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Somnoproxy

The day’s third hotel suite faced westwards across the harbour, its picture window looking down over the boats and yachts of the marina, up to the minarets and phone-masts of the old town. No curtains or blinds; instead, a console set into the wall. Routh touched an icon, and the boats and cupolas disappeared. He touched it again and the minarets and phone-masts faded back in. There again, gone again, in a slow-blinking eye. Were there not responsibilities, Routh would have stayed there for hours, robed and tapping the console. The things he could see, the things he would miss. He stroked the console one last time. The harbour looked gleeful in the evening light. He took off his robe and walked to the bathroom.

 

The bath was kidney-shaped, the colour of ewe’s milk, the walls tiled with what looked like flint. The shower had room for two, the bath for three. Another picture window, this time facing eastwards, looked out over the business district, its red-tipped towers, its white-light blinks, the names of banks as tall as cathedrals. Routh turned off the water and climbed into the tub. There were bubbles, so many bubbles, like a child’s wild dream. Routh closed his eyes. He relaxed. The other suites – at the Juniper Sky Hotel and the Clavier – had disappointed: the Juniper’s decoration was too fussy for Menah’s taste, the Clavier’s rooms strangely narrow. But the Excelsior would meet her expectations. He could see Menah there, disrobing, bobbing in the water, lying back and closing her eyes.

 

After nineteen minutes, Routh got out. The key to success is practice and routine. The longest Menah ever spent in the bath was nineteen minutes, the shortest sixteen. He had asked her, years ago, to time her bathing. She had been surprised to discover she had such an unconscious consistency, but he’d told her this was normal, that we know nothing of the rules that silently bind us: the internal timings, the very grammar of them. Over the years of their association, he’d told her many things were normal, of which most, he was sure, were probably not.

 

He dried himself with a white towel of tender softness. In the dressing room, he put on the clothes Menah had bought him: expensive but unfussy underwear, a tailored suit of cobalt cloth, a shirt of fine twill. Once, a rich man had asked Routh whose shirts he wore. Routh had just smiled. The rich man had laughed.

 

‘Keep your secret, then, friend,’ the rich man had said, ‘but let me tell you, one day I will find out for myself. I always find out in the end.’

 

Routh had, for a time, wondered about the rich man and his quest for the shirts. How he had fared. To what lengths he might have gone. But these days he barely remembered him, or where the incident had taken place. Putting on a shirt now only made him think of Menah. His cufflinks had been a present, an unexpected package handed to him at an airport. Onyx inset to white-gold setting. Cartier. Passing them through the cuffs, he thought of Menah. Just the merest trace of a thought, more like a kiss. The key to success is practice and routine.

 

Dressed, Routh took the elevator directly from his suite to the cocktail bar on the lower ground floor. The best hotels understand that its bedrooms must feel designed and built for one solitary night, while its bars, no matter how old, must provide a sense of history: an atmosphere of quiet secrecy. The doors slid open onto a perfect recreation of an upscale New York speakeasy. The smell of lingering, decades-old cigar smoke, cedarwood cologne and beeswax polish was as convincing as the dark walnut fitting, the burgundy leather stools, the angled brass lamps.

 

Menah always drank at the bar. One drink after bathing, then to bed. The same at whichever hotel she stayed. The key to success is practice and routine. Routh sat at the bar; it was just him and the bartender, polite jazz playing in the background.

 

‘Do you carry Charver gin?’ Routh asked.

 

‘Yes, sir,’ the barman said.

 

‘Over ice with fresh lime.’

 

It was the only brand Menah drank. She travelled with a bottle wherever she went, just in case. Most places had never even heard of it. Routh could not taste the difference between it and Tanqueray or Gordon’s. You have a simple palate, she’d said once, and laughed. He had taken this as a compliment.

 

The bartender mixed the drink, and Routh took a handful of Japanese crackers from a bowl. Old habits, when confronted with free food.

 

‘Busy night?’ Routh said, nodding at the empty bar.

