We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
–William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Behold, this dreamer cometh.
– The Book of Genesis, 37:19
Everybody has a dream; everybody dreams. The man who told me that – the same man who spent his time showing an old dog-eared piece of card around in Vinzenz Richter’s Wine Tavern, in the long shadow of Meissen’s Albrecht Castle – was a long way from home…always assuming, of course, that the dead have someplace to hang their hat at the end of a busy working day. And something to do when they get there.
When I was in full time employment, for a big financial organization, all I ever wanted to do when I got home from work was write.
Every evening I would finish dinner as fast as I could reasonably chew it, and then high-tail it into my small book-lined office and boot up the trusty computer. Seems I had more energy for writing then, though that seems ridiculous when all I have to do now is write.
Back then, when I was in and out of meetings filled with corporate types who felt they needed permission to break wind, I made silent (and sometimes not so silent) promises to whatever deities ruled the world that if I could ever get out of the mindless slog of listening to minutes being read out day in, day out, and into a silent world of my own thoughts and words I would never ever complain again. And, when it happened, I didn’t. I was true to my word. For a while. Well, why not: after all, I had nurtured a dream – as the woman by the statue of the pissing boy in Hamburg had known…among many things, as it turned out – and my dream had become a reality.
But it was the dead man with the old card that was to enable me to recognize that my dream was not the only one. Nor was it the most important.
But first things first.
My first novel, a minor espionage epic set in Britain, Holland and the United States and over which I had pondered and sweated and agonized for almost three years, sold to the third publisher who read it. And it sold well, made a second printing in hardcover and a couple of nice book club sales and then went into a paperback edition which hovered around the lower edges of the bestsellers listing for almost two months. The all-important second book was eagerly awaited. Mostly by my publisher.
“So how’s the book coming along?” James Farraday asked me a couple of weeks before events were set in motion to change my life forever. He posed the question as nonchalantly as the mouthful of tossed salad would allow.
We were in a small restaurant off Columbus Circle, sitting in the smoking section – and there’s not many of those around these days – and I was pulling on a Salem Light and pushing olives around on my plate like toy soldiers on a military campaign map. He waited a few seconds, washing most of the salad from his teeth with a mouthful of Shiraz, before grunting, “Well?”
The truth was, the book hadn’t been coming along too well at all. In fact, the book wasn’t actually started as such. After four months, since the day I had proudly announced in Farraday’s office that I would be starting that very afternoon, typing in those mystical and terrifying words “Chapter One”, I still had nothing. Worse still, since the advent of computers and word processors, I couldn’t even take him back to my apartment and show off a full wastepaper basket brimming with scrunched-up starts. With the exception of a loose-leaf notebook containing a few pages of scribbled notes, I had zilch. Nada.
“Well,” I started, pacing the lie so that it tumbled out easy and sounded more like the Artist’s reluctance to say too much about his next project until the final period was typed in and pored over a while, “it’s coming along. It’s coming along a little slower than I’d like but, you know, it’s coming along.”
James nodded and splashed more wine into our glasses. “Yeah?”
We were as close as most authors and their editor could reasonably hope to be, and closer than many. We had shared other bottles of wine and other meal-table chats, some even when there was no real need for him to be there. But I think he saw something in me that struck a chord. Just as I think there were few people he could call real friends. His real friends, I believe, were the books he worked on.
“But it is coming along,” he said, returning to the promised novel.
I nodded. “But like I say, slow.”
“Mmm.” He forked a piece of pasta into a mound of lettuce and transferred it to his waiting mouth. “Is it started?”
His expression told me that he knew the answer already but I decided to persevere. “Let’s just say it’s not going as well as I’d hoped.”
For a long minute, he said nothing. Then, “You know,” he said, chewing, “maybe you need to take a break. You thought about doing that? Taking a break?”
I stubbed out my cigarette and thought about lighting another, but it was difficult enough making him out through the haze I had already created. I pushed the ashtray away from me and thanked whatever god looked after diners that most good restaurants train their staff to empty ashtrays after each butt. Sure enough, a young man with a smile that looked like it had come from a catalog appeared as if by magic and replaced the offending item with a clean version. Before I could say anything, James leaned forward and, with a sly wink, said, “You could put it down as research.” He straightened up again and forked the last of the salad onto the final few strands of linguini. “Think about it. Somewhere you’ve always wanted to go. Shoe-horn it into the book someplace and write it off.” He laid his fork on the cleared plate and snapped his fingers. “Just like that. Say four weeks. Six maybe. Then we can see how things are coming along when you get back.” He lifted his glass, swirling the wine around as he studied me. “Can you think of anywhere?”
The air in Europe smells of confectionery, my father had told me. Even in the bars where it mixes in with the smell of alcohol, cologne, perfume and the pungent aroma of French and German tobacco, you can smell candy. Makes you feel like a kid all over again.
He had been right, as I was to find out. But my first week had failed to ignite the same enthusiasm in me as it had in him and already I was showing signs of being homesick.
At night, in the sumptuous hotel rooms, you could look out of the open window and have to strain to hear anything. No planes flying overhead, no stilted rap music from passing cars and not even the distant wail of police sirens prowling the concrete corridors of Manhattan looking for transgressors. Or the perfect cup of coffee.
