DreamCatcher by Chris Green
Matt and Miranda make their way home after a bracing walk by the sea. They are striding out along Roald Dahl Avenue, one of a cluster of roads that are referred to simply as the mystery writers’ estate. All the roads here are named after masters of suspense. Although the morning mist is lifting, the features of the landscape still lack daytime definition.
‘I keep hearing footsteps behind me,’ Matt says. ‘But, when I turn around, there is no one there.’
Miranda doesn’t respond. Her thoughts seem to be elsewhere. Maybe she has a new tune going around in her head. She and her friends, Harmony and Electra are writing a song cycle for an amateur production at the local theatre. Naturally, Matt tries to be as encouraging as he can but if you were to ask him he might say, ‘don’t expect the show to be opening anytime soon.’
Matt and Miranda are empty-nesters. Their son Ben has recently moved out. Ben is a mobile app developer, a bit of a whizz kid. On the back of the success of an app he designed that records dreams, he has gone out to California to work. But, instead of taking the opportunity to branch out, Matt and Miranda have stayed set in their ways. At least as far as their exercise patterns are concerned. They both belong to the same gym which they never use and most days do the same walk, whether alone or together.
‘Listen!’ Matt says. ‘Can’t you hear the footsteps?’
‘It’s probably just the wind blowing something about, in the derelict hotel site, Matt,’ she says. She is referring to the remains of the Black Rose Hotel, which was almost destroyed by fire last year. The site is fenced off while the insurance investigation is in progress.
‘It’s not that kind of noise,’ Matt says. ‘It’s a rhythmic left foot, right foot leather-soled shoes hitting the pavement kind of noise. It has an echo. Surely, you must be able to hear it.’
‘No, Matt, I can’t hear it,’ Miranda says. ‘You’re imagining things.’
‘I heard the same footsteps yesterday too,’ Matt says, this time with a little more emphasis. ‘On this same stretch of road. When I picked up my pace, the footsteps behind me picked up their pace too, to match my step. When I turned around to look, I heard the phantom feet shuffle as they came to a halt. There was no one there.’
‘Next, you’ll be telling me you can hear a military band in the distance playing a haunting tune,’ Miranda says. ‘Or that there’s a lion on the loose in Parsons Park.’ Matt has noticed that Miranda is becoming more dismissive of his observations lately. He finds her cutting remarks hurtful. He doesn’t publicly acknowledge the possibility but he feels they might be drifting apart. Miranda seems to be in her own little world. All this amateur dramatics, mixing with people with names like Caramel and Sahara, Gunner and Caspian. But you can’t tell her. She knows best.
They take a detour along New Road. Perhaps it is a shortcut or maybe it’s just a way to stretch the legs but they always seem to go this way. Matt can no longer hear the footsteps. He begins to wonder if perhaps Miranda is right. Perhaps being followed is all in his imagination. Things have been pretty fraught lately, what with the closure of the kaleidoscope repair shop and the fridge magnet advisory centre. His business empire has definitely taken a tumble and now there is uncertainty over the future of the inanimate pet counselling service. These trials and tribulations are bound to affect one’s state of mind. When things are out of kilter, it is easy to imagine things that aren’t there. He needs to take another look at the mindfulness book Miranda bought him as a stocking filler last Christmas.
But, as they turn into Daphne Du Maurier Way, to his dismay, the footsteps start up again. Heavy regular trudging footsteps, keeping pace with his own. Once more, he is unnerved. Once more, he stops and turns around. Miranda grabs him by the arm.
‘Will you stop doing that!’ she says. ‘You’re freaking me out.’
‘But there is something very odd going on, Miranda’ he says. ‘Don’t you ever get the feeling that there’s a secret invisible world just out of reach?’
‘You’re not going to start on that parallel worlds nonsense again, are you, Matt?’ Miranda says. ‘It’s bad enough that we had to buy a house in Stephen King Drive. I really liked that nice semi on the Rogers and Hammerstein estate. Or I could have settled on the one we looked at in Noel Coward Mews, next door to Archimedes and Threnody. It would have been within walking distance to the Lyric Theatre. Anyway, look! Once and for all, there’s nobody following you.’
