“So what seems to be the trouble?” The psychologist spoke rather briskly. He was a busy man, harassed, there weren’t enough hours to the day dealing with trouble such as you wouldn’t read about, and there was something about the woman and boy facing him that made him feel slightly uncomfortable. For a start, they didn’t look like his usual clients. They were very neatly dressed. The woman was mildly pretty, with dark hair and eyes and a soft voice with the trace of a foreign accent. The boy was thin, nervous, with dark hair and large, pale brown eyes, and he was small for his age, which the woman said was fourteen. It was more than the sum of these impressions, though, that disconcerted the psychologist: mother and son gave off something odd, some unstable mixture of feelings he couldn’t put a name to.
“What seems to be the trouble?” he repeated, impatiently.
The woman looked at him, then at her son. Hesitantly, she said, “It’s the dream, Doctor. He keeps having the dream, you see.”
The psychologist stared. “I beg your pardon?”
The woman shot another look at her child. He didn’t look up, but the psychologist thought he saw a tremor running from the child’s thin shoulders to his folded hands. The woman said, even more hesitantly, “It’s the third time he’s had it. I … I thought we must come and see you. It’s not … well, you see, each time has been worse than the last.”
“A recurring nightmare?” said the psychologist, relieved at being in familiar territory. Many of his clients had nightmares.
“Yes. He’s woken up—oh Doctor, he’s woken up scared out of his mind, I’ve had to comfort him for ages, you must help him—help us. You must stop him dreaming.”
The psychologist sighed. “I am not a magician,” he said, gently. “And besides, nightmares can be a way of coping with bad things. They can rehearse, in our minds, a trauma which has afflicted us, and attempt to change it so that—”
“You don’t understand,” broke in the woman. “It’s not like that at all. There’s no trauma in my child’s life. None! The dream—”
“Perhaps we should let him speak for himself,” said the psychologist, quietly. He felt he could place the woman now—one of those anxious mothers, either single parents or estranged somehow from the child’s father, devoting herself to the care and protection of her only child. She would not want to believe anything bad had happened to him which might cause him to have nightmares. He’d met people like that before. They didn’t understand what harm they did by their stifling protectiveness. So he ignored her, gently, but firmly. He leant towards the child, and said, “Is the dream very bad?”
For the first time, the boy looked up. His eyes were expressionless. For an instant, he looked into the psychologist’s face; then he dropped his gaze again and whispered, “Yes.”
“Will you tell me about it?” the psychologist said.
The woman made a sudden movement. The boy looked at her, briefly. Then he turned to the psychologist and said, indifferently, “If you like.”
It was an unusual dream, there was no doubt about that, thought the psychologist, as he listened to the boy. It had started with the boy arriving in a place he didn’t know but that was somehow familiar to him. It was a large city, but not busy as a city normally is. Instead, it was very quiet. There were few vehicles about, and though the streets were neat and clean, there was little sign of life. Doors and windows were closed, though you could sense, said the boy, that eyes were looking out at you behind closed shutters. The first time, he’d just stood there in the street in the dream, looking around, not sure where he was but feeling that nagging sense of familiarity. Then, he said, he felt a dread growing on him, a sudden nameless dread that made his heart pound and his skin feel clammy. He was being watched, and not just by the eyes behind the shutters. Something was going to happen, he felt sure of it.
But he’d woken before anything did. He’d woken, very frightened and disturbed, but glad to be awake. The next night, he’d not dreamt at all; but the night after that, the dream had come back.
“The same dream?” interrupted the psychologist.
The boy nodded; then shook his head.
“It’s not quite the same,” said his mother, anxiously. “You see, he—”
“Let him speak,” said the psychologist, sternly. She subsided.
The second dream had not been the same as the first, though it had started in the same place, in the streets of that silent city. The boy said it had begun with him walking away from the place where he’d arrived, with the dread still on him, the feeling of being watched. He’d come to a large square, which was dominated by the statue of a man on horseback. He couldn’t see the man’s face, because the statue had its back to him, and before he could go round to have a look, suddenly a crowd began filing into the square, a vast, silent crowd. It was eerie, horrible, that silence; and then as they filed past him, seeming not to see him at all, he saw something even more horrible. Some of them had their mouths open—and he saw they had no tongues! But it was clear that once they’d had them; for there were ragged wounds where their tongues should have been.
