by E. Saxey
Ah, what it is to be young and in love! Utterly wretched. I loved you for four years – that's not many, perhaps, but they were the formative ones. From scrubby eleven years old to furtive fifteen.
I remember clambering out of an upper window onto the roof of our Victorian-Gothic boys’ boarding school, and setting my back to a redbrick chimney stack to watch you below me on the cricket pitch. Two-and-a-half years older than me (I knew your birthday), your fringe fell like a raven's wing over your eyes. You fielded with such grace that you looked like an elf from Tolkien (which I was reading that week). I was a late developer. I had a slice of fruitcake in my pocket, I still fantasised about flying, and you were my first more adult enthusiasm.
I hid myself on the roof and spied because I was too young to be your friend. Even speaking to me would have brought mockery on both of us. You were untouchable. (Because love unobtainable has a great legacy behind it, while love basically incompatible would just be a terrible let-down.)
My first year of love was ennobling. The next two were pathetic. By the time I was fourteen, I'd heard jokes and rumours about sex and drugs: what they were and where to get them. I knew about Lucidity and I had to try it.
I asked Thom, drugs kingpin of the lower sixth.
'Lucidity? Bloody boring drug,' he said. 'You want to expand your horizons, kid, not doze off.'
I shrugged. I was content to be thought of as a boring boy, in the service of love.
Thom knew a dealer who dropped off a mid-week delivery. I sneaked into the sixth-form common room the following Wednesday, and skulked behind the older boys when Thom brought in the package. He brazenly distributed rations: squares of resin, pinches of blow. Thom flicked a twist of paper over to me. 'Here you go, you boring bugger. Eat cheese.'
'This is how you use it!' The internet not having been invented, I listened intently to his guidance. 'Sleep the wrong way round in your bed.' That was no hardship. 'And wear an acrylic jumper,' he said. I wondered if he was winding me up. 'It'll mess up your sleep, so you dream more. Look at your hands.' I did. 'Do that all through the day. Think: Am I dreaming? And then you'll do it in your dream. You'll realise: I'm dreaming! Do it to get lucid, OK?' He had the sincerity of the stoned.
Ridiculous advice. Whoever wanted to see their own hands as much as I wanted to kiss the boy I loved?
I took my first dose in my little dormitory cubicle. I pulled on a crackling nylon jumper, moved my pillow, gobbled a big lump of cheddar I'd stolen from the kitchen. Poured the stuff into a glass of water and drank it, bitter as hell, just before bed.
Falling asleep was a series of muffled bumps into the dark, like sliding down a long staircase. Then warm light surrounded me. I could see my hands. I was dreaming. Beyond my hands, I could see the floor tiles of the school entrance hall.
I went off to find my love.
I paced along the school's longest corridor, past photographs of triumphant rugby teams. I thought, I will turn into that classroom and you will be there. With your dark hair, with your back turned to me.
I saw you before I entered, through the little window in the door. Wearing cricket whites. I had conjured you up.
I felt the weight of the wooden door pressing against my palms. You turned and were surprised to see me there. Your hands were very warm. I could even smell laundry detergent on your cricket jumper.
It was more real than any dream I'd ever had before. But I didn't worry that I was awake. Nothing told me I was dreaming more clearly than the fact that you returned my kiss.
I took Lucidity most nights, spending all my pocket money. I meant you no harm, it was only an extended fantasy. Someone I explained it to, much later, asked why didn't I just masturbate? I told him that Lucidity was better. Actually, I did both.
So every night, my unobtainable love was obtained. I wasn’t too young at all. But then I had to see you over my cornflakes, blissfully unaware of me, while I fought off a comedown like steel balls grinding.
Even our dream liaisons were limited. I didn't know how sex worked. After a few frustrating attempts at complex manoeuvres, I restricted myself to kissing. I didn't know what kissing felt like either, and sometimes it was like eating cake and sometimes too much like dentistry, but at least I was close to you.
I experimented in other directions. In the school woods I placed stone cliffs, a tumultuous river. I scoured encyclopaedia to stock up my bank of dream imagery, and was able to dot the riverside paths with temples and castles.
We sat beside the river. I summoned a hummingbird for your delight. It was only fair; I’d summoned you for mine.
I thought that true love simply was obsession. I’d read Nabokov and Thomas Mann as instructions, not cautions. I didn't know that love can be part of depression, dragging the brain's chemistry down in a whirlpool of adoration. Lucidity allowed me to graunch my brain along the same rut, night as well as day. It didn’t satisfy, and didn’t nourish.
