I never lost much sleep over losing sleep. Doing so seemed, well, counterintuitive. Illogical. Self-defeating.
Those friends—one or two—who complained of restless nights, of tossing and turning, of simply not switching off, baffled me: why not just get up, if you can’t sleep, and do some work, I would wonder. Or if you don’t do the kind of work you can pursue in the small hours of the night or the morning, why not, maybe, read? Or watch a film? Watch a documentary for example, or a history programme? Phone a friend in New Zealand, or in Australia: there’s bound to be one you’ve mostly forgotten about, because they never comment on social media. They’re actually there: just call them up out of the blue and say: ‘hey! How is it all hanging with you?’ It will be a lovely surprise.
‘Oh, but then I’ll be tired in the morning,’ my sleepless friends would say. But you’ll be tired in the morning anyway, I’d think and say: ‘I see. That’s inconvenient, certainly.’ I didn’t really see. Though I realised it would be inconvenient to be tired in the morning. Then again they were tired in the morning anyway, because they couldn’t sleep, so why not be tired having done something useful, or interesting?
A very good friend of mine who often found it difficult to sleep told me she worried a great deal about it, because it made her feel neurotic. I half bethought me there was perhaps a seed of self-knowledge contained in this sensation. I didn’t think it friendly to say so, so I said, ‘I’m so sorry to hear that.’ She would go to bed at nine thirty, ten at the latest, and then lie awake. She used to use earplugs and a sleep mask and close the heavy curtains of her bedroom. And not sleep. ‘You never have that problem?’ I never had that problem.
I can sleep in any kind of setting, light or dark; I have a high background noise threshold (I mostly just zone out of it), I sleep any time, day or night; my window, except during coldest winter, is always ajar, my blinds don’t darken the room, they just afford a bit of privacy; I usually go to bed about three, three thirty in the morning (sometimes, if it’s been a heavy day or an early start, or an early start is impending, an hour or so earlier), I sleep until ten, maybe nine-thirty; I don’t set an alarm unless I absolutely have to: my body appears to require seven hours of sleep now, almost exactly, to wake up, slowly and a little reluctantly, always, but essentially to fully functioning order restored. So long as I’m warm enough, I am fine. I don’t even mind my lover snoring. I simply clamp onto him and fall in with his breathing, no problem.
The problem started when Edgar, my most sensible friend, told me he couldn’t sleep. ‘Why not?’ I asked him. He said he didn’t know, he just couldn’t. It was annoying. Beyond annoying, it was tiring: he’s a university lecturer, he needs to be awake during the day, to do his thinking, his preparing of lectures, his reading, and his lecturing. Being tired is not just inconvenient for him, it’s debilitating. Suddenly that made sense. And now I was worried. If Edgar, my least neurotic and quite possibly most intelligent friend, suddenly, out of the blue, simply can’t sleep, and for no particular reason, but to the point where it interferes with his operability, then who is safe from this menace? I decided, uncharacteristically, to probe further:
‘Has anything happened to make you lose sleep over it?’
‘Not really, no.’
‘Your relationship is going well.’
‘Splendid. Except we sleep in separate rooms at the moment, because I can’t sleep. And I snore.’
‘Aw. – Ah well, many couples sleep in separate rooms.’
‘Your children are healthy?
‘They’re excellent, thanks.’
‘Your daughter-in-law has calmed down a bit.’
‘A bit. It’ll take her a while, I suppose.’
‘I suppose. – University not undergoing too many changes, no upheavals?’
‘Just the bureaucracy, it’s creeping in, it’s taking over. It’s a nightmare.’
‘Ah! There you go! You are worried about the bureaucrats taking over!’
‘No I don’t worry about them, I’ve got tenure. They just annoy me, they have no imagination.’
‘Of course not, they’re bureaucrats. How about… how about… food? You eat well, don’t you?’
This is an unnecessary question: Edgar eats exquisitely: he is one of the best chefs I know.
‘There really is no obvious reason,’ he says, a tone of resignation in his voice.
That worries me: if Edgar, of all people, quite possibly the most up-for-it, can-do person I know, is sounding resigned over being unable to sleep, then who can fight this disease. Disease!
‘How is your health?’
‘My health is all right, thanks, how is yours?’
‘Mine is just dandy, thanks. Do you take any exercise?’ I’ve recently latched on to the need to take exercise, it’s an age thing; has Edgar?
‘Of course not.’
