The next day, I woke with a start. I had been having the same dream for a couple of nights. I was kneeling at a pool of water and staring into the depths. I could feel cold earth beneath my fingers and between my toes. I was still wearing my favourite patterned pyjamas. I saw them in my reflection, light pink with a rose print. Except they looked almost grey in the gloom of my dreamscape. It wasn’t the kind of darkness which appeared to have been caused by lack of light, but rather as if all colour and definition had been drained instead. I didn’t know exactly where I was because I couldn’t look up. I remained transfixed on my reflection. I had the urge to pull away yet I was powerless as blank terror started crawling up my spine. I was frozen to the spot, watching slow, shiny ripples distort my reflection. The water seemed unnaturally thick. A strange certainty came over me, that if I could put my hand in the pool, it would stick to me like black treacle and I would never be able to pull my hand free. It would suck me down and swallow me whole. I was cold, the kind of cold that makes your bones ache. Time moves differently in dreams. It stutters, staggers, drags itself backwards or forwards or stops at will. I had no idea how long I was stuck there, fingernails clawing the frigid earth. It could have been minutes, or hours. A chasm opened up in my mind, a deep black hole waiting to absorb all meaning and joy. I felt it pressing up against my consciousness, looking for a way in. My reflection then shivered. Slowly, its expression changed although I was sure my own face was still frozen in fear. I watched it gather itself and stretch its pale fingers towards me whilst I was helpless and on the brink of overbalancing and falling into that undulating dark pool. That’s when I woke up.
I was drenched with sweat. My fringe was plastered to my forehead. I looked down and realised I was wearing those pink-patterned pyjamas. Was that normal? My mind was clouded with lethargy. I couldn’t remember if it was normal. What was going on? I had never been one to suffer from nightmares. Even in the depths of my last depression, sleep had felt like a welcome release. I grabbed the mattress to stop my hands from shaking as I slid out of bed. My mouth was bone dry and I needed water, then coffee. I caught sight of myself in the mirror at the bottom of the stairs. I looked dishevelled- what would usually pass as good bone structure made my face look gaunt in the weak light filtering through the small window in the hallway, and my skin had a pallid sheen. My eyes stared back at me through the lenses of my glasses, frantic and wild. Thank God nobody has to see me like this, I thought. I shook my head and tore my eyes away from my reflection, but in a split second my heart leaped back into the back of my throat and another shot of adrenaline coursed through me. I stumbled back a couple of steps, out of view of my reflection. My skin crawled, and my bare feet seemed rooted to the icy floor tiles. It had turned away a split second after me. I was sure of it. Or was I? How could I be sure of anything right now? I must still be half asleep and impressionable, I told myself. I sank onto the bottom step, desperately trying to rationalise the situation. Thoughts were ticking through my brain. It could have been a trick of the light, or just my nightmare bleeding into reality. I took a deep breath and told myself there was nothing to be afraid of. I had never been superstitious, and this was no time to start. Besides, I knew what a breakdown felt like and this wasn’t it.
An hour later, I was stood in my usual spot at the kitchen window, staring out into the garden and hugging a mug like it was an old friend. It turned out I had overslept, as if the nightmares had taken their time with me. It was already ten in the morning, but I had had a shower and my hair was still damp and smelled faintly of coconut. By this point, I was feeling much more human and the memories of the previous hours were already being compartmentalised. A thick autumn mist stull hung low over the trees beyond the garden. I shared an inside joke with myself over the pathetic fallacy of the situation. Nobody had woken me up that morning. Strange, I thought. James had such ponderous footsteps it was almost unheard of for me to sleep through his morning routine, and I almost always came down for at least a slice of toast before they went off to work or school. Luckily, Freya already took pride in fending for herself, and had in fact recently called my packed lunches patronising. Maybe that academy was doing something after all. The wisps of mist thread themselves between the treetops as I looked for the edge of the garden. It stretched like a soft, green blanket towards the tree line. It looked like a blank canvas. I didn’t have particularly green fingers, and James often came home too exhausted to do anything about it. Besides, nobody was looking over the garden fence. Our nearest neighbour was over a hundred metres behind our house, and the town was over a mile beyond that, something James had pronounced idyllic. I wasn’t so sure.
The weather had turned from mild to unforgiving in the space of a few short days. On Friday I had sweated in my new winter coat, and today the cold was seeping in through the many cracks in our new old house. The doors had seemingly all been hung with an inch to spare, and the windows were a single pane of latticed glass. Since it was a listed building, we couldn’t change a thing. I scowled as my thoughts wandered. There was something cosy about an old house, but something disconcerting, too. I wondered about all it must have seen over the centuries. Ladies taking tea in the parlour, whispering over their cups. Gossip, intrigue? Tucked away in this green and pleasant land, with no occupation other than learning schoolgirl French, singing, playing the piano, and talking about the neighbours. Regency waistlines and starched collars. Fortuitous marriages and fallen women. Dark, brooding gentlemen who rode out onto the moors. At least the years had brought with it the blessing of central heating, I thought, and turned the dial on the boiler with a theatrical flourish until it clicked into place. There was a sudden whoosh and various pipes in various walls started creaking. I slunk upstairs. I was already behind on my deadline, and my mental soliloquising wasn’t the kind of productivity I needed.