I remember casually walking into the office and announcing I was taking a year off work to live with a tribe in the Borneo Jungle. I had volunteered to support a Charity carrying out an organ-utan population count. Everyone was so excited for me, and all the awkward questions I had envisaged just never came. When discussing my jungle plan I heard them using words like ‘helluva girl’. Why on earth my colleagues had got it into their heads that I was an adventurer, full of confidence, hanging out with apes in the jungle when, in fact, I had a problem - a big secret dilemma - that money, medication, drink, drugs had so far failed to fix.
Was it quite normal to leave Central London where I lived and worked? I lived close to the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace and until recently one of my neighbours was Princess Anne, the Queen’s eldest daughter, and Anne’s husband. How strange that no-one thought it odd that I was going to leave all of this behind, and live for a year in the jungle trying to track organ-utans. Quite honestly at the time I made the announcement I didn’t even really know what an adult organ-utan looked like. I’d seen baby organ-utans on the TV. Surely the adults were the same cute, cuddly creatures - just a bit bigger. A friend took me to a zoo and showed me the adult orang-utans and I admit I gulped!
My Night Terrors started when I was about 15 - peculiarly about the same time I started drinking. My drinking as such never ruined my education, I always had a job, I never lost my driving licence or went to jail. I had absolutely no idea that I was an alcoholic - but I was. All my friends were alcoholics, my boyfriends and husbands were alcoholics, but by luck I was introduced to someone who went to Alcoholics Anonymous. When I finally arrived in AA I heard the word ‘alcoholism’ and slowly began to recognise my problem. My Night Terrors over the years got worse and worse and by the time I was about 55 they had taken over my whole life. I had huge problems and although by now I had not had a drink for 8 years, I was totally riddled with Panic Attacks and Night Terrors. I could no longer go on holidays. I couldn’t even get on a local bus, as due to exhaustion from lack of sleep, I had a habit of constantly dozing off and then waking up on a crowded London bus in the middle of a full-blown panic attack. I now walked everywhere. Rita my neighbour absolutely despised me and could hear the loud ‘panic attack’ sounds. She’d got it into her weird head that I was running an incredibly busy, one-woman prostitute business from my flat and this was the cause of the noises she could hear. She never believed the Night Terrors story and told me to take my men to a hotel. She was determined to get me evicted from my flat as the poor woman kept being woken by me. Rita clearly had problems sleeping herself and I really wasn’t helping.
I was finally referred to a Sleep Disorder Clinic where they proceeded to research what the hell was wrong with me. I met the Doctor and we discussed many things. He gave me lists of suggestions for going forward. He amazed me by telling me he was also a recovering alcoholic and had suffered from Night Terrors. Importantly, he told me he was now over them by following many of the suggestions on the lists.
‘Find something or someone who loves you as you can’t seem to love yourself - who are you likely to believe loves you?’
‘An animal’ I replied.
So here I was initially in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. There were 10 volunteers altogether and we were to be split between two zoos during organ-utan training. At the induction, I was told my room-mate was to be a 25 year old girl called Billy. Despite the 30 year age gap inexplicably Billy seemed thrilled to share with me and whispered that she had requested that I be her room-mate. Inwardly I groaned - how the hell was I going to get out of this? As it was, I still couldn’t believe that I about to start work as a Zoo Assistant in the Ape Centre at Kuala Lumpur Zoo. Me - a middle aged woman who sat behind a desk in a large global finance company in London - and who had now mysteriously morphed into someone cleaning out ape cages in Malaysia. Working in the zoo wasn’t going to phase me at all. Possibly getting attacked and almost killed by a ‘rutting’ male orang-utan - nah! I could deal with it. But sharing a bedroom with someone! Even sharing a building at bedtime was an ordeal let alone the same room. My contingency plan had been to pay for a single room somewhere, anywhere, no matter how weird I might appear to the rest of the team. Billy was young, sort of naive and innocent, and thought my wit was right up her street. Every time I cursed really badly she loved it and thought she’d found a room-mate made in heaven and everything was going to be great fun.
I circled and circled the bedroom allocated to us and finally in whispered, shameful tones, whilst wringing my hands in despair, confessed my dilemma to her.
