“Say I won't be there”: a short story by Ali Smith

I had a dream, I say.

Don’t tell me about any dream right now, you say, I can’t listen to it right now.

We are sitting in what characterises week-day breakfast for us these days, which means us not saying anything and the Today programme on in the background. Today the Today programme is about the possible break-up of the eurozone, about a government scheme to give parents online training in how to look after new babies, and about how some gov­ernment people are swearing they’re not in the pockets of newspaper people regardless of any texts they may have sent and how nobody is going to resign. The word they keep using is transparent.

It’s not just any dream, it’s the recurring dream, I say. The one I’ve been having all year. I had it again. I keep having it.

Tautology, you say.

What? I say.

You just said the same thing four times over, you say. And I can’t hear about your dream right now. I’ve got work in a minute.

Tautology yourself. And I’ve got work too, I say.

Then I don’t say anything for a minute because we both know that sending CVs out online to try and find work doesn’t really constitute work.

Anyway I don’t want to tell you it, I say. I’m just telling you the fact that I had it again.

Good, you say.

There’s a graveyard in it, I say.

In the dream? you say.

You raise your head from your coffee. Today the company you work for is meeting some people who run a business that is extending its premises into the site of an old churchyard, to see if the people like the company’s plans for turning burial ground into tidy new landscaping. Some of the things I’ve said to you about this and that you’ve shrugged your shoulders at are: are you allowed to do that? and what about the dead people? and you can’t tidy a graveyard into something else, it’s always going to be a graveyard. If the graveyard deal falls through it looks like your job will too, because the company is laying off people right left and centre.

Am I in it? you say.

The graveyard? I say.

The dream, you say. Don’t tell me the whole dream, I just want to know if I’m in it.

You’re not, I say, and it’s not your graveyard. It’s a 1960s graveyard. And I’m not even in the dream, myself. I mean, I’m in it, but not as me.

How then? you say.

Well, I say, in it I’m a different person. I’m, like, a character in a 1960s novel.

Which 1960s novel? you say. Who by?

Not a real actual novel, I say. Not a novel that exists. I’m just trying to find a way to describe what it feels like to have the dream.

And you’re like a character or you are a character? you say.

Pedant, I say.

Are there scooters? you say.

Eh? I say.

Milk machines? you say.

Where you put your coin in and a pint of milk drops into the slot. Photo booths. Record booths upstairs in Woolworths. Where you wait your turn then you listen to a record and don’t have to buy it?

Don’t start trying to turn my dream into a cheap graphic-designy version of the 1960s, I say.

Are there any women in it who are pregnant and thinking about having an abortion but know how impossible that’ll be so they end up having a terrible miscarriage because they have to go to a backstreet place to have it done? you say.

Yes, hundreds of them, I say, and they’re all queuing up looking aggrieved at the future. Stop hijacking my dream.

How do you know it’s a 1960s book and not a 1960s film? you say.

I’m not telling any pedant anything else about any dream of mine, I say.

I told you already I don’t want to hear about your stupid dream – you say.

It’s not a stupid dream – I say.

And I was just interested for a moment in the form it’s taking, you say. Because dreams are usually really visual, aren’t they? More like films. Is it like A Hard Day’s Night?

No, I say.

Do you remember that time we were driving back from Wales, you say, and I was falling asleep at the wheel and the only way we could keep me awake was to play the soundtrack of A Hard Day’s Night really loud?

No, I say.

No? you say.

No I don’t, I say. And it’s not like a film, it’s grimier, and calmer, and smaller, and less meaningful than a film, I say. It’s kind of nothing and everything.

How does that make it a novel? you say.

And it’s like I can sort of taste the paper, I say, smell it, the paper the book’s printed on, even though I’m seeing it happen.
Synaesthesia, you say.

Bless you, I say.

Really unfunny, you say. And seeing what? What are you seeing happen?

