Many, many years ago, in that confusing age between leaving being a kid and the start of being a teenager, I used to have a series of dreams. They all played in the same house and I didn’t think anything special about revisiting the same dream night after night. Well, not every night, but with some regularity, like zapping around TV channels and coincidentally seeing that one show you like, spending some time with it in the middle of whatever episode is running.
The house in my dreams wasn’t an ordinary house, more the idea of a house - it had rooms, yes, and doors and windows, but it wasn’t in any case logical. And, I never saw it from the outside, all I knew was being inside the house. The house was, as far I can remember, all wood on the inside, raw boards with that grayish hue that certain types of wood take on when left outside for too long. There were no light sources to speak of, only a somewhat flat lighting, indirect and neutral. In hindsight, maybe a bit like an old-school video game, grainy, low resolution.
Even though I know that I dreamed of this house a lot of times, I can only remember one particular dream in vivid detail. It was also the last time that I dreamed about the house at all, so it shifted from being a dream to being a memory of a dream. And as you know, memories are really unreliable - memories of dreams even more so, since dreams are shifty and weird on their own already.
I arrived, or awoke, in a dream sense, in the house on a holiday, a festive occasion. It was the Day of the Smiling Princess and everything was decorated with small skulls, about the size of a human fist. These skulls wore little braided floral wreaths of freshly plucked, tiny flowers. The skulls were also painted, a bit like the “Dia de Muertos”, but less ornamental, almost minimalistic. The most memorable thing about the skulls was their expression: a happy, blissful grin, a genuine smile, however possible without lips. There was nothing morbid and fearful about them. The inhabitants of the house hung them from the ceiling next to their doors, from garlands that spanned the oddly-lit corridors or as pendants around their necks.
My first goal this night (as I was sleeping, but in the house there was no distinction between times of day) was to visit my friend Mr Crofton. He was a spindly man of no specific age, gray hair and beard, with thin-rimmed glasses riding his nose.
My maternal grandfather was also called Mr Crofton. Despite being different every sense, these two characters seemed connected somehow.
The Mr Crofton in my dream was a collector. His room in the big house was filled to the brim with amazing items and objects, books, decorative stuff, trinkets, frippery, knick-knacks, nippes, frills, tand and thingamajigs. In a previous dream, he had showed me a sock that would play music (as if it contained a radio), jumping from song to song on a whim. Putting the odd sock down, he picked up a painting that showed a man sitting at a table in front of a deck of cards. The man was talking to me, but it seemed he only knew about canasta and nothing else. Mr Crofton put him back between a shelf and a big chest. Opening the chest, he drew out an immense piece of mustard-colored cloth, which he first draped around himself several times. As I giggled (and he loved to make me giggle), he unwrapped himself and folded the cloth into a small clump, no larger than a tennis ball, before handing it to me.
He had a book written by a cloud. He had another book that consisted of black crystal and would show moving pictures when he passed his hand over it. He had a piano that sounded like a saxophone and a violin shaped like a horse head that made faint snorting noises. He had a series of hats that fit into each other and that could be used as pots if you turned them upside down, or maybe it was the other way around. He had a bed with the softest and most comfortable bed-sets imaginable, but once you fell asleep there, you wouldn’t ever wake up. I don’t know why I dreamed all these things, they seemed entirely plausible even when I awoke in my own bed. At that age, it was the most natural thing to visit Mr Crofton and his collection, but over the years I’ve wondered time and time again where those images would come from. There was no immediate influence in my childhood home, not like living about an antiques shop or anything. A rather quiet village childhood in fact.
The Day of the Smiling Princess, when I visited the house in the dream, my journey started in a large entrance hall with a staircase at the end. There was some sort of buffet going on, or being prepared, which made sense since it was a holiday. I knew that it was the Day of the Smiling Princess, without someone telling me, and found all the decorating skulls quite natural, as if marvelling at a nicely decorated Christmas tree. I don’t remember much about the buffet except for a very big cake, a three or four tiered affair in the style of a wedding cake.
