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. A continent away, Idi Amin was expelling the Asians of Uganda.
In the summer of 1996 I went to Tribal Gathering, a dance-music festival in the Bedfordshire countryside. I spoke only in generalities, about how I didn’t feel ‘good’ or ‘whole’, without addressing the emotions behind those words. On the flagstones at the centre of the room was a wooden box, a foot square. And now a psychotic episode. Eighteen months. It wasn’t just that I wanted to put the people and the place behind me. I came to know him as the Stranger. After their departure there was no reason for me to go back to Queensbury. Yet even at that rate it was an arduous climb. I would wake any minute, I was sure. The trip became a torture. I might have quit the whole thing if Christina hadn’t asked a question towards the end of an especially halting session. 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. I see that move now as an act of deliberate self-isolation. Even the journey to her house in Highgate was hard to bear. Their arrival meant a few more Asian kids at my primary school. I remember sitting beside my dad in the front seats of our car when I was sixteen. On one occasion, I found myself running across a deserted town square. I was repulsed by her ugliness, and scared by the drill which also had a probing, phallic quality. 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’. The box was shut. The jetty swayed as the wind blew. 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. The walls were painted bright colours and the floor was scattered with toys. I felt a sharp pain in my mouth as if a pin was stuck in there. On TV, Jim Davidson cracked racist gags about Chalky White, his doltish, fictional black friend. I dreamed of him two nights in succession.
I felt no relief to discover myself at home. I heard her moving round the hotel room, packing in the dark while I was still half asleep. He didn’t move. I tipped backwards into nothingness, falling for forever. Secretly I was glad to have her angry. But I couldn’t erase what I saw in the mirror. A group of scientists in a space station orbit a mysterious giant planet. Until I confronted him, the dreams wouldn’t end. 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 ran and they followed, and I knew that if they caught me they would beat me to death. In the evening, once it had shut and the office workers had trooped home, the surrounding streets were achingly quiet. He was a messenger with a single dispatch: look to yourself. ‘Have you ever thought of seeing someone?’
The idea excited me. 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.
Illustration © Catherine Anyango 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. 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. I was trembling. I had looked into his face and seen myself staring back. I never saw anyone enter or leave the building and it was impossible to look up at it without a shudder of foreboding. I tiptoed forward, trying to cross the grass without stepping on them, knowing already it was an impossible task. ‘I can feel it but I can’t put it into words. As I typed, I also realised that some of my reaction to the interview had more to do with me than with Prince. I blacked out. How normal, how everyday, the hostility around me felt. As I fell I made the choice to rise and felt myself fly, haltingly, over the bridge and into the sky. Hours seemed to pass without a word between us. On the first night I found myself in the inner chamber of a stone temple. As well as recording studios and rehearsal spaces, there was a newly decorated nursery. Early one morning instead of scrawling another entry, I tore out page after graph-paper page until the notebook was empty. I was a teenager but I was still used to thinking of myself as a kid, not a grown-up. How do you chase down a figure from your own nightmares? Leftfield played their set hidden behind a bank of keyboards and stilt walkers dressed as silver-suited extraterrestrials wandered through the crowd. We agreed to stay friends. Prince didn’t mention his baby during the interview, although it’s hard to imagine the boy wasn’t on his mind. ‘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. Onrushing descent. I felt awkward and exposed talking to Christina. Flailing helplessness. Black footballers ran onto the pitch to monkey chants from their own supporters. ‘Three.’ The view ahead, into empty space, was too frightening to contemplate. 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. The realisation was blissful because it meant I could come to no harm. Cars roared by, headlights glaring. We’d been friends for the past five years. I met Mia in the summer of 1994. The hurt we carried didn’t always express itself in words. The day was clear and bright. This time he didn’t slink away. In person, across the table in a conference room at Paisley Park, he was charming and poised and witty. The breakdown was a setback, Heather conceded, but at least therapy had given her enough perspective to see that she needed help. I longed to be part of its world. Think of it perhaps like the sentient planet Solaris, in the movie of that name by Andrei Tarkovsky. In the autumn, a few months after Tribal Gathering, I received a call from a friend, Heather. The box was glowing and I was sure it contained a bomb. Over and over, I’d returned to the Ruritanian town and its murderous townsfolk. I was parked on the hard shoulder, huddled in the front seat waiting for a recovery truck.
