I WAS lost. It was the afternoon and I had been walking along a commercial street in a part of London I’d never been to before when I came to the foot of a small hill. At the top of the hill were two tower blocks maybe twenty stories high, the first of which had a gigantic London Underground sign, much bigger than normal, halfway up. It said: Pal 6.
Just then I remembered I had an appointment of some kind across town though I couldn’t quite remember what for.
I walked up the hill to the towers and looked around the large, empty plaza beneath. No-one was around and there didn’t seem to be an entrance to Pal 6. Getting agitated, I looked about again. Suddenly, silently, there was a man standing nearby. I jumped. The man shuffled towards me like a cut-out (I didn’t see his legs move). He was small, somewhere in middle age, with dark, receding hair, a large forehead, clean-shaven with bushy eyebrows. He seemed to be smiling, trying to. He was trying to be friendly, but I look a couple steps back to keep my distance. He started speaking or should I say his lips began to move but all I could hear was a soft, backwards sucking sound. He held up his right hand and smiled again and I realised that none of this was real.
It was dark, still night. My husband was on his front, fast asleep, snuffling gently; probably where I got the backwards sucking sound. The memory was still very fresh. Normally months could pass without me even half-recalling a dream. I got up, crept downstairs and poured myself a glass of milk in the kitchen. I checked the time, 2:23am. There was nothing to do but go back to bed.
Mid-afternoon the following day lots of people were in the office where I work. There wasn’t much going on, it was a Friday, and everyone was talking about dreams. Lots of people, it seemed, had really vivid dreams they were keen to share so I decided to drop in with the fact I hardly ever dream.
“But” I said, in a small gap, “that’s funny because I had a really vivid dream last night.” This got enough attention I thought, so I pressed on. I started recounting the dream. As I did I remembered more detail, such as the roads branching off the street being from my hometown or the fact there were cars going along the road but no one inside them, or that the Man now seemed foreign. I finished. The people seemed underwhelmed. They started talking about other things, breaking off in small groups and I got back on with my work.
Until, that is, this lad came up to me. “Um…” he cleared his throat, hovering. If people do that it’s usually because of some problem about their pay. I glanced up. The Lad was holding a piece of paper. I said “One second…” and I finished a spreadsheet formula. I asked, “How can I help you?” though I knew what he wanted.
“You said about… like, your dream…?”
“Like my dream, what do you mean?”
He seemed hesitant. “The Man, the man in your dream; did he look anything like this…?” The Lad handed me the paper. He’d done a drawing on the back, a man with dark, receding hair, a large forehead, clean-shaven, bushy eyebrows, detailed and… I thought about denying it but I couldn’t.
“Y… yes…” I said. It was him, the man I saw in the dream. I looked back up at the Lad.
“I’ve seen him too,” he said. There was a short pause. Something about the situation made me ask:
“What’s your name?”
“Brett,” he said. I remembered: “You’re the new Health Care Assistant.”
“I’ve been here two months,” said Brett, which was a bit embarrassing. I changed the subject: “What do you mean you’ve seen him, this… whoever this is…?”
“I’ve seen him too… in my dreams,” said Brett, “more than one dream. Other people have seen him too.”
I decided to get off at this point. “That’s interesting, uh, Brett…” I gave him back the piece of paper. “Is there anything else you wanted to…?”
“If you see him, the Man… if you see him again, please could you tell me?”
“OK” I said, cautious.
“Thanks.” he nodded and made his way across the room, back to his desk.
That night I lay awake in bed in the dark as I usually do. My Husband and Son are both neurotypical, which is great for them as they get to sleep quickly, but I need stillness and dark. I had been awake for a while when I noticed the dark making shapes. The shapes were elusive, like faintly glowing motes of dust shifting or static on an old television. I lay still as I watched it. Before long I couldn’t tell where my limbs were. I dared not move until I saw the glowing motes shift into a consistent pattern. They were flowing toward the window, pouring into/out of the sliver of yellow street light filtering through.
