The town was up in the mountains, a little Ruritanian place of cobbled streets and timber-framed houses. It was market day and in the main square crowds of locals browsed stalls piled with fresh bread, cheese and cooked sausage. I drifted among them, passing unnoticed.
In the afternoon the sun slid behind the mountains. With the waning of the light a madness seemed to infect the crowd. Uniformly they turned to me, evil intent in their eyes.
I left the square and hurried down a narrow street. The villagers came after me in a herd – there were too many of them to fit easily, but they were coming anyway. I ran and they followed, and I knew that if they caught me they would beat me to death. I slipped on the cobblestones. The crowd drew closer. A hand grabbed me and then another. I was pulled back into the mob. A hail of punches and kicks landed on me. I blacked out.
I woke up, my arms and legs jerking, still trying to fight them off, the fear still with me.
I felt no relief to discover myself at home. For the past year I’d been plagued by nightmares. Over and over, I’d returned to the Ruritanian town and its murderous townsfolk. There were other scenarios too, leaving me with flashes of falling through darkness, of being hunted by men or dogs.
Always, the hardest moment to bear was on waking. Consciousness could chase away the phantoms, but immediately afterwards nothing felt solid – instead it was as if everything around me might dissolve into the terrors of another dream.
I was twenty-seven but the frequency of the nightmares meant I went to sleep each night afraid of the dark, like a child. I kept a landing light on and the blinds open a crack so that the amber glow of the street lights seeped into the room. I even left the radio tuned to the World Service, knowing that if I woke before dawn after another nightmare I’d be met with a news bulletin about some conflict across the globe, details impossible to follow at that hour and just the reporter’s voice, speaking low from a far-distant place, drawing me back to sleep.
The earliest nightmare I can remember occurred when I was eight.
I was walking along a deserted jetty that stretched way out into the sea. A cold wind stirred the waves and sent them slapping against the wooden planks of the structure. Salt water flecked my face. The jetty was old and rotting and the further out I went the more dilapidated it became. There was nothing secure to hold on to. In the gaps between its planks I spied the choppy water. The sight terrified me.
I was sure that at any moment the boards might split and send me plunging into the sea. I was too scared to keep walking yet I couldn’t find the courage to go back. The jetty swayed as the wind blew. I felt completely exposed.
I can still picture that jetty today and with it comes the same sense of vulnerability that I experienced then. It’s only in looking back that I see how closely the mood of the dream matched the way I so often felt as a child.
I grew up in Queensbury, a quiet, 1930s suburb on the northern tip of what is now the Jubilee Line. It was the 1970s and in the latter years of the decade the haberdasher’s and the bakery on the high street had given way to Asian sweet shops. The cubes of vivid pink and yellow confectioneries stacked in the windows pointed to the area’s changing complexion. A continent away, Idi Amin was expelling the Asians of Uganda. Some of them had resettled in places like Queensbury. Their arrival meant a few more Asian kids at my primary school. Not that it made much difference. My class was still almost entirely white. Aged eight, I was still the only black kid.
Mostly I didn’t feel any distance between me and my best friends. Greg had affectionate, generous parents I secretly wished were mine. We acted out each Wednesday’s Six Million Dollar Man episode the next day and got excited about the arrival of Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa at Spurs from Argentina after the 1978 World Cup. And when I was with my friends I felt good.
There were also times I hated them.
I remember them laughing along when someone made a joke about my ‘rubber lips’ and how you could always find me in a dark room by the whites of my eyes. I recall Spencer Wicks, who was nine and in the year above me, telling me to go back home, back to the jungle. And Alan Taylor, who put his arm around my shoulder and explained that Enoch was right: you lot just can’t help making trouble.
I remember their anthropological fascination with the colour of my skin and the texture of my hair; the kids stretching their arms out next to mine in the summer to compare tans, as they put it. In fact, their colour fascinated me as much as mine did them. White seemed such an inadequate description for the mottled flesh that could flush to ruby with excitement, skin so pale that sometimes you could see the veins through it, alternately red and blue, pulsing beneath the surface.
My racist friends. I loved them. I also envied the freedom their colour bestowed. Whiteness meant a lack of self-consciousness. No one pointed or laughed or sneered. No one made monkey noises or mimed the throwing of spears. It meant you could lose yourself in a game of war or British Bulldog in the playground without being yanked from fantasy by a shout of ‘wog!’ or ‘Kunta Kinte’.
