It began with the dreams. Minute, stabbing dreams that hit me in the back of the neck like torpedoes, shattering my rest only minutes after I had passed into sleep, leaving me shell-shocked and frightened in the seeping darkness and crowded shadows.
I say dreams – and not nightmares – because they were not uniformly horrific. Not, at least, in content. But they all shared one thing: they were physical in nature – received not just by my mind’s eyes and ears, but by my whole body. And one other thing: never in any case was I transported, as is usual, to some far-off dreamscape – nor even to any reconstructed scene of my everyday life. Only in the confines of the four walls of my bedroom would they play out.
The first that I can remember saw me lying in bed with my face to the wall, as is my habit. I could not see anything because I was asleep, but somehow, I still had an awareness of the room around me. To the extent that rather than being cocooned in the warmth of slumber, I had the sense of being alone in a large and empty dark room, immobile and exposed, with very little between me, the hallway and the outside world. And slowly, the creeping realisation stole upon me that there was another person in the room. I bristled as I felt their gaze upon me. And before I could react, this person advanced and their weight pressed down on the mattress beside me. A hand fell on my shoulder.
It was her voice. And for a fleeting moment, a wave of relief swept over me.
Relief that ended the moment I awoke. It is a disconcerting thing to feel the presence of another when you think you are alone, when your guard is down. Even the presence of somebody close, an intimate. For who knows what evil secrets might secrete when one’s cognitive faculties are unable to stand watch, when one has become unused to sleeping in the company of others and the muscle of control has been allowed to atrophy.
As sleep’s fog passed, I soon understood that I was, in truth, alone, as I have always been. Then, with wakefulness, came a further clarity. I looked at the clock. It had been but ten minutes since I had drifted off into sleep – at least, as far as I could tell. In all likelihood it was less. To discover this when I had been so firmly in the grip of a dream was disconcerting, to say the least, but not nearly as disconcerting as the realisation followed.
If so little time had passed, what could it have been that so assertively ripped me from sleep? Certainly, it was some thing. Some foreign thing. And as if the air of my empty and unstirring chamber, grown lifeless and frigid in the stillness of the night were at that moment penetrating the folds of my duvet and sucking away the parcelled warmth within it, the last of these realisations began, uneasily, to settle: if something awoke me, then what was it? Not a woman. Not that girl who had neither key, nor access and was, I remembered, not even in this same city. And what girl would leak away into the shadows like some veiled interloper in fear of detection? It was not her, but it was some thing, and I was not alone.
Thereafter, as if in response to this realisation, the dreams began to change shape. Their familiar façade, the thin masque that barely hid such a brooding menace, dropped away entirely. Subsequently, the dream-presence in my room wore no face at all: in the empty space around me I would all of a sudden become aware of a tall, dark figure that stood, night after night, with its faceless gaze fixed on my prone form in inscrutable contemplation. And night after night, I would spring into wakefulness with fear’s saliva on my skin and a hollow panic in my chest. And each time it happened, so there followed those three terrible understandings, a chain of inevitable thoughts connecting dread to rising dread and greater dread: I am alone; little time has passed; I am not alone.
And as for the days. The days in these stale rooms seem not to pass at all. But pass they do, measured in cigarettes and wheezing breaths and the ticking of clocks. Outside, there is a world of living colour. Where tantalising odours waft in on a thousand different breezes and hues erupt one after another after another in dazzling bursts a thousand times brighter than the milky light in this flat, or the astringent brown fizz of its nicotine-stained light bulbs after nightfall. In this quarantine zone there is not a face to be seen, not a taut, youthful brow, not an elegant, sensual nape nor the radiance of a smile; not the crowding in of wants and needs, desires and demands; only the flat fullness of silence – so flat and so full that it rings in my ears whenever I sit still. Which I do. I sit and wait for night to fall. For the promise brought by a new day; promise that I already know will be unfulfilled by the time that night draws in.
Reeling after nights of broken, fitful sleep and days of staggering with heavy-lidded eyes through my murky wilderness of takeaway cartons, I found myself, once more in that counterfeit dreamscape: my bedroom’s doppelganger. Already, as I watched myself sleep a sleep within my sleep, I felt the steely advance of dread – wishing and hoping that this night I might be left alone in this place. And, as if to confirm my fears, as if I had asked for it, the figure arrived. How it arrived I can not say, for I did not see it enter, but with a tightening of my throat, I realised that it was there; standing, watching me, its outline floating and indistinct, but the core of its presence undeniably solid. Another shadow in a room full of shadows, but so much deeper in its blackness.