“Oh, it was horrible,” said the boy in his flat, precise little voice, “and just to see it made my dread come back so strongly I thought I would faint. I wanted to run away, but I could not move; my limbs were made of lead. Besides, I was being watched; I knew I was being watched, and that if I made a false move, something dreadful would happen to me. And then I woke up.”
The psychologist steepled his fingers. It was an unusual case indeed, he thought. He hadn’t come across one quite like it before. Recurring nightmares yes, but not ones that changed—well, progressed, really—in this way. He said, “I can see it must have been frightening. What happened in the third dream?”
“That was last night,” said the woman, breaking in. “It was the worst—the very worst. I don’t think he can recount it. It will make him live it all over again. Let me tell you.”
The psychologist sighed. “Please, I cannot help him if you keep doing this,” he murmured. “He must tell it in his own words. His own words, not someone else’s interpretation, however well-meaning. Do you understand?”
She flushed, and nodded miserably.
In all this time, the boy had been looking from one of them to the other, his eyes as expressionless as ever, his pinched little face quite still. The psychologist thought he could recognise the signs of trauma, carefully repressed, coming out in these bizarre dreams. He said, gently, “Are you ready to tell me the third dream?”
The boy nodded, and went on. In the third dream, he had arrived back in the square, the crowd swirling around him as before. Then a trumpet note had sounded, and a loudspeaker suddenly blared into life. “The Light of the People, the Hope of the Land is approaching,” shouted the loudspeaker. “Show your love for the Light, the Hope, the Life of our Century!” And then, said the boy, all the people in that square fell to their knees, but he did not, and then there was another trumpet note, and the roar of engines, and into the square came a line of motorbike riders, dressed all in black leather, with helmets hiding their faces. In the middle of the line was a big black car with tinted windows. The motorcade advanced slowly into the square, and then the boy saw it was coming close to him. He wanted to run, but could not. All around him, the people were on their knees, but all the eyes were on him, and the dread was growing, growing, becoming unbearable. Then, suddenly, the big black car stopped, right by him. A man in chauffeur’s uniform jumped out. He went round to the other side of the car and opened the door. The crowd were still on their knees, their eyes on the ground now, and the boy could practically see the ripple of ghastly fear that ran through that square as the door was opened and someone prepared to step out. Suddenly, he found he could move. He broke away from the crowd and began to run, run so fast he thought his heart was going to burst, knowing only that he must get away or something terrible would happen to him.
“I see,” said the psychologist, when the boy had finished. “I see,” he said, again, thinking that this truly was a most unusual case, one which would be worth writing about, once he had solved the boy’s problem.
The boy and his mother were looking at him expectantly. The woman said, eagerly, “Can you help him? I thought perhaps some treatment—some medicine—”
“Oh no,” said the psychologist. “It is not the right time for that. We will have to determine the cause of the trauma that is making him dream in this way, but—”
“I told you, there is no trauma!” said the woman, with a touch of fury. “These dreams just came on him unexpectedly, for no reason—isn’t that right, darling?” she appealed to her son. He nodded. But the psychologist thought he saw a fleeting expression suddenly light up those pale brown eyes—an expression of fear? Or perhaps even embarrassment?
“Madam,” he said, sternly, “you will not help your son if you interfere in this way. Perhaps it might be better if you waited for him outside?”
“No—” began the woman, but at that moment, the boy looked up at her.
“Please, Mother,” he said, very quietly.
She flushed, swallowed. “If you’re sure—”
“Well, if you need me—” began the woman.
The psychologist smiled. “We will then most certainly call you, madam,” he said, very politely. To his relief, she didn’t argue any further.
Once she was gone, the psychologist turned to the boy. “Now then, is there anything else you want to tell me?”
The boy looked at him, seemingly puzzled. Then he said, “I’ve told you all of it. I haven’t had any more dreams.”
“I don’t mean the dreams,” said the man. “I mean, what happened before.”
“Before?” said the boy. “I went to sleep, I suppose.”
“No,” said the psychologist, gently. “I mean—has anything bad happened to you recently?”
The boy stared at him. “Just the dreams.”
“Nothing else? Trouble at home, at school? Things people have asked you to keep secret?”
