The Note-Takers

by Vanessa Gebbie

You are not looking forward to this. Your appointment is at three. You have been trying to remember what you dreamed about last night, for much hinges on it.

This is what they do now, these note-takers. There are scheduled meetings and they even have tea brought but it is no comfort. You sometimes think you can taste salt.

“So?” they say. (You cannot be specific as to gender. It is arbitrary.) “So?” (This is the overture.) “Tell me your waking dream.”

You do try. One’s waking dream, of course, is the easiest to recall, although fragmentary. You must create truth, like glass, out of sand dug from that strange country between sleeping and not.

You hear yourself:

“Sex. It was sex. I felt very warm… too warm. The weight of the bedclothes was quite difficult to bear. I thought I should throw off a blanket but that meant subjecting part of my body to the cold…”

“Sex. I have that down” He (you call him that for the purposes of this exercise) will be making notes on a laptop. Or a palm-sized gadget. His tone is flat.

You feel an undercurrent tugging at the base of your thoughts. A need to justify.

“I am convinced this was different,” you say, a little too fast. “The discomfort, you see. I have no idea who…”

He does not let you finish. “It is hard to achieve real communication in these cases,” he says. “Can you try harder?”

So you do.

“Maybe the overpowering sense of suffocation?”

On occasion, you have learned, it is appropriate to admit confusion. This is a surer route. You are convinced of it, so you continue, “Waking dreams flicker, do they not? There was indeed another person, but their identity remained obscure.”

“Good. Yes.” Tap tap tap. You hear the bones in his neck rattling together as though they were on a string. “Clues. There must have been clues?”

“Indeed. I smelled almonds.” And you did. Whether the source was a cologne applied to warm skin, or whether it was on the breath, the residue of a cake, reminiscent of something bought in a high- class patisserie? Sugar-glazed?

The note-taker has relaxed. The tapping has become robotic. His eyes no longer flicker up to the screen, or to you, for that matter. This allows you leeway, buys you a few moments. You are tempted, for honesty’s sake, to say, “Now, I surmise…” for that is all you can do, but you will not. Not this time. You learned not to do too much overt surmising years ago.

So you say, “Yes. I see him, for it was a ‘he’. I recall the rasp of his beard against my breast. And the almonds of course. I recall running my fingers through hair that was wiry — like a dog’s; feeling so clearly, over-sensitively, as though the skin on my fingertips had grown back after a burn, the places where his hair thinned on the crown. I recall the smell of damp wood rising from his scalp. But I felt… nothing.”

Here, of course, you are précising events. Such is reality, when it comes to dreams, after all, and the note-taker does not quibble.

You continue. “When he entered me, (and I can say this with no qualms, for I was not ready, and did not want it at all) I was able to remove my thoughts and consider mathematical formulae.”

“Good, good,” The note-taker says. The tapping becomes faster. Insistent. There is a rhythm to it, although it is a hidden rhythm, like the real meaning of a poem that is never stated. You need to listen carefully. So you speak faster. In this way he will never have time to question, and you can concentrate momentarily on the sounds you are both making. His tapping. Your voice. They are grounding, after all.

You carry on.

“On my waking more fully, he disappeared. For an instant, I believed him to be there, under the bedclothes, waiting to strike like a cobra. It was not a comfortable feeling. But the sun shot an arrow through a gap in the curtains, and he was gone.”

“Gone,” the note-taker sighs, his fingers slowing.

“Yes. Gone. And the almonds? The almonds were in the air. My room was polished yesterday.”

The note-taker pauses, and gives his laptop a pat. “You have done well. Would you like a rest?”

It is prudent to refuse; after all, to leave it now would push your earlier dreams further down, and you must, (you use this word advisedly…) must recall truth with some semblance of reality. There can be grave consequences if you do not.

Your tea is cold. You didn’t drink your tea. But it is hard to drink tea when you are plumbing your own depths.

Before speaking again, you breathe in slowly through your mouth, ensuring that the air hisses over your teeth. “Earlier…” you pause, both for effect and to summon your thoughts into a coherent order, like ill-equipped henchmen supplied only with pitchforks against full armour and heavy guns.

“Earlier, I stood by a lake. The lake was black and solid at the very centre, and clear turquoise around my feet like liquid cellophane. I stood right at the edge...”

You are entering the most dangerous part of the interview. The one from which so many of your colleagues have never recovered. So far, to date, you have managed to survive this section, but who is to say? There is an enjoyable notoriety in one’s potential inability to recall in a realistic way. One can, you have found, enjoy the frisson, the sensation of uncertainty, as well as summoning up all one’s skills of fabrication.

After all, were you to be appraised of the very hour of your impending death, what a privilege. What an appointment.


The note-taker looks at you, or, not quite at you. He looks over your head at your shadow on the wall.

Then, you understand. This might be the last thing you will ever say.

You close your eyes, sit back and begin.


Vanessa Gebbie's debut collection Words from a Glass Bubble (Salt Publishing, March 2009) was nominated for the Frank O Connor Award. A second collection — provisional title Mood Swings — is forthcoming from Salt in 2009. She is founder/editor of Tom’s Voice Magazine, assistant editor of CadenzaMagazine, teaches Creative Writing, and also founded The Fiction Workhouse, an online collective for writers. Recent competitive successes include prizes at Per Contra, The Daily Telegraph, Fish International, Bridport. Her story "Three Stages in Learning to Fly" appeared in Issue 21 of The Cafe Irreal; and her story "Uncovering the Walkways" appeared in Issue 24.