There’s this man with his arm in a sling, I say, and he comes home from work late one night and goes up the stairs and there are these three small girls all in a row in a bed, tucked in, they’re asleep but he wakes them. So he can tell them.

Tell them what? you say.

You said you didn’t want me to tell you my dream, I say.

I’ve got to go in a minute, you say. Come on.

He tells them, I say, how the day before he comes home – he’s been down south working in London – anyway the day before, he’s just walking along the road, turning a corner on an ordinary London street on his way to work when all of a sudden he sees her.

Who? you say.

Dusty Springfield, I say.

Dusty? you say. Really? What’s she singing?

She isn’t singing anything, I say, she’s having her photograph taken in a graveyard. By a man from the Daily Mirror.

How do you know he’s from the Daily Mirror? you say.

I just do, I say. Dream logic.

I can’t believe she’s not singing something, you say. That’s because you don’t like her music.

I do so like her music, I say. I just don’t know very much about it.

You don’t even know a single song she sang, you say.

I do so, I say.

Name some songs, you say. Name one.

She sings the song in that Quentin Tarantino film where the man gets his ear cut off, I say.

Son of a Preacher Man, you say, and it’s not in that film, it’s in a different Tarantino film.

Whatever, I say.

Name one, you say. Just one.

That one where she waves her arms about in the air when she sings it, I say, the song about you not having to say. And that song about only wanting to be with you, that Annie Lennox sang. And, uh, she sings, eh, she also –

It’s me who likes Dusty, not you. And you’ve stolen my work too. Dusty Springfield. In the graveyard. Your dream is filched from me. You’ve taken something I like and you’ve put it into something I’m working on. You’re filching my subconscious, you say.

No I’m not, I say. I’ve been having this dream much longer than you’ve been working on any graveyard project. I’ve been having this dream for more than a year.

Well, where’s it come from? you say. It must have come from somewhere. Is it something that happened in your childhood?

No, I say. Not at all.

Is it your father in the dream? Did your father do something like that? Who are the other two girls in the bed? Is it from before your mother went?

All the people in the dream, I say, are strangers to me. I recognise them, but only from having dreamed about them before. And I’m a different one of them, a different person, every time I dream it.

You’re looking at the clock. You stand up, wipe the crumbs from round your mouth, wash your hands at the sink and take your ironed shirt off the back of the spare chair. I follow you to the hall mirror.

So sometimes I’m the man coming up the stairs, I say, and sometimes I’m the girls’ mother, and sometimes I’m one or other of the three girls in the bed.

You are buttoning yourself up. You stop mid-button and turn.

And sometimes you’re Dusty? you say.

No, I say. I never get to be Dusty.

Why? you say.

I don’t think we get to choose with dreams, I say. And properly speaking, she isn’t actually in the dream. I never get to see her. I only get
to hear about her or report about her retro­spectively.

You are at the door now pulling your jacket on. Your ironed shirt is rumpling up already beneath the jacket.

Right then. Bye then. Wish me luck, you say.

Luck, I say.

See you later. I’ll text you, you say.

Not if I text you first, I say.

The door shuts behind you. I go back and sit at the table in the noise of the radio news.

The people on the radio tell me that the jobless figures are down but that if you look at the statistic while taking other statistics into account the jobless figures are up. A presenter tells me I can send in my thoughts. He tells me the hashtag. He tells me about the 24-hour news feeds online and how to contact the programme. It is amazing how many ways there are now to be personally in touch with what’s happening in the world. The presenter reads out a couple of comments some people have emailed or tweeted. The comments are meant to be funny. It reminds me of when I occasionally used to catch that programme on TV, Points of View, and how people wrote in commenting on things they’d seen on TV and how it always made me wonder about the loneliness status of the people who wrote in.

I look at the shut door. Houses change when people come in and out of them. Even the radio sounds different with just me here; this whole house and all the air in it is practically reeling with your going, even though it’s just a simple going, an everyday off-to-work kind of going.
I am far too sensitive. Something will have to be done about such sensitivity.

