The Woman Who Was Afraid of the Night
Most of us have a mild phobia or two without knowing exactly why. But Nina Stibbe knows: her aversion to night began with a man, a ladder, a scorned woman, and a shotgun.
I have this friend—I call her Vivienne—anyway, she and I have been good and loyal friends for many, many years and she crops up a lot in the stuff I write.
We recently reached the age of openly looking out for each other’s health and well-being. She’s very good on what to wear and what not to wear and first-aid. For instance, when I decided a couple of years ago to let nature take its course with a suspected broken toe (it being only a toe), Vivienne—who is very smart and sensible—told me “only a fool takes her feet for granted” and urged me, in the English way, with all sorts of folklore and proverbs, to show it to a doctor. And I wish I’d listened because now I have a bunion and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Looking at the bunion peeping out of my sandal recently caused Vivienne to suggest (again) that I see a therapist to sort out my general, debilitating fear of the nighttime. But I ignored that, too.
As for my own friendship qualities: I’m super knowledgeable about teeth and gum health and television schedules. For instance, I put her onto a water-jet flossing implement, which has transformed her gums (she now scores an impressive #1 rating on the British periodontal scale) and I always message her when a Bette Davis or a Mamet are coming on the telly or, for the purposes of this piece, any film from The Matrix or Bourne stable. It is and has been a very supportive friendship—albeit her: mature and caring, and me: needy-but-denying-it.
Then one day, Vivienne announced that she’d had some kind of intrauterine device fitted—in a bid not to accidentally have another child. I’d read about IUD devices and the possible side-effects. A colleague of mine at work had one fitted and had, overnight, gone off red peppers and sex, and claimed to have gone as hairy as a monkey within a month.
I mentioned all this in great detail to Vivienne and she poo-poo’d it and reminded me of her hormonal robustness. Still, I felt it my duty to monitor the situation and look out for signs of her going round the twist or off her lunch. And I felt the balance of our friendship shift a bit.
“How’s it going, y’know, with the thing?” I’d ask.
“It is wonderful!” she’d declare, “no periods.”
“Bully for you,” I’d say, and then, remembering my duty, add something like, “How are you doing though, mentally, emotionally, and in the head?”
“Happy in the knowledge I’ll never use another tampon,” she’d say, “or have another baby.”
And it did seem on the whole that the IUD had made Vivienne happier and more insightful than ever. However, at some point, just after she’d had the IUD fitted, it occurred to me that I never saw her without a polo neck or neckwear of some kind. At work, at play, in the pub, even in a camp bed in a tent, there’d be a quirky silk scarf knotted at her throat. Even when swimming in the sea, and absolutely always on journeys where she might nod off on a train, there she’d be, in a neckerchief, or choker or scarf, or with her zipper done up to the chin. It really came home to me when she circulated pictures of herself after completing a triathlon and there she was—kissing her little son—exhausted, happy, and, under the open neck of her light-weight wetsuit the tiny telltale shred of gingham poking out.
I brought it up. “What is the neckerchief thing?” I asked. “Has the IUD caused swelling?”
“No, absolutely not,” she said, her hand at her throat.
“So why all the scarves and stuff?” I asked.
“I feel the need to cover my suprasternal notch all of a sudden,” she said with a grimace.
And, that was the answer: Vivienne had developed an irrational fear of “finger strike”—a thing where a person thrusts their fingers into another person’s throat and blocks their windpipe. It seemed strange to me, but on reflection no stranger than my worry that I might wake up and not recognize my whole life (bed sheets, partner, kids, dog, guinea pigs) and have to learn everything all over again and just pretend I’ve lost my memory when in reality I know I’m in the wrong life.
“Could it be caused by slow release hormones from the IUD?” I wondered. But Vivienne wouldn’t hear a word against the IUD.
“It’s nothing to do with the IUD,” she snapped.
I was quite dogged. I wanted to blame the IUD—the way you do when other people flaunt things that you personally don’t want to embrace.
“But you’ve never felt vulnerable like this before,” I said.
“I know, but it’s not the IUD,” she said, wearily.
“If you must know, it was Keanu Reeves,” she said.
