Dreams. People are full of them. They permeate us, define us, and reinvent us.
But dreams are just lies, when you think about it. Whether misremembering the past, speculating about the future, or making up stories about the present: people are constantly dreaming up new versions of the world around them. An active imagination could be better described as an internal network of self-deception.
So if everyone is quite happy lying to themselves – dreaming to themselves – on a daily basis, then surely there’s no harm throwing a few lies of my own into the mix? Right? I mean, I’m just trying to further the cause of self-delusion.
Is it really my fault if a customer believes some tatty, broken piece of pot is actually a priceless relic of a bygone age? It’s not like I outright lie about it. I just help them believe what they want to believe.
I mean, who’s to say that little piece of pot didn’t once belong to Pharaoh Whatsit of the Thingumy Dynasty? I can’t know the entire history of every artefact I sell, can I? If anything, I’d be lying if I told you I was certain it wasn’t of royal Egyptian descent. In that sense, I am a very truthful salesman.
And just what am I, Jack Hansard, a salesman of?
I sell dreams, my friend. Interested?
At least, dreams are what I’m selling this week.
Good dreams, bad dreams, fantasies, nightmares; I’ve got ’em all for sale, here in the trunk of my car.
I suppose I should have mentioned – I’m not your regular ‘it-came-off-the-back-of-a-lorry-guv’ street vendor. I am a purveyor of Black Goods: that is, I sell goods hot off the real Black Market. The one where you can buy anything from luck to revenge in a bottle, and cursed newts’ eyeballs count as legal tender.
The Black Market isn’t so much a place as it is a concept. Sure, there are some specific locations you can visit year-round to browse a limited array of specialist goods, but for the most part the Black Market is made up of many traders, like myself, who travel up and down the country, taking our wares where they will be most appreciated. It’s a skill, working out how to be in the right place at the right time.
It’s all about matching your stock to your audience. I once got hold of a crate of deliciously vindictive little voodoo curses. I then happened upon a speed-dating convention for divorcees. I have never before made so much money in my life.
Dreams can also turn you quite a profit, if you’re willing to put the work in. See, dreams are a lot like wild creatures. They zip in and out of reality – and in and out of our heads – like insects flitting between flowers.
So first you have to capture one of these wild dreams. Unless you’re a fool, you leave that part to the professionals. I met a man who’d lost his whole lower torso wrestling with the vicious dream of a six year old; tore him clean in half. ‘Legs’, we called him.
He told us about it afterwards.
“Never underestimate them kiddy dreams,” he said, drawing on a scatty dogend from one hand and hefting a pint of Guinness in the other. I distinctly recall he wore an eye-patch too, though I feel that was just for show. “Them kiddies, they like they’s dreams the most. They’s the most unwilling to let them go.”
“What kind of dream was it, the one that took your le-“
“Pride! It took me pride more’n it did me body!”
I looked him up and down, scruffy old man in a battered wheelchair holding court to his peers in the back of a dingy, run-down rugby club, and I thought that I’d much rather have my legs.
“So what did it look like?” I pressed.
“Ah, it were terrible,” he said, stubbing out his sliver of cigarette. “Terrible, like no man’d seen before. It shakes me memory, it does.” He held out his hand, beckoning.
I sighed and offered him another roll-up. I hoped this story would be worth the price of tobacco and beer. “You really shouldn’t be smoking in here,” I muttered. I watched him light up and take another long drag.
“Terrible!” he declared anew. “Every dream is different. Depends on who it comes out of. This kiddy dream, it were a girlie’s. So as you might ‘spect, it were full of ponies.”
“Pink ones. Lots of them, too. And they were champing and kicking away, and I was dancing and giving them a good fight. Almost had it, I did! Got the net right over the whole thing. But then one pony gets its tooth in me boot, and way! That’s half me gone.”
