Say something,” she stuttered, loathing this sudden nightmare, hating herself for drinking the red wine and firing it inside her imagination. The dreaming Alison sat upright and put her hand in front of her face. There was nothing there to see. The room swam in an opaque, inky blackness that concealed everything. Even the incubus by the window. “Say something you bastard.”
The words echoed off the distant walls with a queer, dead resonance. Alison put her right index finger firmly in her mouth and bit hard. There was pain, the ache of teeth on bone. Did this happen in dreams? Her head, still drowsy with wine, pondered the question and had no satisfactory answer. In dreams, it said, anything can and will happen. The hidden strings and pulleys only reveal themselves afterwards, in the all-seeing light of day.
Then, while her head still debated this, something came close. Foul, hot breath fell upon her cheek and a hand, strong and sudden, grabbed the back of her hair, jerked it painfully once then let go. She cried out and knew, on the instant, how pathetic the sound was. The dream Minnis was deserted. There was nothing outside but the creatures of the feral darkness, owls and badgers, foxes and crawling, snapping rodents. To cry out to them was to invite their interest. Predators roamed this world.
“For God’s sake, say something,” she repeated.
And he laughed. Slowly, cruelly, a hoarse, tobacco-stained laugh that came from somewhere near her right shoulder, close to the window. It was as if the thought transferred itself invisibly between them. He moved and there was the swishing sound of the curtain. Now they would stay in darkness, even when the moon was free of the obscuring cloud.
“And you thinking we was dead,” the voice said, and immediately Alison closed her eyes, refused to see the flashing scar, livid on his cheek. The harsh Kentish accent brought it all back: the fire, the agony, the running, stumbling brawl in the stinking interior of Paternoster Farm. “You thinking…” He fell into silence.
She shook her head from side to side. You can dream the pain of teeth against bone, she thought. You can dream anything you like.
“I’m sorry,” she sobbed. “Harry, I’m sorry, sorry, sorry.”
He moved again in the darkness, so close to her face now, but still she couldn’t work out the direction as his presence shifted through the gloom.
“Sorry, Harry.” You could apologise to a phantom in a dream, she thought. Spectres didn’t blab. Dead men didn’t rise from the ground, extract confessions, then walk down to the police station and ask for justice.
“Well,” the ghostly Harry said, half cheerfully. “Then that’s all I need to hear now. Ain’t it?”
He pounced, strong hands took her head, turned it round to him, rough, unshaven skin brushed her cheek.
“All I need to hear!” This phantom was laughing at her, could squeeze the dream life from her veins if it wanted.
A single hand came to her mouth, took her lips painfully, made them purse in a round, circular shape, like a cruel parody of a kiss. Something fell onto her tongue and she thought: Pills. Dreams could have pills. Dreams could have anything.
His hand clamped roughly over her mouth then, strong fingers squeezed her nostrils. She felt something warm inside her nose. Blood. Some dreams led there always, and this was one of them; this was the blood dream to end them all.
She held her breath, ran the cold, reliable logic through her head, waiting for the nightmare to lift. When it did she would walk downstairs, make herself a cup of tea, sit, quietly shaking, until the real world returned, and with it some semblance of sanity. In dreams there was no such thing as breath. Time was its own master, ran as long or as short as it thought fit. And sometimes ran out. Her lungs felt ready to explode. The veins pulsed painfully in her temples. Alison swallowed and discovered another new dream sensation too. Taste. The pills lay crushed in her mouth. They were bitter and vile on the back of her tongue, slipped painfully down her throat. She swallowed again and again, dream body mirroring the automatic responses of her waking one, until the foul smack of chemicals was just about gone.
The powerful, coarse hand came away, disappeared into the blackness, then patted her painfully on the back.
“Good girl,” he said. “You takes your medicine. You makes your peace. All things get equal in the end.”
She swallowed again. The pills were working in her stomach, feeding something into her body. Air rose inside her. A feeble belch, the odour of vomit inside it, slipped from between her trembling lips.
“Almost,” he said, “anyway.”
Something flashed past her face. There was a sudden breeze, the hint of silver in the blackness. A strange sensation. Not painful at first, more like a coldness on her cheekbone, then something warm, flowing unexpectedly down her face. The blade sliced through her flesh, in a single, swift rush and was gone, leaving her gasping for breath, arms starting to flail in the black empty air. She coughed. Bile spilled out of her mouth, her stomach began to revolt. He was on her again. She felt the presence of the knife in front of her eyes, knew, in a sudden, time-halting moment of revelation, what it was like to face extinction, and found herself screaming for the life of the child inside her.
“Take it,” the old, familiar voice said out of nowhere. The shaft of the knife, warm wood, damp with sweat, pushed against her hand. Her fingers extended automatically to grasp it. Then, with the weapon firm in her grip, she swept the blade through the blackness, searching for his unseen shape.
There was blood in the air, more blood than could come from a simple line of gaping flesh on a woman’s cheek. And something else too, something soft and warm, feathering in front of her face, held there, deadening the blows of the knife as she flashed it towards the spectre that invaded this sacred space of her life. The frenzy consumed her, screaming, flailing, sobbing.
And he was gone. No noise, not even a footstep. His presence simply disappeared, the way fog lifted suddenly from the raw downland scarp. Through the curtains a dim silvery light filtered slowly back into the room. The dream room, Alison reminded herself, and wondered, almost calmly, what strange event, back in the waking world, had wound its way through her sleeping consciousness to be transmuted by her subliminal imagination like this.
Deep inside, some primal constituent of her being began to move. She dropped the knife, her dream fingers clutched frantically down beneath the sheets, felt at the dampness growing, seeping between her legs.
In the half dark she snatched the wetness on her nails into her mouth. The taste of blood and salt entered her head. She reached forward, clutching at the bedclothes, and recognised this softness she had ripped apart with knife. Loose fur, damp and fleshy, covered the bed, familiar fur, that had once borne the name Thomas. She coughed, retching mindlessly onto the sheets and felt a sudden, sharp twinge in her stomach. The process, inevitable now, she knew it, was under way inside her, moving, like some subterranean shifting of the earth, sparking into the familiar, fatal cycle.
(c) David Hewson 2012