Outside Looking In

chesterfield sleeping.jpgI awoke cold, stuck to the hard, red leather of a chesterfield sofa. I did not recognise the sofa, or the room that I found myself in. I uncurled my naked body, ripped my sticky skin from the leather, scanned the floor for my belongings; clothes, bag, phone. My nudity was, apparently, all that I possessed.

It was dark but I was able to decipher the strange silhouettes of a room I didn’t know. I decided I was dreaming and I waited, for the dream to carry me along, for the story to unfold. Time quietly passed. Nothing happened.

I pinched the flesh of my forearm. The pain I inflicted on my cold goose-bumped skin convinced me that I was awake; fully present, fully naked. A blanket lay folded within reach. I clutched it to myself, concealing my modesty. I didn’t know where I was, how I got there, or why I was naked.

I backtracked to the last of my memories; dancing with friends, drinking with strangers. The time and space between then and now had been abandoned by my memory. Had I left the bar with a stranger, gone somewhere alone, without my friends, something I would never do? Had I fallen asleep here, at a party, had everyone else left taking my clothes with them? I remembered taking a drink from a stranger, was I taken advantage of? There was no good reason to be naked, other than in my own home. I turned on the light, hoping that would take away the fear washing over me. I was wrong.

The décor of the room was decidedly masculine. Technology filled the room; a laptop, extensive shelves of DVDs, surround sound speakers, giant flat screen TV, and a samurai sword displayed above it. What would someone want with a samurai sword, and a naked girl? My imagination was suddenly flooded by scenarios of rape, murder, my own body chopped up into chunks. I wondered if I had already been raped, if that was the horror that my mind had erased.

There was a man’s wallet on the table. I searched through the compartments with shaking fingers. I didn’t know the name on the cards or the mug-shot on the driver’s license, but his face was not friendly. The display on the phone next to it read 6.15AM. Whoever this man was, he was asleep.

I scrolled through the contacts, trying to find a mutual friend, a connection between us, something, anything, that made me feel safe. No such luck. I tapped in my boyfriend’s number. His phone was switched off. The only other number I knew was my own. I tried it. No one answered, but considering the location of my phone and who might answer it, caused me to have a flashback. I remembered changing the setting to silent, laying it next to my pillow, before going to sleep, in my own bed, drunk, at 2.00AM. I pictured myself sleeping soundly, oblivious to the nightmare I was going to wake up in, four hours later.

I wrapped myself in the blanket and looked out of the window. I didn’t recognise the view, couldn’t tell where I was in relation to the outside world. I needed to get out of there. I needed to get some help. I crept through the flat, avoiding the one closed door and its inhabitant. I found the front door and peeped through the spy-hole. I could see another door, an interior door, joining one corridor of rooms to another. Was I in a hotel?

I pushed the latch with my thumb, pulled the door inwards, looked down the corridor, and inhaled sharply in response to what I saw. My own front door was staring back at me.

My mind floated through the blueprint of my flat, wandering around the home I knew was on the other side of that door. I pictured myself and my boyfriend lying in bed, side by side, just how we had been when I went to sleep, phone on silent, next to my pillow.

I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I was still there, where I should be. I became convinced that I had woken up as someone else. That somehow I had left my body where it was and got stuck here in this other person, this unreal doppelganger. I was outside looking in on my own life.

I hesitated. What would happen if I met myself? What were the consequences of re-entering my life as someone else? What if I had ceased to exist, what if I was a ghost? What if I was stuck here in this otherworld, this other dimension, trapped in limbo between planes?

Closing my front door behind me, I put the latch down to lock the strangers out, scared that I might be one of them. I stepped into the bedroom, as if in slow motion, surprised not to see myself, asleep in my bed. My boyfriend was still sleeping, as if nothing had happened. We had been either side of the same wall, helpless.

Half asleep, he couldn’t make sense of the nonsense I launched into, interspersed with sobs. He had come to bed after me, slept beside me, woken up to see me standing in front of him. He insisted I hadn’t been anywhere, insisted I was dreaming. He told me that I had come home very drunk, behaved strangely, had a very realistic nightmare. That was all. I looked down at the blanket still wrapped around me, proof that it had happened, and laid my head down beside him, as he slept unshaken.

That blanket was my strange souvenir from a strange other world where, for a brief and terrifying moment in time, anything had been possible.

