2015 NZ Writers College Short Story Competition Joint Fourth Place - Principals Choice Award

A Brief Episode - by Tom Cunningham


I wake before I open my eyes. It’s something I’ve been working on. Maybe if I keep my eyes closed I can watch my dreams. The stuff behind my eyelids. Actually be conscious of watching it. School never taught us that one. ‘Follow your dreams’ they said, and yet how are we supposed to know it’s a dream? ‘Wake up’ and ‘follow your dreams’ they told us. Aren’t these contradictory? The only way is to keep your eyes closed as you wake. I’ve been practising it for days now.

Couldn’t chase that dream. It recoiled into the pits of my brain. One day I’ll dig it up and pick it apart. One day... .

I open my eyes and see three grey walls sighing in unison. They’re breathing in time with my lungs. Is my body connected to this place? I’ve lived here long enough.

A bird is chirping at my window sill. Could it be the same bird as yesterday? Yes, yes of course, it’s done the same cocking of the head. I remember exactly. I try to swallow but suddenly my heart is in my throat. The bird looks at me. Does the same three cocks, left, right, down. Left, right, down. Yes it’s the same. Too coincidental. Has to be the same.

I approach the bird slowly. If only I could silence my heartbeat. The walls are pounding in unison. Surely the bird can hear. Birds have ultra-sensory perception; an innate compass. Humans had to build one. Birds can fly. Again, humans had to build the plane. Birds can sit on windowsills. Again, humans have to hire window cleaners, ladders, ropes, scaffolding, money, money, money. Ah, it must have sensed my heartbeat! It took flight. It’ll be back tomorrow, watching me chase the dream behind my eyelids. Maybe its ultra-senses can perceive my dream. What does it do with them?

With trembling hand I approach the bedroom door. There’s a sound of shuffling feet in the kitchen. I live alone but only in a physical sense of the word. Passing the bathroom, I freeze. Turning my head, I look at the bathroom mirror. Yet I see the back of my head. More shuffling of feet downstairs. “Who’s there!?”

The breathing walls absorb my words. They judder. The silence amplifies the palpitations in my body. I break out in goose bumps. I look towards the mirror. And there’s a normal reflection this time. But the man looking back at me is so far from normal.

I’ll go downstairs. I can’t bare it any longer. Stooping before I reach the landing I check to see who’s in the kitchen. No one. Surely they didn’t run outside? There was only silence. Complete silence. Rats. It would’ve been the rats.

The microwave reads ten o’clock, earlier than I usually rise. The fridge buzzes for a moment and stops at exactly 10:01. Weird…
Suddenly there’s an eruption of noise. I almost collapse but my hand catches the railing.

“Bring! Bring! Bring!”

The bird. It must be the bird

Bring! Bring!” it declares from behind the couch. Bring what?! My dream?

Another noise says “It! It! It!” in blunt pierces. “Bring” from behind the couch, “it!” at my ear. I reel around in horror. The clock. It’s just the clock… .

Did the clock just wink at me? The bird stops telling me to bring, bring, bring. The clock continues: “It! It! It!” Maybe it was a glint of sunlight but I swear the clock just winked at me… it winked just as the bird stopped. Just as I wondered whether ‘it’ was my dream. As if the clock was saying “you got it”.

I approach the couch. A bird doesn’t scare me. Unless it’s a manmade bird. Ah, of course. The phone. There it is lying on its cradle on the floor. But the prickly fear returns. A green light indicates there’s a voice message. I’m too scared to check it. It’s my dream that got away. Intercepted by the bird. I’m afraid to listen. If it’s a manmade bird it probably transmitted something to the phone. The wink of the clock and the brooding fridge has set my nerves affray.

Everything is completely silent now. And then I hear the clock again. It’s telling me to “Sit! Sit! Sit!” I leave the house immediately.

Outside there’s a car parked. A woman and two men step out.

“Hi Herbert,” says the lady. Her head is slightly down like a creeping cat. Has she come to catch the bird? But I am not the bird.  “Come on Herbert, off to see John. Come on, it’s fine.”

I look at the two men. They’re smiling falsely. Anything is better than being alone in that house. I follow them to the car. “No,” I say, “not the belt”.

“Okay, okay,” says the man, letting the seatbelt go.

I’ve always liked seeing the world pass me by through the window of a moving car. Nothing can get at you. Let it get all those other people out there. All those people blindly chasing their dream. What a load of shit.

I’m taken to a sterile-white building and everyone is wearing pyjamas and there are women there I’d like to have. They pad around in squeaky slippers and smile sweetly and they want something I could give them.

