Fear & Clothing
Way back when, I met a woman whose life was ruled by emetophobia – an intense and irrational fear of vomiting. So severe was her phobia, to limit her chances of getting food poisoning, every day for every meal she ate the same thing: two crispbreads; mushroom paté; a packet of plain crisps and a bottle of water drunk through a wrapped straw. Phobia Woman rarely went out for fear of seeing someone be sick or sick splattered on the pavement, was unable to watch any TV dramas in case one of the characters chundered on screen, and claimed that even seeing or hearing the words sick or vomit made her gag. She did everything she could to control her environment, but her mind had other ideas and constantly reminded of her greatest fear.
Along with a man who was terrified of hidden asbestos and a young lad who feared seeing one of those waving cats in a Chinese takeaway, I managed to persuade Phobia Woman to leave her house and come to the pub. I had to open all the doors for her, she couldn’t drink, and she sat with her hands on her lap the whole time looking anxious and miserable. Although sympathetic to her plight, I spent the entire evening fighting the devil on my shoulder who was urging me to tell this poor woman about my abandoned studies into vomiting ferrets at St George’s hospital, and seeing how quickly she reacted…
The point of this early (and you are probably thinking totally bonkers) digression, is that Barf Woman told me that I would be surprised at just how often you notice vomit-related incidents, in the same way you suddenly notice red Ferraris if you are thinking of buying one. Apparently, it’s known as Perpetual Vigilance. I suspect her psychiatrist told her that. I knew her in 2002, but a decade later, I still can’t see a pile of vomit outside a kebab shop without remembering her. I thought of her the other night whilst watching Dallas, and John Ross Ewing was heard retching out of shot.
Perpetual Vigilance may go some way to explaining why over the last eighteen months, my world seems to have been filled with people having something to say about holidays.
Pre-Holiday from Hell, I thought it was just hairdressers who asked, “Going away anywhere nice on holiday?”
All manner of people at all times of the year have asked me if I was going on holiday/had gone on holiday/knew anywhere nice to go on holiday/told me in great detail about their fantastic holiday/their neighbours’ disastrous holiday or bored me rigid with how tired and stressed they were (“I feel as if the whole family has sat fifteen GCSEs – we’re totes exhausted!”) they needed a holiday.
Then there are those who on hearing that I’ve been bereaved/depressed/ill/tired etc suggest brightly, “You know what you need?” and before I can say, “A good night’s sleep without upsetting dreams?” they prescribe a holiday in the sun. It’s fun to see them squirm with embarrassment when they remember what happened, especially if I remind them that twice in the last few years, I’ve gone on holiday and come back with one of the party having died whilst having fun (one dog, one husband) at the beach.
“I no longer do holidays abroad,” I’d announce in the same prim determined way I wrote on this blog that I would never wear another bikini.
I could no more imagine me getting on a plane to go somewhere warm and sunny by the coast, than I could imagine donning a helmet with a torch and squeezing myself through cracks in a dark water-filled cave.
Except now I am going.
Not potholing – I’d only go down a cave if there was a champagne bar and Alistair Campbell in shorts running it – but on holiday. In a few days. To Portugal with Gorgeous Grey Haired Widower.
There had to be negotiation of course: GGHW wanted to go for ten nights, I wanted to start with five, so we compromised on seven. I couldn’t face flying from Gatwick, so we’re going from Heathrow, and although I was happy to stay by the coast, I didn’t want a hotel right on the beach. I made one rule: on no account was GGHW to go swimming in the sea, not even a bob around in the shallows in a pair of Speedos.
I knew that going away was never going to be easy, that it would be a milestone, but whilst I imagined I might collapse on the x-ray machine going through security and find myself on the conveyer belt along with a pile of hand-baggage, or begin hyperventilating at thirty-three thousand feet wondering if a body was being carried in the hold below, I completely underestimated how difficult the run up to this trip would be.
I had it all planned: new start, new suitcase, new bikinis, perhaps even a few new dresses.
I bought a rather spiffy suitcase from Selfridges – bright red, light but strong; made from something Nasa uses for its rockets. I’m going to Portugal, not the moon, but I bought it because I wanted a fresh start and it was lovely and rather swish for a box on wheels.