I eventually found my body and shifted up and out of bed. My ears were ringing with the hum of my own brain. I tiptoed toward the window. The ringing got louder as I approached, almost painful. I peeled back the curtain. The street below was empty. Nothing was moving. Then there were footsteps. There was a man walking outside on the pavement. He stopped beneath our house and looked up in my direction. It was The Man, the man from the picture. A voice from behind me said:
“Mummy…” I turned around suddenly. It was my Boy, standing in the doorway. “Pal 6,” he said. Then I woke up. I was still in bed. My Son was still standing in the doorway. I said: “What’s going on?”
“I can’t sleep Mummy.”
My heart and mind were racing. I eventually said, “One second, Billy,” stumbled up again and staggered across the room to the curtain. The street below was empty. The Man was not there. I took a deep breath. “Come on,” I said to Billy, “back to bed.”
My Husband, Greg, was not working that weekend. There was still a lot to do, food shopping, new school clothes for Billy, a birthday party to go to. On the way round the local Tesco I mentioned to Greg about the strange dreams. He listened to me, patiently. I remembered not to go into too much detail but he was still nonplussed at the end. I tried describing The Man to him: “Does that sound like anyone we know?”
Greg chuckled, “no one I know. Should I be worried…?”
“About what…? I said. “It’s just a dream.”
“Of course, darling” he said, chuckling. I didn’t get it.
Later, at the birthday party, I took some time out. We were at an indoor play area. Billy loves these places but they’re usually too loud for me. I was hanging about the car park with a few smokers (the smell was not as bad as the noise) when one of them started talking at me. Her name was Helen. She seemed to know a lot about me.
“Our boys are in the same class…”
“Oh,” I said, some of it started filtering back. Her boy was called Christopher. He was a little bit hyperactive. Helen was a professional dancer. Her husband was called Andrew but they referred to each other as ‘partners’. They helped run the local Woodcraft Folk group. We talked a bit more freely. Helen was nice, smiley if a bit touchy-feely. In a quiet moment Helen said: “Long week…?”
“Uh…?” For a moment I wondered how long a week was.
“You look like you’ve had a tiring few days,” said Helen, elaborating. I thought about it for a second but then it all came out, my dream story, in one go. I concluded: “I don’t normally have dreams, or I don’t recall them, but these were so vivid and…”
“The man…” Helen interrupted, “you described a man. Tell me again because uh… tell me again… please.” Her voice had changed. She dropped her cigarette, stubbed it out with her foot. I was glad. The smell was gone. I realised she was being earnest.
I told her what I remembered about the Man. I remembered a little more this time as well. His skin was very pale, probably cold. His cheeks were sunken. Helen nodded then said, “Andrew has been having these dreams.” She wasn’t so sunny now. “It’s really, um… It’s become a bit of an obsession…” she rooted around in her bag. “He says it’s widespread, like a meme, thousands of people … There’s even support groups,” she laughed, “groups of people, like, trying to figure out what it all means.”
“What does it mean?”
“I don’t know,” said Helen, lighting up again.
The next few nights all featured dreams of the Man. I had decided to keep a pen and pad by my side of the bed to write down any encounters. Monday night/Tuesday morning I saw him in two dreams. This time I was on an Overground Train. The train was busy, full of people, arms and heads. I looked around, almost in anticipation and there he was, The Man, or his face at least, hovering across the car. I woke. It had just gone 2am, far too early to get up. I jotted down the dream, cleared my head and settled down. Before long I was back in the car, now mostly empty, reading a newspaper, though I couldn’t make out the headlines. Greg was sitting next to me. I smiled to him. He smiled back, happy. Then his face fell. He said: “That’s him,” and pointed. The Man was sitting opposite us, upright, hands on his thighs and smiling stiffly. I woke again with an awful sense of menace. I looked around the room. It was pre-dawn outside, purple light. I looked over at Greg, heart going. I clutched onto my Husband: “Ruh is it? Wuhs guh oh?” he said, half-awake.
“I love you,” and kissed him.
“I luh you too,” he said, between kisses. “I see,” he said with a smile. “It’s like pahsix…”
“What…?” I recoiled. Something was wrong, like a thin film of the dream was coating everything. Greg noticed, waking up a bit more.
