I don’t sleep well. Nothing unusual in that, but nevertheless the insomniac assumes it is a highly personal affliction, just experienced by them, a unique suffering. That’s how it is for me, enduring several stressful periods during the night without sleep. The absence of it makes for a restless body and a racing disorderly mind unwilling to slow down or be marshalled into calm places. In my case the busy synapses of the brain release incontinent memories, vivid and repetitive recollections of past conversations and events and hostilities; and desires, peopled with relatives, friends, colleagues, airline officials, bank clerks, sportsmen, neighbours, opponents, hairdressers, dealers, politicians, councillors, women, always lots of unhappy women. And as they insinuate themselves into my mental kaleidoscope it seems that I am being punished, unable to reply, or to defend myself or shuffle them into a tidy pack.
I would like to take charge of my brain in the small hours, though; like a computer, there are too many files and no reliable delete function.
My wife tells me I need sleep hygiene, whatever that is. She has long since banished my nocturnal, feverish body from her side into another bed. She wears earplugs and a face mask. She relaxes into sleep almost immediately and across the room I hear the evidence of her enviable steady breathing. I mentally explode. It’s as if my whole life is in a soda bottle and is then shaken up, the container unstoppered and the contents effervesce through my mind.
It doesn’t help that I don’t like myself, or what I’ve done in my life. My memories are detailed, photographic, and I can’t change them. When conversations of years ago replay themselves and I can’t alter what I then said, or retract, or apologise, I groan out loud. My wife sometimes wakes and is irritated when she discovers I haven’t had a heart attack and am just being noisy. She’s lost patience with me. I’ve failed; I feel I’m on notice.
One night, I returned to my bed after a visit to the loo. I sat on the edge of the bed trying to get hold of the slippery images in my head. I did breathing exercises, stretched my feet forwards and backwards several times on the floor, drank some water. Without explanation I remembered the room, the particular room; there it was, stationary in my memory. It didn’t evaporate or collapse. I could walk into it, see it as it was, and inhabit it again. I remembered sitting in it, lying on the settee, talking, observing the light and the view from the front window, hearing the sound of voices in the kitchen beyond. If only I could hold on to the room, I might be safe once more, not feel ashamed, sleep would envelope me as it used to there in the afternoons, and our married life would be content as it was then.
That room, part of my life for forty years until it was sold to pay for care home fees, was in the house of my wife’s aunt, Alice, her mother’s sister. My wife’s mother died fairly young and Alice became the head of the family. We visited her regularly. Family parties, funerals, engagements, marriages, babies were all celebrated in the room. It hardly altered as Alice went from being a widow to being ninety-eight.
I felt secure in the place. It always looked the same, as did the hallway and passage to the kitchen and scullery beyond. The furniture never changed. Although Alice and her husband had modernised the house when they first bought it, nothing much had been done after that, a lick of paint once or twice. It reappeared in my memory as an untouched monument, frozen.
The paintings on the walls, inherited Victorian water-colours, the ornate sideboards with green baize-lined drawers, the large ornamental carriage clock, the silver tea set and cruets, the solid silver salvers, and silver photograph frames, all of them remained intact and could now be explored once more in my mind. There was an imitation gas coal fire in a mahogany framed fireplace, two standard lamps with frill shades, a television changed only occasionally for a more modern set.
A feature of the room was the wide and tall window across the front which faced a long lawn bordered with flowering shrubs and, on the boundary to the lane, there were trees—a silver birch, a laburnum, and on the other side of the lane, a row of much larger trees bordering the common land beyond. It was rural but also suburban.
Our early visits were taken up with amusing the children and having a large tea. Later on, Alice would sit, elderly and talkative in a corner of the sofa, and my wife would make tea. I talked to Alice and listened as she reminisced about her family before the war or regaled me with the news of the relatives and their misdemeanours. Then, invariably, I lay down and dozed while Alice and my wife chattered away, the murmur of their voices like a comforting steady wave on a distant shore. The sleep I struggle for now came naturally then.
That was the room, a place of ritual, and it seemed perpetual in that Sunday afternoon way. Alice’s deterioration was scarcely noticeable, though we always had a birthday party for her and wondered at the advance of her age and seemingly eternal life. That was of course ridiculous. I didn’t want admit it, but it had to end. Alice had to leave and the house had to be sold. We cleared the place, a dreary task. The things there which belonged to her, which were part of that life, which were animated by her using them, touching them, were now just things, to be packed up, sent to the tip, to auction, offered round to the unenthusiastic family.
One day it was done, the front door closed on us for the last time, and, looking back through the front window, there was nothing, just the empty carcass. In a way our marriage changed too. Part of the framework was dismantled.
You might ask why I remember that room rather than, say, Australia, where I spent some time, or my holidays near Nice, or journeys to California and Japan. Those places were ephemeral, interesting, but they didn’t touch me. In terms of my sleeping and mental turmoil, they aren’t now helpful at all. They remind me of temptations, encounters in hotels, bodies beside swimming pools, the parties where I didn’t behave.
When I lie sleepless, Alice’s room is a surprise; it has become available to me again, I see it and sense it as it was for so long. I can lie down in it and hear the people who once thronged it for occasions; my people, I cared for them. I might pour drinks, fetch things from the kitchen while my wife handed round cakes and gathered gossip. Then later with Alice we would go over things in great detail and repeat them in different versions. It’s the only permanent, unchanging place in my memory, where I can still recover even if I cannot retrieve it. Our life had some purpose then, which it later lost.
I haven’t behaved well, that’s the truth of it. I’m not a thief, or a fraudster, or violent, nothing like that, not a criminal. But my wrongs have been more insidious. I’ve too often said the wrong things, fished for temporary satisfactions, and eaten too much, not been kind. I’ve been greedy, wanted money for nothing, been a bit sharp. I’ve been disloyal and betrayed friends. And now in the night all those unpleasant behaviours return to haunt me.
The room might save my nights even now. I try to hold on to it. And if only I could once more open the front door, call out, ‘We’re here,’ leave my things on the chair in the hall, and take the basket into the kitchen and put it on the table. And if I could again go into the long sitting room, and from behind see Alice’s grey hair over the top of the settee and hear her greeting while my wife follows, and we sit down again and start conversations where we once left off, have a good cup of tea and a nap, a blessed nap.
If only I could, but I can’t. Instead, now I have remembered it as it was, in my head I can try to restore its safety amongst the squashed pillows and twisted bedclothes of my nightly tortures, and hope that the recall will rescue me and my sleep and my wife.
© 2020 Roger Jefferies
A retired part-time resident of Broadstairs for twenty-five years. Roger writes fiction, especially short stories. He likes France and food.