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‘I am on Air Force One, and Donald Trump has invited me to sit next to him. He calls over for one of his aides and a few minutes later we are delivered a platter of New York pastrami on rye. He insists I try them first, and I ask him if it’s because he thinks the food is going to poison him, and he laughs, and says something about “ladies first”, and somehow the sandwich is just something which we can both talk about so that I’m at ease with the President of the United States. I’m constantly thinking, this is strange, I don’t know why I’m here, and then the plane sort of jolts as if it’s hit an air pocket – well, I hope it’s hit an air pocket and it’s not a missile attack or something – and Donald Trump is white as a sheet and suddenly looks like the old man he is, and I pat him on the hand and reassure him and I think, that’s why I’m here, to make sure he gets down all right. I tell him I am a Jehovah’s Witness so that if anything happens I’m okay with it, that my place in heaven is secure, and that if he wants I can pray for him and that seems to relax him. And then the plane starts to nose-dive…’
            ‘Carol…?’ I prompt, after the pause continues for a few seconds.
            ‘… and then I wake up.’
            I sit back, creating a bit of distance between us. My chair is straight-backed, uncomfortable enough to keep me from falling asleep even during the most repetitive of testimonies, whilst Carol’s chair – the client’s chair – is shorter, rounder, and more comfortable, the sort of chair in which you might feel comfortable enough to talk about your dreams.
            There are the usual signifiers. I explain that dreams are the unconscious speaking to us, and that not everything in a dream is significant, that much of the detail of the story is the random detritus we pick up during the daytime and doesn’t actually mean anything in itself. Perhaps there had been a news article about Donald Trump? Had she seen a late-night film showing a plane crash?I told her what I thought, and she nodded, taking it in, and asked a few questions, and then talked a little bit about her life. She didn’t mention her faith again, and I didn’t want to be the one to bring it up, but it seemed important.    
She looked pretty normal, well dressed, carefully made up, with an expensive haircut, the kind of woman who you would speak to if you were buying perfume for your girlfriend or your mother. Only as she left did I notice that she wore the most solid, sensible shoes I’d ever seen.

‘That’s the fifth one this week,’ I told Zuzanna from the other room. ‘They are all having dreams about Donald Trump. I wouldn’t mind, but why now? I thought we’d have got used to him by now. Did British people dream of Obama? Of Clinton? Of Dubya?’
            ‘Dreams are contagious,’ she said, ‘you know that.’
            And I did know that. I had told her everything I knew about dreams whilst she worked on her algorithm.
            ‘Maybe it’s a sign that you should stop,’ she said, ‘and, by the way, I have finished the beta.’ And she pronounced it to rhyme with feta not with metre. I loved how she said the word.
            ‘That’s great news,’ I said. But I have appointments booked in all week…’
            ‘Stop now,’ she said, ‘before you catch the contagion.’
            Her logic was impeccable.
            That night in bed we made love and as I moved on top of her, finding my rhythm, I pleaded with her to ‘say it’.
            ‘Beta,’ she said, ‘beta, beta, beta, beta, be-ta…’
            Zuzanna was a software engineer originally from Katowice who I had met via an online forum but who happened to live in the same city as me. Soon we were dating, and before I knew it she had moved in. My dream-consultation business had been going for over a year and had turned into something of a success.People were looking for something in their lives.
            I had gone online to see if there were any dream apps that I might be able to recommend, and that’s when I’d found Zuzanna. She was marshalling a team of programmers across Eastern Europe and South East Asia to develop an AI bot that would make me redundant. The demand for dream consultation meant that the business would never develop with just one person doing it. Zuzanna had great plans for her software to go global. She paid her programmers in a cryptocurrency that was powered by the amount of new dreams appearing in the world. Every time someone wrote about their dream on social media, Zuzanna’s bots scraped the information and fed it into a database. In the early days new dreams appeared every few hours, but now, with a substantial database, new dreams were becoming as rare as mathematical primes.
            The next morning I woke early. Zuzanna was already at work taking advantage of her programmers being in different time zones. I returned to my booth in the labyrinth of short-let offices in Carmichael Street and carefully attached a sign to the door.


Because of unprecedented demand all dream consultations will now take place virtually. Our team of operators will respond instantly – day or night – to your latest dreams and for a fraction of the cost of an individual consultation.
                     Sign up here.

