Updated: Sep 13, 2021
The Minute Before Sleep
In the minute before sleep, the words in my head took me down an unfamiliar street. I had been remembering the previous day when my thoughts meandered down to an unknown shopfront. I don’t know what it sold but you were there. You were wearing a postbox-red coat, standing alone, as though you needed somewhere to go.
Before you left, you turned to me, your face still lost.
‘Sorry, just passing through!’
I didn’t see you again for a couple of months. I was languishing on my couch, stuck there by the summer heat. It was late afternoon. Post-lunch fatigue weighed on my eyelids as the TV flickered in the background. The channels blurred into visions of holidays past, yet there you were, lounging on a beach somewhere. This time, your cheeks were rosy.
‘You’ve caught the sun,’ I slurred.
You looked at the blue sky behind you and back to the open book perched on your chest. Your eyes widened.
‘Oh shit!’ And then you went, and the darkness followed.
It was not until the next day that I realised I recognised the beach. Coral Bay. It was only thirty minutes’ drive away and I had always been meaning to visit. The next time there was a sunny weekend, I arranged to meet friends there.
I cycled down an hour early. Not sure why. I didn’t expect anyone I knew to be there yet but still, I looked around. Settling down, I plunged my feet off the end of my towel into the warm sand. Opening my book, I let the sand sift slowly between my toes. The heat combined with long, prosaic sentences soon sent me to sleep.
‘We’ve swapped places,’ you said, looming over me. I was aware I was no longer on a beach; instead, a new grey skyline surrounded both of us. The bathing suit felt very small under scrutiny.
‘Not really.’ I avoided eye contact and looked at the surroundings. Faceless concrete buildings stood just out of focus. I felt like I knew it, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. It had a small garden just like my block of flats, except it was full of strange flowers and sculptures that swayed to a non-existent breeze. This didn’t look like my home at all.
‘Don’t catch the sun now!’ You cried out.
I wanted to reassure you, but you were gone.
It was a few months before we spoke again. The whoosh in the trees outside had just turned into a newfound sea, and there you were, your head bobbing along in this shapeshifting ocean.
‘What do you reckon this means?’
You looked at me blankly.
‘This?’ You nodded your head towards the water. ‘I’m just hoping it means I haven’t pissed myself.’ I laughed, which rang out surprisingly clear in the otherwise muted landscape.
‘I meant us meeting like this.’
‘How do you know I’m real?’
‘I guess I don’t.’ I wiggled my toes, which were starting to become tentacles. ‘But I’m glad that if you’re not, my subconscious has such a sense of humour.’ You chuckled at this, your laughter dissolving into the seafoam. You were gone again, but I knew you would be back.
From then on, you started to appear in my dreams quite often. We didn’t always talk but I would feel you there. Often in the background, you would be someone passing by. Behind me in a shop. Sometimes there, trapped between light and a crinkle in the duvet.
I felt it even more when you were not there. Often I could feel you had been there previously, a small hole which sewed itself back up just as I felt for it. I would often wake up, thumbing the seams of my pyjamas.
Previously known as the person who needed three coffees just to look alive, comments about my visible lack of fatigue at the office had started to come in. Despite still undertaking the awful, sweaty forty-minute bike ride, I looked “refreshed” and “glowy”. I insisted it was the sheen of sweat, but something felt different. I had started going to bed earlier, after all.
‘Glowy? What did you look like before?’ You whispered to me as we explored my crumbling childhood home.
‘I can’t tell if that’s a compliment or not.’ I opened an old box full of spiders. ‘Why is it always spiders?’ I muttered, flinging the ones on my hands away.
‘To be fair, I can’t imagine you looking that haggard.’
‘That haggard?’ I threw a spider at your face before realising it wasn’t there.
‘You know I’m joking.’ The walls echoed. ‘Besides, I’ve seen you naked—’
‘Please don’t remind me of the exam hall incident!’ That was one of our few dreams I wished I could forget. I then climbed into the attic that I knew, inexplicably, would be on fire.
‘Just saying, you looked nice—for someone who was so clearly unprepared!’
If I hadn’t been fighting off what were now flaming spiders, I could have sworn you—or I—were flirting with me.
‘Are you saying you liked what you saw?’
‘Of course I did. I mean, I like you.’ Everything disappeared except you. You sat at the window.
‘But you don’t know me.’
‘But you know me?’
‘But I don’t!... I can’t.’ The words stumbled out and felt too blunt as they cut the space between us.
