By Niki Baker
In Roman mythology, Somnus (Sleep) resides in the underworld and is the brother of Mors (Death). Somnus is said to have a thousand sons. These capricious offspring are the Somnia: the dream-shapes.
Ryan closed his eyes and entered the darkness within the dark. He felt like the smallest Russian doll; the personal night behind his eyelids fitted snugly inside the gloom of the stifling suburban bedroom, which was nested in its turn within the wider night of the town, the country, the hemisphere. The thought was claustrophobic and his eyelashes clawed for the reassuringly familiar pollution of the orange streetlamps’ glow through the cracked curtains, the glaring red eye of his phone charger, the pulsing blue heartbeat of his sleeping laptop.
Although it was summer his arms were suddenly cold, crawling with goose bumps. He pulled the lightweight duvet up to his chin and wrapped his chilled limbs around himself, perversely enjoying the sensation of the corpse embrace against his warm torso.
He could easily make out the shape of the light-fitting that clung to the ceiling above the foot of the bed. Maggie had chosen one of those big white paper globe shades and it looked as if a huge colony of wasps had suspended a nest in the middle of the room. He briefly imagined the interior as a complex maze of paper tunnels hectic with crawling insects, countless chambers filled with their bloated squirming young. His head seemed the same, never at rest, a swollen hive of small thoughts hatching, humming, swarming.
It really wasn’t all that dark in the room. Maybe that was the problem. He’d have to talk to Maggie about getting a blackout blind.
Cocooned in the clinging duvet, Ryan’s entire body was now fizzing with unbearable heat. He threw aside the covers. Too cold one minute, too hot the next. Ugh. Maybe that was the problem.
Sighing, he swung his feet to the floor and sat on the edge of the bed. He generally tried to resist the temptation to keep checking the time but now stabbed irritably at the screen of his mobile phone on the bedside table, knowing the news would be unwelcome. He narrowed his eyes as the bright display showed 04:23. Wonderful. A whole two hours and thirty seven minutes until the alarm went off. And you could bet your life he’d be fast asleep then.
He stood and reached up to twitch the inadequate curtains. The apocalyptic orange radiance vanished from the centre of the window but increased around its edges. Why couldn’t people make curtains that actually fitted the bloody window? He groped on the floor for his discarded socks, used one to cover the phone charger and draped the other over the front edge of his laptop.
May as well go to the loo now that he was up, otherwise he was bound to need a pee as soon as he got back into bed. No sooner had the thought flicked through his brain than he heard the groaning of tortured bedsprings and protesting floorboards above his head. The upstairs neighbour – a surly, unemployable great walrus of a man – normally chose the moment Ryan was finally drifting off to heave his crashing bulk in the direction of the bathroom. He got up at least once every night, without fail. Ryan hated him with an incandescent passion and often lay in bed waiting for the noises, the anticipation blazing its own wakeful trail. Ah, the joys of communal living. That was definitely part of the problem.
Ryan padded along the passageway to his own bathroom. Damn it, he could actually hear the inconsiderate bastard up there urinating noisily into the centre of the toilet bowl like a grotesque parody of the Manneken Pis fountain. Then the flush, before the shuddering footsteps receded. Sod counting sheep; Ryan preferred to think up suitably unpleasant ways for that thoughtless oaf to meet an untimely end. Although, knowing Ryan’s luck, the replacement neighbour would be an amateur violinist with a wailing baby and a yapping dog.
The bedroom was certainly a bit darker now. As if to prove the point, Ryan stubbed his toe against the corner of the chest of drawers and stifled a yell. Not that he had to worry too much about waking Maggie; she’d barely stir if a full brass band came marching through the flat. He looked enviously at her duvet-softened outline, barely visible in the gloom, her hair a dark splash against the pillow.
Ryan slipped into bed beside her. The warmth was welcome for now, even though he knew he’d be throwing off the covers again within a few minutes. That was the trouble with an English summer: it was unpredictable. July might find you melting in a puddle of sweat or snuggled up wearing fluffy socks and gratefully hugging a hot water bottle. The same could be said of an English winter, come to that.
Ryan stuck one leg out from under the duvet and tried to get comfortable. Brits were rubbish at dealing with weather, which was surprising considering they got so much of it. One thing was guaranteed: hot or cold, at this time of year the nights were oh so short.
