I’m scared to death of heights. I’m queasy standing on a chair to change a light-bulb, so you can forget about asking me to get on a ladder to wash your bedroom windows, and you can fiddle with your own television aerial, because I’m not bloody going near it. I have these dreams where I’m ascending a fixed ladder on a bell tower or industrial chimney, and towards the top, either the distance between the rungs increases, or they turn to warm plasticine as I grasp at them, and I end up a hundred feet above the ground, paralysed with terror. You know that famous photo, 'Lunch Atop a Skyscraper'? You can have a look at it here. I don’t want to, even though the link suggests a certain amount of trickery was used, and producing it wasn’t actually as dangerous as it looks. Merely thinking about it makes my palms sweat. I think it’s a good job I’m not very tall.
I stayed last week in a fifth floor flat in Athens. A narrow balcony overlooks the street and at the back there is a large terrace. I did not venture out in either direction and wouldn’t have looked over the railings without considerable financial inducement. Irritatingly and rather worryingly, a fantasy, or rather a waking dream, stole unbidden into my head: the walls of the building began to soften, causing the floor of the flat to tilt and everything in it to slide slowly across the slippery marble floor until furniture, books, cats and people were tipped out of the French windows to plummet into the street. As this vision unfolded, I sat at my laptop in the dining room, involuntarily tensing my buttocks as if to… well, I don’t know. If the building were indeed softening like hot plastic, how would clenching your bum help?
This intrusion of fantasy into waking life is something that bugs me. Melting flat-blocks belong in dreams along with the useless plasticine ladders. They seem real there, for everything in a dream seems real. They should not be oozing through into daytime consciousness and demonstrating their power to disquiet me as I sit in a solid dining room that I know cannot melt.
On the plane home, I booked a seat by an exit, because some five feet separate that row from the one in front, and thus people cannot recline their seats into your book-holding zone. It occurred to me mid-flight that the door looked rather flimsy, an assemblage of squares and lozenges with a thin-looking porthole through which you could see the cloud cover over Switzerland stretch to the horizon like a vast trifle. What if some loony took it into his head to try to open it? We’d all get sucked out and splattered over an Alp like raspberry vinegar on an ice-cream. Again I got this sensation: the aircraft walls were softening and thinning, and I leaned across my two seats as if bracing myself for a very long fall. Dammit, I had to give myself a very stiff talking-to. I am a seasoned air traveller who knows you can’t open the plug-door of an emergency exit at 30.000 feet. I have flown perhaps a hundred times without a daunt, so why this irrationality now? I don’t know. I do know that I don’t want a seat by the exit again, and that this new crackpot fear will resurface when I go back to Greece in January. What a bleeding nuisance.
Surreal moment from 1995 or so. I was examining for the Cambridge FCE oral tests at the Park Hotel in Athens. My room was on the second floor, commanding a view of Areos Park. With my back to the view, I was sorting out my papers when there came a knock on the window. This is the second floor, I thought: nobody can possibly be knocking on the window. But I turned, and sure enough, a young man of stunning good looks was standing in the narrow window-box, two storeys above the street and inches away from a horrible death. Notwithstanding, he smiled and indicated cheerfully that he wanted me to open the window. He had the body of Michelangelo’s David – I could tell, because he was wearing only a pair of tiny red shorts. I slid open the window and he jumped into the room with a lithe, muscular, masculine grace not hitherto brought to the vacating of a second-storey window-box. He said ‘ευχαριστώ’, thanks, and loped off into the corridor. I followed, transfixed by those flowing muscles and the perfection of his proportions, almost expecting that he would not take the stairs or the lift, but dematerialise or be assumed into Heaven instead. When he disappeared unmiraculously round a corner, I went back into the room and looked out at the window-box. It appeared to run the length of the building under the window sills, and was perhaps three feet deep. Nothing would have induced me to walk its length – not even if I had had a body like his and could entertain myself by appearing like an angel on gobsmacked poufters’ window-boxes to flabbergast them with my daring and beauty. My palms are sweating now at the thought.