A Seller of Dreams
Updated: Jul 16, 2020
It’s a grey November day and you’ve slept longer than you should have. You’ve rushed through your morning routine, struggled into your work clothes and you’re finally heading out the door. As you hurry down the street to the bus stop, you notice a stall has been set up across the road from your house. It seems to contain some unusual objects, but you’re running late, so you don’t stop to have a look.
By the time you come home that night, you’ve forgotten all about the strange little stall perched opposite your house. You’re irritated after a frustrating day at work and all you want is to collapse into your sofa and turn your brain off for the next few hours. You’re just nearing the path down to your front door, when a large figure looms next to you, making you jump. “You’re looking fatigued, drawn, worn out”, his voice croaks in your right ear. You turn, facing the presence that is making you so uncomfortable. As you look at him, you see that he is not a big man. He wears a thick coat, giving the impression of bulk, but he is actually on the scrawny side. He has a half-hearted little moustache and twitchy eyes, making you think of some kind of rodent. He is the kind of man you would normally avoid, but he’s talking to you now and you’re too polite to walk away from him in mid-sentence, a trait you silently curse yourself for as you listen to what he has to say.
“I have something for how you’re feeling.” His scratchy voice irritates you, grating every time he speaks. It seems to get right into your skin, creating an itch that nestles just behind your ears. You ignore the feeling, hoping you’ll be able to extricate yourself from the conversation and get home soon. “So, is it something that would interest you?” You’ve gathered that he sells some kind of tonic and, relieved that he has got to the point, you’re preparing yourself to decline the offer, when he pauses and looks at you shrewdly. “I’ll tell you what,” he says, before you can gather yourself to utter your polite, but firm, refusal, “you can’t be making decisions like this the way you’re feeling. I’ll give you this one for free - you can find me when you want more.”
With these words, he reaches out and taps you twice on the shoulder, before shooing you home. You’re in such a rush to go, that you miss his parting words, but you catch the tail end: “...five minutes”. Too tired to work out what just happened, you let yourself into your house, breathing a sigh of relief once inside.
You kick your shoes off before flopping backwards onto your bed, too tired to even think about putting anything away. It’s dark outside and your weary body is refusing to believe that any of its surroundings are real, disconnecting you from the world. You lie still, enjoying the odd sensation, and are surprised to find yourself feeling happier. In fact, you don’t just feel happier, you feel pretty damn ecstatic. You ponder this for a minute, realising that of course you feel ecstatic. Why wouldn’t you? After all, you’re currently lying calmly in THE house. You know the one… The one you used to walk past and dream about. The one you were going to buy once you got rich. Surrounded by parkland. It might even have deer in the grounds. That one. You can’t believe you forgot that you own the house. You get to your feet, wondering what else you might have forgotten. You wander past the photos of yourself shaking hands with various luminaries and you remember the job. How could you have forgotten about your job? Your job that you love every minute, your job that pays you well (extremely well, judging by the house), but still lets you make a real difference in the world. Wow, you can’t believe you thought you were having a bad day - this is a great day. All of your days are great days! You’re still feeling a bit tired (even though it’s been a GREAT day), so you decide to wander to your Jacuzzi - that’s right! You have a Jacuzzi too! - and soak yourself in the hot bubbling water, melting away that odd tension you’re still feeling, despite the greatness of the day. After twenty minutes or so, you drag yourself out of the Jacuzzi and hop into the shower. As the warm water mists around you, you feel that nagging stress start to vanish, replaced by a deep contentment. Clean and refreshed, you think about wandering to the kitchen to pick up some food, but you decide a quick nap might be better for you and head for bed instead, drifting off to sleep within five minutes of laying your head on the soft, fluffy pillow.
You wake up after about half an hour, feeling groggy, fighting back a thumping headache. You glance out the window at your suburban street, puzzled by a strong sense of displacement. You’re not quite sure what just happened, but you have the vague sense that it had something to do with that strange man on the street. He..touched you? Pushed you maybe? You’re not sure why, but the feeling that he somehow caused your dream - at least you think it was a dream - persists. You shake your head slightly, pulling yourself together. It must be late by now, you need to think about food. You check the clock: it’s almost a quarter past seven … but… you only got back at five past. You check your phone, thinking that the clock must be wrong - you know you slept for a couple of hours at least. But no, your phone agrees with the kitchen clock, you must have just drifted for five minutes or so. You pull yourself together and pull open your fridge door to see what you have to eat, surprising yourself by discovering some edible leftovers from two nights ago. Pleased, you pop them in the microwave, then settle down in front of the TV to eat them. You keep flicking through the channels, but nothing really seems that good tonight - even shows you normally like seem to be showing only the worst episodes. You can’t keep your thoughts from drifting back to that sense of bliss you felt just half an hour ago. It really seemed like everything in your life was going to plan for once. And it was so vivid. You keep finding yourself thinking, hoping that it was maybe some kind of premonition - so vivid! - and have to mentally kick yourself in the shins to bring yourself back to earth. After all, you’re a sensible, informed adult. You don’t believe in any of that shit and you never have. With a deep sigh, you turn off the TV and take yourself to bed.
