“Grandma, Stefan, tell me the story of how you met.”
“Say ‘please’ Matild.” Replies Grandma.
“Please?” Says Matild.
“You don’t want to hear that again. Why don’t we watch a holo instead.” Says Stefan.
“Stories, especially yours, are better than holos Stefan. You taught me that.” Replies Matild.
With that, Grandma and Stefan exchange a shrug and a smile. It is not so bad to revisit those early days, back in the 2020s when life was more straightforward.
“Okay.” Says Grandma. “We’ll tell the story. Once upon a time, a man...
“No. Stefan, you start. Begin with the sad woman in the window.”
“Okay.” Says Stefan. “One chilly November morning I had caught the train in from Worstead and I was walking up Rose Lane to the Spectrometer, as I did most days. I saw a woman. She sat behind a plate glass window in a otherwise empty office. I stopped on the spot. She was as beautiful as a renaissance painting, but sad. More than sad, mournful, as if she had lost something. She didn’t look up. I walked on, but she haunted me all day. And then all night. That look! That sadness and beauty together. I felt I knew her and could help with her sorrow.
The next day, I took the same route to the Spectrometer. And there she was again. This time I paused, but she didn’t look up. Again that unhappy look and this time a frown wrinkled her brow. I subtly took a picture. That evening, seized by the sensation that I knew this woman, I searched online for the image and found Ginevra de’ Benc, a portrait by Leonardo de Vinci. Equally sad, equally beautiful. and the mirror image of the woman in the window.”
“Your turn Grandma.” Says Matild.
“I was working at Ingram Industries. They had laid off everyone else in my office. The days were long and lonely. It was a time when working from home was usual, but Ingram Industries didn’t allow it. I think I was sad. I didn’t notice Stefan looking in the window. Weirdo that he is.
Around that time, I started walking at lunchtime to pass the time. I’d walk down to the river, past Lollards Pit, round to Strangers Hall, and back through the City to the office. One day, I walked past Upper Goat Lane, Middle Goat Lane, and Lower Goat Lane.
I walked back. Lower Goat Lane, Middle Goat Lane, Upper Goat Lane.
The fine knapped flint of the Guildhall, the bright market rooftops, the towering flank of the Art Deco City Hall were all as they should be. And yet here was Middle Goat Lane, which should not exist. I checked my phone. No Middle Goat Lane. What to do? By this time, I measured my lunchtime walk to perfection. A full hour of movement with sandwiches at the desk after. To explore would risk being late and I'd be for it if Ingram Industries Head Office were to call. But ignoring this street was not an option. Shops lined the narrow thoroughfare, almost all were indistinct, as if the surrounding air was thick and fuzzy. Only one shop stood out. Its sign, written in an old but bold hand, read..
Henrik Blomqvist: Purveyor of Dreams
I walked to it, pushed the door and...”
“I like this part!” Says Matild. “You pushed the door and a bell rang, light and bright. The shelved walls of the shop were lined, floor to ceiling, with jars full of multi-coloured light, and the place smelled of honeycomb and nut brittle. Behind the counter was a huge man, he towered over you, his hair was blond, his chin jutted, and a pair of half glasses sat on his nose...
‘Good afternoon Madam, I am Henrik Blomqvist. What brings you here?’ His voice was solid but friendly, and his consonants lilted with the singsong of Scandinavia.
‘I don’t know.’ You replied. ‘I just found the place.’
‘Take a seat, we should talk.’ With that he lifted the countertop, squeezed though, folded himself into a large armchair and gestured for you to sit on the carver opposite.
‘What’s in the jars?’ You asked.
‘Dreams.’ He said. ‘Lots of them.’
‘What type? Sleeping dreams or ambitions?’
‘Astute question. Sleeping dreams most of the time, but often two are the same.’
‘And you sell them? You sell dreams?’
‘Yes, well, until all the dreams go online, seems that’s the way it’s all going. So you don’t know why you’re here?’ He said. You shook your head. ‘How are your dreams?’ he asked.
‘Which ones? My sleeping dreams or ambitions?’ You replied and as you did, you realised…’”
“I realised I didn’t have either. My ambitions were like helium balloons lost in a sky of time and I couldn’t recall the last time I dreamed. When I explained this to the shopkeeper, he nodded sagely.
‘Why do you think that is?’ He asked.
‘I don’t know.’ I said. ‘Because I’ve had my chance. Because I’m old. Because even when my dreams came true it didn’t work out.’
‘Explain.’ He said.
‘Well I wanted to be married and have a child. And I was married, and happy for a while but my daughter, your mum Matild, is grown up now and gone, and my husband left me.’