How normal, how everyday, the hostility around me felt. On TV, Jim Davidson cracked racist gags about Chalky White, his doltish, fictional black friend. Black footballers ran onto the pitch to monkey chants from their own supporters.
My desk in school had the interlocked NF logo of the National Front scratched into the wood with a compass. A gang of six skinheads hung about outside the Chinese chip shop across the road from school. They’d left at fifteen but still remained prominent figures for us. That was how we’d end up if we didn’t stop mucking about and get down to work, our teachers warned us. The skinheads wore cherry-red, sixteen-hole Doc Martens and bleached jeans and I found them fantastically intimidating. Although they were too caught up in play-fighting and throwing chips at each other to notice me, I avoided crossing over to their side of the road. Their presence felt like a warning against presuming that I could ever fit in properly among the people I’d grown up with.
At home I watched Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends with my brother and sister, just the three of us in the house before our parents came home from work. No one mentioned the threat of being beaten up or the mortification of getting teased for having an African name. The hurt we carried didn’t always express itself in words.
Home from school one afternoon, aged nine, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror. I had a Brillo pad in my hand and I started to scrub my face. My forehead reddened. The wire fibres of the pad tugged at my skin. It stung terribly but I continued. The skin began to tear and little beads of blood prickled their way to the surface. I went at it harder, until my forehead was grazed and red and raw to the touch. It was soon too painful to continue. But I also knew there was no point in carrying on. I wanted to scrub the blackness off my face. But I couldn’t erase what I saw in the mirror.
I often felt unbearably visible. That sensation became all the more acute as I grew older and saw my body become an object of apprehension and hostility. I remember sitting beside my dad in the front seats of our car when I was sixteen. We had parked outside the Express Dairy in Edgware while we waited to pick up my sister, who had been visiting a friend, from the bus stop. The engine was off. We were engrossed in weighing the merits of Capricorn One, a conspiracy thriller about a faked NASA landing on Mars that we’d both enjoyed on TV. There was a rap on the side window. My dad, seeing a policeman, rolled it down and the officer leaned into the car. What were we doing in the car? he asked. Someone from inside the dairy had called the station to say there were two suspicious men outside. Who were we? Why were we waiting outside the dairy? He was formal but polite and as we drove off my dad chuckled to himself at the idea that anyone could think of us, a middle-aged man and his son in a Volvo estate, as a possible threat.
I laughed too. It only occurred to me much later that, for the person who had telephoned the police, the presence of two black men nearby was no joke. I was a teenager but I was still used to thinking of myself as a kid, not a grown-up. That episode was the first time I recognised that others didn’t see me that way.
After that I noticed how women held their handbags closer when I sat beside them on the Tube. I got used to security guards trailing me around a store; to the scrutiny of shopkeepers as I wandered the narrow aisles of a corner shop. My presence signalled threat.
When I was eighteen I left home for university. I was studying politics at the LSE. My siblings had already moved out and my parents decided that once I’d gone, they’d also leave. They relocated to Northampton, where they could get a bigger house with a smaller mortgage. After their departure there was no reason for me to go back to Queensbury. I still had friends there but once I’d left I couldn’t face seeing them, or Queensbury, again. It wasn’t just that I wanted to put the people and the place behind me. My aim was a larger, more final one of eradicating the memory of those years of shame. Photos, records, old exercise books, any memento of my childhood had to go. I gathered everything I could find, dumped it into a black bin bag and left it out with the rubbish. I would refuse to look back. In this way, I’d be free to be myself for the first time ever. That’s what I told myself. And I think at the time I really believed it.
Much of what I was drawn to in adulthood came from the style magazine The Face. The magazine treated the apparently throwaway stuff of pop culture – fashion, music, film and clubbing – with a compelling gravity. Poring over each issue as a teenager in Queensbury, I had discovered Jim Jarmusch movies and Def Jam records, Detroit techno and new wave Antwerp fashion. The magazine held out the promise that you could be who you wanted to be on your own terms, instead of being defined by the expectations or prejudices of others.
I longed to be part of its world. After I graduated from university in 1990, I managed to get a couple of stories published there, and over time I became a regular contributor.
