I am suspended thirty foot in the air in the grip of a cruel and violent monster that will surely destroy me. One of my arms is twisted in an odd shape around the bars about my head, my other arm and both legs are bent and rigid and I have jammed my face against the cage that pins me down, my mouth a rictus because I am afraid l’ll start simultaneously screaming and vomiting. I think I am going to wet myself as the monster braces to fling me toward the ground again but when the jolt comes I am beyond even that.
This summer I got the rare chance to spend some time with my niece. We went to the beach, had ice cream, collected stones to paint on, drew pictures in the sand, met a duck and some donkeys, saw dragonflies, a kestrel, a heron in his nest and a dead rat. We went to a local castle, had a picnic (lemonade and Pringles) and stumbled on an overgrown graveyard which we decided not explore as my niece, being a lot shorter than me, was overwhelmed by the tangled undergrowth and nasty briars. When we finally ran out of things I wanted to do, my niece, having waited patiently for her chance, suggested a visit the Amusement Park.
I spent all my summers as a teenager working at the ‘Amusements’ and I had loved all the fiercest rides so I wasn’t concerned as I was being pinioned into a row of cages. I was with a small person who got phased by briars, how bad could it be? To say I was terrified when we were violently shot up into the air before the machine began to complete vigorous, jerky circles, flinging us about in our individual cages would be incorrect. If there’s a state beyond terrified that’s where I went.
I am afraid of heights among other things. When I was my niece’s age I used to run along the tops of high walls, cannon around on roller skates, fling myself into the ocean despite not being able to swim, go charging off on adventures across the countryside and not come home until dark. Something changed in adolescence and fear began casting its long shadow. During my adult life I have mostly managed to avoid my fears but one exception was the time I spent in Africa. My fear of lions I have written about in How Not To Get Eaten By a Lion but I came face to face with my fear of heights in a tiny remote village called Ben Hur in the district of Omaheke on the edge of the Kalahari desert.
We had been there weeks and the flat landscape with its low tangled trees was beginning to feel claustrophobic. There was a water tower nearby, maybe 50 foot high or more, teetering on rusting legs and I resolved to climb it, to gaze out on the savannah, womb of mankind and know my place in the world. A skinny ladder ringed with fragile steel bands snaked up the flank of the tower like an exposed vertebrae. It was bisected mid way by a platform. I managed to make it to the highest rung but froze when it came to climbing out onto the top. Being of a dramatic and melancholy turn of mind I descended shakily feeling I was doomed to be shackled by fear, to always be ‘below’, lost in the tangled undergrowth instead of up ‘there’, drinking in the vast, rich, beautiful plain of life.
Flash forward a decade and half and beside me my niece is waving her arms around and screeching with glee and in her element. Afterwards she will go on the Paratroopers, the Waltzers and have a repeat ride on what I now call the ‘Monster’. I am beyond terrified so I am not sure why I am obscurely tickled by this situation. Maybe it’s that when I finally got up high, it was without thinking too much about it and that my gentle gaze did not fall on the ancient Kalahari stretching to a horizon of blue mountains under clouds heavy with the rains yearned for by a parched savannah peopled by lean, sharp-eyed hunters, slinking lions and galloping antelope. Instead I stared down from frantic eyes on a slightly ramshackle amusement park under a spitting sky and the not-so-lean, bleary-eyed, badly dressed natives ambling about on patched tarmac measled with old chewing gum as they feasted on junk food, the air fractious with the smell of popcorn and burgers, tinny music from warring speakers and the rattle and screech of garish cars and carts lumbering along their endless circular tracks.
In the end the ‘Amusements’ had lived up to their name as, after I dropped my niece off, I went home and lay on my bed for hours, shaken, ill but still highly amused at myself. Life is sometimes better in the imagination than in reality. But reality is far more…real.