Passing through the hall, I walked up the staircase - truth be told, in the dream, my movement was often more of a gliding, low-gravity flying, so I hovered up the stairs in a slow motion jump. As mentioned, I wanted to find Mr Crofton and his room full of useless treasures. There was much movement in the corridors, those wooden, gray hallways, always a bit crooked and shifting around, so I was constantly in the way of someone carrying boxes, trays of food, children, animals. It was the first time of feeling out of place in the house, like I was a tourist that disrupted the flow of movement, an interloper. This went on for a while, until I found the corridor with Mr Crofton’s room. His door was the only one that had a color in my dream: it was a lively red, like those cheerful houses in the north. In front of his door, there were a number of suitcases on a pile. They looked very old, with heavy leather and brass applications. I tried to move them aside to get to the door, but was unable to do so. Still, I squeezed around them and entered Mr Crofton’s room. It was empty, dark and seemed vast, even though I couldn’t see anything. I called out for him, reaching for something to hold on to and found a small cardboard box. Something clattered inside it, so I examined its texture. Rough on two sides, it opened a little drawer that smelled of sulfur. I took out a match and managed to light it. Mr Crofton’s room sprang into being, the walls of stuff reflecting the flickering flame. Something brassy shimmered, a mirror shattered the thin light over some fur-clad items, two black button eyes lit up deadly. But Mr Crofton was nowhere to be seen. My dream-self knew he wasn’t there, so I backed out on the corridor again, stumbling over the suitcases.
“His room is going to be mine tonight,” someone said next to me. I turned around and spotted a girl about my age, shoulder-length ginger hair and mischievous dark eyes.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Well…,” she reached past me to pin a little wreath-bearing Smiling Princess head on the red door. “At midnight, when the Day of the Smiling Princess is over, everyone can find a new room in the house. And since this one is empty, I will take it. It’s much nicer than mine.”
This got me unreasonably angry.
“But this room belongs to Mr Crofton!” I said.
“Yes, but he needs to be here to claim it. If he isn’t here, I will take it.” She seemed really sure about this.
“He will be back,” I said. “I know it.”
She lowered her head a bit and smiled at me, not unlike the happy skulls all around.
“You don’t know that…” she said with a little sing-song. Did she know something? Did she know what happened to Mr Crofton?
It might seem weird that I have felt this intimate connection with a character in my dreams, but it was very real to me at the time. I wasn’t firm on the divide between reality, dreams and memories. What was real, anyway? Mr Crofton was quite real to me, regardless of the fact that he didn’t exist in my day-to-day reality. He existed in my nightly reality and who was I to know the difference? Plus, our trips through his collections were wacky and fun, I’d often wake up smiling broadly and deeply relaxed. The Collector talked to me like I was an adult, not like a child. Once I asked him if he would eventually need more space for all the things, but he explained to me that he was a collector, yes, but not necessarily a keeper. Some of the things he owned, in fact all of them, would at some point fade away, or be gone, or go back to wherever they came from. It was only natural, no one should own things for long, and it was useless to want and keep things in large numbers. I believe this influenced my life deeply, for I have always found joy in pretty things, but led a rather frugal life in general.
“The Collector has vanished,” the girl said and she had a slight glint in her eye, observing my reaction closely, as children do to learn what power their words have and what misery they can cause.
“Then we must find him,” I said, at which point I actually woke up, disoriented, by our neighbors dog barking in the yard. I was somewhat distressed by the dream events, infused with a feeling of loss and grief, but then sleep dragged me under heavily again.
Surprisingly, the girl waited in the dream, continuing where we left off. My suspicious feelings of her were suddenly gone, maybe because she looked differently. I knew her to be Lea, a girl from my class, although they didn’t have anything in common. In dream logic, nonetheless, it was her.
“I have his calendar,” dream-Lea said and produced a booklet that looked a lot like her homework book, a pink affair with black Sharpie flowers. She leafed through the pages.
