A battered side street in the old part of Buenos Aires. The tarmac seems pockmarked. Parts of the curb are missing, and the serrated edge of the paving slabs are exposed, like the diseased gums of an old Gaucho.
A modest cafe. It seems rooted to the sidewalk, like the weeds. Other shops have long since shuttered, and their proprietors have escaped to the suburbs. But this establishment persists.
I scrape back one of the metal chairs.
“Un cafe, por favor?” The young waiter rolls his eyes. Is he annoyed that I have not ordered more, or is he casting judgement on my formal, European Spanish? Whatever: He clearly understands, and he slopes inside.
To my left, a croak. “English?”
I turn my head. A man sits alone, his mouth drawn down on one side. A stroke, perhaps?
“Yes,” I reply. “London.”
“Where else!” he replies. And now a smile. So no, not a stroke, just a crooked face. But he does not look straight at me. He cannot see very well.
On his seat, he shuffles closer towards me. “I have lived in London. Around the turn of the century.”
“Lovely.” He expects more, and I relent. “What were you doing?”
“I worked for the British Broadcasting Association!”
“You mean, Corporation?”
He cackles at his mistake. “Of course. The children’s department. I wrote the scripts.”
An old Argentine writing scripts for the Beeb? It seems unlikely, but who knows what he was like in his youth.
“So, erm, what did you…?”
“Everything! I was a great success. But it was the pressure, do you understand? Few men can keep up the pace, it is relentless. Soon I became unwell. My doubt began to haunt me. Even in my sleep.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
The old blind man takes a blood red handkerchief from the breast of his jacket, and wipes a drop of saliva from his mouth.
“I had a dream,” he said. “A single, terrible dream.”
I was marooned. No, not marooned. Cast adrift. I was on a boat, a tiny rowing boat, no bigger than the size of your palm. Not fit for being out on the ocean, far away from land. It was night, a black, black night, but the stars were bright in the sky. And the terror, of being alone on that boat, it seized me by the neck. At first I wanted to scream out loud, shout for help, but my mouth would not open. It was fixed in a horrible grin. Instead, I felt my body lay down in the boat. And somehow, I felt safe and snug out on the sea, calm and still. And I drifted off to sleep.
Suddenly, I was walking through a bright garden, full of trees which cast dappled shadows onto the daisies and round pink flowers. Great green parabolic hedges rose from the ground and soared to the height of several men, only to sweep abruptly back to nothing.
I met a woman who screamed at me, saying the same words over and over again. I met three boys, all alike, drumming. I met an old man with a trolley who collected stones, and he gave me one. I met a man with a great black moustache, who had lost his family.
I saw a bright coloured train, and tried to chase it, but it kept leaving the station whenever I approached. I saw a giant airship with no pilot, and whenever I rode it, it would fly into the trees with a horrible inevitability. I would try to warn my fellow passengers of the impending doom, but I could only squeak like a mouse.
I was attacked by a ball. I panicked and collapsed.
I found myself in a bandstand, where the screaming woman and the three drumming boys and the man with the moustache and the stone collector demanded I entertain them. So I told them stories, countless stories, that were all the same, and yet all different. So in one rendition, the man with the moustache and his family would chase the colourful train. Another day, the woman would scream and the triplets would drum. On another day we would crash in the airship while the old man with the trolley collected a stone. I would put the same recurring events together in countless ways, to make a thousand and one different stories.
The garden of the night was my prison. But between stories, I grew to learn every inch of the space, every blade of grass, every dappled pattern on the bodies of the looming, balloon like figures that would hover on the periphery of my vision. All the inhabitants and objects were always present. They seemed to occupy the same space somehow, as if the garden were only one small patch of lawn, with variations. Nothing ever moved further away from anything else. Instead, objects would become smaller when we tried to walk away.
Sometimes, I thought I would be there for eternity, and I forgot I was in a dream. But on other days I recalled that the number of stories could not be infinite. I knew that one day I would exhaust the possibilities of the screaming woman and the man with the stones and the ball that attacked me. I knew that one day there would be no more stories left to tell, and I would wake.
Nothing ever came into the the garden, and nothing ever left. Apart from me, of course. I believed I was the first thing to enter that cursed place in all of eternity, and that I would be the first thing to leave. And leave I did. One day, I told my final story. I do not now remember which of the elements I used: The ball, the woman, the old man with the trolley? I cannot say. But when I had put the final words to the last possible combination, I fell in the garden, and hit my head on the paving stones. And I awoke, back that boat, floating alone on the black ocean, that unanimous night.
The old man’s eyes glistened.
“How long did you sleep for?” I asked.
“In this world? I do not know. Maybe it was a day. Maybe it was only a few minutes. But in the dream, I lived a life in that garden that lasted just a few hours short of eternity, reliving those same moments, and meeting those same moon-faced daemons over-and-over again. I had long forgotten what was happening in the world to which I had returned.”
A single tear trickled down his cheek. He dabbed it with the red handkerchief.
“In the garden, in that terrifying hallucination, I lost the old version of myself, and became nothing but the stories I had told myself.”
His blind eyes tried in vain to meet my gaze.
“I remembered my old name: I was Andrew Davenport. But I am also Iggle Piggle, the monster of my slumber.”
The waiter appeared between us, and dropped an espresso cup onto the table with a short, discordant clink.
And with that, I too awoke. I was in my living room in London, late at night. The television flickered, hurting my eyes. A bright blue unchanging screen beamed out a message:
‘Cbeebies has gone to sleep, but we will be back tomorrow at 6am’.
I recognised that I had dreamed the man at the cafe, and that I had never been to Buenos Aires.