share


The Great Awake

When I was twenty-seven, my Sleep stepped out of me like a passenger from a train carriage, looked around my room for several seconds, then sat down in the chair beside my bed. This was before they became so familiar, the shadow-forms of Sleep in halls and kitchens, before the mass displacement left so many people wakeful at uncertain hours of the night. In those days, it was still surprising to sit up and see the silver lean of Sleep, its casual elbows. People rang one another, apologising for the lateness, asking friends if they too were playing host to uninvited guests.

 

Sleep was always tall and slender but beyond that there were few common traits. Experiences varied – a girl I knew complained that her Sleep sat ceaselessly atop her chest of drawers, swinging its heels and humming, while another confided that her Sleep trailed its fingers down her calves, demanding cones of mint ice cream. Couples and cohabiters were the worst off – the Sleeps seemed more prone to behaving badly in numbers, as though they were egging one another on. A rumour persisted in my building that the husband and wife in the penthouse had locked their Sleeps in separate bathrooms to prevent them wrestling violently on the carpet. A man I knew vaguely from the office told me in passing that his and his boyfriend’s Sleeps kicked at one another incessantly and flicked pieces of rolled-up paper at the neighbour’s Bengal cat. My Sleep had no one to fight with and so mostly preoccupied itself with rooting through my personal belongings, pulling out old photographs and allen keys and defunct mobile phones, then placing them like treasures at the foot of my bed.

 

Early on, we didn’t know what it was exactly. A lot of people assumed they were seeing ghosts. One night in mid-July, a woman in my building woke the seventh floor with her shrieking. Two a.m., dark throat of summer. A bleary stagger of us collected in the corridor and were beckoned into her flat in our sleeping shorts and dressing gowns. We walked from room to room, near-strangers despite our daily proximity, taking furtive note of her decor and her sloppy housekeeping, the cereal bowls on the coffee table, the dirty novel on the bed. We found it in the bedroom, moon-drenched through open curtains. Her Sleep was lanky, crouched beside the bookshelf. It must have been the first time any of us had seen one – its wraithish fingers and ungentle mouth. I remember that the girl beside me grabbed my hand when she saw it. She was a girl I knew by sight but had never spoken to – still sticky with sleep around the eyelids and wearing the type of mouthguard prescribed by dentists for bruxism. I squeezed her hand in return and tried to make sense of what I was looking at. The Sleep crossed its palms across its neck as though protecting the feeblest part of itself from harm.

 

The newspapers labelled it The Great Awake, printed graphs and pie charts and columns by confused academics. News pundits speculated broadly, blaming it on phones and social media, 24-hour culture, anxiety disorders in the under-18s. Radio hosts blamed it on television. Talking heads on television blamed it on everybody else. Ultimately, there was found to be little concrete evidence behind any one cause – it wasn’t more likely to happen if you ate meat or drank coffee or had extra-marital sex. It wasn’t a virus or a medical syndrome, it had nothing to do with the drinking water or women being on the pill. It happened in cities, that much we knew, though beyond that there was no obvious pattern. It could happen to one house on a city street and not another. It could affect everyone in an apartment building except for you. It was described more commonly as a phenomenon than as a disaster; one medical journal referred to it as an amputation of sorts, the removal of the sleep-state from the body. People wrote in to magazines to describe their symptoms: the sudden persistent wakefulness, the mutation of sleep from a comforting habit to a creature that crouched by the door.

 

Fairly early on, a live morning show with a viewership of some four million was yanked unceremoniously off air because the host had been attempting to present a segment on seasonal salads with his Sleep in shot behind him. The figure was only a little taller than average and mimed laconically along to the host’s actions, shadowing him as he reached for tomatoes while lecturing viewers on proper knife technique. The Sleep mimicked a paring knife, chopping smoothly at the air. It was a Tuesday, people ironing shirts before work. I remember the squeal and stutter before the screen cut to a placard reading Technical Difficulties – Please Stand By. I remember the host’s eyes, the wakeful crescents beneath the lids. In time, of course, this kneejerk plug-pulling became impractical. By the following month, half the media personalities in the schedule were turning up to work with wan faces and their Sleeps in tow. A new series of a property show started with one of the two hosts introducing her Sleep quite candidly, her co-host standing off to the side alone. Television became a gradual sea of doubles, of familiar faces and their silent, unaccustomed companions.