“What? Don’t tell me you’re trying to blame The Matrix,” I said.
But she was. Specifically, the choreographed subway station fight scene in which Neo performs a fleeting double finger strike maneuver on a baddie’s neck. I personally didn’t even remember the move but apparently it occurred and, being knowledgeable about first aid and having had a recent neck-baring hair cut, Vivienne felt vulnerable—in that way.
“But I’m still less fearful than you,” Vivienne said. “My anxiety is acute, not chronic.”
And then we discussed, compared, and contrasted our phobias like the best friends we are, over scones and tea.
We had a proper delving session in which Vivienne reminded me of the year that I drove to a certain fuel station—20 miles out of town—just because an assistant would come out and fill the car up and you didn’t have to do anything except pay. This meant there was no chance of my inadvertently drenching the station with flammable fluid and accidentally igniting it—like I’d read someone had done in the ’50s because they were applying lipstick instead of paying attention and accidentally tossed a lighted cigarette into the gushing fuel.
“I wasn’t the only person using that petrol station,” I shouted. “No, but you were the only one under 80,” said V.
I dredged up Vivienne’s molysmophobia (fear of pandemic) in early 2009 during which she held her breath when passing anyone in the street and stocked up on pantry goods such as line-caught tuna, rice, chick peas, and dental floss until she’d gone overdrawn in the bank and caused shortages in the co-op.
We went right through our mental back catalog, quite light-heartedly until Vivienne ordered fresh tea and announced that we were going get to the bottom of my on-going fearfulness.
“So, what actually are you afraid of?” Vivienne asked.
“Night time,” I said.
“I know, but what is it you think might happen?”
I drank tea and thought about it for a while. “A married man, up a ladder, might tap at my bedroom window and the only way to stop the tap-tap-tap-tap is to let him in and hear him stumble drunkenly across the landing to my mother’s room,” I said, “or else, it’s a woman with a gun, who is looking for her husband who is already inside. And my dog’s stuck downstairs and can’t help us.”
Vivienne knows me pretty well, but I think the specifics of this story came as a bit of a surprise.
When my siblings and I were still pre-teens, my mother fell by the wayside and her life became difficult. She split from my father and moved out of town to the countryside. With hindsight, this was foolish. The countryside didn’t take to us, fatherless and manless, and the villagers willed my mother to fail so hard that she very nearly did and lost a few years to depression and pills and married boyfriends. We knew most of these men were bad but they made her happy for brief spells and they weren’t exactly evil.
There was one, though, who convinced us he was a good thing. He did it by not hiding his badness and actually making a feature of it, like you might with a sloping lawn. He was bad but handsome and he laughed at other people’s goodness. He liked to live life in the fast lane because why the fuck not, he swore and smoked and drank Scotch but never stopped looking like the young John Wayne, in control and trustworthy and tough.
My siblings and I liked him because he told frightening stories and gave us gifts. He gave me a pendant with a snowdrop on it and he gave my sister a tiny house charm and he spoke to my brothers as if they were men, like him. But, the thing was, he didn’t care for dogs and didn’t like them indoors. And, probably because of this, our dog, Polly, would growl very slightly under her breath whenever he showed up. And then, because of this, he wasn’t kind to her. He wasn’t cruel, but he’d tell her to “Gidoutofit, Mutt.” It was a vicious circle.
My mother was in love with him and kept having late night sex with him and giving him money and it went along quite nicely like that until his wife appeared at the back door one day in a thin silk dress and told my mother she’d be back with a shotgun if she didn’t end the affair because she didn’t care about anything except the man. My mother said, “Fair enough,” and the wife said she’d be obliged if her visit wasn’t spoken of to the man. When she’d gone, we sided with the wife and admired the dress and my mother said it was typical of the man to have such a good wife in such a nice dress. That night she ended the affair without even mentioning the wife.
A few nights after that, the man came to the door and my mother told us not to answer it. Later that night, in bed, when we’d already been asleep, my sister and I heard a tapping at our bedroom window. We assumed it was a tree branch even though there was no tree near enough, because what could it be if it wasn't a tree branch except a ghost or a man and we neither of us could bear it to be either.
