The night watch
“I don’t know!” I woke up screaming.
I was panting, my chest heaving. But as I began to come out of unconsciousness properly, I saw it was only my bedroom, the familiar fixtures and furnishings coming into focus. As was often the case, the details of the dream escaped me on the moment of waking. All I could remember was my German teacher, Sister Mary Immaculata, yelling a question at me, one which didn’t even make sense to me, let alone one to which I knew the answer.
I looked at the clock, squinting against myopia. 4.58 pm. Great. Too early to get up, and probably too late to get back to sleep. I’m the definition of a not-a-morning-person and relish my bed-rest. Maybe I’d snatch another hour or so, if I was lucky. Still, it would set the mood for the day: cranky, fidgety, moody. It wouldn’t be the first time and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
I turned over, tugged at the hem of my nightie, shook the duvet to smooth it, and closed my eyes. There was just enough light framing the curtains to distract me. My sleep patterns were poor. Sometimes I barely made it through the night with a few hours; other times, if you blacked out the light, I could sleep the clock around. I saw which way tonight – this morning – was going.
I’d been trying to wean myself off the pills the doctor had prescribed, because something in me – was it Catholic guilt? – made me terrified of “being on medication”. I knew they were there, in the bedside cabinet, but it was too late for them now. I’d be a zombie when morning came around. Mostly – well, sometimes – just knowing they were there was a comfort. I could take one. But I didn’t have to. They were a reassuring presence, and when I didn’t take them, I could pat myself on the back because I obviously wasn’t addicted.
Five minutes became ten became fifteen, then it was half-past five. I scolded myself for any minor fault or failing that my brain presented to me. I was getting fat. I didn’t take enough exercise. I didn’t drink enough water. But it was supposed to be, Jesus, what, something like two litres a day? More, some quacks said. Where the Hell were you supposed to put it? I’d be running to the loo every quarter of an hour. I suppose if I was one of these zealous gym bunnies then I’d sweat it out. As if I didn’t sweat! The lithe, toned freaks that you saw on posters didn’t realise what an ordeal the Tube was at rush hour. “Horses sweat, ladies perspire,” I could hear in my mother’s Fermanagh accent. You try it, Mum. She never came to London. It was too big, she said, she couldn’t find her way around, and she didn’t like the crowds. Well, who of us does?
Horses and ladies notwithstanding, I was sweating now. No no no, I told myself, not a panic attack now, not at this time of the morning, not while I was – ha ha – safe in my own bed. Breathe. Breathe. I’d always been an anxious girl, but it was only in my teens that it had blossomed – erupted – into something grander. Anxiety, if that’s what you want to call it, is a difficult thing to explain to an outsider. They call it “generalised anxiety disorder” or GAD now. Modish people even talk about being GAD-ish.
It’s not about being a little bit worried about potentially stressful situations. It goes far deeper than that, and is more insidious. Imagine, if you can, being terrified of getting out of bed in the morning. Imagine the very experience of going out and closing the front door behind you creating knots in your stomach and making you feel physically sick. Try to conceive of every social interaction making you tremble almost uncontrollably, no matter how inconsequential and fleeting. Then bundle that all up in a tight ball, multiply it by at least a factor of ten, and try swallowing it. Then you’re maybe halfway there.
There was no way sleep was coming now. I reached out blearily and hit the button on the radio/alarm clock, summoning up Radio 2. It was a country programme presented by a girl who’d been four or five years ahead of me at school. The whispering volume was somehow comforting, and wouldn’t disturb my flatmates, a courtesy they didn’t always extend to me. Maybe I could doze gently: not full sleep, but at least something to help me recharge my batteries. The soft murmuring of the radio often helped me in that way. It was a childhood thing. When I was young, I’d fought fiercely against going to bed, so I’d been allowed to lie on the sofa, and, once I’d nodded off, my stepfather had gently carried me up to bed. So the noise of music and conversation made me feel relaxed and soporific. Maybe that’s why I sometimes fell asleep when sitting with my flatmates in the living room.
There was also, of course, the soothing factor of that County Down accent with which I’d grown up. Both the presenter and I had toned it down since coming to the mainland, but it was still noticeable. Friends found hilarious the way I say the word “Now”. Get me to say “How now, brown cow” and they’re in paroxysms of laughter. I mostly don’t mind – mostly – but there are times when I want to shout “Fuck off!” in my hardest-edged Ulster brogue. In this drowsy state, it just reminded me of home.
