Short Fiction: In an Absent Dream

Some of you may remember this post from December….it’s been edited since then.

In an Absent Dream

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 dreamworld, 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.

Hello, Abby, I wrote in the e-mail. 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.

I heated soup and ate it with cheese and baguette and a glass of wine while I typed up my lecture notes, resolutely ignoring my e-mail. Only when my notes were complete and the summary posted to my website did I open Gmail, a new glass of wine in my hand. I scanned the new mail: a reply from Abby.

Hi, Claire, it read. Of course I will! I can’t do it today but I’ll see what I come up with as soon as I can. Lunch sounds great! Let me get the picture done and then we’ll set a date. Looking forward to seeing you! Abby.

Over the next few days I taught my classes, went to a film with friends – you were there – and enjoyed the spring sunshine whenever possible. It wasn’t till Thursday evening that the email from Abby arrived, with the little paperclip symbol that indicated an attachment. I opened the email.

Here it is! I had a lot of fun with it! It’s a really interesting picture – don’t know what was reflected there – maybe a builder’s ladder? Or some scaffolding? but it’s come out well. Let me know what you think! How’s this coming Tuesday for lunch, one o’clock, Florrie’s? Abby xo

I opened the attachment. Abby’s skill with Photoshop made my attempts look pathetic. Rising from the roof garden, shining in a sun I hadn’t remembered, was a bridge of finely-wrought metal, looking barely able to take a person’s weight, spanning the passage and ending at a arched doorway cut into the wall of the next house.

I typed a reply to Abby, words of thanks and a confirmation of lunch. Then I sat, staring at my computer screen, until my eyes itched with dryness. It couldn’t be. Eventually the persistent mewing of the cat brought me to myself. I got up, let her out, tidied away the remnants of supper and put the dishes in the dishwasher. By the time I’d done that, and used the loo, the cat was asking to come back in. I scooped her up, and went to bed.

Sleep was slow in coming. Part of my mind told me that Abby’s image just confirmed that there had been a reflection, somehow, of some builder’s gear; she had just artistically enhanced it to create that exquisite bridge. I’d buy her lunch to repay the time she’d spent on it, ask her if she wanted the picture for her cards. But another part of my mind told me a different story. As I drifted, finally, into sleep, I thought, at the edge of consciousness, bring something back, the next time you walk the faerie paths.

I’ve never been able to compel these dreams: they come as they want. But late that night – or more accurately, in the early hours of the next morning – I found myself again walking the cobbled passage and taking the stair to the roof garden. In the dream, I stood on the roof, looking at the plants, and at the bridge before me. I crouched, and from the planter box in front of me, I picked three pansies – two yellow, one deep purple – tucking them deep into the pocket of my jacket. Then I crossed the bridge, feeling its structure vibrate underfoot, and followed the faerie path away.

And woke, disoriented. I lay still. The familiar weight of the cat at the foot of my bed, and the soft hum of the boiler reheating grounded me, brought me back to the real world. I rolled over, and returned to sleep, deep and dreamless.

I had an early class the next morning. The bright smiling chatter of the morning weather girl told me the day would be warm and sunny; it was already ten degrees at seven a.m. I left the house without my jacket, simply throwing my favourite scarf, bright with poppies, around my throat against any chill.

The day passed as every last Friday of the month does: my morning classes, the staff meeting after lunch. Budget and curriculum, new regulations from the government, enrolment figures. Late in the afternoon we moved to the pub, but the conversation didn’t change much, as you know. It was dark by the time I left, and the temperature had dropped considerably. I wound my scarf more snugly around my throat, and walked quickly to the car-park. The car barely warmed in the ten-minute drive home, and I was shivering slightly as I unlocked my front door.

A jumper and a cup of tea helped warm me. After a short while I unwound the scarf and hung it on the coat stand in the hall, beside the jacket I should have taken that morning, regardless of what the weather girl had promised. And then I stopped. Slowly, I reached into the left-hand jacket pocket. Nothing but a pound coin. I put my hand in the other pocket. Again, nothing. I felt my shoulders relax…and then my fingers found something dry and crumbly. I caught a piece between my finger and thumb.

