BESIDE MYSELF

Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth talks about how experiences in life influence behaviour. An abusive parent or partner can cause immense pain and suffering which may affect our actions many years later, creating responses out of proportion to the present situation.
      Sometimes the experiences are subtle: a loving parent, fearful for the safety of a child, may become overprotective. Religious influences may reinforce certain behavioural patterns. Responses to situations become conditioned, resulting in a lack of freedom of personal choice.
       Everything said to a child, partner, friend or colleague – positive and negative – will register in the subconscious mind and, if repeated often enough, will impact on the way they see themselves and the world around them.
     The following short story touches on this theme in a light-hearted way but shows how the opinions of others can influence the choices we make.
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BESIDE MYSELF

According to Erma Bombeck there’s nothing more miserable in the world than to arrive in paradise and look like your passport photo. I beg to differ. Arriving in paradise and feeling like you look in your passport photo is far more wretched.

For in paradise I sit, yet melancholy obstructs the view.

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Perched on a wooden seat in a tiny cafe, nestled in the rocks overlooking Konnos Bay, I watch sky divers hover in the azure blue sky and speed boats zoom across the tranquil sea. The blazing sun has made the bruised skies of London a distant memory and the fragrance of the pine trees under which I sit, nursing a chilled glass of Pinot Grigio, is heavenly.

But retirement is a double-edged sword. Life becomes one long holiday full of leisurely lunches, relaxation and sun worshipping. It also becomes tedious, dull, monochrome.

Not that I regret the impulsive decision to hand over my wig to the next generation. I miss the drama of the courtroom like one would miss an incontinent old aunt; sad that she is no longer around but grateful the smell has gone with her.

As I dwell ungraciously on my escape to paradise a young woman plonks her rather substantial, bikini-clad, bottom on the chair next to mine. She smiles.

‘Lovely here, isn’t it?’

Not a ‘hello’ or ‘do you mind if I join you? Is this seat taken?’ She looks as comfortable sitting next to me as though she’s my daughter and as I snatch a sideways glance she does seem vaguely familiar. Perhaps I was responsible for incarcerating her at Her Majesty’s Pleasure sometime in the past and she’s come to exact revenge.

She smiles again, without malice, and I’m relieved.

‘I would love to do that,’ she says, pointing to a lithe young man driving water skis skilfully through the wash left by a passing speed boat. ‘Looks tremendous fun,’ she adds.

‘Then why don’t you do it?’ I ask, unable to shake off the irritation bubbling inside because she’s so rudely invaded my private space and is now reminding me that I’ve never had the courage to participate in such adventurous activities.

A shadow clouds her eyes.

‘My father always tells me it’s dangerous. I’ll break a leg. Or worse. He has a tragic story for just about everything. Paragliding? Did you not hear about that young girl in Turkey who crashed into the cliffs? Never walked again.’ Her features distort as she mimics her father’s words. ‘You want to travel to Colombia? Did you not hear about the young man killed by some drug crazed maniac? Happens all the time out there, you know!’

An angry veneer covers her face briefly and a rush of empathy replaces the annoyance I felt at her gatecrashing my party.

‘How old are you?’ I enquire.

‘Twenty two,’ she replies.

‘I have a father like that too,’ I say, ‘and although I became a very successful lawyer and then a judge I’m still terrified of riding a roller coaster. When I was a child we frequently visited Southend but I was never permitted on the rides. Each time I begged ‘just the once’ I was reminded that fairground rides are not always properly maintained and there was a good chance the carriages would come tumbling down as they reached their summit.

Looking up at the cars snaking their way along the track, shaking precariously, I eventually felt the fear and stopped nagging.’ My laugh is tinged with a good dose of resentment. ‘He’s still the same, actually. Any activity I suggest I would like to try that involves anything more dangerous than walking, he now tells me I’m too old.’

As I take a large swig of wine I consider asking if she would like to join me in a drink, our fathers having ignited a sense of kinship. I decide against it. Instead I follow her eyes and see she’s watching a clutch of small children donning life jackets before climbing onto a large banana boat.

‘My father once told me,’ she says, ‘a little boy had fallen off the back of a banana boat, lost at sea. Fodder for the sharks, he’d said.’ She stares into the distance, her lips curling down at the corners as she speaks.

I sense she has no intention of leaving any time soon as she puts her feet up on the chair opposite. Father would never approve of such an action and I find myself smiling, realising that I’m beginning to like her.

 ‘So why don’t you ride the banana boat now?’ I say. ‘You’re old enough to make your own decisions. I assume your father isn’t hiding behind a tree waiting to protest and regale you with the story that the plug may come open, sending it zigzagging across the inhospitable sea like a demented balloon, leaving its passengers to flounder and drown.’  A story my father told me when I wanted to use a Lilo in shallow waters.

She bites her lip and looks at me from the curtain of hair that has fallen across her face. It’s a look I recognise. I’ve seen it in the mirror many times when I lacked courage to stand up for myself. It’s a look of shame.