‘Right.’ And with that, you were gone. Again.
You disappeared for a while after that. The absence drove me crazy. I found myself talking about you with my friends. They would frequently forget you were not real, and occasionally so would I. I knew they were tired of me but I couldn’t help it.
‘Maybe you should look up what this means or something,’ they said, half-distracted over half-drunk coffees.
I knew it was the sensible thing to do, but I could not bring myself to. I tried briefly, but part of me knew I was reading a story I did not want to know the end of.
As my finger traced across the library shelf, I halted at the psychology section. I wasn’t meaning to look there, but I couldn’t help but linger over a particular title: “Jung At Heart: What Do Your Dreams Really Mean?” Against my better instincts, I picked it up.
‘I wouldn’t read that if I were you, absolute crock of shit.’
I turned around. Felt the breath catch in my throat.
‘Do we know each other?’ You raised your eyebrow at me. I wanted to explain, but at that moment, as I tried to grasp for it, it pulled away from me. Sand from underneath my feet.
‘Um… no.’ I spluttered. My mind was blank.
‘Oh right.’ He paused. ‘You just seemed very familiar. No worries.’
I turned back to the shelf and slotted the book back. Why couldn’t I remember? Why couldn’t I think of anything to say?
‘Hang on,’ you called out. ‘I think we work in the same building.’ You raised the bike helmet in your hand.
Of course. Something in my mind came into focus. I had seen you in the lobby. You sometimes rode your bike in at the same time as me. I recognised it as you were always wearing the most garish ensemble of skin-tight lycra and a chunky neon helmet. There had never been that much of you visible except your nose and sometimes a stubbly chin. You looked different, yet familiar.
‘Oh, yes. Hello again.’ I felt my cheeks go scarlet from leftover embarrassment. You fidgeted with your watch.
‘I’m sorry if this is weird, but I’ve just moved to the area and could do with some insider knowledge, if you don’t mind getting a coffee?’ You looked nervously at the bike helmet on my satchel. ‘Unless you’re just passing through, that is.’
The relief washed over me.
‘No, no, I’m not.’
As I walk back through this suburban maze, I am slightly drunk, and alone.
It’s late, although the summer sun hasn’t quite set yet so the sky is still a vivid turquoise, with navy just starting to bleed at the edges. A welcome breeze blows through, my joints still sticky from the heat.
I take another swig from the can. I know the overly sugary taste will give me a terrible hangover but, at this point, I don’t care. I have been walking along the main road for the last twenty minutes but as I passed each pub and takeaway, alone, with more and more prying eyes watching, I had to turn away.
We used to walk down this road on the way back from school.
You can’t hear the voices or the gentle roar of cars anymore. Neatly pressed-together houses and immaculate front gardens sit in a very still silence. A shaggy lawn or domineering vine sits as an occasional outlier, but even that feels deliberate, curated somehow.
I go past Lizzie’s house. The light is on, but the blinds are drawn. Lizzie hasn’t lived there for at least five years, but I like to imagine her there in her living room, watching something. Maybe she would turn to the window, look right at me, see me without knowing.
I keep walking until I come across another turn. Left or right. I stop. Which way is it? Swaying a little, I settle on right.
The smell of honeysuckle. This feels correct, although I don’t recognise any of the houses. Everything looks different in the dark. Yellow fragments tessellate with shadows. I think I see half a face in a car, but I look again and it’s gone.
Another breeze comes, although this time it is colder. The sky is half-black now. Part of me regrets not bringing a jumper or something, although it is probably a good thing to stay alert.
Whilst on the last street, most of the houses have their curtains pulled, a few of them are surprisingly open. I’m walking through a gallery of empty domestic tableaux, beautiful furniture carefully positioned, waiting for a scene to start.
There is one that catches my eye. It is pristine like the others, although it has shunned the other houses’ modern design. There are several shelves featuring a large patchwork of books. A modern TV but worn fabric couches instead of cool leather. A variety of mismatching cushions to decorate. There is some abstract art on the wall along with vintage poster prints, effortlessly chic in a way that screams I have both taste and a personality.
And there are photos everywhere.
Photos on the walls, shelves, mantelpiece, even on the side tables. There’s barely room to put a mug down anywhere.
I lean in closer, teetering over the small brick wall, crushing against my knees to get a closer look. Whilst there are a few odd characters, the same four people pop up again and again. A father, although with his long foppish hair and colourful shirts he strikes me as the bohemian cool dad sort. He probably has a record player and listens to jazz and would be the kind of dad who would catch you smoking but only smile and say, “Don’t let your mother catch you doing that”.
