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Waking up before a dream had reached some sort of dramatic peak or conclusion always annoyed Romilly. She didn’t expect a full, neat narrative arc. After all, a life is rarely a neat story with a satisfying conclusion, she told herself, and so it was unreasonable to expect our dreams to be the same. But still, sometimes waking from a dream at a particular point felt acutely unsatisfying.
In the dream from which Romilly had just awoken, for example, there had been no blood. No biting. No shooting. No deaths. This was not satisfactory in a zombie dream. The story had barely started and here she was, already awake again. She sighed and checked her phone. 03:28. Two emails. She turned over and pulled the duvet up over her shoulders. She knew that it was possible to resume a dream so maybe this would happen if she concentrated. She needed to take herself back into the dream. Romilly clenched her fists slightly, ready to fight the night zombies who would hopefully soon return.
But Romilly did not return to the zombie dream that night and it was disappointing. She dreamed about being in a small corridor wearing wellington boots and underwear. At one point in the dream she talked to her boyfriend Freddie as he kissed her neck. Then he walked away and she had to kill spiders to get him to come back. The more spiders she killed the closer he got but she couldn’t actually see him. It was by the general dream knowledge a dreamer possesses that she knew he was getting closer. She squeezed the spiders with her bare hands, crushing their grape-like bodies. It was satisfying, although in real life she liked spiders and probably would not have bothered killing one.
The next morning as she got out of bed blood gushed down her legs as she bled through her sanitary pad. It happened sometimes. She tutted to herself and lifted a towel from the washing basket, dropping it onto the floor and standing on it, twisting her feet and clenching her toes to absorb the blood that had reached them. She stood for a few moments before wiping her legs, wedging the towel between them and then waddling like a gory penguin to the bathroom.
It was Saturday and Romilly was not working. As the Assistant Manager of a Leisure Centre she often did work weekends, but not this weekend or the weekend after. Next weekend she was going to visit Freddie. This weekend she had a well-rounded programme planned. Romilly liked to make the most of her weekends when she didn’t have to work. Days off in the week did not feel the same as a weekend without work and so it was something to be cherished. Today she was going to run ten miles in the daytime and then meet her friends Tara and Sam in the pub in the evening. On Sunday she was going to get up early and walk to the sea front to watch the sun rise over the sea. Then she was going to do her weekly food shopping, go to the gym for a weights session and finish the book she was reading. Romilly was pleased with this plan. It seemed like a well-planned, well-rounded weekend in which all aspects of the things in life she enjoyed were going to be covered. Except seeing Freddie, of course. But she would spend all of the following weekend with him.
In a different situation Romilly and Freddie would probably be deeply in love by now. Or at least comfortable and contented and committed. As it was, things stuttered along in a way that was neither heartbreaking nor happy. Living too far apart was the first problem. It had not engendered the atmosphere of romantic longing and bursts of passion for which Romilly had first hoped. For her part, the separation of their day-to-day lives did not bother Romilly to a great extent. She had not expected it to be difficult. But for Freddie the lack of regular and convenient interaction led to boredom and forgetfulness. He was not as organised as Romilly and often struggled to dedicate a whole weekend to spending time with her. Romilly had decided to see this as poor planning rather than selfishness or a dearth of strong feelings.
In a week they would be together. Romilly was going to stay at Freddie’s house for the whole weekend. The last time they saw each other had been five weeks ago.
“I missed you,” Freddie told her. He wasn’t lying. He really had.
Romilly took a shower to wash the blood off her legs and feet. She hadn’t planned to shower until after her run but her period had ruined that idea. For the last minute or so she slowly turned the water colder and colder.
Romilly enjoyed running for all sorts of reasons but her favourite was the feeling when sweat ran down her back. It felt exquisite to run along as a bead of sweat trickled downwards from between her shoulder blades, all the way to her lower back where it was absorbed by the waistband of her shorts. She would start off sluggishly but as soon as she began to sweat and feel the drips making their way down her body she ran faster and faster, smiling at the sensation. A ten-mile run was a good couple of hour’s worth of tickly, sweaty pleasure.