‘Er….er…..You need to know, during the night I might start screaming and possibly crash-land loudly on the floor’.
If Billy had just even drawn breath for a moment, I’d have amended it immediately and said: ‘I WILL start screaming and crash-land on the floor; and I won’t do it once, I’ll do it eight or nine times a night, every night’ but I was too scared and too frightened to make sure she’d understood just how really bad this was going to be. I hung my head so I couldn’t watch her little, happy face disintegrate into anticlimax and severe disappointment over her chosen room-mate. I hadn’t even used the words Night Terrors as I had seen grown men run screaming from a potential night of passion when I had used the description. I was desperate not to frighten the 25 year old who was going to be stuck in the jungle with me. When Nigel left me, admittedly for a much younger woman, not my Night Terrors, his last nasty words to me were: ‘Never, never share a bedroom with anyone ever again; not if the person values even two minutes sleep a night.’ He then left, and married his child bride, whilst I had tried to rebuild a new life in London, alone and terrified that anyone found out that sleep was not part of my life. Unfortunately when I moved into my new swanky flat, Rita the neighbour from hell, could clearly hear me in mid-Night Terror attack and used to bang on the wall at night and scream:
‘Shut up, shut up. I’m complaining to the management about you’.
Thank god Princess Anne had left Dolphin Square so I would never have to suffer the indignity of being evicted just as a Senior Member of the Royal Family was waltzing by.
So here I was on the first night of my ‘adventure’ having to share a room with the ‘new Rita’ who was now called Billy. I looked in fear trying to work out how Billy had taken the deliberately underplayed difficulty. Should I mention it would sound embarrassingly as if I were in a mid-sex session? Would it be necessary to seek out the Charity who were organising all this? Would they be sending me home on the next plane?
Billy didn’t miss a beat.
“Oh great’ she said. ‘Honestly not a problem. Sleep - sometimes we’ll sleep and sometimes we won’t. I have a bit of a problem too, I fart really loudly and continuously in my sleep and usually all my previous room-mates demand that I sleep alone. If it annoys you just shout…’
‘What, just shout as I’m sailing through the air screaming and about to belly-flop really loudly on the floor?’
‘Yep, just shout and tell me to stop farting or try and throw something at me as you’re passing’.
‘She hasn’t got it, she hasn’t got it’, I thought. ‘How am I going to make sure my Night Terrors won’t ruin this burgeoning friendship’?
Smiling expectantly Billy said: ‘So what can I do to help if you keep falling out of bed?’
She actually meant it. I loved this girl.
We shared a room together for several months. Honestly I have no idea if she farted all night and frankly couldn’t have cared less. The weird thing was I can’t remember a Night Terror. Was it because our nightly pre-bed rituals were spent roaring with laughter, whilst we discussed the antics of our orang-utans and chimpanzees under our care at the zoo. The other volunteers would crowd into our room at night to join in the laughter. One orang-utan in particular a gigantic male, called Sulah, was known to ‘spit’ at the volunteers. This was nothing like spitting as I understood the word. Sulah like all the apes, had a drinking water tap in his cage and this was his ammunition. Towards the end of my first day, tired but happy, I remember walking down the corridor where Sulah and his harem lived and as I drew level with his cage I was suddenly drenched by something that had the brute force of a water cannon. The whoosh of water started at my head, continued onto my face where my mouth had unfortunately dropped open with surprise. Sulah continued aiming his trajectory really painfully across my chest and onwards down to my lower half, saturating my underwear which proceeded to make a peculiar squidgy noise every-time I moved. The shock. The peculiar silence. I had felt as if I was drowning. Slowly something started sliding down my face, some of the gunk had already entered my mouth, and I realised I was covered in green half-chewed food that was the consistency of green slime. The noises from the orang-utans was definitely laughter, They loved it. Just as I attempted to wipe the green from my eyes and nose - still confused - a second onslaught hit my face with such force. A corridor of caged organ-utans began screaming with laughter at the new volunteer covered in Sulah’s lunch debris. Staggering but determined to keep on my feet, eyes stinging painfully, I tried to find a sink to wash my face. Through half-closed eyes, I saw another volunteer coming from the opposite direction also staggering. He was covered in a horrible stinking browny/green sort of liquid, with big nasty brown lumps in it, sliding down his spectacles and face. The volunteer was shouting:
‘ugh ugh ugh quick let me get it off me’.
