Insomnia [3]

Several weeks pass, during which I do my utmost to get at the Rumantschness of it all. This involves me using a long planned trip to Switzerland to traipse up into the Rumantsch-speaking part of the mountains and listen to their glorious choirs singing in small but packed churches, talking to native Rumantsch speakers (in Swiss German) about Rumantsch as a language, about their roughly half dozen dialects or ‘idioms’ (some of which don’t even understand each other), and about Rumantsch culture.

I find out that there is really not so much of a Rumantsch tradition as there are small local traditions that fall under the Rumantsch umbrella, but much as with Swiss German, which has many more dialects, some of which also find it difficult to understand each other, many people identify much more with their regional dialect than with the language overall.

The Rumantsch dialects take their names from the valleys where they are spoken, or from the nicknames their speakers were given by their neighbouring valley dwellers, and to me they sound like poetry, like characters in a mystical story about great heroes, fabulous creatures, and the eternal melancholy of the mountains: Sursilvan, Vallader, Putèr: the people who live above the forest, the people from the valley, the porridge eaters; Surmiran, Jauer, Tuatschin…

Everything about the life of the people I thus encounter is so different to my life, everything about their history so remote from my history, that I might as well have landed myself in a different world, on a different planet, but I am fascinated, intrigued. Humbled, fairly, too, to think what harshness, what overpowering awe they have, over generations, had, and learnt, to contend with, from these alps, from this seclusion, from this climate: they can be extreme.

I don’t speak to or otherwise communicate with Edgar for much of this time, seeing as he is generally busy, at least as busy as I am; and going by the convenient adage that ‘no news is good news,’ I assume him to be well; and I feel content, immersed in my new ‘project’. It isn’t so much a project as the pursuit of a trail that I happened upon (was really pointed towards, by Edgar), following it now out of sheer curiosity and that ever persistent Lure of the Alien. That which is different. The other, the new. It is not new to any of these people that I meet with and ask for accounts of their families’ histories, and they look at me with a mixture of indulgence and bemusement, but I mind it not. They are wondrous to me, even exotic. They are not exotic to themselves.

Enriched with audio recordings, video clips, and a raft of pictures of possible locations and all manner of Rumantsch paraphernalia, I return to London to start drafting my treatment, and I forget, for another several weeks, completely Edgar’s condition.

At the same time, I fall back into my own nocturnal pattern, staying up usually until three, four in the morning, or until my eyelids droop and I fall asleep, either having made it to bed around then, or occasionally also on the sofa, having watched Newsnight and intended to hang about quite a bit longer, or—this is quite rare—actually hunched over my laptop and realising I really have to get some sleep now. The worry about worrying about Edgar thus dispersed, I also don’t worry about insomnia, and so, quite naturally, my own brief flirtation with what to me had always seemed at worst a relatively minor inconvenience appears to have ended. I remind myself that to people with insomnia it is anything but a minor inconvenience, and I wonder have I been selfish, so I decide to check on Edgar:

‘How are you doing?’

‘I’m doing fine, thanks, and you? Making progress?

‘Of sorts. I should have a first draft in a couple of months or so.’

‘I look forward to reading it.’

‘What are you reading right now?’

‘I’ve been reading Chaucer and rereading Pico della Mirandola.’

‘Amazing.’

‘They are.’

‘You should read Shakespeare’s sonnets.’

‘I have.’

‘You could read them again. – Are you sleeping?’

‘Not much. Are you?’

‘Back to normal.’

‘Were you not sleeping normally before?’

‘I’d been worried.’

‘About what?’

‘You, mostly.’

‘Aw. That’s sweet, but unnecessary.’

‘I know.’

‘And why did you stop worrying?’

‘I got absorbed in the Rumantsch thing.’

‘That’s good.’

‘I know.’

‘Are you getting at the Rumantschness of it all.’

‘I think so: I’ve been talking to dozens of people, including the descendants of the man who wrote the story about the brothers. They’ve been helpful.’

‘Do they mind you plundering their family annals?’

‘No, they seem a bit puzzled by my fascination with them. But they’re forthcoming, of sorts.’

‘That’s good.’

‘I know.’

I’m about to hang up, when it strikes me:

‘Have you ever considered doing some research into why it is that people cannot sleep?’

‘Not really, no.’

‘Perhaps you should.’

‘Why?’

