High on a hill overlooking Manchester, dark figures move through the heather. Slim bodies bending in the low light. Groups of them, fanning out across the whole hillside, running their hands over clumps of brush and bristle.
These were the dreamgatherers. As the city slept below, residue from the citypeople’s dreams crept out of their noses and snoring mouths. It formed a thin smog that, by the early hours, had risen on the heat of streetlamps and headlights, forming a shapeless cloud.
The west wind blew over Manchester, this night like every night, and lifted the smog up, over the moors, finally scattering it over the far side of the Pennines, in Yorkshire, where it dispersed. As it travelled, it left a residue on the tiny leaves of the moorland plants. This was the liquid that the dreamgatherers were seeking.
There were eighteen of them this morning. They had gathered on the hillside at four a.m. with sponges and buckets, proceeding to move in a rough line up the hillside, gathering what they could. The dreams left a slight shimmer in the dawn light. Multicoloured, like oil floating on a puddle. When they saw the residue, they soaked their sponges, squeezing the liquid into their bucket.
The dreamgatherers were from Cambodia. They had travelled to England together. Only one, their boy Akra, could speak the language. The rest depended on him, and would take what little money they were offered for the daily harvest of dreams.
It had been known in Avon Murray for generations that the dream residue could be used for dyeing. The small, black-bricked town huddled in a gap between two high moors, like a rough sleeper sheltering from the wind. It was a mill town, built in the mid-eighteenth century. Even way back then, the townspeople knew of the dream residue. Only, back then, Manchester wasn’t quite so big. Its dreams were fewer, and smaller too.
So it was left to the young women of the village to gather up what few dreams they could find scattered among the heather. A night’s hard work would give enough to dye a handkerchief, or a patch for a patchwork quilt.
The multi-coloured patches were much sought after, but they were never quite desired enough to make the dreamgathering financially worthwhile.
The dreamgathering remained an old custom. Work that was really pleasure, like the struggles of men who fished the deep rivers. That was, until Melinda’s mother, Sue, came upon her grand idea back in the early 1990s.
If you lived through the nineties you might remember the snap bracelets; tie-die colour schemes with a mild fluorescent glow, worn by little girls and rave-going baggies alike. These had been Sue Marsden’s first grand idea.
The city had grown so fat, she realised, and its ecstasy-binging populace so dreamy, that the dew of dreams, normally so thinly spread across the hillside, was now plentiful. With a little effort, she could harvest the residue and bring it down to her dyeworks in Avon Murray. There she loaded it into the machines that would produce the snap-bands.
After the snap-bands came friendship bracelets, then chokers and patches. In slow years, she could provide costume stores with hippy outfits. Most recently, she had diversified into collectable trading cards. Shipments came in from China and were given a shiny coating of dreams, and were shipped off again in giant containers to Japan.
But still the core problem remained. Gathering the residue was hard. Backs ached at the thought of it. Eventually, the residents of Avon Murray all refused the work. The pay was too low and nobody could face the four a.m. starts. That’s when Sue Marsden started using migrant labour.
At eight o’clock the factory opened. At half past eight, Akra arrived with the morning’s harvest. He wore a huge barrel on his back, filled to the brim, his legs creaking under the strain of it. Melinda looked on from her machine and felt sorry for him.
“Akra!” Sue shouted from the main office. “You just be careful setting that barrel down!”
“Yes, ma’am.” Akra wheezed. “Always careful, ma’am.”
Sue leaned out of her office. Melinda could tell by the look on her mother’s face that something was wrong. Things often went wrong in the factory. Perhaps they were behind on an order. Maybe they were down on profits this month. Whatever it was, she knew her mum would take it out on Akra.
“What did you say to me?” she asked, sidling towards the boy.
Akra heaved the barrel down onto the gangway beside the dying machine. “Always careful,” Akra nodded. He rubbed his hands together, sore from the weight, and stretched out his back.
“But you’re not always careful are you, Akra?” Sue said, approaching him, pointing. “You dropped that last week, didn’t you? We didn’t have enough dye to finish a scheduled job. That’s not careful is it?”
Akra realised too late what was going on. “Sorry, ma’am. Very sorry. Always careful.”
“But that’s what I’m saying, Akra!” Sue wagged her finger at him. “You’re not always careful. You need to be always careful!”
“Always careful,” he repeated.
“You’re not!” Sue cried, exasperated.
“Mum!” Melinda shouted from across the factory floor. “Leave him alone. He’s saying that he always tries to be careful. And you know he always does! Don’t give him a hard time.”
