Sleep-walking by Martin Flett
There are some things in life that we just do. We don’t have to think about them, they just happen. Take breathing for example: we inhale oxygen, which travels to our lungs and in turn they pass it into the blood stream to carry it around the body. It’s possibly one of the most complex things we do, and yet we barely even realise it’s happening. Operating our bodies is another. As I move my hand to lift my camomile tea (‘Keep off the caffeine’ they tell me), I don’t need to think about passing an electrical impulse along my nerves to the muscles in my arm, hand and fingers. All I have to do is decide I want a drink and my mind and body know intrinsically what to do. I used to think that sleeping fell into this category but, like money, or sex, you only really begin to think about it when you don’t have it. Sex: yep, there’s another thing I don’t get. And believe me, lying here alone night after night, it’s something I’m acutely aware of. But back to sleep: I can’t help wondering how I could ever have thought of it as a simple thing in the first place. I mean, think about it – how do we fall asleep? We close our eyes and…fall asleep. But that’s not all – it’s very simple to close one’s eyes and not fall asleep, so how is it that sometimes we’re able to will ourselves unconscious? And how can it be a natural thing? When someone falls unconscious following a trauma or illness, it is a strong sign that all is not well with that person. And they certainly have no control over their consciousness then. What makes sleep so different? And how the hell do I get any? Experts tell me I should keep my bedroom free from distractions, therefore my bed is in a fairly sparse room with no TV, radio, or phone. I have a sink at the foot of my bed and a fine oak wardrobe in the corner. There’s an Ikea chest of drawers next to the wardrobe, and a mirror on the wall above them. As well as these things, since my insomnia began, I’ve discovered that my ceiling contains a thin crack just above the foot of my bed. So far I have been unable to ascertain whether it is growing, or whether it is merely my imagination. My room contains nothing else. Forgive me. I am prone to meandering thought patterns at…whatever this unearthly hour is. Ah – 2.30am, according to the redundant-alarm clock beside my bed. With any luck, I’ll fall asleep in a minute or two but until then, let me tell you about a couple of deeper thoughts I’ve been having as I’ve been lying here. For example, I’ve thought about God: it is said that he rested on the seventh day of creation. However, I’ve also been told that he never slumbers or sleeps, so why then did he rest? For the sheer pleasure of relaxing? (I wish I knew a little more of that, that’s for sure!) I’ve also, somewhat inevitably given the aforementioned lack of sex, thought about girls. And loneliness. They seem like two sides of a coin – the lack of one means the other is present. Sort of like Superman and Clark Kent. In fact, some days, it’s difficult to believe that anyone might come my way again! I can go days on end without seeing a soul outside of work (and I’d barely class some of the people at work as ‘souls’) and no-one seems to care. I’ve wondered sometimes if I would care if I was in their position. The glowing red digits on the clock now read 2.58am. I can’t lie here anymore thinking like this, I’m getting out of here. Climbing out of my bed, I shiver, briefly forgetting that it is January after all and I’m only wearing an old t-shirt and boxers. I grab my jeans from the top of the chest of drawers where I threw them last night, and put them on. Then I switch on the light; my eyes sting momentarily before adjusting. I take a check in the mirror; I look exhausted. The gaunt
frame of my reflection mimics my actions as I rub my face and eyes with my hands and then tousle my matted brown hair. Pillow-head is not a good look but I’m not overly concerned about appearances tonight. I just need some air. I walk down the wooden hall of my flat, my footsteps echoing in the darkness. I’ve made this journey a million times before and I know the exact number of steps to the end, and tonight the hallway is bathed with moonlight coming in through the glass door at the end. I can clearly see my coat, keys and the clock hung on the wall. 3.05am. It’s hard to believe that only a little while ago I was still expecting to fall asleep in a moment. I should really know better. Outside, I’m shivering again, pulling my coat around me and striding out into the clear, still night. The stars twinkle, almost mischievously, through the trees; This was a good idea, I think to myself. The early morning air is making me feel more alert and, if I stay out long enough, I might just be treated to one of those glorious winter sunrises. You have to grasp the few benefits of insomnia when they arise. ‘Watch where you’re going!’ a voice cries. I had only closed my eyes for a moment, trying to recall a thought from the other night but, in that time a man, bustling round the corner with his briefcase, had careered straight into me. The man swears loudly, crashing the edge of his briefcase against my shin, deliberately I’m sure, before disappearing without so much as an apology. As he huffs down the road I hear him muttering, ‘Bloody junkie…’ ‘Bastard,’ I curse under my breath, clutching my shin. Maybe this outing wasn’t such a good idea after all. Another voice speaks to me, and for a moment I look around, unable to figure out where it came from. ‘Don’t let ‘em get to ye, lad. There’s always some what think they’re better than us.’ Maybe I really am losing my mind, hearing voices now, I think, but the same broad Yorkshire accent, kind of out of place here in Portsmouth, speaks again, ‘Aye, I see my fair share, nightly,’ it says, ‘No doubt that un’s had a row with his missus, or else is feeling guilty about summat he shudda told his missus, if yer know what I mean.’ Looking again, I discover there is a man, sitting in the shadows of the church building on the corner. He climbs to his feet and, as he walks towards me, I can make out a smile through his scraggly beard. He holds out a hand to shake mine. ‘Ma name’s Ed,’ he says, ‘An’ ye look a little rough my friend. Come on, let’s head round to t’ soup kitchen. They’ll fix ye up with summat warm.’ And then I’m walking with him, around to the back of the church. We go through an unassuming door into a simply decorated hall, filled with tables and a number of guys, much like Ed by my side. They’re all dressed with seemingly-standard-issue woollen hats and beards. We make our way to the far end where a few elderly ladies are serving soup from two large metal vats on a long table. We approach and one of them greets us, ‘Hello gents, tomato tonight.’ ‘Ahh that’s reet grand Margo, an’ one for mi pal ‘ere ‘n all if ye will,’ Ed replies. I’m beginning to like this guy, and it’s certainly warmer in here. We find seats at a vacant table and start on our soup, eating in silence for a minute or two. I’ve never been that comfortable with silence, it’s one of the biggest problems I have with insomnia – at night silence is sometimes all there is. ‘Thanks for this,’ I say to break the silence, not knowing where else to start. ‘I really appreciate you taking the time.’ Ed puts down his spoon briefly and looks at me, ‘Well, why wouldn’t I? Time’s pretty much all I have these days, an’ ye seem like a nice lad. Can’t quite work out what yer
doin’ out ‘ere though…’ I decide to let the implied question pass for now in favour of finding out a little more about my benefactor, ‘Time’s all you have these days? So, what did you used to have?’ I realise as soon as I’ve said it that I’ve been a little too bold; this time Ed doesn’t put down his spoon. In fact he barely seems to have heard me. It’s a good few seconds before he answers, ‘I don’t like to talk ‘bout it to be honest. It’s histry i’n it, can’t get it back now.’ ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.’ Ed laughs, ‘Not at all! Didn’t get this far without a thicker skin than that,’ and he smiles again. Silence reigns once more as we finish our soup, then Ed leans back in his chair. I’m relieved as he seems more ready for conversation now, and we pass some time discussing the weather and various sports – he keeps up to date on local news from old newspapers he finds. ‘So…’ Ed says, changing the conversation’s gear, ‘Ye never told me what yer out ‘ere doin’? Nice young lad like yersen. Shudn’t ye be home wi’ yer girl, tucked up in yer bed?’ ‘I wish,‘ I say, just about getting the gist of his question amongst the accent. ‘My story’s quite simple really; I just couldn’t sleep and thought I’d come out and get some air. No girls to tell of either I’m afraid; I’m just me.’ ‘Ahh never mistake how much of a luxury that is! I’ve seen both sides, I ‘ave, and they both ‘ave their benefits… that said, I still ‘aven’t given up yet.’ Ed winks. Actually, I was just thinking about it before I came out. My last relationship ended over two years ago and there hasn’t been so much as a hint of a hope of anything since then. You might not have given up yet, but I pretty much have.’ I don’t know why, but I’m finding it easy to talk to Ed. He seems to have no agenda of his own, we‘re just two guys glad of the company. I begin to wonder why I’ve never really spoken to a homeless guy before. ‘Well, if ye want it, yer shuldn’t give up there, lad. Yer still young, an’ I’ve learned yer never know what’s round t’ corner. Take this place, bet yer never knew it was ‘ere, but ‘ere we are! Just round t’ corner. Funny how sometimes it takes t’ night to see things clear, eh?’ Ed pauses and then looks down at his empty bowl before pushing it away. ‘Yer know, I had a wife myself once, a luverly lass she was an’ all.’ ‘Yeah? What happened?’ ‘She got sick, she did. Thought she’d pull through, we did. But nay…that were two years ago now, n‘ all.’ Ed drops his head and sighs, ‘I told ye, I don’t like to talk about it.’ ‘I’m sorry. I…well…I didn’t realise.’ I don’t know what else to say. Ed sighs again and we sit in silence once more. Soon, the other patrons start to leave and, taking the cue, Ed rises from his chair, ‘Well, best get back out. They ‘ave to clear up before t’ Sunday service at ten today.’ It’s Saturday night, or at least it was; I’d completely forgotten, ‘Yeah, I guess I ought to head back myself. Maybe I’ll be able to get some rest today.’ I glance at a clock on the wall which reads 4.30am; time has really flown. We say goodbye to Margo and walk back out together into the cold. As we reach the end of the street where we met Ed turns to me, ‘I usually ‘ead down to t’ park of a mornin’. Folk walk past ‘n sometimes drop a bit a change my way, but I like to watch t’ ducks on t’ pond an’ all.’ ‘Ok, well, my flat is this way,’ I say, pointing down the adjoining road, ‘So I guess this is it.’ ‘Ahh yer never know, ‘appen we’ll meet another night! Now go on, get some rest. An’ ye never know what t’day might bring!’ He winks again, I’m not sure why, and then off he goes, stooping a little as he walks. It occurs to me that Ed hadn’t even asked my name, never mind my help. I wonder
how someone in his situation can be so positive. His words resonate, ‘Sometimes it takes th’ night to see things clear.’ I wonder what kind of ‘night’ he’s been through. It sounded like a tough one. And what of that man with the briefcase? And what now of me? Hopeless or hopeful? Superman or Clark Kent? Homeless-man or businessman? Making my way back towards my flat, pondering these things, I notice a figure up ahead. As I approach I can see it’s a girl, sobbing, and looking a little worse for wear: her hair is a mess and her make-up has run down her face. As she passes, she turns her head away, ashamed of her state. I let her pass, but as I do a thick Yorkshire accent resounds in my head, ‘ye never know what’s round t’ corner,’ and it mingles with my emotions. I stop, and turn. With a few quick steps I draw back alongside the girl and speak to her in what I hope is a comforting, rather than creepy, voice, ‘Hey, are you okay?’ The End
A short story by Martin Flett.