It was one of the snazziest housing developments I’d ever seen. And also one of the most eccentric. Money, taste, vision, execution: rarely, if ever, do they come together so well, or so naturally. In the shade of some sheep dotted hills, from which I had just, in quizzical rapture, descended, lay a broad rolling valley where miniature meadows and delightfully wonky hedgerows conspired to create a village-green-throughout-the-community atmosphere with a dizzying array of dwellings dished up from some scatterbrained architectural platter.
I stood in front of a traditional thatched cottage admiring the risible incongruity of the sparkling brass and glass dome beside it. They were separated only by an artfully chaotic field of wild flowers and a snaking line of poplars that reminded me of the spinal diagrams outside chiropractors’ offices.
I thought Languedoc. I thought Provence. I thought Tuscany, or maybe a heretofore hidden corner of Gloucestershire. Two small girls, maybe five or six, came skipping down the grassy lane I was standing in. At least that was my first impression. Then I noticed that they were floating about two inches above the ground and arcing the rope perfectly through the gap. They hovered thus in front of me, giggling together.
“Where are you from then?” one of them asked.
Maybe I was trying too hard to act grown up and sensible because the right answer seemed to completely elude me and I wound up gesturing behind me towards the hills and saying “Back up there somewhere”. Sometimes an excess of effort will do that, trip you up when you’re trying to do your best. I consoled myself with the happy fiction that I was playing their little game. Molly said she came from the other side of the river, where they had a big house with ever so many rabbits and ducks.
An inquisitive dachshund appeared at my ankles. The girls called him Harry and fussed over him in the usual way. I watched bemused and briefly wondered where my short term memory had gone. A jolly looking lady of medium stature and thick hips called to the girls, and they and the dog trotted over to her. She then waved and called out to me. “New here are you? Come on in and say hello if you’ve got a moment. There’s always a welcome for strangers in my house.”
I smiled and advanced, hoping I wouldn’t have to come up with a story. As I sauntered over I could see the lady fetching glasses of lemonade for the girls. She held out her hand and wished me good day. I was to call her Mavis. I blurted out my own and blustered through my relief. She lead me to a bench in the garden and told me not to worry. I wasn’t sure what she meant but didn’t care to hint at my ignorance.
Mavis had been living there for a couple of years by her reckoning. Her manner suggested a complete absence of calendars. She lived alone, but had a number of friends nearby. There was Mike who used to be a barber and Gillian who was in fact still teaching a number of children in the area, including Vanessa, the cheeky one who’d asked me where I was from. I wasn’t sure how Mavis knew this, but I let it slide, just in case it lead to any embarrassing questions about who I was and what I was doing there. Mavis’ husband hadn’t arrived yet, but she wasn’t worried as they hadn’t been getting along well for the last few years. He was really much happier playing golf, and besides she had more fun with the dogs, although she had to admit, she did miss them terribly, even though Harry had been a real find. And wasn’t this just the loveliest of locations? Yes, I had to agree there. Delightful. How did she ever find it?
She was brought here of course, how else? You could never find somewhere this nice on your own. You just wouldn’t know where to start would you? No, I supposed not, but I had found it…somehow. I just hoped she wouldn’t ask me how. I could hear the girls playing with the dog somewhere on the other side of the house and wished that they would come barreling around and interrupt the conversation. But for some reason they mysteriously kept their distance. Mavis asked if I’d like to see around…we could go and visit some of the neighbors. Still feeling like an amnesiac, I agreed.
“You know George, you seem a little edgy, and I think I know why.”
“Pray do tell, Mavis. I’m all ears.”
“You’re dreaming George. You’re dreaming and you’re not quite used to it. But don’t worry you’re in good hands now.”
This was not quite as helpful as I’d hoped. It was the kind of definition that left you on the outside looking in. “Well that’s good to know Mavis. I never would have guessed that being a lost soul would be so much fun.”
“Oh you’re not so lost George, just, shall we say, temporarily misdirected.” I was starting to suspect Mavis was not all she seemed to be, especially when she mentioned that t.v. series The Prisoner. “George, she continued, her hand momentarily upon my forearm, “This, no matter what you think, is not The Prisoner. No-one’s got any numbers here.”
A delightful hump of a bridge appeared, leading us over a shallow sparking river, whose stone driven melodies seemed salubrious in the extreme. It was the kind of shallow river that disappointed me as a boy and I was riffling through the reversal of this attitude when Mavis informed me of a swimming hole just around the next bend. It even had an overhanging willow to swing from, she assured me. Behind a well clipped hedgerow on our right stood a post-war white stucco council house, of which there are literally millions in Britain. Somehow the slope of the roof induced a kind of momentary lassitude in me.