The next few weeks drift by in a haze of grey, meeting following meeting, busy day following busy day until, without quite knowing how, you find yourself listening to Christmas songs on the radio and compiling lists of Christmas presents you need to buy. You find your thoughts occasionally hovering around your strange dream, but over time it fades until its nothing more than a vague, but pleasant memory.
It’s something of a surprise, therefore, when one day, on your way home from dinner with some friends, you see the ratty man and his stall, waiting outside your home. Not waiting for you, obviously. Just sort of… waiting… Feeling slightly unnerved, you walk a little faster, keeping your head down as you approach your door, hoping to avoid another encounter. Just as you’re starting to think you’ve made it, you hear that croak in your ear again. “So? How did that little trial strike you?” Exasperated, you turn to face him. “What? What trial? What are you talking about?!” Eyebrows raised at the vehemence of your reply, he backs away slightly. “What do you think I’m talking about? Dreams, kiddo, dreams…” He looks at you critically. “Not the sharpest tool in the box, are you? That five-minuter was a taster. I sell them by the half hour if you’re interested.” You pause, interested despite yourself. This is ridiculous, you know this is ridiculous, you aren’t stupid. But still… You find yourself asking him about the price, before you even know you’re going to open your mouth. He grins a crooked grin and you notice a missing tooth. “That’s the best bit - you’ll barely notice it. All I ask is that someday, you share one of your dreams with me. Not today, probably not tomorrow, but one day when I’m in need of some new material, you let me in on your dreams.” Much to your surprise, you nod to him, causing his grin to grow even wider. “Alrighty then, off you go!” With that, he flicks you gently on the shoulder again, and pushes you towards your front door. Still confused and not quite sure how you got there, you find yourself in your bedroom, sitting on the edge of your bed. Suddenly feeling very sleepy, you lie back on the bed, deciding to allow yourself a twenty minute nap.
You stretch your arms, waking up slowly, luxuriating in having the time to let wakefulness seep slowly into your consciousness, rather than having to jerk yourself awake with an alarm, like you usually do.
The time ahead of you seems to stretch out indefinitely, so you decide to take advantage of it and head to the kitchen to make yourself some pancakes. You’re enjoying the acres of space in the kitchen as you fry your pancakes, covering them in cheese which you allow to melt before piling three of the pancakes onto a plate and eating them while gazing out the window at your beautiful grounds.
You sit back in your plump sofa, reading one of your many books for half an hour or so (pausing occasionally to revel in the spacious, beautifully decorated room), after which you start to feel a little fidgety. After a few minutes, you decide to pick up your swimsuit and go for a quick swim in your large heated pool. You swim up and down the pool in your usual brisk front crawl, pulling yourself out of the pool after fifty lengths and heading to the Jacuzzi. As you soak in the warm bubbling water, watching the steam rise off the top of the tub, you realise that, despite all this activity, it’s still early. Another wave of energy sweeps over you, prompting you to get out of the Jacuzzi to shower and change before heading out into the garden to wander through the grounds.
A thirty minute walk later, you still haven’t seen everything there is to see - though you did catch a glimpse of the maze. You decide that you’ll save that for next time, and head back to the house, intending to potter around inside for a bit instead.
As it happens, you don’t get far, as one of the first things you pass is your mini-cinema, which distracts you into settling down for a quick movie (your favourites are, perhaps unsurprisingly, lined up by the player). A couple of movies later, it is now getting late and you’re just feeling slightly down that such a wonderful day is over, when you come across the letter sitting on your bedside table. You had noticed it there earlier but, feeling a little intrusive, had decided not to open it. In retrospect, you can’t quite make sense of your decision - after all, it is your post. Why shouldn’t you open it? You rip open the envelope, feeling the weight of its contents in your hand as you do so. As the flap holding the envelope shut tears, two tickets slide out and into your hand. You stare at them, feeling the memory come flooding back. The cruise. How could you forget?! It’s your tickets to the round-the-world cruise you booked a few weeks ago. How exciting! the thrill of it all begins to overwhelm you and you suddenly feel inordinately tired. You crash down onto your bed, allowing yourself to drift off to sleep.