Pawel grinned as he watched Ryan shamble into the office. ‘You look like shit.’
Ryan yawned. ‘Thanks, mate. Good morning to you, too.’
‘I keep telling you, you should try sleeping tablets.’
‘And I keep telling you, Maggie won’t have them in the house. Says they’re addictive, just because that airhead sister of hers reckons she got hooked. That idiot woman gets hooked on everything, from chocolate and fags to expensive shoes and inappropriate husbands.’
‘You wouldn’t have to take them every night. Just when you’re desperate.’
‘That’s the problem. Desperation’s a permanent bloody state these days. Can’t remember the last time I had a decent night’s sleep. I need coffee. Want one?’
‘No thanks. You’d better be quick, Steven wants to see you. Nine o’clock sharp, he said. He’s left a note on your desk.’ Pawel looked at his watch. ‘You’ve got four minutes.’
‘Jesus, that’s all I need.’
At lunchtime in the café a few doors along from the office building, Ryan and Pawel contemplated their over-priced, under-filled sandwiches without enthusiasm. The place used to be really nice until it got taken over by one of the big chains. The décor had improved but the prices had doubled, and the freshly made baguettes and plates of hot chips had been supplanted by pre-packed paninis and giant muffins. The staff had kept their jobs but they’d become arrogant and unfriendly since being rebranded as baristas.
There were a couple of tiny tables set up outside on the pavement for tourists. Ryan and Pawel sat on the inside of the glass, enjoying the air conditioning, while they watched a middle-aged couple outside. The woman was fanning her red face with a laminated menu while the man smiled stoically and tried in vain to shield their food from exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke as the world passed by and a backlog of pedestrians flowed around the obstruction.
‘So come on then, tell me about this dream of yours,’ Pawel said, speaking through a mouthful of ham and cheese.
‘Bloody nightmare, more like. You might want to finish eating first.’
‘Nah, go for it. I’ve got a strong stomach.’
‘It was about the bloke who lives upstairs. I dreamt that he choked on a chicken bone and died.’ Ryan regarded his untouched sandwich.
Pawel burst out laughing. ‘From what you’ve said about him bashing about and keeping you awake, that sounds like a great dream!’
‘Yeah, I know, right? But this was… I dunno. Wrong, somehow. Vivid. Disturbing.’
‘It was like I was there, watching it all happen. It was at night, in his flat. He lumbered out of bed and went through to his kitchen. He was naked. At least, I think he was. He might’ve been wearing underpants, I suppose, but it was hard to tell. The guy’s stomach and legs were huge and draped in distorted flesh.’
Pawel pulled a face. ‘Okay, I get the picture. No wonder you’ve lost your appetite.’ He launched an attack on the second half of his sandwich. ‘So what happened?’
Ryan took the lid off his coffee and gazed indifferently at the dark liquid while the artificially cooled air peeled feathers of steam from its surface. ‘He went to his fridge and took out a plate with half a roast chicken on it. He didn’t bother closing the fridge door, just sat at the table and ripped a drumstick off the carcass. It was so realistic, though. Not the usual muddled up nonsense you get in dreams. I heard the sucking crunch of gristle as he tore the leg off. He made all these disgusting wet sounds with his mouth as he started eating, dropping bits of meat on his flabby chest. And I was standing there watching all this in the light from the fridge, with him sitting there like Jabba the fucking Hutt.’
Pawel, amused, was openly eyeing Ryan’s untouched lunch. Ryan pushed the plate towards him.
‘Go for it, mate. I’m not hungry.’
Pawel lifted one flaccid corner of the bread and laughed. ‘What the hell did you get chicken for?’
‘I know, I know.’
‘So go on. You said he choked?’