            And as well as the URL that Zuzanna had given me there was a QR code that people could scan.
            I spent the next hour cancelling appointments. I emptied the kettle and unplugged it, cleaned up the small kitchen area and took the memory card from the server linked to the CCTV camera that looked over the entrance hall.
            I walked home rather than getting the bus. At each major junction was a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses, quietly and unobtrusively going about their business. There were more women then men, though I noticed that there were never any single-sex groupings. They stood next to a sandwich board and handed out literature, but mostly they just talked amongst themselves. I noticed that the women all wore very sensible shoes, like the ones Carol had on, and suddenly it made sense – they were standing up all day. I remembered where I’d seen other Jehovah’s Witnesses and went around town until I’d been to every location, but Carol was not with any of them.
            Over the next few weeks, I no longer had any reason to be at home. The dream-consultation software was running like a dream. The AI bots were sophisticated enough to not need manual tweaking. Zuzanna was mainly dealing with the associated problems that came with having a software platform going viral. Our joint bank account went in the red at one point as she bought more server space, more cloud hosting. We’d not considered the difficulty of scaling up. The free trial had brought people in, but was costing us a fortune. She sold some of her cryptocurrency via one of the new exchanges, and I cashed in an ISA I’d had for over a decade.
            By the end of the second week, things were stable, but Zuzanna had been asked to fly to San Francisco to meet some venture capitalists who were interested in investing. I could have gone over with her, but she didn’t need me there, and I have always hated long-haul flights.
            Our last night together we didn’t even want to make love, it was enough to just lie beside each other in a kind of mutually exclusive silence punctuated by occasional small reminiscences.
            ‘Maybe you will have dreams when I’m away,’ she said finally.     
            ‘I don’t think so,’ I said sadly.

Over a year earlier, several months before Zuzanna moved in with me, there were a group of us from work in the pub. It was a happy-sombre occasion. There had been a large number of redundancies. I’d somehow managed to hang on, but most of my friends had taken the money. Jack started by saying ‘I had the strangest dream last night’. Everyone groaned. ‘We don’t want to hear it,’ Lindsey said. ‘No, I do,’ I interrupted suddenly. ‘Tell me.’ I listened to what Jack had to say, and, without being asked, gave my interpretation. The others then told their dreams, so there was only me and Lindsey left. ‘Oh, go on then,’ I said, and hers was the strangest and saddest of the lot.
            ‘Now your turn,’ she said.
            My brow furrowed. I couldn’t remember what I’d dreamt last night. Nor the night before. Nor, I realised, for endless nights before that.
            ‘I don’t dream,’ I said, finally.           
            ‘You must have – you just don’t remember them.’
            I went quiet, and they didn’t push me on it.  A week later I put in a request for redundancy and it was accepted.
Experiments monitoring brain activity during sleep have indicated that even non-dreamers do dream, they just don’t remember them. I recall having dreamt as a child, but at some point I must have stopped remembering them.
             That’s when I’d set up the dream-consultation business. I realised it was partially vicarious, as I pored over the recollections of other people’s dreams, yet never had my own to share. Perhaps this immersion would help me; but after over a year of doing this, I still didn’t dream.
            With Zuzanna away, I was free to spend my time as I wished. I copied the memory card from the CCTV onto my computer, and watched again the footage of my last client climbing the stairs and ringing the bell, and then coming in for her consultation. I had a phone number and email address for her, but as she’d not booked another consultation I didn’t really know how to use them without worrying her.
            I had identified five regular spots where the Jehovah’s Witnesses assembled, and there were at least three there every day, usually a man and two women. That meant fifteen people in town every day, and I never saw the same ones twice at the same spot, which meant that, assuming they took Sundays off, there would need to be 4,500 over the course of a year. It couldn’t be possible that there were so many in a single town. I would just need to keep looking and eventually I would bump into Carol again, as if by accident.
            What did I want to say to her?
            I wanted to know if she’d continued to have the dream about Donald Trump after seeing me, or if I’d somehow cured her.
The communications with Zuzanna had become more haphazard. I always knew how to find her, of course. There were a number of geek channels that she had set up for discussing the software, and then again, there were the forums devoted to cryptocurrency. But non-work communications had almost ceased. I realised I hardly knew her. I even created an account under another name with the dream-consultation bot. Without dreams of my own, I recycled some of the many that had been told to me over the year. The bot was good. The explanations were plausible. I recognised my own contributions to the algorithm, but after a few days of this, I realised the bot was responding in a way that I never could have. Whereas I would hear twenty dreams a week, this software was hearing twenty thousand. And, just as Zuzanna had predicted, genuinely new dreams were rare.
            By this point nearly everyone was having dreams about Donald Trump.

I only intermittently checked my bank account, so it was a surprise when the ATM ate my payment card. I went online as soon as I could get to a computer.
            Zuzanna had withdrawn the last of our funds. How could I have been so stupid as to trust her?
            But there was a message from her on one of the secure channels.
            ‘I’ve had to protect our investment,’ she said, ‘and here’s the key.’
            She had sent me a link to an online wallet for her cryptocurrency. I used the credentials she had provided me with and there it was – my money had all been transformed into something virtual and, rather than stealing from me, Zuzanna had made me a multi-millionaire. But without Zuzanna around to explain how, I couldn’t easily transform this into any currency I could actually spend.
            With my need for some petty cash, and having started biking around town all day to speed up my watch of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I signed up to be a courier for one of the new gig-economy delivery firms.

