Have you ever read a text
and felt the consciousness
pressing from the other side
like a knock on a door?
Have you ever read a text
and felt the consciousness
pressing from the other side
like a knock on a door?
you’re coming today
the Stansted arrival hall
lights a fire in my soul
So, I gave Clemens Meyer another go after the last disaster, seeing as I ordered two of his books at once. This is a collection of short stories- nine in total, with an additional three short ‘introductory’ stories to each section of the book. I can’t give this book a rating overall because it wouldn’t feel fair seeing as its composed of such different narratives, but there are some overarching themes and imagery, such as loneliness, train stations (weirdly enough), chance encounters and old friends. I finished the book, but by the end it was more out of a sense of duty, and to practice my German, than any real commitment or enthusiasm. I would say some of them are definitely worth reading and do draw you in, at least initially, but it wasn’t worth twelve euros for just over 250 pages. Postage from Germany costs a bomb. It causes the repeat problem of having to spend too much money on ordering books online when you don’t even know if you’ll like them. I’ll now do a brief run-down of all the stories with star ratings below:
Glasscherben im Objekt 95 (Glass Splinters in Object 95)
This was one of my favourites from the book because the imagery is quite beautiful and it does touch on themes of xenophobia in the former GDR only a few years after reunification, when the new Bundesländer experienced their first wave of immigration from Russia and Turkey. The protagonist is a security guard who falls in love with a mysterious girl from the Ausländerwohnheim (block of flats for new arrivals) he patrols at night. She always wears a coat far too big for her. They speak to each other through the fence in pidgin German and Russian, and I like the slightly supernatural side to the story where the protagonist is convinced a dead soldier still haunts the former Red Army barracks adjacent to the flats, leaving Russian cigarette butts in the morning. The most frustrating part of the story is that it barely progresses at all. We learn nothing about the girl, not even her name or how old she is, or her motivations or personality. She’s merely an object of desire, which ruffled my feminist feathers. The story also mentions an attack on the Ausländerwohnheim by right-wing extremists, but this plays out in the background, which seems weird for a security guard supposedly protecting the site. He knows its occurring, but leaves the police to secure the scene. I found this baffling and unvbelievable.
Späte Ankunft (Late Arrival)
I think this was my favourite story from the book, which kind of set me up for disappointment with the other stories, really. It’s about an older woman working for the Deutsche Bahn cleaning trains, often late into the evening. At the seedy bar at the train station, she meets a hairdresser who also works at the station, but in its hair salon of course. Unfortunately, this was Meyer’s only story of the nine with a clearly discernible female protagonist. I do wonder why male authors seemingly find it so goshdarn difficult to write from a female perspective. The two older women strike up an unlikely friendship, and they are clearly both lonely in their separate ways. The story is full of a quiet sense of dissatisfaction with underachievement and the protagonist’s empty life (she often drinks alone after work), and she goes to find her newfound friend after she falls sick and doesn’t show up at the hair salon for a week. It’s quite touching, really.
Die Letzte Fahrt der Strandbahn
The imagery in this story was good – a windswept seaside setting, presumably somewhere on the Ostsee, the former GDR’s northern coastline. The protagonist, a fairly mysterious man who seems to be in the middle of a marital estrangement or a divorce, and is clearly running from something, spends a few weeks ‘holiday’ in a seaside town, and meets a lonely old man on a bench near the lighthouse. The old man goes into his youth as a tram driver during the Second World War, and his lost love. I didn’t particularly like this story because it limped along without much of a plot, and relied far too heavily on vague dreamscapes. Dreams are often important to a narrative and exploration of a protagonist’s subconscious, but a story which is 80% repetitive dreams about the same thing (they’re all on a tram) gets a bit wearing. I couldn’t see the point.
Der Spalt (the Gap)
I didn’t particularly like this one. It was strange, and not in a good way. The protagonist’s flat gets burgled, and the protagonist does not act in any logically discernible way. He doesn’t call the police, he doesn’t claim on insurance, he doesn’t stay at a friend’s or relative’s until the lock is repaired. Okay, he seems lonely too, but why wouldn’t you call the police? This guy seems rather square and completely non-criminal, so there was no reason not to. He ends up wandering aimlessly around the city until being chased for no discernible reason and ending up in a strange old woman’s flat, where he sort of moves in and pretends to be her long-lost grandson. There’s a particularly disturbing scene involving a meat tenderiser and a schnitzel. It’s all very oedipal. The story ends with him putting on her grandson’s military uniform. No, I didn’t see the point in this one at all.