In the poor light of the hall it looked like a bit of dry leaf, something that could have been there since the autumn, picked up and forgotten. I walked slowly to the kitchen and its brighter light, laying the shred of dry material on the white counter. I stared at the counter. The scrap was brown and dry, but along its crumbling veins a hint of purple ran, rich and deep.

It’s just a piece of copper beech.” I said to the empty room. The cat mewed inquisitively. “It probably stuck to my glove the day I was picking up conkers along the river.” I told her. She wound around my ankles, wanting her dinner. I fed her, and me, and poured myself wine, flipping through channels to find something half worth watching. I settled on a film, a sci-fi thriller set on a space station, good enough to keep my attention to bedtime. I took the last glass of wine to bed with me, and while I dreamt that night, confused, alcohol-induced images flashing across my eyes, I did not visit the faerie paths.

I didn’t make it to the Saturday Market until nearly noon, my pounding headache eased by then by water, strong coffee, and paracetamol. The day was dull, low clouds hanging over the town, for which I was glad. I bought bread and oranges, cheese and a bunch of daffodils, and a book I’d been wanting at Waterstone’s. The first chapter occupied me through lunch: another cup of coffee and a sandwich I couldn’t finish. But regardless of how good the writing was, I kept looking up, east, to where the cobbled passage ran out of the market square and towards the river. When I finished my lunch I closed my book, gathered my bags and very firmly walked west to the car-park.

I’m telling you this so you know how reluctant I was to go any further with these wild imaginings, and yet how drawn I was to the thought of that faerie bridge. I kept myself occupied all day Saturday – yesterday – cleaning, laundry, a trip to Tesco’s. In the evening I drank water and tea with my supper, and marked papers until past eleven, and then took my book to bed.

My bedroom was cool, so I got up again to get my poppy scarf, draping it around my shoulders like a shawl while I sat up to read. At some point, half-way through a chapter, I fell asleep. The dream started as it always does: I’m on foot, and walking east on the familiar path. I reach the courtyard and climb the stairs that aren’t there in daylight. On the roof, I stop, and very carefully loosen my scarf from around my neck, my poppy scarf, bright with blood-red blossom, and I tie it, tightly, to the railings. And then – I’ve never done this before – I retrace my steps, instead of going on.

It is barely light when I wake. I’m cold: the covers are pushed down, and my shoulders are bare except for the thin straps of my nightdress. I sit up, switch on the light. The cat blinks at me, disturbed. I close the book which has fallen, spine up, beside me, and hunt around for my scarf. It’s not on the bed. Of course not, I think, I tied it to the railings.

I spend the next hour looking for my scarf. I pull out the bed, to see if it’s slipped between the mattress and the headboard. I go through my closet, the drawers; I even look on the washing line in my tiny garden. It’s nowhere to be found.

The Minster bells are ringing for early service as I drive into town. I park in its car-park, take my ticket from the pay-and-display machine, drop it in the car. I turn, the wind from the North Sea blowing my hair, and walk away from the church, up one passage, across the deserted marketplace, and east along the passage that will bring me to the roof garden.

Even before I leave the cold shadow of the passage I can see my scarf on the railings. It’s moving in the breeze, fluttering, the red poppies blowing bright in the early light. I stand. I stare. I walk slowly into the courtyard, and carefully, quietly – it is still very early on a Sunday morning – I walk along the row of houses, looking for a way up, a way I could have put the scarf there, sleepwalking, entranced.

There is none. The roof garden has no staircase, no access except the door from the house beside it. Not under the sun of this world. A dog barks. The town is waking; I need to leave.

I think I walked much of the day; my feet are sore, and I’m hungry, but it doesn’t matter. It’s very late now; I’ll finish this e-mail and go to bed soon. I know you check your messages every morning, before you teach your first class, so you’ll see this one: I’ve scheduled it to be sent at eight. If you get it, cancel my class – I don’t teach until one on Monday, you’ll recall – and you’ll probably want to make arrangements for all my other classes this week. I’m going – I hope – to get my scarf back tonight, if the dreams allow. If faerie allows. I think it will. What I don’t know, Wills, is if it will let me come back.

Try to find me, Wills. If you can’t, please take care of my cat.


Image courtesy of Greenpenwriter (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Title from Goblin Market by Christina Rosetti.



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