The fact was, the coffee tasted too bitter and there probably weren’t any transgressors here. And believe me, when a New Yorker starts to get misty-eyed about the prospect of not being mugged then you know somethings wrong. I’d known it pretty well since the second day. But it hadn’t really hit home until a chance meeting with a middle-aged but very attractive woman with a hauntingly soothing purple hair-colouring.
It was my eighth day in Europe.
We happened to be standing next to each other in Neugartenstrasse, an otherwise empty street, staring at a cherubic statue of a naked young boy. In fact, I had been so engrossed in the statue that I had not even seen the woman approaching: one minute I had considered myself alone and the next she was there.
The boy had his hands held aloft behind his head and his pelvis thrust forward, an abundant and constant stream of water fountaining from his little delicately sculptured penis and rattling noisily into the small lake around his feet. Presumably the water was circulated by means of a system of tubes and pumps, though no evidence was visible. I didn’t know and was beginning to care even less. This lack of interest had undoubtedly been heightened – if not caused entirely – by the fact that, somewhat foolishly, I had bought a German – French phrasebook and so was having a hard time making sense of anything. But the pictures were vaguely interesting.
The woman glanced up the street and produced from her coat pocket a small tin cup which she then held beneath the stream until it filled. Turning to me, the cup already lifted to her lips, she said, “On ne sait jamais, parait qu’en buvant de cette eau, on trouve un bon mari.” Then, with a throaty laugh, she drained the cup and turned to me, smiling proudly. “Ah,” she said, dabbing at her lips with a gloved hand, “c’est magnifique, non?”
I frowned, smiled and shook my head. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” The words came out as a rattling stammer and I made a mental note to spend some time studying foreign languages before I next ventured behind Europe’s lace underskirts.
“You are not French, monsieur?” She looked shocked.
I shook my head. “American. New York,” I added, as though the first admission were not a sufficiently heinous crime.
She frowned and pointed to the guide book in my hand. “Then why do you have a French translation book?”
I waved the book and gave a small laugh, feeling my ears turning bright red. “Ah, yes,” I began. “A. Mistake. I. Bought. It. In. Error,” I explained, separating the words as though teaching rudimentary English to a visiting Martian…one of those saucer-eyed, spindly-legged figures that habitually stop cars on Nevada highways in order to engage in a little anal exploration with passing hayseeds driving pick-ups, called Duane or Clyde – the hayseeds, not the pick-ups. “What was it that you were saying?”
“I said, legend has it that by drinking this water one will find a good husband.”
“Ah.” Her English was perfect which meant that any further utterances from me could be effected in a fraction of the time I might otherwise have taken. But no further utterances seemed to be forthcoming.
“You are here on holiday, yes?”
“Vacation, yes.” I waved a hand at the urinating statue. “Seeing the sights.”
She frowned again and smiled a little slyly as she returned the tin cup to her ample coat pocket. “But you are looking for something, yes? You are not simply on holiday.”
I shrugged and shook my head. “No… I mean, yes. I’m just taking a break.”
She took hold of my arm at the elbow and leaned close. I could smell peppermint and perfume, a heady and intoxicating mixture, and, just for a second, I felt my pulse quicken. “I know,” she confided, confirming this revelation with a series of sharp nods. “You are looking for something. You are chasing a dream.
“We are all chasing dreams, Mons – I am sorry, Sir. But it is only when one learns not to look that one can truly find. When you have mastered that, perhaps you will have success. You must go to Meissen.”
“Meissen?” It sounded like something Dick Dastardly’s dog, Muttley might have said, his teeth clamped on some unfortunates pants-seat.
She lifted her shoulders and made a sad shape with her mouth. “Perhaps, perhaps not,” she said, answering some unspoken question as she looked me up and down. “But most everyone finds what they are looking for in Meissen. There is a magic there that…oh, I don’t know.” She laughed. Then I laughed.
We could have been sitting in a bar off Fifth Avenue, drinking margaritas and discussing a new Neil Simon play. But we weren’t, and suddenly that fact hit me: I was a long way from home.
Her face became serious. “You must find the dream,” she said. “But take care for there are those who would take it from you.” The light in her eyes gave them a momentarily fearful glint, and then it was gone.
I smiled respectfully and considered several responses, none of which seemed appropriate. Instead, I decided to stone-wall it out and wait for her to say something else.
She removed her hand from my elbow and patted the bulge in her pocket. “Ah well, perhaps you will wish me luck in finding my own dream, eh? And I wish you luck with yours, whatever and wherever you eventually find it to be.” Then she was on her way, her high-heeled shoes clacking on the paving slabs, sashaying up the street like a would-be movie star. But in truth, she was already fading and still looking for her leading man.
I left the phrase book beside the statue. Maybe it would turn out to be somebody else’s dream.
That night I tried to figure out just what my own dream was.
By three o’clock in the morning, an empty bottle of hoc and a full ashtray on the table beside me, I had decided, in that wonderfully lightheaded and euphoric way that only comes after too much alcohol, that the woman had probably been right. I had to go to Meissen. Why not?
