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The Great Awake

When I was twenty-seven, my Sleep stepped out of me like a passenger from a train carriage, looked about my room for several seconds and sat down in the chair beside my bed. This was before it became so usual, 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 themes. Experiences varied – a girl I knew complained her Sleep sat ceaselessly atop her chest of drawers, swinging its heels and humming, while another said her Sleep ran its fingers down her calves and demanded cones of mint ice cream. Couples and cohabiters were the worst off – the Sleeps seemed generally more prone to behave badly in numbers, as though 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 belongings, pulling out old photographs and allen keys and defunct mobile phones and placing them like treasures at the foot of my bed.

 

Early on, we didn’t know what it was exactly. Early on, a lot of people assumed they were seeing ghosts. A woman in my building woke the seventh floor with shrieking, one night in mid-July. Two am, dark throat of summer. A bleary stagger of us collected in the corridor and were beckoned into her flat in 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 the girl bedside me – a girl from the seventh floor who I knew by sight but had never spoken to – grabbed my hand when she saw it, still sticky with sleep around the eyelids and wearing the type of mouthguard prescribed by dentists for bruxism. I squeezed her hand 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 – fine spindle like a splintering of wood.

 

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, twenty-four-hour culture, anxiety disorders in the under-eighteens. Radio hosts blamed it on television. Television made documentaries blaming everybody else. Ultimately, there was found to be little concrete evidence behind any clear 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 even then there was little enough correlation to rule out any obvious pattern. It could happen to one house on a city street and not another. It could affect everyone in an apartment building but you. It was described as a phenomenon more commonly than it was a disaster, referred to in one medical journal as an amputation of sorts; the removal of the sleep-state from the body. People wrote in to radio stations to describe their experiences: the sudden wakefulness that persisted, the othering of sleep in the body of the 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 had been only a little taller than average and had been miming laconically along to the host’s actions, shadowing him as he reached for tomatoes, lectured his viewers on proper knife technique. The Sleep mimicked a paring knife, chopped smoothly at the air. It was a Tuesday, people ironing shirts before work. I remember the whine 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 chat show hosts in the schedule were turning up to work wan and with Sleep in tow, not to mention the TV chefs and quiz presenters. A new series of a property show started with one of the two hosts introducing her Sleep quite candidly, her co-host standing to the side, unbalanced by his singleness against her sudden duet.

 

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, and then they went on living awake. Shortly after our first encounter, people on the seventh floor of my building stopped sleeping at a rate of about one a night. Mine came 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 sought much entertaining, preferring mainly 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 how 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 correct 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 had been pacing round and 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 had told us warning stories about the proliferation of ghosts in big cities; ghosts in office chairs and lunchtime shawarma bodegas, hot and cold running ghosts on tap. Cupping an ear to the evening stillness of our rural home, she would describe to us the way towns seethed with spectres, mime the permanent unsettlement of a city night. Envisaged as a deterrent, 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 its 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 the real-sized city – our long thin city of narrow stairs and queasy chimney stacks – our Mother had cried and asked us not to, reasoning that cities could not be lived in but only haunted, that we would simply become two more ghosts in a place where ghosts abound. We had gone anyway, of course, my brother to audition fruitlessly for city theatre and me to temp in chilly offices and work shifts in bowling alleys and cafes. We had lived apart, to show our Mother we could do it, and had fallen into inevitable patterns of silence and strange behaviour. My brother had developed a mortal horror of the silverfish which squirmed between his kitchen tiles. I had grown uncomfortable with the sight of myself in full-length mirrors – the breadth of space around me in the glass.

 

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 a noise but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t talk to me. There are gestures – moving to the corner of the mattress, rearranging 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. In the following days, I watched its movements more closely than usual but was never able to divine anything very obviously resembling conversation – fiddling fingers in the corner of the shower curtain, the white heap of quilts it kicked to the foot of my bed.

 

‘I think mine might just be a bit of an arsehole,’ my brother said – drowsy the way we were all becoming, plum smudge 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 four am 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 arrange your days, harder 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.

 

‘I don’t think they like anyone very much,’ he replied after a moment ‘They’ve always seemed pretty moody to me, kind of like they’re overtired.’

