Alison work up one morning and was startled to find that her hair was soaking wet. She pressed her hand to her forehead to check for fever but found none and neither were her bedsheets moist with sweat as sometimes happened when she had left the heating on at night. Her hair dripping down onto her pyjamas, she stood up on the bed and jumped to touch the ceiling – it took her three attempts but she finally decided that the bathroom of the upstairs neighbour hadn’t flooded.
‘Going out with wet hair in this weather?’ Mr Michaels chuckled, fumbling for the keys of his apartment between arthritic fingers.
‘The world won’t stop turning because I’ve washed my hair.’ Alison laughed as she passed him in the corridor. ‘And how are you today, Mr Michaels?’
‘At my age you can only hope to forget that it won’t get any better.;
Alison’s day did get better as she finished the work her boss had given her by midday and she spent the rest of the afternoon catching up with emails from friends and family. But try as she might, she couldn’t quite shake off a feeling of dislocation, as though there was a tiny time-lag before everything she did and said, rather as if she were watching herself from the outside. To the surprise of her colleagues, she accepted their invitation to go for a quick drink after work and she ended up coming home after midnight, flopping into bed soon afterwards. Before sleep claimed her, however, she reached out to touch her pillow and found it to be reassuringly dry. She clutched it for security.
She awoke the next morning to find that not only was her hair once again soaking wet bur she slowly peeled back the fingers of her left hand to find that she was holding on to a small piece of moist clay. She looked at it in horror before giving a small scream and flung it from her. Her heart beating hard, she reached for her cell phone, ready to call for help, and she gingerly stepped out of bed and crept through her small apartment to check for intruders. She thrust open the bathroom door, looked under the bed and made sure that the front door was still bolted from the inside. She relaxed a little and tried to think rationally. Who could be doing this to her? She made a quick mental scan of ex-boyfriends but for all their failings she couldn’t imagine any of them were capable of something like this. Had she maybe been sleepwalking? But where had the piece of clay come from?
Alison was pensive and tense at work and her colleagues guessed she was probably hungover. She came straight home after work and met Mr Michaels who was gathering his breath in the corridor. Indeed she wondered whether he came out every time he heard the front door slam on the off chance of meeting her.
‘The curious thing about getting old,’ he gasped, ‘Is that you still think you’re 21 until you try to climb two flights of stairs too quickly. In fact, it’s only when I look in the mirror in the morning that I remember what an old fart I’ve become!’
Time ran slowly that evening and more than once Alison suspected that the clock had stopped ticking. She burned her dinner and there was nothing on TV. Giving up on her book, she went to bed early but set the alarm on her phone for midnight with the idea of resetting it several times through the night; if she was losing her mind, she might as well find out when she was losing it.
She closed her eyes and listened to her breath as it came in and out, washing up on the shore of her mind like rippling waves, mingling with a low hum of engines…engines? Alison opened her eyes and found herself slumped on a stony beach facing an enormous lake, waves washing across her hair and her hands dug into the mud.
Slowly, warily, she sat up and found herself amid piles of bodies: motionless bodies stretched out along the river shore as far as the eye could see. But if they were dead then they hadn’t been long so perhaps, as out of the bright, white light behind her came walking hundreds, thousands, more to lie down beside and on top of the other bodies. In the other direction Alison could see rusty little steam boats emerging out of the darkness, lit only by piercing stars overhead, and they, too, were laden with piles of sleeping bodies; as they arrived on the shore a gangway was lowered and the comatose souls stood up and walked dreamily back into the light.
‘You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one, I hope some day you will join us, and then you’ll do your fair share of the work!’ Alison turned to see a chubby man in a dirty white vest with a hand-rolled cigarette poking out of the corner of his mouth. ‘Oh, awake are ya? Well, don’t just stand there – these boats won’t fill themselves!’
Doing as she was asked seemed like a safe way to play for time and so Alison joined the man and the rest of the crew in carrying the bodies on board. When they had lifted the last one onto the deck – a middle-aged lady with a severe expression – the gangway was raised, a steam whistle blew, and the boat began to pull away.
Alison watched the bright waking light recede until the shore dropped out of sight and the boat chugged on under countless stars. Strange as the journey was, however, she knew it wasn’t the first time she had made the crossing. The sailors lay about scratching themselves, smoked or played dominoes, all quite indifferent to the piles of human cargo they ferried across the lake. From time to time she saw another boat passing in the other direction, the decks also loaded up with bodies and she burned with curiosity to know where they were coming from. Just as she had resolved to ask one of the sailors about their destination they jumped up to lower the gangway and she saw the other shore approaching, bathed in a warm and fragrant mist, swirling in soft colours of red, orange and violet. The passengers began to stir and roused themselves from their slumber to drift dreamily onto the other bank where several boats were tied up to wooden staves. Alison felt her soul yearn to follow them into the inviting mist within which she was sure she could hear the sounds of music and memory. She lurched forwards but then felt a rough hand fall on her shoulder.
