The phone rings and it is an old phone, made before they all had little screens on so that you can tell who is calling. And because of this ringing, and because of this inability to identify the caller until I lift the receiver, I go ahead and lift the receiver. Not before I finish the sentence I am reading – “and then the doctor flung himself forward and jabbed the needle into the monkey’s groin and both doctor and monkey tumbled from the tree in a struggling inoculation deathwrestle” – I would have preferred to leave the phone in its cradle ringing away. The caller is, however, insistent. “Lucy from Cheez4Dogz,” the caller says, “just wondering where we’re up to with the campaign.” By ‘we’ she means me. I cover the receiver and curse to myself and scrabble one-handed through the mess of my desk, disturbing several samples – big blocks, red, yellow, white, orange, chalky, rubbery, alien – and some jotted ideas on pieces of paper. I haven’t slept or dressed in weeks. “Are you still there?” Lucy says into my hand. I make some excuses, trying to sound busy and distracted, now isn’t a great time for me, can we speak tomorrow, etc, etc. “Maybe we could meet up later,” she manages to sound patient, even after all these weeks. “The usual place.” I cannot avoid them forever.
Later in the afternoon I gather up the work I have done so far, nothing more than a few photographs and a couple of sketches and I get into bed and finish my book as I wait for my eyes to close, knowing that once my reading is done there will be nothing to stop me drifting off – “the doctor sat back, resting his plastercast wrist on the arm of the chair and waited for the chimp to serve afternoon tea.” As soon as my eyes are closed and my body falls limp – as soon as that – I find myself off into the dreams I have been trying to avoid for weeks, like running straight into a trap. I am in a nondescript department store. I seem to have bought a cushion and I carry it under my arm as I ride the escalator. On the second floor I make my way through the cafe, past all the tables, behind the counter, past the kitchen, through the double doors and up the stairs to find another small office. I do not need to think about where I am going and this is both a good thing, as I am not good at finding my way, and a bad thing as it leaves me with no way to find a way out of finding my way there, or the option of getting lost.
In the office stands Lucy, a six foot blond powerhouse of business acumen. “Glad you finally made it,” she says. It has been weeks since the original dream but I recognise everything instantly. Apart from the barking. Another door opens and enters Babylon Cheez, CEO of Cheez4Dogz, we met last time. He is a very small man with very ginger hair and a very tidy bandana. “We’ve been doing some testing,” he tells me. “Would you like to see the dogs?” He shows me down a slim corridor in which a row of cages hold cheez-test dogs. They jump up on their back legs and flash white bright smiles like they are toothpaste models. The cages seem to be lined with dry pasta swirls. I ask. “Leftover stock from a previous venture,” Cheez blushes. “Pasta4Cats did not sell well. It’s why we’ve hired a top marketing bod for this job.”
He means me. Back in the office Lucy tells me: “We were really impressed with the work you did for ‘Internet’.” In a previous dream, a dream I wished I had never got into, I had told them of my previous work on ‘Internet – the new digital fragrance for men.’ Lucy and Babylon sit and glower at me. “We’re very interested to see what you’ve come up with for Cheez4Dogz,” they say in unison. I wonder what I can possibly say. “Um… errrr.” They stare harder, in unison. I think about trying to escape by waking myself up but I’ve been avoiding sleep for so long that now I’m in days, weeks deep. “You do have some ideas for us, don’t you?”
The situation turns nasty. Their corporate smiles drop from their faces like cheese-starved dogs. Before I know what else, Lucy has me in a deathgrip stronghold, arms pinned behind my back – and is pushing me along the corridor. Babylon opens one of the cages. I try desperately to wake up but there is nothing I can do. Lucy throws me roughly into the cage and I land in a pile of dry pasta. Pasta4Cats. “You’ve had weeks to think of something!” she spits. “Maybe incarceration will provide inspiration.” Babylon throws some pens and paper at me.
The cheez-test dogs are very well-behaved and quiet and this allows me to get on with the work. But it is difficult – I have never really worked on an advertising campaign before and all my ideas are rubbish. Soon I’ll wake up, I’ll wake up some time, I tell myself but it does not seem much comfort. Occasionally I manage to sleep, which in a dream seems to be no ordinary thing. And when I awake again I scribble down ideas. They feed me Cheez4Dogz and I can feel my teeth getting whiter and when the dogs howl I begin to join in. With too much time on my brain I begin to wonder if all the cheez-test dogs are sleeping dreaming dogs lying asleep in the real world? I wonder if they are humans who are dreaming and have been fed so much cheez that they have become dogs? I wonder if that is what is happening to me? I wonder if that is how all dogs are made? I think about selling them with the tag line “Cheez4Dogz, and you can become a dog too.” I don’t think they’ll take it.
After a few days of being caged and fed cheese I am joined by another failed advertising executive. He looks homeless. Lucy and Babylon show him into his new pasta-lined cage and do not even bother to give him pens and paper. When I try to talk to him he just howls back and eats the cheese hungrily. Later that afternoon a third man is shown around the offices, this one a sharply dressed city slicker with a tiny little notebook and a tiny little pencil. He makes tiny little notes and wears a tie. I am feeling increasingly desperate so I shout to him – “save myself! save you! don’t let them! cheese!” – but he looks at me like I am just one of the any old dogs. I wonder what notes he is making.
Time passes in a blur of cheese and pasta and none of it meant for humans. Sometimes I think of the fact that somewhere I am lying comfortably asleep, but these thoughts swim further away from me and mostly I think cheez4dogz, cheez4dogz, cheez4dogz.
After not much longer, though time can be tough to quantify, Babylon and Lucy come to see us again. “The campaign is all set and ready to roll, we launch tomorrow,” they tell me. “This time next week the whole world will be eating Cheez4Dogz.” They conga out of the office, throwing cheese over their shoulders. We scrabble and eat. Then howl and sleep. The successful executive is still wandering around, making notes in his tiny notebook. Perhaps he has been left behind so that he can keep feeding us cheese. I wonder why he does not wake himself up, or at least leave the office. I then start to think about what might be in the dream world outside of the office of Cheez4Dogz. And after a while I think about, and then-
– I wake up. The sun is streaming through my bedroom window. It takes me a few moments to realise that my eyes are open and that they are the real eyes that are attached to the rest of my real body that is in the real world. It feels good to be back and I realise that I have not smelt anything for a week. And then I realise that-
– there are dogs all around my bed. All over the floor of my room there are dogs which I inexplicably recognise. They are lying on the floor and their eyes are all trained on the television which is on and which is showing-
“Cheez4Dogz, the new cheese made especially for dogs. Top breeders recommend it. Give your dog Cheez4Dogz today.” Healthy-looking dogs cavort about on impeccable lawns, chewing on bouncy lumps of delicious cheese. The advert is on every channel. The dogs are salivating all over the floor of my room. I’m furious. Is that all they wanted? Some footage of nice dogs eating the cheese? ‘Top breeders recommend it?’ I could have come up with that! I was trying to think of something clever and different.
I cannot think on it for too long though because the dogs all want cheese and now, so do I. And none of that human rubbish.