Sunday, November 23, 2008

23 November 2008: Tent

Big Tent Dream

It begins in a tent. I'm there, with a whole bunch of other people, and there's an exit (also entrance) where people can get both in and out. It's a huge tent, marquee but also with at least two storeys - there are escalators and it's a bit like a shopping mall. I see the janitor from Scrubs mostly letting people in and out but there are a few people he isn't letting out. Why is that? He won't let me out either. I have just ascended the up-escalator, by the way, to reach the top level where this exit is. It's possible that's where the narrative began for me.

That's because we're trapped in there. It's reality TV and we're there for the duration. Are we criminals? Is this a prison panopticon to keep an eye on us, to give people entertainment during our incarceration? Were we, like Truman, born into this place? But it's not a big place, bigger than a tent or marquee should be, but not like Truman's world at all. I can see the edges of the tent all the way around. What is clear is that I, and a number of others, are being held against our will for the sake of this TV show. Whatever TV show it is, although in the dream it's called 'Big Brother', and I wish my subconscious could have come up with something more innovative or at least different.

I begin to notice the other 'trapped' ones here. We're as free as everyone else to do what we like within the confines of the tent, we simply can't leave. It's still near the beginning of the series/season - there is a long way to go. It may, in fact, still be day one, but I'm not totally sure about that because the thing is swinging along quite nicely. The 'ordinary' people don't act strangely at all, they seem oblivious to the fact that a few of us are blocked from leaving by security teams.

Escape becomes top priority. The problem is that nobody has ever escaped. We all know that. This may be Reality TV, but security is very personal. They know where we all are, all the time. There are only perhaps a dozen of us 'trapped' ones. And while the series seems to have been running for maybe two or three years (a run of about ten weeks per year, a la the Big Brother in the real world), nobody has ever escaped. But still, surely we must try, futile as it may be. Surely, surely, there must be a way.

I try to charge an exit but security grabs me and throws me back inside - I give them a look and then walk off in a huff. I descend the escalator and get off at a mezzanine level - on the left-hand side of the tent (if the exit was ahead, well, you know what I mean) I walk carefully towards the canvas exterior and notice it's possible to crawl underneath it by removing a couple of the pins holding it to the ground. I do so, it provides just enough clearance for me to get through. I find myself between layers of canvas - over the inner layer is an outer layer (presumably for extra rain cover?) and as (still lying on the ground) I look for a way under the outer layer (glimpsing, with a brief look, a grassy park, sunny day, heavy marsh (lake really) down the shallow slope), sniffer dog at my right leg. I try to stand, but the gap between the two layers of canvas narrows with height, and I have to stoop over. Security don't physically hurt me but the two of them, and their smelly dog, throw me back under the inner canvas, back into the shopping mall mezzanine.

I need to escape. I'm being watched the whole time. I need a way to escape and have them think I'm still there. Now, at various stages of the narrative, I give different explanations of how I manage this but I think the original one was a combination of repeating the canvas trick and digging a sort of tunnel of some description under the canvas. I may have to take memory pills to remember how I did this, but the point was that it wasn't immediate: in fact, I did it very early morning, about 5.30 the next morning. I do it without them noticing (I have a feeling there was already a tunnel formed by an underground river, way down in the bowels of the thing) and I do it by repeatedly doing something, which they initially suspect is weird, but get used to it because it doesn't seem to do any harm. What that thing is, I don't know. Maybe I end up taking the cameras out for a while? I have a feeling the final answer is more natural than that, possibly a natural underground cavern. Possibly. I get out, I escape, and they don't know I'm gone. Whatever it is, it's an ingenious solution.

