By Jake Kale
Vicky had been watching him intently—they all had. He’d withdrawn and started playing with his fingers again. Laura had taken his right hand in both of hers and pulled, forcing his fingers apart and forcing him back into the room with them.
It had taken him another couple of seconds to remember Vicky’s question. And when he did he’d continued to stall, not wanting to say it out loud. He remembered closing his eyes and taking a shuddery breath, the moisture in his mouth drying up immediately. “Falling,” he finally managed. He’d exhaled. There. At last you said it.
But Vicky had looked disappointed, as if to say, That’s it? This is the great secret terror that keeps you from venturing out into the world? She’d looked down at her notes. “Do you have problems with your balance?”
The relief he’d felt at revealing his phobia vanished as quickly as his saliva had. He’d licked his parched lips and wondered why they were making this so hard. “Not . . . falling down.” God, he really hadn’t wanted to say this. “Falling up.”
“Yeah . . . into the sky.”
They all went silent for a second. Gillian even stopped jotting in her notepad. “Well, that’s certainly unique. Can’t say I’ve come across it before,” Vicky had eventually said. How about that, you managed to interest her after all, his inner voice had whispered facetiously. “How does this phobia manifest?”
“You mean, where did it come from?” Ben had still been trying to assess how he felt about revealing his secret and hadn’t really heard the question, mistaking “does” for “did”.
“Well, no. But we could talk about that if you’d like.”
Great, now she thinks you’re stupid again. But he’d answered her anyway. “To tell the truth, I’m not sure. I can remember as a kid, lying down in the back garden looking up at the sky and getting really dizzy. Sometimes I’d feel sick and have to go inside.” He’d glanced at Laura, and seen worried recognition in her eyes. She’d remembered that, too.
He had earlier memories, as well. One that had suddenly come to mind happened when he was very young, in primary school. His school hadn’t had a gym, so the assembly was appropriated for that purpose. Little Benny Barry had stood there with his friends, clad in his shorts, trainers and The Real Ghostbusters T-shirt, listening with some trepidation as their teacher explained how to execute a perfect forward roll. When the time came to actually perform the manoeuvre he was naturally nervous, but while Scott Philips got it completely wrong and banged his head on the floor, and Melanie Cole refused to do it outright and simply stood snivelling, Ben found that the movement came naturally. He’d dropped to his knees, ducked his head and kicked off, and in one fluid motion and just a brief loss of equilibrium he was back on his feet again, enjoying the applause of the teacher whose name and indeed sex he could no longer recall. And he’d quickly become possessed by a bravado that comes from thoroughly besting your peers, performing roll after roll. But on his fourth or fifth attempt he’d overbalanced and landed flat on his face on a sheer hardwood cliff while his consciousness continued to spin out of control, and he’d tried to dig his stubby little fingers into the floor, convinced that at any moment he would begin sliding away towards certain doom.
He was only dimly aware of what happened next. He knew his mother had been called and had to come and collect him because he’d been too distraught to stay in school. She’d taken him home and they’d sat together on the settee, her holding him tightly as the two of them shared a packet of Monster Munch and lost themselves in Tom’s relentless pursuit of Jerry, all documented on his favourite videotape. Though he’d recovered after short while, he’d come away with a powerful impression of the transience of gravity. Ben hadn’t thought about that in years. And, sitting in that living room, he had even wondered if that might have represented a breakthrough, if he’d just uncovered the origin of his phobia.
But now you know otherwise.
“So how does this phobia affect your day-to-day life?” Vicky had asked him.
She had simplified her language, he’d noticed. Maybe she really had thought he was stupid. If she’d spoken to him like that now he knew he’d be much less forgiving, but at the time he’d been inclined to agree with her assessment. “I think of it every time I go outside. I envision scenarios, how it might take place, and how I’d react. I’ll look out for potential shelters, and avoid open spaces. I run to the shop and back, and I only get essentials so I don’t have to carry much.” And he’d lost weight as a result. “If I have to go out anywhere else I’ll plan routes that I know will take me past houses and buildings. I walk everywhere, I won’t set foot in car or a bus. Just in case.”
“Is that why you sold your car?” Laura had asked from beside him.
“Yes,” he’d admitted.
“Oh, Ben . . .” she’d said softly, and squeezed his hand. To the best of his knowledge, that had been the first time he’d heard his sister express emotion without using humour to try and soften it, and it threw him a little, so much so that he could barely look at her.
“Aside from shopping, do you go outside regularly for any other reason? Do you socialize much?” Vicky had asked.
“Not really, no,” Ben had replied with a shrug. But in all honesty he’d never been the convivial type.
And Vicky had paused then, eyeing him with such genuine empathy that Ben had felt thoroughly chided. “Ben, when was the last time you went outside?”
Ben had swallowed nervously, his parched throat locking. “I’m not sure.” He’d trying to dodge the question, though he’d known from the patient yet expectant look on Vicky’s face that it was not going to work. He’d thought about it for a while, and had real difficulty remembering. “I suppose it must have been Mum’s funeral.”
Laura had inhaled sharply. “That was in February!”
“Yeah.” And it had been a thoroughly draining experience. He had not gone in the funeral cars with the rest of the mourners but had made his own way to the cemetery by bus. He’d been on edge as a result, and throughout the service the one horrible thought that had nagged at his mind, supplanting even his grief, was, What if it happens here? God, the last thing I need to see is my mother’s body ascending from her coffin . . .
“So . . . seven months?” Vicky calculated. Ben nodded. That had sounded about right.
“Oh, my God. So that’s why you wouldn’t come to my barbecue.” Ben had found himself unable to respond to that, and he’d realized it was easier to talk to Laura when she was being flip. Fortunately, she’d then given him that familiar satirical smile. “But you were quite happy for me to risk flying off into space?”
He’d smiled back sheepishly. “Sorry about that.” And just two days ago she told you she regretted ever saying that.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You had enough to worry about. I didn’t want to bother you with this.” That had been true, Laura had been going through a serious financial crisis—still, when wasn’t she? But of course that had been only half the story. “And as I said, I was embarrassed. I mean, for God’s sake, it sounds mad. I probably am mad.” And you really believed that.
“You’re not mad, Ben,” Vicky had reassured him.
“I can’t be far off.”
And at that point Vicky’s assistant, Gillian the shrink-in-training, had decided to open her mouth. Leaning slightly in front of her mentor so he could see her, her face full of an affected sympathy she had yet to perfect, she’d asked, “Do you think this is just a phobia, or some kind of precognition? That it’s actually going to happen?”
And at the time that had seemed like a pretty inane question. Ben had even chuckled and shook his head. “No, I don’t.” Of course not. Because he’s not actually mad, you know.
And, smiling back, she had agreed. “Then you’re probably not mad.”
Falling by Jake Kale is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.