Closed eyes illustration - "It All Disappears" short story

His heart is pounding. He’s lost in her gaze. His lips are a hair’s breadth away from hers.

And then it all disappears.

He’s wide awake, staring up at the white ceiling, cursing himself again. Why does it always have to end there, right before the kiss? Why can’t he keep himself asleep for just long enough to feel her soft, full lips against his mouth?

He glares at himself in the mirror as he brushes his teeth, irritated by his own subconscious. Ten nights in a row he’s dreamed of her, and he’s never even met her. Doesn’t even know if she’s a real person. But his memories of her are so vivid that he can barely believe he dreamed her up. He can picture the exact placement of the mole on her cheek, the tiny white scar just beneath her left eyebrow, the wild curl of hair at her temple that won’t behave no matter how often she tries to smooth it down.

And it’s not just her that seems too real to be dreamed. The pub, the setting of their nightly dates, is so vibrantly imagined that he wonders if he’s been there before. He can see the whole joint in his mind’s eye; the stone walls and the oak beams, the exact position of each table and chair and stool, the L-shaped bar with its six taps (John Smiths, Fosters, Kronenbourg, Strongbow, Theakstons, Guinness, in that exact order from left to right), and even the bloke who works there. He’s short and stocky, bald, pink in the face with a stubbly beard. Gruff voice but friendly, always offers the same greeting: “Welcome to The Dog’s Bull Ox, mate. What’ll it be?”

The Dog’s Bull Ox — not your traditional pub name. Too silly. Far too crude. It could only have come from the depths of his brain.

He wonders. He ponders. He clamps the toothbrush between his teeth and dashes to the bedroom to grab his phone and he taps away. The dogs bull ox pub sheffield, he types into Google.

There it is, the top result. It really exists. And it’s not too far away. He could be there in twenty minutes.

***

He doesn’t recognise the pub from the outside. He doesn’t recall ever seeing the exterior in his dreams. It always starts at the threshold, as he pushes open the door and scans the pub for his date. He always arrives before she does. He always has a flurry of butterflies in his belly as he waits for her to join him.

Now, wide awake, he enters the pub and does his usual scan, almost like it’s second nature. Everything is as he dreamed it. The décor, the position of the furniture, the order of beer and cider on tap.

“Welcome to The Dog’s Bull Ox, mate. What’ll it be?”

Same bloke. He can’t believe it. He can’t find the words.

“You’re early today, pal. Hours and hours early. Something wrong?”

He shakes his head, shrugs. He doesn’t know what to say. This man knows him.

“Alright,” says the barman, holding up his hands a though in surrender, “don’t want to pry. You want your usual?”

He manages to nod. He digs in his pocket for his wallet.

The barman pulls a pint of Guinness. That wouldn’t be his normal choice of drink, not when he’s awake. He casts his mind back to the dreams, mentally tugging at the hazy faux memories. He can just about picture his hand wrapped around a pint glass, and indeed there’s the viscous black ale sloshing inside it.

He swaps a five-pound note for his drink and as the barman retrieves change from the till, he clears his throat and finally finds the courage to talk.

“I come in here every night, do I?”

The barman laughs. “Don’t remember, eh? Have a skinful before you come, do you?”

“I… I don’t know.”

The barman falls serious. “You’ve been in every evening for the past ten days. You really don’t remember?”

He shakes his head. “Not really. Well, sort of. Am I… I meet someone.”

“Your bird, aye. You come in, you order a Guinness, you take a sip right here at the bar, and then in walks your missus and you buy her a glass of wine, and the pair of you go and sit in that corner over there.”

“At the table next to fire.”

“Right. So you do remember.”

He sighs. Should he tell him? Will he think he’s off his head? Even if he does, what will it matter?

“I remember,” he says. “But it’s like… it’s a dream. I lean in to kiss her and I wake up. At home. In bed.”

The barman laughs. “I don’t know about that. You’ve definitely been here, flesh and blood, real life. Unless I’m dreaming too, eh? Ha.”

He frowns. None of it makes sense.

“No chance you’ve been sleepwalking, is there?” the barman says. “I went to school with a kid who sleepwalked. Got up to all sorts, he did. Had full on conversations with people, fast asleep. Wonder if that’s what’s happening to you.”

***

He nursed his pint at the table next to the fire until the beverage became warm and acrid. Then he switched to lemonade, determined to keep a clear head while he passed the hours, waiting for her.

And now she arrives. She waltzes into the pub wearing a sweet smile and a cloud of even sweeter perfume. All of a sudden he’s right back in his dreams. She’s as lovely as he remembers.

He tenses up, not daring to believe she’s really real. She must be, what with the pub being real and the barman being real, but he didn’t quite believe that she’d be a part of the package.

What have I said to her, he wonders, while in a sleepwalking stupor? Have I embarrassed myself? Have I impressed her? But he must have done for her to have returned, night after night.

