I remember the first time it woke me; I didn’t know what had happened. My head was aching and I was really thirsty, so I thought it was probably that that had woken me. According to the clock, it was 3:18. I lay for a minute, hoping for some miracle to take away the headache and the thirst without me having to get out of bed. There was no miracle. I slid my feet to the freezing floor and pushed myself from the bed with a wince as my arthritic knee squeaked in protest. From the bedroom, to the kitchen. Two painkillers, a bottle of water. Better go to the toilet to save having to face the stairs again later. Back up the stairs. Bed!
But I just lay there with something poking at me. Some little thought that danced in and out of focus. Had there been a noise? A last look at the clock. 4:22! How could more than an hour have gone by? I didn’t need to be up early, but I knew I would be, so I closed my eyes and listened to my own breathing until sleep came.
All day, as I went about my routine, I felt jumpy. There was nothing I could put my finger on; no specific thing that I could identify as the cause of my nervousness. But it wore me out. By mid-afternoon, I was struggling to keep my eyes open and since I couldn’t think straight, I decided to take a nap.
I fell asleep almost as soon as I lay down, but my dreams were disturbing visions of everlasting staircases, chasms that opened up in the floor of my bedroom and doors slamming. I opened my eyes. Was that a dream or had a door just slammed? I was soaked with sweat and there was a humming in my ears. I swallowed and my mouth felt like sandpaper. I sat up slowly, feeling sure I’d be dizzy, but I wasn’t; I just felt weak, washed out. I opened my window and the autumn air dried the sweat on my face as I stood there. I listened for sounds of movement, but hearing nothing apart from distant traffic and the scratch of leaves along the pavement, I went downstairs.
Everything seemed normal. The doors were all open, so if the slam had been real, it had been outside, which was a relief. I went to make myself some tea and was surprised to find I’d already laid out the tea things: my favourite cup, a present for Mother’s Day with ‘World’s Best Grandma’ in childish writing; the 2-person tea pot I use when I’m sure I’ll want seconds, and a tea spoon. “I must have been more tired than I realised!” My words bounced around the room, the only noise in a vast silence. No, not the only noise. There was a rapid clicking that I recognised with a sinking feeling. It was the noise the kettle makes when it has recently boiled and switched off. Praying that I was wrong I tentatively laid a finger on the side of the kettle, but almost before it had reached the hot metal I was pulling it back to watch the red spot turn into a blister. But I had been asleep for at least an hour and a half, maybe two hours, so who had boiled the kettle?
I didn’t feel safe. My chest felt tight and I could feel the pounding of blood in my ears. I walked into the living-room to find my keys. They were nowhere to be seen, but if I left the house without them, I’d be locked out. And then I remembered where they were; I had left them on the bedside table when I went to lie down. I’ve always taken my keys upstairs with me when I went to bed and it had been an almost unconscious action when I’d gone up for a nap.
I didn’t think I could stand to go up those stairs right now. The pounding in my ears was faster and I could hear my own breath, coming in short, wheezy puffs of panic; I had to do something! Then I remembered something from years before. When my children had been young and prone to messing about after bedtime, I would go into their room, see them unconvincingly pretending to be asleep and I would close their bedroom door as though I had left the room. I would stand there not breathing and they would open their eyes to see me still watching them. More often than not, they’d laugh. So it didn’t help them get to sleep, really; it just let them know they couldn’t pull the wool over my eyes. I caught them out like that many times before they’d cottoned on to my trick. Whoever was in my house right now, if there was anybody, didn’t know it, though. I could at least be sure whether there was somebody there. If I stood by the front door after I had closed it and somebody came out of hiding, at least I would be close to the door to get away and if nobody moved, I should probably consider the possibility that I’d sleep-walked or that I might finally be succumbing to the dementia that had stalked the women in my family for generations.
I made a lot of noise ‘leaving’ the house. I banged into the living room door, swished my coat around as I put it on, said to myself, “I’d better get some bread while I’m out!” in a voice much louder than my usual voice. It didn’t sound like me. It sounded like somebody brave. And then I opened the door and slammed it. And waited. I held my breath for half a minute …nothing! I slowly and quietly let my breath leave through barely parted lips and then I heard the first noise … a creaking, perhaps …maybe a cupboard door. It was upstairs. And then a second noise, which I instantly recognised as the loose floorboard in the back bedroom. As I took hold of the front door handle I heard another noise, and another and another. And then all the noises happened at once, as, from top to bottom, the house came alive around me.