There was a time in our lives, some years ago now, when you and I took to writing down our dreams. It was when we were still being idealistic about our relationship. We wanted to see how dreams would read, especially after time had passed and immediacy had blurred. We wanted to see if two different people’s dreams could have anything in common. I remember us arranging, some nights, before we went to sleep, to meet in our dreams. Of course, we never did. You can’t control dreams. And partly we started writing them down – though we didn’t say so out loud – because it’s really boring to have to sit and listen, in the morning when you’re hardly awake yourself, to a dream someone else has had, which inevitably sounds mad, because dreams always sound mad and can go on for what feels like ever.

We bought the book in Habitat, before our local Habitat closed down. We wrote dreams down in it for about six months, this is eight
or nine years ago now. It’s a blank book with thick handmade paper and hand-stitching up the spine; its cover has an Indian goddess riding an elephant on it in a kind of Bollywood poster image. It’s underneath the couch in the front room quarter-filled with outdated dreams. At least I’m assuming it’s under the couch. We tend to dislodge it yearly; when summer comes around and we pull the deck­chair out we find it again among the long sashes of dust that have formed themselves of what’s escaped the Hoover since the end of the summer before.


At lunchtime you send me a text. It arrives at exactly the same time as an email from you in my in-box. The text is quite long. Before I have time to read either, the doorbell goes. I answer the door and a girl courier, holding her bike by the handlebars, gives me a padded envelope. While I’m signing the form on her clipboard, the house phone kicks into answerphone behind me and I can hear your voice leaving a message. When I get back into the kitchen there’s also a voicemail from you waiting on my mobile.

I look at the envelope in my hand. My name and the address on it are in your writing.

I press the button on the house answerphone first, since your voice was in the room just a moment ago. The automaton tells me the date and the day and the time, then it’s you.

Hi. I just wanted to inform your subconscious that one day in the 1960s Dusty Springfield was eating in the revolving restaurant at the top of the new Post Office Tower. And she saw a head waiter giving a lower-ranking waiter a hard time, the head waiter was tearing a strip off him about something and Dusty Springfield thought the telling-off was unjustified, so she picked up a bread roll from a basket on the table and she threw it at that head waiter and hit him with it. Bye for now. Love.

Then your message ends, the automaton voice repeats the time it got recorded and the recorder rewinds and switches itself off.

I pick up my mobile and press the text icon. This is what your (quite long) text says. In 1964 Dusty Springfield was kept under house arrest in a South African hotel for several days because she refused to play a concert where the venue was racially segregated. This got her into considerable trouble not just in South Africa but at home too where other entertainers, among them contemporary luminaries like Max Bygraves and Derek Nimmo, complained to the papers that by doing this she was endangering their chances of performing in South Africa. xxx
Your email, by comparison, is very short.

Dusty Springfield was 1 of the reasons in the 1960s that Motown music reached the UK at all xxx

I press the answerphone button on my mobile.

Hi. It’s me. I just wanted to let your subconscious know that at the end of the Sixties, well, in 1970, which we have to think of a product of the 1960s, Dusty Springfield told a newspaper that she was every bit as capable of being swayed, in terms of sexual attraction, by a girl as by a boy. At the time this was, as you might imagine, a near-incendiary thing for anyone to say out loud, even though male homosexuality had been, though only very recently, decriminalised. In England, not in Scotland. In Scotland it wasn’t legal till 1980. Love. See you later. Bye.
The only message left now is whatever’s in the padded envelope. I open it.

