Dancing Shoes

Dancing Shoes

‘Pretty aren’t they?’ he said.

They were. Soft red leather with a sprig of daisies embroidered on each rounded toe, a heel, but only a small one, nothing to teeter on, beautiful shoes.

‘I haven’t seen you here before,’ she said. The Wednesday market was known for its vegetables, the artisan bread stall, wonderful sausages from Holly Farm, pottery sometimes, but never a shoe stall.

‘Hand stitched by me,’ said the cobbler. ‘Everyone should have one pair of red shoes. Try them on.’

He was bright-eyed, with dark curly hair and slender hands that did look capable of embroidering daisies onto leather — and the shoes were lovely. Jessie tried them on. They were a perfect fit, almost as if they were made for her. The price was ridiculously reasonable. She bought them.

Later, she wondered when she would ever wear them. There was nothing red in her whole wardrobe. They might go with black, she supposed, or navy blue, but her feet would be the most striking thing the whole outfit. It was a pleasure just to look at them, though. Perhaps she would do exciting things in these red shoes. She put them next to the chest of drawers in her bedroom and they were the last thing she looked at before putting out the light.

The next morning she noticed that the toes of the red shoes were a bit scuffed. How could that have happened? She had not even worn them yet, except for trying them on at the market. Had she accidentally kicked them last night? She could not see how, but that must be the answer.

That morning she bought some special red polish which covered scuffs, and in the evening, carefully polished the shoes, avoiding the embroidery, returning them to almost pristine condition. Jessie arranged a place for them in the shoe section of her wardrobe, thinking of saving them for her next special occasion.

She went to the pub with some friends that night. The red shoes definitely weren’t pub shoes. Even though they had not been expensive, they were so pretty that she wanted to keep them perfect, and she found herself thinking of them now and then. Admitting this to her friends started up a whole discussion about shoes. Pinching toes, heels — how high? How much agony to put up with just to look good.

‘None,’ said Beth, who wore Doc Martens with every outfit and in every season.

The talk made Jessie laugh, and when she got home she kicked off her everyday shoes and felt her footwear obsession go into the corner with them.

The night was filled with vivid dreams that faded as soon as the alarm woke her. She was stiff all over — probably too much booze. Dragging her eyelids open with the force of will, she saw, in the early morning light, something red by the closed wardrobe doors. Those shoes.

They stood together neatly, but when Jessie took a good look, she saw that they were scuffed again. Definitely too much booze. Definitely.

Polish the scuffs out again, put them away, promise not to drink so much in the future, and stop thinking about shoes.

She stayed in the following evening, feeling rather tired, watching five episodes of The Oracle, then going to bed and falling asleep right away. There were more dreams. When she woke, Jessie knew that she had been dreaming, but could not hold onto a single moment of it, and she felt more tired than the evening before. So it took her a while to notice that the shoes were out of the wardrobe again, and this time they were spattered with mud.

She stared them for a good long while, and the only explanation she could come up with was sleepwalking. Somehow, her mild obsession with the shoes had turned into a nightly expedition. She was getting up in her sleep, putting on the shoes, and from the mud on them this time it looked as though she was leaving the house. That was a terrifying thought.

People drove cars in their sleep, she’d heard of that, but where did she go in her pyjamas and red shoes?

By sheer good luck and persistence, Jessie managed to get an emergency appointment with her doctor. he was not wildly sympathetic, but she did get him to agree that she might be put in danger by her nocturnal activities. He prescribed some strong sleeping tablets, suggested putting an alarm on her front door that would be bound to wake her if she opened it, and referred her to a sleep clinic. The waiting time for an appointment was three months.

Before going to bed, Jessie put the red shoes downstairs in the kitchen cupboard, along with the saucepans. She had the stupidest feeling that, just before she closed the door on them, the shoes smiled and winked at her. Not possible. No eyes, no mouth, no winking, no smiling. Just another sign that she was suffering from stress, though she could not actually say that she felt stressed by anything other than the sleep walking.

The next morning the shoes were back in her bedroom.

Jessie stopped cleaning them and they became, day by day, more scuffed, muddy and worn on the soles. In desperation, she decided to try to stay awake the whole night. Coffee would do it. She was very sensitive to caffeine. Two cups, no sleep.

Sitting on the bed, watching the shoes, there came a peculiar moment. Something surged through her, and she was in the shoes, dancing out of the room. One look back and she saw herself sitting on the bed still, but she was leaving, too, wearing a red velvet dress. One, two, three steps and she and the shoes were out in the woods, which were all aglow with flying things, and people were dancing through the trees. They looked like people. They danced and she joined in. There was no choice, the shoes took her where they wanted. Someone with dark eyes and bright silver hair grasped her by the hand and they whirled and flew together through the night.