Mavis tugged at my arm and we were walking up to the door. I just had to meet Brian, he was such a character. I was lead in to what seemed like a small museum. Unobtrusive track lighting, brought to my attention by Mavis, illuminated a pleasing clutter of art work, in what appeared to be various media. Swamped with impressions, I waited for Mavis to make a move: surely there’d be tickets to buy and promises to keep.
“Hello Mavis, I see you’ve brought a surprise guest.” When the disembodied voice came into view from somewhere off to my left, it belonged to a dapper gent impeccably presented in a brown velvet suit. An eccentric, retired civil servant with poofterish leanings who’d won a lottery and spent most of it on art: that was my guess.
As we shook hands he said, “Not far off the mark old boy, but I do have a wife, she’s out back gardening, and I created all the artwork myself. After years of visiting galleries and memorising I might add. You’re just passing through I presume? Well, do make yourself at home. I’m busy with a half-finished Monet back here, but I’ll tell Daphne you’re here Mavis.” With that he kissed Mavis on the cheek and went about his business. I turned to my guide: “No tickets then? No endowment fund?”
Brian did indeed fashion all that I witnessed, Mavis assured me. His boasting was not hollow. I moved about the walls, amazed at the detail and accuracy; everything from Gainsborough and Constable to Vermeer and various Impressionists. Some striking abstracts I couldn’t place. Mavis walked towards me with a rather jolly looking woman in sensible shoes. Looking like the kind of village potentate who could run a gymkhnana with her eyes shut, Daphne welcomed me to her husband’s gallery and suggested tea in the garden when I’d had enough. She leant close and whispered, “The abstracts are actually all his, originals I mean, so do say something nice about them.” Nodding conspiratorially, she lead a chattering Mavis away towards the back of what seemed like a large rectangular space, and they disappeared around a corner I couldn’t see. I mean, there was no corner there, but they disappeared behind it all the same. Shades of Alice In Wonderland, I hear you thinking. And well you might. With impeccable denial, or dream logic, take your pick, I returned to the art, and sort of fell into a dream of shape, texture and colour.
Minutes or weeks later, Brian stood beside me and said, “I don’t suppose you know the line ‘On the walls of the museum infinity goes up on trial’, do you?” I huffed and puffed and had to admit I didn’t, although it sure sounded familiar. Or ‘This must be what salvation feels like after a while’? Ditto really. It’s from a Bob Dylan song that inspired me in my youth. I was a real folkie before I joined the workforce.
Ah Dylan, I said, wasn’t he dead now? “No, no, you got it backwards my friend, he’s alive, I’m dead. But I really think he should have said history instead of infinity, it makes so much more sense, don’t you think?” I had to plead ignorance. Popular music was not my forte. Oh I could whistle the odd tune, and dance when my wife held a gun to my back, but symphonies and string quartets were really more my line.
Well then I was in luck, a former MI6 man had organised a quartet series hereabouts which we could attend if I could spare the time. They were doing Janacek and Debussy if he wasn’t mistaken, but we’d have to ask Daphne to be sure. We were still standing in front of his abstracts as this exchange unfolded. As I wondered how to frame my compliments sincerely, Brian clapped me on the shoulder and assured me that it was okay, he understood, even lifelong art lovers had trouble understanding this stuff, so I wasn’t to trouble myself with being polite. The pleasure was all in the process anyway. I was to come and have tea in the garden.
I was escorted to the back of the large rectangular space filled with copies of great paintings, past a sturdy looking work table with a surprising lack of the tools usually associated with artistic production, and into a wood panelled winding hallway which opened out into an ultra modern living space straight out of a very fashionable magazine.
“You’d never guess it from the front would you?” Brian smirked.
This, in turn, through two wide open glass panels, opened onto what first appeared to be a conservatory. In wicker chairs under large gracious palms sat Mavis and Daphne, sipping tea and chatting. Just beyond them I seemed to see a stunning garden which sloped gently towards the river I passed over with Mavis all those very long seconds ago.
We joined the ladies in traditional fashion; our teas were poured and half moons of lemon set afloat in them. Daphne lead the charge.
“Now George, Mavis tells me you’re dreaming and don’t believe it.”
I looked at her kindly composure and felt an answer was rapidly becoming long over due. “Temporary amnesia’s my guess Daphne. I can’t remember a darn thing.”
“A complete blank, eh, well that’s a shame. So you’ll not be able to tell us if it’s Christmas down there yet, will you?” This was Brian, between sips.
Something in my mind cracked and I saw some light coming through. In it were bits and pieces of images and memories. I saw myself shovelling show from a driveway and waving at a neighbour. I saw my wife Jerry backing her BMW out of that same driveway and waving goodbye to me. I saw me going back in the house and turning on a computer. A dumpster sized load of information fell through a ceiling of ignorant plaster and into my head.
“Are you alright George? Excitement too much for you?” Brian’s arm was over my shoulder and his face felt very close.