And, before a prayer could even enter my mind, it rushed upon me. Its speed was such that I could barely see it move. Just an inky blur streaking towards me. A fraction of a moment later: an impact. One that shook my whole body with a violence unequalled by anything I had ever felt before. As if something was trying to force itself into me. The air was pushed from my lungs and I was thrown from the foetal curve of my sleeping position to a rigid arch. My mouth strained wide, begging for air, and I burst into wakefulness.
But there was no moment of release. Back in the real room, with its reliably solid walls and boundaries, with no vaporous flexibility of space, there was no relief, no comfort in the familiar. It was still here. It had come with me.
As I shuddered, weak and disorientated from the impact in the dream-space, I became aware of a weight on my chest. Some thing was sitting there, heavy and warm. I felt it pulsating gently with the drawing-in of breath that characterises living things. And nausea turned over in my stomach, growing with each greasy rotation. In the darkness I could see little and I did not dare raise my head to look at whatever might be there, much less ease myself into a sitting position to see over the rise of the quilt that obscured it from view.
Moments passed and after some time I reached out, towards the place where it sat, with an increasingly trembling hand, the sickening sensation in my gut evolving with every inch that my fingers travelled. I palled. My eyes screwed tightly shut as I drew within inches of that unseen thing. And with what might have been a patter of feet or a shift of flesh, it moved. My hand became stubborn. It would not venture any closer. And before I could make up my mind whether I really wished to compel the obstinate extremity, I felt the thing move again. Its weight left me.
Panic set in. Who knew where this foreign creature now cared to venture? Who knew what havoc it could wreak on my exposed and vulnerable form? I twisted spasmodically away from the place where I had last felt it and, with a frantic arm swept my bed-clothes to the floor. I fumbled for the light and the room burst into colour. Gone was the feeling of otherness. Gone was the sense of exposure. The familiar shapes of the room had returned: a wardrobe; a chest of drawers; a quilt discarded on the floor; a naked bed whose emptiness seemed to call out to me with a taunting, vacant howl. All that was left was the rapid knocking of my heart against my ribs and the knowledge that that thing, whatever it was, must still have been in here somewhere. But amid the stacks of unpacked boxes, piles of unwashed clothes and other myriad hiding places, I knew that there was no hope of finding it. Somehow, with that thing watching me from a darkened cranny, I was going to have to find sleep.
I hauled the quilt back onto my bed – checking it carefully – and, despite my agitated state, sleep found me.
The following night, however, I was not so lucky. With great trepidation, I had entered the bed and wrapped its quilt around me. As I closed my eyes and tried to focus on nothingness, I felt only an increased awareness of the space around me, its walls seeming – in my mind’s eye – to stretch and bend, becoming a wide and open space. Threat poured down from every angle and crook. It dawned on me, even as I pulled them tighter, that I could not trust these very sheets. For who knows what could have entered them as I forced blindness upon myself?
Minutes, hours passed and still my mind frog-leaped from one vaulted horror to another, always active, always frenzied and scared. My stomach sank as I began to conclude that in this agitated state, sleep was a near impossibility. And then, as if responding to my mental frame, my skin itself reacted. An itch. A scratch. A minute, sharp pain on the surface of my ankle, in the crook of my knee. For if an itch is a fraction of pain then an accumulation of itches must surely be considered to be some form of pain – maddening, tiny pain, without the reliable, honest brutality of ordinary pain; decadent pain, no longer a warning from the body to the mind, but nerves firing for their own sake, for the sheer love of it.
But what if it was not for it’s own sake? What if my skin was, indeed, trying to tell me something? That there was, perhaps all across its fleshy expanse, a foreign presence. My mind reeled and recoiled and once more I threw the quilt to the floor. Grabbing the bedside lamp, I scanned and inspected every inch of visible skin, every centimetre of the sheet, picked up and dissected every piece of fluff, every hair.
