I remember the time the fear first hit me. I feel that I ought to spell that word with capitals, i.e. FEAR. I remember the time the FEAR first hit me. FEAR in capital letters. Needless to say I had known fear many times before that day and I have certainly been afraid in a lesser way many times since. But this was different, this was not your normal, everyday, run-of-the-mill fear at all but something far far worse, something as different from everyday fear as a falcon is different from a street pigeon, or as an attacking Doberman is different from a street cur that barks loudly but harmlessly from a safe distance. This was the real thing.
It hit me first in the stomach, very softly, like a snowflake landing. It touched me so very gently, it touched me as tenderly as a lover. People often say that fear has an icy touch, or perhaps a clammy touch, but for me the touch of fear was warm and intimate, like melting chocolate on my bare skin. Its intimacy was terrible. Its intimacy was such that from the very first moment it allowed me to know it completely. As soon as I felt it, it was as if I had never been without it. It made me feel as if I had known it forever. It made me feel as if it were the only real thing in the universe. My memory of a time when I was not afraid became instantly unreal. I could no longer relate to that time. My expectation of (or belief in) a future when I would not be afraid was non-existent. Fear was now my whole world, and I knew everything there was to know about it.
Only a second ago I had been my usual, cocky self. When I say usual, I mean usual for how I was then, as a relatively young man of 28 years of age. I wasn’t cocky because I had anything very much going for me, or because I had some sort of accomplishments under my belt, but because I was dumb. Such is youth. Or at least, such was my youth. I would hesitate before suggesting that all young men are as foolish, as clueless as I was then – although they may be, for all I know. I know exactly how dumb I was however because that – in immediate, garishly high-lighted retrospect – was the nature of the education the fear provided me with.
I could not believe that I could have been so completely dumb, so irredeemably stupid – and I wished with an intensity that I would never previously have thought possible that I could have stayed that way. But such incredible, blissful stupidity could never be mine again. I was – I realized in a flash – forever excluded from that most taken-for-granted, that most unappreciated of worlds – the sublimely oblivious world of normal human beings. The world I knew I too used to live in.
The fear came in the form of a perception, an awareness. It started out as a stretching or extension of my normal powers of perception – I simply found that I could hear that little bit better, see that little bit more acutely. This was a pleasant enough discovery, as far as I remember it. I delighted in the acuity of my senses, I marvelled at their scope and subtle sensitivity. The night was like a fine, richly woven fabric that stretched out infinitely into the distance. I could sense no end to this extension – the further out I sent my senses the more there was to become aware of. I fancied that my hearing had improved to what I can only describe as a ridiculous level. I could practically hear the beating hearts of birds that slept in the trees. I could hear people talking to each other as they walked down streets too far away to see. I could hear people thinking! Wherever I focussed my attention, there I would start to hear a wealth of detail – the more I listened the more there was to hear. All of this was impersonal; it had nothing whatsoever to do with me.
And then, with a shift which was so subtle as to be unnoticeable, all that completely changed. Permanently. It became personal. By accident almost, it seemed, I tuned into a police radio channel in which the discussion of conversion was clearly me. Officers had been around to Beaminster House making inquiries, and several people there in neighbouring flats had spoken of seeing someone fitting my description a few days earlier. That was only a few miles away from where I was now, down the other end of the South Lambeth Rd, and I experienced that sudden nasty thrill that comes that you get when you realize that people who bear you no good will have come close to tracking you down. They were close and they were getting closer – I could feel their attention, their mental probing, turning slowly but surely in my direction. Someone had clearly tipped them off as to where I was now living.
Of course I knew that I was, in theory at least, a wanted man and that there had been a long-standing warrant out for my arrest for jumping bail over a year ago, but this was not something that had been particularly worrying me. I could live with stuff like that, but what I was hearing now was definitely not something I could live with. They weren’t talking about arresting me as they made their way along the South Lambeth Road in the direction of Clapham and the squat where I was presently staying, they were talking of snuffing me. They were talking about snuffing me without any further ado. This was no normal everyday bust but some sort of covert hit squad, the sort of thing the police sometimes did – possibly very rarely did- when they really seriously didn’t like somebody, and really seriously couldn’t be bothered going through the inefficient and time-consuming judicial system.
Two different emotions arose simultaneously in me. One was extreme relief at the way in which I had been able to pre-empt – even if it was only by a matter of a few brief minutes – the plan of these grim and lethally efficient police officers, and the other was fear. The type of Total Fear that I have been telling you about – the type of fear that is a world to itself. In that very short space of time it took me to realize my predicament my world changed its focus forever. I had only a few brief moments to savour and marvel at the gift of my new vastly enhanced senses, and the near-omniscient awareness that came with them, before it all turned abruptly into a curse. It stayed a curse from that moment on – it never turned back into the tantalizing blessing that I knew for these first few seconds of my tremendously expanded consciousness.
The freedom of all-pervasive consciousness transformed at the speed of light into the unremitting pressure of paranoia. I knew I had to act and act fast. It was all about acting: from now on there was to be no more leeway, no more time to savour this or any other moment – no more time to linger over the inconsequential. This was life without any leeway, life without any room for error, life without any safety margin. This was life on the knife-edge and I knew without any doubt that my first mistake would also be my last. All this came to me clearly in an instant, all in the same instant, and I didn’t waste any time thinking about it. I didn’t mull it over, I didn’t reflect on my situation, or analyse it, or try to see if there were any other possible courses of action open to me, I just tore down the stair-well as fast as I could and headed off at a run to the nearest exit from the estate.
I knew that if I moved fast and didn’t waste a second I would be gone by the time the police snuff-squad got here, but I also knew it would be a very close thing. Again, as I put Ashmole estate behind me and headed off in the direction of Clapham South I experienced that strange mixed emotion – I felt delighted that I had outsmarted my pursuers and acute pleasure in my clear awareness that they would not be able to figure out how I had been able to stay ahead of them. And at the same time I was deadly afraid, terribly afraid, more afraid than I had ever been in my life.
I didn’t really appreciate it at the time, but I had just entered through a strange ‘one way door’ into a new and hitherto unknown world – a world of running. A world made up of nothing else but running, a world where running was all there was. This was a world where napping was not an acceptable pastime, and where the penalty was both swift and merciless. This was a world where you only got the one chance, a world where it was possible, only barely possible – and provided you thought fast enough and made no mistakes – to stay just ahead of one’s pursuers, but never by more than a hairsbreadth…