I had a few weird beliefs as a child. Some of the stranger ones were: that my grandmother was alive at the same time as Jesus; that the place where I lived constituted the whole world; and that there were about a hundred people in the world and I knew most of them.
I also believed there were lions in Tasmania. When I watched ‘Kimba the White Lion’ or an African wildlife documentary, I thought the African jungle was part of Tasmania. I couldn’t see it, of course, because of the hills around Launceston. But if I climbed one of them, there it would be: Africa. And not only Africa, but America, too, and Israel and Egypt and all the other countries that I’d heard about. They were all there, just beyond the horizon.
And over there, in Africa, the animals roamed. Not just wallabies and possums, but monkeys, elephants, and giraffes. And lions.
The thought of lions scared me rigid. It wasn’t their teeth or the way they shredded their prey — it was their roar. They just opened their mouths as if to yawn and out it rolled, a peal of thunder, as easy as undoing a zipper. As if the lion was saying, I’ve finished my meal of gazelle or antelope or whatever it was, and I’ll just lie here, toss my Barry Gibb mane, have a bit of a stretch and a yawn, and let out a giant rrrooaaAAAAGHGH to let you all know I’m the king, in case you’d forgotten.
As a child, I had a recurring nightmare in which a lion was eating through a wall of our house. I’d flee into another room and slam the door shut, but the lion would eat through the door. I’d run outside, and it would follow me, roaring and chomping through doors and walls and fences. I’d try to escape by climbing into our late ‘60s Holden Premier, locking the doors, and curling up in a ball on the floor, hoping it wouldn’t find me.
Eventually, things would quieten and I’d lift my head to peek. There it would be at the car window, watching me as I cowered, whiskers twitching and golden mane swinging like it was in a shampoo ad. The car would rock as it pawed at the light blue duco. It would open its mouth and roar, and I’d see its uvula and right down its throat.
I’d bring my arms up over my head and hide my face until I heard the metal of the car door crumple and the lion chomping and chewing again. I’d scramble to the other side, and shake the door handle, trying to open it. It would eventually give and I’d hurl myself out, running as fast as I could, screaming, ‘Help! Help! A lion is chasing me.’ People would stop and stare as I scuttled down the street in my smocked dress and Mary Janes, chased by a lolloping lion.
I’d feel the lion’s breath on my neck and turn every now and then to see it galloping behind, stretching out its forelegs, its muscles undulating under its coat. I’d will my legs to move faster and wish it would chase someone else, but it never did.
Then I’d wake, my hair wet and the sheets matted from crying and tossing in my sleep. I’d lie panting, overcome with relief that it was over. The nightmare had ended.
Around this time, we took holidays in our caravan at Sandy Cape on the north coast of Tasmania. Our campsite was at the base of a hill. Half-way up the hill, Dad dug a hole, around which he erected sheets of tin for a dunny. I refused to use it, not only because of the pong, but because I was convinced the jungles of Africa were at the top of the hill and those lions would sneak down and get me while I was otherwise occupied.
Each morning when I woke, I feared opening my eyes in case a lion was peering through the window. When Dad went shooting one night up over the hill, I begged him not to go.
‘There are lions,’ I said.
‘Don’t be silly. There are no lions in Tasmania,’ he said.
‘How do you know?’
‘I just know. Everybody knows.’
‘Because there are no lions in Tasmania.’
‘What if they’ve come over from Africa?’
‘They can’t. Africa is miles and miles away, across a huge ocean.’
‘Are you sure?’
The next day when I woke, I checked that Dad was there, in his camp-stretcher, alive and in one piece.
‘Did you see any lions?’
‘’Course not. There aren’t any. C’mon, I’ll show you.’
‘No. No. I can’t,’ I said, shaking my head, my legs jiggling.
‘Come on. I’ll take you up there and show you there aren’t any lions.’
‘What if there are?’
‘There aren’t. I’ve been up there.’
I let him take my hand and we walked up the sandy track through the scrub, past the stinking dunny, and further up. As we neared the top of the hill, I tugged at his arm. ‘I don’t want to go up there.’
‘Come here.’ He hoisted me into his arms and carried me the rest of the way. I wrapped my legs around his waist, squeezing tight with my knees, and buried my head between his neck and shoulder. I didn’t look. When he stopped, I kept my head down and my eyes squeezed shut.
‘See, there are no lions,’ he said. ‘Have a look for yourself.’
I shook my head.
‘Come on.’ He nudged me with his shoulder.
I gripped his neck. ‘Don’t let me go.’
‘I won’t. Just open your eyes and have a look.’
‘There aren’t any lions?’
‘Nope. No lions.’
I kept my chin tucked tight against his shoulder and opened my eyes to a squint. Grass — normal grass, not jungle grass. I lifted my chin a little. More grass and scrub, just like around Launceston and nothing like Africa. Finally, I raised my head fully. It was all normal, brown bush, like I’d seen everywhere else. No jungle. No Africa.
And no lions.
‘There are no lions,’ I said.
‘No, definitely no lions,’ said Dad.
I have never been one to believe what I was told; I’ve always liked proof and evidence. So thanks, Dad, for taking me up there and showing me there was only bush at the top of that hill, with no lions and no Africa.
I think the nightmares stopped soon after that.
Are there things you know now that you didn’t know as a child? Did you have some funny or weird beliefs? What about irrational childhood fears or a recurrent nightmare? (Or am I just strange? Don’t answer that…) I’d love to hear about them.