In no particular order:
Bridges. This one is justified: when I was an early teen, I had a sit-bolt-upright-with-the-cold-sweat-dripping-off-you nightmare where—on an old gray concrete bridge that connects Chesterfield town center proper to the train station nearby, one that runs over a highway and so is extremely fun to spit off of—I was walking along the bridge, and then for whatever reason and in a perfect one-two-three motion I put one foot on the curb of the concrete, grabbed the railing with both hands, jumped off the edge of it, and exploded on the road below like a melon. In the dream the remaining pulp of me got run over by a truck, one final indignity, and I don’t think it’s unrelated that ever since then I have been very cautious on bridges. This isn’t so bad: I just try my best to walk as close to the exact center of it as possible, so whatever kamikaze autopilot that spins like a top inside of me at all times doesn’t tilt over and override all sense and logic and I just leap forever o the bridge, to death, but it does make me wary. If you can’t trust yourself, who can you trust? Who can you trust? But yeah: the main consequence of that nightmare seventeen years ago is I’m really very irritating to go for a nice meander along a canal with.
Speaking of nightmares: for some reason the greatest and most frightening nightmare I ever had was when I was five years old and the bloodred velvet curtains that were in my bedroom (apparently I grew up in a fucking haunted Victorian mansion owned by an eccentric doctor and not, like, a normal terrace in a redbrick street in the Midlands?), so yeah, the bloodred velvet curtains formed in their wrinkles a face, enormous and frowning, and in a deep voice the velvet face shouted at me for not tidying my room enough and for generally being a Bad Boy. I think it says a lot about my formative neuroticism that the main nightmare I had as a child was not a Frankenstein monster or some vampires but my own curtains telling me off for being naughty, but the result was the same, and that result was: I pissed the bed in fear and woke up screaming. This necessitated a particularly high-stress intervention by my father, who had to unhook two heavy velvet curtains from the rings about my bed at 3 a.m. while shouting and surrounded by the ammonia-like smell of fresh piss, plus all the sheets needed changing, and though I’m not saying I’m scared of curtains exactly, I would say I am very careful around them, because I know now what they are capable of.
Dogs. Listen: I am fully aware that dogs are fundamentally perfect wholesome little animals, essentially human hearts full of love and made dog-sized—just pure heart meat, dogs, right to the core—and that being afraid of them is ultimately absurd when their primary function is to love and adore. I get this.
However, when I was a small meek child at my mother’s knee on a rare trip back to London to see the old friends she had left behind there a decade before and introduce them to the creature (me) who had ruined her life in such a way that she had to leave them to raise it, I was taken to a large grand house where all the adults drank wine and smoked and laughed very loudly, which when you’re a small meek child is a high-stress situation anyway, because all you really have is a box of orange juice and you’re in the kind of adult house where they have absolutely no prearrangement for children (“Oh, you want . . . something to. Do. Okay: Would you like to read this encyclopedia?”).
When I was there, amongst the smoke and the adult cackling, their medium-sized Rottweiler jumped towards me and barked, and I instantly realized that dogs aren’t hearts with fur on at all; they are pure prime muscles constantly ready and prepared to jump up vertically and bite you on the dick, and my instinctive reaction to this was to sob—obviously, I thought, the dog was going to chomp my dick off in one smooth primal bite, and I would have to live a life without it, a sort of modern eunuch, and they would call me Dog Dick Boy—and then everyone had to stop drinking wine and smoking and instead calm the hysterical child down, and in the cab home there was definitely A Silence between my abruptly sober mother and me, and it was pretty clear that me being suddenly afraid of dogs had entirely ruined the evening, and I’m not sure our relationship ever truly recovered from that, really, and I have been cautiously wary of dogs ever since. Cute, yes, but very capable of biting you on the dick.
Maybe I just have a fear of losing my dick in some sort of dick accident, actually.
Sudden rushes of fear were an oddly common phenomenon of my childhood. As a kid, I deeply loved escalators, almost to the point of mania: every time we encountered an escalator, in a store or mall, I would demand to ride it up, then down, then beg to go up, then down again, a lone passenger on the world’s lamest rollercoaster. Then, one time at the big M&S supermarket in the center of town, I sprinted towards the escalator filled with glee that quickly turned to horror: watching as my mother went up the machine ahead of me, I realized suddenly escalators were just stairs made of monstrous metal teeth, ferrying you unrelentingly towards the top of them, where you would be crushed and gnawed to death by the spiked outer workings of the machine, at which point I stopped abruptly, foot hovering over the killer belt beneath me, and started both yelling and crying at the same time, a little like this noise: “HUAAAAAAAAAH.” I kept sort of yell-crying while my mother floated up away from me, bent backwards screaming “WHAT?” and “WHAT IS WRONG?” until a kindly woman lifted me up above her head and carried me, gurgling and shouting and crying in one perfect triptych howl, to the top of the stairs, and the rest of the shopping trip passed otherwise without incident. Again: I’m not now afraid of escalators exactly, but I am very cautious.