I’d done the galleries and sidewalk cafes of Paris and Brussels, and now Hamburg, until I was cultured out, and I’d seen and marveled at enough gargoyle-festooned architecture to make even Frank Lloyd Wright yawn and ask what was on at the movies. My mind was made up and it felt good. A decision had been made. I pulled off my trousers and stretched out on the bed.
Sleep came immediately. Beneath its sheet of oblivion my father came into my hotel room and sat beside me. It was a very clear dream…so clear that I saw the light shining briefly into the room from the corridor outside. Then the darkness returned and I saw only my fathers shape until he reached the bed. Then, in the glow of the moon through the windows, I saw him in his entirety.
He was wearing an army uniform and though he was much younger than when I had last seen him – lying in a hospital bed surrounded by drips and blinking machines that were busy stealing him from me – I recognized him right away.
When you see this, he whispered to me, you must look at it.
I could see something in his hand but couldn’t make out what it was. But whatever it was, it wasn’t very big. What is it? I asked.
A dream, he said. It’s only a dream. But it is not yours alone. It belongs to everyone. And you must show it to them.
If he said anything more, I don’t remember it.
Feeling groggy, even after breakfast and several cups of black coffee plus a half-pack of Salem, I caught a train later than I had planned, packing my suitcase in a haphazard fashion that I was sure I would regret when it came time to remove the clothes so casually thrown inside. Then, with the memory of my late father’s nocturnal visit still as fresh in my mind as though it had really happened, I arrived in Dresden where I boarded the Theodor Fontaine, one of only two cruisers built to negotiate Germany’s second-longest river, and set off along the Elbe to Meissen.
It was like sailing into a children’s story book.
My guidebook – this time an English language edition – told me that the city of Meissen had escaped the Second World War with barely a cup and saucer being rattled. It showed.
On either side of the river, wild flowers grew in such abundance that it was hard to imagine humans living there at all. Ubiquitous herons and buzzards and kites seemed to support such a conclusion and the occasional Hansel-and-Gretel riverside houses, and the barely glimpsed spired churches and turreted castles nestled as though forgotten deep in the lush woodland heightened the feeling of being deliciously trapped inside a fairy tale. I sat transfixed watching it all float by, daring myself time after time to jump ship. Like the man in the old Twilight Zone episode, I felt I had found my very own Willoughby – a magical domain that waited for anyone brave enough to relinquish all that had gone before and take a chance on finding true happiness.
We stepped off the boat and into this fairyland grotto speaking in the hushed and reverent tones of acolytes seeking an audience with their God. And well might it have been so.
If God had decided to spend his time making pottery instead of people, he would first have had to create somewhere like Meissen. The city is home to the oldest china factory in Europe, where some 600 artists are employed to hand-paint each item. But with price tags that range from $100 for a thimble to around $8,000 for a six-piece floral coffee set, it’s a hobby that’s affordable to only a few. Gods included.
Following a brief check-in at my guest-house and the welcome putting down of my bags, I washed and hit the streets. There was a stillness and calm about the place, drifting up the narrow house-lined streets and down cobbled alleyways in which the very air itself seemed to have lain undisturbed since the dawn of time. Fragmented footsteps echoed desultorily, hunched rooftop gargoyles stared with wide and unmoving eyes, beveled store-front windows reflected our passing images like funhouse mirrors, making the resulting elongations and distortions somehow more in keeping. And so it was, road-weary but mentally alive and even strangely rested with the onset of twilight, I came across the welcome glow and muted hum that characterizes a bar in any country in the world.
Vinzenz Richter established his notorious wine tavern on Am der Frauenkirche in 1873, notorious because of the array of weapons and instruments of torture housed in its cellar…the function of every item explained in gory detail (though thankfully not demonstrated) nightly by the current owner, one Gottfried Herrlich.
It was here, drinking my third stein of Muller Thurgau, that I saw Dennis Dannerman.
The last time I had seen Dennis was maybe five years earlier, in Salsa Posada, a small Mexican eatery on Thompson Street, right across from El Rincon de Espana – what a delight: the best Mexican or Spanish food in town and right across from each other.
Dennis tended bar at Salsa’s, seeing to folks while they waited for a table, feeding them Gold and Silver Label tequila, copious amounts of Dos Equus or Tecate beers, and mixing cocktails for the folks who like to go to Mexican restaurants to drink them (and who, presumably, like to go to cocktail bars to listen to Los Lobos on the PA system). And all the time, he could carry on a conversation – a real conversation, not one of those cheesy streams of polite but vacuous niceties you get from some bartenders – and he’d laugh and take drink orders for the tables already eating and not miss a single beat or get a single order wrong. And best of all, he didn’t throw the bottles around, though I always believed he could have done if he’d wanted to because I believed he was a special person, one of those people you come across maybe only two or three times in a lifetime.