The earliest nightmare I can remember occurred when I was eight. I slipped on the cobblestones. Heather tucked her knees up under her chin. I felt for a moment the heat and the flames of the blast. Finally, I closed in on the Stranger. A gang of six skinheads hung about outside the Chinese chip shop across the road from school. I also envied the freedom their colour bestowed. The men in hard hats clipped themselves by a cord to the mesh wall of the cage. From then on the Stranger became a regular presence lurking at the edge of a crowd or driving beside me on the motorway. 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. I didn’t hear much else after that.
It was only by chance that I ended up finding a way back to the sensation I experienced during the jump. As they sleep, the planet taps their most intimate memories, presenting back to them fragments of buried trauma and desire. But for now, nothing mattered. They relocated to Northampton, where they could get a bigger house with a smaller mortgage. I woke up, my arms and legs jerking, still trying to fight them off, the fear still with me. I flew to Iceland and Los Angeles and New York to interview Björk or Ice Cube or the Wu-Tang Clan. In pursuit of the Stranger, I’d travelled with Christina into the dream space of my unconscious. I became more and more frustrated and worn out. No one mentioned the threat of being beaten up or the mortification of getting teased for having an African name. She was in a hospital in Tottenham after having herself sectioned. Earlier in the year, Prince had married Mayte Garcia, a dancer in his band. It vanished harmlessly in my hands. Throughout my twenties when I felt so lost and isolated, my unconscious was reaching out to me. I was pitched back into the Ruritanian town. We struggled along uneasily like this for several months. My dad, seeing a policeman, rolled it down and the officer leaned into the car. She was acutely perceptive and well practised as a documentary-maker at spying out the conceits and vulnerabilities of strangers. Two years. The cage rocked as the crane hoisted us into the air. I pitched myself off the bridge towards the river. 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. 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. From there, the scent of cigarette smoke and the groans of despondent gamblers rose through the floorboards as I sat trying to write. Ominous signs lined the way. It’s like I’ve lost touch with myself.’
Heather said that, if I was interested, she could help me find a therapist. It was hard to believe what had happened, yet the evidence was right before my eyes. Yet, watching from below, I was captivated. Would I come to visit? When I was eighteen I left home for university. When she was done, she leaned over the bed, kissed me faintly on the lips and left the room. Yet I was also struck by how familiar the experience seemed. 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. In the gaps between its planks I spied the choppy water. He peered through the telescopic lens. It was soon too painful to continue. 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 room smelled of cat hair. he asked. As I tumbled, I knew myself to be fleetingly, fully awake. No one made monkey noises or mimed the throwing of spears. Of course I could hardly blame him for avoiding the subject. 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. Their presence felt like a warning against presuming that I could ever fit in properly among the people I’d grown up with. She was Spanish, a jewellery designer, short-haired and gamine and given to wearing a Breton shirt in homage to Jean Seberg in Breathless. How much it hurt to look back. Apparently Zoe was very particular about which patients she took an interest in. After that I noticed how women held their handbags closer when I sat beside them on the Tube. With the waning of the light a madness seemed to infect the crowd. The engine was off. It was waiting to be opened. Salt water flecked my face. And when we spoke I could never bear to mention that trip again. I grew up in Queensbury, a quiet, 1930s suburb on the northern tip of what is now the Jubilee Line. Uniformly they turned to me, evil intent in their eyes. The sight terrified me. The only other sign of life came from the ground floor directly beneath me, which was home to a William Hill bookmakers. But I also knew there was no point in carrying on. Across the room a man with gaunt cheeks dressed in pyjamas began to swear loudly and angrily. A loud, insistent rain was falling onto the empty street. There was no time to dwell on the memory of skinheads or ‘Enoch was right’ or the so-called jokes from my best friends. Until then I’d never admitted to myself how confused and unhappy the past few years had left me. She was more stylish, and more confident in her opinions and feelings, than anyone else I knew at our age. I realise today that the Stranger was never out to kill me. In the Starship Enterprise tent, glassy-eyed dancers with white gloves waved neon wands to frenzied happy hardcore. The longer I ignored them the more frantic those signals grew. When I think back to those sessions with Christina, I picture the oil painting on her wall, its swirling reds and oranges. 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. That sensation became all the more acute as I grew older and saw my body become an object of apprehension and hostility. It occurred just a few days after my final encounter with the Stranger. Light streamed from the seams of the box. After that, we met up once or twice a month, spending long weekends in London or Madrid. ‘What do you dream about, Ekow?’
