There are times when I cannot turn my brain off. In the middle of the night it churns and chugs relentlessly on, like a football commentator when nothing is happening on the pitch: the incessant narrative being infinitely more tedious than the inaction it describes. When I am trying to sleep and my brain finds itself at a loose end, it generously furnishes me with a full colour replay of the day just gone, with all the bad bits on repeat. It reminds me of a thousand things I didn’t do or didn’t say, and provides me with a thousand rejoinders it couldn’t quite conjure up when they were needed. My brain could do with some sort of mute switch; it would seriously benefit from a sleep mode, or at the very least a pause button. When I close my eyes, somebody has left the lights on. It’s like attempting to read James Joyce’s Ulysses – I know that something or other is going on, but I haven’t the foggiest idea what it is.
Tell me, what kind of brain goes into overdrive when the rest of the body is crying out for sleep? I have tried very hard to analyse what it is that keeps me awake at night: is it an imprudent chunk of extra-mature Cheddar perhaps, an ill-judged scary movie or a super-strong after-dinner coffee? To find oneself pondering the root cause of this inopportune wakefulness is inescapable. Should I have had that midnight snack? Should I have had that last little whisky? From tomorrow I shall drink nothing but water. From tomorrow I shall eat nothing but horsehair and mung beans.
The darkness of night provides the ideal environment in which to review the day just gone and to preview the one to come. To ponder cause and effect: am I worrying because I am awake, or am I awake because I am worrying? I do not know what wakes me in the middle of the night, but whatever it is, I know that having been woken, what keeps me awake is anxiety; either over something that has happened in the preceding twenty four hours, or over what might yet happen before my next fruitless search for slumber. If I could just reconcile myself to my own inactions, I would, without doubt, sleep much more soundly.
In common with all my senses (and I count ‘common’ amongst them) the acuity of my hearing is fading with each passing year and yet, in the middle of the night, I can hear a spider farting in the next room. How does that happen? (And, here I go. I’m now trying to work out if spiders are anatomically capable of farting. My entomological knowledge being, at best, sketchy, I am not sufficiently informed to help myself with that one. I presume that as they eat, they fart. Mind you, I’m now thinking that spiders aren’t insects in the first place. They’re arachnids aren’t they? Different number of legs I think. If they’re not insects, then entomologists are not going to help me. Who on earth can I turn to on the spider fart conundrum? What do you call a spider expert? An arachnologist? Spellcheck certainly doesn’t think so. Lord knows! No chance of finding out the truth about the source of noise from the other room when I don’t even know what to look for in the Yellow Pages. If the Yellow Pages even exists anymore…)
Houses have an aural fingerprint: it is the accumulation of all the small, unnoticed sounds that fill your home. The hum of the fridge, the whirr of the freezer, the assembled tick of clocks and watches, the creaking of joists, the pilot light in the boiler; in isolation these sounds do not impinge upon your consciousness. They are always there, but you never hear them – until one of them goes missing. In the middle of the night you will have no idea of what is wrong, but you will know with a certainty that all is not right. All you can do is get out of bed, get hold of something heavy just in case it’s a burglar (or a massive farting spider) and have a prowl around the house. Even then, the likelihood is that unless you paddle through a pool of melted ice (shall we call it ‘water’?) illuminated by the little light of an unclosed freezer door and embellished with the scent of six drawers full of semi-thawed comestibles, you will not know what, exactly, has caused your anxiety.
There is a moment, I have no idea what triggers it, when you realise that all attempts to rediscover sleep are futile and the only sensible course of action is to get up and make a cup of tea. The skill is in turning on sufficient light to minimise the risk of taking the skin clean off your shin on the doorframe, but not enough to wake you further: to occupy your mind sufficiently to draw it away from its nocturnal turmoil without giving it too much else to fret about; to find a book to read that will neither over-exercise the synapses nor over-excite the neurons – anything by Tolkien usually works for me. Whatever your choice, such night-time perambulations are almost certain to create concerns of their own. We have a smoke alarm at the top of the stairs. It does not contribute at all to my wakefulness (quite the reverse) but it does have a little LED light that flashes from time to time. In the day it is barely discernible, yet in the dark of the night it illuminates the landing like a camera flash going off. Everything appears to freeze in its transient glare. And my brain starts to whirr… You see, I saw a film once, I have no idea what it was called, in fact, it might not have been a film, it might have been a TV programme, or a book, a comic strip, I might even have dreamt it… come on, it’s late, give me a break. Anyway, it – whatever it was – told the story of a man who was unaware that every time such a light flashed for him, his world really did freeze and various components of his existence were rearranged around him before the light flashed again and he carried on oblivious to anything having taken place. Who did it? I’m not sure. And why they did it I have not the faintest idea. But once the smoke alarm has flashed I can’t get it out of my mind.
…And my mind is my biggest problem. I have the kind of mind that can store an extraordinary amount of information – ‘useless shit’ I believe it is called – and yet forget somebody’s face ten seconds after they have left me. My brain is the bane of my life, but I wouldn’t want to be without it. Except, perhaps, in the early hours of the morning when it comes out to play. For years I kept a notebook and pen by my bedside and I would jot down all my night-time musings as they occurred, so that, suitably cleansed, my mind would allow me to drift back into sleep. The very act of putting thoughts down on paper did, at least, stop them whirring around in my head. Waking up to random periphrastic ramblings, however, seldom led me anywhere useful and often guided me instead to many hours of sleepless conjecture the following evening. Unfortunately, having been thwarted once, my brain is apt to find a different tack. Having got me awake, it begins to rope in other parts of the body with the aim of causing me all manner of nocturnal discomforts. Headache, earache, toothache, the kind of cramp that leads me to believe that I may have dislocated my entire leg, suffered a badly botched amateur amputation, or fallen to sleep in a closed-up deck chair…
I would take something to help me sleep, but the fear of possible side-effects would keep me awake. I do not watch the TV; I do not play video games; I don’t even check the football results after dark. If I’m awake in the early hours, my only ‘entertainment’ is Local Radio and a quiet hour spent pairing my socks. I will eventually fall back upon the counting of sheep and the conscious stripping of my consciousness. I wait, often in vain, for sleep to drip, drip, drip into the void I have thus created – and hope that all the splashing doesn’t keep me awake…