Bedtime Story

window2-2107Sonny stepped between his toy cars, blue, red, green, parked in the ridges and grooves of the wooden floor boards. He looked up at the giant shutters, avoiding eye contact with the window. Standing so close to the glass felt dangerous; as if a spectral hand might reach through the pane, dragging him into the silence on the other side.

His eyes stole an involuntary glimpse of the street outside. Darkness loitered in the corners. Trees and flowers shrunk away from the twilight. Long black shadowy fingers reached out to rob the neighbourhood of its familiarity.

The absence of Sonny’s father added to his fears. He said he would be back before dark, said he would read him a bedtime story, said Sonny was the man of the house. Just because his father had a new job, didn’t mean he had to have one.

Sonny knew he wasn’t brave enough to be the man of the house. The house knew it too. The house had been acting awkward all day, anticipating the time when Sonny would have to protect it, starting by shutting the darkness out.

The shutters were old, heavy. Their hinges creaked under pressure, resisting movement. But someone had to shut them, and his mother had asked Sonny to do it.

Sonny closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, grabbed at the shutter but it wouldn’t shift. He tried to forget the boy he had seen in the window; sunken eyes, pale skin, panic building up inside him. A squeal resounded in his ears. The muscles throughout his body tightened. Bright lights dashed across his face. His eyelids flicked open, hopeful.

He recognised the little red car that pulled up outside. It sizzled and banged like overcooked sausages. Sonny could smell the memory of burnt toast invoked by the sight of the car. He relaxed inside his skin.

‘Daddy’s home,’ he called out to his mother.

Mother inside, father outside, there was nothing to be afraid of now. He fumbled with the shutter and put his toys away, listing stories in his mind, deciding which one Daddy would read him tonight.

The metal letterbox clanged open. His father’s voice echoed down the hallway.

‘I forgot my keys,’ he called.

‘Hold on, hold on,’ Sonny’s mother said, her slippers shuffling on the tiles. He heard the door click open, a rush of wind howling outside, his father’s footsteps, louder than usual, slapped the floor like a pair of wet fish.

He jumped at the sudden screech of his mother’s laughter, ‘What do you look like?’

Her words were followed by a smooch and a smack.

‘Sonny, run upstairs and get into bed,’ she said with a giggle. ‘Your Dad will be up in a minute.’

Sonny did as he was told, relieved that his father was home. If the dark had swallowed him up, he didn’t know what he would have done.

He heard his parents’ mumbled chatter as he climbed the stairs two at a time.

‘How was your first day, love?’

‘It was fun, but I can imagine the novelty wears off quickly.’

Pyjamas pulled on bottoms first, then top, buttons already done up. He brushed his teeth twenty times, rinsed and spat, three. The cupboard door had to be checked for monsters, pushed closed until it clicked, the bed jumped onto before something grabbed his ankles. He tucked his arms and legs in, snuggled down, waited.

The wet fish slap approached his door. His eyes travelled from oversized shoes to the bulbous red nose of a terrifying stranger. Sonny froze, petrified. He wanted to scream out for his Dad, but his lips were clamped shut in shock. The man approached Sonny’s bed. His face was whiter than a ghost, his skin flaky, unnatural. His clothes disguised the true shape of his body.

There was no way of Sonny knowing what the man really looked like, should he live to ever see him again.

The man garbled words at Sonny, but his ears had shut down, along with the rest of his senses, due to the terror. Gloved hands reached towards him. Sonny closed his eyes, hoped he was dreaming.

‘Are you proud of your Daddy for getting a job?’ said the voice of his father. Sonny looked at the source of the words, winced.

‘I’m a clown, now,’ the stranger said.

Looking-Glass Windows

spooky window.jpgAwake or asleep, I cannot tell. I rise from my bed and get away from the window as stealthily as I can, tripping on the frayed hem of my pyjama bottoms. The black square seems bigger somehow, floor to ceiling, missing its drapes. The window is transformed, by night, into a strange looking-glass. I see the reflection of myself, the interior of my room, but hidden by the familiar is a dark world, waiting for me, on the other side. I am only protected by a thin pane of glass.

Anyone outside can see in, while I can’t see out. I wonder if there’s someone out there, a stranger, looking through the glass. The invisible man waits for me to make my move, before he makes his. We poise, motionless. We are pawns on the black and white squares of a chessboard. I can’t win this game. I’m the only player. I drop to the floor.