The Face’s offices were in a former textile factory in Clerkenwell; a big, open-plan place with bare, dark-wood floors and a bank of windows running along a wall. I relished going there, ostensibly to pitch feature ideas, but mostly just to hang out with the editorial staff, whose writing I’d followed for years. Like me, they seemed to be outsiders, a bit too cerebral or self-conscious to ever throw themselves wholeheartedly into a situation; more likely instead to look on from the sidelines. I felt at home among them. This was where I belonged, I told myself. Soon I was writing cover stories on acts like Soul II Soul and Neneh Cherry and penning earnest think pieces about Tupac and Planet of the Apes.
Most nights I was out at gigs or clubs or film previews. I flew to Iceland and Los Angeles and New York to interview Björk or Ice Cube or the Wu-Tang Clan. When I was home there was always another deadline to meet. There was no time to dwell on the memory of skinheads or ‘Enoch was right’ or the so-called jokes from my best friends. I could continue to deny the past and, by so doing, convince myself I’d found a new pattern for my adult life. What I didn’t realise was how much of myself I lost in that process.
I remember the moment when I began to see the consequences of my actions. It came at the end of a short, failed romance.
I met Mia in the summer of 1994. She was Spanish, a jewellery designer, short-haired and gamine and given to wearing a Breton shirt in homage to Jean Seberg in Breathless. I’d had a few girlfriends before her, including one I’d seen for two years who’d dumped me, to my secret relief. None of those relationships had been a success because although I could put on a show of affection, I felt repelled by the notion of intimacy. It felt too compromising; too likely to lead to a spilling of humiliating memories and emotions that I’d rather keep to myself.
Mia and I were both twenty-six. She was more stylish, and more confident in her opinions and feelings, than anyone else I knew at our age. I was besotted with her and I could see that I needed to be more open and less guarded if I expected to hold her attention. When we’d been together for four months Mia told me she was moving back to Madrid to develop her jewellery business. I didn’t want to stop seeing her and she said she felt the same way about me. After that, we met up once or twice a month, spending long weekends in London or Madrid. At the end of the year we arranged a longer trip to Essaouira, a pretty town on Morocco’s Atlantic coast.
It was a disastrous holiday.
Together for a whole week after months of shorter meetings, it was as though we were seeing each other properly for the first time. Mia was exactingly curious. I watched her wandering through the market, and admired how she lingered at a stall to examine the intricate pattern-work on a handmade lampshade, while ignoring the loud invitations of neighbouring traders to look at their wares. She brought the same acuteness to her own feelings, poring over her anxieties and desires and past love affairs with daunting honesty and directness. Threading through the market after her, I wanted to be just as bold, just as open. But I’d become so used to hiding away inside myself I couldn’t respond to her with any spontaneity. I was stuck in the shallows of my emotions, with nothing meaningful to offer back.
We hired a car, a Renault 4, and drove it up into the Atlas Mountains. As she concentrated on negotiating the steep, winding roads, I kept up an unceasing torrent about new movies, books and music – Reservoir Dogs, Malcolm X, The Player, Bad Lieutenant, The Chronic, Arrested Development, Mary J. Blige, the Deep Cover soundtrack, Grand Puba Maxwell – and oh, the brightness, the emptiness of that chatter, which steered determinedly clear of the personal or heartfelt, so that it remained only words, words, words. Mia drove without speaking. I knew she was repelled by my babbling. Yet I continued all the same. The prospect of sitting beside her in silence was even harder to face.
The trip became a torture. Each day I felt her draw further away from me. I was frozen by shame. On our last morning together Mia woke early to catch a flight back to Madrid. I heard her moving round the hotel room, packing in the dark while I was still half asleep. When she was done, she leaned over the bed, kissed me faintly on the lips and left the room. I travelled back to London that afternoon, feeling empty and miserable. We spoke by phone the next day.
‘This isn’t working,’ she said. I didn’t hear much else after that.
We agreed to stay friends. But there were no more weekends in Madrid. And when we spoke I could never bear to mention that trip again.
I was ashamed to admit how hurt and lonely I felt after Mia finished with me. There were still clubs and parties to go to, and more trips for The Face to Jamaica and Japan, but my sense of loss didn’t dissipate and was further exacerbated by my decision to leave my room in a shared flat in Islington and go live by myself. I see that move now as an act of deliberate self-isolation. The new flat was squeezed between two office blocks on the edge of the City of London. It was in a commercial area so I had no neighbours other than the men and women bustling in and out of those office blocks.
