Prose

Come and Look

30 November 2013

When David told me about this dream I didn’t know him, and I can’t really say that I know him now. He was a friend of my then-girlfriend Lucy, who took me and a few carloads of others camping in Central Australia last November, when a bad year was finally reaching its end.

One afternoon, when some were sleeping in their tents, and others had decided to head to the pub, David and I found ourselves alone and without much to say to one another. We talked about the heat and the dead grass stretching out around us. He knew I was a writer, and I knew vaguely through Lucy that he worked in insurance, but that wasn’t enough for me to build a conversation. Slouching in his deck chair, he drew a tobacco pouch from his backpack and started rolling a cigarette. When he noticed me watching, he offered me one, but I refused, telling him I didn’t smoke. As if in reply, he said, “I’ve been thinking about this dream I had last night, you know. It’s weird, most of the time I don’t remember my dreams at all.” I wasn’t sure if this was an invitation for me to ask for an explanation, or just something he said to fill the silence. “I feel like I should tell someone about it. I mean, I don’t want to forget it. I feel like if I say it out loud it will stick in my mind a little better.” I told him I would listen, even though I usually have no interest in hearing about other people’s dreams, especially those of strangers. This is what he told me.

He was seated in the middle of an office, unsure of how long he had been there and how he’d gotten there. The room was sparsely furnished, and as he looked to his left and right, he noticed that it was endless. It was made up of an infinite series of desks, computers and swivel chairs that repeated with staccato-like regularity. With nobody around, the computers took on an unearthly aura, as if something were lying dormant within their monitors. The other thing to look at was the wide window directly in front of him that gave a view of the ocean so still it could have been a photograph.

Soon enough, a doctor—or at least he looked like a doctor—appeared in the room wheeling an enormous pin board. David watched him wheel it across the carpet with visible strain. He heaved the massive object (which now seemed to be growing larger) towards David, murmuring something into the collar of his shirt. When he stopped in front of him, David had the feeling he’d seen his face before. It was almost geometric, with features so cragged and defined they invited mathematical analysis. As he looked over his pallid face and frail, hunched body, the faintest trace of a name flitted through his mind, and for a moment he could feel his lips forming the shape of a W, but before he could latch onto the word his tongue began to bulge and swell, causing him to lose his thread of thought.

“Okay,” the doctor said finally, adjusting his glasses. “I’ve organised them all into what I’ve established to be a rough chronology. From beginning to end.”

Sprawled across the pin board were bank statements, photographs, car registration forms, shreds of torn sketchbook paper, and boarding passes. There were screenshots of birthday invitations, family portraits, the squiggle of a child’s pen. He saw a series of pie charts in the corner titled ANNUAL CALORIC INTAKE, and a long pros and cons-type list with the heading TIMES SHE MADE YOU LAUGH VS TIMES YOU WANTED TO DIE. There were tax returns, train fines, driver’s licences, print-outs of old emails. On the far right side was what looked like a flipbook, with a title he couldn’t make out. There were postcards, resumés, and library cards. David didn’t know where to start.

“You asked me to show you these,” the doctor said, as though trying to remind him that he was still there. “Come and look.”

David wanted to stand up, but his legs would not cooperate. Shifting uncomfortably in his chair, he continued looking at the pin board.

“I think I’m going to stay here.”

“Why?”

“I don’t feel like standing up.”

“But from where you’re sitting, you can’t see these things for what they are.”

“I don’t need to see the details to know what they are.”

“But to know what they say.”

David had preferred it when there was at least the sound of the pin board’s wheels to break up the silence. There wasn’t even the rumble of the surf to focus on. The doctor was standing there with his hands behind his back, posed like a sentinel. David could only avoid looking at him for so long.

Wretchedly, he rose and hobbled to the pinboard. The photographs were what caught his eye first, distinct from all the government mail and marginalia. At the far end of the board, many of the photos seemed overexposed, bleach-white. As he got closer, they came into focus. They all seemed taken by different cameras, though all had the same subject: a woman, naked, bent out of shape. The borders of her body were fuzzy and indistinct, but in most of the photos you could distinguish her from the surroundings by the red glitter of the pavement, the sheen of the rain swept up in the headlights.

“I don’t think I want to look at this,” David said, looking over at the doctor. “It’s not my business what you want to do,” he said. “You asked me to bring these to you and I did. I’ll take them away if you want.” He looked back at the photos. From every angle the woman was draped across the road, lit by police torches, a curtain of blood spilling out beneath her. He studied the images with a  furrowed brow—eyeing the points of collapse, attempting to construct an accurate timeline of events.

“Was she shot?” he asked.

“Was who shot?”

“The woman in these pictures.”

“I can’t comment.”

“But you have to know. I mean you brought these to me.”

“I brought them to you, but I didn’t read or interpret them. For all I know they might have no bearing on reality. They are just photographs, data.”

“Did you take them?”

“No, you did.”

“I never took these. I don’t even own an analogue camera.”

“I don’t know anything about that. You gave all these things to me in a box to sort out, which I did. It wasn’t an easy task, I’ll have you know. I’m not built for administration. And I tell you what, from where I’m standing,vI’m not picking up on much gratitude.”

David went to speak but found that his larynx had been clamped shut.

Without another word, the doctor swivelled the pin board around. As he did so, the room dimmed, and a projector behind David’s head began to flicker.

He fixed his eyes on the blank side of the pin board where a movie had started to play. The film showed the woman from the photographs, up in bed with her singlet exposing her raw throat and collarbones. She was tapping a pen against a notepad, chewing her thumbnail when she had to. On the bedside table steamed a glass of herbal tea. Abruptly the film cut to a wide shot of a beach in Greece (or maybe Tel Aviv, he couldn’t be sure), with David and the same girl tracing patterns in the sand. There was no sound playing. After about half a minute the film cut again to a beaded doorway clicking in the breeze. It made David remember the dark smell of lamb rolled in rosemary.

Eventually the film formed a sort of cycle, oscillating between familiar shots of crooked marketplace streets and the woman on the beach, swimming in the pre-dawn light. He turned around and saw that the doctor and vanished. The last thing he remembered was a long shot of her sleeping, lips slightly parted, her body bending through the linen like a river.

I can’t say why I’ve remembered David’s dream so vividly. In the tent under swarms of clear stars, in the car as Lucy and I headed back to our tiny apartment, I ran it over in my mind so many times that it now feels like I dreamt it myself. I can still picture him sitting in that deckchair, not even bothering to look at me, speaking as if he were studying a piece of himself taken out and held up to the light.

From the bedroom where I’m writing I keep looking to my left expecting to find a window gazing out onto motionless waters, but all I see is the outer regions of the city, lit up and glaring. The closest thing I have is this page, littered with black and red marks. I don’t doubt that David exaggerated certain qualities of the dream, and left others out completely, just as I’ve probably done here. But as he told me himself, “It’s a difficult thing to be faithful.” I sit here in my office chair with my black and red pens scribbling phrases and excising paragraphs. I shuffle the pages. I rewrite the dream to get closer to it.


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