The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
- Robert Frost
Under the Falling Sky
Dreams are curious things. So vivid, so real, and yet so swiftly forgotten, their messages unremembered and their warnings unheeded. Everyone dreams. But some people have more reason to dream than others. For these people, dreams are different. Sometimes, they are so powerful that you can get lost in them. Sometimes you wish they were real; sometimes you know they are. Sometimes you wish you would never wake up. And when that happens, a dream is seldom just a dream.
The sun is low in the sky as Alex pulls into a parking bay next to her daughter's school and glances at Molly, sitting beside her in uncharacteristic silence. "You're sure you've got everything, Molls? Costume? Hairbands? Tights? You have got your tights, haven't you?"
"Yes, Mum." Molly rolls her eyes. "Honestly, I've got everything. We checked. C'mon, we're here." She scrambles out of the car, and Alex follows her onto the pavement, pressing the key fob to lock the car. It's early evening, and Alex has the strangest feeling that something is different. Shrugging off her qualms, she hands Molly her costume bag.
"A little bit." Molly considers, her head on one side. "Not really. There are six trees, so if one of us does something wrong I don't think many people will notice."
Alex hides a smile. "It must be tricky, being a tree."
"It is," says Molly seriously. "We're all meant to sway together, like there's a breeze, you know? Last time Jasmine poked Harry in the eye with one of her branches." She frowns. "But it didn't really hurt him that much, and I've been practising, so I should be okay."
"I'm glad to hear it." Alex smiles affectionately at her daughter. "I don't know about you, Molls, but I'm quite excited. It's a bit of an occasion, seeing my little girl make her stage debut."
"Mum! I'm not a little girl," Molly grumbles, looking hurriedly around the playground to make sure no-one else is listening. When she's made sure that the coast is clear, she brightens up a bit. "But I am on stage quite a lot. Most of it happens in a magic forest, so the trees are on stage for ages."
"Great." Alex waves her camera. "I'll get some photos, shall I? Evan would like to see them, it's a shame he couldn't make it. Which reminds me, he asked me to tell you to break a leg, and he thinks you're going to be a wonderful tree." Molly smiles contentedly, and it's only when Alex looks up from her daughter's face that she stops in her tracks, frozen to the spot.
Standing in front of her, just a few feet away, surrounded by a tide of parents and children milling about, but apparently unconscious of any of them except her, is Gene Hunt. He seems totally unaware of his surroundings, fixated only on her. Alex doesn't move, even when Molly tugs her hand. Gene is looking at her with infinite sadness, and as she watches, he beckons.
"You're not going anywhere yet, Bolls," he tells her. "Not even in your dreams."
"What..." Alex feels numb, and Molly's hand slips from her own. "I don't..."
"Time to come back to the real world, Alex."
Wordlessly, Alex looks down at her daughter, and sees Molly smile at her, a sad little smile which brings stinging tears to her eyes. She looks up at Gene again. He hasn't moved. She feels a small hand squeeze her own, and when she tears her eyes away from Gene, Molly has gone, a slight figure skipping across the playground and into the school. The door swings shut behind her.
"But I don't..."
"You don't need to." He glances at his watch and frowns. "C'mon then. Time to face reality."
She takes a step towards him and, with a jolt, she wakes up.
Chris sits alone at a corner table, trying to pretend he fits in here. The restaurant isn't what you'd call posh, but it's making a concerted effort to be, and there's certainly a lot of cash being flashed around. It's not the sort of place he'd normally stand and have a fag outside, let alone eat at. He could probably just about afford a packet of the overpriced breadsticks on his wages, but he's not even sure he'd bother. He's only here because it's live music night, and his girlfriend is on the stage.
He watches her as she sits, laughing, behind the keyboard, her dark curls falling into her eyes, her smile infectious. They've been going out for six months now, and sometimes he's not even sure why. She's beautiful. She's fun to be with. But there's nothing remotely similar about them. They don't like the same films, they don't listen to the same music, they don't even like the same food. Sometimes he questions whether he really belongs with her. But then, recently, he's been questioning whether we even really belongs in this world.
You're not like any other guy I've dated, she told him once. At the time, he smiled. He probably kissed her. But now, he wonders what she meant by it. She's not like any girl he's ever dated either, but then there haven't been many to compare her to. He feels drawn to her, like a moth to a flame, but sometimes he gets the feeling that she enjoys the power she has over him, that she could cut loose at any moment, vanish from his life without a trace.
He wonders how he'd feel if she did. He thinks he loves her. But deep down, he's not sure he knows what love is. He thinks that maybe it should be easier, maybe he shouldn't have to try so hard. He knows his mates envy him, but their admiration doesn't make him feel lucky, it makes him uneasy.
As he watches, she steps up to the microphone, announces an interval. And then, as she catches his eye and makes her way over to him through the crowds, he remembers what he's doing with her. All it takes is her smile, and he's transfixed.