This time, she remembered it all in the morning.

It happened to be a Wednesday, and she was at the market early, shoes in hand. The cobbler’s stall was there and she marched right up to him, an angry tirade rising in her mind.

‘Hello,’ he said, smiling, ‘you’ve worn them out really fast, haven’t you? Need another pair?’

She did not quite know what to say anymore.

‘No,’ she said. ‘It’s been awful. What did you do to me?’

‘Really? I thought you were a party girl. My mistake. I don’t do refunds, but I can exchange them for you. Here, try these.’

He took the red shoes, and put a green pair into her hands.

‘No!’ she yelped. ‘I don’t want another pair of your cursed shoes!’

Jessie was looking right at him and his smile, but he was no longer there. She was standing in front of a fishmonger’s stall, shrieking and waving a pair of green shoes. Embarrassed, she turned away, noticing that these shoes were embroidered with dragons in glittering purple thread.

The shoes are in her bedroom, but she is afraid to try them on. They are tiptoeing their way into her heart, though, and she wonders where they will take her. Someday soon her feet will slip into them and she will find out.

Wild Swimming

Wild Swimming

The Shuckleigh Women’s Wild Swimmers were rebels, lawbreakers. You could deny them permission to swim in your bit of water, but they would do it anyway.

This lovely lake was part of the old Mosse estate, and was strictly off limits to all swimmers. Sure, there had been past drownings, but what stretch of water has never had someone drown in it? The women of the club swam everywhere, and always had an eye to safety, knew what they were doing, and were all strong swimmers — and were very buoyant, too, most of them. Something to do with cake, no doubt.

Maureen was the treasurer, a post which required no more than collecting a small contribution from each member towards the cost of the apres-swim cakes, and the purchase thereof. It was she who had suggested this lake for their next swim. They asked permission, of course, but received only a simple refusal without explanation, except that the lake was dangerous.

‘How can it be dangerous?’ said Elly, the club secretary. ‘It’s not that deep, there’s no outflow to cause currents. I don’t know what he means.’

‘It’ll be the mere-maid,’ said Nelly, the oldest member, tiny, white-haired, and with a headful of local stories.

‘Mermaid?’

‘Mere-maid, like the pub. She’s supposed to guard a treasure in the lake, and sometimes appears to young men, luring them to a watery death with the promise of her beauty.’

There was general hilarity, laughter spreading in waves through the cafe where they were meeting, breaking over the heads of the other, disconcerted customers, along with cries of ‘She won’t be interested in us then!’, and ‘Unless she likes ladies too!’, followed by many dirty jokes about the sexual leanings of mermaids. Several customers drank their coffee and left.

Now, with the waters of the lake lapping at her ankles, Maureen felt an unfamiliar sense of unease. the lake looked far deeper than it was supposed to be, the waters black in the early morning light.

Elly and Nelly and half a dozen others were already up to their waists in water, chatting and giggling, but quietly, since they were here without permission, trespassing with intent to swim.

Maureen watched the others plunging into the water, striking out towards the centre of the lake. It did look good, but there was something else she could feel, creeping up from her chilling feet through her bloodstream to her heart.

‘I’m not brave enough,’ she thought, and then wondered where that had come from. ‘Buck up,’ she told herself. Pushing aside all anxiety, she waded in, feeling the silty, slimy mud oozing between her toes. Stretching forward, she plunged into the water and breast-stroked her way towards the others.

In the middle of the lake she paused, resting in the water, sweeping her arms gently around her, feeling the silky liquid passing through her fingers. The others were swimming nearby, breaststroke, backstroke, crawl. Maureen’s thoughts drifted away into nothingness and she found the great peace of an empty mind for a moment.

Then something brushed against her leg. It felt like a hand. One of the gang playing tricks. She scanned about to see who was missing, but they were all in sight, and besides, not one of them was noted for their underwater swimming skills. Probably just a fish. Or the mere-maid. She laughed, and began to swim. Again, a hand brushed her leg. She stopped and pulled herself into a ball, which caused her to tip face-forwards into the water. Floundering, she opened her eyes and saw, down in the dark brown water below, a pale face looking up at her. She thought it was a corpse floating there, suspended below the surface somehow, dark eyes open — but the face smiled at her, the eyes widened.

It is not advisable to scream underwater, but she tried it. Tannic liquid in her mouth advised her otherwise and she reared back to the surface, gasping in air.

She was not sure that she had seen what she imagined, and nobody was close enough to speak to. Maureen began to swim towards the shore, afraid of what might be below. For speed, she was doing the crawl, not her best stroke. She had not gone far when, on the downstroke, her left arm was grabbed and she was pulled to a stop. This time she screamed in the air, and then managed to pull in one last deep breath as she was dragged under.

