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Professor Marchant’s Dream

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Professor Marchant’s Dream

I decide I have been in this position for some time: motionless, upright, one arm flung at ninety degrees against the panel of an open door. There are people streaming past. None say thank-you, or even look at me to acknowledge the service I am doing them.

I find myself burdening the collective multitudes with a glare. The muscles round my eyes tighten and my neck juts. Rolls of skin compress under my chin. I must be really cheesed off.

I am not a tall man, but I have a sense of looking down from a great height, the subjects of my gaze far, far removed. My head feels large and vacant. I expect it is trying to escape.

I cannot maintain this. My eyes relax, sliding inevitably away like pancetta off a greased pan. The impression I get of them, the people, is curiously watery, and I begin to fear that what I see, this pastel dribbling of human souls, is not an accurate representation of what is in fact going on.

I pitch my chest forward, substantial with accumulated layers of fine dining and bedtime biscuits, marking my intent to move. My free arm butts the body of the crowd and bounces aside. I watch with the detached interest of a man reading the newspaper of a country in which he does not live, where the satirical cartoon prefacing ‘Comment’ is in black and white and makes no sense.

Filaments of pain begin to creep from my elbow. I am still pinning the door open, spread-eagled, an anatomist’s carcass. What if one of them was suddenly to lunge at my throat?

I advance another inch, this time holding my arm across my belly. But a wave crest of forward momentum catches me unawares, and within seconds I have become part of the crowd. The insides of my nostrils prickle at the familiar tang of sweat. We acquire planes, our flesh pressed insistently against ourselves. This feels like a warm bath, a long hug, caramel on the tongue. I do not mind that I am drowning.

We surge through the door, where a room replete with faux-wood panelling materialises. I recognise this place: It’s the campus pub. Students loll everywhere, part of the furniture. Amidst the dandruff of youthful conversation I feel like an impostor.

I am buying a round for my second year Modernity and Globalisation group. A soft-edged list in my hand tells me they all drink Guinness, and soda gin. The latter reminds me of my ex-wife, and when I pivot my neck it does not surprise me that a nineteen-year-old version of her is ranged among the rest, teasing Jeremy about his broken glasses. He is turning pink, and though he recoils he cannot keep his short-sighted eyes off her.

It is unwise to buy wine here, yet I find myself with a glass of oily white. Something whiter flashes into the bottom. It is a tooth. Perfectly formed.

‘Someone has spiked my drink!’ I grasp the stem and raise it to general view. By this time, several more have appeared. They are efficient as microwave popcorn. They overwhelm the upturned tulip of glass and scatter the floor. I catch a glimmer of disgust on my ex-wife’s face.


Professor Marchant could see the minute muscles of his ex-wife’s face turn against him as if she were a film being projected upon the rippled plaster of the ceiling. He watched the edges of her nostrils curve, the downward crease of her brow, the faint scar to the left of her chin, her eyes large, swallowing up every detail of the scene…

“Is that how the dream ends?”

The voice entered, slippery with inquisition; the image wavered and was gone. Marchant forced out a cough, lurching forward on the cheap spongy sofa so that he rolled on his side, his belly supported by the seat. He sought the speaker. Dr Lang was still present and correct, perched at the window, eyes half-closed. The orange light of evening was strewn thickly about him. It warmed the youthful pallor of his bare arms.

“Go on. I’m listening.” The singsong quality of the doctor’s voice was unnerving. A colleague had once said a of man’s most efficient weapons was his manner of speaking, his tone. How much more vital was it, then, to a man who was also a psychiatrist? Clearly, thought Marchant, he wasn’t aware.

“I’m not sure how it would have gone on from there. How does one follow hailing teeth?” he quipped. “At that point I woke up, yes.” Marchant looked apologetic, but it was lost on Lang.

“How did you feel? When you woke?” The doctor sprang to his feet, but quietly, lithely, as if it were perfectly natural to move about like that. Once again Marchant reflected on the apparent youth and slightness of the man. He didn’t seem substantial enough to mount an attack his own problems, let alone those of his patients.

He watched as Lang followed the wall of the office towards the desk, the illuminated end of the room. Was the session over? The doctor drew the curtain, leaving now only the middle one uncovered. He then crossed the room and leant over a striped bar stool, his head resting in his hands. Evidently not: an answer was expected.

