I had this dream – no, come back, it was only a short dream, or maybe just a fragment – and I’m not going to yap on about the dream itself, just some of the things in it, which are interesting, perhaps.
I thought I’d do you a favour and tell you up front that it was a dream. I don’t like it in TV dramas and films when a scene’s presented as just, you know, a scene, and then something surreal or scary or silly happens and whoa! He’s awake! It was a just a dream…and then they do it again, because he wasn’t really awake, it was another dream! Whoa! “He” is probably Nate Fisher from Six Feet Under, which I think is the only series of which I’ve seen every episode. OK, Firefly, but there are only fourteen of those. I loved Six Feet Under but those dream bits really annoyed me. Actually, I’m keeping up with Dexter, which stars Michael C Hall, who was Nate’s brother David Fisher in Six Feet Under, and I thoroughly dig the show, apart from the not-quite-a-dream sequences where Dexter’s dead dad appears, and the colour becomes saturated and everything looks Vaseliney. Ugh. Stop it.
I’ll make an exception for the film of High Fidelity – you know, when Tim Robbins’ atrocious hippy Ian visits Champion Vinyl and Rob (John Cusack) fantasises about verbally, then physically, abusing him. I’m letting that one go because it’s in the Billy Liar tradition of machine gunning your antagonists – and because when the little Moby bloke grabs the old bakelite desk phone and belts Ian with it, I laugh so much I can’t breathe. Every time. I’m laughing now, just thinking about it. Well, earlier – I laughed, then typed.
For some reason, although the thump and the flying teeth are sublime, the thing that nails that sequence for me is the brief rattle as Moby grabs the phone. Why? I don’t know, but it reaches my Special Place, along with “Stop saying that Withnail, of course he’s the fucking farmer!”, “And I…am the Duke of Ted!” and “Hey! Where the white women at?”
Name those films (Difficulty level: Easy).
Just thought, the Moby character’s name is Dick.
Speaking of John Lithgow – what? He’s in season four of Dexter – when I read The Shipping News I always pictured the protagonist Quoyle as Lithgow. At the time I’d only seen him in 2010, but he made an impression. I liked him, and he lumbered amiably into my head as soon as I read Annie Proulx’s description of her leading man. It wasn’t even one of those “Who would you cast?” things, that’s how I saw him from the off. He’s a big, awkward, uncertain man. John Lithgow. Not Kevin Spacey.
I’m dropping names like some sort of dropping simile. Like Galileo dropped tha orange? Did he? That doesn’t sound right, I’ll have to look it up. I don’t know these people, I just know their names.
Speaking of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I was going to tell you about this dream, wasn’t I? It was just a standard dream, not a dream within a dream, and as I said, I’m being upfront about its nature, and it’s only short.
It begins in Vauxhall. Actually it takes place entirely in Vauxhall, which is…I have to think…it’s in South London. I had to think because it’s very much not my part of town. It’s a place I’ve been through many times, on my way to Brixton or the South Coast, but I’ve only walked along the road there once that I can remember. I think this was probably the same night. Spring, warm, the remains of a rainstorm still puddled here and there. Evening, almost dark, orange sodium lights, reflections and that. It’s a wide, busy, tree-lined road, one of London’s green arteries; lots of tall terraced houses, possibly Georgian (I don’t know, I’m not very good at dating buildings. That doesn’t sound right – I’m not very good at determining the ages and corresponding architectural periods of buildings).
The Oval (which is a cricket ground) is in this area. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? It is, especially at that time of day. In case you’re wondering, Vauxhall is pronounced, simply, “Vox-haul”. Vauxhall is also the name used by General Motors in the UK. On the Continent it’s Opel.
So it’s a little odd that I was walking along this particular road (which, now I think about it, is called Kennington Park Road), at that particular time of day and year. Oddly specific. Were the events (the real events) of that night especially significant or traumatic? No. I was going to an art thing, a house where the ground floor was a gallery. The work was by a woman called Helen, who made clever landscapes by projecting light through layers of coloured glass. A bit like those piles of rubbish whose shadow has the form of somebody reading a newspaper, but more considered.
