In Winter

The clocks have gone back.

The evenings are darker now, which is grim, but it’s a small price to pay for light in the mornings. I wake with the dawn spreading below the hem of the curtains, and it’s always a relief.

Temperatures are dropping, but it’s a very mild November so far. That first truly cutting breath of frozen air that heralds the real beginning of the final season - Winter’s edge - hasn’t yet arrived. There are even rare years where it never comes at all.

All the same, the year is entering its last stage. The quality of the light is different, the trees will soon be bare, and coats and scarves have reappeared in force. Colours are bleeding out of the world, leaving Edinburgh once again in its natural state: orange-litten and shadowed under a murky sky, with dark-clad people hurrying wordlessly through winding, cobbled streets, their faces set against a sudden chill breeze from unexpected places.

It’s a brooding city. Its spires and turrets claw at the sky, as if finding the surroundings unfamiliar. It has the perpetual feel of a traveller from far in the past, mutely watching these crass modern centuries with disdain and melancholy, lamenting its own lost age.

Perhaps, as the New Year rolls in, we’ll have some of those most bitter of mornings. Ice on the roads and frost on the railings, and nature hushed in vague unease. A world that’s grey and austere, and only recently lit.

As those days darken towards late afternoon, I draw the curtains. I busy myself with dinner, writing, reading, and whatever else I choose to do - but with the occasional nervous glance towards the clock. Marking time until sleep is inevitable, and I go to bed.

Then the dreams come.

Around 10% of women, and 7% of men, remember at least one dream each morning. I’m among them. I don’t know how those figures break down further, but I remember almost all of my dreams, every night. I have a vast catalogue of twilight experiences alongside my waking life - not my real life, but my waking one. Because who’s to say?

There are parts of the world not so very far from here with months-long periods of darkness. I have cycles of dark dreams instead.

In Winter, I have nightmares almost every night. They’ve been gradually winding up for a while now. My wife has long since adapted, as people do.

Even the fleeting, introductory dreams of the night are off-balance; subtly warped and unsettling. Labyrinthine hotels and unfamiliar public buildings, rooms filled with doors forever being opened by strangers who peer in and then retreat again. Being lost, and late, and unprepared. Those are the most pleasant of the night’s images.

As I reach the depth of my sleep, in that period from around 3AM to 4AM, I see some awful things. I couldn’t begin to count the number of mornings where I’ve sat on the side of the bed, feet gratefully on the floor, shivering in the dark (and hoping I haven’t woken my wife). I’ve watched 5AM arrive on the bedside alarm clock so many times that it’s become seasonally normal. I always get back to sleep afterwards, at least, which is a mixed blessing.

In the very pit of the night, at least five or six nights per week, I find myself in the same place.

The house.

It’s Winter there, too. The sky is low, grey, and threatening. Snow is falling, but it looks more like ash. The jack-o’-lantern glow of the sodium street lamps paints everything with an unwell, flickering orange shade, as if the world were within an enormous bonfire.

The weather is worsening. More and more snow, falling ever more quickly and lying, piling up first in the gutters and then to the front steps. There’s no traffic on the roads, and perhaps traffic doesn’t even exist here.

I blink, and my car is just an indistinct shape, and I’ll never be able to dig it out. The battery is dead already; frozen. There are no buses, no trains, and my phone won’t work. So I turn around, and I go inside.

I’ve been here before, because I grew up in this house. Every part of it is familiar, but tonight it’s subtly different. Corridors stretch longer, and curve out of sight. Ceilings soar into shadow. Doors don’t quite fit, and there are more than there should be. Sometimes some are even missing.

There were others in this house when I arrived, but now they’re nowhere to be found. It’s dark, and it’s time to sleep. The lights are out, the house is silent, and it’s so very cold.

I’m trapped.

The layout doesn’t make sense, and I know that I’m being hunted. There’s something in here with me - not close by, not yet - and eventually it will find its way through hallways and across rooms and up and down stairs and along galleries, and then it’ll find me.

Worse, though, the house itself wants that to happen. The house is a maze, rearranging itself against me. It’s slowly opening a path for the other thing. Herding us both, as the snow continues to fall.

At some point, I find a window, and the world outside is a travesty. This is a place that has surely been under snowfall for a thousand years. No-one could have driven here at any point in recent history. There are shapes and contours of a past civilisation, almost completely buried, but the only thing that still exists in any current sense is the house.

No light, no power, no heat - but the snow stops respectfully short of its iron railings; a curtain hanging just outside the perimeter, as if the weather itself is afraid to cross that boundary.

It’s still night, but then it’s always night here. I’m looking at an aeons-dead world through glass that has warped and bubbled with age, but I suddenly become aware that there’s something else out there too. It’s also coming for me: an intruder. I can’t see through the blizzard, but as I peek from the edge of a curtain, holding the fabric across most of my face until it becomes wet with my breath, I know that it can see me.

The curtain falls from my startled grasp, my breath mists the window, and I close my eyes - then I hear the room’s door creak open behind me.

I’ve been there a thousand times, and afterwards I’ll wake up with a start, slick with sweat. I’ll pull the covers off and sit up, almost grateful for the chill. Often I’ll go quietly to the bathroom and wash my face. It’s been a while since I’ve cried with frustration.

I return to bed, and watch the clock, and eventually I sleep again - with more strange surroundings, uncertain motives, and unfamiliar landscapes. When dawn creeps under the curtains and I wake up, I’m profoundly grateful for the daylight. I get up, and for the first half an hour or so my emotions are uncomfortably close to the surface.

My brother has the dreams too.

We didn’t talk about it until earlier this year. It just never came up. But then there was a night when he and I were sitting in the pub (my wife and his now-wife were at her hen party), and somehow the topic came around. I was chilled, but I didn’t feel surprised.

We’ve been wondering, logically enough, if something might have happened. There are enough common and specific elements to at least raise the question. We decided to look into it, but to my knowledge neither of us have.

I have no recollection of any intruders, or being seen through the curtains at night, or trying to hide from a pursuer. They’re also all archetypal facets of nightmares, as symbolic as you’d care to make them. But always the house, under the snow, at night. Trapped and chased, something outside and within.

I’ve been back to the house any number of times by day - I was there on Sunday, in fact - because my mother still lives there. But I haven’t spent a night there in years, and when I visit, I become restless as evening approaches.

I refuse to visit in poor weather. I utterly dread being snowed-in there unexpectedly. Perhaps the car would refuse to start. I’d have no choice but to turn and go inside, closing the storm doors behind me, to wait for morning. I don’t think I could bear it.

And yet I will bear it. I won’t go there by night in my waking life - not ever, if I can help it - but when sleep comes, and dawn is still dangerously far away, I don’t seem to have much choice.

When the breath of Winter is in the air, pressing up against the cold glass, I’ll go there whether I want to or not.

Perhaps even tonight.

If you enjoyed the tone of this piece, you may be interested in my collection of essays, Raw Materials. Thanks for reading.