‘Well, perhaps if you understood the reasons why people have insomnia, then you could mitigate against suffering from it yourself.’

‘I don’t suffer that much, I’m taking melatonin.’

‘Melatonin?’

‘The sleep hormone.’

‘You’re taking hormones.’

‘Temporarily.’

‘I hope temporarily. – You shouldn’t be taking them regularly over the long term.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because they might do damage. Most drugs do.’

‘It’s not a drug, it’s a hormone.’

‘Well quite: it might unbalance your hormone household.’

‘It might?’

‘I’m no expert.’

‘Neither am I.’

‘You could read up on it: you’re an expert on most things.’

‘I have recently become an expert at Go.

‘Go?’

‘Yes, the game.’

‘That’s quite difficult to get expert at, isn’t it.’

‘It is. Oh and Peruvian llamas. They’re really quite whack. Did you know people use llamas to guard other animals, like sheep, for example?’

‘I did not.’

‘It’s fascinating: though it’s best to use a female llama or one single gelded male, apparently. If you use two or several gelded males they tend to hang out with each other and ignore their charges.’

‘Haha, that makes sense.’

‘And I know an awful lot about bamboo too, just in case you wondered.’

I hadn’t really wondered about anything near as specific as that, but I’m glad to hear that Edgar’s palette of expertise keeps growing, randomly, it appears.

Another two months or so go by quickly, and I hammer away at my treatment of the two mercenary brothers until I have got it in some sort of shape that I feel surprisingly happy with, and I give it another couple of days and read it through once or twice more and tweak it, and I reckon that’s it, that’s my Draft One Point Two (you never send out a Draft One Point One, to anybody; most people would advise you never to send out a Draft One at all), and I pick up the phone and call Edgar. He doesn’t answer, it goes to voicemail. He must be in the shower, I reckon, or be talking to someone in China, or cooking (though he’s not a late eater, and it’s just gone midnight here, so it will be just gone one in the morning there), or working out a problem that interests him; he’ll call me back shortly, I reckon.

He doesn’t. I wonder what might have happened to him, but before I can really worry—and having rather resolved not to worry about Edgar again, because it’s so patently unnecessary—I go back to work and do some more fiddling, until I doze off and briefly wake up again and decide it’s time to go to bed; and I go to bed and fall asleep. Edgar calls me at ten in the morning, bright and breezy:

‘Edgar! How are you?’

‘Magnificent. How are you?

‘I’m well. You had me worried last night.’

‘Why?’

‘I thought you had fallen asleep or something.’

It’s my feeble attempt at a joke. It fails:

‘I had.’

‘You had?’

‘Yes! Thanks to you!’

‘You’re welcome. What happened?’

‘Well I thought I should probably wean myself off the melatonin and allow my body to produce it itself in the required quantities at the appropriate times…’

‘Quite.’

‘…and so I stopped taking it.’

‘And that solved your insomnia.’

‘Of course not. It made it worse.’

‘Oh dear.’

‘Then I thought maybe you’re right, maybe I need to become an expert on this, so I can treat myself more effectively in the long term.’

‘Oh amazing: you’re now an expert on insomnia!’

‘I am nothing of the sort.’

‘Ah.’

‘I started doing some research, at a basic, you know, Wikipedia level, and it sets out really quite interesting.’

‘I imagine.’

‘But then you realise that there are a million possible reasons and as many possible interventions, and so there’s zero scientific consensus except some pretty obvious observations about common sense behaviours and unending lists of things that may or may not be the case; and before I knew it I got so bored reading about it, I fell asleep.’

‘Result.’

‘Well yes. And the best thing about it: it’s repeatable. Like you with your Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It works every time, it’s amazing. In fact, it works better now and faster, than it did three weeks ago, when I first discovered it: I now practically just have to google ‘insomnia’ and I start to feel drowsy, it’s almost Pavlovian.’

‘Congratulations.’

‘Thanks! – So, what’s new?’

‘Oh: the treatment.’

‘Ah yes?’

‘I think I’ve cracked it.’

‘You have?’

‘Well I think I’m close: I’ve got a draft.’

‘Cool. Send it over.’

‘I will.’