I’m too young to remember real anti-Irish feeling on the mainland. What was it Paul Brady wrote? “Living under suspicion/Putting up with the hatred and fear in their eyes/They can see you’re nothing but a murderer”. Great, I could remember that at half-past five in the morning but sometimes I struggled to remember my PIN. I’m a child of the Good Friday Agreement (or Belfast Agreement, whichever you way you want it). I was out with friends recently, one of them gay, the other divorced, and Chris remarked that we were poster children for the Blair era – peace in Northern Ireland, lowering the age of consent for homosexuals, and quickie divorces.
I rolled over again, unable to get comfortable. My nightdress had ridden up again and I pulled it down. It was not my most glamorous: grey flannel with a bit of (now-frayed) lace edging as a concession to style. M&S. It had been a long time since I’d needed a seductive outfit in bed. That was possibly why my flatmates had taken me. I was simple, uncomplicated, without complications. So I just listened to Suzy next door entertain a succession of men. I say that, but maybe I’m wrong; maybe it was always the same man, but, if so, he never stayed long enough to be presented to the rest of us. Maybe Suzy was shy.
Six o’clock. How had it come to this, I wondered? A 26-year-old, with two good degrees, living in a shared flat in Kilburn (I know, don’t get me started on the cliché), unable to sleep without pharmacological intervention? These were thoughts I tried to keep buried. When I was particularly sleepless, I imagined my thoughts as physical things, weights, if you like, or boxes, and I pictured myself heaving them into a hole in the ground and then clanking closed a heavy metal door on top of them, and spinning a wheel to screw it closed. I don’t know if this is a technique that my CBT counsellor would sign off on, or if it’s healthy, but I can tell you it’s something that’s helped me through the night more than once. That, and, let’s admit it, the pills.
At what point did I admit defeat? When did I prise myself out of bed and just face the day? If I knew myself at all – and I think I do – it would be at the last moment. The very last minute before it was possible to be ready. That wasn’t for a while yet. Maybe it wasn’t hopeless. Maybe I’d get a literal forty winks. Maybe, maybe.
I rolled over again. My hand balled up the sheet in a fist of anger. Why was it like this? Not just sleep; that had always been a problem. Why didn’t I have a boyfriend? I wasn’t bad-looking. I squinted horribly when I didn’t have my lenses in or my glasses on, and I was heavier than I would have liked, but I had, to quote Withnail, a fuck sight more talent than half the rubbish that gets on television. I could be gauche from time to time, and I was clumsy. Hardly deal-breakers. Maybe quoting Withnail was it. It’s a boy’s film.
I had to avoid crying. That would be fatal. When it started, it would never end. I reached for the glass of water on my bedside table but it was empty. It was too cold to crawl out to the bedroom and refill it.
So what now? It was nearly the weekend. And it was National Novel Writing Month. Twice I’d signed up, and twice I’d produced nothing. Third time lucky? This year it would be different, I told myself. Writing was what I loved, what allowed me to fly high. “It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly, I'm above the ordinary. I'm competent, supremely competent.” Ray Milland had been talking about booze, of course, but writing had the same effect on me. That I had never been published beyond a couple of pieces in the college alumnus newsletter didn’t matter – it was the craft. The business of putting one word after another, and finding a pleasing result: that really mattered. I had scraps and half-written drafts in a bulging file on my laptop, but maybe this really would be the year.
Well, girl, why not now? It was past 6.15 am, so, with the greatest of reluctance, I swung my legs out of bed, fumbled for first my glasses then my dressing gown and made my way over to the desk. The laptop hummed into existence with what seemed like a chirrup of disapproval. Too early, it seemed to be saying. Go back to bed. I’d tried that. A couple of stabs at the track pad and I was there: 14,325 words I’d cranked out about a young aspiring writer in London. Write what you know, they say…
I left the radio on. Some people find it a terrible distraction. As I say, I find it a comfort. I tune it out, mostly, like when I was a wee one, and only hear the low hum. It’s a bit like white noise, I think, except profoundly more soothing. I wriggled in the cheap IKEA chair, trying to get comfortable. It wasn’t the expensive, multi-adjustable Aeron job my bosses had at work. And it was cold, too, but I knew my flatmates would moan if I put the heating on at this time of night: the boiler made terrible wailing noises, and, anyway, they didn’t want to pay the extra money. So I grabbed a tartan rug from the corner and put it round my shoulders.
I was about to wonder, pompously, when I did “my best work”. So far none of it had proved any good, at least to anyone else, so the question was pretty much moot. Or, as Joey in Friends would have said, “moo”. An elderly colleague at work had made that reference in a meeting the other week, and I’d nearly spat out my coffee. I generally thought that I worked best with a glass of something, which meant evenings or, occasionally, weekend afternoons. Whether it was true or not I don’t know, but I found, if nothing else, that the words flowed more easily. I was religious in going back to edit them – the only thing I was religious about, God have mercy on me! – and they seemed to hang together. But we are our own best and worst critics, aren’t we? We can cringe at well-crafted sentences and agonise over them, but equally we can be blind to horrible tin-eared phrases and plot lines that just don’t work.