“Why did your husband leave you Grandma?”Asks Matild.
“He found someone he liked better.”
“That’s impossible.” Says Matild, as she always does at this point, “There is no one better.”
“Well, he did, and that’s it.”
“That’s when Henrik said about the record.”
“That’s right. The shopkeeper looked through his half glasses at me, tapped the ends of his long fingers together and frowned.
‘Is that why you have the record with you?’ He asked.
And resting against the leg of the carver was a blue and white Andy’s Records bag.
‘But Andy’s shut years ago?’ I said.
‘Have a look.’ Said the shopkeeper, and in the bag was a record, a twelve inch of The Stranglers’ song Golden Brown. As new as a pin. And as I looked with wonder at its untouched black grooves I noticed I was wearing Doc Martin shoes on my feet, above the Doc Martins, thick black woolly tights, a black knitted skirt, and a four button, M&S cardigan, also black.
‘Nineteen eighty-two.’ Said Blomqvist. ‘Dreams intact?’
I nod. ‘Dreams intact.’ And I swallow. ‘I was happy then. I believed anything was possible.’
‘Would you like to dream of those times again?’ Said the Shopkeeper.
‘I would love to dream of those times.’
The Shopkeeper unfolded himself from his armchair and lifted jars from the shelf.
‘Definitely eighty two?’
‘I fancied Martin Foster, still the best bum in black jeans I’ve ever seen.’
‘Tons and tons.’
‘Tears or laughter? Parties or libraries?’
‘Laughter and parties.’
He followed each question by selecting a jar with his left hand, releasing a wisp of light, which he chased into another jar held in his right. The colours mixed and built, the scent of honeycomb and nut brittle filled the air.
‘Are they dreams? Where do they come from?’ I asked.
‘Yes, they’re dreams, mostly from the dead. Dreams leave the dead. But not always the dead, sometimes the careless living lose their dreams.’
‘But where are they from?’
‘The light of dreams gathers at the Poles. Are you sure you don’t know this?’
‘No, I’ve never heard this before.’
‘Dreams gather at the Poles and when the atmospheric conditions are correct, they flash into the night sky. If you are skilled and brave, you can catch them. These dreams in my jars are borealis, collected from the north by my predecessors and I.’
‘And you keep them here? Filed and ready for someone like me?’
‘My predecessor was a stickler for filing but I’m more of a hunter. I like to be out there in the cold. Admin is not my strength.’ He coughed a small, embarrassed cough. ‘I sometimes mix people’s dreams up. Inhale this.’ He said and placed the jar full of swirling colours under my nose. I inhaled deeply. The dream flowed into me like a warm shiver.’
‘You’ll sleep well tonight.’ He says.
‘What do I owe you?’
‘Price? Come and see me in a week. We’ll talk about the price then’ He says.
“Now you, Stefan.” Says Matild.
“The following week I made sure my walk from the station to the Spectrometer took me past the plate glass window where the sad but beautiful woman worked.”
“Of course you did Stefan, you were in love.”
“Each day I walked past she was there, as beautiful and as mournful as ever, her brow creased with that frown. But as the days went on, she looked more and more tired, as if life were draining from her. By Wednesday, she had bags like saucers under her eyes. I worried. That lunch time I went back to check on her, only to find she was leaving the office. Still concerned, I followed her. She walked up through the City, along Gentleman’s Walk, past the Guild Hall and disappeared. I swear I had not taken my eyes off her but she had gone.”
“Up Middle Goat Lane,” Grandma picks up the story. “to Henrik Blomqvist’s shop. It was just as before, Henrik stood behind the counter, big and handsome, the walls were lined with jars of multi coloured light, and on the shop floor stood the big armchair and the carver.”
‘You’re back.’ Said Henrik, sit down. How are your dreams?’
‘My dreams are incredible. As I drift off, I hear the music and laughter. When sleep takes me I walk into a terrace house full of people and take a drink of sweet cider. It is like nectar! Then a boy offers me hashish. I smoke some and my head swims. Before long, I am talking to a boy, Martin Foster, but not Martin Foster, if that makes sense. He’s a little more handsome, more charming, taller, and he only has eyes for me. Before long, we are in the bedroom kissing. After a little while we go further if you know what I mean, and he touches me in a special place. A place I have never been touched before. It feels wonderful.’
“Grandma.” Says Matild.
“Yes, sweetheart.” Answers Grandma.
“When I’m big and someone touches me in a special place, I want that place to be a palace, or a bouncy castle.”
“Good idea. Let me continue the story. Henrik Blomqvist asked me..,
‘So it’s a delightful dream?’
