Insomnia has a boomerang effect. You can never fling your thoughts far enough. Before night is over, they have returned to lodge more deeply.
For as long as I can remember, my local health-food shop has shared a wall with Route 81, the Hell’s Angels headquarters of East London. Two ideological strongholds, each proposing a means of survival in our corrosive urban world, and as far as I know a neighbourly relationship exists between the two, provided the organic shoppers respect the motorcycles on the sidewalk and don’t stare too long at the bearded titans colonizing the benches outside.
While Route 81 offers a whole range of piercings and tattoos at painless prices, the health-food shop always has a stack of free leaflets on hand. Mostly these offer information about yoga classes and baby-care facilities, but occasionally there are others, catering to the more adventurous or unhinged.
At the shop one morning my attention was drawn to a shiny black brochure emblazoned with a full moon, at whose centre was written:
TIRED OF WRESTLING WITH SLEEP? Victorian Sleep Laboratory Free Consultation. Free Trial Night Guaranteed Results from Highly Trained Analysts Call or Drop by: 89 Hardware Street, NW3 Telephone/Fax: 8878 2940
I had no plans after work so I decided to visit the sleep laboratory that very evening. I’d always been wary of this kind of research, of letting others tread where you yourself tread so vaguely, but my insomnia had hit an all-time high and I’d lie awake at night when even the ghosts were snoring. Rules like ‘No ticking or luminous clocks by the bed, especially those electric ones with loud digital numbers’ followed me from home to home. The size of the bed mattered too – to sink into a vast black sea rather than a shallow, waveless pond where you could see straight to the bottom – and I’d recently traded in my futon for a large mattress. Yet no matter how comfortable the bed or how silent the place, my mind refused to rest.
Of course I’d tried sleeping pills, and couldn’t deny their allure: one tablet and the rest of your night would be purged. You could watch horror films, summon anxious thoughts, drink a double espresso; no matter what, sleep would ensue. And yet it was no silver bullet. You’d remain trapped in a grey zone, seesawing between mid and shallow slumber, mind and body switched off but not of their own accord. There was simply too much indecision: should they follow the commands of this foreign signal or trust their own intuition? Should they wait until night had fully set in or shut down early, ignoring the promptings of the circadian rhythm? Whenever I took a pill I’d feel like a timid guest lingering at the threshold, waiting for an invitation to enter, an invitation that always failed to arrive. Enough with thought guillotines. I would see what the people at the sleep clinic had to offer.
The lion’s head knocker, coated with a thin layer of rust, groaned when I banged it. A man in blue overalls opened the door.
Hello, I’ve come for a trial consultation,’ I said.
He didn’t answer, just held the door open wider and led me up to the office on the first floor, modestly furnished with one long window facing the street. To the left of the entrance hung a life-size poster of Charles Dickens astride a stool, a glazed expression on his face and a pendulum dangling from his right hand.
Nearly all the desks were occupied by what I could only imagine were sleep technicians. Some scribbled in notepads, others stared into space; most looked under thirty. A man with an unkempt beard and a tweed waistcoat rose from a desk at the back. Judging from his confident manner, it was he who ran the show.
‘Hello, I’m Dr Sheire. What can I do for you?’
‘I’d like a free consultation.’
‘Do you suffer from insomnia?’
‘Most nights, yes.’
‘Well, you’ve come to the right place. Take a seat,’ he said, motioning to a chair. I sat down, removed my sweater and draped it over my lap.
‘So tell me, how long have you been in night’s clutches?’ He studied my sweater as if it might provide some insight into the problem.
‘I don’t remember. Maybe all my life.’
‘Well, we should be able to help you. You can spend the night at our clinic for free, while we monitor your sleep rhythms. If things go well you can sign up for a month’s trial at a discount rate. Now tell me, do you have a student credential?’
I shook my head.
‘No matter. First I will ask you to fill out our questionnaire.’ He opened a desk drawer and extracted a piece of yellow paper, which he passed to me.
‘Now, pick a night.’
There seemed little point in waiting.
How about tonight?’
