devastated.
These thoughts – that started as tiny seeds, then spread like poison ivy through my mind – have been controlling me for months. They’re behind every conscious thought process and in my spare time, I sit in silence, turning them over. I veer between trying to convince myself that they’re ridiculous to searching for reassurance that they’re not true. As soon as one strange worry has been quelled another takes its place. I know that they’re irrational, but this just forces me to keep them secret and hate myself for believing them. Right now, as I’m packing for my holiday, I’m entertaining a new one about the plane crashing or being blown up.
I’m tired, I’m anxious, I’m insecure and I’m about to have the thought that will ruin my life.