The only other sign of life came from the ground floor directly beneath me, which was home to a William Hill bookmakers. From there, the scent of cigarette smoke and the groans of despondent gamblers rose through the floorboards as I sat trying to write. In the evening, once it had shut and the office workers had trooped home, the surrounding streets were achingly quiet.
It was in the solitude of the flat that I first began to suffer from nightmares. They came unpredictably – sometimes months apart, sometimes at dawn, after I’d made it unscathed through the earlier hours of darkness – and they were disturbingly vivid. On one occasion, I discovered myself in the back garden of my family home. The lawn was overgrown and unkempt, littered with rusting tools, an old rotary mower, a pair of sheers and coils of dried-out dog faeces. I glimpsed movement in the grass; a snake sliding quickly out of sight, green and, I guessed, venomous. I saw now that the lawn was infested with them. I tiptoed forward, trying to cross the grass without stepping on them, knowing already it was an impossible task. I felt jaws clamp on my leg, fangs pierce the skin on my ankle, a jangle of pain as poison spread through my body.
As the dreams became more numerous, I noticed the same figure at their centre. I came to know him as the Stranger. He appeared for the first time when I was scaling a cliff face. It was dark. The rocks were sharp and sheer. I inched my way up, feeling for handholds with the tips of my fingers; hour after hour of effort while the ground below vanished into a black void. Near the top, I reached a wide ledge where I could rest. But access was blocked by a figure on the ledge. He was dressed in black and I couldn’t see his face.
I was exhausted. I reached up for help. He didn’t move. Then, very deliberately, he began to kick my fingers away from the ledge. Each time I scrambled to catch hold again he pushed me away. He showed no emotion and made no sound. With a final swipe of his foot, he shoved me free. I tipped backwards into nothingness, falling for forever. From then on the Stranger became a regular presence lurking at the edge of a crowd or driving beside me on the motorway. His appearance coincided with the point when a dream lurched into horror. The crowd would turn into a lynch mob; I’d lose control of my car at high speed – he seemed to hover over my nights so that I dreaded going to sleep for fear of seeing him.
To try to make sense of the dreams I kept a notebook beside my bed, forcing myself to scribble down what I remembered before I was fully awake. Writing brought no consolation. I found I couldn’t adequately capture the alien texture, the gearless slippage from calm to violence, that I’d experienced. I filled up half the book with notes but the sight of the accumulating pages depressed me: proof of my own powerlessness against the force of those visions.
My frustration grew. Early one morning instead of scrawling another entry, I tore out page after graph-paper page until the notebook was empty. I wanted to erase any trace of the dreams as surely as I’d destroyed all my mementos from school.
In the summer of 1996 I went to Tribal Gathering, a dance-music festival in the Bedfordshire countryside. The festival marked the moment when the underground dance culture we’d followed for years on The Face gained mainstream legitimacy. It was the first event of its kind to bring together big-name, live music acts with the ecstasy-fuelled abandon of the rave scene. A flyer promised 7 awesome dance arenas; 32 ballistic live acts; 70 global deck gurus; 30,000 beautiful party people. A group of us from the magazine drove up in a hired minibus to write stories and take photos for the following month’s issue.
Even at four in the afternoon the scene was carnivalesque. In the Starship Enterprise tent, glassy-eyed dancers with white gloves waved neon wands to frenzied happy hardcore. Leftfield played their set hidden behind a bank of keyboards and stilt walkers dressed as silver-suited extraterrestrials wandered through the crowd. There were fairground bumper cars and waltzers and, rising into the sky above them, an enormous hydraulic crane. A steel-mesh cage hung from its arm. Occasionally the door to the cage opened and somebody tumbled out towards the ground before the bungee cord attached to their waist straightened out and sent them shooting back up into the air. The crane, the cage, the whole idea of yo-yoing through the sky, it all looked absurdly perilous. Yet, watching from below, I was captivated.
Without giving myself time to think I joined the short queue at the base of the crane. Two men in hard hats and black cargo pants helped me into a harness of belts and straps that cinched together between my legs, around my waist and over my shoulders. All three of us stepped into the cage and they clipped a long, blue rubber cord, thick as my forearm, to the back of my harness. The cage rocked as the crane hoisted us into the air.
