Into the Dreamhouse

Catherine paused at the end of the street. The house loomed out of the grey, fried-egg hissing of rain, a monstrous gargoyle of patched stone and withered rafters. Sickly lights burned at the windows. It was without doubt the right place.

‘Hardly a dream house,’ she thought: then again, where was? Everywhere grew tongues at twilight, whispered secrets she knew too well until her pillow was sodden with sweat. Then it would be time to move on. One place was as good as another.

She pushed open the door.

The first ten minutes were the best because nobody knew her. People moved from room to room like wraiths, locked in their inscrutable communal concerns.

“I’m looking for Shebah,” she said to two women as they floated past.

Shebah appeared: immensely old, chain-smoking, a crimson study of a scarecrow on the move. She apprised Catherine quickly, then reached forward and cupped her chin in her hand.

“Your room’s at the top,” she said at last. Catherine followed Shebah upstairs. Odours of musk and jasmine washed behind her, mingling with more earthy smells at every landing. Corridors stretched away, dark tunnels of gloom illuminated by flickering candlelight from half-open doorways.

“About twenty,” Shebah said, answering Catherine’s unspoken question. “Some come, some go.” Catherine nodded, feeling more at ease in this shifting world. Shebah paused. “We’ve no secrets from each other, really,” she said. Catherine’s hand closed fearfully around a small glass cat in her pocket. Shebah smiled. “You won’t come to harm here.”

The room was in darkness and at points open to the sky. Rain drifted against the washbasin, wind tugged at the curtain like the sea on a net. At the far end was the bed. Shebah lit a candle and turned to leave. “You won’t come to harm here,” she repeated. “Whatever people know.”

The house curled up like a cat and slept. Catherine knew she was the last person awake yet had a strong feeling she was being watched. It took ten minutes to tip-toe to the door and peer into the windswept darkness of the top hallway. There was nothing to see. She turned back towards the guttering candle. Floorboards creaked, were answered up and down the building. She stood still for five minutes, then collapsed on the bed.

Catherine started dreaming. Never, not even since the murder, had she had such dreams. They tumbled out as if from the locker room of a lunatic. A babble of voices chased her down a candlelit hallway. At the far end… Catherine screamed once, and woke up.

The house was alive. She heard the echo of her scream ringing down beam and gutter, across every rat-scuttling threshold. Candlelight flickered in the corridor: in the background she had the impression of other objects on the move. She found herself at the doorway, then half-way down the stairs.

The crumbling plaster seemed to drink up reflections like a sponge. Below her the house was adrift on a dozen sickly points of light. People drifted back and forth talking of the scream but in a disjunctive way, as though it had been something collective. She tried to catch expressions but each face seemed hooded by a cowl of dark light. Far below, through a great rent in the stairwell, she saw Shebah waving her arms like a priestess.

Catherine crept back to bed.

She spent the next day in her room. The house seemed to shrink in the pale daylight. Rain fell without break. One day, Catherine thought, I’ll be free of all this; but she couldn’t see how. Every footfall made her shudder, recalling the night Dennis had returned.

As the daylight retreated the house grew larger, expanding into its truer personality. Catherine slunk downstairs and stole a piece of bread. She wondered how long life, even here, could be sustained without money. She had been told Shebah made no demands but there existed other necessities.

Shebah was standing on the stairs. Catherine forced the rest of the bread into her mouth.

“Share and share alike, dearie,” she said. Catherine, masticating for air, nodded.

Again, as the evening wore on, the house settled down to its strange repose. Again Catherine dreamed. This time the tangled images made more sense, even though little was to do with her own life. The jolly woman in the leaking boat, for example, was called Beth. Though Catherine had never met her she was no random creation of her subconscious. Beth had a place in someone’s life, if not yet in hers.

The following day she ventured into the front room to sit quietly and watch the rain from a different perspective. Two women were in the far corner.

Catherine mustered her courage to speak. “Sorry about the scream,” she said.

They laughed. “We’re all sorry,” one said, but without malice.

“Did you like Beth’s boat?” the other said.

“I…I dreamed about someone called Beth last night,” she stammered.

“Yes, yes,” the first woman said impatiently.

“But I’ve never met her.”

Both women shrugged as if the distinction were meaningless. Catherine went back upstairs.

That night – the third night – her dream at last connected with experience but in an unexpected way. This was the dream of alternative memory. Now it was she who had come back to the darkened house, to find Dennis stalking her. Every so often she could see his green slitted eyes through gaps in the banisters or reflected in the windows of empty rooms as she crept by on all fours, the knife hard between her teeth. Hour after hour the chase went on, restarting, veering off from a previous pattern into another jumble of half-landings and echoing bathrooms.

Just before dawn the knife fell, but in his hand, not hers. She could feel his blade rasp against bone and sinew, as hers had on his. Pale daylight was breaking across the sodden eaves of the house before her body twitched for the last time. He fell forwards and vanished into her entrails, swallowed up like an ox in quicksand. As it did so the image blurred into a conscious vision of rain.

Catherine stood up. The house was holding its breath. She opened the door.

Everyone was there, staring at her with an identical expression, neutral and utterly knowing. At the front stood Shebah.

“That was too much, dearie,” Shebah said. “Share and share alike, but…”

Catherine nodded. Even dreams could be common property. From each according to her needs, to each according to her wants: but nobody, it seemed, wanted any part of her awful and uncoagulated memories. She scanned the faces again, unable to blame them. Pity: she had liked Beth, would have enjoyed the chance to get to know her better or talk about her with others in the rainy afternoons, maybe – in time – find out from whose life she had sprung. Three nights of safety were in the circumstances all she had a right to expect. She nodded again, then turned back into the room.

Ten minutes later she slipped out of the dreamhouse. No one said goodbye.

Brian Quinn
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• For rants and musings set to music, please click here

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