He was drowning.
He was rising through fathoms of a green, swirling, evil sea, the water heavy and thick, dragging on him and slowing his ascent, compressing his chest, salt-sting filling his nose and burning his eyes, and the closer he got to the surface, the nearer he came to the pale light above, the slower he moved, until, within touching distance of sweet, clean air, with his arms aching from stretching upwards and with his legs cycling uselessly below, he stopped altogether, and he knew then that it was over, that this was the end and that all he had ever been was done.
Mark Watson jumped awake with a roaring intake of breath. He was panting, shaking, trembling. He was terrified.
He was lying naked on his bed, the sheets twisted all around him. They were damp, soaked by the sweat that was still leaking out of him. He was breathing hard, and he could hear his breaths hushing in and out through teeth that were clenched shut in a tight bite. There was a foul taste in his mouth. He didn’t dare move. He saw a tiny spider on the ceiling and he fixed his eyes on it, unblinking, because he knew with inexplicable certainty that if he looked away from it he would never find it again and he would be lost, completely lost, without any hope of ever finding his way back to the world.
Outside, cloud gave way to sun. A bar of light shone through a gap in the curtains and slid across the ceiling. It stretched into the room until it reached the spider that had anchored him. The golden touch disturbed the creature. It began to move, the spell was broken, and he closed his eyes. He heard a blackbird outside, its wheedled tweets answered by one more distant. It was morning. It was early on a summer morning. He was in his house, in the quiet village in the Yorkshire countryside. He was home. He was safe.
He blinked and double-blinked and steadied his breathing, in through his nose, out through his mouth, calming himself. He gulped, and tasted something awful again. His body slowly lost its tautness, and he became aware of how painful it had been to maintain a level of tension so high that his back had been arched off the bed. He let his body relax and slowly settle into the mattress beneath him. He had clumps of bed sheet gripped hard in each hand, gripped so tight that he found it difficult to unfurl his fingers. He spread them now, flexing them, and then stretching and unwinding the rest of his body. He closed his eyes again and then placed his forefingers over the lids, sucked in a great chestful of air, and slowly let it out again as he tried to push the memory of the nightmare away to the back of his mind.
Mark began to think again, which made him realise that he hadn’t been thinking up to now. He’d just been responding to the nightmare, in its grip, controlled by it. He’d never felt anything like that before, such a total abdication of self-will. He wondered for a moment which part of the nightmare had scared him most, the drowning or the lack of control, and then he realised that it was neither. What had scared him most was the end. Not death, not just dying, but the prospect of becoming nothing, of being nothing, forever and ever, amen. Oblivion, the foundation of so many faiths. That really scared him. That and the fact that he’d had the exact same nightmare the night before. And the night before that. The same thing, over and over, for days now.
He swore a question to himself.
His voice was weak and it trembled as he spoke. It sounded like someone else, someone he didn’t even know. He sounded tired, even to himself. He felt tired. Now that the strain of the nightmare was diminishing, he realised how washed out he was, as though he hadn’t slept at all last night, as though he hadn’t slept in days. The nightmare always seemed to happen just before he woke, so he knew that he must have managed to get at least a little sleep. It just didn’t feel like it. And last night seemed to be the worst one so far, the hardest to get through. Just then, at the end, it had felt as if he was in danger of not escaping from it, of not waking at all.
He levered his body up and sat on the edge of the bed and rested his elbows on his knees. He looked at his hands and saw that they were shaking. He put them together, interlacing the fingers. A girl had once told him that he had beautiful hands. What did that mean, beautiful hands? He’d never understood until right now. He saw his long, elegant fingers, smooth, unblemished skin, and fingernails and cuticles that were perfectly neat and proportionate. He saw what she had meant, that they were actually beautiful, but he didn’t understand why he was seeing these features so clearly now, after thirty-odd years of living with them. He raised his head and looked around him.
The room was big and square and decorated in the monochrome, colourless style of a single man living alone. Perhaps it was because the black and grey and white made it look like an old photograph, but it appeared to Mark that everything he saw was in tight focus this morning, much sharper and more clearly defined than he’d ever seen before. He saw it all, and all at once: the false grain in the black ash furniture; the individual black and white and grey tufts that made up the pattern in the carpet; every stitch in the seams of the clothes draped over the chair beside the bed. They were all as clear as if he had a magnifying glass over them, as if they were right at the end of his nose.
Mark shook his head. He needed some fresh air. He got up and walked to the window that the saving ray of sunlight had broken through. He drew back the curtains and opened the doors of the little Juliet balcony and looked out at the garden at the rear of the house. He gasped.