Head lower than the window sill, I crawl to the door. I plunge through the darkness, in search of a hiding place, chased by windows. The door betrays me to its counterpart, out of sight of the first black glass square, I am seen by another. The hallway is not as safe as it seemed, but I curl myself up in a corner, as hidden from sight as I can possibly be.

I hear the clang of a metal dustbin lid hit the concrete outside, the murderous screams of a fox lost and afraid, somewhere in the darkness. This is the dangerous lullaby of a latch-key kid, the familiar sounds of the unfamiliar that feed my imagination.

I drift in and out of nightmares, trying to decide which I prefer, sleep or wake, sleep or wake. I know the dark corners of my mind like I know the hiding places of these rooms, but they are so very dark, so filled with fear, that visiting them doesn’t comfort me. I hug my knees to my chest, reach for my bear. I make a wish. I wish that, for once, mum would come home early.

Marv’s Best Friend

dogMarv lived in a world of darkness. He did not know the meaning of colours, light, or vision. Beauty to Marv was the pretty sound of birdsong, the smell of freshly cut grass, the feeling of warm tea running down his throat like a hot bath in his belly. He knew what a bruise felt like after bumping into furniture, his garden gate, the cold, hard, tarmac on his skin from falling over a child’s misplaced tricycle, but not the red pimples on his thin, wrinkled skin or how it looked as it changed from yellow, to blue, to purple before fading away.

Marv wore sunglasses, not to shade his eyes from the sun, but to send a message to the world. He swung a white stick from left to right, to avoid the inevitable collisions, to prevent the grazes that healed so slowly. Every day was a challenge, every day he embarked on a voyage of discovery, every day he went out into the noisy world prepared for the worst. Yet Marv was a man of optimism. He refused to live as a hermit, he refused to be labelled disabled, he refused to let his one life slip away, to let Mrs Hibbert do everything for him, as much as she might want to.

Marv reached down and ran his fingers through the thick texture of Davey’s fur, patted the strong, solid body of his dog. Davey’s coat was golden and glossy, not that Marv had ever seen it. Mrs Hibbert bathed his dog weekly, even though Marv insisted he could do it, insisted he could, at least, help, rubbing soapy bubbles alongside her, relishing the mixture of smells; of wet dog, of clean chemicals, of his neighbour’s overpowering floral perfume.

With Davey, he felt safe, protected, loved. With Davey, Marv felt capable of anything. With Davey, he would never have to be alone and helpless, again. He had been trained to meet his owner’s needs, to put Marv’s desires above his own.

He was a working dog; a support system during his waking hours, a guard dog through the night. He did not understand the concept of ‘pet’ and it often confused them both when strangers stopped Davey in the street to stroke his fur. Marv was not greeted by these people, Davey was. Marv had no way of knowing why Davey had stopped them in their tracks, panicked at the possibility of danger, while his dog was mollycoddled without a word.

Marv and Davey relied on each other for their survival. It was an equal partnership, a strong friendship, a bond of mutual respect. They grew together, learned together, solving problems as a team, a dynamic duo. It was Marv and Davey against the world.

On Fridays the two friends followed their noses to the chip shop for a treat. Battered sausage and chips for two, wolfed down in the park.

Marv opened his wallet, unaware that the rent was bursting out, a bundle of twenties. Davey didn’t know the importance of the purple piece of paper that floated to the floor, catching the eye of a dishevelled young man, counting silver coins in his hand. The youth picked up the note, and pocketed it, while the man and his dog collected their lunch.

That night while Davey slept, Marv worried about the future. The heavy, living, breathing, hot water bottle slumbering on his feet was young and full of life. Despite the seven dog years for every one of Marv’s, Davey had plenty of time yet, he would probably outlive his owner. Marv wasn’t afraid to die. He felt the looming presence of death around every corner, quickly catching up with him, but he wondered what might happen to his friend when he was gone, and the fear of the unknown shook him. When he woke from the horror of a nightmare, Davey was there to comfort him, with a wet lick and a snuffle that said ‘I will always be here for you’. Marv wished he could say the same.

In the early hours of the morning, Marv woke to the terrifying sound of a wild animal. It was snarling, growling, thrashing around downstairs. He whispered for Davey, not wanting to alert the beast to their presence, but Davey didn’t come to his outstretched hand as he usually did.

