John Flounder woke with a start from the most amazing dream. Time was of the essence, he must record his recollections; there wasn’t a second to lose. Groping blindly in the dark, he reached over to the bedside table, knocking his phone onto the floor. With a groan, he leaned over the mattress and rooted through the pile of clothes which he’d discarded last night. No phone, it must have slid under the bed. A piece of paper then. If he was quick, he could hold onto the dream with the strange man and his bulbous eyes; the atmospheric setting, down a winding cobbled lane; the exciting plot which would hook the world and haul it in, to him: John Flounder, today’s unsung scribbler, tomorrow’s sing-it-from-the-rooftops bestselling author.
Fumbling in the dark to the desk, he bumped into the standing light. Ignoring his partner’s shriek of protest, he switched it on. Julia could go back to sleep; this was too big a deal to miss! He yanked at the desk drawer, which seemed hellbent on sticking tight shut. With an exasperated heave, finally it came loose, propelling him across the room, back onto the bed. Julia pulled the duvet up over her head, curses lost under the covers, while he emptied the drawer’s contents. Candy wrappers (a worrying number), post-it notes (all covered in shopping lists and doodles), receipts (if he ever wanted to do his accounts) all flew happily through the bedroom air that early Sunday morning, but paper? Of that, there wasn’t a sheet to be found. Finally, at the bottom of the drawer, he found a crumpled-up letter from his bank, dating back to the pre-digital age. Excitedly, he turned it over, only to discover it was already covered in jottings, scrawled half-remembrances from another bestseller-in-the-making dream.
With small cramped letters, he began to squeeze words into the thumb-sized square of blank space. Dream, bug-man…before balling the paper and throwing it onto the floor. It was no use; the dream was gone, and with it the ideas and inspiration had disappeared with a rustle of that conjuror’s cloak, consciousness.
Julia, kept awake no doubt by all the early morning excitement of her other half, surfaced from her cocoon to wonder at him: dried drool caked one cheek; a crease worthy of the name ravine carved down the other. He was lost amidst the wreckage of the drawer’s contents. What a way to start a Sunday morning she thought, chasing dreams, finding reality. Pity stirred her heart and hunger her stomach.
“Was it another lost dream?” she asked, planting a kiss on his sleep-lined face.
“Yep, another one I wasn’t quick enough to catch.”
“I’ve always found a brisk walk is just the thing to get the ideas flowing. Why not take a saunter to the bakery and pick up some rolls and, you know, perhaps a story will pick you up along the way?”
A coaxing smile, a gentle push off the bed and ten minutes later, John Flounder was indeed taking a Sunday morning saunter through the deserted streets that weave through Hampstead.
A brisk walk, to get the ideas flowing. Sadly, the Council hadn’t salted the streets and the temperature overnight had plummeted to below freezing, so he spent more time slipping on the ice than thinking of blockbuster plots. To make matters worse, he’d forgotten his winter boots and gloves. Now, crossing into a winding cobbled lane that he hoped might be a shortcut to the bakers, he realised his feet were like blocks of ice and his knuckles were redder than Rudolph’s nose.
He needed to go somewhere warm, and fast. Most shops weren’t open yet, still far too early for Sunday trading. But wait, there was one crooked little shop hemmed in by the other grand buildings, beaming a soft warm light like a beacon in the wintery dark. Glancing up, he saw the shop’s name and there was a flash of recollection: The Dreamer’s Emporium. The glass steamed up as he pressed his nose to the pane, peering through. Could it really be? It was! The book shop from his dream.
Bursting in, an old-fashioned bell on the door tinkled to alert everyone to his presence. The shop, lined from floor to ceiling with heavy wooden shelves and thousands of books, was completely deserted and no proprietor or member of staff came rushing at the peal, now stilling into silence.
Browsing the shelves, John noticed that none of the volumes bore any titles. How on earth was he to make a selection without them to guide him? Still, as he ran his finger over the dust jackets, the books seemed to whisper their secrets to him. Each rustled with its own particular timbre, hinting at what might be found in the pages within. His hand came to rest on a purple volume, three times the size of most of the others; a tome worthy of a king with its plush velvet cover he thought, pulling it out from the shelf. With a racing heart he opened the book, but what he saw was wholly unremarkable: blank pages, and nothing more.
A voice from the gloom at the back of the shop spoke:
“Can I help you Mr Flounder, John? I’m so pleased you found The Dreamer’s Emporium. The early bird catches the worm, as you well know, given how you’ve missed so many of late!”
