IT ALL STARTED WHEN I began having trouble sleeping. Not just finding it hard to drop off at night or waking up too early and not being able to get back to sleep: nothing so mundane. No, this was in another league entirely.

It was as if someone had flicked a switch in my brain and jammed it in the “on” position. I was awake 24/7, without so much as a sniff of sleep to let me relax and recuperate. I’d lie in bed for hour after empty hour, watching the glowing numbers on the alarm clock slowly meander through the long, dark hours of the night.

Nothing helped. l tried everything: reading whole books at a time, turning the pages listlessly long after I’d stopped taking in the words; I exercised hard before bed in the hope of tiring myself out, but I just rose in the morning dog-tired and aching all over. Eventually I stopped trying. I stopped going to bed at all and wandered the city streets from dusk to dawn, feeling only half alive as I moved through a world I could no longer find any purchase on.

It was on one of these nightly rambles that I stumbled across the sleep clinic. It was housed in a small, unassuming building that I’d never noticed before, slightly run down looking but with a soft, balmy light spilling from its tastefully draped windows. The door was open, and there was a help wanted sign posted outside, so I rubbed my bleary eyes and wandered in.

The interior was surprisingly modern: all white surfaces and shiny chrome. There was a vague smell of antiseptic in the air. The lights were all turned down low, suffusing the whole place with a warm, welcoming glow. Barely audible music tinkled in the background from concealed speakers. The whole clinic seemed utterly deserted. I pressed a silent button on the desk in reception and waited.

Eventually, a nurse appeared. She looked tired and disheveled, as if she’d just woken up. I asked about the job: apparently they were looking for a caretaker to work the nightshift – just keep an eye on the place overnight and check on the patients every now and again. On a whim,I asked if I could apply. You can do more than apply, she said, you can start tomorrow if you like. The ad’s been up more than a month and you’re the only person who’s shown any interest so far.

I accepted straight away, filled in a couple of forms, and that was that. It seemed perfect: if I was going to be awake anyway,I might as well get paid for it. Plus it might even help with my own sleep problems: my insomnia had led me here, and now it might just be showing me a way out.

I got into the swing of things right away. It wasn’t difficult: my duties consisted mainly of walking through the softly carpeted halls every hour or so, checking that the security doors were locked, and helping myself to as many free cups of coffee as I wanted. There were always two nurses on call in case of a medical emergency, but they mostly slept through their shifts so I barely saw them.

It was an odd setup they had going. It all seemed very informal, and I never saw any sign of any treatments or therapies being administered. Still, they were a private clinic, so I suppose what people choose to do with their own money is up to them.

My contact with the patients was limited. There seemed to be perhaps fifteen or twenty of them, with some there for extended periods and others coming and going on an almost daily basis. I only ever saw them when they were asleep. It was strange seeing them like that, robbed of all context. They could have been bankers or beggars for all I knew.

In the staff room, watching over the half-drunk remnants of other people’s coffee and dog-eared magazines was a bank of cctv monitors wired up to the patient’s rooms, so that the staff could keep an eye on them whenever they needed to. I spent most of my time there when I wasn’t patrolling the corridors. It was oddly relaxing to watch all these strangers sleeping peacefully in their beds throughout the night, stirring gently every so often as they dreamed their unknown dreams. It gave me great comfort to watch them all lying there, dead to the world with me as their silent custodian.

Then there were the sleepwalkers. The clinic had a policy of leaving them to their own devices as much as possible, provided they weren’t in any immediate danger (which they never were: the Windows were bolted and made of toughened glass, and all external doors were kept securely locked). I used to come across them often in the halls and corridors, strange lost souls acting out their own private, Intangible dream roles, murmuring to themselves and performing odd and unintelligible actions.

The clinic became a kind of surrogate sleep for me. Even though I could often go a whole shift without seeing another waking soul, just being there made me feel less alone and more connected with the land of the living.

If only things could have stayed that way.

One night I was walking down one of the usual corridors, the faint sounds of snoring echoing through the air like waves on a beach, when I came across one of the usual sleepwalkers. A middle aged man, swollen and red-faced, wearing powder-blue pyjamas and and incongruous pink dressing gown that flapped open as he walked. He seemed utterly oblivious to the world around him.

As I approached, however, he stopped dead in his tracks and turned to face the wall, standing as motionless as a statue with his face only millimetres away from the pastel-colored brickwork. A dry, papery voice emanated from him as I passed.

You’re going to do a terrible thing.

I stopped myself, and gazed bemused at the thinning hair on the back of his round head.

“I’m sorry?”

You’re going to do a terrible thing, he repeated, in that same thousand year old voice.

“”Are you talking to me?”

There’s no-one else here.

That was true. But usually the sleepwalkers are to wrapped up in their own nocturnal preoccupations to register other people, let alone speak directly to them. This was something of a novelty. My curiosity was peked.

“What do you mean?”

You’re going to do a terrible, terrible thing, and there will be no-one to blame but yourself.

“Well that’s cheery. You should probably go back to bed.”

The man gave a little chuckle. It sounded phlegmy and unpleasant, like bubbles popping in tar.

What do you think you’re doing here?

It was my turn to laugh. “I work here. Looking after you guys.”

