In the shadows of the swaying palm trees, under the roar of the ocean waves, behind the gaudy sweet cocktails and across the jagged coastline lies a secret. My feet have flip-flopped down the narrow zig zag pathways before, many years ago. Back then I wasn't married, in fact I was freshly engaged but with no ring yet as concrete proof of my intended nuptials. It was September 2003 and the last of my many journeys that long hot exhausting summer. I was a presenter of a travel show - a job most folk described as their 'dream.' It had become my nightmare.
Cyprus, Lanzarote, Spain, Florida, Amsterdam, Austria, Majorca, Jersey and Tunisia all lay in my wake and I had this one last trip to make and then, thankfully, I would be done. Contract expired, never to be renewed. I dreaded Crete. By then I was barely eating. Every morning I would wake with a thumping heart, palms sweaty with fear and a stomach in tight knots. I would force myself to eat an apple, drink some water and then begin my ritual of prayers - me, the unreligious soul - my attempt to get through the darkness that lay ahead. Grant me the serenity... Then I'd meet my co-presenter, or rather his ego would greet me first, and then the other crew members who would be with me for hours upon end in the unwilting heat.
It had all started so well - had been my 'dream job' too. But as the trips wore on my director's jokes became less funny, more pointed, more accusatory, not really jokes at all. Thinly veiled attempts to relieve his own stress, his own angst at being away from his young family - and it was I who was to weather this cruelty, time and time again. I was the outsider. Everyone else lived in Northern Ireland, had never left the place. I had. A long time before. I lived in London, had worked in TV there already, had experience, wasn't afraid. Ego boy was afraid, it was his first presenting job, so he masked this raging insecurity with the need to be the best, the funniest, the most important. Eventually you gave up trying to connect or share or relate, because if you'd have had twins, he would have had quads. It was tiring. Silence became my best friend. It was easier to hide away and let him lead, let him be the centre if attention he so wanted to be. On a sad little local tv show. He was easy to play in many respects - which makes me sound cruel, but I used his neediness to my advantage, making him feel he should do the longest travel shoots and biggest pieces to camera - why work harder when he could do it for you?
All the while I was ground down, until there was none of me left. I remember ringing a friend who had been in prison, for drunk driving, (she had suffered some cruel blows in life that led her down this road - she is now a lawyer and a brilliant one at that) to ask her how I could cope in my own prison of sorts. She said play a game. The game 'as if'. Act as if you are a presenter, and you will be. I tried it. It worked. In between cheery bouncy joyful pieces to camera in places like the Magic Kingdom, Florida, (the director was also the cameraman so I had to look into his lens and be professional, no matter that I was dying inside) I would race away and throw up violently behind the bushes reserved for the dirty smokers and myself. Smoking couldn't be seen in sunny Mickey land.
In Crete at a Gorge (the largest in Europe apparently) I was sick so violently with nerves that my button popped off my jeans. I plastered a smile on my face, braved the daily abuse, the questions as to why I didn't have an Irish passport, but a British one, the jokes about my 'posh school' and therefore my posh upbringing. They didn't know about my shared room with my Mother until I was 10, the outdoor toilet, the hand me down clothes, or the house my Mum finally bought in 1988 in the wrong part of town. My upside down childhood, my divorced and re-marrying parents, who never made it up the aisle again. They didn't know, they never asked. They didn't know me.
They put me in a box, labelled it and there I sat. The butt of humour? It wasn't humour - it was bullying. I had never experienced it before, nor have again - to that degree. I'd suffered an evil boss in my early years in TV - a neurotic witch 10 years older than me, with a pursed bitter mouth and cold blue eyes. She'd made my life hell, but at the end of every day I would log off, shut down my computer and tube it home to the sanctuary of my friends. (She apologised many years later - like it mattered by then). On a travel show, there is no sanctuary to run home to. You have to eat breakfast,lunch and dinner with your tormentors. There is no escape. I had signed that fucking contract and had to honour it, no matter what.
Crete was the last stop. It would end after those 7 days. I willed them to end. When they celebrated on the last night I toasted their glasses too, lost in my own private relief. Then I left early, ego boy ever helpful getting me a cab. We flew home and I barely spoke, dropping the smiley act, it was time to get my bags from the carousel and wave goodbye. Bar a few voice overs I was finished. So I thought. The experience haunted me for years. I still dream about it. I lost a stone in 4 weeks. I vomited every day out of fear and worry on the last 4 trips. I cried in the shower and hidden away in toilets. I rang my then boyfriend/fiance for support at all times of day and night. I felt so alone. Every day I counted the hours until it ended. Crete was the end.
I am back. To the same resort, but am staying in the secluded villas. The rest is the same. Memories flood back - oddly I have found joy amongst the hurt and anger. I remember para-sailing and looking down at my pink toenails, trying to forget how high up I was and then miraculously letting go of my fear and marvelling at the vast green ocean frothing below. I remember playing cards on the last day, enjoying the moments when ego boy would forget to be the big star, and remembered to be himself. The day we visited the empty leper colony - Spinalonga, and how it felt creepy and cold, even in the sweltering midday sun.
I am putting it to rest. It was a lifetime ago. I wonder how I oculd have made it easier, handled it better, or maybe had the courage to simply walk away, contract or not. But I survived it - for that is what it was, survival. Bullies are unhappy cowards who take their own issues out on you - they fear you, for you have all they want, or could never have. They resent your joy, your spirit. So they take it from you. Piece by piece. A sad white haired man made my life hell, but he has never been in it since that year.
Now it is time to forget he was ever in it at all.