"Well? What do you think?" she asks him breathlessly, pulling out the chair opposite him. "Sounds pretty good in here, doesn't it?"
"Yeah...yeah, it's great."
"It's so exciting." She looks around them with wide eyes. "I never dreamed I'd be playing here."
"It's brilliant," he agrees. "Look, why don't we have a meal when you're done? To celebrate? Not here," he adds hastily, knowing that there's no way his wages would cover so much as a starter in this place. "But somewhere else. Somewhere nice. What d'you reckon?"
He doesn't miss the way her eyes flick around the restaurant, the wistfulness that shows itself clearly on her face for a moment. He'd love to be able to afford dinner for her here, he really would. Maybe one day, he tells himself. If he manages to get himself promoted, that's the first thing he'll do.
She smiles, covers his hand with her own. "Yeah, I'd like that." He wants to tell her what he's just decided, so that she'll see that everything he does is for her, that he does, really and truly, love her. But then she's glancing over her shoulder, and standing up, the excitement back on her face. "Here we go again. Promise you're not bored?" She doesn't give him time to answer. She doesn't for a moment think he'll say he is. "See you in a bit."
"Break a leg." He smiles after her, watching her weave her way through the tables back to the stage. When he turns back to the table, he gets the shock of his life. Shaz is sitting in the chair his girlfriend has just vacated. She tilts her head to one side.
"Well..." She looks around them and raises an eyebrow with something akin to amusement. "You can't stay here, can you? It's time to come back to real life, Chris."
Pushing her chair back from the table, Shaz holds out her hand to him. Suddenly, the restaurant, its noises and smells and lights, don't seem quite real. Chris isn't sure what is real anymore, but something makes him stand up and, without so much as a glance at the girl on the stage, put his hand in hers. She smiles. And, without warning, he wakes up.
It's Saturday afternoon, and Ray is spending the day, of all places, at the park. It's not really his style, but it's a treat for his nieces, and if they're happy, then so is he. It's a while since he's seen them, or his sister, and he's determined to make the most of it, in case he has to wait as long next time.
"Amy – Amy, will you please untie your sister?" pleads Michelle to her older daughter, for the third or fourth time. "And give your uncle Ray back his handcuffs."
"Do I have to?" Amy skips over to them, leaving Lucy chained to a lamppost, shaking her wrist furiously. "Uncle Ray, please? Just a bit longer?"
"No sweetheart, it's time to give them back now," says her mother firmly. Ray holds out his hand for the cuffs, his eyes twinkling.
"C'mon, love, how am I supposed to tie up all the baddies if you've got my cuffs?"
"Oh, all right then," huffs Amy, and she grudgingly frees her sister. "I'd be good at it though, wouldn't I?" she says excitedly, running back to him and dropping the cuffs into his lap. "Being a policeman?"
"Well, I think you'd be a policewoman, actually, but..." He ruffles his niece's hair. "Yeah, I reckon you'd be a first rate little copper, you would."
"Cool!" Amy beams at him.
"Can we play something else now?" Lucy grumbles, looking nonetheless surprisingly good-tempered for someone who's spent the last ten minutes chained to a lamppost. "I'm bored of being tied up."
"Why don't you play hide and seek or something?" Michelle suggests. "There's lots of hiding places here." The girls look thrilled with this idea, and Lucy tugs Ray's sleeve in her little hand.
"Uncle Ray, will you play hide and seek with us? Mum always says no, and it's not as fun with two." Ray has been looking forward to having a proper catch up with his sister. He hasn't seen her for far too long, and looking after his nieces hasn't exactly been conducive to a cosy chat. But he's conscious that the girls hero-worship him, and although he knows he doesn't deserve it, he's determined to live up to it. Their big brown eyes plead with him, and he knows that, for his nieces, he'd walk to the end of the earth. So what's a game of hide and seek?
"Oh, go on then," he tells them, getting to his feet.
And that's how he finds himself, five minutes later, crouching behind a rosebush just off the path, looking like a right idiot and trying to forget how stupid he looks. He can see Lucy a little way off, searching the hedges with a stick, stamping through the fallen autumn leaves in her bright red wellies.
He's starting to get cramp from kneeling on the damp ground; if she doesn't come over in a couple of minutes he's going to start making some really obvious rustling noises in the leaves. He glances over his shoulder to check on Amy, and nearly loses his balance altogether.
Standing a couple of metres away, leaning against the tarnished railings of an ornamental bridge, is Gene Hunt. Brushing away the leaves which cling to his trousers, Ray rises unsteadily to his feet.
"Fun as this looks, Mary Poppins, it's time to go."
"What do you mean, go? Go where?"
"Back to the real world." He squares his shoulders and looks Ray straight in the eyes. "Can't do it without you, Raymondo. It's no fun catching scum without my right hand man." Ray just stares, lost for words. "Oh, come on, you dozy twonk, get a move on, will you?"