“How did I feel? How did I feel? I felt…” There was a long pause, filled by three or four exhalations. To know what the man wanted of him!

“I was tired. I’d not slept.” He settled, finally, on that. “I suppose… I couldn’t do anything, I was just there, being there, and when ‘there’ changed I was still ‘there’. Impotent.”


“Impotent.” he repeated. “Yes. I suppose. I can’t think of another word for it.”

The man seemed unable to take anything he said for what it was. Marchant swung his legs over the side of the sofa, making as if to get up, But he paused, distracted, to watch his feet hang over the side. He never took off his shoes here. Nobody invited him to, but neither did it seem to be prohibited. He often wondered what the custom was, what other people did. The woman who left as he arrived was a painstakingly smart one, always in high shoes with tapered heels. Did she slip them off sometimes, resting her nylon toes on these slack cushions?

“I didn’t say it doesn’t make sense. You don’t have to make sense. We’re not here to make sense of you, Jacob,” he said. “Dreams are like funhouse mirrors. Your mind is playing on something before you get to sleep, and whilst you sleep you can’t let go of it, and with your conscious faculties stilled and unable to shape your thoughts, you dream.”

In hindsight, ‘impotent’ wasn’t the best word for a man of his age to deploy during a psychiatric evaluation.

“Yes, yes,” he said impatiently, propelling himself to a standing position, looking back at the sofa to check nothing had fallen from his pockets. “I’d like to end it there today, Doctor. I have to pick up my daughter.”

“Of course,” he replied, also standing.

“Thank you sir.” As was traditional, Professor Marchant went to shake his hand. He had always been a corpulent man, though these days somewhat crumpled, and this gesture reminded him that if it came to it, he would still able to beat a young man like the doctor at arm-wrestling, if sitting on him was not enough to neutralise the threat.

Doctor Lang grimaced. “Do you have plans for the weekend?” he asked politely.

The two men began to traverse the office. Lang made for his desk, whilst the Professor headed towards his coat, hung on one of the silver hooks beside the door. 

Professor Marchant never failed to appreciate the sheer volume of seating apparatus in Doctor Lang’s office. The room itself was pleasant – neutral paint, big windows. But it was entirely taken up with places to sit. As well as the stool and the soft sofa, there was another couch, a newish maroon leather one, and a frail-looking pair of pale garden chairs, all wicker and splinters. A stiff armchair with a gloomy aspect guarded the space between the coat-rack and the corner of the room. The grey film of dust upon it suggested that it was never used. There was no coherence to the collection, not even a unifying sense of taste (or lack of taste). He supposed it was all a mysterious part of the diagnostic process, purposely eclectic.

“The weather’s going to be good, I hear, but no real plans,” he said, wrestling with his coat, which was a little too large and too beige to flatter him. “I have Leonora again. Last week I spoilt her so we’re having a weekend of abstinence! I might do some gardening. I’ve got proofs, but that can wait till Sunday… And you sir? Not working, surely?”

“I’m working. It’s very busy. We’re recruiting another member of staff but until we appoint someone we have to pick up the slack.” He sat at his desk, frowning. He picked up the next day’s appointment list and used it to fan air across his face.

“Oh yes, I think I saw something in the newspaper, I think I mentioned it to Catherine.” As soon as he mentioned her, he cursed himself. He had the door handle down, he could feel the hinges ready to swing; but Lang would not leave that opening.

“How is Catherine, Jacob?”

He shrugged; a massive, eloquent movement, palms facing the ceiling.

“Very well. Her new partner is a nice man. Younger, fitter, better!” he joked. He tried to be noncommittal. “She is looking for another job. I think they want to get out of London. I can’t understand it.”

“Suburbia beckons,” he observed dryly.

“Families and suburbia. The proverbial match made in heaven. Leafy idylls and gas-guzzling roadbeasts.”

“I can’t say I understand it,” said Lang decidedly. Marchant didn’t know what to say.

“I have to go, Doctor. My daughter will be waiting. Good luck tomorrow.”

“See you next week, Professor.”