You wake up with the same shockingly painful headache you felt the last time this happened, looking around at your cramped bedroom with a growing feeling of disappointment. Disappointment in your life, disappointment in what you’ve achieved but, most of all, disappointment at finding yourself here and now, rather than there and then. You take in your little, grey room and glance outside at the little grey street, before giving up on the notion of going downstairs. It all feels too much, so, without bothering to brush your teeth or put anything away, you peel your clothes off before getting straight back into bed, hoping against hope you will find yourself back in your dream...
You wake with a start, panicking when you realise it's already past eight. It's not until you check your phone, wondering why your alarm didn't wake you, that you realise it's actually Saturday. You slump back onto the pillow listlessly. You normally love your weekends, thrilling in the freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want, but this weekend it all feels pointless somehow. The next two days seem to stretch out ahead of you, devoid of any particular attraction. You know you could always meet some friends, but it's not like any of your friends are all that exciting, now that you think about it. With a sigh, you drag yourself out of bed and head for the shower. You find you have to turn the water up hotter than usual today - the shower seems to feel colder and, as a result, you leave without your normal post-shower sense of well-being.
After breakfast you still haven't decided what you want to do with your weekend. The ideas that come to you so effortlessly during the week are eluding you today. After sitting fruitlessly for ten minutes, you give up on finding the perfect weekend activity and decide you'll just go out, see what’s out there. An afternoon traipsing aimlessly around London's shops does nothing to lift your mood. Cheap or expensive, conventional or quirky, everywhere you visit is covered in the same pale grey coating.
Turning into your street in the early evening, you spot the rat-faced salesman and have to suppress the burst of relief that overwhelms you. You tell yourself sternly that you won't be suckered in again. It's clearly some fantasy he's developed and it's not doing you any good. By the time you're passing his stall, your will is iron, yet when he catches your eye you find yourself nodding quickly, then turning away into your house, waiting for the inevitable flick on your shoulder.
By the time Monday comes around, you notice that you've begun distancing yourself from your everyday life, using your 'other' life as a counterpoint to the disappointments and frustrations of your current one. Far from worrying you, this leaves you feeling obscurely pleased with yourself. After all, people are always telling you to step back, add some distance and what better way than this?
Every evening this week you've found yourself rushing home, telling yourself you just want to get back into the warmth, but always feeling the same rush of relief when you see your dream salesman near his stall. The week seems to fly by, the evenings going particularly quickly as you’ve fallen into the habit of going more or less straight to bed after you wake up (your headaches are now too bad for you to want to stay awake). You think it’s probably doing you good - certainly, work has felt less stressful this week than ever before. Anyway, it’s not that dissimilar to coming home and watching TV all night, and no-one ever complained about that. After all, you’re going out this weekend, which’ll give you a forced break and it’ll be easy to stop after that.
You wake up on Saturday morning surprised and a little disappointed when the view from your window turns out to be your boring suburban close. You lie in bed for a while, pondering the day ahead. Now that it’s actually here, the prospect of going out and meeting your friends is seeming much less appealing. You’ve had a hard couple of weeks, surely you’re justified in taking this weekend to recover? You think about it a little more, convincing yourself you’ll feel better after meeting your friends, finally rolling out of bed and into your shower. Showered and dressed, you feel a little more prepared for the day, though your shower still hasn’t recovered its former heat - you’ll have to speak to your landlord about it, something’s obviously broken. You make yourself breakfast and proceed to fritter away most of the morning, picking up books and flicking through the first few pages before getting bored and putting them back. As it gets closer to the point at which you’ll have to leave, you grow ever more reluctant, until you’ve actually messaged to let them know you won’t be making it.
Message sent, you look out your window, towards the spot usually filled by your favourite little stall, only to find it empty. The gaping hole where the rat-faced man - whose name, you discovered this week, is Sam - should be draws your eye to it, like a tongue to an aching tooth. He has to be there at some point today, otherwise you’re just wasting your weekend. You entertain yourself with mindless TV show after mindless TV show, glancing across the street every few minutes. You jump when your phone buzzes and pick it up, only to find a message from your friends, the ones you were meeting today, worrying about you, as ‘no-one’s seen you in weeks’. You throw the phone down, suddenly furious. They don’t know what’s going on in your life! What business is it of theirs HOW you spend your weekends?! Why SHOULDN’T you stay in, if that what’s making you feel better?!