I’m still not sure the story was worth the price, but Legs told me a whole lot more about dreams and what you do with them. So once you’ve got your captured dream, assuming you’re still intact, right, you grind it down until it’s the consistency of fine sand. The term ‘Sandman’ is, of course, just a name for those merchants who trade in dreams. I don’t think they usually meet up in rugby clubs.
Anyways, you mix your dream-sand with some tasty beverage, and drink it like a tonic (I know the Hackney Sandman does a rather good cocktail). Et voila – you drop quite unconscious and have yourself whatever dream it is you drank, albeit extremely vividly. Want to pretend you’re the ruler of a magic realm for twelve hours? Knock yourself out with a dream tonic and you will believe you are living your fantasy. While your body sleeps, your mind will be experiencing a sensory explosion akin to reality. I’m told it’s the ultimate form of escapism.
Though I’ve also heard ghastly stories of people who have overdosed, and were doomed to live in their dreamworld for the rest of their lives. Terrible stuff, if you don’t use it properly.
I’m sure you can see why such a thing would fetch a high price on the Black Market. Especially as customers tend to be looking for just the right sort of dream to fulfil their cravings. High demand for limited edition products? Score!
Well, not quite.
As I said, the sale of dreams is my current business venture. At present I have a menagerie of sweet dreams, wet dreams, nostalgic dreams, and one very furious nightmare rattling around in the trunk of my car. I bought these wild dreams off a rather grim young gentleman and obtained bottles all ready to be filled with lucrative tonic. The problem?
I couldn’t do it.
The grinding part, that is. I thought I’d cut out the middle-man and do that bit myself, save on costs, sort of thing. Even bought myself the comically-sized pestle and mortar to do the job with. But could I do it? Bugger me, if the stupid creatures didn’t look at me with the most ridiculously soulful eyes I have ever seen.
All dreams look different, that should go without saying. They can be cute and cuddly, they can be mean and sly, they can look human or animal or both or neither. One of the ones in my car looks like a cartoonish cross between a riverboat and the Eiffel Tower (it becomes stranger when you notice it has eyes and legs and a tail that wags adorably when you pet it).
I found myself looking at this bizarre assortment of creatures, and found them looking back. I suppose I’m not cut out for dirty work after all.
I picked up this haul on my way out of London – you might say I was evading a dissatisfied customer after he threw me off a bridge – and at the time it seemed like a bargain. Just the boost I was looking for, seeing as my previous business venture hadn’t been all that successful.
Now it looked like a waste of several hundred pounds, and I had the awful dilemma of figuring out what to do with the weird little beasts. My only chance was to sell them on again, but who to? I’ve never had any contacts here in Worcester.
I was camped out in the train station car park at Shrub Hill. I love station car parks. Always open, always free. For someone with a forged blue badge, anyway. It was empty except for me at one in the morning. I would have been asleep, except the dream-creatures constantly uttered unsettling chittering noises from the back of the car.
“Shut up, you little demons,” I groaned.
I pulled my blanket tighter. What a mess. I wondered if a pet shop would be willing to take them off my hands. I could probably pass off the fluffiest one as a rare new dog breed. It did look a bit puppy-like, though its coat appeared more like glued-on cotton wool than fur. And the eyes were just a little too big.
Mind you, it sorted of floated, which wasn’t very dog-like at all. Would be a hell of a prize-winning trick at Crufts though.
I pondered this for a while, eyes drooping as I imagined training the fluffy dream-thing on a leash. I could teach it to run an obstacle course and to sit still while a very serious woman examines its teeth. I wondered if it even had teeth.
An eruption of snarls had me wide awake again. This time I flung open the door and marched round to the boot, banging my fist against it.
“Pack. It. In.”
The snarling stopped, replaced by pathetic whimpering sounds. I sighed, and opened the lid.
I had two cages in there; one for the dreams, and one just for the nightmare. It was an ugly thing, the nightmare. It’s slobbering jaw hung loose from a face so drooped and wrinkled it looked as if it was melting. Small but wicked claws usually scraped the floor as its arms dragged limply, but right now the thing was scrabbling at the cage wire.