The boy stared at him. “Nothing happens to me,” he said, flatly. “Nothing at all.”
“Except in dreams,” said the psychologist.
The boy’s eyes flickered, but he said nothing.
“Very well, then,” said the psychologist, knowing he’d have to try a different approach. “What do you think the dreams are saying?”
The boy frowned. “Saying?”
“What do they mean?”
“I don’t know,” said the boy. “Are they supposed to mean something? I’m just frightened of them, that’s all. At least, when I first wake up. Later, it’s OK. But Mother finds them even more frightening than I do, I think.”
“I see. But then they’re unusual dreams,” said the psychologist, carefully. “You must be an unusual boy.”
The boy shrugged. “My mother says I am unique.”
“Ah. Yes.” The psychologist hesitated, then said, “I suppose it was her idea to come here. What did you think of it?”
“Of coming here?” said the boy. “OK, I suppose. I don’t mind.” Then he looked the psychologist straight in the eye and said, “She thought you could help me. But you don’t have any idea how, do you?”
It gave the psychologist quite a turn, to hear the words spoken in that flat little voice, especially combined with that unblinking, hopeless stare. For he suddenly thought that’s what it was, the expression or lack of it, in the boy’s eyes: a resigned hopelessness that was somehow more chilling than anything he’d ever seen before. He said, quickly, “Of course I’ll try. I’ll try as hard as I can. Now, it seems to me the heart of your problem lies in the fact you think someone is watching you—you feel perhaps surrounded by enemies—perhaps you even hear voices, sometimes?”
“I’m not a loony,” said the boy, precisely. “Loonies hear voices and think they’re surrounded by enemies. I’ve heard about that. It’s not like that. It’s just the dreams. That’s all.” He got up. “I’d like to go now, please.”
“No, wait, wait,” said the psychologist, flustered now. “I’m sorry—I didn’t intend to imply—let me try and help you. I think I can. Just think carefully—you say that the place, the city where you found yourself, was somehow familiar. Do you have any idea why?”
“No,” said the boy, still poised for flight. “Except—I thought maybe I saw a picture of it in a book, or a newspaper or something.”
“Could be,” said the psychologist, eagerly. “Now, this dread of yours—this feeling of being watched—who do you think is watching you?”
“I don’t know,” said the boy. “But I think it could be spies, or something. Someone in that place is having me watched. For some reason.”
“Mmm. What you described sounds rather like a police state of some sort—a dictatorship—perhaps you got those images from a book or a film, or something like that? Do you watch a lot of films? Television?”
“Not a lot. Some.”
“Well, I think that could be where some of the images have come from. Our daytime brains store up all kinds of things; you’d be surprised. Then they’re often jumbled by our night-time brains into other events, images, you see.”
“Yes,” said the boy, “but you see, this isn’t jumbled. Each dream follows the other. It’s like a story—except I’m in it. And I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
“That’s it,” said the psychologist. “I think, if you are going to break the power of these dreams, you’ve got to dream them to the end.”
“But I don’t want to,” said the boy, jumping up again. “I don’t want to!”
“I can’t stop you having dreams,” said the psychologist, gently. “I can give you drugs to try and change the way your mind works but even that’s no guarantee the dreams will stop. I think the only thing we can do is if you have another of these dreams, come straight back and tell me. Or call me, if you like. Anytime.” He took out his card and gave it to the boy. “Tell your mother I’ll help you. Together, we’ll sort out these dreams and find out what is really troubling you, underneath all this.”
“But I told you,” said the boy. “It’s the dreams that—”
“I know, I know,” said the psychologist, hastily. “Just remember to call me, if you get any more dreams. Now, let’s go and find your mother.”
As he accompanied the boy out of the room, he was quite pleased with himself. The woman was tiresome, of course; she had obviously been expecting some kind of miracle, that her child should be instantly cured of these dreams, and cut up a bit rough when she discovered that in fact he’d been encouraged to have more. But the psychologist had divined enough of the mother-child relationship by now to realise that despite appearances it was the child who had the stronger will, and that the woman had already been overtaken by her son.
