He came in just as I was thinking of closing down for the evening, a long pale man well over middle age, with a long pale face scored by deep lines as though etched in by the years.
“Excuse me,” he coughed diffidently. “I was just passing by and I happened to see your office, so...”
“Please sit down.” I’d been putting the finishing touches on a dream, but it wasn’t anything that couldn’t wait; not a rush order. “What can I do for you?”
“It’s late,” he said, glancing nervously around the office. He’d probably never been in a dream clinic before, and I tried to imagine what it must look like to his eyes, the hanging green fronds of potted ferns not quite obscuring the utilitarian grey of the furniture and the holographic dream representations on the walls. “You probably want to go home to your family. Maybe I’d better come in some other time.”
It was late, and I was tired. It had been a long day. But I had no family to go to, not any longer, and if he left he’d probably never return. We work on thin margins in this business, competition is fierce, and I couldn’t afford to lose a client, even if he was an old man who certainly had no idea what the whole thing was about. So I put on my best businesslike smile. “No, sir, it’s quite all right. Please sit down and tell me how I can help you.”
“Ah, well.” Still looking intensely uncomfortable, he sat. “You, er, make dreams here. Is that right?”
“Well, you can put it that way,” I said, coming round my desk and sitting downopposite him, to establish closer communication. “What we do is create dream scenarios. For example, suppose you want to create a dream scenario of...let’s say, a Wild West cowboy.” It was one of the standard scenarios I used as selling points, choosing them depending on the appearance of the client. He was about the right age to have watched or read Westerns as a boy. “Now, we’d begin by roughly chalking out the parameters of the dream; let’s say, we’d decide it involves you, as the hero, fighting cattle rustlers who are in the pay of a rival rancher who wants to force you off your land.” His head was nodding unconsciously, as he thought about it. “Then, we’d put it in a chip which you can implant in your memory whenever you want to. Each time you want to have that dream, all you have to do is put the chip into a headset you’d be provided with, and play it for two minutes before going to bed. In fact, we can programme entire dream sequences like that, you know, of the same or different genres.” He was beginning to look confused, so I hurried to explain. “I mean, your first dream is about rustlers. The next in the series might be about breaking in wild mustangs, and the one after that about driving cattle to market. And the one after that –“
“But, then...” he interrupted, still looking confused, “it’s just like a movie, isn’t it? The dream consists of whatever you put in the chip?”
I’d been waiting for that question, knowing it would come. It always does, with first timers. “No, sir. I said we create dream scenarios, not dreams. What we provide is just the starting point of the dream; the launchpad, if you will. What happens in the actual dream is up to your subconscious mind. It’s like providing it with a canvas and paints – and it can create whatever it pleases. You understand, then,” I added, “that no two times would the dreams be the same. Each time your subconscious mind would do whatever it wished with the material it had been given. And, of course, you can use it over and over – however often and however many times you want.”
“I see.” He still looked doubtful. “It seems kind of...I don’t know...not quite what I’d expected.” He coughed again, looking embarrassed at what he’d just said. “Not that I doubt you, but it seems like malarkey to me. Perhaps even, I don’t know, dangerous. I mean, the subconscious and all.”
“Oh, but that’s what it isn’t, sir.” I leaned towards him earnestly. “It was developed quite scientifically, and it’s been used as a psychiatric tool for years now. I can assure you it’s completely safe, otherwise we’d never have been licensed to use it.” I glanced up at the framed licence on the wall, and his eyes followed mine. “We have very strict parameters within which we work. There are blocks implanted in the dream scenarios which prevent the subconscious from going too far. Like the boundary of a sports field, you might say.”
“Ah.” He was silent for a minute, thinking. I was silent too, knowing what he said next would determine whether I’d made the sale. On the other side of the door, the noise of the city went on; traffic, voices, footsteps, distant music. “Can you tell me a little about some of the, um, dream scenarios you created for your other clients? If, uh, it’s not confidential, of course?”