Die Stillen Trabanten (the Silent Trabants)
The Trabant was the most popular car in the former GDR, mainly because it was one of the only available cars. However, the ‘silent Trabants’ mentioned in the title are actually blocks of GDR flats which light up at night, presumably like the car headlights. However, a block of flats looks absolutely nothing like a car, so it seemed like an awkwardly shoehorned-in GDR reference. The most intriguing part of this story concerns Muslim immigration to the new Bundesländer, and the ensuing culture clash between East and West and xenophobia of Eastern Germans towards ‘the Other’. The protagonist owns a German takeaway shop, mainly serving sausage of course, and becomes friends with a Muslim couple who live in the same block of flats as him. He falls in love with the woman in the couple, who is never named. I hope this is an intentional device on the author’s part and not merely an misogynistic oversight. Unfortunately, he’s also friends with Hamed, her boyfriend, and an awkward love triangle ensues, in which the protagonist buys the Qu’ran and goes to the Mosque at the weekend, seemingly just to get closer to her, whilst also whiling away the evenings with Hamed in the takeaway. So lots of ulterior motives going on here. I liked the undercurrents of racism – his takeaway loses customers because they see Hamed kneeling and praying through the glass – and the subtext of repressed desire.
Unterm Eis (Under the Ice)
This one was boring because it was about gambling, horses and horse racing. I really don’t like any of these things. I find gambling a complete waste of time and horse racing is cruel. Its only redeeming feature was the imagery of racing on a frozen lake in St. Moritz in the Swiss Alps. I looked this up afterwards, and the yearly competition really does take place, and it is beautiful. Other than the descriptions, I had to force my way through this one.
Die Entfernung (The Distance Between)
I really liked this one. It had a supernatural element, which turned out to be less supernatural than I originally suspected. A freight train driver experiences a suicide on the night shift when a laughing man steps out in front of him on the tracks. The setting is really well developed, in the countryside next to some orchards and allotments in an autumn evening, miles away from anywhere. It’s idyllic, but also fairly desolate. There’s a really poignant moment when the train driver climbs out of the cabin to see what’s left of the man and ends up sliding down the bank next to the tracks and falling into some rotten fruit, clearly a metaphor for the remains of the suicide victim underneath the train. The train driver then seeks out the family of the deceased and pretends to be a childhood friend, clearly not wanting to tell his widow that he was the one who inadvertently killed her husband, whilst also wanting some closure about the man he accidentally killed. I’ve often reflected on the huge psychological toll of being a train or tube driver. Sooner or later, especially if you work on the London Underground, someone will commit suicide in front of your train. Clearly, this is not the driver’s fault, and whoever threw themselves under the train wanted to end themselves for one reason or another, but it obviously still has a hugely negative psychological impact on the person in control of the train, being viscerally confronted with the darkest and most desperate sides of the human condition. I found this story impressive and thought-provoking.
Die Rückkehr der Argonauten (The Return of the Argonauts)
This one was terrible. By the end of this story point, I was debating giving up on the book entirely. It’s about a man returning to his home town to meet up with old friends, and there seemed to be no premise other than that. His friends are either in the army and seemingly on a spiral of self-destruction, or already terminally ill because of that self-destruction. It’s full of drinking and machismo. One of his best childhood friends has liver failure from alcoholism. It’s pretty damn depressing the whole way through, and Meyer falls victim to the irritating current fashion of referring to people and places with initials. (“I travelled to S to meet up with H and his brother M”). It’s the modern authorial equivalent of smashed avocado on toast. I love avocado toast but I can’t stand this. It makes reading feel so disjointed and I forget who the characters are and what they’re supposed to represent. I have no sense of place and the characters seem instantly dead and flat because I can’t connect them with a name. It feels cold, detached, clinical and boring. Why do authors do this? Why? WHY?
In Unserer Zeit (In Our Time)
I liked the historical and political aspects of this story. The protagonist is a German-Jewish emigre living in Moscow in 1941, during Operation Barbarossa. The Fascists are approaching and the protagonist hides in the basement of the Lenin Library and then flees the city. He’s a writer himself, and entertains the soldiers in his halting Russian, telling stories of a German pirate called Störtebeker. The protagonist is a committed Communist and dreams of founding a new worker’s utopia in Germany after the War. Of course, we all know how that turned out. He is in a difficult situation, and faces suspicion from those around him simply for being German, despite being a victim and refugee of the Nazi regime. There were some beautiful descriptions in this story, such as those of the Moscow underground, but it also had its drawbacks. I wasn’t invested in the protagonist’s imaginary world surrounding Störtebeker at all. I was also confused when a mysterious new character was introduced 2/3 of the way through the story and seems to be pivotal. I did not have the inclination to become invested in him either.