Such an unusual child; at first glance rather unprepossessing; yet, as he’d probed deeper, he’d been surprised by the quality of the will, the mind, that was presented to him. And yet, he was still a child—afraid of dreams, scared of phantoms. If I can only get him to overcome that, thought the psychologist, the child’s will could only become stronger, finer, more honed. Facing the dread—whatever that truly represented—would enable him to achieve great things in his life, whatever he chose to do. Yes, that would truly be a satisfying thing, if only he could help the child through to an understanding of his inner self, and the strength of his character, a strength that was only just beginning to be visible. Perhaps that was what the dread was about? A fear of failure, at some level? Or even a fear of himself? Anyway, it was a most interesting case. The most interesting he’d had in years. Once it was over, he’d write a really good paper about it. Or even a book, if he could get the consent of the boy’s mother. But she might not want it. She was not made of the same stuff as her son.
A couple of weeks wore on with no news from the boy. Then one day, the phone rang. It was the child, speaking from what sounded like a public phone. “Mother didn’t want me to call you,” he began, “she thinks you’re useless.”
“Really?” said the psychologist, stung. “Well, then I—”
“But I don’t,” said the boy. “I think you gave me really good advice.”
“I’m glad. Did you … er …”
“Yes, I dreamt again, two nights ago. I couldn’t ring you before then, couldn’t get away from Mother. She’s having her hair done right now.”
“I see.” The psychologist felt a twinge of discomfort at the thought that they were both going behind the woman’s back; then he brushed the thought out of his mind. The woman was a fool. She didn’t understand her son at all. “Well, what happened this time?” he asked.
“I was going through the square. Not walking, no. I was in the car—”
“In the big black car you described last time?”
“Yes. I was sitting in it and looking out of the window and all the people were on their knees, and staring at the car.”
“Was the man with you? The man you saw about to come out of the car last time?”
“What did he look like?” In the two weeks since the boy had last talked to him, the psychologist had thought about those dreams a good deal. He’d come to a tentative conclusion that perhaps the boy was in search of his never-mentioned father. He’d looked up the small amount he could on the boy’s mother and discovered she was or had been married, but that there was no husband listed at the same address.
“I couldn’t tell,” replied the boy. “I mean, I could tell he was tall, and strong, but I couldn’t see his face. He was wearing a mask, I think.”
“Really? What kind of a mask?”
“Just the usual kind. Like Zorro.”
Ah-ha, thought the psychologist. Aloud, he said, “Really? That’s interesting. Were you afraid of him, or did you like being in the car with him?”
“I couldn’t tell,” said the boy. “He felt—well, sort of familiar to me. But I wished he’d take his mask off.”
“Yes, of course you did,” said the psychologist, feeling a warm glow at his own perceptiveness. “You need to see his face, don’t you? Perhaps, if he won’t take it off, you’ll have to unmask him yourself. Well, then. What happened next?”
“Nothing,” said the boy, flatly. “I just—I just felt that dread again, those eyes watching me, and then I woke up.” He hesitated, then went on, “But I didn’t yell out this time. And I didn’t tell Mother about it. She thinks I’ve stopped dreaming about it. And I … I’ve decided something. I think you’re right. I think I need to dream this dream to the end, then I won’t be scared at all.”
“I think that’s a good decision,” said the psychologist, trying not to let his delight show too much in his voice. This was not a child who would value too much eagerness, he felt.
“Yes. I’m not going to wait till a dream comes, now. I’m going to make myself dream it.”
“I’m not sure you can—” began the psychologist, but the boy had rung off without saying goodbye. His mother must be around, thought the psychologist as he replaced the receiver. He felt glad the boy had taken this important step without her. She meant well, but she was crippling the boy’s potential with her commonplace anxiety. The psychologist sighed, and drew his notebook towards him. Meticulously, he wrote up the conversation he’d just had with the boy, and read over the notes he’d made previously. Yes, it was all most interesting, and he couldn’t wait to hear the new developments.
He didn’t have to wait long. Two days later, the boy rang again. Without preamble, he said, “I had alighted from the car. I was in a big, smart room. I was by myself. And I could see everything.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I could see through the walls; I could see the whole city, all the houses, and the people in them. I could see what they were all doing. They were all so small and so scared. It was amazing. It was like looking into an ants’ nest. I felt as though I could do anything. I could kick over the ants’ nest or set fire to it, or anything.”