At least he hadn’t said he’d think about it and got up to leave as I’d feared. “Well, sir,” I replied, “there is a confidentiality clause, but it’s up to the individual client whether he or she wants it invoked.” Those who did specify it were usually among the large clientele who wanted erotic dreams, but this man didn’t need to know that. “I can tell you about those cases where the client didn’t stipulate that we maintain confidentiality. Of course, we can’t show you the actual scenarios. Once we’ve created and delivered them, they belong to the client, not to us. We can’t and do not keep copies.” At least not legally, but then again he didn’t need to know that.
“Yes, I understand. But still, I’d like it if...”
“Oh, of course.” I thought a moment. “There’s the woman who lost her son years ago, and who has dreams made where he’s still alive. In these dreams he’s eating dinners she’d made sometimes, or he’s married and brought the grandchildren around for her to enjoy, or maybe he and she are out travelling the world. It helps her cope with her loss.”
“But what happens when she wakes up? Won’t she be, you know...” he waved a hand, searching for the word. “Devastated when she wakes and finds out it’s all a dream? I would.”
“Actually, sir, that’s where the boundaries I mentioned come in. The dreams she has are all implanted with features specifically designed to make her realise that they aren’t real. For instance, the skies might be green in one dream, or her cat begin talking to her in another – but each dream will have something reminding her at every stage that it’s only a dream. And considering that she’s been our client for going on for three years now, it works for her.”
“I suppose,” he said reluctantly. “Are they all like that?”
“Not all. There’s another one I could mention which you might find interesting. This man’s a bank manager. Very middle class, very respectable. Not an adventurous bone in his body. But in his dreams he’s a mountaineer in the Himalayas one night, a deep sea diver the next, walking on foot through the Sahara the night after that.”
I described a few more. He listened, rubbing his chin and looking thoughtful. “You’ve told me about the good ones only, haven’t you?” he asked suddenly. “There must be some nasty ones?”
I cursed inwardly, realising he was much sharper than he looked. “A few.” I hesitated, wondering if I’d lose him, and then took the plunge anyway. “There is one man, for instance, who orders, uh, special dreams. Dreams in which he’s a concentration camp commandant at Auschwitz, or a Rwandan Hutu genocidaire, or a Mongol warrior in the Khanate of the Golden Horde, slashing and burning his way across Europe. He’s one of our best customers.”
“That’s awful,” he said, his face going even paler. “Just awful.”
“Not at all. The man in question’s a schoolteacher. Very mild and conventional, but he finds his work intensely stressful and exhausting. You know the shape some of the schools are in.” He nodded. “His dreams work off the stress, prevent him from collapsing or blowing his top. They keep him harmless.”
We looked at each other. Outside, the sounds of the city seemed muted, and I realised it was far later than I usually stayed here. Normally, I’d be cooking myself my solitary supper by now. What the hell, I’d eat out for a change – if I made this sale. I watched as his gaze grew inward, knowing he was making his decision.
“All right,” he said, and I let out the breath I hadn’t even known I’d been holding. “I’m in. So, what next?”
“We’ll need a few details, to begin with. You wish to order a dream scenario for yourself, I assume?”
“For me?” He looked horrified. “Oh, no, not at all. For my granddaughter.”
“For your granddaughter?” I sat back, frowning slightly. “Where is she?”
“Does it matter where she is?”
“It probably does,” I said cautiously. “We normally require an interview with the subject before beginning the process of dream scenario creation. Sometimes several interviews.”
“She can’t come here.” He swallowed. “She’s ill.”
“Oh, I’m sorry about that. Of course, you can bring her in as soon as she’s better and we can accommodate her.”
The lines on his face deepened as though they were cutting into his flesh. “She, ah...” He broke off, fumbled in his pocket and brought out a photograph. “Here.”
I scarcely controlled a gasp of shock. The girl in the picture was as dark as the old man was pale, and there was no hair on her head. She lay back on a pile of pillows and smiled tiredly at the camera, looking as fragile as though she was made of sticks. The most alive thing about her were her black eyes, which seemed to burn with an inner fire, even in the photograph.
“Leukaemia,” the old man said. “You see how the therapy has left her. She’s sixteen years old, and you can’t even imagine how heartbreakingly beautiful she looked, earlier. None of us have any idea whether she’ll ever be better.” He shrugged. “The doctors say there’s hope, but...”