He could see every leaf on every tree, and every flower that was in bloom, and he could smell each of their scents. He heard each bird that sang, a hundred wondrous songs of praise for the day. The sweetness of dew was still in the air and it almost overcame the rancid tang that still lingered on his tongue. But above everything else, it was the quality of the light that took his breath. It was as though he was seeing everything refracted through a crystal that sharpened the edges of reality and enhanced its colours. He’d once seen a painting in a museum, a landscape by an Impressionist, Cezanne perhaps, and the way the artist had used colours to suggest depth and form had fascinated him. The garden was like that now, brilliant and over-coloured and too wonderful to look at. He turned away from the scene and drew the curtains, leaving the room only dimly lit by the borrowed light stealing in from around them.
He sat on the end of his bed and closed his eyes and tried to work out what was happening to him. What was he seeing? Was it real? He didn’t do drugs and he hadn’t had anything to drink last night as far as he could remember. Drink wouldn’t do that anyway, not unless it’d been spiked. He shook his head and tried to think. If the cause wasn’t drugs or drink, what was it? What could make everything seem so… intense? Was it some kind of psychotic episode? Was he going mad? How would you know, he wondered? How would you know if you were going mad?
He decided to take a shower to clear his head. He walked over to the chest of drawers beside his bed and took out some clean underwear and carried it as he walked, still naked, through to the en suite bathroom. As he walked he noticed that the sensory intensity he had been experiencing had diminished. He wondered if closing the curtains had done it, if blotting out the sun had removed the thing that was causing his senses to be over-stimulated. Whatever it was, things didn’t seem so sudden now, even here in the brightness of the bathroom with its sharp lights and pale marble walls. He could smell the lotions and potions that he kept in here but only to the usual degree. There was no longer that feeling of overload.
He stood in front of the sink and looked at himself in the wall mirror above it. Although not overly vain, he liked to think that he was worth looking at, and so it pained him to see his reflection this morning. He looked bad. Bed-head hair stuck out where it wanted to, chin bristled, eyes puffed up and carrying dark shiny bags. He stuck out his tongue. It was a little dark, nothing significant, but that taste was still there, like death in his mouth. He squeezed a great dollop of toothpaste onto his brush and scoured his teeth, and then rinsed and gargled with mouthwash. Even after all that, he could still taste the vestiges of something nasty. He wondered if perhaps one of his teeth was rotten. He decided to call the dentist later that morning to book an appointment.
He turned away from the mirror and swung open the door of the shower and reached in to turn it on. As the comforting splatter of warm water crackled onto the floorpan he looked down and saw blood swirling slowly down the drain.
With a stab of shock in his heart, Mark skipped out of the enclosure, skidding slightly on the tiled floor. He looked again at the pink swirl in the floorpan and then examined his legs and his feet but couldn’t find any sign of a wound. He went back to the sink and used a small shaving mirror to examine his back and head. There was nothing that looked like a bleed. He stood in front of the mirror over the sink and saw the puzzlement on his own face, and watched himself shake his head.
He went back to the shower. He’d left it running and steam had begun to fill the room. The blood had all been washed away.
After a moment he stepped in and let the warm water wash over him, running down his body and swilling away the memory of the cold green sea of his dreams. He felt his body begin to loosen and unwind. With his hands flat on the wall, he stood in the stream from the plate-sized chrome shower head and for a long time tried to think of nothing at all.
Mark owned and ran a software company. He’d grown it from a one-man, back-bedroom operation to a business with a turnover running into the hundreds of thousands and employing half a dozen people. Until just a couple of years ago he’d still been the production engine for the company, churning out great chunks of complex code each day. He still did now, when needed. Solutions for the financial sector were usually complicated and the clients often petty and overly demanding, so he tried to keep on top of everything the company did to make sure they did it right. His people were good, but Mark liked to make sure everything was being done the way he wanted it to be done. He thought back to the dream for a moment, and wondered if it had been the lack of control that had most scared him after all.
The price he’d paid for doing so well so young had been a loss of time. Time for friends and family, for interests and hobbies that weren’t directly related to work, but mainly for finding a woman who might like to share the fruits of his labours. There’d been what he’d thought of as his ‘near Misses’: Gillian, a beautiful girl who’d fallen deeply in love with his money; the cool but damaged lawyer Anna, who’d demanded more attention than he was able or willing to give; Charlotte, the adventurous one, who, he’d discovered one unhappy evening, hadn’t been able to settle for just one man, not even one man at a time. And then there was Monica. She was the one that he thought might have suited him. Slick black hair, bright blue eyes, funny, sharp as a paper cut, and almost completely unknowable.
