THE DREAM MY LANDLADY chooses to wake me into, has her deciding not to feed me any longer. She doesn’t tell me of her decision. Judging from experience, women hardly ever do.
I get back from town one evening to sit at the kitchen table waiting for a meal that never arrives. I sit for almost an hour before I realise what’s happening. Then pretend not to notice. I get up as if I’ve been sitting, thinking, all that time. And I have. While waiting.
You see, my landlady dreams I haven’t paid rent for months. Paying rent gets difficult when you dream of being a famous writer. Worldly things like rent lose importance. And, after all, it is her dream. I only don’t pay her rent because she dreams I can’t afford to. She dreams Oslo’s newspapers have lost all interest in my pieces. She dreams they’re going for all those slick, trendy writers. The ones who write about nothing. Or themselves and their inner angst all the time. Same as nothing. Or nipples and news. Nipples and nudes. Not pieces that stir up controversy. Nor journalism to make people think. But my landlady could never dream of such a thing as thinking.
As I stated before somewhere, her dream is my nightmare.
I never knew my father. To this day, I don’t even know what he looks like. There were no photographs of him at our flat in Trondheim.
When I am a boy we live on a hill above Baklandet, across the river from the cathedral. From our front room window I can see its spire. On grey, autumn days I gaze out at it. Red and gold autumn leaves tumble against green stone walls. In summer breezes, green dances against green, the trees resplendent in new leaf cloaks. Behind us lies the old fort. My mother takes me walking there the spring before she meets that man; the spring before she goes rowing on the lake near my grandfather’s farm. She had never rowed before.
I like walking in the park round the fort. It makes me think of the old days when Vikings lived there.
Sometimes, on warm spring evenings, when the days grow longer, my mother takes me for walks into town. She buys me ice cream while she has a cup of coffee at a street café. We sit at the same table each time watching people pass. One day, a man comes strolling by. He stops to talk to my mother. I see her flash moist, brown eyes briefly up into his, till shyness gets the better, and she inclines her head towards her breasts. Her right leg is crossed over her left. It starts to swing, and she laughs a laugh I haven’t heard before. Full of spring. I want to go right then. I want us to leave the man who makes my mother laugh like spring.
Next evening, the man who makes my mother laugh like spring rings our doorbell. My mother invites him in. They drink beer and smoke cigarettes at the kitchen table. I am sent to bed early. I hear music, whispers and giggles. I cannot sleep until he leaves. Two days later the same man is at the kitchen table as I arrive home from school. It isn’t long before his visits become a daily feature.
A night comes when he doesn’t leave. I lie awake staring at the bedroom ceiling for hours. I hear my mother’s spring-like laugh crack like ice with beer and cigarettes. There is something disagreeably crude to the sound. Later, I am woken by someone crying out. For a moment, I think the man who makes my mother laugh like spring is trying to kill her. But I’m too afraid to get out bed and see what’s happening. Then I hear a female groan of ecstasy. The man’s breaths comes quicker and quicker, till he cries out as well. I hate that man and will never say his name.
An early, summer morning, I get up and go into the kitchen after that man has stayed overnight again. He is gone. My mother is sitting at the table with her face in her hands. For a moment, I stare in unbelieving horror. Though she is sobbing uncontrollably hardly a sound comes out. Just painful swallows for air, as her whole body racks with emotion. I run up and place my arms tight about her neck. When at last she looks up I see both eyes are blackened with a mixture of watery mascara, tiredness and bruising. In some ways I’m glad, because she promises me I can be sure of one thing: that’s the last we’ll see of that man.
And so ends the first, last we see of that man.
For not long afterwards, that man’s back again. A few days more, and he brings his suitcase. The following morning, my mother sends me to grandfather’s farm. School hasn’t finished, but I am taken out with the excuse the country air might improve the city pallor I developed over the winter months. For the first time, she doesn’t come with me. She waves me off on the bus. That man is standing by her side, grinning. I see his hand creep about her waist. She stays with him in Baklandet. In my home. And I feel betrayed.
