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“The Lucid Dreamer”: a short story by A S Byatt

A short story exclusively for the New Statesman 

When he woke, the room was full of light.

It was a white room. The blinds were white but he never closed them, because he liked to be woken by daylight. He uncoiled under the crisp white heap of his duvet, and the down moved with him, and held him. Incomprehensible happiness flooded him, too much happiness, tinted with relief. He tried to think. He had been tensed against disaster. He had been dreaming, one of those dense dreams which appear to offer no way out, which mock you with the idea that they are not dreams at all. What had he been dreaming? He began to remember and could not, not quite, but he felt the rare surprise and delight of those who discover that disaster was, after all, only a dream. He was in the light and he was let off.

His clock told him it was 6am, which meant that he could drift back into sleep for an hour before needing to get up. He closed his eyes against the light and settled his body.

When he woke, there was even more light. Something was wrong. He closed his eyes, briefly, and panic climbed up in him. He was going to be made to remember. Remembering was more bearable if he was standing, so he scrambled out of bed and braced himself. He had tamed the mnemonics so that each could be suffered briefly and put aside. The policewoman's frightened face at the door when he opened it. Clumsy hands on his resistant shoulder. A ludicrous phrase - "undertaking a pantechnicon". "She was at fault." A ragged spike of glistening raw bone protruding through skin. Fools saying, "We must be grateful for her life." He could spin through this dire sequence briskly now, but could not avoid its recurrence. It was not so bad, not so bad, as the memory of the smell of her hair, lightly floral after washing, warmly animal in bed.

He was enraged that he had been trapped into a lying dream that had given him momentary relief. These dreams were known as false awakenings. He knew a bit about dreams and had studied them. He had even joined a group that practised "lucid dreaming". With practice, you could know in the dream that you were dreaming, you could open doors and walk through walls into new landscapes. You could avoid certain horrors, or familiarise others. As a young man, before he met her, he had kept a dream diary, trying to read rhythms and meanings into what might be merely random. He believed he had dreamed he was going to meet her before she walked into his life. When they were first together he had dreamed repeatedly that he had lost her, that he was seeking her everywhere, over hills and fields, along endless shores, through dusty streets. He told her about these dreams, and she said easily that dreams went by contraries, that here she was and here she would stay. He was - as a professional dreamer - interested in what he imagined her to be, in her imagined absences in the dreams. What was he looking for? A blue dress that resembled nothing she ever wore. A giant, just over the horizon, a pygmy under the hill. When he woke, she was there, "just right" - a phrase that came from Goldilocks's usurpation of the smallest bear's bed in the forest.

Their friends tried to help him, afterwards, and mostly only enraged him. He cleared away her things - her hairwash choked him - he took down every photograph and put them in a trunk. The dead spill over, in these days, into the daily lives of the living. The internet was infested with the mockery of her voice, her face, her words. He did not believe in ghosts and found memories simply and only painful. Sudden uncontrolled encounters dragged them up, like mud from a pond bottom, and then he braced himself against the policewoman, the bone, the undertaken pantechnicon. He had no concept of working through his grief - indeed he avoided that word. He felt comforting as deceit. He got a new job, with new colleagues, and he went only to places where they had never gone together.

Some time after "it happened" - he avoided the words accident, death, which were intolerable - a taxi took him unexpectedly past the place, the road, the railings. He could not even bring himself to ask the driver not to go there. He just sat stiffly and waited to be past. Someone had mounted a white ghost bike on the railings and hung it with long streamers of black and white silk ribbon. He was moved by that. The solidity of absence.
He dreamed once or twice of the ghost bike, chained to the railings, its decorations fluttering with a false life.

He never dreamed of her. He could not control his waking thoughts, but he could fence his dreams against any mocking wraith, any fictive encounter, any journey or gathering or sinking to sleep where relaxation of will could allow her image to slide in and damage him. He could not, he thought, survive either her unreal presence or waking to find that he had dreamed her. Once or twice, in dreams, there were inviting paths in woods he willed himself not to follow, not even naming to himself what he feared to find at the end. Once, someone opened a door to him and the figure would not settle, it shivered and tried to shape itself as hers, and he willed it to become his schoolteacher, who glowered at him and then told him he was a good boy. He wondered at first if the effort of will would exhaust him, would sap his energy, but he thought on balance that it did not, that it just about made it possible for him to live. He changed his job, he became formal and distant with his friends, he was a kind of automaton. The dreamworld was where he lived. He wrote it down more and more intensively, recalling colours and distances and details that would vanish if he waited until he had dressed and drunk his coffee before recording them. He recorded dreams of seeking along halls and

corridors, endless stairs opening on more endless stairs. He recorded dreams of being embarrassingly naked at interviews, or standing in a meadow and watching his teeth drop one by one like petals on the grass. He sat in examination rooms and searched fruitlessly for a piece of paper six inches wide and four feet long, without which he was not permitted to begin writing. There were menacing clocks that ticked and moved stiff fingers. Often he could say to himself in the dream, this is one of those dreams, you have been here before. Once he painted an abstract masterpiece in brilliant reds and purples, golds and indigo and almost wept as the pattern dissolved before he could recall it to set it down to remember. He didn't interpret meanings. He simply recorded his dreaming life.

He found he was shaking when he sat down to write his bright, white false awakening. He wrote, "I dreamed I was awake after a nightmare. I was not awake, and it was not a nightmare." He could not go on.

The next day he could not recall his dreams. He attributed this to the shock of the false awakening, and waited patiently for the dream­world to be restored. But the next day, and the next day, and the next, his mind was an even, dun-coloured blank. It was possible that he was dreaming and not remembering. It was possible - though surely unlikely - that he had ceased to dream at all.