 

It became so swiftly ordinary – not a thing to be longed for, but nothing whatsoever to be done. Like the chicken pox, ungrimly inevitable. People slept until their Sleeps stepped out of them, then they went on living awake. Shortly after our first encounter on the seventh floor, people in my building stopped sleeping at a rate of about one a night. Mine appeared early, an awkward guest to whom I first thought to offer tea or the newspaper, though I quickly discovered that Sleep was not a companion who wanted much entertaining; it preferred to roam the flat in silence, straightening picture frames where they had fallen askew. I continued to talk to it despite little indication that what I said was appreciated, occasionally replying to myself in a different voice to keep the conversation going. I told my Sleep it reminded me of Peter Pan’s shadow, and wondered aloud whether I ought to try to attach it to me with a bar of carbolic soap. My Sleep only shook its shoulders and pulled the clock from the kitchen wall to adjust it with a gentle nudge to the minute hand. ‘Yes, maybe you should,’ I said in a different voice and nodded to show that I had heard. Later on, it transpired that no one’s Sleeps would speak to them. A strange enough curse, to be wide awake with a companion who pretended you weren’t there.

 

My brother called, quoting our mother – only think about what moving to the city will do to your health. His Sleep had appeared only two hours previously and was pacing round the kitchen, rattling chairs and humming the theme to a radio soap for which my brother had once unsuccessfully auditioned.

 

‘Janey, does yours look anything like granddad?’

 

I squinted sideways at my Sleep, its steam-coloured skin.

 

‘I don’t think so. If anything, it looks like Aunt Lucy, but that’s because the only time I saw her was at the open casket.’

 

My brother chuckled; a muffled sound, hand hovered over the mouthpiece. It was three o’clock in the morning, heavy-lidded sky.

 

‘Pretty spooky,’ he said. ‘Plus kind of a bore. There’s nothing on TV this time of night.’

 

When we were younger, our mother told us warning stories about the proliferation of ghosts in big cities; ghosts in office chairs and office bathrooms, hot and cold running ghosts on tap. Cupping an ear to the evening stillness of our rural home, she would describe to us towns that seethed with spectres, mime the permanent unsettlement of a city night. Intended as a deterrent to leaving, these stories quickly became the basis of our preferred childhood games. Collecting cardboard boxes and empty tupperware containers, we would fashion knee-high cities in the basement and chase phantoms around their miniature alleyways, stacking books into the shapes of high-rise apartments and imagining them jittery with ghosts. When the two of us grew up and moved away – to our long thin city of narrow stairs and queasy chimney stacks – our mother cried and demanded we reconsider, insisting that cities could not be lived in but only haunted, that we would simply become two more ghosts in a place where ghosts already abound.

 

An interview ran in a Sunday broadsheet: a young woman studying history at university, who described the experience of falling in love with her Sleep:

 

He’s a great listener, a great talker. (I call him ‘He’ – I don’t know if that’s politically correct or possible, but that’s what he feels like to me.) People say their Sleeps don’t talk but I wonder whether that’s just because they’re expecting speech in the traditional sense. My Sleep doesn’t make any noise but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t talk to me. There are gestures – he moves to the corner of the mattress to give me more space, he alphabetises my books. Sometimes he touches my forehead. Talk can be all kinds of things.

 

I read this article aloud to my Sleep, asked it whether it was trying to talk to me and I was just too preoccupied by its silence to hear, though of course I received no response.

 

‘I think mine might just be a bit of an arsehole,’ my brother said. He was drowsy the way we were all becoming, plum smudges in the hollows of his eyes. ‘It hides my scripts and scribbles all over my calendar. I’ve missed three auditions because it’s scratched out the dates. It’s like living with a shitty poltergeist.’

 

We were sitting on the front steps of my building, drinking hot chocolate from polystyrene cups. It was 4 a.m. on a Tuesday; thin light, city moving like an agitated creature. We were all still growing used to the night-time, the blue-veined hours of morning that lay only lightly, the white spiders and noctule bats. Without sleeping, it was harder to parcel up your days, to maintain a sense of urgency. The extra hours granted a kind of fearless laziness, a permission to dawdle through the day with the confidence that there would be more time, later, whenever you liked.

 

‘I don’t think mine likes me very much,’ I said to my brother, finishing my hot chocolate and reaching for the dregs of his. ‘It always seems so distracted.’

