I have been in quite a few terrifying situations at various times in my life. I have been threatened with a knife twice; been at gunpoint once; been stuck on a steep, high mountain side with no handholds and my feet sliding away beneath me; had an attack of vertigo when I was almost at the top of a tall ladder; been in a descending plane when it had a near miss with another that chose to amble across the runway just as we had almost touched down...
There have been others, some even worse. Some so bad, I don't even want to talk about them. But, despite my terror, my fear for my life on each of these occasions, I have never, ever, been 'scared stiff'.
I suppose the expression was invented to describe a sensation of being frozen to the spot like a rabbit in headlights; of being so terrified that you turn instantly into a pillar of salt, an Anthony Gormley statue or a relief figure on the Elgin Marbles. Perhaps this happens to some people. Not me. Rather than being scared stiff, I am scared wobbly.
Yes, whenever I am truly terrified - when, walking home in the dark, I hear footsteps stealthily approaching behind me, or sounds outside my ground floor bedroom window at night - I am instantly transformed into one of our ancestors from millions of years ago, before bones developed, when we were still amoebae. I become a thing of jelly. I quiver. My leg bones turn into slugs. My heart flutters with the speed of a hummingbird's wings. I am utterly useless, but I am not stiff. Especially not my bottom lip!
Hang on... Did I say 'utterly useless'? That's wrong. In moments of sheer terror, one faculty has never deserted me and that is the power of speech. When I was dragged up an alleyway at knife point back in 1966 as I was walking home from a nightclub at 3 am, full of supreme confidence that my very youthfulness would protect me from danger (and still with enough energy to walk four miles), my tongue was my saviour.
Remembering something my mother told me when she was on the point of being murdered (be patient, all will be revealed in my memoir!), I started speaking to the young man who had seized my arm and was pointing the knife blade at me. I talked... and went on talking in a low, hypnotic tone, telling him he didn't really want to harm me and he knew what would happen to him if he did, until eventually the hand holding the knife dropped and I seized my chance and ran back down the alley to the main road. My tongue saved me from the gun threat, too. That's another long story and that, too, will be in the memoir.
Let's hope that if I ever get scared wobbly again, I'll still have the wit to use that ultimate weapon - words. When in a tight spot, talk, talk, talk. Or even sing!