‘Yeah. But it was horrific. He finished the drumstick really fast and then pulled off a wing. Again, I could hear the sound it made and see his fingers glistening with grease. He didn’t give a shit. He was really going for it, scoffing it all down, pushing the wing into his face and reaching for more, peeling ribbons of brown skin off the chicken like flypaper and poking them into his awful cement-mixer mouth.’ Ryan shuddered, stirring his coffee attentively so that he wouldn’t have to watch Pawel eating the sandwich. ‘And then suddenly the guy just froze. He half stood up and clutched at his throat with his greasy hands. I could see every detail, like watching a horror film in high definition. And I kept getting flashes of what was happening inside him, close up, like they do on telly programmes sometimes. There was a big lump of half-chewed chicken wing blocking his windpipe. It had a shard of bone sticking out of it, brittle and sharp, and as the guy was grabbing at the folds of his own neck and trying to drag air into his lungs, the chunk of food was moving further down and that vicious little bone was piercing, tearing him up inside. I don’t know if I couldn’t move or just didn’t. In the dream, I was wondering if I’d be able to get my arms around him to do the Heimlich manoeuvre but all I could do was watch. His face was contorted in a sort of mute scream. Then he collapsed onto the floor. He knocked the chair over and lay in the pool of white light spilling from the damn fridge. He went purple… grey… and there was blood at the corners of his mouth, only a little at first but then more and more, bright red, welling up, and bits of mushed up chicken meat everywhere. After a while he was still. And right at the end I was looking down on him from above: his inflated body and congested face, mouth wide open and overflowing with blood and food. And those pale piggy eyes of his, red-rimmed and full of tears, staring straight up at me. That’s when my alarm went off.’
Pawel had stopped eating and was looking at Ryan in horror. ‘Fucking hell.’
Ryan took a swig of his coffee. ‘You asked.’
That night, Ryan experienced an irrational stab of panic as Maggie reached for the switch and turned out the bedroom light. He’d never been afraid of the dark, even as a kid, but the nightmare about Walrus Man had really bothered him and it refused to fade from his mind, probably because he’d recounted it in such detail to Pawel. He hadn’t mentioned it to Maggie. Now, lying in bed, the worst images flashed behind his eyes whenever he closed them, momentary snapshots of gruesome clarity: the ripping of gristle and windpipe, the sheen of running grease on lips and fingers, the welling blood, the mess of meat. He was scared that, if he surrendered to sleep as he so desperately wanted to, his brain would produce a re-run or an equally awful sequel.
Exhaustion picked at his frayed edges. He couldn’t go on like this, couldn’t afford yet another bad night. His insomnia was really starting to take a toll. Pull yourself together, man.
Determined to think about something else, Ryan found himself reflecting on the morning’s conversation with his boss, even though that was hardly going to help him relax. Steven Southwell was a jumped up little prick who clearly believed that a business management degree and whatever Mickey Mouse graduate training programme the company had fast-tracked him through gave him the right to tell everybody else how to do their jobs. The skills and experience of his older colleagues were irrelevant to Steven; with him, it was all about buzzwords and acronyms, blue skies and brainstorms. By the end of his first week, he’d talked so much about thinking outside the box and pushing the envelope that Ryan had nicknamed him Steve the Stationer.
The purpose of the nine o’clock meeting had been for Steven to express his concern over Ryan’s apparent ‘lack of engagement’ during the previous day’s team meeting. Ryan had stared across the desk at his young boss’s striped shirt and floppy ginger hair and said nothing, since any of the verbal or physical responses that sprang to mind would have got him fired on the spot.
Recalling this was getting Ryan wound up all over again and he made a conscious effort to relax his twitching muscles as he lay in bed. The real reason for his lack of engagement at the team meeting was that he’d been struggling to stay awake. He tried to conjure that feeling now – of drowsiness irresistibly weighing his eyelids, overwhelming him like a warm cloud, seducing him with sweet promises of oblivion. He could have nodded off so easily, sitting in that meeting room chair with people talking bullshit all around him and the fluorescent lights glaring overhead. So why on earth couldn’t he do it now, lying in warm dark comfort next to the woman he loved?
Right on cue, Maggie gave a soft snort beside him. He knew she felt guilty for being able to sleep like a normal person and his heart swelled with affection. He nudged her gently so that she stirred just enough to stop snoring.
When Ryan’s turbulent thoughts eventually became dreams, they weren’t of Walrus Man. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he dreamed about Steven. Ryan was sitting in the passenger seat of Steven’s company car, watching him drive like a twat. The pleasant smell of the BMW’s newish leather seats was overpowered by some godawful synthetic vanilla air freshener that caught at the back of Ryan’s throat and made him want to gag.
