Deepest, darkest: stories for the turning year

Reading Rattus Rattus at Brockwell Park Lido

What scared you as a child? Not in the real world (the dog that barked when you passed the end house, your parents arguing) but in your worst under-the-bedclothes nightmares?

On Monday, I’m appearing at a launch event for the latest e-book collection of One Eye Grey, stories from ‘another London’, in which ghosts, mermaids and witches haunt the present-day city. My contribution to the collection was Stag, a shape-shifting story inspired by the history of Greenwich Park. For Monday’s event, nicely timed for Halloween, I’ll be presenting Rattus Rattus, a little fantasy on London’s ever-healthy rat population.

Rats were creatures of horror in my childhood imagination; swarming and dirty. Perhaps the Pied Piper was to blame, or some childhood pantomime featuring King Rat. Maybe it was hearing about their role as carriers of the Bubonic Plague (now, disappointingly, disputed). I remember an evening walk along the then-industrial waterfront of east Greenwich with my parents as a child, when we came across a dead rat lying on the mud flats. It thrilled me, an example of the danger and excitement of the darker side of life.

But rats were nothing to my main animal phobia – one that remains with me. Snakes are, I try to explain to anyone who doesn’t see it my way, simply evil. You can tell by their eyes. They are unnatural, vicious creatures, with their horrid ability to coil and strike, their fangs, their concentrated nastiness. I’m not sure quite when this began. The Bible certainly gave snakes a bad rap. Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book tale of a mongoose battling a nest of black cobras, Rikki Tikki Tavi certainly left a mark, but I think I already hated snakes. I do recall the traumatic reports that a cobra had escaped from London Zoo, back in the late 1970s. This news resulted in weeks, possibly months of sleeping curled up at the top end of the bed, unable to stretch my legs out in case the snake had coiled itself into a cosy heap under the blankets. How many times have I seen a snake outside of a zoo? Um, never.

Any thoughts that I might have got over this phobia were scotched last week, when a US colleague gave me a rattlesnake rattle (probably from one of the snakes her father had killed with a spade, she said with insouciance) from her parent’s Oregon ranch. After touching its lifeless dry scales, I found I had to wash my hands. And then again. Then it went back in its box. It still feels powerful, as if it had the ability to harm.

Another weird childhood fear was poison. Not specific poison, just the thought that something I ate or drank, somehow, might poison me. That I would realise, too late, and die in agony. My bedtime cocoa, if it didn’t taste right, cast instant suspicion on whoever had made it. Apples were difficult, after seeing Snow White. One of those terrifying health and safety films we saw at school, in which a child died screaming after drinking rat poison for a dare, was particularly traumatic. I might eat poison by accident! Mushrooms might really be poisonous toadstools. It’s a wonder I grew up with no issues around eating, and cheerfully accept the challenges of expired use-by dates, seafood and cocktails.

My last major irrational fear came a little later, during early teenage years. Mirrors. I’d been told by some joker at school that if you looked at your reflection for too long, it might change – and you’d be looking back at a face that was no longer yours. The devil’s face, I think the story went. From the perspective of middle age, this seems both transparent and hilarious, although it seemed neither as I tried to clean my teeth without catching an unguarded glance in the bathroom mirror, or crept up the stairs without accidentally seeing myself in the mirror in my parents’ bedroom. The fear of a shifting identity is a powerful thing during adolescence. Lucky that, by the time the mirror really is reflecting back a face that I can only just recognise as mine, beneath the net of wrinkles that have stolen across it, I’m pretty much not scared of mirrors any more.

What am I scared of now? Oh, letting people down, never finishing my novel, failure in all it’s myriad forms. The usual adult stuff. That’s why I thought it would be interesting to explore these older, more gothic fears, perhaps with a little story each week during November. This week’s story, of course, is Rattus Rattus. Coming up, snakes, poison and mirrors. Don’t have nightmares.

Photo by Yang-May Ooi, with thanks.

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Filed under Literary London, Writing

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