I sunk back into the sofa, clutching the mug with both hands and mentally steeling myself. I sat upright and focused on the television. I would not fall asleep. I knew how ridiculous that sounds, because I was aware that sooner or later you either sleep or you die, but, like a wiry mule come to the end of its useful working life, I focused my remaining willpower on plodding forwards and delaying the inevitable. I didn’t even think about leaving. Why didn’t I think about leaving? Maybe it would have followed me, maybe it couldn’t have. It’s a grey area, a question mark, a scab to pick at. I was in its thrall, a Desdemona waiting to be smothered in her bridal sheets. I couldn’t remember the last time I had left the house. It must have been days, at least. Why hadn’t it occurred to me how strange that was? Why had nobody else noticed? I suppose they expected me to be there when they came home, just like the worn-out rug in the hallway.
I was staring into the pool. No, no, how could this have happened? I couldn’t remember dozing, I remembered watching teleshopping. By that time, I had switched to Coke because my teeth felt furry. I wanted to scream, to cry for help, but I couldn’t. I had to watch, forced into passivity. How did this happen? I should have run, smashed the mirror, taken Freya and Mabel and James and fled. Maybe James wouldn’t have come. I knew he was still sceptical, I knew he still thought it was me up to my old tricks again. The endearing, slightly shameful family nutter. Looking for attention, maybe? Lashing out after our move? I imagined him as an amateur psychologist, nestled in an armchair swirling a brandy and expounding on ‘trauma’ and ‘the subconscious’. My reflection stared back, cocked its head, reading my thoughts. Maybe it was me. Maybe I was it.
I couldn’t even close my eyes to blot out the arm reaching for me. I felt its slimy chill brush my cheek as it wound its fingers through my hair. I didn’t resist when it pulled me downwards, it wouldn’t have made a difference. I was the object, I had lost the war. Well, you couldn’t really call it a war, more like a minor skirmish.
By the time I broke the surface of the water, I was almost curious about where it was all going. I had once heard that when you have a dream of falling off a cliff, if you don’t wake up just before you hit the ground you would die for real. Did that mean it’s possible to drown in a dream? It was probably just an old wive’s tale. But then again, maybe it wasn’t. Was there anyone alive who could verify that, yes, they had hit the ground under the cliff whilst dreaming and, yes, they had lived to tell the tale?
The water kissed me with its cold embrace. It felt thick, syrupy and strangely resistant. So I had been right all along. It reminded me of those quasi-scientific documentaries I had watched as a child where they had turned custard from a liquid into a solid by walking on it. So this was it. This was my ignominious end. I felt numb, fatalistic, and only slightly annoyed that it was gripping my hair far too hard. I could only see its arm, the water was that dark. What if it ripped some out?
I wish I could tell you that I’m still here, but I can’t. I see you from the other side. Of the mirror, that is. I don’t think I’m dead. Maybe this is worse than being dead. The glass won’t break. I see you both come downstairs in the morning, put on your shoes, go to school and work. I see the thing that is and isn’t me follow you downstairs in the morning, make your sandwiches, feed the dog. I see her drift around the house. I wonder if you sleep with her. I wonder if she smells weird. I don’t think she does any work, because I never see her with the laptop. She’s the only one who looks at me, who sees me at all. She smiles at me as if she’s grateful that I took her place. It must be so liberating for her, like a veal calf let out of the crate, blinking into the sunlight. Maybe she’s not me, after all. Maybe she’s something else entirely. Or maybe I’m not me. I wonder if you’ll notice.
I was in our ensuite studying the purple bruises covering my ribcage when James stormed in behind me.
“What the hell is going on? That carpet cost a fortu-” he stopped when he saw my reflection. I could see his jaw slacken in the mirror, over my right shoulder.
“Don’t ask. I don’t know.” I looked and felt terrible. There was nothing more to say.
His expression softened. Whatever vestiges of husbandliness were still there caused him to hug me from behind and rest his chin on the top of my head.
The purple lesions started around my neck and bloomed over my chest like a livid orchid. I buttoned my pyjama shirt back up. What you can’t see doesn’t exist.
“I’ll stay home from work today and we can talk this through. Just let me call them up. Don’t worry about Freya, I’ll make sure she’s up and make some sandwiches. Just go and have a lie down.”
Curled in the foetal position in bed, I briefly wondered whether Freya called James’ sandwiches patronising, too.
An hour later, and we were still laying in bed facing each other. I had told him everything, filled in all the gaps he hadn’t seen. I had told him about my nightmares, the bare feet in the hallway, and my experience in what I assumed had been the early hours of the morning. I had the slow realisation that maybe I had half an ally in whatever the situation was.
“I thought I must have been dreaming, but then I saw the footprints” I frowned.
He had the grace to look guilty that he hadn’t woken up.
