Bang, bang, I’m dead

‘The worst thing about my condition is that it makes me feel like the world’s biggest wimp’ – Dominic Hilton opens up about his lifelong phobia

Artillery Row

I was at a dinner party in Buenos Aires, enjoying a plate of fried dough fritters, when the hostess placed her wine glass onto the tablecloth, saying, “So, the other day, I was held hostage at gunpoint.”

She delivered her news as if she was describing a routine errand. Picking up laundry. Shopping for fish. Something like that.

There was a moment’s  silence, before a voice asked, “Where was this?”

“At the Italian restaurant just across the street,” Valentina said, fluttering a vague hand. “Do you know it?”

I mentioned that I eat lunch there all the time, and she said, “Well, I was eating lunch there with a friend, when two men pulled up on motorbikes and pointed guns at everybody, like this.”

She made guns with her fingers, aiming them around the table at her guests.

“What did you do?” we asked, as one.

“What do you think?” She gave a nonchalant shrug. “I’m Venezuelan. I dived under the table.”

This confused me, not least because she was seven months pregnant.

“It’s what we always do in Caracas,” she explained, caressing her belly. “We hide and we close our eyes. Under no circumstances do you ever want to witness anything. That can be very dangerous.”

That can be dangerous?

The conversation turned to the motivations of the gunmen, who’d ultimately targeted a table of four wealthy male diners. “Most likely it was political,” somebody said, prompting general murmurs of agreement, but my thoughts had drifted off somewhere else entirely. I was recalling the last time I was held hostage by a terrifying, hostile intruder. Haunted by the dark memory, I sank low in my chair, palms sweating, my appetite now completely lost.

It happened one hazy summer afternoon, over a year ago now, before the pandemic. I was sat with my Dutch friend, Sander, watching football and drinking beer in the seedy dining room of a Buenos Aires social club. It was just us, the waiters, and a dozen or so local men screaming obscenities at the crappy, wall-mounted TV.

Parked with my back against a wall, I spotted the invader immediately out of the corner of my well-trained eye. The other idiots in the room remained oblivious as the unwelcome guest floated silently through the narrow doorway, drifting like tumbleweed towards our tables across the rutted floor. I felt my head start to spin like a merry-go-round as my heart launched into a drum solo worthy of Gene Krupa. Fidgeting in my rickety wooden chair, I primed myself to make a sudden, desperate dash for safety.

“What’s the matter with you?” Sander asked, but all I could offer him was a shake of my whirling head, the power of speech having completely abandoned me.

No sudden moves. Think only of yourself. You know the drill. Do whatever you have to do.

As the danger mounted, now looming within a matter of feet and inches, I could stand no more. With a flash of inspiration, I seized the only opportunity to take cover available to me, diving headfirst through an open window.

Outside, bathed in the warm sunlight of late afternoon and blessedly able to breathe again, I made an emergency call.

“What should I do?” I asked my girlfriend.

“You’ll have to explain,” Catherine said, matter-of-factly.

“You mean…” I could barely fashion the words. “…tell Sander?”

“That’s right,” said Catherine. “Spit-spot.”

“But he’ll think I’m insane!” I protested.

There was a weighty pause. “Well,” she said at length, “that’s a chance you’ll have to take.”

I pocketed my phone, hating myself and cursing the gods as I paced back and forth on the street corner like a leggy sex worker in desperate need of a fix. Steadying myself on the kerb, I reached one last time for my phone and made the call I’d prayed my whole life I’d never have to make.

“Where are you?” Sander shouted.

“I’ll explain,” I said. “But we need to go to another bar.”

“What? Why?”

“I told you: I’ll explain. Please, just do as I say. I’ll see you in five.”

He met me in a horrible tourist trap up the street. I had a beer waiting for him. No amount of therapy could ever help me forget the look of suspicion in his eyes as he approached our table.

“So… what’s going on?” he asked, perching himself warily on the edge of a stool. “Why the hell did you dive out of the window?”

OK, fruitcake, I thought, this is it. The moment you’ve always dreaded. It’s finally caught up with you, today, in Buenos Aires, of all places. After this, there’ll be no going back. You’ll be out of the closet, your last shreds of dignity abandoned forever.

I considered concocting some sort of farfetched fable, preferably blaming the entire sequence of events on Catherine. But then I remembered her inspiring words, spoken so movingly through a mouthful of rice cake, and I foolishly came to my senses. Clasping my hands together on the tabletop until my knuckles turned white, I took a lungful of courage-inducing air, and for the first time ever, offered up my humiliating confession.

