The York Deviation
Published July 2017 by Hampden Press
You don’t need to be awake to know when something is wrong.
Oh, the Primaeval City dream—that was nothing. I’d been having those since before I could remember. As a baby, I’d been told, I would open my eyes and scream till my face went blue. Night after night as a young child, I’d woken, terrified by the appearance of the other Lords of the Council, and by the hideous rituals embedded in the life of the City. Even now, the dreams still occasionally came in bursts of lurid, if imperfectly recalled, horror. This one, though always with different emphases, I’d had many times before. Normally, I’d have tried to hold on to as much as I could.
A shame, though, it had disturbed this night. Later in the morning, I’d be opening an important case. Even his favoured pets at the bar didn’t like to stand before Judge Jenkyns but after a good night’s sleep. Then again, it was the morning. If my opening speech failed to convey the sense of violated innocence my client needed, it wouldn’t be because I’d got up an hour early, or because of a bad dream.
No, it wasn’t the dream that was wrong. It was the bed. Why so hard? Why was I held in by sheets and blankets? Why was the feel and sound of the air so different? Why the vent in my pyjama trousers? I could have lain there much longer, hovering just within the boundaries of sleep. Even without full consciousness, though, the questions were piling up like unopened bills.
With a low groan, I crossed over the boundary. I pushed my head free of the sheet and pillows and blinked a few times in the dim light.
I sat up and blinked again. I rubbed my eyes. I closed them and took a deep breath. I opened them and looked about. I’d woken in a single bed, in a room about fifteen by eight. I couldn’t see the colour of the door set into the far wall. But I knew it was bottle green. There was the familiar washbasin to its left, and the built-in wardrobe and storage cupboard to the right. Within reach, on my left, was the chair with wooden arms and the big desk. On the wall, above the desk, was the comically oversize portrait of Margaret Thatcher. Right of that were the three bookshelves and the fifty or so texts that were the nucleus of my present collection.
If I’d woken in a completely strange bed, I’d have been straight up in a confused panic, and hurrying forward to pull the door open. But, now I was in all the senses I needed, there was no point in asking further questions. I could have asked how I’d got here—that is, where my wife had gone, and our double bed, and a house that everyone admired, but that kept us awake most nights with creakings of ancient wood and a rattling of window frames that we both agreed were the heralds of yet further maintenance.
But, whether in the Primaeval City, or in some other place, your dream life isn’t a time for asking questions. I was in the second part of a double dream. The two were nicely contrasted, and each was a distraction I should welcome from considerations of Mr Vasilef’s right to his garden shed.
I kicked my legs free of the bedclothes and set my feet on the worn out carpet.
“University of York,” I said without speaking. “Alcuin College halls of residence, circa 1981. I’m in room”—I stopped and thought hard—“I’m in room B014, which is B Block on the ground floor.”
Pleased with myself, I stood up. No clicking of both knees, I observed, nor any faint stiffness in the ankles. I patted my belly. This was a detail my imagination might have skipped in its loving recreation of the past. It was later in that year when I started my first big diet. Then, I managed to lose five stone. It didn’t last. By my middle twenties, I was heading back into the red zone. I had to lose another seven stone after I was thirty, and then eight stone after I was forty. Now, in my fifties, I was looking at a renewal of hostilities with the great curse of my life.
But, if stout in 1981, seventeen stone was an improvement on the night before. I might as well enjoy it while it lasted.
I picked up my alarm clock and squinted at it in the shaft of grey light that came from under the curtain. 6:50am, it said. The clock was due to go off at eight.
I walked over to the basin. This half of the room had no carpet, and the vinyl tiles set over concrete were as chilly as you’d expect. With a slight feeling of unease, I shut my eyes and stood before the mirror. I reached up for the cord switch. I saw the fluorescent glow through pressed eyelids. I opened my eyes. My heart skipped a beat, and sweat broke out on my lower back. You may think you know yourself from old photographs. You don’t. Old photographs don’t suddenly give you nervous smiles, or twitch their noses. You can’t put up a hand and watch and feel it stroke the smooth, unbaggy flesh of your upper cheeks.
“This is a dream?” I asked in a voice that I realised was still slightly reedy, still slightly common. It was a question I’d asked so often as a child on waking, and often still in my early manhood. Then, at university—really at university, that is—I’d formalised what I’ve always taken as the sure test of what is and what isn’t one of my dreams.