And I do. And I’m wondering what he’ll make of it, what will come of it, what to do with it, where to send it next, who to pitch it to, how to proceed, with what chance of success, if any; what’s ‘success’ in this context, anyway; perhaps I went about it all the wrong way, this may have to be much more dramatic. Or funnier. Or tighter, I tend to lose myself in tangents, sometimes, but I didn’t really in this case; maybe it needs to be looser; perhaps it needs to be more broadly relevant; more culturally representative, more authentic, surely; surely that: way more authentic, wittier, warmer, dryer and softer. Sharper, more humane—is it really the brothers’ story that matters? Could it not much more be the mother’s?—more diverse, more character-driven, with a more female perspective, more up-to-date, more historically accurate, and altogether much more Rumantsch.

And so yes, here I am, lying awake through the night, wondering about the Rumantschness of it all, with a picture in my mind of a posse of guardian llamas, chilling in the grass, chewing the cud, an air of sophistication about their nonchalance, and the flock or the herd or the peep they’re supposed to look after just nowhere to be seen…


< Insomnia [2]

 

Insomnia [2]

Five o’clock in the morning: I lie awake, worrying about Edgar. Not about Edgar himself, obviously, Edgar is the last person I need to worry about: I worry about the fact that Edgar of all people can’t sleep, and what that means for someone like me, who normally sleeps without a hint of a problem, when I thought Edgar was the kind of person who did so too; does that mean I have to worry about not being able to sleep, all of a sudden, just like Edgar?

It’s the kind of worry I least appreciate and am least able to see any sense in: it’s worrying about worrying: it’s a meta-worry. It’s a preposterousness, and that is in itself a worry: I now worry about the fact that I worry. About worrying.

My lover doesn’t notice I’m lying awake next to him, worrying, he just rasps a contented snore. He’s an uncomplicated sleeper. Sometimes he has nightmares that wake him up briefly, but he goes back to sleep easily and quickly. I think it might just be my clamping onto him that occasionally sets off a nightmare in him, but I don’t ask for fear that he’ll confirm that, yes, that’s what it is, because I like snuggling up to him: I spend the whole night resting my head on his chest, holding him; he holding me.

I arrange to see Edgar for a drink and he seems very happy. Tired, but fulfilled. In the course of our conversation—it’s been a while since we last met, so we have some catching up to do—I realise he’s become an expert in about a half dozen subjects, and he does not seem the least bit worried, about any of them, or about getting enough sleep:

‘Oh no,’ he laughs: I nap.’

‘You nap?’

‘Yes.’

‘When do you nap?’

‘When I’m tired.’

‘And then you sleep?’

‘No I nap, there’s a difference…’

‘I realise there’s a difference, but then at night, do you sleep?’

‘Oh no, at night I lie awake, reading.’

‘What are you reading about?’

‘At the moment I’m learning Rumantsch.’

‘You’re learning Rumantsch by reading?’

‘I read it at night, and practise it during the day.’

‘Rumantsch?’

‘Yes.’

‘So you speak Rumantsch now?’

‘I read it quite well.’

I feel a little tired just listening to Edgar, as he tells me he has taken to translating a Rumantsch story into English.

‘Aren’t you tired?’

‘No, I’ve just had a nap.’

‘I mean generally: how much sleep do you get?’

‘It varies: between four and five hours a day, enough to survive.’

‘And you’re not tired? You look a bit tired.’

‘Oh that’s probably because I’ve just woken up from my nap: it takes me a while…’

‘What are you going to do with your Rumantsch story, once you’ve translated it into English?

‘I can read it to you.’

‘Yes you could: that might actually send me to sleep.’

The experiment is not a success. I am too weirded out by the fact that I have a man twice my size but effectively my age sitting in my living room, reading me a story. Also, the story is quite interesting. When I tell my lover, he suggests I read it to him: he dozes off straight away.

I sit awake, reading the rest of the story that Edgar has translated from Rumantsch into English, about an alp farmer and his three sons, who all become mercenaries, fighting wars for foreign lords in far flung countries, for remuneration. One dies, one is captured and spends a long time being held hostage because his family can’t afford the ransom, and one comes back, traumatised, but determined to bring home his brother. He sets off again on what turns into a riveting adventure of selfless bravery, Helvetian heroism and blockheaded stubbornness. He finds and liberates his brother, and his brother is grateful but also sad: he does not want to leave his fellow prisoner of war behind whom he has become close friends with: as close as brothers, closer even. Blood brothers. I think lovers, but the story doesn’t spell that out. It was written by a descendant of the older, stronger, rescuing brother in the early part of the 18th century, and they didn’t so much go in for the gay theme, at the time. To me it’s pretty obvious. My lover is fast asleep, so I can’t ask him.

