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The International Writers Magazine
: Dreamscapes short fiction

Brian Wright

For a time after her breakdown Laura felt as if she was being watched. It was nothing tangible, simply the suspicion of being spied on every time she stepped out of doors. But the feeling wore off as her therapy progressed, until it became no more than a small spot in the back of her mind.

Dr Gartbaum asked her to to keep a diary as part of her treatment, a record of her fears and feelings; pleased with the results, he often complimented her on her literary style. When he finally pronounced her fit to face the world again, she finished with the diary but wanted to keep on writing.
With no job to occupy her, medically retired, she was soon spending much of her time in libraries and bookshops and working through How To ... manuals.
The result of a course with a writing college, however, was some pseudo-journalism and a clutch of lifeless short stories. Athough her tutors said she could turn a phrase, praised her use of metaphor, they and she knew it wasn’t enough. A spark was needed.
She considered jazzing up her diary as fiction, but sensed it wouldn’t be a wise move.
Yet she could think of nothing fresh to say. Story plots came limping forward and were rejected as unfit, condemned as sickly memories of books she’d read. Every line of dialogue she wrote seemed to be dying on its feet.
She tried telling herself there was no such thing as an original idea - after all, wasn’t the computer simply an advanced abacus? - but began to wonder if everything in her mind was second-rate as well as second-hand.
It nagged at her that the dreams of authorship would be replaced by less welcome visitors, another breakdown. She had to fight against looking around nervously in the street.

At that point, as she was about to call Dr Gartbaum, a mail arrived from Japan.
Gail had been her best friend in college and afterwards. They’d shared a flat while moving up their respective career ladders, bemoaning their bad luck with men, joking that they would grow old together. They were almost into their forties, confirmed spinsters it had seemed, when Gail met Shiggy, seconded from Tokyo to the City bank where she worked as a senior accounts manager. He had something mysterious in his eyes and smelled of exotic body oils; and the two women had exchanged tearful farewells at the end of his spell in London. Since then, for five years, Gail had been inviting her to visit.

This time, Laura accepted. After phoning her friend, fixing up dates, she read everything she could find about Japan. It was certainly different, a place where doors opened outwards and taps turned in the opposite direction, where people appeared to laugh and cry at the wrong times.

She prayed that all the strangeness would light the fire, send her imagination off in new directions.
There was no-one to meet her at Narita. As she stood tired and confused in the arrivals concourse, Laura had the feeling of being watched. She glanced quickly across, but saw only some giggling schoolgirls and a man engrossed in his newspaper. Her friends arrived shortly afterwards, full of apologies, complaining about the Tokyo traffic, and she was reassured by their welcoming smiles.
Although she’d revealed little about her illness to Gail, she could tell her friend knew something was wrong. After the frenzied whirl of the first few days - from the futuristic electrical fantasies of night-time Ginza to the awesome immutability of the Yasakuni Shrine - things settled down when Shiggy returned to work and Yumi, four years old and full of life, resumed his place in nursery school.
They talked then about their collective past and plans for the future.
In a lull in the conversation, Gail suddenly said, ‘You’ve changed.’ There was concern on her face.
Laura attempted to laugh it off. ‘Haven’t we all?’ she replied, gesturing towards the other’s greying hair.
Gail looked annoyed. ‘You know that’s not what I mean,’ she said.
Seeing her friend’s worried frown, Laura tried to explain, but knew that no-one, however sympathetic, could ever really understand.
She made no mention of her sense of being watched, didn’t want Gail to think she was completely loopy, with a small child in the house. When she spoke of Dr Gartbaum's’ therapy, her writing, told her friend about the diary - she carried it everywhere - Gail smiled for the first time. They embraced without a word.

As the weeks went by, Laura believed her mind was under repair in Japan, in the happy chaos of the Watanabe family. The country itself intrigued her, the evidence of unaccustomed thought processes at work, people who seemed at ease with the past and unafraid of what lay ahead, the inevitability of decline and death.