As we rose the clamour of the festival died away until only a deep pulsing bass was still audible. A haze of cooked burgers and spliff smoke hung over the crowd, dissipating as we continued to ascend. The afternoon was T-shirt warm and clear enough now to see out across the festival marquees to the still and quiet fields beyond.
The cage juddered to a halt. I felt stripped bare and reduced to a well of unpleasant sensations: mouth dry, legs wobbly, brain functions rudimentary. The men in hard hats clipped themselves by a cord to the mesh wall of the cage. Then, because I was having trouble moving, they helped me take a couple of steps across the tilting floor to the door. They unlatched the lock and swung the door open.
‘Right,’ said one of the men chirpily, ‘when I count down to zero, you jump.’
I stood rigid, gripping the sides of the door frame.
‘Three.’ The view ahead, into empty space, was too frightening to contemplate. ‘Two.’ I shuffled around so that my back was to the entrance and I was looking into the cage. ‘One.’ The hard
hats gave me a thumbs up. ‘Zero.’ I let go of the door frame and allowed my weight to carry me backwards, out of the cage, into the waiting sky.
I imagined that I’d hit the ground right away and I let go of the cage with my jaw clenched, fists balled, in anticipation of that rough landing. The reality was far worse: just the wind clawing at my face and the sound of my own screaming. Yet I was also struck by how familiar the experience seemed. I had been here before. Onrushing descent. Flailing helplessness. Terror of the void. Reality wasn’t much different from my nightmares. If anything, this was less terrifying than many of those dreams thanks to the incongruity of the setting. Leaping to a possible death seemed less alarming on the end of a long cord above a field full of ravers.
The cord reached its tensile limit and catapulted me skyward. I twanged back and forth for several minutes before the cord lost its elasticity and the crane lowered me back into the lights and music below. I returned to earth scared and dizzy and ecstatic. I sprawled on the grass, too giddy to move and it occurred to me that this was the most uninhibited moment of my adult life.
I’d grown so used to folding away my feelings I barely noticed their absence any longer. And it seemed that, even when I wanted to – as with Mia – I struggled to reach beyond superficial connection. Yet briefly, in falling, I’d felt released from the shell of my body. The jump was an act of pure forgetting, in which the self-consciousness of looking and thinking and measuring my distance from those around me evaporated.
I got to my feet and wandered unsteadily back into the clamour of the festival. Stepping out of the cage I’d found myself inescapably in the present tense, with no hiding away, no escape possible. As I tumbled, I knew myself to be fleetingly, fully awake. And I didn’t want to lose that feeling.
It was only by chance that I ended up finding a way back to the sensation I experienced during the jump.
In the autumn, a few months after Tribal Gathering, I received a call from a friend, Heather. She was in a hospital in Tottenham after having herself sectioned. Would I come to visit?
Heather was a 32-year-old documentary radio producer originally from Glasgow. She was acutely perceptive and well practised as a documentary-maker at spying out the conceits and vulnerabilities of strangers. This ability, coupled with her large brown eyes, pointed nose and small frame, always reminded me of a sparrow, quick, jerky but innately fragile. We’d been friends for the past five years. During that time, I’d seen her break up with her husband, an amiable and unambitious hairdresser who could never match her for wit, and struggle with alcoholism – she was two years sober that summer. And now a psychotic episode. She’d smashed a mirror, obsessed about the shards, wanted to cut herself into pieces and become so scared she might do it that she’d gone to her doctor and asked to be hospitalised.
Yet when I met Heather on the ward she was cheerful. We sat in a corner of the day room. A pale light percolated through the windows. Heather tucked her knees up under her chin. She wore grey jogging bottoms and a blue hoodie. A large woman with thinning hair moaned softly to herself in an easy chair.
In her fortnight in hospital, Heather’s most frequent visitor had been her therapist. This was the woman who’d helped her confront her alcoholism. The breakdown was a setback, Heather conceded, but at least therapy had given her enough perspective to see that she needed help. She rested her chin on her knees and looked up at me.
‘Have you ever thought of seeing someone?’
The idea excited me. Until then I’d never admitted to myself how confused and unhappy the past few years had left me.
‘Something’s not right,’ I told her. ‘I can feel it but I can’t put it into words. It’s like I’ve lost touch with myself.’
Heather said that, if I was interested, she could help me find a therapist. Across the room a man with gaunt cheeks dressed in pyjamas began to swear loudly and angrily. Outside the windows traffic rumbled by, faintly audible, as if from a great distance. Heather said she was going to take a nap. She’d been sleeping a lot since admitting herself.