Two months stretch into three before I see her again. And when she does arrive she comes to stay. She has transformed completely. Her eyes are sunken and her cheeks hollow. She hardly speaks. She is like a stranger.
The night she first disappears, my grandfather calls the police, and a search party is set up. They find her sleeping in the woods not far from the farm. She is naked. The third time it happens my grandfather doesn’t call the police. He goes to search for her alone. She is never far away, but it still can take him hours to find her. That last time he is out all night before he calls the police. The rowing boat is in the middle of the lake. All that is left to show she has been there are her clothes.
The week before my mother vanishes on the lake I cross two knives on the kitchen table. I do it on purpose. Knives crossed portend death, my mother told me many times before. I do it on purpose, knowing what it means. I want the man who beat my mother insane to die
I never told anybody that before. I’m not superstitious, but I can’t help wondering if things might have turned out differently if I hadn’t crossed the knives.
Tuesday afternoons on Dr Finkel’s grey, leather couch gradually became a marker in life. Yet, as he’d taken to ignoring me most of the time, there hardly seemed much point to our sessions. Except for the room. I shouldn’t forget the room. Though it was sometimes difficult to remember, I was really there to hang on to the room.
Another Tuesday, and I became desperate to save the situation. I might be losing Dr Finkel, but no way was I going to lose his room. I would win back his attention whatever it took. He would become fascinated by my case again.
The good doctor was cleaning his ears with a cotton bud. Far from being disgusted I was happy he still felt enough at ease to perform such an intimate ritual in my company. Besides, any activity that restrained him from pacing up and down the consulting room impatiently provided welcome relief.
“Yesterday, I was feeling strangely light-headed,” I lied, in an attempt to fill the silent interlude that was starting to remind me eternity must be a very long time indeed. “Almost as though I was on drugs,” I went on, “But I hadn’t taken anything at all.” Dr Finkel showed not the slightest bit of interest. “Unless you put something in my morning coffee, that is.” So enthusiastically was he was poking, if he wasn’t careful he might damage an eardrum. “It could’ve been some unlicenced pills a big pharmaceutical company wanted to test on unwitting human beings.” Still no response. “I wouldn’t know, would I? For all I know, it could’ve been something the lab boys didn’t want the government knowing about,” I snorted, “Or something like that.” Nothing. “It could’ve easily been slipped in my refreshment without me knowing. All hush, hush.” Nada. He wasn’t going to budge a millimetre. “Some crazy experiment to see what happens.” Even extreme provocation wasn’t enough to move him. “Just to see if there’s any permanent brain damage. It happens all the time. Doctors making a bit of cash on the side. Under the table. Tax free.” Nothing would work. “Not that you’d be so unethical, of course.”
I longed for the days we first met. Back then he loved to hear my dreams. The reason he asked me to sleep in his apartment in the first place was so he could catch them fresh from a warm pillow each morning. Now he only listened to them on Tuesday afternoons when some of them were almost a week old. They’d often grown stale by that time. I’d have to get him interested. Winter is too cold to be out on the streets.
“Perhaps I was dreaming,” I said. “Everything was much clearer and much brighter than usual. Much, much brighter. Bright like you can’t imagine; with colours that don’t exist. And other stuff.” Nothing seemed to rouse him. “And flashing lights. Sort of like fireworks. I can’t explain, it was just so weird. You know what I mean? Going on and off all the time. On and off, on and off.” By his lack of reaction I wasn’t going far enough. “On and off. Off and on.” Not a sign of interest. I’d have to push him harder. “On and off. Then the walls morphed into rippling women’s breasts.” A glance in the doctors’s direction showed me he was still more interested in his ears. “Hundreds of them, Huge ones. Heavily oiled. And with big nipples. Closing in on me, they were. I couldn’t breathe for them pressing against my lips and nostrils. So I ran to the door, which turned into a massive, pulsating, juicy vagina trying to swallow me up. I think I might be afraid of vaginas. What do you think?” Did I detect a slight raise of an eyebrow? “Framed by luxuriant, pubic hairs, sodden with heavenly, feminine secretions.” Eyebrow or not, the doctor was refusing to listen. Or maybe he couldn’t hear? Perhaps he was cleaning his ears for that very reason. I watched for a moment.