None of my flatmates knew I wrote. I’d have dissolved in a puddle of embarrassment if any of them knew, let alone read any of my “output”. So why did I do it? It’s ultimately an exercise in exhibitionism; after all, if you don’t want people to read what you write, why do it? It was fear of failure, I suppose. I didn’t want to be laughed at. If – how much we can invest in that word! – if I were ever to be published, I suppose I could say to my friends, “Look! Look! I can do this!” But until that day, no, no, thrice no. So my flatmates thought I was just a bit reclusive and bookish. How much easier to say “I’m just going to read my book” than “I’m just going to write my book”.
So this wasn’t a bad time to be poking away at my laptop. There was none of the noise of old-fashioned typewriters. I knew I’d be wrecked and walking-dead by mid-afternoon, but I could get maybe 90 minutes of writing done before I got ready. That would be, what, 1,000 words? Bit more if the Muse was on my shoulder. Less if it was an homunculus. You just could never tell.
“Lucy waggled her fingers as her daughter trooped dutifully through the school gates.”
What the fuck did I know about parental relationships with their children? I had none of my own, and it wasn’t looking very likely on current trajectories. I had my own parents, of course, but you should never generalise from the specific. Anyway, my parents had separated – pretty amicably – when I was very young, so my experience of the nuclear family was virtually nil. Maybe it didn’t matter: Lucy wasn’t a central character, so some faux pas were surely allowed. But it caused me to frown, and wonder if I could do better.
I wonder if proper writers – I’d never stick that label on myself – have these heart-wrenching moments of self-doubt. Is a phrase, a sentence good enough? Could it be better? Well, yes, in a sense, of course it could. Even my idols, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, could have crafted a particular sentence better, more artfully, maybe (though not necessarily in Hemingway’s case) more pithily. But those with self-confidence and, I suppose, a publishing history behind them, must have a certainty that what they’ve written is good enough. One of the first and most important lessons I learned from my first boss was: don’t let the best be the enemy of the good. Otherwise (and she didn’t go on to say this but I’m inferring it) no-one would ever write anything.
“Did every parent feel a sense of loss at the school gates, she wondered? Was that how it worked, that a little bit of you was plucked away every time you surrendered your child to someone else? Was it an admission of failure as a mother, rather than an affirmation of women’s rights?”
I had no clear idea where the book was going. “Book”. How grandiose. It was an electronic file with some data on it. It would probably never go any further than that. Sometimes I thought it was almost imaginary, a fleeting ghost in my consciousness, that it had no existence outside of my own head. Perhaps that was true. Perhaps – and how passive-aggressive is this? – it was true for all writers. Not, I reiterate, that I’m a writer. No more than I’m a classicist because I read Latin and Greek.
Someone was up, already. Lizzy, I suspected, because she was generally the earliest riser and I had a vague recollection she’d told me she was off to a conference today, so the early start made sense. I sighed. I wanted a cup of tea, my Irish Breakfast Tea that was carefully guarded in a corner of the kitchen cupboard and which I protected fiercely – did I say passive-aggressive already? I didn’t go so far as to attach a label to the box, as I had done at college, but my flatmates knew me well enough by now to know that you could take from it, but if you didn’t replace, then I would be in a foul mood.
My last boyfriend had been a coffee drinker. It was a depressingly long time ago, but he’d hated tea, saying even the smell of it made him nauseous. He’d been devoted enough to make cups of it for me, but it had always been with a curl of the lip. We weren’t in contact any more. His choice, not mine: he decided he needed to move on and so that was incompatible with an ongoing friendship. It hurt still. We’d been lovers but he’d been a great mate, with whom I shared a huge number of enthusiasms (the tea excepted). Why did human contact have to be so complicated? What was this quicksilver thing called love? It had happened to me very rarely, but when it happened, you knew. And it was all-consuming. Maybe that was it: it couldn’t co-exist with anything. You loved one person, and it was, had to be, exclusive, because it was too powerful for anything else to compete.
“Lucy saw Natasha turn around and wave back, shyly, and there was so strong a resemblance to Henry that it was painful. It was five years since they’d broken up, but she saw her husband – still that, Henry was a Catholic and wouldn’t countenance divorce – in every line of Natasha’s face, her movements, her gait. The way she fell over and picked herself up as if it was exactly what she’d intended to do, with enormous dignity and something approaching hauteur.”