‘I’m too scared.’ she mutters and I sense, briefly, that we are one. I know her fear because I feel it too. I look at the children laughing and screaming on the huge yellow sausage flying through the air and my desire to be fearless is profound. I am about to suggest we face the challenge together but a flash of panic brings on a sweat which has nothing to do with the intense heat of the Mediterranean sun.

‘What’s your name?’ I ask but before she can reply she shouts:

‘Oh no! Look! My father was right! The boy at the back has fallen off. He’s in the sea.’

She leaps from her seat, shouting and gesticulating but of course the cafe is too far away. Her cries are carried away on the gentle breeze. I watch too, my breath momentarily suspended, until I see the boat turn and head towards the tiny figure bobbing in the water. He’s hauled back up and the boat sets off again, the boy laughing with joy. Simultaneously we sigh with relief

‘You see,’ I tell her, ‘It’s safe these days. I’m sure the paragliding and water skiing activities are too. Why don’t you give it a try? If it had been safe in my day I would have done it.’ It brings me comfort to think this even though I know it’s untrue. I’m glad Alan encouraged our children to experience the world, despite my fears.

‘So why don’t you do it now?’ She asks, challenging, her eyes a blaze of indignation. ‘If it’s so safe why don’t you have a go?’

‘Like Father says, I’m too old now, dear. I always hankered for the excitement of adventure when I was young but it’s too late now.’

‘Why is it?’ she demands and it rankles that this slip of a girl, with the incongruously large bottom, should dare to be so outspoken and rude. Self-consciously I cover my ample thighs with the sarong as she continues.

‘If it crashed into the rocks and I broke a leg I wouldn’t be able to work. Whereas you, you’re probably retired and could afford to spend six weeks with your leg in plaster, sipping on your glass of wine!’

She has a point.

‘True but my bones will break more easily and take longer to heal,’ I rebut, ‘It’s far riskier for me than for you.’

Stalemate. Silence ensues.

I take another gulp of wine. It has lost its chill, less refreshing. I glance at my watch. Alan will arrive soon for lunch and I wonder whether we should ask her to join us. I feel compelled to reach out and convince her that she has her whole life ahead of her. A life that is unscripted. I want to impress upon her that she is the architect of her future and that she should not let other people, with their uninformed opinions and scare tactics, prevent her from following her dreams. As I did.

I take sneaky glances at her as she stares out at sea, a pout on her lips, and I see myself when I was her age. I used to wear my hair long, as she does now. My bottom, too, was always rather on the large side. I would also pout as I watched others have fun, jumping off a cliff into the sea; drinking far too much alcohol than was good for them; riding the bone-rattling roller coaster.

And I’m suddenly angry with myself.

Here I am sitting in paradise, feeling utterly miserable because life holds no excitement or challenges. I realise that although I missed out on many things, the courtroom made me feel alive and raising our children gave immense pleasure. Now I have to find my own entertainment and I’m at a loss.

I make a decision.

‘After lunch I’m going to book myself onto the paraglider,’ I say, ‘There’s no skill to learn. You just sit there, harnessed in, hold tight and admire the view. No danger in that.’ The wine had emboldened me. I’m full of courage.

She grins at me.

‘I’m glad. If you enjoy that then you might like to go snorkelling. You float, mask and snorkel in place, and watch the fish. No danger in that either!’

‘True.’ I reply as she looks at me, excited, her face animated. ‘And if I enjoy the snorkelling I could always take some scuba diving lessons. Why not?’

My enthusiasm is infectious and the young girl’s face is positively glowing. Our chat has certainly raised my spirits. A veil has lifted, the view of paradise no longer obstructed. My life, now I am retired, is a blank canvas and I can paint on it whatever I choose.  I want to shout out loud: ‘I’m free!

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.Darling!’

I turn away from her as Alan leans down to kiss my cheek.

‘You look happy, Some young lothario asked you out to dinner?’ he jokes.

‘No, but this young lady…’ I turn to her. ‘Sorry, I still don’t know your name.’

‘Anne,’ she replies, her lips twitching with amusement.

I am momentarily unsettled. My name is Anne.

‘Anne…has shone a bright torch on my life so I can see what requires dusting, what needs discarding and what should be nurtured. I wish I’d had a conversation with this young girl many years ago. I’ve decided to book a paragliding session after lunch.’

I turn back to Alan, who looks puzzled. His brows furrow in concern and I’m terrified he’s going to talk me out of it, take over where my father left off. I know it would only take a few words to derail my new trajectory.

‘That’s good,’ he says. ‘I’m glad you’ve finally managed to unshackle yourself from all those childhood fears embedded by your overprotective – albeit well-meaning – father. But… who the hell are you taking to?’

I turn to look at Anne. She’s gone. I scour the cafe but she’s nowhere to be seen. I look out to sea as another group of small children traverse the water, laughing and screaming and know that I must craft my own future.

‘I guess I’ve been talking to myself,’ I reply, a smile spreading across my face.

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