After closely examining each harvest, he wiped the dark yellow residue onto a pocket handkerchief before attempting another poke. Time to change tack.
“Did you read yesterday’s Morgenposten?” I asked, raising my voice to compensate for the ear-poking, “There was an article on a man called Knut Pedersen.” Dr Finkel kept digging away at his aural orifices regardless. I spoke even louder. “As you well know, that’s my name. He lived in Sinsen. I live in Sinsen, or did until I came to stay with you. It was only a small piece. You could just as easily have missed it.” To all appearances, Dr Finkel might’ve punctured both his eardrums in his enthusiasm. “This Knut Pedersen had been arrested and charged with shoplifting. Turns out he was a kleptomaniac, according to his psychiatrist. Interesting that, kleptomania. What are your views on the kleptomania defence angle? If you ask me, I think he was a professional thief with a good lawyer. Not that you did ask me. And what do I know anyway?” I felt like picking my teeth to show Dr Finkel I didn’t mind him poking his ears, as long as I could stay in his apartment. But he didn’t seem to care either way. “You ever steal anything from a shop?” I asked. “No, no, of course you wouldn’t, you’re a psychiatrist. Forgive me for asking.”
Although I feel ashamed to admit it, it wasn’t so long ago I was charged with shoplifting. And an article about the incident appeared in Morgenposten. My imagination having failed me for a moment, I’d resorted to exploiting a real event to regain Dr Finkel’s fickle attention.
It seems unnecessary to point out to everybody I hadn’t been shoplifting at all. But I always feel I have to. I’d just been examining an item, when my attention was distracted and I absent-mindedly slipped it into a pocket.
“The strangest thing about the newspaper piece was,” by this point I’d raised my voice to the point of shouting, “When I turned to look at it again, it still had the same story about the man arrested for shoplifting, but his name was Knud Petterson, and he lived in Stovner. The details appeared to have changed.” I added that bit for effect.
“Why are you shouting!” Dr Finkel shouted.
“I thought you’d gone deaf, you were poking about with such gusto,” I answered.
“Deaf? You’ve got one of the most disgusting imaginations and warped senses of humour I’ve ever encountered,” Dr Finkel said.
“Thank you. As I said, it’s the way you were digging in your ears so vigorously.”
“It’s not a compliment, you’re bloody mad.”
“Do you think it’s correct professional conduct to call one of your patients bloody mad?”
“You all are, and I’m the bloody fool that has to suffer your madness.”
Yes, I remember the shoplifting episode only too well.
Things had got to the stage where my arrest was the only time my name had appeared in print in ages. Of course, it goes without saying it was a rival mucksheet trying to get back at me. Only Wenche could dream up anything quite so unlikely. Oh yes, my editor found that one funny, all right. I denied it was me.
“Oslo is full of people with the name Knut Pedersen,” I told him, “Not all of them are journalists, true, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t another journalist with the same name as mine.”
Except for the small fact it had been me who’d been arrested. A huge misunderstanding, of course, but there’d been a court appearance and a small fine. A short nightmare. The sort of thing some rags occasionally stoop to publish when they’ve nothing else to print, not the sort of piece decent papers would bother themselves with. It was obvious, after that, I wouldn’t want my stories going into a newspaper which failed to defend me in print. After all, there was my reputation at stake. Anyhow, I was looking elsewhere to place my work.
Things like that take time. There would be a short period when I would have to make economies. My landlady isn’t exactly on the breadline, so I could start there. I could delay paying her rent until I got myself sorted.
She works as a waitress in a bar in Aker Brygge. God, it’s so fashionable as to be unfashionable. It’s a yawn. Full of those sorts of girls who think they’re too grand to be working in bars. They dream of being actors or dancers, or something. Anything but the waitresses they are. She’s one of those tall, thin, blonde types who believe sulking is attractive. Anorexic in the way that thinks if she doesn’t smoke forty Camels a day she’ll balloon out. She’d be better off riding forty camels a day.