 

‘Most of our guests are on the terrace at this hour,’ the bartender said. ‘If you wish to join them, I can have your drink sent outside.’

 

‘Okay,’ Routh said. ‘That sounds good.’

 

Thin, smoked-glass doors led onto a large and crowded terrace, its tables lit by globe lamps, some green, some frosted white. A waiter escorted him to a table where his drink and a further bowl of Japanese crackers was already waiting.

 

Outside the air was sea-scented, slightly gassy from the heaters, inconstantly blown with tobacco smoke. Boats blew horns, men and women laughed, a woman in a tuxedo played piano. The jewellery rattled, cut glass swam, and at the edge of the terrace a young man and woman stood drinking cocktails, almost singing with exhilaration.

 

The man wore a cheap suit transformed by his posture and lean beauty; the woman was kinetic in a backless green dress. Routh watched them point at a boat, wave at its passengers. As they waved, the man put his hand to the base of the woman’s spine. And then they kissed. They kissed the way people completely sure of their happiness do. Routh knew then that Menah would stay at the hotel. In another life, he would have said the alignment was perfect; in another life he would have talked of ley-lines and psychic turbulence, the settling of temporal tremors. He would have seen a happy, constant future. In another life, he would have seen it all.

 

*

 

In another life, Routh was in prison, in another country, with another name. It was a short stretch, he told himself, an occupational hazard, a period to regroup, take stock. When inside he was good at making allies – friends, even. His cellmate, Hanlon, had a face two decades older than his body and snarls of home-style tattoos up both arms. He’d been caught shoplifting and had assaulted two security guards. Yet a kind of golden halo of optimism radiated from him. In another life, Routh would have taken that boy for everything he had. But Routh did not game Hanlon. Instead he looked after him. Looked after him, but could not stop those who kicked all optimism out of him one afternoon in the yard.

 

For five nights, Hanlon did not sleep. When he did, he would writhe with dreams. Routh said nothing. He heard Hanlon count out breaths, the way the doctors had probably taught him. He heard him cry, the sound of his head bashing against the masonry, desperate for sleep. Routh listed and was reminded of his mother. She had cared for him when, as a small boy, he had fallen ill. She’d mopped his brow, blown on his face.

 

‘If I could take it away,’ she’d said, ‘If I could take away the pain and fever and have it for my own, I would. Oh my darling boy, I swear to God I would.’

 

Watching Hanlon gripe through another night, Routh understood what his mother had meant. More than anything, Routh wanted to be able to sleep for Hanlon. If there was one thing he could do, it would be that. Just a few hours rest for the boy. It was a thought that came with stealth, and one that kept Routh awake. Until daybreak he listened, unable to shake the question: is there anything more important than sleep?

 

On his release, Routh spent his days on the computers in the local library and his evenings in a halfway house. Researching, reading up, checking the competition, adding notes, parsing opportunities. Ideas grew and contracted, endured interminable rewrites. And just when he saw the makings of a grand plan, it crumbled like shower-block grouting.

 

The problem, or rather challenge – in any business, no matter how illicit, there are no problems – was that the very idea was unsound. Without equipment, expensive scientific gimcrackery, machines that went ping, no one would believe that one person could actually sleep for another. Without these convincers, there was no way to make it concrete. In amongst the print-outs and photocopied pages, the perfect sleep scam was hidden; he just couldn’t tease it out.

 

He worked until one day, on the way home from the library, he saw a businessman standing outside a budget hotel. The man did not belong on the tricky streets of the neighbourhood. He looked as out of place as Routh had once done in his court-day suit.

 

‘There is no fucking way I’m staying there,’ the man shouted into his phone. ‘Find me somewhere I can actually sleep, you prick.’

 

Routh stopped right there on the street. The businessman was red-faced and bellowing. He looked exhausted. Routh kept watching, not even disguising his gaze. The businessman didn’t notice. By the time Routh got back to the halfway house, he had formed the central tenets of his new scheme. In a month it was up and running.