‘Maybe that’s the cause of your inability to sleep.’
‘I have never taken any exercise in my life, I burn all my calories in my brain.’
This is probably true. The brain uses a lot of energy, and Edgar is one of the most avid thinkers I know; but thinking doesn’t aid circulation.
‘You maybe should go for a walk now and then.’
‘I go for short walks all the time.’
‘Maybe you should go for a long walk, every day.’
‘You do that, don’t you?
‘I do. And I sleep like a baby.’
‘What, wake up every few hours and scream your head off, until somebody rocks you and gives you some oral gratification.’
‘I walked right into that, didn’t I.’
That’s why I like Edgar, he doesn’t take any nonsense from me, or from anyone. And he’s brought up a whole brood of children, he knows what he’s talking about.
‘Have you thought about therapy?’ (Of course he hasn’t.)
‘Of course not.’
‘Then I don’t know what I can recommend. Read, maybe. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. People rave about it. I tried reading it five times, I fell asleep every time. It’s like a switch: I get to about page three, four, maximum five, then I’m out. Just like that.’
‘I’ve read it. It was entertaining.’
‘Maybe try reading it again… – or: maybe try reading about something you’re really not interested in, at all.’
‘Like the Spanish Civil War.’
‘The Spanish Civil War?’
‘Yes: are you interested in the Spanish Civil War?’
‘I have never given it a moment’s thought.’
I meet Edgar for coffee about two weeks later, as we are both in town. (We are not that often both in town at the same time, we lead busy, cosmopolitan lifestyles that involve being out of and in other cities and towns respectively all the time.)
‘How is it going?
‘Fine thanks. Just very tired.’
‘Still no joy with the sleep?’
‘It’s getting worse.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘Thanks. You are, of course, to blame.’
‘Well, I started reading about the Spanish Civil War: it’s fascinating!’
‘Oh, but that’s great, isn’t it?
‘Yes and no: I’m learning about European history, which, frankly, I knew little about, but the books now keep me awake even longer.’
‘Ah. Well. That was an unintended consequence. Maybe you have to find something less stimulating to read, and less likely to be of random tangential relevance to you. How about botany?’
‘Yes, you don’t have a garden, do you.’
‘And you don’t want one, do you.’
‘Well there you go: why not read about botany, that will send you to sleep.’ (If that doesn’t send him to sleep, I think, then nothing will. Then again, there are botanists, so who knows…)
It’s nearly the end of June and I’m about to go on a lengthy trip, so I forget about the business of sleep for a while as I cruise around Europe in an open top car. This feels both extravagant and romantic. I’m doing it on my own, because I don’t at that point have a partner, and I’m enjoying the freedom, the spirit, the air. I sleep in a different b’n’b every night, almost, and most of the time on my own. Only on one occasion is the host so flirtatious, so attractive, so sexy that we end up spending the night together. In Bordeaux. I eat well, I drink well, I sleep well.
Edgar and I are having dinner, on my return. He’s cooking, the way he usually does, in passing. He has the knack for rustling up something delicious as if it weren’t happening, while we’re talking. It’s fascinating, and a little disconcerting. When I cook (which I only do since recently, thanks to an online service that sends me all the ingredients in a box, together with clear instructions, which I follow to the letter and get annoyed with if they are even remotely vague, which thankfully happens extremely rarely), I have to give it my full concentration. I follow the steps. My cooking is in essence a connecting of dots: it’s reading the sheet music and making it work. With some success, I might add. Edgar’s cooking is all jazz and improvisation. The steak is particularly juicy on this occasion, and the roasted vegetables with fresh herbs are out of this world!
‘You’ve surpassed yourself, Edgar! This food is amazing!’
‘The vegetables, they are so tasty!’
(I notice I’m discoursing in exclamation marks, all of a sudden! But they’re warranted!)
‘Thanks.’ Edgar is humility personified. ‘I grew them during the summer.’
‘I grew them, in the garden.’
‘You don’t have a garden. – Do you?’
‘I do: I asked the neighbour down on the ground floor who tended the garden and he said nobody does, it’s a crying shame, and so I said: let me.’
‘But you know nothing about gardening.’
‘Well, I’ve been reading a lot about botany lately, and it’s really quite the most interesting thing. And stimulating.’
‘I know, it doesn’t send me to sleep, of course; it keeps me awake, but hey: we have exquisite vegetables now, and those herbs.’
I fear me I may have to change me my strategy…