Then came the term when you left the school. I assumed (the internet not having been invented) we would never meet again. It would only be as bad as before, I told myself. It might even be less painful.
It was worse. I took the Lucidity on the last day of term, a Friday evening. A week’s worth in one mug, cloudy and acrid. I combined it with some sleeping tablets, also supplied by Thom.
I stood, in my dream, on the school lawns at night-time. The school was on fire. I ran down to the river, where the temples I'd built reflected, burning, in black waters. I willed you to appear, but you were on the far side of the water. In the real world, you’d left me. The anger made my arm muscles clench, the skin of my palms was full of roaring heat. I held up my hands to ward you away, and fire pulsed out of me. I watched you burst into flame.
I looked at my hands. They were on fire.
My housemaster was shaking me awake. It was lunchtime on Saturday. My drugged sleep had terrified my dorm-mates.
The rest of Saturday was hectic and dull: rushing to hospital for checks, then (when I was definitely safe) a parental grilling. They knew I’d taken pills but I lied about which ones, and I never mentioned Thom. I never mentioned you, either. Instead I blamed stress and anxiety, lacrimae rerum, the common or garden bone-deep sadness of things.
My GP believed me, and gave me a different drug: Prozac.
One drug made you larger, the other made you smaller. I still loved you, but I found (over the Summer holidays) that it was not so very great or terrible a thing, after all. I talked my way out of expulsion, and went back to school.
When you appeared in my dreams – less vivid, a mere echo – you stayed on the other side of the river.
Until my first breakup.
I was at Uni. I'd kissed boys (and compared those kisses with Lucid kisses – I’d misjudged the pressure, the sliding, the hotness). I’d woken up in bed with a thirty-year-old man, and remembered you with a jolt of nostalgia, seeing that the two-and-a-half years that divided us were meaningless now. But otherwise I’d barely thought of you.
Then I'd been dumped.
I had a few miserable nights of nightmares (rehashed arguments, reconciliations that evaporated with the dawn). Then at the Union one night, I overheard a muslin-wearing hippy woman talking about Lucidity and its revelatory powers. 'You can find out so much.'
'About everything. The horse spirits tell you mysteries!'
I nodded along to her theories about the equine gods of the dreamspace.
'Have you used it before?' she asked, as she slipped a sachet into my hot paw.
'No.' I feared she'd ask what I'd learned about myself, or about the horse gods, during two years' nightly use.
'Be strong,' she advised. 'Be honest with yourself. Oh, and most important – you must look at your hands.'
In my grimy digs, I wrapped a pinch of the powder in a Rizla paper and swallowed it. I put my ex-lover's T-shirt under my head, hoping the smell would make him manifest.
Instead, I found myself back on the lawns at school. Yew trees in the distance, larger than I remembered, with darker shadows under them. My ex will be there, I thought. In that patch of shade. I looked for his pale, shaved head.
But when I arrived, there was dark hair instead. You turned, and were surprised to see me.
You were eighteen, caught in amber, exactly as I'd last met you. My head only came up to your chest. I was fourteen again. But now I knew how kissing felt.
I popped back in-between relationships. Sometimes we didn't even kiss, just explored together the dream-landscape of my childhood. I supplemented the school grounds with sights from my travels, placed Angkor Wat beside the roaring river.
Friends told me they had anxiety dreams about school, but I had only these weird, crystallised moments of delight. The whole experience reminded me of glacé fruits: a season preserved but transformed, made golden and slightly sickly.
Then love – proper love – arrived, and it was savoury and nourishing and nothing like those glacéd memories. Love had grey stubble and a sly wit. I was with my husband for ten years. I never took Lucidity.
Sometimes you popped up accidentally, with your bird's wing fringe. But I’d learned that love was something that happened between two people. Give and take, back and forth. Unrequited love began to sound like a category error. What was loving about banging one's head against another person’s indifference?
Bereavement I cannot describe at all.
Many nights I didn't sleep, so I was grateful that night to feel myself falling under. I slithered over a lumpy track in the darkness. Why was that feeling so familiar?
I smelled cut grass, felt the sun, knew I was back at school. My body was whittled down to eleven years old. I stood stock still.
Then from the shadows of the chapel, you appeared and walked towards me, coming to comfort me.