“I’m not sure, but something you said seemed to trigger suppressed memories.” I looked at Mavis “I think you’re right, I am dreaming.”
Mavis smiled reassuringly. “That’s alright George, we understand. We see people on research missions up here quite often. They don’t usually say as much as you though.”
I spilled out the quickly accumulating details of my life: A house in the suburbs, a career in real estate, a wife in human resources who traveled; parents retired to summer sailing and winters in Tucson, a sister in Singapore, climbing the corporate ladder, a useless brother, bankrupt again. It sounded like a life, but I wasn’t completely sure. And I was dreaming? What exactly did that mean?
Brian seemed to pick up my unspoken question. “George my friend, you’re really at home in bed, dreaming. In a while you’ll become restive and start to wake up. Then things here will become a bit wobbly and suddenly you’ll disappear and wake up with some scrambled memories of all this and us.
I asked what seemed to be the obvious question. “Who is this sitting here then?”
Brian replied quickly and confidently. “Oh it’s George alright. Just not the George you’re used to. It’s George in his astral body.”
“And what’s an astral body?”
“It’s the one you keep hidden in the closet, afraid to take the wrappings off.” Daphne laughed as she said this, but my look must’ve taken her aback because she immediately added that your astral body stayed quietly inside your physical one all day and only came out to play at night when your physical was abandoned to sleep.
“So we’re all asleep and dreaming?” I said, thinking I was finally getting a handle on all this weirdness.
Brian answered, “Not quite old man. You’re dreaming, but we, we are all dead.”
They all seemed to be peering at me, wondering and maybe worried. And for a moment, I think I was peering at myself, wondering what to say.
Mavis broke the silence by telling me it was alright, that they knew it was all a bit overwhelming at first.
I asked if maybe I wasn’t dead myself. No, Brian said, I definitely had the look of a dreaming person. Not quite bright enough to be dead apparently. I thought I felt relieved with that shade of distinction, and was still trying to cope with my confusion elegantly when Brian mentioned the concert. Did I recall the concert series?
Yes, I said, something classical wasn’t it?
Daphne accused him of jumping the gun a bit. He said something about me not having much longer to go, and maybe he and I should go ahead.
“Oh, very well then” was her response.
I was amused by their difference of opinion and wondered where it would lead. Brian stood quite decisively and told me to hold his hand. He assured me transportation would be instantaneous if I just closed my eyes and let him do the leading. Mavis told me not to worry, that they would arrive a little later by walking.
I decided to do as I was told. In a moment or less Brian and I were standing in what looked very much like a village green. Some mothers and children were picnicking by a royal blue and lemon gazebo. A couple of the young ones were frolicking after some large white geese, who waddled and squawked in the traditional manner. Three ladies in long skirts and elaborate hats bicycled by serenely, their baskets holding glowing fruits. It was the glowing that really hit me; they seemed to be lit up from the inside.
Brian pointed me towards what looked like a very old wooden church…in very good condition. As we strolled over to it, I noticed it was bounded by beautiful flower gardens on either side. Brian advised me to take a good look as we wouldn’t have time to browse. I took him at his word. Inside, the building seemed more like a community hall. Some paintings hung in the foyer: with a proud grin, Brian nodded towards one of his.
On a stage at the far end of a room that reviewers would describe as an intimate venue, a string quartet was rehearsing with a piano. Brian motioned me to sit. I say rehearsing as there was no audience in attendance. There was certainly no rough edges to their performance, at least not that I could detect. I didn’t recognize the piece, but then I’m not that much of a music buff. I know the symphonies of Beethoven and a bit of Mozart, but that’s about it. I closed my eyes and lost myself in the textures. The harmonies were thick and rich and lulling.
Sometime later, the music still in my head, I woke up with my face in the pillow, and the digital clock staring me in the face. For a second I could not recall where or who I was. I just knew I was alive, but where or when or how escaped me. It was a kind of delirium in a vacuum, an address in the void, as my friend Eric would later say. Then I noticed the other side of the bed was empty, but then I remembered it was Saturday, and Gerry would be out jogging. Well that put a few things into place.
I swung my legs around and onto the floor. For some reason as soon as they touched the carpet, the memories flooded back. Man, was that some dream! I slouched over, head in hands, hopelessly lost in the enigmatic entertainment of it all.
I managed to dress and drag my amazed self into the kitchen. Jerry had left the percolator with some java in it, so I poured myself a mug and grabbed a scratch pad and started to scribble. Two coffees and many pages later, I stretched to some kind of satisfaction. I may be a loony, I thought, but at least I’m a loony with notes.
Back in the kitchen, I noticed an old envelope lying on the counter top. I was about to trash it when I saw Gerry’s handwriting. It was a note all right; a note to me. I was not to worry, but she needed time to think things over. What things I wondered. Well, the usual probably. About every three months she’d pull a stunt like this. Disappear for the weekend, or the week, and come back all smiles and apologies.