Marv fumbled for his stick, but it was nowhere to be found. He and Davey moved around his home with ease, the stick wasn’t usually needed. His fingers traced the furniture across the room to the door, where he stubbed his toe on the wood. He bit his lip, mumbling blue murder inside his mouth. The scratching of claws could be heard on the kitchen floor, followed by a clout, then a yelp.

‘Davey,’ Marv called down the stairs, ‘Where are you?’

He heard the unmistakable tone of his friend’s voice, barking in response.

‘What is it, boy?’

A rush of wind whistled towards Marv’s ears, another door on the landing opened. He turned to hear the soft tread of another person’s footsteps approaching him, reached out for the banister but, before he could steady himself, the stranger had knocked into him and Marv tumbled down the stairs.

‘Stop playing with that dog and let’s go,’ a man’s voice said.

‘He’s bitten me, Curt, real bad,’ his accomplice replied, from the kitchen.

Marv heard the latch of the front door click, felt the cold night air engulf him. Davey’s snarling and growling moved from the kitchen to the front door, a limping rhythm of footsteps before him.

‘He won’t let go, I’m never gonna walk again.’

‘Do I have to do everything myself?’

There was a swish through the air, Davey cried out in pain, the front door slammed and the two men were gone. Marv listened as his friend dragged himself across the floor towards the stairs, licked Marv’s face where it lay on the carpet, then shuffled into the warmth under the radiator.

Marv ignored the pain that seared through his own body and crawled to where Davey had stopped. He couldn’t see the body of his guide dog lying still under the radiator, but he knew Davey’s presence had left his side, leaving an indelible mark on Marv’s life.

The dog had truly lived up to his title of man’s best friend by curing loneliness, promoting independence, and eventually saving Marv’s life.

Marv was his pack leader and Davey’s loyalty had never wavered. They worked as a team until the very end, supporting, depending and leaning on one another for their mutual survival. The boundaries of human and animal in Marv’s house were unnecessary, non-existent.

He lay down beside Davey, putting an arm over him. His fingers were met with the warm sticky liquid, which he knew was his friend’s blood. For the first time in years Marv felt alone, vulnerable, helpless. There was nothing to be done, nowhere to go, no life to go on with, without Davey. Marv wished he wasn’t blind, wasn’t disabled, wished he could have been able to protect his friend, to fight for Davey, as Davey had fought for him. But wishing wouldn’t change anything. He took a deep breath, relaxed into the thick soft fur of his best friend’s shoulders and made one last hopeless wish. He wished he would die, right there, beside him.

Little Lost

lamppostsSome enchanted evening, the familiar smell of freshly cut grass barely lingered in the air. Shadows cast by trees and lampposts lengthened, stretching across the road to the pavement. The last tinges of an orange sun melted into the horizon, masked by the silhouettes of houses and buildings. There was a pause before the first streetlamp flickered on. A shadow passed through the spotlight, without a sound. It darted through dusk barely lit by a streetlamp here, a porch-light there. Then it vanished, swallowed up by the night. Darkness smothered everything with a blanket of the blackest black.

Two heel clicks echoed across the street. The shadow had resurfaced on the clean white steps of a porch: a stranger in a hooded black cloak, covered from head to toe. A frail, pale arm reached up to the door, a loud knock echoed within. A warm orange glow bled through the draped sash windows, only blocked by the smooth white pillars that waited, patiently, to introduce a guest to their mistress. The door glided open to let the warmth out and the stranger in; an orphaned child carrying the heavy burden of the murder she had seen, a bag full of secrets in one hand, a china doll in the other, seeking refuge from the strange world she no longer belonged to.

Number 20

59XfSuIt’s Christmas, and all of Lucy’s neighbours have gone elsewhere for the holidays. Anyone else might feel lonely in a deserted neighbourhood at such a family-centric time of year, but Lucy feels empowered. She has temporarily inherited an entire street of houses.

The white picket fences and sculpted gardens have been decorated with fairy lights, not for the pleasure of the families, but for the pleasure of onlookers in their absence. Lucy has got into the habit of taking a daily stroll, just as dusk envelopes the houses, and the streetlights flicker on. It’s the perfect time to see the fairy lights and if she walks along the sidewalk with the right momentum, the lights illuminate as she passes, like magic.