“What is it?” My sister asked. “A tree branch,” I said. But then it tapped again and it was most definitely a human or ghost knuckle.
Eventually, with her eyes screwed shut, my sister drew back our curtain and there at the top of a ladder was the man. That’s how resourceful he was, and how au fait with our garage and, knowing we had a trustworthy ladder of the perfect height, up he’d come. We were very pleased to see him—relieved he wasn’t a vampire or anything like that. We opened the window and Polly growled to remind us we were breaking the agreement between our mother and the wife.
“What about your wife?” I asked him as he scrambled in.
“She’s frigid,” he said and went across the hall to our mother’s room. He was there at the kitchen table the next morning, having a cigarette and Weetabix.
Later, our mother told us not to let him in if he pulled the trick again.
“But what if he’s there again,” I asked, “drunk, at the top of a ladder, saying you're the only woman he ever really loved?”
“Push the ladder away from the window,” my mother instructed.
“But it could kill him,” my sister pointed out.
“That’s his look out,” said my mother.
We decided we would push the ladder away if there was a next time, but when he was still close enough to the ground that a fall wouldn’t kill him, but that meant we had to stay awake in wait for him.
A few nights later I woke to the sounds of Polly growling and we’d fallen asleep and there he was, already at the top of the ladder, tapping. We ignored the knocks and sang “London’s Burning” for about 20 minutes and Polly growled and growled.
Our mother was really annoyed the next morning because Polly’s growling had woken her and Polly wasn’t allowed upstairs at night after that.
A few nights later, the man was back at our window but we couldn’t drown out the knocks with our singing and not having our dog there made me feel anxious. So we let him in and he staggered across the hall and we heard our mother shouting all sorts at him. Our mother was a mix of sorry and angry the next morning after he’d gone and told us not to let him in—ever again—and to come and sleep in her room. It was hard for her, she explained because though she wanted it to end, she was in love with him and only human, especially late at night when she was at her loneliest.
To show she did really want to end it, she marched out to the garage and brought the ladder inside and laid it on its side in the hall.
A couple of weeks later, somewhere around midnight, we woke to hear little showers of gravel hitting the window and within a few minutes I’d gone downstairs and opened the back door. “You can’t come in,” I said. But he started to come in. Polly went crazy and snarled and even nipped his trouser leg and he danced about in the porch and shouted at her. But he was scared and went away. It felt like the end of it, and our mother put the ladder back in the shed. “But what if the man comes back and knocks at our window,” my sister asked my mother.
“He won’t,” she said. “That’s all over now.”
But then one night, soon afterwards, we heard the tap, tap, tap … he was back.
My sister groaned and I groaned and it felt too much. “We’ve got to push the ladder away,” I told my sister. She agreed with her expression.
We didn’t switch the light on—we didn’t want him to look us in the eye as we flung him down. My sister opened the window. This time he was carrying something, we could hear it clanking against the wooden ladder as he positioned himself to clamber in through the window.
“No fucking way,” said my sister and together we pushed the ladder off the windowsill. And though it took all our might, it was lighter than expected and after a little struggle, it suddenly flew backwards and we heard an arching scream. And then the scream stopped ten feet away as the human being was deposited with a thud on top of the crenellated brick wall that separated our garden from the Shentons’ next door.
We ran to our mother’s room to tell her he had come back and that we’d half killed him, but in the rosy glow of her bedside light there was the man—kneeling on our mother’s bed—in an awful pose and our mother in a worse one. And we knew with a shock then that it hadn’t been him on the ladder.
“But we pushed the ladder away,” blurted my sister, “and someone was on it.” And then all at the same time, it occurred to us who it had been on the ladder and that if we hadn’t pushed it we might have been shot.
The man leaped up, not very much like John Wayne any more, struggled into his tight brown trousers and galloped ungainly out of the house to pick up his crumpled wife from where she lay, along with her gun, by the back wall. He never came back. Nor did she.
Vivienne bridged her fingers.
“So, now you know,” I said.
“Blimey,” said Vivienne. “I can see why you don’t like going to bed.”
“I know,” I said. “What should I do?”
“I think you need a dog,” she said.