For me, one of the scariest episodes in literature occurs in Jules Verne’s ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth.’ Axel Lindenbrook, the main character, becomes separated from his companions, miles underground, and then his lamp goes out. He’s alone in utter darkness in a place no human has ever set foot before––and most likely never will again.
The reason I find the scene so terrifying is that––emotionally at least––my childhood was punctuated with what I think of as Axel Lindenbrook moments, when I felt stranded in total darkness.
The biggest of these moments happened after I was dumped by my first girlfriend, Muriel.
I can’t remember much about Muriel except that she had shoulder-length brown hair, which is mostly a non-description. She told me she was 15. I told her I was 16, and had a motorbike, which was being repaired. In reality she was probably 12, I was 13, and I only had a bicycle––although it was in need of repair.
She travelled half an hour by train to meet me one glorious Saturday. She wore jeans, a black shirt, a suede vest with fringes, and sandals. We held hands and walked down to the seafront. We walked along the seafront, had tea, walked to Hove Park, then eventually made our way back to the station, where I waited with her for the train.
It was one of the happiest moments of my childhood. I won’t say it was like Christmas, because my childhood Christmases were dismal, but it was a joyful day. I didn’t want it to go on for ever either, instead I wanted it to end. Maybe it’s just me, but I always expect happy times to go wrong, so I was actually a little relieved to see her off on the train. It also gave me the chance to give her a goodbye kiss on the cheek.
She kissed me back, on the corner of my mouth. I ran home, still with the sensation of her lips on mine. I lay on my bed, closed my eyes, and committed every moment of the glittering day to memory.
I wrote to her every day––letters filled with drawings of eagles, hawks, and falcons, along with their Latin names: Aqulia, Buteo, Peregrinus, and so forth. In spite of that, she agreed to see me a second time, and I volunteered to take the train ride to her town. Once again we held hands and wandered around.
That was the last time I saw her. I think maybe the problem was that she was happy to hold hands all day in my big city, where we were surrounded by thousands of people, none of whom knew her. But holding hands in her small town was a whole different matter.
The following week I wrote to her, and phoned her, every day, but got no response.
On the Saturday I went to her town again. This time I knocked on her door. There was no response, so I knocked again. Eventually Muriel’s father came round from behind the house, and told me that Muriel never wanted to see me again. He made it clear that he didn’t like seeing me either.
And so, Like Axel Lindenbrook, I made my way, thousands of meters down into the crater of an extinct Icelandic volcano. Was it something I said? The way I looked? What I was wearing? What could I have done differently?
Every chance I got I went to the train station and leaned on the railings, hoping that Muriel would magically appear, tell me it was a misunderstanding, and kiss me again.
Naturally she never did.
About six weeks later a girl named, Jill, reached down and helped me find a way out.
There were plenty more volcanic craters ahead of me, but at least the next few weren’t quite on an Icelandic scale.