With this, Miranda strides on ahead. Matt is left looking back at a long empty street. When, a second or so later, he turns back around, he is also looking at a long empty street. Miranda is nowhere to be seen. She has vanished into thin air. There is nowhere she could have secreted herself in so short a time. Yet she is not there. Matt reminds himself this is not a scene from Star Trek. Nor is it a cheap magic trick by a flashy illusionist at the Lyric. A living breathing five-foot-six woman wearing brightly coloured clothes has disappeared in the open and in broad daylight from a quiet suburban street in a coastal town in England. What manner of sorcery can have brought this about?
Matt’s experience of reporting matters to the police is not a good one. They don’t seem to be willing to deal with anything unusual. When he went in a couple of months ago to report the abduction of Major Churchill’s pet rock, Britannia, they were downright rude. Sergeant Tesco suggested he might try the psychiatric ward at the hospital. He can’t have been familiar with the field of inanimate pet care. Nor does Matt believe Sergeant Tesco was aware that Major Churchill is an influential figure in these parts and could easily bring pressure to bear.
Clearly, he will need to look elsewhere if he is going to find out what has happened to Miranda. But where exactly? It’s a job for a supernatural agency. He wonders if Aunt Julie’s old friend, Lucy Gaia might be able to help. Lucy can commune with spirits, talk with the dead and all sorts. She will surely have suggestions about what might be going on. Matt hasn’t seen Lucy in a few years but he believes her to be a creature of habit. He is sure he will still be able to find her mixing up some magic potion at Pennyroyal Cottage on the edge of the woods.
He discovers to his horror that according to a roaming woodsman, who introduces himself as Pete Free, Lucy has recently been eaten by a bear. Last Tuesday, Pete Free was returning from a mushroom-collecting expedition in the woods when he spotted the large brown bear finishing the last bits of Lucy off. Brown bears, Pete tells him, have notoriously large appetites. This particular brown bear had been around the woods for a while.
‘I didn’t realise there were bears around these parts,’ Matt says.
‘There are bears everywhere,’ Pete says. ‘Especially in these ‘ere woods.’
‘Or that they were carnivores,’ Matt says.
‘Bears will eat anything if they are hungry,’ Pete says. ‘Anything at all. Even tough old harpies like your Lucy. And as I’ve told you, brown bears seem to always be hungry.’
‘Poor Lucy,’ Matt says. ‘Do you know what? This isn’t turning out to be a very good day.’
‘So, what shall we do about it?’ Pete says. ‘Do you want to go to the pub?’
‘Why not!’ Matt says. Sometimes a bevvy can be the best course of action when everything seems to be a blur. ‘I’ll get the car.’
On the way to The White Rabbit, he tells Pete Free about Miranda’s disappearance. Pete suggests that there are many ways to skin a cat. Matt wonders what skinning a cat has to do with it.
Matt has not been to The White Rabbit before. It is on the outskirts of the old town five miles away. He seldom ventures out this way. The first thing that strikes him when he walks in is the huge nineteen-sixties jukebox. The second is that it is stocked with the best of sixties rock and the landlord likes it loud. While they are waiting to get his attention at the bar, Jumping Jack Flash is followed by Voodoo Child. And the bass on Get Back is like a rocket taking off.
Another thing he can’t help noticing is the room’s shifting sense of proportion. It’s as if the walls are breathing. Even before the first Special Brew, Matt wonders what it is about the lighting that causes those impossibly long shadows or why the mural of the lunar landscape on the far wall doesn’t stay in one place. And where is the fog coming from? His sense of disorientation isn’t helped by Pete Free trying, for no apparent reason, to explain the subtext of the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter. As he casts his glance around the bar, he feels seasick. It feels as if his head is doing somersaults. By now he has all but forgotten about the cat and the skinning and the hungry bear and Sergeant Tesco and it’s as if Miranda was someone from a previous life.
At some point in the explanation, Pete too vanishes. One moment Pete is beside him talking about cabbages and kings and the next he is not. He is nowhere to be seen. Did Matt drift off and miss something?