I’m introduced to John. He’s all folds and wrinkles because he’s pursued everything in life except his dream. There’s not a wink of sleep on those eyes. The sleep is on the deep blue slugs cupping them, wriggling eagerly to his eyes. Let me dream, they tell him, let me dream god damn it.

He says English words but it’s all reverb and echoes to the point of incoherence. I’m frowning. “Can’t understand,” I say. Or think. I’m not sure which.

He takes a container from the cabinet. Blue worms are writhing inside. I dash for the door. It’s locked. The tired eyes and the slugs underneath them are closing in on me.

He pulls a little blue worm from the tube. No! A slug. A baby slug. It’s deep, deep blue. The slugs under his eyes are blue. Bruise-blue. Does he want to infect me with his haggard look of tormented eyes above blue slugs? Fuck off. I want to be able to sleep. I want to be able to dream.

He grabs hold of my shoulders. Two of the pretty women wearing pyjamas and slippers enter the room. They want it now? When I’m petrified? I won’t be able to get it up.

“Herbert, Herbert listen to me,” says one of the girls. She knows my name? Her voice is velvety and beautiful. Neither too high nor too low. The perfect feminine voice, with crisp S’s. She speaks lipstick words with a kind of cuteness that I want to have and protect. Maple syrup flows from her throat.

“You need to take one of these,” she says.

Ah, how I could have her in the palm of my hand. How I could have her.  I close my eyes, and she is there! My dream. The bird has come to deliver my dream. Because she is a bird. In a colloquial sense of the word. A manmade bird. And I am not afraid. I am conscious of watching my dream. A certain kind of dream for pre-pubescent boys. I will let her pour into my palm. With closed eyes quivering, I put out my hand.

Maybe they’re Viagra slugs. I swallow one immediately.


The noon-sky whiteness pokes into my bedroom through the gap in the curtains. I turn over heavy-headed and yawn. It’s that same old Sunday melancholy. I stand up, get out of bed and stretch long and deep.

Downstairs the clock reads half twelve. There’s a loaf of bread sitting on the bench. I wonder how much sugar it has in it. I don’t remember buying white bread. The grainy type is healthier. White bread is duck’s fodder. Ah what the hell. I’ll visit the supermarket today. Yes I’ll pop down today to pick up some things. I snatch the envelope from the bench top and write a shopping list while I wait for the toast to pop.

Milk is expensive these days. Apparently petrol is cheaper. And yet we produce milk in this country. I wonder if that political fiasco is still going on about the MP who shook hands with the director of the Chinese milk company. It’s good to keep those parliamentarians in check. Even if it’s as trivial as a handshake. Hah! As if that horrible little lady can effectively endorse any product. If anything, she puts me off the stuff.

What’s the weather up to? There’s the old newspaper lying here beside me on the couch. It’s a week old. I suppose they can forecast a week, though it’s hardly accurate. Still, we always check don’t we? We’re due for a few sunny days. There’s not a cloud obstructing that perfect ball of sunshine besides Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Despite my scepticism of weather forecasts, I still look. It’s one of the few things we take with a pinch of salt yet follow religiously. That and politics.

On my phone the most recent text is five days old from Vern. Lately my loneliness has been dulled into submission. The books and the music and the movies keep me company. I’ll text Vern. Maybe he’ll join me on my run. The running clears the fogginess from my head.

Looking out at the white sky and the empty street, I think about how Morrissey was so right. Every day is like Sunday. A long sleep in, followed by a grazing of meals throughout the day, a run to put the weight-watching mind at ease, some left-over dinner, a movie in the evenings with biscuits and tea. Maybe I’ll watch ‘A Place Beyond the Pines’ tonight. Read raving reviews.

Vern never did reply. I’ve been to the supermarket and bought my tray of eggs, brown bread, brown rice, Macaroon biscuits, Bell tea. It was so empty at the supermarket. Where do all the people go? Vern probably doesn’t want to go running. Lazy prick.

The sun is setting outside. There is a little glumness in my throat. In the dimming light I see my reflection in the window. I stare at myself a moment. I ought to get a haircut. Grabbing the container of pills from beside the microwave, I open it and look at its contents. Taking the dark blue capsule, I knock it down with a glass of water.

The buzz of the fridge, the ticking of the clock, and the occasional scratching of a rat in the walls prompts me to switch on the television. ‘A Place Beyond the Pines’. But first I’ll make tea. Nothing like a movie with biscuits and tea. 


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