Inside is a bright orange CD box with two men and a woman in what look like Fifties clothes on the cover. Did the early Sixties really look
so like the Fifties? The men are both looking straight at the camera and holding guitars. The woman, the early Dusty Springfield, is clasping her hands and looking up demurely like a good girl, well, I say girl, but she looks like she could be any age between 15 and 50.
There’s a note in the padded envelope. I unfold it. In your handwriting, it says

Hi. This is a present for your thief of a subconscious from the beginning of the 1960s. The song called Island of Dreams stayed in the charts
for the whole first half of 1963. It has a Thomas Hardy reference in it, which I thought you’d enjoy. If I’m remembering rightly Dusty Springfield was unhappy with her vocal on this song, she thought it was too nasal and slightly off-key, but then she was the kind of perfectionist who, after she went solo that same year, would do things like insist on recording her vocals in the echoing acoustic of the ladies’ toilets or the stairwells of the Philips Music building to get the tonal dimension she particularly wanted.

I sit at the table. I shake my head. I start writing a text. Thank you for the lectures in 1960s memorabilia. Did you get the job. Did you not get the job. Love.

But then instead of sending it, I delete it.

I put the phone down on the table and open the CD box.

The song called Island of Dreams begins with a melancholy harmonica wail. Then a lopey rhythm sets in, swings along in an almost country and western way into a song about someone who can’t forget, and what she can’t forget is a lovely love-affair which took place on a beautiful island, the island of dreams. High in the sky is a bird on the wing. Please carry me with you. Far far away from the mad rushing crowd. Please carry me with you.

I spend the rest of the afternoon listening to the two CDs of digitally remastered songs by the Springfields. Far Away Places With Strange Sounding Names. Say I Won’t Be There. Where Have All the Flowers Gone? (Sag Mir, Wo Die Blumen Sind). The last of these is sung in English and German by the Springfields, not very long after the war.

The songs have a innocent bravado about them; several slip from one language to another and from one national musical style to another, raucous then soothing then raucous again sometimes in the same song, and at the centre of all of them there’s this female vocal, tough and delicate sometimes both at once in the space of a single held note.

I’m surprised by how many of the songs I know. I’m almost embarrassed, by their sheer energy, their optimism. It makes me think of the front garden of the new council house, churned-up, waist-high mud when my parents arrived, roses by the time I was small, and of one of my few memories of my mother, the day she ran down the road with a shovel after the milkman’s horse and cart had clopped past and the horse had left balls of dung on the tarmac steaming in the cold of April, and my mother coming back with it and digging the bright smell of horseshit in round the roots of the bushes.


I’ll write a book instead, you say. I’ll call it The Dream: Grime and Transcendence In The 1960s Novel.

Not very catchy title, I say. It’ll need to be better.

We’re in bed. It’s later. We’ve been out for supper, to spend money while we have it and to talk about ways we might be able to make it when we need to, urgently, again, quite soon. That conversation didn’t last long. But now the very nice wine is wearing off. We’re lying
beside each other, both with our arms behind our heads, both looking at the ceiling of our house. Not our house. The house belongs to the bank. The bank belongs to a different planet, aeons away from the planet which the people who have to use the banks live on. So much for space travel.

Ah, it was all about things being better, getting better, back then, you say.

Grime was transcendent, back then, I say.

Hems were transcendent back then, you say.

Everything was transcendent back then, I say.

We’ll be all right, you say.

Course we will, I say. We’ll transcend.

It’s not the transc end of the world, you say.

It never is, I say. Listen. I was wondering. Is Dusty Springfield actually dead?

No, Dusty will never die, you say. She died in the late Nineties I think.

Where’s she buried? I say.

In your dream, you say.

She’s not buried in my dream, I say.

Don’t tell me your dream, you say.

She’s having her picture taken in my dream, I say.

Yeah, and now you’re fully prepared, you’ll really see her when you see her next time you dream that dream, you say.

In fact, I say, she’s not actually having her picture taken in my dream. She’s just a character in a story that’s told by someone who’s seen
her having her picture taken.

Very postmodern structure, you say. Grime and transcendence in the postmodern 1960s novel. It must be a late Sixties dream, your dream. Don’t tell me it, I don’t want to know.

I’ll never ever tell you it, I say, and nothing you can do will ever make me.

I don’t know if she even is buried, you say. She might be scattered. It’ll probably say on Wiki.

So much information so little time, I say.