The way other people handle and prepare raw chicken. No judgment—I’m not exactly briefed on the correct code of hygiene around chicken myself—but quite often if I am watching amateur cooking shows I see people do things with raw chicken that strike me as ludicrous or insane, like using a wooden chopping board or rinsing it haphazardly under a tap, and it’s made me constantly on guard about how any chicken I have eaten has made itself to me. A useful question I like to ask before any meal I eat: Has anything happened in the preparation of this food that might cause me, violently, to shit myself? It’s not a healthy way to live but it’s the way I choose to.
I do fear wardrobes falling onto me and the subsequent coffin-like encasement in them and the obvious analogue for death that comes attached to it, after that time a wardrobe fell on me as a kid and it felt like my end had come. I remember feeling like I had died, but also very much feeling quite calm about that, but it’s made me afraid of precariously balanced wardrobes since, and I think that’s fair: I suppose we are, all of us, constantly shaped and smoothed by the fears we accrue as we age. A lot of our fears are completely justifiable, and as a result we hold them close around us, like rosaries.
One very specific fear I have is that a number of television personalities who I have spent a lot of my time detesting because of small perceived microaggressions against me—the guy from the GoCompare adverts, for example, or Jamie Oliver—are actually incredibly sound in real life and I would get on with them really well, and an ongoing fear fantasy is that I meet Jamie Oliver one day and he’s really nice to me—“Cor,” he says, with that big tongue of his, “yeah, you’re really sound—let me get you a pint!”—and not only do I have to sit through the drink with him, but I also have to admit, privately, to my biggest critic (myself) that I was wrong all along, and that Jamie Oliver is sound as fuck. I think that’s me projecting a fear, actually: I’m not afraid of Jamie Oliver being sound, am I? That’s simply impossible. I am afraid of being fundamentally, deeply wrong. I am afraid of the embarrassment that comes with backing down on an opinion I have that is only important to me.
At the time of writing (October 2017) I am in the midst of a breakup, and while largely that is good, I suppose one enduring fear is the main one that comes with breakups, i.e., the fear not that a person you shared tender words and embarrassing little nicknames and fragile plans for the future with now keeps texting you to call you a “dick” or “dickhead,” but that the breakup—the final, actual act of breaking the bond of the relationship you are in—has now actually severed and deleted various alternate timeline futures for you, and the one you are left in is the one where you never know happiness again.
So for example: one alt-universe timeline that has shot off into the infinite void was the one where you were happy and became married and had two perfect little cherub-faced children, and you spent your weekends barbecuing and doing math homework with a toddler who looked like you both.
Or, so for example: the future where you both grew old and gnarled and knew each other perfectly because you had over the years hewn gaps out of each other that only the other could t in, one bulbous old yin and one haggard old yang, so that in this (now deleted, forever) future you could communicate with each other without even words, just with gentle looks and hand touches and knowing nods, and you would die together, ancient hand in ancient hand, watching the gauzy sun set beyond you, rocking back and forth gently in armchairs on a porch.
The fear is that there are now a hundred thousand timelines gone—holidays you had, drinks you enjoyed, expensive meals and cheap ones, too, Christmases you will no longer have, birthdays that go uncelebrated, dogs and cats that lived entire wholesome lives within your joint care—because you basically had one argument over Netflix that got a bit out of hand. It is just you, alone as alone can be, now that all future companionship has been deleted forever, from this point in your life onwards—so yes, going off track a little, but that prospect seems like a low-hum kind of constant soaring fear.
I mean, not to be too drastic, but I am thirty now, that age where friends around you suddenly morph and change from the young adults you thought you knew into sort of sincere and responsible, like, people, and some have bought houses and some have had weddings and some, even, have grown ripe like an apple and birthed a baby, an actual baby, an actual child, and named it something beautiful and interesting and unique, and now every time you try and see them, now they are like “Yes, well, but: but my child” or “Yes, I suppose Tuesday at 7:30 on the absolute dot could do it, although I shall have to leave again at around 9 p.m., to feed as aforementioned my child,” and sometimes they hand you it, the child, and expect you to know how to hold it (which you don’t!), and then they talk to you about child things—the child has teeth now, it can hold up its heavy torso, it grunts and makes noises.