“Oh. I see. And what about the man? The man in the mask?”
“I couldn’t see him, but I know he was there, somewhere. Watching me.”
“And were you scared at that? Did the dread come back?”
“No,” said the boy, thoughtfully. “It didn’t. But something wasn’t quite right. Maybe that was because I made myself go into the dream.”
“You did? Really?”
“Yes. I told myself before I went to sleep that I was going to go back to that place, and I was going to see what happened next. I was going to make my mind do just what I wanted it to do.”
“Good, good,” said the psychologist, happily.
“I think maybe that the first time you do a thing like that, make yourself dream, it’s rather clumsy,” said the boy. “And maybe that’s why it felt odd, jerky, you know. But I think I’ll get better at it.”
“Quite likely. But I think you also need to act in the dream. I mean, at the moment things are just happening to you, aren’t they, without rhyme or reason. That’s what dreams are like, normally. But you have an unusual turn of mind, and maybe you can make yourself act in the dream as well. You can decide before you go to sleep what it is you really want to do in that dream—why you’re there, really—and then you can act on it in your dream.”
“I don’t know quite what I want to do, though,” said the boy.
“You need to think—do you want to unmask the man? Do you want to find out who he is, and why he’s brought you there? What feelings do you have towards him? Do you love him or hate him or fear him?”
“I just don’t know him,” said the boy, simply.
“Yes. I understand. But do you want to know him?”
There was a little silence on the line. Then the boy said, “I’m not sure.”
“Quite understandable,” said the psychologist, smoothly. He paused, then went on, “How old were you when your father left?”
“What?” said the boy, startled. “My father didn’t leave. He died. It was an accident. Why do you ask a question like that?”
“I’m sorry,” said the psychologist, gently. “I didn’t mean to upset you. Don’t worry about it. Tell me—did anything else happen in your dream?”
“No,” said the boy. He sounded a little sulky.
The psychologist went on, hurriedly, “Well, then, remember what I told you. Next time, decide on action. And do it.”
“OK,” said the boy, and rang off in his abrupt way.
Days passed. The psychologist kept expecting the boy to ring, but he did not. The pleasure of his own perceptiveness was beginning to wear thin on the psychologist. He had written up his notes, and also a short preliminary analysis of the case, in which he explored the idea of the father figure, taken from the boy by violence—an accident, he’d said, but who knew exactly what that meant? A car crash? An accident at work? An accident with a gun? Or perhaps he’d even committed suicide? It was likely that subconsciously the boy felt haunted by his father’s death; that would explain the dread. But what had the father been like? The psychologist thought he had an idea. He was quite likely a hard man; perhaps the mother had feared him. The boy perhaps too, but he had also admired him, even though the father quite probably had not reciprocated. And he had ruled the roost, which would explain why he came to his son in the guise of a dictator. The boy had described the “dictator” as being tall and strong—things he himself must wish he was, thin and small as he was. But he had not seen his face. That was significant. That was significant indeed!
Still the phone stayed silent. At length, the psychologist could stand it no longer. He rang the boy’s home. He had some idea that if the mother picked up the phone, he’d make an excuse of some kind. But it was the boy’s voice that said, flatly, “Hello. Who is this?”
The psychologist identified himself. “I’m just ringing up to see how you are.”
“I’m fine,” said the boy.
“No more dreams, then?”
“Why didn’t you call and tell me?”
“Because it was silly. You wouldn’t be interested.”
The psychologist sighed. “Why don’t you let me be the judge of that? Did you make yourself dream again?”
“Did you decide what you wanted to do in the dream?”
“Yes. I decided I wanted to unmask that man.”
“Oh. Good,” said the psychologist. “What happened?”
“Well, in the dream I was in that same room, and the man was next to me, but I could only see him because I was looking into a mirror. It was really silly.”
“What did you do?”
“I tried to look behind me, but I couldn’t see him, I just kept looking in the mirror. I thought then that I had to pull off the mask of the mirrored man, that was the only way I was going to catch him, so I leaned forward to the mirror and tried to reach in. You know, I thought it would be like that silly story, Alice and the Mirror or whatever—”
“Alice in the Looking Glass,” said the psychologist, automatically.
“Sorry, don’t worry about it. What happened?”