“But I still don’t understand. Who could it have been? How could I not have heard a thing? I’m not usually such a deep sleeper. Should we call the police? Maybe someone broke in.”
“I stopped asking myself questions when I realised I won’t get any answers. Or the truth is scarier than telling ourselves that it was me,” my voice felt flat, emotionless, “but I don’t think this is something the police could solve. They’d just laugh at us or section me.” I frowned, “And besides, an intruder doesn’t explain why there’s only one set of footsteps leading away from the bed. How did they get in?” Thinking about it tightened the cold knot of fear in my stomach.
James ran his hand through his hair. “This just doesn’t make any sense,” was his captivating and insightful conclusion on the subject. I went to run a bath and he went to make coffee. I don’t know whether he was afraid of me by that point.
I was watching the flickering light of the TV through narrowed eyes. James was dozing next to me. I had laid my head on his chest like back when we were dating. A slight doggy waft reached me, and I realised that Mabel was on the sofa with us too. I closed my eyes for a second, just to rest them. It felt late, and I didn’t want to go to sleep. Not tonight. Not ever.
I jolted. I must have been dozing, slipping out of consciousness and then hurtling back. It was called sleep drunkenness, I remembered that from somewhere. Maybe a quiz show. What a funny name. I remembered a particularly vivid episode from when I was a child. I was on a caravan holiday with my grandparents, and fell asleep after dinner in the double bed at the back of the van. It was still light outside. I had had a brief but vivid dream of riding my small pink bike with streamers coming out of either handlebar down their pebbled drive, then suddenly going over the front of the handlebars and jolting myself awake in the caravan, smacking my forehead on the underside of a low shelf. For a few seconds, I felt scared, confused and alone until I realised my grandparents were there, quietly watching TV in the front. The same brief panic washed over me now, but within a few seconds I could see that all was well, at least on the surface. Even Freya was there, sunk into the armchair on the other side of the room, scrolling on her phone. Her face was bathed in blue light.
“What time is it?”
“Uhmmmm….”, as if she couldn’t see it right in front of her eyes, “half eleven.”
“Bed”, I managed to mumble.
She looked at me as if I’d just told her to delete her Snapchat. She pushed herself up from the chair and stalked out of the room. How was I supposed to know that would be the last time I’d be able to see her as she could see me? The last time I was in the same room with her, able to touch her, had I just reached out my arm. I should have hugged her then, I should have held her close and told her how much she meant to me. But I had no idea what was coming.
James was still asleep, his chest rising and falling underneath my cheek. I was jealous, then, of his ability to fall asleep on cue, to slip effortlessly into his dream-world and forget everything else. He never seemed to have anything weighing on him. His face was smooth and slack, no nightmares.
I changed the channel. It was a loud talkshow. Celebrities throwing their heads back, revealing rows of bleached teeth. I wondered if, like sharks, there were lines and lines of huge, perfect replacements waiting behind them in ever-decreasing concentric circles. I turned up the volume, enough to keep me awake, but not enough to disturb James. I crept to the kitchen to make coffee, pressing the button and waiting for the machine to warm up. It looked like a huge, green eye in the half-light. Detritus from oven pizzas littered the kitchen. I tried my best to remember what I had done that day, but drew a blank. No work, that was for sure. No housework either, and no cooking. It felt like a crevasse I had just stepped over, unaware of its existence. I had survived. I listened to the soothing whir of the machine breaking the silence.
I was staring into the pool again. The inky black darkness heaved and sighed, and I could feel the tendrils of another blurred consciousness reaching out, pressing against mine, looking for a fissure to seep into. I could see my own reflection, twisting and distorting itself over the undulating surface as I knelt there, rooted to the spot. It was me, I knew it was me, but it was also apart from me, a foreign body. She was staring at me with a shining intensity. I couldn’t recognise the blacklight in her eyes. I was aware of my surroundings although I couldn’t look up. A row of trees behind me, standing guard. Trunks at regular intervals, fading backwards into the night. I didn’t know how I knew, but I did. Just as I knew it was a clear night, I felt its starlight as clearly as I felt its icy chill. Already it felt rehearsed, as if I was going through the motions of terror, waiting for something different to happen. Like a director at his own performance, watching whether one of the actors would stumble over their lines, reminding the audience that it’s all just a show, really. And we are just waiting for the end.
I could see my reflection reaching towards me, just like last time. There was the slow spread of horror when I realised my hands were still rooted to the banks of the pond, fingernails digging into the frigid earth. This time, I didn’t wake up before her hand broke the surface. My hand? Her hand? Its hand? Dirty fingernails first, then an ivory wrist traced with pondweed and slime inching towards my face. I held my breath, and fleetingly wondered whether that made any sense at all while dreaming. The hand snapped around a loose tendril of my hair, pulling me off balance and breaking whatever had transfixed me. I opened my mouth to scream but only managed a pitiful croak. I was hurtling towards the surface, arms outstretched in a futile attempt to recapture my balance, convinced she would hold me under in her cold embrace until the putrid black treacle filled my ears, nose, eyes and mouth. My hand was first. Darkness, a scream. My scream? How could it be?