Dr Sheire pulled at his beard. ‘Well, there is another patient coming in, but I don’t see why that should be a problem.’
At a desk nearby, a male assistant nodded in agreement.
‘Tonight, then…’ the doctor resumed. ‘We recommend having a light supper. Nothing too heavy, it’ll cause sleep disturbances.’
‘Should I bring pajamas?’
‘No, we have everything here … And we prefer patients to wear our robes. Just bring a toothbrush. By the way, how much caffeine have you had today?’
‘One cup of tea in the morning,’ I said, glossing over the other two lest he disqualify me.
‘Perfect. That shouldn’t be a problem.’
Just holding the questionnaire produced a sense of calm, as if the two-dimensional slip of yellow paper could sail me through the haziest of waters.
‘If you don’t mind my asking,’ the doctor resumed, casting another glance at my sweater, ‘do you take sleeping pills?’
‘That’s what I thought. I’ve had many people come in here with either dulled minds or puffy faces, sometimes both.’
I raised a hand to my cheek.
‘Don’t worry, these things aren’t permanent. But you should dispose of all your pills as soon as you get home.’
I nodded, pretending to comply. ‘By the way, why is the clinic called the Victorian Sleep Laboratory? Do you use nineteenth-century techniques?’
Laughter from the desks around me.
‘No, no, on the contrary. Here we have the latest in sleep observation… We simply liked the name and since night was an important time for many Victorians – Dickens went on many night walks, you know – we thought we’d pay homage.’
Dr Sheire pulled out a pocketwatch and flipped it open. ‘It’s nearing seven. Why not come back at nine? With the questionnaire, of course.’
The form, filled out at my kitchen table, took half an hour to complete. The majority of questions came as no surprise: how long had I suffered from insomnia? What were the symptoms of my ailment? Was I of nervous disposition? Any traumatic experiences in the past? Exercise regime? How much tea or coffee per day? Cigarettes? How often did I have sex? Masturbate? Would I usually sleep alone or accompanied? And then, towards the end, a string of odder questions: did I sleep with the door to my room open or closed, and if open, how many centimetres?How many years had I owned my pillow? Any plants in the house I occasionallyforgot to water?
Beneath the glow of the street lamps the clinic’s façade looked old and worn, wearier than at dusk. A stab of anxiety. I considered turning back. After all, no one was forcing me to spend the night in a foreign bed at the mercy of strangers. Yet something propelled me onwards – the agony of my most recent sleepless nights, not to mention my dwindling supply of sleeping pills – and before long I was once again banging the lion’s head knocker. The same man in blue overalls opened the door and led me silently up to the office, where Dr Sheire awaited. The other desks had emptied and I wondered whether the sleep technicians had gone home to their families or been zipped into cocoons at the back.
Dr Sheire’s eyes zigzagged across the page as he read my answers to the questionnaire. A female assistant appeared. Without looking up he said, ‘Maria will now check your pulse and heartbeat.’
Maria, a stern young woman with blonde hair jerked back into a bun, led me down the corridor and into a room with two leather armchairs, a long mirror and a counter holding a few medical utensils.
‘Take a seat.’ She motioned to a chair and with grave silence took my pulse and listened to my heartbeat.
‘Your pulse is normal; so is your heartbeat. You’re a lucky girl.’
Dr Sheire strode in just as Maria was removing the stethoscope from around her neck.
‘So,’ he said, turning to me, ‘would you like to see one of the machines that will be watching you tonight?’
The neighbouring room was crammed with boxes, steel cabinets and outlandish machines that seemed to vary greatly in age. Some looked like the latest models in sleep observation and others simply antediluvian, with wooden knobs and spokes that protruded a foot from the base.
Dr Sheire paused at a three-foot-long rectangular contraption and tugged at his beard. ‘This is a polygraph, which records your brain waves. See these little pens on top? Well, once you begin sleeping they will scratch away, and then this paper here will roll out, illustrating the pattern of your brain waves. I know what you’re thinking … how can such a clumsy piece of machinery pick up on the subtle movements of the brain? Well, it does!’