The first part of Romilly’s run was uphill. Not steep, but a fair gradient. Romilly liked this. It got her to that first stage of wanting to stop quickly, so she could push past it and start enjoying the run and the sweat. She ran along a street of houses. It was a street of large terraces, close to the pavement. When she walked she liked to look into the windows as she passed, trying to see something odd or sinister. A crime being committed, perhaps; a fight or an argument or something out of the ordinary would have been a treat to observe. But now she ran too fast to be able to look. The windows flicked by and were gone before she could make out anything inside, sinister or otherwise.
At the top of the street she turned right into a short alleyway, which led into the park. As she ran through the park, on paths that wove about, twisting one way and then another around trees and flowerbeds, she liked to pretend she was being chased. Sometimes she imagined it was zombies pursuing her, sometimes a more cerebral type of assassin. The path tracked a meandering circuit around the lake. At the centre of the lake there was a small, uninhabited island. Whenever she ran here, Romilly always thought about swimming out to it but as yet, she had not attempted to do so. She was sure that she would at some point, even though it would probably be a terrible disappointment. What was she hoping to find there? She knew it was just a small, muddy patch, covered in nettles and probably stinking of duck shit and decaying leaves. Would it even hold the weight of a human, or would she sink into the mire and drown as soon as she set foot on there? One day she planned to find out.
After her run Romilly ate and then showered again. She was meeting her friends Sam and Tara in the pub that evening and the rest of the day she spent slowly getting ready for that. She did not spend a long time on hair and make up and choosing clothes, but she generally dawdled, too tired from the morning of running to do anything meaningful but bored all the same. For about half an hour in the afternoon she dozed on the sofa and dreamed about climbing around in an underground car park or similar industrial-type building. The metal structures she was climbing were greasy but not so much as to stop Romilly being able to grip. She crawled around the walls like a beetle, enjoying the solitude and the feeling of the oily metal against her skin as she slid her hands across and around it.
At seven o clock Romilly ate an apple and a banana and then left the house. The pub was less than a mile away so it only took about ten minutes to walk there. She arrived first, as usual, ordered a pint of bitter and then found a nice table in the corner to sit and wait for her friends, who arrived ten and fifteen minutes later.
“Robin and I are going to have a baby,” said Tara.
“You’re pregnant?” said Sam, mentally noting that Tara was halfway down her third pint of cider and embarking on an immediate mental struggle of how to bring up the subject of alcohol during pregnancy.
“Oh no,” Tara replied. “Not yet. But we’ve decided that we’re going to start a family as soon as possible.”
“Well congratulations,” said Sam, much happier now that the supposed threat of the awkward conversation about Tara’s drinking had passed.
“I’m surprised it’s taken you this long, to be honest,” said Romilly.
“I suppose we didn’t want to rush into it,” said Tara. “But it seems like a good idea to start trying now. I think we can afford it and we both want a family. Three children would be nice, I think. Maybe four.”
“Do you think you and Freddie will have kids?” Sam asked Romilly.
Romilly considered this for a moment.
“I want to be with Freddie. And I think I do want to have children, one day. But I don’t think I’ll ever have children with Freddie.”
“So are you breaking up with him?” asked Tara.
“No,” replied Romilly. “I’m going to see him next weekend. I don’t want to break up with him. Things are fine.”
It was about midnight when Romilly got home, feeling drunk and dehydrated.
The next morning Romilly kept her promise to herself to get up early and go to watch the sun rise over the sea, even though she woke up feeling headachy and miserable. She drank a bottle of water on the way that sat heavily in her stomach as she stood on the pavement overlooking the beach and watched the sky. As the sun rose the clouds cleared, even though Romilly tried to avoid looking directly at the sun she couldn’t really help it. Did anyone really never look at the sun?
Freddie often dreamed about water. He dreamed about rowing across still mountain lakes; sitting on the bank of a river at sunset, watching ducks dabbling and flies swooping low; walking along the edge of a large body of water and then wading in, finding a boat and sailing across. He never arrived anywhere. That didn’t seem to be the point of his dreams.
It was early Sunday morning and Romilly was lying next to him in bed. She would be leaving later that day. Freddie, waking slowly from a dream in which he’d been sailing over gentle waves, rolled onto his side and stretched his arm around Romilly’s waist, pulling himself close to her and resting his nose gently on the back of her head. She moved slightly but did not wake. In Romilly’s dream she was crawling though damp tunnels, perhaps being chased by something strange and undefined.