The day after my purchase, I became filled with despair at what I’d done. It was expensive! I didn’t need a new case! I loved the old one! It had been a loyal and faithful case and I had traded it in for something modern and flashy. GGHW suggested I took the new one back. I wished I could, but it was too late. I’d got the man in the shop to take all the packaging off so I could take it home by wheeling it along Oxford Street.
Stung by regretting my new suitcase decision, I veered between using my old bikinis (not The Bikini of Death, obviously) and buying new ones. In the end, I decided on a new and old combo, and treating myself, went to über-stylish swimwear emporium, Heidi Klein and bought a couple in the sale. As the assistant was wrapping them up, she asked me where I was going. I told her, and then launched into what had happened last year, where it had happened etc etc. I haven’t had that sort of verbal diarrhoea for months, and as I prattled on I kept thinking, Bailey – shut the f**k up! but I couldn’t stop. It was a Saturday afternoon in a busy swimwear shop in Knightsbridge. I’m sure that the entire shop didn’t want to hear how you could go on holiday and drown. I’m sure the assistant didn’t want to hear it either; I’m guessing it doesn’t do much for the holiday mood of their customers. I left the shop hating myself for behaving like that. I felt I’d gone back to the days when no-one was safe from hearing my story.
Everything about the run-up to this holiday has been depressingly familiar, almost Ground Hog Day. Try as I might, I have not been able to avoid the natural rhythm of planning a trip: organising a dogsitter; sorting out the holiday wardrobe; buying sun-cream; booking a pedicure, a bikini wax and so on. These pre-holiday preparations have brought everything back – the countdown to JS’s death. Of course, I could ditch the personal grooming, but if buying a new case and a bikini doesn’t change anything, manky toes and a bikini line hurtling towards my groin wouldn’t either.
The last week or so has been as bad, if not worse, than the run up to the first anniversary of JS’s drowning. I’ve been getting more and more anxious and tearful, to the point where when I flicked a caterpillar away from the front door with The Hound’s ball launcher a little more forcefully than I intended, splatting it against a window with a resounding thud, I crouched over its fat, lifeless body and sobbed, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to kill you. I’m so sorry.”
That’s just bonkers isn’t it? More bonkers than Barf Woman.
I’ve cried on buses and in the street. I’ve sobbed going through my jewellery (good stuff bought by JS on trips abroad; junk jewellery I only use on holiday). I got teary looking through old currency kept in an envelope. I found JS’s holiday wallet, something which must have come back from Barbados, but which I’ve never looked at, although it was searched by the men in suits who came to the house when I was back in the UK. The ordinariness of its contents floored me: a receipt for the car we hired less than twenty-four hours before JS died; bills from the few meals we had before that fateful Sunday morning.
I’m not crying for JS or JS and me any longer. I’m crying for the woman who the week before her last holiday abroad bought new bikinis and suncream and got a Brazilian and a pedicure, and looked forward to sitting in the sun, drinking wine, but who ended up wearing a bikini as her husband died in front of her.
I wandered through Fenwicks a couple of days ago and remembered going there to buy a sunhat just before I went to Barbados, excited at the thought of going on a holiday both JS and I badly needed. I cried as I left the shop and walked along Bond Street, reflecting on how completely oblivious I was to the tragedy hurtling towards me.
I don’t feel sorry myself now; I’ve still got a lot of challenging legal and financial issues swirling around me, but on balance, I’m grateful to have a good new life. But when I think back to the woman who went on holiday full of hope and fun and faced hell, I feel overwhelmed with grief for her and that is why I weep.
I want to go away and sit in the sun with GGHW, to eat outside in the evening, sharing a bottle of wine. We will do those things. But right now, as I write this, rather than having one life and wanting to live it, I’m filled with fear.
Everyone tells me that I will have a good time, that everything will be fine. That the hurried Will I made won’t be needed; that the top-level travel insurance I have taken out is just a precaution; that no-one I love will die abroad, or will die at home when I’m abroad.
On one level I believe them.
But on another?
I know how quickly paradise can turn into hell, and changing my suitcase or buying a designer bikini won’t erase that as easily as I’d hoped. Like Phobia Woman, I’ve done everything I can to reduce my anxiety, but infuriatingly, my mind has other ideas.