But there were two more things that made Dennis special, at least as far as I was concerned: the first was that, like me, he loved jazz music, particularly anything by Horace Silver or Chet Baker; and the second was that we both shared the same birthdate – the Fourth of July. I didn’t find the second one out until, when I had been going into Salsa Posada for several years, Nick Hassam and I had called in there just for a few slammers to celebrate my birthday – the fortieth – before continuing around a few well-chosen dives in the Village to get completely blitzed. When I asked where Dennis was, the girl behind the bar explained that he’d taken the night off to celebrate his own special event, the Big Three O. I couldn’t wait to call in again when he was on duty, just to compare notes…in that strangely metaphysical way that many Cancerians seem to do. But I never did get the chance.
It was maybe a month later, six weeks at the most, that I finally got back to Salsa Posada, again with Nick. Still no Dennis. This time, when I asked about him, the girl behind the counter gave me a strange smile and sidled off to the woman by the payments desk. A brief hushed conversation resulted in the woman coming up to me and telling me, in a tone of muted respect, that Dennis was dead. He’d piled his Corvette into a road sign on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway on his birthday.
And now here he was shuffling around a tavern in Meissen, Germany.
At first, I figured it must be Dennis’s double.
But, as I watched him going up to different people – not everyone, just one or two, seemingly picked out after careful consideration – and showing them something, talking to them quietly, holding onto their coat sleeves, I decided that, no matter what we’re taught about dead people being considerably immobile – not to mention silent – this one was the exception.
There was no question that it was Dennis so, obviously, the announcement of his death was somewhat exaggerated. Clearly, a mistake must have been made. Maybe he’d lent his car to someone and they’d totaled it, destroying any evidence to the contrary in the resulting conflagration. Maybe it suited him to be “dead” – after all, here he was several thousand miles away from New York apparently immersed in another life. Lots of maybes. But I decided to bite the bullet and speak to him.
When he finished talking to an elderly couple over by the bar, the man nodded and placed his drink on the counter. Then the man took his wife’s drink -I assumed the woman was his wife – and, even though neither glass was empty, the two of them just turned around and walked out. I recorded all this at the time but it didn’t seem particularly significant. At least, not then.
I picked up my own glass and wandered across to Dennis, approaching him from his right side as he surveyed the other people. He was just standing there, not doing anything, no drink, nothing. Just as I was reaching out, I saw that he was holding a piece of old card in his right hand. Then I made contact.
He didn’t turn to me but simply glanced in my direction and then his eyes faced front again.
“Er fragt, wo man am besten isst,” he said without looking around. He laughed and shook his head. “Und was kann ich fur Sie tun?”
Still he didn’t turn but when he spoke his voice was almost a whisper. “Is it really you?”
I moved around so that I was facing him. “That’s what I thought about you. How are you?”
He stepped back a little so that he could get a good look at me, which also enabled me to get a good look at him. “I’m fine. How about you? How’s New York?”
“Same as ever. It’s just New York”
“New York is never only ‘just’ anything.”
“No, I guess you’re right there.”
He nodded, gave a small smile and started to look some more at the people around us.
“They told me you were dead,” I said. His expression didn’t alter and he continued to scan the room. “The woman in Salsa Posada.”
“Cheryl,” I echoed. “She said you’d crashed the car.”
Still nothing. I followed his gaze and scanned the faces. They were just people having a good time, drinking the beer, talking, making out. Pretty much like any bar I’d ever been to. Without turning, I said, “You waiting for someone?”
“Kind of,” he said.
I turned back to face him. “Do you live here now?”
His eyes shifted back to look at me. “Look,” he said, “I’m really busy right now. Can we do this some other time?”
I shook my head in a mixture of annoyance and amazement. “I don’t get it. They tell me you’re dead and then I find you in a bar in…”
“Meissen,” he offered.
“In Meissen, and you won’t even pass the time of day.” I pulled out my pack of Salem and lit one. “I had something to tell you that I thought you mi…”
“We both have the same birthdate. Fourth of July.”
“How did you know that?”
“I know everything.” He waited a minute or so and then went on. “I knew you were here, for example…here in Germany.”
He sighed. “Siglinde Erhard told me.” Then he said, “And I knew she had told you to come to Meissen.”
Siglinde Erhard had wanted a man to care for and to care for her more than anything else in the world. This was what Dennis Dannerman told me as we walked along the bank of the River Elbe, the moonlight playing amidst the ripples in the water.
Although she had been forsaken – Dennis’s word – by many men in her life, she had never lost the hope that she might find someone worthy of her affections. But eventually every abstinence, whether forced or voluntary, must have a respite, and without that respite things just go from bad to worse.
So it was, on an evening when she was feeling particularly desperate, Siglinde Erhard hanged herself in her apartment with a pair of her own nylon stockings. She thought it would be a release. But she was wrong.
The bitterness and resentment and desperation that had so fueled her life continued to run thick and strong even when she was dead. And so she still walked the streets of her beloved Hamburg, looking for someone in whom she recognized a basic goodness. One of her favorite visiting spots when she was alive was the statue of the pissing boy in Neugartenstrasse. The statue still held an attraction for her in death, perhaps even more so.
“Jesus Christ,” I said, “isn’t there anyone here who’s alive?”
