BAD DREAMS

By Andy P. Jones


Perhaps as a child you conjured monsters from shadowed places. Barb-toothed witches beneath your bed, ready to tear off a dangling finger or a trailing toe. They never made a sound, never exposed a white knuckle, or a fold of tattered black cloth.

But they were there.

Waiting.

Or maybe you heard wolves snarling from within your closet. Starving beasts that slunk through an open door while you played buttercups in the garden – if the flower reflects yellow onto the soft skin beneath your chin, you like the taste of butter; if the wolves hide inside your closet, then they like the taste of you.

Shh, don’t move…

In the course of one week, my boyhood nightmares have returned. The old, yellowed dreams restored and re-released in sickening Technicolor.

Last night I heard sounds from the cellar, and I was nine years old again, cowering and afraid in my bed. In fragments of nightmare, a monster dragged itself up the stairs to murder me in my bed. Each time the beast approached my room, I’d jolt awake, my mouth dry and the sheets damp with sweat.

And each time, as I unwound the covers from my limbs, I held my breath and listened for noises beyond the bedroom door. The creaks and pipe-noise of a hundred-year-old house. A bump in the cellar? The banging of my heart. An animal growl? The broken rhythm of my breath. Quiet.

And each time, after I woke, after my pulse settled and the sweat dried on my back, I would recite the alphabet backwards, again and again, to stave off sleep and hold the nightmare at bay.

By the time enough light had filtered into the room that I could count the paisley swirls on the wallpaper, I crawled out of bed to shower and shave. I could have called in sick with a clear conscience, but there wouldn’t be anyone to take the call for another two hours. Besides, it’s important that I act normal.

I checked the cellar door and left for the sanctuary of the office.

***


When the grey padded cubicles start to fill up, I’m three coffees in on an empty stomach. The phone on my desk rings, and my hands are shaking so much that I fumble the receiver and cut off the caller. It won’t be important. I can’t handle any more caffeine, so I traipse to the bathroom to splash cold water on my face.

I’m bent over the sink, watching water spiral down the plughole when a voice startles me: “Big one was it?”

My twenty-four-year-old supervisor, emerges from one of the stalls.

“ Sorry?” I say.

He nods at my reflection, “You look like shit, mate. Big night was it?”

I nod from behind a handful of coarse paper towels.

“ We’re going down the Duke for Tess’s birthday at lunchtime,” he says “Hair of the dog, that’s what you need.”

My supervisor doesn’t bother to wash his hands. He slaps me on the shoulder, laughing like we’re in on the same joke, and wanders off in search of someone else to irritate.

There’s a small square of red-stained tissue paper, stuck to the neck of my reflection, I peel it off and wonder how many shaving cuts it would take to bleed to death. A thousand? A hundred thousand? A million?

While the rest of the office liquid lunches, I stay at my desk and keep on processing the data I get paid to process. I’m all done by three, and the office is still half empty; no-one will notice if I slip off early. The bus ride home takes twenty minutes, but I’m no rush to be anywhere and I decide to walk.

Some kids, still in their school uniforms, are playing football on the common. I buy an ice-lolly from a van at the gates, and sit down on a bench to watch. It’s been twenty-five years since I kicked a ball on these fields. Time hasn’t been kind. The pitch is half bald, the goalposts are crooked and buckled, and the equipment shed has long since vanished. When this field was my stadium, I dreamed of growing up to play at Wembley.

So much for dreams.

So much for childhood.

Something in the corner of my vision sniffs. A boy, not much more than a toddler, stands six feet to the side of me, staring with the most profound and innocent curiosity. His fair skin is smooth, summer-pinked, and taut with puppy fat.

“ Hello,” I say. “What’s your name, then?”

He blinks his clear, dark eyes and looks up from my chest to my face. “I’m Michael,” he says pointing at me, “You made a mess.”

A woman shouts: “Michael! Come here. Come here, Michael.”