“What’s wrong?” he said.
“Nothing” I said. Finally, I came to and kissed him again.
Every night for a week I dreamed, not always of the Man. I couldn’t always see him. Even when I couldn’t see I was looking for him and I remembered every dream, walking through, my mind, clear. When he did appear nothing he said or did was that obvious though, let alone threatening. His recurrence was unnerving. I had to find out what was going on.
I researched the Man online. It didn’t take long. There were numerous blog posts and clickbait pieces about him, forums too, where people shared their stories, experiences and theories. Brett, the Lad, was on annual leave and I never saw Helen’s partner at the school gate but I found this easier to handle. I had online help. I registered with a group at thisman.org, gave myself a non-committal name and lurked.
There were people who thought The Man was a Jungian archetype. They debated among each other about what kind of archetype. There were other folk who thought he was the literal face of god. There were still others who hunted for clues that he was a real man, a ‘dream-surfer’ who could somehow jump between minds. There were people collating statistics, even putting together logs and maps of sightings, places where The Man had ‘been.’ Then there were the debates about the number six. On it went. It was very absorbing. I read it all on a Thursday evening while Greg and Billy were out at football. I would have dismissed the whole thing. It was mad. The trouble was it was also true.
The dreams kept coming. They became more intense. I dreamed I was breast-feeding Billy. I wasn’t able to do that when he was a baby. It was a warm, strange but content feeling. Then I realised I wasn’t sitting in a chair but in a giant lap. I looked up and The Man’s huge face rotated down to meet my gaze. I dreamed of when I was a girl at secondary school, eleven years old. I was roped into running the long-distance race for sports day. There was a small bank of children and teachers by the side of the track. The Man was there too, watching, impassive but holding a placard with ‘Pal 6’ written in red. I had a dream where I went on a dinner date with Greg. We were talking about something but Greg got harder and harder to make out. His voice devolved into a soft, backwards sucking sound and he picked up a mummers mask from under the table with The Man’s face on it.
The nights were a combination of excitement and dread. The oddness filtered over into the day. I started noticing things I hadn’t before, like the copper in the sweep of my Son’s hair or the crow’s feet on my Husband’s face curving downward. One time at work I processed an agency booking, the reference number went day, month, year, zero, zero, one seven two nine, which made me laugh out loud because it was the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes.
At one point I told it all to Greg. I showed him examples on my phone. I didn’t want him getting the wrong idea. We were watching something on Netflix I think, curled up on the sofa.
“I’m… watching this,” he said, pointing to whatever it was. “Could I…?”
“But it’s so strange,” I said. “I’ve never heard of anything like it before.” There was a silent pause before Greg said: “Confirmation bias…”
“It’s a hoax,” he said, still watching the TV. “It has to be. There’re billions of dreams out there, every night. You’d think some of them would be the same.”
“But…” I said. Greg turned and looked at me finally. “It’s so real.” He smiled. “I’ve never had dreams like this before,” I said.
“I love you,” Greg said. He kissed me oddly on the forehead and went back to his TV.
About a fortnight after the first dream I saw Brett the HCA again. He came into the office. Immediately he avoided my gaze. I thought something was wrong but later on when he got up to go to the kitchen area I saw him head-nodding. It looked like he wanted me to follow, so I did.
“You’ve been to the forum…?” was Brett’s first question, though it might have been a statement. “Have you seen it?” He whispered like ‘it’ was some dreadful secret.
“The announcement, something is going to happen in twenty-three days,” Brett said. I still didn’t understand. “Someone is posting a countdown,” he explained, “an anonymous user… They’re going to reveal who the Man is.”
“I’m sure of it,” said Brett. “Lots of people are. There’s a link as well to a Twitter feed and a video channel, counting down.”
After a pause to take it in: “What are…?” I struggled for something to say. “What do…? What’s going to happen?”
“I don’t know,” Brett said. “I was a bit of a Jungian before but now I don’t know.”
“But why…?” I asked after another pause.
“Why what?” said Brett.