He’d met her at a party. She was the friend of a woman he knew only vaguely, although he’d later found out that they weren’t really friends, just people who knew the same people. They’d only been out together a few times before it ended, three or four perhaps, and Monica had been a bit coy even then, evading talk about what she did and where she lived, but, from the very first exchange of words, they’d chattered away without any sort of guile or side, openly, like old school friends or long time lovers. He’d had an intuition about her, a feeling of comfortable fit. At home that night, alone, after the party, he’d lain in bed thinking about her, which he realised was something that he rarely did. They’d arranged to meet again the following evening and he took her to see a funny film and then to a good restaurant and then for drinks and laughter in a busy bar and then he took her to his bed. Or perhaps she took him. It was hard to tell.
Mark wasn’t inexperienced but that night he was absolutely used. Monica seemed to take from him everything she needed and when she’d done with him she just smiled and switched off and fell asleep. In the morning he woke to find her gone and a note with a time and a date on it and the name of another bar. He’d followed her instructions and their next evening together had been a repeat of the first. This had happened twice more. On the last morning there had been no note. He hadn’t seen or heard from her since that day. She’d just gone.
After a couple of weeks he’d tried to track her down. It turned out that the people who knew people didn’t really know Monica after all. They’d each thought that she was the friend of someone else, and, when he’d tracked the someone else down, they’d thought she was the friend of the someone else that he’d started with. Lots of people knew Monica, but none of them knew anything about her. He began to worry that she was some kind of industrial spy. He checked through all the company systems and access logs, checked and rechecked all the paperwork that wasn’t lodged with solicitors or escrow. Everything was as it should be, which was what he expected anyway. He’d never talked to her about any of the things the business was working on. He couldn’t even remember talking about the business at all. And he couldn’t remember saying anything that might have scared her off, that could have made her just go, without a word. Without even a goodbye kiss.
Mark climbed out of the shower and towelled dry and put on his underwear. In the bedroom he put on blue jeans and a plain white tee, his usual Saturday outfit. As he dressed, his thoughts danced from Monica to the nightmare to the current project at work. He had no particular reason to focus on any of these topics but he found that he couldn’t even when he tried. He just kept skipping from one to another, his mind playing hopscotch on them. His thoughts wouldn’t settle, and it made him edgy. Mark was someone who could fasten on to a subject and follow it all the way through to a clear end point. It was one of the reasons his clients liked working with him, and he was annoyed at not being able to do it now, when he really needed to understand what was happening.
He grouched loudly at himself and headed downstairs.
Breakfast wasn’t something he usually bothered with but he couldn’t manage to get out of the door without a coffee inside him. There was an expensive Italian coffee machine in the big open plan kitchen and he primed it and started it off and then went to collect the morning post as the machine gurgled and roared. By the time he came back a thick, black creation was waiting for him in a cup that looked like a cereal bowl. He added a spoonful of sugar and a glug of cream and enjoyed a sip before he sat on a stool at the breakfast bar and began to go through the letters he’d picked up. Almost all of it was junk. In annoyance, he slapped them down on the worktop. A couple of the envelopes skidded off the smooth surface and slithered across the floor. Mark swore and then picked them up and threw them back on the worktop. They left a dark streak.
There was blood on them.
Mark looked at his hands. A purple bloom had appeared on his fingers.
He jumped up. He didn’t know what to do. Standing there with his hands in the air he looked like a man surrendering. He looked at his fingers again and grimaced and then ran to the sink and covered them with soap from the plastic dispenser. He worked his hands together under running water until they were clean again. He dried his hands and walked slowly back to the stool at the breakfast bar.
Crouching at first and then kneeling, Mark scanned the kitchen floor. He saw that there were spots of blood in a trail leading back towards the stairs that he had only a few minutes earlier descended. The kitchen flooring was made of slate tiles and was such a dark grey that it was almost black, making the congealing blood difficult to see, but from this low angle he could see their setting sheen. He got up and walked to the foot of the stairs. They were covered in a thick red carpet that ran from the entrance hall up the stairs and on to the first floor landing. The colour of the carpet had masked more blood stains. He turned around and followed the trail in the other direction. They led to the cellar door. The handle of the door was made of a white ceramic. It was perfect for displaying the bloody handprint that he was now staring at.
