A few weeks ago I had a dream. It may even be considered a nightmare, although I was not so much frightened by it as profoundly unsettled. The dream-mare, which was in black and white and had a similar stylistic mood to an episode of The Outer Limits, featured a train compartment and a man who clearly represented me but had a much better wardrobe. The train was extraordinarily busy. I don’t mean that it was rush hour busy, with people stood in the aisle and rather uncomfortably wedged together, the sort of scenario accompanied by the smell of frustration and unwashed clothing: this was a different type of busy altogether. The compartment resembled an ant hill, a place alive with frenzied, seemingly random activity – or perhaps a slide seen under a microscope, full of swarming germs. People moved around the compartment seemingly without any control over their bodies, bumping into each other, rubbing up against each other. There was no eroticism here, this was horrible: an involuntary dance from which there was no peace, not a moment of stillness or a second of calm or quietude.
In a corner, my avatar, clinging to a dangling strap, trying to distance himself but buffeted again and again by the other passengers, some of whom looked at him apologetically, some defiantly, but most as if he were not there at all. The man pushed through the scrum of people and moved into the corridor, rattled the door handle. Locked. Very quickly, the corridor filled with the same helpless, hopeless people as before, and he found himself pressed into the door, his face squashed against the glass, half registering the indistinct outside rushing by. Then, suddenly, everyone disappeared apart from the smartly dressed man. The train stopped. There was no announcement, no punchline, but I woke up convinced that the man had finally escaped from the madding crowd in the way that people have been escaping misery and unbearable circumstances for eons: by dying.
I’m not a scientist, so I can’t be sure of what the dream meant. It came at a time when my life was full of pressure, and full of people, so it was perhaps influenced by that. The message, if there is one, is that life is relentless and restless and people simply won’t leave you the fuck alone. I don’t know what to do with this message. There is virtually no practical response to it. Perhaps it isn’t a message at all. It doesn’t require a reply. It is not a warning, as it is already happening. It seems more like a flat, fatal statement of fact, like ‘You’re never going to be a millionaire’ or ‘Eric Morecambe is dead’: an unpalatable but immutable piece of information that you simply have to file away and live with. So I’m living with it, but I can't help but notice now how many other people there are out there*. Tricky things these dreams, they continue to work when you’re awake.
In the town where I now rather begrudgingly live, there is a neglected area that used to have something to do with the canals and is now largely deserted, apart from at night when it becomes a hotbed of vice and intoxication, of dogging, drugs and prostitution. It is place full of empty units, things that used to be something but are now nothing, less than nothing, and a little less every day. Almost everything seems to be under a bridge. The town’s prison is there, surrounded by a smooth, dirty brown wall and identified by a sign that says in an informal font (Mistral, thank you, Andrew Demetrius)) ‘Welcome to OUR Prison’. I wish I'd made that up, but it's 100% true.
Just before you get to this fun factory / penal collective there is a bridge over a river. On one side, water rushes down a slope before meeting an abrupt but very definite drop. Here, in the broiling water, float a strange, eerie selection of tyres and balls of all shapes, sizes and colours, some free, others enclosed in the hollow ‘o’ of a worn out radial, trapped in groups of twos and threes, bobbing wildly but never breaking free. It is uncertain how these objects got there, how far they have travelled or how long it took them to arrive - but now they are stuck, having met an immovable object that resists the force that has carried them there. The worst thing is that this is not a case of arriving and, realising there is no way forward, settling. There is no settling. Instead, this is a relentless, exhausting existence, a never ending battle, like drowning all day, every day, but never sinking to the bottom. Without any outside agency the balls and tyres would butt up against the weir wall forever, or at least until the water froze or became thick sludge or dried up completely. It is a horror. It is horrible.
At night, I think about the balls and the tyres and the branches and their pointless, endless struggle and I feel afraid. I see my corpse caught in the turmoil, stuck like Ahab on the whale, waving not drowning, deader and deader, but never at peace. I get up and turn all the lights on, as if to reassure myself that The Crisis hasn’t happened yet. It hasn't happened yet. Soon, I will flick the switch and nothing will happen.
* The Crisis will be a big help in this regard.