‘It’s a relief being here,’ she said. ‘You don’t have to hold everything in any more.’
I didn’t take up Heather’s offer until the following February, after I’d returned from Minneapolis. Prince, the rock star, was about to release a new album after a long dispute with his record label and I travelled to Paisley Park, his home-cum-studio complex, to interview him for The Face. I was eager to do the story. Prince was a hero to me. The freedom he gave himself as a black artist to inhabit a shifting persona and explore themes of sexuality and race and masculinity had inspired me since I was a teenager.
In person, across the table in a conference room at Paisley Park, he was charming and poised and witty. But the interview was overshadowed for me by what I’d seen earlier in the day when I’d been given a guided tour of the complex. As well as recording studios and rehearsal spaces, there was a newly decorated nursery. The walls were painted bright colours and the floor was scattered with toys.
Earlier in the year, Prince had married Mayte Garcia, a dancer in his band. I knew before the interview that she’d given birth to their first baby, a son, just a few days earlier. The nursery was for him. But what I also knew from news reports was that the baby was desperately ill with a rare genetic disorder. Prince didn’t mention his baby during the interview, although it’s hard to imagine the boy wasn’t on his mind. He insisted, rather, that he felt great and was excited to be finally recording on his own terms again. As he talked, all I could do was picture the empty nursery. It was snowing as I left Paisley Park and by the time I landed in Britain the newspapers were already reporting that the baby had died.
Of course I could hardly blame him for avoiding the subject. All the same I somehow felt sad and disappointed once I was home. I’d admired Prince as an artist of rare honesty but if he could continue to meet press and promote his album in such circumstances, how sincere could he ever have been?
I sat down at my computer to write the story. Instead of assessing the album, all I wanted to do was describe the hollowness of my meeting with him. As I typed, I also realised that some of my reaction to the interview had more to do with me than with Prince. I was twenty-eight and I’d spent most of the past decade trying to block out the upset and anger I still carried from childhood. If I saw a disturbing gap between words and emotions in Prince, perhaps that was because I recognised something similar in me? Through Heather, I decided to contact a therapist.
Christina received patients in the front room of her terraced house in Highgate. She was Greek, late fifties, silver-haired, elegantly dressed, and she listened attentively as I talked, perched opposite on the edge of a daybed. Sometimes her cat Zoe, a beautiful blue-grey Persian, insinuated herself into the room. She’d lie curled up on the far end of the daybed, softly purring. Her presence was quite the compliment, insisted Christina. Apparently Zoe was very particular about which patients she took an interest in.
Despite the cat’s seal of approval I dreaded therapy. I felt awkward and exposed talking to Christina. How could I articulate the swirl of anxious thoughts in my head? Or let down my guard on feelings I’d kept penned away for years? I spoke only in generalities, about how I didn’t feel ‘good’ or ‘whole’, without addressing the emotions behind those words. I squirmed to hear myself. Christina sat quietly, prompting me occasionally for clarity. I ached with embarrassment at how little she must think of me as I sat there wallowing in blandness.
Even the journey to her house in Highgate was hard to bear. Ominous signs lined the way. To get there I caught a Tube to Archway, the carriage almost empty except for a few scattered passengers like me riding north against the flow of central London-bound morning travellers. Outside the Underground, Archway Tower, an enormous obsidian office block with blank windows, loomed over the station like a sentinel to the afterlife. I never saw anyone enter or leave the building and it was impossible to look up at it without a shudder of foreboding. Further up the hill that led to Christina’s, a fussily ornate Victorian bridge ran high over the main road, offering a popular spot to jump from for the suicidal.
Sometimes I arrived at her house late. Despite my apologies, Christina would be annoyed. ‘You have a choice. If you’re late, it’s a decision to not respect me or our sessions together.’ She was right. Secretly I was glad to have her angry. It was a small rebellion against the stiltedness of our meetings. In addition, the minor guilt of being late was a welcome distraction from the larger sense of shame and sadness that came over me with each session.
We struggled along uneasily like this for several months.
I became more and more frustrated and worn out. What was the point of talking to someone when I couldn’t find the words to communicate? I might have quit the whole thing if Christina hadn’t asked a question towards the end of an especially halting session.