I gasped myself awake. The light was all wrong, or lack of it. It was far too dark. But then the darkness moved. Something was squatting over me, black eyes shining. Hands on my chest, pressing downwards. Frozen fingers hooked around my collar bones. The knot of fear in my gut turned to rage. I roared, focusing my entire force of will on one movement, and managed to inch myself upright. The figure leapt off, as if jolted by my sudden reserves of strength. Catlike, it crept backwards, slithered off the bed. It was still in shadow, and avoided the patch of moonlight cast on the floor through the bay window. The bedroom door was ajar, and it slid through in one long, agile movement. It was gone before I could find the switch for my bedside lamp. My hands were frozen numb. Whatever it was had left behind its cloying, stagnant reek. I reached for my chest and realised my pyjamas were damp. It had been dripping on me. I finally found the switch and sank back into my pillow, its warm glow damming my terror. The whole episode couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds. I started to catch my breath and take my first tentative steps towards rationalisation. Maybe it was a bad case of sleep paralysis. I had had it before, but never like this. People experienced these kinds of things all the time though, didn’t they? Hallucinations, dread, it was all tucked away in the subconscious. It must have been the subconscious, that mystical playground of stored trauma. I could almost have laughed. I fumbled in my bedside draw, took out a box of tablets I hadn’t touched for a few months. If any occasion warranted a relapse into using drugs to sort out my brain, this was it. There was no glass of water by my bed so I swallowed them dry. I turned over and realised James had slept through the whole thing. It must have been in my head, I told myself, or he would have woken up.
Before the darkness pulled me back, I realised my shirt was still damp.
Grey dawn light filtered through the windows. James was still sleeping. I tried to remember the events of the last few hours, but they already felt hazily distant. I didn’t know whether it was the sleeping pills or my consciousness swiftly stowing away evidence of my madness into little draws upstairs. It was easier that way.
My throat was parched and my lips felt dry and cracked. I swung my feet over the edge of the bed. All I wanted was to get into my dressing gown, go downstairs, pour myself a glass of water and stare out of the kitchen window but I stopped in my tracks. There were footprints in the carpet. Muddy footprints from small, bare feet. Gingerly, I reached down to touch one. Still damp. An awful thought came to me. I laid my foot on top of it, and it matched mine perfectly. What would have been worse, if it did match mine, or if it didn’t? I didn’t know whether or not to breathe a sigh of relief. Reluctantly, I did the inevitable and started following them. As expected, they lead me downstairs. But there was only one set, leading away from the bed. Nothing made sense any more. I think that’s the moment I gave up. They looked small and almost fragile on that expanse of plush cream carpet running through our bedroom all the way down the stairs. But then I noticed something unexpected. They didn’t lead out into the back garden and the trees beyond. They stopped in front of the mirror.
Before dinner, we were lounging in the living room with some kind of light entertainment on a low volume. Jame’s face suddenly darkened, as if something else had just occurred to him that he’d rather not think about.
“What’s up?” You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
He laughed nervously.
“Have you ever sleepwalked?”
Not an entirely unexpected question, given recent events. But my defences went up anyway.
“Where is this going?”
“I couldn’t get to sleep last night, so I went downstairs to watch TV. I thought you were sleeping when I left. But a few minutes later, I saw, or rather felt, someone going into the kitchen. But it was weird, because I hadn’t heard anyone come down the stairs. But it must have been you or Freya. So I stayed put and didn’t think much of it. Then, on the way back, you stopped in the living room doorway.”
“Did I?” slow dread was creeping up my knees.
“Yeah. It was definitely you. But you looked funny.”
“I had never seen those pyjamas before.”
“You never were very observant” I managed to choke out. It was now at my throat.
He smiled weakly, “and then I didn’t hear you go back upstairs either. And I had forgotten about it this morning, but it just came back,” he blinked as if dazed, “so I have come to the conclusion that you’re a light-footed sleepwalker.”
By this point, I had managed to swallow once or twice and look him in the face. The thought had already occurred to me too.
“You might be right” was all I could add to that. My thoughts turned to the last evening. I had been so screen-weary that I’d gone upstairs only an hour or two after dinner. I had done some perfunctory housework and snuck into bed, and the last thing I could remember was James half-waking me when he slid into his side. I thought I had slept like a log until early the next morning. Maybe I was wrong.