The absence of dreams changed his waking self. He found he was creeping rather than striding. He felt heavy and pale and conspicuous, as though his features, glimpsed in shop windows, had lost their light and shadow, were plain and pasty. He felt he was a simulacrum, made of dough or wet clay.

He began to see dreams in his waking life. He saw a pavement flowing with a dense crowd of lemmings, and was not surprised quickly enough. He saw bicycles out of the corner of his eye taking forbidden turnings, mounting the pavements with balletic abandon, cavorting like circus horses, upright on a hind wheel. Some of the riders were hooded, some would not cohere into apprehensible forms.

He got in touch with one of his old acquaintances from the lucid dreaming group, from the time before he had known her. He explained to this man, a hospital nurse, that he was experiencing sudden loss of all dreams. He described it as an interesting phenomenon, worth study perhaps. The nurse said maybe he needed counselling. He rejected that idea with considerable firmness, saying oddly that he felt lids should stay on cans of worms. What he needed was to be sure whether he was dreaming and not remembering, or whether he was truly not dreaming at all. Would his friend sit by his bed one night and wake him regularly and ask what he was dreaming? He would be truly grateful, he said rather formally.

So they drank a glass or two of wine together and talked about odd dreams they had had, and why some were remembered in toto, and some for only one vivid detail, and whether the hinterland beyond the detail existed or not. The friend said that his own view was that dreaming went on all the time, like the circulation of the blood. He had learned, he believed, to retrace lost paths in subsequent dreams, to reconstruct faces and places.
He went to bed as he usually did, in his pyjamas, under the buxom white quilt. He said to his friend that all this was making him so exhausted that he was sure he would have no trouble getting to sleep. The friend, in sweater and jeans, sat by the bed in an armchair with a new pad of paper and a pen, waiting to write. He did sleep immediately and easily. The friend woke him during periods of rapid eye movement and during periods of heavy slumber when his face was still. He repeated, each time, "Did you dream?" And each time the answer - sometimes irritable, sometimes weary, occasionally anxious - was, no, he could not recall any dream.

They discussed the problem over breakfast in the morning, before the friend went home to sleep. Some people, the friend said, didn't mind not dreaming, or not knowing, at least, what they had dreamed. Maybe if he just waited a bit, patiently, the memories of his dreams would come back. Or he could ask for help, go for counselling. He said he didn't want that, above all he didn't want that.

After the experiment the waking dreams got worse. A lot worse. He started to write a report in his office and found that he could not write - the computer only produced incomprehen­sible symbols, and when he tried to retrieve its original state it began to issue red warnings of total breakdown. He called for help, for a technician, who typed and tested and said nothing was wrong, he could not see what the problem was. Then he saw his own hands on the keyboard and they were wrinkled things with long claws, like raptors. The lucid dreaming group had explained that looking at your own hands is a good way of telling whether you are in or out of a dream. So that time, he waited for the return of his own pink bitten fingernails, which did return. Much worse was a moment when he was called before his manager to explain why he was suddenly working so much more slowly. When the manager began to speak his tie undid itself, and then his shirt buttons flew open, his vest crawled up his chest, his padded stomach burst open and began to pour out blood and guts. Again there was a slow moment when he believed what he was seeing. He managed to speak to the burst manager in a normal voice, saying he felt unwell, would come back later. The man's head was gross and leonine, carved out of some kind of granite. He remarked drily in his normal peevish voice that this seemed to be happening more and more often. Perhaps help was needed, perhaps he should see a doctor. Or a counsellor. He was pouring with sweat, and did not know if the sweat - which was far more than he had ever known - was real or dreamed.

Out of doors he was trailed and preceded by white bicycles. They came up behind buses he was riding, swaying as they undertook them with bursts of speed. They dangled from lamp posts, with dripping manes of ribbons. They lay in the gutter, leaned against postboxes, travelled silent and menacing through red lights and over zebra crossings. He closed his eyes and flinched when it seemed inevitable that they would run him down, and opened them to find they were not there at all.

He went back to his dream-group friend. He asked whether the friend knew anything about hypnotism. The friend said he had once been very successful at hypnotising people, so much so that he had given up, after upsetting some people. He didn't appear to want to expatiate. The dreamer said that nevertheless he should be grateful if they could try. He was hideously embarrassed by having to explain his state, even to a dream expert.

He said: "Do you think that you could suggest - tell me - to dream at night, and asleep - and not to dream in the day?"

The friend said he had always enjoyed lucid dreaming by day, himself.

“Not these dreams, believe me."

So they were back in the white bedroom and the friend was dangling a string of green glass beads before his eyes. They had always worked the best in the old days, he said. Transparency added to the effect of the shine and shimmer.

He went under. He sat with an empty mind. How good it felt as it emptied itself. How good to be simple and inane.

The friend woke him, with a snap of the fingers. He said: "I told you you will dream tonight, and not in the daytime. We shall see what happens."
He had a hard time going to sleep that night. He read a bit, and drank a nightcap, and tried not to think about what would happen if he resisted the suggestion. In the end, uneasily, he slept.

When he woke, the white room was full of light. He uncoiled under the crisp white heap of his duvet, and the down moved with him, and held him. Incomprehensible happiness flooded him, too much happiness, tinted with relief. He tried to think. He had been tensed against disaster. He had been dreaming, one of those dense dreams which appear to offer no way out, which mock you with the idea that they are not dreams at all.

He looked at his clock. It was 6am. He could drift back into sleep for another hour or so. He closed his eyes against the light and settled his body.

A S Byatt's novels include "Possession: a Romance", which won the 1990 Booker Prize, "The Virgin in the Garden", "The Biographer's Tale" and "The Children's Book"The Lucid Dreamer

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit