James found himself sitting at the edge of a double bed, in a small bedroom. He was dreaming. He knew he was dreaming, but for a moment, he didn’t know where he was.
The glow of dawn through curtains behind him filled the room with a subdued, soft light.
His unconscious mind had brought him to his old bedroom in Markfield, the village where he had lived thirty years earlier.
His eyes scanned around the room, from the white, flat-pack wardrobes with the grey handles to the old FM radio standing on the crude bedside table. Cassette tapes were scattered on the slightly threadbare carpet. Next to the bedside radio lay a book titled Philip K Dick Is Dead, Alas.
Everything was exactly as he remembered it. He’d had lucid dreams before, but this was something else; remarkable in its detail. Somehow his sleeping brain had brought to life details he’d forgotten about; the pile of music magazines next to the wardrobe, the stack of vinyl records on the chest of drawers.
He looked down at the bed and smiled as he remembered the old red quilt cover that he hadn’t seen for a couple of decades. But he only smiled for a moment.
Someone was lying in the bed. A man, roughly his own size and height, but younger. The sleeping man stirred, took a deep breath and sat up.
Stay calm, James told himself. Don’t wake up. Stay here for a while, in your past. This might be the most fascinating dream you’ve ever had.
James stared at the younger man. He was looking at himself, exactly as he must have appeared when he slept in this room, thirty years earlier.
And in the diffused, dawn light, thirty-years-younger James was staring right back at him. Nonetheless, he seemed calm.
“I know I drank too much last night”, Younger James said. “But this is the weirdest dream I’ve ever had. You look exactly like me, but about forty years older”.
“Thirty”, older James laughed. “But I believe this is my dream, not yours”.
Then his heart sank as he absorbed the circumstances of the time and place to which his dream had transported him. He looked around the room again, then he spoke softly to the younger man.
“Yes”, the younger man replied, quietly. He looked sad, now. Haunted, even. James knew why.
“What month is it, James?”
“June, I think. I’m not certain. I’m sure I could tell you if I was awake”.
“June, 1990. She’s gone, then.”
The younger James lay back on his pillow and glanced wistfully at the empty space in the bed beside him.
“Yes. She’s gone”.
Older James said nothing for a few moments. Then he said: “You’ll be fine, one day. Not for a long time. But you’ll be OK, I promise”.
Younger James said nothing.
Older James paused, then continued: “You know this is your own fault, don’t you? I know you feel betrayed, and abandoned. But you’ve mostly done this to yourself”.
Why James was lecturing a figment of his unconscious imagination, an artefact of this unusual dream, he wasn’t entirely sure. But he felt genuine compassion for his younger self. He knew that young James was going through the worst time of his entire life.
Older James stood up, turned round and looked out through the gap between the curtains. Markfield. Chitterman Way, just as he remembered it. Amazing that every detail was stored in his brain somewhere, ready to be projected like a virtual reality game, in a dream.
Then he turned toward the bed again and sat back down on the edge, carefully avoiding his own legs.
“I know how you feel. I remember. Very well. But I’ll tell you something, James. There will come a time when you don’t regret that you lost Sara.”
Younger James stared at him incredulously. “What was I drinking last night? It must have been very good stuff”, he wanted to know.
Older James smiled, sympathetically. “Supermarket whisky, probably. They don’t pay you much at Rolls-Royce, do they? But you get promoted to section leader two years from now”.
Younger James seemed disinterested at this optimistic news. And certainly, having delivered it, Older James wondered if it wasn’t perhaps a little superfluous in the circumstances.
The older man sat in silence for a moment, eyes wandering around the room, scrutinising every detail of this place where he had lived in a warm, fulfilled contentment, then existed in a hollow, lonely grief, thirty years earlier.
The Artex ceiling. The faded pink curtains. The radio-cassette player on the bedside table. Finally his eyes came to rest again on his younger self. He looked impossibly young, with thick, light brown hair and smooth, taut skin. But he looked improbably miserable, as well. And he looked bitter.
Older James spoke again. “You know what your problem is?”
“I think so, yes”, Younger James replied, before he could continue. “I’ve lost the only person in the world that I really care about. The life I waited for, for years, has been cancelled a few months after it started, by the one person I thought I could always count on, no matter what.”
“And I’ve been left alone, in an empty house, in a part of the country where I have no friends and no family. And even the idiots I work with are all 20 miles away in Derby.”
As he spoke, Younger James had started to cry, silently.
Older James felt a profound pang of pity. Certainly he hadn’t forgotten about all this. He would never forget it. But it was a long time in his past. He reached over and placed his left hand over Younger James’ left hand, motionless on the quilt cover. He squeezed it, reassuringly. He looked carefully at the two hands. They were exactly the same hand, except that one of them wore a wedding ring.
He spoke softly. “Your problem is that you aren’t actually a person. You’re half of something that is broken. It’s gone. You have to reinvent yourself. And you will”.
Tears were streaming down Younger James’ face now, but he didn’t seem to have listened to a word. Instead he was staring at the older man’s left hand, holding his own.
“So – you’re me, but thirty years older – is that right?”
Older James nodded.
“And you’re married. I get married”. He looked incredulous.
“Yes”, replied Older James. “In 2007. Enjoy the next 17 years while you can. Actually you will, mostly. Not all of them. Not the next two or three. But you will.”
“And where do I .. did you – meet her? At work? Is it someone I know now?”
