Switching Off

She was tired of his sleepwalking, tired of waking to the house illuminated, old videos playing on the television. She was tired of the taps thundering, and the bath overflowing. On the nights when the walls would wail, and the furniture tremble, she’d cover her head with a pillow and dare not to guess at what he was doing – was it the washing machine running again, stuffed with compost and terracotta potted plants – was the lawnmower choking on the lino in the kitchen – was he dreaming of DIY, drilling the nectarines and dissecting the family photo albums with a jigsaw? Sleeping with a sleep walker is like sleeping in a haunted house.

If she is honest with herself, she supposes that she was always tired, only never quite courageous enough to admit that it was her husband’s doing. For the longest time, the sleep walking was a quirk, a little hurdle, and as her mother’s saccharine saying went: “love is nothing but a steeplechase, littered with little hurdles”. It was at the very most, a single wrinkle in the domestic laundry of things, sure to be starched out by the blissful steam of happy marriage.

The first night they ever lived together, she spent several sleepless hours listening to him chase up and down the stairs like a frightened dog, fifteen months later they were married, and she stood in the aisle itching her head, wearing her pyjama shorts secretly under her wedding dress. He had gazed at her, with long empty eyes, and a blithe expression of one in the throws of a deep and peaceful sleep.

When she had worked in the university library, the nurses told her strange stories of the wards, tales of patients nearing death, who’d leap up suddenly out of their beds. Mr Ford, seventy-nine, with his chest sewn up like a corset, springing out of his sheets as if they were haunted. The nurse likened it to a light switch that isn’t thrown completely off, springing back on suddenly and unexpectedly during the night.

Tomorrow morning, like every other, she will untangle her heels from the dish washer, and hunt for the hoover in the flower beds. As children, they would ask each other, ‘do you dream in colour or black or white?’ She’s quite forgotten, it being such a long time since she truly dreamt. When she closes her eyes, she gets a television test card, empty aisles that precede the screening, a disclaimer before the dreams begin.

Three days ago, she had been shopping, when the manager of the supermarket had taken her aside for a polite chat.He had asked her, very discretely, if she was feeling OK, and if she was aware that she had several hundred butterflies pinned to the reverse of her overcoat. She had replied, that yes she was OK, and that no she was not aware of this fact, but added rather calmly that she was not surprised, and should’ve listened to her mother on her wedding day, when she had tried to warn her beautiful daughter against the dangers of marrying a ghost.

She had mentioned to her husband, over an oyster and bean curd concoction at a Thai restaurant, that perhaps they should look into a cure, nothing drastic you understand, a palatable, do-it-yourself solution. She had repeated herself a day later, during the advertisements between the televised spectacular that is Saturday night programming, and a day after that whilst gardening, following a further mention, he had agreed with a grunt. A moment afterwards the neighbour had come bellowing out of his conservatory, and a gigantic heron, quite invisible until then, nonchalantly picked its feet out of the man’s ornamental pond, and clutching a prize koi carp, disappeared over the rooftops.

A somnambulist in search for self-improvement is somewhat spoiled for choice. Seemingly, there are more piecemeal, age old remedies to sleepwalking then there is time to trial them. She found, almost immediately, that anyone and everyone was willing to offer her their own sure-fire solution towards easing her husbands nocturnal plight. Try eating less garlic, and more lovage, set up a candelabrum and burn scented wax before bed, stay away from cats, take long walks in the day with your eyes closed, drink mulled wine, read Proust, sleep in fetters, run hot baths, spend one evening a week shaping animal balloons – it’ll tire your mind and embolden your lungs, induce hiccupping, open the windows of the bedroom to let the bad air out, learn about Japan, visit the sea now and again, watch less TV, set up a camera, learn the tin whistle, open your heart and let Jesus in.