 

My brother shrugged, squinting down towards the bottom of the steps where our Sleeps were jostling elbows and kicking at each other’s feet.

 

The girl with the mouthguard knocked on my door one midnight in mid-September and asked me to come and confirm something for her. She was wearing a nightdress – I had torn mine up for dishcloths, having little other use for it – though she had taken the mouthguard out and was holding it gingerly in one hand when I opened the door. Without it, her voice was a curiously clean thing, freshly scrubbed, as though all of her teeth were brand new. Her flat across the corridor was the direct reversal of mine; the kitchen sink and cupboards facing in the opposite direction, the books strewn about in seeming parallel to the ones that littered my bed. It turned out that what she had imagined, on waking, to be the shape of her Sleep in the corner of her bedroom was in fact only the shadow of her dressing gown thrown over a chair. And what she had assumed to be the sound of her Sleep shifting about beside the bookcase was only the rattle of mice in the walls. She was disappointed, bleary from waking. Everyone in her family already had one, she told me. She went to sleep every night and felt like she was missing out on something, this all-night party she was too exhausted to attend.

 

‘What’s stupid is I’ve always been a very troubled sleeper,’ she said, gesturing to her mouthguard. ‘You’d think I would have been one of the first.’

 

Her name was Leonie and when she talked she beat her hands together with a sound like popping corn. She wore the mouthguard to correct excessive tooth-grinding owing to an abnormal bite – an affliction she’d lived with since her late teens when she had lost her back teeth crashing her bicycle into a stationary car. This she told me lightly before blinking and apologising for the overshare, though I only shook my head. I had found that people seemed to speak more freely in the night-time – a strange release of inhibitions that came with talking in the dark. I left a message for our building’s maintenance department about the mice in her wall and sat with her until she fell asleep the wrong way up on top of her bedclothes. She was pretty, a fact I noticed in a guilty, thieving way. She had fine buttery hair and a gentle cleft in her chin. My Sleep, which had followed me across the corridor and into the flat, oversaw all of this with no particular interest, wandering about and pulling lampshades off their stands.

 

You don’t notice the way a city breathes until it changes its sleeping habits. Looking downwards, you could see it – the restlessness of asphalt. I liked to watch from my window for the heave of sundown, the roll and shrug of something searching for a comfortable way to lie. My brother rang, on his way to an audition which had been rescheduled for two in the morning – an early example of what would become the fairly common practice of ‘repurposing the night’.

 

‘We’re all awake anyway, so why not use the time,’ he said, voice blurry from his warm-up exercises. I listened to him run through his audition piece, covering my mouth to stifle a yawn. After he hung up, I leant far out of my window and watched a gang of small girls from the building playing football in the street. Their Sleeps ran alongside them, sticking out unsporting legs and yanking at their ponytails. I stayed there for a long time with the night heavy on my eyelids, the whole world hushed and hot beyond my windowsill.

 

Leonie took to knocking for me at midnight; little Bastille knocks which I answered in the leisurely way I now did everything, sometimes setting a pot of coffee to steep before I came to the door. Perhaps in a bid to lure her Sleep out into the open, she had put away her old nightclothes and usually came over in soft blue jeans and work shirts. She was a writer, she told me, she wrote an agony column for a newspaper I occasionally read. She had an overcaffeinated rattle about her, a slight urgency to her widened eyes that begged me not to ask if she was feeling tired. Occasionally, I would catch her staring enviously at my Sleep, unconsciously mimicking its gestures. She was tired of tiredness, she told me. She was tired of feeling left out.

 

We quickly developed a sort of routine, the way we knew many people in our building had begun to arrange their night-times. A woman who lived on the ground floor had started walking her Sleep around the park every night in what we saw as a vain attempt to tire it out. A cellist who lived in the flat directly above me had put together a nightly chamber group along with a viola player who lived on the second floor and the couple from the penthouse, both of whom were apparently amateur violinists. Leonie and I met at midnight, usually in my flat. We did nothing very momentous together – we ate mustard on toast and listened to late night radio, played solitaire, read our horoscopes and the palms of one another’s hands. Sometimes, she brought fragments of her work over and sat on the floor with her back against the sofa, reading me letters the paper had sent her to answer, determinedly suppressing her yawns.

