“What’s the worst thing you can think of?”
“What’s the worst thing I can think of?”
“Yeah! You know, what are you scared of, what’s the absolute worst thing that could
happen type deal — your ultimate fear, I suppose, if you want to get dramatic about it. Like
being buried alive, or whatever. What is it?”
“Can I ask what’s prompted you to suddenly come up with such a miserable question,
mid-stroll through this beautiful park on the sunniest day we’ve had in weeks, immediately
following a conversation about where we should go and have lunch?”
I smile, vapidly and beatifically — it’s a well-known fact that the more I play up the
innocent and excitable side of me, the more he is drawn in, a moth to a flame, a maggot to an
open wound. “It’s October! Halloween is in two weeks! It’s the spookiest time of year!”
Like clockwork he grins back indulgently, with the uncontrollable soppiness that only the
hopelessly devoted can muster. “Ah, of course. God, you and your festiveness” — see, now he’s
pretending it’s an annoyance, when really he’d be heartbroken if the incessant cutesy kookiness
of my joy in each season lapsed, because then what’d make me fun and unique?
My turn: winsomely, “you still haven’t told me! What’s the worst thing?”
“Ah, I don’t know… the usual stuff, I suppose? I’m scared of death, my family dying,
losing you, obviously”—puppy eyes in my direction—”all those kind of things. Oh, and spiders.
Fuckin’ hate spiders.”
(He won’t ask me back. Fair enough; it was undoubtedly a stupid question. But, even though I’m
convinced it’s not possible to be loved more than he loves me, a perfect microcosm of our
relationship is the fact that he’ll never ask me any of my whimsical questions back. In this
instance, I don’t particularly care — I spend more than enough time dwelling on what scares me
most. The only real answer is fear as invented by your own brain, obviously. Think about it: you
can do terrifying things in any real-life capacity as much as you like — watch horror films in the
blackness of a basement, walk home alone in the rain down a back alley at 2am, bungee jump, if
that’s your speed — and it’s scary, but it’s not. There’s a rational limit: it’s happening, really
happening, and so you can deal with it, because you have to, to live through it. So what’s the
most truly, purely scared you are, ever? Think about it. It’s in dreams. Nothing in real life comes
close to the terror you feel when your sleeping mind is conceiving scenarios with no aim other
than to unsettle you, to unnerve you, to get you to wake yourself up screaming. And you never
get used to it, do you? You sleep every night of your life, you dream all the time, and still you
wake up from every nightmare amazed and cripplingly relieved to discover it wasn’t real. That’s
why it’s scary. The mind is a terrible, tricky thing.)
It’s my turn for the smile again; I beam this time. That was a good answer on his part —
designed to please me by taking the question seriously, but throwing in the fear of spiders as
something sweet and calculatedly unguarded at the end, lest I forget that he’s not JUST a product
of the 9 to 5 system, he’s also got unquashable boyish charm! Exactly the same reason that I
proffer the adorable affinity for seasonal holidays. It’s an unspoken rule between us and surely
every other mid-twenties city-dwelling millennial couple.
Conversation quota filled for the late-morning time slot, we can have lunch.
I’m at home. It’s the evening, Sunday, of course. I have done a load of laundry and
cleaned the kitchen, my gym gear is in a bag at the end of the bed for the morning and now I am
feeding the howling blackness in the cage hanging from the ceiling. I feed it more, it howls more,
and louder. I’m desperately sorry to be doing it, but there’s just been so much today: the park
stroll, the lunching out, the housework. Sometimes I can work around it, and I wouldn’t have to
feed it as much — it’s not too common, but things can occasionally be subjective, particularly if
you’re a persuasive arguer. Not today, though, today’s been unequivocal. It’ll stop howling in just
a minute anyway, as soon as I stop feeding it, but I still am and so it’s still howling its unbearable
wretched noise which is achingly painfully empty and feels like it will never end ever.
It’s the aural equivalent of the climax of a contraction. I can only hope that this will never
culminate in a birth of any kind.
I’m done now, and the sound is lessening, marginally, like it always does. It’ll wind itself
down and curl itself up soon. It’s getting a bit too big for the cage now, wonderful, just what I
need, the expense of another one. This will be its third cage in five years.
Before that, I’d made do with just two cages throughout my whole life. When I was
younger it wasn’t such a relentlessly expansive, gaping void — it used to be my friend, really. An
extension of me, an extra limb. It was teeny, small enough for me to put in my toddler backpack
and carry it around. It was light, and capricious, and sparkly. It shone. My parents bought me its
first cage, as is tradition in most families; I hung it from the corner post of my bed. It was golden
and ornate, very pretty, a tiny gilded birdcage which housed it like a fairy. That cage lasted for
years, a decade even — this is when I was young, remember. I had more life than I knew what to
do with. I had so many friends, I danced and sang and took drama and music lessons. I wrote
poems and stories, incessantly. I read for hours. I read while I played the piano. I was so happy.
My friend was tiny.
I got a bit older, high school age, and it grew too, but only as much as was expected.
Things get more real and less idealistic the older you get: that much, I truly believe, is
unavoidable. So it grew. I got another cage, but it was still so much smaller than me that it barely
mattered. I had my life mapped out by now: I had been fortunate enough to find something that I
loved and was good at, and I was going to do it forever, as soon as I grew up. That was the
ludicrously vague extent of the whole plan, but I believed in it with my entire being and that was
enough. The second cage lasted all the way to my 21st birthday.
Everything snowballed from there, of course. The whole third level education experience
can often be a bit disillusioning, being unceremoniously flung into this weird academic
environment with a sea of poor souls who’d never had a real friend in their lives chucking
themselves all-in to their perceived new start, clutching at every scrap of polite small-talk
desperately, needing to make it into the connection they’ve always been missing. So, coasting
through university, everything getting just a little bit worse every year, a little bit less magical
and less funny and more alcohol-fuelled and more problematic and more pragmatic and more
Another cage, notably bigger this time. It was eating a lot by now, see. It was around the
time of the third cage that it started howling when I fed it. It’s like force-feeding ducks for Foie
Gras, in a way, but without anything even subjectively tasty to show for it. The emptier things
are, the more it’s fed, the more void it becomes, the more it expands — paradoxical as anything,
I’ve never really understood it.
And then you leave university and you get a job, any old job — an office job? That’s fine,
it pays the rent doesn’t it, I mean it’s expensive to live in this city and all your friends are here,
you love living here, and it’s fine anyway because you don’t really work there, this is just a stop
gap, you’re getting out of it, you’re special, you’re too important for this, you’re going to do
things with your life.
Then you’ve somehow been in the office for a year, the anniversary of which is marked
by a new, drastically bigger and heinously more expensive cage. Then you meet a guy — online,
obviously. You have scheduled sex nights and scheduled dinner dates and, if it’s not raining, you
will spontaneously decide to go for a walk at exactly 11am and always on a Sunday and then you
will maybe but really always treat yourselves to a nice lunch out because why not? Why not be
nice to yourselves, you work hard at your offices after all, don’t you? And now your whole life is
your office, interspersed with food-shopping and house-cleaning and gym-going and
remembering to convey that you’re not like this really, see, you’re fun, see how kooky and zany
you are? How whimsical? What’s your biggest fear? What are you scared of?
What’s the worst thing you can think of?