The town was up in the mountains, a little Ruritanian place of cobbled streets and timber-framed houses. It was market day and in the main square, crowds of locals browsed stalls piled with fresh bread, cheese and cooked sausage. I drifted among them, passing unnoticed.
In the afternoon the sun slid behind the mountains. With the waning of the light a madness seemed to infect the crowd. Uniformly they turned to me, evil intent in their eyes.
I left the square and hurried down a narrow street. The villagers came after me in a herd – there were too many of them to fit easily, but they were coming anyway. I ran and they followed, and I knew that if they caught me they would beat me to death. I slipped on the cobblestones. The crowd drew closer. A hand grabbed me and then another. I was pulled back into the mob. A hail of punches and kicks landed on me. I blacked out.
I woke up, my arms and legs jerking, still trying to fight them off, the fear still with me.
I felt no relief to discover myself at home. For the past year I’d been plagued by nightmares. Over and over, I’d returned to the Ruritanian town and its murderous townsfolk. There were other scenarios too, leaving me with flashes of falling through darkness, of being hunted by men or dogs.>
I remember my friends laughing along when someone made a joke about my 'rubber lips'
Always, the hardest moment to bear was on waking. Consciousness could chase away the phantoms, but immediately afterward nothing felt solid – instead it was as if everything around me might dissolve into the terrors of another dream.
I was 27 but the frequency of the nightmares meant I went to sleep each night afraid of the dark, like a child. 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. 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.
The earliest nightmare I can remember occurred when I was eight. I was walking along a deserted jetty that stretched way out into the sea. A cold wind stirred the waves and sent them slapping against the wooden planks of the structure. Saltwater flecked my face. The jetty was old and rotting and the further out I went the more dilapidated it became. There was nothing secure to hold on to. In the gaps between its planks I spied the choppy water. The sight terrified me.
I was sure that at any moment the boards might split and send me plunging into the sea. I was too scared to keep walking yet I couldn’t find the courage to go back. The jetty swayed as the wind blew. I felt completely exposed.
I can still picture that jetty today, and with it comes the same sense of vulnerability that I experienced then. 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.
I grew up in Queensbury, a quiet, 1930s suburb on the northern tip of what is now the Jubilee Line. 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. The cubes of vivid pink and yellow confectioneries stacked in the windows pointed to the area’s changing complexion. A continent away, Idi Amin was expelling the Asians of Uganda. Some of them had resettled in places like Queensbury. Their arrival meant a few more Asian kids at my primary school. Not that it made much difference. My class was still almost entirely white. Aged eight, I was still the only black kid.