If I knew very little about parental relationships, I knew even less about children. They frightened me. I never knew how to react around them, and I found their unpredictability really unsettling. I had a niece, only a few years old, and I put on my brave face and said the right things and bought presents, but anything beyond that was terrifying. They weren’t rational. More than anything, I couldn’t do ‘silly’. I couldn’t play games with them. It just wasn’t in me. I didn’t know how. Was it because I’d been a solitary child? My brother was several years older than me, so we’d co-existed rather than anything else. I’d liked reading, drawing, and being on my own. Too young to join in with my brother, and, even worse, a girl, I’d ploughed my own furrow. So, I supposed, as the light began to creep above the horizon and frame the curtains, I’d never learned how to be a child.
My parents had been unconventionally conventional. Born in the late 1960s, they had decided to treat me and my brother as people rather than children. We had rights, man. So there was no talking-down, no babyish language, no condescension. Do you want this, or do you want that? It’s your choice. It was the same when it came to school: here are the options, which do you want to choose? I was baffled. And I chose largely at random. Chance had it that I’d picked Sullivan Upper, and had an absolute ball there – it really suited me. But it could so easily have been the Inst or Victoria. Who knows how different things would have been?
I don’t know if everyone who writes – I’ve already said I’m not a ‘writer’ – finds this, but sometimes it will flow, and sometimes it won’t. I’ve often wondered if you can force it, through sheer willpower, or if it’s just something that comes upon you. It wasn’t coming this morning. I shivered, looked at the clock and realised I’d summoned up about 500 words in an hour. Hardly an Olympian feat; I managed more at work.
I sat back and it dawned on me that that my mind was on the ex. It was the craving for tea that had done it. I was in danger of putting too much of him into the text – The Book! – and that would be a) self-destructive, b) unfair, and c) too much of a fucking compliment. I still loved him, of course I did. Maybe other people are wired differently, but I couldn’t turn off my emotions the way he had. I missed the shared observations of tiny bits of human behaviour, the comforting silences we conspired in, the knowing glances that hadn’t needed any words.
We hadn’t shared tastes in everything. Our musical preferences had been a Venn diagram at best, and, perversely, he had had a passion for Irish folk music, whereas I had I my mother’s ingrained prejudice against “diddly-eye music”. There had been the coffee/tea thing, of course. And he could never understand my desperate urge to make things nice. I hated empty cups and glasses if people visited, I always wanted the flat to be pristine. He would shrug his shoulders and say “It’s our flat”.
Nearly 7.00 am now, and I was running out of steam. I braced myself and opened the door, making a beeline for the kitchen. Lizzy, if it had been her, was nowhere to be seen, so I put the kettle on and breathed deeply for a few minutes. Teabag, boiling water, milk, then scuttle back to my quarters. I really didn’t have very much time before I’d have to start getting ready for work, but there was enough time for a cuppa. How I hated that word: “cuppa”. The ex and I had shared a list of what we called “boaky words”, terms that made us feel physically unwell. Brekkie. Biccie. Scran.
Enough. I turned back on my cheap chair to the computer, and blinked at what suddenly seemed a very bright light.
“She pulled away carefully, and turned the car towards home. Sometimes she envied the mothers who gathered for coffee, the daily or weekly kaffeeklatsch with tales of husbands’ failings and misfortunes, humorously delivered but often with deadly intent, and sometimes she wondered why she was never invited. Yet she hated the idea. The stigma, of course, of being a single mother would hang over her, even now, even in the 21st century. What had she done wrong? Why couldn’t she keep a man, even the father of her child?”
I had nothing more in me. Not today, or at least not this morning. There was work, and I was supposed to meet friends in the evening, and and and. Everything. I was exhausted and I hadn’t even got up yet. I wondered sometimes if everyone found things so hard. When you have some kind of syndrome or affliction, you flit between thinking that you are uniquely suffering, and conversely that this must, surely, be how every person faces the day. I’ve never been sure which is the more comforting.
I drew myself up in front of the mirror. It would get better. I’d shower, and my hair would look less of a mess. I’d put my lenses in, and that always helped. And it wasn’t so bad as all that. I was tall (I liked that, unlike so many women seem to, even if sometimes I thought it made me look gangly), not as heavy as I told myself (maybe) and I had long legs (which needed shaving). And maybe I’d be a published author soon! OK, scratch the last bit; it was still only mid-November, and I had hardly got halfway through the challenge. But this year it would happen. This year, at least, I told myself, I would fulfill the basic requirements. It was like the Lottery: if you’re going to win, you first need to buy a ticket.