They dance through their sessions, like prowling cats on speed. Dance behind the bar, and dance waiting tables, they dance and dream of stardom. As though Steven Spielberg ’s going to come in one day, spot them dancing, and pull a film contract out of his pocket. Just like that. Fat chance. Of course, they do get spotted. And then they get fucked. And then they get dumped.
Meanwhile, they’re waiting, and they’re waiting on tables whilst waiting. Waiting, whenever they’re not standing about studiously ignoring those customers they think too poor, or too ugly, to warrant serving. People like me. They trade catty remarks about me until I feel so uncomfortable I have to leave. Only I don’t. I never leave until I manage to catch the eye of one of them. Then I leave, as soon as they’ve taken my order.
That’s my landlady for you. That’s her in a nutshell. And it was she who’d woken me into this nightmare. She was the architect of her own misfortune, as well as mine. If there was anyone to blame for non-payment of rent, it was her.
I was considering a change of climate long before I got locked into her dream. Having got the feeling the Norwegian papers a little provincial for my work. Writing for them meant tailoring my stories to suit the reading capabilites for those with limited intellect. Mentally blind, semi-literates. No big words. I reached the conclusion one of the better English papers would be more appreciative of me. They have a nose for quality. Meanwhile, I was biding my time contemplating which.
Naturally, it was only to be expected I might run into temporary financial difficulties while biding my time. Time biding is like that. The life of a true artist is not an easy one.
Inevitably, the gaps between cheques grew wider, while the amounts diminished in perverse proportion. Needless to say, they eventually came to trickle, before coming to a complete standstill. Temporary, that’s the word. Temporary, like dreams. We all have to be prepared to make sacrifices, and I was prepared to sacrifice paying rent. It was the least I could do in someone else’s dream.
There was no point in writing anything for those Norwegian muck sheets, they hardly paid anything, and neither should I stoop so low again. How many times do I have to emphasise I wouldn’t get paid if I didn’t work? Any fool can work that one out. And after all, I was the one suffering for it. It was me who was going hungry. That’s the last time I’ll mention it. I was freelance, enough said.
And if I wasn’t getting paid it was obvious I couldn’t pay her. It’s her dream; I don’t make the rules up. Even then, it wasn’t anything that was going to last. As soon as one of the big London dailies saw what I was capable of, the money would start flowing in my direction again. It was a setback, not a disaster. A short nightmare from which I’d soon wake. You can see that, but she couldn’t. She’s got no sense. It takes a man to be logical. Biological. And that really is the last time I’ll mention it, nobody wants to hear of another person’s financial misfortune; it’s embarrassing. People think you’re asking for a handout. Not that I’d refuse the odd handout if it came my way.
But thinking about it, that’s when it got to the stage where I didn’t want to pay rent even when I did have money. She had woken me; therefore, the dream should be to her cost. It was her dream. After all, she could’ve made me rich in it. Then she would’ve got her money the first of every month. On the nail. Instead, she’d chosen to cast me in the role of a pauper, and I was helpless in the matter. Yes, if she’d wanted her rent she could at least have cast me as a wealthy man.
Naturally, when a one thousand kroner note arrived out of the blue stuffed in the folds of a letter, I was hardly going to tell her, was I? If she’d gone and locked me into her dream as a poor man that was the price of her malice. She’d even stopped cooking meals for me, let’s not forget that.
Postmarked Røros the letter was from the father I can’t ever remember seeing. The note was short and asked for my forgiveness. It was an exchange I found repugnant. I didn’t have any forgiveness, but stuffed the note in my pocket all the same.
By that time, I’d reached the point where she dreamed I wanted her to starve me. Starve me to death, so she’d be to blame for that as well. Starve me like she starved herself, only more. I wanted her to take responsibility for whether I lived or died, to place my fate in her hands. It was her dream after all. At least if I died in it then that would put an end to my role, and my life would be in my own hands again. I was fed up with blaming myself when things went wrong all the time. From the moment she tapped my shoulder, waking me into her dream, she took responsibility for my life. It follows, when she decided to stop feeding me she became responsible for my death. The sooner I died in her dream, the sooner I could wake back into the real world of my dreams. Anybody can see that, she made a decision not to feed me, and without food, sooner or later she would dream I would die. The sooner I died, the sooner I would wake up again. Naturally, this time.