"But..." Ray looks over his shoulder. Amy and Lucy are together again now, searching for him in the bushes beside the path. They've got their backs to him, but any moment now they're going to turn around. What will they do when they don't find him? He swallows hard. Gene follows his gaze, and when he catches his eye again, his expression is understanding, pitying, even sorrowful.
"I'm sorry, Ray." He looks away from him, and for a moment he looks so unlike the Guv that that's all it takes. Ray shakes his head.
"I'm coming, Guv."
Their eyes meet. For a second, Gene studies him with a minute intensity that makes Ray feel as if he is under scrutiny. Then, almost imperceptibly, he nods.
And, with a gasp, Ray wakes up.
Shaz is standing at the top of a flight of steps. She's halfway up a block of flats, and the front door is her brother's. She knocks, and almost immediately the door swings open. His dark hair is tousled, and the smudged shadows under his eyes make her suspect he hasn't slept. But at the sight of her, he is transformed. He smiles, and his eyes, so like hers, shine.
"Shazzer!" He sweeps her up into a hug and spins her round in a circle. "I've still got a big sister then, have I? I was starting to wonder if I'd imagined you."
"Not such a big sister," Shaz stands on tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek. "I'm really sorry it's been a while." She reaches behind her and presents him with a large covered dish. "From mum. It's a vegetable lasagne. She thinks you're not eating properly."
"How would she know? It's not like she pops round regularly to see how her son's doing, is it?" He takes the lasagne anyway, and his expression softens. "Tell her thanks from me."
"Why don't you tell her yourself?" asks Shaz, heading into the sitting room. "She'd like to hear from you, you know."
"Would she?" He grimaces, following her through the door. "Even while I'm still messing about with all that junk?"
Shaz eyes the corner of the room, where a guitar, amplifier, keyboard and various headphones and mix decks sprawl across the floor. She smiles ruefully. "So you are still messing about with all that junk, then?"
"Yeah, well...I really think I can get somewhere with it, you know? It's not like I don't have a plan. You should come over one day when you've got a bit more time, and I'll play you some of my stuff. You'd like it, honest."
"You should really find yourself some friends, Luke." Shaz laughs as her brother shoots her a look. "I'd love to. Look, mum'll come round to it in the end. She's just disappointed you didn't become a barrister or something."
"I'd have been a crap barrister," he says exasperatedly. "I can do this. I don't mind her not understanding. You get it, don't you? You didn't do what she wanted either. You could have taught English, you'd have been good at it. But you did what you wanted to."
"Yeah..." Shaz feels her heart sink. "Sometimes I'm not so sure." He looks at her questioningly, but she's not sure how to explain. "It is what I want to do. But sometimes it's like...it's like whatever I do, I can't do enough. And I feel so...so useless. And being a police officer, it makes you see how...how crap life is."
"We're a right pair, aren't we?" He laughs and pulls her into another hug. "Chin up. You're supposed to be my little ray of sunshine, you are. You're the one who always cheers me up. I think I'd have given all of this up months ago if it wasn't for you."
"No, you wouldn't. You never give up."
"That's because I know my big sister's rooting for me." He ruffles her hair and grins as she slaps his hand away. Crossing the kitchenette, he flicks the kettle on. "Tea, milk, one and a half sugars." He gets it exactly right. No sugar on an average day, one when she's fed-up, two when she's downright miserable. Today is a one and a half day.
Twenty minutes later, she knows it's time to go. He comes with her to the door.
"Come round again. And don't leave it so long this time, yeah?"
"Course." She smiles. "I promise. You'll barely have time to miss me."
She looks back and waves as she comes to the bottom of the flight of stairs down from his flat. He grins and closes the door, and as she leaves, she promises herself she'll be back, as soon as she can. She promises herself she'll see him smile again. As she approaches the corner, she catches sight of someone perched on the wall, watching her. It's Chris. He jumps lightly down from the wall and holds out his hand.
"Time to go, Shazzer."
She feels as though she's falling. She looks over her shoulder, back at her brother's window. For a moment, she thinks she can see his silhouette, his hand raised, waving. You'll barely have time to miss me. She's not sure she understands, and she can feel tears pricking the backs of her eyes. She turns back to Chris. He smiles at her, so gently, so understandingly. She takes his hand. And, with a start, she wakes up.
And in this way, four people wake from four dreams, and four lives go on as before. Four people forget, for the thousandth time, what they are forbidden to remember. Four dreams are abandoned, but they linger still, never quite fading away. Four lives remain undisturbed by the things they don't know they've forgotten. For now, nothing has changed. For now, a dream is still a dream. And so, for now, life goes on.
Thanks for reading! I'd love to know what you think - I'm not sure how well this idea transferred from my head onto paper...any reviews or thoughts would be greatly appreciated! :)