Through the windscreen, Ryan watched a familiar stretch of dual carriageway roll rapidly towards them, snaking beneath the car as Steven switched lanes erratically to pass other less important vehicles driven by people who were no doubt less keen to get where they were going. The radio was on and Steven’s mop of wavy ginger hair wagged irritatingly in time to something loud and depressing, whose lyrics he only knew well enough to ruin with a few tuneless outbursts during the chorus. As the BMW breezed up onto an overpass, Steven abruptly thrust a finger up his nose and then lowered the window to flick his findings outside. Ryan looked away in disgust. Serve the idiot right if the bogey had blown back and was stuck in his ridiculous hair. Thank God this was just a dream. Bloody realistic, though, just like that other—
Dread flowed through Ryan’s veins. Please no, not another one of those graphic nightmares. He willed himself to wake up, but the visions were beyond his control and refused to let him go.
Steven’s phone rang. It didn’t connect through the car’s stereo system and he looked down to rummage for it in the centre console. Ryan could do nothing as the BMW veered left and closed fatally fast on the car in front, clipping the other vehicle’s rear with an expensive-sounding crunch and a spray of shattered tail light. Steven’s head snapped up, his face a comical mask of bewilderment, but his reactions were hopelessly slow as the car carried them – both helpless passengers now – towards the barrier… through it… Ryan felt his stomach clench as they sailed off the edge of the overpass.
Music was still blasting through the speakers
… you and me baby heading down down…
In the dream, Ryan sat calmly in the passenger seat, passively observing as the terrible scene unfolded, but somewhere his corporeal self was sweating, thrashing, frantic to escape the grip of the nightmare before the car hit the ground.
The BMW dropped in an almost perfect nosedive, engine screaming, and Ryan had time to look down through the windscreen as tall green park railings rushed straight up at them. There was an appalling crump and screech and then just sickening creaks and ticks and drips and that fucking song
…our wheels ain’t turning no more…
They were both still seated, Ryan because his dream-self was apparently immune to gravity and Steven because he was pinned in place by the long metal fence spikes that had penetrated the car. As in the previous nightmare, Ryan had seen everything, had seen what happened inside Steven’s body as the machine impaled itself, had seen the alien metal invading his chest and abdomen, effortlessly shattering ribs, driving smoothly through his organs
…does your heart still beat for me baby…
And now Ryan was watching a dark red stain spread rapidly across Steven’s striped shirt, blooming there like a terrible flower with green-painted metal stems. He didn’t want to see. A thread of blood dangled from Steven’s open mouth and Ryan saw his eyes flicker and deaden
…don’t you look at me now…
Ryan surfaced into consciousness gasping for air like a drowning man. The sheet was twisted under his drenched body and he grabbed for the bedside lamp as if it were a lifebuoy. The darkness evaporated instantly but the image of Steven lingered and the nightmare still thudded in Ryan’s ears.
He sat up in bed and turned towards Maggie, more than half hoping that he’d woken her, but she had pulled a pillow over her head and hadn’t been disturbed by either the light or his panic. The pillow was usually a sign that he’d been fidgeting or snoring and he was comforted a little by this fragment of intimate knowledge. He touched a lock of her dark hair that was curled over the top edge of the duvet, the only part of her that was actually visible. How she could stay bundled up like that in this heat, he’d never know. Now that he’d calmed down a bit, he was glad that he hadn’t robbed her of precious sleep.
These freaky nightmares, though! He wasn’t sure he could handle many more of them. They were probably just symptoms of chronic over-tiredness, that was all. Maybe he should see a doctor. Yeah, he’d explain to Maggie that he really needed help – God knows, that was the truth – and get a prescription for some decent sleeping tablets. Like Pawel said, he wouldn’t need to take them every night. He felt quite emotional at the thought of a few hours’ solid sleep. Although, what if he had one of his dreams and the drugs made it even harder to escape the horrors? In the warm night, a shiver shook him.
Ryan went to the bathroom and then got back into bed. His finger hovered, trembling slightly, over the bedside lamp switch. Unspeakable things were waiting for him in the dark, things he knew he’d never forget, things that would haunt his fraying mind for a long time to come. Telling himself to man up, he flicked the switch and moved closer to Maggie. He lay almost hoping to hear the upstairs neighbour bashing around and was glad when Maggie started snoring. For once, Ryan fought against sleep. For once, he lost.
