why dreamers no longer dream
by Oliver Cable
She always loved those final stairs of the tube on nights when there was a gig in town. It had rained all day, and cars threw up spray as their headlights passed, making the streets shimmer. Ticket touts bought and sold at the top of their lungs, competing for attention from the crowd who arrived after hours of pre-drinking. Buskers laid guitar cases down and played as warm-up to the main acts at the Academy nearby: imagine all the people, sharing all the world. The street-sellers burnt incense down the road, and it floated into her face. This place had life.
“Scuse me love, don’t s’pose you can spare a bit of change?” A dishevelled man was in her face, holding out a dirt-streaked hand.
“I’m flat out of change, mate, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t have any food in yer bag yer not wanting?”
“Thanks anyway. God bless.” He turned and was gone into the melee.
The main act had already started when she arrived, and the room was packed. She found a spot towards the back and craned her neck to catch views of the double-bass and the sax player through swaying heads. Unseen, the drummer played mad syncopated things that hung around the beat. She couldn’t help tapping her foot, then swaying as the music took hold. She felt her job, the crush of the Tube and the day’s rain wash away, replaced with audible beauty, magic from the magicians on stage. It rose to her chest, then her brain, and she looked down to the darkness of sticky floor and unlit bodies – starving her eyes of sight, living through her ears. Closing her eyes entirely, she swam through the sound, reaching out and touching the waves: the piano keys rising up and out of the dark to fill her view, the bass drum replacing her heartbeat. The music became her, and as the saxophone played a solo she scrunched her eyes tight, colours blending with sound into an overwhelming, all-encompassing sensory bath.
As the piece came to an end, her head rose above the surface again and she felt herself release her breath. Around her, people whooped and clapped, then leaned in to talk to one another. The band started another and she shut her eyes again, diving back underwater. At times her eyes opened just a crack, and she saw blurred backlit screens, faces eerily illuminated. This was not the world she wanted to be a part of. Down, down, further down she went, until the occasional flash of a stage light crossing her face were the lights of a submarine gliding over the sea-bed, the slow ride cymbal the ring of its sonar. She’d lost all awareness of her body in the crowded room. Nothing existed but the music – the notes building a whole new existence behind her closed eyes. Another solo, another cheer, another song, another rise and fall of beauty, like breathing, like tides, like the waves.
Slowly, it began to sound like the music was coming from a different direction, then getting quieter, less all-encompassing. Her mind started the long swim up from the sea bed. As she surfaced and opened her eyes, the drums had been replaced by drops of rain falling on an umbrella held over her head, the trumpet replaced by car horns. She was sitting down on the front steps of the venue – how on earth had she got here?
“You okay?” a man in a bomber jacket asked. “She’s awake,” he said into a radio.
Where the hell was she? Where was the music?
“Can I...go back in please?” she asked, half-confused, half-indignant.
“Afraid not, love,” the man said, passing her a bottle of water. “Here, drink this.”
“I don’t need water, I’m fine,” she said.
“You were out cold,” the bouncer replied. “They were shaking you, shining lights in your face, you didn’t respond.”
“I wasn’t...I was...” well, where had she been? “I was just deep in the music.”
“Been drinking, yeah?”
“No!” Exasperated now. “Can I please just go back inside?”
“I think it’s best if you don’t, you know. Is there anyone here with you?”
“Then I’ll get you a cab. Where d’you–”
“I don’t need a cab!” she said through gritted teeth now. She stood up from the steps as a group of men came out through the front entrance. Through the open doors she heard strands of music. She tried to push past the bouncer, up the stairs to where she knew the beautiful submarine world lay.
“No.” Firmly now. “You’re not getting in. I suggest you make your way home – get some rest.”
She turned angrily, and pushed past the two security guards on the gate, out into the rainy night, wishing all the unpleasantries upon them under her breath. She stood for a long time at the corner, the traffic lights going green, then red, then back to green before she eventually walked. The way she’d been bundled out and made to do the walk of shame before the end of the gig, anyone would have thought she’d started a fight!
Where else was open? Were her friends out anywhere? What was she even in the mood for, anymore? Her legs had carried her to the junction of the station now. She hated the thought of giving up so easily, but couldn’t see another option. Resignedly, she plodded down the steps to the trains.
At home, feeling empty, she laid down on her bed with her clothes on. Sleep took a long time to come and when it did, was patchy and full of discordant noise. In the moments before she surfaced from the shallows of slumber, she was sure she heard the long, slow ringing of the ride cymbal calling out, seeking life underwater, and returning blank each time.
Oliver Cable is a writer and poet based in London. His first novel, Fresh Air and Empty Streets, was published in 2016. He is a regular contributor to Athleta Magazine and writes a fortnightly column for Riffs & Rhymes. His writing has also appeared in Devon Life and is forthcoming in Maintenant and Corvus Review. He aims to write on the knife-edge of reality, where dreams, metaphor and reality merge.
why dreamers no longer dream was originally published in Riffs & Rhythms on November 20th 2019