Marchant bowed slightly and, exasperated with his own ridiculousness, left. “Bowing?” he muttered to himself as he clattered down the stairs.

She wanted to know what he had done.

“What’s happened to your face?” she said, half-annoyed but resisting the impulse to reach out to him.

“Oh this?” he chuckled, tapping his chin lightly. There was a faint purple gash there, the kind of scar that looks worse than it is. “Nothing, nothing. I suppose you could say I was in a pub brawl!”

The Professor did not see his humour answered. Catherine was solemn today. He could feel her assessing his manner, his looks, his words. There was a pair of golden scales at work in her mind; she was constantly weighing things. Perhaps she had had a bad day at work and was looking to use it against him. She exhibited the bright-eyed focus of a nocturnal woodland creature awaiting dusk. Her hair was neatly folded round her face; he had not noticed it. New haircut.

A grey fug of loathing caught his throat, but he knew it was directed inward as much as it was outward, at her.

“Leo isn’t back from class yet. I think Sarah’s mum is bringing her home. She has a habit of being late.”

“I see.” He shuffled back from the claustrophobia of the porch, wheeling away, casting nervous looks at next doors’ herbaceous borders.

“Can I come in?” he forced himself to say. “I can wait in the car; if you would prefer that I’ll go and wait there.”

“No, no.” She shook her head vigorously. “Jean has put up the playhouse for Leonora. You can see it if you like.” She conjured up a brief smile.

“Why not? Construction work: gets me every time.”

Marchant followed his ex-wife into the house they had once bought and shared with each other. He shut down his peripheral vision, confining what he saw to what he encountered in front of him. This excellent strategy had worked in the past. He breathed from his mouth so it sounded like he was panting slightly.

It was an optical illusion. In this, the house that was, he saw the house that had been their house. He could simultaneously apprehend blue emulsion and lavender-flecked paper on the walls of the corridor. He felt certain where everything was, he could feel it in his memory and under his hands, but if he had tried to find anything it would not be there.

They emerged into the garden, a square of scrubby green punctuated by half-weeded flowerbeds and plastic furniture. The air here felt like a warm flannel. Catherine was a stolid vista of dark brown, he saw. Even her socks were brown. Next to her he felt positively sartorial. He knew these appraisals were inane, but practising them on her was part of his way with her.

He strode up to the little wooden box and slapped the roof. The house shuddered. A cheap thing. Leonora would adore it. He remembered as a child the rightness of child-sized things, the thrilling exclusivity of ownership.

It was one of those beguiling evenings, heavy with the promise of never ending. Only the whiff of asphalt from the road conspired to break the spell.

“I had a dream about you. I was telling Dr. Lang,” he said, grinning. He didn’t know why he was saying this. “I was one in a massive crowd, floating along, like pondweed. It was frustrating. I felt like a drone, trapped in a gaseous hive.” 

“Dreams are funny things,” she said. “You’ve never been much of a dreamer. What did I do?”

“You were nineteen. You were drinking with some of my students. You didn’t seem to like me much. That said; at one point my glass of wine became filled with teeth; so I wasn’t the most alluring of prospects.” He didn’t know what else to say, so stooped to peer through the back window of the playhouse. It smelt of hamsters, but the raw wood inside lent the interior a rustic air. 

“How are you and Dr. Lang?” Catherine arranged her arms across her chest and sauntered forwards. Her eyes were pinched together against the sun.

Professor Marchant straightened up. “Fine. Good. He and I have never been pals. But that suits me.”

“I’m glad you’re still seeing him,” she said. The gentle sincerity of her tone plunged his stomach. He watched her keep her distance, flitting close enough to talk but far enough to back off. She reminded him of a streak of mud on a car window.

“I’m just going to go in and check on the oven,” she said. He watched her long shape retreat and move into the house.

He had been left on his own. He eyed the little wooden box at his feet. Professor Marchant ducked down and applied his fingers to one of the boards. He could not resist. His nails turned crimson, the blood beneath them straining for release. With a grunt, he prised the edge of one free. The triumphant rush he felt was immediately followed by terror. The board pinged back into place.

Marchant slowly made his way back to the house. Tiny shards of wood puckered the skin on his thumbs and fingers.


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