Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A story for Autumn

It was a September evening in 2002. A Sunday night.  I had watched some TV showing the hundreds of thousands of people taking part in the Countryside Alliance March in London that day, defending fox hunting – despising them for their blood lust. And then, tired, I had taken my book to bed. I read a chapter but I could feel my eyes drooping and I wasn’t concentrating properly, so I put the book down on the floor, reached over to the bed side light and switched it off. I turned over in the dark, toward the curtained window and cuddled into the quilt, my head resting on a large pile of pillows.

And I fell asleep.
Asleep, alone, in a quiet old Yorkshire stone terraced cottage on the edge of Saddleworth Moor, just yards from the stone wheel which marked the boundary of the Peak District National Park.  One of the last houses at the outskirts of this Holme Valley village.

Quietly sleeping, dreamless, resting and still, warm and snug, comfortable and calm, drifting across the dark hours on a soft cloud.
When suddenly I was violently and shockingly awake.  Someone had taken the headboard of the bed and shaken it. Shaken it so hard that I was snapped instantly alert. A shot of adrenalin charged through me and my heart was pounding fit to burst. I lay paralysed, in the pitch dark, absolutely petrified. Petrified indeed like a stone, rigid and not breathing. My eyes forced wide open, seeing nothing .

Someone had shaken the bed and woken me up. Someone was there, there in the room, someone I couldn’t see in the dark, and I was sore afraid.

I lay completely immobile, save for my crashing, pulsing, thundering heart, beating fiercely inside my my chest. My synapses fired, my brain sparked, frantically searching for an explanation, an understanding.
My eyes were desperately flickering across the dark trying to see, trying to identify the nature of the threat.

I lay as still and as quiet as I could, no screams, no whimpers, ears straining to pick up a sound, desperate for a clue about the nature of the intruder. Frightened into muteness.

A short agonising time passed, through which I heard nothing.  And I saw nothing, but I knew I had not imagined it, I knew the bed had been shaken and I was full of dread.
Slowly my eyes became accustomed to the dark and I began to see that there was nobody standing in the shadows, that I could determine, there was nothing obvious to be seen. I turned my head just a little, frightened of any attention my movement would draw, and I looked, inchingly, tentatively, across my shoulder to the other side of the room.

The door into the room was ajar, perhaps 6 inches from the frame, and behind the space lay only the darkness of the landing. There hadn’t been time for anyone to leave the room and pull the door to, even assuming they could have done it quietly, because I had woken instantly as the bed had been shaken.
So it seemed to me at first that the intruder must be lying down, below the level of the mattress. Lying as quietly on the floor as I was laying in the bed.

I continued to lie motionless while my mind raced through many different scenarios, but somehow I couldn’t see the sense of it, I couldn’t picture someone creeping into my room, pulling the door almost closed behind them, lying hard against the carpet and then reaching up to shake the bed. Doing this and then lying still and quiet while I was panicked into wakefulness.  Listening to my sleeping breathing stop, and my going silent as I awoke and recognised their presence. It just didn’t feel right. I couldn’t square it logically.
So it came to me finally, that it must in fact be an animal, rather than a human, who was sharing this room with me.  A large animal though, to have the power to shake the bed.  An animal large enough to make the necessary movement but not so big that it stood as tall as my bed.  In my befuddled and frightened waking state that was the best explanation I could conjure up.

After lying still and scared from awaking for perhaps 3 or 4 minutes in total silence, I felt I needed to do something. I couldn’t just lie there indefinitely, frightened and vulnerable and waiting for the next move of the threatener.  I thought then that I should try to be brave and turn the light on, take a tiny bit of ownership. Not the bed side light, that would involve reaching across the dark divide and fumbling for the cable and the on/off switch, leaving my hand and my arm vulnerable to attack. I would reach up above my head to where a long cord hung down from a ceiling rose.
Of course it was not an energy saving light-bulb, it was a regular 60 watt bulb. So when I finally plucked up the courage to move, to unravel my limbs, all curled up in a sleeping position, to reach one shaking naked arm up above my head into the dark and waft around until I found the dangling small white plastic cone and pull, the “big” light snapped on with full and instant brightness.