He pulled open the drawer of a steel cabinet filled to the brim with coiled metallic eels capped by white barnacles.
‘And here are the wires and electrodes that connect you to our machine …with the help of a special gel.’
‘Won’t it be uncomfortable?’
‘Not at all. You won’t notice a thing, once the initial cold wears off.’
In the main room Maria stood holding a blue cotton robe. She passed it to me and then dropped her hand on her hip, awaiting further orders.
‘Ah yes,’ Dr Sheire continued, ‘here is your gown for the night. It facilitates the electrode business. Maria will show you where to change.’
Marvelling at the immobility of the tight bun, I followed Maria down the corridor to the changing room, which was much like the first room but without the armchairs or mirror. I removed my shoes and hung my clothes on a peg on the door. The blue robe, soft and airy, was fitted with a thick belt.
On my way back to Dr Sheire I became aware of footsteps coming towards me from the other end of the corridor. Not the stern steps of Maria or the brisk, confident ones of Dr Sheire. These steps were hesitant and slightly overcast, and they announced a tall, slender young man with a pale, oval face and bags under his eyes like a Russian icon. As he walked towards me I glanced at him, then down at the floor, then back up at him as he drew nearer. He wore a grey sweater and black jeans, though I noticed a blue robe, similar to mine, tucked under his arm. He shot me a searching look as we passed, surprised, surely, that there was company. His footsteps faded into the floorboards as he entered the changing room.
‘So, have you met our other patient?’ Dr. Sheire asked when I returned.
Dr. Sheire asked when I returned. ‘Not yet.’
‘Well, it’s his first time too so we’ll wait until he’s ready and run through the programme together.’
Wrapped in a pale blue robe that fell to just above his knees – he must have been a good six feet tall – my fellow patient appeared minutes later. His shins were white, almost translucent.
‘Come meet our other insomniac. For reasons of confidentiality we won’t say your names, but now you are acquainted.’
Our eyes met for a second, then quickly parted.
Oblivious of the bizarre atmosphere he was conjuring up, Dr Sheire clasped his hands and said, ‘Let’s run through the programme.’
Everyone was now seated, symptom bearers on one side, symptom reader on the other.
‘First, you will spend an hour or so in the sleep preparation room, with its selection of journals and herbal tea. We suggest you avoid entering into conversation, however, since conversation before bed leads to a surplus of new thoughts… And once you’re feeling sleepy, we lead you to your room.’
‘Our room?’ I asked.
‘Well, yes, it is indeed one room. I’m sorry, but as you can see this is not a large enterprise. There’ll be a curtain separating the beds, so you needn’t worry.’
Sleep, I realized, would be an impossibility that night.
‘… And once you’re both lying calmly in your beds we will attach our friends the electrodes to your face, back and underarms. They may feel a little cold at first, but that’s only the gel. The electrodes are then connected to the polygraph. You’ll each have your own. And then lights out; as you are carried away in the arms of Morpheus my assistants and I will monitor your brain waves from next door.’
His words were met with silence.
‘Oh, and I should mention the two small cameras on the ceiling that record external movement. Tossing and turning, sleepwalking, things like that. You will each have a bell by the bed in case anything is needed during the night. Any questions?’
Still processing the unsavoury information, I shook my head and out of the corner of my eye saw the other patient shaking his head too.
‘Well, off you go!’
The man in overalls led us to the sleep preparation room, a dimly lit space with sofas and round tables. At the centre stood a coffee table with stacks of magazines, most of which seemed to be of a scientific nature – The World of the Brain, Journal of Neuroscience, Scientific American, Neuron, Proceedings of the Royal Society. I picked up the latest issue of Scientific American, the only familiar title, and took the sofa nearest the door. After selecting a magazine from the top of a pile, the young man chose a sofa at the opposite end of the room.
‘Now, which tea would you like?’ the sleep technician inquired. ‘We have peppermint, chamomile, rosehip and verbena.’
I asked for peppermint. The other patient lifted his hand in a ‘no thank you’ gesture before shifting his gaze back to the magazine.