‘Time’s up! Better get a move on or you’ll miss the boat, see?’
Alison nodded and reluctantly remained on board and soon had to move to the back of the boat as hundreds of people walked out of the mist and onto the boat, laying themselves down wherever they could find room. The sailors piled wooden logs into the furnace, the boat gave a sharp whistle and they pulled away again across the lake. Alison gazed with longing at the swirling mist until the drifting colours slipped out of view and she resigned herself to the return journey and took a closer look at the other passengers; they slept soundly and while some of them wore expressions of calm and rest, others seemed confused, anxious or even amused. They were of all ages and races and she noticed for the first time that they wore pyjamas or just their underwear. They began to rouse themselves and she looked up and saw the bright white light of the waking shore approaching. The boat pulled in and Alison stepped off the boat with the rest, walking lazily into the light…
Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!
Alison sat up in bed and stared at her vibrating phone for half a minute before she realised where she was. Outside in the street she could hear drunken cries of some students returning home and never had she felt so alone. She thought of calling someone to talk about it but couldn’t think who she might disturb so late and besides, the last thing she wanted to be told was that it was all just a dream.
She was too afraid to go back to sleep that night and so made herself a big pot of coffee and sat awake with her arms wrapped around her knees until the morning came and it was time to go to work. It was raining heavily as she ran to catch the bus and as she took her seat and looked around at the other passengers it all seemed quite unreal, almost cinematic, as though she was doing this for the last time. Throughout the rest of the day every small thing no matter how banal – opening a door, turning on her computer, shaking someone’s hand – it all seemed important and meaningful. She wondered if this was how prisoners on death row felt as they treasured every last second of life.
She had her key in the door to the apartment building when she heard Mr Michaels call from across the street: “Wait for me!” He hurried up with shopping bags in each hand and examined her face with a look of concern. “You don’t look like you’ve been sleeping well – bad dreams?”
Alison blinked. “Something like that.”
“I wish I could tell you they’ll pass but the truth is I’ve been having the same dream for the last 30 years!” He looked down. “My wedding day. All of us there in the church waiting for the bride to come. Only she never did.”
“Mr Michaels! Did that really happen?”
“Sleep well, my dear.”
Alison’s eyes hung like weights on her face as she cleaned her apartment, vacuumed the carpet, changed the sheets and emptied the dishwasher before she lay down on top of the covers of the bed and, taking a deep breath, closed her eyes and fell asleep at once.
She found herself again on the shore with her head resting on the chest of a young man she’d never seen before and other bodies lying across her legs. She extricated herself and picked her way through the mass of sleepers to the wooden jetty just as the boat was pulling in. She caught the rope thrown to her and tied it to a metal pole.
“Sweet dreams are made of this!” The sailor sang as he jumped ashore. “We’ll make a worker out of you yet!”
Once all of the bodies were carried on board, the ferry pulled away and Alison stood of the prow of the boat close to the chimney that emitted steady puffs of steam towards the ancient stars as they crossed the channel. When they reached the other side Alison was the first off the boat and walked forwards without hesitation into the swirling pink mist and it was so dense that she walked for a time unable to see her own nose. Then all once she found herself sat at a wooden desk in a large hall with a hundred other students, with only the sounds of scratching pens to break the silence; panic overcame her as she realised it was her final exam and she hadn’t studied for it! If she could only step outside for a moment and read her notes but the teachers wouldn’t let her do that and they were armed with pepper spray…but surely that was illegal…and anyway, she wasn’t 16 any more! But no sooner had Alison stood up, shaking her head than the walls started to shake and then crumbled to dust and the floor beneath her gave way and she found herself falling through a cloud of dust and debris, tumbling head over foot through dirty clouds and then staring at the ground a mile below her but approaching fast, she scrambled with her arms and legs through the air desperately as her eyes fixed on the ground approaching all too fast.