 

He wanted to call it narcoproxy, but the drug connotation bothered him. So he settled on somnoproxy, and created it from the ground up. A cure for sleeplessness: the scourge of the modern world. He liked the word scourge.

 

Somnoproxy was built on the idea of ‘sleep compatibility’. All one needed was a proxy who shared the same sleeping patterns to test a space, bed or hotel, and a good night’s sleep was guaranteed. A client would undergo an interview, during which Routh would gauge compatibility. After confirming this – Routh was always compatible – he would visit the place in question, sleep there, and later provide a report describing the quality of his sleep and the dreams he’d had, alongside other more basic, consumer review-style comments. At the end of this, clients were given an expensive-looking dossier. It was an effective placebo: his success rate, eventually, was around eighty per cent.

 

At first, he contacted some old lags now making a mint in concierge services for the stupidly rich. At first, they took a seventy per cent cut, but soon Routh was riding a wave of wealthy independent recommendations. He spent nights in houses in Cadiz, apartments in Krakow, on a tour bus for a formerly drug-addicted cellist. Anywhere there was a bed, he could peddle his services. The tariff was lofty, but there were no complaints. Somnoproxy was the best-kept secret of the travelling one per cent. Which is how Arclid, the company Menah owned, found him. Found him in another life.

 

*

 

In Tokyo, Menah lost her mind. Her security guard caught her as she fell from a stool, muttering about wigs and plastic mice, of sturm und drang. They shot her then. She saw things: her dead father sitting beside her, telling her Santa couldn’t come if she didn’t sleep; then her ex-husband Joe saying, I forgive you. And then another injection and then nothing.

 

When she woke, her COO was there. Malkin. His forehead creased like a game of consequences. He put his hands on hers, cold as crows.

 

‘How are you feeling, Menah?’

 

She said nothing.

 

‘We need to talk.’

 

She said nothing.

 

‘There have been questions, Menah. There have been rumours. The stock price is… let’s not… But, Menah, we’ve found someone. We’ve found someone we think can help.’

 

She nodded. She kept nodding until Malkin went away.

 

A week later, Menah was taken to the Britannia Inn, Ilford. Her driver introduced a tall thin man in shirtsleeves. Menah raised her nose, offered a sly grin.

 

‘I used to go out with a barrow boy when I was a girl. Even he took me to a Trusthouse Forte.’

 

She watched Routh push up the bridge of his spectacles and take a sip of water.

 

‘You’d never sleep in a Trusthouse Forte these days,’ he said. ‘Too much psychic violence.’

 

From his attaché case he removed a file, slid it over to her.

 

‘What’s this?’ she said.

 

‘It’s what I do,’ he said. ‘I help people sleep who no longer can.’

 

She leafed through the dossier. Photographs, diagrams, charts and a series of dream reports. In these she took an instant interest.

 

‘So I’ll sleep tonight because you dreamt something’ – she looked down at the dream report – ‘both positive and comic?’

 

The barman brought over a slightly misty looking martini glass and set it down in front of Menah. The look withered.

 

‘Have a drink,’ Routh said. ‘It’s Charvers, as you like it. Have a drink and then go to your room and rest. Sleep is more geographic than it is mental. Where you are is more important than where you’re at.’

 

‘And where I am appears to be Essex.’

 

She expected him to laugh. He shook his head and finished his glass of water.

 

‘At six we’ll have breakfast and discuss your night.’

 

The following morning she was late. In the breakfast room he was waiting and she smiled and felt goofy, the way she had as a teenager. A few days later, she hired Routh outright. The cost was a necessary scandal.

 

*

 

The average person takes seven minutes to fall asleep. Routh had this down to two. When he’d first started it had been around fifteen. A question of practice and routine. Every night he wore the same pair of shorts and t-shirt no matter the weather; always drank a half pint of water before getting into bed. Before switching off the light, he would put in Howard Leight earplugs; and before turning on his front, he would think of Menah. He thought of her sharp-faced and awkward; he thought of an honest beauty that marketing and business could not synthesise. That night, no different.

