Time to go. The aliens presumably knew it was time to go. Everyone
can remember the moment when they quit the planet. When they quit
us. And just as with the Kennedy assassination, everyone knows
what they were doing at the time it happened: they were sleeping.
The aliens appeared to everyone in a dream. Not the same dream
exactly, but almost. You see, the aliens had to take some form in
which to say farewell. For some it was a grandmother, for others a
long-lost friend; for others still, a pet dog they'd had as a kid:
for me my beloved collie, Nelly, long dead. But the message was the
same. Thank you for hosting us, they said. We're very
grateful, they said. But we've had enough, they said.
They were apologetic that their stay was so brief. Five hundred
thousand years residing inside our heads was, for them, a regrettably
short stay. The twinkle of an eye. It was short but interesting, they
said. But they dearly hoped that we had enjoyed the fruits of their
presence as much as they had enjoyed an exhilarating ride.
Everyone remembers being addressed in the same way, whether by
grandmother or dog. Polite, somewhat formal, slightly abashed. Then
the dream image had transformed into a cube of black light on a black
background, before infolding into complete absence. The world awoke
to a stunned comprehension of what had happened.
Since which time no one has dreamed.
Not a flicker. Lacunæ on a global scale. A collective lobotomy.
· · · · ·
Back home, Myra climbs into bed as I gargle with mouthwash and brush
my teeth and try to sober up a bit. I know if I flop into bed the
world will spin and I'll feel the nausea, so instead I go into my
daughter's room and watch her sleeping.
I perch on the edge of Mandy's bed, just watching her. In the moment
of observing her sleep her room becomes a peaceful chapel or a quiet
temple. Wind chimes tinkle softly at the window open a little to the
night air. I sense her sleeping spirit at large, roaming, restless,
looking for something, a Neverland, a Narnia. She's flying, but she
can't find anywhere to land. I love her so much I could cry. She's
six years old, and she has never dreamed.
I have this confession to make: in the dark, at night, while she's
sleeping, I whisper things in the delicate conch of my sleeping
child's ear. Any things. Remembered fables. Old tales. Strange
stories. Religious parables. Fragments. Anything that occurs to me.
Heaven knows why, but the other day I heard myself saying Allah is
great, there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.
Then I sang her a song in French about dancing on the bridge of
Trying to create dreams for her. Trying to pierce the shell, hole the
It took us a while to work out that the aliens hadn't stolen
our dreams. The aliens were the dreams. It was difficult to
understand initially, generations of us brought up on notions of
aliens as basically humanoid with latex rubber heads, or with
eggshell-blue skin, or as disembodied human brains encased in a pink
The aliens residing in the consciousness of humanity for half a
million years were a benevolent virus. They needed symbiosis, a host
to achieve sentience, and that is what we gave them. What did they
give us in return? Stories, music, religion. Tools, scientific ideas.
Jokes, connections. The synaptic fire.
After their departure they became known to us as Prometheans.
Since then our stories have dried up. Our music has frozen. Our
science is arrested. No one has had an original notion in seven
years. We are lodged in the mud of time, fossilized. We are consigned
to limbo, and the cold wind of uncreation howls in our ears like a
demon. Our species, all of humanity, has become the preterite, the
passed over. Our psychic teeth, pulled.
And at nights I whisper in my child's tender ear, trying and failing
to incubate the glory of dreaming.
· · · · ·
Myra wakes in the morning and, with a struggle, sits up in bed. I
blink my eyes open, and she shakes her head, no, again. She
hauls herself to her feet and walks naked to the bathroom,
magnificent and comical, the morning light shining on the stretched
skin of her huge pot. She mutters something about swollen feet, and I
wonder if our baby is going to arrive on the seventh anniversary of
the departure of the aliens.
We are post-dreaming now, of course. Almost a new way of dating human
history, ante- and post-dreaming. For academics, at any rate. The
huge joke (I use the word loosely) is that in the entire field of
intellectual endeavor only certain academicscritical theorists,
social commentators, and cultural analystsproceed as if nothing
has happened, busily producing unfathomable papers on post-dreaming
Of course, not everyone buys the idea that we've lost it. Creativity,
I mean. Originality. Innovation. Breakthrough. Those slavering
puppies up at the University, for example, publishing their
breathtakingly incomprehensible theses and self-serving tracts. But
they're about the only ones. Hence the spectacle of six-year-old
prodigies conning huge audiences desperate for the succor of the new.
Myra is thinking about something. She returns from the bathroom
stroking her belly, two deep vertical creases between her eyebrows.
"Out with it," I say.
She sits on the bed again, but with her back to me. "What if," she
begins; "what if there were not innumerable aliens?"
I think I know what's coming. It has occurred to me already.
"I mean," she continues, "it would be odd, wouldn't it, if there were
exactly the same number of aliens as there were people, and they just
happened to match up, one apiece as it were. Are you with me?"
"Yes. Go on."
"So what if really there was only one alien. Inhabiting all of us.
And that single alien decided to leave us. That would make more
sense, wouldn't it?"
"It's a thought," I say, trying to sound light.
"Then that single alien who left us. Might that be what we've always
This is too complicated. I don't want to think about this, so I just
kiss Myra and go downstairs to make some coffee.
· · · · ·
Is this the end? Have we arrived at some feeble conclusion to human
history, terrible in its banality? Not the nightmare end. Not the
four horsemen. Not the holocaust, nor the nuclear winter, nor the
global warming, nor the asteroid storm. Just this exhaustion. Just
this absence. Like a watch spring run down.