The scene in a temple courtyard, for example: a group of middle-aged and elderly men chattering animatedly, grinning beatifically, as they lit joss sticks to the dead. The same tribute awaited them in the afterlife, she knew, and they looked as if they could hardly wait.
Meantime, and somehow typically Japanese, the most wizened of their number was filming the small ceremony, expertly wielding a camcorder that looked like a gadget from outer space.
She had read about Shintoism, the belief of many Japanese that their ancestors continued to exist all around them, that their own spirits would live on for ever.
Some Western commentators held the view that its tenets were drilled into the soul of the nation. Thus they placidly accepted the regimentation of their lives, the small wooden houses and often wooden ambitions. The present-day counting for far less than in other cultures.
She was taken to see a performance of the ancient drama form of Kabuki and wrote down her amazement at its other-worldly sights and sounds.
She began to record in detail what she saw and did each day. Gail offered encouragement by claiming her writing was becoming clearer and more cogent.
Laura grew anxious when Shiggy read her handiwork with pursed lips, but then he said in his near-perfect English, ‘Many of your conclusions show insight.’
Flattered, she dared to hope there was something in her brain after all.

She seemed to be getting stronger in other ways, too, and occasionally even forgot about the small spot in the back of her mind. They had planned to visit Kyoto on the bullet train in the last week of her stay. When Shiggy and Yumi went down with a virus, Gail talked apologetically about cancelling the trip.
Laura surprised herself by insisting that she would go on her own. It seemed a kind of test. She was calmer than her friend at the railway station, assuring Gail she would be alright. Didn’t she have her tourist phrase book?
Across the aisle, as they rocketed almost silently through the dreary Tokyo suburbs, an old lady in a kimono, smiling peacefully, worked a string of beads through her fingers. Laura watched her for a few moments, then began to scribble in her notepad.
Still writing as the train approached Kyoto, she suddenly grew conscious of being under scrutiny. She gasped with relief to meet the curious stare of a small boy in a sailor suit.

The hotel in Kyoto was ultra-modern and obviously a popular stop-over for business people, with the Internet available in every bedroom. She wasn’t surprised to learn that it also had a Buddhist chapel in the basement.
She went for a walk before dinner. At first, as she gawped around a series of elaborate temples, her new-found confidence enabled her to withstand the searching looks of other strollers. Normal for Japan, she told herself, the close examination of gaijin, foreigners.
When dusk fell, however, she had the feeling of being watched from the shadows and hurried back to the safety of her room. She spent most of the night and all of the next day writing.

She left the hotel once in the next forty-eight hours. If the staff wondered about her behaviour, their reputation for inscrutability held up well. One young male receptionist, who spoke reasonable English, arranged for notepads to be delivered to her room. Gail rang several times and sounded anxious. ‘When are you coming back?’ ‘You haven’t forgotten you’re going home on Saturday?’
As if she needed reminding there was a deadline!
She felt guilty about her friend - and remembered her time with the Watanabes fondly, even if it had been a cruel deception.
Her short excursion from the hotel had confirmed that things were getting worse. Much worse, the watchers gathering. The spot in her mind hurtling forward like a cannonball.
She finished writing with an exhausted flourish. Her one and only novel. The story of a beautiful heroine and her pursuit by demons to a fantastical country, a region that hardly existed except in memory and imagination. She found peace there at last.

Laura wondered what Dr Gartbaum would make of her work. He seemed very far away, much more distant than the span of half the world. They had both lied, of course, the good doctor and Gail, but only to help her. Her fault for believing them. No more dreams, the writing not even second-rate.
But it would do as a testament.
She hadn’t slept for two days, for fear the watchers might be in wait behind her eyelids. But they were almost certainly congregating in the street below, willing her to appear outside the drawn blind. They would get their wish soon enough, although she wasn’t planning a long journey. She would leave when she was ready.
She placed the manuscript on the bedside table, then took the diary out of her overnight bag and laid it next to the notepads. Her past and future, side by side. She speculated what would become of them; they might attract attention out of novelty value, if for no other reason.
She giggled at the absurd possibility of being a published author.
She also gave thanks for coming to Japan and learning that her current existence was a tiny link in a many-stranded chain, connecting everything, running through time. The dead multitudes behind, infinity beyond.
She felt at home in a place where it was everyday life which often seemed unimportant, the present which might have been another country. She would come to terms with her fears here. It was the perfect stage for her happy ending.
The room felt so warm and comfortable she was almost reluctant to rise from the bed. She raised the blind and pushed open the door to the small balcony. Yes, as she’d suspected, they were thick on the ground down there, several stories below, squinting from behind every pillar, staring balefully from around every corner.
She thought at that moment of the last lines of her novel.

The beautiful girl stepped out into the sunlight of a new day, sailing far away from the eyes of her enemies, towards the bright future.

© Brian Wright June 2005

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