 

‘Listen to this one,’ was her usual refrain, affecting the voices of her letter-writers. A teenage girl who was too shy to masturbate with her Sleep watching. A university student whose Sleep stood in front of the door in the mornings and made it impossible to go to class. A man who complained that his wife had a Sleep and he didn’t – a situation which he felt undermined his standing in the relationship. This last Leonie read aloud with her tongue pressed downwards, in a voice which dripped contempt but left her face impassive. ‘She doesn’t say she has a Sleep because she works harder and needs the extra hours awake, but I feel the judgement is implicit.’

 

‘I wonder if it’s unethical,’ she said to me once. ‘For me to be answering these letters when I don’t have a Sleep myself.’

 

‘No more than it is to offer a solution to any problem that isn’t yours,’ I replied, though she acted as if she hadn’t heard me.

 

No matter how hard she tried, she could never stave off tiredness entirely. Our nights together often ended with her wilting on my sofa, jerking awake at 6 a.m. to insist that she had not been sleeping. I tended not to pass comment on this, any more than I chose to question her nightly invasions. I found I liked her company more than that of my Sleep, and vaguely resented the longing looks I would catch her stealing of the oblivious figure in the corner of the room. Sometimes when she left to get ready for work, she would kiss me on the cheek or the corner of my mouth, and I would go to get changed with damp lines along the centres of my palms.

 

The nights were strange-hued, liver-coloured things. A late September heat pressed downwards – damp pad of fingers at the base of a neck – and I spent my small hours drifting around the flat in shorts and t-shirts, listening to Leonie reading letters by people desperate to have sex with their Sleeps, or with each other’s. When she was finished choosing which letters she would reply to during the day, we would talk or read together. She described things in odd ways – the night gnawing on the windowsill, the pepper taste of her overchewed lip – and I talked to her about things that amused me. I told her that Evelyn Waugh’s first wife had also been named Evelyn and that the guy who voiced the Bugs Bunny cartoon had been allergic to carrots. She nodded along to what I said in a way that made me less inclined to bombard my Sleep with conversation in the hours she wasn’t there. I had bad teeth and envied her sparse, white mouthful, like little cowrie shells that always seemed a trifle slick. She told me that they were only that small because she had ground them down so much. One reason she was so desperate for a Sleep of her own was that permanent wakefulness would save her from chewing the teeth right out of her mouth. Her voice, I came to realise, was a little like the voice I affected when miming my Sleep’s replies to my questions, and I liked it very much. Most nights, when she could no longer control the weary bobbing of her head and fell asleep on my shoulder, I would let her stay there and get away with her sheepish claim, when she awoke, that she had only been resting her eyes.

 

My brother called to tell me he’d been cast in a play and I met him for drinks to celebrate. We drank red wine which stained our lips the same colour as the spaces beneath our eyes and he shouted his elation to the overcrowded bar. Public places were starting to smell of sleep, of unwashed linens. My brother upset his mostly empty glass in a re-enactment of his audition. His Sleep imitated the gesture, gesticulating none too kindly behind his back until he turned around and caught it.

 

‘And you’ve been no help at all,’ he told it, slurring gently, before turning back to continue his speech with an overdone archness. ‘Macbeth doth murder sleep. Eh?’

 

Later, I came home to find Leonie waiting for me with an armload of letters and a plate of coconut biscuits. She said she was itching to tell me a story about a girl she knew who worked for the same newspaper and had attended a series of seminars led by a woman who professed to know the secret to getting rid of a Sleep. Too much tea was the cause of it, the woman had warned, and an overreliance on artificial stimulus. Blue lights. Cut them out. Detox from dairy. The woman had sat in the centre of a circle of chairs, her Sleeplessness on full display as her students’ Sleeps wandered around the room. ‘Like a game of duck duck goose,’ the girl from the newspaper had said. At the end of the fourth seminar, it had transpired that the woman running things had locked her Sleep in a broom cupboard to support the illusion that she had rid herself of it with only water and vegan cheese. Several members of the group had heard it beating on the walls during a cigarette break and had broken the lock on the door trying to get it out.

 

‘People shouldn’t be allowed them if they can’t treat them properly,’ Leonie said after she had finished telling the story, offering me a coconut biscuit. She looked unconvinced when I told her it was best not to think of them like dogs.

