I never knew how to explain to people

That at fourteen my greatest fear was that the world outside wasn’t real.

That windows lied to me.

That with a background of the TV’s droning I became convinced the rest of the world had ceased to exist.

That the spiked heads of trees and lazy clouds split between each plastic pane were as fake as the pixels on my phone screen.

That my dad, getting ready to roar at the football, that my mum, getting ready to dip a toe into a steaming bath, that I, highlighter poised getting ready to revise, were the world’s only centre of gravity. Sole inhabitants of a planet that started and ended with the ivy fronds that hugged the house. My house, with its cracked plaster and creaking floorboards, simply floating on its foundations.

Beyond the old aching walls nothing but





Blackness. Maybe a flickering star or two, if you squinted. A planet, looming, too distant to be noticed, our one and only neighbour.

I couldn’t describe the rising, heart-thudding, breath-stealing panic that led me stumbling towards the window to wrench the handle and double check the street and sky were still there.

So when they asked me my biggest fear, I mostly just said spiders.

Once, after five double rum and cokes, I attempted to tell a blind date. He blinked and laughed and said “Steady on, Black Mirror. I’d quite like to sleep tonight.”

I tried a second time, a Saturday afternoon: “Mum.” A towel corner tucked in her armpit, hair askew and dripping. “Mum.”

“Mm?” Half-listening.

“Do you ever think… do you ever feel like the outside is fake? Like views are a sticker you could peel away?”

For that I got a pat on the head and a chuckle. “Always had an overactive imagination, haven’t you, love.”

It’s happening again. Of course. That’s what this is – one last attempt. I’d have started with the dictionary definition of the phobia but I’ve Googled and never found it.

It makes sense. My teenage years were a kind of semi-voluntary quarantine. Isolation imposed by few friends and anxiety and a love of reading.

Week three of lockdown I rush to my window, throat constricted.

A ginger cat pads over to a strip of sunlight on the tarmac of my driveway, close to the curb. Green eyes like marbles. Licks its paw then curls into itself, getting ready to sleep in the afternoon heat.

I take two deep breaths of that definitely-real air. In, out. Sit back down. I’m more quickly and easily convinced that my mind’s playing tricks on me now.

Amongst the birdsong there’s the clang of wooden spoons against saucepans.

The news tells me there are rainbows Blu-tacked to windows. My mum tells me there are grandsons living with grannies, slow-dancing round their living rooms. My phone tells me baths are becoming botched hair salons and punters are cheers-ing to online pub quizzes. My friends tell me in a few months’ time we’ll meet and lick mint-choc-chip ice cream and dip our toes in busy lakes and lie back on sun-soaked blankets.

And I’m forced to admit

My imagination is good, yes.

But not that good.




Also by Alice