‘What is it?’ I asked
All the animals knew the surprise attack was the best. A few days later it was likely that the volunteers would have worked out how to avoid the water cannon and poo attacks. At night our poor pathetic T-shirts were covered in either green, or yellowy-brown nasty stains that were never going to come out. Each night at bed time we would plan our revenge. But the apes beat us humans hands down and always there was something totally unmentionable hanging off someone’s ear, or the back of our heads, or something nasty congealed in our hair. When we walked home each night from the Ape Centre through the Zoo the customers would give us a very wide berth as the smell coming off us was horrific.
Our daily jobs included cleaning out the cages, preparing food and feeding the apes; preparing and cleaning the outdoor enclosures and raking the thick, thick layers of leaves, ape and chimpanzee poo, and anything members of the public had thrown over the walls at the apes. The public loved to come and watch us foreigners in the ape enclosures shouting to each other in English, falling over, laughing, showing each other our blisters and waving at the spectators who gleefully waved back. But our last hours of the working day was just sitting, chatting with our particular chosen Ape. They were in their indoor cages and we sat outside and we would gingerly put our hands through the bars and stroke our beloved. My beloved was Awang a massive 20 year old male orang-utan, who would let me stroke his immense head and big flanges on the side of his face. Enormous, gentle giant, Awang would look adoringly into my eyes - I loved him and he loved me.
After the initial training in the zoo, we left Kuala Lumpur, met up with the second group of volunteers, the translators and trackers, in Kuching, Borneo. Our accommodation in the jungle was a small barn-like structure next to the tribal house, where we 20 slept together, the men separated from the women by a half-timbered wall which meant we could get undressed in privacy but we could clearly hear each other. It was great - once again lots of laughter and excitement as 20 foreigners who barely knew each other attempted to settle into rustic beds. We’d now been with the Tribe for about a week, trudging the lethal jungle tracks each day, attempting to locate orang-utans and note down numbers, location and distinguishing marks for identification purposes; and each night we’d sit round the table eating, laughing, playing cards, solving Rubik’s cube or playing Sudoku and then happily go off to our section of the barn to clamber exhausted into bed.
In the middle of the night a female voice started screaming. I woke in a panic and was overwhelmed with the old familiar feeling of mortification flooding through me. Two seconds later I was fully awake alert and realised it wasn’t me! It was Denise next to me and she was clearly very distressed.
‘God, how embarrassing for poor Denise’, I thought, ‘I’ll show empathy but very quietly in case anyone wonders why I am being so kind to her. I don’t want anyone to know that I’m also prone to screaming the place down. God they’re going to be so annoyed that their sleep has been disturbed’.
Still thanking god it wasn’t me, i slowly turned to try and reach Denise but realised that the whole barn was awake. I could hear 18 different murmurings - every murmur was words of comfort and kindness. Denise still half asleep was sobbing loudly. Several women ‘barn inmates’ immediately left their beds and went to Denise’s side offering tissues and comforting arms.
The men were by now hanging over the half timber and offering water and concern.
’Anything we can do? Denise you just let us know if there is anything we can do’
‘No, no nothing thank you all so much. I’m so sorry’
‘We’re here for you Denise. Do y’wanna chat?’’
Not one person ‘tutted’ or showed any annoyance towards Denise, and neither did they ever refer to it again. Every single one of them showed that they just longed to be a friend and to offer comfort to someone suffering.
Eventually all calmed down. 20 bodies settled into their beds and just as I began to gently nod off, at least 10 reverberating communal farts ripped into the depths of our jungle home, followed by great hoots and snorts of loud laughter. This time I knew that Billy, the delinquent, had led the cavalry-charge of farts and was clearly thrilled by her performance. I could hear Denise genuinely laughing just as loudly as the other barn-occupants. When I could finally stop laughing, beautiful, relaxing, dreamless sleep overtook me. Another excellent night.