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Julia Katharine Freeman weighed
in at six pounds twelve ounces. Because
she was the
first child of a woman over thirty, her parents
had taken their doctor’s advice and
had all the tests available. Aside from being
reassured that their baby was healthy, it
meant they had not needed to waste time thinking
about boys’ names when they knew for
sure they were having a girl.
The first time Tom and Clare brought their
daughter home, she seemed to positively gurgle
her approval of the light, brightly-painted
room they had prepared for her overlooking
the leafy garden.
“I think we got it right,” Tom
said, watching her happily batting a small
hand at the delicate mobile suspended over
“I think we did,” said Clare,
catching his eye with a smile.
Throughout the following weeks and months,
Julia did her share of screaming through
the night, catching small infections, and
giving her first-time parents one or two
stomach-churning scares. The worst was when
she crawled into a linen cupboard and fell
asleep, leaving them frantically searching
the house for what seemed a lifetime but
in fact was a little under twelve minutes.
Making friends between baby and household
pets was one of the subjects they had read
up on in advance. The best advice, endorsed
by friends who had tried it, was to place
the child on a rug with the pet or pets in
question, and let them get on with introducing
themselves to each other - while, of course,
keeping a careful eye on things. But both
Sam, their black Labrador, and Turk, their
Siamese cat, seemed delighted by this new
addition to the family; though, to be honest,
Turk initially tried to feign lofty indifference,
but soon began to purr with satisfaction
as the small pink hands learnt how to pat
and stroke him without poking him in the
eye or pulling his whiskers too hard.
Clare had continued working through almost
the full term of her pregnancy. She had planned
on taking at least a year off to look after
Julia; then, perhaps with the help of a nanny,
she thought she might ease herself back into
work, much of which she could anyway do from
home. But that was a decision she would make
later. She had still not gone back to work
by the time Julia started to talk, which
was just after her second birthday. Her first
word out of nowhere one morning was “melon”.
Why she should have made that choice baffled
and amused them both. They weren’t
even sure that she’d ever seen a melon,
let alone tasted one.
I don’t believe she said the word
at all,” Clare maintained. “It
was just a baby noise, like poo-poo or
“No, she was really making an effort,” Tom
insisted. “It was something she was
trying to say.”
“Okay, so let’s see if she says
it again. Come on, sweetie, talk to mommy
and daddy. This is mommy... this is daddy...”
The three of them were sitting cross-legged
on the floor of Julia’s room one Sunday
before breakfast, with old Sam sitting off
to one side, his tongue lolling out of his
mouth, observing the ritual with genial curiosity.
“Daddy... Mommy... Julia... Daddy...
Both Tom and Clare repeated this mantra
several times, tapping each other or Julia
herself on the chest to demonstrate which
name applied to whom. The child watched with
bright-eyed interest as first her father’s
finger, then her mother’s, moved around
their little triangle. She quickly caught
on to the idea that they wanted her to repeat
what they were saying. And so she tried.
“Mom-ma... Dad-da... Mom-ma... Da-da...
Clare let out a squeal of delight and swept
the child into her arms. “She did it!
She’s talking! Oh, aren’t you
a clever little girl! You’re talking!”
They continued with the exercise, wanting
to be sure that this wasn’t just some
fluke but that Julia really had grasped the
idea of what communicating in words was all
about. Certainly, it was clear that she had
got the hang of mommy and daddy; what she
had more difficulty with was her own name.
Clare repeated, “Mommy... Daddy...
“Julia,” Tom finished for her
when she stopped yet again, unable to go
further. He tapped her softly on the chest
several times to emphasize that this little
person right there was Julia.
She seemed to understand. She fixed him
with an intense wide-eyed gaze, then copied
his gesture, tapping herself on the chest.
“Mel-on-ee,” she said.
Tom and Clare looked at each other, more
amused than anything else. “Does she
know any Melanie?” he asked. Clare
shook her head. “I don’t think
“Julia,” Tom repeated, turning
his attention back to his baby daughter. “Mommy...
The child frowned. This was starting to confuse
“Mom-ma, Dad-da,” she said,
more firmly than before, waving an arm at
each of them in turn to make absolutely clear
that she had got the point they were trying
to make. Then she hit herself on the chest
with an open hand, and repeated, “Mel-on-ee”.
This time their smiles, Clare’s and
Tom’s when they looked at each other,
were replaced by mild concern. Was there
something wrong with the child’s hearing?
“Can’t be,” Clare said. “She
got ‘Mommy’ and ‘Daddy’ all
right. Maybe she just can’t say ‘Julia’ yet.”
“Then how come she can say ‘Melonee’,
or ‘Melanie’, or whatever it
Clare thought a moment. “Maybe it’s
Susan,” she said.
Susan was the girl who baby-sat for us once
or twice a week. She was the fifteen-year-old
daughter of a neighbour, a smart and totally
“You mean Susan calls her Melanie?”
Clare shrugged. “Maybe Susan’s
got a friend called Melanie. Maybe she’s
heard them talking on the phone and made
the wrong association.” She shrugged
again. “I don’t know. I’ll
ask Susan. It must be something like that.”
They looked at their daughter, and she looked
back at them, her face reflecting the puzzlement
“Julia,” Clare repeated softly,
but with an undertone of quiet urgency, resting
her hands lightly on the child’s tiny
“Julia,” Tom echoed as she turned
to look up at him, searching his face for
confirmation of what her mother was trying
to tell her. “Julia.”
