Updated on May 24, 2015
Footsteps, Part 4
And so, at 11:15pm (Eastern Standard Time) in room 406 of the Hilton Garden Inn, Tribeca, an insignificant computer technician from the outskirts of London fell asleep. The muscles of his limbs twitched as they relaxed and, after a while, there were flickering movements behind his closed eyelids. His breath slowed and his mouth fell slightly open, as if he were about to say something. Outside the rain lessened and eventually stopped. The clouds cleared, but the light from the city cancelled out the stars, leaving only the flashing lights of planes, which resembled hesitant shooting stars. As the night wore on, the moon voyaged across the wheeling sky and the noises of the city died down, but the constant rumble of life and machinery never ceased.
Some of the people walking the darkened streets gazed up at the towering buildings and did not notice that the backdrop of constellations was missing. Others regarded the empty sky and complained about light pollution, but were grateful that the streetlights were illuminating their way home. A handful peered through telescopes from high-rise apartments and managed to discern the brightest planets. But most of the people were indoors, or asleep; and it never occurred to many even to look up.
Dougal was dreaming. He never talked about his dreams and rarely remembered them for long, but his dream that night would haunt him for the rest of his life. He would try to use it to fill in the hours of waking life he missed, but it was like throwing a pebble into a black hole: the dream was a feeble substitute for everything that happened while he was dreaming. As the passing years settled on him like thickening dust, the dream remained as vivid as the night he had dreamed it, and so did his frustration at having slept in the city whilst millions watched, horrified. It took him months to shake off the fear that while he was sleeping the world would fall apart. Again.
Dougal wakes up and does not know where he is. The bedding is scratchy and tucked in too tightly – he struggles to release himself from the blanket which is pressing on his neck, and finally he topples out of the bed, gasping, onto wet turf. He gets to his feet, the smell of peat filling his nostrils; his bed is on the edge of a huge lake, which has an island in the centre, containing a collection of small, stone cottages.
He remembers his presentation and, looking at the sun, realises he will be late. Scrabbling under the blankets he finds his jeans and his shirt is on the ground, but it does not get any closer when he walks towards it, so he gives it up. His notes are on a chair by the bed; he reaches for them but the wind scatters them onto the grass, and a few pages go into the lake. He is grabbing as many as he can when he hears a splash.
Niamh is walking out of the water. She is dressed all in green and weeds cling to her hair and skin. She calls to him and beckons, but he shouts back that he is late and needs to gather his notes. She comes closer, bare feet on spongy heather and takes him gently by the hand. The clock on the bedside table catches his eye; huge, ghoulish red digits projected onto the sky – 15:32. He has already missed the meeting. No, the clock must be telling him English time. He still has some time. He is twenty minutes late. Or is he early? The numbers float onto his face and stick there; he tries to scratch them off.
Niamh pulls at his arm more urgently but he pushes her away. She seizes his wrist and draws him towards the water. He tries to dig in his heels, but his whole body is hopelessly weak and he only leaves muddy streaks in the earth. Soon they are in the lake and she is pulling him towards the island – he can see his children there, tied to old, gnarly trees. He climbs onto her back, desperately trying to keep his head above water. She thrashes and writhes so much it seems like the water is boiling. Then she stops.
He watches as his wife’s body disappears into the depths of the lake, but without her to support him he struggles to stay afloat. The pages of his notes converge on him and cling to his limbs, until he is weighed down with water-logged paper. He screams and sinks, leaving a trail of soundless bubbles and a red streak behind him as the numbers wash off his face.
Dougal woke up and did not know where he was. He had moved around so much in his sleep that he had bound himself tightly in the duvet. He struggled out of his fabric cocoon and sat on the floor in a daze, replaying the dream, over and over in his memory. It clung to him and he felt filthy from it. He checked the clock. 10:49 – eleven minutes before his alarm was due to go off. The meeting was at three o’clock in the afternoon, he was sure, but he checked his diary again to put to rest the lingering feeling that he was late. He turned on the television and pressed the mute button.
Whilst he was rifling through the hotel room cupboards for an ironing board, the screen caught his attention: it was the news. Somebody was interviewing a worried looking fireman who was covered in thick, grey dust; it looked like he had put out a fire in a crematorium. The camera panned round to the reporter, who was also covered in dust. It seemed odd that the reporter should be dirty too; reporters usually arrived after the events they were reporting about, but this man must have been involved somehow. Lucky for him, Dougal thought, right place right time.
