No word from Richard Dawkins about yesterday’s blog, despite my tagging him on Twitter. I suspect he has muted me and is presently sticking pins in a voodoo doll of my image. Anyhow, on to today’s true story…
One sunny day in June 2010, I was on my way to Geneva, on my third travel trip for the Sunday Times. It was a walking holiday in the French Alps, and I wasn’t much of a walker. I was also having a full-scale nervous breakdown, permanently trembling and worrying about being killed, thanks to running the Atheist Bus Campaign and receiving an Inbox full of hate mail. Two months later, my mental state would grow so dark that I would no longer be able to continue working, and would start frequenting suicide forums instead. But until that point, I struggled on.
That day, in addition to my acute anxiety, I was also worrying about flying. I hate flying, and even though the Sunday Times had sent me on a fear of flying course the previous September and I desperately wanted to travel, I couldn’t quite rid myself of my irrational fear of planes. (Read my quite fun piece on flying here, or just the quite fun first paragraph if you can’t get past the paywall.)
My boyfriend at the time, who I was deeply in love with, accompanied me to Gatwick, and I sat nervously with him in the airport. Suddenly, he started crying big tears. ‘Oh baby!’ I said, stroking his face, full of emotion, ‘I don’t want to leave you either!’
‘No, it’s not that,’ he replied.
‘What is it then?’ I asked, confused.
‘I’m thinking about my ex,’ he replied, dabbing at his eyes. ‘I dropped her off here a few years ago when she went away for a long time.’
So that was nice.
But I had bigger problems: I had a whole world of fear and depression in my head, and had to get on the plane. It was only a short flight to Geneva – less than two hours’ duration – but I was still terrified.
[An easyJet plane. I didn’t find flying in it so easy.]
Eventually I boarded the small easyJet aircraft, and settled into an aisle seat halfway down, next to a middle-aged man. Hoping to distract myself from the prospect of my impending death in a fireball, I tentatively struck up a conversation with him.
He was lovely and happy to chat: I remember that he reassured me about the safety of the plane, and showed me pictures of his kids. I showed him a picture of my boyfriend and told him how much I loved him (my boyfriend, not the middle-aged man. That would have been a bit forward).
‘Why are you going to Geneva?’ he asked.
‘I’m covering a walking holiday for the Travel section of the Sunday Times,’ I told him.
‘Oh wow,’ he answered. ‘That’s very cool. I’ll look out for your write-up.’
‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘How about you? Why are you going to Geneva?’
‘I’m on my way to a conference for work,’ he replied. So far, so dull.
‘What do you do?’ I asked.
‘I’m in armament sales,’ he said breezily.
Armament sales? This lovely man was an arms dealer!
I gulped, and tried to recover my composure. ‘And are you going to the conference alone?’
‘Oh no,’ he said matter-of-factly. ‘Pretty much everyone else on this plane is going, except you!’
I WAS ON A PLANE FULL OF ARMS DEALERS! I started freaking out even more inside, thinking the plane might be a target (for whom exactly, peace activists? I hadn’t really thought this through) but thankfully my fears were unfounded.
I made it to Geneva in one piece, and was met at the airport and driven to the location by the organiser of the trip. However, I was so sick with anxiety the whole time I was there, I failed to do any walking. Feeling guilty and unprofessional, I wrote the piece as though I had, but I actually spent all my time in the chalet shaking and crying.
On my last day, the organiser drove me up a hill and took some photos of me pretending to walk.
[Me in the Alps. I am smiling for the photograph. Inside, I was dying.]
The Sunday Times never ran the piece, though I’m not sure why. They said they were very happy with it; it was slated to run, and they accepted a pitch for a further piece, but sometimes features just don’t make it into print. I haven’t written for them since, though I’d like to.
I left the boyfriend two years later (he was still in love with his ex, and probably is to this day) and never really got over my fear of flying.
I also never met another arms dealer, to my knowledge – though if they’re all as nice as the bloke on the plane, I wouldn’t mind.
This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters Peter Weilgony, Ricky Steer, Marc Alexander, Sammy and Jelly, Charlie Brooker, Mary and Tim Fowler, Steve Richards, Alan Brookland, Mark Ormandy, Oliver Vass, Keith Bell, John Fleming, Mark Bailey, Rebekah Bennetch, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Aragorn Strider, Lucy Spencer, Dave Nattriss, MusicalComedyGuide.com, Mark White, Dave Cross, Graham Nunn, David Conrad, Rob Turner, Shane Jarvis, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.