The sense of injustice is growing, building up inside you, when you catch a glimpse of movement out of the corner of your eye. Hopping up to look outside, you feel all your anger dissipate when you realise Sam is back. You rush out the door, eager to catch him before he goes, with the result that you reach his stall just before he does. He laughs at your impatience, which does nothing to help your mood. Irritated, you snap your request at him: “3 more, please.” He raises his eyebrows at you questioningly. “For tonight and tomorrow”, you elaborate. He nods, taps you on the shoulder, and tells you you it’s done - any time you drift off, you’ll enter your dream until you’ve used them up. You nod and head quickly back to your house, looking forward to some sleep.
Your headache on Sunday morning is the worst you’ve had yet and you stay in bed for an extra hour, waiting for it to fade away. By the time you decide you have to get out of bed, it’s dulled to a manageable ache, so you slowly get out of bed and climb into the shower. Twenty minutes later, you’re clean and ready to face the day, pondering your options as you eat your breakfast.
You look around your kitchen, alarmed by how cramped your little house feels. Contemplating what you might fill your time with is depressing enough to make you want to hop straight back into bed. Only the fact that two dreams won’t last you long keeps you from getting back into your pyjamas, and you finally decide that you should probably get out of the house. You make a deal with yourself - find a cafe and sit with a decent novel for at least an hour and a half and you’ll allow yourself to head back home for an early afternoon nap. You gather your things and head purposefully into town, walking until you find the nearest cafe, your local Starbucks. Even with the novel you’re currently reading, a new and engaging story, you find time is dragging. You check your watch repeatedly, but no more than five minutes have passed. You fiddle with the edges of your book, staring anxiously into space before checking your watch again. Two minutes this time. After fiddling a little more, you decide you need another drink and head back up to the counter, hoping for a long queue. Ten minutes later, you’re back at your seat, proudly bearing an unnecessarily complicated beverage. you pick up your book again and read the author profile. Huh. He’s only twenty-six. God. When you were twenty-six you were only just about making enough to pay your rent. You check your watch again. Sigh. You go back to trying to read the actual story, but find yourself three pages in with no idea what’s just happened. You check your watch again. At last. Almost there. The second the minute hand ticks across the half hour mark, you pick up your book, grab your bag and coat and head out the door. The walk home has never seemed longer, but you eventually find yourself back in your bedroom, settled on your bed for a nap.
When you wake up, you feel an overwhelming sense of relief at being back in your house and spend a couple of minutes enjoying the softness of the sheets and the spaciousness of the room. You get out of bed slowly and wander across the room, planning to get yourself a snack from the kitchen, when you notice that the laundry basket is overflowing. You don’t ever remember it being full before, but nevertheless, you pick up an armful and put on a wash before eating. You get to the kitchen and are irritated to realise that there are no clean plates. You load up the dishwasher and turn it on, but have to wash up the rest of the dirty crockery, as there’s too much to fit into the dishwasher. You breathe a sigh of relief as you finish the last bowl and proceed to dry up one of the plates and a knife so you can make yourself some toast. You sit down at the table, golden brown, butter-soaked toast on the plate in front of you and, just as you’re about to take your first bite, you suddenly and unexpectedly find yourself waking up in the small house. Irritated, you decide you use up your last one and go straight back to sleep. Not more than five minutes later, you’re waking up again, frustrated and disappointed.
You see Sam sitting across the street from you and decide it’s time to get some answers. You pull on your shoes crossly and march across the street, anger evident with every step. He looks surprised and slightly wary when he sees you but says nothing, waiting for you to start the conversation. It takes you a few minutes, but you explain to him what happened and how disappointed you are. He nods as you talk saying nothing until you finish your story and look at him expectantly. “Yeah”, he says, matter-of-factly, “that will happen after a bit. It’s ‘cos the dream’s too close to your real life, so it’s starting to creep in. You’ll need something a bit farther removed - I can do that for you, but it’ll cost you…”
“Oh”, you say, suddenly remembering, “When do I pay you for the others?” He stares at you like you have two heads and, realising you’re serious, explains slowly “You’ve already paid me. Every time I give you one of these dreams, you sacrifice one of yours. It just happens.” You pause, taking in the new information. “So, do you want this one or what?” he asks irritably after a few minutes. “Oh. Um...yeah, I guess so… Yeah.” You head back to the house, a little thrown by what’s just transpired.