Statistically, only one in of five marriages involving a poltergeist last longer than the first year - they’d made it past their third. Up until two months ago she would have bet the bed she was lying in that they’d make it passed their tenth. He had stopped sleep walking, and it was perfect. When it had first happened, when he had first lay down sank away, she had been on tenterhooks. Her face felt flushed, her cheeks swollen and her neck itched maddeningly. She had scratched at it insatiably, waiting on edge, for him to fling the sheets into the air, charge out into the garden to spray the roosting starlings with the hose. Only he didn’t. He was cured. She could barely hear him breathe. The only sound were the tiny spools on his cassette player turning, winding the tape, feeding it through the electronics. Her sister had suggested it, she said that there were self help tapes you could listen to whilst you slept, ‘the brain was always running,’ her sister had said, ‘you can learn origami, or cure your depression, whilst the world sleeps.’

Nobody had ever explained to her how things were supposed to work, someone somewhere must know, there’s a bus conductor in Harrogate with a skin disease, who knows how everything fits into place, an engineer marooned on some salt-worn gas rig in the northern sea, who’s figured it out. Perhaps she could send away for a free information pack. She could become a cold-caller, interrupt people’s dinners, and entice them, charging robed down the stairs from the bath towards the pealing phone. As soon as they’d pick up, she’d ply them for answers, she’d settle for small ones. Perhaps she could pamphlet. She could petition the local authority, that they deliver her questions to their superiors. She’s not even talking profound - she’d settle for the banal, empty questions she’s been asking since a child.

She lived in hope that one day, she’ll open a letter, and it’ll have instructions on how to fall asleep. Nobody had ever explained to her how she was supposed to go about it. She remembers the primary school where she had volunteered, they had bought their first computer whilst she was there. She remembers how no one knew how to turn it off. That’s how she felt, lying there at night, listening to the wallpaper wail and wondering how to shut down. The staff would crowd around the machine, both fearful and frustrated, trying their upmost to put it to bed. Every now and then they would succeed, but mostly it remained awake, that is until the time the groundskeeper noticed, and simply ripped the plug from the wall, causing irreparable damage, naturally blamed on the children the following morning.

She remembers she had been reading a magazine, the night tragedy came driving in on the spools of a cassette. She had the magazine on the sheets in front of her, open on a two page spread, a banner rolled across its leaves, reading: “The difficulty is not knowing.” She had supposed it was, and that she didn’t. She had turned over to talk to him, only he was asleep. He had his arms tucked behind his head, and his mouth hung open. One of the headphone pieces had fallen from his ear, and whispered softly on the arabesque pillow.

Out of curiosity, and a playful mood conferred by the guarantee of easy sleep, she crawled over to the earphone. She had gently teased the wire from under his arm, and when sufficiently slack, picked up the tiny speaker and held it close to her ear - a woman’s voice, that much she had expected, only she recognised her. Oh, she recognised her! How could she not? She pried the cassette player open with a loud crack, and snatched out the tape.

He jumped awake at the commotion, springing out of the sheets, how the nurses had described the vaults of the tangled and the moribund. He had lay there a good while, cloudy with sleep, as she tumbled around the house turning lights on, kicking over chairs and leaving taps running. He had dragged himself out of the bed, how a tectonic plate crawls slower than the finger nails. He ached towards the light of the corridor, with the dull, phototropic instincts of the empty headed.

When he reached the stairs, he peeked through the balustrade, she was at the stereo, her head leant against one of the speakers. There were glasses and cutlery broken all over the carpet, and she was sobbing, laughing and sobbing. He could see through the window of the stereo to which cassette was playing, and his stomach sank.

Her sister’s voice boomed out of the speakers and across the night, as crisp as the bright, adulterous afternoon it had been created. Her sister soothed her secret words recorded. Her sister sang, out over the crockery:

“…I do love you, I do, it’s true honey, it is, I wouldn’t lie to you, and I know you love me. And you’re looking at me now, and this wine, and this fruit. How we are just perfect. You know darling, look at his, look at my hands, if you look at your skin in the right light it looks, you know it looks just like tortoise shell, to think, I’ve lived all this time, and never looked at my skin, just like a tortoise, look…”

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