“You’re sure it was me?”
James frowned and his eyes glazed over. He was slowly starting to look unsure of himself.
“Yeah, who else could it have been? Freya looks almost nothing like you.” That was true. When we saw her blonde curls and dark eyes, we sometimes used to joke that she must have been swapped in the hospital. But since her temper started to develop, James changed his mind about that.
“What did my pyjamas look like?” I murmured.
“I’m forgetting already. But long, loose and pale. You looked like an inpatient” he smiled, but it was tight-lipped.
“I don’t have any pyjamas like that. Don’t you remember what I was wearing when I went to bed?”
“Actually, no. I turned around and you were gone. I thought, finally, I can watch a regency drama without feeling judged,” he rolled his eyes, trying to lighten the mood, but I could tell he was fronting, “but now I know I must have been mistaken. It already feels a little hazy.” Now he was hedging, minimalising, like usual.
“Hypothetically, If I have been sleepwalking, it could explain last night, and the boots,” I frowned. I still didn’t think I was the sleepwalking type. “But there’s one thing it can’t explain.” I drifted off into a pregnant silence. The gravity of my tone didn’t match the ridiculousness of the subject.
“What?” James was absentmindedly ruffling my hair again.
“How did the glasses get in the fridge? I had been wearing them that same morning.”
“Aren’t you going to finally admit it was a pretty lame joke?” James nudged me with his elbow but his smile faded when he saw the look on my face.
What other secrets did this house have in store for me? Or was just me? Had I literally become a sleep-walker overnight? Or was it James, trying to rattle me? But why would he? I rubbed my temples. I didn’t believe in ghosts, or omens. There was no need to make life more complicated than it already was. I debated registering at the doctor’s to get a refill on my old prescription, although I hadn’t for the past year. But they probably knew James or his parents. For the first time since my move, the creeping loneliness inside me burst into a jagged blossom of pain. My husband put his arm around me, but his hand felt cold to the touch.
He cleared his throat quietly.
Shit. Netball club.
It was late afternoon again. Mabel was snoring peacefully beside me. There were some perks to having an old dog, including being able to work almost uninterrupted whilst enjoying their company. The dusk was settling on the diagonal panes of glass in the living room windows. It was cold outside, so condensation was clinging in half-moons to the frames. I had decided to switch things up a little by putting my feet up in the living room to work instead of in the draughty office upstairs. We had a wood stove in the living room, and my feet were comfortably close to the glowing embers. The problem with wood stoves, however, was that you had to keep getting up every so often to pile more wood into them. I also had another problem. There wasn’t enough space in my lap for both my laptop and the book I was translating. I made a mental note to add both a lap desk to my Christmas list and to request an electronic copy of my next project.
My phone rang upstairs, upsetting the thick silence, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. Why wasn’t it on silent? I weighed up the options in my head over the next few seconds. Go upstairs into the chilly bedroom, disturb my sofa nest, and what if it was a cold call, someone asking if I’d had a road accident in the last six months? What if it was a friend? What if it was my mother-in-law?
Having hesitated a moment too long, I leapt up the stairs two at a time and picked up on what must have been the final ring.
“Hey, stranger!” it was Lucille.
“Oh hey, Lucille”, I tried and failed to conceal my panting, “I’m so glad you’re not my mother-in-law.”
“Me too. So are you coming this weekend or not? I need to know whether to take the kids to my own mother-in-law. She looks at me every time like I’ve failed in that department, but if this was a job, I’d already have earned two week’s overtime.”
Her voice did sound exhausted, but it was still flavoured with her slight French accent. Even after twenty years in London, she still hadn’t lost it.
“Yes! Of course, why wouldn’t I be?”
“Well, I don’t know, we’ve barely spoken for a week. Since you moved en provence it’s like you fell off the face of the Earth.”
I sighed. She was right. Anytime I was having a stressed-out period, I withdrew. Some people loved to talk things through, I always felt like a burden.
“I know, I’m sorry. I’ve just had a lot on my plate here, settling in, mothering Freya whether she likes it or not, taking on extra projects to cover the moving costs and mortgage while James digs holes all day…”
Lucille giggles “Don’t be too hard on him. One of you has to enjoy their job!”
I smile down the phone, as if Lucille can hear it. “You know I love my job, just not fifty hours a week.”
“Who would?” Lucille had always worked part-time as a French tutor. Her husband was a lawyer, so her work was basically window-dressing when it came to the family finances.
“So I’ll drive down for Saturday afternoon? What are you cooking?” That was another joke. Lucille could burn water.
“Tea. And then we’ll go somewhere nice.”
“Yes, sure. See you then. I miss you” that was only the tip of the iceberg really.
