What does it say about me that whenever I hear Ennio Morricone’s title score for The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, I am gripped with fear? Every person has his hang-ups, I suppose, but as phobias go, mine is pretty strange – although I did recently hear tell of a Hollywood actor who is terrified of antiques!
When I was growing up, my parents very rarely left me alone with a babysitter. It was not because they harboured any irrational fears of what might befall their only son – this story takes place in the years long before video nasties helped push ‘babysitter’ up the world’s rankings as one of the most dangerous professions – rather that they just never went out together very much. It must have been a special occasion!
The babysitter would have been a neighbour. I recall she looked a bit like Sandie Shaw – although, to be fair, everybody I remember from that time looked a bit like Sandie Shaw. She was dressed all in black, with a string of conker-sized, white plastic beads hung around her neck, and a silver slide in her dark hair. She smelled soapy and nice. She smiled down at me the whole time my dad was telling her not to stand for any of my nonsense, and to make sure that the door to my bedroom was shut tight when I went to bed.
This last condition was a bone of contention between my dad and me. And he had nobody but himself to blame.
The two of us had been watching a war film together – The Heroes of Telemark. An unfortunate German sentry, left to guard a footbridge high in the Norwegian mountains, is killed and his body dumped into the ravine below. As the inky blackness swallows up his lifeless form, I burst into sudden, uncontrollable tears.
My dad looks across at me, worried he might have to do something, and says. ‘What’s the matter with you?’
I can’t get the words straight to begin with. In fact, I’m not even sure I have the words, I am so small. But eventually I manage to convey some sense of what I am feeling – I am suddenly, totally aware that, one day, I am going to die.
‘Of course you’re going to die,’ says my dad. ‘We all die eventually.’ He says this as if it is the most obvious thing in the world, and that the sooner I accept this, the sooner we can get back to watching Kirk Douglas kill more Nazis.
I sob even more. I am terrified. I am going to die. I am too young to understand what this even means. It isn’t healthy – and so it proves: I become afraid of the dark. From that point onwards, I scream down the house if my bedroom door isn’t left slightly ajar, so that light from the hallway outside can suffuse the blackness.
When it came to my bedtime, I had begged and pleaded with the babysitter to be allowed to leave the door to my bedroom slightly open. She had finally, reluctantly, agreed. I settled down to sleep, while the babysitter settled down to do whatever babysitters do when their charges sail off across the gulf of dreams.
From what seemed an endless, ageless void, I awoke with night terrors, my young heart racing. The room was pitch black, save for a vertical slash of light, honeyed at the edges. I gripped the bed sheets, cocooning myself against whatever had awoken me. In the darkness on all sides, there were voices, barks and chants – fierce, angry voices – urging me, urging me from my slumber. Then came a sound so forlorn, it was as if a solitary wolf was baying from one end of the long hallway, outside my bedroom door, to the other. It seemed to spur the voices into a renewed conflagration and they began to shout and cry again to one another.
I was aware of a rhythmic pounding, cut through with a static whine, and the twang and groan of something deep and primal. The voices grew close-knit, a rising wail that seemed to flail and writhe in the darkness about my head. The room pitched wildly, the bedclothes folding inwards, sucking me down into their depths. I dissolved into pure terror and screamed and screamed and screamed again.
Then all was silence and light and comfort as the babysitter soothed me back into the night meadows of my imagination and left me there to count the stars.
The next morning the door to my bedroom was closed tight.
Writer’s Note | While this memory came back to me almost fully formed, a little digging about dates the events described to 1968 when I was three years old. Hugo Montenegro had a sizeable hit, that year, with his cover version of the theme from The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. It was undoubtedly he – and not Ennio Morricone as I have always believed – whose version was playing on the babysitter’s transistor radio in the kitchen when I awoke that night. It is true that I find the music unnerving to this day – certainly as a child I couldn’t be in the same room with it – but its power to frighten has diminished with the years. All the same, I hope I have given you some sense of its effect on my young mind. You may also be interested to know that the special occasion which afforded the novelty of a babysitter was anything but – my dad’s mother passed away that night. The last thing I remember watching on television with her was an episode of Casey Jones, a programme about a locomotive engine driver in the old American West.