“The percentages are the same wherever you are, whatever country you’re in,” Dennis said. “It’s just…” He seemed to search for the appropriate words. “It’s just that we usually don’t get sent back to the place we left. Too many people might recognize us.”
Over on the opposite bank, a heron flapped its wings wildly.
If Dennis Dannerman thought this was supposed to explain things to me, he was wrong. But he would not give any further explanations. “Don’t ask me to say any more,” he said.
We walked in silence for a while and then Dennis said, “Siglinde is not like me. She’s just a ghost.”
“And what are you? Can you tell me that, at least?”
He shrugged. “How about an angel?”
“It’s as good a description as anything. I know I don’t have any wings but they went out with the Ark. I’m just…” He paused, again searching for some meaningful word or phrase. “I’m just doing a job. That’s what Heaven should be all about, doing jobs. A big company, run like any other big company.” There was something in the way he spoke that made me feel a little uneasy. Or maybe it was just that I had worked for a big company, and I didn’t like it. Office politics, backstabbing, lying and cheating…surely the Elysian Fields were above all that.
“And what job are you doing?”
“What angels have always done: teaching people how to live for others and not be selfish.” He seemed to consider this for a few seconds and then added, “But it’s not always a popular occupation.”
As we carried on walking I tried to reconcile such altruism with the grubby self-serving reality of Big Business. I failed miserably. The two concepts seemed mutually contradictory.
Perhaps sensing my confusion, Dennis stopped and turned to me. Producing from his jacket pocket the piece of card I had seen him showing in the tavern, he held it out to me. “Take a look, tell me what you see.” I frowned and took an involuntary step backwards. “Go ahead,” he said, thrusting the card towards me. “But you may not keep it.”
I took the card and turned it over.
It was either some kind of out-of-focus photograph or a painting, dog-eared and stained with use, the image creased and faded. “What is it?”
“What it is isn’t important. It’s what you can see…that’s the important thing.”
I shifted around so that the moon’s glow was directly behind me. “It looks like…it looks like some kind of blur.” That was the best way I could describe it. The card was a haze of swirling shapes and shades and tones…maybe in colour, although I had no way of knowing that in the moonlight.
In fact, maybe it was the moonlight that made the thing seem to move on the card, like billowing dry ice smoke or graveyard mist…and was it my own shadow cast on the card or was there something behind the mist? Something big and…old, though I wondered what it was that made me think that; something which seemed as eager to see me as I was to see it. “I don’t know,” I said, handing the card back. “I have no idea what I can see.”
Dennis took the card and slipped it back into his pocket. “It’ll come to you, but when it does you must look with your heart, not with your eyes.”
“And how do I do that?”
He smiled. “Like I say, it’ll come to you.”
I started walking, suddenly aware that the night had turned cold. Pulling my coat tightly around me and speaking over my shoulder, I asked Dennis what he had meant when he said that what it was wasn’t important.
But it was my father’s voice that answered. A dream, it whispered. It’s only a dream.
When I turned around the path was empty. Dennis Dannerman had gone.
I walked around for a half-hour or so looking for him, smoking cigarettes and wondering, each time I passed someone, whether they were truly alive or simply shadows of themselves.
I considered returning to the tavern but decided I had had enough of crowds for one day, and so I went back to my guest house.
In truth, it was more than a guest house: cozy, pleasant and warm, a spice-smelling reassuring bolt-hole of sheets, frilly table-covers and flocked wallpaper, and, in Frau Maier, a bustling somewhat burly woman who smelled of mothballs and had a habit of making tiny humming sounds when she was listening to me. Her English was every bit as perfect as anyone else’s and this further emphasized my need to learn at least the basic fundamentals before making such a trip again.
She welcomed me in personally, as though I were a long-lost relative returning from some fabled war fought on horseback and with oversized cutlery. Her hands clasped at her stomach, her back ramrod-straight and her smile tight but genuine, she asked if I would like any refreshment before retiring to bed – so much more eloquent and image-conjuring than simply “hitting the sack”. But I declined. Already the beer I had consumed was making me feel a little woozy…but maybe the conversation I had had with Dennis Dannerman on the banks of the river had contributed to that. I bade her goodnight and went up to my room. Within minutes, I was tucked up in bed. Sleep seemed to come almost immediately.
Colours were everywhere, swirling around me, so deep and dense they were taking my breath away. The shapes billowed and withdrew, wafting suddenly one way and then the other, and all the time there were other shapes – real shapes, shapes of people – just behind the haze, standing there watching me.
When I opened my eyes again the room was dark. But not so dark that I couldn’t make out the shape sitting in the chair by the window. I knew right away who it was.
I wanted to ask how he had got into my room but such questions seemed a little redundant when asked of an angel. And anyway, maybe I was still asleep. I reached for the pack of Salem. “Forget something, Dennis?”
He sighed. “We’ve stopped dreaming for others,” he said. “All I wanted to do was put things right…or, at least, make them a little better.”
“Dennis,” I said, blowing smoke and hiking myself up in bed, “you’re going to have to bear with me a little here. What do you mean about our stopping dreaming for others?”