“You too. Are you doing okay up there?” she was perceptive, always.
“Not really. I’m worried I’m not normal. Something put my glasses in the fridge and James thinks it’s a bad joke. I’ll tell you all about it when I get there”
Lucille never missed a beat with my weirdness. She had her own eccentricities, whereas James had always preferred to put my problems in the same category as the sleeping pills in my bedside drawer and pretend they didn’t exist. “Well that’s certainly not normal. Colour me intrigued.”
“Thank you for your warm and comforting words, Lucille”, I couldn’t help laughing down the phone.
“I’ll have a bottle of wine waiting for you when you get here. He’s my therapist too”, I didn’t know if she was joking. As with all good female friendships, the conversation meandered long after the first goodbye, but I finally hung up when I heard James stomping through the front door.
“Shoes off!” I yelled for the hundredth time.
“Sorry, I forgot they were on my feet!” he lied. “Speaking of which- why were my work boots outside the front door this morning? Is this another one of your silly little jokes?”
“What?” I was genuinely baffled.
“I couldn’t find them this morning before heading off. I had to put my walking boots on instead. Then, when I open the front door, lo and behold, there they are. It had been raining all night and they were soaked.” he fixed me with a wounded glare, like a schoolboy who’s just had his sweets confiscated mid-lesson.
“Why do you think it must have been me?” I asked, equally wounded.
“I don’t know. It seems to be your thing lately, playing little jokes and putting things where they shouldn’t be. Maybe out of boredom, maybe out of spite, I don’t know” he narrowed his eyes at me. This was all a bit much.
“Don’t you think you could have just left them there and forgotten about them, as a mistake? Maybe Freya thought it would be funny? Don’t jump down my throat about it” I bit back. Inside, I was shaken. Was I now putting boots out in my sleep? What was the next step, milk in the kettle? Spaghetti hoops in the bath? It felt like this house was playing tricks on me.
I must have been broadcasting bewildered innocence, because he visibly mellowed. “Look, I don’t want to argue about this. There was no harm done, I suppose. Nothing fell on my toe today, and they should be dry by now, because I put them upside down on the radiator this morning,” he pointed to them- I hadn’t actually noticed them until now “so we can we kiss and make up?”
“Charming and refined, as ever” I joked, kissing him on the cold cheek.
“How was your day?”
“Cold. Can you look at the radiator in the study? I had to migrate to the living room” I pouted.
He rolled his eyes. “There’s probably just some air trapped in it.”
“Well if it’s so easy, you’ll get it done in no time!” I breezed.
It had started raining. Round, ripe teardrops signalled the change in weather coming into full swing. I was looking for fleeting distractions from the mental fatigue that sets in after spending too many hours staring at a screen, watching the drops slowly collect together in rivulets on the outside of the glass, the way that children do on long car journeys, cheering for their favourites. I watched them converge as gravity forced them downwards. All rivers lead to the sea. I heard the front door open with a creak and then slam shut. Bare footsteps softly slapped down the tiled hallway. Freya must have taken her shoes and socks off in the porch, which was strange for November but, hey, maybe it was part and parcel of her newfound vegetarianism. Grounding, or whatever. I was still trying to decide whether it would turn out to be a phase.
“Hey, how was school?” I yelled down the stairs. I was adding a final polish to my project and didn’t want to lose the flow by trudging downstairs to give Freya a hug that would probably be brushed off. The study was cooling despite the best efforts of the ancient radiator, and I had spread a shawl over my lap. I felt like one of the babushkas I had seen on the side of the road in Kiev, proffering their wares with gnarled and calloused hands. I was nestled in my ancient armchair. It had followed me ever since my university days, and now I was convinced I couldn’t write without it. I had always hated office chairs. When I moved into student accommodation at the age of eighteen, my second big move was to push the standard-issue swivel chair into the corner and go hunting for a secondhand replacement. It even had a reclining function for my fallow periods. Roping my flatmates in with the hauling hadn’t earned me any favours. I smiled at the memory before I realised that my greeting had been met with stony silence. Shrugging, I turned back to my work. If Freya wanted to be sullen, I wasn’t going to chase her.
An hour or two later, I had switched my desk lamp on and could barely see a thing outside. I clicked ‘send’ and closed the window I had finally finished, and a familiar feeling rushed through me. Elation, fatigue, a vague sense of dread about when they were actually going to pay me. I closed my eyes and leaned back. On paper, the wolf had been kept from the door, for another couple of months at least. I decided to leave it until the next day to go hunting for a new commission, and when I went to stand up, I realised how long I must have been sitting fixed in the same position. My bones felt frozen in place and it took a couple of seconds to get them creaking into action. I cursed my laziness about enrolling in those Hatha yoga classes at the local leisure centre. To me, there was something undignified about being middle-aged and sitting there in yoga pants in a draughty auditorium making small talk with other middle-aged women until the middle-aged instructor gets her CD player out.