Down, down, how deep was this lake? She thought of the cake and flasks of hot tea waiting in her car, she thought of home, then she forgot all of that.

The mere-maid was leading her down, the grip on Maureen’s arm strong and unrelenting, but it was not dark down there. Black streams of the mere-maid’s hair obscured Maureen’s vision, but would drift aside to show wonderful things, all ablaze with light.

She forgot about the bother of not being able to breathe underwater, filled with elation at the great blooming of truth she saw below.

Someone grabbed her trailing hand. There was a short tug of war for possession of Maureen, then the mere-maid let go, gazing after her with sorrow in her eyes. ‘No,’ said Maureen as the vision faded.

Choking up water, lying on the grass with towels thrown over her and Elly pumping away at her chest, she gasped back into the ordinary world. All the women in bathing costumes and one angry man were standing around, looking down at her.

‘I informed you that this lake was dangerous,’ the man was saying, but no-one was listening to him.

Maureen wondered if he knew why the lake was dangerous. She closed her eyes and remembered and began to cry.

‘It’s all right, Maureen, you’re okay now,’ said Elly, not understanding when Maureen shook her head.

They sat her up and gave her hot tea, and then an ambulance arrived and a nice young paramedic took her pulse and listened to her watery lungs and insisted she go to hospital.

‘I don’t want to see any of you here ever again,’ said the angry man.

Just before the ambulance doors closed, Maureen thought she saw a pale arm rise from the centre of the lake, and she imagined swimming with the mere-maid again.

Far Away, Getting Nearer

Far Away, Getting Nearer

Noises in the house walls has to be rats, right? Or mice? Or maybe beetles?

I mentioned to our neighbour that we were calling in pest control, and she gave me one of her looks.

‘Might not be living things,’ she said.

“What?’ I struggled to think what she might mean by that. Crumbling mortar?

‘No,’ she said, looking at me as though I was some kind of fool. (I’m sure she thinks exactly that, she looks at me this way every time we have a conversation.) ‘Elementals, or poltergeists, something like that.’

I did not give her the ‘you’re clearly a fool’ look back, but some of it may have leaked through my attempt to appear politely surprised.

‘You’ll see,’ she said in a doom-laden voice. ‘You’ll find out.’

She turned away with a dismissive wave and went back to dead-heading her roses.

‘I’ll let you know what we find,’ I said, hoping that it would not be beetles. Rodents I can cope with, but little scuttling things freak me out, and the gulls. They were getting particularly noisy. We are nowhere near the sea, but like everyone these days we have gulls, and a whole flock of them had taken to sitting on our roof.

I told Danny, ‘Mrs Watson think we have poltergeists.’

‘That would be a poltergeist. I don’t think you can have more than one of those,’ he said, but he didn’t take it seriously. Neither did the pest control man. He went about the house, lifting floorboards, examining skirting boards, listening at the walls. Finally he went into the attic. I went up there with him and watched while he poked around in all the dusty corners.

‘No,’ he said.

‘No what?’

‘No sign of rats, mice, beetles, wasps, bees or ants. Not even any spiders. Cleanest house I’ve ever been in.’

‘Thanks,’ I said.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘There should be something. This isn’t a new house. There should be something. It’s not normal for there to be nothing.’

‘But what is causing the noise in the walls?’

He shrugged.

‘Maybe the water pipes? Never heard anything like it myself.’

Danny and I lay in bed at night listening to the sound in the walls. It had a sighing quality to it, and was like a thin stream of sand running over a rough surface.

In the morning I came into the living room and found Danny with his ear pressed to the wall.

‘It’s louder here,’ he said.

I put my ear to the wall and heard what sounded like waves pulsing onto a shingle beach.
That night I had a dream. It seemed very real, but it must have been a dream.

I woke to the sound of waves, louder, closer, and the cries of the gulls overhead. The gulls were so noisy that I could not get back to sleep. I wondered what was upsetting them so much in the middle of the night, the one time when they were usually quiet. I got up to get a drink of water to relieve the dryness in my mouth. The sound of waves had grown much louder, as if it was coming from outside, not in the walls. I opened the bathroom window to look out.

A great sea stretched to the horizon, and waves broke against the stony bank on which our house was perched. Cold moonlight illuminated the waves. A gull cried once and swooped away into the far distance.

Not understanding what I was seeing, I went downstairs and opened the front door. The street was gone. The town was gone. The house stood by itself on a rocky outcrop, surrounded by shingle, surrounded by sea. I walked all around the house. Rocks and sea were all I found.

Far on the horizon, in every direction, dark shapes moved. It was impossible to make out what they were, but they were coming closer, and I was afraid. I ran into the house and got back into bed.