There was a piece in the back garden too, hanging from a tree: A red neon swing. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? It was. Like an album cover, maybe one of the Late Night Tales/Another Late Night compilations (on the Late Night Tales label, 2001-present).
Don’t worry about the swing (don’t get hung up on it, haha!), it’s just a thing that was there. I think I made it look more portentous than it was by introducing it with a colon, giving it a little sentence of its own. Although, is it a sentence? There’s no verb, unless you count swing. And it wasn’t portentous at all. Anyway, don’t worry about the swing.
I hope you appreciate the fact that I’m not misleading you, scattering red herrings all over the shop; rather, I’m telling you “This isn’t real” or “This isn’t important.” I totally respect you and I’m a big fan of honesty. I like to fact shit up.
The thing that’s rather more significant than the road I was walking along or the time or reason is the fact that I was walking, because, in reality, I can’t walk.
You might have read my author profile here at The Nervous Breakdown: “Formerly a professional modelmaker, STEVE SPARSHOTT turned to writing after brain damage sustained in a 2003 road accident removed much of his physical function.”
(“Turned to writing”, that’s a bit heavy. As though I turned to drink. Or stone.)
I was involved in a rather complicated situation which resulted in a Suzuki GSX-R600 (which is a motorbike) running over my head (which was in a helmet, otherwise I’d be much more dead than I am now). My cerebellum, the rear brain where the motor functions (both voluntary and involuntary) live, took a hit and I spent the next thirteen months in hospital. I didn’t make much of a recovery; overall, my body works at about one quarter normal capacity, head to toe, inside and out, with an imbalance between left and right. The left is better, or rather, less shit. In my hands, that one quarter capacity is all to the left, so that hand – the one I’m using to type these here words – has about 50% function, while the right has almost none.
In fact I can walk, a little bit, although I am to walking what Peter Dinklage is to the NBA. Do you know Dinklage? Actor. Small chap. He played the same role in both British and American versions of Death at a Funeral, he’s been in 30 Rock, and stars in a splendid little indie film called The Station Agent, in which he plays the station agent. He’s a good face actor; he has about twenty expressions just for various types of disdain, probably as a result of being a small chap, which undoubtedly brings out the dickhead in people.
Apparently I have just one particular expression that serves the same purpose. My friend Ali once told me about this time she came to see me in hospital, not long after the accident, when I was almost totally paralysed and couldn’t make any sound at all. “And I said something, I dunno, something a bit stupid, and you did That Face, and I thought Yep, that’s Steve all right.”
Almost all my walking is done indoors. Outside there are too many other people, walls, kerbs, cars, bikes, children, dogs, dogs’ eggs, pavement irregularities and sudden gusts of wind, so I buzz around in a powered wheelchair. Make up your own “That’s how I roll” gag.
In this instance, though, I was walking outdoors. The gallery house looked like all the others, but with more light and noise. In I went. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting. It was a bookshop; a long, narrow bookshop with a bar at the far end. Down I went.
Craig Ferguson was perched on a high stool at the bar, wearing a brown tweed jacket. Unless you’re British and over 35 you probably don’t know who Craig Ferguson is; he’s a stand-up comedian from Glasgow. He came out of the “alternative” comedy boom, at first assuming a dishevelled look and the name Bing Hitler, occasionally using what my mate Duncan calls (in a loud whisper) “THE FUCK WORD”. He wasn’t quite a household name, but he did well on the circuit in the late eighties, filling some big venues; I remember him on television talking about his dad, who had the same reaction to anything that appeared even slightly unfamiliar: “Looks like something off Doctor Who!”
He (Craig Ferguson) looked at his mic stand and quietly chuckled, almost to himself, “Looks like something off Doctor Who!” Then he rotated it, making it look around like a sentient being, and, in a loud wheezing, rasping voice, declared “DOC-TOR! We are from the planet of skinny bastards!”
That didn’t really touch my Special Place, but for some reason it stuck with me. That’s who Craig Ferguson is. The bloke whose dad said “Looks like something off Doctor Who!”
Or that’s who Craig Ferguson was, until some time in early 2009, when his name appeared in Twitter’s list of trending topics. In amongst that day’s hashtag games, rabid Bieber/Jonas fandom, college football and senators caught with their pants down was:
Really? I thought. Craig Ferguson? He’s the bloke whose dad said “Looks like something off Doctor Who!”