As a child, I would run away from birthday parties, slipping out the back door and climbing over fences

Ever since I can remember, I’ve suffered from a phobia of balloons. As a child, I would run away from birthday parties, slipping out the back door and climbing over fences while everybody else was happily watching the magician fold squeaky inflatable animals. My outlandish disappearing acts would always result in parental panic and crying children. My mother would be telephoned, and search parties would invariably find me hiding in a hedge somewhere down the street or sat on a bench with a yellow-bearded tramp in a nearby park.

Strong-armed back to the parties, I’d arrive to find driveways littered with cars and front lawns beset with freaked-out mothers cuddling traumatised, thumb-sucking offspring. “What’s the matter with him?” the angry women would ask, eyeing me disgustedly, like I was riddled with a gruesome, face-deforming pox.

“Him?” my mother would scoff, jabbing a stiff index finger against my button nose. “There’s nothing wrong with him. Nothing whatsoever. He’s just a pathetic little cry-baby, that’s all. A very pathetic little cry-baby—aren’t you?” Then she’d bend me over her knee, pull down my sailor shorts, and spank me in front of everybody, for show. Which, to be fair, never failed to get the parties started again.

As a remedy, though, it didn’t work. People often ask me why I don’t yet have any children of my own, and I fob them off with pre-rehearsed drivel about timing and money. In reality, it’s the balloons. Kids love balloons, the little bastards. As a father, I’d still go AWOL from the obligatory weekly birthday parties, possibly hide in yet more hedges or hang out in parks with a new generation of smelly tramps. Two years ago, I ran away from my niece’s fifth birthday party. I’d travelled seven thousand miles to attend that one, arriving back in the UK the same morning, but a quick glance down my sister’s balloon-strewn hallway in Leigh-on-Sea and I knew I had no option but to bolt. I ended up spending five hours and fifty pounds in a dusty, second-hand bookshop. I even read an entire novel—P.G. Wodehouse, Doctor Sally—squatted uncomfortably in the bookstacks on a step stool.

“Is everything alright, son?” the owner of the bookshop came over to ask me. He handed me a mug of milky tea wearing a concerned frown, like he was worried I’d scaled the electric fence at one of the local asylums.

I took the tea, looking up at him with unspoken gratitude. “Yes, I’m really happy here, thank you. Would you mind if I stayed a little longer?”

When I slunk back into my sister’s house, the party was already a distant memory, and nobody even asked where I’d been. They all knew. My family has always known. The first words I ever spoke, at the age of fourteen months, were “Gone crash!” A statement, really. My parents insist they can’t recall which specific crash I was commenting upon, but in my house, it could have been anything. A saucepan dropped to the floor. A china plate tossed against a wall. Gunfire.

Because it’s not about balloons. Not really. It’s about bangs. And for whatever sadistic, sciencey reason, balloons are manufactured to pop. “There is no terror in the bang,” insisted Alfred Hitchcock, “only in the anticipation of it.” But that’s bullshit. There’s terror in both, trust me.

A car backfires. A motorbike revs its engine. A bus releases its air pressure. Somebody beeps their horn. It’s all I can do not to leap, whimpering, into the arms of a passer-by.

A barking dog. A thunderstorm. A buzzer ringing. A slammed door. Pretty much anything dropped onto wooden floorboards. In all cases, there’s me, rocketing into the air like a firework.

Balloons kill me because there’s no knowing when they’ll pop

Which are almost as bad as balloons, by the way. When I was seventeen, I broke up with my girlfriend on Bonfire Night. Her mum had gone to Tenerife with her new stepdad, so she’d invited me over to spend the night. The poor girl had a big romantic evening planned and greeted me at the door wearing nothing but a big smile and the sexy new lace-trim camisole she’d purchased especially for the occasion. “Do you like it?” she said, striking a coquettish pose which on any other day would have left me panting like a terrier with heatstroke. Instead, stood with my knees knocking and my fingers in my ears, I peeked for half a second at her nipples, which were jutting suggestively through the shimmering burgundy silk of her negligee, and barged past her into the house, barking an extensive list of vulgarities. I spent the rest of the evening behaving like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man—one of her favourite films, as it happened, though mainly because of Tom Cruise. Rocking back on forth on the floor, I made all manner of unattractive squealing sounds as I blasted hideous rock music into my ears through her stepdad’s circumaural headphones while demanding refills of the whisky I’d filched from his drinks cabinet. Come midnight, I was lying in a pool of my own vomit, and she had changed into a pair of flannel pyjamas.