I spent the rest of the night and the following day scouring the internet:
Bed Bugs (Cimex Lectularius): wingless insects, with flat, oval-shaped bodies, reddish-brown in colour, 4 to 5 millimetres in size. Nocturnal. Will feed on the blood of chickens, bats, some domestic animals and humans. Any household can become host to bed bug infestation. Bites inject a fluid that can cause irritation and reddening of skin. Female can lay 150 to 345 eggs in life-cycle. Hide in mattresses, bed frames, bed bases, headboards, behind loose wallpaper, within paintings, wall sockets, telephones, wall partitioning, suspended ceilings, skirting boards, on clothing or furnishings and anywhere with a dark crack/crevice/seam providing harbourage. The presence of bed bugs can be detected by the following:
– blood spotting on the bedding
– brown excrement spots close to where they live and on bedding
– whitish/opaque un-hatched and hatched eggs
– in heavy infestations, a sweet almond smell is common
Human Fleas (Pulex Irritans): wingless, flattened laterally, vary in colour from greyish through to dark mahogany, 1 to 4 millimetres long. Mouthparts adapted to sucking blood from host animal, muscular hind legs capable of projecting flea a considerable distance. Approximately 1400 species of flea. Cat flea (Ctenocephalides Felis) will voraciously attack humans on ankles and lower leg. Bites around waist and abdomen normally indicate human fleas. Bites cause itchy dark red papules, often in groups of three – so called ‘breakfast, lunch and dinner’ configuration – and will remain irritated for one or two days. Fleas are known to transmit the bacteria that cause plague.
Using what time remained of that day, I scoured my bedroom. With the patience and fervour of a zoologist, I inspected every crack, every crevice. I even cleared the room, throwing out the rubbish and running half-a-dozen loads of clothes through the washing machine. I checked myself for bites.
It came as some relief when I found nothing and, although it was always possible that these tiny parasites may have escaped my notice, my investigations were enough to alleviate my concern – and the crawling sensation that had bristled over my skin as I had browsed through those dreadful pages. And so, that following evening, when I went to bed, my mind was at ease for the first time since the onset of the dreams.
But with predictable regularity, I was soon awake again. The orange digits that blinked at me through the darkness told me that no more than twenty minutes had passed.
There had been no dream. What little sleep I had been granted had been unmolested by images, ideas or sensations. My mind reeled at the suggestion that my nocturnal visitor was now so deft as to escape the notice even of my subconscious. Widely awake and staring into the blank wall of shadow that enveloped me, my breathing began to quicken, my thoughts rifling through ever more fantastical and terrifying possibilities.
And then, as if responding to some psychic beacon, some mental distress call – as if it could smell my fear – it was there. Sitting heavily on my leg. I could picture it brazenly staring up at me, in the shadows at the other end of my bed, somewhere just beyond my field of vision. With deepening horror, I felt it move along the length of my body, coming ever closer, ever nearer. It reached my chest and I stared down at what should have been there. It was an impossibility. I felt the thing, dense and corpulent, upon me. I could practically picture its slickened, scurrying body. But saw nothing.
Was it under the quilt cover? Perhaps nestled in-between the padded duvet and the thin fabric. In this darkness it was difficult to ascertain which folds in the bed linen might be natural and which might not. With one rapid, decisive movement, I turned onto my side and gathered the quilt under my arms, trapping it, trapping the whole area that could have harboured the thing. And I could feel it in there, squirming, trying to move. I paused. I was unsure of what action to take next, for the hold I had on the thing was tenuous at best. I reached for the light, my arm extending at a deliberate, measured pace – and then, beneath me, something slipped – and it was gone.
Hitting the light, I stood upon the bed and held the quilt up to closer scrutiny. It had to be in there somewhere. It had to be somewhere in there. I beat the quilt all across its expanse and, detecting no movement, threw it back down onto the bed. Blood pumping to my arms and legs, ready to fight or flee, I stripped the cover off the duvet. Fear, momentarily, had left me; it was not even a question in my mind.
There was nothing. Nothing. Only a clear expanse of crisp, white padding. I turned it over and found the same thing. Alarm spiked briefly and I gathered up the quilt cover, crushing it down until it was little more than a ball between my tightening palms. An empty ball. Confused and still possessed of a boiling fury, I threw the cover to the other side of the room, my gaze jittering and rattling across every available surface.
I sank back to my haunches. But not in resignation. And not in fear. I was resolute. Stripping the sheet from the bed and casting it away, I slid myself under the naked quilt. I was determined to wait and when the thing returned, I would see it. And I lay there, my eyes wide open, my senses keen, ready to face the night.
But as I made my plans, whatever watched over me from the recesses of the room settled into its hiding place – and laughed. For soon, I was asleep.
I wake up. Daylight pours in through the thin curtains.
It is moving. Scuttling criss-cross tracks across my body.