An hour later when they were both awake, Romilly tried to persuade Freddie to come out running but he wasn’t keen, so they both went out for coffee and breakfast instead.
“I thought I’d come and stay with you weekend after next,” Freddie said.
“Ok,” said Romilly.
“I’ve got some free tickets to the zoo,” he said. “We had a charity raffle at work and I won them. When you next come here we could go.”
“Ok,” said Romilly.
“But that won’t be for a while I suppose, if I’m coming to stay with you next time.”
“No,” said Romilly.
As she drove home that evening, Romilly wondered if she’d been particularly quiet over the weekend.
“You’ve been particularly quiet,” Freddie had said, just before she left. “Is there something wrong?”
But there wasn’t anything wrong, at least not that she could pinpoint. There just hadn’t been an awful lot to say some of the time. She had never been a very talkative person but Freddie was, and in the past he had always filled any gaps in conversation. So maybe this weekend he had been quieter than usual.
Romilly spent about half an hour of the late afternoon on Monday rearranging the chairs and tables in the leisure centre’s lobby area and café.
“People just move them around, and then never put them back, don’t they?” said Steve the caretaker, and then he wandered off.
“Most of the time they just don’t think,” said Romilly, to herself. “They’re not meaning to be arseholes. They just forget someone has to do all of this.”
When the chairs and tables were in their proper places again, Romilly fetched a stepladder, a few sponges, a cloth, a bucket of water and some cleaning spray, and headed for the sauna.
Being mostly filled with steam and sweat, the walls and ceiling of the sauna became a depository for human grease. Romilly began by using a moist cloth to scrape off the worst of the yellowish residue. When the bulk of the fat had been removed, she started using a sponge and spray, with periodic bucket dips, to scrub the surfaces clean. It was a thankless task, since no one using the sauna would be able to tell, through the mist, whether or not the walls and ceiling were clean. But at least they would be breathing less of each other’s drippings. When she was cleaning the sauna, Romilly often imagined leaving it, for years and years, until it built up and became a soft, yellow cave of fat. It was a disgusting and beautiful image that she liked to return to in her mind from time to time.
As she cleaned, some of the grease inevitably transferred itself onto Romilly. The effort of the cleaning process was not slight, and so it wasn’t long before the combination of strangers’ fat and her own sweat left Romilly feeling more glazed than a doughnut.
She had planned to go for a late run as soon as she got home that evening but the after effects of the sauna cleaning meant Romilly took a shower before doing anything else. The grease from other people stuck strongly to her skin, and she had to scrub herself roughly to remove it completely, turning the water temperature up as much as she could bear to try and melt it away.
The week before Freddie was coming to stay, Romilly exercised more to compensate in advance, as she wouldn’t be able to do as much exercise as she usually would during a weekend with Freddie around. Romilly liked exercise but with weekends spent working or visiting Freddie she felt that she had not been doing as much as she wanted to do recently. Freddie was fairly lazy and didn’t particularly like doing anything that involved much physical activity, especially on weekends. Their time together was largely spent on sedentary pursuits.
To fit the extra exercise around work Romilly started running early in the mornings. If she got up at 5am she could run for an hour and a half, return home for breakfast and a shower and still be in work by eight o’ clock.
It was just before 6am when Romilly reached the park on her Tuesday early morning run. Glancing around, one would say that it was still dark, but a grimy lightness had begun to spread itself around. Romilly set off on her usual route. As she rounded the second bend in the path she saw two dogs running free ahead of her, a smallish, smooth-haired white and brown one and a slightly bigger and hairier reddish brown one. At first they tracked ahead of Romilly but after a little while they began jumping around at a clump of bushes just off the path, sniffing and barking at the dark ground under the plants.
As she approached the bushes Romilly slowed down. The dogs trotted towards her, jumping up and then running back to the bushes. Romilly followed them, looking down at the ground and seeing a hand, fingers partially curled as if holding a phone. Lifting up the low hanging branches, Romilly uncovered the rest of the body. It was a man, aged about fifty Romilly guessed, looking dead and disheveled. There was a little blood, around his head and in patches on the clothes covering his chest, and his lips were purplish blue.
This was the second time Romilly had seen a dead body. An old woman had died of a heart attack in the leisure centre once, during Aqua Aerobics. Still holding the branches, Romilly picked up a nearby stick and gently poked at the dead man’s arms and legs. It seemed a clichéd thing to do, but it was almost instinctive and almost enjoyable.