Older James smiled. “No. You buy a house in Derby next year. But you leave Rolls-Royce in four years’ time. Then you live in London for seven years. Then you move back to Derby, because you keep the house there while you’re living in a flat in London. Then four years after that, you meet someone on the Internet, you get married and you buy a house together six miles from here.”
Older James laughed. As a summary of the previous thirty years of his life, it seemed to work well enough. But Younger James seemed preoccupied by something.
“Sorry, the Inter-what?”
Younger James was an IT specialist who had never heard of the Internet. It seemed astonishing, yet Older James couldn’t imagine that the purpose of his dream was to explain SMTP, DNS, HTTP and the rest of it, let alone the social and cultural implications of the World Wide Web – so he didn’t reply. Instead he said “Stay there, I’ll be back in a minute”.
He rose from the bed and pulled open the bedroom door. It creaked slightly, exactly as he anticipated. He stepped quietly down the stairs in the early morning light.
He entered the kitchen at the bottom of the stairs. It was all as he remembered it. The fake wooden beams, the old electric cooker. The wooden table and chairs. A cassette tape labelled ‘PREFAB SPROUT R1 1984’ lay on the table, next to a copy of ‘Q’ magazine.
He remembered an early evening in February 1990. He was making dinner for both of them in this same place, waiting for her to come home. He was often home first. It was dark outside. The kitchen radio was playing Advice For The Young At Heart by Tears for Fears, as he stirred amateurishly at a risotto. He was sure it was a risotto because thirty years later, it was still the only thing he knew how to cook.
“Soon, we will be older”. So apt. Every time he heard that song, he was reminded of that same prescient advice radiating from a kitchen radio in the winter of 1990, a few short weeks before his world crumbled to dust.
The keys to his old Talbot Sunbeam were lying on the kitchen table, and for a moment he thought of opening the front door and driving home to Ravenstone, six miles away. But his house wouldn’t have been built there yet, and whatever he saw there would be pure imagination. He had never seen Ravenstone until 2009. Besides, he would surely be awake soon.
A pity. Part of him wanted to stay here, and live the next thirty years one more time.
He climbed the stairs again and pushed the bedroom door open softly. Younger James was sitting up in bed, staring at the duvet cover in front of him.
“Still awake?” Older James asked.
“No, still asleep apparently, and having a very weird dream. But hey, anything’s better than being awake”.
Older James sat on the edge of the bed again, and said nothing for a moment. Their eyes met and he felt a curious mixture of pity and envy. The young man had so much to look forward to. But he would suffer an aching loss, weaponised by an unimaginable, hollow disillusion, for quite some time to come. He knew that Young James missed his partner acutely and to his surprise, as his eyes glanced around the bedroom they had shared again, he missed her himself for a moment.
“James”, Older James said, “if this were real and I could leave you with just one thought, it’s this. One day you’ll be grateful to Sara that she did this. Yes, it was grotesque, I know. But she’s young, younger than you. And as impossible as I know it is for you to understand now, things work out better for you than they would have if you’d stayed together. And maybe even for her, too.”
He didn’t actually believe that last part. Perhaps he was arrogant. But what did it matter now?
“No. I’ll always love her”. The younger man’s reply was almost matter-of-fact. He sounded resigned; defeated.
“Yes, you will. You’ll always love the memory of the young woman who was your soulmate these last five years. And you’ll be glad you have it. But you’ll end up in a very happy place. An even better one. I promise. And it won’t hurt.”
He continued. “And you’ll never forget what you owe her, either. She was the reason you did that Computer Science degree. She’s the reason you have a career. And no-one ever gave you more love and support”.
Older James realised that he was tired. It was getting lighter in the room. Rays of sunshine had begun to penetrate the curtains. He closed his eyes for a moment. But when he opened them he was looking sideways at a digital clock on a bedside table.
He was awake.
For a moment he felt disoriented, and a little shocked. What a vivid, lucid dream he’d had.
It was a Saturday morning. He lay in bed thinking about his dream and let his mind drift back to the summer of 1990, hesitantly and carefully. His wife was still asleep when he got out of bed, to make coffee and toast.
Two hours later, something was nagging at his memory. He went to a bookcase in his study and beside a book labelled Philip K Dick Is Dead, Alas, he found his old Filofax diary, from 1990. He opened it with some reluctance, because there were memories in there that were painful to him. Toxic, even.
But he thumbed through the pages until he found an entry from June 16th.
Bizarre dream. I was visited in the bedroom by
myself, thirty years older. Like a time traveller.
Strangely comforting. But I woke up with another
James stared at the words on the page and shuddered. A coincidence? Or had a long-forgotten diary entry somehow bubbled to the top of his unconscious memory, to provoke a dream?
He felt unsettled, but put it out of his mind.
A week later, James found himself dreaming again. He was lying in bed, in his own time. His wife was lying asleep beside him, her leg resting against his. But he knew he was dreaming, because an old man was sitting on the edge of the bed, in the dim, first light of a new day.
The old man’s hair was thinner, and almost white. The jawline was a little less firm. But James recognised him immediately. He had the same warm, brown eyes, though the wrinkles that framed them were deeper.
The old man smiled. “Hello”, he said.
James smiled, too. “I’ve been expecting you”, he replied.
The old man put his left hand over James’ left hand. He squeezed it, reassuringly. James looked carefully at the two hands. They were exactly the same hand, with the same wedding ring.