Then it cut to footage of the New York skyline. In the top right corner of the screen it displayed the time – 8:46am, about two hours ago. Something flew in from the left hand side of the screen. Dougal sat down on the bed. The image cut again and changed slightly, showing footage taken seventeen minutes after the previous image. He clapped his hand over his mouth. Cut. Fifty-six minutes later. A moan escaped between his fingers. Cut. Twenty-nine minutes later. He stood up, pressed his hands to his skull and paced up and down, his eyes never leaving the screen. Words scrolled but he did not read them. He paced and blinked and put his hands over his mouth.
The footage was being played on a loop and he watched it three more times. When it began to play from the beginning once again he turned his back on the television and ventured over to the window. He hesitated before pulling back the thick, checked curtains, and was surprised to find that he could see nothing. At first he thought there was fog outside, but slowly it dawned on him that the window was covered with some kind of grey substance. He stood and stared at the blank window for a long time. The silence was absolute: he did not dare to make a noise so he stayed perfectly still and breathed carefully through his mouth. His knuckles, buried in the fabric of the curtain, had turned white.
Dougal had no idea how long he remained there, perfectly still, concentrating on the pattern the ash made on the glass, so as to avoid thinking about what was outside. Eventually he heard, impossibly far away, the tiny sound of a siren; he came to and let go of the curtain. He dressed slowly and left the room, closing the door behind him. Other doors were open all along the hallway, revealing tangled sheets and suitcases hastily packed and finally abandoned. Life interrupted. In one room that he passed the television was on – a man was being interviewed and he said: “…just go to Bin Laden, all these Arab countries, and just blow them up, kill them. That’s it, honestly, kill them.” Dougal went in and turned off the set, then he took the stairs to the lobby. It was empty but there was a thin layer of dust on the floor: it was seeping in, he could taste it in the air.
The hotel’s ground floor windows were greyed out as well, but here and there smudges let in the dim light from outside, where the dust had been brushed away by something passing. He pushed through the revolving door, which collected a long pillow of dust behind him. Outside the street was empty; cars lay abandoned in the middle of the road, their windows caved in and their bodies covered with grime. Dust coated the lampposts and trees; it clung to the rough brickwork of the building opposite and turned the windows into soft, sunken rectangles. Footprints littered the deserted pavements and the road, all heading in the same direction.
Dougal followed them to the centre of the intersection that he had turned away from the day before. A broken crossing sign was alternately blinking WALK, DON’T WALK. For a moment he could not move. At his back, radiating out from a hole in the city, he felt the huge, suffocating vacuum of dust and history drawing him in. Panic bubbled in the pit of his stomach and he wanted to run away without looking back, because he could not rid himself of the feeling that he should never have been there. But, before, he had hoped that this was exactly where he was supposed to be. A line that he had heard somewhere once before popped into his head: Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. He looked down the hazy street. He would see the centre and he would face its destruction.
Dougal walked south along a street signposted West Broadway; the trail of footprints he left went against the flow of the others. It did not matter, it was over now, there was nothing left to fall. Looking up the sky seemed small, squeezed between high buildings, sliced into straight lines. But now there was an empty patch of air where he had seen the two huge towers in the cab on the way to the hotel. As he walked the dust got thicker and he trod on a shard of glass that cracked under his weight. Eventually he could not get any closer for the strewn wreckage. The twisted metal, shattered glass and charred tarmac reminded him of the pictures of plane crashes that had tormented him the day before. He picked up a piece of paper lying on the pavement. It was covered in numbers and had CONFIDENTIAL stamped on one corner. He dropped it.
He gazed up because there was nothing to see, wondering which shred of sky he would have stood in, giving his presentation, if nothing had happened. Out of the corner of his eye he saw shadowy movements. There were other people out here, grey ghosts, just out of direct sight, but he was the only one looking at the devastation with fresh eyes. They must have watched it all and they must have run for their lives. Now what were they feeling: misery? Terror? Perhaps fury and a lust for revenge, like the man on the television? And here Dougal was, grinding the dust underfoot and trying frantically to feel anything at all. But he was numb and he kept thinking that he had no right to be angry, or to grieve: he was on the outside looking in and it was not his doorstep that had been burned. He had witnessed somebody else’s tragedy.
His stomach caved in and he could not stop his mind from racing. For the first time he realised that he was wearing his suit – he had put it on without realising – and was coated head to toe in dust. It had settled in his hair and on his skin: he was beginning to look like the reporter on television, like he had been there all along. He tried to shake the dust off, but it had congealed with his sweat and it stuck to him, grimy and damp. He rubbed his hands desperately. How could he wear the costume of the tragic victim? What if he bumped into reporters? What would he tell his family? Nobody could ever know that he had slept through it all and dreamed about drowning his wife. No, no! He would need a story to share and it would have to be convincing. Dougal dug his fingernails into his palms and then held open his eyelids, forcing himself to look, until his eyes welled up and the tears spilled over and fell into the caked dust at his feet.
Read the final part here.