It was a week after I started that I took the order for pizza. My bike was idling on the strip where the restaurant was, but the delivery was out of town, at the edge of our normal delivery zone. I worked out that I could make this my last of the day, and head back via a different route to where I lived. Zuzanna had asked for a face-to-face via video conference that evening. I picked up the delivery from the pizza restaurant and packed the boxes carefully before hoisting the backpack over my arms.
            Although I knew the area I wasn’t sure of the actual address, as it seemed to be a side road on a quiet estate. I had to ease up when I got onto the estate to work out which road it was on. It was called the Orchard estate and so there was an Apple Drive, a Pear Tree Avenue and, tucked away, a Blossom Close. I jumped off the bike, but I wasn’t in a particular hurry, other than to get back for Zuzanna.
            I found number 5, a tidy, nondescript maisonette, with a sharp message on the glass of the porch: ‘No Flyers. No Hawkers.’
            The door was opened after a couple of rings by a boy around 12 years old.
            ‘Hi. Pizza,’ I said, smiling.
            ‘Mum!’ he shouted.
            There was a shuffling behind him and he just stood there. Given that payment was on the app I could just hand it over to him, but I thought I should wait for an adult.
            A woman came to the door. It was Carol, my last client. With my cap on, advertising the delivery firm I worked for, and her focus on the pile of pizza boxes in front of me, she didn’t notice me at first.
            ‘Hi, it’s Carol, isn’t it?’
            She looked up. There was recognition but puzzlement.
            ‘You came for a consultation. A dream consultation.’
            She smiled.
            ‘This is funny, meeting you here,’ I said, but wasn’t sure what was funny about it.
            ‘I live here,’ she said.
            ‘Of course. I gave up the business,’ I said. ‘It wasn’t working out for me.’
            ‘Oh, that’s a shame,’ she said. ‘You were very helpful.’
            ‘Was I?’ I said. ‘It’s hard to tell. Most people don’t come back, so I never got much feedback. But there’s an app now you can use any time you want and it lets you give a rating on how helpful the service was.’
            ‘An app?’
            ‘Yes, for interpreting dreams. You can download it to your phone. There’s always someone there when you want to discuss them.’ I didn’t want to tell her that it was a bot rather than a person. I should probably have brought a flyer. But, of course, I never expected to bump into one of my ex-clients doing this job.
            ‘Do you still dream of Donald Trump?’ I asked.
             I thought she was going to close the door on me.
            ‘Doesn’t everyone?’ she asked, genuinely surprised.
            ‘I don’t,’ I said, truthfully.
            ‘You’re lucky,’ she said.
            There was a voice from inside. A man’s voice.
            ‘It’s the pizza delivery guy,’ she shouted back.
            ‘I shouldn’t have come,’ she whispered.‘Alan doesn’t know.’
            ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘well, I’m glad you did. You were my last client.’
            ‘The app,’ I said.
            ‘Oh yes.’
            We stood there, more awkwardly than before. I wanted to say something.
            ‘I liked your shoes,’ I said, stupidly. ‘They seemed very sensible.’
            We both looked down at her feet. She was wearing bunny-rabbit slippers.
            ‘Thank you,’ she said, amused.
            The solid brogues were neatly lined up on a shoe rack just inside the porch door.
            ‘Enjoy your pizza.’
            ‘I hope it all works out for you,’ she said.
            ‘Oh, this is only temporary.’
            ‘I have to go.’
            ‘Your pizza will be getting cold.’
            ‘Yes, my pizza will be getting cold.’ She was about to close the door, then she hesitated.
            ‘They don’t stop,’ she said, ‘the dreams. Once they start, I mean. Every night. It scares me, I don’t know what to believe in anymore.’
            ‘It’s all right,’ I said, ‘dreams don’t really mean anything. I’m sorry if I gave you the impression that they did. People want them to mean something, but they’re just...’
            ‘Random detritus?’ she said.
            ‘Yes, random detritus.’
            She closed the door behind me and I wheeled the bike off the estate.
When I got home it was time for my call with Zuzanna. It was early afternoon in the States. The connection wasn’t that great. She kept fading in and out. At the end of it, I realised she wouldn’t be coming back.  I stayed up as late as I possibly could before my tired eyes got the better of me and I lurched over to the cold, empty bed.
            In a second I had fallen asleep.
            That night I dreamt I was on Air Force One having a New York pastrami sandwich with Donald Trump.

© 2020 Adrian Slatcher

This electronic version of “Dreams are Contagious” appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the publisher and the author. It appears in Best British Short Stories 2020 edited by Nicholas Royle, published by Salt Books, 2020. Book ordering available through and

photo: Jonathan Bean

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