When I close my eyes at night, the first thing I see is a great ball of wool, lit up like neon in my inner vision. It’s intricately rolled, an Ariadne-ish weave of yarn with one loose thread. I study this ball of wool and wonder at it—why does it come to me every night? Does it have a meaning? While I ponder the wool, I hear my neighbour coughing. Has he always had this guttural hack? Should I tell him I’m worried about him?
I don’t sleep well, especially these nights when dissatisfaction crests up through me like some awful wave. Where it will come to land and how much damage it will do, I don’t know. Large change is ahead, I feel myself hurtling towards and through it, but I can’t fathom where I will land. It’s a brew of unrest and boredom, the primeval itch to be elsewhere, a search for a settle-spot and a way to get there. It’s a need for a plan.
We live in a quiet place and are rarely disturbed by noise at night but, sometimes, in the small hours, our neighbour drives away in his van, to some far-off racetrack to do his invisible work before hooves hit turf. Other nights, a car pulls up around three a.m. and deposits somebody onto the street, but I’ve never found out where this nightcrawler comes from or where they’re going.
When I sleep at all, it’s a surface affair. I don’t have my husband’s skill with pillow-hit, relax, and gone. And I have a bat’s ears—I hear every squirm and twitch in my vicinity. The after-hours sounds of our place are familiar. From their nearby bedrooms, I hear my sons shout-whisper at their computer screens, chastising their companions in online games. I hear the scuff of insect legs on the ceiling or by the skirting boards—those skitters are too delicate to be mice. Footsteps, toilet-roll pull, door handle, cat mewl. We keep different hours, the five humans who live here and the four animals; our house is never truly still. The canary stays silent at night, he settles. The cats sometimes scratch or groom noisily, their wet, flatulent fur-licking amplified in the dark. I hear, too, the dog’s jowly sighs, though she is eight months gone—she was too strong, too prone to shit on the carpet, too fond of trying to kill the cats. It’s her daft, lovely echo that lingers, I suppose.
I turn, I toss, I listen to my sleep app. I unpick word problems. Like rosary beads through my fingers, I worry past hurts and future ills. I plot our escape to another place, another house, I try to decide if we need to go east or west. I’m wide awake, glassy and unsettled, my blood fizzing a warning hiss through my veins: You must rest. You must not plan. I look at the four posters of our red bed; I study the hulk of the built-in wardrobes I vowed to dismantle thirteen years ago, when we first moved here. A spotlight above the fairgreen glares through the not-flush blind; when my husband and I make love, it illuminates us: flash flash flash.
A flimsy, fidgety sleep will descend at some point, when I have, ad nauseum, recited my mantra—one Mississippi, two Mississippi, one River Liffey, two River Liffey—and checked my hips for flab, and poked my husband for the tenth time to stop him snoring, and when I’ve pounded my pillow once more. I will sleep, yes, but I’ll dream of occupying Georgian houses and of my dead sister and of some apocalyptic afterward that my daughter and I run through and always survive. But I’ll hear the dawnbirds—around seven thirty these February mornings, hours earlier in summer—and I’ll listen to them welcome the day, or whatever it is they’re up to. Maybe, like us, they’re only discussing the rain. Maybe, like us, they’re forging a plan, one that will unravel inevitably in one direction or another, like Ariadne’s thread.
© Nuala O’Connor
[This piece was selected by Damyanti Biswas. Read Nuala’s interview]