‘Did you happen to see where Pete went?’ he asks the fellow in the space suit leaning against the bar.
‘What?’ the fellow in the space suit says. Apparently, he cannot hear Matt over Born to be Wild.
‘Pete Free,’ Matt says. ‘He’s disappeared.’
‘Who?’ the fellow says. It may not be a spacesuit after all. It seems to be an illusion brought about by reflections from mirrors behind the bar. Multiple images and superimpositions.
‘The guy who was just sitting here. The one with the big beard and the coonskin cap.’
‘There was no one sitting there. Are you OK, mate?’
Matt stumbles around the bar in a confused state looking for his companion before deciding it would be best to get out of The White Rabbit.
Outside, he discovers that it is dark. How long has he been in there? With the maelstrom of dark thoughts bombarding his consciousness, it is difficult to see things in terms of the clock. Light My Fire was on a few times and Purple Haze more than once. In a Gadda da Vida alone is twenty minutes long. He takes out his phone to check the time. For some reason, it is switched off. Why is it switched off? He never switches it off. He activates it. There are fourteen missed calls and as many text messages. All but one of the missed calls are from Miranda. But, she has not left a single message. If you phone someone thirteen times, surely you have to leave at least one voicemail. Unless, for whatever reason, you can’t. But at least, Miranda is phoning. ……. Or could it be someone calling from her phone? But still, why no message? The other missed call is from someone called Walter Ego. Walter Ego keeps phoning him. Matt is not sure but he thinks he might have met him back in the day at an inanimate pets conference. Or perhaps it was the fantasy fiction workshop. Whichever, Walter seems to be on his case. He moves on to the text messages. Most of these are enquiries about outstanding kaleidoscope repairs or people wanting advice about fridge magnets. Sadly, none of the texts is from Miranda.
The reason he hasn’t tried to phone her, he can only suppose was down to the way in which she vanished. It seemed to him mobile communication would have no place in the void. He phones her now but the call goes straight to voicemail. In his desperation, he leaves a garbled message. Then another garbled message.
He needs to make his way back home to find out what is going on but he realises he has no idea where he left the car. The White Rabbit doesn’t have a car park, so he must have left the old Opel on a street nearby. The town is shabby, unloved. The railway, which was the town’s lifeline closed back in the nineteen sixties and, having no industry or commerce and no obvious attractions, the town fell into decay. It has yet to be rediscovered and gentrified. But, Matt is sure he can hear a train approaching. He can’t quite picture it but it’s making all those noises you expect from a large locomotive. It would be better if there were tracks and a station for it to stop at but the idea of a train is so powerful, it is coming in track or no track, station or no station. Matt thinks perhaps he can get on it instead of looking for the car.
Ben and his new friend, Rebel are relaxing in his apartment in the San Francisco Bay area. He is explaining to her how DreamCatcher works.
‘It’s a bit basic at the moment,’ he says. ‘This is only a beta version of the app, remember, so there’s bound to be a glitch or two. Anyway, what you have just watched, babe, is a recording of Pops dreaming that I made on his phone when I went back home to Blighty last month. The old fella wasn’t even aware I was doing it. Didn’t even notice when I fitted the cap. He had had a few, I think. Mum was away visiting Aunt Julie, or something. ….’
‘More likely the something, I would say.’
‘Anyway, with the CGI enhancement it’s not too bad, is it? What do you think? And now there’s Silicon Valley finance behind DreamCatcher, and I can put together a team, I should be able to make the graphics more realistic and improve the voice simulation.’
‘That’s your dad? …… Woah! I guess he’s kind of cool in a messed-up sort of way. Liking mystery writers and rock music.’
‘Cool? ….. Hey, steady on. I wouldn’t go that far.’
‘On the other hand, I can see why you wanted to cut out. Divorce on the cards, do you think?’
‘Who knows?’ Ben says. ‘But they do say that dreams help to shed light on one’s inner world.’
‘Perhaps I might have a go later,’ Rebel says. ‘I have to tell you, Ben, I do have some badass dreams.’
Copyright © Chris Green, 2022: All rights reserved