Jul 202011


When I first met the young Vancouver writer Ben Johnstone, he was a teenage political activist wearing sneakers held together with red duct tape. One of his protest activities was a hunger strike in support of Amnesty International. In recent years Ben’s political engagement includes a study of the ways in which art and entertainment bounce off one another and influence how people think and live. Ben has a B.A. in Film Studies from the University of British Columbia. He is a musician and an aspiring screenwriter. It is my pleasure to introduce Ben to Numéro Cinq. This is his first published story.

— Lynne Quarmby


The Plumber’s Dream

by Ben Johnstone


“It was weird, everything was flat.”

“Like a desert?”

“No, horizontally flat.  No depth.  But actually, I think at one point I was in a desert.  But the desert also had no depth.”

“OK, continue.”

“And I was me, I think, but I had this big belly.”

“With no depth?”

“Yeah, and it felt like I had a moustache.”

“That would not look good.”

“So anyway, I just appeared there and then I was running along and I kept finding all this money, these huge gold coins.  But as soon as I touched them they would disappear.  But somehow, it still felt good.  So I kept doing it.  And even though I had this big belly and even though I was really short, I could jump pretty high.  And so I was jumping for these coins, even though I didn’t know why I wanted them.  And it was hard to control how high I jumped and sometimes I would hit things with my head and more coins would appear. And even though it really hurt, I would keep hitting my head against these bricks to get the coins.”

“That just disappeared, but made you inexplicably happy.”

“That’s right.  There were lots of bricks – some of them didn’t have coins, but it still hurt to hit my head on them.  I also remember these huge pipes – big enough to walk through.  And there was music coming from nowhere – I was outside and I couldn’t see any buildings.  I feel like I’m forgetting stuff, but remember, it was a lot to take in.”

“Did you know you were dreaming in the dream?”

“Not exactly.  In fact, I remember feeling totally out of control.  Not drunk, but like I was just watching, even though it was me and my body.”

“It’s probably your brain processing deep anxiety.”

“Maybe.  It was actually quite nauseating, especially the jumping.  I imagine it’s kind of how astronauts feel walking on the moon, except at least they have depth.  Speaking of planets, did I mention that everything was really bright and colourful, but there was no sun in the sky?  It was.  But back to my story: I’m running along and jumping quite high and gathering coins, and then I saw this crazy dinosaur turtle thing!  Or something.  It was moving really slowly, kind of ponderous, I guess, and it looked friendly, but also menacing.  I couldn’t tell if it wanted to eat me or make friends.  Or maybe it was mad about the coins I was taking.”

“Maybe it was afraid of you.”

“I don’t think so.  And so I tried to run away, but I couldn’t go back.  There was just no way to go back.  And the creepy dino-turtle was coming at me, so I just had to try to jump over him.  Remember, there was no depth.  Anyway, I landed on top of him – I think it was a him – and he just turned into a shell and flew off into the distance.”


“Exactly, except also ‘Oh dear!’ because I had some pretty complicated feelings about what I did to this poor creature.  Maybe I killed him.  Or her?  And then there were more of them, some of them had wings and were bouncing.  And there were also these mushroom things that had nasty faces and sharp teeth.  I killed them also, but I didn’t feel so bad about it.  They were mean-looking and ugly, first of all, and anyway, a mushroom isn’t really alive.  Or at least it’s not an animal.”

“But you said they had faces.  I thought you didn’t eat anything with a face.”

“I didn’t eat them.  I stomped them in self-defense.”

“So this really goes back to your mosquito argument from the summer.”

“I suppose, but you shouldn’t overlook the fact that this is a dream we’re talking about and, number two, bear in mind that it was pretty fucking intense, what with the unfamiliar surroundings, the lack of depth and the impossibility of backward movement.”


“So, blah, blah, blah, I was running jumping, gathering coins and destroying various animal and non-animal things, but always in self-defense, trying to avoid endless chasms and so on.  I climbed vines and walked through the huge pipes with nothing inside them and saw more creatures.  This is all in the course of a few minutes, so I was getting really sweaty and my overalls were starting to bunch up.  I don’t remember if it was hot, but it felt like summer.  The atmosphere in general was pretty strange.  It would be hard to describe.  Again, probably like being on the moon.”

“I don’t think the moon has an atmosphere.”

“Yeah, exactly.  So anyway, I jumped up onto this floating brick thing – don’t ask – and I just stood there for a second, to catch my breath and to figure out what was going on.  The brick thing was moving back and forth in the air, slowly, and I was on it.  I felt safe and I could see everything below me in its spectacular depthlessness.  I really can’t convey the feeling of looking down over a depthless world.  It was like seeing everything and nothing at the same time.  And it was at this point, as I stood on the swaying brick, looking out at the flat yet still somewhat breathtaking clouds, that I realized I had been in this place before.  I suddenly remembered it all: the bright, sunless landscape, the empty pipes, the weird creatures.”

“Déjà vu.”

“I guess so, but it was different.  It almost felt like remembering a past life, even though I don’t believe in past lives.  Anyway, this memory, or whatever it was, came with the sense that I needed to move forward.  Not out of fear, but to save someone else.  It was as though some force outside of myself was compelling me, almost divinely, to run and jump in one particular direction.  It was totally abstract, but I could feel, in my round but depthless belly, that someone needed me.  Like a princess in distress, or something.”

“A typical assumption.”

“Whatever.  So even though I was totally exhausted, I kept going.  I didn’t know quite what to look for, but I just kept running and occasionally jumping.”

“Uh huh.”

“And then, out of nowhere, this huge floating bullet killed me.  It came at me, with this snarling expression on its face, and I couldn’t get out of the way.  It just touched me and was immediately dead.  And then – this is weird – I turned, even though there was no depth and fell down into nothingness.  And in that moment, I really believe that I experienced death.  That I now understand what it feels like to die.  Then I woke up.”

“Was I the princess you were trying to save?”

“I never got there.”

“But do you think it would’ve been me?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe.”

—Ben Johnstone

  One Response to “The Plumber’s Dream: Short Story — Ben Johnstone”

  1. Interesting dream story! Thanks for the share 🙂

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