 

I read an article by a woman mourning the loss of her unconsciousness. The writer talked about her sleep before it became a capital: the relief of absence, the particular texture of the tongue and weight of the head after a night of sleeping well. Sleeping gave me time off from myself – a delicious sort of respite. Without it I grow overfamiliar, sticky with self-contempt. The article was published in Leonie’s paper and as she read it I watched for her envy, the white of her knuckles as she clutched at the corners of the newspaper. The writer described her Sleep as smelling like smoke and honey, recounted its movements around her house: The waft, the restless up-and-down. It throws tennis balls at the walls the way they do in prison break movies, kicks at the legs of my chairs. Leonie asked me what my Sleep smelled like and I told her: orange peel and photo water. Odd, talismanic scents – my mother loading me down with tangerines for my journey to the city, sending me photographs of our old house in the post. A little later, having left the room to put on the kettle, I came back to find Leonie standing by my Sleep as it rooted through the boxes I kept under the bookcase. Not noticing me, she moved in as close as she could, tilted her head towards my Sleep and breathed in. I watched this happen for several seconds, watched the way my Sleep quirked its head in irritation but failed to pull away. Still breathing in, she rested her forehead against its neck for a fraction of a second and I imagined the sensation, cold glass wet with condensation against her skin.

 

The morning trains were overloaded with bodies both solid and spectral. I became used to standing whilst my Sleep muscled its way to a seat, grew accustomed to the rows of Sleeps with their legs crossed, the people clustered round the doors, grey-faced and leaning heavily. I spent lunchtimes wandering the city, watching people shuffle from coffee shops to street bodegas – the greasy slink of cooked meat, egg sandwiches. I sat on steps and municipal benches, eating the orange cake my mother sent from home in tin foil packages, talking to my brother on the phone.

 

Leonie read me a letter, leaning up against my fridge one night with her reading glasses on. She had taken to wearing them more often in recent weeks, whether or not she happened to be reading. It prevented her eyes getting tired so quickly, she said, in a rare moment of admission that tiredness was something she felt. It was difficult for her, this unnatural wakefulness. Occasionally she would look up from her writing desk during the day and swear she saw the city moving past the window, as though either it or she were running very fast in one direction.

 

Our relationship is struggling,’ read the letter, ‘because of my husband’s Sleep. Sometimes his expression when I wake in the night scares me. He says some nights he leans over me and tries to will my Sleep out of me so that we can both be awake together. I sometimes feel I must be the only person in the city left asleep, though I still feel tired all the time, which in itself he considers a kind of betrayal.’

 

Leonie came to sit beside me and laid her head down on my shoulder for a long time. It was hard, she said, to be sympathetic to all the people who wrote to her complaining of problems with their Sleeps, whilst at the same time feeling so bitterly conscious that there were still people like her left sleeping through the nights in this restless city. It made her worry that there was no countdown to zero, that some people might simply be destined to never have a Sleep at all. I told her that I didn’t know what she thought she was hoping for, that I considered my Sleep an unfriendly interloper at best. I told her that sometimes I lay down on my bed and imagined unconsciousness, lay on one arm and then another until they lost all feeling and I could at least enjoy the sensation of sleep in some small part of my body. I told her that the only thing I really liked about my new situation was her company – that and the occasional thought of the city holding me up despite how tired I felt, like hands beneath my arms and around my middle, keeping me off the floor. Of course, by the time I said any of this she was already asleep on my shoulder, snoring gently into my neck. Above us, the string quartet played a Dvorak nocturne, a slow movement in B.

 

My mother called to check I was eating properly and to say she’d warned me something like this would happen. She didn’t have a Sleep, of course. Very few people outside the city limits did. My mother’s voice on the phone was well-rested, excessively virtuous. She told me she knew a man who lived not a stone’s throw away from her who had gone into the city one day on business and returned with a Sleep which didn’t belong to him. I asked her what had happened to the person whose Sleep had been stolen and my Mother told me not to ask stupid questions. ‘What do I know about the horrible things? I should imagine they’re glad to be shot of it.’ She asked after my brother, complaining that he never answered her calls. She asked me what I was doing with myself, whether I was seeing anyone, and I thought of telling her about Leonie, but my Sleep chose that moment to take the receiver away from me and hang up, apparently irritated by all the noise.