John floundered, just as his name would suggest, blustering nonsensically:
“Well, yes…how did you…” but the book shop’s proprietor ignored his flapping attempts at conversation and stepped towards him, illuminated by the light cast from the shop’s huge chandelier. John just managed to stop himself from gasping out loud. For this was the strange man from his dream, in his old-fashioned frock coat and oversized spectacles magnifying his eyes so he looked like some strange bug, creeping out from under the rock of centuries.
“Argus Scrivener at your service.” He bowed formally, emerald green coat tails flaring behind him, before taking the purple volume in his hands. “Oh yes. A very wise first purchase. Let me commend you on your fine judgement, John.”
What a name. What a person! John thought, surreptitiously eying Mr. Scrivener, who seemed to be lost in the blank pages he was holding.
“You understand the premise of The Emporium of Dreams?” He must have looked as blank as the pages, for Argus continued. “It’s really very simple. When you dream, the dream is all-encompassing, is it not?”
“Er yes, well mine certainly are.”
“And you wake, wishing you could have caught that dream,” Argus made to grab the escaping dream and hold it fast in his gnarled fist. “You wish to record it and then marvel at this wondrous thing.”
“That sounds about right.”
“Well,” he pushed the purple volume back into John’s hands, “this is the book for you. Place it under your pillow and I promise you, it will faithfully store every gossamer thread of your dream and weave it into a tale worthy of the telling.” The bug eyes ogled him, and John had the impression of a kindly meaning spider, if such a thing were possible.
“But,” he was back to blustering, “how does it do that?”
“Ah John, a magician never reveals his secrets. Now do you want the book? There’s room within its binding for three dreams.”
Needless to say, he bought the book, thanked Argus Scrivener and slipped, literally, back the way he had come. It was only when he was opening the door to his flat, gripping the fat purple book beneath his arm, that he remembered: he’d forgotten the breakfast rolls.
Julia was not in the best of spirits when she discovered his oversight. He’d tried to make amends, suggesting that as an English teacher she should forgive his impulse buy of the book and agree cereal instead of hot rolls was fine on a Sunday, but she wasn’t having any of it.
The mood didn’t approve when he started immediately taking off his clothes and putting on his pyjamas.
“Oh, so you think you get a lie-in now, while I fix something to eat? Well no-doing sunshine; I’ve three books to start reading and prepping ready for next semester, so you can dream of croissants because you’re sure not getting them from me!”
Normally he’d have tried to placate her, fried an egg or something, but not today with the excitement of the purple volume in his hands; the bestseller was just a cat nap away! Hurriedly he shut the curtains, turned off his phone and put the book under the pillow as Argus Scrivener had specified.
Immediately, he felt like he’d turned into the Princess, forced to lie on that infernal pea, except it was more like resting on a brick. Why had he been so damn cocky, buying the biggest book? Surely a little cheat wouldn’t hurt; if the book was next to the bed, say, wouldn’t it pick up the dream just the same? He could face that way and breath the bestselling dreams onto the pages. Eventually, he decided against it. If a thing was worth doing, it was worth doing properly: dream-writing a bestseller included.
Strangely enough, after a few minutes the oblong pressure of the book became almost comforting. John imagined himself a human printing-press; and with that thought, he slept.
Waking up was comparable to the first time he’d woken with Julia in his arms: full of the sweetest anticipation. Whipping out the book, ignoring the crick in his neck, he saw immediately that the first third was filled with red glossy inked letters. Whooping with joy, he kissed the book and thanked the stars for The Emporium of Dreams and Mr. Argus Scrivener. Eagerly he read and oh! what a Christmas story it was! All that ice, frosty nose and toes, had paid off; it was a masterpiece, right from the spellbinder of the opening:
“Marley was dead: to begin with.”
Whoa, it sent shivers down his spine and quickly he lost himself in the tale: a mean old miser, not just one but three ghosts and, he flicked to the close, remorse and retribution at the end. Boy oh boy, was this story going to make him a mint!
After his mistake of the morning, he left Julia to her school planning; he knew prepping three new units to teach was a lot of work. His big discovery could wait until he had all three books in the bag. Then he’d tell her to hang up her teacher’s hat- the very early retirement was on him. He whistled as he made lunch, cleaned the apartment and even made dinner, a huge smile on his face at the thought of Julia’s response when he showed her the purple book and its bestseller contents. She was still beavering away when he took himself off to bed, more than ready for the early night and what it would bring.
He woke at first light, grabbing the book and switching on the head torch he’d got from the garage just for this purpose. Julia shrieked as the full beam blasted her in the eye and he crooned apologies while hurriedly adjusting the light onto the pages. Yes, a second dream story was there! This time, the tale looped in green ink, written in a different hand. Cackling at the inventiveness of his slumbering brain, he began on the story.
