The clock radio goes off at 5.30 a.m., in the middle of the weather report. It snatches Jake out of the depths of sleep with predictions of another cold, cloudy winter’s day with intermittent showers. With eyes tightly shut, he hits the “off” button and tries, in vain, to catch the tail of his unfinished dream. It had been a good dream, a pleasant dream, but apart from that, he can’t remember anything about it now that it’s gone.
Reality in all its ghastliness greets Jake from the dressing table mirror when he turns on the light. He has dark rings under the eyes, a beard growth of several days, and his flannelette pyjamas are so raggedy even St Vinny’s would reject them. The man in the mirror looks at least decade older than Jake’s thirty years.
“I’ve been working in and out of the bloody rain for three days in a row,” Jake says, turning his back on reality. “If it’s like this tomorrow, I’m taking a sickie.”
“You can’t, Jake. You run out of sick leave,” Rose answers from under the blankets. “Besides, you shouldn’t complain about the rain, with the drought and all.”
“Yeah, right,” Jake grunts and heads towards the shower, dragging his feet.
“What’s wrong?” His wife exclaims, sitting up in bed as if propelled by a spring.
But JR doesn’t answer. He’s busy checking the surroundings, making sure that he’s in his own room, in his house, not in a one-bedroom rented flat with mould stained ceilings and second hand furniture. He feels the texture of his pyjamas, and is reassured by the smoothness of silk. He runs his fingers over his chin, almost as smooth as his pyjamas. It was a dream, nothing but a dream.
“JR, are you alright?” His wife asks him, scrunching up her eyes.
“Oh, I just had a dreadful nightmare!” JR says, breathing easier. “And it felt so real!”
“Really? What about?”
He turns around to tell her about his dream, just in time to catch her yawning.
“Never mind. I’m okay now,” he says instead.
“In that case,” she says, “I’m going back to sleep. Busy day today.”
“Yeah? What are you up to?”
“Mmm. Let’s see. Riding lesson at ten, meeting Jane for a late lunch, and after school I’m taking the kids to their English tutor. It’s Wednesday, remember?”
“Yes, I remember. I have a board meeting tonight and tomorrow I’m off to Singapore.”
“Then, you should go back to sleep too,” she says, sliding back under the doona.
But JR is too awake and too shaken to sleep. He gets up and puts on a pair of slippers and a robe.
“I’m going for a walk, see if I can catch the sunrise,” he says to his wife, who responds with a series of gentle, regular snuffles.
When he opens the door to go out, a gust of cold wind forces him back inside to swap the robe for his coat.
“There was a butterfly,” he says, thinking aloud.
“Last time I checked, it wasn't a butterfly yet,” Rose answers as if she knew exactly what he’s talking about.
“Huh?” Jake says, forehead burrowed.
“You mean the cocoon outside, don’t you? The one we saw when we came home yesterday. I had a look this morning, while you were getting dressed, and it’s still there. It’s so bloody cold, I hope it makes it.”
“Oh, the cocoon. No wonder I dreamt of butterflies,” Jake says, and then he closes his eyes, delving deep into his subconscious. There was a butterfly at the very end, but before… and then Poof! He remembers some more. “Yes!”
“What?” Rose says, half-hearing. She’s busy cutting up the sandwiches in triangles and wrapping them in plastic. She’s unaccustomed to early morning conversations on weekdays, there’s never enough time.
“I just remembered a dream I had last night,” Jake says. “A pretty cool one, too!”
“Yeah? What about?” Rose puts down the knife to give Jake her undivided attention.
“I dreamt we were loaded,” he gets up and paces around the kitchen, waving his hands. He’s wearing navy blue overalls and workmen’s boots. “We lived in a mansion, with a pool and all, we had two kids and a maid. I flew business class all over the joint, and all you had to do all day was ride horses, socialise and take the kids to private tutors.”
“Ride horses? Ha!” Rose exclaims, sweeping the air with her hand and going back to her sandwiches. “Fancy that! If I could afford not to work, I can think of a million things better to do than ride horses.”
“G’day! You mind? I’m all out of matches,” the garbo says, taking a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket with a gloved hand. JR hesitates for a second but lights up the garbo’s cigarette. They both lean on the bin, exhaling smoke.
“It’s a hard life, hey mate? Us having to start work at the crack of dawn while the snobs in this street are still dreaming.”
JR nods in agreement, amused.
“But you know what?” The garbo says, “I may be a garbo, but I wouldn’t wanna trade places with any of the poor sods that live here.”
JR looks at the garbo with raised eyebrows. He’s afraid that if he opens his mouth the garbo will discover he’s been smoking with the enemy. The garbo leans towards him.
“See, my cousin’s a gardener, and he’s got a few clients in this street,” he says, almost in a whisper. “He tells me that half the missuses are screwing their personal trainers or riding instructors, ’cause their hubbies ain’t ever home.”
He pauses, for effect, and to take another puff of his ciggie.
“Get it? Riding instructors,” the garbo says, rocking his pelvis. At this, he cracks into roaring laughter, waiting for JR to join him. Instead, JR breaks into a coughing fit.
“You’re right there mate?” the garbo says, stubbing his cigarette in the bin, and patting JR on the back.
“I’ll be right,” JR manages to say when he’s recovered. “You carry on with your work.”
“OK then. Ta for the light!”
When the garbo is gone, JR notices that a purple butterfly has settled on his left shoulder. He flicks it off and staggers back to his door, shaking his head, just as the sun rises amidst the clouds.
“Woow. What brought THAT on?” Rose says.
“I just remembered the rest of the dream,” Jake says, peering at the clock over Rose’s shoulder. It’s 6.30 a.m. “Shit! I’m going to miss the bus again!”
He grabs his lunch and toolbox and races towards the door, with Rose racing behind.
“Hon, don’t forget I’ve got Tech tonight. But dinner’s in the fridge, just needs five minutes on medium-high.” Rose says, stepping outside.
The sun has fully risen in a silvery blue sky. The garbo emptying the bins outside their block of flats waves at them, and they wave back.
Rose kisses her husband lightly on the lips with her eyes half open.
“Hey, look!” She jumps, pointing towards the bush behind Jake. The cocoon is in the process of opening, and a beautiful purple butterfly breaks free, unfolding its wings in slow motion. “Ain’t that amazing?”
“Never seen anything so beautiful, babe,” Jake says, already running to the bus stop, followed by the newborn butterfly. The gloominess he felt upon waking has dissipated along with the rain.
A few people, all blue collar workers, wait for the bus which is just turning the corner.