“You get back to work missy! And get these bloody machines switched on. Come on! Productivity is down already with these bloody lot on gathering duties. We can’t have the factory falling apart as well!”
Melinda sighed and pushed in the choke. She jammed in her key and, after a few jarring sputters, she turned it all the way and fired up the angry engine.
As she pulled on her safety goggles and rubber gloves, Melinda watched Akra padding slowly, dejectedly toward the door. Then, to her surprise, he turned and looked right at her. In his sad brown eyes, did she see longing?
He stopped and turned. She could read his thoughts. He wanted to march up to her. He wanted to tell her something important. But, no, he stopped. She watched his eyes move from her to her mother’s office. Then, sighing deeply, he gave her one last look and then ran away, out of the factory and back to his rooms.
As Melinda turned to her work, initiating the injectors and adjusting the consistency settings, her heart fluttered in her chest. He had looked at her. He had wanted to tell her something. Had he? She thought so. Yes, she knew he must.
Melinda’s deepest secret was her love for Akra. His bright eyes made every morning complete. She loved his thin body and the huge weights it carried. She dreamed of feeding him, nourishing him, and having him grow strong in her arms.
She dreamed of him every night.
It was a well-known side effect of working with dream residue. In the highly concentrated form that it took in the Marsden family dyeworks, some of the liquid would inevitably re-evaporate. Workers wouldn’t notice it at the time, but at the end of the day they would walk out of the factory as if out of some unreal place. Like blinking a daydream out of their eyes. Then, at night, they would all dream vividly.
Akra had worked at the Marsden dyeworks for just over a year now. Melinda had dreamed of him from the moment he arrived.
At first, he came to her as a lost wanderer. The kaleidoscope of strange objects, corridors, ghosts and creatures that made up a dyer’s dreams were normal to Melinda, she had grown up with them, but stuck in the middle of them she found Akra. He was crying out in Cambodian. She spoke to him in English. In the dream, they understood each other. She reassured him. They held hands.
They met then every night in her dreams. The dream: Akra would come to her and she’d tell him about her mother, about the factory, about Avon Murray. She would teach him English and he would tell her all about the strange world from which he’d come. He would bring gifts. Delicious foods from his homeland, colourful dresses, statues and necklaces.
She knew it was just a dream. She told herself every morning; this isn’t the real Akra, just your imagination. You don’t even know the real boy. He’s too shy to even speak to you.
But then at night she would kiss him. At night they would lie in each other’s arms and talk of how much they loved each other and how they’d always be together.
That night after work, Melinda was in a bad mood.
“What’s up Melinda?” her mum asked, sipping her wine as they watched Love Island. “You’ve had a sour face on you all evening. What’s going on?”
Melinda crossed her arms. She didn’t want to talk about it. On the telly, a topless Asian boy reminded her of Akra.
“Is it to do with the boy?” Sue asked.
Melinda huffed, slapping her hands on the sofa cushions. “Mum! He has a name! He’s called Akra!”
“So it is about him!” Sue laughed. “I see. Well, you can get that idea out of your head right now, young lady. That boy is a criminal.”
Sue nodded sagely. “He’s in this country illegally. He snuck in with the rest of them. They’re all breaking the law by working here like they do.”
“But you’re the one employing them!” Melinda cried.
“Hey!” Sue pointed with a finger of her wine-clutching hand. “Don’t start! You’re only eighteen girl, and you know nothing about business. When you’re in charge you’ll know what I mean, but until then you can show a bit of respect to your elders. Now, no more thoughts of that boy. He’s not like us. And don’t feel sorry for him either. We pay him twenty times what he’d make back home for the same work. He’s not mistreated. He should be grateful, and so should you!”
“Mum!” Melinda shouted, feeling the hot tears bursting from her eyes. Covering her face, she ran out of the room and up to her bedroom.
She threw herself face down onto the bed and sobbed. She sobbed and sobbed until she grew tired. Then, with relief, she let herself drift off to sleep.
Melinda was in a field. It was curved like the surface of a giant tennis ball and she seemed to be both standing on it and watching herself stand on it at the same time. The floor was furry and had stripes—red, blue and yellow—which rolled around each other and danced in the sun. The sun above was vast. It took up half the sky. Melinda could feel the heat of it on her skin. When she looked at it, it turned violet.
Then, through the field, dancing and laughing, coming to rescue her came Akra. In dreams he was just as he was in life. He was the only thing that never changed. She watched his dark eyes grow huge as his face approached and she tasted his warm lips.
“You were sad today,” she told him quickly. “Tell me why you were sad.”