Until then, I’d mentioned nothing about my nightmares. I drifted among them, passing unnoticed. She was Greek, late fifties, silver-haired, elegantly dressed, and she listened attentively as I talked, perched opposite on the edge of a daybed. I squirmed to hear myself. On one occasion, I discovered myself in the back garden of my family home. Yet when I met Heather on the ward she was cheerful. It was a small rebellion against the stiltedness of our meetings. How long could I keep running from him before he caught up with me? I found I couldn’t adequately capture the alien texture, the gearless slippage from calm to violence, that I’d experienced. 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. He scratched at the side windows and banged on the windscreen. I was studying politics at the LSE. 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. Three years. I trusted her. Yet I continued all the same. It was in the solitude of the flat that I first began to suffer from nightmares. One last dream from that period stays with me. ‘It’s a relief being here,’ she said. I lay back on the daybed. A hand grabbed me and then another. I wanted to erase any trace of the dreams as surely as I’d destroyed all my mementos from school. Despite my apologies, Christina would be annoyed. I felt jaws clamp on my leg, fangs pierce the skin on my ankle, a jangle of pain as poison spread through my body. What were we doing in the car?
Much of what I was drawn to in adulthood came from the style magazine The Face. I got it. Why was his face hidden? As the dreams became more numerous, I noticed the same figure at their centre. The cubes of vivid pink and yellow confectioneries stacked in the windows pointed to the area’s changing complexion. She’d lie curled up on the far end of the daybed, softly purring. Instead of assessing the album, all I wanted to do was describe the hollowness of my meeting with him. 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. Despite the cat’s seal of approval I dreaded therapy. I woke up, fell asleep again and returned to the same scene, but a few minutes earlier than before. ‘Zero.’ I let go of the door frame and allowed my weight to carry me backwards, out of the cage, into the waiting sky. ‘This isn’t working,’ she said. As he talked, all I could do was picture the empty nursery. I could continue to deny the past and, by so doing, convince myself I’d found a new pattern for my adult life. He held the box towards me. She wanted to drill into my head and I was helpless to get away. I remember the moment when I began to see the consequences of my actions. Heather said she was going to take a nap. 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. I knew she was repelled by my babbling. It stung terribly but I continued. I loved them. I recognised him all too well. Our time was up, yet for the first time I wanted to continue talking. We hired a car, a Renault 4, and drove it up into the Atlas Mountains. The jetty was old and rotting and the further out I went the more dilapidated it became. In October 1997, just after the clocks had gone back and the days felt hushed and gloomy, he came closer than ever before. The wire fibres of the pad tugged at my skin. Christina received patients in the front room of her terraced house in Highgate. Now I saw that it was the Stranger who’d left the box. In fact, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Leaping to a possible death seemed less alarming on the end of a long cord above a field full of ravers. And I think at the time I really believed it. I even had an idea that the daughter was responsible for the oil painting. If you’re late, it’s a decision to not respect me or our sessions together.’ She was right. 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. She wore grey jogging bottoms and a blue hoodie. But access was blocked by a figure on the ledge. The cage juddered to a halt. I’d had a few girlfriends before her, including one I’d seen for two years who’d dumped me, to my secret relief. To my embarrassment, Christina broke into laughter. My class was still almost entirely white. ‘One.’ The hard
hats gave me a thumbs up. The festival marked the moment when the underground dance culture we’d followed for years on The Face gained mainstream legitimacy. ‘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. They unlatched the lock and swung the door open. He was dressed in black and I couldn’t see his face. Then, very deliberately, he began to kick my fingers away from the ledge. Outside the Underground, Archway Tower, an enormous obsidian office block with blank windows, loomed over the station like a sentinel to the afterlife. As we rose the clamour of the festival died away until only a deep pulsing bass was still audible. I’d imagined him as a force of malice. My car had broken down at night on the motorway. The Stranger remained opposite me. The car rocked back and forth. Prince was a hero to me. She leaned forward. I often felt unbearably visible. Greg had affectionate, generous parents I secretly wished were mine. So we wandered together into darkness, neither of us knowing the way. The following night I returned to the temple.
