When I was about fifteen my sister, Rose, who is two years older than me, had a girlfriend who used to come round to our house quite often. I liked her, and she was very pretty. Her name was Felicity. She wore very short skirts and long socks, a passing fashion in those days; I expended much effort trying to stare at her thighs without seeming to.
Then she stopped visiting. Rose said that Felicity had developed a phobia.
‘About what?’ I asked.
‘You!’ said Rose, spitefully.
‘Idiot’, I said, putting down my games console. ‘What’s the real reason?’
‘She’s become afraid to go out now anywhere in case it rains.’ Rose looked critically at the console.
‘She’s phobic about getting wet?’
‘No, it’s weirder than that’, said Rose, flopping into an armchair and turning on the television. ‘She says she’s afraid she’ll dissolve’.
This revelation perturbed me for some time. A short while later one of the boys in my class at school stopped attending. Rumours abounded, then his former best friend told me on the bus taking us to a cricket fixture. He’d become my best friend by this time.
‘Want to know why Gurky stopped coming to school?’ he said, leaning towards me and lowering his voice conspiratorially. I nodded. ‘He thinks he’s made of glass!’
‘Ssh. Keep your voice down. His family don’t want people to know in case they think he’s bonkers’.
‘But thinking you’re made of glass is pretty bonkers’, I said.
Tom gave me a look that indicated he thought I was being pretty insensitive. I tried redeeming myself by pretending to take psychological interest.
‘Is he afraid then that if he comes to school he’ll shatter?’ I said.
‘Not just to school: anywhere’, said Tom. ‘He doesn’t go out anywhere any more’.
This news took me aback. First Felicity and rain; now the glass boy. What was happening?
In Biology soon after this disclosure we were told by Wiggy, our bald teacher, about insect stings and anaphylactic shocks. Some people, he told us with what I considered excessive zeal, are so afraid of being stung by a wasp that they stay indoors all summer and keep all their windows and doors closed. For once we refrained from throwing scalpels at him.
The world, I was discovering, is a dangerous place. But at least wasps were real; fear of wasps was less delusional than that of my Uncle Charles, who refused to sit in his lovely garden on warm sunny days. ‘What’, he would say, when asked why he insisted on sitting in his dusty study when the sun shone gloriously on his lush lawn outside: ‘and get squashed by a meteorite?’