It was a clear morning in June 1997. I’d spent most of the time struggling for something to say. I wanted to be outside in the cool air not shut in a stuffy room with her. Hours seemed to pass without a word between us. Eventually Christina broke the silence.
‘What do you dream about, Ekow?’
Until then, I’d mentioned nothing about my nightmares. Now, I described a dream from earlier that week in which a troll-like elderly woman, small and misshapen and dressed in a white doctor’s coat, was clutching a whirring electric drill. She wanted to drill into my head and I was helpless to get away. I was repulsed by her ugliness, and scared by the drill which also had a probing, phallic quality.
I sat back on the daybed, flushing at the memory of the scene. To my embarrassment, Christina broke into laughter. It was the first time I’d seen her abandon a guise of studied calm. I felt annoyed that she’d apparently done so only to mock me.
‘Is that really how you see me?’ she said, stifling her laughter.
I got it. The aged crone was her, or at least the version of her I’d manifested out of fear of exposure, of penetration, in our sessions.
‘You know it’s not how I really see you,’ I stammered.
Christina brushed my apologies away. She leaned forward. ‘Is there more you want to say, Ekow?’
I told her how insistent and forceful my dreams had been over the past few years. I gave her a recent example in which I was riding alone in an empty Tube carriage. As if compelled I stuck out my left middle finger and plucked the top third of the digit free, exposing the empty socket, white with bone and wet with some clear viscous fluid. I woke up feeling queasy at the image of the digit slipping free so easily and the residue of sticky liquid left in the stump.
Before I could continue, she interrupted me. Our time was up, yet for the first time I wanted to continue talking. I was more at ease talking about dreams than abstract emotions and as we explored the nightmares in more depth I began to look forward to our sessions together. I had hoped that talking about them might make the nightmares let up, yet the opposite was true: they became more violent and unsettling. I was pitched back into the Ruritanian town. I was still running from a mob. And, increasingly, I felt the presence of the Stranger. He hunted me assiduously.
On one occasion, I found myself running across a deserted town square. In a medieval tower overlooking the square, the Stranger hefted a sniper’s rifle to his shoulder. He peered through the telescopic lens. The perspective of the dream shifted. I saw myself running through the cross hairs of the rifle. He pulled the trigger. I woke with a start. How long could I keep running from him before he caught up with me?
In October 1997, just after the clocks had gone back and the days felt hushed and gloomy, he came closer than ever before. My car had broken down at night on the motorway. I was parked on the hard shoulder, huddled in the front seat waiting for a recovery truck. Cars roared by, headlights glaring. To the side of the road was a field. A man walked towards me across the field, intermittently illuminated by the headlights of passing cars. Reaching my car he tugged at the door handle. The car rocked back and forth. He scratched at the side windows and banged on the windscreen. I felt completely trapped and I knew he would break in and kill me. I woke shouting, trying to fight him off.
It was early morning and still dark outside. I felt a sharp pain in my mouth as if a pin was stuck in there. I went to the bathroom, clicked on the light and looked in the mirror. A sickle-shaped wound about half an inch long stretched along the tip of my tongue on the left side. The vertical face of the wound had a raw, livid complexion to it. There was little sign of blood, just a staining of my lower front teeth and a metallic taste at the back of my mouth. My tongue flickered oblivious in the mirror. I felt sick with horror at the sight of it. It was hard to believe what had happened, yet the evidence was right before my eyes. During the night, in the midst of the nightmare, I’d bitten off a piece of my tongue and swallowed it whole as I slept.
‘You can’t keep running. You have to go after him.’
Christina’s response to my injury surprised me.
To escape the Stranger’s hold, she insisted, I needed to understand who he was and what he was after. Why was his face hidden? How come he was hunting me? Until I confronted him, the dreams wouldn’t end.
I lay back on the daybed. The room smelled of cat hair. I stared at an oil painting on the opposite wall, trying to fathom its thick swirls of murky red and burnt orange. How do you chase down a figure from your own nightmares?
I’d been seeing Christina for about a year. From stray comments I’d guessed she had a grown-up daughter. I even had an idea that the daughter was responsible for the oil painting. Beyond that, Christina’s life was a mystery to me. Nevertheless I felt she was kind and warm and patient and I thought of her as a fellow explorer, helping me map a path through my dream world. So we wandered together into darkness, neither of us knowing the way. I trusted her. And that was enough to keep me going forward in search of the Stranger.