This one was even better than the first. He had never thought that rom-com was his genre at all, but this proved just how wrong he was. This wasn’t just any boy meets girl with a few laughs thrown in sort of thing, no way José! This was the mother of all rom-coms: elegantly written but scathing with social satire. And the romance? Even his heart was beating to the drum of love. He rubbed his hands with glee, reading that memorable first line, so confident in its erudite irony:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
How could he not have noticed just how witty and wise he was? It had been slumbering, lost to all other ears, heard only in snippets- through snores. But now, thanks to The Emporium of Dreams, his words would find readers in every corner of the world.
He leaned over to Julia, somehow still asleep.
“This is genius!” He said urgently. “Wake up. No dream can be as good as this.” He brandished the book, but Julia delivered a well-aimed kick right at his Achilles tendon. Yelping, he limped from the bedroom, bearing his purple-bound book of brilliance with him.
John was chomping on the bit to release this duo of delight for the world to savour, but he knew he had to hold back, wait a little longer. Argus Scrivener had said the purple volume had space for three books, so three it had to be! One more sleep and his trilogy of tales would be complete.
He made a light breakfast and was climbing back into bed just as Julia emerged from the bathroom, jamming her school books into her work satchel.
“Early start for me. Got to pick up the books for the students so they can start reading in the holidays. I think I’ve chosen three great classics…” she trailed off as she saw him switch off the bedside light and get comfy under the covers.
“You’re going back to bed?” She asked flabbergasted.
“Are you ill or something? Do you think you’re coming down with flu?” She put a hand on his brow, expecting fever.
“I do feel a bit off colour,” he whimpered, enjoying the ruse.
“Ok love, well you rest up.”
A quick peck on the cheek and she was off. John settled down, knowing the good stuff was about to come. He was a conduit: a channel for the Muse. All he needed to do was sleep and three bestsellers would be his; the only thing he had to do was dream.
He snapped to, hands reaching instinctively for the beloved book under his pillow. And, yep, this time he had hit the jackpot! His genius knew no bounds; he’d actually written this one in rhyme! But the story was not just poetic perfection; it delivered punch after punch: doomed love, feuding families- a tragic whirlwind blowing out of control. He chortled like a baby; he was a poet for heaven’s sake. How could Julia say that he snored! He must be snoring lyrically at the very least, with a beautiful sense of meter.
“Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.”
The Christmas ghost story, the satirical rom-com, the doomed tale of young love: what a trilogy! He would publish them all- now. The world shouldn’t have to wait for these sparkling gems. Rushing to his desk, in a few clicks he had opened up the Amazon site, a few more and he was on the Kindle Self-Publishing pages. Then he perceived the first hurdle: How would he transfer the books into the software? Typing was out of the question and then a fantastical idea struck. He swiped the book once across the screen and instantly all three stories were uploaded! Chuckling, he typed in the penname he’d thought up; it had such a great ring to it: Ernest Scribbler.
The click of the door opening disturbed him just as he was about to complete the contract. Julia came in, looking slightly concerned on seeing him hunched over the desk.
“Hi love. You don’t look so great, really flushed. Shouldn’t you be in bed?”
He pulled her over and pointed at the screen.
“You’re never going to believe this Julia, but I have written three bestsellers in the space of two days.”
She put a hand on his brow and looked worried, but he continued. “You’ve never heard the likes of them before! Sit down, prepare to be amazed.”
Julia put down the books she’d been carrying and sat next to him. She scanned the three book titles on the screen and dissolved into fits of laughter.
“Is this some sort of April Fool you’re playing in December?
“What do you mean? They’re masterpieces! Just read the first lines. Surely as an English teacher you can see the quality!”
Julia, grinning from ear to ear, picked up her school books one at a time and gestured from book title to screen:
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.
She opened the first page and he read:
“Marley was dead: to begin with.”
A horrible feeling stirred in his stomach.
With a gentle hand on his shoulder, she took the next book:
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.
Again, she flipped to the first page:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Sick to the stomach, he read the third title which she put before him:
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.
“Two households, both alike in dignity,”
It was enough. He snapped the book shut.
“So, nothing is original at all?” He asked, with a balloon-deflating sort of squeak.
“No darling, they all got there before you. “
Poor John was utterly dejected, but then his eyes lit up and he burst out:
“My pen name, now that is gold! With a name like that, I’m sure to write a bestseller or two.”
Julia shook her head sadly.
“I think you’ll find it's taken John.”
“No! Ernest Scribbler exists?”
“Indeed, the Pythons invented him; Ernest Scribbler: inventor of the funniest joke.”
“And what happened to him?”
She looked at him, battling a rising smirk.