I think this might be worse than the apocalyptic ending. The absence
of poetry, of music, of narrative; this muted fanfare; the end of the
never-ending movie. Not by fire or ice, but by indifference. An
indifference that leaves us at the mercy of eternity.
Mandy is up and awake. Warm spring sunlight streams through the
windows. She has the door open and is running for the swing I erected
for her under the big old lilac tree. I leave the coffee to bubble
and follow her out. The lilac flower is rampant, intoxicating.
Mandy sees me. She giggles. "Push me, Daddy! Come on!"
And I push her back and forth, and she moves from shadow into light
with each swing. She wants to go dangerously high. "Faster, Daddy,
Then I see the expression change on her face, and I step back to
allow the swing to slow. "What is it?"
She spits something into her hand, and it's with relief I see it's
only a milk tooth, slightly bloody at the root. It's her last one.
She hands me the milk tooth as if she's trusting me with a precious
stone or a talisman. I'm not sure what to do with it.
"Push me again! Higher! Higher!"
· · · · ·
First contact was something we speculated about for a hundred years.
Of course they would be carbon-based, even roughly humanoid;
of course they would somehow vocalize; of course they
would occupy the same plane of time and space. Not intersecting like
this. Not like a finger of smoke inserted into the brain. How could
we have guessed that first contact was already made perhaps
half a million years ago?
Mandy swings from shadow into the dappled morning sunlight, giggling,
calling for me to push her higher and higher, and I clutch Mandy's
milk tooth, a droplet of dew in my fist, and I think: Is it one
alien? Or is it one for each of us? And I wonder what I'm going
to tell Mandy come the day she asks me.
Myra comes out to us in her silk kimono, sleepily pushing a stray
curl behind her ear. Mandy jumps off the swing to let her mother sit,
a sincere gesture but one copied from adults around her these last
couple of months. But she wants to push Myra on the swing.
"Gently," Myra says. "Just gently. I don't want to go high."
I go back in and bring out the coffee on a tray. Mandy pushes Myra
gently back and forth on the swing, babbling happily, and I notice
Myra is frowning. She mouths something at me and points to her ear,
indicating I should listen.
And she said they were sorry. It was a long time. They
wouldn't normally have gone such a long time and they didn't like to
leave for longer periods than they had stayed, but they couldn't help
it and anyway a long time ago is the same as the near future for them
and tomorrow is half the length of only a part of yesterday and"
I stop Mandy from talking and I stall the swing. "Who? Who said this?"
"Nelly," says Mandy still intent on pushing Myra back and forth; and
the overpowering scent of the lilac makes me feel giddy and I say,
"Who is Nelly?"
"Don't be silly Daddy, you know Nelly. She's a dog. She was your dog
when you were a little boy. Have you still got my tooth?"
"Yes, yes, I've still got it here," and I'm holding this tray of
coffee and I don't know what to do with it. "When did Nelly tell you
"In the night while I was asleep, Nelly came and told me she was
sorry to be away so long but she was back and all her friends would
"Jonathan!" says Myra, but I'm too interested in what Mandy is saying
to look up.
I sweep Mandy up in my arms and hurry back inside, where I switch on
the television. Mandy is still speaking. "And I had a little
talk with Selina in Mummy's tummy because I know she's a girl though
you don't know and"
"Jonathan!" Myra calls from the garden, but it's all over the
television. Reports flooding in from Auckland and Fiji, from
Vladivostok and Brisbane, from Osaka and Jakarta! And from Islamabad
and Nairobi, from Israel and Cairo, Eastern Europe, anyplace where
people go to sleep and wake up before we do, and nearer to home, too,
people waking from dreaming, rushing out into the streets in tears
and madness just to try to recount what has happened to them in the
night, not everyone, to be sure, but millions, yes, millions of
people, maybe half the global population, dreaming dreams,
gut-spilling their experiences as the report sweeps across the globe
like the shadow of an eclipse, or a tsunami of unparalleled joy, or a
single unbearably beautiful musical note resonating around the planet
and I don't know if it was all a warning, or a punishment or an
aberration but whatever it was we are going to be allowed to dream
again, dream and create, and I know that this time we need to be more
careful but my heart is bursting as I understand implicitly that we
are to be given back our wings.
I rush back out into the garden and Myra is gazing at me with a
strange expression, half desperation, half appeal, and her kimono has
fallen open and the sunlight flares on a mercurial rivulet along her
thigh and it has started and I want to put down the coffee and to
listen more to Mandy and to watch the sensational news reports on TV
and to get my wife to hospital and I want to hand back the tooth and
I'm staring, staring at the heraldic trickle, the catch-light of the
silver manifesto, unable to do anything, paralyzed by the torrent of
words my daughter is speaking while I am drunk on lilac and imminence.
"Jonathan," Myra says firmly, hauling herself out of the swing, "just
put the coffee down."
So I put the tray of coffee down on the grass and I go and get the
pre-packed bags and when I've got the car ready Myra and Mandy get in.
"Selina will be my sister, won't she?" says Mandy.
"Yes. Fasten your seat belt."
"Selina will have lots of dreams, won't she?"
"Yes," I say, sparking the car into life.
Mandy thinks for a bit. "Is Selina coming now?"
"Yes," Myra says. "You're very sure it's a girl, aren't you?"
"Yes," Mandy replies, "because in the night they told me that another
half a million years is starting. Have you still got my tooth?"
I say yes, I still have her tooth. It is still squeezed in my fist
like a token of some miraculous covenant as I drive us to the
hospital, because the baby is coming.