One day my mother told me she’d seen The Beatnicks in Tromsø. She appeared excited, as though she expected me to be excited too. I tried to conjure up an impression of excitement, but I didn’t know who they were. She said she’d even spoken to one of them. I plucked up the courage to ask her who they were. They were a Norwegian pop group in the 1960s, she explained. The Beatnicks, she said, were as famous in Norway as The Beatles or The Rolling Stones in England. I still had no idea what she was talking about, but didn’t ask. I was only seven at the time. She told me they changed their name to Titanic and achieved fame all over Europe and beyond, before sinking out of sight. She seemed to regard it as a personal triumph. And then I found out they were still playing as a band only they had changed their name back to The Beatniks without a ‘c’. Imagine going for all those years without realising they’d spelt it wrong.
Later on in life it interested me. I thought of how the irony of the change of name had escaped her. Only a Norwegian pop group would be so foolhardy as to call themselves Titanic. Only they would think to tempt fate in that way. They might just as well have called themselves Krakatoa or Chernobyl.
So, when I got knocked down by the car – I can’t remember exactly when – it was easy to see where the fault lay. I knew Wenche must’ve been behind it in some way.
I already mentioned my premonition of how I’d get knocked down by a car. Or did I? I might’ve had a premonition I mentioned it. A pre-mention, so to speak.
In my mind’s eye I see the chrome grill rushing towards me. It’s quite terrifying, but I’ve already been into that, haven’t I? Or haven’t I? I’d even wondered if my bones would make a crunching sound when it hit me. If they did, I didn’t hear it. The whole thing was a bit of an anti-climax, really. I can remember bouncing off the windscreen and being tossed into the air. As I spun round I remember the words I’m dead running through my mind. As simple and mundane as that. No fear, there wasn’t time. My last view: the sky turning round, like being in a spin dryer. I remember that as clear as clear. I’m dead. You’d think a writer might think of something better to think than: I’m dead. But having thought of it, it’s probably the best epitaph of all. Short and to the point. And even then I was wrong, I wasn’t dead. Though I’d thought I’d wanted to be for a long time, when I hit the tarmac and my mouth filled with the taste of fresh road, it seemed I wasn’t quite so sure. Perhaps I wanted to stay alive because I realised Wenche was out to kill me. Of one thing I’m certain, I didn’t wake into another dream. I was on the ground; bits of grit and blood confusing my tastebuds.
For some reason, I didn’t lose consciousness – I must’ve mentioned this before – even though my head hit the road with a resounding thump. I heard it. It began bleeding profusely. I can remember sitting on the road in front of the car feeling slightly silly, with my hand on my head; rivulets of blood seeping through my fingers. The driver didn’t get out of his car straightaway, so I began to think he might try to run me over again, to finish me off. That’s when I started to crawl towards the pavement. I couldn’t stand, not because of my legs, but there was this terrific pain in my right arm, and I knew it must be broken. To get up off the ground, when you’re sitting on it, you have to use your arms to lever yourself up, especially when you’ve just been knocked down by a car, and I was half armless. I could feel warm blood pouring down my face. All I wanted, at that moment, was for the pain to stop. Even then, I wondered how I might look, and whether the blood would stain my shirt. I leaned my head forward so it would drip onto the road. It’s not the easiest thing to wash out of clothes, blood.
The driver seemed glued to the seat of his car and took an age to get out. Meanwhile, a woman came rushing towards me. By that time I was shouting for somebody to help. I didn’t care anymore if I was going to die or not, I just wanted the pain to stop, even if it meant putting a revolver to my head. At first the woman stood looking at me as though I’d dropped out of the sky, which, strictly speaking, I had. Then she told me an ambulance was on its way.
“I’m shaking!” she said, and I could see she was trembling.
“Don’t worry,” I told her, “I’m all right.” I heard the wail of a distant siren.