First, you ask whether the events recalled fit into the known course of your waking life.
Second, you ask whether all your senses were fully engaged.
Finally, you ask whether anything recalled is in itself unlikely. Were you, for example, part of the ruling class in a race of intelligent lizards? Or have you watched a Bach Prelude turn to liquid and run through tubes, while keeping its essential quality as music?
Obviously, this dream didn’t get through the first part of the test. The problem was that it seemed to pass the second and third. Overlooking its general impossibility, everything seemed to be as it ought to be.
“But when, my darling Edward,” I asked in an imitation of my older voice, “did you ever get to apply the Parker Test while you were dreaming?”
Good point. Even with your best dreams, something gets left behind as you move across the boundary from one state to another. How can you know for sure what it’s really like to be dreaming, except when you are dreaming?
I went back and sat on the bed. I got up at once and moved to the chair. I kicked against the lower bar of the desk and pulled myself forward to look at the sheets of paper covered in my handwriting. In my middle twenties, I discovered the joys of MS-DOS and WordStar. Before then, it was my custom to sign and date every sheet of A4 I used. I twisted left. These rooms all had full length metal windows. A yard wide, they separated the headboard of the bed from the desk. Before going to sleep, I’d always put my spectacles on the window sill. There they were now. I lifted the heavy NHS frame and put it on.
I switched on the table lamp. Was there something unrealistically sharp about the pool of light and the blue ink on lined paper? Or was this simply how things were supposed to look through eyes that hadn’t yet started to wear out? I left the question unanswered and focussed on the top sheet of paper. It was dated the 14th February 1981. No day of the week given—not that I’d been in the habit of giving that, except in my diary.
Where was my diary?
It was locked away, of course, in the top drawer. You’d never want the cleaners to go snooping into that.
Where was the key? It was hidden away behind the big ghetto blaster at the back of the desk.
I looked at the music system. It had cost me £108 in 1980—a lot of money then, but worth every penny for the joy it had brought me. Lovely tone it had had. A shame it hadn’t been properly earthed by Grundig, and used to give me electric shocks whenever I pulled out the aerial. I gave it away in 1983, and regretted its loss until I bought my first integrated CD system in 1986.
My diary could wait. I got up again. I needed a pee. Was it worth testing whether the cleaners really did leave chemicals in the washing basin that reacted with urine to stain the ceramic indelible blue? I shook my head. Whatever answer I got could hardly be authoritative. There was a toilet, I recalled, just outside the room, a few yards on the right.
I looked down at the disorderly mass of my clothes. I bent and lifted a pair of torn underpants. I sniffed at them. I wrinkled my nose. My sense of smell was working. I unbuttoned my pyjamas. Shivering in an unheated room, I fished about in the wardrobe for clean underclothes, then heaved myself into clothes that were generally shabby and mostly one or two sizes too small. I laced up my army surplus boots. The door key was lying with some loose change in the otherwise unused ashtray. I walked firmly towards the door.
The round handle was at it ought to be. You let the central button out to unlock the door from the outside, and pushed it in to lock it. Of course, it was locked. I twisted the handle and wondered if I should close my eyes before pulling the door open. Assuming I’d used up so much of my imagination on recreating this room, would I look out into utter blackness?
But the corridor was just as solid as the room. I gave up on speculations and hurried to the toilet. Bolting the door, I remembered the obvious reservation. When you dream of having a pee, you risk waking in pissy pyjamas. Sight of the toilet bowl, though, had set my bladder into an itching too imperious to be denied. Perhaps I’d wake up before I let out more than a thin dribble.
I didn’t wake.
“Better than sex!” I’d been in the habit of crying every now and again since I was twenty-two. I can’t say it was that now. Even so, peeing felt oddly different—not least because my penis wasn’t quite where I’d expected it to be.
I flushed the toilet. I could go back into my room and wash my hands. But when did I ever do that when I was twenty, and I didn’t think someone was watching me? Besides, I surely had some obligation to see what my imagination could do at full stretch.
Out of recalled habit, I made sure my room was locked. Then I set off left along the corridor.