 

I asked Leonie if she wanted to come with me to see my brother’s play and she nodded, resting her hand on my thigh for a moment and digging in her nails the way a cat might. She was sleepy around the eyes and the downcurve of her mouth and when she shifted towards me she smelled of hard city water. We were eating oranges on the sofa and she kept offering me pieces, though I had my own aproned out in my lap. The performance had been scheduled for two in the morning to capitalise on the night-time crowds. Leonie gamely brought along a flask of coffee and we sat in the dark together in the little raked space above a pub, sharing a box of chocolate-covered raisins and nudging each other every time my brother came on. On the stage, the actor’s Sleeps performed what looked like their own play in the spaces behind them. Without dialogue, their storyline was hard to follow but it kept drawing my eye – the translucent figures shifting about around the actors, miming along to words I couldn’t hear. It was nearly five by the time we got home and Leonie had finished her flask of coffee, eyes melting down her face. I asked her if she wanted to come in but she told me she needed her mouthguard, looking away in embarrassment and flashing her fingers by way of farewell. Less than an hour later, she knocked on my door again, complaining of nightmares. It was relentless, she told me, like everyone else’s unused dreams now came to bother her, bringing nightmares of fast-climbing vines and empty trains and soil fertile with teeth. I let her sleep on my sofa with her head pillowed in my lap until seven, when I had to start dressing for work. Moving between rooms with my toothbrush in one hand, I glimpsed her sitting up on the sofa, peeling another orange and offering slices to my Sleep.

 

One night, Leonie asked me to proofread something she was writing. I had a better eye for detail, she said, I was used to reading in the dark. The piece wasn’t for her advice column but one she had been asked to write for a magazine – an article on living without a Sleep, she told me with a grimace. She’d write it anonymously, she said. It wasn’t something she wanted to own. Towards the end of the piece, she described it as like the sensation of looking for your shadow on the ground in front of you only to realise it was nowhere to be found; of looking around you and finding the sun just where it was supposed to be, of seeing the shadows stretching away from the feet of everyone but you.

 

‘It’s a good piece,’ I said, when I’d read it ‘But you’re writing like you’re making it up. Like it’s fiction and you’re trying to imagine how someone like you must feel.’

 

‘Wishful thinking,’ she replied, as my Sleep entered the room from the kitchen, rattling its fingertips across the top of the radiator.

 

She shrugged a shoulder and raised her head to look at me, leaning forwards after a moment to kiss me on the side of my mouth, nodding her thanks. I dipped my chin, tilting slightly to catch her properly on the mouth and she kissed me gently for a moment before pulling away. She smiled at me vaguely, shrugged her other shoulder, and I realised she tasted like oranges.

 

My brother called to tell me to turn on channel four. He was watching a news piece on people who were doing drastic things to rid themselves of Sleep. They interviewed a woman who had been arrested for luring her Sleep to the top of her apartment building and pushing it off. The way it fell, she said, you would have thought it didn’t know about gravity. The legs continuing to walk through nothing, the windmill before the sudden dragging drop. This woman was the only one who had agreed to be interviewed without insisting her face be pixelated. She had been released from police custody, there being no workable law in place to condemn her, but was largely housebound due to the protesters surrounding her property and forcing hate mail through the letterbox.

 

When I retell it,’ she said, ‘I have to remind myself that what I did wasn’t unnatural. No more than taking a pill to fall asleep is unnatural.”

 

The noise from her front lawn could be heard inside the house, the chants picked up on the reporter’s microphone. Even so, she seemed singularly unbothered. As the interview drew to a close, she tilted her head towards the window and the sunlight hit her in a way which illuminated the spaces beneath her eyes, fresh as new-poured paint, gloriously well-rested.

 

Makes you think, doesn’t it?’ my brother said, once the news had moved on to another story ‘Not a nice thought, but makes you think.’

 

‘I didn’t know you could kill them,’ I replied. No one had known until now, it seemed, because no one had really tried. ‘It doesn’t seem right though, does it?’

 

Leonie’s piece was published anonymously and she brought the magazine around at midnight. The story was sandwiched between several others; the man who had stolen another man’s Sleep, the woman who had packed her Sleep into the back of a car, driven it out to the country and left it there. Leonie’s piece, I thought, sat oddly amongst these stories of frayed nerves and hard exhaustion. In the midst of all these haunted people, she sat alone, without a ghost yet longing for one, her writing like a clasp of fingers around empty air. I reread the piece while she made me tea, the gentle clatter of her in the other room a pleasant thing, just as the restlessness of the night had become a comforting familiarity. City noise, the wriggle of wakeful shoulders, Leonie breaking a cup and cursing to herself next door.

