Last night I had a very strange dream.
I was on a terrace of some kind, next to a long, low house. There was an open space before the house, with a little garden including a couple of tall trees, and then a path which went down a slope and met at right angles into a narrow street walled on the far side and lined by a ditch on this side. It was night.
There were wooden staves littering the path about halfway down to the street, and obscure brick buildings on the other side of it.
The terrace was of wood, with a wooden railing, and I was burning something on it. What I was burning I don’t know, but it included a large and translucent piece of cloth, which for some reason it was quite important that I burn. All this I was burning on the terrace. The wooden terrace. Of the building which I had no wish to harm and which might even have been my home.
Did I mention that in order to ensure it all burned properly, I was dousing the whole thing in petrol from a can?
In the course of this probably laudable enterprise, I suddenly realised that there was something very important I had to do. Leaving the fire to burn – with the cloth draped over the railing for later – I jumped on a motorcycle and headed down the path towards the street. Then I remembered that the fire might burn out of control, so I stopped the bike like a MotoCross rider – one foot on the ground and the bike pivoting round my leg like a carousel pony – to look at the flames.
At that very moment I felt a very hard blow on my back. If I’d been more stable in my position, I realised with the knowledge that one has in dreams, I’d have been badly hurt at the least, or killed. But since I was leaning away from the blow and only just holding my position, it sent me tumbling to the ground, the bike falling next to me but somehow not on me. I looked up to see a young man – a kid, really, in his teens – go running away down the slope, a wooden stave in his hand. I knew he’d come from the brick buildings, and that he’d intended to kill me.
I was filled with righteous wrath, and picking up another of the staves – I told you they littered the path – I rushed off after him. Anger lent me wings, and he was short and thin, and had no stamina, so I caught him up only metres after he’d reached the street and turned to the left on it. I hit him very very hard and as he fell on the ground I put in the boot quite unmercifully. Then I decided to go get a wrench from the bike’s tool kit to bash his head in once and for all. In the dream it felt perfectly natural and justified.
Now as I fetched the wrench and began walking down the path again, someone else – another teenage kid – rushed up to the terrace. He took the petrol can and the cloth – which was beginning to burn – and raced past me down the slope to where the attempted killer kid was still curled up in a foetal position. Totally without emotion, I watched the second kid pour the petrol over the first and set him on fire.
That first kid – the one who’d tried to kill me – must have made one hell of a lot of enemies.
By the time I’d come most of the way down to the path the first kid was merely a puddle of spreading fire and the second one was nowhere to be seen. Now, from the right of the street, a couple of men turned up. They were dressed pretty much in rags, with knotted turbans on their heads and filthy old long shawls like ponchos thrown over their shoulders. The fire in the street was spreading steadily, and yet these two began walking slowly past it. As they went, I saw their shawls catch on fire exactly like the skin of the Hindenburg burning in the famous video – squarish pieces of fabric disappearing as the orange flames behind seared through. In moments both, but especially the one in front, were covered by fire. Without making a single sound, they slipped to the ground and sat with their backs to the wall, burning. I could see the outlines of the first one’s skull in the flames.
I was watching all this without the slightest ability to react emotionally or otherwise.
Then it was the earliest dawn and the fire was out. It had burned out. The smoke still hung heavy on the air. And I suddenly realised that I’d have to go and put out the first fire, the one on the terrace – and that the water from the ditch would be a good way to put it out.
There was a set of steps down to the ditch on the other side of the two burned men, and as I walked towards them I discovered that they were both still alive. The back one – the one nearer me – wasn’t all that bad considering, but the front one was a grey, skeletonised figure which somehow or other was still completely alive. And someone was giving them both water to drink from a black iron ladle, and this creature was tipping its head back, holding the ladle up with what was left of its charred grey fingers, and pouring the water down its throat.
I passed behind them. There was part of a hand lying on the ground. Most of it was ash, but I could see bone and one completely intact thumb with a grimy nail. I stepped over it and went down to the ditch.
When I got back with the water it was dark again. The burned men had gone, where I don’t know. The fire on the terrace had gone out. And my mother, of whom in real life I try and think of as seldom as possible, was standing under the trees in the little garden, demanding to know why I hadn’t yet brought water for her plants. I pointed to the water from the ditch and she said she wouldn’t accept scummy filthy water for her precious garden. I looked at the garden and it was actually already watered, the soil wet in the light of the electric bulbs. And stuck here and there in the soil I found several green pieces of glass, the remnants of broken bottles.
“Leave them be,” my mother ordered. “They keep the garden safe from the evil eye.”
I woke up then. It was three in the morning, and I did not get to sleep again.