You really think you can just walk into a job like that off the street? In a medical facility, of all places?

There was no way he could have known about that. The back of his head was as implacable as ever.

It’s not very plausible, is it? In fact, when you think about it, nothing about this place really adds up. You haven’t really thought this through.

I just stood there staring, with the nameless muzak simpering on in the background. Perhaps I was hallucinating again.

“I have to go,” I mumbled, unsure of what else to do. My palms pricked with sweat. I walked on down the corridor, breathing an inward sigh of relief. Strange. The sleepwalkers were usually placid and uncommunicative, locked in their own private little worlds. This man had been downright confrontational.

I walked down to the staff room, my head a fog of speculation and confusion. I was surprised to see one of the nurses seated at the table, a fresh cup of mud brown coffee streaming in front of her. She had her back to me. “The patients are lively tonight,” I said.

You can’t hide from things forever.

It was that exact same voice echoing through the softly furnished room.

Sooner or later you’ll have to face reality, and the longer you leave it the worse it will be.

It felt as though an electric shock had jangled through my body. I ran round the table to face her, but when I did I found that her eyes were closed and she wore the sanguine expression of someone lost in a deep and dreamless sleep.

I staggered backwards in a kind of daze. It was as if my head was full of cotton wool, and the few thoughts that drifted through it seemed odd and alien to me. I leaned against the wall for a moment, trying to stop the world from spinning away from me. Just what was going on here? What had happened to my litte refuge from the world?

Just then the bank of TV screens on the wall behind me fizzed and crackled, lighting up the cramped little room with a brief flare like lightning from behind a cloud. I turned to face them, and found only static bleeding into the room from each and every screen.

But one by one a picture flicked into life on each of the monitors, each showing a different scene in grainy black and white. It took me a moment to resolve the overexposed images into recognizable shapes and figures. In each screen the camera gave a first-person perspective of someone moving jerkily through an unidentifiable scene, sometimes a hallway or corridor, sometimes a busy city street.

All at once every screen exploded into action, a flurry of manic movement lurching drunkenly this way and that. In this chaos of motion I could see people wide-eyed and panic-stricken, their mouths open in silent screams, staring into the camera with horror in their eyes and fleeing in abject terror. Here and there a hand could be seen on screen, the hand of the faceless protagonist, and in each screen the unmistakeable flash of a large knife could be seen.

My stomach lurched as my eyes flicked from screen to screen, finding one scene of random carnage after another. The blade swung and stabbed and slashed, biting into flesh with sickening regularity. Black gouts of blood welled from every wound as the unknown assailant ploughed his way through victim after victim. Somehow the grainy low-resolution images lent a further reality to these grim and brutal vignettes, and I felt each and every thrust of the knife with a visceral twist in my own guts.

My eyes settled for a second on one particular screen, a confusing tumult of greys and blacks that resolved into a stark scene of bloody violence in a dingy vestibule as I fixed my attention on it. As I watched, the camera lurched past a battered door with a brimy stained-glass window set into it. For an instant, a reflected blur of the protagonist was caught in that window, and the camera froze and then panned in on the image. It was a face. The reflection of a face.

I looked to another monitor: a street scene, streaked with blood in the gutters and bodies strewn about the sidewalk. The chrome of a parked car threw an image back the camera, whcih instantly halted and zoomed in on it. The same face, stark and washed-out by the low-quality film.

My eyes darted from one screen to another, and in each the same thing happened: the movement ceased, and the monitor filled with a single image taken from some small reflection in a puddle or a pane of glass. Soon every one of the bank of monitors was displaying the same thing from a multitude of different angles – a single face, the features all but erased in a blurry white mass, but still recognizably and irrevocably mine.

As soon as I came to this realization the screens all instantly snapped to black. The nameless muzak tinkled on in the background as I struggled to take in what I had seen.

Nothing seemed to make sense anymore. The sleep clinic had been my own private cocoon, like a warm and comfortable womb which had taken me in and shielded me from the storms of insomnia, but now… Even the walls around me and the soft carpet under my feet seemed as unreal and intangible as a dream. I had never felt more lost. Adrift in a sea of doubt, uncertainty and overwheling confusion.

The sun was starting to rise. My shift would soon be over, and it would be time to leave. To venture out into the real world again. As if in a trance I moved over to the area of the staff room that served as a makeshift kitchen for preparing snacks and ready meals. I opened a drawer, and found what I was looking for: a long, sharp kitchen knife, shiny and barely used. It felt reassuringly cool in my hand – solid and substantial, a silver slash of reason that could cut through the fog of insubstantiality that surrounded me. I slipped it into my pocket, and without another thought I slipped out into the dawn of a brand new day.

####

Now I’m back in the sleep clinic again. It’s hard to imagine ever leaving. I still don’t sleep, but that’s okay – I get the feeling there are some terrible nightmares awaiting me on the other side of sleep, on the other side of these welcoming walls, so I’m happy to stay here and just wait them out. I pad silently down the softly-furnished corridors throughout the long hours of the endless night, safeguarding the slumbering patients from whatever terrors their dreams may hold for them, ensuring that they don’t wake up. Everything is alright now. Everything is alright.


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