I could have been grateful for some guilt-free, string-free kissing. But you were too young. In my dream I looked short and spotty but I knew I was really forty, while you were perpetually eighteen. I didn't need – on top of everything else – to feel seedy. Plenty of men have younger boyfriends, my devilish side observed. My better angel raised an eyebrow: younger imaginary boyfriends?
By then, the internet had been invented, so I found Thom, my juvenile Mr Nice.
Synthetic oneirogens, he wrote. How stupid were we?
Very stupid, I agreed. How can I get shot of it?
Put the drug back into its original religious context, he told me. Mental preparation, and a full day of chanting. Helps you to control it.
I asked: Have you tried that?
Course I have, mate. Did it in a church hall in Dalston.
I wasn't sure the problems caused by my youthful idiocy could be remedied by middle-aged cultural appropriation.
Keep me updated. You know, said the man who supplied me with a daily dose of an illegal drug for two solid years, I feel a bit responsible.
I despaired. Part of me was permanently glacéd. I would never escape childhood.
It was ridiculous, because look how much I'd changed since school. How much Thom had changed, as well; even a thumbnail photo of his adult face made it hard for me now to remember how he'd looked as a teenager. The way I’d always known him had become – in an instant – just a precursor.
Of course! If I could see you again, then I wouldn't dream of you as a teenager. What would you be, now? Forty-one. (I could still remember your birth date.) I’d find a picture of you online. A video, even. Bearded would be best, or greying – some definitive break. If I couldn't drive you away, I'd make you respectable.
I looked you up.
A picture appeared immediately – you had a beard. Excellent. But the same magnetic eyes, and your hair still dark (despite the hairline creeping back). You were beakier, creased across the brow – but still you, still the cricket captain. I feasted on your features, telling myself that I needed to concentrate while my dream-memory overwrote your younger face.
But while I looked, an old fault-line reopened. What if I could step into the same river twice – a different river, a deeper river? What if the mistake I'd made wasn't loving you, but stopping? I wasn't too young, now, to be your companion.
Then I looked at the words that accompanied your photograph: jailed for four years for possession of a 'hoard' of images.
I wasn’t too young for you at all. I was, appallingly, not young enough.
Someone should write to you, I thought. Human contact, I’d heard, reduced re-offending.
Someone should write, but not me. I was salivating at the chance to have you as a captive audience. I’d grabbed at your ghost for years. I couldn't teach you a thing about human contact.
That night I was back at the old school again. Down the same long corridor, tapering into darkness. I passed the first door, looked in through the small window. In a pool of sunlight, you looked up from the book you were reading. I hurried on. In the next room I passed, you were playing the viola, and set it down on the floor when you saw me. Every room held a version of you, trapped in treacle. In each one, you were coming to life, smiling and wanting to speak to me.
I picked up my pace. I passed a room where you were standing close to the door, already scrabbling at the handle. Bearded and changed, a middle-aged man in cricket whites. I pushed past you, and you staggered after me.
I ran across the lawns. I heaved on old instincts and willed a rope bridge across a rock chasm. After I crossed it, I made the ropes fray and flutter down.
In the dark of the forest, you re-spawned in front of me.
In desperation, I held out my hands and pushed heat from my palms. Heard spitting, cracking. I'd set the forest on fire, and you, and myself.
I burned for a long while before I managed to wake myself up.
Mostly, these days, I eat cake and fly.
I'm spending a lot of time on an exercise bike, to sweat the drug out (a belated tip from the online forums). The exercise gives me a useful craving for sugar. If I find myself in that endless school corridor, I tell myself: I will walk into this classroom and there will be chocolate sponge. Childish, perhaps, but it works.
While I cycle at the gym, I watch television. I’m stocking up my mental library with images. World War II documentaries, to understand the aesthetics of ruins, the buddleia and barbed wire. The images need to be imbued with emotion, I've found, to pass into my dreambank, so I need the pity of war – zombie films won't do.
Why ruins? Because when I burn the school, it comes back. I need to smash it to pieces, brick by brick.
Later, I relax with a superhero film. I watch in slow motion as the camera swoops around the city skyline, and I try to immerse myself and feel childish awe, so that later I'll be able to recall the feeling of acceleration.
On nights when the cake fails me, and the walls won’t crumble, when you hurry towards me – still in your cricket whites, bearded, silent – I spring into the sky, and fly away.
E.Saxey is a queer Londoner who works in universities and libraries. Their work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Apex Magazine and The Future Fire, and in anthologies including Tales from the Vatican Vaults (Robinson) and The Lowest Heaven (Jurassic London). On twitter as @esaxey
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