Dreamland by Michael Shapland
In the sprawl of Soho, hidden amid the din of drunken chatter, I asked where to find Dreamland. The bouncer at The Fiery Furnace looked at me quizzically.
“You have money?” The bouncer asked, inspecting my tracksuit bottoms and t-shirt. His hideous eyes shone as he looked at me disapprovingly. His voice broke out in wisps of perspiration into the black air.
“I want to save my brother. He’s got in an awful mess. He’s stuck in Dreamland and I need to get him out,” I said.
The doorman’s piggish face hardened, “Every night I hear ‘my poor brother, my poor son, my poor boyfriend has got himself in a mess and is stuck in Dreamland’. They’re not stuck, Your brother, like everyone else in Dreamland, is free to get out.”
The bouncer lit a cigarette, almost tapping out some ash onto his thick beard. A rich drunken couple passed me. Their friends followed from out of a limousine. They passed the bouncer and entered the Furnace.
I looked at the man pleadingly. “I’ll give you five hundred pounds,” I said.
He laughed. “A thousand.
“I can’t survive if I do that,” I said, lowering my gaze. The bouncer looked past. A beautiful woman, adorned in fine silk, entered The Furnace “I love my brother. It’s not his fault he’s stuck in Dreamland. He was exhausted because of his job, dropped some acid with some friends and lost his mind. My brother’s a good person. He’s not seen his family: his two daughtersfor over a year. He’s been holed up in Dreamland for sixteen months now. My parents are worried sick..” I said. Booming trap music reverberated along The Furnace’s walls. The bouncer’s face softened. He pointed down Dean Street and began to walk. I followed him.
The street pulsated. A wild banshee cry rose in the air. Towards the end of Dean Street, a platform rose out of the spire-like roof of a bar. A man, wearing nothing but a short, silver necklace with a cross at its end, danced to the crowd’s applause. Piercing laughter sounded as he spun on his podium. Coloured lights shone on his swaying frame as the bar-trap transitioned into frantic jazz. The bouncer looked at me and shook his head. We turned the corner onto Carlisle Street. The bouncer kept looking back to that man on the roof.
“No one has ever helped a man out of Dreamland, and no man has ever left Dreamland except in a body bag.” He said, averting his gaze.
Soho Square Gardens looked solemn in the darkness. Tall lamp posts stood drooping around it, like wilted flowers. They cast a pathetic, pale light. The bouncer pointed to the Tudor gazebo at the centre of the gardens.
“Dreamland is underground.” He told me, and I noticed the phosphorescent green glow that seemed to shine from the gazebo.
“What’s your name?” I asked, my voice faltering.
“Adam.” He said, snorting.
“That’s my brother’s name,” I said, “My name is Tom”.
The bouncer stiffened and waved his arms out, as if warding off some demon. He spoke hurriedly, in a hoarse whisper. “I don’t want your money son. Only promise me.” His small, ugly eyes were aflame, and he gestured back where they’d come from, “Back there on Dean Street— that man who was dancing— he is my son. If you see him again, don’t jeer or throw treasure like the rest of them. If he sees you, only smile, and he will understand.” Adam paused and looked searchingly into my eyes. “After I’ve left, I want you to face the gazebo. Repeat this clearly, without stuttering: ‘The place that learns why you visit and knows why you stay.’”
I approached the gazebo. Adam walked briskly away before I could thank him. I walked up to the gazebo’s wall. I repeated the bouncer’s phrase.
A buzzing came through the ground: an inhuman voice, rising from the earth. “Are you looking to book a room sir?” Sounded from a device I couldn’t see.
“I am,” I said, steadying my breath.
“You do not look like a client. Are you sure it is a room you are after? A chill ran through me. I lit a cigarette. The buzzing continued, “I am looking for my brother Adam. He has stayed with you since August 15th 2029. I want to persuade him to leave.”
“A word of warning to you. The doorman who led you here failed to leave Dreamland after becoming indebted to us. We attempted to be understanding, even though within the constraints of the law we could have sought greater damages. You see that he and his son are working for us. You will be like him if you fail.”
I dropped my cigarette.
“I see you now understand the severity of entering Dreamland in this way. As you are a student, I can offer you our ‘intellectuals’ package’: designed for bright young men like yourself. For one thousand five hundred pounds you will have your own single room for five days. There you will receive our ‘young explorer’s menu’. From this menu you will be able to select two tools (we call them tools here, not drugs, we abhor that word) per day.”
“I would like to see my brother.” I managed to find my voice again. At that moment, I didn’t care about terms and conditions. I just wanted to see my brother..
“Very well.” The thing said coldly. I looked down. A tile by the gazebo was open.
As I entered Dreamland, I felt something familiar but foreign. I could not tell if I had been drugged, only that my perspective had shifted. The buzzing increased. It was as if some entity had taken over my mind, and changed everything slightly: spinning a cog, pressing a button, flipping on a switch. Everything was normal, but it wasn’t. Suddenly, within the darkness of the gaping hole left by the removed tile, stairs spurted out. I knelt downwards, inspecting the hole, then angled my foot so that it caught onto a step.