“Ah, here. His first item to collect today was at the garden store. Maybe they saw him.” I followed her through the house, up and down, left and right, until we reached an opening in the wall, like a drive-through window.
“We are looking for the Collector, Mr Crofton,” I said to the person in the window, which was high up. An elderly woman poked her head out.
“Yes, he was here earlier. He picked up a jar of snow,” she said.
“A jar of snow?” I asked, imagining a pickle jar.
“Why yes, a jar of snow. It won’t melt until spring!” she said.
“That’s when you last saw him?”
“Indeed.” She withdrew her head and left Lea and me standing in the hallway.
“What else is in the calendar?” I asked Lea.
“It says jewellery,” she said.
“Do you know where it is?”
“Don’t you know the jewellery store next to the church?” she asked. I did know it, remembering a day not too long ago when my parents took me there to choose a wristwatch. My friends and I would sometimes pass it and look for the most expensive items in the store window, then making childish plans about how we would rob the store.
We arrived at the store, which in the dream was just another room and looked nothing like the place in the real world. The jeweller, however, was my English teacher, a balding man who dressed like all clothing stores closed forever twenty years ago.
“Have you seen Mr Crofton today?” I asked.
He nodded. “Is he your friend?”
“Yes, but we can’t find him,” I said. Lea next to me bobbed up and down. “And at midnight, I will get his room,” she said excitedly.
The teacher-turned-jeweller thought for a moment.
“Mr Crofton bought a clock today, one that shows the correct time twice a day,” he said then.
I turned to Lea. “What is the next store in the calendar?”
“There is no more for today,” she said, without consulting the pink notebook.
The teacher cleared his throat. “Mr Crofton did mention that he has one more errant and that he will be needing some time for this. Something about a train?”
We found ourselves back at the red door again, still barricaded by the suitcases. I took a seat on one, finding myself deeply exhausted and weary.
“Two minutes to midnight,” Lea said, waving around her arm that held my wristwatch. It’s too big on her, I thought. I felt myself being pulled out of the dream, but I wasn’t done yet. Instead of waking up, I let the feeling of exhaustion run through me, willing myself to stay asleep and in the dream. I couldn’t just leave Mr Crofton and let Lea have his room. She had her hand on the red door already, claiming the room if Mr Crofton didn’t show up in the next minutes. I put my hand on the old-timey suitcase and played with the latches. Something about a train, the jeweller had said. Then it hit me.
“Wait!” I tried to shout, but couldn’t. I jumped down from the suitcase, opening the one I said on. It sprung open to reveal a mountain of white fabric and the heavy smell of moth repellent. I kicked it out of the way and opened the next bigger one, standing almost as tall as me. An avalanche of pens and lighters tumbled into the hallway. Finally, I opened the last suitcase, big as a wardrobe. Inside, there was darkness - in fact, a whole room that defied the logic of the case. I picked up a lighter that had spilled out from the other suitcase and carried the flame inside the room.
“Hello?” a voice reached me from the dark.
“Mr Crofton?” I answered. His face suddenly appeared in the halo of the tiny yellow flame. “Thank you for finding me. I think I locked myself in this extraordinary suitcase…”
“We have to hurry, you need to claim your room before the Day of the Smiling Princess is over.”
As we rushed out into the hallway, Mr Crofton gently nudged Lea aside and entered his room, just as her watch beeped twice for the full hour and my alarm clock went off.
I met the day with suspicion. In school, I pondered if I should tell Lea that she appeared in my dream, but then decided against it. We weren’t really close and she might think me weird. The dream and the house however, stayed with me for a long time. Although I never dreamed of it again, I thought about it often, starting to read up on dreams and their meanings, but nothing seemed to fit this particular dream. For a while, I dreamed almost nothing, or couldn’t remember it in the morning, and later, my dreams sometimes provided me with inspiration for stories or songs. The memory of Mr Crofton stayed, like thinking back to meeting someone on a journey. His sense of wonder and awe at everything in the universe became part of me and my life philosophy.