I looked again. It still said:
So, assuming it was probably a coincidence, and I’d find out that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had bought a nineteen-year-old linebacker called Craig Ferguson, I clicked it.
Well. It turned out – you know who Craig Ferguson is. He’s a big league chat show host; is he in the Letterman-Leno-Conan gang? I don’t know, but he’s got his own desk and skyline. He’s American on Purpose. I had no idea! It was quite a leap. It was a bit like finding out that Tiffany had just been voted in as Prime Minister of Australia.
And in fact that’s the Craig Ferguson who was sitting at the bar, with a tall glass of something clear and fizzy. As nobody seemed to be paying him any attention, I thought I’d go and say hello.
First off, in the course of my disbelieving investigation into his new US sleb status, I discovered that Ferguson is an ex-drinker. He received (rightly so) plaudits for a monologue in which he addressed his boozy history; describing one of his last drinks, he said “He poured me the type of glass of sherry that only an alcoholic would pour you…a venti sherry, they’d call it in Starbucks.”
Now that touched my Special Place. Not just the words venti sherry, good though they are, and not just the way they sounded in Ferguson’s accent, with the neat spit of the -ti and the rolled Rs of “sherry”. Not just his gleeful mime of a huge cup, either; no, I think the clincher was the idea of a hardened Glaswegian drinker supping sherry like Miss Marple.
Perhaps that accounts for the brown tweed jacket.
Rather odd, then, that he’d be sitting at the bar. The tall, clear drink in front of him, was it a G and T without the G? No. I’ll tell you exactly what it was, it was the glass of lemonade I had at my local Turkish restaurant earlier that night. This was a dream, remember? That sort of thing happens. So not particularly odd, then; the peculiar thing is that I thought I’d go and say hello when, in reality, I can’t speak.
Yes I can. A little bit, although again the Peter Dinklage/NBA comparison applies. Actually I can (and do) talk a lot, just not very well. Very slowly and quietly, slurring, and pausing every few words to take a shallow breath. What people don’t necessarily realise is that I’m SHOUTING as LOUDLY and e-nun-ci-a-ting as clearly as possible at all times. I think it’s pretty impressive that I can hold a conversation for two or three hours.
Nevertheless, I went up to Craig Ferguson and, in a normal, clearly audible voice, said “Hello, how’s it going?”
This is a constant in my dreams: I’m not disabled. At the time of writing it’s seven years, six months and four days since “my” accident, yet I’ve never had a dream in which I don’t have normal physical ability. Occasionally the subject comes up; I’ve said to a few people “In reality I can’t do this” as we clatter down some stairs or pedal bicycles along muddy lanes. Very occasionally – I can only think of three instances – I have a lucid dream, and I make the most of the opportunity to run around and climb things. A while ago I found myself on my 1993 Funk Pro-Comp mountain bike, with its wide Flite Controls Longhorn bars, ODI mushroom grips and RockShox RS-1 fork – I was even wearing my leather-palmed stringback mitts. All details were period correct, except that gravity and geology had conspired to make a landscape that was downhill in every direction.
Ferguson was effusive. It turned out that yes, it was his bar (and shop), but it was also the hospitality bar of the studio where his programme was recorded. Although that made no sense whatsoever, it explained the line of people shuffling through a door into the back of the shop. Also making no sense: Ferguson was in charge of his own audience list. “D’you want to go in?” he asked.
I did, yes.
“Of course,” he continued, waving a finger up and down the audience list, “this is just a simigary-”
And now, for the first time since I was, what, fourteen? I shall write the sentence:
AND THEN I WOKE UP
Just a what? What’s a simigary? It sounded like “filigree” but simigary seemed like the right spelling. I really, really wanted to know. I had to get the word written down before I fell asleep again. I pulled my phone out from under my pillow and typed “simigary” into a memo. Actually, because it’s a few years old, it’s not a smartphone, so I actually typed
77774446444 (pause) 4277799.
