It starts with me running.
It's dark, of course; it's always dark, and the black buildings loom either side of me, slick with dirty rain. It's wet but the air has a tropical humidity, making sweat spring out all over me as I pound down the street. The surface is shiny and slippery like patent leather, my feet slide, I’m falling to my hands and knees, struggling and scrabbling as what's behind me gets closer and closer –
Other people's dreams. They’re so boring, aren't they? Same with other people's nightmares. Problem is, they’re all about mood and atmosphere. Trying to make people understand why they scare you is the hardest thing in the world. Nightmares make kids of all of us, desperately explaining to our sympathetic, uncomprehending parents that there really are monsters under the bed. Nightlights and cuddles just send them into hiding for a while. They always come back.
Sometimes the place I’m running through is an old European town, sometimes a dark, ancient forest. Sometimes I’m being chased, sometimes I’m chasing something precious I’ve lost. It makes no difference: I’m always terrified. Still, rather me than Sally: us grown-ups know better than to let people know when we're shit-scared.
Sally never seems to have nightmares, which is pretty unique among four-year-olds. Yes, she wakes up calling for me sometimes, but she never seems scared, just plaintive: maybe a little lonely. I get her a cup of water, I stroke her forehead and hold her hand and kiss her cheek and then she's out again like a little nightlight. She has normal (by which I mean normally weird) dreams about unicorns and jelly and whatever else four-year-olds dream about, but never bad ones.
I should be grateful, I suppose, but like so much else it just makes me worry. Especially because ever since the divorce, I've been having these awful, awful dreams.
I could tell you about them, but you'd laugh, or frown in puzzlement, because in the cold light of day, they're as ridiculous as the marshmallow man destroying New York in Ghostbusters. There are the usual nightmares of pursuit by wolves, witches, furies, fairies and nameless heavy-breathing evil things, which even at my age I think I have a right to be scared by, but some are downright bizarre. The most frightening nightmare I’ve had was cleaning up after an overflowing porridge-pot: porridge on the floor, up the walls, oozing down the stairs … I woke in a flop-sweat, yelling. We don’t even eat porridge.
It has to be the fairytales. Every night before bed she insists I read to her from this big, vinyl-bound tome of the original Brothers Grimm stories that her Auntie Lizzie bought her for a christening present. (My sister has a pretty vague idea of what gifts are suitable for a baby: I think she imagined they start reading around six months). Let me tell you, there is some sick shit in there: old women eating children, girls getting their feet cut off, burning witches, talking horses’ heads, murder and kidnapping and extraordinary, atavistic, imaginative cruelties you'd have to go a long way to beat: not that you'd want to. They ain't called Grimm for nothing.
But there's power in those stories, however horrible they are: they don't always end happily, but when they do, believe me, that's an overwhelming relief. They speak to some secret part of us, even as children: that dark space under the bed where we shove our regrets and desires and violent impulses and pretend they aren't there, until they turn into monsters just waiting for the lights to go out.
There are a lot of unwanted and neglected children in those stories, too: orphans, wards, outcasts, stepsons and daughters, which considering the target audience is odd. Or maybe it's not, who knows? Maybe there's a subliminal message. "There but for the grace of God"? Perhaps these stories of abused kids wandering friendless in the world are in fact the authors' way of ensuring kids appreciate their loving families and the roofs over their heads instead of throwing a tantrum because the orange juice has bits in.
Whatever it is, though, Sally loves those stories: loves them to bits. And I hate them, but I read them for her sake. I lie awake afraid of the wolves that I know will come running through my dreams to tear at my throat; of the gingerbread house which will collapse, choking me in sugar; of the flying that will run me down, splinter my ribs and crush my lungs. But she cries if I don't read her the stories. What the hell am I going to do?
The really bad dreams – apart from the porridge-pot one which is, I know, anxiety-related – are the ones with Sally in them: sometimes she’s run away and I’m searching for her, like the remorseful father in Hansel and Gretel. Sometimes she’s in danger, but most often she’s kidnapped, stolen by evil fairies or dragons, or my ex.
One time I lost her in a medieval marketplace; all the hawkers were yelling and the crowd was bustling and I felt her hand slip from mine. I looked down and she was gone. Then I spotted her sitting calmly at the back of a booth that sold meat pies. The owner said I had to pay to get her back, or she’d be turned into a pie, but I didn't have enough money. I didn’t have enough. I woke up crying that time. Couldn’t get back to sleep: spent the hours until dawn going through our finances again and again, seeing where I could squeeze and scrimp. It’s not easy as a single parent: everything’s borrowed and begged. There’s never anything to spare.
Tonight she wants to hear Red Riding Hood for the umpteenth time. That’s her favourite story, ever since I bought her a red duffel coat for Christmas. She looks so damn cute in it, too. I can’t blame her for liking the story – at least Red Riding Hood gets off pretty easy for once, even if she did stray off the path. I finish up and close the book, kiss her on her pale smooth forehead, say good-night.
She catches at my hand, sleepily. “Are you going bed?”
I yawn and shake my head. “No baby. I’ll stay up and work.”
She frowns. “Don’t you like sleeping?”
I freeze. Is she having nightmares? “Don’t you?”
“No, I like it. I just sometimes hear you shout.”
“Silly dreams, baby, that’s all.”
She tugs gently on my hand. “Stay with me while I go sleep?”
Wearily, I sit. She closes her eyes and after a minute I rest my head on her pillow. I’m bone-tired: can’t remember the last time I had a good night’s sleep. Just when I think she’s settled at last, she puts her hand out and starts stroking my hair with her small hot fingers.
“Poor Daddy,” she says, “would you like a story?”
Why the hell not? Can’t be worse than my dreams.
I nod in the darkness, and she begins. “Once upon a time there was a little girl and her daddy and they lived happily ever after …”