He got to his feet and walked across to the window. “It’s a cyclical thing, Charles,” he said. “Most of the time, people care for each other pretty well but things tend to get run down.” I could see his head turn around to look at me but I couldn’t see his face. “And it starts when they’re asleep.
“People don’t know it’s happening most of the time,” he said, “they’re just reacting to the way things are around them. Times get tough, and the people get tougher. It’s a fact of life. They dream for themselves…they dream of success and wealth…about winning the lottery or being promoted; they dream of nice clothes and great vacations; about making out with people they’ve always wanted to make out with. They stop dreaming about the other poor shmuck who’s maybe got even less than they have because they want it for themselves…and they want it all. Then, when the dreaming gets selfish enough, they stop even thinking about other folks.” He looked back out of the window. “And that’s where things are right about now. The collective dreaming for others stopped a long, long time ago. Collective thinking will follow soon.”
I didn’t say anything for a moment. “If you think that explains things then you’ve been away too long,” I said at last.
“I’m not through,” he said.
He walked back to the chair and I switched on the lamp by the side of the bed. The dim light gave the room a slightly surreal tone, as though everything that could be trusted was here within the parameter of its glow…and everything beyond it was hard and cold and dangerous. I shivered involuntarily, even though I was still fully clothed, and hoisted the sheet up to my chin.
He settled deeper into the chair. “Got a cigarette?”
“But you’re an angel?”
I tossed the pack across and followed it with the matchbook.
Dennis lit up and blew out smoke, sighing dreamily. “Good,” he said. “Okay, let’s say I’ve been a little economical with the truth. I’ll take it from the top. Two things: first, the Dream.”
He waved a hand. “Oh, I’m going back hundreds – thousands – of years. Back to the beginning, almost. In the beginning, there wasn’t The Word…or even a word. There was only a dream, a dream for mankind. It was God’s dream. He felt that men should bond amongst themselves, look after and out for each other. But what works in theory doesn’t always work in practice. Where individuality exists – and individuality is the essence of existence – there will always be strife, struggle, and envy.
“Of course,” he went on, “there was no way he could give a collective intelligence to men – that stuff only works in science fiction…and not always even then – because there were too many distractions. But only too many distractions while they were fully aware of them.”
“I don’t follow.”
“He figured that if he could stop those distractions, just for a while, he could get them to bond…become almost a sentient multi-multi-headed creature. And so he hit on an idea – two ideas, actually. The first was to remove the diversions and the distractions, and the second was to place something – one thing – in their stead.
“And so,” Dennis Dannerman said as he stubbed out his cigarette, “God invented sleep, and he created something to fill that void of existence…a dream of togetherness to bond people together.”
“Jesus Christ, Dennis, what are you telling me here? I feel like Spencer Tracy in Inherit The Wind. What happened to Darwin in all this?”
“Oh, evolution happened just the way that Darwin said it did. But God gave us sleep, and the ability to dream. What we’ve lost over the millennia, is The dream…the one that God gave us to bond us all together.”
Dennis explained that God had over-stretched the dream idea. What had worked when the entire world population was but a few hundred thousand didn’t work so well when it numbered into the millions. There were now too many people for the collective dream to be effective.
“So God decided that the original concept of the dream had to be recorded somewhere as a physical entity, and that it must then be shown to people, unlocking the seed and the ability he had planted in the first of mankind at the beginning, and which had been passed down – genetically’, if you will…albeit in an increasingly diluted fashion – as a kind of race memory. After a lot of work, he finally did it. In other words, he managed to give substance to the insubstantial.”
Dennis produced the piece of card from out of his pocket and held it up. “And here it is.”
I stared at the card and made my single biggest mistake of the evening: I said…
“You said there were two things. What’s the second?”
He looked at me, smiled tiredly and said, “The second thing I wanted to tell you about is the Devil wants the Dream.”
I was probably expected to say something there but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Dennis Dannerman stood up and walked across to the window, leaning on the sill like a man who had run a marathon. “When Lucifer was expelled from…from the other side, he took something with him. Just one thing.”
“Why do I think I know what that was?”
“Right. He took the dream. And he’s kept it all these thousands of years. Kept it ‘down below’ to use the theatrical term for Hell.” Dennis turned around.
I was frowning. “But you’ve… So how did you get hold of the Dream?”
“It’s like nothing you could imagine, Charles,” he said. “Down there. Nothing in your wildest nightmare can prepare you for that place. Just…just a void, an empty space filled with crags and rocks and tunnels, hot…hotter than – and I know I’m repeating myself- hotter than you could think hot could be. No sky, no ground, just rock everywhere, dark tunnels which glow with some kind of half-light, and all we do is crawl through them, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, looking for a way out.”
“You crawled through them? But I thought…
“That’s where I went. When I died. I wanted to keep it from you but there’s no way to do that.”
“Why did you want to keep it from me?”
He looked down at his tightly-clenched hands. “Because I was ashamed.”
“Is that why you gave me all that other stuff…the ‘angel’ stuff? Because you were ashamed?”
He nodded. “Partly.”
“And what was the other part?”
“I want you to do something for me and I didn’t think you’d want to do it if you thought I was bad.”