The staircase swirled down, into immeasurable darkness. The walls pressed inward. My mind spun to the point where I wasn’t sure any of this was real anymore. But, I knew it was. The buzzing, that incessant noise, kept me grounded in reality as it reached an awful crescendo. I calmed myself. The walls expanded. The buzzing lulled. I walked down a few steps. The walls contracted. I lit another cigarette and inhaled. The walls expanded again. I proceeded in this way, the walls pulsing inward and outward like a throbbing organ. It was dark and strangely moist. At times I was sure I saw my brother’s face on the wall. I increased my pace but slowed once the walls began to contract again. Time felt sticky on that staircase. I was unsure whether I had been walking for seconds, or years.
Suddenly, the stairs abruptly stopped. The bottom of the staircase was filled with red knee-deep liquid that congealed in the same thought-attuned way. I moved forward and kicked something protruding out of the bottom of the pool with my feet. Taking in a deep shuddering breath, I submerged my hands into the pool, trying not to imagine that it was full of blood, until I touched whatever it had been I had kiched. It was a doorknob. Suddenly I faced a door. How had I not seen it before? The door vanished, revealing a glittering hall. The buzzing fell away to the hall’s din.
I entered a vast space, trying to comprehend what I was seeing. The hall w seemed to be composed of glass rooms, all connected vertically. TBeside the rooms were transparent glass ladders, rising far above me. Globules of large, brilliant white light settled around these rooms, encasing human forms that warped as I tried to focus on them. I did not feel confused. A wild, animal cry rose through the air. These wails reverberated through the glass. The faces of thousands of men surrounded me. All were alone. Some exhaled gas. Others were sedate, laying against their floor. Some stared at me through the glass walls, standing like statues. Others leapt about their rooms. Most of the men wore suits or smart attire. The buzzing sounded once more: awful and imposing above me. I was not sure if this voice, coming from the ceiling, was Dreamland’s owner, or some steward. All the same I did not question it. It was the sort of voice one could not question.
“Your brother lives in room lock-code GVDBCWiv. If you look closely each room has a lock code written in black on its end. Through my direction you have entered Hall G, row M. To your right, beside the rooms closest to you, is a narrow gap. Enter that gap, climb the ladder and follow the numbers and then you shall see your brother. There are no doors in the rooms. You can enter in and through the glass as you please: on the condition that the room’s owner wants you to enter. Your brother will be conscious by the time you reach his room.”
I turned to the right. ‘Block A’ emerged in the air in black lettering. I entered the block, not looking any of the inhabitants in the eyes. I was apprehensive. Something did not seem right. The inhabitants neared the edge of their rooms like zoo animals upon a human’s approach, observing from a distance. A loud thud reverberated through the rooms, spreading through the hall. The inhabitants closest to me screamed. The glass walls around my path pressed inward. I rushed down the path, passing Block B and then Block C after a couple of minutes. The corridor seemed to go on for eternity. The thudding morphed into a monstrous roar, and I pressed my eyes together for a second, covering my ears and catching my breath. As I returned to composure, I realised I was at Block Z. Exhausted; I turned and ran back, almost collapsing as I reached my destination at Block W. I leapt upon the glass ladder, ignoring the hideous faces of the people pressed against the walls. By the time I passed room iv the noise in the hall subsided, and instead it became deathly quiet. I wasn’t sure I preferred this. Finally, I reached my brother’s room.
My brother sat against the side of his bed, staring at me through the glass with hollow eyes. His face was worn and grey. His head was shaven. He wore a white shirt, tucked into fine navy trousers. I passed through the glass of his wall, enteringhis room. My brother continued staring at me, the way one stares after waking from a deep sleep. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I realised then that I wanted to save a version of my brother that no longer existed Adam, the brother I thought I had lost forever, stared back at me. He slowly rose to his feet, and I watched him do so with caution. So many of the people, creatures, I had encountered so far had seemed like shells of their former selves. Barely human. What if this thing that looked like my brother was the same? Adam reached out, wrapping his arms around me as he began to weep freely. I held him tight against me for what felt like hours, days, weeks. As we parted, Adam looked deep into my eyes. He looked afraid.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Adam said.
“I know”, I said, “but I had to save you. Anna and Natasha miss you. Helen—”
I stopped short. A strange look had worked its way onto my brother’s face. It was a lurid, sad thing: the smirk of some contemptible animal waiting to be put down.
“You know if you don’t leave Dreamland with me, they own me.” I said angrily.
“Oh, don’t think of that. Listen, this is all needless chatter.” “You had a breakdown, and you ran away to Dreamland” I said, “For God’s sake. Listen to yourself. We use these words like ‘mad’ and ‘breakdown’ out of fear. The sane, the stupid (I use those words interchangeably) believe they are superior, because their reality is free of hallucination. You are not like them. You are not sane.” Adam said, his feverish eyes agape.