Today, almost two decades later, I’m still startled by the identity of the Stranger. I felt stripped bare and reduced to a well of unpleasant sensations: mouth dry, legs wobbly, brain functions rudimentary. 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. But I’d become so used to hiding away inside myself I couldn’t respond to her with any spontaneity. We spoke by phone the next day. With a final swipe of his foot, he shoved me free. I went to the bathroom, clicked on the light and looked in the mirror. Mia and I were both twenty-six. I felt completely trapped and I knew he would break in and kill me. In fact, their colour fascinated me as much as mine did them. He pulled the trigger. 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. And when I was with my friends I felt good. They were signs of the unresolved sorrow I’d carried with me since childhood. I had hoped that talking about them might make the nightmares let up, yet the opposite was true: they became more violent and unsettling. There was nothing secure to hold on to. 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. 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. 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. 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. It was market day and in the main square crowds of locals browsed stalls piled with fresh bread, cheese and cooked sausage. The Stranger was holding the box. I’d imagined it back then as little more than a shadow realm of repressed memories. 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. After the tongue incident I began seeing Christina three times a week. In the dream I was standing on a humpbacked stone bridge looking down at the river that ran placidly beneath it. Then, because I was having trouble moving, they helped me take a couple of steps across the tilting floor to the door. I glimpsed movement in the grass; a snake sliding quickly out of sight, green and, I guessed, venomous. And Alan Taylor, who put his arm around my shoulder and explained that Enoch was right: you lot just can’t help making trouble. It came at the end of a short, failed romance. Christina brushed my apologies away. 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. 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. At the end of the year we arranged a longer trip to Essaouira, a pretty town on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. I stared at an oil painting on the opposite wall, trying to fathom its thick swirls of murky red and burnt orange. I was too scared to keep walking yet I couldn’t find the courage to go back. Aged eight, I was still the only black kid. I knew before the interview that she’d given birth to their first baby, a son, just a few days earlier. 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. In her fortnight in hospital, Heather’s most frequent visitor had been her therapist. The villagers came after me in a herd – there were too many of them to fit easily, but they were coming anyway. Stepping out of the cage I’d found myself inescapably in the present tense, with no hiding away, no escape possible. He hunted me assiduously. And how long it took. Photos, records, old exercise books, any memento of my childhood had to go. The nursery was for him. 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. Whiteness meant a lack of self-consciousness. Why were we waiting outside the dairy? Mia was exactingly curious.
I was ashamed to admit how hurt and lonely I felt after Mia finished with me. Long days of rain. There were other scenarios too, leaving me with flashes of falling through darkness, of being hunted by men or dogs. The vertical face of the wound had a raw, livid complexion to it. The skinheads wore cherry-red, sixteen-hole Doc Martens and bleached jeans and I found them fantastically intimidating. My nightmares faded away and I never saw him again. 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. I gathered everything I could find, dumped it into a black bin bag and left it out with the rubbish. 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. I had to open it. They’d left at fifteen but still remained prominent figures for us. A flyer promised 7 awesome dance arenas; 32 ballistic live acts; 70 global deck gurus; 30,000 beautiful party people. I’d been seeing Christina for about a year. There were also times I hated them. I would refuse to look back. I got to my feet and wandered unsteadily back into the clamour of the festival. Clambering onto the wall of the bridge I stretched my arms out to the side. Without giving myself time to think I joined the short queue at the base of the crane. I had a Brillo pad in my hand and I started to scrub my face. My frustration grew. For the first time his face was uncovered. 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. I wanted to run away but I drew closer. I felt at home among them. My racist friends. No one pointed or laughed or sneered. 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. Reaching my car he tugged at the door handle. I saw now that the lawn was infested with them. It was a disastrous holiday. I didn’t want to stop seeing her and she said she felt the same way about me. 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. I reached up for help. Mostly I didn’t feel any distance between me and my best friends. The prospect of sitting beside her in silence was even harder to face. From stray comments I’d guessed she had a grown-up daughter. It spoke in images, not words, in dreams that were often baffling, even terrifying. The crane, the cage, the whole idea of yo-yoing through the sky, it all looked absurdly perilous. I recall Spencer Wicks, who was nine and in the year above me, telling me to go back home, back to the jungle. And that was enough to keep me going forward in search of the Stranger. I woke with a start. Yet I also see now that it makes a kind of sense. Sometimes I arrived at her house late. That’s what I told myself. In a medieval tower overlooking the square, the Stranger hefted a sniper’s rifle to his shoulder. 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. He showed no emotion and made no sound. Yet briefly, in falling, I’d felt released from the shell of my body. I travelled back to London that afternoon, feeling empty and miserable. That episode was the first time I recognised that others didn’t see me that way. 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. It was a clear morning in June 1997. 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. In this way, I’d be free to be myself for the first time ever. 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. ‘Is there more you want to say, Ekow?’
