The brave quartet turns to face the medieval gateway, waiting for the monster to appear. Close-up on their faces: half-open mouths, widening eyes, hands reaching for other hands. And then the monster does appear, a howling, black-cloaked figure coalescing out of vapours, roaring and clawing at the air, its face a mask, its teeth like stitches.
Chloe sits next to me on the sofa, legs tucked up into herself. She quickly presses a cushion to her face and tells me to turn the TV off.
‘But see – Chloe – see how Sarah Jane keeps looking straight at the monster. She’s scared, but she knows her best chance is to keep looking. That way she’ll be able to figure out exactly what the thing is. She knows it’s only by looking straight at it, it’s only by keeping her eyes open and figuring out what to do next, will she have any chance of winning. Chloe. Because although it’s scary, it’s still just a thing, in the same way a dog’s a thing, or a ladder, or a car. Say a big dog suddenly appeared in the gateway. You’d be better off looking at it, thinking about what it’s capable of, and then acting on that. So really, it’s good to look at these things – especially the things that scare you. Because then you’ll be able to see what needs doing.’
Chloe lowers the cushion. Together we watch the scene play out, watch Sarah Jane challenge the demon figure, and use her wits to send it back through the gateway. Cue music and titles.
A few days later I get the letter I’ve been waiting for, the results of the paramedic assessment day I sat last week, the first stage of the application process for the next university cohort.
It’s a thin letter.
I rip it open with a sick feeling. It’s all laid out coolly and plainly. I failed two of the four components. I won’t be called for interview.
I spend the next few hours trapped in caves of disappointment. Voices and echoes, sickeningly familiar, some I thought I’d heard the last of, some I knew were sleeping like viruses, ready to be activated when conditions were right. How could I have failed? Easy. I fail often. It’s the one thing I’m reliably good at. What must people think of me? What must they think of these crosses I’ve got to tote around with me now? These crushing dismissals? Even the trainees I helped find their feet have moved on. In a panic I see myself left behind. I thought I could simply strike into the next phase any time I wanted, but in reality I can’t. What else do I feel confident about that’s actually hollow, maybe even rotten, in the same way?
Eventually the crisis precipitated by the letter levels out, the sting of it eased by my family and friends. And it helps, too, to remember that night on the sofa, Chloe dropping the cushion from her face to look at the monster straight on. She’s seven. If she can find it in herself to confront whatever it is coming through the gateway, to see for herself what it really is, then - well – I’d better just get on and learn from her, and do the same, too.