When the alarm went off, Ryan silenced it quickly and then grudgingly left the soft embrace of the bed. He took his clothes through to the bathroom and started getting dressed. Maggie worked from home on Fridays and he always left her to enjoy the luxury of a lie-in. He’d decided he would definitely phone the surgery to make an appointment as soon as he got to the car—
The car. The nightmare about Steven came rushing back into focus and Ryan shuddered. Although he’d probably managed at least four or five hours’ sleep in the end – a rare feat for him – he felt wrung out.
He got to the office and set about drinking enough coffee to get through the day. Fridays were always busy but at least that made the time pass more quickly. And it meant that it was almost the weekend. A couple of mornings with no alarm clock. Bliss. If the weather stayed this good, maybe he and Mags should drive out to the coast tomorrow. Mind you, whenever the sun shone, British beaches became a seething mass of roasting humanity. The prospect of fighting for a small patch of litter-strewn sand, staking a claim with a beach umbrella and a couple of gritty towels, and then spending a few hours surrounded by other people’s noisy kids and bright pink flesh wasn’t very enticing. Perhaps there was a patch of woodland where the two of them could enjoy a walk. A picnic, even. Yes, that was a much better idea. When was the last time they’d done anything like that?
It was late afternoon when he sensed that something was wrong. A phone was ringing, unanswered. It was company policy to pick up within the first three rings, so somebody was going to be in trouble. When he emerged from behind his partition and glanced around the large open-plan office, it was dotted with whispering knots of people. Pawel was hurrying between desks towards him, looking uncharacteristically serious.
‘What’s going on?’ Ryan asked. ‘Not another round of redundancies, is it?’
Pawel shook his head. ‘It’s Steven.’ Ryan’s heart tightened. He didn’t want to hear what was coming. ‘He’s dead. Can you bloody believe it? Dead!’
Ryan felt ill. He hadn’t seen his boss all day but he’d assumed he was out finding more envelopes to push and more boxes to think outside of.
‘Shit. What happened?’ Don’t say it, please don’t say it.
Pawel’s face was pale. ‘Car crash, apparently. Happened while he was driving to work this morning but the news is only just filtering through. They’re saying his Beemer came off the side of the flyover and landed on some railings. Nasty business. I mean, I know the guy was a tosser but you gotta admit that’s a hell of a way to go.’
Ryan left work early and drove home in a daze. He’d intended to take the less direct route out past the retail park to avoid going anywhere near the scene of Steven’s accident, but he must have gone his usual way without thinking because he found himself inching along the dual carriageway towards the park. The traffic was always heavy on a Friday night. Today was worse than ever and the sun beat down relentlessly on the commuters in their sweltering little tin boxes.
As the string of cars and trucks crept up onto the flyover there were signs warning that one lane was closed. Ryan’s sluggish brain pictured roadworks until, with a jolt, he realised that Steven’s crash was probably the reason why. Ryan’s car was directly behind a van that belched clouds of dark smoke every time the queue moved. He closed the window and turned the fan on full. A sweet, sickly smell pushed through the vents. It smelt like decay, or… synthetic vanilla. Feeling suddenly queasy, Ryan quickly opened both windows, almost glad to breathe the van’s fumes.
Trapped, knowing the congestion was as inescapable as the nightmare had been, he loosened his tie and wiped a hand across his forehead. His eyes were already stinging with perspiration. In sickening slow motion, the stagnant line of traffic passed a cortège of orange cones and a twisted and broken section of safety barrier. Ryan tried not to look but his gaze was unwillingly caught by a bright, fluttering movement off to the left. Below the road, the park railings – mercifully now free of BMW – were festooned with yellow police tape. The plastic ribbons rippled lazily in the sultry air, drawing attention to that part of the fence whose wicked green spikes were bent at odd angles as if some petulant giant-child had crumpled them in a temper tantrum.
Ryan was no longer seeing the tape or the cones or the traffic. He was remembering how he’d watched from the passenger seat, mesmerised and appalled, as Steven’s shirt had blossomed red… as that dreadful string of crimson drool had stretched out from his slack mouth to reach the shattered windscreen… as the fear and shock had fled his dying eyes.