I run across open countryside in very very early morning. There is nobody about. The sun is about to rise over the hills to the east (it's a bit like Dartmoor, although somehow the hills are less big. Exmoor, perhaps). As I run, I know there is an exclusion zone around the tent, well not an exclusion zone so much as a permanent border patrol about a mile in all directions around it. Getting past THAT is going to be a problem. And then what? In the dream I have no life, no family, no existence outside the tent. (Is this because I'm a criminal or because I was born into the tent?). As I run, fast as I can, I want to get as much distance between me and the tent as I can before they notice I'm gone (although I did set up something to make them think I was still in bed, asleep, down in the underground basements beneath the tent). I don't look back. Ahead, as I run on pretty much flat moorland (I've gone past the boggy lake and am now on something of a flat area of land, below the higher hills but not at river-valley level), I see a valley upcoming and beyond that another hill. I'm running full-pelt though, and don't realise that there is an almost-sheer drop up ahead. I realise too late and go charging off down said drop, running/falling into the water below. COLD water! Early morning it is, sometime in May, and the water is cold. It's also deep, at least at the bit where I fall in, so despite my speed and general lack of diving grace I go down, don't quite touch the river bed, come up feeling very awake, swimming back toward the shore. I look around and immediately see people. They are young-ish, some about my age, some perhaps a little bit older, some of them swimming, some sitting on the shore.

"It's not bad once you're in, is it?" says a guy with short, black hair from just a little further down the river. I've swum towards the bank of the river by now, but haven't yet fully got out. It's deep here, the bank more of a small cliff, and I'm standing now, but the water is still up to my chest. He's right, though, it's not that cold once you're in. In fact, it's quite nice.

I count them. There are eleven of them that I can see, although there are trees around so some of them may be hidden from my view. They are swimming, eating, enjoying the countryside. They seem very relaxed, but are keen to know who I am and where I came from.

I hesitate. In fact, I don't answer their question at all, pretending instead to be out of breath (which isn't too far from the truth, and the cold water perhaps exacerbates that). The black-haired guy tells me that they are there to remember. Remember what, I wonder? A young lady seated on the grassy bank says that they are all people who have escaped from the reality TV show in past years. (Escaped?? I think. That's *impossible*, nobody has *ever* escaped, we all know that. But for the moment I keep my thoughts to myself as she continues her story.)

They now live their own lives, fully integrated into society, new lives completely exchanged for old except for this day, one day, once a year, the first Saturday of the new series, when they come here, within the security zone of the tent, and meet up, swim, eat, *remember*. Because we have to remember, she says, otherwise we will forget. The rest of the eleven, and a few others who I hadn't seen in my original count, are now gathering. I swim downstream and get out at the bank where their towels are arrayed. The dark-haired guy passes me a towel.

"I have escaped from the tent," I tell them. "I didn't want to say, before, because I didn't know who you are. But look, this is a real issue: we all know that nobody has *ever* escaped from the tent. Never. And you’re saying you have? It’s not that I don’t believe you – I do, what you've told me about the tent proves that.” (I don’t think anyone other than the viewers know what’s going on, by the way – the ‘normal’ people in the tent haven’t a clue that some of us are prisoners. Security is too careful though, there’s no way out. Still, the fact that these people know about prisoners in the tent is enough for me.) “But we know, we *know* that nobody from the tent has ever escaped. Even now, they don’t know that I’m gone and I’m wondering how I’m going to get past the one-mile security before they notice I’m missing.”

“How can they not know you’re gone?” asks the young lady. “The juice is on, they’ll have the cameras up again now.”
“Juice?” I ask. “They think I’m asleep. What’s juice got to do with anything?”
“Electricity,” she says. “The power cut, right? There was a power cut, and you took the way out.”
I’m confused.
“What are you talking about?” I ask.
“Look,” she says, “All of us here, fourteen of us this year, all got out in the same way. There was no plan to it, no structure. We are all from different series’ of the reality TV show – I am from two years ago. There are a couple from last year. Some go back as many as four or five years. But there was no code, no secret messages – simply that there is only one way out of the tent, and we all worked it out individually. The power cut, the canvas, the lake. Always the same.”

Now I’m confused.

“You mean you didn't come that way?” asks a younger-looking man.
“Tell me what way you came, and I’ll tell you how I came.”