The dreams were cowering in the corner furthest away from it. All but one: the fluffy one, with the big eyes and cotton wool coat, sat calmly facing off with the snarling nightmare.
I smacked the top of the nightmare’s cage.
“You can’t get to them you silly bugger. Leave them be.”
The creature quietened a little, but didn’t back down from its stare-off with the fluffy one. The others remained tightly pressed in their corner.
“Look, it can’t get to you,” I said to them. “Your friend has the right idea.”
I shook my head and turned to lean against the car. This was probably going to be a long night. I wish I smoked. This seemed like the right kind of time for a smoke.
I sighed again and kicked at the sand under my feet.
Slowly, I looked down, and then up, and realised what I had been seeing all along, but my tired brain had helpfully ignored for me.
Sand. Pale blue under the light of the moon, stretching as far as the eye could see to a black horizon. I didn’t recall parking in a desert.
I glanced up at the moon.
It had a face.
It smiled down at me, and winked.
I brought my gaze level with the horizon. The horribly flat horizon. It was flat, all the way around. You’d think there would be dunes in a desert. In a real desert, anyway.
I looked back at the jittery dream creatures. Damn. Was I asleep? Stupid question. My mind recalled the very dream tonics I had foolishly been intending to try my hand at. Dreams so vivid you’d think you were awake.
But I didn’t make any tonic in the end. I didn’t have the stones.
Didn’t you? uttered a treacherously knowing voice in my head. What if you did, and something went wrong? Would you remember it in your dream? For that matter, how do you know everything up til now hasn’t been a dream too? Could be you’ve been lost in the soup of your mind for years. Look, there goes a crouton.
For a moment I was too stunned to think. It was the feeling of having the rug pulled from under your feet, except you hadn’t even realised you were standing on it in the first place.
I needed to stay calm. I’ve been in worse situations – there would be a solution if I could just keep my head straight and think it through. Except I was starting to worry, just a tiny bit, that maybe I hadn’t been in worse situations. What if, just if, I wasn’t quite who I thought I was?
When you think about it, the idea of being able to capture a dream is pretty surreal, right? I mean, actually, you don’t have to think about it much to establish that. It’s pretty obviously stupid.
I felt quite dim, all of a sudden. As if the lights in my head had just been turned down a notch so that I was full of shadows. Vague, dark shadows.
I cast around for something familiar, maybe the light switch. I wasn’t surprised that my car had disappeared.
Numbly, I began to wander into the desert.
The sand crunched pleasantly underfoot and the night-time sun felt refreshingly cool on my face. Funny, I thought it was a moon, earlier.
Not that it mattered. Why would it matter? I had a feeling that it did, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
I continued to head for the horizon, but found it hard to shake the feeling that I was supposed to be doing something. As if I’d left the oven on.
I don’t own an oven, I thought. Probably nothing.
My legs banged into something hard, stopping me short. I gazed at it for a while. Road bollard. Lit up with a pale, watery glow of white and yellow. The arrow pointed onwards into nothing.
On just the edge of hearing, I thought I heard a muffled vrooooooom from a few feet in front of me, gradually fading into the distance.
I absent-mindedly patted the bollard, and wandered on.
The next thing I stumbled into, or rather, on top of, was a metal bench.
I let myself lay on it, my cheek against the cool metal, the midnight sun beating down on my back. A crisp packet flew by, carried on the wind that wasn’t there.
It was all so… pleasant.
I could sleep here forever.
It was a boot that woke me up. That, and a sharp voice commanding me to sit up. My eyelids lifted, dazedly. And then stared at the man looming over me. At least, I assumed it was a man.
It wore heavy leathers with what looked like many layers of thick padding underneath. The face was obscured by a sturdy veil very similar to a bee-keeper’s.