 

His first dream involved Japanese crackers. The next was a jumble of unimportant images. The third involved the cheap-suited man and backless-dressed woman out on the terrace. After each, he woke, noted down the dream’s particulars, then went back to sleep.

 

In the fourth dream, he and Menah were in love. She was pregnant and wanted to make love to him. Routh said something about the baby and she laughed. Menah got on top of him and straddled his hips. Are you scared? she asked. He didn’t reply. She told him she loved him and just because she was pregnant didn’t mean she didn’t want to fuck. Hanging by the window was what looked like a wedding dress. On the floor was a morning suit. Routh knew that they had always been in love. No, better: she had always been in love with him, and he had never noticed. Outside he could hear boats honking, the harbour teeming. Somehow a baby was between them. The baby was small and downy. She had her mother’s eyes.

 

Routh got out of bed. He noted down the dream and went to the window. He touched the console and the window faded from black to harbour lights. Routh could see couples walking on jetties, sitting on terraces. He picked up a miniature of gin from the bar and weighed it in his hand. Menah had always been clear about the dreams. The ones she would not stand. The erotic specifically; anything concerning children, similarly forbidden. Any such dream and Routh was to try elsewhere. In this she had been quite particular.

 

‘I could not stay where you have had such dreams,’ she’d once said, ‘and where I might have the same.’

 

Routh upended the gin bottle and opened his laptop. He tapped the console again, blinding out the harbour. He began to write his report. He was halfway through when he realised he was laughing. He thought of something the conman Yellow Kid Weil had once said: ‘Every one of my victims had larceny in his heart.’ Routh had quoted it many times, but now saw the larceny inside himself. The mark was himself after all. He laughed at that, laughed in a way he had not for years.

 

All cons work on levels of belief. Believe it, believe anything, and it is as good as true. This he had said many times too. And so it had come to this: a belief that his methods actually worked. A belief that Menah would bathe in the bathroom, have a drink in the bar, put in her earplugs and dream the same dreams as him. A belief that she would realise she was as in love with him as he had been with her all these years. He pushed the spectacles up his nose and continued to write. He wrote on until dawn. He tapped the console, blacked out the world, then pressed send: taken in by his own scam and his own larcener’s heart.

 

*

 

Menah’s suite overlooked a silent courtyard surrounded by lemon groves: the kind of place she would never have stayed without Routh. Tomorrow was the anniversary of their first meeting. Each year she bought Routh something extravagant to mark the occasion, something staggering. He always accepted. He had never bought her anything. She would have been displeased if he had.

 

This year the gift was a watch. It had once belonged to Joseph Weil, a conman with whom Routh had an affinity. This she had discovered herself. Arclid’s people had conducted a full profile on Routh before hiring him, but Menah had dug deeper. Her dossier was thick and comprehensive. What she’d found had not caused her to doubt him.

 

Conmen are always looking for the one true score, the one that lends them legitimacy. She’d read that in a biography of Ponzi. It was the case with Weil, too. Weil’s watch was a little joke between them, that was how she saw it, an insider’s joke.

 

Menah’s device blinked. Routh’s hotel report, early. She still read them, wondering how long he could keep up the con. How long before he left her. The first report was for the Juniper Sky Hotel: ‘soulless and troubling’. The next was The Clavier, a hotel that ‘seems to inspire nothing but vague disappointment’. The third, The Royal, was ideal, according to Routh: ‘a suitably incognito complex, looking westwards over the harbour’. She looked at the photograph, her suspicions confirmed. It had been called something else before, The Excelsior, she was certain; but there was no doubt it was the hotel where she and Joe had stayed during their first year of marriage, the first year of Arclid’s incorporation.

 

‘The view from the picture window,’ Routh wrote, ‘is an unending vista of history and modernity, of action and stasis, of stone and metal, of boats and rigging. You could, I suspect, look at it for days, the way one might an Old Master’s work.’