By then, what with all the wriggling and squirming required to get to my phone and my eagerness to find out what the arse a simigary was, I was properly awake. So I fired up the phone’s rotten little web browser and typed
77774446444 (pause) 42777999
Other than the name of an eBay user, simigary turned up nothing. Simigre took me to Indian actress Simi Garewal. And so on; the nearest I got was a cracknel seller, a cracknel being a pork scratching or rind. Something you might find in an old man pub or redneck bar, or maybe being peddled “ironically” in a hipster joint.
Damn it. I’d hoped to find that a simigary was a list of names, or a representation of a group of people, or something, but it isn’t.
So that’s a good story.
Let me explain what I’ve done here. I’ve typed 2,714 words, of which approximately 2,040 were waffle. In the remaining 674, however, I addressed my disability, which is something I haven’t really done before. Even though I “turned to writing” (I must change that) years ago, I’ve never really tackled the subject, not for public consumption. I’ve been writing a book about the thirteen months I spent in hospital – 65,261 words of zany hilarity so far – and I’ve released a few bits here and there, but nothing dealing with the effects of losing my dignity, independence, job, social life and the ability to enjoy anything at all.
And in fact I haven’t really touched on any of that here. Those 674 words were, you might have noticed, rather more flippant than the surrounding flannel. “I’d be much more dead than I am now”, for instance. One part cautious revelation to three parts emotional insulation. Small steps.
My first lucid dream was a surprise; it took place in a landscape that was an amalgam of childhood locations: School, and the south coast of Cornwall, where my parents and I spent a week or two every Summer. That explains why the school was empty and there was building work in progress.
(I recently visited the school for the first time in over twenty years, and only a few slivers of the original buildings were visible through gaps in the new growth. Coincidence? Yes.)
I walked along the main corridor and out into the front yard, vaguely registering that I was strolling casually, not even using a stick. Through the building site and on to a hard-packed dirt path leading up a hill between tall gorse hedges; at first I continued to stroll, then began to run towards the top, where a drystone wall crossed the path, interrupted by a wooden stile.
I stepped up, put one leg over the stile, and paused on the platform. Straightened up and looked at what was ahead of me: The path curved through a clean green field, parallel with the edge of a cliff, beyond which was, of course, the sea. Doing all the usual sea things; stretching to the horizon, glittering, and being about as beautiful and (in both current and old-fashioned senses) awesome as possible.
AND THEN I WOKE UP
And this is where it gets tricky. I intended to describe the sudden hollow despair of returning to a dark, permanent reality, sunk in the middle of the mattress, fixed in a lead suit. A lead suit? Really? Yes. (Well no. It’s a metaphor.) You see, that slow, slow, awkward, aching movement I described earlier, the stumbling, mumbling, fumbling business? Well that’s me at the top of my game. That’s me a few hours into the day, fully awake, fed and watered, perhaps lightly caffeinated. Warmed up and ticking over smoothly.
This is me, suddenly awake at night. You know how stiff and creaky you are just after you wake up? Imagine what I’m like. The slightest movement produces spasms and seizures; I have to get those out of the way, trigger them deliberately then wait for them to subside, before I can even consider, say, rolling over. It was somewhere in the wee small hours, so at least I didn’t have to contemplate getting out of the bed.
The thing is, though, I can’t describe it. OK, I can describe it, but I can’t convey it, the sudden appalling horror of being snatched from sunny freedom into pinioned immobility, the immediate, overwhelming knowledge that This is your reality son. For the rest of your life. Better get used to it. It’s been more than seven years now and I haven’t got used to it and I probably never will. Even at my best, I’m trying to pilot an adult body through an adult life with the strength and co-ordination of an infant.
But yeah, as I said, I can describe it but I can’t convey it without coming across as a total hyperbolist (or, if you prefer, bullshitter). I’d probably start using words that have become trivialised by overuse, words that, when you try to use them sincerely, become impossible to swallow.
So when I realised I could never get the feeling across, only relate the events, I thought I’d go straight from AND THEN I WOKE UP to the last line. But then I thought about you – you’ve come this far and I appreciate that a great deal. You’ve weathered my bluster and flannel and borne with me as I wandered along the scenic route, so it seemed inappropriate to sell you short, just ‘cause I couldn’t quite make the words work for me. So I thought I could at least tell you what was going on, and show you that I at least tried.
Hello. My name’s Steve, and I’m disabled.