Art Pact 251 - The Old Campus


In the dark of the night I sometimes wake, my heart pounding like an unbalanced engine, my legs tangled in the sheet and twinging to hint at cramp should I move the wrong way or put too much weight on them. Those are the dreams of the old campus, confusing and sometimes terrible dreams that have, I think, begun to feed on themselves.

The old campus was big - perhaps two kilometres by four, if you could have rearranged all the various roads and alleys and buildings and scrub areas and so forth into a single regular shape. But you could not - no-one could do that, the way it had grown, both by design and by accident, defied organisation. It was easy to become lost in one's first year, so easy that it was taken into account during scheduling - when a work party was required, it was drawn a quarter as big again as was necessary, assuming that so many of the group would become lost on their way to the muster point that the final gathering would be roughly the right size. It was not uncommon to see newcomers wandering around with makeshift maps in their hands, puzzling over where they had taken a wrong turning. There was no official map - every few months a request was put in to the chancellor's office, and every few months the idea was rejected on the grounds that the cost would be too great, the utility too little. There were suspicions, of course, that such excuses covered up a darker purpose on the part of the higher-ups. But since the chancellor was rarely seen except by the council of fellows, there was no easy way to confirm even whether he really existed, much less what his motivations for any given action might be.

There were maps, of course - everyone had their own map, part of it in their mind and the rest on scrap paper scavenged from the various bins and silos that were set up. There were no electronic devices there - in the labs, yes, in the machine rooms, yes, but there were no toys that would navigate the maze of walkways, alleys, roads, spaces between buildings that comprised the campus.

My map is with me now. The physical part of it - I can barely recognise. There are streets and alleys with names that mean nothing to me. Perhaps, I think, it is not my map. Is it possible that there was a mix-up somewhere? Maybe somebody swapped their map with my own. But the writing is my own, and the lines seem the sort of confident but awkward lines that I remembered  from my first years on campus.

The campus has grown in my head. In my dreams it is endless, a confusing jumble of buildings, alleys, roads, archways, odd devices that are part statue and part generator, science-fiction objects that in my dreams I accept as perfectly normal. When I wake up I try to find these places on the scrap of paper, but of course they are never there. And the mental part of my map, the larger and more important part, has become hopelessly corrupted. There is no way of knowing what its original contents were now, not when it has been overwritten and overwritten by darker and darker dreams, the original traces in my mind scribbled over mercilessly leaving it no longer a memory by only a palimpsest.

I should return to the campus - I would, if I could. The solidity of brick, of concrete and tarmac and metal railings and chain link fences, of lampposts and signposts and street names, the reality of rubbish, graffiti, of people thronging the walkways at lunch breaks, of the sounds of machinery and people and the crows and seagulls that fought in the skies above the campus's canyons. All of those things would bring the truth back into focus. Perhaps I could compare the map to the terrain and remind myself what it was I was trying to draw, reassure myself that I had been to those places before, that the author of that scrap of map truly was me. But I cannot. Even if it was possible, there are other things to consider. It is almost impossible for me to sleep well as it is. Would visiting the campus in my waking hours dispel its hold on my sleep, or would the visit simply act as a spur to further dreaming? That terrible risk is more than I am willing to take.

In the summer, the light would wake me early but naturally, leaving little trace of the dreams that I had been having. Just a vague sense of malaise, quickly blown away by the morning winds running down from the mountain ahead of the dawn, and the comforting presence of the sun itself. Then, in the hopeful light, I would dig around the mess at the side of my bed for the pen and notebook that I always leave there, and try to make notes about the geometry of the campus as I had experienced it. It was always pointless, though - to wake normally is to forget the details of your dreams, sometimes to forget even that the dreams occurred.

Now, in the depth of winter, I wake when my alarm clock goes off, although I have no real reason to listen to it any more. There is no need to get up early - arguably no need to get up at all, because the apartment's heating grows feebler and feebler and the only way to stay warm is to pile on duvet after duvet wherever I wander. Simpler to leave them where they start the day.

I remember all of the details these days - the size of a building that I walked through to find Cheryl in a red dress, one of the bridesmaids in a wedding that is taking place. The rows of benches in an electronics lab that I must leave, but which I find myself stuck in, endlessly trying to gather together my belongings that are spread out across the room. The strange avenue down which I walked to get there, standing aside every few steps to allow cars to squeeze past, the empty machines brushing against me despite the apparent width of the road. I remember them long past the time I wake - the confusion of the dream dogging me into the daylight hours, random images slowly seeping into the fabric of my memory so that the reality becomes even more confused. These sharp memories of the dream campus I could easily capture. They are like photographs, almost, in the minutes after I wake. If I were calm I could so simply just reach down to my left, feel around for the notebook and the pen that I have looped into the coils of the notebook's spine, and begin to draw.

But what the dream gives in detail it takes away in motivation. I come up from the fantasy flat, drained of all my tolerance for emotion. I am a machine, depressed and lost, and there is no need to record that fact, nor any facts. What was good in the dream I try to capture, but it slips away and reminds me what I lack in real life. What was terrible or confusing in the dream blurs as the day grows long, but the emptiness it has placed in the heart of me remains, untethered from its source so that it seems more and more a part of me.

I long for the summer days again.

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