 

She remembered that view: down from the picture window, but also from the terrace. Joe had worn a suit in the bar; cheap, but it had clung to him so perfectly. Menah had worn a dress, the only one she had, her back exposed. They had been meeting investors and had needed a grand stage. Joe had managed to talk someone at the hotel into giving them the suite. He’d said it was cancer, she found out later. She’d wondered why the staff had studied and scrutinised her hair for the duration of their stay. But for that moment, with a cheque burning a hole in her purse, the world seemed purely for them.

 

‘It is,’ Routh wrote, ‘a place almost made for you, Menah. They not only have your gin in stock, but it is their preferred brand.’

 

She’d first tasted Charver gin that evening, drinking it as they waved to a pleasure-boat passing by.

 

‘Now I am rich,’ she’d said to Joe, ‘I will only ever drink this gin.’

 

In the old city, drunk under strung lights, they stumbled to find the taverna someone had recommended. There they were welcomed like movie stars. Joe’s shoes had a slight ridge of red candlewax across the toes; they danced as did his feet, a blurred line of sheer delight.

 

Sweat-sticky, they returned to the hotel room and were utterly taken with each other. They kissed in the lift and inside shucked clothes. That night he slept naked, assassination posed, on the bed. She let him rest, but did not sleep herself. She used the hotel stationery to rough some designs for Arclid.

 

He woke sometime around three, like he was rushing up from the ocean’s floor.

 

‘Come back to bed,’ he said.

 

‘Soon,’ she said.

 

‘Now,’ he said. ‘Please.’

 

He looked scared. She looked at the design. The Arclid© Sem04®. Even then, as a sketch on paper, that was what it was. It was the door mechanism she was working on; how to remove the downloaded item.

 

‘Bad dream?’ she said.

 

‘No,’ he said. ‘The opposite. Come to bed, please.’

 

‘Soon,’ she said. ‘I just have to –’

 

‘We had a child,’ he said. ‘But it was strange. I was surprised that you loved me. And then you were pregnant and you wanted sex. And then we had a child. It was you, but it wasn’t really you. Not you at all.’

 

‘Very strange,’ she said, eyes back on the designs.

 

He got up and drank a glass of water. He looked at the notepaper. She was sketching, not looking.

 

‘Get some sleep, my love,’ he said. ‘Please.’

 

‘Soon,’ she said. ‘Soon, I promise.’

 

*

 

Routh’s device blinked. A message from Menah’s PA. To Zurich, spare not the horses. The talks had been extended. The message expressed Menah’s disappointment. Routh laughed. He pressed the button on the console and the harbour reappeared. Pressed it again to watch it fade away. Once he had been to Zurich and it had not ended well. The prisons there were tough. He was sure he owed money there too.

 

He sat on the bed. He sat there for some time. He did not touch the console. He thought of his dream, and he thought of Menah alone in Zurich.

 

The phone rang, his cellphone; she the only person who called it.

 

‘Hello,’ he said. ‘I got the message. I’m leaving now.’

 

‘Don’t,’ she said. ‘Stay there. I’ll be with you in the morning. Little men, telling me what to do! I hate Zurich. Hate the place and I’m not going now, and not ever. They can come to me. Don’t they know who I am?

 

He got up and touched the console. The harbour.

 

‘I think they have a good idea now,’ he said.

 

Routh was about to touch the console again. She interrupted him.

 

‘What can you see?’ she said.

 

‘Now?’ he said.

 

‘Yes, now.’

 

‘I can see the harbour. There are yachts and fishing boats, cupolas and telephone masts.’

 

He pushed the button on the console. The slow fade to black.

 

‘I have a gift for you,’ Menah said. ‘A surprise. The best one yet.’

 

Routh looked to the bed. Yellow Kid Weil said every one of his victims had larceny in his heart.

 

‘Oh, Menah,’ he said, ‘I have a surprise for you, too.’



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


is the author of two story collections, Ten Stories About Smoking and Your Father Sends His Love, and a novel, If This is Home.


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