 

The girl with the mouthguard prescribed for bruxism knocked on my door at midnight some time in mid-September and asked me to come and confirm something for her. She was wearing a nightdress, still – I had torn mine up for dishcloths – 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 only the shadow of her dressing gown thrown over a chair. And what she had imagined 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. Waking to the shrug-shoulders of the shadow on the wall, she had become overexcited, keen for a second opinion before she had even properly looked.

 

‘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, it turned out, 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 – a problem she had had 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 became too tired to talk and fell asleep the wrong way up on top of her bedclothes. She was pretty, a fact I noticed in the guilty thieving way of observing someone sleeping. 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 took to watching from my window for the heave of sundown, the roll and shrug of something searching for a comfortable way to lie. My brother rang before an audition which had been rescheduled for two in the morning – an early example of what would become a 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, the stick of tiredness in toppling vowels. I listened to him run through his audition piece, covering my mouth to hide a yawn. After he hung up, I leant out of my window, all the way past the elbows, 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 listened to their shrieks with the night heavy on my eyelids, the whole world hushed and hot beyond my windowsill.

 

Leonie took to knocking on my door 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 came over usually 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 taken to 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 as she didn’t like the way my Sleep would rummage through her books. We did nothing very momentous together – we ate mustard on toast and listened to late night radio, played solitaire and 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 with many determinedly suppressed yawns.

 

‘Listen to this one,’ was her usual refrain, affecting the voices of her letter-writers. A teenaged 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, a voice which shaped itself around 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 though she hadn’t heard me.

 

No matter how hard she tried, she could never stave off tiredness entirely and often ended our nights together wilting down on my sofa, jerking awake at six 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 often catch her shooting the oblivious figure in the corner of the room. Sometimes when she left me 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 in September. A late heat pressed downwards – damp pad of fingers at the base of a neck – and I spent my small hours drifting around the flat in mostly shorts and t-shirts, listening to Leonie reading letters by people desperate to have sex with their Sleeps, with each other’s Sleeps. When she was finished choosing which letters to 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 around that time and envied her sparse, white mouthful – little teeth like cowrie shells that always seemed a trifle slick. She told me that they were only so small because she had filed them down so much with persistent tooth-grinding, that one reason she was so desperate for a Sleep of her own was that permanent wakefulness would at least 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 prevent the weary bobbing of her head and fell asleep on my shoulder, I would let her stay there and would let her get away with claims of resting her eyes when she woke.

 

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 declaimed to the overcrowded bar. Public places were starting to smell of sleep, of unwashed linens. My brother upset his mostly empty glass in the re-enactment of his audition and 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 said to it, slurring gently, before turning back to continue his audition 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 was, she said, itching to tell me a story about a girl she knew who worked for the same newspaper and who had been attending seminars led by a woman who professed to know the secret to getting rid of a Sleep. Too much tea, 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 unbidden. ‘Like a game of duck duck goose,’ the girl from the newspaper had said, adding that at the end of the fourth seminar, it had transpired that the woman running things had actually locked her Sleep up in a broom cupboard to support the illusion that she had rid herself of it with 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. The girl had afterwards said to Leonie that she probably wouldn’t go back.

 

‘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 and looking 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 article was anonymous, but the tang of femininity was obvious, the way hips can be. 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 I watched for her envy, the white of knuckles as she clutched at the corners of the newspaper and read it for herself. 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. After reading the piece, 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 to store old diaries and ticket stubs. Not noticing me, she moved in as close as she could, tilting her head towards my Sleep and breathing 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, became accustomed to the rows of Sleeps with their legs crossed, the people clustered round the doors, wan-faced and leaning heavily. Lunchtimes I spent 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. All around me, people shimmered with exhaustion, batting dully at the Sleeps stealing food from their hands. One afternoon, I skipped lunch entirely to wander through one of the city cathedrals, listening for the hush of choir rehearsals, the twitch of choristers pushing their Sleeps’ muting hands from their mouths. I pictured my Mother cupping her ear around the stillness of the country, talking about haunted city sounds, the neverending movement. The cathedral flickered. Thrum of bodies and almost-bodies. In shadowed places, people moved with Sleep – their own or those of others, it was impossible to tell.

 

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.’

 

After reading this letter, Leonie came to sit beside me and put 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, but it was somehow worse to remember 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 it was she thought she was hoping for, that my Sleep was 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 told 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.