“I’ll do the best I can, sir,” I found myself saying, before I was conscious of making a decision. I couldn’t bear to think of those burning eyes losing their fire. “But what kind of dream do you want for her? One in which she’s healthy again? I don’t think that would be quite helpful –“
He raised a hand. “Nor do I. Nor is she the kind of girl who’d enjoy dreams where she’s the centre of attention. She’s, she’s the kind who’s always cared more about others, the outside world, than about herself. And she loves horses.”
“Horses?” There weren’t any horses in the city that I knew of.
“She’s not from the town,” he said, gesturing at the concrete jungle that surrounded us, with hardly the space for a blade of grass to grow. “She grew up with her parents in the country, and she was around horses. They had a stud farm.”
I waited, knowing what was almost certainly coming.
“There was an accident, in their car. Her parents – my son and his wife – they were both killed. She wasn’t in the car, but...”
I waited for him to regain his composure.
“The farm had to be sold, of course,” he said after a while. “It was deep in debt anyway. She was the only child, and only thirteen at the time. We – her grandmother and I – were her only relatives, and we know nothing about running a farm, or horses. She had to come and live with us, and though we’ve tried to do all we can to make her happy, she’s never stopped missing those horses.”
“So – you want a dream built up around horses?”
“Yes...especially ponies. She loves ponies most of all. She had a special one, a stallion she still talks about. It was a trick pony, and she’d shown it at shows, with ribbons and things. I don’t really,” he said ruefully, “know much about horses, as you might have gathered.”
“That’s quite all right.” I went to the desk and got my notebook. “Tell me all about your granddaughter. Everything about her.”
“Well, first...” he hesitated. “We haven’t spoken about expenses. We aren’t rich, my wife and I.”
I quoted a figure. “We offer a discount for certain cases,” I added quite mendaciously. “Cases like your granddaughter.”
“Are you sure?” He blinked at me, an old man’s heavy lidded blink. “It seems very cheap.”
“Yes, sir, no problems there.” I got out the form for him to fill in so that he’d stop thinking about money. If he realised I was giving him what amounted to a freebie, he’d be insulted. “Now, about your granddaughter...”
“When can you deliver?” he asked, much later, his eyes ready to be disappointed. “You must have a heavy workload. Three days, maybe? Five?”
I stole a quick glance at the clock on the wall. If I skipped dinner and slept in the office – and nobody was waiting for me at home, right? – then...
“You can have it tomorrow morning,” I said. “Ten tomorrow morning.”
“Are you sure?” he repeated, uncertainly. “It seems kind of soon. I don’t want to deprive you of –“
“Yes sir,” I said. “I’m sure.”
I sat back and looked at the computer monitor, my fingers tapping out the codes. Outside, the city was at last silent, turned in for the night. I’d been lost in work for hours and hadn’t realised how late it was. But it didn’t matter.
On the screen, the beach lay swathed in shadows, dawn just touching the sky and painting the waves that washed up the sand. Far away, the gulls flew out over the ocean, looking for the flotillas of trawlers that would be coming in from the night’s fishing. I touched a colour control here, pressed a key there, deepening the shadows and putting a mite more orange in the sky.
The girl came into the picture, tall and strong. She was a silhouette, her feet in the water, her small head held high. I’d decided to keep it hairless, as a link to herself. She stood in the water, and whistled, and the horse came to her.
Even I – I who’d made a thousand dream scenarios by myself, who’d created everything from lesbian orgies at harems to alien planets under strange suns, I who considered myself utterly jaded by the tastes and desires of my clientele – I felt the sting of tears in my eyes as I looked at the girl and the pony. It had almost been as if an outside force had been working through me; I’d scarcely been aware of the hours passing as I’d sketched in the scene. I forgot about the fine points of the work, the tweaks that still needed to be done, and sat back and watched.
The freshening dawn, the gentle waves, the birds like a blizzard in the sky; and, in the foreground, the girl, the rearing horse, the girl, yes, the girl, laughing, laughing.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011