Scattered, spore-like, broken down and molecular, the hopes and the dreams and the new wipe-clean linoleums, you say. The new exciting fabrics and the clothes made of paper, the moisture from the evaporated coffee-bar steam of a recovering nation. Scattered, the notes of all the sung and beloved songs. Scattered, the filaments of light of the new mornings that dawned across the brand new motorways with hardly any cars on them, the fogs and the smogs dispersing, the flashing neons dimming in the dawn light, season after season, round Eros in Piccadilly. There. That’s your opening page.

Eros isn’t scattered, I say. He’s still there. I saw him, for real, last week, in London.

You saw Eros? you say. For real?

Well, the statue, I say. Not your actual Eros.

If you ever see my actual Eros –, you say. In a dream, say.

Uh huh? I say.

Whatever you do –, you say.

I won’t tell you, I say.


The father shakes us awake. He’s sitting on the end of the bed in the light from the landing; the bedroom door’s open and the mother’s coming up the stairs saying don’t wake them, don’t, Fred, it’s late.

This time in the dream I am the one in the middle of the bed, the smallest. I’ve had the flu. Because I’m still not quite better from the flu, I’ve been put to bed earliest, and at the beginning of the dream, I leaned on our windowsill with the vintage car models my mother bought me because I had the flu, and raced them along the length of the sill. There was ice on the inside rim of the window again. When I put my tongue on it, it tasted metallic, of the metal of the window frame. The vintage car toys are tremendously beautiful. I know the other two sisters are already thinking about how to steal them. But for the moment in the dream they’re mine.

The father smells of alcohol. His arm is in a sling. The eldest of the sisters asks him how
he did it.

He did it in a pub fight, the mother says at the door.

The father talks over the top of her.

Guess who I saw, he says. Yesterday morning, early in the morning. I was walking down the street between the bus stop and work and
I turned a corner, and guess who I saw, in person, in the flesh. Dusty Springfield.

Both the sisters get very excited. I am too sleepy to be excited, and I am not completely sure who Dusty Springfield is.

The sister who sleeps on the wall side of the bed writes secret poems on the spare pages at the back of the pocket dictionary she has for school. One of the poems is about how it would feel to be a vagrant or a beggar. She always gives any pocket money she might have to the people, if she’s passing them, who came back from the war with one leg or one arm missing and sit on the pavements outside the big shops. (When I’m this sister in the dream I know that she believes that the singer Dusty Springfield, who was NME’s most popular female vocalist again last year, would particularly understand what it is like to be her.)

The sister on the door side of the bed is good at everything. A photo has been taken of her in her school uniform sitting at her desk pretending to write things down. It is framed on the sideboard downstairs. (When I’m this sister in the dream I know that she has noticed that the singer Dusty Springfield, whose eyes are as black as the vinyl of her 45s, uses her eyeshadow like a mask, keeps herself well behind it.)
Dusty Springfield! the mother is saying.

She looks in awe in the landing light. She comes and sits on the end of the bed beside the father. (When I’m her in the dream and she says this, I can feel her heart open wider, like an eye, inside her.)

She was having her photograph taken, the father says. And I thought to myself, wait till I tell my girls. (When I’m him in the dream I know, as he throws himself and his story headlong up the stairs, how full his own heart is with bringing home the story.) And there were a lot of people there from the Daily Mirror, he says, a photographer and people, and there must have been lights, because the graveyard was lit up and she was standing way back in among all these old graves and overgrown grass and plants and suchlike, and she was wearing a bright pink suit, bright pink trousers and a bright pink jacket with her hair all yellow and up like it is, and she had her arms out like this.

The father flings his one arm that’s not in a sling out wide. At the same time, because he’s forgotten, he tries to fling the arm in the sling out too.

Ouch! he says like it really hurt to, then the mother starts to laugh, then he laughs too.

And that, each time, is where the dream ends and I wake up.

Ali Smith is a novelist. Her most recent book is “There But For The” (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The royal makeover