“Why us…?” I said. “Why are we having these dreams? What’s connecting all this?”
Brett looked a bit nervous. He was holding a cup of coffee but flapped his free hand. He seemed like he was about to answer but someone else came into the kitchen. “We’ll talk later,” he said. We didn’t. Brett got some call-outs that afternoon.
Later that day I saw Helen at the school gates. She looked unhappy and unwell. I put on my passing face and asked her if she was OK? It turned out her partner Andrew was in hospital; more than that she didn’t say.
There was nothing to do except wait for ‘something’ to happen, that and occasionally talk to Brett about it. Day life went on as normal; or more normally than it had been. Even the nights began to recover. My dreams got vaguer. I saw less of the Man. Then the night before ‘something’ was due to happen there was a brief resurgence, a vivid dream that felt very much like I had shared it. In the dream I sat at a table in a white room. The Man sat opposite me, silent and motionless, holding a sign that read: “Tomorrow.”
The next day I avoided the internet. I checked nothing until my lunch break. I went on the forum. There was a post with a link. It led to a video. It showed a woman, not a man, smartly-dressed and young, sitting at a desk. She addressed the camera: “Welcome” she said, “if you have been with us from the start or if you have just joined… welcome… You have taken part in a bold experiment in memetic transmission. Some of you may have realised by now that this man,” she held up a picture, “is not real but a composite, the product of the latest in graphic memetic interfacing technology, an unforgettable face. Pal 6 Advertising would like to thank all the participants. Pal 6 is committed to providing innovative solutions to twenty-first century marketing opportunities with an ergonomic…”
I clicked off at that point, bewildered and a little upset. It was only later that afternoon, as it sank in, that I realised there was an unanswered question. How did The Man get into people’s dreams, into people’s minds, into my mind? I went over the video again, this time in full, but the Woman just reeled off more jargon and waffle. Perhaps she was protecting a trade secret? I checked online. Some people on the forum were angry. Some were excited. Some believed the announcement was a fake or part of a bigger scheme.
Brett was strangely sanguine about it. I remember him saying to me it was: “Good while it lasted. The internet’s full of these kinds of ARGs…” I had to look up what that was, an Alternate Reality Game, which didn’t seem particularly apt to me. It didn’t matter. It was like a spell had broken, the dream had lifted. I didn’t know what to think and I still didn’t know how it worked and I wanted to know. I tried ringing the firm. Pal 6 had an actual hotline, though I never got through to anyone in charge, just bounced around a series of confusing options, dial one for this, dial six for that, etc. The hold music was strangely sleepy, soporific. Every now and then there was a pre-recorded message read by the Woman that mostly rehashed what she said in the video. I gave up and left a message, my name and contact number, that I was a ‘participant’. I said I wanted to know how they did it.
After the Pal 6 announcement my dreams quickly went back to normal, as in impossible to remember. I only realised after a few days that I had been in shock. I spent long hours on the couch, sitting with the TV turned off. Greg seemed baffled (I suspect little Billy was too). It took several evenings of nervous probing to get to Pal 6 and the Man.
“Why this…?” Greg asked. “What’s this all about?”
“It got into my head” I told him, suddenly angry. “It got into my head and gave me dreams.”
I curled up and said, “I don’t know!” Greg eventually hugged me for a bit.
After that everything faded. The spell was broken. I didn’t know what to feel or do, which more or less the last entry in my journal before I binned it. The only thing left was the fascination. How did they do it? I didn’t know.
It was a Saturday morning, about three weeks later. I woke up about six. The sun was shining, set to be warm. There was no chance of me going back to sleep. I got up, left Greg in bed, snuffling gently, tiptoed past Billy’s room and went downstairs to make myself a cup of tea. 6:23am. I was about to put the TV on when I heard the doorbell ring. Strange: I suddenly felt tense. Moments passed. The bell went again. I secured my dressing gown then went to answer the door.
Of course, it was him, the Man, standing there. He was smiling as if trying to be friendly. His lips began to move, a soft, backwards sucking sound but this time I could make out the words. He said:
“You wanted to know? Now you shall know.”