“We dropped acid on Agri Hill. You left me during the come up. You got lost.” I shook my head. I knew I should have never given him those drugs. “You were stressed at work. You were tripping out, you lost it. When I found you, you were screaming.” Adam began pacing across the room. “No! That is only how it appeared on the outside. Why are you thinking of my family, my health, when you can ask me what I saw?” These were the words of a man under the spell of what this world offered. “I did not ‘run away to Dreamland’ as you say, Dreamland made its presence known to me, and I knew, from what I learned, that I had to go there and discover it.”
My brother stopped, then suddenly sprung toward me and gripped me tightly, like a child clinging onto its mother.
“Oh God no, it is all lies. What am I saying? I came to Dreamland out of fear, to hide. I wanted to better myself, I worked with everything I had to get to where I was and the only thing I learned was man’s immense capacity for cruelty. I took you to trip on Agri Hill because we were nearing my twenty-ninth birthday. I shouldn’t have taken anything, I knew it was a bad idea, but my supervisor here in Dreamland says: ‘sometimes the worst getaways (they call them ‘getaways’, not ‘trips’ in Dreamland) are the best teachers’. Well our trip was a brilliant teacher for me. After it, a brutal clarity seized me.”
Adam’s voice faltered. I stared at him in horror. The pressure inside his room increased, as if we were underwater. The buzzing returned. The hall turned black. Thin streams of light entered the room, so that only my brother’s face was illuminated. Adam’s face looked deathly pale, as if his skin had been stretched thinly over his skull. I saw my face in his skin. “There was a case I had to work on. That bastard Woland got me to represent one of our clients: Mr Adam W—, the director of a mutual fund. It became a sick joke that Adam and I shared names. Now Adam was a busy man, always at work. Now let me tell you Tom, for every time I repeat this it is as if time fast forwards and I get closer to death.
Late in May 2029, Adam’s sixteen-year-old son enters their shared flat in Tottenham Court Road at night. They live there together. The son is also drunk, but drunk with friends, not drunk alone like his father. This is around 1 AM. Now things are going wrong for Adam. His fund is failing. Investors are pulling out. This was just after the Second Recession hit. So what does a man like Mr Adam W— do? Does he cower and feel scared like us, Tom? No, Adam is a new breed of man. Adam takes his anger out on his son. Beats him so badly that his son can no longer walk. My supervisor told me to represent this monster. Otherwise, I was out of the firm. I won the case.
Let me tell you something I have learned, Tom. It does not matter what is true, only what those in power say. Every time I thought of some scheme to improve myself but nothing changed, I think of that crippled boy, only one year older than my Natasha, and I realise I can never leave Dreamland. I wanted to trip with you back in May last year to gain some perspective on the matter, but what an awful choice that was. Let me tell you what I saw when we tripped. Let me tell you because you are coming down and I will leave soon. You have seen the devil. What scared you most was that he was human. That is why you are in Dreamland.”
Adam’s body morphed into my own, so that I was sure I was staring at my own reflection. My body changed in the glass. Tom’s teenager form slowly faded. Terror seized me. I was in my room alone and coming out of my getaway. I looked at the figure of Tom, fading as I returned to consciousness.
“So I’ll suffer?” I said to myself as my eyes opened.
“You can’t leave,” said Tom softly, “You have spent all your money in Dreamland now, so you’ll have to pay for your stay with work. This was the last getaway that you could pay for out of your own money. Unless you leave, you will be part of Dreamland.”
A knock sounded against the wall. I looked in terror towards Tom but he was gone. Of course Tom would never try to save me. He was ashamed. A brother, trapped in Dreamland. I would be ashamed too. We would never have tripped together. I tripped alone on Agri Hill.
I was alone in my room. Millions of eyes stared hungrily at me. The buzzing reached an awful pitch.
“Strip.” said the voice above. My hands shook. I undid the buttons on my shirt. I undid my trouser zip. I slipped off the rest of my clothes. Claps and cheers thundered across the hall. Dreamland’s teeming crowd watched on in glee. “See how the men appreciate your efforts,” said the voice jubilantly, “You are now on the debtor's plan Dr E—. You will have most of the tools still available for consumption when you are free from work. On this new plan, you will no longer have access to our premium service of tools in sectors Cmdccclxvi, Wmdccclxvii, Amdccclxxvii and Bmdccclxxx. For a more detailed overview of your new plan we can talk after your shift. Remember, Adam, you are always free to leave when you choose. You will just have to ensure that your work matches, or exceeds, the number of tools you take. As you must know, no man has ever left Dreamland.”
I nodded. Once one sees what I have seen, one can only stay. I miss my children terribly. As for my brother, Tom, I hope he will not uncover what I know. I understand why I chose to see him before I lost my freedom. In that one last pre-servitude trip. He is youth personified, and I, having frittered away my twenties on trifles and false appearances, know what false hope comes for clever young men like him. I have spoken to my supervisor about the meaning of the bouncer with my name and his son. My supervisor told me the bouncer is not real, but I can no longer be sure he is telling the truth.
What a world there is above me. I’d cry ‘the horror’ like Kurtz, yet even Kurtz had some power. My truth is more terrible. Yesterday I saw them put two men in the same room. I hope they’ll start to let us out.