Issues? Of course there were issues, aren’t there always? I couldn’t see why I was always the one in denial. I knew full well what was going on, I just couldn’t see hashing it out endlessly. I mean she was the hard-on career girl, so uptight she couldn’t come, I just wasn’t willing to take the blame for it anymore. Denial my ass. Some girls go career, some society hostess, some party trash slut. It’s all climbing out of the same pit. The no-kid blues.
I don’t wanna talk about it. Not because I’m in denial, but because I’m sick of talking about it. Besides, look what just happened. I had some properties to show that afternoon, but I was essentially free till three, so I swallowed my embarrassment and called Eric.
I think he was surprised to hear from me, but I backpedaled furiously and somehow convinced him I was not the cynical judgmental asshole he figured me for. Without uttering the ‘sorry’ word, it was tantamount to an apology. I told him I desperately needed some advice. Could we please have some lunch? I promised to pick him up in an hour.
His condo was in one of the most desirable addresses in Mississauga, a winding drive by a wooded ravine park. He’d inherited it from his mother a few years back, and couldn’t see why he shouldn’t stay there. His ex had just fleeced him for house and contents, citing the usual litany of neglect and abuse that her psycho-dyke lawyer had no doubt insisted upon. From his wide-windowed 23rd floor eyrie, he’d entertained lady friends, mended fences with his kids, and started a Monday night meditation class. There was not a nickel owing on the condo, so he’d been able to shuck the rat race at Suck, Suck and Blow, who, he claimed, had resorted to propping up their sagging empire with the shit eating grins of bikers in snappy suits, assuring me at the time that I really didn’t want to know the A-list of payoffs.
And I suppose I didn’t. Gerry accuses me of having this little Peter Pan thing going, and I don’t mind admitting she’s right, but I’m not in human resources, the real home of hard ass number crunching. I match people up with their dream homes, and go that extra mile not for percentage points but to make them happy. I can turn a fair buck without turning rancid and she hates it.
Right after the divorce, inheritance and career change, Eric shifted other gears. Gears I hadn’t known existed till then. He went vegetarian, started meditating and going to weekend retreats, on at least one of which he claimed to have been regressed to a past life as a mousey milliner’s assistant in 1820’s Bath, a sad little spinster who’d died in her forties of something or other. What can I say, everyone gets weird at one time or another, and I was willing to indulge him.
He was waiting in the glass and marble lobby when I pulled up, smiling and striding over like he was about to make a killer sale. George, howya doin? Been a while my friend.
It was friendly chit-chat all the way to the friendly restaurant where the old friends sat down together and made out like they were old friends being friendly. Finally I cut through the crap and apologized. For what, Eric wanted to know. Oh, for all that you’re-a-flakey-dipshit-newage-ninny stuff a few months back. Eric grinned: he knew I’d come around. Did I want to join his Monday night class? No, not exactly, but I did have this totally strange dream I wanted to tell him about.
Over stir fried veggies and catch of the day, I spilled what you already know. He listened without interrupting. Well, I said at the end, what do you think? Am I off my rocker?
He stuck one last morsel of grouper in his mouth, chewed with eyes deflected, and then announced, You’re being guided around the astral by a spirit friend or friends on some journey of discovery.
And what made him so sure? Internal consistency and just enough weirdness to make it real. And he’d had one or two similar experiences, but not nearly so detailed. I was to promise to work up my notes and call him right away if anything else came up.
And I didn’t have to drink camomile tea or have my whatnot palpitated? No, definitely not.
I dropped him off and headed to my next appointment, as light headed as if I’d just kissed my first girlfriend. I waltzed through three hours of torrid interaction with some welcome-to-my-nightmare interested parties, all of whom seemed to think I was god’s gift to real estate and more than ready to roll over like little puppies and have their tummies tickled. Nary a quibble in sight.
Sitting in the Second Cup around nine that night, sipping on a large Kenyan, I walked myself through the maze of the day. There was an article in the Globe on labyrinths that was remarkably timely. The mysterious meandering was actually a path to some inner understanding apparently. Well there was hope for me yet. But nothing that resembled a purpose, at least not to me. Gerry I could handle, we’d been there before and we’d be there again, but the rest, what the hell was that all about?
I know what Eric said, it rattled around my head all day, but still why me? I hadn’t asked him earlier, but I could hear Eric’s answer to that now…why not you? Smart ass. Still he was decent enough to hear me out and not question my sanity.
I watched the news and went to bed wondering if Clinton really wanted peace in the Middle East as much as he claimed. It was a good a thing to puzzle over as any as I lay there in the dark, waiting for a curtain that would not only fall but magically rise again on some new movie in which I had a role.