Settling yourself in bed, you don’t feel quite the eagerness you’ve felt over the last few days, but you go ahead and drift off to sleep anyway. You wake up in the morning, having, somewhat unusually, dreamt the whole night through. For a minute or two, you feel refreshed and energised. Then, just as you’re telling yourself what a good idea it was to switch dreams, the headache hits you. You’ve never experienced anything quite like this and have to lie back and close your eyes, hoping against hope that it will fade away. Twenty minutes later, head still pounding, you give in and call work to let them know you’re ill and won’t be coming in. You collapse back into your bed, having taken a couple of Nurofen, and try to escape the headache by sleeping. When you wake up again, your headache’s faded enough for you to get out of bed. You move to the sitting room and look out your window, shocked by the blandness of your street. You’ve never liked it much, but you used to appreciate its little oddities: the funny hedge two doors down, the bright pink garage door across the street… Now though, you find yourself bored by everything around you, resenting the life that has you living on such a grey little street. The houses seem literally washed of colour. Suddenly sickened by the sight of it, you struggle to your feet, wandering aimlessly around your sitting room. You find yourself in your kitchen, debating making some food, only to realise you don’t have any. When you think about it, you can’t really remember the last time you bought food or, in fact, ate. You sigh to yourself but, with nothing better to do, go about the business of getting yourself ready for the outside world. Check your clothes are decent, find some shoes. Remember that you haven’t put socks on yet. Go get some socks. Put those on. Take them off and exchange them for a matching pair. Finally sit down to put your shoes on, wondering how on earth you’ll get back up again. It seems to take a lifetime, but eventually you are standing outside your front door, breathing in the sharp winter air.
You make your way to the bus stop, wondering when the world became so bleak. The elderly gentleman leaning back against the seat looks up at you as you walk over. “Well now”, he begins, taking in your stance and expression, “You look like something’s been eating you up for some time. Is it something you might feel better for sharing?” You think about it for a few minutes, finally deciding it might be easier to talk to a stranger than a friend, at least at first. Taking some time to work out how to word it, you pour out your story, explaining that you know how crazy it sounds and how confused you are. “It feels like these dreams of his have somehow caused this, taken away from my real life, but I don’t understand how that could be? How could losing a dream I haven’t dreamt yet have any impact on the real world?”
He sits silently for a moment or two, considering what you’ve told him. “Hm”, he finally grunts, “that’s a tricky situation you’ve got yourself into.”
You look at him, confused. How is it tricky? Even if it is the dreams, you just have to stop taking them and you’ll feel better.
He shakes his head. “It’s not as simple as that. When someone takes your dreams, they take your essence, your soul - your reason to live. A life without dreams is no life at all and when this man ‘gives’ you his little illusions, he takes something far more precious in return. Whenever you let someone think, imagine or dream for you, you damage your own ability to see a different world.”
Seeing you looking despondent, he pats you on the shoulder. “Now don’t look so glum. It’s not all over. Dreaming is something anyone can learn to do, it will just take time and effort. You’ll have to do anything you can to see the world differently, that’s all dreaming is, after all.”
You nod in agreement, looking at the street in front of you, wondering how you could possibly see it differently. He smiles at you. “Don’t worry. It will come.”
Your bus pulls up, and you climb on, so deep in thought that you don’t even realise he’s no longer with you until you reach the supermarket. You make your way through the aisles, mechanically picking groceries, trying without success to see a supermarket that isn’t badly lit, poorly laid out, cramped and crowded. You look at a tin of beans. Heinz. You think hard about that tin of beans. You try to see something different. Some history, a story. You read the ingredients. You think about the original haricot beans and try to imagine them in place of the tin you hold in your hand. It remains, resolutely, a tin of baked beans. You sigh and put it down, moving listlessly along the shelves. You continue to try, with random products at random points in your shop, picking up a bin bag, a cauliflower, a pack of crisps and some bottled water, all to no avail. However hard you try, you can’t see them outside of their current context. You glance up at the lights, convinced they’re dimming. After a minute or two, you realise they haven’t changed - you have. The greyness is enveloping you and you’re getting tired of resisting. By the time you reach the checkout, you’ve started to feel that grey begin to darken. There’s no point in trying to lighten it. Nothing you do is making a difference. You may as well just go home and wait for it to take over in comfort.
Then, a small voice catches your attention. “Mummy, Mummy! Mummy, look!” it squeaks. “What?!” snaps the harassed mother, continuing to scan the shelves in search of washing up liquid. “Mummy, it’s a rabbit!” exclaims the child, pointing at a salt dispenser, with two large handles.
You look over and for just a second, you see it.
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.