The slightest thing, an overheard scrap of conversation, an empty house glimpsed on a train journey, the name of an unknown place, can trigger a spark of imagination and then a thought process which leads ultimately to a story, to a novel maybe.
Many years ago I went to a garage to pick up my car after a service; a man was behind the counter and as I waited for my keys I couldn’t help but stare at him. He was gazing out of the window across to the Pennine Hills with such a desolate look on his face, such self-contained sadness that I felt sure something dreadful had happened… a bereavement, a broken relationship, a profound disappointment. He was a man in his early thirties I guess, with the upright look of a military man. A second man came into the garage office, a similar age, jaunty and smiley and the way he spoke to the other man, joking and laughing, was quite normal and natural, and the first man seemed to rouse himself and responded, but in a restrained way.
This brief couple of minutes observation of these two unknown men led to a train of thought which culminated in my novel Flipside, set in Oldham in Lancashire, about an ex-soldier suffering from PTSD.
“Kill the lights! Kill the lights!” he hissed and jumped across me and grabbing the neck of the lamp, yanked it from its socket and hurled it across the room so it smashed against the far wall.
He bounded from the bed and went to the window and, standing back against the wall, peeped out and I was afraid that he might break the glass to fire from it. By the light from the street lamp I could see he was terrified; he was saying something, the words stuttering out. I leapt out of bed and tried to embrace him but his body was rigid, his skin icy and yet he was pouring with sweat.
“David! Wake up! It’s a dream, darling, you’re dreaming!”
He looked down at me, but it wasn’t me he was seeing. He jumped, as if at a tremendous noise, and crouched down, his arms wrapped protectively over his head.
“Down! Down! Get down!” and his body shook with imagined blasts or explosions.
It was like watching a movie without sound and it was utterly terrifying. Slowly he stood, staring through me at something on the floor behind me. There was a look of such horror on his face and he was gulping and swallowing as if about to be sick. My heart was racing and beating wildly and I didn’t know how to help him.
His gaze moved and he focused on me, although it wasn’t me he was seeing. His lips moved silently and he looked into my face, into someone’s face, and then he said my name. He stood back against the wall, arms spread, yelling now, forcing the words out but making no sense, a jumble of names and muddled denials.
“No! Don’t take her! Don’t hurt her! No! No!” almost screaming, yelling my name.
“Wake up, David, wake up! It’s a dream, wake up!”
He groaned in agony, his teeth chattering, sweat and tears sheeting his face, panting and gasping for air. I didn’t know what to do, it was so frightening. His arms came down and his head bowed and I was able to hug him to my warm body. He was sobbing, stumbling over words so what he said was meaningless. He held me so tightly I could hardly breathe.
“They’ve got her, they’ve got Jaz!” and then his speech degenerated into incomprehensibility.
“I’m here, it’s me, Jaz, I’m here,” I spoke calmly as I would to a distressed child but he didn’t understand, just wept.
I took his hand and led him back to bed; it was the most scary thing I’d ever experienced. Suddenly he pulled off his t-shirt.
“Doesn’t it disgust you? Doesn’t it make you sick?” he whispered.
I pulled the duvet across him, and half sitting, half lying, held him, his face against my breasts. He was cold, bone-deep cold and I stoked his neck then slid my hand down to his shoulders and back. I guessed he might have some other scar there, I’d seen the ones on his arm and leg, but what my fingers found filled me with sadness. It was too dark to see but I could feel the lines and bumps, the scars shiny and deep where something dreadful had happened to him.
Gradually warmth returned. He relaxed and slipped into a deeper, calmer, more peaceful sleep and my hand wandered across his back, learning what he’d not let me touch or see before. What David had experienced wasn’t merely a bad dream, it was something much, much worse. Did he often have nightmares like this? It was then I fully appreciated that I really didn’t know this man. I loved him but I didn’t know him, I knew nothing about him. How could I? Twelve hours ago I knew he existed but that was all. I was holding a stranger in my arms.
I lay propped on the pillows, David sprawling, breathing deeply and evenly, the street lamp casting its gentle glow around the room. I was too disturbed to sleep, haunted by what had happened, by what he’d experienced so vividly.
I cautiously switched on the surviving lamp, ready to turn it off instantly if he showed any sign of wanting to ‘kill the lights’. He’d ‘killed’ one already, literally. His body tensed. Oh no, not again. His breathing rate increased as if he was running.
“Hush, David, hush, you’re safe, darling, I’m here!”
He knelt up on the bed, staring at some horror before him. He was muttering under his breath, so I didn’t know what he saw or what he feared. I tried to hold him but he didn’t respond, his lips moving to form silent words. Should I shake him, slap him, yell at him?
He was saying my name over and over, tears pouring down his cheeks. Suddenly, most unnervingly because his eyes were already open, he woke.
“What’s the matter?” he was confused, but was looking and seeing me now.
“You were dreaming,” I said calmly. His arms went round me and he pressed his face against my neck, holding me, not fiercely but gently.
“I’m sorry, so sorry,” and he pulled away from me.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said softly. In his face, in his eyes, there was shame and a different sort of fear. “It was only that it was unexpected. I’m OK, darling, are you?” I smiled but he didn’t smile back.
“Did I scare you? Were you frightened?”
I wasn’t frightened but he’d broken the light, thrown it across the room.
“I wouldn’t have hurt you. When it happens, I never do anything, I just shout.”
Well, it had been a bit more than that.
“And does it often happen?” I asked.
“I don’t really know. Sometimes I wake up and I’m not in bed, sometimes I remember…”
He swung his legs over the edge of the bed, turning his back on me, not caring, perhaps not realising that I saw his poor damaged skin.
“I’ll go,” he said. “I’d better go, I’m sorry…”
“Don’t go, don’t leave me.”
“I know what happens when I have these dreams, I know what I do. It must have been terrifying for you. I thought it’d be alright… I’m sorry. You don’t have to feel bad about it…”
“I love you!” I couldn’t hide my despair and he glanced over his shoulder, his face a picture of misery.
“I know, and I love you too. I thought because I loved you it would be different, I thought I’d be OK. I was wrong.”
“You’re not getting rid of me as easily as that, unless that’s what you want?” I spoke lightly but I dreaded his answer.
“Now you are being silly,” he gently reached for my hand. “I don’t ever want to be rid of you. I want you, always,” and gradually he smiled and at last he lay down beside me, but we kept the light on. “Was I really bad?” he asked after a while.
“It seemed as if you were going through hell,” I meant it literally. “You said because you loved me you thought it would be different. Do you mean you thought it wouldn’t happen?”
“I suppose so,” he answered reluctantly, meaning yes.
“I wonder if it might be the other way round,” I leant up on one elbow to look at him. “I wonder if it’s because you love me; in the dream I was in danger and you were frightened for me.”
He stared at me and then sat up his face alive as he pursued some thought. He sat for such a long time that I slipped into a doze, but even when he lay back beside me, the light still on, I didn’t fall properly asleep, but lay embracing him, half-awake until dawn.
You can find Flipside here:
…and my other novels here:
… and my blog here: