A literary ghost story by Jacob Rollinson, recently performed at UEA Live.
As a child, I developed the habit of listening to books on tape at bedtime. My grandmother, who considered herself a wise woman, disapproved. She scolded my mother at the time: wasn’t she worried about all those words floating around in my head, in the dark at night? My mother wasn’t heedless of the danger, but by the time she thought to put a stop to it I had already formed the habit. I insisted that sleep without stories was impossible. Over time my claim became true.
One of the tapes I used to listen to was The Wind in the Willows. No doubt you’ve read it. I haven’t. And because we only had one half of the tape set, I don’t know how it ends. I remember that the tape we owned finished at the point where Toad – selfish, thoughtless, faddish Toad – had been hit by car. More accurately his gypsy caravan had been run off the road by a car, his horses had bolted, and he’d been left dazed in the middle of the highway, repeating to himself like some Zen mantra the sound of the motorcar’s horn that prefigured his utter ruin: poop poop, poop poop.
Here, our tape ended. At this juncture in the story, as I have always understood it, a black hole opened up: my Wind in the Willows ends with devastation, poop poop, and a mechanical click.
My grandmother had a point, it seems. Who knows what subconscious effect this curtailed narrative had on my developing brain? And sleep, of course, has been a disaster for me. I have never slept easily, and my dreams bleed into waking life. The morning after our first night together, my wife informed me that I talked in my sleep. Senseless words, apparently. Fragments. In the beginning she found it funny and would report back the latest Dadaist dispatch: Moon ray! Aces in Italy! Intervals for fifteen!
The tape habit became a CD habit and eventually a podcast habit as the years passed. My wife came to accept that something or other would always be playing as we bedded down for the night. She wasn’t disturbed by it, since she was a sound sleeper, and only the most extreme manifestations of my parasomnia would wake her.
(“You were barking last night,” she told me one morning, with an uneasy smile. “On all fours, barking. You were coughing, really, but it seemed like you were barking. I couldn’t get you to lie down.”)
Now, unless you are willing to pay good money – and I am not – the list of audiobooks presently available for legal download is quite limited. Quite a lot of the time my wife and I would listen to serialised Victorian novels or gothic romances whose copyright had expired. Occasionally we would get ten minutes into a story and one of us – usually myself, since my wife habitually fell asleep first – would realise that we had already listened to that story, but periods of unconsciousness had robbed us of its details, making it familiar but strange, with the texture of a mirage.
This happened to me one night in the way I will describe to you. It was autumn. My wife had been back at work for two months, and was quite mobile, regaining strength. We were awaiting the results of a test that we quietly hoped might constitute an ‘all clear’. It was bedtime.
I selected a recording at random and pressed play. A reassuring male voice emanated from the speaker on my phone, whose bright white screen, oblong like a goat’s eye, was the only source of light in the room.
“It is probable,” the voice began, “that everybody who is at all a constant dreamer…”
I sat up with a start.
I knew the title of the story. It was called ‘The Room in the Tower’. No doubt you’ve read it. Nonetheless I am compelled to recount the plot, such as I remembered it then (which is as much of it as I know now). In the story, a man is subject to a recurring dream. He dreams he’s been invited to a large stately home, inhabited by cordial fellow travellers and welcoming hosts. He sits in the house’s luxuriously decorated drawing room. I recall the description of this room with vivid (and I’m sure fraudulent) detail: open fires and tea caddies and dust motes spinning in shafts of sunlight. At a certain point in his stay, as afternoon falls into night, our dreamer is informed that, for accommodation, he has been given the Room in the Tower. In his dream, this news always provokes in the man a sense of rising dread. He fears this room, without knowing precisely why; yet he cannot refuse his invitation. He is compelled to climb the stairs towards the Room in the Tower, compelled to walk the corridors towards that closed door behind which he knows lurks a nameless evil. And then, when he opens the door…
He wakes up.
Yet one day, following a twist in real-life circumstances, our dreamer finds himself completely awake in a stately home that resembles identically the house of his dreams. After a day of familiar entertainments in the familiar, gorgeous drawing room, our awoken man hears the voice that he’s been dreading, yet expecting, all along: his host telling him that he is to stay in the Room in the Tower.
He feels in reality the fear he had previously only dreamed. And since dream logic has bled into the real world, he cannot refuse his invitation. He is compelled to rise, to climb stairs, to walk corridors until he reaches the door of his nightmares made real. And then, when he opens the door…
I don’t know what happens next. I have never read the story, or listened to the finish.
But that night, I knew that I must have heard some part of it, at least once, while I was dozing or trying to sleep with my phone by my pillow. Not only did I recognise the words intimately, I recognised the voice that was speaking them; and beyond that – this was the strange part – I recognised myself, listening. It was like one of those moments in a too-quiet room when you can hear the strange engine of your own heartbeat, pushing the blood through your veins. I had the most incredible sensation of doubling: I had listened to this recording, in this warm bedroom, black but for the screen of my device, its blue-white radiation illuminating the form of my wife. I remembered the shape of her body under the blanket, angled away from me, long ago. But I had forgotten her face.
And I sat up, as I said, with a start.