He waved a hand. “When I died, all the things I’d done caught up with me. I won’t bore you with the details but suffice to say the scales were weighted against me. I accepted my lot with some reluctance, but I did accept it. When you hear the list of charges, it’s difficult not to be contrite.” He shook his head and let out a small laugh, though it was entirely without humor. “Some of those things I didn’t even remember. But there was no arguing against them. And anyway, most of them I did remember. So…
“The rumor of a way out of Hell has been circulating down there for as long as Hell has existed. As has the rumor of the Great First Dream, the blueprint for humanity’s goodness, lost to the Gods since the time Lucifer was sent packing. It was held, the stories went, in some inner sanctum looked over by the Devil itself.” He waited for that to sink in for a few minutes and then added, “And I found it.
“There were three of us, a mercenary from 8th century Antigua called Paul Theolomides and a heroin dealer from 1960s Madrid -Salvatore something-or-other.
“We came across the small cave separately, dropping into it from three different holes in the wall pretty much at the same time. There’s no sleep down there – although you’re tired all the time… I mean dog-tired, falling down dead tired. And there are no meals, no coffee breaks, even though you’re always thirsty and always hungry – thirsty like a man crawling the desert for days, hungry like someone who hasn’t eaten for weeks. But not sleeping and not drinking or eating doesn’t harm you in any way. You just go on…tired and thirsty and hungry.
“Anyway, we dropped into the cavern and there it was, sitting on an outcrop of rock.”
“The dream? That piece of card you carry?”
He nodded. It was glowing like fairy lights, casting shimmering shadows around the walls, throwing hues of colour across the ground like light ripples on a still lake. And the whole cave was hissing, a permanent state of anger and mistrust, and maybe even fear.
“Paul recognized it pretty much straight away. Sal didn’t know shit about anything, even though he’d been there years longer than me.”
“And where was…” I hesitated: what the hell was I talking about? “Where was the Devil?”
Dennis shrugged. “Taking a dump? Checking the furnaces? Who knows? All I know is that when each of us took this thing in our hands we could feel it, you know? We could feel the power of it, feel the light and the warmth, feel…feel the goodness.
“They – Paul and Sal – wanted to use it as a bargaining chip…strike up a deal with ‘the authorities’. But I wanted to take it away from that hateful cave, wanted to take it away from Hell forever, maybe restore it to its rightful owners. There was a scuffle – we all have bodies there, bodies which cannot be inflicted with pain from each other, but which are in pain every minute of every day…bullet-wound pain, back pain, chest pain, headache, gut ache, nausea, pancreatic cancer, gout, hangnails and Tequila hangovers…all rolled into one. All the time. God, you wouldn’t believe.
“Anyway, there was this scuffle and I got the Dream. I scurried back up one of the tunnels and, though they followed me in, I soon lost them, turning first this way and then that, then another, keeping going all the time, the card jammed into my mouth. Pretty soon I was alone, or as alone as you ever get down there…occasionally coming up on some other guy’s bare backside swaying to and fro in front until you take a different path.
“Then, without any warning – I have no idea how long I was crawling that way, crawling with the card – there was a light up ahead, and the crawlspace was getting wider.” He raised his arms in the air. “And I was out, bare-ass naked, but out. In a cave in Rheinisches Schiefergebirge – the Rhenish Slate Mountains: I didn’t know that at the time, of course, only later.
“I made my way down the highlands into Hunsruck, through Taunus, Eifel and Westerwald, down through the wine-growing region, until at last I came upon houses. Under cover of darkness I stole clothes – still don’t need food, still don’t need sleep…but the pains have stopped, and the tiredness and the hunger and thirst – and eventually I made my way to Hamburg and, eventually, here to Meissen. By the time I found out what day and year it was, I’d been out for four days, sleeping out in the fields and the woods. It was the fourteenth of July 1995 – 10 days after my death. Which meant I had been in Hell for five or six days.” He gave an involuntary shudder. “And I thought I had been there for years…years and years.
“My mother found me in Hamburg, only she wasn’t my mother. ‘She’ was the Devil itself, come to retrieve the dream…and me.
“He was wearing a disguise?”
“Not ‘he’, ‘it’. When Lucifer went down he was simply pissed off. The ensuing time spent forging a domain out of hard rock and reflecting on how badly he felt he had been treated turned the pissed off into pure madness. The Devil probably doesn’t even recall its life as a God. Doesn’t recognize the name Lucifer.”
“So how did you manage to…”
“It was your father that saved me.”
“My father? How?”
“The word had gotten out. The Dream had been rescued from Hell and the Gods knew all about it. After he had introduced himself, in a silvery spidery voice that whispered in my head, your father told me that the woman was not who she pretended to be. And that I must not give the card to her. I must not give the card to anyone. Instead, I must use it…must carry the message forward to all that would listen.”
“But why didn’t she -I mean, ‘it’ – why didn’t the Devil just take it? And how did you get away?”
“The Devil may only take what is offered to him voluntarily. When I told this thing that I had been informed that she was not my mother, there were some tears – how could I say that of her? and all that – but eventually, she showed her true form.” He shuddered again and I had no wish for further explanation.