In the morning, there was no sea, but I remembered the smell of it, and the cold breeze on my skin, and my lips tasted salty.

Mr Watson was out in the garden again, and she asked what the pest control man had found.

‘Nothing,’ I said.

She nodded wisely, ‘You mark my words—’ she began.

‘It’s the sea,’ I said.

She frowned at me and shook her head.

‘There’s no sea.’

‘It’s in the walls,’ I said.

She backed away from me, and went into her house. We don’t have conversations any more.

I often wake to hear the sea at night, and a low, loud, booming, far away but getting closer. I never go to look because there is nothing I can do. They are inexorably approaching. What will happen when they arrive? I try not to think about it. It’s only a dream. Isn’t it?

Night Terrors

Night Terrors

It is never dark in my dreams. The world is bright and filled with light. But this time — I was walking down a street that I was familiar with (in the dream world), though I had not been there for some years. There were shops, and I was walking downhill. As I came closer to the bottom of the hill everything got darker. There was one shop, selling antiquities, that was well-lit inside, but most of the other shops were shut and dark, possibly closed down. There were no street lights. I could hardly see. A dimly-lit cafe seemed to be open, but was barely visible in the misty darkness all around me. I wondered what had happened. It never used to be like this.

I didn’t hear them coming.

Suddenly someone put an arm around my throat. I choked and struggled, and woke up.

My memory of the dream is vivid because of the darkness, and because it seemed to me that I did know that street, and whoever or whatever attacked me, I knew them too.

We say these things are only dreams, but they are as real as life itself. They are life itself, or part of it.

This dream did not leave my waking life alone. I could not shake off the disquiet and the sensation of not being able to see properly, of being alone in a strangely altered place, at the mercy of someone who wanted to do me harm.

The dream darkness was not clean — it was as if there was a dirty mist over the world, or perhaps the darkness was not only from a lack of light, but also from a dimming of my own vision. I became increasingly convinced that there were things around me that I was not seeing. Something was stalking me. Each night I went to bed, hoping for another dream to show me the truth.

Again, I was walking in a dark place, but not one I knew. There was the same quality of murkiness, of a lack of light and a dimming of sight. The ground was hard underfoot and gritty. The air felt damp. There was a little light, as much as might be given by a slender moon behind thin cloud, but not enough to see by. I held my hands out in front of me as I went, but felt nothing but a fine cold mist.

A shadow moved to my right, but when I turned, there was nothing there. On my left side some darker patch of darkness moved. I turned towards it and saw something else behind me. They were all around.

I ran. Pale hands reached for me out of the grainy air. I screamed and fell, and woke.

The darkness loomed at my back through my waking days, but it did not come into my dreams for many nights. The days filled with gloom were worse than the nights of disturbing dreams. I was dragging a great burden behind me, one that might at any moment waken and destroy me. It made me so uneasy that I began to wonder why these dream people were hunting me? Had I done something to deserve it? Was some transgression of mine causing these nightmares?

No matter how hard I looked at myself, I could not find anything other than mundane failings such as any human being commits, yet I felt as much uneasiness as I would have if I was a murderer, and the body was buried in my garden.

I reasoned that perhaps, since my persecutors lived in dreams, the sin might have been committed in the dream world. Of course, I remembered only a tiny fraction of my dreams. In that world I might be a monster, and would never know on waking.

The third time I dreamed of that dark place, I was aware that I was dreaming. This had never happened to me before. I had spent so much time thinking about the dreams that I recognised what it was. Now, I thought, since I was fully here in the dream I was in control. I could steer the dream in the direction I wanted it to go.

The ground under my feet was wet and muddy this time and I had a sense that all around there were trees, crowding close. I told myself that there was a torch in my pocket. I was wearing an old blue coat of mine with deep pockets and, feeling among all the inexplicable bits and pieces in there, I did find a torch. Pulling it out, I pointed it ahead and turned it on. It flashed and died, but not before it had illuminated a terrible face, dark grey and so deeply wrinkled as to look melted. Purple lips curled back to reveal many yellowing teeth in a bright red mouth. The eyes — they were not human, ochre irises with vertical slits for pupils.

I was terrified, but told myself that this was only a dream and that I could be the monster here if I willed it — if only I knew how to be a monster.

Taking a deep breath, I prepared to roar my monstrousness, but the now unseen thing took one squelching step towards me and grasped me by the throat with a scaly clawed hand. I tried to scream. I should wake now, the fright should wake me. Stinking hot breath blew foul against my face, teeth sank into my flesh. I screamed once, briefly, then all was pain and silence.

I did wake up, of course, but what am I now? My sleep is a black empty void. I am not even a ghost in the world of dreams. I feel like a ghost in this place that we call the real world, broken and empty. The dark mist is inside me, and that is all there is.