All his adult life, James had had two recurring dreams. The first was of his castle, though it was almost never the same twice. Once, he had entered through iron gates, past the graveyard in the center of a town wet with cobbled streets, the scent of woodsmoke permeating the cool night air. Another time he had flown in exhilarated from a different adventure, to find the monumental ruin sprawling the rocky coast, the bracing wind holding him in a cloud-blue sky. Whatever form it took, it was always his castle and he knew he had come home.
The second dream was of his lover, who though oddly always the same person, was elusive, appearing unexpectedly only to vanish at the moments of exquisite intensity. Unlike his castle, his lover was the opposite of possession, leaving nothing but desire and the absence of love, sweet, like the scent of apples rubbed in the palms of his hands. Once he had accosted James at the side of a country road in summer, flamed by familial threats in the manner of a Montague, sweating and beautiful, wild and innocent. He was as stubborn as a spoilt child, but as brave as a mother, and James could only smile, holding him as closely as he dared without losing focus, afraid of the inevitable. He faded, his image crumbling in James’ hands as ashen as dead sea fruit.
Forced for a description, James would have called himself a romantic realist; a firm belief in the senses coupled with an optimistic, robust imagination. To him, the essence of romance lay in its subjectivity. He rejected orthodox notions of valentine-roses and dim, candlelit dinners. His romance was a shipwreck-night-dark of violent tenderness and silent conversations. His love was as fair as the moon and as clear as the sun.
As a teenager he had attempted to find romance in the waking world, with his heart on his sleeve and a naive belief in love at first sight – that his sincerity and passion would be mirrored in that moment of initial eye contact. Experience had taught him that the passions he thus aroused in other men were rarely sincere and usually began and ended with a furtive grope of his cock.
He had read widely, but had found only in Plato a description of romantic love he could relate to: Love as the desire for the perpetual possession of the beautiful. This was surely a love to be won by arduous deeds of physical strength or mental agility, not a suggestive wink and a nod in the direction of the nearest public toilet.
His loneliness became so intense that he began to consider death. He saw no fiery depths or dizzy clouds; it was the gravestone version, calm and comforting: ‘He fell asleep…’ The eternal dream. So, where others took up sport or simply stared into a computer screen, dreaming became James’ hobby.
It is Halloween. A barrel of bobbing-apples each with their own hidden legend has been placed firmly in the middle of the great hall. I stand divided in the twilight, the shadows of the hall stretching to an empty blackness, not even the crackle of the hearth to comfort the immense silence. With the vague knowledge that I am running to or from someone, I take the spiral stone staircase. I move trance-like up or down it, momentarily afraid of some Escher-like labyrinth. The solitary sound of a creaking door breaks the spell. I am standing before it, and push the heavy, waxen oak, which opens onto a bare chamber lit by two thick candles. The only other object is a dark, wooden mirror. I remember everything – where and who I am. Somewhere a clock strikes midnight. Running my fingers through my hair, I bite into the apple. The light alters perceptibly while, as through a fog, the image of my true love appears over my shoulder and I turn, eyes mist-moist, to embrace him.
Seeking solace in sleep, James had discovered his Platonic ideal and, inadvertently, another world whose rules he would have to learn. Looking for answers in the waking world, he had turned naturally to Freud and Jung. Interpretation and analysis were though for him redundant if not contradictory terms. They negated the vital fact that what occurred in his dreams could have an entirely literal explanation. At the age of twenty-four he had slept for at least a third of his life, and refused to dismiss those eight years as merely vague and disputable echoes of his subconscious. Haunted by a certainty that his lover really existed somewhere, somehow, he chose simply to accept and embrace his dreams as a parallel reality. James knew he had a ready imagination, but hardly one capable of inventing a figure of such consistent complexity.
His view of reality, though idiosyncratic, was no less plausible than that of others he knew. An irrefutable belief in virtual lovers who existed in a virtual world was commonplace among his day-acquaintances. To James, who had in his dreamworld physically loved and lived, their revelations seemed nothing more than a hollow product of wish-fulfillment.
The Great War has been over some while already, a time of readiness and rebirth. There is a party in progress. Not sure if I am an uninvited guest or not actually there at all and am watching the proceedings as one does a film, as no-one will acknowledge my existence. Gradually the guests begin to disperse, chattering through the open doors, and I see M. He is seated on a wooden throne-chair, and his father stands over him, proudly pointing to a group of girls in the corner. They wear their beauty in the graceful armour of flowery-flowing dresses. Tenderly they touch each others’ hair and frocks, and smile secrets. Outside their ring, M hangs his head and a golden apple falls from his hand. Harmony and discord. It splits as it lands, and a whippet resplendent in white ruff chews on it lazily, spitting chunks across the parquet floor.