A horn blared, summoning Ryan back to the Friday evening traffic jam. In his rear view mirror, an impatient driver was gesturing and mouthing obscenities despite the fact that there was nowhere to go. Still spooked, Ryan obligingly drove a few metres to catch up with the van in front, which seemed to pacify the moron behind him.
What the hell was happening? Was this what madness felt like? It had to have been just a sick coincidence that he’d had that weird dream about Steven, that’s all. Lack of sleep was messing with his head.
Ryan pressed the power button on the car radio. Music and some inane chatter from the drive-time DJ would help to banish the demons. The car was instantly filled with a popular song that Ryan had heard before.
… you and me baby heading down down…
…our wheels ain’t turning no more…
…does your heart still beat for me baby…
…don’t you look at me now…
Out of habit, he stopped in the lobby of the apartment building to check the mailbox for any post. Within seconds he was greeted by Val Wilson, a career busybody in her sixties who lived in one of the ground-floor flats and chaired the residents’ association. She lurked around the entrance like a garrulous vulture whenever she had gossip she was itching to share. All Ryan wanted was to get upstairs and pour himself a very large whisky.
She stepped in front of him. ‘Terrible news about Mr Cooper, isn’t it?’
‘Sorry, who?’ Ryan edged towards the stairs. Val could talk for England and he’d been caught before. ‘Look, Mrs Wilson, I don’t mean to be rude but I’ve had a hell of a day and I—’
‘Oh, you must know Mr Cooper. Nice man, although he liked to keep himself to himself. Most of us do, I suppose. He lived in number thirty eight, right above you. We’ve had the emergency services here most of the day, traipsing up and down.’
Ryan felt as if the world was falling away from him at dizzying speed. He heard himself say, ‘Why? What—’
Val couldn’t wait to elaborate. ‘Choked on a piece of chicken apparently, poor chap. According to one of the paramedics who was talking to Mrs Donaldson from number twelve, it might have happened a couple of days ago. That’s always the worry when you live alone, of course. Are you alright? You’ve gone awfully pale. I know just how you must feel. It’s the shock, you know. I had to pour myself a sherry when I found out, even though I’d barely finished eating breakfast. There’s still a drop left in the bottle, if you’d like one. It does help. I normally prefer a sweeter one but they didn’t have any last time and the one I ended up buying is actually not bad for an amontillado.’
Ryan was saved by another resident arriving home, and made his escape when Val bustled off to accost her new victim. He walked up the stairs on auto-pilot while his mind raced, trying to make some rational sense of what was going on.
It was as he reached the second-floor landing that he recalled there had been one last dream that morning, dormant in his memory until now. It had come creeping into his subconscious like a malignant fog, but at least it had been surreal, as dreams are supposed to be. In it, he’d been heavy with blissful sleep, being dragged reluctantly from its deepest recesses by a thick anchor chain that was being hauled up by a team of sailors somewhere far above. Every time the crew pulled on the chain, he could hear the rattle of the links as they clattered through the hawsehole. The noise had grown louder as he’d been jerked up towards the surface like a resentful and angry puppet.
Ryan moved across the landing to the door of the flat and fumbled his keys from the pocket of his trousers. He had a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach, which solidified as if he’d swallowed a cold stone. He remembered… he remembered becoming aware that the sound of the anchor chain being drawn up was actually the rhythmic sound of Maggie’s snoring. He remembered… that the dream scene had shifted and he’d been on the deck of the boat kneeling astride something soft.
Outside the door of the flat, his hands were shaking so much that it was a struggle to get the key into the lock. Heat was pulsing through him, unbearable.
In the dream, the rattling noise had come again and he’d looked down to see that he was straddling Maggie’s bundled form. It was her snoring that had unwittingly salvaged him from the sleep he so craved. He needn’t wake her; all he had to do was muffle the sound a little so that he could sink back into the depths and get some more rest. Then he was back in the blessed dark water and sleep was closing over his head and he was drifting down, down…
Ryan stepped hesitantly into the flat on legs that didn’t seem to be his own. The curtains were still closed.
It was hard to breathe.
The bedroom door was ajar, just as he’d left it. He sank to his knees, remembering too clearly how the pillow’s softness had yielded under the prolonged pressure of his hands.