Mark tried to remember what he’d done last night. Had he cut himself somehow? Was that where the blood had come from? He looked at his hands again. They were clean, with no remnants of the blood he’d acquired from the work surface. No cuts, no nicks or gashes. The blood, wherever it had come from, had not come from him.
So who had it come from?
Mark opened the cellar door and turned on the lights. The steps that led down into the cellar were made of concrete. He’d had them covered with non-slip tread, and the tread deadened any noise his shoes might have made as he descended. It was like walking into an ice cave. The walls and ceiling had been plastered and whitewashed, and the grey vinyl flooring gave the place a sterile feel. Standing at the bottom of the steps, he looked right and then left. Glare from strip lights filled the whole cellar. There was nowhere to hide.
This level of the house was sub-divided into several sections by thick supporting walls that carried the weight of the building above. A doorless entrance in each wall provided access to the neighbouring sections so that it was possible to walk all the way round the cellar without hindrance. A double bolted door provided external access to the rear of the house. Mark had planned to install a gym, a workshop, a games room, maybe even a home cinema, but he hadn’t got round to organising any of this yet. One section was a dumping ground full of things that he’d brought from his previous house but that was the only space with anything in it. The basement was almost bare.
He reached the bottom of the stairs and stood still, listening. There was only the sound of silence, the soft, static hiss that was the sound of his own blood moving through his body. The skin on the back of his neck began to crawl as an ominous feeling rose in him. There was something here. There was menace here.
He looked down and saw blood spots.
A trail of them ran from the bottom of the cellar steps in both directions. They were just small, occasional drips, the kind you might get from a cut finger, but he could see them clearly on the grey flooring, an erratic line leading away from where he stood and through the entrances on the left and on the right.
He thought about going back up to the kitchen to get a weapon of some kind, a knife perhaps, or something good and solid, but he’d read the stories about people having their own weapons turned against them and decided against it. Instead, he took a soundless step to the left, and then another. He paused to listen again. Hearing nothing, he kept slowly walking. At the entrance to the next section, he stopped and then stepped quickly through, his knees bent and fists balled in anticipation.
An empty space.
Mark’s heart was banging in his chest now, adrenaline rushing through his veins. He was breathless and panting, stealing juddering gulps of air through tightly clenched teeth. The sound of his breathing bounced off the walls and floor and ceiling and skittered around the basement. There was no way that he was going to surprise anyone down here.
“Who’s there?” he shouted.
The cry pinged back at him like a ricochet off the cellar walls. The silence that followed seemed even deeper than before. There was no response. There was nobody there. He began to feel annoyed with himself for allowing his imagination to get out of hand.
The sprinkling of blood carried on through the next entrance. Mark followed it, walking briskly now, anger mixing with the fear that was pushing him on. He walked into rooms empty of everything except light, his careless footsteps making a steady beat as he moved through the sections, turning right and right again, circling through the underwork of the building until he came to the last section.
The dumping ground was just as he remembered leaving it: a couple of old tables, one inverted on the other; some office chairs; a bookcase, leaned up against the wall; crates neatly stacked in the middle of the floor; archive boxes, numbered and labelled, sitting on the boards of an old industrial shelving unit; the old chest freezer, humming quietly in the corner.
There was nobody here.
Mark leaned against the shelving and put his hands on his head and tried to think.
The blood spots passed on through the next doorway and back round to the stairs. It was relatively fresh blood. It wasn’t his blood. Whoever the blood came from had dripped it all the way around the cellar and through the kitchen and up the stairs.
“And into my bathroom,” he said to himself.
It had to be me, he thought. It must be something that I’ve done. There’s no other explanation. Maybe I’ve been sleepwalking. Maybe I’ve had a nosebleed. Maybe I’m going mad.
He began to feel dizzy. He gripped the upright of the shelving and leaned on the chest freezer.
It was then that he noticed the humming.
The freezer was humming because it was working hard. Because the lid wasn’t quite shut. And as he pressed the lid to close it, he saw what he’d put his hand in.
The moment, the present, comes to him now, like an icy wind, penetrating his body and stretching his senses: the metal smell of blood; it’s treacle-stickiness; the clacking sound it makes as he lifts his hand out of the congealing pool that he has unthinkingly placed it in. He sees more of it on the chest freezer, sees slid handprints and fingered smears across the lid and down the sides. Then the knowledge of what’s inside the freezer comes to him, comes at him like a blade, a stab of thrill and terror. And then he realises what it is, that foulness in his mouth. It isn’t just the morning. It isn’t a bad tooth. It’s the taste of last night.
The taste of what he ate.