‘Yes. It is the most wonderful dream, and it plays and plays until I wake.’
‘But I wake! And life is just the same. I’m still frumpy, single, bored at work, missing my daughter, all of that. Oh, and despite me sleeping for more hours than I’ve ever slept before, I’m tired.’
‘So I was wondering if I could sleep longer.’
‘That’s easy.’ Said Blomqvist..
‘And I wondered if I could play with the dream?’
‘Well, I wondered if I could fly, just a little? Maybe meet some new people? See a few new places. It’s a dream after all, anything is possible.’
‘Exciting. Let’s see what we can do.’ Said Blomqvist and sprang into life, lifting my jar from the shelf, and opening more, one after another. He chased wisps of dreams into my jar but he was careless and crashed the jars, once used, back onto the shelf in seemingly random order. When light spilled from a jar and he caught it in any other available. Henrik Blomqvist’s shop was a chaotic place. When he finished, he gave my jar a fierce shake before opening it and thrusting it under my nose.
‘Inhale!’ He commanded. Again, the dream spread through me like a warm shiver.
‘Thank you.’ I said. ‘But what’s the cost?’
‘The cost? Have you not worked out the cost yet?’ He replied.
‘No, not yet.’ I replied, but his answer left me uneasy.
Over the next few days, my dreams became more intense, more complex, and no less pleasurable. Martin always made an appearance and his hands were always warm. I slept for longer but despite my hours in bed I was exhausted.”
“The following Monday I walked up from the Station and there she was in the window, hands on her computer keyboard, but her head lolled and a thin line of drool dripped from her lips to the desk.” Stefan took up the story. “She was asleep. I banged on the window but she did not wake. I returned at lunchtime. This time she was awake, but her eyes were heavy. It was taking every ounce of her energy to wrestle her beautiful eyelids open. My heart sank at the sight, and sank a little further when she didn’t respond to my furious waving. By the time I came back at the end of the working day, she was locking the office but moving like a zombie. She dropped her keys. I picked them up and as I did, our hands touched. I had the strangest sensation, as if we had met before.
‘Ginevra?’ I said. The name came to me like inspiration. And I had the weirdest sensation, as if I already knew this beautiful but sad woman. My brain went fizzy as if the froth of a Hokusai wave was playing with my thoughts. But your Grandma blanked me, she didn’t recognise the name.
‘Are you okay?’ I asked her.
‘Yes. No. No I’m not okay, I’m exhausted. Can you help me get home?’
So I took your Grandma home and put her to bed. I stayed all night, popping in from time to time to check nothing terrible had happened to her, but she slept and slept. When she woke, I was there, watching over her.
‘You’re still here.’ she said.
‘I’m worried about you.’
‘You’re very kind.’ she said.
‘You’ve slept for eighteen hours. Are you ill?’
‘No, I’m not ill. I’ve just been dreaming.’
‘Of being young, parties, kissing boys. I flew! There was an elephant, a man in a purple turban, a girl eating mushrooms, and another dancing naked. I saw palaces, plains, mountains, and forests. I was happy.’
‘It was and I’m still a little sleepy.’
With that, she rolled over and shut her eyes.
‘No, you don’t.’ I said. ‘It’s time to get up and shower. I’m taking you to Brambles cafe for breakfast.’
‘Why?’ She said, her voice thick with sleep.
‘Because I care for you.’ I said.
“And with those words, like a tiny seedling breaking the surface, something changed inside me.” Says Grandma. “Stefan took me to Brambles cafe and bought me breakfast. We talked, and he told awful jokes. I thought Stefan was very handsome, clever, and funny, but despite the coffee and his company, I felt tired, so tired. Here I was with someone actually interested in me and I was nodding off. I told him about the shop and Henrik Blomqvist. I think he thought I was mad, but he had this look in his eyes, like an adoring puppy, and it was impossible not to adore him back.”
“I suggested we go back to that shop and ask the Blomqvist to take his dreams away.” Says Stefan.
“We walked hand in hand through the streets. I felt seventeen again.” Says Grandma.
“I noticed her frown recede with every step.”
“It was as if that little seedling inside me was spreading and filling me with a warmth more substantial than Blomqvist’s dream. We arrived. Lower Goat Lane. Upper Goat Lane. We rotated. The fine knapped flint of the Guildhall, the bright market rooftops, the towering flank of the Art Deco City Hall were all as they should be. No Middle Goat Lane.”
“You never saw the shop, or Blomqvist again. And in that moment you realised you had a whole life in front of you. With Stefan.” Finishes Matild.