When the ambulance finally arrived I’d drawn quite a crowd. They were the sort of people that always like a good spectacle, but don’t want to get too close in case they get hurt. Strange isn’t it? You know, the way people get afraid of the victims of road accidents or attacks. It’s as though you become instantly and violently insane as soon as you get hit by something very hard. Some people do, of course, but most of us get dazed. And you’ll always get those people who start dabbing at your head to staunch the blood, and things like that, the do-gooders. The ones you wish would leave you alone, the ones you have to keep reassuring you’re not dead. Why cause such a big fuss? They never seem to realise you’re usually more worried about the stuff spilling onto your shirt than anything else. It’s the very devil to get out. The sanest person at an accident is usually the victim, take my word for it, I know.
I know it happened because my arm is in a sling, and there are scabs of dried blood on my face and one side of my head. They are undeniable.
Aboriginal folklore has it the world of dreams is the real world, which they call dreamtime. The day to day world the rest of us know as real is merely a figment of our imaginations. In fact, that is the real dreamworld.
“Close your eyes,” the old man says. He stands before me, staff in hand, long white beard and brightly-coloured robes flowing. “I want you to try and think of nothing.” I close my eyes. “Now, what are you thinking of?” he asks.
“Krakatoa and Chernobyl,” I say.
“That’s odd,” he says, “but try to think of nothing,”
“I can’t think of nothing,” I say. “ Nobody can think of nothing.”
“All right, I’ll make it simpler. Try to imagine an empty box.”
“Right.” I think of an old painted box of my mother’s and empty it of her things. Pins and needles, bits of coloured thread, a silver thimble, a glass marble and a few odd matches.
“A box with absolutely nothing in it. Okay?”
“Okay.” I shake the box empty of the few remaining bits of dust and fluff.
“Put the empty box into an empty cupboard, right?”
“Right.” I place the box into an empty cupboard I call up from my grandmother’s kitchen and move it to the old flat in Baklandet where my mother and I used to live.
“Put the empty cupboard into an empty room, right?”
“Right.” I remove all the furniture from the flat.
“Have you got it?”
“Now take away the box and what have you got?” I take away the box.
“An empty cupboard.”
“Good. Take away the cupboard. Now what have you got?”
“An empty room.”
“Take away the room and what have you got?”
“The empty flat at Baklandet.”
“Take away the flat and what have you got?”
“The outside of the building overlooking the cathedral.”
“Take that away, now what are you left with?”
“Take Trondheim away.”
“Take Norway away.”
“The cold North Sea.”
“Take away the cold North Sea, and what’s left?”
“Our solar system.”
“Remove our solar system.”
“The Milky Way.”
“Take away The Milky Way. Now what have you got?”
“All the other galaxies in the rest of the universe.”
“Take away all those galaxies and the rest of the universe. What are you left with then?”
“What’s it look like?”
“Take away the black.”
The old man pulls at his long white beard and contemplates before nodding his head.
“You must be right,” he finally proclaims, “you can’t think of nothing.”
“So what was the point of asking?”
“When I first asked you to try and think of nothing, you didn’t try hard enough. Now you’ve really tried.”
“But nothing doesn’t exist!” I protest.
“You’re absolutely right,” the old man confirms, banging his staff on the ground. “By its very nature it can’t exist.”
Something begins to filter through.
“I think I see,” I say, “we’re unable to think of anything that doesn’t exist.”
“Now you go a step too far,” the old man says. “We constantly think of, or imagine, things that don’t exist. Your dreams for instance. They don’t exist. Thinking of nothing is not thinking at all. That’s the impossibility. The true state of nothingness is not being there to imagine it.”
“But that proves my dreamworld is real because it exists; I can imagine it.”
“Only within you, without you it would no longer exist. The other way to look at it is to try to imagine everything, infinity. No matter how far you stretch your mind, infinity is further than that. Everything is the opposite of nothing, but they are equals insofar as they are both beyond the human imagination.”
“But surely this is simple stuff, sophistry, playing with words?”
“If it’s simple stuff I’d like you to explain it to me.”
“I can’t, you’re just a character in my dream, you’re not real, you’re a figment of my imagination.”
Copyright © 2013 Bryan Hemming
To read the fourth chapter of Pedersen’s Last Dream click here
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