 

‘He claims it just attached itself to him but I know better. Nothing like a man for finding his pockets full of what’s not his.’

 

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 nails the way a cat might. She was sleepy around the eyes and around 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. Two nights later, we went to see the play, which 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 giggling 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, the 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 as she said this 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. Things she had never used to dream about; 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 get up and start dressing for work. Moving between rooms with my toothbrush in one hand, I glimpsed her sitting up on the sofa, peeling an orange and offering slices to my Sleep.

 

I went for dinner with my brother – though people now tended to eat whatever they wanted at different times of the day and night. My brother ordered eggs and milk and I ordered a cheeseburger and we sat in the window at a sugar-stuck table, still cluttered with the last patron’s coffee cups; a napkin smeared with orange lipstick, a plastic straw tangled up into a bow. In the glass that overlooked the parking lot, the sky seemed of a strangely darker cast to the one I was used to, an unfamiliar absolute of night that I connected with being away from the city, from the swirling blues and changeabilities of light pollution and the up-all-night. My brother showed me a newspaper review of his play and once I had finished reading it, I flipped the paper over and read aloud from Leonie’s column, which contained advice for people whose Sleeps were rude to their grandmothers, Sleeps who ate their food or ignored them or always seemed to want to fight. My brother listened to me idly, jostle-elbowed with his Sleep on the opposite side of the booth. He looked, I thought, strangely of a piece with the figure beside him. Reflected in the window, it was hard to tell which of them was paler, which would be more recognisable if I came up to the diner from the parking lot and saw them through the glass. I was still looking towards the window when my Sleep, which had been wandering restlessly between tables, came to sit down beside me. I didn’t turn my head towards it, though close to, I still noticed the way it had started to smell like hard city water, like the rusted place around my plughole from which I occasionally had to wrench clogs of hair with a coat hanger bent at the neck.

 

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 one for her advice column but one she had been asked to write for a magazine – a piece 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 the sun was in a completely different place to the one you had thought. As I read, she wandered around my living room the way she often did when she was thinking, moving things about my mantelpiece, leaving curious fingerprints in the corners of my books. The pages were tightly typed, lines close together, hunching over to avoid attention. Once I’d finished, she came to lean over the arm of the sofa and asked if I thought it was any good.

 

‘It’s a good piece,’ I said ‘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.

 

‘I like it,’ I said, following her gaze as it dragged behind my Sleep and finally fell to the floor ‘I just think you’d be better off if you didn’t distance yourself from it so much.’

 

She shrugged a shoulder and raised her head to look at me, leaning forwards after a moment to kiss me on the side of 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, though I hadn’t seen her eat one all night.

 

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 really unnatural – sometimes things just need that little push.’

 

The noise from her front lawn could be heard inside the house, the chants picked up on the reporter’s microphone – protesters singing about the injustice done to a defenceless Sleep. 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, a little redundantly. No one had known until now, it seemed, because no one had really tried ‘It doesn’t seem right though, does it?’

 

‘I don’t know what I think,’ my brother said ‘Ask me later. Ideally I’d like to sleep on it.’

 

Leonie’s piece was published anonymously and she brought the magazine around at midnight on the day it came out. 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 white 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 the empty air. I reread the piece while she made me tea, the gentle clatter of her in the other room a pleasant thing, like 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.

 

‘But it’s good writing,’ I said after a long pause, wondering from her face whether she might be about to cry ‘What do you hate about it?’

 

‘I hate that I had to write it,’ she replied, harshly ‘I hate how tired it makes me to read.’

 

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 and told her we’d try sleeping. She looked at me strangely but didn’t object. We lay down on the sofa together, Leonie slipping up into the crook of my arms. Again, 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 a long time and, after the night had passed, I woke up to find that I had indeed slept. The corner of my room was empty, as was the space before me on the sofa. Leonie had gone and left the magazine for me. It was morning, the air refreshed and gentle as if from dreamless sleep.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Julia Armfield is a London-based writer with a Masters in Victorian Art and Literature. She has had short fiction published in Lighthouse, Analog Magazine and The Stockholm Review. Her story 'Mantis' was commended in the Moth Short Story Prize 2017 and she has also had plays performed in London.

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