Lucy counts the houses as they light up, 12, 14, 16, 18, but there’s a pause and then number 22 lights up. She stops and looks back. Number 20 has missed its cue. The show goes on further down the street, 24, 26, 28, oblivious to the mistake in their chorus.

She looks up at the big empty house. Number 20 looks sad and lonely, wrapped in darkness, and Lucy feels responsible. As the temporary protector of the street, she tells herself it is her duty to know why Number 20 isn’t behaving itself. She decides that she is well within her rights, as a good neighbour, to take a closer look.

She finds a spare key under the doormat, curses the stupidity of her neighbours, before letting herself in. The lights aren’t working inside either, so she begins her search for the fuse box. Her common sense leads her to the basement, and, as she descends the steps, the reason for the power cut makes itself known. Lucy is standing at the edge of a flood.

The door above her slams shut and her knees lock. Suddenly she’s five years old again, wearing a pink swimsuit and a yellow rubber ring around her middle. She had spent the morning splashing around in the hotel swimming pool, but time had passed too quickly and it was lunchtime. Her mum climbed the steps and reluctantly, Lucy followed, but at the top she couldn’t resist the temptation to jump in, one last time. Her clumsy leap into the air caused her to flip over. She landed in the pool upside down, the rubber ring preventing her from righting herself. Head under water, legs kicking the cold air, Lucy panicked and swallowed a lot of water. Her Dad pulled her out by her ankles but, faced with more than a sink full of water, Lucy feels that same sense of terror, a lump rises in her throat, and she finds it difficult to breathe.

Lucy can’t move, or speak. She stays where she is, trapped inside her panic attack, unable to focus on anything else. She imagines the water level rising above her head, and the heavy sensation she felt as a child pushing down on her chest. Her struggle to breathe intensifies.

‘What if the door’s jammed?’ she thinks. ‘What if I’m trapped here? No one knows where I am, no one knows…’ Her panic allows her to feel alone for the first time, wallowing in emotion, paralysed by self-pity. ‘And what if I drown here? What if my body lies here for weeks, disintegrating in the water, unidentifiable?’

Alone in the dark, paralysed by her fear of drowning, Lucy is helpless to deal with the situation. No one knows where she is, no one knows she is in trouble, no one will look for her until it’s too late. The water level continues to rise, slowly enough for Lucy to escape, but nevertheless it rises. Lucy cannot bring herself to move.

Deja Vu

I stand before the mirrored doors of the wardrobe, applying another coat of mascara to my clumpy lashes. The room I see in the reflection is still, silent. A cool breeze flickers the hair around my face. I shudder. Something in this perfectly normal moment triggers a familiar pattern in my unconscious. There is a movement in the glass, small, rhythmic, close to the carpet; not yet seen in my peripherals.

I take a breath before I turn, my mind slows, recognising this sensation. I feel dizzy, nauseous, overwhelmed by the déjà vu that begins to take form. I have lost control of my actions, seeing them played out as if someone else is pulling at my puppet strings.

My baby sister crawls toward my feet, smiling. She seems unreal, unnatural, a manifestation of my mind. I watch every second occur, a half beat after my expectation. The taste of burning acid rises in my throat. Something uncanny clicks in my memory.

I dreamt of this moment years before, years before my sister was born, years before our father met his new wife. How could I dream of this child, this incident, before she existed? My mind feels like it has split open to encompass something bigger than all of us, something bizarre and otherworldly. I feel faint as I glimpse a different reality to the one I know, a reality that fragments the linear timeline we live by, a reality made up of time and space as one and the same. There is no time as we know it; there is no past, present, or future. Everything exists all at once, accessible by the strange power of the unconscious, a dark unknown place within all of us.

The déjà vu dissipates. I scoop her up, smother her with kisses. She giggles. I smile down at her innocent, happy, upturned face. She has no idea how strange this world is, of the endless possibilities that we are too simple, in our thinking, to understand. I reconsider the unknown source of her, our dream world meeting, before her birth. Perhaps her mind, not yet littered by language and social teachings, is open to the concepts I cannot comprehend. Perhaps she knows more about all of this, than I do.

She pulls my hair loose from its clasp. I shake her hand away, along with my thoughts, place her on the ground, and blot my lipstick. Alcohol will sober me up.