The mother is beautiful, with long wavy hair although it is often pinned back in a variety of styles, so you know she is only truly carefree when it’s down. She wears paint-splattered shirts and always has some DIY project on the go, I can just feel it. A flash of my own mother, stuck in that cold house, everything falling apart, appears in my mind before I push it away with another swig.
The two children look at least teenagers now, with naturally blonde hair and deep tans that suggest they have already seen half a world before leaving school. Maybe some of the paintings are theirs, hanging above all the other pictures.
I think of my drawing on the fridge, the only place it could go lest we damage the paint on the walls.
I shake my head.
I want to dream of their life. These people aren’t the nouveau riche of their neighbours. They spend money but don’t care too much about it. Everything they buy screams of small hidden labels and casually bragging to friends at dinner parties about what a lucky find it was.
The sound of movement from inside wakes me from my reverie. I hadn’t even noticed I had stepped over the small garden wall, blades of grass stabbing my toes through my sandals. My hands hover over the window frame for a moment before I realise what is happening and I turn away to escape. I jump over, tripping over the ridiculously low wall and dropping my can onto the manicured lawn.
I can’t stop. Instead, I push myself up, running and running and running until I find the familiarity of the brightly lit street and cars whizzing past. I have emerged, the sound of my heartbeat still swirling in my ears.
I keep walking although the image of their living room stays fixed in front of me. I imagine them, watching me disappear. Maybe they would run out after me. Maybe they would stay inside.
My train of thought is interrupted by the comforting lurid glow of the nearby Tesco’s. My stomach groans. I have just enough for a bag of crisps to last me.
I go to stride in, but the security guard stops me. He is a broad yet not very tall man, but despite being a head smaller, he manages to look down at me. My heart quickens. Maybe they have been alerted to an absolute nutter running around the area, dropping cans and peeping into people’s houses.
We stare at each other, neither of us saying anything until he nods down to my leg.
I notice the blood dripping onto my grubby white shoe. I must have cut it when I fell over.
‘It’s fine,’ I tell him before trying to go past. I only have enough on me for one packet, so I definitely don’t have enough for plasters. He studies me carefully. I try to subtly sniff myself for booze.
He stops me again before walking over to the till and pulling out a small first aid kit. He hands over a wipe and a plaster. I reach down and wipe the grit from the wound before standing up to reply. I feel I should say something to him but he has already returned to the darkness outside, looking stoically outwards.
I’m finally inside and while I usually go straight for the crisp aisle, I notice they’ve turned up the air conditioning to full blast and against my slightly sunburnt skin it is perfection, so I meander around instead.
A couple pushes past me unaware, lazily picking up bottles of wine and nibbles. In between their shopping list they tease each other with barbs and jokes I can’t understand, this private language slipping in and out of olive jars and vegetable boxes.
I want to dream of their life. I imagine myself hosting a dinner party. What would I cook? Maybe a decadent pasta dish for a main, with salad for those who could afford not to eat. Who would I invite? Who could I invite?
A staff member hovers by me. He tries to act casual, but I know he is watching my pockets so I move to the checkout, packet in hand. I smile at the cashier, to let him know I deliberately picked him instead of going for the self-service checkouts, but he doesn’t make eye contact.
I leave, my eyes lingering over the security guard who remains looking away. For him, I am just another ghost to disappear into the night.
Walking back on the main road, I feel the pub-goers’ eyes on me once again. I turn to look at them once and several men’s heads jerk back to looking at the bottom of their pint glass.
To them, with my dirty legs and unkempt hair, I must look a little wild. I feel a little wild.
I even imagine one of them following me home. Stalking down the path. I turn in case he is there.
Nothing but an empty phone box.
The houses fade from respectable terraces to mankier grey bricks until I stop at the one with the scruffiest lawn. The plants have overgrown everything, including the old lawnmower that now lies as a relic to the one time we tried to tame it.
I look up to the top right window, which is illuminated. Mum’s bedroom. You can’t see anything except the ceiling because it’s too high up, but you can still see the cotton lampshade we bought at a car boot. The light is still on. I have left it on, because no matter how much it hurts after, it is nice to have that moment to think she might still be in.
I turn the key and enter. Navigating my way around the piles of boxes and bin bags, I am no longer drunk, and still alone.