“Albert!” Shouted a woman’s voice. “Scruffy! Come on boys! Where did you go?” A woman appeared around the bend in the path, breathing heavily and holding two dog leads.
“Naughty boys! Why did you…” she stopped and stared.
“It’s a dead body,” said Romilly, dropping the stick, unzipping her jacket pocket and taking out her phone. “I’ll call the police.”
The woman blinked away tears as she quickly reattached the leads to Albert and Scruffy.
“He’s dead,” Romilly said. “A bit of blood. Probably beaten up and stabbed or something. Do you want to look?”
The woman shook her head. Romilly paused slightly before dialing. Was it an emergency? He was already dead. But she didn’t want to be stuck waiting there for a long time and she supposed he’d been murdered so she dialed 999.
The police arrived quite quickly. Romilly had to stay and talk to them for a little while, describing what she’d been doing and how she’d found the body but then, after giving them her address and telephone number, she was allowed to go. They asked if she needed to speak to anyone, to talk through the shock of seeing a dead body. But Romilly told them she’d seen one before and, although this was a little gruesome, she didn’t want to talk to anyone. And she really wanted to get away so that she could finish her run before work.
When she left the crime scene, as the police officers started to search around the body, Romilly took her usual route through the park. A couple of the officers had walked ahead, searching along the path, and she passed them as she ran. They watched her for a few moments, and one of them half smiled in an awkward way.
Leaving the park, Romilly took the shortest route home. When she got home she took a shower and as she stood under the water she pictured the dead man’s face, trying to work out how old he was. She thought around forty-five, but maybe five years either side of that. It was difficult to tell with the blue lips and the bruises.
About an hour later Romilly left for work. It was drizzling with rain so she pulled up her hood, looking down at the pavement as she walked. As she neared the end of an alleyway she always walked through Romilly noticed something on the ground. Walking closer she saw that it was a crack in the tarmac, about two feet long and a couple of inches wide. Romilly squatted down to look at it. Inside the crack was dark. It didn’t reveal the crumbly ground underneath, as a crack or a pothole usually would. It was indistinct, a purplish blur. She reached her hand forward to touch it and then pulled away.
If she stayed any longer she would be late for work so Romilly stood up, stepped over the crack and carried on walking. She looked for it on her way home but there was nothing there. Grimy tarmac covered the whole area.
That night, Romilly dreamed she was standing over the dead body in the park. She poked it with the stick and each time it chuckled softly. She started poking it harder and harder until the stick went right through the skin and stuck several inches down into its flesh. The sensation felt a little bit like pushing a chopstick into a melon; the skin gave some resistance but once through that the stick glided easily and moistly. As she pulled the stick out, Romilly expected some blood or gore but it was just dusty, and shining from the hole it left in the body there was a faint purple glow.
A few moments after she had removed the stick, the body began to deflate. It reminded Romilly of one of those bath pearls that had been so popular in the eighties and nineties. The kind that melted a little until they popped, releasing bath oil and turning into a slippery skin which slowly disintegrated. Just before deflating completely, the body lifted a hand to wave, and then quickly turned to an oily mess on the ground. Romilly reached her hand forward to touch the remains but she awoke seconds before her fingertips reached it.
She blinked and turned over in bed, reaching out and picking up her phone. There was one email, from an online retailer offering half price running shoes for the next 24 hours.
The next morning, Romilly stood in the kitchen buttering toast. Then, on a whim, she cut the two slices into triangles. Romilly liked triangles. They were the strongest shapes.
She wasn’t working that day. Late in the afternoon on the previous day Romilly had told her boss about discovering the dead man in the park and he’d insisted that the shifts were reorganised so that she could take the next day off. Romilly hadn’t told him about it for that reason; they were in the café and it was mentioned on the local news that the café television sometimes showed, so it seemed to be an appropriate piece of casual conversation. But he seemed to think that he was being very helpful and Romilly didn’t want to diminish his pride in his own kindness, so she took the day off work.
