Yesterday I woke up underslept once again. All night spent under a thin sheet of sleep. I spent much of last month on an island the size of Singapore with a population smaller than South Uist’s. The island has no mains water and the house in which we stayed was powered only by the sun. Every evening as the day sank behind the kitchen garden we would light a fire, stand out on the deck while it chuffed, and wait for the pademelons to emerge from the thick tracts of forest that flanked the house.
Sleep came easy here. Not only is the population of the island minuscule but the houses are scattered, buried deep beneath eucalypt canopies, and the roads of Bruny are all unlit. Nowhere the familiar dusty orange lum visible from my Camberwell bedroom. No neighbours silhouetted in squares of light nor stars extinguished by the illuminated Shard. During this momentary reprieve from that extended, artificial twilight, from the Guardian liveblog, and from anxiety about money, work, and family I, for the first time in a long time, slept deeply.
When we got back it didn’t take long for old, bad habits and nascent worries to come creeping in. They gathered all day, like pigeons in a city square, delayed but not dispersed by the quotidian tasks of making a budget, eating lunch, or running an errand for a neighbour. But at night, in the half-light of the bedroom they could no longer be deferred. This is how it always is for me. I’m not jolted from sleep by unsettling dreams, rather these postponed feelings become gatekeepers to that dark territory.
When I was younger and powerless to change the strains of school or home life, I dealt with these amassed stresses like anyone raised in religion would. I prayed. Later, as a staunch and unforgivably inflexible atheist, I would assume the role of architect and design my ideal environment for sleep. This took the form, then, of a bedroom filled halfway up with lukewarm water. The bed was a wide wooden boat tethered from bow and stern with rope knotted to heavy duty screw eye bolts. The almond shaped mattress sat snug on the thwarts. I spent hours trying to envisage how to get in and out without sending a torrent of water down the stairs but refused to ask anyone for advice on this engineering problem, lest they solve it for me. In 2009, when I was, at short notice, uprooted from the life I knew in England and transplanted to Oklahoma, I began listening to radio broadcasts I’d heard before, the now familiar stories provided the temporary comfort of predictability in a world made unpredictable.
Each day, in lieu of the prime minister, the chancellor or foreign secretary announces the new death toll. Each day that figure, which is so much more than just a figure, hurtles towards one thousand. Against this, none of my normal somniferous strategies works. Each night panic hitches in my chest and each night I try to resist it settling in, making a home beneath my skin. I don’t want it to overwhelm my experience of the world. Instead, I take stock, reel off reasons to hope as an incantation: my street’s mutual aid group; learning about how bread is a commons with other queers; this new initiative that documents uprisings, strikes & resistance during and sometimes as a result of the pandemic; my partner; my friends; videos of my nibling bouncing on a porch, oceans away, before the pademelons surface. And if I still can’t sleep, I wait. If not tonight, maybe tomorrow.
Image: Cloudy Bay by Klaus