All at once, the fear returns. Like a fleeting dream, my resolve has dissipated over night. Not daring to move, I strain my head upwards infinitesimally, and gaze down the wide, white expanse of bare quilt. And I see it. A minute flicker at the edge of the bedding. But the thing? Where is it? How can it remain hidden when there is nowhere left to hide? And then again: the quilt quivers, its edge rolling, a tiny undulation like that of a stingray’s wing. Is it – could it be? Is it the quilt itself that is moving?
The possibility occurs to me that some thing could have bored its way into the quilt. It would, after all, make a warm and comfortable home for a vagrant creature. But still, surely there would be some visible trace of its presence? Either way, the possibility appals me.
I surge onto my haunches and grasp the quilt at the place where I last saw it move. It rolls and squirms between my hands. I have it! I have it! It is caught tight and whatever lies within can offer no resistance against my iron grasp, not here, not in the light of day.
A pallor overtakes me, all of the heat draining from my face. I reel and stagger as I am confronted by something utterly impossible. The bottom edge of the quilt rises, like a great whip, like a scorpion’s tail, and hovers before my eyes. It hangs there, roiling along its length as if it is staring me down. And before I am able to comprehend what I am seeing, it launches itself at me, wrapping its mass tightly around my head.
I stagger to my feet, fighting for breath. Every ounce of power in my lungs pulls inwards, only to find my mouth filled by suffocating, muscular padding. And it pushes itself inwards in a homicidal drive to fill my throat.
Together, we tumble onto the floor and writhe in mortal struggle. Until, whether by intention or by design, the quilt slackens just long enough for me to extricate myself from its folds. I vault backwards and up onto my feet, throwing out a savage kick. The quilt seems to recoil and gathers itself into a ball. Then, with an explosion of cotton, it throws itself wide and, with its mass rolling like the vast wings of some great manta-ray, it surges along the floor, over the chest of draws and along the wall, gathering above the wardrobe. It tenses. Its shape surges and shifts, mercurial, as it prepares itself for another attack.
Gasping for air, I do not know whether to run or to fight. The thing could be upon me before I even reach the door of the bedroom – I have seen how fast it is capable of moving. But fight? How? With what?
My eye settles on a can of lighter fluid on top of the chest of drawers – directly within the rippling shadow. I dash towards it and, just as I lay my hands upon the object, the quilt launches itself. As it tumbles towards me, I empty the fluid into its cascading folds, squeezing the can until it crumples in my hand. The quilt constricts around my waist, binding my right arm to my side. The grasp is painfully strong and becomes ever tighter, forcing the breath out of me. I make one last, desperate lunge, toppling towards the floor, my free hand flailing at the bedside table.
I crash to earth and gravity robs me of the ability to focus. My wrist slams into the table, smashing it over, its cluttered cargo spilling across the room. But there, within inches of my spasming, injured fingers, is the object of my exertions. I take hold of the cigarette lighter and pull it in towards the centre of the quilt. Even as I do, the thing wraps is padding tightly around my arm. I strike the lighter.
Unable to see the initial spark, I am amazed at the speed with which the hungry flame tears across the white fabric. Undeterred, the quilt closes around me, moving to envelop my face. The suffocating material is becoming unbearably hot and I try to scream as I feel it burning against my leg.
Am I really to die here? I think. In this hole?
This is the world. A voice thinks back. And then, sweet mercy, it releases its hold.
The quilt races away from me, pirouetting in a flurry of spastic movements. The blaze is ravaging every inch of it. I myself am caught and I roll to extinguish my clothes. When I look up, I see that, in its desperation to escape the all-consuming heat, the quilt has spread the fire. Soon, I lose sight of my adversary behind a fog of thick smoke as the room around me burns, angry flames leaping up the walls.
Not daring to stay a moment longer, I barge my way out. With my arms covering my face, I thunder through the hallway and burst through the front door, out into the street beyond it, out into the world.
Naked of possessions and boxes and books and everything that for as long as I can remember has told me that I am me; naked into the blazing light of day, I plunge. Into noise and people and sunshine that stings my eyes, into a crowding in of wants and needs, desires and demands. Wrested from their daily errands, pedestrians turn and stare at me, at this ridiculous, half-naked figure in his charred undergarments. And confronted by their questioning gazes, by their gasps and smirks and murmuring, by pavement and shops and cars and sky – open, never-ending sky – I realise: this, this is terror.