I told her how insistent and forceful my dreams had been over the past few years. Each time I scrambled to catch hold again he pushed me away. Sometimes her cat Zoe, a beautiful blue-grey Persian, insinuated herself into the room. I stared at the ceiling trying to absorb the dream. I was pulled back into the mob. My tongue flickered oblivious in the mirror. I still had friends there but once I’d left I couldn’t face seeing them, or Queensbury, again. Always, the hardest moment to bear was on waking. April 2001. ‘Is that really how you see me?’ she said, stifling her laughter. A large woman with thinning hair moaned softly to herself in an easy chair. ‘Two.’ I shuffled around so that my back was to the entrance and I was looking into the cage. I felt deliciously light. And, increasingly, I felt the presence of the Stranger. I felt completely exposed. The magazine treated the apparently throwaway stuff of pop culture – fashion, music, film and clubbing – with a compelling gravity. There was a rap on the side window. What I didn’t realise was how much of myself I lost in that process. And it seemed that, even when I wanted to – as with Mia – I struggled to reach beyond superficial connection. And I didn’t want to lose that feeling. The prospect of getting close to it terrified me, but I felt in some way that I had no choice. Not that it made much difference. My aim was a larger, more final one of eradicating the memory of those years of shame. He was trying to save my life. I saw him place it on the floor and creep away. Each morning, dreading the rawness of the session ahead, but going anyway and giving what I had. I was eager to do the story. But what I also knew from news reports was that the baby was desperately ill with a rare genetic disorder. With each step along the way I revisited the memories from school and the years afterwards that I’d tried to excise. I saw myself running through the cross hairs of the rifle. 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 ached with embarrassment at how little she must think of me as I sat there wallowing in blandness. His appearance coincided with the point when a dream lurched into horror. 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. 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. ‘You know it’s not how I really see you,’ I stammered. I was walking along a deserted jetty that stretched way out into the sea. Reality wasn’t much different from my nightmares. Someone from inside the dairy had called the station to say there were two suspicious men outside. I was sure that at any moment the boards might split and send me plunging into the sea. All those faces I couldn’t bear to see again: Kevin, James, Greg; the failure of the trip with Mia. This ability, coupled with her large brown eyes, pointed nose and small frame, always reminded me of a sparrow, quick, jerky but innately fragile. A steel-mesh cage hung from its arm. The new flat was squeezed between two office blocks on the edge of the City of London. If I saw a disturbing gap between words and emotions in Prince, perhaps that was because I recognised something similar in me? 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. The afternoon was T-shirt warm and clear enough now to see out across the festival marquees to the still and quiet fields beyond. ‘You can’t keep running. 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. A sickle-shaped wound about half an inch long stretched along the tip of my tongue on the left side. I had met the Stranger and I understood now that I had always known him. My siblings had already moved out and my parents decided that once I’d gone, they’d also leave. But there were no more weekends in Madrid. 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. 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. Or let down my guard on feelings I’d kept penned away for years? 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. A cold wind stirred the waves and sent them slapping against the wooden planks of the structure. I opened the lid. 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. Home from school one afternoon, aged nine, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror. The perspective of the dream shifted. I knew that opening the lid would trigger the bomb. A haze of cooked burgers and spliff smoke hung over the crowd, dissipating as we continued to ascend. A hail of punches and kicks landed on me. This was how we hunted him: by not being afraid; by leaving him with no place to hide. Outside the windows traffic rumbled by, faintly audible, as if from a great distance. It was early morning and still dark outside. Once that was delivered he no longer had a purpose. 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. But there was no hostile intent behind them. She brought the same acuteness to her own feelings, poring over her anxieties and desires and past love affairs with daunting honesty and directness. I felt annoyed that she’d apparently done so only to mock me. I sat back on the daybed, flushing at the memory of the scene. I wanted to be outside in the cool air not shut in a stuffy room with her. This was where I belonged, I told myself. I laughed too. In the afternoon the sun slid behind the mountains. It wasn’t yet light when I woke up. I wanted to scrub the blackness off my face. My desk in school had the interlocked NF logo of the National Front scratched into the wood with a compass. 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. The rocks were sharp and sheer. The cord reached its tensile limit and catapulted me skyward. My forehead reddened. 