“It’s simple enough, really,” says the young lady. “The security are everywhere. They don’t tag us with radio devices because their cameras are everywhere, always watching. Always looking. You try to escape, they stop you, because they can see what you’re doing the whole time. Individual cameras tuned on everyone, every moment of every day. There’s only one way out of this trap.”

“Sounds to me like there’s *no* way out of it.”

“The cameras run on electricity. The show runs for three months every year. Right out here, middle of nowhere, not a great location, especially for maintenance issues. One storm, one big rainfall, maybe something somewhere is going to get wet. Maybe water gets into the generators. Maybe some of the sockets get wet underwater. But it happens, usually once or twice in the season. And what happens then?”

“The electricity goes out,” I say, starting to get the picture. “And with it go the cameras.”
“Never for very long, but if you’re sharp and thinking, that’s the time to do it. Usually under the canvas and out the side of the tent. A number of trapped ones will do this, normally.”
“And then you make a break for it,” I continue.
“Yes,” she says, “but you’ll notice that there’s not a great number of us here now. When that happens, most of them get caught. You run, you reach the security perimeter, they know you’re gone, on the alert, you are caught, returned to the tent. If you try to wait within the mile zone until the alert is over, you’ll be caught too, they’re out there with dogs and sticks, flashlights if it’s at night, as it was in my case.”
“So how did you get out, if it’s impossible?”

“Did you see the lake? It’s more a marsh than a lake sometimes, although if it’s been raining it gets deeper.”
I nod.
“If you hide in there, get down real low, right in the water and among the marsh-plants, they can’t find you. You get bitten to pieces by moths, the stench is unbearable but it loses the dogs, if it’s at night there’s a chance, just a chance, that they won’t find you there. All of us – every last one of us – hid in the lake until the alarm was over. Three, four hours usually, sometimes as much as a whole night. When the alarm is over, security on the one-mile perimeter is downgraded again. If security is on alert, you have no chance. If security is not on alert, you can just stroll right through.”
“How is that?”
“One-mile security is absolute. If they’re on alert, nobody comes in or out. If they’re not on alert, you can usually get through.”
“Why not keep security on alert all the time?”
“They need the people coming in. This place, this tent, is an attraction, a huge tourist draw. The TV show, the game, isn't even shown here, it’s shown in another country. The people come because of the shopping, the attractions, the sheer spectacle of the Big Tent. It’s two worlds in one, and if they keep the people out, they lose on both counts – nobody visits the mall, nobody watches the show. No tourists, it becomes a very different – very boring – show.”
“So you hid in the lake for hours?”
“Hours. I still got scars to prove the bites I got. I think we all have. Wait to the next day, security opens up, you hide in a crowd and you’re out. Unscathed, except the scars. Scars which, I notice, you don’t seem to have.”
“I left the tent maybe twenty minutes ago,” I say. “I didn't do the lake, and there was no power cut.”
General gasps all round.
“Then how did you get out?” they ask.
“A tunnel,” I tell them. At this point, of course, I’m really needing to tie up continuity, but in the dream I tell them about a small underground stream that has left a cavern which exits at the bottom of the slope, slightly beyond the pond. I got to the entrance cavern entirely in the dark, from the depths of the underground sections beneath the tent, without using any lights, so cameras couldn't see me.
“Amazing,” they say, “so there’s another way out?”
“Yes,” I continue, “But they don’t know I’m gone and I've little doubt they soon will. You know how they are with their checks.”

“We've got to get you out of here,” the dark-haired guy says. “This place will be crawling soon.”
“Look,” says another guy, shorter, with curly ginger hair and a moustache, “I've got a car here, I’ll drive you out past security and that’ll get you free.”

I’m nervous now. They’ll know I’m gone, they’ll be looking for me. Security at the one-mile border may be completely stepped up – nobody in, nobody out. What if we’re not in time? And what about these people here? Will they be caught too? Will they be put back in the tent?

“No,” says the young lady, “We’re from previous years. As far as they are concerned, we never existed. It’s better for them to simply erase us from their records when they realised we had gone. Then they maintain the illusion – the rumour – that nobody has ever escaped, and nobody ever will. But people have escaped, we've been doing it for years.”