“Sweet dreams are made of this.” she found herself whispering and like a sprouting seed in the midst of her terror, it occurred to her that falling was a choice. And wouldn’t it be more fun to fly… Reaching out her arms and raising her chin, Alison began to glide through the air, surprising eagles that rode on hot thermals, and then she swooped up through the clouds and landed on a snowy mountain peak and looked out on the realm of her Dreaming, more alive than she had ever felt. The big bubble inside her of unfulfilled wishes and desires burst open and it was like having every birthday she’d ever had all at the same time; she rode black stallions at thundering speeds through desert canyons; she flew on the back of red dragons that ate stars for lunch; she turned into a dolphin to surf the waves on tropical coasts; she dreamed her way through a thousand fantasies, celebrating, adventuring, indulging every last curiosity and desire buried in her heart. She could move mountains with a flick of her eyes, make it rain with a click of her fingers, call up any of her friends or favourite film stars just by thinking of them.
She ruled as the Goddess of her own world; powerful, honoured and loved by everyone but even as the crowds cried her name ecstatically and threw themselves on the ground before her as she approached, yet she had the feeling that there was something wrong. A residual doubt that gnawed at her perfect world. Silencing with a silk-gloved hand the choir of angels that tirelessly praised her name from their seats in the clouds, she stood up from her crystal throne and stepped down pearly steps to a garden filled with aroma of jasmine flowers and a centaur – half man, half goat – galloped up.
“Where is the Wise Man?” she demanded and her attendant galloped off at once, returning moments later with a small monk on his back dressed in a scarlet robe. He dismounted and bent low, his bald head gleaming in the sunshine.
“Something is wrong.” The Goddess Alison declared. “What is it?”
The Wise Man gave a gentle smile and by way of answer he withdrew a mirror from his robes and held it up to her. She leaned forwards suspiciously and beheld the reflection of who she had been – minus the glamour, the powers, she saw an ordinary woman in her late 20’s walking through the swirling mist.
“Then I’m..alone here?” But when she looked up for a response the monk was already fading away along with the jasmine garden and colourful clouds rolled in around her. She walked forwards and then emerged onto the shore of the Dreaming where her boat was just pulling in.
“And in your dreams whatever they be, dream a little dream of me!” the sailor laughed, throwing down the butt of a hand-rolled cigarette and tying the boat up as his latest cargo walked off into the mist. “Had enough already have ya?”
“None of it is real.”
“Blimey, you worked that out fast! Took most of us ages until we got bored.”
“I just want to go home.”
The sailor winced. “It’s a bit late for that now. Sorry, love. I know it’s not easy to hear.”
“I just want to wake up. Take me back!” The sailor shook his head but let Alison walk on board and she was soon followed by hundreds more who walked out of the mist and lay down on the wooden deck. They made a brisk journey back towards the waking shores but as Alison jumped off and tried to walk into the light she felt a weight pull her back and watched helplessly as the rest of the crowd passed her. She strained with all her might to step forwards but felt herself pulled inexorably back. She turned around and saw the sailor watching her with sympathy.
“Look, I know it’s no consolation but all of us have been through it. Important thing is to stay busy right? I can put in a word with the lads, see? And maybe you can work with us!”
It took a long time to sink in as Alison lay on the deck of the boat as it shuttled from shore to shore, but eventually she accepted that there really was no going back. She wondered who had found her. Would her boss have alerted the authorities or just fired her when she didn’t turn up for work? Maybe one of the neighbours had guessed something was wrong. Perhaps Mr Michaels – it was only now that he wasn’t here to annoy her that she realised she actually missed him.
Alison would later ask herself whether she had already seen him and then thought about him or if it was the other way around but just a few meters away from where she lay, was Mr Michaels slumbering on the deck of the boat, snoring loudly. By the time the boat arrived on the shore of the Dreaming, she already knew what she was going to do; Mr Michaels stood up lazily with the other dreamers and began to stumble forwards into the mist and Alison followed close behind. The mist blew a cold green and blue around him and she held onto his dressing gown so as not to lose him. Gradually, she heard the distant sound of organ music and she went to get changed. Mr Michaels soon found himself standing in the aisle of the church with a brave smile on his face, resisting as usual the urge to ask his gathered relations what time it was and looking away from the sarcastic expression on the face of the priest. He wished, as he always did, that everyone in the church would just disappear or that the ground would just collapse beneath him but just as despair began to clutch at his heart yet again, the organ player began to pick up the music – for there, walking down the aisle towards him, looking more lovely than he could ever have imagined, was his Beloved in a shimmering white wedding dress. Accompanied by her father, she fixed a long, adoring look on him and he felt years of disappointment and sorrow melt away and remembered what it was to be truly loved.
And so an entirely new life began for Alison. Following dreamer after dreamer through the mist each night, fulfilling hopes and dispelling fears; for those of lucky enough to meet her, she scares the monsters in the forest away, she gives us clothes when we’re naked and when we find ourselves falling, we land in her arms and she teaches us how to fly.