In an Absent Dream
by Marian L. Thorpe
Where I go in my dreams is real.
I wrote that ten minutes ago. I’ve been staring at it ever since: twice I’ve reached for the delete key. Acknowledgement is the first step in solving a problem, it’s said, and until I actually wrote it down, I was in denial. Who wouldn’t be? But please, keep reading; this is important.
Let me correct what I just said. No, I’m not back-pedalling, just being more precise in what I say. Most of my dreams are just dreams like everyone else’s, my brain processing bits and pieces of what I’ve seen and done and turning them into a film, sometimes straightforward, sometimes incomprehensible. Sometimes an image or even a whole series of scenes remains in my consciousness when I wake, for a little while, before they fade; I think that’s normal.
And then there are the other dreams.
Please bear with me, Wills. You’re the only person I could think of who might believe me, and I think even you will find it hard. I promise you, though, this is real: I’m not on drugs, or mentally ill. At least, I don’t think I am. You’ll have to decide that for yourself, I suppose.
I couldn’t have been more than five or six the first time my dreams took me to this other place. I don’t have a name for it, it’s just a different reality, overlaying the everyday. Maybe it’s faerie, for lack of another label, but it’s not the faerie from the children’s stories. It’s just this world, these streets, these fields, but it’s overlain with roads and paths and occasionally buildings that don’t exist in the world under the sun. It’s like they hover over — or under — the solidity of the everyday world, taking shape and substance only when someone — me — enters them.
So for much of my life I’ve held two realities in my mind: the world we all walk in, and the world I walk in my dreams. In my waking life, I’d walk or cycle or drive, on footpath and bridleways, lanes and roads, and see the dream paths overlaying the everyday world. I could tell you — can tell you — exactly where an unseen path branched off from the one I’m on, and what’s down it, and how it connects with other paths, seen and unseen.
I dreamt the same dreams, the same paths, over and over again, and I remembered all the details, every time. Sometimes the paths took me underground; sometimes up through staircases and connecting aerial pathways between buildings that cannot be seen in the light of day.
Sometimes I walked rock-strewn tracks through fields and woodland, and sometimes I waded through shallow water. Paths took me north and east and south and west, and the direction I moved in was always clear. And every time I moved away, to university, to a new city to work, there were new paths to learn.
No, that’s not true. There weren’t always new paths. In all the years I worked in a small, new city, and drove its suburban streets, there was no hint of a faerie world beneath or above it. It was a city I felt no connection to; a place to work, no more.
But this city — when I came here for uni, I felt connected to it almost immediately — in my dreams, it’s full of faerie paths, at least in the oldest parts. When I moved away from it, I felt bereft. I had to find reasons to return, to walk the old city, to keep the faerie paths clear, like a rambler who walks a footpath every few months to keep it open.
I’d moved to my village, and I was learning its footpaths and lanes — in daylight and in dreams — but the city called me back every few weeks. When I was offered this job at the college, I jumped at it.
I know what you’re thinking. Recurring dreams aren’t uncommon, and this is just how my brain, which loves maps and paths, interprets new experiences. I told myself this for years. I’m a scientist, remember? Of course this wasn’t real. I’d been brought up on Alice, and Narnia, and Alan Garner and Lucy Boston and Puck of Pook’s Hill, and all those other children’s books where another reality can be reached through a rabbit-hole or a wardrobe or a door.
So what changed my mind?
It started with a photograph. I was walking in the old city, down some cobbled passage, looking up, at the gargoyles, at window-boxes planted with pansies gracing tiny windows on the top floors of ancient buildings, at the pigeons on the tiled roofs. I came out into a courtyard I knew, a place I hadn’t been for a while, in either world.
Across the courtyard from where I stood, the passage continued, heading northeast towards the river; to its left, a three-storey building abutted a taller one, leaning into it in the way of old structures. On the flat roof of the shorter house, someone had built a garden, iron railings enclosing a couple of potted trees, planters bright with flowers, and two blue chairs.