I phone Edgar, sure to find him awake: he answers the phone straight away:

‘Of course, it’s obvious!’

‘Do you think the story would make a good film?’

‘Of course it would make a good film!’

‘Do you think I should write a treatment?’

‘Why not? I’m not going to!’

‘Who owns the rights?’

‘I don’t think anybody does, but I can find out for you!’

Now Edgar is full of exclamation marks, which wearies me, this time of night, but I’m glad that what keeps me awake now is no longer my meta-worry about worrying about being worried about Edgar, but thinking about how to frame this stupendous tale into a good, solid, rustic, heroic love story. Between a Helvetian mercenary and his lover in captivity. Over the next couple of weeks I write the treatment during my night time waking hours and show it to Edgar.

‘It’s quite good.’

‘Quite good.’

‘Yes, but you’re missing something.’

‘What am I missing?’

‘You’re missing the Rumantschness.’

‘The Rumantschness?’

‘Yes. You’ve got the Helvetianness all right, which is not surprising, seeing you’re Helvetian yourself, but you’re missing the Rumantschness.’

‘How do I get the Rumantschness?’

‘I don’t know: go there, talk to the clan, learn Rumantsch…’

‘You want me to learn Rumantsch?’

‘I don’t want you to learn it, I want you to get the Rumantschness of it: if you want someone to finance this project for you so you can turn it into a film that will be shown at the Locarno Film Festival, and be owned by the people you’re talking about at the same time, then you’ve got to get the Rumantschness of it all.’

I hadn’t thought anywhere near as far ahead as that, but of course he is right: this is exactly the kind of film that should be shown at the Locarno Film Festival, preferably on the Piazza Grande, and be both good enough to be able to win a jury award and have enough of a broad appeal—with its Helvetian 17th century prisoners-in-captivity-brothers-in-arms-but-beyond-that love story—to have a fair crack at the audience prize too. It has to be thoroughly Rumantsch.

‘What if we shoot it in Rumantsch?’

‘That would go a long way to getting the Rumantschness of it, yes.’

‘But?…’

‘But it would obviously entail you having at least a working knowledge of Rumantsch.’

The prospect seems daunting, but I speak fairly decent Italian, workalike French and a little Portuguese. I once studied Putonghua for a while. And, it occurs to me now, a little Latin, back at school, which I didn’t enjoy then, but that’s a long time ago, and I didn’t particularly see eye to eye with my teacher, except when we both agreed I should probably cease coming to his Latin class…

‘I think the film needs to be trilingual,’ Edgar offers into the silence that has briefly settled over my brow as I am contemplating my linguistic predisposition towards learning Rumantsch (I tried Spanish once too, but that didn’t get me very far: the Italian kept interfering).

‘What, Italian, French and Portuguese?’

‘No, of course not: English, Swiss German and Rumantsch.’

‘Why would anybody in this story speak English?’

‘Because it’s an English researcher or journalist or distant relative who happens upon it and tells it, from his perspective, today.’

‘Like a meta-story.’

‘A bit like a meta-story.’

‘It’s been done before.’

‘Everything has been done before.’

‘It’s probably less of a meta-story, this, than a straightforward framework device.’

‘It could work: you can write the English and the Swiss German dialogue, and I can translate the Rumantsch bits.’

‘Is your Rumantsch good enough for that?’

‘It will be by the time you’re done with your script.’

‘But you’re not a writer.’

‘No, you are.’

That’s true. I am. It’s a fascinating idea. I could write the script in English and Swiss German, and he could translate the parts of the dialogue that need to be in Rumantsch into Rumantsch, and then we’d obviously need somebody whose mother tongue is Rumantsch to check it for its overall Rumantschness, maybe one of the descendants: one of the clan.

I am beginning to imagine the kind of conversation I would be having with an alp farmer descendant of a Helvetian 17th century mercenary who goes to rescue his brother from captivity in a foreign land, only to find that his brother doesn’t really want to leave because he doesn’t want to abandon his lover, because he is concerned for his safety, and fears, quite reasonably, that he will never see him again if he now joins his brother and escapes back to his village high up in the mountains, across the St Gotthard Pass. It sounds like an intriguing story to me. Has it got legs, though?

I think I’d need to sleep on it. At the moment, that’s problematical…


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