“Uh,” I said, most eloquently. My eyes were fixed on the weapon it held in one hand, a spear with a curved hook adjoined to the blade. I could feel my senses seeping back into a state of alertness. If anything is going to wake a dull mind, a sharp and pointy object will definitely do the trick.
One gloved hand grasped me firmly by the arm and hauled me upright.
“What are you doing out here, then?” said a man’s voice from behind the veil.
“Not sure. You’re a Sandman, aren’t you?” I said, blearily. At his waist a thick, heavy net hung from his belt. Looks like he was out hunting for produce.
“Where am I?”
“Some town. Don’t know it meself. You from here?”
“I thought I was in a desert…” I looked about, and saw he was right. It looked just like the same stretch of Worcester I’d seen on the way in. A flashing fluorescent sign told me that P ZZA could be procured from the decrepit takeaway across the street. Had I sleepwalked here?
“That was the Dreamscape. Land o’ dreams an’ all that.” The veil seemed to be regarding me carefully. Thoughts rushed back into the empty spaces in my head. I’ve only heard tales of the Dreamscape. They say it’s this vast ethereal plane that exists inside all our heads, but only Sandmen can traverse it at will; unwary travellers are swallowed by the sand. I self-consciously patted my limbs, checking I was all there.
“Thanks for the wake-up call,” I said. “I hope I’m awake, anyway.” I shook my head as if that would shake the cobwebs out of it. “You were in the Dreamscape on a… hunting expedition, I take it? Glad you happened by me. Hansard. Jack Hansard,” I said, extending a hand. There had been a point in my life where I decided introducing myself with my last name was the epitome of cool, and it stuck. Too many Bond films as a kid.
The Sandman waved my hand away.
“I don’t care what your name is. I do want to know where you’re keeping the unlicensed dreams.”
“Can’t say I know what you’re talking about, friend.”
The other leaned in and grinned toothily. His features were vague behind the veil, but his hook-spear glinted menacing orange under the street-light.
“I’d bet my own licence you’ve got a stash of ’em somewhere nearby, and I don’t need to bet anything to know you ain’t no Sandman. So why don’t you let me take a look-see, and maybe I’ll take ’em off your hands, proper like. No questions asked. What d’you say, friend?”
I hesitated. Technically, this was exactly what I had wanted. I could offload the dreams and scarper. But there was just one other thing.
“For a price, of course,” I said.
“Of course,” the Sandman replied, and grinned again. “I’m a fair man, Mr Hansard.”
I sighed inwardly. That was a resounding no chance if ever I heard one. But the man had a spear-hook, so what can you do?
“This way, I think.” I tried to get my bearings. I remembered the nearby takeaway across the road – I’d bought chips for dinner – so the car park wasn’t far away. I wondered how far I would have sleepwalked if this guy hadn’t found me. Maybe I’d have walked right out of town. Or maybe I’d have stayed on the bench and fallen asleep forever.
The thought disturbed me. Clearly, being in the business of dreams was a lot more hazardous than I’d thought. I didn’t even know what I’d done wrong and it was too late before I ever knew about it.
A chill ran through me as we crossed a road, passing a white and yellow traffic bollard.
“I think I was nearly run over,” I murmured.
“If the mind goes wanderin’ the body will do its best to follow,” said my leatherclad companion with a smirk. “The trick is to make the body follow all the way so none of it’s left behind.”
“That’s what you Sandmen do, is it? How?”
“Tricks o’ the trade.”
“Can you do it anywhere? You just cross into the Dreamscape whenever you like?”
“Don’t you know anything, mister? What are you doing messing around with dreams if you don’t know how to handle ’em, eh? Looking for a new kind of buzz, ah?”
“I don’t sample my own wares. I’m selling them.”
This was met with guffaws.
“Do you even know how to mix dream-sand, little man? Tis an art, take my word. Mix the wrong consistency and you can sleep a man to death. That’s why we have a Guild for this sort of thing. Gotta be licenced. Guild don’t take kindly to freelancers like yourself. That your car?”