I remember wondering, somewhat mocking myself, what this new garden had done to the faerie bridge that had run from this roof across the passage to the next building. I found my phone and took a picture of the roof garden: I liked the look of it, the blue of the chairs against the grey stone. And then I kept walking, down to the river and along the embankment, looping back the car-park.
That night I dreamt of the faerie path that parallels where I’d walked that morning. I followed the passage to the courtyard, and then slipped onto paths that existed only in the dream world, through an arched gate and up an external stair onto the roof where the garden had been built.
The bridge still rose from the roof to a door in the building across the passage, just as I remembered it. The garden had been arranged, it seemed, to accommodate it. I walked across the bridge — in the dream I looked back at the roof garden, which remained unchanged — and then through the door that let me into the house, and down a hidden staircase and out to the river.
When I woke, the dream was still vivid. I lay contemplating it, thinking about how my question of yesterday morning had been answered so directly. I couldn’t remember that happening before.
I got up and made coffee, wondering if the faerie bridge could indeed have risen still from the roof, now the garden was there. Ignoring the cat, who was demanding to be fed, I found my phone, and opened the photos.
The garden was a tiny part of the picture, as is the way with phone photos. I zoomed in on it: the angle wasn’t good, but I thought I could see that potted trees were standing on what would be either side of the faerie staircase, leaving a space between them. I smiled. No doubt I’d registered that yesterday, on some subconscious level, and the dream had just been confirmation.
Just before I put my phone down, I glanced at the screen again. I was holding the phone slightly tilted. From between the potted trees, a shadow, a shimmer of what looked like a bridge caught and held my eyes.
I brought the phone closer, the screen flat. Nothing. I tilted it again, and the same shimmer appeared, the faint hint of a shape, a structure. A reflection, I told myself. I put the phone away, fed the cat, drank some more coffee, made toast. I even took a bite or two before I retrieved the phone and uploaded the picture to my laptop.
I worked on the picture all morning, adjusting lighting and contrast, playing with equalization and sharpness and every other filter and enhancement Photoshop offered me. By noon, my shoulders aching and the coffee and toast stone cold beside me, I had a picture in which something that could have been a set of steps and the deck of a bridge — or at least the outline of them — rising from the pavers of the roof garden.
I saved the file again and walked away from the table. I took a hot shower, letting the spray of water ease the tension in my neck and shoulders. I made fresh coffee, found eggs and cheese and cooked an omelette, ate an orange. I did all this methodically, focusing on the tasks and the food. Then I sat down and thought.
What had I done this morning? I had a picture that apparently showed the impossible, a bridge from my dreams visible in the light of day. But had I simply manipulated, pixel by pixel, an artefact on the screen into what I expected to see — what I wanted to see? I couldn’t rule out the possibility.
I needed someone else to enhance the picture, someone who had no preconceived idea of what the artefact was. In the spring, I’d taken a couple of sessions of an art class for a friend, teaching her evening group how to do what I do as a hobby: use Photoshop to manipulate their original works — watercolours and pencil — drawings into images more abstract and interpretive.
One of the students had taken to the technique like the proverbial duck to water, sending me an e-mail later to say I’d changed her whole approach to art. I’d seen her at the Tuesday Market a time or two, selling greeting cards and prints of her work; she’d insisted on giving me a print, a slightly abstract view of the Minster. I thought she would do it, if I asked. I wrote her an e-mail:
Hello, Abby, I hope you’re well. I wonder if you’d do me a favour? I took this photo (attached) earlier in the week, and it’s got a reflection or some other artefact that you can barely see. I had an idea that I use that to make a more abstract image... but I’m not happy with my results. Would you play around with it for me? I think your abilities have outstripped mine long ago and I’d like to see what’s possible! Thanks, and let’s have coffee or lunch some day after the market, my treat. Claire.
I sent the e-mail. I closed the laptop, pulled on a coat and laced up my boots, and went out into the day. I walked a long loop west and south of the village, the wind off the North Sea brisk, ice still on puddles in shade. I had a biology class to teach Monday — the next day — and I’d barely thought about how to present it so my students would pay attention. I focused on my lecture, and on the play of sun and shade on the fields, as I walked through the March afternoon.
Copyright © 2017 by Marian L. Thorpe