I was watching the BBC dramatisation of Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’. It was the execution of Ann Boleyn – a grim scene. She was determined to see it through bravely, despite clearly being terrified. Her chin and cheeks were shivering uncontrollably, the poor lass. She had been a thoroughly dislikeable character throughout the series, but nevertheless one felt overpowering empathy for her in this cruel moment.
Apart from the fear, what struck me was how prolonged the process was. She had to climb steps up to the scaffold, receive a blessing from the vicar, say goodbye to her ladies-in-waiting, kneel at the block, have the blindfold fitted – and on it went. Did the prolonged process make it more, or less bearable? I don’t know. But serious, frightening processes more often than not take a long time.
Many years ago I went through a short period of being afraid of flying. I don’t know where it came from. For the rest of my life, before and after that time, I have enjoyed flying tremendously, except for the excruciatingly long, boring flights between Australia and Europe. But at that time, I was afraid of dying in a crash, and I dreaded the takeoff.
It took so long to get ready for takeoff, it seemed as though it would never happen – in which case there was theoretically nothing to fear. First you had to get to the airport. That took a while. Then you had to wait in a queue to check-in (no internet check-ins or touch-screen check-in kiosks in those days). Then you had to line up for the security checks. They weren’t quite as bad then as in these paranoid times. The main thing airline operators were worried about was planes dropping out of the sky because their computers broke with the Y2K bug – not something you can prevent by checking people’s baggage.
Then you had to go to the gate and wait for the flight to be called. Once it was called you had to wait in a queue to board. Once you were on board it was still slow going to get to your seat and get settled in. Then you had to wait for everybody else to be seated, all the pre-flight checks to be completed, the safety drills and announcements. Next, the pushback, the reversing. Then you had to wait what seemed forever while the plane pusher detached and the aeroplane prepared to move forward under its own power. Then the taxiing, which seemed to take forever. Finally the wait to move onto the runway, with sometimes as many as three or four planes in front.
Once we were on the runway, the process accelerated rapidly. We adopted the take-off position, facing down the runway from dead in the middle. I presume the pilots just did a few last-minute checks: flaps out, auto-brakes on, runway lights on. After no more than ten seconds for this they suddenly went VRRRROOOOOOOMMM and we were all slung back in our seats as the behemoth charged down the runway and hurled itself into the air.
It may have been only ten to fifteen minutes from boarding to take-off, but it seemed like an eternity. Even sitting in my seat and watching the safety drill, the take-off seemed so far-off and unreal that it was silly to worry about it.
Yet, somehow, it finally happened.
It wasn’t the take-off I was afraid of though. It was cruising so high up in the air. I just felt that at any moment we would start to drop like a stone. Little did I know that take-off is the most dangerous time in a flight, because power is at a maximum and speeds are higher than at landing. Or that jets can glide an awfully long way without engine power, and landing with no engines is a drill regularly performed by pilots in simulators. At any point in a flight the pilots will always know where is the nearest airport at which they can land.
There are so many things that are a bit, or a lot, frightening. Some of them take a long time to get ready for.
In my early thirties, I was unwell and had to have a bone marrow biopsy. I had been told they were painful. I went to the hospital on my own, had the biopsy and came home again. I remember it vaguely as being painful and frightening, but there are no details. I do remember that it took a long time to get ready. I don’t know whether the awfulness of it that I remember was the pain of the extraction itself or the anxiety of waiting during the preparation – curled up on my side while people in gowns did things to my back to prepare (I think they take it from one side or other of the pelvic bone – near the sacro-iliac joint, with a huge syringe).
More mundane events, that are not frightening at all, sometimes seem to take a long time to get ready for. Going to work and coming home from work are two of these. I am habitually late in leaving for work and late in leaving for home – at least since my children grew up. When they were little and we had a nanny that had to be relieved at a quarter to six I was out the door like a shot at the same time every day. But these days, with the kids all grown up, I dither about doing other things at both ends of the day, and am regularly late in commencing my journey. When I finally make a move to do so, I am constantly surprised at how long it takes me to get out of the door. Both leaving and arriving at work I change clothes in the change room, and I wonder at the large number of steps there are in that process. I feel a bit impatient in either direction – to get to my desk and start writing, or to get on my bike and start pedalling home. It is an opportunity to practice trying to be zen – something I am so pathetically bad at. I try to absorb myself in the intricate details of each movement – tying my shoelaces, putting on my reflective ankle bands, putting my work shoes back in my locker, etc, etc , etc. It works a bit to dissipate my impatience, but I’ve a long way to go before I have a black belt and can levitate or put myself in hibernation.
Some things are almost immediate, like scratching one’s nose or whistling a tune that is stuck in one’s head. But for many things, it takes a long time to get ready. Sometimes that seems a good thing, and sometimes it’s an annoyance.
Bondi Junction, February 2019