B Block was joined to the public area of Alcuin College. A few yards along the corridor from my room, and you came to one of the communal kitchens. Through this, there was another corridor, lined with student rooms, that led you to a little bridge. On the right, there were the public telephones. On the left was a big sheet of glass looking out over some landscaped grass and the covered way to D Block. The University’s charms were always best appreciated by those lucky enough to have studied there. What an outsider saw most was the brutalist concrete of its architecture. This wasn’t quite twenty years old in 1981. That had been long enough to turn everything to different shades of grey. I glanced briefly at the covered way, looking for some evidence of anachronism or impossible engineering. Nothing jumped out at me.
The pit of my stomach tightening as it does when you’re opening what might be a nasty letter from the Revenue, I walked forward into the upper area of the Junior Common Room.
Yet again, everything was as it should be. Forty feet before me were the closed folding doors to the College dining hall. There was the black and white television, and the chairs and circular tables of the coffee bar. I stood at the top of the staircase that led to the lower area. Out of sight, I heard a click of billiard balls and a pleased laugh. My heart skipped another beat. Dreams have people in them, I told myself—usually people I know. This was the wrong class of dream for meeting reptilian bipeds with a taste for mammal flesh.
And, if there had been some leakage between classes of dream, this was only a dream. It was only a dream, I repeated to myself.
I put a hand on the steel rail and walked down stairs that shook slightly under my weight. At the bottom, I faced a wall covered with political and other posters. Most of them had no meaning to me now. A few brought back issues long since filed in the less frequented areas of my memory. All had the look you’d expect in a world still without the benefit of cheap and omnipresent laser printing. To my left was the College laundry room. To my right was the main television room. Whoever was up early to play billiards was behind me.
“Hi, Eddie!” he called cheerfully.
I never was one for names. But I recognised the young man who grinned at me before turning his back again. I’d always thought he had a raddled face—too much jollity in the college bar. Now, without any change in my recollection of his appearance, he looked like a schoolboy. He turned back to me.
“Everything all right?”
Here was my chance to take control of things. I could strip off and dance round him. Or I could go and snatch one of the coloured balls and throw it through the big window. I hadn’t consciously made this world. But I was at perfect liberty to act within it as I pleased.
Instead, I tried for a smile.
“Bit of a headache,” I said.
As ever, the newspapers had been set out on one of the low tables. I walked over and looked at The Daily Telegraph. There was a picture of Margaret Thatcher on the front. In smudged black and white, she was standing at a lectern, with a few glum Cabinet Ministers sat on a raised platform behind her. I looked at the date—Monday, the 16th February 1981.
“She won’t last, you know.”
The young man’s tone invited debate. I looked up at him. He’d left off his practice, and was standing over me. “Bet you she’ll be gone by Christmas.”
He broadened his grin. “Roy Jenkins next, or David Owen? But I bet you her days are numbered.”
I didn’t look again at the newspaper. “Whatever you bet, I’ll double,” I wanted to say with a careless laugh. “By the time she’s finally winkled out of Number Ten, she’ll have built a State you lefties always wanted, but never dared ask for.”
I said nothing, but felt a whole lecture forming in my head. You’d have trouble picking one date when England had turned irrevocably to the bad. But 1981 might be a fair try. That was the year when, in both main parties, the men who’d sustained the post-War consensus were kicked aside. For me at the time, it had seemed a liberation. If Labour had been taken over by the hard left, the Conservatives would now be led by classical liberals, and the recovery of England could begin in earnest.
So I’d believed at twenty. Pushing four decades on, it was plain that the ousted ones were sane, patriotic semi-liberals, and that the new men in both parties were running straight toward a new consensus that wouldn’t be patriotic or liberal, or even socialist in any meaningful sense. Whether they spouted Marx or Hayek, their main influence would be George Orwell—and Orwell as instruction manual, not as warning.
I shrugged. Sooner or later, I’d wake up. Then it would be nothing but thoughts of how to open for Mr Vasilef in the Canterbury Combined Court. Why waste a dream this good on arguments about Margaret Thatcher? What was done was done. The past could be regretted, but never changed.
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on —
Scarcely truer words in the whole corpus of English and foreign poetry I’d read into my memory.
The young man smiled and turned away. On my left was a double set of doors. These would take me outside the College.