A few minutes later, my tea was brought in a yellow mug.
‘We’re next door if you need anything,’ the sleep technician said. ‘You should think about going to bed within the next hour.’
I looked at my watch. It was approaching ten. Time passed quickly in the clinic.
‘Is that a watch?’ the technician gasped.
forbidden here. Too often they’re the enemies of sleep.’ He held out a hand with bitten-down nails. ‘If you don’t mind, I’ll put it in the other room with your clothes.’
I unbuckled my watch and entrusted it to the sleep technician, then returned to my issue of Scientific American. Apart from our quick exchange of glances in the corridor, the young man had yet to look in my direction.
Forty minutes later, or perhaps thirty, the man in overalls reappeared and summoned us to bed.
Not until I stood up and instinctively tightened the belt around my waist was I reminded of what I was wearing. I pulled at the hem and smoothed out the top to add some definition to my chest and shoulders but it was useless: a robe was a robe. At least I was not the only person wrapped in one.
Our room had a low ceiling and two beds, four feet apart, each flanked by a table with a glass of water and a bell. A heavy grey curtain, waiting to be drawn, hung bunched between the beds. The place was even more clinical and confining than I’d expected; nothing worthwhile, I was sure, would emerge from this.
‘You’re first,’ Dr Sheire announced to the other patient, patting the bed on the left. ‘And you,’ he said, turning to me, ‘we’ll fix you up in a couple of minutes. Why don’t you lie down meanwhile?’
I chanced a final peek, one last image to put by for the night, before the curtain was pulled. The other patient sat on the edge of the bed, legs crossed and hands in lap, his robe cracked open, revealing a hairless, porcelain chest. This time he was looking over, directly into my eyes. A sheet of grey sliced our room in two.
Only once the curtain was drawn did I notice the small surveillance camera peering down from the right-hand corner of the ceiling. Its eye was pointed in the direction of my bed and I imagined its twin watching from a parallel corner of the room. Minutes passed, more minutes.
Eventually Dr Sheire emerged from behind the curtain, followed by an assistant wheeling the table of wires and electrodes. They stationed themselves by my bed and the assistant began coating each electrode with gel before handing them, one by one, to the doctor, who then attached them to my forehead, chin, above each eye and behind each ear. I was asked to turn over so that more could be applied to my back. The electrodes were weightless but clammy, like the embrace of a small swamp reptile. Once everything was in place I was hooked up to the brain-wave machine, which another assistant wheeled in on its own little table.
‘So, we’re recording three things tonight,’ Dr Sheire explained. ‘First your REMs, then electrical activity in the brain and finally any muscle movement…If you need anything just ring the bell. Bon voyage.’
Once the doctor and his crew had left, I took a few sips of water. Just as I set my glass back down on the table, the room fell into total darkness, as if the contents of a giant inkwell had tipped over. I turned onto my side. An electrode dug into my temple. I turned onto my other side. Another electrode. As I searched for a comfortable position I imagined Dr Sheire and his men crouched around the polygraph waiting for us to shut down. But what was going on beyond the curtain? Was he awake, was he asleep, was he touching himself? What was his name? Did he own a dog? How many people had he kissed? The bed was hard and unyielding and the pillow smelled of cheap detergent. And yet, somehow, after countless turns during which I cursed my three cups of morning tea, I fell asleep
It was hard to gauge how early I woke up but judging from the stillness it must have been before eight. Without a window in the room it was impossible to tell. I glanced into the other section as I reached for my glass of water. The grey curtain was drawn, the bed empty. A coil of electrodes, still attached to wires, cascaded over the side.
The gadgets must have alerted Dr Sheire to my shift in consciousness. ‘Good morning. How are we today?’
‘Fine, I think.’
‘Now tell me, how many hours do you think you slept last night, total?’ His eyes radiated a manic light and I wondered whether he himself had slept.
‘What time is it now?’
In bed by eleven, up past seven, minus the time it took to fall asleep.