I hesitate before asking the next question. The rumour had always been two or three, although the young lady had told me earlier of people there from four or five years ago. Was the show really that old?

“Just how long has this programme been running?” I ask.
“Thirty years,” she says.

Thirty years?

“Security!” someone shouts.
“In the car!” screams ginger guy, opening the right-rear door in his green mini. “Now get *down*!”
I clamber into the tiny back seat, duck down below the window-line and cover myself with an old rug or blanket I find on the floor. Is this to be my version of the lake? How long will I have to hide here?

I hear the car start and we begin to move. Then stop. Security at the window, I hear them talk. Nothing here, haven’t seen anybody matching that description, officer. What about the back seat there, asks the officer? He asks nicely, he knows that nobody apart from security knows about the prisoners in the tent. Normal people know nothing about us. Except for this group, but security doesn't know that. Still, he asks again what ginger has in the back seat. He, of course, has me, hidden under a blanket, but he says it’s just stuff from their picnic. Bit early for a picnic, isn't it, asks security. Wanted to avoid the crowds, says ginger. I begin to wonder what has happened to the rest of them. Have they scattered and run? Probably not, not if they have nothing to be afraid of.

I’m afraid, though. I’m afraid because security is wanting to see what is in the back of the car. Ginger stomps on the accelerator and we’re moving, fast, suddenly. Down a hill in a tiny mini. I look up from beneath the blanket. No point hiding now, we’re both fugitives. Down the slope ahead is security gate, couple of men there, a few people queued up outside, waiting to come in. Security is on alert though, so nobody in, nobody out. But outside that, outside that barrier, I can see the land, it’s freedom. No security there, no jurisdiction. The people there are free and if I can get there, security can do nothing to me, nothing at all. Ginger steams down the hill, faster and faster. We’re not stopping at this gate. It is a gate, or at least a barrier, but it looks plastic not metal. Two securities waving us down, but we’re not stopping.

[At this point, my alarm clock goes off and I wake up.]

So what happens? Do I make it out, into the land of freedom? Is it really free or does security secretly try to follow me and get me back? What the heck was the tent anyway – how did it work? And more to the point, what am I? I have no family, no history outside of the tent (although I know how to swim, apparently), no recall of anything prior to the start of the latest series. Had I been brought up there, a la Truman, and only put ‘live’ for this series? Or, and this is perhaps what I think, am I a computer program, or some kind of artificially-intelligent robot, a la Blade Runner? Programmed to think as a human, act as a human, created just a few weeks ago to be part of the television show. The show was reality TV, asking the question of whether the visitors would be able to tell who was real and who was robot. But I am robot, and I am real. You program me as human, I will want to be free. Maybe.

It’s important to remember, to not forget. I could get out, live a normal life, but once a year I’d have to come back and remember with the others. Earlier escapees (and there were some) didn't do this, but we must. Ritual maybe, but mainly about not being complacent. The tent is a bad place, a place from which we must escape, and when we have escaped we must remember why it is a bad place, so that we do not make the same mistake. We must not create a Tent of our own. But did I ever get out, break that barrier? I don’t know. I’d like to think so. But as I woke up, I cursed my alarm and thought very clearly…

But I wanted to know what happened!


Becky said...

3,500 and no proper ending?! Dammit, please finish the dream before you wake up next time!

Becky said...

3,500 words, that was meant to say ...

DuncMcRae said...

And I woke up and it was all a dream...

Are you suggesting that's not a satisfactory way to end a story? ;-)

wjlanesr said...

Duncan...we found you! Hope you are well. What a dream! you can see my blog at

Come visit us again sometime!
Jeff and Julie Lane

P.S. Give your family our love!

Kevin S said...

Wow, cool dream Duncan. I wish I remembered my dreams, especially if they're as detailed and poignant as this one!

McDoug said...

Oh duncan, I told you that those mushrooms weren't for eating. This is how it started with rupert lowe back in '94