FEAR OF TRYING
James Michie recalls the year in which he jumped three times into the unknown
SUDDENLY, in my late forties, I resolved to do the three things which had always filled me with special fear. They were: to attend one of those Californian-style, per- sonality-expanding, inhibition-lessening group encounters, to parachute, and to answer a sex advertisement in person.
I was frightened of the first because I'm only at ease with individuals or very small groups. Crowds, even demonstrations I'm part of, give me the jimjams. Nevertheless, I signed on and paid for a course of 12 evenings in St John's Wood and arrived punctually equipped, as ever, with cigars and hip-Ilask. I accepted their immediate confiscation, but I struggled a bit when I was asked to remove my shoes. I was then led into a room in which over a dozen people were sitting in a circle, shoeless and cross-legged. Perversely, I adopted some different posture, but it was soon adjusted to the norm by an assistant thera- pist. I smiled in what I thought was an all- embracing way and looked round — not a single face that one would be drawn towards at a party, let alone one that, faute de mieux, one might pick out if a train stopped in a tunnel for three hours.
During that evening, between coffee- breaks, we publicly confessed our woes and inadequacies, we did little solo dances to express our unexpressed aggression, we pretended to be animals (I thought I did well as a jerboa, but had to be histrionically captured and devoured by wee Kevin, who had chosen the role of desert wolf), we wrestled (I was 'too rough'), we played `truth games' (in which I was much the best liar), and we each had to have a cross- legged, eyeball-to-eyeball personal con- frontation with the Leader, a girl from the mid-West who was built like a buffalo but had just been impersonating a vole. At last I was on home ground, one to one. 'Why don't you like me?' she led off. 'Why are you frightened of me?' But I do like you,' I lied. 'If I'm nervous, it's only because I feel there may be a current of sexual attraction between us. Do you like me?"No. Isn't it obvious I don't?' We got no deeper or fur- ther.
I left a few minutes before the end, reclaiming my shoes and life-support equipment. Glancing back into the room, I saw that wee Kevin, egged on by the rest of the group, was beating an elderly Viennese lady on the bottom with a sort of bladder which caused thunderous repercussions but `To be sure, you can't be too careful. Best call the bomb squad.' apparently no pain. I had 11 more sessions ahead of me. You can guess the rest.
Most people are scared of parachuting, but I was extra scared because I had lost my head for heights — I had recently had to be talked round a section of the Tower of Pisa on hands and knees, a jelly of nerves. (I remember kissing the earth when I got down.) Feeling the need of company for this exploit, I engaged to do a jump with my young brother-in-law, a pilot, and four of his friends. Off we went to the Metropolitan Police training centre in Hertfordshire for two weekends' instruction. My notion of parachuting was based on old war films: I imagined you simply fell, almost willy-nilly, through a hole in the plane's floor, pulled the ripcord and hoped for the best, and I reckoned I might just be able to do that. I was now shaken to learn that although the ripcord was going to be pulled automatically (not really reassuring, I would rather have done it myself) I should have to climb out of the cockpit onto a platform the size of a very occasional table, grip the wing-tip with both hands and throw myself backwards into the sky in the 'seagull' position, shout- ing, as I fell, the ritual chant, 'One thou- sand, two thousand, three thousand . . . ' etc. With black-humoured relish the instructor added advice for emergencies, such as when the automatic ripcord-pulling device failed or your descent entangled you in high-tension wires (Not much hope then, mate').
The day came. Waking with a hangover, I felt like Tweedledum — 'I'm very brave generally, only today I happen to have a headache.' We drove down to a small aerodrome in Kent on a nippy November day. Our plane was not there, due to engine trouble. After two hours of hanging about, it arrived — mended, we only half hoped. Although my lightly gloved hands felt too cold to grip anything, it had to be done, and it was. My companions all went down like parcels and duly landed near the drop zone. I made the mistake of trying to be clever. In training I had been encour- aged to use some strings for steering called 'toggles', and these I tugged like mad, hoping to score a bull's-eye landing. The result was that I went a mile adrift, came down in a marsh and had to be recovered by a special van. I was quite proud of my mud-spattered self, until I was greeted back at the aerodrome by my small son, Jake, with 'What a rotten jump that was, Dad!' Still, I remained grateful to the Metropolitan Police, for they had given us all a Parachute Club sticker for our cars, which made illegal parking almost safe for years.
My fear of answering the advertisement is harder to explain. I suppose I was alarmed by the thought of, yet curious about, commercial or arranged sex, which I had never experienced. I wasn't at all sure whether I wanted to experience it or not. Accordingly, late one autumn after- noon, I travelled to a remote-sounding address — something like 237B Majuba Road — in north London, in response to what read like a simple invitation. As I walked down the long road under a light drizzle, I imagined significant glances from passers-by or men tinkering with their cars. I rang the bell. The door was opened by no Madame La Zonga but a mousy, average- looking girl who led me upstairs to a book- less but magazine-filled sitting-room, furnished with an electric fire, nothing comfortable to sit on, and several lurid pic- tures, including a bare-breasted negress I'd often seen on the walls of East End pubs.
We made conversation about the weath- er, buses, the news in the Evening Standard. Her husband, she mentioned, was a pho- tographer. To my surprise, he now entered left on cue and offered me a cup of cocoa with such nervous solicitude that I guessed at once that he was hoping, on or off stage, to play a part in any possible scene. I made up my mind to leave as soon as I politely could. Immediately after that decision I felt more at home, and we chatted for 20 min- utes. Don and Sandra were a pleasant, sad couple. They loved each other, she said, but couldn't have children and weren't any good in bed together.They'd previously lived in Slough and attended some wife- swapping parties, but it hadn't worked and they didn't like 'the type of person' involved.
So I was a writer?. . . Great! They enjoyed reading too, and ice-skating. See- ing that I was in imminent danger of pass- ing their suitability test with flying colours, I made my excuses and promised I would ring them again soon and visit them. They waved me goodbye from the doorstep. I think of them still; I'm certain they never think of me.