It was indeed my car, right where I’d left it, with the boot still open. As we approached I could see the nightmare still snarling away in its own cage, but the other cage seemed empty of all but the oddly fluffy, big-eyed dream. Where had the other dreams disappeared to? I tried to mask my surprise, but I don’t think the Sandman noticed anyway. He cast a critical eye over the two remaining dream-creatures and tutted loudly.
“No binding on the cages or anything,” he muttered. “Christ, they ain’t even iron. What good is steel? Don’t you know they can leak out if they ain’t in iron? Dumb question. I know you don’t.”
I bottled my indignation. The steel cages really were an oversight on my part. I’d plumped for the cheap option.
“Forget the cages,” I said. “They’re good quality specimens. What’s your offer?”
“My silence. And everlasting gratitude.”
“I thought you said you were a fair man.”
“I am. Seems to me you’d be better off if the Guild never hears your name. If they catch you selling without a licence, well, let’s say you’ll have a real nightmare of a time. So I’ll take these ‘quality specimens’ and be out of your hair with nary a word. Seems mighty fair to me.”
Although he hadn’t removed the veil, there was a sense that his expression had turned very black. Suddenly the spear-hook was more prominent than before.
“Seems to me you don’t have a choice,” he growled.
I smiled brightly in response. “There’s always a choice.”
I side-stepped, reached out, flipped the catch on the nightmare’s cage.
And watched in mute astonishment as the fluffy fuzzball leapt out.
Wrong damn cage.
The Sandman kept a cautious distance, attention completely focused on the fuzzball. I darted forward again and fumbled open the nightmare’s cage.
The nightmare shot forward, teeth gnashing and little pincer claws whirring. It avoided a deft swipe from the Sandman and pivoted to face its fluffy dream counterpart. I groaned as I saw it ready to swipe.
And then the fuzzball, this cute, saucer-eyed little creature made entirely of candyfloss fluff, unhinged its jaw and revealed a mouth, no, a maw as large as itself, devoid of teeth but somehow all the worse for the frilly red gums flapping in their place. It leaned forward and swallowed the nightmare whole.
Suddenly I knew why the other captive dreams had been so frightened.
“Move, you idiot!”
The Sandman lunged. The hook caught the creature around the neck, pinning it briefly to the ground. But it seemed to be made of jelly, and easily slipped free. Another sharp jab, this time with the spear tip, merely caught in the thick layer of fluff – the fuzzball pulled away, leapt up into the air and toward my throat.
I threw up my arm in front of me and the frilly red gums closed around it. I danced on the spot, waving my arm to try and throw the beast off. The fluffball started to steam, and the world began to turn blue. Sand crunched under my feet.
“Get it off!” I screamed.
A blade sliced in front of my face, catching the dream square between its saucer eyes. It seemed to break apart and dissolve, and in seconds there was nothing there at all.
The world regained its usual colour. I looked up, and down, and stamped the tarmac beneath my feet.
“Did you kill it?” I said.
The Sandman gave a derisive snort. “Of course not. It just shed its material form. Gone back to the Dreamscape. Nearly pulled you in with it, too.”
“It was so fluffy,” I said, still somewhat stupefied.
“Never trust the fluffy ones.”
We shared a gruff silence. There didn’t seem much point exchanging threats with each other; the goods were gone, there was nothing left to bargain for, and I’d like to think there was a mutual, if grudging understanding that each of us were only trying to keep a livelihood.
The Sandman shrugged. He swung his spear-hook through the air like a scythe; a shimmering tear in reality split open by the blade. He stepped through the tear, returning to his hunt in the Dreamscape without a word.
No hard feelings. But I’d best steer clear of the dream trade for a while, and keep one eye open for any disgruntled Guild officials, just in case.
I hope that Sandman stays in the Dreamscape a good long while. It’s not a place I want to visit again. Unless there’s a really good sales opportunity.
I wonder if there’s such a thing as dream real estate?