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 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. There were fairground bumper cars and waltzers and, rising into the sky above them, an enormous hydraulic crane. Before I could continue, she interrupted me. I knew for certain at that moment that I was inside a dream. Through Heather, I decided to contact a therapist. I’d grown so used to folding away my feelings I barely noticed their absence any longer. I woke shouting, trying to fight him off. Each day I felt her draw further away from me. 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 was twenty-seven but the frequency of the nightmares meant I went to sleep each night afraid of the dark, like a child. Some of them had resettled in places like Queensbury. I went at it harder, until my forehead was grazed and red and raw to the touch. 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. Near the top, I reached a wide ledge where I could rest. She rested her chin on her knees and looked up at me. Heather was a 32-year-old documentary radio producer originally from Glasgow. 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. Terror of the void. We sat in a corner of the day room. 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. Who were we? For the past year I’d been plagued by nightmares. I was still running from a mob. He appeared for the first time when I was scaling a cliff face. How could I articulate the swirl of anxious thoughts in my head? 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. Writing brought no consolation. Her presence was quite the compliment, insisted Christina. I had been here before. She’d been sleeping a lot since admitting herself. A man walked towards me across the field, intermittently illuminated by the headlights of passing cars. My presence signalled threat. Eventually Christina broke the silence. 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. To escape the Stranger’s hold, she insisted, I needed to understand who he was and what he was after. On our last morning together Mia woke early to catch a flight back to Madrid. For now, I was free. There was little sign of blood, just a staining of my lower front teeth and a metallic taste at the back of my mouth. When I was home there was always another deadline to meet. He insisted, rather, that he felt great and was excited to be finally recording on his own terms again. I returned to earth scared and dizzy and ecstatic. 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. The reality was far worse: just the wind clawing at my face and the sound of my own screaming. I felt sick with horror at the sight of it. Each morning, hating the Tube journey, the forbidding bulk of Archway Tower, the suicide bridge. This was how the Stranger came into being – he marked the vehemence with which I ran from pain and sadness. Light sprayed from the box. All the same I somehow felt sad and disappointed once I was home. I was frozen by shame. A pale light percolated through the windows.
The town was up in the mountains, a little Ruritanian place of cobbled streets and timber-framed houses. I gave her a recent example in which I was riding alone in an empty Tube carriage. It felt too compromising; too likely to lead to a spilling of humiliating memories and emotions that I’d rather keep to myself. 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. The Stranger’s face was obscured by shadow as usual but I was close enough now to touch him. I left the square and hurried down a narrow street. 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. To the side of the road was a field. You have to go after him.’
Christina’s response to my injury surprised me. Threading through the market after her, I wanted to be just as bold, just as open. Beyond that, Christina’s life was a mystery to me. ‘Something’s not right,’ I told her. Mia drove without speaking. I was exhausted. If anything, this was less terrifying than many of those dreams thanks to the incongruity of the setting. The crowd drew closer. 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. I can still picture that jetty today and with it comes the same sense of vulnerability that I experienced then. I was stuck in the shallows of my emotions, with nothing meaningful to offer back. I sat down at my computer to write the story. That was how we’d end up if we didn’t stop mucking about and get down to work, our teachers warned us. 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. What was the point of talking to someone when I couldn’t find the words to communicate? Even at four in the afternoon the scene was carnivalesque. A cold spring. Most nights I was out at gigs or clubs or film previews. It was the first time I’d seen her abandon a guise of studied calm. It was dark. Christina sat quietly, prompting me occasionally for clarity. This was the woman who’d helped her confront her alcoholism. When we’d been together for four months Mia told me she was moving back to Madrid to develop her jewellery business. I’d spent most of the time struggling for something to say. How come he was hunting me? 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. Together for a whole week after months of shorter meetings, it was as though we were seeing each other properly for the first time. 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. The skin began to tear and little beads of blood prickled their way to the surface. ‘You have a choice. This is as good an analogy for the unconscious mind as any I can imagine.
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. A continent away, Idi Amin was expelling the Asians of Uganda.