“Well, nothing. It wasn’t like that story at all. Nothing happened. I couldn’t reach through the mirror. I just woke up.”
“That’s why I didn’t ring. I told you it was silly.”
“Oh, no,” said the psychologist. “It’s an important dream. What do mirrors do?”
There was a little silence, then the boy said, in a tone that implied he thought the psychologist was a bit simple, “They reflect things.”
“Exactly! And that mirror has reflected the truth. You want to know that man in the mirror. More, you want to be just like him. You see yourself in his shoes. Do you understand?” The psychologist was being careful not to say the word father yet. The boy would need a little coaxing to get from the dream to the reality.
“I … I think so,” said the boy, and suddenly his voice sounded very young. “I suppose that’s why you look in the mirror, to see yourself.”
“Yes,” said the psychologist, quietly. “To be whole, we need to see ourselves, not in a glass, and not even in a dream, but in reality. We need to understand ourselves, to know what we are capable of. Now I think you have a great strength and intelligence in you, but not much confidence at this moment. You are afraid that if you unleash your strength, you will be as frightening as your … I mean, the man in the mask. But you do not need to worry. You are yourself, not anyone else. You just need to build on that strength, and on that unusual will you have. You need to work on your self-esteem. You need to believe you can achieve, and you will.”
The boy said nothing, but the psychologist could sense something coming from him—some great tide of tongue-tied happiness, something being released in him that would continue to build and build till he was the strong adult he should be. The psychologist said, gently, “Ring me next time you have a dream, won’t you?”
“Oh, I don’t think I will,” said the boy. “Have more dreams, I mean.”
The psychologist almost laughed at the confident tone in the boy’s voice, the naive certainty of it, but he didn’t want to burst his bubble. So he said, “Very well. If ever you need to talk to anyone about anything, remember I’m there. And … and ask your mother some day to tell you a bit about your father.”
“OK,” said the boy, and in his voice there was again that indulgent tone. “I’ll ask her some day.” And he rang off, not giving the psychologist time to say goodbye.
He did not hear from the boy again, and when he tried their number once more, several weeks later, he was told by the voice at the other end that the boy and his mother had left the country, gone back to wherever it was she came from. No, there was no forwarding address. The psychologist was a little taken aback, but in the end had decided that perhaps it was for the best, that the child had got what he needed and with any luck was now well on the way to a confident, happy adulthood. He wrote up his notes into a paper, which was quite well-received but soon forgotten. And from time to time he thought of the boy, and his strange dreams, and wondered what would become of him, but thought he would be OK, thanks in part to the psychologist’s own perceptiveness. And that brought him a warm inner glow to the end of his days, for he died too early to see what the boy had become.
The tyrant woke with a start and a shout. For weeks now, he’d been dreaming the same dreams, dreamt of being shrunk back into childhood—cold, small, thin, weak, friendless and alone except for his mother, his genius unrecognised, yet with eyes watching his every move. Eyes that judged and analysed and misunderstood; that filed him away as a mere case, a weakling child, a no-account being, good only for burnishing the credentials of others …
His bodyguards, who’d been dozing by his bedside, also woke up with a start, and scrambled to attention. Filled with rage, he screamed at them, telling them he’d have their heads, that anyone could murder him in his sleep while they snored like pigs. Then he made them go and wake up the doctors, forcing the unfortunate men to listen bleary-eyed as he recounted his dream, and the presence always at his side. One of them tried to suggest a soothing pill, an injection, but the tyrant bellowed that they were just trying to enfeeble him, poison him, deliver him to his enemies.
They stood trembling and watched, unable to speak, to move, as, incensed, screaming, he grabbed a pistol from one of the bodyguards and simply shot the unfortunate doctor who’d suggested the pill. They knew he was mad, driven mad by his own unlimited power and the overweening strength of his will; but they could do nothing. For fear stood amongst them in the shape of a tall, strong man with a smoking pistol in his hand; fear shot out at them from those pale brown eyes; fear stopped the mouth of every citizen in the land so they might as well be voiceless, tongueless, speechless. Fear closed the doors and windows, paused the hearts, froze the brains of the tyrant’s country. They were living in a nightmare without end, and no one would wake them from it. All they could do, to their shame, was wait. But for how long? Oh God, how long?