Alas, little else changed. Not then, not now. Christmas Eve in Argentina is the one night of the year that I empathise with dogs. Only jerks use fireworks, and in Buenos Aires, families happily blow half a year’s budget on the hellish things. My strategy is to get smashed on pisco sours then stand outside, staring wide-eyed at the sky, wearing earplugs. I find it helps, sort of, if I can anticipate the bangs to within a second of the flash. Then I brace myself, muttering a desperate prayer or two, wishing I was anyone else.

Balloons kill me because there’s no knowing when they’ll pop. In 2010, I found myself at the election night house party of a famous London socialite. The event was littered with famous faces admiring their contoured reflections in the mirrored tables, and much of what I saw that night would bag me a small fortune if I ever choose to sell the stories to The Sun. Not that I was paying very close attention, on account of the gilded rooms being jam-packed with the biggest balloons I had ever seen. These 72-inch latex globes clung to the mansion’s lofty glass ceilings like they were trying to escape the decadent horror show beneath them, and every once in a while, without warning, one of them would commit suicide. The noise was nothing short of deafening.

I was working at the party with my Italian friend, Nico, now a photographer for National Geographic and quite possibly the most laidback man on the planet. Whenever a balloon detonated, he wouldn’t even flinch. Leaning casually against the wall, hands buried deep in the pockets of his suit trousers, he’d watch me with a semi-amused expression on his handsome face as I descended slowly back to terra firma. Then, through a leonine yawn, he’d say, “What is your problem, man?” And I’d give serious thought to pinning his grisly murder on one of the cokehead celebrities.

I’ve learned to mute the television whenever a gun appears in a movie

One year before, on yet another Bonfire Night, my parents volunteered to take me out for pizza in a hopeless attempt to quell my fears. It did help, fleetingly, in that inside the restaurant the general, family-led din would’ve drowned out a nuclear explosion. But as we left, and were climbing into the car, a bomb went off right above our heads. It made me jump so violently that I sliced my navel on my belt buckle. What stunned me most, though, was my parents’ total non-reaction. I couldn’t have asked for better evidence that there was something hideously wrong with me. It was as if they’d pre-programmed their minds, and in that millisecond after the blast, before they’d had a chance to demonstrate the normal human reaction—dive for cover, check vitals—the programme told them, “Hey, it’s just a firework, it’s Bonfire Night!” Because surely, hopefully, on any other night they’d react if a bomb went off within feet of them. If not, then one wonders how many unreported terrorist attacks take place each year in the British Isles.

I’ve learned to mute the television whenever a gun appears in a movie, which drives company I’m keeping to distraction. Cinemas are no fun, obviously, and I once woke up an entire cabin on a transatlantic flight after leaping from my seat with an ear-splitting yelp, thanks to an off-screen salvo in the film I was watching. Worst of all is live theatre, as every modern play involves a gun, just waiting to go off in the second act. I thought I was safe with Shakespeare, until I went to the Globe, and for no reason at all they fired Elizabethan cannons from the rafters.

I dragged my date from the theatre, saying, “I don’t know, I just didn’t think it was any good.”

My date had read English Literature at Cambridge—of course. Her eyes narrowed. “But… it’s Hamlet,” she said, in a loaded voice.

Flashbangs on farms. Hunters with shotguns. A headmaster at school who would slap the blackboard to underline some fact we were supposed to learn. Party poppers. Cars that toot when you lock or unlock the doors. The list is endless and continually growing. I keep notes on where in musical scores the cymbal crashes are, and I curse myself when I forget to consult them. I can barely remember my name if there is a sharp noise, or the threat of loud noise, of any kind. I grind my teeth to dust at the mere existence of my neighbours.

The symptoms are always the same. Along with the sweaty palms, my brain turns to guacamole and my speech starts to slur. With the rapid onset of fear comes near-homicidal anger and an overwhelming sense of panic and dread. Phonophobia, I’ve heard it called. Also, sonophobia, ligyrophobia, misophonia, hyperacusis, sound-emotion synaesthesia, and sensory over-responsivity with a comically heightened startle reflex. When I research how to cope, I am confronted with such useful advice as “Check your state of mind.” I may, suggest the journal articles, have a neurodevelopmental disorder.

