I am staring up at where the ceiling should be, except the ceiling isn’t there any more. In its place is blackness, and so I stare up at the blackness, at the abyss above my head. Sleep is no longer an acquaintance of mine. Like my old school friends, my former colleagues, my ex-housemates and almost everyone I’ve ever kissed, I have lost touch with sleep. Sleep feels like love: it would be nice, but it’s something that happens to other people now. I turn my pillow over as if that will do something to help.
My thoughts wander in the dark. There’s this thing in my mother’s head that she told me about once, and I thought she was teasing me until I looked it up and sure enough, it happens to other people as well. The thing she has is that she hears music that isn’t there. The synapses in her head fire as if she is listening to a song, but without any actual music to work from her brain just makes up the noises as it goes. A couple of years ago I realised that a version of this was happening to me too. When I am particularly tired I hear voices in my head, in all sorts of accents, saying things that people might say. These phantom sentences have nothing to do with each other, I haven’t heard them spoken aloud before, and they are not interesting, but they rattle on anyway. They start again now, and I pay them little notice.
I stare up at where the ceiling used to be and try to make sense of the darkness. There is not enough light for my eyes to adjust to much of anything. My curtains have been left slightly open, I suspect, as a faint orange crack on the mirror grows in detail. Logically I’m aware that it isn’t night everywhere in the world, or even that everyone nearby is asleep, but it doesn’t feel that way. At this hour it’s just me and the foxes.
Also: the radiator is making a new sound. I don’t know what that’s all about.
There is a place where each of us have lingered but that we rarely discuss. Human life is divided into three discrete sections: being awake, being asleep, and the bit which is both and neither. The latter is where I am writing from. At this exact moment – technically 02:37, but if you told me it was 03:37 or 04:37 I’d also believe you – I am lying in bed, my eyes squinting against the cold glow of my electronic tablet. It is now the only light in the room. The world reduces itself, at this time of night, to individual parts: the sensation of my right foot pushing against my left, the outline of my bookcase, the stray creaks from the radiator, the silence in the other rooms.
I used to live here, in this place. As a child I suffered from chronic low-level insomnia. Eventually I’d fall asleep, but it would take hours upon hours as I became progressively more afraid that I’d never sleep again. I felt guilty, like I was going to fail at school the next day, like school was already happening at that moment and I wasn’t there. The obstacle was that I was unable to switch my brain off. My body had not learned to slow its cognitive functions in the way it’s supposed to when you remove all stimulus and lie down on a comfortable bed in a darkened room. If anything it felt as if those functions were speeding up, thrown into sharp relief against the quiet gloom. Without anything meaningful to fill the gap, I would think about my inability to stop thinking, agonising endlessly as sleep revealed itself to be an impossible concept someone had made up in order to torment me.
This, like other childhood terrors, was a significant problem until the day it left and I virtually forgot about it. I’d still visit that place where everything is still except your mind, but I was only passing through. There was no profit to be had in loitering, surely.
The radiator has stopped making any noise at all, which is probably some kind of sign about the lateness of the hour. I’m trying not to look at the little clock at the top of my screen. It would not be a helpful activity. Anyway. As it’s just you and me, here’s something that I’ve never told anyone before.
Since I was a teenager I’ve maintained a ritual to fall asleep. What I’ll do is curl up into a ball and pull the duvet over every inch of my body, so that no light can enter and no part of me is exposed. Then I will imagine to myself that I am the participant in an urgent, highly-advanced scientific experiment. Perhaps even the fate of all life depends on its outcome, but this isn’t always clear. While dozens of shirted men and women scribble on clipboard nervously and jab pencils in the direction of a bank of monitors, my bed sits in the middle of a cavernous underground complex that a Bond villain probably hires out on the weekends. Every single person across the world is watching on their televisions, a global held breath, as machines clank away and numbers are counted down towards zero. My bed rises towards the ceiling and in that final moment, something impossible happens: everything outside of the duvet vanishes.
The universe has gone. Not only that, but it has never existed at all. I scrunch up my toes as I experience the entirety of time and space. This turns out to be a comfort beyond most others. Nothing bad has ever happened. Nothing is complicated or difficult. No-one has ever had an unkind thought about me, or fallen out of love with me, or been annoyed by or disappointed in me. From this position of cosmic solitude I’m aware that I’ll be able to bring the universe back later, and the world will be better for what’s happened, but until then there is just me, and beyond that, the void.
It doesn’t take much effort to understand what I find soothing about this scenario. It’s a fantasy I tell myself in which any worries I might have are erased from my life, and I am somehow feted for this. It isn’t just the nullification of the universe that provides solace: sometimes I imagine I’m on a raft floating down a river through black countryside at night, the only light coming from the pinpricks of stars overhead. I don’t believe the condition is unique to me; it isn’t the result of distress about my circumstances but instead comes from commonplace anxiety of the kind that naturally accumulates through the day. As we lie in our beds, we all attempt to shed our daily concerns so that we’re free to get a restful night’s sleep. Why else would we sleep alone or just with a loved one, covered up in the most private space in our home? Why else would we switch the lights off? We create a situation where the world disappears for a little while – I just happen to visualise the process. If my brain is going to trample ahead unimpeded, I may as well get something out of it.
“Resist the temptation to stay up all night writing before watching the sun rise with a cigarette”, our lecturer Ian warned us, “it’s not romantic and your work won’t be any good.” He was attempting to stop us delaying our essays until the final minute and esteeming bleary relief over the benefit of patiently constructed work. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work. In the fevered stretch before any deadline, the library would transform into an impromptu class party: even if you had finished your work, you would be tempted to visit just to be where the (critical film theory) action was.
In contrast to my peers, I mostly followed Ian’s advice, give or take a night where I’d spent 17p on two litres of own brand cola and go to town on Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. This wouldn’t last. Much like my student loan debt, I brought writing deadlines along with me when I graduated from university. As my professional life grew around delivering quantities of words by specific, always impending dates, all-nighters became a part of my emergency writing kit, a toothbrush stashed in the side compartment of a rucksack. While I’m sure my lecturer was right that 19-year-old students shouldn’t procrastinate until the night before their deadlines (although they always will), there is value in working when the rhythms of life have slowed.
In his non-fiction book On Writing, Stephen King states that you should write “with the door closed”, a goal that’s increasingly difficult when the terrifying world news doesn’t end and a device hums softly in your pocket every few minutes. What I’ve found in these long late-night sessions is not the agitation of my youthful bedroom or the mad panic of the study hall, but a strange sort of calm. At night, the phone is in no danger of ringing. I’ve said farewell to my housemate. Everyone I know on twitter has gone to bed, and if I wait long enough, all of the Americans will go to bed too. E-mails stop arriving in my inbox, even the press releases and the spam. The distractions and the excuses fall away in equal measure.
This is not a new discovery. I’ve accidentally stolen a book from a former colleague on the daily rituals of the famous dead, and many of them were similarly drawn to the small hours. Marcel Proust wrote exclusively in bed while lying horizontally, his head propped up by pillows (Proust also lived off of two cups of coffee and one or two croissants every day, and that certainly will not do for me.) But as someone who spent their childhood trembling at the notion of a place which isn’t asleep or awake, it’s a revelation to find myself welcome here. As the world reduces itself to individual parts, eventually there’s just me and a blank screen, with seemingly all the time I need to fill it. The universe has gone, and I’m ready to begin.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Six. Photograph by Laura Ward.