After breakfast Romilly went to her local supermarket. After choosing some fresh fruit and yoghurt, she moved to the frozen food section and picked out a couple of bags of frozen berries, placing them in the metal shopping basket held over her arm. These were ingredients she bought regularly because she liked to make smoothies. As she reached for a third bag of blackberries, a woman walked up to the freezer compartment five or six feet away, opened the door and took out a bag of lamb mince. As she pulled it from the freezer there was a sudden noise around them, something similar to the pained cry of a baby. The woman jumped and dropped the bag of lamb onto the supermarket floor. As she rubbed her hand on her jeans, she looked around at the deserted aisle and then carefully bent down to pick up the food she had dropped. As she straightened up and dropped the lamb in her trolley she glanced at Romilly, the only other person in the aisle.
“It was colder than I thought,” she said.
She pushed her trolley away and Romilly closed the freezer door. It hadn’t seemed to Romilly as if the noise had come from the woman.
“Do you think he suffered?” Freddie asked, when he and Romilly talked on the phone that evening.
“I don’t know,” said Romilly. “Probably a bit.”
She had texted Freddie about it the day before: Found a dead body in the park this morning. Have to take a day off work tomorrow because my boss thinks I should. Don’t want to though.
And they’d spoken about it briefly during the day but then Romilly had to get back to work and Freddie was going to his board game playing club in the evening. So this was his first chance to question Romilly thoroughly about the incident and pick over the details.
“What do the police think?” he asked. “Do they know who did it?”
“I don’t know,” said Romilly. “I don’t think they’d tell me. Not unless it was related to what I’d seen and I had to confirm something.”
“I suppose not,” said Freddie, sounding very disappointed.
“It’s exciting though,” he continued. “For you I mean; to be part of a mystery.”
“Not really,” said Romilly.
“Are you upset?” Freddie asked.
“No,” Romilly replied. “I don’t think so. It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen a dead body and I didn’t know him. It’s a shame but it happens.”
“Oh,” said Freddie. “I think people will expect you to be upset.”
“Do I have to be either upset or excited?” said Romilly. “Can’t I just be normal?”
“Those are the normal reactions,” Freddie replied. “That’s why your boss made you stay off work.”
“I understand why he did it,” Romilly said quietly. “I just didn’t need it.”
Freddie sniffed and Romilly knew he was smiling at her, the way he did when he thought she hadn’t understood something.
“I’d better go,” said Romilly. “I need a shower. I’ve been doing weights.”
Although she was happy to end the phone call at that point it wasn’t an excuse; she was feeling sticky and grubby and she really did need a shower.
“Ok,” said Freddie. “See you soon. Let me know if there are any developments. You know, with the body and the case.”
As she stood at the sink that evening brushing her teeth, Romilly stared down the plughole. She watched as a faint purple glow started to shine from inside the drain. It stayed for a few moments and then faded away. Romilly paused, and then spat out her mouthful of toothpaste and water. The foamy liquid flowed normally down the drain. Romilly wiped her mouth and went to bed, thinking about what she had seen in the plughole and feeling more tired than usual.
The next day at work, the rest of the staff at the leisure centre all wanted to ask Romilly about the dead body.
“Do you know if it was a murder?” said Steve the caretaker. “In the paper it said the police are treating the death as suspicious, but did it look like a murder?”
“I don’t know. Maybe,” said Romilly, in a muffled voice. She was kneeling on the floor to clean and tidy the cupboard of gym mats, and her head and shoulders were deep inside the cupboard.
“Don’t suppose you’ve seen a murdered body before?” asked Steve, who was leaning against the wall with his arms folded.
“No,” replied Romilly.
“Oh,” he said. “Were there stab marks? Or a gun shot wound?”
“I think there might have been some stab wounds. I don’t know.”
“And his face, was it beaten?”
Romilly emerged from the cupboard to dunk her sponge in the bucket of soapy water.
“I suppose,” she said to Steve, who frowned.
“I wonder when we’ll find out more,” he said.
Romilly disappeared back into the cupboard.
She ate her lunch in one of the swimming pool changing room cubicles.
Later that afternoon Romilly received a text message from Freddie: Any update? Do they know who he is or how he died? x
That evening after work Romilly met Sam in the pub.
“Everyone constantly wants to ask about the dead body,” said Romilly. “It’s annoying.”
“Well, I suppose it’s something a bit out of the ordinary, so people are interested,” said Sam, who had been dying to ask about it since they arrived.
“I think I preferred it when people tended to ignore me,” said Romilly.