The Living and the Dreaming

I stood in the living room with a glass of whisky in my hand. It was early evening. An autumnal sky glowed beyond the window. I could see the town, silhouetted against the sunset. I sipped the whisky, iceless, warmed by my hand. It was silky, rich, old. Its flavour blossomed in my mouth and a rivulet of flame slipped down my throat.

The living room was utterly tasteful. A thick, old carpet. Heavy curtains, a deep red. Book shelves, inviting armchairs, discrete little tables and an elegant drinks’ cabinet. The owner had made a good life for himself here.

I sat down in one of the chairs as Charlie, whose late uncle this house had belonged to, stepped into the room. He carried two large portfolios with him. He moved a table over, set the portfolios on it, and sat next to me.

‘These are the things, then?’ I asked.

‘Yes.’ He looked at me, with a silent plea for something I couldn’t identify. I finished the whisky, motioned at him for more. He obliged.

Setting the glass down on the table, I picked up the first portfolio. It was labelled ‘The Living’. I opened it. It was full of drawings. Elegant drawings. Extremely elegant, in fact. Charlie’s uncle had had a good eye and a skilled hand. They impressed me.

They were mostly still-lives, landscapes, studies of birds and animals, portraits of members of his family (Charlie pointed out one of himself as a child, which his uncle had precisely labelled ‘Charles, aged 9’ ­– ‘Never liked that name,’ whispered Charlie).

‘Did your uncle always draw?’

‘Always. Mother says so. He used to spend his evenings doing it, how he’d unwind after a day at court.’

‘He was very good,’ I ventured. ‘Did he sell any?’

‘Occasionally. He would accept commissions from friends, though mother says he’d usually ask them for a meal out instead of money. He didn’t need money, didn’t much like it either. These aren’t the ones I want you to see.’

He took the portfolio from me, and pointed to the other one.

‘The Dreaming’, it was labelled.

‘Don’t open it yet,’ he said.

‘I thought the whole point of this exercise was to share the burden? Try and help you get over these bad dreams of yours?’

I’d always been there to help Charlie through his interminable neuroses, obsessions, paranoias and anxieties. I didn’t resent it, for the most part. I’d developed a knack for helping him through his various troubles, and from that had fashioned a career in psychoanalysis. I never treated him as a formal patient, for ethical as well as personal reasons, though I checked in on him often. It was in this curious capacity as half-friend, half-unofficial therapist that I was with him now.

‘How much do you know, really know, about my uncle?’

‘Well, he was your mother’s brother. He was a judge. “Confirmed bachelor”, as they used to say. You were his favourite nephew. I can see he had an apparently very good taste in interior furnishing. He was from an old Sussex family. And,’ I gestured to the portfolio on the table, ‘he was a fine amateur artist.’

‘Yes, all that’s true,’ he said. ‘There’s more, though. Have you looked at the books yet?’

I hadn’t, and told him that. We both got up, and I set the portfolio down on the table. I began to examine the nearest bookcase when Charlie said ‘No, this one.’

He was pointing to one on the far side of the room.

I recognised the titles of some, not others, but the common theme was obvious. They were occult texts. Many were old, some dating more than a hundred years, while others were modern, even recent.

‘That’s not all,’ said Charlie. He led me out of the living room, up the stairs and into his uncle’s study. It was sparsely furnished, bare and very modest. The only sign of comfort was the old, leather-backed wooden swivel chair. Even the desk was gaunt. The walls were entirely covered with bookcases. No window, just a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling and a lamp on the desk.

I recognised only a few of the titles now, barely any. But the books were obviously all esoterica. I took a few from the bookcases and thumbed through them. Some were in English, most were in French, German, Arabic, Greek, and other languages I couldn’t identify. Many were illustrated with diagrams of… I don’t know what. Cosmologies entirely alien to me. Conceptual maps of philosophies I didn’t recognise. And entities. Most were full of drawings of entities that repelled me in their vividness.

‘My uncle,’ Charlie began, but he paused when he saw me jump at the sound of his voice. I’d been caught up in the strange texts and had forgotten he was with me.

He began again. ‘My uncle was… I assumed he was a Freemason. I’d noticed he wore rings with symbols on them. Once, when I was a child, I’d stayed here and found a trunk with a garment like an apron, and he told me that he belonged to a secret brotherhood. And he was. A Mason, I mean. But he wasn’t just a Freemason. He was involved with… other things.’

‘These are all yours now, aren’t they? The books, the house, everything?’

‘Yes. I was his favourite, after all.’ He smiled, sheepishly.

‘Charlie, I’m going to assume that you started having these nightmares when you began looking at these books? And at that portfolio?’

He didn’t speak.

‘I think it’s time you showed me that portfolio.’

We returned to the living room. The darkness in the rest of the house was oppressive, but I didn’t want to make Charlie any more nervous than he already was by hinting at how troubled I was starting to feel.

I was relieved that my drink was were I’d left it, and then inwardly chastised myself for assuming some force would have moved it in my absence. I already knew I wasn’t going to be sleeping well that night, that the figures in those old books were going to stay with me. Really it was little wonder Charlie had been having nightmares.

I picked up the portfolio.

‘My uncle told me that he used to draw things from dreams. I assumed… just open it.’ He wasn’t looking in my direction. He suddenly got up and closed the curtains as I opened the portfolio.

‘Good Lord…’ I whispered.

I moved through the drawings, feeling a growing sense of unease, which darkened into a strangely captivating fear.

‘The nightmares didn’t start when I opened the portfolio,’ said Charlie. ‘I’ve always had nightmares. You know that, we’ve talked about them often enough. But there are other dreams… there are dreams I’ve had that were something else, something beyond a nightmare. Dreams I’ve never told anyone about.’

He returned from the window and sat next to me again.

‘The dreams did start to happen more regularly, more forcefully when I began going through my uncle’s things. But, they stopped frightening me. I think I’ve begun to understand now.’

‘Understand what?’

‘It’s in the blood. I’m from an old family, a very old family. My uncle wasn’t the exception. My grandmother, they say she was a medium. I’ve looked at my genealogy quite thoroughly, and… witchcraft, sorcery, spiritualism, alchemy, it’s all there. It was in his blood, and it’s in mine. What I saw when I opened this portfolio were not my uncle’s dreams. Or, at least, not just his dreams. These are my dreams.’

My throat was dry. I felt very cold, and suddenly I was afraid of my friend.

‘You’ve spent your whole career working with dreams,’ he said. ‘I needed to share this with you. Together, you see, we’re going to understand what all this means. I know it’s right to ask you. I just know it.’

And he was right. I knew I had to help him, because when I had opened that portfolio, I recognised what I saw.

They were my dreams too.


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