SOMEONE ONCE said that the single most boring thing you can hear in the world is the conversation that begins: ‘I had a very strange dream last night...’
If you believe that’s the case, navigate away now.
My anxiety dreams have been fairly constant companions over the years. I can’t quite explain why I have them – I’m usually a fairly well-organised and balanced guy, but once a month or so I kick myself awake with my heart hammering. In the dreams a clock is always ticking. A gig or travel deadline looms – there’s a performance, and I’ve booked the entire band, but forgotten to tell the drummer where to go. Or I’m in an airport, wandering round the gift shop and suddenly realise I have left my suitcase somewhere stupid. Often there’s a mobile phone, but when I try to dial numbers, I find that the keypad is scorched and melted or the numbers are so small on the dial that they’re unreadable.
Stuff like that.
I hit a weird low/high last week. In this sleep movie, I’d been booked to play in a variety concert in a school on the outskirts of Belfast. An old red-brick school with tiled floors and shiny green walls and proper railings. There were literally dozens of acts – the event was going on all afternoon and evening. My father had picked me up at a bus stop outside Queen’s University and dropped me off at the school. I wandered around backstage and said hello to some familiar faces. And then I realised with a cold chill that my guitar was still at the bus stop.
Panic immediately set in – My father was still on the road, I thought, and had no mobile phone. I started trying to book taxis to take me back downtown to get the guitar. But none of the taxi firms had cabs available. It was okay, said the stage manager – ‘you’re not on for hours yet’. So I borrowed someone’s car – and as I tried to drive through the city, I came across all kinds of obstacles: Suicidal drivers, band parades, roadworks, multiple traffic collisions involving buses, entire schools of children crossing the road. I was thwarted at every opportunity, and started to panic about missing the gig, so I eventually turned back and resolved to try later. It’s OK, said the stage manager, as six foot women walked around backstage wearing feather headdresses. You’re not on for hours yet.
It was starting to get dark. My palms are sweating even as I type this. Somehow I got a cab and went back to the bus stop. The street outside Queen’s was now silent and dark, and the bus stop was - bizarrely - locked up, and dark as a garden shed. I peered in through the windows but could see no sign of my guitar or case in the darkness. I called the bus company. No-one answered the phone. It felt like it was getting close to the time when I would have to go onstage. I made my way back to the school, where the acts were now thinning out.
A strange thing now happened. The conscious part of my brain told the dreaming part that there was no real cause for concern – ‘the guitar is absolutely safe,’ it seemed to say, ‘in the room right beside this bedroom where you are asleep and dreaming this. When you awake, it will be right there on a stand facing the door’. And the figure of myself in the dream seemed to calm down. I strolled around the backstage area and found myself outside in an open area between two buildings. My friend, the pianist John McCullough was there, grabbing a breath of fresh air and waiting for his next appearance – he was playing with several of the performers who were on the bill. I mentioned the weird anxiety of searching for the guitar and panicking, when in fact everything was safe. He smiled at me and nodded.
- Yeah, he said. We wondered when you were going to wise up about it.
I asked him about the driving up and down to the city, the taxicabs, the phone calls to the bus company, racing back and forth from the gig.
- How long have I been doing this? I asked.
He looked off into the distance and then straight at me with slight pity.
- It’s been about a year, mate.
A year? The show had been going on for a year – hundreds of performers and audiences, right round the clock – morning, noon and night - for a year, and I’d been up and down the road a thousand times looking for my guitar before I could go onstage. I was stunned.
I remember thanking John and walking away on my own, through one of the buildings and out the other side. I came out of a door onto a set of concrete steps that led down to a pavement and a road. I sat down. Behind me there was a single storey, long, long school building: Red brick, slate roof with old-fashioned twelve-panel windows, and in front a low wall and railings. The building stretched off into the distance for miles and miles to the left and right without end. And across the road, lit occasionally by streetlamps, the grass also stretched endlessly in either direction, rising up from the pavement to form a hill, and into deep darkness beyond. It was completely and utterly still, a dark, warm, quiet summer night. I was conscious that behind me, on the other side of the building, lay the city, the glow in the sky, and before me was the country – endless empty miles of grass, trees, earth, darkness. And not a soul to be seen or heard in all of it.
The vision was so strong that I scribbled and scratched for days to catch it on paper and give some sense of it – and the above drawing was the closest I got.