M is alone now, in a corner by the stained glass window, and I reach across the table to comfort him, burying my face in his raven hair. He weeps regardless and I realize that he can not see me. I am invisible or angel.
Midnight in the lower garden. I am running towards the woods. The snow recedes and spring comes, as if I am being taken forward in time. M is standing at the edge of the lake, staring down at the blank surface. As I approach, my body begins to decelerate, becomes stiff, and my sight starts to fail. He calmly enters the cool water and lays himself down. His pockets are weighted. I have no voice to call. My body becomes as petrified as the stones dragging him down, and I am unable to move, to rescue him. He sinks slowly, as I myself become nothing but a raw, shivering sadness in the enveloping dark.
Time, so deceptively linear and logical in the waking-world, ran by a very different set of rules in his dreams. He had been a participant in his lover’s life and an observer of his death, but knew time was playing tricks on him. His death, as disturbing as it was, was obviously a part of their story over which James could have had no control. His dreams though were not stories; they did not conveniently begin or end. He could not write his dreams, anymore than he could dictate, by will alone, his fortune in his day-life. He believed, however, in the possibility of directing fate through physical intervention. Like an astronaut or a free-diver, he practiced dreaming, managing to spend consecutively longer periods of time immersed in sleep.
I am walking up a flag-stoned street on a bright morning in spring or autumn. There are watchmen idling on the corner. I have passed them a little way, when M appears from a shop doorway. He is slightly thinner, but still beautiful with his thick lips and scruffy cream pullover, and I know now that he is German. I put my arms around his shoulders, not wanting to let go. I sit down under his shadow and he comes to me; his left hand is under my head and his right arm embraces me. I am only afraid his father might find us, and want peevishly to go back to the town to look for a disguise. He has a melancholy smile.
‘My father is dead.’
His voice raises my suspicions, my hopes. Suddenly I see through him.
‘As are you.’
He leans forward as to kiss me, but instead whispers words almost inaudible; place names, directions, which, because I have to strain to hear, seem carved in stone.
The thin grey line dividing obsession from addiction has been crossed, one assumes, when the influence of the object over the subject tips decidedly to the negative. James had taught himself however to read between the lines, and knew that nothing was gained without taking risks. His daily existence while pleasant enough at times, had always lacked the vividness and excitement he had experienced at even the most mundane moments with M. Quitting his job, he packed his diaries and set off for Germany.
The gravestone could easily have been mistaken for an old signpost, half-buried under grass and thorn, far from any cemetery. James sat in an agitated silence, stroking the damp, mossy stone, repeating the same single word: ‘Michael.’
The castle showed no signs of life, as James entered with ease through a broken window. He shivered involuntarily, from no sense of danger; rather from the rank coolness of the interior. He searched each room, feeling like someone revisiting the house he had grown up in, now owned by others; a place superficially new and strange, with an underlying sense of belonging.
Finding nothing more than bare musty rooms and the occasional fragile skeletons of small creatures long since dead, he sought his way back to the great hall. Until this moment he had acted purely on instinct, thrilled onwards by the realization of his dreams. This was the journey’s end. It had not occurred to him what should happen next. Since his last encounter with Michael he had been constantly travelling. Tiredness enveloped him now, as he lay himself down in the failing sunlight.
Michael takes my hand, smiling at me fondly, his face no longer marred by sadness. We are balanced on the edge of the balcony, the drop to the courtyard far below daunting in the moonlight. I can hear the blood pulsating past my ears to throb at the temples, and my palms are slick with sweat. The cool marble chills my bare feet. I am dizzy from the height and the realization of what we are about to do.
His outstretched hand flailed violently at thin air, suddenly desperate for want of Michael’s steady grip. Losing his balance, he slipped from the dew-damp edge. He fell, awake, not in fear, but with a resigned sense of relief and ironic contentment that this life should end in flight.
Michael reached down to help him, as James woke again.
‘Rise up,’ he said ‘my love, and come away.’
As James stood, he looked briefly back down at his lifeless, bloodied body on the hard ground. The air was ripe with birdsong and the scent of orchard apples.