 

When she came back, she was white, red-lipped from biting at herself. My Sleep came after her, holding the pieces of the mug she had broken, which it ferried to the coffee table and placed there before moving to the corner of the room. Leonie passed me a cup of tea and came to sit beside me, eyeing the magazine in my hands.

 

‘I hate it,’ she said, ‘I wish I hadn’t written it.’ Her voice curled up around its edges the way paper does when you set it alight at the sides. I looked at her dumbly for a moment, sipped my tea on a reflex and immediately burned my tongue.

 

In the corner, my Sleep twitched its head to the side. An odd motion, as though trying to get water out of its ears. I looked at Leonie and thought about the heaviness at her shoulders, picturing the sensation of sleeping, the fall and sudden absence of thought. After we’d finished our tea, I asked her to lie down on the sofa with me. She looked at me strangely but didn’t object. We positioned ourselves as comfortably as possible, Leonie slipping up into the crook of my arms. I pictured sleep – the old stillness and the blacks of my own closed eyes. In the corner, my Sleep shifted itself, turning its head into its own shoulder, then the crook of its elbow, as if to inhale a smell.

 

‘I should have my mouthguard,’ Leonie murmured vaguely, though I only shushed her, saying after a moment that I’d wake her if she started spitting teeth.

 

I held her for a long time and, after the night had passed, woke up to find that I had slept. The corner of my room was empty, as was the space before me on the sofa. Leonie had gone, leaving behind the magazine but taking with her my Sleep. The magazine lay the way we had left it, folded over to a piece by an anonymous woman whose Sleep seemed desperate to get away from her. Leonie had read it aloud to me, the low blur of her voice broken up by gentle exhalations, as though trying to regulate her breathing: ‘The feeling is one of rejection, of course, but more than that, a desperate wrongness, a subversion of whatever we now claim counts as the natural state. I lock it up in the bathroom and it claws at the doorframe. I leave it alone for two seconds and it makes for the window ledge. Often it occurs to me that I ought just to let it go, but the paralysing question, of course, is what will happen to me then? If my Sleep leaves, will I sleep? Or will I simply be left awake and drifting, abandoned by the strange companion who allows this to make sense?

 

Alone on the sofa, I chose not to sit up, remaining instead where I was for a long time and registering the renewed lightness of my body, the gentle swimming ease of an object which has been relieved at last of its heaviest component. I was more than usually aware of my arms, my legs, the freedom with which I felt suddenly sure I could lift them. A little later, I would rise and go about my business, noting when I did so the old sensation of restoration, a certain softness in places where I had previously felt increasingly bound by gravity. I would revel in this feeling for a moment, the lifting from the tops of my shoulders and from my back, before catching sight of the place on the coffee table where Leonie had left her mug and feeling something rather different – still a lifting, but something less welcome and more like the removal of a well-liked hand from my arm. I would feel this and look swiftly over to the empty corner, but for now I remained where I was. It was morning, the air refreshed and gentle as if from dreamless sleep.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

JULIA ARMFIELD was born in London in 1990. She is a fiction writer and occasional playwright with a Masters in Victorian Art and Literature from Royal Holloway University. Her work has been published in Lighthouse, Analog MagazineNeon Magazine and The Stockholm Review. She was commended in the Moth Short Story Prize 2017 and longlisted for the Deborah Rogers Award 2018. Her first book, salt slow, will be published by Picador in 2019. ‘The Great Awake’ is the winner of the White Review Short Story Prize 2018.  

READ NEXT

poetry

December 2011

Return After Earthquake

Jeffrey Angles

poetry

December 2011

although left for months my house is still standing here on terra firma branches broken by snow fallen into...

feature

October 2015

War is Easy, Peace is Hard

Alexander Christie-Miller

feature

October 2015

At around midday on 19 July, Koray Türkay boarded a bus in Istanbul and set off for the Syrian...

feature

Issue No. 16

Scroll, Skim, Stare

Orit Gat

feature

Issue No. 16

1.   This is an essay about contemporary art that includes no examples. It includes no examples because its...