I reached for my glasses, which I had laid on the desk next to my laptop. I was short-sighted, meaning I was blind only when it came to looking more than a metre in front of me. I only tended to put on my glasses whilst driving or walking around the house to avoid any head-on collisions. My hand hit bare wood. They were gone. I found myself frantically slapping the desk in a pathetic parody of patting yourself down when you realise you’ve left your purse on the train. I couldn’t be mistaken. I had definitely come into my office earlier wearing them. They weren’t expensive and I could easily replace them, but it was more the thought of being so mistaken in my short-term memory that unsettled me. I pulled the desk slightly towards me and searched frantically behind it, to see if they had slid down the back somewhere. Still nothing. All I could see was a dusty stretch of carpet with a few hairs and old bits of paper squashed into it. I slid the desk back into position. Dirt you can’t see doesn’t exist. I was still in a daze about my glasses, wondering how I was going to get to the opticians with illegally compromised vision.
I had just reached the top of the stairs and was, literally and figuratively, debating my next step when I heard the door go again. Like everything in the house and two thirds of its residents, it was old and stiff and needed a shake before it would function. James barrelled through the threshold having put a little too much elbow grease into the jiggling.
“Hiya,” he breathed and busied himself unloading his scarf onto the already overloaded stair rail.
“Hey. Have you seen my glasses today? I can’t find them” I was descending the stairs one at a time, gingerly as a retiree after a hip replacement.
“No, I haven’t actually. Are you sure you just haven’t left them somewhere random again?”
“I swear I took them with me to the study today, but they weren’t where I left them when I got up.” Early-onset Alzheimers?
“They must be up there somewhere” he shrugged.
“Well, they must. I don’t like going up the stairs without them. Do you think the opticians is still open? Maybe we could go before dinner? I need a spare pair anyway.”
“Can’t you just hang on until tomorrow? I could take you after work. Maybe they’ll show up by then. Maybe you just need to have a good look for them”
“James, I can’t look for them if I can’t see. They’re a common prescription. I could probably get some on the spot.”
I could see him groan inwardly. He pinched between his eyes, making a show of having just had a really long, tough day. “Yeah, I guess we have about an hour until they shut.”
“Well I can’t drive myself. Otherwise I wouldn’t have asked” he loved playing the martyr.
“It’s fine. Check the fridge first, though, and see if we need to get anything for dinner from the supermarket on the way back. It’s just the two of us, so we can have something meaty” he feigned a playful wink.
My blood ran cold.
“What do you mean ‘just the two of us’?” my voice was somewhere between a whisper and a squeak.
“Freya’s gone round a friend’s house for dinner. I’m going to pick her up later. Didn’t she text you? She texted me” James’ innocent confusion added to my deep thrum of foreboding. His face was a blur which slowly came into focus as I reached the bottom of the stairs, looking at me with concern. Should I tell him? Probably not, he’d laugh it off or tell me I need to stop sitting in this house alone, losing my glasses and imagining noises. My phone was always on silent, and I always kept it somewhere else when I was working. I was far too easily distracted. It was probably sitting on my bedside table at that moment, but I couldn’t be sure.
“I haven’t looked at my phone since lunchtime, actually!” I faked a sheepish grin whilst my mind was running, desperately trying to rationalise what I knew I had heard that afternoon.
“You don’t have to remind me what you’re like” he shot back. James was an instant replier. I found it hard to fathom how anyone could put up with being disturbed several times a day by something as jarring as a ringtone.
I still felt slightly queasy, so I bought myself time by slipping into the kitchen and opening the fridge, obscuring myself behind its door. I stared into it as if willing it to give up its secrets, some inspiration for dinner and advice on whether I was actually going insane.
“There’s chicken breasts. I could do a curry. Is that meaty enough for you?”
“Why don’t you let me do the curry?” he ruffled my hair, one of his habits. I didn’t usually mind it, but just then it took on a patronising tinge.
“You don’t like my cooking?”
“It’s not that I don’t like your cooking,” If I could see him at that moment, he would have been clasping his hands in front of himself in a gesture of mock sincerity, “It’s just that I have the time and inclination this evening to do something fit for human consumption.”
Absentmindedly, I looked at the space in the fridge which had until moments ago been obscured by the chicken breasts. It was in crystal clear high definition since I had stuck my head so far in, avoiding James’ perceptively gauging my emotions that I had, apparently, been alone in the house for the couple of hours since whatever it was had walked in through the front door on bare feet.
My glasses were in the fridge.
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.