“I left late at night, running down the streets of Hamburg carrying only what I wore on my back…plus the card containing the Dream. And that is where I met Siglinde Erhard. She told me that she had been waiting for a man in whom she could trust and that voices had told her that I was that man. I must leave Hamburg that night, she explained, and forever do good work. She said that it was only through good work that I may be redeemed. And she told me to go to Meissen.”
He paused for breath and sat down in the chair once more. “Since then, I have passed the card around to all that would listen…letting them touch it, feel the power, but each time telling them that they may not keep it. You see, I could trust no-one…and yet the very nature of my task was such that I had to trust everyone. Your father told me that the end to my work was near. Someone was coming, he said. Someone who could take my burden from me.”
I didn’t say anything, just raised my eyebrows questioningly.
He pointed a finger. “That someone is you.”
“Me? Jesus Christ, what’s going on here?” I jumped up off the bed and walked to the bureau where my spare cigarette packs were stacked up like reassuring bricks of normality. “Why doesn’t someone from Heaven come down and just take the damned card back?”
“Because nothing that has ever been in Hell may enter Heaven. It’s tainted…but it can still be used here on Earth.”
“But you said… I mean, your redemption? Doesn’t that mean you’re going to go there? And you’ve been in Hell.” I waited for a few seconds, watching Dennis Dannerman’s vacant expression, and then something began to gnaw at me. “And if I take the card – which I have no intention of doing, let me add – what happens to you?”
“I can’t answer any of those questions. What is it they say about ‘faith’? I only know this: you are to take the card – of your own free will – and… you are to release me.”
I lit a cigarette. “And what will happen to you?”
He held the card out to me. “No idea.”
Then the door opened and my father came into the room.
“Take it, son,” my father said. “Let him go. He has earned his rest.”
In the years since my father’s death I had forgotten what he looked like. Forgotten the sound of his voice.
I had photographs, of course, and, occasionally, when I was feeling in the mood or when I stumbled across an old photo album while looking for something else, I would flick through the images of him – photographs taken sometimes with me, sometimes with my mother and sometimes just by himself.
But those static reminders can serve against memory and not for it. You forget the movement of the mouth, the adjustment of hair, the turning of the head. A million tiny movements and affectations that make the person who he or she really is. No amount of photographs can reproduce that.
In the small room in the Meissen guest-house the memories of my life with this man came flooding back to me. How I wished, in that instant, for my mother to be magically whisked from the rest home in Wells on the Maine coastline, and carried halfway across the world to my room. But then, in that same instant, I wondered how she would feel…her a frail but still beautiful woman in her eighties and him a relatively young man not quite 60 years old. Just the way he had been when he had been taken from her – from us - all that time ago.
“Oh…” I began, not quite knowing what to say, placing my cigarette on the ashtray and preparing myself to lunge across at him and take him in my arms.
He shook his head as though sensing my thoughts. “Accept the dream, Charles,” he said, pointing to the card. “Accept your destiny.”
Without further hesitation, I stepped across to where Dennis sat, still holding the dog-eared piece of card that contained God’s first dream for mankind, and I took it between my fingers, feeling, with a momentary puzzlement, some reluctance on Dennis Dannerman’s part to let it go. Perhaps, I thought, when the chips were down, his faith had deserted him…just for a second. Perhaps he was wondering where he would be transported to, wondering whether he would open his eyes onto pastoral fields or would suddenly find himself crouching once more in the labyrinthine stone tunnels of eternal damnation.
As I pulled, I saw his lips begin a word, a “Ch…” word…and then he was gone. The chair was empty.
I looked down at the card and watched the shapes swirl and eddy, felt the shifting of sound and the movement of light, heard the unmistakable serenity of silence and smelled the depth of hope. It made me want to cry…buttocrywithjoy.
“Let me see it,” my father said. “Let me look upon it, son.”
And, may God have mercy on me, I handed the First Dream to my father.
But it wasn’t him at all.
Most of the rest of it is a blur now. But, sometimes in an unguarded moment, particularly in the warmth of my bed where I lay, another deadline missed, waiting for sleep but praying that no dreams will come to haunt me, I replay those final seconds. I still hear, in my memory, the sharp intake of breath of the man who accepted the card I had voluntarily passed to him, a sound not like any sound I had ever heard from any human being…let alone from my father. And whatever tricks the memory might play, that is something of which I am certain.
And the deep voice that said, in a sarcastic tone, “Thank you,” and then added, with a hint of gleeful humor, “I look forward to meeting you again”, was no voice I had ever heard around my childhood home, not even when my father was telling me scary stories of shambling monsters made from piles of rain-soaked fall leaves and a chance bolt of lightning, while I lay beside him tucked in my bed, eyes as wide as saucers.
I suppose the immediate vanishment of my “father” – and the card – should have been accompanied by a maniacal laugh, a puff of reddish smoke and the unmistakable odour of brimstone, but there were none of these Vaudevillian staples and Hollywood CGI effects.
There was only a stark emptiness. And the imagined silent tears of the Gods raining on a beautiful and endless plain somewhere far, far away… Somewhere I may never see.