The woman is red-faced and overweight. She keeps shouting Michael’s name as she half walks half runs towards us. She spins the boy around by his shoulders and casts her eyes over him as if to check that nothing is missing. Nothing damaged. She returns my smile with a scowl, takes Michael by the hand and marches him away.

“ You should get him sun-cream,” I say to her back.

“ Weirdo,” she spits over her shoulder, quickening her pace. Michael’s arm is yanked tight, and as he totters and stumbles trying to keep pace with his mother, he begins to cry.

Mother and child disappear from view, and I become aware of a tickling sensation on the back of my hand. The ice-lolly has melted and collapsed; the wooden stick juts from my fist like a toy dagger. My fingers and hand are coated in sticky red liquid, and there is a spreading stain on my trousers.

***


The Queen’s Head is one of those pubs patronised by old men and alcoholics. A nicotine stained boozer, with cheap beer, a sticky carpet, and no music or television to stifle the scintillating conversation. I wash my hands and rinse my trousers in the gents, and then, as if daring someone to challenge me, I take a stool next to the bar and order a half of bitter.

No one asks me if I know a man in his late-fifties called Arnold Granger. No one tells me he’s been missing since last weekend. No one says they’re worried about him. No one gives me a second look.

I was in here six day ago, and no one recognises me. I hadn’t seen Arnold Granger for thirty years and I knew him in a second.

Normally I don’t drink in pubs. But sometimes, on a Saturday night, I‘ll buy a take-away from the Tikka Palace. And while they’re cooking my order, I sip a half of bitter in Queen’s Head next door.

And I knew him.

Older, thicker and misaligned, but some fundamental proportion persisted. He shuffled through the doors, scuffing the carpet with each step, and I recognised him instantly. I was thirty feet away, but I could remember the smell of toffee on his breath. He counted out a handful of coins onto the bar, and I remembered the softness of his large hands.

If my old football coach recognised me he didn’t show it, but I recognised him. He said I was his favourite. He singled me out for extra practice. He asked me to help gather up the flags and stow them in that old equipment shed.

I remember it all.

I left my drink unfinished, collected my supper, and crossed to the bus shelter on the opposite side of the street. I watched drinkers come and go until the streetlights came on. Watched them saunter in and stagger out. Singing, shouting, fighting. I watched a couple kiss and grope. The guy slid his hand between the girl’s legs, and I dropped my take-away into the plastic bin and crossed back over to the Queen’s Head.

Granger was sitting alone, an empty tumbler and a half-empty pint glass in front of him. Just another old alky, lonely and yellow and desperate for someone to talk at.

I ordered a double whiskey and sat at an adjacent table.

Even with my eyes locked onto the cigarette burns, and beer stains and scratched-in graffiti on the tabletop, I could see Granger in my periphery. Looking at me, trying to make contact. I picked up my glass and tilted it in his direction.

“ Whiskey man?” he said, and his voice was dry and rough and unmistakable.

My whiskey tasted watered down.

Granger shuffled his stool towards me and raised his empty glass, “One-ninety for a single, bloody criminal. I remember it thirty pee a double.”

I heard my words as if someone else was speaking them, “I’ve got a bottle of Jameson’s at home, 10 minutes from here.”

Granger’s eyes lit up like a child’s. “Have I got time for a pish?”

“ I’ll wait for you outside,” I told him, and as an afterthought, “Why don’t you buy us a pack of fags?”

“ Embassy okay?”

I smiled then, “Makes no difference to me.”

Sitting here now, I pat my pockets and find them empty. A hollow gesture, like checking the back of your wrist when someone asks for the time and you don’t have a watch. I don’t have cigarettes because I don’t smoke; all I want is something to occupy my idle hands. My bitter has turned flat, so I pull on my jacket and leave as anonymously as I entered.

***


A forest of estate agents’ boards line either side of the street where I live, and it occurs to me that my house is too big for one person. I moved from my bedroom into my parents’ after Dad died, but it hardly constitutes an adventure. The money for this place would buy a ticket all the way around the world. I could go anywhere.

I could disappear.

