by Sarah Agus
I cross my silk-clad legs and smile at the host:
‘You know Steven, winning this debut prize is just the beginning!’
It will never go away.
I plant my elbows on the kitchen table, shut my eyes and hold my head. It throbs like an overcharged battery close to explosion.
‘I am now adapting the novel for the screen…’
“Will you ever,” I growl, “ever shut up?!”
‘… and will soon finish the first draft of my second book!’
I can’t make it go away.
I spring up and grab the laptop, open to a Word.doc still empty. I’m about to bash it against the wall but I stop myself just in time: I couldn’t afford another one if I saved for ten years. So, I lift the last chair I own up above my head instead, and smash it on the floor: I smash it, smash it till its half-rotten wood is smithereens. Until splinters cut my hands and blood stains my clothes.
“If you don’t calm down, Miss, I will have to call the police.”
“And if you don’t call the doctor…” I am still panting from climbing up the stairs. “… I will have to punch you in the face!”
One would imagine a doctor’s office to be in a sparkly building with a perfectly working lift, without graffiti in the hallways or ripped carpets at each landing, but this is an NHS centre.
“Alright, I’m calling–”
“What’s this?!” A woman steps out from a door labelled ‘Dr Cheshire’. “Who are you?”
I run to her, grab her by the shoulders.
“You must help me!”
She observes the delirious look in my eyes, my bloody hands and jumper.
She guides me to her study.
She sits on an armchair, points to another. I’m exhausted but the anger, mixed with the fear of not meeting the deadline, keeps me on my feet. I stand in front of her.
“You must give me something to stop my dream.”
Dr Cheshire lifts one hand.
“Your dreams don’t make you sleep?”
“It’s not a night-time dream. It’s a daydream, an at-all-times dream. It’s rolling behind my eyes even now as we speak!”
“When did it start?”
“Oh, come on, I don’t have time for this! Just give me something to stop it! An antidepressant, a horse sedative. If I don’t write this article–”
“If you want me to help you I must understand what I have to treat. When did it start?”
My brain starts throbbing again, swells against the skull, scalds it.
“When I was fourteen and my parents died. Trauma led me to daydreaming to escape reality. Here you have it. And now, plea–”
“What do you do?”
Flashing lights blind me, everything spins... I steady myself against the chair not to vomit or fall.
“I’m a freelance… ‘Journalist’ is a big word. I write lifestyle features, reviews. That sort of crap.”
“What did you dream of doing when you were a child?”
“I… I dreamt of…” I lower myself on the chair. “…being a novelist. A debut with Penguin Books, the Nobel prize…”
“What happened to that dream?”
“She is living it. Inside my head.”
I screen my face behind my hands to hide the tears flooding my cheeks.
“Is she you?”
“Yes, but… more. She’s… Oh God, this is so embarrassing, I can’t.”
“Don’t worry about the embarrassment. Just make me understand.”
I take a deep breath to steady my nerves.
“She is an orphan too,” I explain, “except her parents were not teachers but an heiress and a financier, so when they died she inherited billions. Then, unlike me, taken in by a random aunt, she was adopted by her father’s best friend’s family. Scottish aristocracy: a castle in the Highlands.… Peacock House in Holland Park is theirs.” I laugh at the stupidity of what I have uttered out loud for the first time in my life. “She had everything I didn’t have: money, family... She read philosophy at Oxford, became a lecturer… then left academic life to write novels. She sat down, on the day of her thirtieth birthday, and started writing. She got published, won a debut prize, even went to a talk-show in the States to promote the book.”
“Did you go to Oxford?”
“I went to Bumsbury College.”
“Describe the dream in three words.”
“Addictive, depressing, poisonous.”
“You are aware.”
“But of course I am aware!” I snap. “I had twenty years to understand that my mind is addicted to it because in it she is in control of every event! My brain is addicted to the dopamine that the dream releases and needs it more, more, more every day! I can spend days sitting on a chair, staring at the wall, watching from the inside.
“I am depressed because I am not her, because I will never be! But when I try not to be her my mind gets frightened, rebels, and abandons me to return to the dream like a horse escaping a battlefield to return to his stall!
“The only life I live is the dream whilst my real life gets worse and worse! I got good A levels but could only afford a second-rate university; obtained a BA in English Literature but was forced into a series of shit jobs right after graduation because I needed to survive. I’m now risking eviction because I haven’t gathered enough money to pay this month’s rent!”
“Maladaptive daydreaming is tricky. Do you find yourself–”
I jump out of my chair.
“Doctor, listen to me. I am not here to talk. If I had time and money, I would start proper therapy, but I have neither. I am here because I must shut this dream down.