“I was sad because you are only a dream,” he told her. “And yet when I see you in real life, it is as if you are the same. As if the Melinda I meet in dreams is the same I meet in life.”
“I feel the same,” she said. She took his hands in hers.
“And tomorrow is my birthday,” Akra sighed. “I wanted to ask for time off work, but your mother was so angry, I could not. I wanted to ask you to come with me. To spend the day with me. I could not. In dreams we are so close, but the real you is impossible to reach.”
“It is like you are real,” Melinda said, smiling and crying in the same dreamy breath. “Like you are really here.”
They held each other as a velvet tiger strode over them, nine-hundred feet tall.
“It is your birthday tomorrow?” Melinda clarified.
“Yes,” Akra said. “Tomorrow.”
Melinda blinked. She was awake. The room was dark. Her heart was pounding. She tried to get back to sleep but she knew that she couldn’t. She turned on her phone. It was three a.m.
She was being foolish and she knew it. She knew that dreams were only dreams, and even if hers were so vivid as to seem real it was only the effect of the dream residue reevaporating. She was a fool to think that her dreams meant anything.
She was dressed in five minutes, had packed a bag in seven, and was out of the front door at ten past three.
The streets of Avon Murray were deserted. In the twilight, the blackened-brick of the houses filled the night with a stone-hard dark. She hurried down black pathways between jutting angles of shadow, the dark looming in from every side. Her feet tapped on the ground like the dripping of a tap.
She clambered over the silent schoolyard fence and crossed the silent railway tracks. She felt her way through the ginnel to the high woods and heard the hoot of an owl as she turned for the moors. The path was narrow. Her feet got dirty. Her face was red, knowing how silly she was being.
Then, she was on the moor itself. She stood high on the hillside. From where she was, she could look down across the whole soft landscape, down across the clumps of heather, shimmering lightly with dreams, and out to the city lights, far away, bright now like a too-early sun. Manchester.
She waited. Her breath was heavy, but grew less heavy. She was not tired anymore, only nervous.
Perhaps they weren’t coming?
She lifted her phone and watched the clock run—3:35, 3:45, 3:57, 4:06—and still nobody. They were supposed to be here by now? Surely?
Until, at 4:17, she finally saw them. Down at the bottom of the hill. A gang of bodies. Shadowy, huddled, carrying buckets and sponges in the tiny light of pre-dawn. And there, walking among them, barrel on his back, was Akra.
“Hey!” she cried out. Her own voice shocked her. It boomed out in the night. The figures below her looked up. She waved. Without thinking, she starting bounding down the hillside toward them.
Below her, a figure was running up.
As she bounced and bounded down the heather-strewn slope, she moved faster and faster. Suddenly, her ankle caught on something. She fell. She was rolling, tumbling down the hill towards him.
Below her, he was tumbling up.
They landed, the two of them, in a clear patch of grass on the side of the hill. Panicking, hearts beating hard, they stood up and brushed themselves off. They stood facing each other.
“Erm,” Melinda said, unsure where to begin. “I thought you were supposed to be here at four.”
Akra stared, open mouthed. “Oh, erm, yes. So sorry, miss. You see, it is my birthday and we were celebrating–“
“Your birthday?” Melinda said. “It really is?”
“Yes, miss Melinda,” he nodded.
“Don’t call me ‘miss’, Akra,” she said. “You don’t have to do that with me. You know me, and I know you.”
Then, from her backpack, she lifted out a small statue.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Do you not recognise it?”
She passed it to him. He held it up to the dim light. It was a Khmer statue. He had given her a similar one in his dreams.
“Where did you get this?”
“You gave me one, remember?” she chuckled. “In our dreams. Well, actually, this one’s from eBay, but you did give me one, even if it wasn’t exactly, well… physical.”
Akra stared at the statue, then up at Melinda. She stared back. Their eyes were both wide, giddy.
“It’s for you,” she said, pushing at the little statue, “for your birthday.”
“You knew?” he grinned.
Tears hung in Akra’s almond eyes, twinkling, Melinda thought, in the twilight.
“Let’s go,” she said, taking his hand. “It’s your birthday. We won’t do any work today. Work will wait. You tell your family, and I’ll message my mum, and we can go for an adventure.”
Akra nodded, and together the two of them, holding hands, descended the hillside. The brush around them twinkled with dreams, and the wind carried happiness upon it like the last leaf of autumn.
Joseph Darlington is a writer from Manchester, England. His novel Spare the Glass Picnic came out in 2018 with No Name Press and he was shortlisted for the Dinesh Allirajah Prize for Short Fiction in 2019. He co-edits the Manchester Review of Books where he is always looking for contributors.