There’s a wooden trunk in the cellar. It’s stuffed of photographs, old school reports, a velvet drawstring pouch full of baby teeth, a runners-up medal from the 1980 Cheshire schoolboys’ league. A childhood in a box.

For my ninth birthday Mum and Dad bought me a new football kit. When I refused to go to practice anymore, Mum smacked my legs for the waste of money, and made me wear the kit as pyjamas. I’d count to a thousand after she turned out the bedroom light, then I’d pull off the kit and stuff it under the mattress.

A few games into the season Matthew O’Brian stopped playing too. Matthew’s dad took over as manager, but Matthew never played again and neither did I. Sometime after that, my old football kit was replaced by a pair of Spiderman pyjamas. No one mentioned it. Just like no one mentioned the old equipment shed disappearing overnight. Just like they didn’t mention Arnold Granger.

Everything just disappeared.

Except, nothing really does. Not outside of fairytales.

If I sell this house I’ll burn or bury that trunk. Along with all the other rubbish.

***


Everything is silent when I step through the front door; the cellar is still locked. Of course it’s still locked, nevertheless, confirming this with my own eyes brings a rush of relief that I experience as a physical sensation in the pit of my stomach. I strip naked and place my shirt my vest my trousers my socks my underwear straight into the washing machine.

I unlock the cellar and flick the switch at the top of the stairs. The stench nauseates me; I can taste it. I stand, listening, for a long time before taking the first two steps. Bending my knees and craning forward I can see Arnold Granger’s broken body, curled up on the filthy mattress in the corner. His back is facing me and there’s no movement, no rise and fall to indicate he’s drawing breath. I pray that he isn’t dead.

Not yet.

As I stand upright my knees pop and crack, and the sound is massive against the cold brick.

He’s bound about the neck, wrists, and feet. Loops of blue nylon rope coil around the mattress, threading through the bonds that tie his doughy body. Even if Granger could untie himself he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t even crawl. His arms and his legs are surely broken, the joints of his knees, ankles, wrists and elbows are ballooned and shiny-blue with fluid. I place my foot above his bound ankles and transfer my weight onto them.

He’s alive after all.

Granger thrashes so violently that the rope tears into his wrists. Coming through the balled-up socks roped into his mouth, the sound he’s making sounds more like a bark than a scream. There’s a length of rubber hose down the side of his gag to stop him from suffocating. His screams pipe out of it like some animal heard far off in the night-time – like a wolf maybe, or a wild cat.

He sounds like a monster. But he’s the one that’s afraid now.

The mattress is damp beneath him, his buttocks and the tops of his thighs are smeared with his own mess. Squatting down beside him, I stroke his back, and the white hair that covers his shoulders is soft to the touch. Roll over, I tell him, and he’s shaking his head and making animal noises again. I knead the old flesh around his shoulders and pat his back, roll over, I tell him, let’s have a look at you. He turns his head to the side, and squints up at me through swollen, half-closed eyes. I grab his face and yank it around forcing him to roll onto his back. He’s criss-crossed with weeping rope-burns and gouges. His mouth is broken teeth and gashed lips, his left ear is caked with dried black. He’s a collage of welts and wheals and cigarette burns, and there’s a distended purple lump on his belly. I press my fingers into the lump, and Granger is making those noises again; he’s trying to speak, but it comes out in throaty feral grunts.

I lie beside him on the foul-stinking sodden mattress, and whisper into his ear, Why did you come back?

There are tears in his eyes as he gurgles and whimpers and shakes his head. The stubble on his swollen face is scratchy against my cheek.

You need a shave, I tell him, and I roll off the mattress and walk towards the stairs. I stop at the old wooden trunk and dig through my past until I find the black-tarnished runner’s-up medal. I flip it onto the mattress. Arnold’s eyes go from me to the medal and back again. Now he recognises me.

I’m just going to get my razor, I tell him.

I climb the stairs, and the monster in my basement starts to howl.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andy P. Jones lives in London, working as an advertising copywriter. Writing fiction without jingles is his attempt at redemption. Like everyone else in advertising, Andy is working on a novel.


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