On the last day of her life, Janie is standing in her sunlit kitchen holding a cooking pot in one hand, sweeping back a rebellious lock of her ginger-coloured hair with the other. Her not-quite-pretty face is in transition from its default setting of bemused smile toward a slight beetling of her freckled brow. The air is bright with energy, like that which follows a lightning strike. Two vertical lines on her forehead deepen slightly, as if in disapproval, and she begins to turn away. I want to shout, try to shout at her, but my voice isn’t with me. Just my eyes.
I always wake from the dream, if that is what it is, my eyes opening in one or another dark bedroom, and once on a train. And always the dream becomes a chain of memory that can only be interrupted by force of will. I lie perfectly still, as if hiding. Then comes the replay of an event I hadn’t actually seen, but have imagined into a memory stronger than genuine recollection.
Janie turns her back. A bar of metal swoops diagonally and slightly downward toward her head. It is like the crooked pole used to drag failing performers from the stage. The arc is perfect, skilfully swung by someone whose face I cannot see. There is a sound like a crunching footstep in dry snow, accompanied by a sliding thwock , as when a baseball is hit foul. Janie’s red hair leaps in slow motion, as if in a strong wind. She drops the cooking pot, arms slack, and her face shovels the linoleum floor. A shower of her blood geysers from her head and bubbles upward like flood waters from a manhole. I see the crowbar turn in mid-air as it falls again, claw first. Janie doesn’t see it or feel it. She is there, a small and diminishing doll in a lake of red, but she is gone.
It had been months since the last occurrence of the dream. This time it caught me just before dawn in my London flat. Even after I got out of bed, put on the coffee maker and stood overlong in the shower, the dream stayed with me. The images faded quickly, as they always did. But they left behind the feelings. They were the worst part. They made me repeat under my breath, “Janie, don’t turn your back.” The words were futile, and the aftertaste of futility followed me all the way through breakfast.
I sat mechanically at the kitchen table leaving The Guardian unread, shuffling a stack of mail aimlessly. I was wondering why I couldn’t see the face of the crowbar wielder in the dream. It was as if some paralysis prevented my neck from swivelling. Or as if some deeply implanted survival instinct restrained me. I wondered why the thought, even now, a quarter-century on from the events that spawned the dream, filled me with dread.
When I did get around to opening my post, my carefully constructed world began to unravel.