Performed at “Shadow & Substance” on February 25, 2019.
I remember nothing from before my tenth birthday.
My first memory is my father’s hand on my shoulder awakening me from a deep, deep sleep in the right-hand back seat of our car. A slither of drool hanging from my cheek. We are in the driveway of our family home; late on a grey February afternoon. And when we go inside the house, my mother is gone.
For years afterwards, my father – a psychologist specialising in memory loss – counselled me. He listened encouragingly; he held me when I became overwhelmed. Deep into the evening, several times a week, after he had spent a long day at his practice, he helped me through to the other side. He persuaded me that the woman who had left him, who had abandoned him – vanished as if sucked from the door on an aeroplane at thirty-seven thousand feet – still loved and cared for me, her son. But she never came back. Never got in touch. Not once. I couldn’t remember my her. I’m not sure if that made it easier, or made it worse.
It never felt strange, having no memories. I knew who I was, who everyone else was – friends, family, teachers – I knew where I was, and what year it was. But I’d changed. I wasn’t me any longer. The memories that made me were gone; and I was hollow. My friends drifted away, and I was left alone.
Then, on my eleventh birthday, I had a dream in which I was walking down the corridor.
The lift doors opened, and I saw it stretching out ahead of me. A corridor in a hotel. The walls and carpet a deep, faded beige. Doors spaced evenly out along either side. Dust hanging heavily in the air. And at the far end of the corridor hung a thick, black mist. I began to walk. I didn’t want to. My footsteps made no sound on the thick carpet. The only noise was the deep and distant hum of an air-conditioning unit.
In that first dream I walked past ten doors, all numbered in chunky, old-fashioned brass numbers, more suited to a house-door than a hotel. The black mist sat just beyond Room Eleven, filling the corridor. Up close it writhed, its darkness impenetrable – as if all the world’s shadows had been gathered up and tightly packed into this one hotel corridor. I felt panic rising – something malignant lay within that mist, of that I was sure. I reached for the door to Room Eleven, but the handle dissolved into a whisper of black smoke. I woke up. My bedside clock blinked 4:56.
The dream only comes on the night of my birthday. And every year it is the same. Except every year I am allowed to go a door further up the corridor. I tried the doors to Room Twelve, Room Thirteen, Fourteen, Fifteen… Every handle evaporated in my hand. Every year the clock face blinked 4:56. On my most recent visit to the hotel, the black mist hung outside Room Thirty-Two. That was almost a year ago. Tomorrow is my thirty-third birthday.
I just returned from visiting my father in his care-home. He suffered a stroke earlier this year and now just sits in his room, staring out the window. Even on a miserable late-February day like today he was sitting, watching the rain. As if expecting someone. Someone that he wouldn’t be able to recognise. He cannot eat, drink, move or shit without assistance. But the doctors assure me that he can still hear. And so, I talk to him. Today I talked about the dream. He’s the only person I have ever told.
As his hands twitched restlessly under the rug and his watery eyes drank in the grey rain, I felt sure that he was trying to tell me something. I imagined him saying what he always used to say on the eve of my birthday.
“Whatever you do, don’t open the door.”
“But…” I would always argue. “I can’t help it.”
“Just…” He would make sure that I was looking him in the eye, as if he was able to get inside my mind. “Don’t open the door.”
Night comes, and the dream with it. In years gone by, I tried to stay awake all night, forcing myself to stare at a screen or a book. It never worked. Sleep would always steal up on me and I would awake suddenly, at 4:56, having just seen a door handle fade to black in my hand. One year, I tried getting so drunk that I thought my brain possibly couldn’t have processed a dream of such precision and clarity. But it did. I woke as usual at 4:56, with a blinding hangover to accompany the usual sense of unease.
I drift off into a vague and unspecified sleep, which comes into sharp focus as the lift doors open. The corridor is as beige and dust-filled as ever, with a black cloud lingering thirty-three doors off. I begin to walk. Soft footsteps and an air-conditioners hum. Every door is made from the same light, polished wood. All the numbers in that old-fashioned brass turning slightly green at the edges. The mist slowly shifts and rolls. I arrive at door thirty-three.
I reach out for the handle and prepare to wake. To see the clock announcing 4:56 in the black of my bedroom. But the handle is solid. Shockingly so. Heavy and cold, like a loaded weapon in my hand. I pause. I’m in full control of my actions; yet this is still quite clearly a dream. To my right, the black cloud is shifting, approaching, closing in on me. I push the handle down and open the door.
I’m in a hotel room. I walk forward and hear the door click shut behind me. There’s a bathroom to my right. To my left are boxes. Boxes piled one on top of the other. I look inside one. It’s filled with toys. Trains, action-figures, building blocks… Toys that I instinctively know were mine as a child. I look inside another. Books. Stuffed animals, clothes and a handmade blanket. Then I realise that the wall is covered with pictures. Pictures of a child – me – at school, on a beach, in a swing. With a friend. With a teacher. In every picture I am younger than ten. Some of the pictures don’t have any people in them. They are views. Scenes that I know I saw. Visions that passed once, long ago, through my eyes. One person features in several of the pictures. A woman with tight blonde curls and an awkward smile. My mother.
I’m now in the centre of the room. I turn slowly, noiselessly. There’s a huge window flooding the room with an intense light. There’s a small bed with a young boy in it. I recognise the mole on my left cheek. He’s pretending to be asleep. I can tell from the way his eyes flicker. And finally, I turn to see a larger bed, on which my father has pinned my mother down, his fingers clamped around her neck, slowly and silently squeezing the life from her.