“I have burnt bridges with every magazine in London because I can’t respect deadlines; because I can’t work, because my mind is held hostage! But a week ago an editor gave me one last chance, a commission that would help me pay this month’s rent and avoid being thrown in the street. The deadline is on Friday. If I don’t write this article I will be jobless, homeless and done! I have no savings, no rich family to take me in, no friends.
“I still haven’t written a word of it because of this damn addiction, but if you drugged me I could focus and would be able to! You see, I can’t do it by myself. I have tried everything: meditation, exercise, cocaine, you name it. Nothing works! Please, I am begging you! It’s already Monday afternoon!”
“But I can’t prescribe you anything until we have discussed your case more.”
I stare at her in disbelief.
“There is a cabinet full of pills behind you! Just give me some, I will tell no one!”
“Let’s not lose our heads, now, please. You might be allergic to something. You might overdose. You must build up the dosage for the medications you are asking me.”
My eyes stop focusing.
Then my legs give way, and as I was not prepared for this I crumble to the floor like a robot with unscrewed joints.
Dr Cheshire rushes to my aid.
“Doctor, you must…” I whisper, holding on-to her arm. “Please…”
“Believe me, I want to. But unless we… Hey, wait!”
But I cannot wait. I can’t. So I push past her, open the cabinet and try to figure out what I can take to escape as quickly as possible…
“What are you doing!? Mr Bronson, Mrs Riley!”
However, my vision is blurred, can’t read the labels, and my body moves too slowly, like a machine with less than 1% of battery left.
Before I know it, four trained hands grab me by the arms and drag me back into the room, the corridor, the main entrance.
“Call the police!” The nurse orders the receptionist.
‘Our first guest tonight has been called the most brilliant writer of her generation!’
All goes black.
‘Please welcome Alice–’ The public’s cheering covers the voice of the host.
The machine shuts down.
I strut out from backstage, wave to the audience beyond the stage lights, shake Steven’s hand. I can’t believe it. I made it! I am living my dream!
My mind envisions the last twenty years copying and pasting themselves onto the future like cancer cells: the thought of allowing the dream to ruin the rest of our life enrages her to the point that she yells at my brain to order my body to produce one last spark of energy, just enough to slip out of the coat, which remains in the grasp of the nurse, and run to the door.
I must stop this dream: not for my mind only anymore, if I want her to write, but for my brain and body too now, if I want them to keep living.
I stumble out of the office, reach the top of the stairs.
My foot fits under the ripped carpet and I propel forward.
I embrace gravity and fall.
When I reopen my eyes I am lying on a bed white and soft like a cotton bud.
“Alice, dear, can you hear me?” Dr Cheshire says. “You’re at the hospital.”
My mind is dark, quiet and empty like a cinema screen in between shows.
“The dream…” I mumble.
“You fell down the stairs, hit your head…”
I feel my brain: it’s soft, compact and cool like a ball of dough.
“The dream is gone…”
“You could have died. If you had not tripped…”
I tell my right leg to bend and she does it.
“The dream is gone! It’s gone!”
I cry tears of happiness: the happiness of my childhood, of the years before the dream.
I am reborn and today is the first day of my life: a virgin path stretches before me.
“You have been unconscious for three days.”
Three days… Thursday!
“Doctor, what time is it?”
“Could you please… bring me something to eat?”
Dr Cheshire smiles.
“Of course: you must be hungry. I’ll be right back.”
I wait until she is gone, then take the drip-feed off my hand. Once I have made sure that my legs can support me, I get dressed in the clothes I was wearing on Monday. They are folded on a chair.
I open the door a crack… no one’s in sight. No police, thank God. No nurses, no Dr Cheshire.
Once home, I sit on the floor and balance the laptop on my knees. My hands shake as I switch it on, but, as soon as the writing software opens, my mind starts dictating words and my brain coordinating fingers on the keyboard.
Nothing distracts me from the little ballet performing in front of me, and early on Friday morning I click ‘Send’.
• • •
“Alice! How are you? How reckless of you, to disappear from the hospital like that.”
“I am sorry Dr Cheshire. You looked after me… but I was alright. I am alright.”
“What brings you here?”
“This morning the dream came back to me.”
“I see. And you want me to give you something, otherwise you will again…”
“I got myself a boring but secure office job, Dr Cheshire. It leaves me enough free time to write my novel too. Now that I have a bit of money and no life-defining deadlines… I’d prefer to start therapy with you, rather than leading myself to a point where I have to come up with another extreme way to get rid of it. Are you taking new patients at the moment?”
“I am, actually. And I am very happy to hear you say that. Let’s book you in.”
Originally from Sardinia, Italy, Sarah moved to the UK ten years ago to complete her education in fashion history and lifestyle journalism at the University of the Arts of London. Since then she has worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum and is now part of Canterbury Museums and Galleries, Kent. Sarah is an emerging short story writer and her work has been featured in The Graveyard Zine. She posts (most inconsistently) on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/ashortstoryteller/