I was blinded, wanting to screw my eyes up against the searing light but frightened to miss the action the intruder would take against my challenge.
Nothing happened.

No movement in the room.

As I lay in the now lit room, I looked with fast flickering eyes as far as I could into those parts of the room I could see, and there was nothing.  A quick glance at the radio alarm clock showed it was around 1am. I couldn’t have been asleep for more than an hour.
A good few moments more passed, my heart was starting to slow down, my ears which had been full of the sound of the rush of pounding blood, began slowly to hear normally again and there was still nothing to hear, nothing to be aware of.

I reached inside myself again for resolve, and decided I needed to pull myself up into a sitting position, dead centre in the bed, as far away from either side as I could manage, clutching the quilt against my naked chest, hugging the covers to me.
It is lovely to sleep naked, your body heat works directly with the quilt to warm you and you don’t get tangled up in the trailing length of a night dress as you toss and turn, but that night I felt only the vulnerability of being undressed in a room with an intruder.

And still there was nothing to see and nothing to hear as I sat up with the headboard pressing uncomfortably into my back. I took a deep breath, finally, having failed to take in barely any oxygen, through the shallowest of breaths for several very long minutes. And then I bent over slowly onto my right side to peer over the edge of the bed and along the floor. Nothing but the carpet and my library book, spine cracked, lying at the foot of the bed side table.  And so I shifted across the bed, and leaning, looked over the other side. And still there was nothing.
Darting back to the centre of the bed, and my position of safety, it seemed that it must be the case that the intruder, the thing that had shaken my bed, was lying directly underneath me, under the wooden slats that the mattress rested upon.

Who, any of us, wants to confront the creature under the bed? Here there be dragons!
But you know, when you live by yourself, and there is no-one else to rely upon and you have not yet understood the importance of having a regular phone, or a mobile by your bed, you do in the end have to do those things that leave you rigid with fear, or else go simply mad.

So eventually in the quiet, still bedroom, I did find the strength to lean over once again, only further this time and look, with rapid searching eyes underneath the bed, and then more slowly, gazing, to realise and understand that there was nothing to see in the dark dusty shadows.
It was a total mystery to me. Something had definitely shaken the bed, shaken it so violently that I had come awake, snapping to hysterical attention. But of that presence there was simply no evidence. The room was bare of alien presence.

I did eventually find the strength to get out of bed, to put my dressing gown on and to move, room by empty room, anxiously turning on lights with nervous little darts of the wrist, but it became increasingly obvious there was nothing to see, nothing to be found, nothing to discover. The house was exactly as I had left it at bed time, there were no broken windows, no unlocked doors, no fallen furniture, even the cellar damp and cold and slightly mouldy, was just as always.
There was nothing left for me to do in the end, but to go back to bed, read a little more of my book in an effort to divert my mind from its perilous thoughts and bring it some calm, before, with a timid show of spirit, turn off the light, settle back down into the pillows and try my best to fall back into sleep.

The following day I learned of the power of the Dudley earthquake, registering 5.0 on the Richter scale. Its affects were felt for miles around, all the way to North Yorkshire.  Some people, like me, had been shaken awake by its power.  Mum told me, much later, when I told her the story of my 30 minutes of cold deep fear, that if I had moved over to the window and thrown the curtains apart, I would have seen lights snapping on in bedrooms across the foot hills below me as others registered the same occurrence and I would have realised that this was a local phenomenon and not a private one.
Mums are very wise, we should pay them close attention, so next time, if I am unfortunate to go through such an event again, I shall think “earthquake” before I think “imposter”, plus I never go to bed without my mobile phone these days. And so there has been progress, of a sort. But if you want to know about the most scary moment of my life, you have it, right there. Don’t have nightmares, do sleep well.


Anonymous said...

Wow, fabulous!! I had a similar experience in the early 80's.

Kate said...

Oh bless you! That absolute fear is terrifying especially when it wakes you in the night.