‘Actually, you slept for exactly five hours and thirty-eight minutes.’ He searched my face for a reaction. ‘You woke up nineteen times in the night. At one point you were awake for a whole five minutes. But I’m sure you don’t remember. ’
‘On most occasions you were awake so briefly our machine barely registered it, but if you string together all those fallow moments they add up to half an hour, which we must subtract from your night.’
‘Was it at least deep sleep most of the time?’
‘Well…’ Dr Sheire unplucked two electrodes from my forehead. ‘You spent quite a while in Stage 2. That’s not deep sleep but it’s real sleep, unlike Stage 1, that slippery state between sleeping and waking. Stage 2 takes you further. Then follow Stage 3 and Stage 4, the deepest sort. All movement is down, down, down… Now, please turn over.’
He lifted my robe and removed more electrodes from my back. Once they had all been unsuctioned, Dr Sheire’s assistant wheeled away the table and machine. I was released.
The floor of the changing room felt like a thin sheet of ice and I dressed in a daze, my thoughts still far away, though I wasn’t sure where.
‘So, your sleeping patterns are rather interesting,’ said Dr Sheire when I returned to the main room. He was sitting very straight, his back columned against the chair.
‘Just out of curiosity,’ I began, taking a seat across from him, ‘what happened to the other patient?’
‘Ah, the other patient. Every now and then we have a coward who reneges.’
‘That’s right. Now tell me, aren’t you surprised that you only slept five hours and thirty-eight minutes?’
‘Would you mind telling me the patient’s name?’
‘All our patients’ names are confidential. As is every bit of your information too … I’m afraid I can’t give out any details.’
‘Not even a name?’
‘Certainly not. Now, shall we return to the matter at hand?’ he asked, tugging at his beard. If he tugged it one more time I would tug it for him.
‘About the way I slept?’
‘Tell me, do you remember anything from the night?’
‘Nothing at all?’
‘No, not really.’
‘Any physical sensations, for example? Feelings of discomfort, any twitching or tingling?’
At that moment a little brown moth flew past Dr Sheire’s head. Without a second’s deliberation he rolled up his stack of papers and began to swat at it, waving his right arm around as if wielding a sword, and he didn’t stop until he’d thwacked the tiny creature and sent it tumbling. A smattering of moth dust escaped from its wings.
‘… I might’ve had a dream.’
‘I see. But you know, of course, that dreams are nothing more than electrical discharges. So you shouldn’t pay much attention to them.’
‘It’s important for you to distance yourself, as soon as you wake, from your dreams. Don’t let them linger. Contrary to many schools of thought, there’s little porosity between conscious and unconscious states.’
‘But I think…’
‘It is the dreamer’s narcissistic drive to believe that dreams are individual, tailored to all the little dramas in life. Well, the data I’m about to share with you will soon prove otherwise …’
‘I think I’d like to go now,’ I said, glancing down at the small winged corpse by Dr Sheire’s notebook.
‘What do you mean? We’re just getting started.’
I’m sorry, but I need to go home.’
‘Don’t be offended by our positivist approach. Trust me, you will sleep much better once you accept that night is no more than –’ (I covered my ears) ‘– and that dreams are no more than –’ (I covered my ears again).
I rose from my seat. ‘I think I should go now.’
‘You know, we don’t give out free trials just like that… Incredible, two duds in one night,’ Dr Sheire muttered as I walked to the door.
The city was still awakening as I buttoned my sweater and started my way home from Hardware Street. There was a chill in the air, encouraged by a mounting wind. The garbage truck had yet to make its rounds; large bags of rubbish cluttered the sidewalk. A man in a dark blue suit bounded down the steps from his house, two at a time, while fixing his tie. Another man appeared, tugged along by a powerful Great Dane. Two children walked past with bright lunchboxes. I reached the bus stop and pulled out a cigarette. It took three matches to light. The bus pulled up after I’d taken only a few drags, and I made a sign for the driver to move on. As I neared the end of my cigarette an incredible hunger took hold of me, a hunger I hadn’t known in years, so I wandered around until I found the nearest café, a shabby Italian place whose façade was temporarily enhanced by the morning light, and ordered myself a full English breakfast with extra toast on the side.