She looked back at her mother, then back
at Tom. Abruptly, her face lit up with one
of those dazzling infant smiles of recognition
where all doubt is swept aside and everything
is suddenly right with the world.
“Joo-ya,” she said, swinging
her arms and clapping her chubby hands in
front of her. “Joo-ya.”
He could not remember where or when he’d
had that first drink. As every alcoholic
knows, the first drink is the only one that
counts. The others just follow on, drink
after drink, with no end in sight. It’s
part of the disease: a pattern. If for some
reason you forget where it leads, that first
drink, you start again... and pretty soon
you find out.
Of course, Tom knew perfectly well that
you don’t really forget. What you do
is push the memory down into your subconscious
and slam the lid. And suddenly the lid becomes
a bar stool.
Which was why, however many drinks later,
he found himself stumbling through a tangle
of undergrowth and wild grass, falling on
the muddy earth, picking himself up and struggling
on. Up ahead of him the ground rose towards
a few straggling bushes that seemed to mark
the limit of what might once have been a
garden. All he could see beyond that was
a cold slate-grey sky.
He made an effort to clear his befuddled
brain and recall where he was and how he
got there. But his mind remained resolutely
blank. He could remember nothing of the last
few hours. Or was it more than hours? Days
He looked back in the direction he had come
from - and for the first time saw the house.
It sat, like an exposed tooth in a well-worn
gum, on the far edge of the hollow he was
struggling to climb out of. It looked abandoned,
not quite a ruin, but with its windows broken
or boarded up and tiles missing from the
roof. There was a strange tower at one corner,
like an imitation Gothic castle.
What was that place? Why did he have to
get away from it as though his life depended
on it? He knew that something had happened
in there. Was it something he had done? Or
something done to him? His mind was blank,
all memory wiped out by shame or shock, or
fear of discovery...
The sound of a car passing by was so close
that it startled him. Instinctively he flung
himself to the ground, looking around fearfully.
He heard the hum of tyres on a slightly damp
road, but could see nothing. It was followed
by the sound of a heavier vehicle, a truck
maybe, going by. Still he could see nothing,
and figured that the road must be just beyond
that crest of weed-choked trees and bushes
up ahead of him.
He knew he had to get away from there unseen,
which meant he must be careful of that road.
But why was he so afraid? What was he running
from? Why could he not remember?
He looked up at the sky again. The clouds
were low and a pale light was slanting from
the horizon. It could not be long after dawn,
which meant he must have spent the night,
or part of it, inside that house, on the
far side of the half-rotten door that he
could see swinging in the light breeze on
What had happened in there? What had he done?
The thought of going back to find out filled
him with a terror so overwhelming that it
made him almost physically sick. He staggered
on, not caring as foliage and branches scratched
his face and hands and tore his clothes.
He fought his way through until he reached
the road, which was deserted now. He started
down it, only half-consciously taking in
the bleak post-urban sprawl of empty warehouses
and crumbling factories with their smokeless
chimneys stabbing skywards. This was not
a place where people lived or worked any
more, just passed through on their way to
Still he felt afraid of being seen, so he
continued to run, possessed only by the insane
thought that if he ran fast and far enough,
he would become invisible...
He must have blacked out at some point,
because the next thing he remembered was
opening his eyes and finding himself in a
darkened room. He sat up sharply, disoriented,
his heart beating fast. Then he saw the familiar
red figures of the digital clock beside his
bed. They read 3:30 am. But how did he get
there? How long had he been there? It was
not possible that the horror he had just
lived through had been a dream.
Instinctively he turned in search of Clare’s
sleeping form, but her side of the bed was
empty. Where was she? What had happened to
her? Had she been part of what he had been
running from? Had he left her behind in that
There was a sound, a soft footfall. He turned,
and saw her standing in the door, a robe
loosely tied at her waist.
“Sorry,” she said, “I
tried not to wake you.”
He absorbed the sight of her with a mixture
of relief and fear. “What happened..?”
“Julia was crying. She’s sleeping
“I mean... how did I get here?”
She looked puzzled. “What d’you
mean? You were asleep.”
“No, I... I wasn’t... I was...”
He swung his feet to the floor and stood
up, feeling none of the sharp knife-thrust
of pain that he might have expected after
soaking his brain in alcohol the way he must
have done. His thoughts were clear, his hands
and vision steady.
“Tom, what are you doing..?”
He was picking up his shirt and jeans from
the armchair in the corner where he sometimes
left them. There was no caked or drying
mud on them. Nor on any of his jackets
when he opened the closet where they hung.
His shoes sat in neat rows on the angled
ledge below. What had he done with those
torn and filthy things he had been wearing?
She came up behind him, and he turned. “I
don’t understand. I was running through
this overgrown garden, through mud and dirt...”
“Darling, you were dreaming.”
“No, it was real... I was running
from this house...”
“No - a house I’d never seen
before. Something had happened there, but
I don’t know what it was. I just knew
I had to get away.”
“It was just a nightmare. Come back
“Not just a nightmare. I... I’d
“Oh... one of those.” Her robe
fell open as she slipped her arms around
him and pressed the soft warmth of her body
against his. “You told me you still
dream about it sometimes, but the nice thing
is you wake up sober, no hangover. Look at
you - you’re fine.”
“It was just so... frighteningly real.”
“Come back to bed.”
She led him by the hand, pausing only to
let her robe fall to the floor. “You
and Julia both,” she said as they slipped
beneath the covers. “Bad dreams, that’s
He held her close, saying nothing.