Nat awoke exhausted, once again. He confirmed she hadn’t fidgeted in the night, hadn’t had a-night-terror – no pointing at the wall, claiming to be able to see Tokyo harbour – no excessive trips to the toilet, bumping off the walls as she went, no wandering into their garden to call in a long-dead cat. Nothing. Nat had apparently slept like a baby. He suggested it was to do with her time of the month, or the moon. Nat nodded, always the same. Later on in the shower, as she soaped her throbbing feet, fresh red blisters bubbled up as the water jet hit them. Nat watched with a bored acceptance, and wondered what a pedometer or smartwatch might make of it all.
After he’d left for work and the house was hers alone, Nat texted her mum, asking if she’d slept. No. She too had spent her night walking the streets they used to call home, streets that they’d left behind twenty-five years ago.
‘Dream’ is to denigrate their shared experience – shared, though they never come across the other. They endlessly walk their old neighbourhood, each street in the right place, everything as it should be. Familiar shops and market stalls, the smell of spice and blood escaping from restaurants and butchers are present and correct; assaulting their senses as much as they always did. Parts of them are stuck there; how much of them did they leave behind? They have no quests, nothing remotely grand or important to complete. The man they left behind, John, who they ran from time and time again is dead (most likely), yet NW8 regularly summons them back. They are powerless to resist.
The light, filtered through traffic fumes, is still there, the same beautiful haze that seems to trap the sunlight shards and illuminate the world. The sound, though, is missing. People say you don’t dream in colour; people are wrong. They do. At Christmas, they walk past deep greens and frosted blues from the pine trees, stalls of tangerines the colour of tigers, white lights twinkle through the market, strung overhead the stalls. High above them, multi-coloured lights blink on the cranes stretching up to the stars. People say you don’t dream in colour; people are wrong, then.
They feel recognition, nostalgia, a strange comfort from knowing where they’re going without having to think. Nat feels elated, most of the time, but her mum is plagued with a sickening fear that he may be here, that he might catch her, and make her stay. Nat feels warmth in the summer visits, from the trapped sun of this micro-climate. Nat feels the rush of hot air, as traffic thunders past, but her mum doesn’t.
Her mum says her hands grip the smooth, cool, handrail of the communal staircase, and although she wants to run, or wake up, she is compelled to climb the three floors home. When Nat visits, she has a key – something Nat was never allowed before. Nat can smell the pork bones boiling away in the ancient pot on the stove top before she’s fully through the front door. The wooden chopping-board she made him in woodwork when she was thirteen is on the table, half covered with that day’s pies and the tiny baking-beans he always used, as small as the #00 buckshot in the gun he kept hidden under the stairs. Up those stairs to her bedroom, her toys are still there, snowed-over with mildew, staring at her with accusing button eyes. Her posters peel themselves from the wall, and theatrically bow to her, hanging limp, from decades of steam, hot-water crusts, melted lard. John always could cook.
Nat doesn’t mind these nocturnal visits, really, she doesn’t. Nat marvels at how well her memory recalls these details, how she can still do these walks, when in real life her mind is increasingly unreliable, and her legs no longer work that well. Coming home (if ever there was a place less deserving of the word ‘home’, it was here. And yet…) in her sleep, Nat feels like she’s almost whole again. Her mum, in contrast, suffers, wakes sweating, her throat so swollen she struggles to swallow, palms bleeding from digging her nails into them for hours on end. Her mum hasn’t made peace, never will while she carries guilt like others carry terminal illness, forever suffering. Nat, in contrast, made peace here long ago. She likes to tell myself that, tell others that. It isn’t true, but Nat carries no hate for anyone else anymore, only herself.
The following night, Nat wakes crying just before 4am. She cries quietly, something she learnt to do long ago. Nat wakes from pains shooting along her right foot. It only hurts when she walks somewhere. She allows her pointer to probe her heel, where a new blister weeps. Proof, Nat says to him when her fidgeting wakes him, proof of what she says. He grunts, tells her she smells like Greggs on the high-street, and rolls over, his breathing soon returning to a slow rattle. In her right hand, Nat clings tightly to a soft-toy, a blue kitten dusted with the past that she rescued it from. Nat had the blue kitten in her Christmas stocking the very last year she was allowed to believe in things. Blue kitten’s name was Sooky. Nat lies there, tear tracks like silvered lines on her face, gazing at the wall, until morning breaks in through the gap in the curtains. Nothing there, except the painting of a mermaid, the light from the rising sun glinting off her tail.