My Fear and I

Published in the literary magazine Structo



I do not remember when the fear appeared on my tongue for the first time. It seems it has always been there, eating my words. Cat got your tongue? That’s what people said to me. But it was the fear that had got my tongue.


When it was young, it fed on hard consonants. It scooped the hardness out as they went past and left them limpid and humiliated. Ball to pall. Dick to tick. God to cod. Soon, the hard consonants refused to be spoken. Other words had to be used instead.


Sometimes, however, there are no alternatives. Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan. A new strategy was needed. I learnt that I could hide wanted words beneath unwanted words, and the fear would let them pass. Dylan beneath Bob beneath Mr. Mr-Bob-Dylan.


Then one day it rumbled the ruse. It was maddened at the deception. It strangled soft consonants. It feasted on vowels. The more words it ate, the larger it grew. And the larger it grew, the more words it ate. It spread the fear of cod in them. Soon, no word was safe.


When it was king of the roost, it began to be noticed in the world. Children mocked it. Women pitied it. Men were disgusted by it. No one said anything, but I could see them thinking it. I wished I could not see so much in other people’s eyes because the fear fed off what it found there. It fed and swelled on my tongue.


The cognitive speech therapists explained it. They drew flow charts and spider diagrams to rationalise it. They used tally counters to measure it and Tictaphones to record it. They played it back to me and I hated it.


Now, it is the morning rush hour; faces mottled from lack of sleep queue for the ticket pox. The fear is more at home here than me, amidst the hustle and pustle. We stand in line, my fear and I, five from the front. The self-service machine is out of order. As soon as it saw the yellow tape across the screen, it unfurled fat on my tongue, wet with anticipation. It is hard to swallow, the fear has crown so pig. Single to Bethnal Green. It will have every letter of every last one of them.


I know how this will play out. I will step forward, look the man in the blue uniform in the eye, and open my mouth to speak. I will try to say, single. But the fear will snap it and trap it and sap it of strength, and all that will come out is a hiss, like a snake. For a moment the man’s eyes will be loud as words. “This fellow is not normal,” they will say. “Twitching and hissing, like a snake. It's weird is what it is. Scary.” This will only be for a splinter of an instant, and then they will glaze over. They will hide behind the silent blankness we all wear among strangers. I used to wish I too could hide my fear. I am at the front now. We step forward, my fear and I, to break the silence together.