This was how we hunted him: by not being afraid; by leaving him with no place to hide. With each step along the way I revisited the memories from school and the years afterwards that I’d tried to excise. All those faces I couldn’t bear to see again: Kevin, James, Greg; the failure of the trip with Mia. How much it hurt to look back. And how long it took.
After the tongue incident I began seeing Christina three times a week. Yet even at that rate it was an arduous climb. Eighteen months. Two years. Three years. Each morning, hating the Tube journey, the forbidding bulk of Archway Tower, the suicide bridge. Each morning, dreading the rawness of the session ahead, but going anyway and giving what I had.
Finally, I closed in on the Stranger. April 2001. A cold spring. Long days of rain. I dreamed of him two nights in succession. On the first night I found myself in the inner chamber of a stone temple. On the flagstones at the centre of the room was a wooden box, a foot square. The box was shut. It was waiting to be opened. I woke up, fell asleep again and returned to the same scene, but a few minutes earlier than before. Now I saw that it was the Stranger who’d left the box. I saw him place it on the floor and creep away. The box was glowing and I was sure it contained a bomb. The prospect of getting close to it terrified me, but I felt in some way that I had no choice. I had to open it.
The following night I returned to the temple. The Stranger was holding the box. This time he didn’t slink away. Light streamed from the seams of the box. I knew that opening the lid would trigger the bomb. I felt for a moment the heat and the flames of the blast. I wanted to run away but I drew closer. The Stranger’s face was obscured by shadow as usual but I was close enough now to touch him. He held the box towards me. I was trembling. I opened the lid. Light sprayed from the box. It vanished harmlessly in my hands. The Stranger remained opposite me. For the first time his face was uncovered. I recognised him all too well.
It wasn’t yet light when I woke up. A loud, insistent rain was falling onto the empty street. I stared at the ceiling trying to absorb the dream. I had met the Stranger and I understood now that I had always known him. I had looked into his face and seen myself staring back.
Today, almost two decades later, I’m still startled by the identity of the Stranger. Yet I also see now that it makes a kind of sense.
When I think back to those sessions with Christina, I picture the oil painting on her wall, its swirling reds and oranges. In pursuit of the Stranger, I’d travelled with Christina into the dream space of my unconscious. I’d imagined it back then as little more than a shadow realm of repressed memories. Yet I realise now that if it could be said to have any physical form, it was much more like the oil painting – mysterious and confounding, but bearing the evidence of a guiding intelligence.
Think of it perhaps like the sentient planet Solaris, in the movie of that name by Andrei Tarkovsky. A group of scientists in a space station orbit a mysterious giant planet. The surface of Solaris is blanketed in an ocean that swirls and shifts colour in constant, mesmerising motion and while the scientists look down from their space station, trying to comprehend its secrets, Solaris is peering up into their minds. As they sleep, the planet taps their most intimate memories, presenting back to them fragments of buried trauma and desire.
This is as good an analogy for the unconscious mind as any I can imagine. Throughout my twenties when I felt so lost and isolated, my unconscious was reaching out to me. It spoke in images, not words, in dreams that were often baffling, even terrifying. But there was no hostile intent behind them. They were signs of the unresolved sorrow I’d carried with me since childhood. The longer I ignored them the more frantic those signals grew. This was how the Stranger came into being – he marked the vehemence with which I ran from pain and sadness. He was a mirror to my fears and he might have haunted me forever if I hadn’t chosen to seek him out on my own terms.
I’d imagined him as a force of malice. In fact, I couldn’t have been more wrong. He was a messenger with a single dispatch: look to yourself. Once that was delivered he no longer had a purpose. My nightmares faded away and I never saw him again.
I realise today that the Stranger was never out to kill me. He was trying to save my life.
One last dream from that period stays with me. It occurred just a few days after my final encounter with the Stranger. In the dream I was standing on a humpbacked stone bridge looking down at the river that ran placidly beneath it. The day was clear and bright. I felt deliciously light. Clambering onto the wall of the bridge I stretched my arms out to the side. I knew for certain at that moment that I was inside a dream. The realisation was blissful because it meant I could come to no harm. I pitched myself off the bridge towards the river. As I fell I made the choice to rise and felt myself fly, haltingly, over the bridge and into the sky. I would wake any minute, I was sure. But for now, nothing mattered. For now, I was free.
Illustration © Catherine Anyango