He ought to get up, go to the bar and greet her, but he doesn’t quite dare. He watches as she leans over the bar and orders a drink. His heart begins to race as he sees the barman point over her shoulder. She turns. She looks right at him. They stare straight into one another’s eyes. She smiles, raises her eyebrows, waves. He’s a rabbit caught in headlights.

Then she looks away and his heart sinks. The barman’s told her all about him; a sleepwalker, a weirdo, a creep who’s sat in the pub all day waiting for her. If they ever had a connection it’ll be over now, now she knows the truth about him. All their previous meetings were lies — he wasn’t really there.

But the barman has placed two drinks in front of her: a glass of wine and a pint of Guinness. She slides over a crisp note, grabs the drinks and sashays over to the table by the fire.

He can only gawp at her as she stands there beside him, her eyes twinkling.

“Seems you’re quite a charmer when you’re asleep,” she says. “I expect you to be even more captivating now you’re awake.”

His mouth moves but no sound emerges. Charming? Him? Surely not. Certainly not now.

She puts down the drinks and takes a seat beside him, close enough that he can feel the warmth emanating from her skin. He wishes the fire wasn’t blazing so ferociously.

“It makes sense,” she says. “You were always a little strange. We’d spend an hour chatting, laughing, flirting, all the usual, and then we’d lean in for a kiss and… bam. You’d be off! You’d just get up and walk out. No explanation, no goodbye, nothing.”

She sips on her wine, waiting for him to respond. All he can think to say is, “Sorry.”

“It’s alright. I was upset at first, but then it became your thing, y’know? An eccentricity or something. But now you’re here and you’re awake. You are awake, aren’t you?”

She pinches his arm and he flinches.

“Yeah,” he mumbles. “Pretty sure.”

“Then we’d better make the most of it. Finally get it over and done with.”

She leans in. His heart is pounding. He’s lost in her gaze. His lips are a hair’s breadth away from hers.

And then it all disappears.

***

He’s wide awake, staring up at the white ceiling of his bedroom.

Another dream. Or perhaps it was all the same dream. Perhaps he fell asleep, mid-kiss, and he walked back home unconscious. His heart aches at the thought of deserting her again.

Maybe he should go back to the pub, talk to the barman, find out what’s what. But is the pub even real? He can’t be sure. He can’t be sure of anything anymore. He ought to check.

He reaches for his phone when he hears the creak of his bedroom door.

He turns. There she is. The woman of his dreams. She’s wrapped up in a lilac dressing gown, her hair tousled by sleep, that curl at her temple wilder than ever.

“Brought you coffee,” she says, and she carries the cup over to him and places it on his bedside table.

She looks at him expectantly. He simply blinks in return. He has a nagging sense of déjà vu. This has happened before. This isn’t the first time the woman from his dreams has materialised in his bedroom.

“Thank you for my delightful cup of coffee, darling,” she mocks.

“Oh, yeah. Thanks. Thank you.”

She rolls her eyes and perches on the edge of the bed beside him. “Where are your manners this morning?”

He shrugs. “Not quite with it yet.”

He looks around the room. There’s a line of skincare products on top of the chest of drawers and scattered beside it is a pink hairbrush, a makeup bag and a bottle of perfume. A dress hangs on the wardrobe door. There’s a framed photograph on the wall — it’s him, his arm around her, big cheesy smiles plastered on their faces.

She runs a hand through her hair and he sees the ring on her finger. He looks at his own hand and sees a ring there, too.

It all finally clicks into place as he shakes off the last fuggy traces of sleep and thinks clearly.

He laughs. “I had the weirdest bloody dream last night, love.”

“Tell me.”

“You were there, but we weren’t married. It was early days. We were in that pub where we had our first date. What was it called? The Dog, Bull and Ox. Remember how we said it sounded like the dog’s bollocks?”

She smiles as she casts her mind back all those years.

“But I was sleepwalking.”

She tuts. “You slept through our dates? Rude.”

“I know. And every time we went to kiss I woke up. Well, I didn’t wake up wake up, I woke up from that bit of dream and into another bit of dream and… we never kissed. It was torture.”

“Sounds like it,” she mutters, and she leans in.

His heart is pounding. He’s lost in her gaze. His lips are a hair’s breadth away from hers.

And then it all disappears.

***

He’s wide awake, behind the bar of the Dog, Bull and Ox. It’s a quiet shift, only the regulars. Three old blokes playing dominoes in one corner, and a pair of lovebirds in the other. They’ve been in every night for the past ten days, this couple. They can barely keep their hands off each other.

He watches them whisper sweet nothings as she sips her wine and he sups his Guinness. The fire crackles beside them. It’s a perfect scene, almost like a dream. And she’s gorgeous, of course. Just like in his dreams.

They lean in for a kiss and he turns away, green with envy. He catches sight of himself in the huge mirror which hangs at the back of the bar. He sees his short, stocky frame and his bald head and his pink cheeks and the tired stubble on his chin and, oh God, he looks dog tired.

He stifles a yawn and wonders where he’ll wake up next. Because surely, if there’s any justice, this isn’t his reality.

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