And you ask: How can you do it? How do you hold a child? And they explain: Sometimes, they say, at night, when they feel at their absolute lowest—it is a full-time job, they say, on top of another full-time job, and then so of course we also need to t that in with our actual, they say, full-time job—and they say that in the depths of these despairs, all those nights of staccato sleep, all those months without sex or friendship, all those pills and injections and doctors’ appointments and diapers and schedules and sometimes, the child, the child will just piss on you—in amongst all that one time there will be some moment of marvel, often at 2 a.m., they say, where the child is being bottle-fed, and it is a quiet moment, just you and the child and a small sterile bottle of milk, both of you just cooing in the lamp glow (the lamp is a special child-friendly lamp, soft orange light, you cannot expose a child to a normal lamp, the lamp cost £49), and for a moment the child will look at you, up at you, and it will realize that it is you, who they are, that you are they and they are you, and you are the caregiver and the lifegiver, too, and there will be this pure perfect moment of recognition, and the child will giggle, a little, and at once every hard edge in you erodes, and every moment you doubted who you were has gone, and you know now what it is you were put on earth to do, it is to raise this child, make it strong and wise and give it every opportunity, and love it so hard you grow to love yourself, too, and they turn to you (you in this scenario being me), and they say, like, So when are you going to have one? they say, Any lucky ladies on the horizon? And you have to admit that you ran out of Super Likes on Tinder this week, so you haven’t spoken to a human woman in six entire days, and no, it’s not going very well actually, life, though you don’t really want to talk about it.
Rats, mice, hamsters, gerbils, or essentially any small animal that it could be said “scurries.”
Actually perhaps I fear the uneasy motion of scurrying—all those arms, those legs, whirring away, hands meet feet meet hands meet feet—more than the actual animals themselves, though rat tails I’m not particularly a fan of either, those long rancid worms.
I read once that every muscle in your body has the potential energy to break the connecting bone it rests on—every muscle is primed with absolute strength, or something, and the only thing stopping that muscle clenching the bone within it to dust is your own brain—and that made me not just worried of every time I cramp up or overclench a thigh muscle while stretching at the gym (although I am, deeply, afraid of that: How embarrassing would that be? To concurrently break every bone in my body while trying to plank at Fitness First? All the muscle-bound weight lifters around me wondering why I started screaming and collapsing at the same time? I just go down like someone deflating a sex doll? Nobody calls for help?) but also made me very aware that my body is essentially a high-security prison that contains my brain and skeleton, and one fuckup from me—if my brain malfunctions or I get too scared and just clench my entire body too hard—and I will kill myself, instantly, my legs, arms, and ribs all clicking in two like twigs.
Consider major surgery for a moment. Major surgery is this: medicine puts you into a deep and painless sleep that allows doctors in masks to open your body up with knives. Are you kidding me. At this point, I don’t even fear major surgery; I fear any illness or accident that might lead to me having major surgery, because I know already I’m going to have to explain in a plain and unwavering voice to whatever doctor is offering to peel my body open and fix the mess inside of it that no, actually, at this point I think it’s going to be a lot easier for me to just die rather than this, thanks very much for the offer, though, I appreciate it, but the entire concept of what you are offering to do to me—ostensibly for my wider health!—fills me with such an overwhelming dread that I literally consider death a smoother and more hassle-free option.
You open your eyes in the shower and there is a figure in there in the bathroom with you, either standing in the shower or just standing in the room, reflected gauzily in the steamy mirror, and they are cloaked, the figure, and holding a knife of some sort—either a to-the-point sort of hunting blade or instead a curved hook or scythe—and they raise it, and for a brief second you wonder which part of your soft naked flesh they are going to slice into first, and sometimes that is a fear, irrational as it is, one that has me with my eyes tightly wound while I shower, afraid to open them and see, as if the figure there is lurking and waiting for me to recognize them before slashing my throat open, to death, that is a fear, I suppose.
That one day my bank will phone me and in a stern voice tell me exactly how many consecutive days I have been in my overdraft.
From Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant. Used with permission of Anchor Books. Copyright © 2019 by Joel Golby.