“Codswallop!” said my mother, when I presented her with the evidence. “Self-indulgent twaddle! What you need, young man, is a firm kick up the backside.”

I’m told by those better in the know that phobias are a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: intense learning experiences in reaction to a stimulus. In other words, I’ve taught myself to be scared of bangs, and taught myself well, I might add. “You need to reprogram your mind,” my friend Marc told me, and I just assumed he didn’t mean generally.

The worst thing about my condition is that it makes me feel like the world’s biggest wimp

Apart from the organisational challenges, the worst thing about my condition is that it makes me feel like the world’s biggest wimp. What sort of man is scared of balloons and car alarms? My entirely rational fear of war is undermined by my entirely irrational reason for fearing it. Death? Whatever. Bangs? Not on your nelly. I have a good friend who is a former war correspondent, and when he talks about his haunting experiences in the world’s most dangerous conflict zones, all I can think is: How did you ever sleep with all that noise?

It’s not hereditary, so I can’t blame my parents. In the 1940s, my father was stationed with the British Army in Hong Kong, where he regularly used to fall asleep under twenty-five-pound field guns firing cordite shells into the Chinese countryside.

What I have inherited from my father is exceedingly narrow ear canals, which makes no sense at all. Most days, I’m half-deaf. Every three months or so I need to have my ears syringed. “My whole life, I have never seen so much earwax!” my ENT doctor in Buenos Aires shouted at me when I last visited her. “How do you hear anything?”

In Buenos Aires, it’s hard to hear nothing. This is a loud city, where football fans shoot guns into the air when the national team scores a goal. It’s frequently as noisy at 3am as it is at 3pm, and 4am is considered an ideal time to start moving furniture or begin a non-essential hammering project. High on sugar, children stay up all night, given free rein to run riot through stairwells, corridors and even whole neighbourhoods. Dogs are left out on balconies to bark incessantly at the endless police sirens. Dilapidated, smoke-belching buses run twenty-four-seven. In my old apartment, 2:45am was deemed an appropriate occasion to drop ten or twenty glass bottles into the building’s deep recycling bins. At the same hour, the ageing businessman who lived across the street would shuffle out of his front door wearing nothing but underpants, socks and sliders, then spend ninety minutes raucously jet-spraying the colonial façade of his townhouse.

Thankfully, I don’t eat at McDonald’s, which litters its restaurants, and therefore the streets, with branded balloons. When I’m out walking, I swear they chase me through the city, forcing me to take alternative routes. They make me hate capitalism. And children.

Coming out of the phobia closet has been a mostly rewarding experience

Not that adults can be trusted. “KINKY SEX: I get paid £200 an hour to pop balloons and wrap men up in cotton wool to satisfy their bizarre fetishes” ran a 2019 headline in The Sun. The “news story” profiled Lilly and Autumn, two sex workers who ply their trade at a brothel in Sheffield’s red-light district. On the subject of balloons, Lilly is quoted as saying, “Some [clients] like you to pop them between your legs and some with your hands. I’ve got a guy who likes me to bounce on them till I pop them with my arse.” Then, unforgivably, she adds, “Every time I popped one I got the giggles. It was really fun. I got paid to giggle for an hour.”

Fun? The woman should be locked away. For life.

My own fetish, for a world without balloons, has now taken on a life of its own. To my surprise, coming out of the phobia closet has been a mostly rewarding experience. If I’m invited to a party, I call ahead. “Will there be balloons at this bash?” I ask, and if I’m told there will be, I sigh in a reproachful way, saying, “Are you insane? Do you want me to come or not?”

It has gained me a strange reputation, but one I think I can live with. It has also taught me that some people prefer flexible bags filled with gas to my company.

Back in the horrible tourist bar, Sander gave me the look people give when they are quietly reassessing their entire opinion of you. I tried to ignore it, staring into my beer.

“Maybe you should write about your problem,” he suggested, breaking the awkward, dragging silence. “You know, open up. Get it off your chest. Tell the world.”

“Why the hell would I want to do that?”

But all he offered me was a shrug of his shoulders. “I don’t know,” he said, slowly turning his attention to a football match on the TV above my head. “I mean, to be honest with you, amigo, it’s just so fucking weird.”

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